Viking Shield Fighting in GURPS

Yesterday I wrote about the construction and use of Viking shields: a roughly 30-36″ diameter shield (call it a medium shield) of very, very light construction (6-8 lbs), low face thickness (7-9mm at the thickest, including the up to 1mm of hide and glue covering, and maybe 2mm wood at the edge, with another 2mm or so of edge wrapping and facing on the edge), and sporting a buckler grip.

The shields as we use them are used very aggressively, and are considered the primary weapon. They are held out from the body with the shield arm at maybe half-extension, maybe a 45-degree bend at the elbow, and of course the shield extends half it’s diameter beyond that.

This means that with a “cooperative” opponent,  meaning one whom is using similar kit in a similar fashion, one can and does probe at Reach 2. The configuration is basically warrior (hex 0), shield (halfway into Hex 1), other guy’s shield (the other half of hex 1), foe (hex 2). The “feeling” drills require this sort of shield contact.

Shield (Buckler)

Note that the grip of the Viking shield is a buckler grip, with no strap or guige. The grip is frequently narrow enough that you can hold a spare weapon (such as an axe-haft or javelin)

Fight Defensively

One of the big things we’re trying to emphasize in how we are approaching combat is “fight to live.” While sport training tends to emphasize “first to hit” and aggressive priority on attacking in order to promote exciting behavior, winning the contest, etc, it doesn’t really take into account that if you also get spitted on a blade, that’s not so good.

Yes, that’s an overstatement. But look at how many double-kills (or double-wounds) you get in a lot of tournament fighting, and you’ll see what I’m getting at here.

In any case, the principle of the very light infantry fighting that we’re modeling here will be “fight to live.”

Maneuver Selection

So, given that philosophy, what maneuvers will and won’t be on the menu as go-to options? Let’s start with the Basic Set maneuvers. I’ll comment on the ones that seem like good to comment on. I won’t comment on things like Change Posture or Aim.

All-Out Attack: Pretty much never. Maybe as a finishing move, but then, only in a duel, never in a battle. This also applies to Martial Arts’ All-Out Attack (Long).

All-Out Defense: This will be very frequently taken. The way we train it, we keep the shield in a mobile and effective defensive position, but as we’re moving our weapon (be it sword, axe, or whatever) behind the shield, it’s both threatening the other person, seeking to establish a line of attack, but also it is the second line of defense in case the shield is defeated. You can see this in action in the photo of me and Eric doing a drill. He’s managed to get inside my shield, and is striking over his own; fortunately, my sword was right behind my shield in a good defensive line, so despite my shield being skillfully impaired by Eric, I am able to counter with a parry. So take the “double defense,” not the +2 to a single defense, when using two weapons.

Attack: Yes, but. By and large, we favor the Martial Arts option of Defensive Attack. Or we’re supposed to. The urge to “win” tends to overwhelm the urge to maintain distance and “live.” These two are not always incompatible. One thing that will be frequently used, though, is hit location. Common targets (backed up by forensics of found bodies) are the inside of the shield arm, the lower legs, and the weapon hand and forearm. You can see again, in the photo, how Eric could flick his sword between our two shields and try and score a light cut on my inner forearm. A few of those and I’ll be severely impaired.

Evaluate: Mostly this. Lots of this, especially when beyond fühlen (“feeling”) distance from shield-to-shield.

Feint: Unsurprisingly, this is the primary interaction from shield to shield, and it is executed with the Shield skill. The shield-to-shield contact is probably best modeled using the Basic Set rules with a simple contest of Shield skills. The only thing I’d tweak out here is how to model the back-and-forth of the fühlen  Let me deal with those later. One of the key things here is that you can Feint at Reach 1,2 if you’re shield-on-shield. Being at Reach 1 on defense sucks hard, because your shield has been “compressed” and is now somewhere between “less useful” and “an active hindrance.”

Move: Yes, definitely, and frequently, you’ll see that if you’ve been the subject of a successful feint, not only will you step back, but you’ll clear the distance perhaps quite a bit, especially if the feint was very successful. A mildly successful feint will simply be countered, or result in a backwards step.

Move and Attack: By and large, no. That’s asking for issues. Maybe if you’re a berserker, but then again, that has it’s own problems.

Ready: Re-adjusting a spear in one hand, or a shield that’s been forced out of position, is a thing. More on that later.

Wait: Waiting until someone does a shield feint on you, and trying to feint first would work. Attacking into the foe’s feint (say, a low strike to force his shield off-line for the cover) wouldn’t be crazy. This will be more common with a spear in two hands, since keeping the opponent at a distance is a key stratagem.

So that’s the Basic Set. Martial Arts introduces a few new variations on maneuvers, some of which are super important.

Committed Attack: This may well be used to exploit a particularly successful feint, but by and large, the -2 to Block (and inability to Parry) will make this suboptimal. Still, when the opportunity to actually land a lethal attack presents itself (or you create it!), the proper Viking will strike hard, to kill in that opening. That’s “fighting to live” as well – it need not be a death of 1,000 cuts if a single cut or thrust will do.

Defensive Attack: This will be the primary attack, with the bonus to block assigned to the shield, as it’s actively angled to cover the attack. (Note: I’m perfectly aware that if you’re not using your weapons as a matched pair, actively covering openings, you’re just inviting an early grave on yourself. Still, I’ll maintain that the focus of how we’re being taught to fight is supposed to emphasize this style of attack unless you really see an opening, in which case an Attack or Committed Attack will be employed.)

Feint (Beat): I’ll admit I’m torn on this one. As described, you’re trying to use your own shield to compromise the defenses of the other guy’s shield. That sounds pretty Beat-ish. But you’re really not using Strength in quite that way; the leverage of edge-to-edge shield contact means that you have to be really, really strong to resist the rotation that is trying to be imparted. It’s mostly skill. Still, it seems appropriate, as a gentle shove rather than a slam or impact. In short, go ahead and use ST or some sort of scaled ST if you want. One of the possibilities for more advanced rules use is to break out Control Points from Technical Grappling, covered below.

Note that Peter Dell’Orto of Dungeon Fantastic has a good suggestion on a simple way to deal with this: use a Perk.

That Lovin’ Fühlen

The shield-on-shield contact is very important to this style of fighting, at least as it’s being taught to me. It’s a constant probing by both participants, and while yes, it’s possible to develop a probe/shield bind that is so overwhelming that the foe must retreat madly or get spitted, the usual case has a lot more give and take to it.

Feint and Counter-Feint

I think the way to model this is to simply allow a successful Feint by Combatant A to be counteracted by one from Combatant B. So two fighters, A with Shield-13 and the other, Combatant B, has Shield-12. They are at Reach 2, so eligible for fühlen feinting. A Feints, and makes his roll by 5; B makes his by 2, so A has won his Feint by 3.

B knows this. One common response will be to step back. If B can get to Reach 3, they can declare a Ready, which should reset the Feint. This would mean that both parties can step during a feint, which should consume the defending party’s retreat for that turn. It’s a bit of an odd duck, but it seems legit enough.

The other, though, is to use skill to recover.

Model this as a counter-feint. He tries – rolling vs. his own skill. He makes it by 4, while A only makes it exactly. The four points of victory are used to offset A’s Feint first, and then 1 point goes against A, opening his defenses slightly.

Could B just use those points of victory, holding them in reserve for his own attack? I suppose . . . but that’s not fighting to live, it’s presuming your foe is inept and will make a mistake. Possible? Yes. Risky? Very.

With the rules in the Basic Set, this is a nice way to model a whole lot of back-and-forth on shield-to-shield contact.

Technical Grappling

Another way to do this would be to model the fühlen as a grappling attack using Shield (Buckler) as the attacking skill, and an appropriate block/parry using Shield (Buckler) to counteract it.

The nice thing here is it allows for some really interesting dynamics, which feel much more like the give-and-take of combat as we do it. I attack using shield (again, Reach 2 against a foe’s shield). My foe defends actively with his own shield. If I still attack successfully, and he fails to defend, I roll Control Points.

The choice would be whether to base the roll on looking up the raw Shield skill, or using Trained ST. I’m on the fence. The amount of leverage that pushing the shield edge gives on the grip suggest to me that it really is a matter of skill, because unless you’re a ST 30 iron golem or something, the shield can be forced off-line with a pinky finger (the lever arm effect is huge: 15-18″ off the center, and the grip is designed to rotate somewhat freely in the hand).

So let’s assume skill for now: Combatant A will be rolling 1d; Combatant B 1d-1, if we simply look up skill on p. B16.

So A makes a successful “grappling” attack, and then rolls 1d for control – 3 control points are rolled. These control are on the shield, so referred control is pretty limited. The shield skill is at -1 due to the control point totals – this is a mild bind. There should be an option to spend those CP to push the shield out of line, and there is, using a Beat (TG, p. 21). Also, you’re at -1 to Block for each CP inflicted (see Block, p. 23). You can also attack the Grip CP of the shield to try an unready it.

In any case, the give and take of control points – the “grappled” character can simply step back to break the grapple, or counter-attack to reduce the control points on his shield, hopefully overwhelming his foe’s control and getting some of his own – models the kind of drills we do all the time.

Reach and Distance – Shield Compression

One thing about how we use the shields is the matter of shield compression. As you get tired, or as you get pressed by a foe, if your shield arm bends and pulls the shield inside your own hex (or more biomechanically, as you approach a 90-degree angle of the elbow and the forearm gets closer to the shoulder), it gets very awkward.

If your foe has a Feint advantage (if using those rules) or has control points on you (if using Technical Grappling), and steps within one yard of you, it basically means your shield is in close combat distance of yourself. You suffer the penalty equal to the DB of the shield. You can relieve this penalty by stepping back to reach 2.

If neither person has an advantage (no feint or control points have been accumulated) but both have shields, the close combat penalty applies to both folks – they’re both compressed.

Note that a lot of these actions – shield binds and grapples, as well as compressions – can be undone simply by backing up.

Well, yes. We do that rather a lot.

In general, though, if (for example) I attempt a shield bind, and my foe defends and retreats, if I’ve not used my step I can then use it to follow him. Again: we do this all the time.

Finally, note how if you step into sword or axe range (Reach 1) and you haven’t dealt with the shield, it’s a real challenge. You take -2 to any attack you make – with shield or sword – since it’s in close combat (p. B392). It makes sense to me to apply that as -2 to skill, which means that yes, you get +2 DB from your shield, but your use of the Shield skill is at -2 for all purposes, including the resultant -1 to Block.

Parting Shot

I’m sure there are plenty of things I’ve not discussed yet. But the point of looking at what I’ve learned was to take the techniques and see how close GURPS can do them.

As is usual, creative application can get you a long way. The Feint maneuver comes into real tangible application here in a nifty way. The ability to move in and out of range mimics reality. The use of Technical Grappling is supported without much modification. And there’s a good reason to touch shield edges and spend time evaluating and probing. The alternate rules for absorbing a feint and cancelling it out have probably appeared somewhere else . . . but if they haven’t, they should.

Anyway, I’ll drop this off for now, but making this kind of highly specific light infantry style sing in GURPS should be fairly straight-forward.

8 thoughts on “Viking Shield Fighting in GURPS

  1. I put up a post on your Beat issue.

    I like the idea of counter-feinting, but as written, it’s way too useful. A rolled an opposed check, but B rolls against his own skill to negate A’s Feint and potentially effect a defensive penalty on A. A’s skill no longer matters, which seems odd – B gets taken out of position so he can recover and disadvantage A. This would strongly discourage Feints unless you’re certain you are way better than your opponent and can crush his skill vs. your skill and his own skill roll on his turn.

    How I’d do it is simple – if you’re Feinted, you can take a Feint (Recovery) action. Roll against your own skill. Apply the margin of success against the penalty inflicted by the foe’s feint. This can never result in a bonus.

    You could equally call this Ready, as you do, but it’s more fitting to put it under Feint I think. I’d allow this to substitute in any time someone can take a Feint.

    I have some other ideas – I’ll try to get that up in a post tomorrow.

    1. What the counter feint does his to force you to use your turn, though. That was the benefit of it. I should really take a video of the shield drills that we do and see if the timing works out that you can actually counter feint and recover your advantage in the same technique. When we do it, it feels like the answer to that is obviously yes. However many things happen in combat and sparring that take a lot longer than GURPS turn resolution. Such as, for example, most judo throws actually are done in one turn, but the next turn is the foe sailing through the air and landing on the ground. It actually takes quite a long time.

    2. I should say that when you look at skill differential and the usual 3d6 roll, that one or two points skill differentials and frequent quick contests will result in the slightly higher skill fighter dominating the competition. For that reason, attack and defense pairs tend to be a bit better from a game mechanics perspective.

      1. I think the benefit should be like any other defensive benefit – it helps you. It doesn’t need to harm anyone else as long as it helps you – look at Defensive Attack, All-Out Defense, Feint (Defensive) for examples of that.

        Also think of it this way – this is a universal approach. So if I’m using a greatsword and I Feint vs. your guy using a shield, you can use Counter-Feint to undo my Feint and potentially make it harder for me to parry? How? That’s an issue for me.

        If it depends on shield-to-shield contact, it’s probably fairer. Resolve it as a skill-based Beat, let people do a skill-based Beat back. But I’d still make it a QC, not a roll against your own skill that also happens to disadvantage the opponent. Maybe at Shield-14 vs. Shield-15 this seems fair, but make it Fencing-24 vs. Fencing-30. On average the Fencing-30 wins by 6, but the counter-feint on average wins by 13, and at least makes it by 6 (even an 18 is a 6-point victory and wipes out the Feint.) Cap it at “no bonus” and yes, you can trade your turn

        Also, is Counter-Feint a Feint? I’d say yes, which means you can do it as part of AOA (Feint), with an Extra Attack, as part of a Rapid Strike (given the ruling in Martial Arts). If so, it doesn’t even cost you a turn if you’re skilled enough or willing to forgo defenses. If it’s a Ready, it does, but that argues more for it not affecting your opponent. Ready doesn’t do that . . .

  2. With what I’m about to say, if I have misunderstood, please correct me. If you could undo everything by Retreating, well, when does it end? You’re grappling my shield through either the Feint or Technical Grappling method, I step back, and that undoes everything. Then you step forward and we’re reset to the beginning. Under that model, it seems sound to retreat once you suffer even the slightest penalty. What stops a fighter from doing so?

    1. I’m not sure that there really is an end to it. That is one of the things that is going to be challenging about translating the way that the style seems to want to play out in real life into a game. We spend a lot of time simply circling touching shields and probing, and it takes some real work to get an opening that’s worth exploiting. That’s very hard to represent in a game in a way that doesn’t suck.

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