January 2nd, 2013

The brilliant tumbler feedWomen Fighters in Reasonable Armorhas inspired me to add my two cents to the discussion.

Why does my opinion matter? I’m an armorer. I make actual armor that people wear when they hit each other with swords. When making armor I have to strike a balance between comfort, protection, range of motion, and appearance. My experience has made me more than a little opinionated on the subject of fantasy armor.

I intend to set the internet straight. See below for how to do it wrong, how to do it right, and why you might care.

 1: The Problem

There is a commonly held understanding in the fantasy role-playing community thatfemale armor sucks. That is, it doesn’t really cover any vital organs. It follows the relationship below:

What does that mean? It means that you get fantasy art trying to sell us on the idea that these…

Red Sonja, Dynamite Entertainment

NIght Elf, World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment

…are things that women might wear to a sword fight. Clearly these women are both poorly insulated and have no particular intent to keep their vitals inside their bodies.

We know why these images exist. It appeals to a specific market. That, though, is a whole other discussion. All we want to establish here is that there is a rather strong trend to dress women in metallic lingerie rather than protective armor in fantasy combat.

To predict a counterpoint: There are men that wear next to nothing in fantasy art as well. Take Conan or He Man, for example. Neither of them are wearing much in the way of protection. This is true, but they aren’t meant to be armored.  Both of the ladies above are wearing armor, not barbarian-style loin-cloths. Their metal garments describe access to real armor, but the decision not to wear it.

To give a bit of perspective, this would be the male equivalent.

Pointless Male Armor

So there is the problem: Pointless armor.

What can be done?

2: The Historical Problem

My first choice when armoring women is to draw from history. Unfortunately there are a few problems with that:

  • Women have been traditionally restricted from fighting.
  • The few that were allowed to fight would have mostly been commoners unable to afford quality armor.
  • There was a relatively brief period in history in which plate armor was actively used.

This leaves us with barely any extant examples of women in armor. Even if there were women warriors, they would likely be wearing the same thing as the men: hardened lamelar leather, chain hauberks, or coats of plates.

Common European Armor, 9th to 13th century.

Fully kitted in this stuff, they’d be indistinguishable from men. While in combat that’s just fine, but for artistic purposes, we usually like to have our characters clearly gendered.

So we can’t just look at what real women wore and expect to get very much of value for our modern designs.

3. Functionality

So we can’t pull much from historical examples of the appropriate gender, but we can still let the expertise of the ages inform us on what would make sense.

Plate armor is the way it is largely out of necessity. The layout and articulations of the plates are the best solutions the designers could come up with to balance mobility with protection. Also, note that nobody was naked under their armor. There was a ton of padding between the metal and the flesh that absorbed the energy of the blows.  That means the difference between male and female plate armor is relatively trivial because once you’ve padded it out and left space for movement, you’ve all but erased the figure of the person inside. Let’s grab some examples to show this in action:

Joan of Arc, 1485

St. George and the Dragon, Raphael, 1504

Note the differences in the armor as depicted by artists of the time period. There are none. Both are fully covered and both have prominent chests and narrow waists. This is pretty common because that is how armor worked. It was a functional necessity more than it was a style.

Want another example? How about a contemporary interpretation on the theme?

Elizabeth’s Armor, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Universal Pictures

As the placard indicates, this is from the filmElizabeth: The Golden Age. It is gorgeous. Modeled on German Gothic Plate, I have only a minor gripe with it: no neck protection. That’s important stuff, but let’s look more at what they did right.

They made the armor functional, yet feminine with the detail work. The overall form could easily go on a man, but the trim, the collar, the cuffs were character and period appropriate. Brilliant.

However, artists aren’t always going for practicality or historical relevance. Style will often trump practicality in costume design. Just look at Sauron, one of the most epic suits of armor ever worn; If this guy lifted his arms too high he’d poke his eyes out with his own pauldrons. So this is awesome but impractical armor, so why don’t we deride this design? Because we believe that it’s appropriate for the world and the character. More on that later.

Sauron, Lord of the Rings, New Line Cinema

4:Breastplates and Boobplates

Breastplates are what you call the large metal shell worn over the torso that protects pretty much all of the important squishy bits. They’re designed to deflect blows and distribute impact. They look something like this:

Breastplates, Palace Armoury, Malta

Pretty much all plate armor uses variations on this design. Counter-examples like the roman musculata are primarily decorative, worn by important folk that didn’t much expect to actually be fighting in them.

Boobplates are ostensibly breastplates fitted to a female torso. That is, they have actual breasts dished out.

Combat Archer Breastplate, Ryan Consell

That there, that is a boob plate. I made that one. The woman in the photo asked for it to be like that. She fights in it. I worry constantly that she’s going to fall hard and it will crack her sternum, even with the padding. Note also that it seems almost perfectly designed to guide sword points and arrows into her heart. They still have to penetrate the armor but, honestly, that’s a design flaw. However, it looks good and makes her feel sexy and badass at the same time. That’s important too.

So we have a bit of a new problem: We want to make people look good. We want characters to be sexy. We want that more than we want realism in our fantasy art but we also want to feel like what they are wearing makes sense. The armor should compliment the character and setting, not distract from it.  How do we do it?

5: Recommendations

5.1Internal Consistency

Any science fiction or fantasy world runs on its own set of rules. The fashion, technology, values and physics are all free to be laid out by the creative minds involved.  Maintaining some logical consistency in what people wear for armor adds a lot to the world. If men and women are going to be fighting the same battles, afford them the same level of protection.

Mass Effect did this well.

Commander Shepard, Mass Effect 2, BioWare

Commander Shepard, Mass Effect 2, BioWare

Tera Onlinedid this very, very badly

Tera Online, Bluehole Studio

5.2 Go for the eyes Boo

Any artist working with human subject matter will tell you that the face is the most important part of the character. A headshot by itself can tell you everything you need to know about who a person is and how they feel. Sex appeal can come entirely from a beautiful face, the body doesn’t need to be naked as well.

I argue that this:

Neverwinter Nights, Bioware

Is more appealing than this:

Neverwinter Nights, BioWare

The bare chest and boob plate add nothing to the femininity, sexiness, or appeal of the character. Focus on the face for character appeal, let the armor be a reflection of the setting and her role within it.

5.3 Unwrapped Christmas presents aren’t exciting

So you still want your fantasy fighters to be sexy? How about a bit of a tease? Let our imagination run away with us.

People will always want to see more than they’re allowed. An exposed ankle will make someone blushif they’ve always been denied access to them in the past. If your characters are naked, there’s nothing to tease us with. A well considered bare shoulder can be way sexier than full frontal nudity. Put a bit of thought into when and how you expose your characters. The anticipation and the idea can be more enticing than the full show.

Not convinced? Let’s consider Tali’zorah. In two full Mass Effect Games, we have not seen he out of her armor and yet one of the most compelling moments in the game was when she took her mask off to make out with Shepard. Morover, you didn’t see her face even then. She’s alluring because of the idea of what she could be. The mystery is sexier than the reality could ever be.

Tali, Mass Effect 2, BioWare

5.4 Everybody is naked under their clothes

So you still want to make pictures of pretty girls in very little clothing? I won’t stop you. There is a time and a place for such things and I am not about to try to dictate terms on that front. This is just a plea for reasonable armor. So if you need to have a female warrior with exposed flesh, could you let her be in a state of undress rather than depict her default state as being mostly undressed?

Samus, Sung Jin Ahn

Appleseed Book 1, Masamune Shirow

Look there, two women with rather substantial armor exposing their figures. We can have our cake and eat it too. Wasn’t that easy?

6: Review

This is good

Nicole Leigh Verdin, Shroud, Jetrefilm Entertainment

This is bad

Ragnarok Online, Gravity Interactive

This is fine

Hilde, Soul Calibur IV, Namco Bandai Games

This is absurd

Tera Online, Bluehole Studio

 my favourite image forever now.

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