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I have often seen 3-4 people try to form a small shield wall but it falls apart. From this I would have to guess that this is not a viable tactic, at least not with those numbers of people involved.

When is it a viable tactic, and how do you make it worth forming?

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It might work in an alley-way, which can be blocked by two people (or one huge barbarian). – Stephen Jan 8 '12 at 18:40
@Stephen I don't larp in Alleyways. – Pureferret Jan 8 '12 at 22:08
Well, maybe simulated alley-ways? – Stephen Jan 9 '12 at 19:36
up vote 4 down vote accepted

A LARP shield wall is NOT a viable tactic when you do not have both:

  • healers to keep the fighters alive
  • protection from being flanked

In a LARP, a shield wall should consist of "fighter-healer" pairs. The advantage to a shield wall is two-fold: increased defensive capabilities for the fighters, due to coverage from the neighbor's shield, and exceptionally increased defensive coverage for the healers, who could otherwise much more easily be attacked. Since the healers are protected, you effectively boost the fighter's body by the healer's healing potential.

This tactic is at a disadvantage when enemy spells are taken into consideration, as the shields make very easy targets. If the healer has the ability to remove the effects of spells, however, this is less of a disadvantage. This tactic is also at a disadvantage if the line can be flanked. If flankers attack the healers, they will die easily and the line will fall soon afterward.

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Shield walls were typically formed with units of dozens of trained soldiers. They are a formation that takes excellent discipline, and more than one rank. If you're attempting a shield wall with only one rank, don't expect it to last very long. The second rank is necessary because when one of the first rank is inevitably struct down, there has to be someone to step forward and take their place. In some formations the back ranks also raise their shields to give overhead cover against arrows and the like.

Shield walls are only useful when you have a team who is used to working together and a specific point you need to defend, such as a narrow pass (see Thermopylae), or an important hilltop. Note that a shield wall is only effective when it can't be flanked, either because of terrain, or because of other units operating to keep your flanks clear (other shield walls or more mobile formations). Note that a ranked shield wall may be unsafe as people would need to step over their downed allies (or otherwise move into the space they occupied).

The most famous shield walls in history were the Phalanx, and they did have a useful offensive purpose (hold together and move forward basically) but they require many, many more people than you're likely to have at a larp.

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+1 for understanding of shield tactics. I have seen shield walls work in LARP, but this answer's analysis holds... I've only seen it used effectively to hold an extremely narrow space that can't be flanked, with extra party members behind to cover. (Ideally including archers who can fire past the front line.) – Tynam Jan 8 '12 at 14:27
+1 Very nice answer indeed. Phalanx were perfected by Philip of Macedonia and used to great effect by Alexander. The Roman legions were, in part, designed to overcome the phalanx which they did. Ah, military history is fun! – Sardathrion Jan 9 '12 at 8:03

I'd say the most famous shield wall is the Roman 'tortoise', and the most viewed is modern-day riot police. Of course the Anglo-saxons made very heavy use of it too, the Battle of Hastings lasted all day because of their use - they are excellent defensive formations.

I've been part of saxon shield walls, the trick is to lap your shields, wield your spears well, be fit enough to 'keep it up' and stay put! Staying put is really important, you can move, but everyone needs to move at exactly the same time and rate, which is difficult to do.

If you can stay still, and have the strength to keep it going, you can hold back an enemy for ever. Losses in the wall can either be replaced by new people stepping forward, but if you don't have them, it is quite easy to close the gap by shuffling sideways - though this depends on the length of the wall. If you haver 4 or 5 people, you don't have a problem here. For larger shield walls, a breach is often opened up further straight away, in which case the whole thing falls apart, when we fought like this, a breach meant draw swords and engage, but we were doing it for fun.

You can make a wall with 4 or 5 shields, but obviously be wary of flanking attacks, your wall will fall apart if people get round you, but then you'll be pulling swords to fight them back.

When to use it? all the time, as a default action. When I fought with them, we trained to form the wall immediately there was trouble, this gave us a defensive position from which we could evaluate the danger. So train in forming it, you can always drop spears and break to fight from that position, so it's not a problem to form it, but you have to be able to do it almost instinctively.

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