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.