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I'm wondering in which situations equipment can break and how this occurs.

Sunder is the first option that I know of, and is also the most obvious one, but if for example a dragon breath weapons a character, does the gear also take damage? Does energy damage overcome damage reduction on gear? Acid vs. leather armor should be pretty effective as an example. And when this would happen, do I roll saves for the gear as well or do I use the same roll as the character used for himself? Do I roll for each piece of gear separately?

Same for other spells that obviously deals area damage, but when continuing with spells, an acid arrow should also damage gear, because in most cases it needs to eat through gear to deal damage to the body.

Same deal with normal weapons, a two-handed axe to the chest should at least dent the armor a bit, but how does this function in game terms?

I also feel that there most likely is some kind of order in which the gear breaks, like say the shield is first to take damage since you try to block with it, after that maybe the chest armor and such.

This has been bugging me for a little while and I'd appreciate thoughts and answers! :-)

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Equipment takes damage under a variety of circumstances, but most of the circumstances are rare unless a character devotes resources to breaking things

Such a character might...

  • sunder a item held or worn by a foe. The character picks the item to sunder. If the sunder attempt is successful, determine if the item breaks by consulting Damaging Objects. The Damaging Objects section answers many of your questions about, for example, energy damage versus objects and acid versus leather.
  • cast a spell that specifically harms objects, such as the spell shout, but unless a spell says it harms objects--either in the heading or in the description--it doesn't harm objects.

    Note that some spells--for example, fireball and lightning bolt--readily affect unattended objects (i.e. objects not in a creature's possession), but attended objects (i.e. objects in a creature's possession) aren't usually required to make saving throws separate from the character. Instead, the (usually more narratively important) creature makes the saving throw, and, whether the creature survives the spell or not, the gear the creature possesses remains unharmed.

    Also, for example, acid arrow inflicts acid damage to a creature that's the spell's target but that same acid arrow spell doesn't also harm that creature's possessions. Were the caster to target with the spell a piece of gear in the creature's possession, then the piece of gear would take the acid damage instead of the creature.

  • manipulate the environment--usually via spells like burning gaze but sometimes via items (but, strangely, apparently not alchemist's fire)--so that a foe suffers ongoing damage from an environmental effect. Most things don't do this--and it won't happen unless the thing being used says it does happen--, but among effects that do reference the environment rules, catching on fire is by far the most common, and, so you, know

    Those whose clothes or equipment catch fire must make DC 15 Reflex saves for each item. Flammable items that fail take the same amount of damage as the character.

    Emphasis on that tedious task mine.

  • cast enough spells that require saving throws to force a foe on a saving throw to roll--eventually--a 1. This results in an exposed item suffering harm. If an order is needed as to what attended objects take damage before other attended objects, it's reasonable for the DM to start with the magical attacks chart. Using it for unintended purposes, however, is liable to cause hard feelings. Players really don't like their characters' stuff broken, especially with house rules.

KRyan's laid out well the reasons why the game functions this way, but let me add that even the most realistic of table-top role-playing games rarely track wear and tear on a character's gear.1 That minutiae is better suited for video games or unusual RPGs emphasizing the importance of the characters' gear over the importance of the characters.


  1. So much so that even Steven Jackson Games's deeply simulationist GURPS, 3rd Edition made tracking damage to a character's shield a wholly optional rule.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1, It's worth noting that for spells and effects requiring a saving throw, rolling a natural 1 causes a random piece of gear to be affected as well. There's a prioritized list of items affected by magical attacks - you determine the 4 highest relevant items, and randomly select the affected one from them. \$\endgroup\$ – G0BLiN Oct 19 '14 at 11:17
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Generally, gear doesn’t break unless something explicitly says so.

Sunder explicitly involves attacking equipment. Various spells also explicitly mention damaging equipment. Firearms can misfire, as explicitly described under their rules. Equipment with the Fragile property also have an explicit chance of breaking.

But without such explicit mentions, gear just remains, unaffected by whatever’s going on. Your character is assumed to be keeping care of his or her gear in the background, the same way he or she is assumed to be training in whatever skills and features he or she will be getting at the next level-up, as well as more mundane things like hygiene and bathroom breaks. It’s not that these things can’t be brought up to the foreground – roleplaying training or upkeep can be fun, give the characters a chance to interact in a more calm setting than typical. Issues like hygiene or meals that often get elided and assumed can become important when something prevents them from happening. But if the players do not explicitly go roleplay these activities, they are generally still assumed to be happening. There’s just a time-skip for the sake of keeping the game moving.

This is a part of Pathfinder’s abstraction level

All games, by definition, require abstraction, since we’re not capable of simulating real life. When, where, and how much abstraction to use is an important part of a game’s design. For Pathfinder, and Dungeons and Dragons 3.x before it, this abstraction did not include wear and tear, random equipment damage, or explicit upkeep rules.

The reasons why are multudinous, but the primary point is that the designers weren’t designing a game that focused on these things, weren’t targeting an audience that was interested in these things, and so designed the game to skip over them, allowing it to better focus on “more important” matters (from the view of their design goals for this particular game).

Unfortunately, for D&D/Pathfinder, the abstraction level I refer to is not particularly consistent. Some things are more abstract than you’d expect considering their prominence – the battlegrid and HP are two major examples – and other things are bizarrely detailed and simulation-y despite not at all being the game’s focus – the “dragon flight simulator” rules come to mind. As a result of this, and the frequency with which D&D/Pathfinder have disconnects between how things are described and the things the rules actually back up, it’s easy to get the impression that D&D/Pathfinder are much more exactingly simulationist than they actually are, and that the systems are capable of supporting a much greater variety of gameplay styles than they actually can do justice. D&D/Pathfinder are not particularly generalist systems, they are devoted fairly tightly to, well, delving dungeons and slaying dragons, the stuff of heroic fantasy. The farther away you step from that paradigm, the less well-suited the systems are going to be, and sooner or later, it’s just not going to work out well at all.

Changing this now would be very difficult to do in a consistent and fair way. The whens and whys of real-life objects breaking are complex, and the exact construction of the item matters a great deal. Moreover, from a gameplay perspective, some classes are far more item-dependent than others, so this change hurts them more than it does others. Unfortunately, those same classes are also already the weakest. So I do not recommend attempting to add in rules for this sort of thing. To do it justice would be difficult, and you’d either have to change much of the game around this modification, or have inconsistent and (more) imbalanced mechanics.

Instead, if this is important to you, I would suggest that D&D-derived games, at the very least the Wizards of the Coast editions, aren’t well-suited to your desires, and other systems might do a better job matching what you’re looking for. Like I said, D&D et al. are designed for a very particular game, and there are plenty of games that they just do not do particularly well. And there definitely are systems designed with this kind of thing in mind.

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