Melee Academy: High skill vs. armor and shield

This post was spawned in the same discussion +Peter V. Dell’Orto references in his recent entry on the Shield Wall question. This isn’t more about Shield Wall, but more shields in general.

After I started on this, I figured some of my fellow bloggers would like to try, so I contacted Peter, Mark, Jason, and the GM of my DF game and invited them to share GURPS-day by writing on shields, or on a Melee Academy in general.

+Peter V. Dell’Orto also wrote about shields over at Dungeon Fantastic.
+Mark Langsdorf contemplated DF Knights over at No School Grognard
Jason +Jason Packer hefts two-handed weapons at RPG Snob.

Maybe if the Melee Academy becomes popular, we’ll see more.

I’ve personally found that the +2 or +3 DB provided by a shield is pretty valuable, but then, Cadmus is also decked on in DR 8 on my torso, DR 8 or 9 on my head, and enchanted mail on my arms and legs. He needs better gauntlets and sollerets instead of boots, though.


A lot of this discussion and my thoughts on shields depends on the point values for the campaign. Chinks in Armor is a -8 penalty to hit for the torso, -10 elsewhere, and a foe attacking them doesn’t negate the bonuses from your own Active Defenses at all. In order to cancel the +2 or +3 DB of your shield, you need another 4-6 points of skill. So to halve (not eliminate unless you’re using the optional, non-DF rules from Low-Tech about missing bits of armor IF they exist) DR and make it as if you were not wearing a shield, our notional Swashbuckler has to be able to net a 12-16 skill while eating 12-14 points of penalties. That’s Skill-24 to Skill-30, or DX 14 to DX 18 and DX+8 to DX+16 relative skill. If we split it down the middle, and say DX 16 (120 points) and DX+10 relative skill (40 points) you’re talking about someone who’s dropped 160 points into the ability to do what he’s trying to do. If you’re talking about the conventional chinks rules and plate, you’re still facing DR 3. If you’re NOT, you’re probably facing DR 4, since no one but an idjit will fail to have mail in his gaps! So our hero will want enough ST to get by that, so he’ll want to be reasonably strong – say ST 13 and 2 pts of striking ST. A fine rapier is doing 1d+3 imp there. Not bad . . . but another 40 points that you don’t have to spend on being anything other than a Rapier artist. Of course, Inigo Montoya (and Zorro!) might suggest that if the answer isn’t “the pointy end goes into the other man” then you’re asking the wrong question.


Armor/Shield guy, if he’s built on an equal point drop (200) will want to be just as strong if not more so. Let’s pick ST 15 and Striking ST+2. That leaves 140 points, with which we buy DX 13 (60 points) and DX+10 in both Shield and Axe (’cause it’s cheap to buy), for Axe-24 and Shield-24. That’s Parry-17 and Block-17 with the DB +2 shield and $1900 worth of armor (the money left over after subtracting, more or less, an axe and shield from the cost of a good rapier). Absorbing the deceptive attack still leaves him with a 95% chance to block or parry.


Hell, is all this proves is that aiming for chinks in armor is great if you outclass your foe by quite a bit, or you can arrange something where you’ve burned lots of parry and block. Runaround attacks are never going to be better than -2 (or if you can move to the unshielded side, effectivley -4) which still puts the guy above at Parry-15 or Block-13, which is still five successes in six. Shields provide a buffer against your foe’s notionally higher skill, and allow you to take maneuvers that sacrifice a Parry defense either completely (if you don’t, for example, have a Dwarven Axe, but rather just a regular-old axe), or help eat the penalties you get to your defenses when absorbing a Committed Attack.


Farther down at the 100-150-point end of things (the kind of point drops above are usually suitable for 250-point DF type . . . or more) one might be hard-pressed to use skill to ignore armor. At this “middle henchman” point level (say 125 points) your ability to play the games above might be pretty limited. You can throw down DX+2 and DX 16 (and nothing else) for Skill-18. You could also do DX 12 (40 points) and drop 40 points into Rapier (DX+10) and still wind up with Rapier-22 and have another 40 points to spend, whether it be ST 13 and maybe Shield at DX+3 (for a buckler) or a left-hand dagger skill for two-weapon fighting (Skill-15). Or a few other skills or advantages that don’t make you a one-dimensional combat monster. If you are all-combat, all the time, ST 13, DX 12, IQ 10, HT 10 (that’s one that would be well worth 20 points for HT 12), Rapier-22 and Main-Gauche-15 is no slouch. 

And don’t neglect other ways, though more expensive, to boost defenses. The +1 to all defenses you get from Combat Reflexes is nice, as are the various Enhanced Defenses advantages. But it’s just darn hard to beat tossing in that +1 to +3 bonus for just picking up the damn shield (presumably assuming you’ve spend a point in Shield skill, but I don’t know if that’s just common sense, or an actual rule).

But the chinks penalties are fixed, and Deceptive Attacking enough to negate the shield bonus is as expensive as ever. You are basically looking at 50% chance to hit if absorbing -8 for torso chinks and -4 for a -2 Deceptive Attack from Skill-22, and only a -2 to the defenses of the other guy: straight Block, Parry, or Dodge accounting for the impact of a DB+2 shield.

I don’t think it’s an uber-strategy, and would revert back to “everything has a counter.” It would be interesting to see, from in-play experience, where the kind of “I can negate your shield and armor based on my own awesome finesse!” is actually true. My gut tells me that this strategy depends upon outclassing your foe (being either higher point value, or simply far higher points in combat skills) rather than skill-uber-alles in many, most, or all situations. For example, if social conventions rob you of both shield and armor, well, that DB+2 doesn’t do you much good. That’s not exactly “rapier beats shield and armor,” though. It’s “your point expenditures are now as useless as Magery 8 in a No Mana Dammit Zone.

Then there’s the fact that a shield, DB or no, can do things that parrying cannot, like effectively block flails and (in some cases) missile weapons. All things considered, I like the shield game-mechanically; it’s a great addition to your defensive repertoire, and does things that simply pushing weapon skill can’t do well – or at all.

19 thoughts on “Melee Academy: High skill vs. armor and shield

  1. The way a fencer negates a shield is like this:
    1) Start 2 hexes away from the shield guy and let him step and attack you.
    2) Use your massive skill to give yourself a stupid-high defense so that you can absorb the Sidestep penalty on your Parry, and move to the shield guy's front hex opposite his shield.
    3) On your turn, step and turn so that you're in his off-shield flank. Now that nifty shield is just so much dead weight.

    Shield guy of course counters this by bringing friends; there's a reason that shield walls were the dominant tactic for centuries.

    1. That's a smart tactic, and one I don't see people attempt often enough. Maybe we just don't have enough fencers (and ours back in the day just did Feint and Attack and didn't concern herself with shield or no shield on her opponents.)

      I do see guys with shield do a Shield Bash against fencers, though, because they know their shield is heavy enough to cause breakage on a Parry. This can force a Dodge instead of a Parry, and while you can still sideslip, odds are the fencer now has much lower odds of success by doing so.

      The fun thing about both tactics is they play up why people don't bring shields to street fights or rapiers to war. They just aren't in their ideal element.

  2. My first thought is Riposte followed by Telegraphic Attack to get some help in soaking up the Chinks in Armor penalty without boosting your foe's defense too high. However, I've never seen that in play. (In fact, I've never seen Riposte in play.)

    1. For Dungeon Fantasy type characters with pretty-high defenses, Riposte can be a fairly attractive option . . . but only when facing critters that aren't Deceptive Attacking you to defenses lower than 13 or 14. My character Cadmus uses Ripostes when (a) he can, and (b) I remember.

    1. I'll look that up; it's a good point, but does come with penalties. Your ability to HIT goes up, but unless you're using the optional rules where chinks are unarmored, the damage you're doing does go down, and that can be a real issue when you're dealing with half-swording and therefore a thrust.

      Still, your point is valid. When I get some time, I'll include that in my post.

  3. This just seems odd to me. Rapier should *not* be competitive in a stand up fight vs. a heavily armored guy with a shield of similar point value. If it was, swashbucklers would be strictly better than knights – equally effective in combat but more mobile and flexible.

    That said, I am a little surprised that "deceptive to the eye" wasn't mentioned at all, as I thought that was the go-to for high skill fencers vs. tanks. Have I missed some paradigm shift in the eye hit location that makes chinks better?

    1. Full-face helms still required you to get through a decent DR in the helmet. Kromm has written that one of the things he's seen is a helmet of substantial DR with no eyeslits at all – it's magically enchanted to be transparent!

      So hitting the eyeslit isn't totally free and clear, but against unarmored of visorless foes, it is a better target than chinks, you're right!

    2. In 4th, helms with spectacles or visors give helm DR to the eyes unless you go for the eye chinks. It's not that big a deal (-9 to eyes with armor, -10 to the eyes through the chinks) but its there.

      Really, in my experience, the biggest problem is that in order to make a solid hit through the chinks, the attacker needs to be on the defender's off-shield flank or rear. That clearly makes targeting the eyes problematic.

      Or if the foe doesn't have a shield, you can just let the scout shoot him in the brain or eyes from 15 yards away; the scout has bodkin arrows so he'll make chinks in the armor where he shoots.

    3. This actually ties in pretty well with something that occurred to me later, which is that a notional rapier enchanted with penetrating weapon for the (2) AD will be expensive, but is probably a net win over the same cost in increased armor thickness. I've not done the math on this, though.

    4. IIUC, chinks over eyes is -10, chinks over torso is -8, all other chinks are -10. Right?

      If so, it seems chinks over eyes are the chinks you want to go for if you got impaling, and rapier monkey is all about imp. Especially since the eyes probably won't have layered armor. Odd thought – the natural counter is to make your visor extra thick. (Or use Kromm's magic helm.) Yay odd game-mechanical side effect arms races.

      Rapier monkey might need to invest in feint, targeted attack, and weapon master to make this a go-to attack though, which gives the armor monkey even more points to invest in stopping him. Additionally, it leaves RM as an anti-humanoid with brains specialist while the tank is still a generalist.

    5. This definitely calls for Targeted Attack, either to chinks over eyes or chinks over vitals. You can buy off half the penalty that way, leaving you with more "leftover skill" to put into deceptive attacks.

  4. There's also Feints and shots for the eyes. Feint can be bought up to Default+4 for just 5 points I believe. This is a great deal for the swashbuckler and that extra 4 points can matter in a Feint. Follow that Feint up with an eye-strike and I frankly don't see why you'd bother aiming for chinks. The effects of the eye strike are so much deadlier and the only way to get DR is to have Nicitating Membrane.

    1. Yeah, there's all manner of assumed munchkinry in the DF line. Helmets and shields with lanterns built into them to keep your hands free for weapons. Quick and Dirty enchantments so cheap that any schmo can afford Lighten (-25%) and Fortify (+1) on whatever suit of armor they opt for.

      The minute you step back into a slightly less over the top themed game, things become much more like reality.

  5. I like the thoughts about how much skill it takes to beat defenses. One thing to keep in mind is that in GURPS, skill is everything, but money can't buy you very much skill. Money can, however, buy a big pile of defense.

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