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There are lots of different shields in history and they are used a lot more like a weapon than depicted in movies and television where shields just passively sit on your arm like a piece of armor rather than an active participant in the battle.
Rather than making a whole lot of distinctions between bucklers, bucklers with sharp points on them, rotellas, targes, targas, rotellas, tower shields, kite shields, and Viking shields I’m just going to make a few categories for them to fall into.
One thing to consider is that the difference between a small buckler and a tower shield is greater than the difference between a dagger and a greatsword. It seems a bit strange to have them be treated as effectively the same.
For roleplaying purposes, there are two major splits with shields. Those held in a boss grip and those held with a strap. Below is a buckler or what I categorize as a “Dueling Shield” from a site called Steel Master. Underneath that is a reproduction of a boss held Viking Shield by the merchant Armstreet and a plate from Capo Ferro with fighters holding strapped shields of a type I categorize as “war shields”.
Those held with a strap can allow you to hold something in your hand like a torch or a backup weapon to throw at an enemy before melee starts. It was a standard thing to hold onto anything from a spear or a javelin or a throwing axe in your shield hand so you could transfer it to your main hand before your enemy reached you.
The strap based shields are good on horseback allowing you to hold the reins in your shield hand. The negatives are that it is harder to be active and to use the shield like a weapon though you can hold the straps in your hand like a boss shield to get more control unfortunately that takes away from the advantage of being able to have something in your hand.
Boss shields are held in a grip at the center of the shield. Most shields until the late middle ages are of this design from small bucklers to large Viking shields. Shields of this design could get quite large in history.
This is another large shield I categorize as a “Body Shield” which is wielded with two hands shown in Talhoffer below:
As you can see there are a lot of different types of shields and they are used in different ways but they are a weapon not a piece of armor and knowing a bit more about them can allow you to be more entertaining in battle descriptions and even add a bit of fluff to your roleplaying. Is your shield round or teardrop shaped? Is it a rectangular buckler and does it have a spike or dagger sticking out to add damage? Is it concave or convex?
Another thing is to consider the materials the shield is made of. Viking shields usually had a metal center or boss attached to wood and bound with leather. Some shields have metal edges. Some shields are made entirely of metal. If so when they get hit they can make quite a sound…which can be a great explanation for why the knight botched their stealth roll by clinging their shield like a bell against something metal. Wood shields were often used to trap blades in them as the blade would get stuck and then disarmed which can be a tool for a DM to use to explain terrible rolls or for a player to use when the DM says the Barbarian is making wild swings so they can use their action to interpose the shield to purposefully disarm the “Buffel” relying on strength rather than proficiency.
For game flavor, you can even impose repairs during the night or stops in towns to replace shields. Good use of the mending cantrip for roleplaying so the Paladin can grudgingly appreciate the value of the meddling wizard.
I had a lot of feedback about my original rules being overcomplicated so I’ve endeavored to fix that. I have split shields into three general categories called Dueling Shield, War Shield, and Body Shield with a game mechanic section and a bit on the social use of carrying a shield of that type in daily life. I’ve entered in a few suggestions on how to apply certain feats to the new rules and a new mechanic for shield warriors working together.
Handling proficiency with shields I recommend that rogues, barbarians, and bards have dueling shield proficiency since dueling shields particularly spiked bucklers were famously used by thieves and street bandits to the point where they often became illegal in some city-states. Fighters and Paladins should have all three types of shields. As a general rule think of bucklers as ubiquitous in almost every city in the Old World from India to Egypt to London for centuries by almost every combat trained nobleman or wannabe street tough. For flavor, at the end of this post, I have an optional rule to regard a “parrying dagger” as if it was mechanically identical to a spiked buckler as they are basically interchangeable. Most historical fencing tournaments today allow you the choice of parrying dagger or buckler and they are used in much the same fashion with different masters suggest different methods of using both depending on the century and locale. This lets you roleplay as a quite standard fighter of the renaissance with a sidesword and dagger without losing the AC and benefits from Dueling Fighting style.
War and Body Shields are martial tools used in war primarily with a bit of guard duty thrown in for the War Shields. Body Shields are a war or ceremonial item that normal people aren’t going to want to carry around unless they want to impress or they want to kill and not be killed.
Shields as Weapons:
Shields can be used to attack for 1d4 blunt damage or if spiked or otherwise weaponized may do 1d4 piercing damage instead. If used as an off-hand weapon the warrior can use a bonus action to make an attack. If you want to allow Two-Weapon Fighting to apply that can open up some interesting options though it does make the shield the dominant off-hand “weapon”. This is the case in history in almost all places and all times outside of Japan and in Northern Italy during the Renaissance when the sidesword/rapier and dagger became popular for civilian and dueling uses.
Warriors with the Protection fighting style can when using a War Shield or Body Shield provide to any adjacent warrior within five feet who also has a War or Body Shield to allow those adjacent warriors to use the Protection fighting style themselves should they not already have the fighting style as long as the target of the enemy is an adjacent warrior to them with a War or Body Shield.
This means that a trained fighter in a column can greatly fortify their comrades in arms. This can provide an in-game mechanic for how Greek phalanxes or Roman legions defeated enemies who on paper far surpassed them. Later on, Pike Squares would devastate cavalries in a similar united fashion.
Optional Feat Changes:
Shield Master increases the d4 for damage to d6. Keep in mind that with different types of shields the bonuses this feat provides will differ depending on the type of shield.
A Sentinel who is part of a Shield Wall formation may give the benefits of Sentinel to the warriors immediately adjacent to them who meet the same requirements as sharing the Protection fighting style.
This combined with Protection fighting style can make even a low-level group of fighters incredibly dangerous when fighting together. An elite fighter backed with two moderately proficient shield mates presents a new type of problem with this rule demanding new tactical approaches especially in an enclosed environment like a long hallway or a bridge or an Underdark tunnel.
A boss held dueling buckler is small, quick, and active in battle. It is mostly used to trap swords, deflect attacks, bind weapons, to hide the movements of your other hand, close down lines of attack, protect the sword hand, and as a weapon to strike the throat, smash the face, and smack your opponent’s sword hand out of line to make it easier for your sword to strike or even disarm your opponent. Some versions have spikes and even stranger adaptions that were probably not martially savvy but intimidating or stylish.
These are the shields that civilians use because of convenience and ease of transport. You put a strap on the shield and hang it over your sword hilt so it doesn’t take up much space and it doesn’t interfere with your daily life. Some versions have a connection so you can hook it to your belt directly which is also very convenient. The buckler is a daily part of life carried by peoples all over the world from Ireland to India for thousands of years and no one is going to bat an eye at someone carrying one when doing their shopping at the market or watching an opera.
A Dueling Shield is 2 to 6 pounds on average depending on the material and is usually between about 10 inches to 18 inches in diameter. A dueling shield provides a + 1 to AC. If the warrior is proficient with Shields they can use a bonus action move the shield to cover the center line. This action grants a bonus to AC equal to half your Proficiency bonus from attacks coming from that specific opponent. Later you can spend another bonus action to move the shield to cover the line of attacks from a different opponent.
Has the “light” weapon property.
This is a martial weapon for war, defense, or threat of war. Most people aren’t going to want to carry with their hand a boss held Viking shield all day and even a strap shield on your arm can get exhausting after a few hours. Depending on size and shape you might have your shield strapped to your back, on the side of a wagon or boat, or carried by a squire or auxiliary. In daily life, you are most likely to see Medium Sized Shields carried by town guards, bodyguards, mercenaries, hunters going after large dangerous game, people in ceremonies, and soldiers.
A War Shield is 5 to 12 pounds depending on the material and two to three feet in diameter with many shapes and sizes. A War Shield provides +2 to AC. As a reaction, the warrior can “duck under cover” and counts as half cover against ranged attacks until the start of your next turn.
This is a martial weapon designed to be used in war while in a formation. It is heavy and bulky making it dangerous to run with and for most non-warriors, it will quickly cause exhaustion just carrying it let alone using it. It is slow and bulky making it a liability to a warrior by themselves or when flanked compared to a War Shield which is more nimble.
Socially, someone walking around with a Body Shield outside of a war zone or as part of their duty would be looked at askance and have Disadvantage on social tests not involving Intimidation. Carrying a body shield around to buy a chicken at the market would be the equivalent of going to Target with a SWAT Riot Shield in your hand. If you’re not a police officer or a Hollywood extra on a movie shoot you’re likely to scare people or make people very uncomfortable unless you can spin why you have it out into a good story. You’re also likely to bump people or knock over things in crowded spaces carrying a shield larger than some people.
A Body Shield is more than 10 pounds depending on material with many being over 20 pounds and at least four feet in length on one dimension. A Body Shield provides +3 to AC. Because of its size and bulk carrying a Body Shield halves movement speed. It is also quite heavy which can affect encumbrance as well further slowing down a weak character and also has the “heavy” weapon property.
When carrying a Body Shield in front of them a warrior benefits from half-cover against ranged attacks. As a reaction, the warrior can “duck under cover” and counts as three-quarter cover against ranged attacks until the start of your next turn.
Because holding a Body Shield blocks vision unless it is made of a material like Glassteel and opaque to sight it gives you disadvantage on Perception and Investigation checks.
Optional Rule: Parrying Dagger
Since Parrying Daggers are basically dueling shields with spikes as far as game mechanics you can use a Parrying Dagger instead of a Dueling Shield with no change other than roleplaying or mechanically for fighting styles via Dueling or Two-Weapon Fighting depending on how you rule that. You can’t throw a Parrying Dagger effectively but you can be very effective dealing piercing damage or blunt damage with a hammer strike with the pommel or a punch with a quillon or with the Nagel, ring, or sail. A large parrying dagger is 19 inches long and a large buckler or dueling shield is about 18 inches long so even the size is basically the same. An advantage of seeing a parrying dagger as mechanically a shield is that you can then easily use a rapier or sidesword and parrying dagger together without issues and with the same effectiveness as with a dueling shield.
The above image is a Parrying Dagger made by Marco Danelli.
For more information about real combat check out the freely provided treatises of the historical masters at Wiktenauer.
If you’re interested in HEMA or Historical European Martial Arts please check out my other blog: A Novice’s Guide to HEMA.
D&D House Rules:
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