Friday, June 17, 2011

Another Reason D&D Shouldn't Favor Shields

Building on comments on my post yesterday -- In my experience with western martial arts -- which is, admittedly, limited to longsword fighting from the 14th-ish century -- a swordsman doesn't use a shield. Instead, he uses his sword as what (3.5e) D&D would call a "hand-and-a-half" sword: he switches from one hand to the other as necessary, sometimes uses two hands on the grip, and sometimes uses his second hand to "half-sword," putting his hand on the blade (it's not particularly sharp in the middle, and won't cut anyway without the power of a swing behind it) to use the tip as a dagger in close combat.

My understanding of older styles is that shields were mainly used when the sword was a heavier weapon that didn't allow for much finesse, and in large, well-trained units where each individual soldier's use of the shield contributed to the defense of the unit as a whole. Neither of these situations really seems to describe D&D combat particularly well. My vision of it, at least, is a lot closer to the middle ages styles that involve a sword during the period of transition between the heavy blade of the dark ages and the light fencing blade it eventually became in the Renaissance.

Granted, my understanding of medieval fencing is pretty limited, and my understanding of the history of weaponry and western martial arts sketchier still. If someone who has a more thorough understanding of the topic can correct me, feel free to do so. The main reason I think D&D doesn't favor shields remains that split between offensive and defensive strategies, and honestly it's a pretty good one -- more offense means shorter combats, and shorter combats means more time for the parts of the game that I find actually interesting.

13 comments:

  1. WOW!!1 I ARE SO SHCOKED A GURL CAN GET 'IT' FROM GAME DESINE POV B4 THE GRAYBEERDS...YOU MITE NOT BE SUCH A POOP-4-BRAINS AFTERA LL!1

    :p

    -NUNYA

    ReplyDelete
  2. I won't address your larger issue of how rules affect gameplay but the idea that swords were heavy, clumsy things in the dark ages or early middle ages is not supported by any archaeological evidence I am aware of, although you do see the claim made by alot of modern fencing masters.

    One-handed swords were generally 2-3 pounds throughout most of history. Broader swords were thinner or had fullers. Even Viking swords, the poster children for big clumsy cleavers, were actually in the 2-3 pound range. And early rapiers were pretty heavy, because while narrower the blades were also thick.

    The abandonment of shields was more related to improvements in armor (full plate was good enough to stop arrows and you needed a heavier two-handed blow to pierce it).

    ReplyDelete
  3. For some cogent and presumably well-researched writing on shield usage, I'd offer you two different series by Bernard Cornwell: The Warlord Chronicles (Winter King, Enemy of God, Excalibur) and the Saxon Stories (Last Kingdom, Pale Horseman, Lords of the North, Sword Song, Burning Land).

    I haven't done any kind of research of my own, but his explanations sounds highly credible to me. Admittedly, these stories are set in Britain, circa AD 500 and AD 900 respectively.

    ReplyDelete
  4. mikemonaco: One-handed swords were generally 2-3 pounds throughout most of history. Broader swords were thinner or had fullers. Even Viking swords, the poster children for big clumsy cleavers, were actually in the 2-3 pound range. And early rapiers were pretty heavy, because while narrower the blades were also thick.

    The abandonment of shields was more related to improvements in armor (full plate was good enough to stop arrows and you needed a heavier two-handed blow to pierce it).


    Ahhhh. Okay, yes, that makes much more sense. Plus more flexibility, because in a lot of the actual medieval fighting demos I've seen, there are about 10 seconds of actual "swordplay," then they lock they swords and move in and someone gets the other guy in the eye in very close combat. Wouldn't works so well with a shield.

    And I can definitely attest that there's a big difference between what modern fencing types say and what the archaeological/re-enactment community says, and I'd definitely rather go with the latter.

    Shieldhaven: Thanks!

    ReplyDelete
  5. My own experience is with SCA heavy fighting, so we're using rattan sticks, not sharp blades.

    I do know of one fellow who fights very well indeed with a two-hander, but he's the only one, and he's had a lot of training, both in SCA fighting, and in eskrima.

    For most of the rest of us, a shield is a pretty essential part of combat; you simply can't cover all the possible places you can be hit, and a decent shield cuts down the amount of work you need to do by about 40%. This is particularly true if you're of a heavier build, like me - I can hit like a tank, pretty much without warning, but I can't dodge around like the lighter guys can.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Drew Shiel: My main response is that I suspect the average medieval warrior/D&D character falls more on the "he's had a lot of training" side of that comparison.

    I don't deny that there are times and places where a hand-to-hand warrior is invariably going to use a shield, because, yeah, it makes blocking a lot easier. But there are enough times and places where he won't, and enough of those are D&D-relevant, that I don't think it's a big deal that D&D doesn't really encourage shield use.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I wondered when the anti-shield reactionaries would reveal themselves!

    JK

    :D

    ReplyDelete
  8. "I don't think it's a big deal that D&D doesn't really encourage shield use."

    I do. It sticks in my craw. It was because of D&D that I got into history and swordplay. But to discard a weapon and defensive item that has been used since times of antiquity up until the modern age with a mere +1 to defense is ridiculous.

    ReplyDelete
  9. D&D is basically a plug in for a wargame written by people with no combat experience.

    Its understandable, European Martial Arts were hibernating, Asian Martial Arts were hard to find trainers for and fraught with bad training, and the sword and shield sport of the SCA was in its infancy. Certainly none of these things were available in Lake Geneva at the time.

    However the shield itself is one of the most useful battlefield instruments known and is criminally underestimated in D&D . Even today we see shield walls and shields in use (the Vancouver sports riot FREX) on a semi regular basis.

    The buckler, the one shield that does merit a +1 to AC while no longer used was in near continuous use in Europe from at least 1300 (the earliest record we have) till around 1600 or so as the main defense and possibly later in other areas (the Okinawan Timba and the Filipino Tameng )

    Bigger shields are amazingly useful both on offense and defense and are a combination of mobile cover and weapon . They were also cheap enough for any man to own

    Downsides , they were heavy (8-12 lbs) awkaward to carry (save the buckler) and disposable. It is as Mike put it, they were only put to pasture when fill armor was strong enough.

    Now rules wise, well, D&D AC rules need a bit of work all around. In most editions, its no possible to accentuate offense or defense, basic stuff like voiding is ignored and magic gear is grossly over accentuated.

    Its not really feasible to rewrite the rules but if I did well shields would be more useful, it would be possible to fight defensively or offensively and AC would scale with level rather than just gear.

    That would not rule out magic gear, only make it a cherry on top rather than an expected part of kit.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Another reason swords were expensive, that is a big reason in was a weapon of the nobility they could afford them. Using a sword to parry and block other weapons was a good way to damage or break it.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I tend to think that archers were a major reason for shields, as well. It's hard to parry an arrow and it's hard to hold formation without protection from snipers. It's also a really great way to get fast protection in climate where walking around in armor is suboptimal.

    But I notice that shields are much less popular in a duel, where speed and offense seem to matter more (with some notable exceptions, like viking duels). So maybe it is partially the circumstances?

    ReplyDelete
  12. Late to the party but I think history supplies a simple answer to your query:

    Until the gunpowder era warriors armed with shields were significantly more common than those without. A short list of shield carrying warriors include: hoplites, phalangite (the hoplites successors in Phillips and Alexander's armies), Roman legionaries through the Republican and Imperial periods, cataphracts more often than not, huscarls, Viking raiders, western knights through most of the middle ages, and at least some chariot crews in the ancient Near East (based on Egyptian images in various stone works). I haven't even addressed India or the Far East but a quick image search or a good reference will supply plenty of examples.

    The shield is also commonly referenced in accounts of fighting going all the way back to the Illiad.

    If two weapon or two handed weapon fighting was inherently superior I think we'd have more more imagery, stories, and other knowledge of them throughout antiquity and the medieval period. Even the most highly trained army in the west prior to at least the 30 Years War and arguably Napoleon or later, the Roman Legion, was heavily invested in shields. Your comment on assuming well trained therefore two handed is you can also be well trained in shields as well as anything else.

    ReplyDelete
  13. I keep equivocating over thread necromancy, but here goes: all the 14th century manuals - Flos Duellorum, Liechtenauer, and I.33 - are about dueling. The calculus changes pretty dramatically when you aren't guaranteed a one-on-one engagement.

    ReplyDelete