Shield saves

Image from Wikipedia

I would like to experiment with an “active defense” option for shield use. Here is the proposal.

Shields provide the following benefits.

  • +1 AC
  • 1 shield parry per round
  • +4 to saves versus appropriate area effects
All of the benefits only apply when a shield user has freedom of movement during combat (so not against traps).
At the beginning of a combat round, characters must decide which enemy they will primarily direct their shield against. The shield parry is a reaction, and may be used against a successful hit by that enemy. Fighters use their most favorable saving throw, other classes use their least favorable saving throw. Note also the ability of axes to destroy shields.
Use of a shield save requires a full action for characters without armor skill (e.g., zero level humans and magic-users). In other words, a “full defense” type of action will allow the use of a shield saving throw even for a non-combatant class character.
Appropriate area attacks would include dragon breath and fireballs, but not, for example, cloudkill.
Hopefully, this will not prove cumbersome (an attack in addition to a save versus poison does not seem cumbersome, so I don’t see how this will be much different, though I suppose getting hit happens more frequently than getting hit and poisoned). In any case, figuring things like this out is what testing is for.

I think this rule would also work with my recent 2d6 fantasy game, without the +1 AC bonus (since the numeric armor scale is less extensive), and with only +1 to saving throws versus area effects.

16 thoughts on “Shield saves

  1. Picador

    Very nice. I might modify the Shield Save rule by saying that Fighters facing multiple 1HD-or-less creatures can trade one or more of their extra attacks for extra shield saves. This seems like a nice nod in the direction of the Chainmail rules for parries and for multiple attacks/parries by Heroes and Superheroes against normal men.

    One question: have you considered how this scales? Two high-level fighters (or humanoid monsters) attacking each other and using shields now hit each other quite a bit less frequently. That may be good; I can’t decide.

    1. Brendan

      Yeah, I’m not sure whether that is good or not. If the hit dice are also high… probably not. On the other hand, it would add an interesting gladiatorial feeling to such a combat. The other thing probably worth noting is that 1 on 1 combat doesn’t seem to be that common in D&D (at least not in the games I run). Fights end up feeling more like commando raids or total chaos, and there is almost always more than one enemy at a time.

  2. LS

    If I wasn’t so hell-bent on being the first great magic user in the Pahvelorn game world, I would really want to play a fighter. You’ve done a great job of making them interesting.

    1. Brendan

      Yes, keeping the three fighting styles compelling is the key requirement. I use d6 damage for all weapons other than two-handed, and strength does not offer a damage bonus in OD&D, so going two handed is the only way to do extra damage. There is a PC currently who has chosen to fight with a two-handed weapon (probably because he found an “unbreakable” two-handed falchion). Right now, the options are:

      – One-handed weapon and utility item or free hand
      – One-handed weapon and shield (+1 AC, saves as above)
      – Two-handed weapon (2d6 take highest damage)
      – Dual wielding (+1 attack or +1 AC, by choice of offensive/defensive)

    2. Matthew James Stanham

      Have you looked at “space” as a mitigating factor? One of the interesting things about D&D is that you damage die size can be largely balanced by space taken. So, for example if 1d6 is 3′, 1d8 is 4′, 1d10 is 5′ and 1d12 is 6′ larger weapons become substitutes for fewer men. Highly interesting, I have found.

    3. Brendan

      I actually like this, but I think it is hard to work into a hangout videoconference game, which is where I do most of my gaming currently. That said, I do sort of informally work these restrictions in, following what I think were Gary’s original guidelines for space required. A 10′ corridor can support:

      – 3 warriors with spears or pole arms
      – 2 warriors with one handed melee weapons such as swords
      – 1 warrior with a two-handed weapon that requires swinging space

      I think that works out very close to your numbers above.

      Three categories rather than four seems ideal to me right now because it is easy to model with only d6s rather than needing to resort to variable dice damage, and OD&D has me in a very d6-centric head space. It seems like your scheme would also work well for B/X scale, perhaps going d4 to d10 rather than d6 to d12 though.

    4. Matthew James Stanham

      I can imagine it might be difficult in video conference game, but on the other hand we have had some success with it and do not really use miniatures or anything. Gygax goes with two characters in a 10′ wide passage in B2 or three if armed with small weapons like daggers or hand axes. It is probably more informative to look at Swords & Spells for an “advanced” take on things. Regardless, it sounds like you have a handle on things.

  3. Sean Fallon

    This sounds like an excellent experiment.

    I have my own issues with the passive nature of armor class in most systems which I have tried to address in my own AD&D / DCC RPG hack where shields & helmets are more important for defense during combat than armor type.

    I’ve decreased the bonuses for armor type, done away with armor above chain mail and made PCs without helmets susceptible to head trauma on 50% of successful hits. Shields currently grant a +2 to AC, and martial characters — Fighters & Clerics — can opt for a additional shield bonus from a menu of class features available as they gain levels.
    I may just have to add your Shield Parry & +4 to saves versus appropriate area effects to that class feature.
    I try to make bonuses feel more like the result of “active” PC training than “passive” qualities inherent in their equipment.
    Great work as usual & thanks for the link to my Tumblr in your inspiration sidebar; I really dig your thoughtful blog a great deal & have stolen many of your ideas already.
    Keep up the excellent work.

  4. Ynas Midgard

    I assume you use the original AC ratings provided by armour (leather 7, chain 5, plate 3), plus what you have just described above about shields. What about helmets? Are they a relevant element of your combat system?

    First, I decided not to try this parry mechanics; however, your notion of axes being capable of destroying shields made me think about it. What if after *any* attempt to parry with a shield there was a chance of the shield being destroyed in the process? Off the top of my head, here are some basic rules:

    1. The base chance is 0 in 6 (or 1 in 6, if you want even more splintered shields).
    2. High STR or a monster with 4 or more HD increases chances by 1.
    3. Very high STR (a score of 18) or a monster with 8 or more HD would further increase chances by 1.
    4. The opponent using a two-handed weapon or an axe would increase chances by 1 (I’m thinking about separating the two, thus a two-handed axe would be twice as effective).

    I haven’t yet playtested neither the basic rules you described above, nor my variation.

    1. Brendan


      Some good ideas there. I particularly like the two-handed axe variation (though not all two handed weapons should have an increased chance of destroying a shield; for example: spears). Given that I imagine many players will not want to give up an attack to target a shield directly, giving the axe a chance to destroy a shield on a normal attack too seems like a good idea.

      For the strength/big monster thing, I imagine that this is something that can be handled situationally, so as to not add a mandatory extra die roll (the d6 “shield splintering” roll). Though the numbers you have there look pretty good, and the default 0 in 6 means that it won’t be required all the time.

    2. Ynas Midgard

      It also occurred to me that one may entirely eliminate the constant AC improvement shields provide and just go with the parry mechanics above. The AC improvement could be provided by wearing a helmet instead.

      What do you think?

    3. Brendan


      Seems legit.

      Remember to have characters remove helmets before listening at doors (or take a listen penalty), as I suspect helmets will become popular for most classes if they give +1 AC.


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