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In early D&D, both chainmail and plate armor were considered metal armor, and to slow the wearer to 60' per turn. Chainmail cost 40gp, and plate armor 60gp. Their encumbrance was 400 or 500 coins apiece. Other than these very minor differences, chainmail granted a base AC of 5, and plate armor 3. All classes that allow wearing chainmail, also allow wearing plate armor.

I'm referring to Moldvay and Mentzer here, feel free to adjust my wording accordingly.

When would you ever want to wear chainmail instead of plate armor?

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6 Answers

Remember that encumbrance is limited, and it determines movement rate.

That 100-cn difference between chainmail and plate armors is equivalent in encumbrance to an entire week of food, or 200 arrows.

Extra ammo or faster movement may make the difference between success and failure in an adventure.

Be 10% better protected in the occasional fights that occur? or travel light all the time and carry far more resources? Or carry 200 more platinum out of the dungeon?

The choice is yours.

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100cn difference is not much (max carry is 2400), and 10% is a bit of an understatement (it's a very undramatic way to look at the difference). ac 4 to ac 2 is a 40% reduction in chance to be hit by first level monsters. –  Matt Joiner Jan 29 '11 at 5:21
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Low-level adventurers do often prefer to invest that encumbrance in protection. So why would chain ever be preferred, as you asked? Whenever versatility outweighs a minor AC difference (or when your game isn't mostly combat). –  ExTSR Jan 29 '11 at 18:12
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Also if you're playing a town / village / wilderness scenario are you really going to lump around in full plate armour? Way to look inconspicuous. –  Jon Hopkins Feb 8 '11 at 12:07
    
@JonHopkins Chain is also very conspicuous. It's just as much military gear as plate, and you can't exactly hide it under your clothes or anything (with the exception of the ultra-light elven/mithril shirts in some versions of the game). You're making a case for not wearing metal armor at all, not for choosing mail over plate. –  Alex P May 26 '13 at 18:19
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One of the biggest reasons for wearing Chain Mail was the price. Since starting cash was random, at first level, you might not even have enough cash to buy Chain Mail without borrowing from your friends. Once you had the cash for Plate, there'd be little reason to go back. Also, as others have said, some classes were limited specifically to chain (the original Cleric, for instance).

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Chainmail: 40gp. Plate: 60gp. It doesn't seem convincing. –  Matt Joiner May 31 '12 at 12:56
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I can attest to this. The average starting gold is roughly 105gp, which makes for some hard choices in terms of getting the best weapon, best ranged weapon and best armor. I break it down for B/X here: redvan.wikidot.com/best-equipment –  cr0m Jun 10 '12 at 20:57
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I think the Role Playing consequences of wearing plate armour greatly outweigh any game mechanics. Depending on where you are if you wonder about a town wearing a suit of full plate then people are going to think that you are ready for a fight, heck it takes half an hour to get into the stuff.

Chainmail, especially a chain shirt can be slipped on like a heavy shirt and put on under a cloak.

Also when you aren't in your armour chain mail is easier to store, as it folds up.

Chain mail is also supposedly easier to maintain.

Rules are abstractions, and often bad abstractions. personally if I worked for the watch and I saw someone who I didn't know wondering into my town I'd question their motives and maybe arrest them for masquerading as a knight/noble, that's just me, maybe I'm thinking a little too low fantasy.

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A nice answer.. –  Matt Joiner Feb 11 '11 at 16:58
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In the same vein: The first time my DM dropped the party into a massive water pit, I was very glad I was 'only' wearing chain... and not full plate. –  Tynam Feb 13 '11 at 23:45
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+1, and the roleplaying consequences are oft glossed-over –  ExTSR Feb 14 '11 at 15:13
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The primary reason for wearing chain over plate was cost and encumbrance.

Story reasons, however, often added other reasons. Reasons like climbing, sneaking, etc.

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There is little game mechanic reasons for one or the other ... but in real life there was a world of difference.

Plate is hot to wear and restrictive of your movement; imagine going to the loo. Most people required servants to help them put it on correctly and to get on and off a horse. Chain is more bendy, and you can wear it for longer periods, and it's simpler to get on and off. Both weigh a lot, and in fact IIRC Chain is more uncomfortable as the weight is totally on your shoulders whilst Plate has straps that balance the weight around your body. Also you have to remember that historically Plate was made for you and you wore it to battle, it in modern terms is like have a personalised sports car that you take to the track on race days. Chain, as it was more flexible, would fit more people, and was hence made for men at arms. Plate should be rare as it was not just knocked off in a made to wear fashion.

NB - correctly it is Chain or Mail the contraction is incorrect but that is RPGs for you, also there is no such thing as Platemail, BTW.

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A significant portion of the appeal of the original version of D&D were the inconsistent rules - which led to players developing their own in-house rules and distinctions in cases such as the Chainmail vs. Plate-Armor choice.

There were custom class specializations (for example, allowing the magic user to wear armor, or imposing more restrictions on the cleric), magical items that were fixed on certain types of armor (elven chain?), and additional rules for maintenance, exhaustion, horse-back riding, that came into play.

Many of these changes were introduced officially to the ruleset with the release of expansions, such as the Greyhawk Supplement (I think the original thief was capped at chainmail), and other publications, such as Dragon Magazine.

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