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Why are wizards and their ilk so restricted in their choice of personal armor in most fantasy roleplaying games? (...let alone novels etc.)

Sure, learning takes up a lot of time, especially about such an arcane and cryptic subject as magic - but this is just a stereotype. Games and worlds could both easily be designed otherwise.

Why is this stereotype so prevalent, and where does it come from?

Inspired by the recent flurry of Dwarf-centered questions (such as this one), yes. :)

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closed as not constructive by edgerunner, mxyzplk Jan 14 '13 at 23:39

As it currently stands, this question is not a good fit for our Q&A format. We expect answers to be supported by facts, references, or expertise, but this question will likely solicit debate, arguments, polling, or extended discussion. If you feel that this question can be improved and possibly reopened, visit the help center for guidance.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

I'm curious as to the reason for the close vote. – SevenSidedDie Jan 14 '13 at 18:12
Also, obligatory tvtropes link which answers the question somehow: – Jeor Mattan Jan 14 '13 at 18:16
@SevenSidedDie I considered voting to close on the grounds that this question has great potential for rambling discussion and speculation, but decided to VtC in the hope that answers would be "well behaved" – Simon Withers Jan 14 '13 at 18:50
This question is not scoped to RPGs as best as I can tell. Obviously it draws from the prior art of fantasy novels and all, as inherited by the first RPG, so the answer lies there I'd think. Ask on SF&F if you want, it would probably get a better answer. – mxyzplk Jan 14 '13 at 23:38
@mxyzplk It's scoped to rpgs, in part by virtue of being on this site and assuming good intent. I think "Because fantasy novels do it so D&D did it" may well be a legitimate answer, but that's an answer, not a close reason. – the dark wanderer Jul 7 '15 at 23:13
up vote 17 down vote accepted

I believe part of the answer lies in the original folklore views on magic.

Before and during the medieval era, according to the Christian Church, magic was a foul, demon-granted perversion of the natural order. The people who practised magic were seen as foul, diseased old hags and wicked sorcerers who used the blood of Christian babies and dealt with Satan himself. Those accused of witchcraft were not the sorts of people likely to be in a lot of battles, sword vs. sword. Magic was seen as a weak and womanly (which back then meant cowardly) weapon, and was linked to disease, poison and other modern-day 'debuffs'.

These wizards were therefore not seen as being the sorts of people physically capable of fighting in an army. Scholars were also, I believe, seen as weak men. Therefore, there is a longstanding tradition of wizards not using armour as they wouldn't fight openly. Another factor was that many people believed that witches could, for example, harden their skin to avoid swordblows. Therefore, they wouldn't NEED armour anyway.

Renan Malke Stigliani also raised an excellent point about Merlin, a very famous wizard, who was powerful and wise but too old to fight with a sword and armour, again reinforcing magic as an alternative to physical combat, as opposed to a complementary tactic.

Then we get to the most famous wizard of all, Gandalf. He was a mystic, nearly all-powerful figure. He had no need of armour, as he was never injured. His power was in other things than physical combat.

Other ideas (in other cultures) for how magic worked involved special clothes, jewellery, motions, sigils, etc. and were not really portable. A Druid might cast a good luck charm to make the crops grow, but he wouldn't dance about in full armour. Often, magic then had much less to do with fighting than the pop-culture idea now, so wizards again had no need to be uncomfortably dressed in solid metal plates while casting spells.

Then, when D&D was created, along with the creation of the concept of a weak wizard going out and fighting mosters in dungeons with 10' wide hallways, the classes needed to be balanced. Fighters were simple - all weapons and armour were allowed. Priests were more limited in weapons, in exchange for spells at 2nd level. Wizards got spells at first level and were more limited in melee as a result.

In AD&D 2e, the wizard is limited due to the explanation that he doesn't have the training to wear armour and wield weapons (except for those that require little strength, little training or both). This explanation, while better than none, is less than perfect.

Later (when ASF was introduced), the idea of armour getting in the way of gestures came along as explanation. This is, in modern D&D, the accepted standard, along with ways for wizards to get around it (Mage Armour, special gear, etc.).

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+1 for a thorough answer. I'd contest the description of Gandalf, though - while it's true that "his power was in other things than physical combat", he's also an effective swordsman, especially during The Hobbit. The gist of your answer is correct, though, as he's not an armoured warrior. – Tynam Jan 14 '13 at 18:45
@Tynam I was referring to the fact that while he is pure badass fairly often, Tolkien used him more as a mystical plot device in some cases, with almost McGuffin-like levels of power. His magic was his defining feature, beyond any combat abilities with a sword. – Dakeyras Jan 14 '13 at 18:47

It's mostly a matter of game balance I believe (I am referring to D&D) and also a way to connotate the various classes more - partially explained with a reference to Cold Iron which allegedly negates magic.

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I'm pretty sure the cloth-only wizard concept predates roleplaying games, so game balance and class flavour wouldn't be the origin of the trope. – SevenSidedDie Jan 14 '13 at 19:15
@SSD: given Paoul Anderson's influence on G.Gygax views that led to the game, the treatment of cold iron versus faeries and magic in both 3H3L and Operation Chaos (early discussion with the witch ... "Ever since mankind found how to degauss the ruinous effects of cold iron ..." ) points to one more factor in how it got into the gaming systems, with D & D leading in influence. – KorvinStarmast Jun 2 '15 at 12:49

From a purely time management based perspective: time spent learning sword craft, archery, or the general bodybuilding needed to wear heavy armor without the weight slowing you down would cut into the time spent studying magic.

This argument is stronger for weapons skills or defensive items that need skill to use effectively (eg smaller shields) than for armor that just needs to be worn though because a lot of conditioning for the latter can be done by just wearing it while you do every day activities or in game by setting a low generic strength limit in which case wearing heavier armor could by done; but at the expense of significantly reducing the amount of supplies that could be carried at the same time.

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You're underestimating how hard it is to learn to wear (or even put on) armour effectively. It's not a simple flat bonus to your defense - you need to move differently, you have to protect the weak spots, and you need to know which blows to absorb, and which you need to parry or avoid. Flat AC bonus is a simplification of a pretty complicated situation, which in turn hides how complicated armour really is. A peasant wearing plate armour is still going to be killed easily, no matter the armour - and in fact, it will probably hinder him more than help. – Luaan Jun 2 '15 at 12:53
@Luaan That's heavy armor. A peasant in some light (which is still uncomfortably heavy without training) mail is going to fare significantly better in the short term that a shirtless dude in a loincloth, assuming neither are trained combatants. 'just wearing' most armor is/was more effective in real life, just less effective than wearing it with training, for most people expecting a fight. Ultra-heavy armor is the exception, not the rule. – the dark wanderer Jul 7 '15 at 23:21
@thedarkwanderer Yes, it helps - but as you said, it only really helps against an untrained combatant. The plate armour in the end of my comment was just this taken ad absurdum - the same applies to leather armour and chain mail, arguably even more so (especially compared to high quality plate). A wandering wizard is not going to be attacked by a peasant, he's going to be attacked by at least a brigand. – Luaan Jul 8 '15 at 6:45

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