Our suits give us better eyes, better ears, stronger backs (to carry heavier weapons and more ammo), better legs, more intelligence (in the military meaning…), more firepower, greater endurance, less vulnerability.
A suit isn't a space suit - although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor - although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn't a tank - but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted…
…Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons.
The real genius in the design is that you don't have to control the suit; you just wear it, like your clothes, like skin.
The secret lies in negative feedback and amplification.
Starship Troopers Robert Heinlein
Power Armour is, according to a great deal of speculative fiction, the thing of the future. Arguably first popularised by Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers it has become extremely common in almost all media over the subsequent years1.
Unsurprisingly it consists of a suit of armour, usually something resembling late medieval full plate, but made of cutting edge materials and fitted with a substantial power assist to make sure the wearer is at least compensated for the mass of the suit.
That's the basic version - more advanced versions include rocket jumping packs (or flying engines), advanced sensors, built in weapons, life support and communications equipment. The deluxe suit turns the wearer into a virtual god of war - immune to small arms and too small and fast moving to be targetted by ordnance, able to see, hear and communicate freely and (with jumping or flying equipment) hyper mobile. Added power assist may also make him incredibly strong. In theory, power armoured infantry should be able to slaughter unarmoured infantry more or less at will and freely destroy the majority of Armored Fighting Vehicles as well. Enormous Mecha may stand a chance … or not.
We have a few hurdles to overcome before this becomes reality. At the moment, there are actually powered exoskeletons on the market - all current civilian ones designed to restore mobility to cripples and those who are otherwise infirm. For military use, the main hurdle is developing an adequate power supply - whilst a nursing home can plug a suit into the wall, an infantryman can't go charging into battle trailing an extension cable behind him. Besides this, there are various other problems of matching the correct range of movement to human joints and preventing them from overextending and damaging the user to defeat before even the basic suit is viable. Deluxe features will follow from there.
For setting designers, it's worth noting that a suit that's designed to be worn shouldn't be much bigger than a human - if the limbs (for example) are significantly longer than the wearer's there is likely to be an awkward mismatch in the positions of joints and such things. Arguably the suit should be either mansized or a lot bigger, trending into enormous mecha territory with the user controlling rather than wearing it inside. If the user does climb inside the armour rather than wear it, it may instead be termed a battlesuit or mini-mecha.
Many depictions present the user wearing a wetsuit like outfit below the armour itself as a sort of latterday arming doublet. This suit, if present, is likely to carry the direct interface connections (life support jacks, biometric sensors, pickups for the control system and, hopefully, some method of dealing with bodily wastes) and will probably have temperature control features as well. If the user does not have custom built armour, this suit will plug into the armour and act as an adjustor.
Game and Story Use
- The impact of these suits should be considered by any sci-fi setting - if they don't totally dominate warfare, why not?
- Actually makes for quite a good "knights in space" theme if most power armour is hard to finance and maintain - a small number of armoured men can potentially shred entire armies of unarmoured men and the chances of having a small, power armour equipped warrior caste is high (assuming that there are no central goverments flooding the place with armoured professional soldiers).
- Great for PCs operating in places where the interplanetary government(s) troops don't often appear.
- Can do surface, vacuum or under (water) missions with very little adaptation.
- Potentially, a very good "Mechwarrior" style mercenary campaign could be run in a low government, easy travel sci-fi setting where roving power armoured mercs travel from planet to planet in some kind of base-ship winning people's wars for them. PCs can all play suitgrunts or can play other, non-combat roles, especially if the ship also accomodates the men's families and support network.
- Less fun if your PCs are the unarmoured ones and refuse to retreat.
- Thematically, it's easy to imagine armoured infantry's default call when a man goes down being "armourer" rather than "medic". Actual medic calls might be moments of high drama.
- Also good in non-space settings for fighting giant bugs, dinosaurs, demons etc.
- Or for civilian uses. Two-man construction crew anyone?