In my search for a method of making training swords that have the right feel, I’ve tried a bunch of things. Laminating wood together, drilling out for rods, and a few different woods (oak, ash, hard maple). I have, perhaps, finally found a method that hits the right notes.

This is a second crafting-and-weapons related post for the day. Figured I’d get ’em out of my system.

The first cool thing was making weapons out of purely hard maple. This is a remarkable wood, with a hardness of 1450 on the Janka scale – nearly twice as hard as its softer relatives. It’s 10-30% more dense, depending on what particular variety of maple you’re dealing with, as well, as the soft maple. Relative to common red oak, it’s the same density (44 lbs per cubic foot) and 20% harder. Relative to (white) ash, used in baseball bats: white ash is 42 lbs per cubic foot, and 1320 on the Janka scale. Hickory? Yeah, while there are a bunch of woods mixed together and sold as generic “hickory,” the true hickory woods like shagbark hickory are 50 lbs per cubic foot and 1,880 Janka.

As a by-the-way, the Janka rating is how many pounds of force it takes to drive a spherical ball .444″ in diameter into wood to half it’s depth (full diameter, then). Why .444″? No idea.

Anyway, that’s why hickory is king of the axe handles.

But two weapons are in discussion now. The first is my Training Sword Mk 5.

That one’s simply cut out of hard maple as a blank, rounded with a 3/8″ roundover bit, and sanded. The trick here was to see if I could carve a curved crossguard, for embellishment. Turns out I can. This sword masses about 550g, and has a 3.25″ grip for the pinch. I also cut the blade down from the model from about 30.5 inches down to 29″, which made it work better for my height. This one is now my personal training sword, mostly because of aesthetics.

The second was Training Sword Mk 6. This one was another laminate construction: 1/2″ ash core, with 1/8″ ash top and bottom pieces. I also embedded a 1/2 x 1 x 4″ piece of C360 brass near the base of the blade. That moved the center of balance about halfway between pure wood and an actual steel sword. The weight of the complete weapon is pushing 725g at the moment, and will increase a bit when I add a simple square cross-guard. The pommel could use more rounding; it cuts into the hand a bit. This particular sword is too big for me; it’s really designed for folks who are 6’2″ to 6’6″ in height. But the balance and pivot points are much closer to steel, while being roughly 75% the mass of an actual steel blade of the same dimensions.

Of course, I tried to get clever and carve a fuller into the second blade using a cove bit on my router. That . . . did not go well. I have an up-cut bit that went better (opposite side) and I know what I’ll do if I feel the need to embellish in that way in the future. In the meantime, it lets me show off the embedded brass.

This makes it an excellent training tool to build grip strength and correct motion dynamics without having to worry about 1,000 custom swords. There are many Viking-style, or rather, Frankish-style swords; most are not built to historical weight and dimension, as their grips are too long and the weight is too high, or the balance isn’t quite right. My instructor is an expert weaponsmith, and makes his own; I’m sure there are some out there that are right . . . but their creators rightfully know that they are and charge accordingly.

Thus for both reasons of economy and safety, I want to make wooden swords of various sizes.

I have a couple ideas for Mk 7 and maybe Mk 8, but that’s going to involve a spreadsheet. In particular, I want to break a hypothetical sword down into “weight from balance point to blade tip,” which will also account for the size of the blade, and give a “weight per inch” in that region. Then the same for the blade from balance point to crossguard, then the crossguard and pommel, which are typically solid chunks of steel, and a bit for the handle (which will be done by subtraction, as the composition is tang+wood handle).

That will let me scale the weight down by 25%, figure out how much metal I need to add in each segment, and balance accordingly. This will allow me to custom-craft swords of different sizes, from a short blade that might be a child’s weapon, to the beefy blades I make above. I might also see if I can find a nice model for a long seax that might be fun.

This is more than just aesthetics. A properly balanced blade proxy will teach the right motions and muscle memory for casting blows and casting thrusts. It will have enough mass to build strength while not allowing motions that you can do with a 200-250g “magic wand” that is too thin and too light and can be used inappropriately during training.

So, once I get past GenCon, I will sit down and create my crafting spreadsheet, and having found a good method for building these things, I will start the process of making enough for the instructor cadre to work the hell out of. Once we all find them worthy . . . I’ll probably set about replacing the rest of the training wands with something that looks like a real sword. It’s both more useful and more satisfying to train with a weapon that looks like a weapon.

My instructor brought a new authentic shield he’d finished to the pre-game show (so to speak) for Circus Juventas. The summer show, Nordrsaga (or more precisely, Norðrsaga) is strongly Viking and Old Norse themed, so the Circus reached out to Asfolk so we could provide a bit of pre-show entertainment. We teach brief lessons in sword and shield, and let folks throw axes.

Anyway, his shield is thin (historically thin) basswood, with an oak handle. It’s made of 4″ butted planks affixed with hide glue, has a spectacular hand-forged iron boss, and is faced on one side with parchment, as well as having non-stitched edge wrapping of the same parchment material. It’s very light.

But I want to focus on the handle. It was a D-shape, and for all the carving and special “ergonomic” handles I’ve been creating, well, our ancestors knew what they were doing. 

I should have figured this. I’ve used that line rather more than once myself. But that D-shaped grip, with the flat base and the rounded top (flat goes to the inside of the boss) really helps you keep the shield on line, and is much more comfortable than I’d have thought.

So I’ll re-cut my new shield with the D-shaped handle, and keep in mind as I re-create the equipment, once again: when it comes to blood and death, our ancestors were not stupid.

GURPS 4e introduced the combat technique, which in short was a way to buy off a penalty usually associated with an activity. Things like targeting a specific hit location, or buying off a penalty to strike behind you with a kick. There are also non-combat techniques. And some techniques, such as the somewhat-dreaded Arm Lock, could be purchased up from the base skill (Arm Lock defaults to Judo skill at no penalty, and you can buy up to Judo+4, or even Judo +6, for four and seven points respectively).

One thing that they ran in to quickly was pricing. At one point per point of penalty cancelled out, there was a bit of a mathematical ceiling on how many and how good you wanted to buy these up. Since you could get +1 to every thing you did with a combat skill for 4 points at the most, unless you had a very, very focused concept you really didn’t want to go there. Further, if you wanted four techniques, well, it was better to increase them through base skill.

This represents something of a reality, but it also means that two fighters can tend to be fairly similar, and folks have produced a few different alternate pricing mechanisms. Things like

  • A point in a technique gives you a +2 bonus
  • A point in a technique actually buys off the entire allowed penalty (if you can usually buy something from -4 to no penalty, a point in the technique buys it to max value).
  • Treating techniques as Perks, with a fairly involved pricing scheme.

Some of these just push the problem around a bit: the 1 point gives +2 (or potentially +1 to two things) means that instead of four techniques being unwise, it’s now eight. Of course, that’s a lot of techniques.

Still, what I was wondering about is if there’s a “thou shalt not nerf existing characters” way to approach differentiation of martial artists using the technique system.

There might be. Continue reading “Martial Arts Techniques – Focused Training”

In Wednesday’s post, plus others, I mused on shields, and how actively they’re used. Thinking about DnD5e, and therefore Dragon Heresy as well, how can we model this, if we wanted to?


In a way, this is the easiest. The options are fairly straight-forward.

Protection Plus

The Protection fighting style allows giving an incoming attack disadvantage so long as it’s not directed at you. It costs you your reaction. OK, well, if you’re going to spend your reaction, you should benefit. So just extend it. Spend your reaction, and you can give one incoming attack disadvantage, so long as it’s directed at a target within five feet of your location. This includes yourself.

So between the +2 you get for just being proficient with a shield and the +5 (ish) you’d get for opting to stick your shield in your foe’s face, suddenly shields no longer suck so long as you’re using it actively. So actively, in fact, that you can’t make opportunity attacks or do all sorts of other things that come by spending your reaction.

I’m sure this is a house rule already in use all over the place, but it seems logical. Personally, I might allow the protection action to apply to yourself as a matter of being proficient with the shield; to use it for others provides the style. Or, perhaps, you can “protect” a fellow combatant by using your bonus action, and so long as you are within five feet of that creature, the first attack sent their way is at disadvantage. This does not use up your own reaction.

Obviously both would need playtesting. But shields would be very, very desirable here.


The dueling fighting style gives you more damage when you’re only using one weapon, but the other hand can use a shield.

Two-weapon fighting is for things like dual-dagger, and shortsword and dagger: two light weapons unless you take a Feat that’s in the PHB but not the SRD which allows you to fight with (say) rapier and dagger, or katana and wakisashi.

But what about aggressive sword-and-board? Let’s see how far we can get by just bastardizing the text.

Shield-Weapon Fighting
When you take the Attack action and attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in is being wielded with one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a different light melee weapon a shield that you’re holding in the other hand. You don’t add your ability modifier to the damage of the bonus attack, unless that modifier is negative. A medium shield strikes for 1d6 damage. You must be proficient with shields to take this fighting style.

Strikethrough is removed text; italics are added.

See above about being able to impose disadvantage on one attack directed at a shield-wielder by spending your reaction. Much like the Two-Weapon Fighter Feat allows you to add both the ability bonus and to use not-light weapons, there should probably be a version for Shield-Weapon fighting.

Either that, or simply let “a different light melee weapon” be appended with “a shield.” This would be best if 5e included a buckler-sized shield (say, at +1 to AC) that was 2 lbs and considered a light weapon/armor, and then the medium shield would be considered a not-light version.

Note: allowing a buckler to be actively used to induce disadvantage on one attack, at the cost of spending your reaction, but give no AC bonus, that is, +0 to AC, but allows this use of the reaction, would be a good way to go here as well.

Another way to go would be to allow the primary weapon to be either light or finesse weapons, so that Two-Weapon fighting would include sword-and-buckler or Florentine sword-and-dagger, but you’d need the feat to do shield-and-longsword, flail, battleaxe, or shield-and-spear (which is versatile, not finesse).

That’s not bad either, and might be preferred so one doesn’t waste a feat/style to mimic one of the more popular cinematic and realistic fighting methods!

Parting Shot

One has to be careful about mucking about with fundamental stuff in a deeply playtested game such as 5e. Tweaking bounded accuracy or changing fundamental assumptions of how certain things work (or don’t) can ripple through with some pretty big unintended consequences.

Still, advantage/disadvantage is not considered to be breaking such things, and it already exists, in a way, for the Protection fighting style for others. There’s really nothing between +2 to AC for being proficient with a shield, and the Dodge action which is a total defense that gives disadvantage on all attacks thrown at you.

Allowing being proficient with a shield to give the benefits of a dodge to a single attack by spending what seems to be one’s precious reaction hopefully shouldn’t break much. It will give a boost to shields that makes them more useful, which I like a lot. But they’re still vulnerable to multiple attacks by one or many foes – they can’t be everywhere.

I’ll have to review my Dragon Heresy manuscript. I do some cool things with shields in that ruleset, but I wonder if some of the ideas I’ve had here should either be added, or even replace some of the existing concepts.

Recently I’ve been on a bit of a shield kick.

One-on-one with Shields: Upsetting the conventional wisdom shows a video by Roland Warzecha of Dimicator, and how he’s using a heater shield much like he uses a buckler. While he owns the fact that he’s an expert in sword-and-buckler play based on the I.33 manual, he’s pretty firm about the style and method carrying over, at least in dueling.

Viking Shield Fighting in GURPS looked a bit about the style that I’m being instructed in, and how to represent that in GURPS. I do talk a bit about using the shield, and using it to Feint and Beat (ST-based Feint), as well as mentioning modeling this as a grapple. I’m still persuaded that the give and take of grappling is the best model for this kind of thing.

Finally, I looked at the shields themselves quite a bit in Vikings, Shields, and Game Rules. That one had some mechanics, but a lot of it was covering some of the truths and myths about shields, their construction, and some overall notes on game rules.

For this post, I’m not going to claim this is exhaustive, well thought out, playtested, or conclusive.

What’s the Point of Points in Shield?

By and large, a lot (not all, but a lot) of the benefits of lugging around a medium shield accrue from the defense bonus. That gives you +2 (for medium) to all active defenses: Block, of course, and Parry and Dodge.

Block is nice, though – unless you buy Parry Missile Weapons, it’s one of the better defenses against ranged weapons. But by and large, putting 8 points into a weapon skill gets you at least +2 to hit, +1 to Parry, and +2 to anything that uses a Quick Contest of weapon, such as making feints with the weapon, and resisting all feints (the clarification/expansion is you resist feints with your best melee skill, armed or unarmed).

Now, don’t get me wrong: Buying up shield gets you these things as well: +2 to strike with the shield, +1 to Block, and (especially with the clarification from p. 100 of GURPS Martial Arts) also gives you +2 to make shield feints, and +2 to resist all feints.

Blocks are more penalized for doing repeatedly, though: -5 rather than -4 for Parry. You also have a deep incentive to buy up weapon skill: penalties to attacks are legion: deceptive attacks can soak up all sorts of high skill. Bad footing. Location penalties can get steep: chinks in armor or the eyes or eyeslits. Darkness penalties. One can probably rationalize something like up to Weapon Skill of about 36 or so if you wan to have a 50-50 chance of stabbing someone in the eye in a dark cave while giving the bad guy -5 to Parry, Block, or Dodge with a Deceptive attack.

And of course, once you have a single defense that high (Weapon Parry), it’s hard to figure out why you also want Shield of equal power. Heck, my current modern-day Paladin-to-be has Broadsword-23 with his special sword, giving him Parry-15 with just the sword, Parry-17 with a DB +2 shield, but only Shield-14, which gives Block-13 with the shield. So mostly I parry.

This is pretty much exactly the opposite to how Roland used his heater shield and how I use my viking shield, where you purposefully and actively either use the shield to keep distance and set range, or purposefully use it to deny lines, shut down attacks, and otherwise get this huge piece of mobile-but-fragile cover in the other guy’s face.

Human vs. Human isn’t always the norm

One thing to keep in mind is a comment from one of the other posts. Mike Bernstein wrote:

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.

I think this is a very good point, and while I’ll continue to try and deal with the base case of two humans dueling, exploring what happens when a dwarf, ogre, or giant steps into the combat arena, or you get dogpiled by a pack of kobolds, is likely the more important case to worry about in most fantasy games.

Attack to Defend

If you want folks to think “shield shield shield” instead of “sword sword sword,” you need to make using the shield proactive, fun, and valuable.

So what if you could perhaps make a skill roll vs your shield skill, and have that define how much defensive benefit you got? And yes, it would probably count as an attack. But since (a) the shield is meant to be used in the “off hand,” and (b) is frequently but not uniquely targeted at one guy . . . this seems like a perfect opportunity to lessen the burden by allowing this to be part of a Dual-Weapon Attack. After all, a shield is a one-handed melee weapon.

Setup Attacks

So, one way to just make this happen is to use a shield to make a setup attack, from Pyr 3/52, Delayed Gratification. You make the setup attack with your shield, which imposes a penalty to your foe’s defenses. You then follow that up and on your next attack with your weapon you gain the stackable benefit from the setup attack on your next weapon attack. There’s an issue with that, of course, but that’s somewhat resolvable.

Effects of Aggressive Shield Use

So you make a skill roll, and that should enable one or more of the following

  • You’re skillfully using your weapon to cover lines of attack. This makes you harder to hit, assessing a flat-out penalty to the foe’s attack roll
  • You’re actively warding lines and anticipating actions of your foe, perhaps forcing him into preferred lines of attack where you can more easily block. This gives you a bonus to your defense when you use your shield to counter it.
  • You use your shield to open up the foe’s defenses. This is basically akin to the setup attack above, depending on the mechanism used to mark success.
  • You use your shield to hide or cover your own lines of attack or open up the foe. This would provide a bonus to your own hit roll.

So four possibilities. All have utility and all would be fun. Making them the results of an attack-like action gives you a reason to do it.

Making Skill Matter

High skill should give more benefit than less skill, so the result should scale somehow.

How does GURPS usually handle this:

  1. Well, we could use margin of success. Just make a roll and however much you succeed by . . . means something.
  2. We could also use the “risk first, roll second” method that is based on Deceptive Attack. Take a penalty to skill, with each -2 giving either +/-1 to a defense (yours/his), or +/-2 to an attack (again, yours/his). So if you have Shield-18, you might take -4 to skill, and have a 90% chance of making that roll, which gives you, based on the options above, +2 to your defense, -2 to his defenses, +4 to your attack, or -4 to his.
  3. Finally, one could use a “damage roll” mechanic, where a successful skill check allows you to make a “damage roll” (maybe look up skill on the thrust column of the table on p. B16?) that would translate into defense and hit rolls. Probably each point of damage would be one control point, +/-1 to defense, or +/-2 to an attack roll.

Reason to Circle

Rather than decide ahead of time, perhaps this successful “Shield Employment Attack” can be reflected by points, that can be used however you’d like at any moment. So I have Shield-16, and with my medium shield I risk a roll vs 10 (-6 to my skill), and if I’m successful, I have 3 points to spend. The +2 to all defenses for having a big-ass plank in the way is inviolate.

So I’ve got my points. Note this doesn’t depend on the other guy, because you can use these points in opposition to each other. I decide to throw an attack and spend 2 of my points to give myself +4 to hit. Oops, my foe is an expert and he had 5 points to spend. He cancels out my 2 points, spends two more to give me -2 to hit and +1 to his own defense; he holds one in reserve.

The Points are Obvious

One possibility here is that how many points you have is obvious. An expert shieldmaiden with Shield-20 might routinely be wandering around with 3 points (rolling vs 14), and that level of defense is obvious to opponents. She’s well protected, and you know that there’s a certain threat to be dealt with here.

Extra Benefits to Evaluate

Or you can not have the points obvious, and is all an opponent knows is the shield is out there. But if they Evaluate, maybe it’s a Contest of Weapon skill, and if you win, you can know how many points of defensive potential your opponent has. Maybe margin of success caps how many points you’re told. So win by 10, and if your opponent is wandering around with 10 or fewer defensive points, you know it. Win by 2, and is all you can see from your evaluation is either she has 0, 1, 2 or “2 or more” defensive points.

Build up defense or Replace

If you can make shield attacks and gather points turn after turn after turn, that could get silly. No, it WILL get silly – even if you can spend points directly to cancel things out, so it’s really only the relative benefits that matter, if in the middle of combat when one guy has 34 points in reserve, the other has 29, and the GM is ready to tear his hair out to make something happen, a third party steps in . . . do the two shield wielders have a potentially 30-point advantage over the new guy? That’s just silly.

So the best bet is that repeated rolls like this can replace your current total, but not add to it. Either that or there’s a solid cap on how many points you can accumulate. Maybe equal to your Block skill or something.

Weapon Wards

This might even be able to be applied to weapons as well. This should be decisively disadvantageous relative to shields, but I can see doing the same sort of thing, with most weapons effectively being DB +0, but a few of them might get DB +1 or DB +2 (a weapon held in defensive grip, or a staff), while others such as knives (-1 to parry) basically come with an effective -2 to skill to get a “point” of defense.

I’m not entirely sure about this, though. It will cost you an attack, so to both ward and strike counts as a rapid strike or something. And obviously you can’t All-Out Attack to ward and attack and then spend points from that to bolster your own defenses or make yourself harder to hit (both defensive uses), but bonuses to hit or openings in their defenses seem legit.

Beat it Down

The analogy of these points to damage is deliberate. Control Points from Technical Grappling should be just as good as these defensive points, allowing huge monsters to grapple the shield and rip the shield away or otherwise just force it out of action. Even if you don’t use TG, you can just attack the shield directly, and not allow defensive points to be spent to counter this (the shield points come from it being in the way, not from being hard to grab) – you can only Block. If successful, roll the usual punch or control point damage, and you can cancel out or overwhelm their feeble shield points. This prevents a ST 8 guy with high Shield and a small board from dominating an angry troll or something. There needs to be a point where I don’t care how skillful your shieldwork is, it’s Just Not Enough (this speaks to Mike’s point in the box above).

Parting Shot

This isn’t a “do this” kind of post. It’s more musing about how to make using the shield a proactive thing, that you want to do, with concrete benefits that are tangible, fun, and useful.

I’m really, really not sure how this interacts with the rest of the system, either. This type of thing impacts Feint, Beat, Evaluate, and might even be superior to both Defensive Attacks and All-Out Defense, which would be problematical, to say the least.

It’s just when I got to wondering how to make the points in shield matter, I thought of both On Target, which makes Aim an attack, as well as Setup Attacks, which are a natural to allow and encourage with shield use. It also plays with my thoughts on looking at Mutually Exclusive, Comprehensively Exhaustive attack-defense options (that’s an old post), where bonuses to attack and defense can be somewhat interchangeable, and looking for options for each.

I also note that what I think might be the most intuitive (and in many ways, simply echoes the “generate points, spend points” methodology above) way to handle aggressive shield use is to treat it as a grapple, but with a special case of how to break it (move away, with rules on what consists of away).

Looking at aggressive shield use as grappling will be another post.

For those coming in from Dimicator: welcome, and thanks for visiting! My stats rather firmly reflect a deluge of traffic thanks to Roland’s Facebook share. For those looking for other stuff:

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.


One blog I love to pop in and read is The Monsters Know What They’re Doing, by Keith Ammann.

Each post breaks down a particular monster or monster type, looks at their writeup and stats, and assumes that, you know, the monsters aren’t dumb. They’re optimized for filling their ecological, magical, or theological niche and don’t suck at it. 

What does that mean? It means that your encounters will get a hell of a lot more interesting and flavorful. A pouncing predator will hide. It will wait for the right moment. It will strike and try and kill its food and drag it away pretty instantly. It will not stand and fight in a pitched battle, and if threatened or injured before it has a kill, it may flee. It may well return.

But by looking closely at how each monster type should behave and best utilize it’s listed stats, and also how the “fluff” and description of the critter places it within its niche, he comes up with concrete, actionable behaviors that will make each fight or potential fight (because maybe you can frighten off a predator with a threat display) feel different than others.

Each monster writeup in The Book of Foes contains a short nugget on how the critter fights. Keith’s blog takes that to 11 each writeup with the kind of detail and care that sings the song of a man who loves his topic.

He’s also just released a book to ensure that the PCs should know what they’re doing too: Live to Tell the Tale. Since I love supporting this sort of thing for reasons including healthy dollops of both altruism and self-interest, I highly recommend checking out his stuff. Even if you don’t play 5e, how he thinks about tactics and abilities is transferable to any game.

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.” Continue reading “Viking Shield Fighting in GURPS”

I’ve been building a lot of shields recently.

Part of this is just because I like working with wood. The crafting aspect of it is very satisfying, and is more visceral than blogging, obviously. But it started with me doing research for Dragon Heresy. I’ve always been skeptical of the bonuses from shields in D&D, and the AC bonus from 5e is nothing to write home about. You carry a shield and get a bit of a boost . . . and maybe you can do some fun things, but mostly not.

GURPS gives more versatility, and a nice defense bonus that +2 takes a defense roll of 8-, or 25% chance of success, to 10-, which is 50%, which doubles the odds of a successful defense. Of course, the benefit changes with the skill and equipment of both combatants, but basically, the 3d6 curve makes a +2 bonus a reasonably big deal, the equivalent of about +5 in the flat-curved d20 distribution, or the equivalent of giving disadvantage on attack rolls when attacking into the shield.

Huh. That’s not bad, actually.

But I digress.

Actually, I don’t digress. While the martial arts classes are cool (and that’s one of the reasons I keep doing them), the reason I did it in the first place was to get a personal feel on what a shield does for you, how you use it, and how much protection they can actually provide.

Viking Shields

The first thing to clarify here is that this discussion is only about shields modeled after those that were said to have been in use from about 700AD through 1000AD. These are fairly interesting in their construction and dimensions . . . but “these” has an issue, and that issue is that there is substantial dearth of evidence on what these things actually were. Continue reading “Vikings, Shields, and Game Rules”

I’m not an artist, and I don’t play one on TV. Nonetheless, for Dungeon Grappling, and even more so for Dragon Heresy, I’ve taken it upon myself to fill the role of Art Director for my works. This is good, because it allows me to directly influence and drive how my works are presented to the public. It can also be very bad, because I’m not even close to a pen-and-paper artist, and so my art direction tends to fall into three categories.

  1. Text descriptions of what I want the scene to be. These can be quite long.
  2. Photo images that go along with (1).
  3. Stick figures

Yeah, stick figures. Continue reading “The importance of reference images (art direction)”