Armored and Dangerous

For me, it was Dungeons & Dragons. You know, the game played in your imagination. The one in which rolling odd-shaped dice determines your knight’s fate as he explores caverns, slays beasts and gains experience points under the watchful eye of the game’s referee, the Dungeon Master (usually your friend’s older brother).

For my sister, it was Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the story in which a valiant hero slays a sorceress-turned-dragon and wakes Princess Aurora from her forced slumber in the castle tower with a simple kiss.

We’ve all loved tales of brave knights and maidens in distress, suits of armor and epic quests at some time in our lives — even after we’ve learned our favorite versions of them are historically inaccurate (not to mention free of fire-breathing creatures or magic spells).

“The subject resonates with people for a host of reasons,” says Stephen Fliegel, the Cleveland Museum of Art’s curator of Medieval Art. “When we think of arms and armor, most people tend to think of the early phase with knights clad in chain mail, crusades, adventures in foreign lands and jousting. There’s this romantic notion of bravery and honor and courtesy toward women, the protection of the weak by the strong. These are universal values that transcend time and space.”

The Arms + Armor from Imperial Austria exhibit, opening at CMA Feb. 24, will temper our cultural obsession with reality by featuring more than 200 pieces from armor’s final age — the 16th and 17th centuries, the time of the Renaissance when swords were slowly giving way to early firearms.

Here’s what Fliegel had to say about a selection of the pieces in the show (and just for fun, we imagined what the Dungeon Master of our childhood would have said about them).
Black-and-White Three-quarter Armor for a Nobleman
iron and leather, 1550) 

The History: “It is an extremely beautiful armor, and it suggests the extent to which noblemen went in having fine decoration on their armor. The white areas are slightly raised and then polished. It would have been very expensive — like you or I buying a Lamborghini or a Ferrari.”

The Dungeon Master Says: Primarily decorative, this armor has no place in battle. But its implication of your social status provides a +3 to your charisma attribute while wearing it.

Three-quarter Armor for Heavy Cavalry
(iron, brass and leather, c. 1635) 

The History: “Cavalries were the backbone of European military tactics. They were like battle tanks that would plow through the formations of the opposing infantries. … But in order to withstand the increasing velocity of contemporary firearms, they made the armor plates thicker and thicker and thicker. They eventually got so uncomfortable that by 1650 they were basically abandoning those types of armors on the battlefield.”

The Dungeon Master Says: An armor class of 0 ensures exemplary protection in battle, but you must consult the modified-movement-rate table when wearing it.

Boar Spear (second from left) and a Trio of Halberds
(all late 16th century)

The History: “The boar spear was originally used for hunting in the field. … The halberd has an ax-shaped face on one side with a spike and a beak. Infantrymen used them to great effect to pull a mounted knight in armor from the saddle. Companies of bodyguards for aristocrats were using them by the 16th century. They would be dressed in colorful uniforms with plumes on their helmet, and their principal weapon was the halberd.”

The Dungeon Master Says: You must use a -2 range modifier when attacking with a halberd from 10 yards, but a successful hit will knock a rider from his horse with a +1 to your damage roll.

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