Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Insufferable Quandry of Helmets

Ok, what's the deal with helmets in D&D and its kin?

I know two facts from real life:

1. People who want to kill you often aim at your head, and

2. Wearing a helmet offers you a bit of protection against that.

One of the earliest known militaristic civilizations, the Assyrians, never left home without their trusty helmets:

And we are still perfecting the materials and designs of helmets to this day:

Despite all that, helmets offer no definable protection in-game, barring an obscure rule in AD&D no one uses. Kudos if you know the rule I'm talking about; if you don't, I'm going to make you go look it up just to make my point about obscurity. So there.

What to do about this?

One solution is to allow helmets to offer an AC bonus of 1. This is the solution I'm leaning toward. The more I think about this, the more appropriate it seems, especially considering the 2 facts above. I suspect helmets were originally left out of armor class due to the simple fact that they cover a smaller area of the body than a mail shirt, and cannot be moved around at will like a shield. But that still doesn't take into account that people with clubs, swords, crossbows and other instruments of harm are often aiming precisely for your head!

An alternative (based on the assumption I see in many books that a purchased suit of armor typically includes a helmet) is to impose an AC penalty of 1 if the helmet is lost or not worn.

Whichever option, I think it would be appropriate to make helmets a bigger part of the game, both in terms of AC and of a valued piece of adventuring equipment. It also helps open up a whole category of magic item for exploration. And lets you put cool stuff like this in the game:

What do you think?


  1. I've always been of the 'helmets are assumed to be included in armor' camp. Despite artistic renditions or Hollywood films, what adventurers wouldn't be wearing a helmet?

    Of course, adding magic helmets that have special abilities (similar to the helm of telepathy or helm of teleportation) seems fine to me, but I wouldn't adjust AC one way or the other IMC.

  2. In my D&D 3.5 games I'm just assuming that you will never loose the helmet that goes with your armor. :)

    In Labyrinth Lord game I'm playing, I use the Death & Dismemberment table when your reach 0hp and it has several entries with differing result depending on whether you're wearing a helmet or not.

  3. Chello!

    Have to agree with you; but then, I use that obscure rule you're talking about. When playing Hackmaster, I wear the best helm available, because the severity of a crit in HM is affected by the type of armor worn at the location hit, and head crits are nasty.

    That said, in 1E, I just use the "helm as part of the AC package." Hackmaster, Rolemaster, GURPS, and other games with armor by piece or as worn use the mechanic in a better way.

    That said, one of the better scenes with an example of this in a rather abysmal movie is "Kull." Kevin Sorbo wears a full-faced helmet for the better part of a fight only taking it off to reveal himself as the "dead king."

  4. I use helms to make critical hits harder to score. Though i've been mulling using it as some kind of critical hit "Save", where magic helms almost never allow critical hits to be scored, unless a weapon is also magic etc. Its a tricky quandry but it NEEDS to be more useful.

  5. In the 3LB's of 1974 10% of blows struck a magical helmet. I guess you could extrapolate that to say 1 in 10 hits would strike the head, with a helmetless head being unarmoured. Seems like just a lot of extra dice rolling to me, I'm also in the 'helmets are assumed to be included in armor' camp.

  6. I play B/X so there's no worries about helmets. When I played AD&D, I always used the "obscure" helmet roll (rules stickler that I am) but most of the player characters never had helmets for one reason or another.

    In a game where helmets (especially fancy "Great Helms") are on the equipment list, I'd like to give a nice mechanical bonus and I'd go with the ones you fact, I'd use BOTH.

    -1 penalty to normal AC if helmet is lost/missing
    +1 bonus to AC if a Great Helm is worn instead of the normal cap

    And make sure the great helm has the mechanical (perception) disadvantages. Also, I'd make everyone draw a picture of how elaborate their headgear is!
    : )

  7. We were just having a coversation about this same subject last night. In Rob's Majestic Wilderlands he has a house rule where if you roll of a 17 or above with your bonuses than you can call a head shot. The target takes half damage from the blow, but has to make a saving throw at +2 or be knocked unconcious. If the target is wearing a helm he does not need to make the saving throw.

    Then there was some rule we read last night and I can't remember where we found it, but if a player is not wearing a helm the affect AC for his head is 10.

    I agree to give an overall AC +1 to AC if wearing a helm. And for S&W I am not too fond of call hit loactions. In other systems like GURPS that is the way it works, but not for S&W.

  8. I intend to use a variation (intelligent creatures use 1 in 3 instead of 1 in 2, unintelligent creatures stay at 1 in 6, roll the die along with the attack die) of that obscure rule in my S&W:WB house rules.

  9. I just don't worry about helmets. I figure the art of D&D gives the feel of D&D, and by and large, it ignores helmets in favor of your hair getting to blow heroically in the wind. And besides, wizards in helmets just look silly most of the time.

  10. I've been in the 'Helmet is a part of your armor' camp for quite some time, now, simply because I'm a lazy pushover.
    "Helmet" appeared as a different item you had to buy separately on the AD&D and OD&D price lists... and I suppose I might have tried to scare players into shelling out the 10 gold for a helmet even though they didn't get any sort of mechanical advantage from it. ("Really? You are not going to buy a helmet for your character? Interesting. Let me make a note of that... OK: Bjorn the Bold has NO helmet. Got it. This should be interesting...")
    I can't remember ever having actually dunned the players for their helmetlessness, however (shhh! Don't tell anyone I make idle threats!)
    I like the idea of sneaking in some special effects, as others have suggested, in the case of critical hits or similar --- plus there could be certain events (like rocks falling or piercers piercing or attacks from behind with a club or perhaps even a mind flayer "eat-your-brains" attack) in which having a helmet on your head or face would be demonstrably advantageous.
    I don't know what to do about the magic helmets like 'Comprehend languages helmet' that wizards can wear. If a fighter wears it, is he protected from falling rocks in addition to being able to understand obscure languages like Umber Hulkish? If the wizard wears it, is it just a cool looking headdress like some Dr. Strange villain would wear that helps him understang languages? Or does the Wizard also gain protection from falling rocks? And, if so, can same magic user just buy an ordinary helmet to save his brains from falling rocks if he is not lucky enough to own a magic helmet?

  11. I guess one way to go would be to boost critical hit damage (assuming you use them) on people without helmets - maybe triple damage instead of double damage.

  12. Just give all armor types that should have a metal helm -1 AC penalty, and give a metal helm an AC value of +1 bonus.

    That is, for AD&D:

    Padded AC 9
    Leather AC 8
    Scale AC 7
    Chainmail AC 6
    Banded Mail AC 5
    Plate Mail AC 4

    Then a shield or helm is worth -1 each. This lets people choose to wear just a helm and shield, or for example maybe a helm and leather armor (which makes sense). Don't wrry about different materials for the helm, just like you don't care about shield materials. Perhaps if you're hit by a natural 20, the DM might decide your wooden shield or leather helm has been torn apart. Just like if you're using makeshift weapons they might break on a natural 1.

    Wearing a helm should make it harder to notice enemies. Perhaps a slight surprise penalty would be in order.

    If you find a magic item that takes up the same space as a helm (a magic hat or something) then obviously you can't wear a helm and the magic item at the same time. Which makes magic helms quite worthwhile.

    Finally there are occasional benefits to wearing a helm. If you have a shield, and there's a hailstorm, the DM should give you some very nice benefit. Likewise, if you wear a helm you should get a bonus to the save or the DEX check when something is falling from above (like an avalanche or something). But that's all case-by-case basis.

    (Yes I left out studded leather and hide armor. That's because I think hide armor should be identical to leather. And studded leather in my mind is just nicely decorated, but why would you gain an AC bonus from them?)

  13. @1d30 - when put in such well explained and reasonable fashion like that, I reckon I could be convinced to give it a whirl. :-)

  14. interesting post and comments

    one disadvantage of helmets - they are hot and decrease peripheral vision (varies by type);
    characters not wearing helmets should gain at least a bonus to endurance (if you use such rules)

  15. I was just thinking about this over lunch today!

    Answers are really system dependent. Labyrinth Lord with Death & Dismemberment table which includes more severe results for the helmetless.

    helmetless - you stay away from combat, right?

    cap - no perception/etc penalty 1/2 chance to save vs critical. these are for thieves, archers and the like.

    helm - perception/etc penalty saves vs critical.

    perception/etc penalty isn't quite worked out. Increased surprise chance, worse initiative, ranged attack penalty.

  16. A couple of people have mentioned a "Death & Dismemberment" table for LL. I don't see that in my copy. What is that?

  17. @1d30 Studded leather (like splint mail and banded mail) never existed, it's just a misinterpretation of artistic renditions of brigandines or coats of plates.

    From my experience in re-enactment and being a rather tall fellow, the tops of people's heads is a very good and easy place to whack 'em.

    It was very common for late roman legionaries, saxon fyrdmen and viking raiders to go into battle with a helmet and a big shield and no body armour.

    I'd be inclined to go with 1d30's interpretation above, allowing helmets a +1, with the added twist of making big shields +2 to AC. Used properly a big shield cuts out about 30-40% of striking options so +2 is possibly even a bit stingy - it wasn't until plate got very effective that polearms became the weapons of choice because people didn't want to give up their shields.

  18. @faoladh:

  19. David Macauley: Thank you! That looks excellent, and has me completely rethinking several options I'd been working with.

  20. I call shennanigans on Banded Armour not existing. Its more common name is Segmented Armour and it replaced mail for the Roman Legions.

    Splint is debateable depending on how you consider some types of Armour (ie, if its not metal)

    An oft forgotten 2nd edition rule is the saving throw bonus granted by a great helm.

  21. Re: Death & Dismemberment chart - I like it!

    Way back when, it seemed like every DM had their own customized crit chart, but I rarely see them anymore. Nice to see this one. :)

  22. I was just about to mention the Roman banded mail thing but Zzarchov beat me to it :P

    Side note: vikings in chain shirts, and that wikipedia picture of a roman in armor, and the little item icon for armor from video games, are the basis for me thinking of an "armor suit" as just the torso piece.

    Yeah, I know, people should be able to wear all those plate armor pieces too, right?

    But if you say that the armor is just a torso piece, then you don't have to think about how someone with +5 Plate can also wear magic boots, gauntlets, bracers, and helm. Where does he chuck the unused pieces of +5 Plate?

    Anyway, overthinking it. It's just simpler if you assume the armor suit is just the torso part.

  23. I always enforced the targetted head rule in AD&D :). But I now just assume it's part of the armor, or even not required, if someone doesn't want their character to wear a helmet. We play to have fun, not re-enact history.

  24. I just came up with an idea on this topic at B/X blackrazor..

    What if a helmet gave you an HP bonus?

  25. You could use the "shield will be splintered" rule with helmets.

    They give a penalty to notice stuff but a player may choose to sacrifice a helmet instead of take damage from a hit so long as it is announced before damage is rolled.

    This makes helmets must have items but they aren't terribly unbalanced

  26. D&D isn't terribly realistic to begin with, so I don't worry about it. If D&D were designed around individual pieces of armor, I might think about it, but I just assume that armor includes head gear. Or that the characters' hair is blowing heroically in the wind. :)

  27. Sorry for late! I found this in AD&D 1E DMG, page 28:
    Helmet - It is assumed that an appropriate type of head armoring will be added to the suit of armor in order to allow uniform protection of the wearer. Wearing a “great helm” adds the appropriate weight and restricts vision to the front 60° only, but it gives the head AC 1. If a helmet is not worn, 1 blow in 6 will strike at the AC 10 head, unless the opponent is intelligent, in witch case 1 blow in 2 will be aimed at the AC 10 head (d6, 1-3 = head blow).
    Love it.

  28. malsrpg: Yes, that is the "obscure rule" that Al was talking about in the post.

  29. Damn! I didn't get the point due to "too-much-happiness-in-finding-obscure-rules-none-ever-told-me". Sorry :(

  30. Haha! I'm an ass. Didn't mean to rain on your parade.



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