Sidebar Wednesday: Shields as Cover

The shield is a truly ancient form of personal defense that has remained so effective we still employ its use with police today, but its usefulness is under-represented in modern roleplaying games like Pathfinder. The maximum standard shield bonus for a mundane shield tops out at a +4 shield bonus, and that is for 45 lbs. of steel-reinforced wood known as the tower shield that is likely as big as your entire body. With “normal” shield bonuses closer to +1 or +2, despite covering one-quarter to one-half of a person’s body, the effectiveness of shield bonuses to AC seems abysmally small when compared to actual armors. Wearing a single piece of sculpted metal over just your torso (the description of “breastplate armor”) grants its wearer a +6 armor bonus to AC, comparatively, while offering zero added protection to your arms, legs, head, or even back. If even light armors were as so much more effective in battle than a 5-7 lb. light wooden or steel shield, then why would Greek hoplites and Roman legionnaires, not to mention Celts, Vikings, Medieval men-at-arms, etc., all have employed it, sometimes in lieu of any other serious “armor”? This list even ignores the as long history of the shield’s use around the world from Asian, African, Native American and essentially any other historic cultural group you can think of, with the prevalence of shields being likely as common as the bow and arrow or even the simple spear.

In addition, the benefits of a shield are such that even a relative novice with one strapped to their arm almost instinctively will duck or otherwise protect themselves from both incoming ranged and melee attacks, whereas someone trained in their use will find it even more effective and less encumbering. Instead of gaining the standard shield bonus to AC, shields should be treated as various forms of cover, with special benefits gained when the wear is proficient in the use of the shield in combat. The basic cover bonus to a creature’s AC depends on if the wielder simply has the shield equipped, is fighting defensively and thus trying to take advantage of the cover bonus more, or even focusing on the shield’s cover effect in total defense. Benefits from the cover stack to AC benefits for fighting defensively or taking the total defense option. Unlike standard rules for calculating cover, a shield actively employed in combat is assumed to provide cover from all incoming attacks as the wielder moves the shield to block with it. Creatures that are flat-footed or denied their Dexterity bonus to AC gain no cover bonus from their shield, but treat other shield bonuses they possess using the standard rules.

Most rules still work the same way, except affecting the benefits of cover. Wielders not proficient with shields is handled normally, taking the shield’s armor check penalty on attack rolls and all skill checks that involve moving. Using a shield to perform a shield bash takes away any bonus to cover as the wielder opens themselves up to attack, unless they possess the correct feats or abilities. Tower shields can still be used to grant total cover using their standard special rules. Wielders do not gain the benefits of cover against a touch attack spell or similar effect that would normally ignore their shield bonus because they are able to target the wielder via their shield. Likewise, wielders gain no bonus to Stealth checks from cover provided solely by their shield and can’t attempt Stealth checks based on the cover provided by their shield. If employing a shield while fighting when the wielder would normally receive some type of cover bonus to AC (from surroundings, etc.), they instead gain the next step up of cover bonus, so that a shield and a low wall granting you both partial cover are treated as standard cover, etc. Any feat or ability that would allow a wielder to grant their shield bonus to another creature (ally, mount, etc.) instead gives that creature the corresponding cover effect.

Any feats, abilities, or magical “shield bonus” increases still are added to the character using the standard shield bonus entry. This represents superior knowledge, training, experience, or magical benefit from using a shield in combat, so that a fighter with Shield Focus should gain a +1 shield bonus to their AC as well as any cover effects depending on how they employ the shield.

This content originally appeared in:

Sidebar#1: Shields as Cover. © 2015, Fat Goblin Games. Author; Lucus Palosaari

If you are interested in adding more shields to you game, try out our Call to Arms: Shields! This original Sidebar was well received by Endzeitgeist in his review of it!