Monday, November 22, 2021

Helm and Shield for the Unarmoured Old School Fighter (D&D adjacent)

Bearing in mind cavalier attitudes to encumbrance mechanics, this is the common-or-garden 1st level Fighter in the D&D I started out with:

Plate and Shield AC +7
(Citadel D&D Adventurers set)

Until magic items get into the mix, there is no reason not to load up like this: plate and shield is just better than chain and no shield.  And probably one of the reasons why it has been said that every Human Fighter is/was the same.

Shield AC +1
(Citadel D&D Adventurers set)

Mechanically, there's no reason to play the Unarmoured Fighter or even to give them a helmet in some of the older editions - except for an exceptionally bad starting gold roll, or after an encounter with one of the equipment-destroying monsters. But this Fighter-type is, I think, an iconic/important archetype/figure in the fiction and was poorly supported by the game.

(I know the Unarmoured DEX Fighter comes into their own and then goes beyond in later editions (3e onwards?), but I'm still living in a past when Clerics were Clumsy and Thieves were Foolish)


I owe an awful lot to this post I stumbled on via an OSR Facebook group.

It covers (the now venerable) Shields Will Be Splintered, but my main takeaway was from Wolves of God: shields give you significant AC bonus, but don't stack with worn armour

So, I'll offer three shields following the basic/classic AC scale, with cost and weight half that of the equivalent armour. There’s even room for a buckler/parrying dagger at +1 AC (cost and weight of a shortsword?).

Materials and designs as you see fit. Pay extra for mods like horns or spikes. Still can be splintered. Shield bash like a club or subdual strike. 

Whether as a Fighter benefit or so it's not just an either/or choice, +1 AC for having a shield when using armour that's the same or better.

Maybe there shouldn't be an AC +6 shield so that plate mail remains The Best. This is better than full cover in a number of D&D adjacents, and might be better applied to static (or semi-static) shields like the pavise or mantlet. Or you need a trained shieldbearer to wield it two-handed on your behalf.

With shields having many more ‘points’ in them and possibly scaling to 6, there’s room for doing something with them if you want that sweet further complexity. Like, they can suffer attrition until they are broken or repaired - WFRP rimless shields were only good for one adventure. Or the AC value is also a save vs. shield-breaking attacks, or the threshold for triggering a usage die.


Gary Chalk for Talisman.
This and Dragonwarriors is where I got the idea from and the AD&D thing was a lucky coincidence.

In lots of D&D adjacents, the helmet is more something that you lose for a penalty than possess for its defensive value, which seems to do it a disservice. After all, it's one of the pieces of armour kit that has survived into the modern era. 

I believe (as in "I heard or read it somewhere") that the (re)introduction of the helmet into the British (?) army led to a rise in recorded head-injuries, as soldiers survived previously fatal wounds. Like with that diagram of the bullet holes in the aeroplane.

Tucked away in the 1e AD&D DMG is the information that, if you're not wearing a helmet, there's a 1 on d6 chance of attacks going for the unarmoured head and being made vs. unarmoured AC (don't think it specifies whether or not you get your DEX adjustment). This feels like a spot ruling that made it into the rules (d6 would break down into a basic hit location roll of head, torso, each arms, each leg) and feels a bit clunky.

Instead, use the 1 in d6 as a save vs. critical hits (thank you, abstract combat and hit points). I don’t think this is game breaking, and makes it worth wearing one if you can’t afford full armour. 

(Yes, not all systems use crits, but it's one of those houserules that was so instinctive a lot of us thought it was written down somewhere. I can't remember ever not using it)

This x-in-x save vs. crit/fatality can also be used for pocket Bibles, a locket from your beloved, silver cigarette cases and so on, if you like.


Does this mean everyone in a suit of chain or plate (my assumption is that leather doesn't come with a metal helmet) gets a save vs. crit? 

My intention was to make helmets mean something by themselves, rather than give all armour a boost, and I was coming at it from the perspective of a low armour setting where people don't go around in full battle dress day-to-day.

In Dragonwarriors, wielding a shield in combat gave a 1 on d6 saving throw. There was no guidance on whether shields were class specific, how many blocks per round they could do, nor if they were effective vs. crits (in DW, crits auto-penetrate armour). Magical shields gave you a Defence bonus rather than improved the save, and a little reading around suggests that the d6 save was often forgotten at the table or houseruled as a Defence bonus (so back to +1 AC for a shield).

A feature of the older editions of Talisman and Warhammer that I'm familiar with: roll d6 to save your life.

Which is why I've labelled this post BOSR.

DW makes the shield different in execution to worn armour and to normal combat defence, and I like that mechanical diversity for its own sake.

I've seen (in passing, over years, so not sure where or when) other options for unarmoured Fighters, such as allowing them to use a STR or CHA modifier to their AC (in addition to DEX and shield), representing the bare-chested barbarian/chainmail bikini end of the fiction.


  1. Always nice to see more visions to an old problem. I preferred to make plate and chain smaller (+4 and +3 AC respectivelly) and treat helmets as a +1. Suddently everybody wears a helmet, but they feel more free to wear sub-par armor.

    1. A nice concise fix.
      I like to keep plate as the strongest and heaviest armour. With a 3d6 Hit Roll I sometimes use, it becomes even more impregnable, but is balanced/nerfed by the AC + coming directly off your STR and DEX (and MV, I suppose) when you try to do stuff.
      It's not historically accurate, I know, but I'm modelling a simulation of a fiction.

  2. "This x-in-x save vs. crit/fatality can also be used for pocket Bibles, a locket from your beloved, silver cigarette cases and so on, if you like."

    haha this is very nice. Worth keeping just for that possibility

    1. And the "Oh Crap, My Hat" in Die Trying (Slight Adjustments blog) - a Shields Will Be Splintered but for your signature headwear.