By the Book: Movement Rates and the Chain Mail Problem

According to the Red Box rules, an unarmored character moves at a rate of 40’/round, one in leather armor moves at 30’/round, and one in metal armor moves at 20’/round—or a mere 10’/round if also carrying treasure. But how fast is that?

A round is ten seconds, so an unencumbered man walks at a rate of four feet per second. Running triples one’s movement rate, albeit at the cost of temporary fatigue (-2 to attack and damage rolls and to AC), so an unencumbered man runs at a rate of twelve feet per second. These are reasonably accurate numbers, all things considered. (Sure, some people will walk or run faster than others, and there’s jogging and sprinting and so forth, but this is Basic D&D; we’re not going to fret the details.

How about a character in metal armor? Halved movement speed is pretty extreme. Personally, I don’t have much—or, in fact, any—experience with moving around in plate mail. A bit of casual internet research (and we know how accurate that is!) suggests that heavy armor doesn’t slow one down significantly; the main effects are an increased demand on the wearer’s stamina from hauling around the excess weight.

But let’s face it: sometimes we deliberately ignore realism to keep gameplay simple and to produce interesting tactical or strategic choices. The movement rules may not reflect reality terribly well, but they’re simple and they work. Want to move fast? Wear light armor or none at all, or run in armor and accept the resulting penalties. Want to hang tough on the front line? Wear heavy armor. Can you make it out of the dungeon laden with treasure? Let’s find out!

And here we encounter the one fly in the ointment: chain mail. By the book, there’s little reason for player characters to ever choose to wear chain mail. It costs only 20gp less than plate (a trivial savings) and weighs only 100 coins less than plate (allowing one to bring out a little more treasure), while providing significantly less protection in battle.

My solution has been to house-rule the movement table. In my game, characters in plate move 20’/round, characters in chain move 30’/round and characters in leather or no armor move 40’/round. Accurate? Unlikely. Playable? Definitely! Chainmail suddenly becomes a viable choice, as the character wearing it gives up protection to gain significantly increased mobility. (My players had an example of this last session, where the plate-wearers slogged slowly through a storm of arrow-fire to reach their opponents.)

Other solutions are certainly viable. One could use AD&D-style tables indicating which weapons are best against which types of armor, or one could modify the exhaustion-from-running rules to impose greater penalties on plate-wearers. I’m curious to see what approaches individual referees have taken in their own campaigns!

7 Responses to “By the Book: Movement Rates and the Chain Mail Problem”

  1. 1 Ed
    February 24, 2010 at 11:02 pm

    I don’t have a specific answer, not being a GM. However, I was just visiting the Phila Art Museums’ arms and armor section this weekend. They had a guy demonstrating full plate armor and it was pretty intense what he had to wear. He pointed out that knights of the time trained from a young age to wear the stuff and compared the encumbrance to a football player in full pads. Apparently you could be pretty nimble in the stuff.

    That said, I feel like plate armor is way too easy a choice in D&D. You’re approach is a reasonable one. You might want to up the price too, making it more out of reach. The demo I saw said that each suit had to be tailored to the wearer and was extremely expensive. You had to be a Baron to afford it.

  2. February 25, 2010 at 4:02 pm

    My limited knowledge of medieval armor suggests that the transitional period between mail armor and plate armor involved attaching metal plates to a full mail hauberk. This would be both cheaper and more cumbersome than actual plate armor. If I recall correctly, this is precisely how AD&D presented “plate mail.” Plate armor appeared as the distinct armor types of “field plate” and “full plate” in AD&D’s Unearthed Arcana.

    So, “plate mail” as seen in Basic D&D is chain mail reinforced with plates. Handcrafted and properly fitted plate armor would have the same armor class and would be significantly less encumbering—allowing a higher movement rate—but would be drastically more expensive, costing hundreds or even thousands of gold pieces. A most productive drain on a fighter’s finances!

  3. 3 chgowiz
    February 25, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    The other option is to drastically reduce the cost of chainmail and increase the cost or time to make platemail. I don’t run towns where armor/weapon shops are like Walmart. Usually, players have to wait a game or two to get their armor and/or gear made or found by a merchant not of the town. Chain might be a more available/cheaper alternative.

    Still, I like your solution!

  4. February 25, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Huh. I really haven’t been giving economics much thought, particularly in regard to the prospect that an unavailable item might have to be manufactured especially for the buyer. I typically assume that weapons and armor are readily available in the town nearest the megadungeon, if only from gear that other adventuring parties have looted from their victims and sold to the local merchants. But if the party ever decides to outfit a whole mercenary company with plate mail, now I know what to do!

    I wonder if an “Equipment Availability Table” is in order?

  5. 5 chgowiz
    February 25, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Yea, the concept of “Ye Olde WalleyMartte” just doesn’t go so well with me. The economic thing is completely my interest and I don’t expect everyone else will share it, but I like having the idea that finding platemail because a real treasure because damn, it takes a long time for someone to make!

  6. February 25, 2010 at 5:14 pm

    Mind you, a good suit of plate armor found in a dungeon will need to be refitted by an armorer anyway!

    When I’m in doubt about the availability of goods, I typically roll a six-sider, apply an impromptu modifier based on the circumstances, and determine what’s available based on how high the roll is. A high roll means it’s in stock, a low roll means it isn’t, and a middling roll means something else—it’s more expensive than usual, there’s not as many as the player wanted, it’s defective, you’ll owe someone a favor, etc.

    (I’ve mostly had to do this whenever the party visits the local priest to procure healing potions. They’d probably have an easier time of it if they didn’t all belong to a weird new cult!)

  7. April 14, 2010 at 1:44 am

    This is a great house rule. I’m adopting it.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

February 2010

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