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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
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@Stephen I don't larp in Alleyways. – Pureferret Jan 8 '12 at 22:08
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Well, maybe simulated alley-ways? – Stephen Jan 9 '12 at 19:36
up vote 1 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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I think you're correct about flanking but incorrect about healers. Shield walls were used in medieval battles a lot and they never had healers. – Derek Tomes Feb 28 at 21:13
    
@DerekTomes Isn't the vulnerability here that in LARP, scored hits take down a shieldbearer much sooner than a historical shieldbrearer in a medieval shield wall? Otherwise, I completely agree. – Axoren Feb 29 at 6:32
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I think the thing that makes people fall down faster in larp battles is nobody is actually scared for their life. If they were they'd actually try not to get killed. I certainly find that shield walls help you not to get hit in big battles. – Derek Tomes Feb 29 at 7:02
    
Medieval battles also didn't have spells that would instantly slay a warrior, ignoring his/her shield. – corvec Mar 1 at 21:17

Size matters

My experience with contact LARP (where the basic rule is being touched by a weapon deals damage (eg 1 tap takes away 1/3 hitpoints)) is size matters more than anything else.

  • Don't bother if you can't hunker down and get full cover from your shield. It is too small, it might work for parrying.

  • Can be generally effective against ranges weapons (eg thrown beanbag spells), even without walling up.

  • Can be generally effective in groups of 7 or so against short-swords. If reinforcements are coming.

  • While theoretically effective against long weapons, long weapons are such a superior advantage. I've not seen it tried as we moved to standard short-swords only before we introduced shields. Varying weapon lengths becomes a "pole-arms race", the longer the better up until truely huge length. At least until people have great skill. (There is a reason the spear is the weapon of the militia.)

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Agree on the pole arm length race, I've seen it happen in our LARP. However, I've never seen pure pole-arm formations work in LARP. Imho it is just way too easy to bash them aside and charge in with a close melee weapon... – fgysin Mar 16 at 15:21

The simple answer is that it is viable as soon as people can't outflank you.

Two people can form an effective shield wall in a doorway; three people on a small bridge.

But trying to form a shield wall with 3-4 people in an open field isn't going to work because the enemy will outflank at both ends of the wall.

A better plan for small numbers of people in open spaces is a skirmish line that keeps moving forward quickly so that it's harder for people who get behind you to catch up and hit you in the back.

To make it viable with smaller numbers you need to find terrain where your flanks aren't exposed, like a gap in a stone wall, trees or broken ground that the enemy can't pass.

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I'd love to know what the down vote was for. Down votes without comments aren't really constructive. – Derek Tomes Feb 29 at 0:09
    
They're plenty constructive. Not everyone has something constructive to suggest, sometimes they just find the answer not useful or incorrect, and comments aren't for pointing out "you're wrong" or "I disagree". Comments in those situations just tend to generate arguments that result in nothing useful. – doppelgreener Feb 29 at 5:05

TL; DR "shield walls are viable if (and only if) you have enough motivated people with enough time"

You want your shield wall to be sufficiently long that it's hard to unravel it form both ends at the same time.

You want to make sure your shields are overlapping and all your shield-bearers use the same shield arm. The overlap should, ideally, be "elbow-side of shield on top of the other shield in that direction", that forms a somewhat stronger wall.

You want your shield wall to be well-trained in "being a shield wall" (a rough estimate is somewhere between 30h to 100h of formation training, before the shield wall is able to move coherently), especially if you want to incorporate movement of the shield wall. For a completely static shield wall, this is somewhat simpler (you only need to ensure people know how to stand and how to protect the people either side of them, as well as themselves, with their weapon).

You want long weapons behind your shield wall, that can attack your opponents over the shield wall. Spears, axes, various polearms, maybe two-handed swords, are useful weapons here.

You want a small amount of mobile units (either single fighters or small groups) that can swarm around the edges and, possibly, across the field at large.

If you have access to projectile weapons, you also want those, protected behind your shield wall, sufficiently trained so they attack over the shield wall.

You want at least one person (preferably more) with a strong voice, who can command the shield wall. It is probably better if this person is behind the shield wall, since that lessens the risk of losing them. They also need to have some experience in decent tactical decisions.

If you have enough people, you can form multiple shield walls that operate in a way so as to reinforce another (V formations, various overlaps, ...)

It is not viable unless you have 30+ people willing to spend weeks (or months) of training to be able to work together.

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I think what you are describing is not a realistic expectation for most LARPs... In my experience a shield wall will already be effective even without extensive training - as your enemies won't have a 100 h of formation training either. – fgysin Feb 26 at 1:42
    
As for projectiles, I'd strongly suggest putting these on the flanks as well. Ballistic firing over your own formation and into the enemy masses is A) more dangerous (no well directed shots, you don't see what you're shooting at) and B) very inefficient. – fgysin Feb 26 at 1:46
    
@fgysin By all means have projectile weapons towards the flanks as well. For super-extra bonus (and massive amounts of training), start them in front of the shield wall, then let them back through as the opposing force starts getting close. But oif you have them on the flanks, you may lose their projectile firing (drop projectile weapon, go for hand-to-hand; alternatively get munched up by the opposition). – Vatine Feb 26 at 10:14

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 struck 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
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+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

Valid tactic? Yes!

Shield walls can be a very efficient tactic, and will often be one of the best options available in small scale LARP battles (I'm talking full contact here, not some dice-rolling shenanigans).

From personal experience most 'kills' in LARP fights occur in skirmish type battles when single fighters are overwhelmed by 2-3 opponents quickly advancing and taking them out. Even good fighters will not stand a chance against several oponents.

Shield walls essentially eliminate this danger (though other problems arise of course). Why?

  • Because they protect the flanks of your combatants and make sure you don't suddenly find yourself surrounded and 5 meters in front of your colleagues.
  • They protect you from enemy fire. Standing alone makes you an easy target for an archer who is just a bit off to the side.
  • When in a shield wall your formation will attack together, thus overwhelming skirmishing/single opponents (and often forcing them into a shield wall/line formation themselves).

Shield walls also work well in small numbers. Given that the enemy numbers are comparable the benefits are essentially the same as in the case of two larger formations clashing.

For example, I have often in LARPs used shield wall tactics with only 3-6 people. This generally means some 2-4 shields with a second row/flanks using spears/pole weapons. On occasion I have seen a small shield wall at the center of a bigger formation being the clear win condition. The center must hold! :)

The real test for efficiency of a shield wall is the training and discipline of its participants:

  • A shield wall needs to advance or retreat in step.
  • You need skirmishers (pole weapons, ranged weapons, ...) covering your flanks
  • There needs to be someone in command who knows how to give orders, and the rest of your formation needs to actually listen.

Most of the shield wall clashes I have experienced myself were decided by the side which was more disciplined and more patient: at some point one side would loose its nerve, start charging (thus breaking up the formation) and be overwhelmed in lots of many-vs-one fights.

Pics or it didn't happen

I tried to find some example pictures from the LARPs I'm co-organizing... Best I could come up with for smaller formation sizes is this shot:

Small scale shield walls

Our photographers mostly cover the big battles with 40-80 combatants. See the following link, including some rather nice shield walls clashing:

Larger battle including shield walls

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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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