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Monday, June 27, 2011

In which I finally weigh in on the Great Shield Controversy of 2011

Pictured- Myself in the red and white fleurs-de-lys about to lose in the quarter-final round of Aethelmearc's fall 2004 Crown Tourney to Duncan Von Halstern.

But first a story about why I don't generally tinker too much with rules. When I was a kid and just started gaming one of my best friends was Darryl C. Jr., his dad was Darryl C. Sr. and he was an old school wargamer. When Darryl and I became friends it was right around the time D&D was hitting it big, and since we were both nerdy smart kids, we started playing at roughly the same time. I actually met him when I organized my school's D&D club when I was in 7th grade.

This cautionary tale revolves around his dad though, Big Darryl. Big Darryl was a wargamer and actually really hated the abstract nature of D&D combat. He wasn't thrilled with the Vancian magic system either. He was an early seeker of other RPG systems and a big adopter of house rules, often adapted from other RPGs. He tried on numerous occasions to get us to abandon D&D for Dragonquest, because it was far superior in his opinion. He also tweaked and house-ruled that system.

Ultimately, his hatred of D&D led to him buying pretty much every alternative system that came along down the pike while he designed his own medieval fantasy RPG so he could mine them for ideas. This led to weirdly incompatible systems being grafted together GURPS and DQ and Harnmaster and Rolemaster and Twilight:2000 and FASA Star Trek and a dozen other games all provided systems and subsystems along with his own, often quite brilliant ideas, as he sought the Holy Grail of medieval fantasy RPGs; and it was never going to happen, just because lightning struck and it shambled forth you couldn't call Frankenstein's creation life. He never realized he wasn't after the Grail. He was after the Questing Beast.

I don't know how many times we sat down at his table over the course of decades making characters and trying to playtest because after a year or five he was ready to give it another go. There would be a stack of reference books covering the center of the table and several of us, usually at least Darryl and I, would have been coached on how the new, improved version works, so we could help out the other playtesters. Then, usually, the playtest will fall apart because some essential part of character generation was dictated to me on a car trip when I was twelve and we can't find the napkin it was written on and never transcribed onto anything else, or we realize that the magic system we thought we were using got revised out two revisions ago and he didn't think that was important enough to mention during our training seminars.

So I think long and hard before I decide to mess around with the rules as written, they either have to be ambiguous enough that a clarification is definitely needed or just bad. Changing rules for the sake of making a fantasy game's abstract combat system more realistic just leads to madness, a madness that I have been experiencing on and off for three decades.

Now lets talk about shields. It has already been bandied about the blogosphere that Gary and Dave and the rest of the guys that designed D&D and played it in the early days didn't really have any experience with either armor or shields, or weapons for that matter.

Well I do. I have fought heavy in the SCA since I was in my twenties. I don't fight as much now as I used to, but I am getting older; I'll be 42 next month. I will tell you all that there are a few caveats to what I have to say about shields with regards to my SCA experience, but largely what I have to say holds true according to both ancient and medieval accounts.

First- All shields should just give a pretty awesome cover bonus to missile attacks. "Shields Up!" didn't come from Star Trek first, it's the command to raise your shields against missile fire, and it's pretty easy for even an inexperienced person to throw their shield between them self and incoming arrows. This I would base on the size of the shield. A small shield would give you a +1 AC bonus vs Missiles, a medium shield +3 and a large shield +5; providing you were unsurprised, otherwise the shield is practically useless.

As to the use of shields in mêlée, here's where it gets tricky; if you want to model my real life experience as a sword and shield fighter you need to know a couple of things. First, I am tall and strong, which is a huge advantage in combat. Second, training and experience are more valuable than size and strength. So, to model the first part I would give everyone the +1 AC bonus for using a shield AND then give them their STR bonus (Strength Damage Adjustment in AD&D) as an AC bonus added to their shield too. This models their ability to use their brute force to push and maneuver their opponents weapons with their shield in a manner advantageous to themselves. Then add their to hit bonus to their AC, which is admittedly easier to model in 3e where it is explicitly written that you get +1/every so often; but you can figure it out from the attack tables in the DMG or using THAC0 too. This models their superior ability to deflect blows and anticipate strikes. Plus they stop making all the mistakes that inexperienced Fighters make, like stepping out from the cover of their shield to attack or opening up to look or just dropping their guard because they thought they were out of threat range (or their shield arm got tired). "That makes higher level Fighters damned near impossible to hit when they have a shield then!" you say, and you are correct; except against other high level Fighters or big-ass monsters or missile weapons or anyone that rolls a 20.

Missile weapons already got covered and high level Fighters are pretty obviously well matched against each other so I'll move on to big-ass monsters. D&D has done a pretty suck job of modeling the advantage I have as a 6'6" man versus a smaller man of similar experience, reach and stature just don't come into play, nor does mass; so I am going to fix it for the big monsters anyway. One of the things I did like about 3e was the size classes. I am not thrilled that "Man-Sized" or "Medium" still covered a range from Tall Halflings to Tall Half-Orcs but I'll take what I can get. Anyway, I figure the size and mass of a creature that is a size class larger than you negates 1/2 of your mêlée shield bonus, go one more size class up and you back down to it being it's base +1 and holding.

Now, anyone rolling a natural 20. A natural 20 as far as I can remember is always a hit in pretty much every edition of D&D right? So that's not a problem, even your 0-level torchbearer can hit Mr. 20th level Fighter with a 20. Next, and I stress that this is a pretty easy optional rule to add to the Fighters with Shields are nigh invincible stuff that I have written here; on a natural 20* make a save vs crushing blow for the shield every single time. If the shield fails, it becomes useless. Not necessarily destroyed, maybe it's repairable. Could be as simple as a broken strap. Or maybe it was shattered. Whatever. You're the DM.

Now let me wrap up a couple of loose ideas here, siege engines and giant hurled rocks should not be treated like normal missiles, at best a shield user should get a +1 AC bonus. Next shield walls, I have never seen real shield wall tactics in use in D&D, so I wasn't inclined to think it through too much, but I will if anyone really wants to know what I think.

*Option 2- make 2 handed bludgeoning/hacking weapons do this on a 19-20. For magic weapons increase the shield destroying threat range by their +. Let people deliberately target the shield for destruction if they are armed with axes or halberds or mauls, then assume the shield is AC 10 (9) + DX bonus of wielder and has however many hit points you think a shield of it's size, type and state of use should have. Magic shields should get a serious bonus on this, maybe get a save vs crushing blow every time they get hit to see whether or not they take any damage at all.