Thursday, June 23, 2011

In which I way in on the Great Shield Controversy

There has been a lot of debate on the shield rules in older editions, whether they are good, whether they need changing and so on.

For me this is somewhat a matter of system. In OD&D and SW. I think the rules stand up just fine bonuses are few and far between and even a meager +1 (or more with magic) can make the difference between life and death. Were I using this rules set or Lament of the Flame Princess I'd probably use the rules as written with maybe the addition of the excellent Trollsmyth Shields Shall be Splintered rule.

However if use a more B/X, Labyrinth Lord or AD&D 1 or 2 flavored game I'd use a different set.

However before I go over that a not so brief bit of history.

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.

Historically there were roughly 3 kinds of shields

Bucklers, a fist load shield the size of a pie pan most commonly carried for personal defense, were in use from around from the 13th century or earlier to the early 17th and possibly later in other areas (the Okinawan Timba and the Filipino Tameng ) Giving them a +1 AC and +1 to Hit or whatever bonus a second weapon gets (as they are an excellent off hand weapon) is about right. These weight about 2lbs (a shade under a kilo) and are not disposable as they are all metal.

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. They stopped being used at a point when armor grew strong enough that they were no longer as useful and only the buckler which was carried for personal defense and was socially acceptable almost anywhere persisted.

Amusingly 3rd edition has a pretty good nomenclature for the bigger ones.

1st up are light Shields. These were in use from the dawn of history well into the 18th century in some areas (by Highlanders) They were decently protective and somewhat offensive.

They probably should get +2 to AC (or be used +1/+1 as above) with possible extra bonuses for a fighter or shield wall tactics. However are disposable and as such can use the splintered shields rules as if desired and will wear out . The easiest way I do it is to make all non magic shields gone after one adventure. These weight about 7-8 lbs (a shade under 4 kilos)

2nd were large shields which are still in use (as riot shields) they weigh up to 15lbs (7 kilos or so) and provide good coverage (+3 to AC) but being so large probably should not be treated as an off hand weapon. What opportunities they provide are negated by the limits they put on action. As above they are disposable and fighters and shield walls should probably get extra bonuses

Magic shields should probably work as whatever size they were and with whatever bonus but not wear out for ease of use.

However if verisimilitude is a goal 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 skilled voiding is mostly 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.

What makes things confusing is that Plate, Sword and Shield was a generally an ahistorical combination save early on when a coat of plates (which looks much like a modern ballistic vest with inserts) might be worn over mail and the sword used vs lightly armored targets or as art.

The problem was that a sword cut cannot penetrate armor,even mail . Thrusts will not penetrate mail either although they could be used vs. joints in later plate (what Gygax calls Field Plate and Full Plate in AD&D)

Normally opponents were battered to with blunt weapons (all those maces on the Bayeux Tapestry) or hit on unarmored spots. This is covered very well by the To Hit Rules although some bonus blunt vs mail or plate might be worthy.

I'd probably give blunt weapons +1 to hit vs plate or chain and edged weapons +1 damage vs leather or unarmored if I cared.

Over time I have come to like armor class, seeing it as "roll to find an unarmored spot or weak point" and seeing damage rolls as quality of a hit. It works well and is fast and decently accurate at least at low levels.

The problem however comes in scaling AC with level. I am not in the HP are your skill crowd and I find the rules unsatisfactory

Let me explainn

A L1 Fighter say will only hit a plate armored (AC3) guy 15% of the time. This is about right as it represents a stab to a joint or smash to an opportune location.

Obviously modifiers can be used as needed and in those circumstance the rules as written work fine.

The problem is that to hit goes up much faster than AC, after about 3rd level or so. In 1e using the optional 1 per level rule a 6th level fighter has a 40% chance or scoring a hit (sans mods) which is a too much. Add in mods and it gets even worse.

If AC (sans magic) rose at a reasonable rate along with attack , most of these issues would vanish.


  1. If AC went up along with attack, HP best be kept low or fights are going to last forever.

  2. I don't disagree JD but the rules as played (and in 3x plus the rules are explicit) tend to have a certain amount of leveled AC bonus in the form of magic items.

    I think I'll address that in my next post ;)