Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Shield Love

I’m tired of people whining over aspects of the game that aren’t broke. There are plenty of things in the D&D game that are in need of fixing, but for me SHIELDS aren’t one of these things. That there’s even a debate on the issue (or rather, a consensus of complaint) irritates me…like a tick under the old cuirass, so it does.

For me, I find shields in the B/X game to be modeled just about perfectly.

God, where to begin, where to begin…the stupid splintered shields rule? The discussion on the limitations of the shield? Shields through the ages? Or the total bad-assedness of the shield rules as written? We’ll probably have to get into the abstract combat of B/X at some point, too, though I dread re-treading the same ground already covered.

Ah, well.

Historically speaking, back when shields were a regular part of the field of battle (i.e. before gunpowder and plate armor, the latter of which forced warriors to switch-up to heavy two-handed weapons), they were generally made of wood and hide/leather. LIGHT wood…tricky enough to fight with one’s off-hand, but there was also the point about speed and arm endurance…you didn’t want to get tired out blocking blows all day.

And blocking shots is NOT what the shield was all about anyway. While crossbowmen might hide behind a tower shield for cover while re-loading, the average knight in the field (or foot-slogging infantryman) used the shield mostly for DEFLECTION…something to knock aside an opponent’s blow and (hopefully) create an opening for a killing strike. Shields are not a passive defense, but an active tool WIELDED by the fighter. Like an oven mitt used to get a hot item out of the stove, the shield was designed to maneuver something that would injure you if you used your bare hand.

Now I’ve put in a little shield-work, myself, in the past…15+ years ago, sure, but I remember the experience. Shields work great to deflect an incoming attack…until someone stronger and/or more skilled than you knocks it aside and clubs you. In individual combat (as opposed to a phalanx formation), shields are a happy little device, easily overcome by someone who knows what they're doing.

Of course, I’M no fighting man. If anything, I’m the equivalent of the Normal Human (maybe with 3 hit points, as I’ve been bicycling a lot lately). A +1 bonus to AC is about all I could hope and expect out of a shield…I would be MUCH better off wearing leather armor and helm (or hopefully, something heavier!).

Using a shield as an active defense is a grueling work, made easier and more effective by skilled use, by someone with COMBAT SMARTS. And how exactly are those things modeled in D&D?

Class and level, baby.

Hit Points, in other words. Who’s the most effective dude using a shield? A fighter. Who has the most hit points? A fighter. What do those hit points represent? Aside from actual physical health: endurance, conditioning, skill, and luck.

Take a look at my All Time Favorite medieval combat scene in film: the final judicial “trial by combat” in the 1952 film Ivanhoe, starring Robert Taylor. Ignore the clang of weapon on aluminum shields (the main historical inaccuracy of the scene) and go with the wanton brawl of an axe/flail fight that lasts three minutes (the equivalent of 18 combat rounds in B/X!). See those guys take a pounding on their shields? That’s not the equivalent of a “missed” attack roll…those are HITS that are subtracting hit points from each combatant’s profile.

Every shot that is not “actively deflected” is a blow that is absorbed, an impact felt through the wrist and arm and shoulder, a little more damage wearing the character down to where that final telling blow causes mortal injury. Because these guys are high level fighters they have scores of HPs to soak punishment…if it was me out there, I’d probably be clubbed senseless by the first blow struck, even if I got my shield up in front of my face!

Shields give you a +1 bonus to AC…it helps the exact same as having a Dexterity of 13-15. Interestingly, up until the AD&D PHB was published, there was never any mention of Dexterity being “agility”…in the LBBs and Supplement I and Holmes it is pretty clear that Dexterity is speed of hand and hand-eye-coordination. This is why it provides a bonus to missile combat (and determines “first strike” in Holmes). When Gygax gave fighting men (only) the bonus to AC based on DEX, it was due to the ability to dodge and parry attacks…hand-eye-coordination giving a bonus to defense for swordsmen.

Which, by the way, explains why the AC bonus provided by DEX was never affected by armor worn (well...until later editions, that is). Wearing chainmail or plate doesn’t hamper your ability to use your weapon for deflection and maneuver, it only hampers your movement when trying to run (which is accounted for with encumbrance). Shields, then, AID in the deflection/parry of incoming fire, just like having a higher dexterity.

“But what about arrows? Look at those films where a wall of shields holds off a huge flight of arrows.” Okay, first off, have you ever tried to deflect/block an incoming arrow/crossbow bolt with a shield? Have you ever tried to catch a bullet with a baseball glove? There are two reasons why a wall of shields is SOMEwhat effective against missile fire (as opposed to being incidentally effective for carrying a heater), neither of which has to do with Hollywood's dramatic license:
  1. A bunch of people in formation means massed ammunition being divided amongst multiple targets…there's less chance that YOU are the one being hit.
  2. Large enough shields in a stable formation can provide some amount of COVER (and such cover rules may be found in the B/X rules on page B26). While a single shield is NOT considered cover, a phalanx of steel shields or a two-handed tower shield might be considered such, depending on the DM’s judgment.
Otherwise, any protection provided by shields is minimal (possibly increased by a character’s DEX…how good are you at maneuvering that shield to catch an incoming missile?).

So having put all THAT out there, maybe you’re starting to come around to my way of thinking…that a +1 AC bonus for carrying a shield is just fine and dandy. Perhaps your next question is, why the heck would anyone want to carry a shield for a measly +1 bonus when I could be hitting folks in the mouth with my two-handed war sledge?

Because they are hella’ effective, that’s why.

I’m going to tell you a story first, and then I’ll give you some math. Back in the Way WAY Back History of my youth, I had a long-running AD&D campaign that featured characters of nearly every class and stripe: elves and half-elves, dwarves, thieves, barbarians, acrobats, assassins, bards, clerics, illusionists, drow…even classes/races out of Dragon magazine like half-ogres and archers and healers. The ONE combo that was almost completely missing was the lowly, drab, totally boring human fighter.


We had ONE in our group…a character that had been grandfathered into our AD&D campaign from our B/X days. She still had D8 hit dice, and while we probably converted her for “weapon specialization” sometime after the Unearthed Arcana was published, I don’t remember ever using it. Fact of the matter is, she didn’t need it. With plate mail, shield, and a broad sword she outlasted and out-fought every other power player in the game. She was a frigging juggernaut, eventually relegated to the role of an NPC that would occasionally make cameo appearances. As a kid, I never understood why she was so much more durable than the 18 CON barbarian or the 20th level bard…or the demons and devils and beholders she might encounter.

Amazing what a combo of good armor, shield, and high hit points will do for a character.

When fighting against weapon-using opponents (like humanoid monsters), the addition of a shield can add ROUNDS of survival to your character. Assuming average hit points and average DEX, the difference between plate and plate & shield breaks down like this:

Against goblins/orcs/1st level fighters:
1st level – 1 extra round of survival (on average) when using a shield
2nd level – 3 extra rounds
3rd level – 4 extra rounds
4th level – 6 extra rounds
5th level – 7 extra rounds
6th level – 8 extra rounds
7th level – 9 extra rounds
8th level – 10 extra rounds
9th level – 12 extra rounds

What good is an extra round of survival in combat? Just he difference between life and death! Using my dopplehander weapon rules, the damage output over time is equivalent (the two-handed weapon does roughly the same damage in a shorter survival period as the one-handed weapon in a longer survival period), but what do those extra rounds really mean?
  • Time to run away (if necessary).
  • Time to be healed by a party cleric.
  • Time for a buddy to jump in and spell you/save your bacon.
  • Time for you to spell a buddy about to get killed.
  • Time for the monsters to break morale and surrender/run.
  • Time for you to get in that lucky blow that ends the fight.
Extra time in combat is precious…and the shield gives you this. Against smaller monsters (like kobolds) that time is increased; against larger monsters it’s decreased. However, you still gain time through the use of a shield; for example:

Against gnolls/2nd level fighters:
1st level – 1 extra round of survival (on average) when using a shield
2nd level – 2 extra rounds
3rd level – 2 extra rounds
4th level – 3 extra rounds
5th level – 3 extra rounds
6th level – 4 extra rounds
7th level – 5 extra rounds
8th level – 5 extra rounds
9th level – 6 extra rounds

And these extra rounds of survival are gained simply by using a NORMAL shield. When a character sports a magical shield, survivability rises considerably, quickly out-pacing the over-all damage output of a character with a similarly enchanted two-handed weapon.

Now before you shield-wielders run out there feeling all Captain America and invulnerable, it’s important to realize and understand the limitations of the shield. First off, you’ve only got ONE. That means its most effective against one defender. Secondly, it was designed for ARMED COMBAT…i.e. combat against sentient, weapon-users.

What does this mean? That your character’s survivability decreases when faced with multiple attackers or creatures with multiple attacks (like owl bears and ghouls). If you think a shield is going to give you “extra rounds of survival” against the mauling of a grizzly, you may be in for a rude awakening (not that the guy without a shield is going to do much better…). But check this out:

Against THREE (3) goblins/orcs/1st level fighters:
1st level – NO extra rounds of survivability
2nd level – 1 extra round
3rd level – 1 extra round
4th level – 2 extra rounds
5th level – 3 extra rounds
6th level – 3 extra rounds
7th level – 3 extra rounds
8th level – 3 extra rounds
9th level – 4 extra rounds

So if your character is a 1st level fighter that gets surrounded by three goblins, it doesn’t matter if you have a shield or not…it takes the same length of time to kill you with one as without (and by the way, that IS counting the +1 shield bonus against all attackers…you’re assumed to be whirling and twirling in the chaos of melee). Three adversaries are just a lot tougher to face down as a lone warrior: one guy beats your blade, one guy tries to pin your shield, and the third stabs at your eyeballs…a nasty business. Back at the Caves of Chaos a few weeks ago, our barbarian was sporting chainmail and a +1 shield; but he got isolated and surrounded by a bunch of spear-wielding kobolds and went down hard because of it.

The point here is, you still have to be SMART…pick your point of attack, find a choke-hold, buddy-up with your shield-wielding companion(s) and form a mini-phalanx, etc. There ARE tactics in D&D, even the B/X edition.

All right, that’s enough for now. I’m sure there will be dissenting opinions, and this may need a follow-up post for things I've forgotten. However, I want to say one last thing regarding the “shields will be splintered” rule. If you want to keep this “get out of jail free card” for your players, fine. If you want everyone to start with a couple potions of healing, you can do that, too. Personally, I figure shields are “splintered” when a character gets killed (as is armor, for that matter…ragged, tattered, and useless). You know what broke nearly as often as shields back in the “old days?” SWORDS. An individual using a weapon as often as the average D&D adventurer would probably need to purchase a replacement every 1-2 game sessions (at least one per 6 or so combat encounters). Why don’t y’all model that?

While shields ARE breakable (wood and cloth, remember?) if you’re breaking ‘em too often, you’re probably using them wrong. Again, they’re designed to deflect and turn blows, NOT absorb every swing.

Doing that too much is going to give you a broken arm!
; )


  1. Amen, man! Thanks for setting us straight ;-)

  2. I have to say, I both agree AND disagree. I fight heavy in the SCA and I agree completely that the shield is designed to be actively used to deflect and turn blows; that said, I also would rather go onto the field with just a sword, shield and helmet than shieldless and with armor. I think the shield doesn't give enough benefit in D&D and it's just something I have to deal with or play a different game. Abstract combat doesn't lend itself well to realism, that's part of the game. Hit Points, armor that makes you harder to hit, rather than harder to damage (yeah, I know, the abstraction is that the damage of the blows being struck are being absorbed by the armor, but people HATE that as an explanation),descending AC, Vancian magic, strangely monotheistic polytheism and all the rest of D&D in all it's baroque glory; they're all features NOT bugs.

  3. "You know what broke nearly as often as shields back in the “old days?” SWORDS. An individual using a weapon as often as the average D&D adventurer would probably need to purchase a replacement every 1-2 game sessions (at least one per 6 or so combat encounters). Why don’t y’all model that?"

    I do, a hit roll of 1 (or 1 or 20 for inferior materials) requires the wielder of a weapon to save or damage the weapon.

  4. Hrrrm??? Yes! I go with both critical hits AND critical failures with 0D&D. Swords Break... shields break, weapons break, straps break, weapons and shields are dropped, belts are cut loose, or work lose and fall off, etc.

  5. I mostly agree. The big point of contention is that I don't use B/X or Greyhawk Dex bonuses to AC or some of those other features you mention, so I can't rely on those to make the shields feel right. But I'm pretty OK with the +1 defense being the primary feature of shields, with a modified "Shields Shall Shall Be Splintered" that allows for weapon breakage as well (d6 roll for each side, shield or weapon breaks on 5 or 6, adjust for relative hardness and size.) For me, that rule is important not "to make shields better" or "give PCs an extra save", but just because I want the chance of shields/weapons breaking, because it's more interesting.

  6. Smaller, lighter shields were indeed used to deflect a blow, but larger shields such as the Frankish knight's Kite shield (from the armies of Charles Martel), the Roman Legionaries Scutum and the Greek Hoplite's shield were all heavy and could withstand direct blows from heavy weapons... though not indefinitely. They were also great at protecting an combatant from arrows.

    The shield splintering rules is a pain in the ass, armor broke too, even full plate, eventually you have to know where to draw the line with rules. I still think a +1 is too small a bonus for a large shield but if I were playing an older version of D&D, I would probably mess with it.

  7. Forgive my abysmal typing skills.

    What I meant to say was: If I were playing an earlier version of D&D I would NOT mess with the shield rule.

    The picture of the Templar at the top of the page is awesome. Who did the artwork?

  8. I know what you mean when you say "two-handed war sledge" and perhaps it's an American/British English thing, but I get a very different -- and quite comedic -- image from those words.

  9. Here's a source for the three shields rules used in single combat. Apparently these shields were not ordinary shields but light constructions that break easily, supporting your point.

  10. Nice post. And one of the best concerning the Great Shield Debate. I am mostly in full agreement, although I sort of like the splintered shield rule, if only because it makes players happy :); and I like the idea of a natural 1 possibly meaning your weapon breaks; might have to use that in my game now :)

  11. I think there's a damn crapload of ignorance out there.

    Blah blah

    they were generally made of wood and hide/leather. LIGHT wood

    A damn crapload indeed. :)

  12. Awesome post and definitely food for thought.

  13. Echoing "By the Sword", the shield usage you describe, for light, "wieldable" shields, basically makes them into an offhand weapon. In fact, in my rules document, that's the bonus I assign for wielding two weapons: +1 AC (and +1 to hit), reflecting the ability to parry blows with the off hand (and/or use it to get past the opponent's guard). But large, heavy shields do more than that, especially in formation, so I assign them a +2 AC bonus, with shield-wall formations giving a cover bonus.

  14. @BR, After crunching the numbers using your houserules(from earlier post) a fighter in platemail with a sword and shield is decidedly disadvantaged agaisnt one in platemail with a twohanded weapon. The two-handed weapon armed fighter is dishing out 160% of the damage of the sword and shield fighter (until the later finds a magic sword).

    Shield love seems a bit odd in such an arrangement.

  15. You are partially correct , rules wise the shield rules work OK , if you want more verisimilitude vis a vis how shield work you'll need to tweak the rules.

    I am going to be a cheese ball and put my tweaks on my site however.

  16. I appreciate your enthusiastic defence of low bonus shields, but I still think a shield is worth more than a +1 to AC.

    Maybe if we're using Chainmail combat rules...

    To each his own. :)

  17. Maybe it's my ignorance of the chainmail rules (haven't read those well enough), or of B/X as you implemented it. But I fail to see why the +1 on AC (which represents a 5% less chance of being hit) gives such an incredible edge.

    Indeed, fighters are much more effective as... fighters, especially once they gain levels. But that is regardless of their shield use - or disuse, or misuse.

    And a difference between plate or plate & shield vs low level opponents... that difference is a lot less between leather or leather & shield. If I understand correctly. Or against higher hit dice.

    In any case, in my limited personal experience being up against a shield wielder with only a one-handed weapon is like being pushed very much in the defensive. Seems more than +1 AC.

  18. Holy refutation, Batman.

    You know, after reading this, I'm okay with jettisoning the shields/splintered rule (not that I've every actually used it yet), but in basic D&D, I would be okay with a Big Ass Shield giving +2 AC but at the cost of personal initiative. (To represent the Frankish Kite shields and such that By the Sword mentioned above.

    So, onward to the next Debate over Some Niggling Thing. :)

  19. @ By the Sword: No idea who did the illo; just pulled it off the internet.

    Hoplites require their own post (and Romans, etc.); however, here's the gist: their shields were designed for warfare and for a particular formation. D&D is a skirmish-level game, not massed warfare. Carrying an aspis by oneself for one-on-one combat has its own issues (like a faster opponent getting around you without the aid of your army backing you up).

    @ Jagatai: I think abstract combat is the only way to model "realism" at all!

    @ Joshua: There's a reason mantlets were used in siege warfare instead of "shield walls." I suppose I'm going to have to address formations in a later post...

    @ JD: I calculate it at 135% (4.5 average divided by 3.5 average multiplied by 105% chance to hit), but I see your a 1-on-1 fight between two guys of equal skill with the same armor, the guy with the two-handed axe will crush the sword & shield guy.

    Whether this is accurate or not, I don't know...while it's easy to model such in a game, it's a lot harder to find two people with the exact same skill level, health, and body build and put them in mortal combat against each other. A heavy weapon DOES do more impact damage when it hits (i.e. does more trauma) and DOES have better armor penetration...however, I suppose that the slowness of the weapon might improve the defense of the defender (giving an added +1 bonus to AC for a shield user versus a two-hander? That sounds about right).

    My positive groove on shields had more to do with the survivability they lend to a character OVER the survivability of not having one. If you only ever have to fight one dude, then, yes, the best defense might indeed be a strong offense. If you're charging an entrenched position capable of firing off an arrow or two? Or if you're fighting more than one opponent at a time? Or if you're working with companion fighters? That extra AC bonus from a shield will pay dividends.

    And a magic shield pays even more.

    @ 5Stone and Pal: Hey, folks knock yourselves out. Different fols, different styles...but don't tell me shields *should be* more effective. Cheese it up as much as you's YOUR cartoon.
    ; )

  20. @ Jaap & Ryan: Sorry cross-post!

    Jaap: The combination of extra AC (shield) and extra HPs (fighter class and/or higher level) works to increase survivability...perhaps in a steep linear fashion if not exponentially. I should probably post my charts (I thought the blog post was getting too long).

    @ Ryan: I was just surprised people spent so much energy complaining about something I don't think is broken!

    We'll address "big-ass" shields in a later post.
    ; )

  21. It seems to me that shield + plate is clearly a lot better than plate only according to your analysis but I'd like to see the numbers on mail+shield vs mail and leather & shield vs leather. I don't think the effect will look nearly so dramatic. In fact it seems to go against what we know about the abandoment of shields as 'full plate' came into use.
    Speaking only for myself, the 'problem' I have with shields as only a +1 is when we're talking about lighter amror than plate mail.

    FWIW I am annoyed by talk of 'broken' rules -- never heard that silly phrase until 3rd edition D&D, when fanboys started parroting WotC's terms.

  22. @Pal: Hey, knock yourselves out. Different fols, different styles...but don't tell me shields *should be* more effective. Cheese it up as much as you's YOUR cartoon.

    I'd never deign to tell you how to play your game!

    I published the old chainmail combat table on my blog. Before the alternative combat system ruined everything, shields were more effective than leather.

    That's my appeal to authority. :D

    Good gaming to you!

  23. Every now and again I get the urge to learn what Chainmail combat is all about. I'm not sure I'll ever get up the gumption to delve into it, though...

  24. Seems to me your argument in favor of deflection still taking hit points of damage would be a whole lot more compelling if the shield could somehow do damage reduction. I just can't buy your position when it is a yes/no proposition; you take the whole hit, or you take nothing.

    To say that a person with a shield is protected but still takes hit points, where a person without a shield just gets hit, doesn't work for me. You just don't have damage reduction in the game's extremely limited toolkit.

    If you just shrugged and said "That is a good approximation balancing out the pros and cons" I'd be swayed. But your detail doesn't help your argument, in my opinion.

    I feel the level of abstraction in your argument does not match the level of abstraction available in the rules. But good effort.

  25. Wouldn't 3 minutes be 3 rounds in B/X?

  26. @ Kaprou: 3 minutes is 30 seconds in B/X. One round is 10 seconds.

    The shield DOES do "damage reduction;" by reducing the probability of an attack hitting it reduces the amount of damage done over-all.

    If I stride onto the battlefield wearing armor and a shield and someone takes a poke at me with his spear, he's going to hit me or not. Having a shield on my arm doesn't automatically reduce the damage someone does. What if he gets in under my guard? Or over it? Or I'm distracted by something and he pierces me under the chin of my helmet?

    Look, one can try to model this kind of thing (as Chaosium does), with individual strikes, critical hits, hit locations, damage reductions, impalements, fumbles, ripostes, etc. etc. OR you can play a fantasy adventure game that's about more than just combat. For me, the shield rules (a +1 bonus to AC for using a shield) is pretty darn accurate.

    "But JB," says somebody, "Armor has a decreased effectiveness against high level characters...a 7th level fighter hits AC 4 (chain and shield) a lot more often than 3rd level fighter (to hit roll of 11 instead of 15)." That's RIGHT...because a 7th level fighter knows the weaknesses of a chain and shield fighting style and can account for 'em somewhat, increasing the amount of damage he is able to render over time. Now if the guy wearing the chain and shield is ALSO a 7th level fighter, he's going to have a LOT more hit points than the 3rd level guy: an average of +18, enough to survive an extra 3-4 successful attack rolls.

    "But shouldn't he survive LONGER?" Why? He's not Spiderman, he's a human in armor. He still bleeds when you stick him, bruises when you bash him, and dies if you run him through the heart or brain. He still fatigues and tires in battle, and he's fighting someone (one assumes) is desperately attempting to kill him before being killed. Those 3-4 successful attack rolls are going to take at least 30-40 seconds to land...and 30-40 seconds is a loooong f'ing time in mortal combat. This guy is one tough hold off another 7th level "champion" that long.

    Put it in perspective folks.

  27. Good point on the combat rounds! I went back and looked; I had been looking at Advanced D&D lately and didn't realize that changed between editions. Oops! (I don't actually play either system.)

    You know, you got me thinking about how I would do shields in B/X. I realized that to model what you are talking about and what reflects my own experience--I'd probably allow a "save against attack" with a difficulty based on the number of hit points inflicted. It could reduce damage by half if hide or wood, or all if metal (with a higher difficulty on the save.)

    That way, maybe the shield helps and maybe it doesn't--but a saving throw is always welcome. I don't think it would slow play down much.

    So, thanks for the stimulating conversation. I hope you don't experience this in the spirit of whining, but rather of exploration.

  28. @ Kaprou: I don't consider the commentators on this post to be "whiners;" we're just having a discussion (and one I welcome or else I'd be coding the post as "no comments").

    Even though the post itself refers to new shield rules as "whining" this is just me being typically over-the-top. My main point was that I LIKE the shield rules and I wanted to provide my POV on the issue.
    : )