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Fighting with a weapon and a shield seem to be relatively ineffective in D&D relative to two-weapon or two-handed weapon fighting. This seems unfortunate, given their historical ubiquity, especially when compared to two-weapon fighting which was a much rarer style.

What are some ways you have tried to modify the rules to bring sword-and-board back as a viable character option for a primary melee class that needs a respectable damage output? How did those turn out in play?

I'm mostly interested in D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder. Some idea of what I'm aiming for is being able to sensibly recreate the classic fantasy image of a heroic warrior with bright shield forward and brandished sword standing in the front line against the hordes.

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closed as too broad by BESW, Ernir, Joshua Aslan Smith, wax eagle, doppelgreener Sep 16 at 14:44

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

This question appears to be requesting history and houserules across any edition of the franchise an answerer might feel compelled to draw upon, including editions where the topic isn't even valid! (4e does S&B just fine.) It should be closed as too broad. –  BESW Sep 16 at 13:27
4e works completely differently, classes with shield abilities have all sorts of neat tricks they can do with them. OTOH I consider two-weapon fighting in 4e much weaker than sword-and-board. (2H still wins for many classes though) –  Mooing Duck Sep 17 at 18:48
At this point I'd be quite happy to restrict it to 3.5 or Pathfinder. But I don't want to invalidate the couple of good answers that have answered it for the other versions! –  Paul Hutton Sep 18 at 9:43
I've removed this from the question: "if you have a perspective on 4e or even earlier versions, including history, feel free to write them up, too (but as their own answers so they can be voted on separately)." Answers need to all address the same issue so voting sorts them based on the same criteria. You might be able to work it into a separate question, though. –  BESW 19 hours ago

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

You're likely right, and several other sources agree. OSR blogger Trollsmyth proposed a houserule for older editions where shields can be used to completely block attacks at the cost of shattering here. Likewise, Trailblazer, a 3.5 derivative, tries to make sword-and-board more viable by 1) providing easier access to Improved Shield Bash and making it stronger, and 2) allowing you to use your shield bonus as DR under some circumstances. The Improved Bash isn't that great, but the DR is very nice against high-impact opponents. I had a dwarf fighter who'd've been slain several times over but for Trailblazer's shield DR.

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Ah, shield bonus as DR is nice and clean. Though you would have to define exceptions: does a magical shield's enhancement bonus add DR, too? Does the Shield spell? Any other sources of shield AC? –  Paul Hutton May 14 '12 at 1:13
I believe under TB's rules, any shield-type bonus counts. I've used it with the shield bonus from Two-Weapon Defense, for example. But, there is a limiting factor that it can only be used a certain number of times per round (basically by sacrificing an attack of opportunity equivalent). There are other Trailblazer-specific mechanics linked to it which are important for the balance. –  lorimer May 14 '12 at 1:21

In 3.5 Shields are a fairly niche option, as most players have an offense first mindset, and the defensive bonuses provided by a shield aren't that great. That being said it is possible to make a really strong character who uses a shield.

When weilding a shield you give up damage, so you want to have some other tool for being effective. This is where taking some controller focused options are very powerful. I would suggest using a Flail, or some other weapon that you can trip with, then picking up the feats Combat Expertise, Improved Trip, Combat Reflexes and Robilar's Gambit (PHB2). The big shield feat you're looking for is Shield Ward (PHB2), which gives you your shield bonus to your AC for Touch attacks, and a number of other defenses. If you then get enough levels in Crusader(ToB) to get the Thicket of Blades stance, you'll have a very sticky, hard to hurt character.

If you just want shields to be more viable in general, you need to look at two things. First off the game must be "lethal" enough that defenses matter. If the players can kill most enemies quickly without worrying about getting hurt, then there's no need to invest in defenses. Then you have to give the shield user a bonus that actually matters. If most dangerous attacks don't care about AC (ie, reflex saves, or touch attacks) then a shield doesn't actually help any. I like the idea of giving Shield Ward as a bonus feat, as it helps a Shield protect against a much larger range of attacks. You may also want to give a shield user a bonus to saving throws, or damage reduction like others have suggested.

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That's a nice contrary view, and it does look like you could make something useful out of existing rules. But you are right, I would like them to be more viable in general, and focussing on boosting them against attacks that matter is particularly insightful. And interesting to note that 4e applies the shield bonus to Reflex saves, too. –  Paul Hutton May 15 '12 at 1:22

I agree with your conjecture, Paul. My first instinct in answering your question is to suggest a house rule that diminishes the damage benefit of wielding a two handed weapon. For quite some time when I first started playing 3.5, my gaming group was unaware of the 1 1/2 strength multiplier rule for two-handing. (See PHB p. 113) This made the combat advantage of a large weapon less severe. Though we were originally accomplishing this through sheer ignorance, when we did finally discover this 1.5 multiplier rule, we chose not to implement it and to continue operating with our current understanding of damage mechanics. We didn't like the incredible physical domination that was made possible by that rule.

Additionally, you might consider the lethality of your combat house rules. I believe one of the reasons that two-weapon fighting can get so out of hand is the relative abstraction of damage and hit points in systems like 3.5 and Pathfinder. In a historical medieval war/combat a wound was not so trivial that you could suffer several (or even one) before losing significant fighting capacity. When a shield offers only a reduced chance of taking damage and requires large drop in relative damage output, it isn't a great bargain. Characters are better off losing a few more hit points (which don't mean anything until they reach zero or below) and sticking with the giant clumsy hammer.

But if you incorporate the suggested "massive damage" and "clobbered" variant mechanics (DMG p.27) and maybe even scale down the threshold on "massive" so that medium characters that take 40 hp or more on a single hit must make a fortitude save or die, you can substantially increase the worth of items (like shields) that raise AC. The less abstract damage becomes, the more risk there is in carrying a greataxe (instead of sword and board). Its something to introduce slowly, however, as you risk TPK if you thrust this on a group that has grown accustomed to all-out-offensive combat tactics.

EDIT: If you aren't too concerned with the power of two-handed weapons but want to increase the value of a shield, you can keep the 1.5 strength multiplier and add a few damage variants. Overall, this variant approach is only for those who favor quicker combats.

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D20/D&D3.X combat is, pretty much, directly derived from AD&D (esp. the AD&D 2E Player's Option: Combat & Tactics). The "undervaluation" of shields comes from a time MUCH earlier in the game, when levels 9-12 were very high, and fighters advanced in To-Hit progressions much slower.

Yes, the issue begins in the days of the original edition. Fighter's to hit progression was (roughly) 2 per 3 levels, and the table capped at Level 16...

     -------- Fighter Levels ----------
AC    1-3   4-6   7-9  10-12 13-15  16+  Armor
 2    17    15    12    10     8     5   Plate & Shield
 3    16    14    11     9     7     4   Plate
 4    15    13    10     8     6     3   Chain & Shield
 5    14    12     9     7     5     2   Chain only
 6    13    11     8     6     4     1   Leather and Shield
 7    12    10     7     5     3     1   Leather
 8    11     9     6     4     2     1   Shield Only
 9    10     8     5     3     1     1   None  

(From D&D vol 1: Men and Magic, p 19)

Note that attributes added another +3 maximum... (or -3 penalty)... It's essentially +12 BAB over 15 levels gained. But note that Gygax didn't envision at the time the massive high level games. 16th+ was time to retire the characters, from what I can gather.

A 1 point bonus for a shield was pretty decent, considering the model. Or pretty weak, if one didn't think 9th level was the start of "High Level."

But the issue has been present since the very earliest editions. It was less obvious due to the fewer armor types on the table, and the not-quite-formulaic tables in OD&D, and the concealment of the to hit bonus as a table change rather than an explicit bonus, but it's been there since the beginning.

Fixing it can be done by by any of several methods... each with major flaws.

In BXCMI, specifically in Master D&D, the weapon mastery system gives progressively better bonuses for higher proficiency in both weapons and in shields. This allows giving high level characters up to +3 bonus from a shield, while still limiting low level characters to +1, but also increases the number of targets against whom the shield bonus applies.

A more drastic, but equally workable, is to simply increase the bonus for a shield across the board. It mucks up odds for low level characters, but it's not too bad.

Another solution is to instead make shields allow a set number of reflex (or paralysis) saves per round to parry off an attack entirely, instead of a bonus to AC. (Or even in addition to AC.)

Any of these give an advantage to all shield users. None of them break the game, but all of them seriously change the game.

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For the most part, the above answers are correct: sword-and-board is not an optimal choice in 3.x. You gain only a little defense, at the cost of a lot of offense.

The various historical perspectives (both of D&D and of warfare) are also very useful and interesting.

This answer is probably less so, but I wanted to comment on a few niche or weird uses of shields that can be viable (in this case, defined as “not obviously worse than easier options”).


Spellcasters should basically always use a shield,1 even if it’s just a mithral buckler (which has 0 Armor Check Penalty and 0% Arcane Spell Failure, allowing even arcanists without proficiency to wear it without penalty). The AC bonus is basically free, since you weren’t going to be attacking with a weapon anyway.

The possibility of getting magic shield enhancements on that shield, however, is what really makes it crucial. Even if all the enhancements you want are available on armor, the quadratic growth of magic armor costs means that is very desirable to split effects between armor and shield. A +1 soulfire2 mithral buckler costs 26,015 gp, but adding soulfire to your +1 moderate-fortitude twilight3 mithral chain shirt costs 56,000 gp. That’s very-nearly 30,000 gp in savings. That’s not even getting into the fact that a +1 heavy-fortitude soulfire twilight mithral chain shirt is impossible before Epic levels, since it is a +11-equivalent.

This cost savings is so good that even those who do want to swing a big weapon should consider a heavily-magic’d buckler;4 the −1 to attack rolls can easily be offset by the powerful magics you can apply to yourself with one.

1 This statement is not true at low levels where even a mundane shield may represent a large portion of one’s wealth (particularly for arcanists who need to pay up for mithral), and is also not true for fighter/mage hybrids who want to be able to deal significant melee damage.

2 Soulfire from Book of Exalted Deeds makes you immune to death effects, negative energy, and negative levels. It costs a +4-equivalent, and is worth every gp.

3 Twilight from Magic Item Compendium and/or Player’s Handbook II reduces Arcane Spell Failure by 10%. +1-equivalent.

4 Or a heavy or tower shield with the animated property, though it will increase the cost of the shield (and additional properties) dramatically. Debatable whether or not that’s worth the +1 AC and +1 Attack, or whether the −10 ACP and cost of the +1 animated tower shield is worth +4 AC and the ability to use it for cover. Anyway, animated is +2-equivalent.


The Crusader from Tome of Battle gains a few ways to do unique things with a shield, such as using it to block an adjacent ally. More importantly, most of the Crusader’s damage comes from the use of his martial maneuvers; careful selection of maneuvers can diminish the significance of the two-handed bonuses to damage.

Ye’ can hit ’em wit’ it

Shield bashes are not really terribly good attacks. However, few weapons have as many feats, special magic properties, and the like devoted to them. You can stack a whole bunch of these together to... be a really bizarre warrior that fights by hitting people with his shield.

Strictly speaking, you can even two-hand the shield. I totally imagine this as grabbing the shield by the rim and whacking people with it, which is hilarious. Even barring that, you could use Agile Shield Fighter (Player’s Handbook II if I remember correctly) to get a cheaper version of Two-Weapon Fighting (doesn’t require the Dex), and then go ahead and dual wield a pair of shields. This is possibly an even more hilarious image.

With Improved Shield Bash, this has the advantage of letting you have the AC (from one shield, they still don’t stack) and the attack. It’s not really anything like optimal – a greatsword or lance would be a far superior weapon – but in the right setting/campaign it could be awesome. Improved Shield Bash combines well with Dungeoncrasher (Dungeonscape), which allows you to do considerable damage when you Bull Rush someone into a wall. If you can pin someone in a corner, they’re in for a world of hurt this way.

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While this may be tankier than you were looking for, let's not forget the tower shield. While that -2 to attack rolls will hurt, the AC bonus is better, but that's not the important part. Here's the important part.

You can declare total cover instead of attacking.

Think about that. How many five foot wide passages do you encounter? (Hint: that would be most of the doors in any given building) You can block them from any assault until you get bored. Under fire from a bunch of archers? Hide behind your massive plank of wood, and maybe keep a few allies in the lee of the shield as well. That one big bad smashing your party as his minions pick you apart? Take aggro from the boss (Hint: his mother was a hamster and his father smelled of elderberries) and just let him tear into your portable wall while everyone deals with the minion.

And that's not even being creative about it... Take full cover from the mob of angry bargoers- and since line of sight is broken, lean it against a wall and take that hide check, then scamper to a nice sneak attack location. Fell in a pit trap? see if you can reflex to get that shield under you. Hiding out in the woods? Nothing says "You can't see me" like an old piece of wood. No weapons allowed in the city? Give your cart a false bottom! Hordes of creatures banging making a racket as they try to devour you? Have someone cast Protection from Energy (fire) on you, (and the shield too if you can!) then set it ablaze. Even without shield bash, that should teach the wretches! Almost hollowed out your hobbit (er, halfling) hole, but need a door? You know what to do.

A tower shield has two great weaknesses. First, the evil spellcaster. Spells have a nasty tendency to ignore your shield. Fortunately, I've never met a caster that I couldn't smack in the face, even with the -2 penalty for Tower Shield to the attack roll. And I've never met a caster who could finish that spell with a -lots penalty for Axe in Face to the concentration check. (Or if you're a cleric, spell him right back.) Second, the dreaded Sunder check. Your beautiful tower shield has a hardness of 5, and only 20 hit points. You do get an attack of opportunity to try to stop it, (though I've always wondered how that worked with the Total Cover bit) and another opposed attack roll if that failed- but neither of those look good for you. Fortunately, it's anecdotaly a very rare opponent player/dm that actually remembers there's a rule for sundering. (Oh, fine, we'll play nice and tell them they can do that...) In that case, let me make a suggestion- these beautiful portable walls are 30 gold a pop. Most fightery types can probably carry two or three without being encumbered. They spent a round destroying it, I spend a round grabbing another. There's a dozen more of these in the cart sir- I can do this all day, and the basic goal of "not get whacked in face" is being met, even if I am sacrificing my lovely wooden friends. (It's like the companion cube or something. sniff)

Try four fighters with tower shields and a fifth in the middle with a reach weapon and a few spare shields, a la the Phalanx. That particular battle had my group laughing progressively louder as we realized what we had created.

For bonus points of awesome, give it magical enhancements, or build it from strange materials. There aren't a lot, but you're mostly looking to deal with the sunder thing. I've had situations where the enemy found it easier to tunnel through the stone wall than try to push through me. Used in the right terrain, you can survive hilarious odds for indefinite amounts of time as they just. can't. touch this.

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Yeah, but does that make sense? I'm picturing someone hiding behind a buckler and taking "total cover." That said, im pretty sure most shields could be used to create partial cover, offering a chance to ignore a lot of damage over time. –  IgneusJotunn Nov 8 '12 at 21:53
Fair enough, exclude bucklers. Though historically they were favoured by skirmisher types and seem to have been surprisingly effective if used actively to protect from missile fire. –  Paul Hutton Nov 8 '12 at 23:41

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