D&D General Armour class and essentialism

pemerton

Legend
Having a reasonable armour class is pretty fundamental to D&D melee combat.

I'm not going to try and unpack the OD&D alternative combat tables. But in Moldvay Basic, here are some chances to be hit by various opponents, for an unarmoured character and one wearing the heaviest armour available (plate mail):

Unarmoured: normal person 0.5; orc or typical soldier 0.55; ogre 0.75

Wearing plate mail: normal person 0.2; orc or typical soldier 0.25; ogre 0.45​

Even against an ogre, plate mail comes close to halving the chance of being hurt.

In AD&D, the numbers are:

Unarmoured: normal person or typical soldier 0.5; orc 0.6; ogre 0.8

Wearing plate mail: normal person or typical soldier 0.15; orc 0.25; ogre 0.45​

Plate mail gives even better protection than in Moldvay Basic.

In 5e, the numbers are:

Unarmoured: commoner 0.65; bandit or guard 0.7; orc 0.8; ogre 0.85

Wearing plate armour: commoner 0.25; bandit or guard 0.3; orc 0.4; ogre 0.45​

This is protection similar to Moldvay Basic.

The simple upshot is that unarmoured characters are not really viable in melee combat. But fantasy tropes include unarmoured characters who fight in melee! So some further mechanic needs to be used to boost their AC.

There are different ways of doing this. One is to enhance the DEX bonus for these character types. This is, in effect, what AD&D does for the UA Barbarian (basically, a doubling of the DEX bonus) and the OA Kensai (basically, +1 to the DEX bonus). The 4e Monk is a DEX-based class which also gets a flat AC buff.

Another approach is to grant an attribute-independent, level dependent bonus. This is, in effect, what AD&D does for the Monk (in both the PHB and OA versions) and for the Kensai (special AC bonuses as levels are gained). 4e does something similar for the Barbarian.

In 5e, though, this is handled via a non-DEX attribute bonus: a Barbarian's Unarmored Defense adds CON to AC; a Monk's adds WIS. This creates significant pressure for PCs of those classes to lean into those stats, in order to have viable ACs for melee combat. The result is a reinforcement of stereotypes: "uncivilised" warriors are distinctively tough compared to ordinary warriors; East Asian-style martial artists draw on a wisdom that distinguishes them from their "ordinary" counterparts.

I think the AD&D and 4e approaches to this AC issues are superior. They allow these unarmoured characters to be viable, but leave it to the player to what extent they wish to lean into stereotypes or push against them. For instance, the 4e PHB2 has both a CON-based and a CHA-based Barbarian; the 4e PHB3 has both a WIS-based Monk and a STR-based Monk. A 4e Fighter is as likely to have high WIS (to buff OAs) as a 4e Monk is. There is not the essentialism that seems implicit in the 5e approach.
 

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Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think the AD&D and 4e approaches to this AC issues are superior. They allow these unarmoured characters to be viable, but leave it to the player to what extent they wish to lean into stereotypes or push against them. For instance, the 4e PHB2 has both a CON-based and a CHA-based Barbarian; the 4e PHB3 has both a WIS-based Monk and a STR-based Monk. A 4e Fighter is as likely to have high WIS (to buff OAs) as a 4e Monk is. There is not the essentialism that seems implicit in the 5e approach.

I think your thesis is interesting and warrants development, but I'd add a few points with respect to AD&D (1e). I'm not sure I'd look to 1e (or Oriental Adventures, which is where the Kensai comes from) if you're looking to avoid "essentialism" or stereotypes.

Of the two classes that you present (Monk and Kensai), it is notable that neither of them are allowed to wear armor or use shields. Period. This was back in the old days of "Armor and Weapons Permitted by Class" tables.

So ... there was absolutely no option whatsoever to push against those stereotypes in the old rules.


What happened if a Kensai or a Monk put on armor in AD&D? Why, they exploded of course.

Good ol' AD&D. So .... many ... exploding PCs. I don't think I met a single Druid who didn't explode before 4th level.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
So this just comes down to the weirdness of what a "hit" means. AC is a passive defense. It includes Dexterity (sometimes), which gives people the idea that it's an active defense, dodging and so forth. But everyone is doing that all the time.

You duck, you weave, and you take actions that minimize the damage that you take. This is all represented with your hit point total. Conan does wear armor when it's available or viable, but he will shirk it if he needs to climb or stealth, or he's in a desert, what have you. This is something most experienced warriors would do, but D&D is a strange beast in that players wear their armor all the time unless told they can't.

How does Conan and his other lightly armored associates survive combat? HIt points. Hit points, as in "hits to kill". It takes X attacks to wear down the ability to dodge, roll with punches, and avoid serious harm due to sheer luck before that one sword stab hits something vital and you go down.

This is reflected in the high hit point pool of the Barbarian, but strangely, most light armored characters have fairly low hit point values. Rogues and Thieves are apparently unlucky and have glass jaws. Monks are apparently too used to fighting other martial artists and not so hot at dealing with giant monsters.

TDLR: your hit points represent the means by which you survive in combat with or without armor. Armor just protects your vital areas more, which is why you suffer hit point damage less often. Some form of physical resistance would probably work better, but early game designers went with a lowered % chance you would take damage in the first place, and almost everyone since has followed suit.
 


Remathilis

Legend
In 5e, though, this is handled via a non-DEX attribute bonus: a Barbarian's Unarmored Defense adds CON to AC; a Monk's adds WIS. This creates significant pressure for PCs of those classes to lean into those stats, in order to have viable ACs for melee combat. The result is a reinforcement of stereotypes: "uncivilised" warriors are distinctively tough compared to ordinary warriors; East Asian-style martial artists draw on a wisdom that distinguishes them from their "ordinary" counterparts..

The issue here is that class, moreso than race, is completely built on archetypes. While you single out unarmored defense as an example of essentialism, you can quite easily do the same with nearly every class: rogues are always agile and nimble, priests are wiser than other people, arcane magic is reserved for the smart or the charismatic. Bards and paladins are always socially adept, etc. Further, bard, monk, barbarian, druid, even warlock and paladin all have some cultural elements dragged in from the origin of the archetype. You won't escape those tropes without losing those names. (See also: the whole debate on why druids have armor restrictions). Thus, you are looking at a symptom of the larger whole: classes being a fairly narrow archetypes that are dependent on certain ability scores.

If you want to fix the problem of class and essentialism, you must:

  • Remove ability scores from having any influence on class ability. A wizard has the same magical power if he has an 8 or an 18 Int.
  • Remove or rename classes that have strong cultural elements so that they no longer stand in for a specific culture.
 

Jer

Legend
Supporter
In 5e, though, this is handled via a non-DEX attribute bonus: a Barbarian's Unarmored Defense adds CON to AC; a Monk's adds WIS. This creates significant pressure for PCs of those classes to lean into those stats, in order to have viable ACs for melee combat. The result is a reinforcement of stereotypes: "uncivilised" warriors are distinctively tough compared to ordinary warriors; East Asian-style martial artists draw on a wisdom that distinguishes them from their "ordinary" counterparts.

I think the AD&D and 4e approaches to this AC issues are superior. They allow these unarmoured characters to be viable, but leave it to the player to what extent they wish to lean into stereotypes or push against them. For instance, the 4e PHB2 has both a CON-based and a CHA-based Barbarian; the 4e PHB3 has both a WIS-based Monk and a STR-based Monk. A 4e Fighter is as likely to have high WIS (to buff OAs) as a 4e Monk is. There is not the essentialism that seems implicit in the 5e approach.
5e out of the box was actually built to enforce the stereotypes of the various classes. Because that was what the perception in 2014 was that folks wanted. So this is doing what was intended by the devs whether we like it or not (I do not).

The 5e way to fix this problem is to use the game element that is analogous to 4e's builds to do it - the subclass. Subclasses are basically pre-built builds, and so a CHA based Barbarian subclass (that lets you swap any CON-based bonus in the Barbarian class out for CHA) or a STR based Monk subclass would be the 5e way to solve this problem. The downside of using subclasses is that the 5e model is to tie specific flavor to subclasses and so that design space doesn't get explored in the same way that builds (which relied on the player to supply their own flavor to a large degree) did.

It's a hammer to swat a fly in a lot of ways, but that's the 5e way of doing it. (In 3e you'd use feats, but 5e's limited feats makes them harder to rely on for things like this).
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
How does bounded accuracy change the AC game? I assume this is why 5E is different from 4E?
It doesn't, really. See, 4e assumed that in most cases, everyone should be hitting on 11-12 or so, the "sweet spot". The math didn't quite work out this way, but it's why everyone's bonus to hit was roughly the same- half your level + your ability mod (plus some other modifiers that did not change often).

You'll note that monsters don't usually have great AC's in 5e, nor do they often have great attack bonuses- I've seen very high CR monsters that have like a +8 to hit. This is because bounded accuracy doesn't want numbers to scale very much, so that it takes longer before a thing ceases to become a viable threat. But in general, what number hits someone should stay consistent as levels and CR rise.
 

IvyDragons

Explorer
The result is a reinforcement of stereotypes: "uncivilised" warriors are distinctively tough compared to ordinary warriors; East Asian-style martial artists draw on a wisdom that distinguishes them from their "ordinary" counterparts.
I mean you could let anyone have a bonus on any stat and let everyone wear any armor or no armor, and choose their own AC.

But that makes a very bland lifeless game.
 

payn

Legend
It doesn't, really. See, 4e assumed that in most cases, everyone should be hitting on 11-12 or so, the "sweet spot". The math didn't quite work out this way, but it's why everyone's bonus to hit was roughly the same- half your level + your ability mod (plus some other modifiers that did not change often).
PF2 did this too. I'm not really a fan and prefer the 5E BA. A lot of this has to do with level creating this challenge band where you have these "must be this tall to ride" limits. I get that for a game where folks want to feel progression, but I prefer a world that makes consistent sense myself. That's more the GM in me speaking than the player I suppose. Though, even as a player I sort of roll my eyes at adding +1 for every level.
 

Voadam

Legend
This is reflected in the high hit point pool of the Barbarian, but strangely, most light armored characters have fairly low hit point values. Rogues and Thieves are apparently unlucky and have glass jaws. Monks are apparently too used to fighting other martial artists and not so hot at dealing with giant monsters.
I agree with this. Based on what hp are and represent (abstracted efforts that keep you from being killed by attacks that othewise would) Rogues and Monks should have high hp, not slightly better than a wizard handling of being in combat. Their relatively low AC will mean they are still at risk and will go through hp. This would fit the 4e striker role better IMO. Rogues and Monks should be like Rangers, lightly armored combatants.
 

Stalker0

Legend
If you use mechanics to make unarmored AC viable for all classes....than that just encourages people not to wear armor.

The specific class features exist to allow those unarmored archetypes to exist as an exception to the rule, but the rule is, more armor = more better.
 

payn

Legend
If you use mechanics to make unarmored AC viable for all classes....than that just encourages people not to wear armor.

The specific class features exist to allow those unarmored archetypes to exist as an exception to the rule, but the rule is, more armor = more better.
Right, you either go exception based design or you have pro/con trade offs to being armored/unarmored. I think thats what things like armor check penalties tried to enforce. Maybe DR stuff too which is used more prevalently in other RPGs.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
PF2 did this too. I'm not really a fan and prefer the 5E BA. A lot of this has to do with level creating this challenge band where you have these "must be this tall to ride" limits. I get that for a game where folks want to feel progression, but I prefer a world that makes consistent sense myself. That's more the GM in me speaking than the player I suppose. Though, even as a player I sort of roll my eyes at adding +1 for every level.
You're right in that adding +1's every level isn't necessary. It's one of those things that was done for 2 reasons. The first is, that's how it had been done since the very beginning, more or less. You go up a level, your attack bonus increases based on a formula.

The second is kind of a failsafe against falling behind. You can see this in action in 5e as well- character A starts with a 14 Strength and has a +4 to hit. Character B starts with a 16 Strength and has +5 to hit.

At level 4, Character A decides to take a feat that sounds cool to him, let's call it, "Iron Chef Cooking Master". It only increases Strength by +1. No change to attack bonus.

Character B decides to use their ASI as the Gaming Gods intended and raises his Strength to 18, now they have +6 to hit. Eventually this problem can fix itself, but it may take a very long time before both characters have the same attack bonus.

Any system that automatically increases numbers as you level is setting a floor. 5e does this more gradually, as proficiency bonus only increases a few times over the course of your career. 5e thus sets the floor pretty low, which is fine if you don't want to repeat the kobold/goblin/hobgoblin/orc/bugbear/ogre/troll/hill giant/stone giant/fire giant, etc. etc. loop.

However! And this is worth pointing out. 4e was perfectly capable of doing exactly what bounded accuracy does. You could just raise monsters a level. Done. I ran a Feywild adventure where my 11th level PC's had to assault a mountain infested by Fey goblins (apparently, I was ahead of my time).

Did I have to create new monsters? Nope, I just went to the DM tools, selected "goblin" and cranked up it's level to 10. Huzzah, 10th level Goblins.
 


payn

Legend
You're right in that adding +1's every level isn't necessary. It's one of those things that was done for 2 reasons. The first is, that's how it had been done since the very beginning, more or less. You go up a level, your attack bonus increases based on a formula.

The second is kind of a failsafe against falling behind. You can see this in action in 5e as well- character A starts with a 14 Strength and has a +4 to hit. Character B starts with a 16 Strength and has +5 to hit.

At level 4, Character A decides to take a feat that sounds cool to him, let's call it, "Iron Chef Cooking Master". It only increases Strength by +1. No change to attack bonus.

Character B decides to use their ASI as the Gaming Gods intended and raises his Strength to 18, now they have +6 to hit. Eventually this problem can fix itself, but it may take a very long time before both characters have the same attack bonus.

Any system that automatically increases numbers as you level is setting a floor. 5e does this more gradually, as proficiency bonus only increases a few times over the course of your career. 5e thus sets the floor pretty low, which is fine if you don't want to repeat the kobold/goblin/hobgoblin/orc/bugbear/ogre/troll/hill giant/stone giant/fire giant, etc. etc. loop.

However! And this is worth pointing out. 4e was perfectly capable of doing exactly what bounded accuracy does. You could just raise monsters a level. Done. I ran a Feywild adventure where my 11th level PC's had to assault a mountain infested by Fey goblins (apparently, I was ahead of my time).

Did I have to create new monsters? Nope, I just went to the DM tools, selected "goblin" and cranked up it's level to 10. Huzzah, 10th level Goblins.
Yeah 3E had the advancement template as well. I personally like the idea that a kobold is Childs play to a level 5 character, but 30 kobolds is still a challenge. Paizo design team went with the certain level means 1000 kobolds are not threat. Its a style they deliberately went for. I understand the decision it help differentiate PF from D&D. I just happen to like a little bit of PF and a little bit of D&D instead of being right at home with either.
 

James Gasik

Legend
Supporter
Which is perfectly fine, everyone has their own preferences. I sometimes find myself missing crufty old school rules systems with hidden gems and odd paths to power buried in pages and pages of text- even though I know that it's terrible game design.
 



Jer

Legend
Supporter
Which is perfectly fine, everyone has their own preferences. I sometimes find myself missing crufty old school rules systems with hidden gems and odd paths to power buried in pages and pages of text- even though I know that it's terrible game design.
Sometimes I think it would be fun to build a solo game that is basically just a character creation game trying to replicate the feel of a 10 year old in 1984 pouring over the D&D and AD&D books for the first time trying to build the most awesomely broken character possible.
 


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