Musings on Shields and Power Creep

05 Nov

Our go-to OSR game has become Lamentations of the Flame Princess, and it’s been a delightful romp back into the early days of the game.  The dark nature of Lamentations also sits well with a bunch of veteran Call of Cthulhu players like ourselves.  We’ve made a few tweaks to the rules, it wouldn’t be a proper old school game if we didn’t fiddle under the hood, but for the most part we’ve stuck close to the rules as written.

This also means that this is as close to a Basic edition Dungeons & Dragons game that I have been part of since the early 80’s.  I started with the Basic and Expert sets but transitioned to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons within a couple years and didn’t look back until the Old School Renaissance began.  Now with the benefit of hindsight it’s interesting to see how the game’s evolution in some areas had unexpected consequences in other areas.  In this specific case I’m going to talk about shields.

From the classic image of knights in shining armor, to viking raiders, to the artwork of original D&D, the image of fighters and clerics has included shields.  Yet as ubiquitous as the shield is in imagery, it’s a piece of equipment that has always seemed underpowered in AD&D.

Consider what you’re trading off for a measly +1 to your armor class.  That second hand could be used to hold a light source or allow you to probe for traps with a 10′ pole.  Or you could carry a second weapon, especially if you’re playing a ranger.  Or you could choose to wield a great sword, spear, or pole arm and pick up the extra damage and weapon reach.

Conversely, how much benefit does the shield give you?  The value of the +1 AC pales against the to-hit bonuses based on high strength scores, weapon specialization, and double-specialization.  A fighter with 17 Strength and double-specialization will get far more benefit using a bastard sword than a weapon and shield combination.  This imbalance is further widened by the treasure found in many official adventures, where +1 weapons appear with such frequency that they lose all sense of wonder.  At the same time, magical shields were rare in the published adventures.  I suspect that this imbalance is related to the number of creatures that require magic weapons to hit, which appear with greater frequency as players level up, making magic weapons a de facto necessity.

This deficiency never sat well with me.  It’s at odds with both the imagery of a fighter and the real life benefits of carrying a shield.  Then I joined the Society for Creative Anachronism and took up fighting and gained an even greater appreciation for shields.  The result was various house rules to “fix” the problem.

The most successful solution I came up with was a proficiency in shield use that allowed a fighter or cleric to forgo their +1 AC in favor of a parrying maneuver with the shield.  The number of parries was based on the size of the shield; one for bucklers, two for regular shields, and three for war shields.  It wasn’t perfect, but it did restore value to using a shield.

What I never understood was why the problem exists, until I got back to basics with Lamentations of the Flame Princess.  Strip away weapon specialization, make strength bonuses less common, and make magical weapons with to-hit bonuses truly rare treasures.  Suddenly a +1 to AC becomes valuable again.  Add the combat rules specific to Lamentations, where only fighters improve their to-hit chances, and it drives home the value of any AC bonus you can get.

I suspect that a lot of the power creep introduced in AD&D was intended to close the power gap between mid-level fighters and magic users by helping fighters shine more in the front line of battle.  But by focusing heavily on offense the iconic tools of the armored knight’s defense were short changed.

With a better understanding of how the imbalance came about it’s easier to inject value back to the shield through adventure design.  It’s also an excellent demonstration of how seemingly small changes can build up and have unexpected consequences.

Am I the only one who obsesses about shields?   Have you found other ways to make them more valuable in your games?  I’d love to hear your thoughts on the subject.

My old, faithful friend.

My old and faithful friend.


Posted by on November 5, 2013 in Game Design and Mechanics, Gaming


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

8 responses to “Musings on Shields and Power Creep

  1. Red Hobbit

    November 5, 2013 at 5:49 PM

    Good sir, you will be excited to know that Shields have gained a great deal of attention in the OSR. One universally loved rule is “Shields shall be splintered” presented by Trollsmyth here:

    I do agree with your analysis though. It’s amazing what happens when you strip away all the bloat and get back to the core rules, when you get rid of inflation either from ability scores, magic items, or specializations a +1 from shield is pretty beneficial.

    • Fractalbat

      November 5, 2013 at 9:26 PM

      Excellent! Good to see I’m not the only one who has a deep love of shields. That’s quite a discussion that follows the shield article too.

      Thanks for the links!

  2. Matt

    November 7, 2013 at 10:31 AM

    I vaguely remember 2nd edition D&D trying to make shields more attractive by allowing fighters to use weapon proficiency slots to become more skilled in their use. I couldn’t tell you want the benefits of specialization were since neither I or anyone I knew ever bothered to go that route, preferring to specialize and (with later rules) master weapons so we better obliterate any monster that stood in our way rather than trying to withstand its attacks.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if 3rd edition had Feats designed to make shields more attractive buried somewhere in one of the many 3rd Edition books, but my more martial minded players are interested in using Feats to give their characters an offensive edge. It seems the only time a shield is a desired thing is if its magical and gives a nice bonus to Armor Class.

  3. James V West

    January 4, 2015 at 7:01 AM

    Great post! Thank you for pointing out this terrible imbalance. I do use the splintering rule for shields and helms. I also limit to-hit bonuses in my Labyrinth Lord game to +1 for 99% of magic weapons to avoid some of these issues. I’m currently writing my 3rd module or OSR games and I plan to use the inspiration from this post to tweak some treasures and some encounters to favor the good old shield!

  4. mikemonaco

    August 11, 2015 at 1:44 PM

    In some discussion or other someone suggested AC being based on the shield carried rather than armor (which just gives some damage reduction). Shield class 7 for a buckler, 5 for a medium, 3 for a large, or something like that, and leather/mail/plate give DR 1/2/3. (Though realistically plate makes you pretty safe from arrows and swords, and even mail stopped most period weapons, at least one-handed weapons anyway. So really if you want shields in your game world there would probably not be plate armor… shields pretty much drop off the battlefield when plate becomes common.)

    • Fractalbat

      August 11, 2015 at 2:33 PM

      Plate certainly caused shields to be phased out, at least among the knights, but they still hung around for a while in various places. But yes, plate armor is far more protective and I could see a game system where the type of armor you are wearing is the most important factor in determining your hit points than any physical statistic or level of experience.

      Plate is really an anachronism in the implied setting of D&D. Not to mention the questionable ability of a warrior in full plate being able to go dungeon delving. While I am well aware of the comfort and range of motion that true plate offered to a knight on the battlefield, crawling through dungeons and cavers is a very different matter. Plate is really meant for the battlefield, if we wanted to be realistic.

      • mikemonaco

        August 11, 2015 at 2:48 PM

        Yeah, plate would kind of be a deathtrap in a dungeon! Can’t see, can’t hear, can’t swim, overheating, and generally miserable. Not to mention would armor even matter when you’re facing stuff like ogres, dragons, and whatnot? Maybe you’d be better off in no armor at all, being able to dodge/flee a little better. You don’t need to outrun the troll, you just need to outrun the paladin (dwarf, whatever)! Though as long as you are facing humanoids and man-sized monsters I guess armor would be pretty helpful.


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