Part 87 -
Gary Gygax, Bane of Armorers
by Lord Thomas the Black


Gary Gygax, Bane of Armorers

NOTE: The opinions expressed herein represent the opinions of the author alone, and do not represent the opinions of, the Shire of Cum An Iolair, the SCA, or any other person not explicitly stated.

            Welcome back to another edition of "Blackmaille"! This month, we'll be taking a look at a man who did more to bring arms & armor into the popular imagination, while at the same time spreading the worst misinformation about it than anyone else: Gary Gygax, creator of the popular role-playing game "Dungeons & Dragons".

            In 1974, Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson first published D&D through Tactical Studies Rules, Inc (TSR). The basic rules were derived from miniature wargames with a variation of the "Chainmail" game serving as the initial rule system.[1] As the name implies, D&D involves role-playing in a quasi-medieval setting involving swords, armor, dragons, and other elements of myth and legend.

            Each player's character is given a certain number of hit points that represent their health. This number can be modified by any special clothing or armor the character is wearing.[2] As a result, all armor in the game falls into a particular class, and is given a numerical value (Armor Class, or AC)[3]. This is where Gygax and Arneson's system goes awry.

            To begin with, Gygax's system follows Victorian armor nomenclature, and as such refers to almost all armor as "mail", as if "mail" were equivalent to "harness". The two are very different terms, but the D&D nomenclature has worked its way into the popular lexicon. This causes fans of D&D to refer to armor by incorrect terms, resulting in them being looked down on with scorn and derision by serious armorers. So, many D&D fans who may otherwise have become serious students of armor have instead chosen to stay with D&D, and the next generation of armorers and armor scholars is diminished.


Dungeons & Dragons Nomenclature: Right and Wrong

Chainmail:  The correct term is "maille", from the Latin "macula" meaning "mesh of a net". All maille is made of chain, so "chain-mail" becomes redundant.

Platemail:  As said above, "maille" refers to a mesh, which plate lacks. The correct term should be "plate harness" or "suit of plate".

Scale mail:  "Scale mail" actually refers to a modern way of weaving scales into maille, so that the scale itself replaces a ring in the 4-in-1 unit [4]. What Gygax et al are referring to is more accurately called "scale armor" or "lamellar", depending on whether the scales are attached to a leather backing (scale armor) or directly to each other (lamellar).

Banded Mail:  In D&D, this refers to armor made of overlapping strips of metal sewn to a backing of leather and maille. This description more accurately describes lamellar or scale armor, much like the "scale mail", above. While some examples do exist of banded maille, it was maille with a leather cord or thong woven through it to stiffen it, and was generally only used in standards and collars on hauberks, to provide a standing neck defense. 

            The other problem with Gygax’s system is the abilities and limitations of the armor itself. Many of the armor types listed in the D&D manual have characteristics that real armor does not have. For example, a suit of maille is listed as empowering the wearer with a + 2 dexterity bonus[5], meaning that the wearer moves faster wearing upwards of 40 lbs of steel than they are wearing their regular clothes. I realize that D&D is a fantasy game, but this is so far outside the realm of reality as to defy any suspension of disbelief necessary for the fantasy to work. Further, they claim that donning a maille shirt takes 1 minute, as does removing it. I have yet to meet a fighter of sufficient prowess as to be able to take off a 40 lb hauberk in under a minute.

            To his credit (or at least to TSR's), the depictions of maille in the Player's Handbook look very good, even showing the rivet heads on the rings[6]. And, as I've said before, Gygax was responsible for bringing medieval arms and armor to mainstream attention (as much as D&D could be considered "mainstream", at least until recently). But it falls upon anyone depicting medieval armor, be it in tabletop games, videogames, or movies to do so responsibly, recognizing that their depiction may very well be the "foot in the door", so to speak, for new students of the craft. A little research into the historical examples is all I'm calling for here. The armor left over from the Middle Ages survives for a reason, and they didn't use what didn't work. I've yet to see a suit of fantasy armor that can hold a candle to the real thing.

            Well, that's it for another edition of Blackmaille. Thanks for joining us for another month. As usual, any questions, comments, hate mail (I'm sure to have generated some from this), or fan mail can be sent to me at:

                        Thomas Beckett
                        13628 Belmead Ave
                        Grandview, MO 64303

Or you can email me at:

            See you next month!

[1] Mead, Malcomson  "Dungeons & Dragons FAQ"

 [2] Tweet, Cook, Williams  "Players Handbook" v 3.5, pg. 145

 [3] Johnson, Harold "30 Years of Adventure: A Celebration of Dungeons & Dragons"  Wizards of the Coast  ISBN 0-7869-3498-0

 [4] See "Blackmaille" # 47, written by Steven Davis

 [5] Tweet, Cook, Williams  "Players Handbook" v 3.5, pg. 145

 [6] Ibid, pg 107


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