Ironmongery: GURPS Armor in a Low-Tech Style

GURPS: Low-Tech (LT) is not, by any means, a book entirely about historical or fantasy armor, but from the amount of time that gets spent talking about that particular chapter over all of the others, you might suspect it was. It has been such an issue that two additional supplements (so far!) have been written about it, Instant Armor (IA) and Loadouts: Low-Tech Armor (LTA). And still, even in the face of all that support, there are regular posts on the official forum with questions. [Editor’s Note: I, myself, have probably participated in half of them. And started a full third of them.]

Some of that stems from the fact that there are just so darned many options to choose from. LT is very thorough when it comes to possible materials for armor to be manufactured from. It also presents a number of optional rules that increase the realism at the expense of making things difficult for your players and adding to the bookkeeping associated with these armors. In addition, the authors tread lightly on areas where things are not as absolute, as black-and-white, as they might like for a simple RPG – a laudable trait in a writer – that leave you with only conjecture and a sprinkling of “usually” and “rarely” to help guide your hand.

So, what are some of the things that people seem to have the most trouble with?


This wasn’t terribly easy to do under the Basic Set rules – armor had to be both flexible and concealable to be worn under other armor. That rule has been relaxed to a degree, allowing any flexible armor to be worn under other, rigid armor. That’s still pretty limiting – light cloths and leathers, and most mail (notably, not jousting mail) – but still a useful subset of the armor continuum.

The only time you can violate this rule is in headgear. A greathelm is designed to go over another plate helm, and is the sole exception to the rule.

The benefits of layering (added DR) are quickly met with drawbacks. The additional weight of that second layer is not inconsiderable. In addition, any armor that covers enough of the body adds a -1 DX penalty to associated actions (all of which include combat), so layering has to be done in a strategic way, or, as we’ll see, all the way.

Layering on the chest or abdomen (or the torso if you’re not separating them out into different locations) automatically inflicts the -1 penalty to all DX-related actions. Layering on more than half of any arm or leg (the shin, or the knee and thigh; the shoulder, upper arm and elbow, or the forearm are the standard divisions) is similarly binding – thus the prevalence of vambraces for the forearm and greaves for the shins in historical armor. Headgear doesn’t cause any layering penalties, but even some of the lightest helms have issues of their own, causing tunnel vision or hard of hearing, even without a second layer.

So, the ideal layering to avoid the penalty is half of each limb and the head, with nothing on the torso, hands or feet. If, however, you’re like most and you want to have some of your best protection (likely second best after your noggin) on your torso, you’re going to have to accept that -1 penalty for layering. But! As soon as you do this, you’re free to add that second layer to the rest of your limbs and your whole torso without any further reduction in DX. A third layer is required to bust through the threshold to a -2 to DX, and that’s just crazy talk!

So, if you’re after maximizing your DR, and you’re willing to play with layering extra-heavy hardened plate overtop heavy mail, and you’ve got the ST stat to pull it off, you’re on your way. Even if you don’t go for maximum effect, you might well be doing something approaching a real-world armor loadout.

Gaps, Chinks and Openings

The standard rules allow for one to target gaps or weak points in armor, with a significant penalty, to reduce the armor value by half. LT adds a new optional rule for those that want realism in their armor that says that with rigid armor, there are several locations where those gaps can be targeted and bypass all armor entirely. Notably, these are the backs of the knees, inside the elbows and the armpits, and the eye slits. Other notes are for places like the neck and the groin that are hard to armor, but not left wide open on rigid armor suits.

The most advanced option for these sorts of things (TL 4) is an arming garment – in fact, if you’re going to wear a plate harness, you have to have one of these underneath to avoid a penalty. They have mail sewn in to the inner elbow and armpits, giving you the protection of light mail in those otherwise open spots. I’m assured that a similar garment exists for the legs, but rarely had mail for the back of the knee.

Prior to that, if you wanted to make sure you were protected in those locations, you layered your armor, and either took the DX penalty, or made sure you weren’t over-layering.

So, if realism is the goal, and you’re using the rigid armor gaps rule, make sure you take precautions to protect those areas by layering your armor where appropriate.

Spoiled by Choice

As if the crazy list of armor types presented in LT wasn’t sufficient (33 types, if you include such prosaic options as wood and straw), there are many different rules in the book for modifying these armor types that are worth a look.

A favorite of mine is reinforcing textiles and leather. Many of the armor types that you may know from years of wasted youth playing AD&D or Runequest come back in this section. Ring armor (not “ring mail”, mind you) comes from reinforcing cloth or leather, as does splinted armor and bezainted armor. All three provide the same benefit (+1 DR versus cutting) for a 25% boost in price and weight. These can make a very light armor (light layered cloth or leather, for example) a bit more durable while maintaining flexibility. It can also make a heavy leather or cloth into something nearly as effective as scale armor with less weight and at a lower cost.

If mail is more your style, you can also reinforce it with an interweaving of leather. You sacrifice the flexibility, but also eliminate the reduced effectiveness against crushing damage.  The cost is a 50% increase in cost and weight, making it a far less useful option, but it is lighter than equivalent segmented plate, albeit at a higher price tag.

Finally, if you’ve moved on to plate armors (segmented plate, brigandine or plate), then you’ve probably already explored making the plate heavier, but there are options as well to add fluting or expert tailoring (to reduce weight) or hardening for one more DR added to the total.

Every one of these added permutations adds another layer of complexity (if you thought the footnotes were bad, imagine how it’ll be when you sew rings onto light leather, and wind up with a DR of 3 versus cutting, 2 versus crushing and 1 versus impaling!) but also allows for a greater variety of armors, across cultures or races, in your game.

Rigid Rules

If all you have is LT, it’s hard to know what sort of armor goes where. You might look at the list and see Heavy Plate and do the math – add up all the possible locations (which adds up to 305% of the weight of the torso alone – possibly true, but sadly not rounded down to 300%) and multiply by the base cost and weight on the chart. There you go, a suit of heavy plate armor.

Except that it’s not a legitimate suit of armor.

Ignoring the armor gap rules, and ignoring the need for an arming doublet when wearing plate armor, it just wouldn’t work. You’d make the Tin Man look like a break dancer when it came to being stiff. While you can put plate armor on locations like elbows and shoulders and knees, you absolutely can’t put heavy plate in those locations – or anywhere on your arms or legs. And you can’t put any full plate (segmented plate and brigandine are not plate for this particular usage) on your abdomen at all. That location in particular needs a lighter, more forgiving armor.

For this, the best solution is to pick up the Instant Armor (IA) PDF. It breaks everything down by location (expanded locations or basic) and tells you the sort of materials you’re allowed to use by location. It’s not all bad news – it also includes plate as early as TL 2 for some uses, making it available earlier. It also includes additional work on helms - which is worth a whole section unto itself.

Once you see these lists broken down, you can make better choices about which armor works where. Just make sure you know which level of detail you intend to use as far as hit locations go – don’t use the armor listed under Torso if you intend to use Chest and Abdomen as separate locations. You’ll wind up with armor that only makes sense if you’re abstracting the torso into a single unit.

On the Head

Headgear – perhaps the most important bit of kit you can imagine, and after a shield probably the first piece you’d pick up to protect yourself if you were limited in resources.

This section is so different and so specialized compared to the other armor types, it just makes sense to read through everything presented. Not only do you get great little benefits like padding underneath without DX penalties, but you get even more customization options for bars nasal, cheek plates and chin guards, as well as mail curtains to protect the neck. Once you digest all of these options – and there are quite a few, you’ll be designing cool, evocative headgear for your different civilizations’ armies in no time.

Before you worry that helmets are going to be too effective (the DR on some of these units can get pretty high, pretty fast), look to each option that makes them more effective and see how they also pile on the disadvantages – sure, his DR might be 13 on his head, but he’s effectively hard of hearing and has tunnel vision. Surely that’s penalty enough to offset being thoroughly protected on just one small part of his body, right?

Where Do I Start?

The short answer? Let your GM do the heavy lifting. Allowing your players to use the rules in LT without some decisions made ahead of time is likely asking for trouble – akin to telling them they have 500 points to spend, handing them Powers, and telling them to knock themselves out. You’re going to wind up with a mess on your hands, and things you were unprepared to deal with.

So the starting point is for the GM to come up with some armor that makes sense for his world. Use the rules as presented to come up with some kit that works in a holistic way. Review the loadouts in LTA and let them inform your decisions. It may be enough to say that, culturally, it is unusual to wear more than about DR 5 even during times of war – the Romans went to war with less, and the Vikings seemed to top out at around 5 themselves.

So my advice is pretty simple here – don’t treat LT as a shopping guide, use it as a GM resource. Once the armor has been created, there’s no reason to return to LT as a player – shop off the list provided by your GM.


  1. I hit some choices on how to pick armor a while back as well:

  2. By the way, I might just post this as either Melee Academy or GURPS 101, if you like. Any preference?

    1. I don't know that it qualifies for 101 - it might be more of a 204 level class - but I could see it falling under Melee Academy.

    2. Done! (or, will be done as soon as I get off my c-call)


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