Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Shields in OSR Games

Frequent readers know of my recent explorations in Old School Renaissance gaming (OSR) through my solitaire B/X Dungeons & Dragons exploits (my preferred old-school system). These activities help me examine what I like about various elements and how to improve those that don’t work for me. So I come to the shield conundrum: they seem underpowered. In looking at alternative shield mechanics I found myself questioning the very core rationale behind armor and shields in D&D combat.

(Throughout this post I refer to various bonuses to armor class as +1, etc., as I’m using ascending armor class; for the traditional descending armor class read that as -1. Either way, “bonus” means a benefit to armor class in the context of whatever system you’re using.)

I prefer a more heroic style of play rather than the deadly “grinder” style (as I’ve discussed before), so I look to provide my characters with every possible advantage within the bounds of the rules...and then house-rule some mechanics to offer some minor benefits. Of the three characters I’m running through various solitaire scenarios, two have shields and one has eschewed a shield in favor of two-handed weapons (the underpowered battle axe...a topic Jonathan Becker has discussed before at his B/X Blackrazor blog). While one of the shield-bearers has no ranged weapon, the other must set aside her shield if she chooses to use her long bow, temporarily shedding its armor class bonus. I’m examining the shield rules with an eye to making my low-level characters less monster-fodder and slightly more heroic.

In the current D&D rationale for armor and shields reducing the chance of getting hit in combat, the +1 bonus a shield provides means a five percent decrease in the chance of getting hit. Compare that to the bonuses provided by armor: leather +2 (10 percent), chain mail +4 (20 percent), plate mail +6 (30 percent!). All that modifying a base 50 percent chance to get hit (not counting the attacker’s bonuses and hit die level evening out the odds). In this context, a +1 bonus to armor class provides only a relatively slight advantage when compared with the more significant role of shields in historical and even fantasy combat. It’s also a pretty small return for sacrificing the ability to wield two-handed weapons.

Not sure that shield's gonna  help.
The first option that occurs to me is varying the shield armor class bonus based on the kind of shield employed. A small buckler, for instance, would easily modify armor class by 1, while a larger shield (the traditional knight’s heater shield or a round target shield) might provide a bonus of 2. The large tower shield – like those used by Roman soldiers or medieval crossbowmen while reloading – might offer a +3 bonus, but seems unwieldy for the more free-form fantasy combat typical of D&D. So why wouldn’t everyone just elect to get a larger shield? I’d say characters with the smaller shield gain no penalty in dropping it to switch to a two-handed weapon (like a bow), while those using larger shields might have to spend a round to make the transition (if they bother at all). Since the largest shields offer greater protection at the expense of greater freedom of movement, I’d say those using them lose any Dexterity bonus to armor class.

I’ve also stumbled upon two ideas from OSR-oriented writers that provide some nice options for shield mechanics: using a “sundered shield” rule and basing armor class on one’s shield type (and Dexterity modifiers) and using armor to absorb attack damage instead.

A search for sundered shield rules online reveals many different methods for dealing with this in games (and the extent of the debates about shields and armor class); but I like the one outlined in an old (2008) blog post by Trollsmyth the best. In this case shields still provide the standard +1 bonus to armor class, but, at the player’s discretion, can be destroyed by an attacking blow in exchange for ignoring all damage from that attack. Of course once sundered a shield can no longer offer a bonus to armor class until replaced. This gives a player the choice to sacrifice their character’s shield to completely avoid damage at the expense of future protection. It’s a far more powerful means to character survival, especially at lower levels, and provides a frequent expense to relieve gold from characters who constantly rely on this tactic.

In reading James Spahn’s inspiring interpretation of OSR gaming, The Hero’s Journey (available as pay-what-you-want in PDF), I found another alternative treatment for shields. The game challenges the overall rationale behind the fundamental D&D combat mechanic: that armor and shields make it more difficult to hit characters rather than reducing the amount of damage they take. Theoretically armor made people slower and thus easier to hit, yet protected them from damage, while shields functioned to deflect attacks – making it more difficult for opponents to score hits on one’s body – rather than absorb damage. The Hero’s Journey bases armor class on Dexterity modifiers and shield bonuses, while armor serves to reduce damage on individual hits (for instance, chain mail absorbs 3 points of damage before the remainder comes off the wearer’s hit points). It also differentiates among three classes of shields: bucklers, small, and large shields (with bonuses of +2, +4, and +8 respectively). Thus a small shield that most characters might carry offers a substantial (20 percent) reduction in the chance to get hit. I like these armor/shield mechanics from The Hero’s Journey – especially the idea of different sizes of shields providing different levels of protection – but the changes to the core B/X D&D mechanics seem too much for my personal game. (The game contains lots of variations on the OSR core concepts, as derived from Swords & Wizardry; it’s worth checking out for some innovative approaches to OSR mechanics.) I’m sorely tempted to try this system in my B/X D&D game just to see if my low-level characters fare any better in combat.

I’ve read good material out there on the evolution of the D&D combat rules, what D&D shield mechanics were meant to simulate, the role of shields in actual combat, and other people’s preferred methods of dealing with shields and armor. It’s one of those OSR issues on which everyone has an opinion, with people advocating their point of view with varying degrees of passion. I’m not worried about changing the face of gaming; I just want to find shield rules that work nicely in my own game to provide a slightly better advantage to characters without actually overhauling the armor/shield system. Much as I like the armor absorbing damage and shields determining armor class from The Hero’s Journey, I think I might try the sundered shields approach to see how it affects my character’s overall survival in combat and their economic situation in purchasing new shields between dungeon delves.

The issue proves yet again the adaptability of the original D&D mechanics and the ingenuity of the OSR community – and players overall – in customizing games to suit their particular play styles.


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