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In 5e it takes an action to doff or don a shield. But does that assume the shield is always donned while the character is awake and adventuring?

It seems like a question that the DM and player would need to discuss, but I'm wondering if there's an official answer.

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It’s your shield, so it’s up to you.

There is no official “direct” answer to your question, except possibly what’s found in the introduction to the Player’s Handbook, in “How to Play the Game”:

The players describe what they want to do.

Sometimes one player speaks for the whole party, saying, “We’ll take the east door,” for example. Other times, different adventurers do different things: one adventurer might search a treasure chest while a second examines an esoteric symbol engraved on a wall and a third keeps watch for monsters. The players don’t need to take turns, but the DM listens to every player and decides how to resolve those actions.

Sometimes, resolving a task is easy. If an adventurer wants to walk across a room and open a door, the DM might just say that the door opens and describe what lies beyond. But the door might be locked, the floor might hide a deadly trap, or some other circumstance might make it challenging for an adventurer to complete a task. In those cases, the DM decides what happens, often relying on the roll of a die to determine the results of an action.

As the player, you decide what you character does. If that means you wear your shield all the time, then you wear your shield all the time.

As far as sleeping with your shield on, realistically, adventurers probably don’t do that; so talk to your DM about that one. In my games, as a player, I don’t sleep with my shield, and as a DM, I assume my players don’t either. This really only matters if the party is ambushed while sleeping. When this happens, it can help raise the stakes a bit on that first round, as shield users are forced to decide between their shield AC bonus and using their action for something else.

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    \$\begingroup\$ If we're talking "realistically" it is unlikely you would travel with a shield attached all the time, they weigh 6lb - not a great weight to carry for a few minutes but if you're walking all day that arm is going to ache. In game, however, I wouldn't be against a player having it equipped - I just wouldn't bring realism into it. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 4 at 11:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Shields are like familiars. They blink in and out of existence based on player's remembering they're there. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 5 at 6:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LioElbammalf The weights in D&D are notoriously inaccurate—and usually high. I don’t know what historical weights for shields were (for that matter, we don’t know what sort of shields qualify), but it would not surprise me if historically shields were a lot less problematic than 6 lbs sounds. They still weren’t worn constantly though. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jul 5 at 18:22
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    \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan I was curious so I did some googling. Scutums (roman shields for heavy infantry) weighed 13 - 15 lbs. according to wikipedia. No idea how reliable it is but mahan.wonkwang.ac.kr/link/med/war/weapon/… suggests most medieval shields weighed between 3 lbs - 14 lbs depending on type. For what its worth, at my table we assume that the shield is ready by the time combat starts. unless there is a reason it isn't (surprised, sleeping, etc). Perhaps not the most realistic assumption, but also probably the most fair and simplest. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 5 at 18:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @TimothyAWiseman Roman shields were absolutely immense, though; more like a wall you could pick up and move to another location where you would put it down. I don’t think you need to carry something like that to get the +2 bonus to AC; previous editions assigned such shields a +4 (though they also came with a host of penalties). \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Jul 5 at 18:42
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We've always assumed you're not wearing a shield when wearing one would clearly have some sort of penalty. So no shield when: searching for secret doors, talking to a merchant in town or going through a well-established peaceful area (you don't want to frighten people), riding as a normal part of travel, walking through difficult terrain (need to use both hands), digging, setting up camp... .

Most players quickly agree they wouldn't have a shield at those times. If it becomes an issue you can make up a penalty for being at "Full Alert" (shields on, always looking around... ); often the GM just says "it will take longer that way". But many campaigns won't have many flat-footed ambushes, so if someone really wants to say "I always have my shield ready" it's such a small advantage the GM lets them have it. It's their quirk. Other players naturally get their own tiny advantages. Alice has said she always hides 3 or 4 daggers on her person each morning so many times that the GM assumes it without her saying. Things like that.

But then we assume a shield is put on when there's any advance warning of trouble: you're riding and hear a strange noise -- unless you immediately have some action that needs both hands we assume shields are put on. Seems common sense and keeps the game moving.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I wouldn't necessarily say +2 to AC is a small advantage - it's an extra 10% chance not to get hit. That being said, I still let players have it unless it was previously stated they didn't have their shield out. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 4 at 7:51
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    \$\begingroup\$ @ThomasMarkov Definitely - it is a huge bonus, was trying to put the criticism across in a less aggressive way. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 4 at 11:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LioElbammalf "I always have my shield out" is a tiny bonus compared to "I usually have my shield on unless it would clearly get in the way, and even then put it on at the slightlest hint of trouble". How many times are you completely surprised while digging a hole or riding on the prairie? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 4 at 13:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @LioElbammalf Sure. For the landslide anyone digging won't have a weapon out, either. But would have a shield ready w/o saying so as they "check it out". The goblins in the grass -- hopefully the party gets perception checks. New GM's love to spring "how-did-that-work?" ambushes, which is it's own problem. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 5 at 1:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @owen Sure, the party gets perception checks if they state they're actively looking out at particular points or their passive is used for the long stretches. The point is that they can be ambushed - do they have their shield out when it happens? If yes thats a +2 AC for that surprise round and saves an action to don it - personally I wouldn't call those tiny bonuses. \$\endgroup\$ Jul 5 at 5:17

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