Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On Shields

There's been a bit of discussion in the ol' blog-o-sphere lately on shields, and how to make them more effective. This is all well and good, and I might be trying a few of the suggestions myself, in addition to the ever-awesome Shields Shall Be Splintered houserule from Trollsmyth. Unfortunately, though, unless I get really weird with it, shields are pretty much always going to be inferior to two-handed or two-weapon fighting in D&D, outside of specific, controlled situations.

The best thing a player can do, survival-wise, is to stay out of fights. The second best thing is to make those fights short. Defensive power doesn't really help with either of those goals, unless it's absolutely overwhelming. Offensive power helps with both. It doesn't matter how good your AC, or how much DR you have, if the monster gets a chance to pull something screwy, so generally you're going to be better off figuring out how to deal as much damage as you can in as short a period as you can. Hence: Two-weapon fighting, two-handed weapons.


  1. I agree, monster magical abilities means that two-weapon fighting and two-handed weapons give greater survivability than shields.

    I suppose you could come up with special houserules for shields to block some special attacks. Reflecting gaze attacks, blocking dragon breath, that sort of thing. But then everyone in the party will keep a spare shield for use in certain situations, which is fine I guess. hmmm

  2. Yep. With no real death spiral, the importance of dps and the alpha strike reign supreme.

    Add in encumbrance (even a simple system like Raggi's) and it can get worse.

    Frankly, I haven't got a problem with that, but if you want a game where the shield gets as much love as it realistically deserves, you'll probably end up rebuilding the combat system from the ground up.

  3. A shield is a weapon. That's why the real deals have metal rims. Which can be sharpened.

  4. ^Sigilic - Shield slam!
    I also love the idea of a shield being totally mashed after a few blows.
    (Forgive me if I jumped in on the wrong system or game) I'm beginning to think that whilst they are still whole that shields are way too passive in D&D (old D&D) and other systems. Maybe their effectiveness should be tripled or they become a sort of "parrying" tool. Downgrade suits of armour, upgrade helmets and shields and hey-presto you'll all set for much more classical campaigns.

  5. Quibish: And then you're getting into the realm of a lot of special cases and I suspect that the basic problem *still* wouldn't go away.

    Trollsmyth: Wouldn't a death spiral just make alpha strikes more important?

    Sigilic: Do most martial arts that use shields use them as weapons?

    Billiam Babble: Oh, absolutely. But then you're damaging the D&D combat system's two main strengths: it's simple and fast.

  6. Two-handed weapon vs shields:

    Roman legionaries made hash of their Falx-wielding Dacian adversaries becuase the Dacians had poor defenses. A Roman soldier could take a blow upon his Scutum (shield) and then counter attack with a gladius to the gut. Usually with devastating results.

    Heavy two-handed weapons made a comeback in the middle ages notably by the Swiss and the Scots. The Swiss armored themselves to the best of their ability and Scared the bejesus out of their enemies by walking straight at them. But the Scots retained the use of a shield (the targe) possession of which which was made law by to all men who could not shoot a bow in 1456 by the Scottish Parliament. The Scots used the Targe to great effect from the Middle ages right up until the battle of Culloden in 1746.

    Other nations made effective use of the shield such as Spain. The Spanish sword-and-buckler soldiers (Rodelero) were easily regarded as among the finest soldiers of the world. Their shield was not actually a buckler (which is carried in the fist) but was a target (Rodela) which was carried on the forearm. Their primary purpose was to break a pike formation by pushing aside the tips of pikes with their shields and close with the enemy and take them out with their swords. They supplemented pike and shot and proved deadly to pikemen even the armored Swiss variety.

    The shield was faded out not because of articulated plate armor (which could only be worn by a few richly-equipped men, but by the advent of the musket and bayonet which required two hands to use. It took a long time to train a man to fight effectively with a weapon and shield while musketry could be taught in an afternoon. Shields were often used by cavalry soldiers (the Poles, Tartars, manchu, Arabs, turks and moors) until the late 18th and even 19th century.

    Two weapon fighting (i.e. a weapon in each hand) was and is extremely impractical on the battlefield. Men who fought with two swords, sword-and-dagger and even sword-and-buckler did not do so at the behest of military commanders. Those styles of combat were for civilian duels and brawls where carrying a heavy shield around town was impractical. The popularity of the rapier was really more of a fad that caught on with the nobility. Rich men would carry complex rapier like hilts with them into battle but would have heavy blades mounted in them. The off hand parrying weapon of choice was the dagger as they were commonly carried by all and could be easily replaced if a blade was broken. Parrying with the sword (especially a thin forty-inch bladed rapier) could get costly. When daggers were unavailable cloaks or even a hat could be substituted. In D&D games where off-hand attacks are the rule they often neglect defense. In fact the only defensive measure for off hand weapons I have seen was the two-weapon defense feat from 3.x edition. This feat was only available after taking numerous two weapon attack feats. They got it all backwards. The other weapon was to parry an attack while the primary one attacked. This was done simultaneously as though the off hand weapon were a shield. I would like to point out however that a shield with a wider surface area than a dagger or even a sword was more effective at blocking a blow, even the small diameter, fist-held bucklers used in the 16 and 17th centuries.

  7. People seem to be disregarding the defensive benefits of a weapon. If I have a sword and you don't, your only defense is to run away. I'll kill you every time if you try to fight me.

    If you have a sword, now you can defend yourself. Even if you're not trying to hurt me, it's going to make defense possible.

    A shield is like a sword, except it can't really hurt the enemy badly enough to end the fight...

    It's always seemed strange to me that weapons don't carry any defensive bonus in games.

    Put me in a sword fight and give me a choice between a sword and plate mail, I'll take the sword every time...

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