Thursday, July 4, 2013

Shields for Wizards

Back in my first GURPS game, wizards wore robes and carried staves. I didn't tell them to do so, although I didn't tell them not to, either. They just did. Daggers, robes, staves - they'd shun armor and wouldn't think of using a non-staff weapon. The availability and utility of the Staff spell helped, but it was more than that.

All of my players at the time were AD&D vets, often from my own games, and my first couple of games were set in first Greyhawk and then in the (then just released) Forgotten Realms.

So even the NPCs were equipped that way. The only guys who would skip the staves and use swords and bows and armor were the couple of "fighter-mages" people made up, usually elves (they had Magery in their racial package). They tended to be fighters first with a couple of spells at useful levels, not really wizards.

It was only my next group that realized what "no classes" meant in a full sense. We ended up in very short order with wizards with leather armor (mail was too heavy, and would slow down a weak wizard too much), one-handed staves (usually a 3-4' jo), and shields. Once the first guy took a shield, I'm not sure I've seen more than one wizard without one since. Even that one is a "not sure" because I think he started with one but abandoned it once he felt like he needed a free arm for Iron Arm or something.

All of our DF wizards use them, too, and not just because it gives them a place to put their shield lectern for mapping.

Why use a shield?

Basically, it gives you Block. Block is useful, just like Dodge, versus missile fire. The DB of the shield adds to Dodge, too, and the parry from Smallsword, which you're using to wield your short staff. It also gives you a second weapon if you need it, for bashing or slicing, although it's not a moneymaker attack for your typical weak wizard.

You give up some stuff from the quarterstaff, though. Shorter reach, and thus a slightly worse effective range on your spells with a Staff-enchanted one. Staves have a sweet +2 to Parry, and get favorable multiple parries in GURPS Martial Arts. They also let you reach out and touch someone with a Melee spell from behind an ally. All pretty good stuff.

But, conversely, your Parry probably sucks anyway even with it. And if you're in melee you're probably going to die. Parry is the last resort after blocking spells and flat out staying out of melee, at least in my games.

Not only that, but the usual DF counter to wizards is "just shoot them with meteoric iron arrows." Meteoric weaponry is unaffected by magic, so it will ignore the annoying Missile Shield and dangerous Reverse Missiles. While there are blocking spells that will surely deal with one as easily as any other attack (Blink or Phase, for example) it won't help against multiple arrows. For that you need a good solid Block or Dodge to fall back on - and the DB bonus of your shield adds to both; not only that but Prediction Shots can't lower Block, only Dodge. And even if you rule that any Deflect spell doesn't add DB against meteoric arrows, you've still got the native DB of the shield. Even if it ignores it, a +1 to your shield's DB is a mere $2K away in DF.

So all of my players' wizards like to grab a shield, perhaps grab Shield Wall Training, and cover behind it casting spells. Because in GURPS Dungeon Fantasy, wizards don't have Shields: No and aren't restricted to Staff, Dagger, or Darts.

Related Post:

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


  1. Realism does trump a good many genre conventions, doesn't it? Shields and helmets are the first things you want if you're going to put yourself in harm's way.

    Wasn't D&D's prohibition primarily one of balance - that if you could wear armor and cast spells, you'd be nigh unstoppable?

    I seem to recall other discussions that basically said that the reason wizards don't wear armor and carry shields is the same reason that superheroes don't wear kevlar. It's an implicit acceptance that their powers aren't good enough to keep them safe. A matter of pride, more than anything else.

    1. Yeah, practicality trumps a lot in games. Pride is cute, but it's hubris when you get hit and need some DR.

      My players and I have been talking about having full-sized staves be easier to customize to increase their value as a power item, and count more heavily in value for determining the maximum power. Maybe a staff counts for double, say, or as the next cost level up (basically a +1 energy), or they automatically count as Better Power Items - something like that. That way they'd be a tempting option.

    2. You allow Phase to avoid meteoric arrows? Huh.

      I think, at root, staves for Wise-Ones come from a "walks on three legs when old" trope. A DF wizard isn't old and is strong enough to haul a shield around. You know, a shield isn't really "rod-shaped" but if you squint enough... Deathtouch shield rush!

    3. If you want to encourage a convention in your rules, just make sure the rules support it. So if you don't want wizards using shields, rule that they can't cast spells without them and give them a discount on Magery (or whatever.) Likewise, if you want to avoid superheroes loading up on conventional gear let the take appropriate Disadvantages and Limitations.

      Also note that wizards in old school fantasy often aren't wearing armor because they're basically non-combatants. They generally hang back and let other people do the fighting. The exceptions (Harold Shea, Elric, the Gray Mouser, etc) don't seem to have a problem with mixing armor and magic.

      Regarding superheroes and kevlar, my understanding is that it's a modern convention that the costumes of non-bullet proof superheroes incorporate some kind of kevlar or other body armor. And way back in the 1940s Batman wore a bullet proof vest. There's a funny scene from a comic of that era where the Joker is blazing away at Batman and shouting"Why won't you die?" and Batman is thinking "Hasn't he heard of a bullet proof vest?"

    4. @William Knowles: You allow Phase to avoid meteoric arrows? Huh.

      Meteoric arrows are unaffected by magic. Phase isn't cast on the arrow, but on the caster. Meteoric isn't "negates magic" or "undoes magic." It's just magically dead, basically. Allowing it to hit someone using Phase means it should, logically, be able to hurt insubstantial creatures of all sorts, shoot through magical windstorms (is the wind magical, or is it real wind cast by magic?), and otherwise become uber-powerful. It gets past Missile Shield because that spell moves the arrows, not the caster. I prefer "unaffected by magic" to be more limited than "can't use magic to counter it in any way."

      @infornic: Those are good ideas. I'm perfectly happy with wizards with shields in my games, though. I was just noting that it's become the standard. I've probably played as more years with mages with shields (1994 on) as with mages without (1981-1994).

  2. I always thought that wizards not having armor or shields was sort of like vampires being vulnerable to the sun and holy objects or werewolves being vulnerable to silver. Some how beings with a lot of magical powers were vulnerable in other ways or there were things they couldn't do some of the things that mundanes could do. Some sort of cosmic balance kept things that way otherwise the supernatural would overtake the natural.

    1. That may be, but a plain vanilla GURPS wizard has no limitations. You'd have to add them, which, as was pointed out above, should make Magery cheaper.

  3. In the NERO live action RPG each of the four classes can take any skill. NERO is also point based where the cost of skills differs between the classes.

    Also in NERO the way magic is cast is you say a short incant and throw (or touch) a birdseed packet. If the packet hits (or touches) another player the spell takes effect.

    At first various Scholars (NERO Wizards) looked like what you expect a wizard to be. However then a couple years in, one player paid the extra points to buy shield as a Scholar. He used it not only to block a incoming melee attack but used the back to hang extra spell packets, scrolls and potions.

    Now most mid to high level scholars buys the shield skill.

    1. It's a revolution in tactics!

      Like hockey and the slap shot - no one took one until one guy did, now everyone takes them.

  4. Great post! I've been playing Earthdawn (FASA) since the mid-90s, and it's the same situation. Casters with shields (& swords) are very common in Barsaive.

    Some of the things that I noted in the game were that some spells specifically required empty-handed gestures, or other actions where you would need one free hand. Also, casters can store spell patterns in objects to augment the ones they have "memorized" (in Earthdawn, there's no spells/day limit so you are limited to what you have actively memorized).

    Shields were used to store spell patterns only second to wands in many of my games. Many of the Legendary shields allowed you to switch out what spell pattern was stored there on the fly (the lesser enchantments were either 1-use, or not swap-able).

  5. My first exposure to fantasy RPG tropes was in the Dragon Quest series of games in which wizards could, indeed, use shields; they were just limited in their selection of shields and armor because they were generally either frail old men or weak-armed young women.

    All weapons were one-handed in those games, too; the SM+1 very fine greataxe cheap-balance greataxe? The bronze bastard sword? The quarterstaff? If you don't know how to use it in one hand alongside a shield you simply can't use it at all.


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