The Red Box Blog

Ramblings about D&D.

The Price of Plate Mail

I don’t think there has been any piece of equipment that has varied as much in price from edition to edition as plate mail. There are two schools of thought on how much plate mail should cost. In Basic and 4E plate mail is priced so a first level character who wants a suit of it can get it right away. In 1E, 2E and 3E plate mail comes at a handsome price that most characters can’t afford for a couple of levels.

For many years I was part of the camp that felt plate mail should be really pricey. For one, making plate mail several orders of magnitude too expensive for the typical peasant seemed to make sense; a peasant should have access to plate mail like you or I should have access to tanks. But more than that there was huge psychological aspect to it. From the moment a player made a new fighter character obtaining plate mail was a goal. And when your fighter finally obtained plate mail it was like announcing to the world “This character is for real.”

As you can imagine, I was against the lowering of the (monetary) cost of plate mail in 4E. But when I decided to abandon 4E for Basic, I felt like I needed to justify the low cost of plate mail; not so much from a meta-game perspective, but from an in-game one.

Does this cost 60gp or 400gp?

Why Plate Mail Might Be Cheap

Before one can talk about why the price of plate mail might be low, one needs to understand why it might be expensive. In the real world plate mail was expensive – it required large amounts of high quality steel to be crafted in to many fine interlocking pieces; a massive undertaking. This same argument could be used to justify a high cost in a fantasy world.

However, a fantasy world does not have to work the same way as the real world. First of all, the presence of various fantasy metals could create new types of steel whose properties we can only imagine. Perhaps plate mail in a D&D world is made with a special alloy that significantly reduces the hardships involved. Second, whether the mail is made from a fantasy alloy or real world ones, the availability of the raw materials, the tools, and the expertise might be very different in a fantasy world than the real one. Finally there is the matter of necessity; a nation threatened by orcs and dragons might be willing to commit more resources to making plate mail than one that only has other humans to war against.

The Right Price

I don’t think there really is a right price for plate mail, though obviously where it is set will impact the balance between classes and where the party’s money will go for the first few levels. There is a part of me that loved watching the players pool their money to get the fighters plate mail at the first possible opportunity; but there is also a part that likes seeing a fighter kicking ass from day 1.

Have an opinion about this article? I love comments. Please feel welcome to leave your thoughts.

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January 6, 2011 - Posted by | Dungeons and Dragons, RPGs | , , ,

7 Comments »

  1. […] through some posts today, Red has an interesting one on the price of plate mail and why it may or may not be expensive.  The […]

    Pingback by Equipment costs and Advancement | Pen and the Sword | January 6, 2011 | Reply

  2. And here I thought I was the only one who thought about these things. I was pondering this the other day for my homebrew RPG. I decided to go with having Plate Mail as a possibility right at character generation, but only with a large expenditure of coin. So if the Fighter thinks that other characters will have camping equipment, exploration equipment, medical supplies and etc covered for him/her, he/she can splurge on being a main battle tank with a cheap sword on the side. However I also have half-plate as an alternative.

    Comment by Wyatt Salazar | January 6, 2011 | Reply

  3. You have to remember that if this special metal or these special techniques were available and did lower the cost of plate armor then it would also lower the cost of everything else. Plate armor, though it is the most complex, expensive, and labor intensive piece of equipment available in most fantasy games, it doesn’t exist on an island.

    As for the government mass producing and subsidizing the cost of plate armor… Where are they getting the money to get this done? Are they raises taxes through the roof so that everyone has much less money, but plate armor is very cheap? Also, why are they subsidizing it? Do the subsidies come with the cost of X number of years of military service? That would probably be a necessity, right?

    Finally if plate armor is so cheap it loses its place as a status symbol the way it was in the real world. Now I’m not saying that it needs to have one in your fantasy game but you can’t have both very cheap plate armor and have it be a status symbol. Additionally, because the very best armor is so cheap there is going to be a great need for development in better weapons that can penetrate the armor. In the real world crossbows and then firearms emerged, what will it be for your world?

    Then again it is possible that you don’t really care about how it affects the world, you may just want cheap plate for game balance reasons. Personally, these are the kind of questions I would ask if the DM lowered the cost of plate armor to make it affordable for a first level character.

    Comment by Hanz | January 6, 2011 | Reply

    • You seem to be approaching this from a perspective of 1E-3E pricing for plate is completely correct because it bears a greater similarity to the real world.

      However, if you are going to start talking macroeconomics, then basing the price of plate mail on the real world is just as flawed as my arguments for making it cheap.

      In a D&D world how does the price of iron and steal remain high when there are tens of thousands of dwarves making their livelihood by mining ores and presumably selling them?

      Why would there not be a surplus (relative to the real world) of skilled laborers such as smiths in a D&D world when virtually every D&D world in existence does not obey the historical ratios of the number of farmers required to feed a single non-farmer (thus implying that through magic or technology D&D worlds are more advanced agriculturally than medieval earth)?

      With regards to the status symbol of plate. I love that status, I said as much in the article.

      But not having plate as a status symbol doesn’t really disrupt most game worlds, not one bit. Why? Because the very rich in many game worlds already have armor better than any smith could make – magic armor.

      Comment by The Red DM | January 6, 2011 | Reply

      • If you introduce high magic into a game world then all logic goes straight out the window. These setting become laughable when one examines the high number of castles built in a world with rampant abilities that make these structures totally superfluous. This seems to be the type of setting you are describing, with rich people running around in magical plate armor, armies of Dwarves doing little but crafting armor for other races, and farmers who see their crop yields greatly increased through the use of magic.

        These setting have no logic to them, real world or otherwise, so I say just go nuts. Give plate armor away for free.

        Why not?

        Comment by Hanz | January 6, 2011

  4. If a player want their character to have plate mail, even at 1st level, we can make that happen. But that being said, in general, I am firmly in the plate mail should be expensive and a symbol of status camp.

    Comment by seaofstarsrpg | January 6, 2011 | Reply

  5. _WHY_ plate mail is cheap is possibly more important to a setting as it should affect more than just plate mail itself. After all, just what is plate mail physically? Sheets of quality steel, formed into specially shaped sections that then are joined together to create an articulated casing.

    There are several material and manufacturing technologies involved in crafting such a thing. If one or more of those technologies has become easier, cheaper, plentiful or particularly needed at this point in time, then other items, processes or services that use those technologies should benefit from this as well. Depending on the WHY of cheap plate mail, there could be a lot of other unexpected changes. Personally, I’d be interested to see what they would be…

    Comment by Spiralbound | January 8, 2011 | Reply


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