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  • Aaron K

D&D Edits: Proficiency, Part 3: Shields

Hey Reader!

Welcome back to the Zurn blog! We have talked about weapon and armor proficiencies in Dungeons & Dragons earlier in this series, and today we want to discuss the mechanics for shields. Full confession (and I'm really sorry about this), but this is going to be a long post, as there's a lot to talk about.

It is worth reiterating that I don't think D&D is a bad system. But I am certain that the people who designed the rules for shields 1) have no practical knowledge of shields, and 2) are purely working off of a stereotype from movies (as there are even some movies that showcase our points below, so this is not even a problem with all of Hollywood). To sum up our thoughts briefly, shields in D&D need to be redesigned to adequately reflect both medieval technique and real world utility, and by doing so we add a lot to the game.

I. Shield Proficiency in Dungeons and Dragons

Chapter V of the Player Handbook (Page 144) says, "A shield is made of wood or metal and is carried in one hand. Wielding a shield increases your Armor Class by 2. You can benefit from only one shield at a time." So to start off, this is accurate: shields were held in the hand (boss-grip/center-grip) or strapped on the arm (kite/heater shields for the most part), and were primarily used for defense (with the word "primarily" being an important operative word). They were most commonly made of wood, but in Arabia you do find some (small) shields made of metal.

So it seems like shields work similarly in the D&D universe as they do in ours. My confusion begins when we get to the mechanics behind shield usage and proficiency.

II. The Problems with Shield Proficiency

As we noted in our initial post, "proficiency" in D&D comes primarily in two forms: static proficiencies (where you don't have to roll, including language and armor) and use proficiencies (where your ability increases as your level increases, including skills, spellcasting, and weapons).

As-written in the Player's Handbook, shields fall under armor proficiencies, and thus grant a static +2 to your Armor Class (or "AC") regardless of the character level. Off the bat, this already strikes me as a problem from a realist perspective, and it's not the argument you might think.

Most people who have studied medieval treatises on warfare will say, "Wait: you mean a buckler that is less than a foot in diameter gives the same protection as a Viking round shield (which is about three feet in diameter) and a medieval kite shield (which covers your torso and legs)? And D&D's answer is "yes."

And that makes sense to me, since your AC isn't just your armor: it's your overall defensive movements and armor put together. And the buckler, though it is small, is very versatile. So I don't have a problem with shield size not giving an added bonus to your protection, especially since D&D doesn't distinguish between ranged and melee AC. Zurn's system makes a distinction, but D&D doesn't, so I don't fault them for this.

My issue with shields is that it is considered a "static proficiency" akin to armor. When you look at shield usage across history, there is an art to using a shield that grows as your skill increases. Any child knows how to hold up an object in front of them (so if that's all that shield usage is, then everyone should have shield proficiency regardless of class, and it should mimic the AC bonuses from cover). What makes a person truly proficient with a shield is the knowledge of proper placement of the shield and footwork to move attacks offline. And that is a skill that grows over time.

And this is precisely what D&D measures with weapon proficiency. So I contend that shield proficiency should mimic weapon proficiency, not armor proficiency, if we want realism in our games. If a cleric with a mace and shield is increasing in her skill with maces, why is her skill in using a shield static?

Now someone is going to tell me, "But Aaron: if a Level 20 Fighter is getting a +6 to AC from their shield on top of plate mail armor and other bonuses, that person is going to be nigh impossible to damage!" Hold your horses: we'll get to mechanics shortly. But as a quick response, if you're looking for realism, I have news for you: knights in plate mail with shields were hard to kill (as you see on the centaur to the left, who, complete aside, was drawn by Ben Wootten who is amazing and you should follow his page on Deviant Art. No money for this endorsement, just really love his work).

But don't worry about the math: we will get to that below. First, though, let's look at what mechanics need work.

III. The Problems with Shield Mechanics

I'm going to divide my thoughts into three primary issues with shield mechanics: damage, defense, and abilities (which will include both maneuvers and feats).

On the damage side of things, shields are abysmal in D&D 5th Edition, and this is ironic and strange as this was not always the case in D&D. As far back as 3rd Edition there was a mechanic for a "spiked shield" which granted a d6 piercing attack to shields at 5ft, allowing people to attack with a shield.

In 5th Edition, we have the "Shield Master" feat, however, which indicates by its wording that using a shield to attack is somehow a specialized skill or ability (text provided below where we talk about the feat, in case you're interested). But we know from history that it's not: it's part of proficiency, but it's not a super secret skill that you unlock by "mastering" shield usage. To give only one (of many) examples, consider what Tacitus wrote about the Batavians (a Germanic tribe in modern day Netherlands that was not a particularly sophisticated clan):

"No sooner did the Batavians begin to close with the enemy, to strike them with their shields, to disfigure their faces, and overthrowing the force on the plain to advance their line up the hill, than the other auxiliary cohorts joined with eager rivalry in cutting down all the nearest of the foe. Many were left behind half dead, some even unwounded, in the hurry of victory." ~ Cornelius Tacitus, The Life of Cnaeus Julius Agricola, Ch. XXXVI

So since we are talking about realism, let's set the record straight: even undisciplined, poorly trained warriors used shields to attack. This is not a special skill: it should be standard. And as history progressed this strategy did not die: the Norsemen, Saxons, and warriors up through the Middle Ages used it as well.

More than that, they aren't using spiked shields: the shields of the Batavians were rounded bossed shields which were common at the time. So a shield strike doesn't require a "specialized shield" either: any shield can do this (we even see buckler strikes noted in Fiore's fencing treatise, so even small shields can strike).

Second, the defense provided by shields is problematic. What I mean by this is that a game that has a mechanic for flanking should take into account the fact that a soldier cannot cover all facings of his body with a shield. This is also the big difference between a shield and armor: shields only protect a portion of the body. So if we want to be realistic, a shield AC bonus should only apply to part of the bearer's body, not the whole person, especially since D&D (and other games) are broken up into rounds that represent only a matter of seconds.

And finally, the list of special abilities in D&D tied to shield usage are problematic at best. First, let's discuss the Shield Master feat, as that is technically available to all characters. The Shield Master feat (Page 170) says:

You use shields not just for protection but also for offense. You gain the following benefits while you are wielding a shield:

  • If you take the Attack action on your turn, you can use a bonus action to try to shove a creature within 5 feet of you with your shield.

  • If you aren't incapacitated, you can add your shield's AC bonus to any Dexterity saving throw you make against a spell or harmful effect that targets only you.

  • If you are subjected to an effect that allows you to make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage, you can use your reaction to take no damage if you succeed on the saving throw, interposing the shield between yourself and the source of the effect.

Now the description of the feat is, "you use shields not just for protection but also for offense." Then as we keep reading, we find we gain three (very useful) abilities when bearing a shield. But how many of those involve offense? One. So the feat is not a, "You learn how to use your shield for offense" feat at all: the whole premise of the feat needs reworking. More than that, again, I contest the notion that using a shield for offense is some sort of a specialized feat: it should be present for anyone using a shield, and merely being proficient in the use of a shield should teach you this.

And we could talk about the Riposte maneuver for Battle Master Fighters (as shields make you harder to hit), but the only thing that we need to mention here is that with a few changes you could actually add some shield maneuvers to the list of maneuvers for the Battle Master, which would give more reason to play a character with a shield. It's rather sad that all of them are weapon-based, and none of them actually benefit you using a shield (which, again, reinforces the notion that modern society finds shields to be boring compared to other weapons).

IV. A Redesign for Shields

I contend that four changes should be made to make shields more realistic.

First, shields should reflect weapon proficiency for their AC bonus (2-6) instead of a static +2 bonus.

Second, shields should apply their AC bonus to half of the character's facings (2 on a square grid, 3 on a hex grid), and may reposition their shield after resolving movement for the turn. So generally the shield arm and the front of the body should be protected, whatever that looks like for your grid. This means that half of the model is exposed at all times, allowing people to bypass the AC from the shield by attacking where the shield is not (adding tactical advantage that is not tied to the Flanking rules in the game).

Third, shields should do d6 bludgeoning damage (or piercing, in the case of a spiked shield) upon a successful hit (using the proficiency bonus for the Attack roll, just like you'd do with a weapon). The shield uses the Strength stat for both the Attack and Damage roll, though a game master could decide to let a buckler have the Finesse property for the purposes of resolving attacks with the shield.

And fourth, the Shield Master feat is adjusted to the following:

You use shields with more nuanced techniques, enhancing your protection and offensive capabilities. You gain the following benefits while you are wielding a shield:

  • Damage dealt by the shield is increased from 1d6 to 1d8.

  • If you take the Attack action on your turn, you can use a bonus action to try to shove a creature within 5 feet of you with your shield.

  • If you aren't incapacitated, you can add your shield's AC bonus to any Dexterity saving throw you make against a spell or harmful effect that targets only you.

  • If you are subjected to an effect that allows you to make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage, you can use your reaction to take no damage if you succeed on the saving throw, interposing the shield between yourself and the source of the effect.

These combine to create a realistic approach to shields. It also makes a shield user feat a competitive choice compared to, say, Great Weapon Master, Crossbow Expert, and other auto-include feats. Both frontline fighters and support characters who use shields and want to optimize their defense would seriously consider this feat.

But perhaps the biggest thing it does is that it adds a tactical element to the game. If a group of players use shields and they are all right-handed, their right flank is going to be more exposed (because they will all have their shields in their left hands), so it adds uniqueness to someone playing a lefty (encouraging roleplaying). Rogues who sneak attack a target not only get added damage, but they find it easier to hit a person with a shield if they can choose an unprotected facing. Suddenly a new (but not complex) part of strategy comes into play - strategies that were employed as far back as ancient times.


D&D is a great game. I just think that the redesigners with each edition 1) haven't used shields in real life, 2) view shields as less heroic and more passe than a weapon or spell, and 3) should realize that people take what they see in games as truth, so it is incumbent on us as game designers to instruct our players properly. And if we aim for realism, it will not only give the game more tactical strategy but will also educate people correctly on the usage, strengths, and weaknesses of shields.

We will be taking a break from D&D edit posts for a bit, talking over some general roleplayer etiquette that will make the gaming session more enjoyable for you and the rest of your friends around the table, whether you are the game master or one of the players. I recently got married, and my wife and I are getting ready to start up two more groups (I wanted to start up four, but I cannot justify the time

Until next time,




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