Balancing Existing Armor and Weapon Types

Okay, so let’s assume that, defying all tradition in the fantasy RPG milieu, a designer has narrowed down the choices of available, practical weapons and armor to those that might logically co-exist on the battlefield together.  Starting with weapons, let’s assume that you’re using middle ages Europe as your model, and have narrowed down your choice of weapons to roughly the following:  dagger, falchion, shortsword, broadsword, claymore, mace, axe (the real "battle axe" which is more like a hand axe than something out of a Frazetta painting), spear, glaive (or similar simple polearm), short bow, longbow, light crossbow, and heavy crossbow.  Your possible armor types include an assortment of metallic helmets, leather (not really considered battlefield-worthy, but included along with fur and padded armor to appease the impoverished), brigandine, chain, back-and-breast plate, and fully articulated plate.  These choices and minor variations thereof provide one with a good variety of weapons to choose from, while at the same time making logical sense.

Now to make them have balanced appeal to potential customers, we must apply some of the zero sum balance concepts to the gamut of available gear.  This seems deceptively easy to do once you keep in mind the basic ideals of balancing all members of a set against each other using factors like speed, damage over time, etc., but the process becomes more and more complex depending on how realistic (and therefore complex) your combat system is.  Do you have differing effectiveness versus certain types of armor?  If so, you need to apply values for a factor like "+3 effectiveness versus chain" depending on how often a player will be likely to meet an opponent wearing chain.  Is one of your balancing factors the cost of the gear?  You cannot even consider this as a balancing factor unless you are reasonably sure you have your economy under control.  Do you have a system that efficiently compares weapon reach and entity position to give spears and polearms the advantage they should enjoy?  If not, implement one, or assign defensive bonuses to these weapons as a sloppy but almost accurate compensation.

The process of balancing requires nigh-infinite testing, and the likelihood is that you still won’t have it perfect.  You can expedite the balancing act by adhering to 3 concepts:

  • Keep the "zero sum" ideal in mind at every phase of stat assignation, especially the initial phase
  • Decide on maximum values for everything (preferably on a fairly small scale) and stick with them for the life of your game, no matter what
  • Hide the exact math as best you can from your players, and let practical application of your formulae be the acid test for your balance

The last bit about hiding the numbers, as it applies to balance, is a double-edged idea.  On the one hand, you give up the ability of sharp and objective players (all 3 of them) to give you charts and such showing why the broadsword is kicking everyone’s ass, and concrete suggestions on how to change it.  On the other hand, if players are unaware that an axe does 3-9 and a falchion only does 2-8 (regardless of all else, players will gravitate to the highest damage numbers), you have a higher likelihood of players actually bothering to test the falchion, giving you a better overall view of weapon performance if you are diligent enough to observe.

There are some special issues to content with when dealing with items that are without doubt at the top of the list for armor and weapon choices.  Considering the varying effectiveness of the sword vs. spear vs. axe vs. whatever, the most glaring example of "historical imbalance" in the previous example is fully articulated plate vs. other armors.  Full plate gives better protection than any other armor type of its day, while affording excellent freedom of movement.  Assuming that we don’t want to put all our balancing bets on cost (since we figure that the economy may be broken some day, for enough time for players to exploit), how can we deal with it?  Our game system or engine must be cohesive enough to reflect the realities of pre-gunpowder economics and combat, including such overlooked factors as long-term fatigue, encumbrance as more than a green/yellow/red line, hit location and variable effect, the effects of weather (someone in full metal plate will suffer more from heat and cold), etc.  In a relatively simple model (though still more complex than any currently marketed MMORPG model), the drawbacks of full plate may be as follows:

  • A suit of plate is tailored specifically for the individual who is going to wear it, and must be made for that person.  It cannot be worn by his killer, for example.  It must be custom-made by highly skilled smiths from precise measurements, and this takes a gigantic amount of money and time, up to 2 years historically.  There may also be a waiting list if the technology is not commonplace, adding inconvenience and expense.
  • Plate is very heavy, so the system must have a complex formula to deal with loss of stamina based on the total mass of carried items, for all activities.  Standing around all day in a suit of plate, weapons, and other gear will exhaust someone just as certainly as standing around all day holding a 120 pound stone.
  • Because plate is heavy, it can make it difficult to go from prone to standing positions, etc.  The fact that it affords freedom of movement doesn’t make it easier to do sit-ups in it.  A favorite historical method for dealing with plated knights was to dismount them so they were helpless on the ground, then stab them through the eyeslits.  (As a possible counterbalance to this and the above consideration, people wearing plate may be afforded more opportunities to increase in physical strength, which is realistic… there were no weight-training programs in the middle ages.)
  • Plate, chain, and other metal-on-metal armors make noise during movement.  A man in a set of articulated plate will attract the attention of potential enemies at a greater distance than a man wearing brigandine.
  • A full suit of plate takes a very long time to get into, even with assistance.  Even if you omit the normally obligatory squires who would help one strap in, assigning "readying periods" for complex suits of armor adds another balancing drawback for the man in a plate suit, especially if keeping it on all day contributes to fatigue.

Keeping these considerations in mind, it is more than possible to limit the choice of practical equipment in a setting to the weapons and armor that would logically be in use simultaneously, yet provide balancing factors for each choice to insure that no one choice becomes supreme.  If there are other weapons and armor types included, such as ceremonial or purely gladiatorial equipment, it should be made clear to the players that these are not generally accepted battlefield accoutrements, and thus the referee/designer is free to assign them logical, substandard values in comparison to other weapons.  A player is then still free to charge out onto the battlefield with a trident and a huge scimitar with a jagged edge, but he should feel no surprise when some grunt with a spear impales him through the heart before he can react.

One Response to “Balancing Existing Armor and Weapon Types”
  1. John Jessop says:

    Very interesting article, although there were actually weight training “programs” in the middle ages and Renaissance. Texts on sword fighting would recommend that students lift heavy stones, run up and down stairs (sometimes in full harness), and swing weighted clubs or bludgeons at targets until they couldn’t move. While certainly not a formalized LA fitness style workout routine, noblemen were expected to stay in good physical condition should they be called to war and many engaged in a fitness regime in order to do so. This probably wouldn’t be practical in a MMORPG, unless you had “obstacle courses” that would be entertaining for players to traverse or simply kept any “working out” off-screen to minimize the feel of “grinding” for strength and endurance boosts.

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