Shields Shall Be Splendid!

The following presents a house rule for handling shields that makes sense to me for a more Sword and Sorcery than high medieval setting.

In most D&D-likes, shields are an afterthought.  The bonus for carrying a shield is +1 or maybe +2 on a d20, which seems a little strange considering the prominent place shields have in actual history. There have been some attempts over the years to “fix” that with house rules, such as the nifty “Shields Shall Be Splintered” rule offered by Trollsmyth, giving the player an incentive to carry a shield in order to sacrifice it to avoid damage.

Still, that’s not that much of an incentive, particularly if shields are hard to come by in the middle of an adventure.  There’s also another potential problem if you’re trying to run a campaign set in a period more reminiscent of the ancient world than the late medieval/early renaissance age of heavy plate armor, and particularly if you want the pulp Sword & Sorcery feel of something like a Conan comic.

If you want your combatants to look like this


not this


not this



not this


then the standard D&D-like rules could stand to be improved.

You can of course make it so the heavier armors just don’t exist in the setting, or are prohibitively expensive, or forbidden by law or custom except to certain social classes and only in certain situations, or lean heavily on encumbrance rules (no pun intended)… but doing so tends to make the characters like front-line fighters that rely on heavy armor in games more fragile…sometimes a lot more fragile.  That’s not always a bullet you want to bite for an aesthetic preference.  Another approach some people use is to either tie AC directly in to level, making armor irrelevant, creating some sort of swashbuckling class or option so certain characters can opt to use less armor without getting chopped to pieces or even provide “chainmail bikini” bonuses based on DEX or even CHA for a particularly Red Sonja comic-book take.

Here’s an alternate take: Make shields provide the bulk of the defensive bonus, with armor only being a secondary bonus unless you’re fighting without any shield.  Here’s a chart of how this would work for an ascending AC game, with values based on Dungeon Crawl Classics.

Shield AC bonus Check Penalty
Off-hand Weapon/improvised 1 0
Buckler 2 0
Targe 3 -1
Roman Scuta 4 -1
Heater 5 -1
Kite 6 -2
Greek Hoplon 7 -2
Tower 8 -3

Using a shield and armor within 3 bonus of each other provides AC equal to the better of the two, plus 1. Using shield and armor more than 3 different, like full plate and a buckler, or leather armor and a tower shield just provides the better of the two bonuses. The Check Penalty is the worse of the two, minus 1, regardless of how close in bonus they are.

Using these rules, all the AC bonuses and check penalties stay the same for existing characters if they like, but there’s the option of shedding a bunch of armor to increase mobility and fit in better with actual historical shield/armor mixes such as Hoplon plus linen linothorax or just greaves and helmet, or targe and leather or hide, or even fantasy comic book targe or buckler and chainmail bikini.  The bonuses are chosen with an eye on providing even min-maxers an incentive to keep to vaguely plausible combinations, even if plausible includes the likes of Frazetta’s Conan or Frank Thorne’s Sonja.

I think doing shield and armor this way allows for a wider variety of Sword & Sorcery or even anime setting tropes with minimal changes to game balance.  If you’re not using DCC, you might have to adjust the bonuses and penalties if you want them to work out to the same as the existing combinations, but the changes should be slight.


Overland Travel

Another post that I never posted here, with a general way of handling overland travel based on the underlying Outdoor Survival/AD&D terrain and movement rates, simplified for easy use with pretty much any D&D-like.

These templates show the cost to enter1 a hex on the overland travel map, with a key to how many hexes a party can move in a day based on the degree of encumbrance (for travelling on foot) or type of mount. The assumption is that roads and trails do not speed your travel enough to track, but they do allow you to pass over worse terrain as if you were on clear terrain. (mostly based on Delta’s discussion of the rates in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1e Dungeon Master’s Guide).

If the cost of entering a hex is more than a single day’s allotment (e.g. on heavy horse in a swamp with no road), you can either say it’s impassible, switch to a smaller scale map and have the party slog through taking multiple days, or make the minimum rate of travel 1 hex per day or 1 hex every other day.

1 Mile Hexes

3 Mile Hexes

5 Mile Hexes

6 Mile Hexes

  1. This is by far my preferred approach, since it means no tracking of partial hexes. It also matches the way Outdoor Survival worked, which was the original source of the all the D&D movement rules…and by extension almost everything that came after. 

Homebrewery – a tool for easy 5e formatting

Just ran across this tool for easily making pdfs and web pages in the style of the D&D 5e Player’s Handbook. Very useful if you’re writing D&D 5e home-brew material, or really any home-brew stuff that you want neatly formatted and don’t mind the D&D house style

For instance, here’s a link to one of my blog posts, basically just plopped into the Homebrewery with some minor fixup of the markup:


Check it out.

Tracking Individual Initiative

Despite what I said a while back about group initiative (was it really almost a year ago?), in our DCC game we’ve been using individual initiative, both ’cause that’s how DCC is written and ’cause it has some little flavorful fillips to it that make it more interesting.  In DCC only Warriors increase Init bonus as they level, and two-handed weapon wielders use a d16 for Init instead of d20, both of which I quite like.  But that means that I need to track individual initiative, so I came up with the following.  Instead of using the traditional count-down (Does anybody go on 20?  19?  etc.) I’ve made up a 3×5 card for each character with vital stats like AC, saves, etc. and I go through the count-down once, putting the cards in order of Init.  I make one more card for the monster init, and an extra card representing the end of the round just to remind me if I need to check things like spell effects wearing off or random encounters.

I’m ashamed it took me so long to come up with something like this, because it works perfectly.   Nobody ever gets missed, and there’s never any hesitation about what comes next.   It’s fully as fast as my old stand-by just go around the table I use when I just can’t be bothered with init. I’m sure I’m not the first person to come up with this, but all of the discussions I recall and printed GM aids I’ve seen involve writing the character names on a list and either updating the init numbers and skipping around the list or redoing the list when init is rolled…which unless you’re using a computer at the table isn’t so slick.  The one drawback I can see, besides the need for index cards or scraps of paper, is that if you roll for init every round putting the cards in order could be a drag…you’d essentially do one pass to order the cards and one pass through the cards to carry out the turn.  I still think it might be worth it, but for a system like DCC where the init is rolled only at the start of combat, there’s no such problem.

Group Initiative

Lately I’ve had a strong preference for group initiative. Despite individual initiative giving a more fluid and chaotic battlefield, as well as scope for per-character bonuses and penalties, it seems more trouble than it’s worth. Tracking who goes when is a hassle,particularly if you’re tracking each NPC separately, and players seem to get more bummed out when they consistently roll crappily than they are pleased to roll well.

But because I like to tinker, I’m considering the following house rule:

In order of preference each turn initiative goes to:
1. The side that ran away last turn, as long as they’re still running.
2. The side that downed the most foes last turn.
3. The side that hit the most foes last turn (failed saves count as being hit).
4. The side that rolls highest on a d6 plus any CHA bonus for the designated leader.