Thursday, April 11, 2013

Melee Academy: What's the Tradeoff for NOT Using a Shield?

Douglas Cole over at Gaming Ballistic suggested that a few do a coordinated series of posts on the same subject. In addition to what's below:

Mark Langsdorf talks DF Knights over at No School Grognard.
Jason Packer discusses two-handed weapons at RPG Snob.
and Doug talks getting past shields at Gaming Ballistic.

Welcome to the Melee Academy.

Should you use a shield in GURPS?

Maybe. Probably yes. Most low-tech combatants chose shields in most circumstances. So you should, too.

There, that was helpful.

How about we put it another way - what do you lose by not using a shield, and what do you gain by not using a shield?

What do you give up when you ditch the shield?

Without a shield, you have some problems that shield users do not.

Missile weapons - thrown weapons can be Parried (albeit at a small penalty) or Dodged, but missile weapons can only be Blocked or Dodged. No shield? No Block. You must Dodge, and you must make the roll. Retreat doesn't help, you need to Dodge and Drop for your +3. Missile weapon users know this, and may preferentially shoot at you because you're less able to defend - and even if you do, the Dodged attack keeps on going and limits your utility as a meat shield.

Shield Rush/Shield Bash - You give up a couple of attacks here. You can't whack someone with the shield for straight-up damage (and damage that's hard to Parry, because a shield can be a pretty heavy weapon if it's big enough.) Not a big deal if you've got a big weapon or two weapons, perhaps. But the lack of Shield Rush means you're giving up a pretty good slam bonus (and taking your slam damage to your shield, as well.)

Kiss your DB goodbye. - Using a shield gives you 1-3 DB, depending on its size. A +1 to +3 to all of your defenses in your front arc plus your shield side = much better defenses. Knocking off that bonus costs an opponent 2-6 points of skill worth of Deceptive Attacks. You don't get this. Your defenses are whatever your skill provides, a +1 or +3 for Retreat, and not much else.

What do you get by giving up a shield?

Ditch that shield. It's dead weight on your arm. What do you get back?

Less encumbrance, probably. Only the very lightest of man-sized shields are as light as most weapons - 2 pounds for a Light shield. Even a Small shield is 8 pounds, which is more than a greatsword and its sheath. It's as much as a fantasy-sized greataxe, and almost as much as some full-sized polearms. Low-Tech has some lighter ones, but still, none are especially light.

An extra hand for second weapon. And thus, a second parry. Nevermind you can now Dual-Weapon Attack potentially with one skill (you can do it with a shield, but that's a second skill). You now can have weapon variety, and even reach variety - the rapier-and-dagger, double sticks, the long-and-short sword (katana and wakizashi, say), a second nunchaku, whatever. Either way, you have two Parries and thus your multiple parry penalties cascade from two different weapons. You can now cross-parry or do a supported parry if you go empty hand. You're no longer (as) vulnerable to crowding in close-combat.

An extra hand for a two-handed weapon. Now you can hold your weapon in two hands. Except for fencing weapons, very few one-handed weapons give you Reach 2. Most two-handed weapons do, however. You can now use distance against a foe and counter those who seek to use distance against you. With the right two-handed weapon, your multiple parry cascade is cut in half (quartered with Weapon Master.) And you get a bit more damage, generally, although there are a few hefty one-handed weapons that do as much damage as two-handers.

You save some points. You don't need to buy the Shield skill if you don't use a Shield. You can spend those points on a secondary weapon or unarmed combat skill, which you can use in your off-hand, perhaps. And with a two-handed weapon, you simply can plow all of those points from shield into your weapon skill, and be much better at it than the shield-and-sword guy is at either of his weapons.

So that's the question - that's what you gain and lose without a shield. If you feel like you can live with those costs and enjoy those benefits, get out from behind that slab on your arm and bring your second hand to the fight. If you're thinking about going shieldless and those things don't sound so good, considered yourself warned, strap your shield on your arm, and head into battle.

Historical Note: Curiously, in the earliest days of GURPS, in Man-to-Man, shields got Skill/2 based defenses like weapons, but it was deemed too good, so the published version had Skill/3. So you saw Block 12 or 15 a lot, rarely an 18, and rarely was it better than Dodging. So it got changed back, and shields are all the more useful for the change back. Skill/3 was just brutal, and on low-point guys it was rarely worth even learning how to use it; just hang it on your arm for what was then PD and hope it helped. True story. Of course, now someone's going to read this and think it's a great idea. Actual Play-based opinion: no, it wasn't.


  1. One thing that you don't cover, but that I have noticed in my games, is that using a shield limits your ranged weapon options. It takes too long to take off a shield, ready a two-handed ranged weapon, fire it at a target, and put the shield back on. People with shields end up using slings or thrown weapons.

    The guy with a two-handed weapon just drops it, draws his ranged weapon, fires it, drops the ranged weapon, and picks up his melee weapon again. Much simpler.

    It's a small point, but it does make a difference in play.

    1. That's a good point. Your ranged options are a bit more limited - thrown is probably the best choice, slings next, spells as well if you're a spellcaster (in fact, it's rare in my games for spellcasters to not have shields).

      The drop-and-draw method is a bit slow, though. Drop - free action. Draw - one turn. Ready to fire is multiple turns, how many depends on the weapon and accessories (such as a crossbow sling in DF), and re-readying from the ground is multiple turns (or some good rolling), during which you can't parry and won't want to retreat. A lanyard makes that better, but as a GM I'd hammer your skill hard for firing a missile weapon with a lanyarded two-handed weapon hanging from your wrist.

      I find that folks who expect to use missile weapons keep it out, and do this instead:
      - fire missile weapon, then drop it (free action), then fast-draw new weapon (free action if it works).
      - Ready shield (1-3 turns, 1 if it's buckler style).
      - Attack.

      The "Ready shield" get skipped if they are a two-handed weapon user.
      In my previous game we decided that the sequence was kind of ridiculous, so we didn't let you Fast-Draw at the end of the turn you fired and dropped. It make for a vulnerability window that made if tricky to try and use your missile weapons at point-blank. But strictly by the RAW, it's fine AFAIK, and it's a good tactic.

      Thrown weapon guys tend to err on the side of being able to throw a version of their primary weapon. So Axe/Mace dude carries a hatchet out, and can melee with it if necessary, and Spear dude carries a spear or javelin, and no one makes up Knife dude because throwing knives is largely a waste of time.

    2. I've definitely seen the assertions in your last paragraph. The Throwing Axe is good enough to use as a primary melee weapon and a ranged weapon, so carrying two or three of those isn't uncommon if encumbrance allows.

      I'm not sure what the best course of action is for the spear thrower types. I think I'd like some clips on the inside of my large shield to hook my javelins to...

    3. A golf-bag like sheath is the way to go. And convince your GM to let you use Fast-Draw to get them out. :)

    4. I seem to recall summarizing thrown weapon philosophy as "never throw knives when you can throw axes." Swing/Cut is just too attractive to pass up, while GURPS tends to mirror real life that knife throwing is the art of skillfully discarding an otherwise perfectly good weapon.

    5. We've got a number of war stories where a thrown axe turned a fight. It's a really effective weapon, if you thrown it at the right time and at the right target. Borriz has done so effectively at least twice in my current DF game, including throwing one across a melee into the back of someone threatening a friend.

      A knife would have been a wasted action. An axe can be a fight-winner.

    6. In my last online DF game, the gargoyle knight would use Move and Attack to fly to someone's off-shield flank and throw an axe at them from 2-4 yards away. It gave him an easy way to close the distance without suffering the 9 cap on melee attacks. It's a startling effective tactic.

  2. Movement is you defensive tool and players who use 2h weapons should learn the value of mobility like aod:Id, ca:l, combined with grip or form mastery and extra effort feats. With the right practice and planed out Tactics a 2h weapon user can dance with range and strike opportunely think it's a good exercise to just play around with roll20 with another player to form optimal strategies, been wishing someone to take my offer for my own curiosity there is only so much you can think through by yourself.

    1. Movement in indeed critical, for any reach weapon. It's so critical that one knight in my game stays at Light encumbrance for that reason!

      Roll20 hangouts would be fun, but it's something I can't commit to regularly, and my available hours are very limited. Early to bed, early to rise, and work the hours in between. ;)

  3. I am currently playing a dwarf (Delvin) using a two-handed axe (my first GURPS character). I did it more as a character concept than from any thought of tactical advantage. We started with 75 point characters and I only had 40 points to play with after the dwarf template we are using (plus points from disadvantages). Delvin is good with his axe, given his points, but I had to make up for my lack of defense by getting very good armor. I am the meat shield...we have a wizard guy, a sneaky guy, and another guy with no discernible ability. We cannot let ourselves get surprised and there is not a lot of room for error in tactics or bad dice rolls. But I think I have learned more by the challenge.


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