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I'm working on a roleplaying game in a medieval fantasy setting with a focus on crafting and I am having trouble visualizing how armor made from scales of creatures would be assembled; both for art and material list purposes. I wasn't able to find any good examples as animal scale isn't generally used for armor (understandable.)

In a setting where creatures existed that had scales that would be suitable for making armor, such as dragons, what would be the best approach for using those scales to make armor?

My first thought would be to use them in a similar fashion to historical metal scale armor. Metal scales are bound together with metal rings or heavy cord. Scales would have small holes punched in them for fastening and be used in place of metal. Scales of different sizes could be arranged in the way to make them most ideal to the wearer in terms of flexibility, fitment and protection. Quite a labor intensive task, but then again so was scale armor if you didn't have an efficient process.

While I was thinking on what the armor would look like, another approach came to mind. The scales are already bound together on the creature's skin, why not use that? Would it be practical to cut sections of the creature's skin, cure it, and stitch it back together as armor? Would this offer any benefits over the other approach?

Would both of these be viable ways to make armor using scales with their own benefits? Or am I overlooking a simpler solution?

For clarification: By "suitable for making armor," I mean that either the scales are comparable to metal in strength or have other beneficial properties (weight, magical effects, magic resistance, etc.) For the sake of the question, I'm using dragons as the example, however I am intending for their to be other scaled mythical creatures that armor can be made from.

Solutions I'm trying to avoid:

  • Using magic, or other processes, to significantly alter the scales visibly. I want them to be visible and intact on finished armor. Kind of a status symbol for dragonslayers and accomplished adventurers.
  • Using magic to adhere the scales to each other, or other materials. I want this to be something that can be done by tools. I'm seeing this as something that will require some really high quality (possibly enchanted) tools, but the majority of the work will be done by hand.
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    $\begingroup$ not an expert at all on animals with scales but I would think the skin itself needs to be healthy (ie not removed, cured and worn as a garment) in order for it to maintain any sort of adhesion to the scales similar to how hair and finger nails fall away during decomposition $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Nov 1 at 21:53
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    $\begingroup$ That was one of my concerns on that second process. I figured there was a chance that curing it might do something to help retain the scales? Or some other work could be done after curing it to help them stay in. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Nov 1 at 21:55
  • $\begingroup$ perhaps something similar to tanning crocodile hides? $\endgroup$ – BKlassen Nov 1 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ Dragons aren't real, so I don't think it's too big of a stretch to just say the scales don't fall off the skin after death. I mean, who is going to fight you about how dragon skin works? $\endgroup$ – Ryan_L Nov 2 at 0:08
  • $\begingroup$ Removing them isn't the issue. If you have tools that can skin a dragon, you can descale it no problem. I'm just trying to see what would be effective methods for using the skin/scale after the fact. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Nov 2 at 16:46
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Remove suitable scales and reattach them in a durable way using links or cord.

scale armor https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/47/Japanese_scale_armor.JPG

Depicted: scale mail made of leather scales. These synthetic scales are good because of uniformity of size. Also, a synthetic method of attachment means the mail owner can repair the armor in the field by sewing or attaching spare scales to replace damaged ones.

The natural attachment of scales to skin might be via organic structures which do not weather as well as the scales do. The scales will get loose and tend to fall out, like teeth from a skull.

If the function of the mail were purely ceremonial you could use a whole skin, like this crocodile scale armor.

croc armor https://io9.gizmodo.com/roman-crocodile-armor-is-the-closest-thing-reality-has-5940451

The source article states this armor was used in rituals for the Roman/Egyptian crocodile cult.

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    $\begingroup$ I honestly didn't think about the scales falling out after the armor is made and how you would replace them in a cured scalehide armor like that. That said, the low durability and difficulty to repair could always be a factor of those armor types, where replacements have to be linked in like traditional scalemail or just be used as ceremonial gear. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Nov 2 at 22:44
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    $\begingroup$ The attachment of scales or skin is the scales are made of skin, unless you are talking about osteoderms. You may be thinking of fish scales which grow out of the skin. Scales are not going to fall out of cured reptile hide. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 4 at 3:07
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    $\begingroup$ @John - you are right. But I think as regards making functional armor it would be better to array the scales overlapping, like a pangolin or like bird feathers. Reptile scales as worn in vivo have unprotected skin in between. $\endgroup$ – Willk Nov 5 at 14:53
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    $\begingroup$ @Willk that is one of the downsides of scutes as well, my point was that the skin and scales are made of the same thing just in different thicknesses so the scales are not offering that much more protection than the hide. $\endgroup$ – John Nov 5 at 19:53
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I don't think the second solution would be practical, though you can always just make it possible by saying "so dragon's skin has these properties and can be used in these ways."

First one was viable except for the fact that dragon scales are generally considered the strongest material and cannot be damaged. How can you make holes in them? You would need good explanation there.

My answer is to create a new crafting method. this is a fantasy world so the crafting should also have something different from normal. You can use special fire that can melt scales or even a magic system for this purpose. Or maybe a special glue that can attach the scales to a metal or leather surface. Or maybe inscribing the same rune on all of the runes will make them stick together.

It depends on the premises and restrictions you set.

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  • $\begingroup$ Never said that working dragon scales would be an easy process. It's meant to be late game stuff where the players would have access to high quality tools. And I don't really like the idea of melting scales because then it's just a pseudo-metal at that point. I wanted the dragon's scales to be there, and intact, on the armor. I'm going to clarify my question with things I wanted to avoid now that I've had more time to think on it. $\endgroup$ – Arvex Nov 2 at 16:28
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This will depend on what kind of scales the dragon has.

An easy way to make it specials is to consider if they have steel that can cut dragon scales why are they using dragon scale instead of that steel. So make the dragon scales harder/tougher than steel. You may say only adamantine can cut dragon scales but dragonhide is easier to come by than enough adamantine to make a full set of armor. Your players may have to have a quest just to find adamantine tools or an armor make who has such tools. Alternatively you could require that they use diamond tipped tools, magic, or the dragons own teeth to drill the scales.

Consider also how you dragon scales work, if they work like most reptile scales they are just thickened skin, that is the scales and skin are one contiguous material. Crocodilians have bony core to their scutes although the covering is the same. Fish scales are often made of enamel like teeth and they grow out of the skin and can be individually pulled out and overlap naturally. Emulating fish scales may be your best bet, since they are made of the hardest material available in the body.

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First, find a dead dragon.

Finding a dragon that is already dead is much safer than trying to kill a dragon or trying to get scales from a living dragon against its will.

If finding a dead dragon isn't possible, the next best thing would be to try to scavenge any scales that might be shed by a living dragon. One might have to try to trade gold for dragon scales.

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Scales connected to each other with cord or rings is called Lamallar, if you are interested in that method, direct your research to that term. Standard scale armor is attached to a backing, cloth, leather, or rarely a shirt of mail. That likely makes more sense than leaving it on the original skin, the scales falling out sounds like a very realistic fear.

How to craft it in a way that seems cool without magic? Your tools need to be of an alloy that can maintain some strength at high temperatures, then you work the scale with glowing hot tools. The heat softens the scales enough to make the holes.

Another idea... If the dragon has large scales, like shield size, you could use one scale as a breastplate and one as a backplate, carving the edges to fit for mobility, and adding straps.

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