If a character were to hold up a metal lid or broke off a wooden door or even froze some water into a roughly shield-like shape, what would be the rules for using such an item as a shield?

  • Would it impose any disadvantages?
  • Would being proficient in shields mean anything? Would the fact that the player created the shield give them some form of proficiency?
  • Would they get an increase to their AC? If so, how much? Would it be the standard +2 from a regular shield? If so, what's stopping someone from just using that as a shield from now on instead of buying on from a shop?
  • Would it induce a form of cover, either half, three-quarter or full cover? If so what type on what basis?

If you know of any other information, rules or caveats about improvised shields, it would be swell if you could mention that too or point me in the right direction. Thank you!

  • \$\begingroup\$ On a side note I can see one vote to close this question, and I understand why. You might be better off asking 'are there any rules for an improvised shield' and leaving room for providing interpretations in the answers. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Aug 2 '18 at 11:03
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    \$\begingroup\$ Could you narrow the details down a bit? There is no deliberate "improvised shield" mechanics in 5e (nor in prior editions, AFAIK), so you should be more specific describing the situation you face. Why do the character need this "improvised shield"? Was it a momentary situation, or does he/she need to carry this "shield" with her, etc. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 2 '18 at 11:25

The rules for Cover, Dodge and trivial shields should be enough

Before introducing new mechanics and homebrew new items, answer these three questions:

  • What problem do you solve by introducing this new rule?
  • Can this problem be solved by using existing rules?
  • What possible balance issues this new rule might cause?

If there is no specific problem to solve, and you just don't know how to resolve a thing that your player has just announced, PBH page 6 "How to play" proposes the "fiction first" approach:

  1. The DM describes the environment.
  2. The players describe what they want to do.
  3. The DM narrates the results of the adventurers' actions.

When your player says "I use X as an improvised shield", and you don't know how to resolve this, because there are no rules for improvised shields in 5e, apply this "fiction first" approach. What this player are trying to achieve and how? Then use the common sense and existing rules to adjudicate the situation.

froze some water into a roughly shield-like shape, what would be the rules for using such an item as a shield?

Use Cover mechanics when the player announces "I freeze some water and hide behind it", this improvised shield is called "cover". Hiding behind something big enough gives you bonus your AC and saving throws:

Walls, trees, creatures, and other obstacles can provide cover during combat, making a target more difficult to harm. A target can benefit from cover only when an attack or other effect originates on the opposite side of the cover.

A target with half cover has a +2 bonus to AC and Dexterity saving throws. A target has half cover if an obstacle blocks at least half of its body.

They even can carry this obstacle with them, providing it is light enough, but picking it up and setting in the same turn should probably expend their action.

broke off a wooden door

Use Dodge mechanics when the player announces "I'm desperately trying to avoid being hit, using any suitable thing around as a shield". This sounds as the perfect opportunity for the Dodge action. Resolve this using the Dodge mechanics:

When you take the Dodge action, you focus entirely on avoiding attacks. Until the start of your next turn, any attack roll made against you has disadvantage if you can see the attacker, and you make Dexterity saving throws with advantage.

Last thing — if your players want to use something in an unusual way, and you are not sure how to homebrew this, just "reskin" an existing item. At least, this does not break anything.

hold up a metal lid

Use shield mechanics when a player found a perfect shield equivalent and wants to use it as an improvised shield. Just use rules for a normal shield in this case: +2 AC, needs an action do don, occupies a hand.

Would it be the standard +2 from a regular shield? If so, what's stopping someone from just using that as a shield from now on instead of buying on from a shop?

Nothing. Is it a bad thing? Why? Characters will find gold in their adventures anyways, and a shield costs only 10gp. Giving a "free" shield isn't worse than giving free 10gp, and normally you buy a shield just once. A knight using utensil in an unusual way could be more interesting than one with a "proper" shop-bought armor.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I would badly struggle for immersion if a fighter walked around with a dustbin lid. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Aug 3 '18 at 16:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri another reason for you don't be that fighter \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Aug 3 '18 at 16:30

When it comes to improvising (which is generally done at the table, during the game, when you don't have a lot of time to think about how to rule it) I find it's best to go for easy.

To me, "My character is desperate for extra defenses and is trying to defend himself by interposing something heavy between them and the enemy" sounds most easily interpreted by using the Dodge action.

Given that equipping a shield is an Action anyway, this doesn't seem too far out. This makes it more effective than a shield during that turn (which is probably something the character needs anyway, given that they're so desperate for defense), but gives it no lasting advantage (which is fine; this is an "in-the-moment" thing and probably not something the player wants to keep doing) and it's perfectly balanced because the player could have taken the Dodge action anyway, this is just a lot cooler in terms of description.

  • \$\begingroup\$ I like this so much I am tempted to delete my own answer! \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Aug 2 '18 at 11:08

It has to be worse than a shield

Some of the other answers suggest just calling it a shield, or even cover. Both of these options make the choice to use an actual shield pointless, and calling it cover actually makes it better than a shield, and would potentially stack with a real shield!

I don't see any real rules for this. The closest we get is improvised weapons, which cause 1D4 damage unless they are functionally identical to the weapon in question such as a table leg (IE: A lump of wood) and a club (IE: A lump of wood). A long piece of metal does not qualify as a long sword for example.

It is unlikely you will find anything strong, balanced and with the correct strap fittings that something will naturally just be a shield.

DM territory

As with anything without a specific rule this in in DM fiat territory.

How I would rule: I would allow an item such as this a single use item, maybe +1 AC, maybe +2 AC depending what it was made from, but either ruined or smashed clean from your grasp when used to block since there is no strap to keep it in your hand.

  • \$\begingroup\$ To add to the concept of the shield breaking, a solution I've implemented in my games when the question of cover's/shields' durability comes up, I rule that the protection takes the hit if the attack value would normally hit against your normal AC, but doesn't due to the protection. With your option, it might be understood that if an enemy rolls a 3 to hit a Rogue, the Rogue's shield breaks, when most of a Rogue's AC comes from his Dexterity and ability to dodge attacks. \$\endgroup\$ – Daniel Zastoupil Aug 2 '18 at 15:15

The rules cover improvised weapons (Player's Handbook p.147-148), but not improvised shields. It would be entirely up to the DM to adjudicate if you tried to wield an improvised shield.

One possible adjudcation is that an improvised shield just works like a normal shield. The DM may rule that an improvised shield works similarly to the Improvised Weapon rules (p.147-148), in which case the character may be able to use their proficiency bonus. Whether it gives a +2 bonus as a shield or less, or has any other drawback (e.g. it breaks easily; it's cumbersome; it works less well than a proper shield), is entirely up to the DM.

Using an improvised shield that you found in the dungeon is not overpowered at all. In D&D 5th edition Player characters routinely find used weapons and equipment and can use that.

Another possible adjudication for this case is cover (PHB p.196). This would likely be the case where you had a very large obstacle such as a dungeon door, although such a thing would be difficult to carry (you could not strap it to your arm, for example). In short:

  • If an obstacle blocks at least half of the character's body, they receive +2 to AC and Dexterity saving throws from attacks originating on the other side .
  • If an obstacle blocks three-quarters of the character's body, they receive +5 to AC and Dexterity saving throws.
  • If an obstacle completely covers the character, they cannot be targeted by an attack or spell.
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    \$\begingroup\$ Making it functionally equivalent to a shield gives no real nod towards it being improvised. Making it cover actually makes it better than a shield since it adds to Dex saves! \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Aug 2 '18 at 10:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ I cover this in my answer: an improvised shield may have drawbacks if the DM asserts so. That's a purely simulationist view, though; there's no game balance reason why you can't make a cheap shield. An improvised club works exactly like a club. Also, cover would only occur if it was a particularly large obstacle covering half of your body, like a chunk of a door. \$\endgroup\$ – Quadratic Wizard Aug 2 '18 at 10:55

You can probably treat it as a shield (at your DM's discretion), but you might suffer a lot if it's not sufficiently shieldlike

There are rules for how to handle improvised weapons, but not rules on how to handle improvised armour (which includes shields). However, you could take the rules that govern improvised weapons as a guideline:

Often, an improvised weapon is similar to an actual weapon and can be treated as such. For example, a table leg is akin to a club. At the DM's option, a character proficient with a weapon can use a similar object as if it were that weapon and use his or her proficiency bonus.

I would translate this to apply to shields like so:

  • An improvised shield counts as a shield
  • If it's a sufficiently close approximation of a shield and you are proficient with shields, you can use it as such without penalty
  • If you're not proficient with shields, you suffer the normal penalty for using armour you're not proficient with
  • If it's not really very much like a proper shield, you suffer the penalty for using armour you're not proficient with even if you are proficient with normal shields

For reference, the penalty for using armour the character is not proficient with:

Armor Proficiency. Anyone can put on a suit of armor or strap a shield to an arm. Only those proficient in the armor's use know how to wear it effectively, however. Your class gives you proficiency with certain types of armor. If you wear armor that you lack proficiency with, you have disadvantage on any ability check, saving throw, or attack roll that involves Strength or Dexterity, and you can't cast spells.

I would probably rule that for an improvised shield that's not properly strapped to you, you could drop the item as a reaction to being forced to make a saving throw/ability check and thus not suffer the penalty, but you would of course lose the AC bonus.

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    \$\begingroup\$ This makes an improvised shield purely a bonus for non-proficient characters given you let them drop it the instant it starts to apply a penalty. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Aug 2 '18 at 10:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SeriousBri at the cost of a reaction, so it's not entirely free, but I take your point. I think my issue is mainly that the penalties nonproficiency describes seem reasonable for wearing a suit of armour you're not proficient in but seems really excessive for just wielding a shield you're not proficient in, so I'm naturally inclined to find ways to lessen that penalty. \$\endgroup\$ – Carcer Aug 2 '18 at 10:50
  • \$\begingroup\$ I actually didn't read reaction as part of the action economy, I took it as the word reaction instead. I still think it is probably too good doing that, but I like the idea more now I understand it. \$\endgroup\$ – SeriousBri Aug 2 '18 at 10:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think this makes logical sense. Yes, you can drop it easier (because its not strapped on), but then you obviously won't benefit from the AC bonus. And wielding it imposes penalties because you're having to hold it awkwardly to get any benefit (because its not strapped on). A DM may even rule that getting hit involves you making a Strength check or saving throw to avoid it being knocked out of your hands. \$\endgroup\$ – PJRZ Aug 2 '18 at 10:59

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