Shields and Spears in Savage Worlds

I’ve finally decided to add some house rules to Savage Worlds.  Up until now I’ve been adding setting-specific stuff (various Edges, Races, and so forth), but I’ve been pretty careful not to override any of the core rules because I wanted to have a solid grasp on them before I tinkered.  One of the first pieces of advice the folks on the Savage Worlds forum give is resist the urge to tinker with stuff until you’ve played it enough to see how it works; there are a bunch of things that are slightly different in Savage Worlds than people are used to, and it’s not always clear to a new player how the pieces interact.

I think I’ve gotten beyond that now, and have a decent grasp of the system and philosophy, even if I can’t count myself as an expert, and there are a couple things that I don’t think Savage Worlds handles well even on its own terms.  Chief among these are its treatment of shields and spears.

In Savage Worlds, Shields grant +1-3 to the character’s Parry score (melee defense), but only to the front and right side of the character.  That’s intuitive enough, until you realize that it’s the only place in all the rules that facing matters.  In Savage Worlds there’s no bonus for attacking from behind or the side.  Even if you’re partially surrounded, while the attackers gain a Gang Up bonus (+1 for every attacker over 1, to a maximum of +4), no particular attacker has any extra advantage based on your facing.  In every other case, SW abstracts away facing.  It’s built on the assumption that combatants are naturally moving around, spinning, jockeying for position, even circling each other during combat and that turns are long enough (6 seconds) that there’s no one single way that you’re facing during the turn.  This is even mentioned explicitly in the rules that deal with firing into melee: you stand a chance of hitting a friendly character because even though they may be visibly just standing there in separate squares on the battle mat in the game-world they’re presumed to be moving around erratically.  Even bearing that in mind, it might be worth breaking the abstraction in cases where it’s really likely to matter, and to increase the tactical possibilities…except that every other weapon that grants a Parry bonus (such as Rapier or Spear) does so all around.  There’s no more reason that a fellow armed with a Rapier can defend himself better against attacks from the rear than someone with a Shield, but that’s how the rules have it.

So, first House Rule:

Shields apply their bonus regardless of facing, just like other weapons.  The Gang Up bonus is what represents being flanked or attacked in such a way that you cannot defend as effectively in all directions.

Spears in Savage Worlds are also a bit odd.  They are universally a Two-Handed weapon, that grants +1 Parry and Reach. Reach means they can attack foes up to 2 yards away (1″ game scale).  There’s nothing particularly wrong about that, but historically many if not most spears were 1-handed weapons used in conjunction with a shield.  I’m also not entirely sure why the +1 Parry, unless it’s just the extra length of the weapon making it harder to press home an attack.  Most settings, including pulp settings with primitive tribesmen, are going to need a 1-Handed version of a spear.  You could say that such a weapon has no extra Reach, while retaining the +1 Parry, but that doesn’t really match up with how they were regarded historically (and would ruin the Greek hoplite tactic of being able to have the second rank or even third rank of soldiers able to attack foes that close with the front of the phalanx). The Core Rules 2-Handed Spear is also capable of being thrown, which is silly.  Here’s a nice set of pictures of guys with spears and shields, including both one-handed and two-handed spears.

So, the second House Rule:

Spear (1-Handed) STR+d6  Weight 3  Cost 50  Reach 1  Range 3/6/12  ROF 1  Min STR d6

Spear (2-Handed) STR+d6 Weight 5 Cost 100 Reach 1, Parry +1, two hands, may not be thrown.

Sling Shield –   Weight 12  Cost 50  +2 Armor to ranged shots that hit, +1 Armor to non-ranged attacks if and only if fighting in phalanx (defenders to either side, attackers only on one side), can be slung from the shoulder so that it can be used in conjunction with 2-handed spears (as was the practice of Macedonian phalanx)

Finally, there’s the interaction of Reach weapons and Close Combat in Savage Worlds.  According to the rule “Withdrawing from Close Combat”, if you leave melee then adjacent characters get a free attack on you.  This is a pretty standard kind of “parting shot” rule to keep turn-based movement from having odd effects that allow a character to run up, attack, and run away while the defender just stands there helpless.  Unfortunately, while the rule is about “Withdrawing from Close Combat” technically the body of the rule refers to “leaving melee”–the rules lawyers have seized upon this to argue (successfully as far as the official interpretation) that if you have a Reach weapon and stop being adjacent you are still in melee and don’t attract a free attack.  But if you move more than the reach of your weapon away, then you have left melee, and even though you’re no longer adjacent, the opponent gets the free attack.  This results in people armed with spears, or worse, pikes, having more options about where they can move during a battle than anybody else.  This seems to run directly counter to spears and pikes in history and fiction, and promotes unusual tactics like having your double row of spear men close with the enemy (both rows getting their attacks in because of Reach) and then disengaging and stepping 2 yards back (nobody suffering a free attack, because the front row is still in Reach and the back row was never adjacent) so that if any of them have First Strike they get another set of attacks when the opponents close in again.  Clint, the official rules guy, says that yeah, they can do that, but they won’t be able to do it in battle twice, because who would close with them, so why worry?  Oh, I don’t know, maybe because the spear phalanx can serve as a screen for archers?

Anyway, before I start frothing about the kind of Talmudic pilpul that sometimes goes on around the Fast! Furious! Fun! rules of Savage Worlds, here’s my third house rule:

Withdrawing from Close Combat means withdrawing from Close Combat.  As soon as you are no longer adjacent to an unshaken opponent that you were fighting, the opponent gets a free attack even if you’re still within the reach of your own weapon.  You are counted as fighting an opponent (and not just dashing past) if either a) you make any kind of attack in passing so as to attract his attention, or b) the opponent is otherwise unengaged and not surprised.

The last bit is to cover whether you can run past an entire line of foes without any consequences just because it’s your initiative.  There are those who maintain that as long as you didn’t make a Fighting roll against one of the foes, you weren’t technically in combat with them, so you can charge through without any problem.  There are times, particularly for Pulp adventure, where that even makes sense.  Certainly if they’re busy fighting someone else, they may not have attention to spare.  On the other hand, if you were fighting them, no matter how many other foes they are engaged with, they always have time and attention to spare to get a free attack.  That’s because it’s part of the abstraction that you’re not accounting for every blow, and even though it may not be their initiative they’re not standing there like logs while you do whatever you wish.  So in my opinion, running a gauntlet of armed opponents is not something you should attempt unless they’re distracted.  If you want a good chance of trying this, try tricking them first, or wait for them to be fighting somebody else.  And don’t try to tell me that by throwing something or shooting one of them with a pistol as you pass you’re not fighting them because it wasn’t a “Fighting” roll.

3 thoughts on “Shields and Spears in Savage Worlds

  1. Morgenstern says:

    I like your withdrawing from combat rule, we play like this since the beginning. And I like your rules about the shields giving always a parry bonus. In melee.
    They should not give any parry bonus when you get attacked with ranged weapons except you are facing towards your opponent. In that case you can imagine a fighter fighting through hordes of enemies towards the archer, always an eye to that incoming arrows. If the archer wants to wait for that moment the shield is not ready this is simulated by aiming and called shots.

    I have to say honestly that your ruling of spears is not well thought. You take a special historical tactic that is as good as nowhere to be seen in fantasy or pulp settings (have you ever seen something like this in any fantasy movie?) and forget, that SW is not historical correct in any matter but a fast fantasy game. If you start to be historical correct what about plate armor? With SW someone can walk all day in plate, do not need a gambeson to wear under, does not need a crane to get on a horse, does not take more damage when fall from a horse. What about a fight between a guy in no armor and a knife vs a Knight in plate with sword and shield? Because of damage explosions the guy with the knife can easily win ripping through plate like through butter.
    What about the accurate range of weapons? What about being a headshot always being lethal or at least knocking the target out? What about reloading a crosswbow while under attack in 6 seconds? What about long bow archers that often di fire arrows in a high bow and could so attack behind cover? And to get back to our shield and archer theme: it is hardly known that arrows go through steel shields just loosing some speed. This is what happens in SW. Wooden arrows just loose 2 points of damage when hitting a shield, no matter what it is made of. Magically you can get much more benefit from kite shields if you just hide behind them using them as full cover (no melee allowed).

    So it makes no sense at all to make a houserule about fights to reflect something real. This is not was SW is about, its about fast-fun-furious. If you want to simulate fights I recommend D&D 3.5 or GURPS to you.

    Or you can invent special edges reflecting your special needs. But I advice you: do not change the core rules because there was a time where some small parts of the world did use a special tactic that is not used in SW!

    I can only tell you that my group too had many concerns (we did come straight from D&D 3.5) about realism until we did understand that the fighting system in SW is really really well thought and good balanced. Its not about being realistic in any way but about handling fights in a fast matter allowing dozens of monsters and allies. It is about “heroes” furiously slaughtering their way through dozens of monsters, killing them with single blows while being barely scratched by the bad guys (or, if they have no luck and no bennies, going down because of one guy with a butter knife getting that damage explosion).

    Enjoy the game because its really working great. You will not enjoy it if you start to change it because its not real because than you have to play another system.

  2. Joshua says:

    @Morgenstern we’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. The point of the rule I proposed isn’t to make SW a perfect military simulation, it’s to remove a stupid rules-lawyerly trick that makes spears a super-weapon and lets spear users flit about the battlefield engaging and disengaging at will while everybody else has to deal with the consequences of leaving close combat. There’s nothing about that which is intended to be true to fantasy books or movies, it’s just a mistake, an odd case of the way two rules in a complex system interact.

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