Friday, January 22, 2016

Shields in D&D and Retro-Clones

In fantasy RPGs the shield is almost as iconic as the sword. The image of a hero raising his shield to protect themselves is something that breaks genre, regardless of how feasible the actual use of a shield in combat seems to be. From the medieval knight the modern superhero to the sci-fi soldier, they're an intrinsic part of the mythic symbolism that is at the root of fantasy roleplaying.
Plus, they make you look so bad ass.
Shields are a key part of a warrior's defense. Essentially they're portable walls that offer a something for the combatant to hide behind. They quite literally make you harder to hit. But in most D&D and its derivative systems shields rarely offer more than a minor bonus to armor class. I understand this is done for the sake of balance and that realism isn't something that is of prime importance when it comes to fantasy RPGs - but this method always struck me as... well... wrong.

Similarly, armor does not make you harder to hit. It makes you less likely to suffer damage from an attack by the protective garments deflecting or absorbing the force of the blow. From padded gambisons to boiled leather to advanced composite armor, it all serves the purpose of preventing a damage from a successful attack.
Some armor is more effective than others...
Instead, D&D gives us a system where both shield and armor provide the exact same statistical effect. For speed of play, this is fine - but when I sat down to think about it some time ago it really started to gnaw at my thought process. So, I got to thinking about how to make something more accurate to the true purpose of armor and shields and, to make shields that were something that players actually had an interest in taking. A majority of gamers I've played with over the years will choose a two-handed weapon for its high damage output or an off-hand weapon in order to make multiple attacks instead of a paltry one or two point bonus to their Armor Class. Shields, for all their mythology and glory, get regulated to a tertiary choice at best. Sure, they're stylish - but when it comes down to hard numbers, they're not a choice if you really want to survive.

So, I propose a different idea for both shields and armor. Armor does not provide a bonus to a character's AC. Instead, it provides a reduction in damage. Depending on how heavy the armor is, it provides more of a reduction. This Reduction Value is subtracted from the damage inflicted by every successful attack made against the character.

Shields, on the other hand, do provide an Armor Class bonus - and a huge one. The combination of the two makes for your classic juggernaut knight type of character, while someone wielding just a shield can easily mimic the agility and tactical movement of a hoplite or spartan. 

So, if I were to implement this mechanic for Swords & Wizardry WhiteBox or White Star I'd do it up something like this.

Protective Item
AC/AAC Bonus
Reduction Value
Light Armor
Medium Armor
Heavy Armor
Shield (buckler, target, round)
-4 [+4]
Shield (kite, tower, energy)
-6 [+6]

This means that a character with a high Dexterity can rely on a shield and the idea that with such a high Armor Class they're planning to not get hit in the first place. Meanwhile, it leaves those wearing heavy armor open to the likelihood of getting hit, but they can take more punishment before going down.

Or you can say "America, fuck yeah!" and throw your shield.
Anyway, just a few thoughts of Armor, Shields, and defense in D&D and its retro-clones. Something I've been mulling over in my head for a bit and that always gets me thinking.


  1. I think you nailed it. I have always hated D&D (and the like) armor class. It is something that should have stayed in that naval game they adapted it from.

    The only thing though, I think two handed weapon damage should be increased. If using a system with constant damage dice I would do something like this.
    1) Your AC/DR system (+ AC bonus = DR): I still like weapons having to penetrate armor.
    2) Single handed weapons (1d6)
    3) Two handed weapons (2d6)
    4) Thief/Rogue Dodge ability (possible to learn by others?)
    5) Dual wielding (2d6 take the highest)
    6) Missile weapons (1d6)

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. I really like your ideas here. The simplicity of your Dual Wielding idea is exceptional and the idea that the Thief's backstab avoids armor is also a good one. It makes me wonder if increasing missile weapon damage might also be viable. Arrows doing 2d6 (since they're armor piercing), while sling bullets doing 1d6, etc etc. But yeah... I'm liking a lot of these ideas.

    3. I wish I could take the credit. I just shamelessly crib ideas from others. I think I first found the duel-wielding idea from Jason Cone in his Philotomy's Musings, a house-rule/interpretation set for his 0e game.

  2. To clarify, I would use your DR numbers for the AC as well. For example, platemail would have AC5(+5)/DR5, Chainmail AC7(+3)/DR3 or whatever the numbers would look like--looking at you BD&D AC9 v. 1e AC10.

  3. I had been considering something like this for shields; I was going to have shields improve your AC by half your level. This way shield don't totally over power warriors at low levels and they help keep warriors relevant at higher levels.

    As for armour as damage reduction, DR 5 is going to make even a low level character practically indestructible so I would probably have DR 1 for leather, 2 for chain and 3 for plate. Of course then you have to decide if you want to go and rebalance all your monsters with DR instead of AC...

  4. This comment has been removed by the author.

  5. Very cool! This reminds of a video I saw on Youtube, by a fellow named Lindybeige. He proposes that the WEAPON you're using makes you harder to hit, because your sword or axe is the main thing between you and the guy trying to poke you with his weapon.

    So the stuff between you and bodily harm -- weapons and shiled, modified by how well you can use them = your Armor Class. And Armor absorbs damage.