Q&A: Asymmetric Armor

Hi! What is the real meaning for a character like Cloud Strife to have a single shoulder armor? Is it to rest their sword on their shoulder only, in a safe manner? I have a OC child who wears a shoulder pad just for fun but I want to know if it serves a purpose for real. Thank you, love your blog!

The short answer is that it’s to make the character look cool. It’s primarily there to help differentiate his design. I’m not clear on exactly how much was intentional, but I suspect the art design for most of the FF7 characters was heavily influenced by hardware limitations. (I know this was a consideration in the earlier sprite based games.) Because the polygon budgets and texture resolutions were low, the hardware heavily favored bold aesthetic designs. Cloud wears one massive oversized pauldron, and has hair you can roast marshmallows on because it helps keep the character visually distinct.

So, with all that said, asymmetrical armor was a thing, sometimes. There’s two important considerations, cost, and what you need the armor for.

Cost is always relevant. Armor is expensive; regardless who is paying for it. Doesn’t matter if it’s a lone mercenary or adventurer, then they’re going to have to make some difficult choices on where they spend their money.  Depending on the era, it’s entirely possible that even a professional soldier would have been responsible for purchasing and maintaining their own arms and armor. This could (and did) result in situations where someone had incomplete armor, because it’s all they could afford.

So, could you end up with a mercenary who had a single pauldron, and basically nothing else? Theoretically, yes. However, they’d be better off selling that, and getting some body armor instead. Though, if you had to pick one arm to over-armor, the left would be the better choice.

Depending on the statistics you look at, somewhere between 70% and 95% of the population is right handed. That means the vast majority of the foes you’d be facing on the battlefield would be far more likely to strike at your left arm and side. You’re more likely to take hits on that side (again, in a conventional combat environment), and as a result, it does make sense to add some extra armor on that side. That may simply mean a heavier pauldron, or just some extra weight in your gear. This wasn’t universal, and was rarely to the extent that you’d ignore one side entirely, but there is a little bit of logic behind these aesthetics. It’s also worth remembering, this is mostly a consideration after you’ve already got effective armor, and you’re thinking about adding some more. While there are reasons to put heavier armor on your left arm, that won’t do you any good if you’re run through, hence, the body armor suggestion earlier.

The most extreme example of asymmetrical armor is jousting gear. It’s probably better to think of jousting as a sport, rather than as combat. It was a competition, with strict rules, and supervision. The skills it used were based in combat, (specifically running down enemies with a couched lance) but, the two competitors in heavy plate with crowds cheering them on, was pure spectacle.

Jousting armor had enormously exaggerated protection on the left side. If you know what you’re looking for, jousting armor is instantly recognizable. In particular, the cuirass is often visibly asymmetric, sometimes with the left arm partially shielded, or fused directly into the cuirass above the elbow (technically, the term cuirass may be inaccurate in this specific example.) The helmet is sometimes asymmetric, again, favoring the left side, though this is less universal. In short, you’re looking at armor that expected the user to take a hard blow to the left side of their body, and wanted them to survive the experience.

I know we’ve said this before, but getting the right armor involves knowing exactly what you’ll be dealing with, and choosing accordingly. With that in mind, there was at least one situation where combatants intentionally went into combat with partial armor.

Roman gladiators had predesigned “uniforms,” that filled numerous distinct roles. As with Jousting, this was more of a sport, rather than true armor, but the goals were different. In particular, gladiatorial combat was interested in drawing blood, while simultaneously prolonging the spectacle. In these cases, armor that protected one (or both) arms, while leaving the torso unprotected was a pattern for many of the roles.

Worth remembering in this case, that both a gladiator’s weapons, and armor, were selected based on their roles, and they would be paired against opponents with roles that couldn’t easily counter them. In some ways it’s the opposite of what you’d normally look for in combat, but, the point was to create matchups that would be bloody without also being decisive.

There was a theme with the various roles. Gladiators were “playing the part” of various foreign civilizations that the Romans had already defeated. These caricatures would have been instantaneously recognizable to the crowds, much like how stereotypes in professional wrestling are instantly familiar (and, potentially offensive) to modern audiences. Although, significantly bloodier, professional wrestling is a good analogy to the Roman arena, so it might not be the best example of asymmetrical armor in combat, but it is another situation where this concept appears.

In general, when it comes to designing a character, overtly asymmetrical armor is often simply a method to make the character stand out. That’s what you see with Cloud. It’s not that there’s a specific tactical advantage, it’s there to mark him as your protagonist, and make his character model easier to identify at a glance.


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