One-on-one with Shields: Upsetting the Conventional Wisdom

Saturday , 28, April 2018 3 Comments

Today’s guest post marks the return of Douglas Cole to the Castalia House blog. Douglas wrote the series Violent Resolution which appeared here as well as his own blog Gaming Ballistic. His most recent project is Dragon Heresy, a Norse-inspired fantasy RPG now in its final hours on Kickstarter. The lessons discovered in this guest post on adapting the use of shields in combat to gaming mechanics, first posted at Gaming Ballistic, became key influences on its development.

For more information on Dragon Heresy, don’t miss the preview at the end of this column.


Forget All You Know

Roland Warzecha has done it again. Roland is an expert of sword-and-buckler play focusing on the 1.33 fighting manual, so it’s possible that the style being seen in the Facebook video (with a longer, 20min version available if you’re one of his Patrons, which I am) is playing to his strengths and interests.

It’s also likely and/or possible, as he does note in the video, that formation use and dueling use are somewhere between mildly and spectacularly different.

Still, most RPG fighting is basically dueling. One-on-one or many-on-one fights where the primary goal is not politics by other means, but surivival, food, or loot.

But the very, very active shield use seen in my viking-style fighting, in sword-and-buckler, and now with heater shields is unlike anything I’d seen before, and very, very unlike what the typical RPG is telling you.

Consider: a bucker is going to be 1-1.5kg (2-3 lbs or so); a properly made viking shield of historical thickness is parchment on top of wood that will average maybe 4.5mm thick (7-8mm near the boss, 2-4mm near the edges was not uncommon; 1mm edge wrap and facing of stretched rawhide made the actual edge about 5-7mm). It will probably be 2-3kg (4.5-6lbs including the boss and handle). The heater shields Roland and his partner are using in that video are on the order of 3kg as well.

What does D&D state for a “medium” shield? Six pounds, or about 3kg. GURPS lists a light medium shield in Low-Tech at 7 lbs, which is about right for Viking shields, but lists a heater shield at 13 lbs. For this one, I trust Roland – he physically measured and reproduced a very well-preserved period shield.

So these are lightweight pieces of wood. And they’re definitely more than +2 to AC or +2 Defense Bonus and the ability to Block, rather than just parry, that most games give you.

What I did not appreciate

There are things that I just didn’t appreciate before I started training in viking fighting and associating with folks like my instructor Arthur, as well as Roland.

The shield is always moving. I guess it sort of figured, but mostly it seemed from entertainment media that basically the shield just sits there and you hide behind it. That’s just not how I’ve been trained for it, though of course I haven’t seen, practiced, or read about all styles of shield use. Roman and Greek formation fighting does seem to have been used this way, for example.

The shield is the primary weapon. When fighting to not die, as opposed to score points or get in the first hit, your weapon is secondary, and mostly it’s secondary as a defensive backup option first, and as an offensive weapon second. In GURPS terms, we train to almost always make defensive attacks (Martial Arts, p. 100) and always have the shield and sword arranged so that if the shield fails, the sword is in the way. I suppose that’s still just a Parry roll, but you’d make it at the better of Block or Parry, +DB of the shield and +1 for the Defensive Attack. I use my shield against my opponent every moment of a match/sparring session/training drill. The same doesn’t always hold for the sword. In most games, you just utilize the passive bonus of the shield, and swing away with the weapon. Every turn.

Light Infantry is always on the move. You’re always trying to keep yourself at shield-to-shield distance, and because of that, and because your one-handed sword or axe basically reaches to the limits of, or maybe a bit past, the shield edge, if you can’t touch it with the edge of your shield, you can’t touch it with your sword, either. And the principle of not-dead and fuhlen (feeling, or sensing the pressure of the other guy’s shield to judge his intentions; really violent ballroom dancing) says that if you feel or see your foe coming in, you back up, move sideways, or otherwise preserve distance.

The shield is always in the way. Less so for heater shields and bucklers, but the “cone of exclusion” is really impressively large for both. Held in one hand at full extension, even a 12-18″ buckler protects an awful lot of your body by denying angles of attack. More so with a heater, kite, and three-foot-diameter viking shield. Yes, you absolutely can stab someone in the shin with a lunged spear or sword (or the sharpened tip of an axe; they were handier than I gave them credit for) that goes under the shield – I spent a rather long time in a training class the other week doing exactly that to a fellow student – but that just confirms battlefield finds with lots of leg wounds. Even so: shields are very hard to get around.

The shield and the weapon are one. You use them both, together, all the time. On the attack, the shield forces an opening, grapples for position and superiority (I use the word grapples very deliberately here), and is almost always the lead entry. Once an opening is established and confirmed (by eye, by line, by movement, by experience), the sword or axe leaves its secondary defensive role and assumes the role of man-killer.

RPGs are Weapon-Centric

Not telling anyone something they don’t know here. But most of the rules favor the “I strike!” part of it. Maybe that’s a legacy of wargames (and yes, CHAINMAIL and the rules that influenced Dungeons and Dragons), and safety-first tournament rules. This is true of both armed and unarmed styles. I can point to my former Korean Kumtoogi – the allowed striking surfaces are the top of the head on the face-mask (easily armored), the belly (easily armored), the wrists (easily armored), the throat (easily armored), and the thighs (easily armored, if unique to the Hwa Rang Do style with a patented, I believe, leg piece). If my wife and I are sparring, and she hits me first, and I hit her second, she gets the point, even if I would have killed or injured her as well.

Anyway, point is, you spend your time at the table thinking “how can I do unto the other guy,” not “how am I using my shield offensively this turn, and do I have an opening?”

It might be realistic, but it’s less fun. Hit Points (or Vigor in Dragon Heresy) are mostly designed to model all of that give and take and defensive action anyway.

So we concentrate on weapons, so we can have fun. That might make a poor simulation, but it makes a good fighting game.

Still, it’s a useful thought exercise to think about what mods might be needed to turn the balance to shields a bit. These days, if I only have a one-handed sword, and am facing someone with sword-and-shield, that’s a real issue for me. I’m not so sure that’s true in D&D or GURPS.

In D&D, the shield mostly gets you +2 to AC in Fifth Edition. The Protection fighting style allows imposing disadvantage on an attack roll if the attack isn’t directed at you. Which is interesting, as that means that Protection fighting style says you can use your reaction to impose the rough equivalent of a -5 to hit for someone else, but only a fairly passive +2 to AC for yourself. Well.

In GURPS, weapon and shield skills are usually lop-sided in favor of the weapon, because there’s a lot more you can do with the weapon (deceptive attack, hit location come immediately to mind) than the shield. And even using the shield as a weapon, it does thrust, while even a one-handed sword does swing, which at least at a very warrior-ly ST 14 (double the lift capacity of Joe Average; figure a 250-300lb bench press type of guy, or a 350-400lb deadlift) is double the striking power, more or less, of a thrust.

In general, you’d want an option where in either case, choosing to go defensive with the shield makes it impressively hard to get in on the other guy, without necessarily eliminating ALL offensive options.

I’m not sure I’ll run out and change my own games necessarily. I’m not necessarily recommending you change yours. But I was just struck by how little the dueling-style fight referenced in Roland’s video resembles any RPG combat I’ve ever experienced. Of course, my experience isn’t the entire world, nor is that style of fighting the only one. In particular, full plate harness was quite mobile, insanely well protected, and probably led to very different tactics when sharp/lethal weapons were in hand. Likewise, true formation fighting with heavy infantry – phalanx or legionary fighting – is going to be very different.

But I’ll end where I began: formation fights of heavy infantry don’t come up much in my four to eight person parties. I know some folks get a lot of mileage out of forming a wall of battle, with spearmen striking over the heads of the first rank. I envy those groups with the discipline to pull that off. I do.


Dragon Heresy is a stand-alone Fantasy RPG based on a grittier take on the Fifth Edition game engine. It’s a game that focuses on the old-school dungeon delve with new-school rules, with combat and mechanics options to make even a high-level character feel nervous. It also includes a social standing mechanic (the 5e equivalent of “XP for gold,” rules for flyting, contest of insults; actually functional grappling, and ways of using shields that are so much more than +1 or +2 to Armor Class.

It uses a two-level target hit roll, and differentiated between skill and endurance (“vigor”), injury (“wounds”), and retains Fifth Edition’s excellent use of Conditions, including Exhaustion. You do NOT need other Fifth Edition books to play the game; character generation, combat, social standing, flyting, grappling, wilderness and survival, and monsters are all in the book.

Dragon Heresy borrows (steals, loots, pillages…) from Norse mythology which influences the cultures that are playable, and also the mechanics, since the vikings’ use of lightweight, buckler-gripped shields as very nearly the primary weapon heavily influenced the combat rules options.

Finally, it integrates one of the best grappling mechanics written for such games, making grappling interchangeable with striking on a blow-by-blow basis. One new player played a dragonborn berserker whose primary weapon was a net with no slowdown in play, full use of the rules, and outstandingly fun outcomes.

Check out the Kickstarter to learn more about Dragon Heresy, including the exciting rewards and stretch goals.

3 Comments
  • John E. Boyle says:

    Interesting. RuneQuest has reflected many of these same conclusions since 1979, due to Steve Perrin’s experience in helping to form the SCA. You bring up an interesting point in noting the differences between formation combat, one to one dueling and tournament combat.

    Thank you, Mr. Cole.

  • instasetting says:

    My experience with a boffer sword group had some of this.

    Shields were worth way more than +1.

    And that giant guy with his giant shield was almost impossible to get around. And to do it, you have to burn energy while he can just stand there.

  • tweell says:

    Eh, light shields like shown can’t take much damage before becoming useless, and aren’t much good attack-wise if your opponent has armor other than leather. Shields are at their best in practice, facing weapons that cannot damage them.

    Even then, there are tricks. I fought with 2h or 2 weapon combo in the SCA. With a 2h, my favorite was to smash down the shield and immediately stab. With the combo, I’d hook the shield with my axe, pull it aside and stab or slash with the sword.

    That 6kg heater shield weighs that much because it was covered in steel instead of parchment, and designed to block lances.

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