Friday, June 17, 2011

Shields and Turtles

Oddysey is continuing her hate-on for the shield! Ok, seriously, she brings up some good points:

My understanding of older styles is that shields were mainly used when the sword was a heavier weapon that didn't allow for much finesse, and in large, well-trained units where each individual soldier's use of the shield contributed to the defense of the unit as a whole.

The "heavier" comment generally isn't true (most were actually lighter than the bastard swords she discusses in the previous paragraph) but the large unit stuff is. Unfortunately, it's nearly impossible to speak about medieval European swordsmanship because they kept changing things all the time. Vikings used shields in large part because most Joe-vikings didn't have body armour (and they did shield walls). Most mounted knights wanted shields because being on horseback made it hard to protect their left side. That lasted until the armour got good enough that the shield became redundant. The Spanish sword-and-buckler dude used his shield to get past the wall of sharp pointies surrounding a formation of pikemen so he could get to the soft, stab-able center. The story of medieval European arms and armour is one of constant flux and innovation, as warriors adapted their kit to the foes they expected to fight.

I think Oddysey nails it here, from a gaming perspective:

The main reason I think D&D doesn't favor shields remains that split between offensive and defensive strategies, and honestly it's a pretty good one -- more offense means shorter combats, and shorter combats means more time for the parts of the game that I find actually interesting.

A game with valuable defensive strategies is a game of interminably long combats. Low-level fights against weak armour tend to be pretty snappy; but pit your 2nd level fighters against guys in plate and be prepared for a whole lot of dice rolling: miss-miss-miss-miss... And that's in a fight where the only real defensive choice is which armour you put on before the fight starts. Imagine how ugly it could get if the goblins could form a shield wall or a turtle? I've often considered building a combat system around the rock-paper-scissors of thrust-parry-feint, but again, that sort of focus just makes combats take longer, and that's not at all what I want in my gaming these days.

Art by Albrecht Durer.


Erin Palette said...

Idea: Take the Bump-Undulate-Rake-Probe minigame of lockpicking that is making its way through the OSR blogosphere and refit it for combat

Norman Harman said...

Great post. I agree, but ;)

> Imagine how ugly it could get if the goblins could form a shield wall or a turtle?

I like this effect. To me this is a player challenge. Instead of wasting time beating against the high defense they should alternative means to their goal. magic, oil, leaving and finding easier target.

I tend to arm most my little guys 1HD or less with pikes, polearms, etc. cause they are little and have no hope of winning against big guys. Their survival strategy is to be annoying and not worth the trouble. Same reason their lairs tend to be trap fests.

DHBoggs said...

Can I begin to convey how frustrating it can be to read comments by well meaning folks who obviously know nothing, either from personal experience or detailed study, about hand to hand combat with weapons? Okay, for a moment, picture yourself standing in front of someone holding a chair or a stool. Now picture them smacking you in the face with it; beating your arms with it, shoving it into your chest... Nevermind that "shield" has become synonomous with protection - because they are necessary to protect against arrows, stones, oil - shields in face to face combat are offensive weapons, its a left jab, when the sword is the punch.

Given a choice, warriors carried shields, even in duels, more often than not.

trollsmyth said...

DHBoggs: Oddysey, in this case, is actually writing from a position of personal experience with hand-to-hand fighting, but, as she readily admits, an extremely narrow one in which the armour was exceptionally good. Trying to survey all of medieval European combat from a single point is going to make other points along the timeline look insane, because the assumptions at each one are different.

As an archaeologist, perhaps you can answer a puzzler for me. To the best of my knowledge, neither shields nor bodyarmour were common among the pre-columbian folks living in North America. The Aztecs, Mayans and some other folks in Central and South America had them, but the folks in North America don't appear to have.

Is that just a misconception of how combat worked in North America? Or were their cultural reasons that prevented their use? (And no, this isn't a counter-example to your point; I'm generally in agreement with you, and have been a fan of making the shield better for a long time. This is just a point that's bugged me for a while now.)

Tim Jensen said...

Oddysey said: "more offense means shorter combats, and shorter combats means more time for the parts of the game that I find actually interesting."

Trollsmyth said:"I've often considered building a combat system around the rock-paper-scissors of thrust-parry-feint, but again, that sort of focus just makes combats take longer, and that's not at all what I want in my gaming these days."

I don't like combat systems with a high "whiff factor" either. I see two ways to approach this without playing a game with different priorities.

On one hand, you could take away hit point increases after first level. That would certainly encourage people to carry shields for the AC bonus.

On the other hand, you could adapt less-abstract combat rules like Burning Wheel's "Fight!" system, where your choices of positioning, choices of attacks, environmental conditions and degree of injuries are all meant to be interesting components to play with on their own.

5stonegames said...

The first nations of North America were resourced starved and little more sophisticated materially than hunter gatherers for the most part.

Because they did not engage in much more than skirmish warfare, they rarely developed sophisticated war only weapons other than a war club

However they did use hide shields and hide and stick armor upon occasion

a cite

5stonegames said...

Another note, part of the confusion comes from the a historical mix and effects of armors in the pseudo Europe setting

Leather armor while real was rare as it couldn't be repaired.

Layered textile defense were used instead and would probably have the same stats.

Mail was effective but horribly expensive. Defeating it was done not with a sword slash or cut but either with specialized thrusting weapons, going around the armor or by beating the wearer to death with a mace (the #1 weapon) . Not very heroic.

Shields were used in the mail period because they were cheap and effective especially for warriors who could not afford armor and they could protect weak spots (the legs typically) and prevent a solid mace blow. Still very useful.

Studded doesn't exist.

Splint mail was basically almost never used nor was Scale much past the dark ages

Banded Mail is Lorica Segmenta and not used past 4 or 500 AD

Coat of Plates (an advanced kind of scale) is very common and basically ignored

The period Oddysey was familiar with was the plate era. Plate was basically impervious to most weapons save very strong crossbows at close range and highly specialized weapons and techniques that were almost all two handed.

A really good set of white harness, 2mm Italian steel was essentially impervious to everything other than sustained bludgeoning attacks and those weapons.

This was pretty expensive stuff but even its cheaper cousins (and note munitions grade armor was cheaper and less labor intensive than mail) provided good protection.

The less well off troops dropped the shield because it was tactically mostly useless, polearms were needed for battle field work and they were all two handed.

The thing is Gygax used the old term field plate and full plate for the above which is annoying.

That leaves Plate Mail. What D&D calls plate mail is probably a coat of plates over mail!

A coat of plates was a common armor, within budget and comfort for many soldiers but as Widby showed, it too was mostly impervious. Most wounds were on unarmored legs

Shields were still used at that period and and even later but by skirmishers and in personal combat.

How we work that into D&D without big changes is tricky.

Antion said...

On Indians & armor (from an Indian of the Northwest Coast), it's pretty easy to find pictures of Tlingits in body armor, complete with full helmets (& copper daggers). Wood frame shields seem to crop up all over, but never catch on large-scale.

I'd say it has less to do with being "resource starved" (though one may cause the other) and more with levels of social organization. No specialized warrior class, most war being either slave or retaliatory raiding, etc. No swords, so the killing tool was the spear or the warclub. The offense/defense arms race simply didn't require shields at the moment of contact.

5stonegames said...

I think you have a good point there antion.

Without a specialist warrior class war only weapons like the shield and armor are a lot less likely to appear.

The war-club is kind of an outlier , its mainly useful as a sidearm in personal combat but its very easy to make unlike a useful shield.

I had also forgotten the copper daggers. Slat armor I knew but the rudimentary metal working was something I forgot about. A dagger is a natural kind of thing , its a modified tool that makes a nasty weapon and if you are making knives for skinning, a dagger is little extra trouble.

Evernevermore said...

@5stonegames - studded leather is actually real, its just called bezainted armor. The descriptions match up closer than many of the other armor descriptions.

Armor among the North American indians was slightly more common than people are remembering. Those bone chest ornaments were actually a form of armor against arrows, given the non metallic arrowheads. The Indians of the Pacific Northwest were the most famous for using armor, as they were also one of the few that had metal weapons, land use rights, and other "sophisticated" practices.

Splint mail had a long history, its the variety most people are familiar with for samurai. The description and art are simply less ornate samurai armor.

DHBoggs actually brings up one of the more brutal uses for a shield like the traditional large shield like a Viking or Norman would use. The shieldboss was a brutal stand-in for brass knuckles and that's for a purely plank based shield, as a shield with a banded rim brings a crushing, slashing weapon to the party. D&D has never handled shield use well, as combat straddles between a duel and small unit combat. A Scottish targe or other buckler sized weapon had a very specific use in a duel, as a skilled swordsman could deflect blows quite well. In contrast a larger shield, like D&D calls a tower shield, was really only useful when in a unit, as the shield was often too clumsy or heavy to quickly block or parry a blow.

Oddysey said...

D&D has never handled shield use well, as combat straddles between a duel and small unit combat.