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I remember being impressed with this question, although it was closed as too broad for asking about too many things in one go. I left a comment at the time about asking less, and coming back to this later, I've decided to have a go at asking this. Note that I've also taken a look at this question about a homebrew tower shield.

This is partly based on NWN2, a video game that uses 3.5e rules, so I assume shields were broken up similarly in 3.5e, but I only know that game. In that game, there were "light shields" (i.e. "bucklers"), "heavy shields" and "tower shields".

In short, I wanted to introduce a "light shield" and "tower shield", keeping the RAW 5e shield as a "heavy shield". See below for the table comparing AC and pricing, similar to the official table and the above linked question about a tower shield.

\$\begin{array}{|c|c|c|c|c|} \hline \textbf{Armor Name} & \textbf{Cost} & \textbf{Armor Class} & \textbf{Strength} & \textbf{Stealth} & \textbf{Weight} \\ \hline \text{Light shield} & 5\,\text{gp} & +1 & \text{N/A} & \text{N/A} & 2\,\text{lb.} \\ \hline \text{Heavy shield} & 10\,\text{gp} & +2 & \text{N/A} & \text{N/A} & 6\,\text{lb.} \\ \hline \text{Tower shield} & 50\,\text{gp} & +3 & 15 & \text{Disadvantage} & 45\,\text{lb.} \\ \hline \end{array} \$

In addition to the above table:

  • I wanted it to be possible for the light shield to be donned and doffed as a bonus action (since otherwise why would anyone want it over a heavy shield?)

  • I wanted the tower shield to have the restriction that you needed to be proficient with heavy armor and shields, otherwise you cannot benefit from it and trying to use it imposes the same penalties as with not having proficiency with armor (from Armor Proficiency):

    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.

So, my question is, are my new light shield and tower shield balanced? Meaning, are there any problems from having a light shield that you can don with a bonus action for the cost of -1 AC compared to a RAW shield (what I'm now calling the heavy shield)? Are my restrictions on the tower shield enough to justify basically being able to buy a +1 shield (albeit a nonmagical one), or is it still too strong even so?

(I also considered adding a Strength requirement to the "heavy shield", like 13 or even just 10, but that kinda screws over Dexterity based medium armor wearing shield users, so I decided against it, but I could be easily swayed into reconsidering it; possibly a separate question to this one, though.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ This may be out of scope and not necessarily a kosher comment. But have you considered reviving the Buckler? Instead of don/doff to counter balance it would leave a hand free when not utilizing the bonus. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:29
  • \$\begingroup\$ When you say "reviving the buckler", is this from 3.5e? Note that I only know 3.5e from NWN2 (I've only ever played 5e as pen and paper), so I'd need to you explain what the buckler did in previous editions... \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:34
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    \$\begingroup\$ It had its issues to be sure... but it was a +1 but you didn't have to hold it with your hand so you could dual wield or manipulate an object with that hand if you chose not to use the shield during that round. In 2nd ( think that is when it was introduced) you could have it spiked as an additional weapon. Benefits were hand was free to manipulate or attack or you could choose to defend. In 5E the benefits are great for a spellcaster because you can easily hold your focus and defend yourself better. I thought I saw someone make one for 5E but am having trouble locating it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Slagmoth
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a slight aside, there doesn't seem much evidence that tower shields were used in real life much beyond the Romans, who famously used them in their "tortoise" formation. But it seems this was mainly to protect against arrows on the approach, as their size and weight were too much of a hindrance in close combat. \$\endgroup\$
    – PJRZ
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ lol. I looked at the linked question thinking "okay, interesting", before seeing that I asked the question and only then remembering it. Memory 10/10! :D (edit: not sure why I never really bothered to fix the question to make it "re-openable") \$\endgroup\$ Apr 28, 2020 at 15:49

2 Answers 2

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Light shields interact strangely with ranged characters

If you have shield proficiency and primarily attack with a ranged weapon - say, a longbow fighter - you should usually spend your first turn's bonus action donning a light shield. You can then start your second turn by doffing it, granting you +1 to AC between your first and second turns. Alternatively, you could always walk around with a light shield and doff it as soon as your first turn comes around.

This feels weird narratively, but probably isn't too unbalanced in a game with feats. Optimal ranged characters typically take the Crossbow Expert feat, which also uses your bonus action. Therefore, the strange shoot-don-doff-shoot sequence will probably only happen before level 4, when Crossbow Expert is typically taken (for every race but variant humans).

Suggested fix

If this interaction is undesirable, it could mostly be resolved with a sentence or two:

You may use a bonus action on your turn to don or doff a light shield, provided that you don't attack with a two-handed weapon (or a versatile weapon used with two hands) during the same turn.

This does prevent characters from doffing their shield, dropping their melee weapon, drawing a bow, and shooting something. Though, they could do so with a hand crossbow.

Tower shields are strictly better in typical games

Heavy armor shield-users will almost always want a tower shield, assuming they can carry and afford it. A heavy armor character with 16 Strength can carry 240 pounds by the standard lifting and carrying rules. Plate plus a tower shield is only 110 pounds, leaving plenty of headroom for other gear.

Affording a tower shield is also unlikely to be a problem in most games. They cost the same as a potion of healing, and I'd definitely prefer +1 AC forever over 2d4+2 healing once.

Suggested fix

Tower shields likely need some significant drawback to make up for their AC bonus. For example:

While wielding a tower shield, your speed is reduced by 10 feet. This reduction in speed cannot be prevented by non-magical means. Additionally, you cannot wield a tower shield while mounted.

The second sentence is primarily there to make it clear that dwarves still suffer a speed reduction. You could also consider half-movement, but I believe that a 10-foot speed reduction is enough. I have never seen a character wear armor if they didn't meet the Strength requirement, so trading +1 AC for 10 feet of movement speed is clearly a significant drawback.

Additionally, tower shields should probably be slightly more expensive. Upgrading from chain mail (typical starting heavy armor) to splint costs 200 gp, and grants +1 to AC. That cost is reduced to 162.5 gp if you can sell your chain mail. Given the additional movement drawback, I would price a tower shield at 150 gp.

I believe that these adjustments would provide significant-enough drawbacks to reduce tower shields from "must pick" to "sometimes pick".

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I was aware of the use of light shield to benefit ranged fighters, so I'm not that concerned by that. However, your tower shield points are very good; a potion of healing... yeah, it's clearly better to buy one of my shields than that. I like your speed reduction fix, given how unwieldy they are, so I will definitely be using that; maybe even half movement? That plus an increase in price; any suggestion on that? \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Apr 28, 2020 at 17:02
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    \$\begingroup\$ @nathan We were discussing this a bit in chat. Half movement may be reasonable. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Apr 28, 2020 at 17:09
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS I added some thoughts about half movement and price. \$\endgroup\$
    – Red Orca
    Apr 28, 2020 at 17:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ not using while mounted is a good idea, using any tall shield on horseback is a great way to have your knee and the flank of the horse beaten into a pulp by the bouncing hunk of wood. \$\endgroup\$
    – John
    Apr 28, 2020 at 23:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ Alternately, maybe consider setting the Strength requirement to avoid the movement penalty to be 19. This would preclude pretty much any starting character using the standard array from being able to avoid the 10' penalty. As Strength based Fighters and Paladins are more likely to boost their strength at levels 4 & 8, you can thus make the movement penalty a default for early levels when character classes are closer in power and a +1 AC could be unbalancing. Then at later levels 8+ when things start to spread, you give strength focused characters a way to boost themselves. \$\endgroup\$ Apr 29, 2020 at 22:13
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Light shields look balanced, Tower shields do not

The light shield is an interesting option and I think that may be balanced. You're trading One AC for the ability to more quickly don/doff the shield. That makes some narrative sense and gives an option for a build that doesn't want to be beholden to wearing their shield at all times or losing action economy to don/doff it.

The Tower shield is where things get tricky. I can't really come up with a case where any heavy Plate Armor wearing, shield using character would ever pick the Heavy Shield over the Tower Shield. Its a free +1 AC. In order to make this a decision that needs to be made, you need a trade-off. Given the size of the shield, reducing speed seems plausible (I think half is probably reasonable), or you can make it take an action or bonus action maybe to "plant" the shield for the +1. I don't love the latter because it's more to track. THese are just some ideas, but you can think more about what you think is a reasonable and real trade-off that needs to be made for that extra AC.

Magic Shields

It gets a bit trickier as Magic Shields are treated more like magic weapons in their Rarity. By providing a magic Light/Tower shield, that also fundamentally changes how powerful they are. I'd recommend treating shield rarity more like armor rarity. The +X variations for magic shields should be the same rarity level as the +X variations for armor.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for your answer; I hadn't considered that about the tower shield, obvious though it seems now you point it out. What do you mean by "I'd recommend treating shield rarity more like armor rarity." by the way? Do you mean that tower shields should be a "rare item" (even though it's not a magic item, which is the only time RAW rarity is mentioned, to my knowledge)? \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:27
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS Tried to clarify. BUt basically, a magic shield is less 'costly' than magic armor normally. If you're going to add different shield types, I'd reclassify the magic shields using the same methodology as magic armor. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah, I see; +1 armor is rare, but a +1 shield is only uncommon, so should be shifted up to rare to match the armor. Gotcha \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ As a separate point, would the problem be mitigated at later levels? In other words, if I increased the price of the tower shield (from 50gp) and made it rarer (so you aren't going to find it in small towns, only in large cities), meaning that the fighter/paladin would have to wait until they were a higher level (and therefore richer and more likely to have gone to a large city) before they could get one, and would have to make do with a heavy shield until then? Or would this still be a problem even at higher levels, because a free +1 AC is still a free +1 AC (not including the monetary cost)? \$\endgroup\$
    – NathanS
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:37
  • \$\begingroup\$ I don't think cost is a factor at all. Balancing mechanics with cost to me doesn't solve the problem (unless you are really stingy with gold to your players.) But even then, it doesn't change the "there is no reason I would ever pick a Heavy shield over a Tower shield" problem. \$\endgroup\$
    – NautArch
    Apr 28, 2020 at 15:43

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