One-on-one with Shields: Upsetting the conventional wisdom

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More on shields
My experiences starting to get into viking-style martial arts with Ásfólk:

And welcome to all!

Forget All You Know

Roland Warzecha has done it again.

Sure, he’s a master of sword-and-buckler play, 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 (7mm near the boss, 2mm near the edges was not uncommon; 1mm edge wrap made the actual edge about 4mm). It will probably be 3-4kg (6-9 lbs, mostly in the 6-7.5 range). 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 likely 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.

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 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.

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 line. 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.

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 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 too. Yes, you absolutely can stab someone in the shin with a lunged spear 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’ll be fun 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 even 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.

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.

Hrm. That gives me an idea. (scribble scribble scribble)

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.


16 thoughts on “One-on-one with Shields: Upsetting the conventional wisdom

  1. In boffer LARPS shields have a known problem called turtling where if you hold a it in a certain positions there is no safe way to attack the wielder without having to resort to more violent tactics that are unsafe for a sport leisure activity. So the rules typically only allow shields to be held in certain ways to preclude turtling.

    In another experience with the SCA I would never fight without a shield. In anything above a small handful fighting there are weapons coming in from every direction and the shield the only thing that give me a chance.

    So I agree that shield are pretty damn good and under valued in RPG. However I always figured that GURPS give them their proper due with both the defense bonus AND the ability to block.

  2. I look forward to you dissecting GURPS shield use like you have grappling. I think, like you, a lot more can be done to restrict attack lines and enhance shield offensive abilities.

  3. I’ve toyed with an idea of the effectiveness of a shield being based on the shield skill (more than just half skill for block). Like even the Defense Bonus being a factor of skill, and/or there being a penalty to attack skills (even outside of close combat) unless Shield skill was high enough.

  4. Thanks to JickOShadows in Mook’s GURPS Discord channel, I’m reminded that GURPS Low-Tech Companion 2: Weapons and Warriors, p. 29, does allow you to do swing damage with a shield: “A shield that’s metal-rimmed or made entirely of metal can have the edge sharpened into a blade. This allows an attack for swing-2 cutting damage.” Does this not imply a shield without a sharpened edge could attack for swing-2 crushing damage?

      1. I see. I’m thinking, if the swing-2 cutting damage is meant to represent actually swinging the shield in a arc to slice someone, it’s should also allow you thrust that edge to chop someone. So, I’m wondering if thrusting the edge of a non-sharpened shield into someone would do the same damage as thrusting the flat of the shield into them. My (based on no real-world experience) impression is that a thrusting attack with the edge should do more damage, but at the cost of sacrificing some of its defensive abilities. E.g. a 0U* block stat: *you cannot use it to block this turn if you have already used it to attack with its edge (or vice versa). An attack with the flat of the shield, with or without a spike, has no such restriction.

        1. If you can punch for thr-1 with your fist, you should probably be able to punch for at least thr, if not thr+1; the viking shield is 6-10lbs, after all.

  5. Nice post, and it’s good to know I’m not the only one who ever thinks about this stuff. There’s one major point that I’ve always held onto, as it helps me maintain some of the suspension of disbelief in the fantasy genre, despite my HEMA experience. The very valid points you’ve made come from our world, where humans fight humans… not a fantasy world where your opponent might be drastically smaller, faster, tougher, larger, heavier, possessing thick leathery skin, tentacles, magical shielding, alien anatomy, precognition… so on and so forth. The openings and opportunities are different, even the psychology is different. A well-practiced feint that works on most human opponents is a gamble when you try it on something with the thought process of a bipedal lizard, or bowl of sentient jell-o that has no concept of defense.

    So it might be reasonable to say that, while typical rulesets underappreciate the shield in human to human combat, getting +2 AC against something the size of an ogre with a club is a pretty good compromise when by all means something that size might just as easily shatter the bones supporting the shield. To say nothing of non-humanoids with anatomical features that could drastically impair shield defense.

    I’ve come to believe that the seemingly haphazard, unrealistic use of weapons and armor in the fantasy genre is actually very realistic in a world where literally anything could be around the corner. Adventurers have to have a sort of savvy brawling, adaptable and scrappy kind of mentality, and formal training only helps so much as itäs usually completely irrelevant to your situation. There is no arms race as we know it, evolving and honing our tools and tactics directionally… just infinite influences that make it impossible to decide which direction is technologically “forward”. All those rule abstractions and anachronisms might be the only thing preserving our sanity, compared to trying to capture all of this in one enormous system.

    1. I’ve had this same brainwave too. In real world martial arts, humans are fighting other humans. D&D-style fantasy worlds include a huge variety of humanoid races, whose brains and senses may not work the same as humans. (Humans themselves may not be like they are in the real world either! It’s fantasy; anything goes.) They come in all different sizes too, with 3′ gnomes and 15′ giants. Then you get to the non-humanoids, which’ll include weird tentacle monsters, bats made of fire, hydras, oozes, ghosts, treants, dragons, and all manner of other things. Characters in this world are supposed to be able to fight well against all of these things. It is not analogous to our world. Who can say what fighting with a shield will look like when you’re a very good fighter, planning on being outnumbered, fighting any sort of bizarre creature and humanoids of different anatomies than you? To get a “realistic” view of it you’d have to do some real serious study concerning biology, anatomy, history, evolution, and martial applicability. I think you’d have to go back to first principles and build up a world like that. It’d be a very arduous task. So instead, I’ve got a switch in my head between “fantasy logic” and “HEMA logic.” It works out just fine.

  6. In regards to your comment on how “weapon-centric” RPGs tend to be, I’ve noticed that I tend to enjoy the reverse more: systems where the attack can be assumed to succeed, but the trick is working out how best to defend. GURPS actually does this very well, as it’s very easy to get to a point where your attacks will always hit, while defense is much trickier, requiring careful thought on how best to deal with an attack. It’s possible to make a risky attack, or with sufficiently high skill, to gain additional benefits to your attack, so there’s still an element of risk in the attack, but it’s lower than “How do I deflect this attack.”

    The one problem I see, having worked a lot with signature moves, is that despite this paradigm, GURPS still focuses more on attack than defense. Defense is a reaction that just happens, while an attack is something you plan out carefully. I suppose there’s some truth to this, but I think there’s room in GURPS for forethought in defense (for example the Deny Left/Deny Right rules of Martial Arts: Gladiators, or focused defenses, etc)

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