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D&D General Sword & Board: From Standard to Exotic

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Per the request of @Alzrius I was asked to look at one of my earlier suppositions; namely, that not only was "sword & board" an overwhelming preference in early-TSR D&D, but that it was (usually) optimal. This came out of my prior threads looking into the original of the Ranger and two-weapon fighting ("TWF").

Since it is necessary to state, I will just reiterate that when discussing early D&D, there is a much greater deal of table variation due to numerous factors, from a lack of standardization, to the DIY nature of the game back then, to use of 3PP and/or semi-official product (Dragon Magazine), to the opacity of the rules and the fact that many tables did not play with all of the rules. When it comes to defining the "true" 1e experience, I am reminded of the following question submitted to Sage Advice:

In GODS, DEMI-GODS AND HEROES it says that a forty-plus level character is ridiculous. In our game we have two characters that are at one thousand-plus level. This happened in “Armageddon,” a conflict between the gods and the characters. Of course, the characters won. What do you think about that?

Ahem. So, I will be concentrating on the RAW, and (to be honest) the main subsets. However you play at your table, that's cool.



1. A brief recap of the history of DEX "the God-stat", and dual-wielding.
Shut up! Shut up, you American. You always talk, you Americans, you talk and you talk and say 'Let me tell you something' and 'I just wanna say this.' -You, reading this.

So, as I went through in my prior posts, dexterity has always been good. In the early days, it was obvious that a high dexterity was beneficial because it improved your chance to hit with missile weapons, it improved your saving throws (with some spells), it improved your thieving abilities, and most importantly, it improved your armor class. In addition, a high dexterity would ameliorate some of the disadvantages of TWF; if you had a very high dexterity, the disadvantages (in terms of "to hit" with your primary and secondary weapons) were smaller, and with a very very high dexterity (higher than 18) those disadvantages would go away completely.

And yet, it still was not the God-stat for martial characters that it has become. The primary reason is that there were several classes that either required a high dexterity (Illusionist, Monk) or needed it to bolster their meager skills (Thief, Assassin). Of the three main martials (Fighter, Ranger, Paladin), two of them- Ranger and Paladin, explicitly had high requirements that were in abilities other than dexterity, meant that it was unlikely that if you rolling normally, you'd end up with a high dexterity. And even with a basic fighter (ya basic), the advantages gained from a high strength and constitution that were not available to other classes for ability scores above 16 meant that you'd likely max those out first.

In addition, TWF just wasn't that common. There were no rules for TWF in OD&D (by this, I always mean official rules- table came up with their own rules as needed). Their were no rules for TWF in B/X. The first mention of TWF in BECMI occurs in the Master ruleset published in 1985, and is somewhat buried (Master Set 19). And when it came to AD&D (1e), there was no mention of TWF in the player-facing PHB, and only the briefest of rules for it in the later-published "secret" DMG (yeah, right).

While there were examples of the rule for TWF that could be seen (from NPCs in Deities and Demigods to the Drow to Roger Moore's article in 1982 in Dragon Magazine), the concepts behind TWF were arguably not that widespread until 1985, with the publication of OA and UA. OA introduced the Kensai, which I believe is the first official "dex martial" class (the original monk doesn't exactly count), designed by Zeb Cook, and with a class ability to TWF- one that later became an inherent class feature of the 2e Ranger (also a Cook creation). UA introduced the playable Drow, which included the ability to TWF without penalty. Arguably, from 1985 on, the amount of player-facing material for TWF increased, until by 2e's Ranger it became a standard part of D&D. But all of this is in prior posts.


2. Sword & board. Why shields were part of traditional D&D.
The lights are growing dim Otto. I know a life of crime has led me to this sorry fate, and yet, I blame society. Society made me what I am. -The party's thief, after Otto irresistibly danced him.

Let's start this by acknowledging that the second-line martials, Clerics, used shields in ye olden days. Unless you played with either expanded rules, or allowed the Cleric special weapons due to their deity, they couldn't TWF, as it was restricted to the edged weapons of dagger and hand-axe. More importantly is the issue of the front-line martials- the Fighters (and the Fighter subclasses, as it is now obligatory for me to say ... not that it really matters, as at least 50% of people comment without reading the post ... :) ).

Assuming you weren't the person who wrote into Sage Advice, above, or otherwise played in a Monty Haul campaign ... there was a very important feature of the older games. They could be a lot more deadly. Let me establish why by comparing it to 5e:
1. Hit points. Sure, the fighters got d10 hit points and a con bonus. But the other classes were at a severe disadvantage- like MUs, who got d4 (and rarely had a con bonus). This meant that (for example) fighters had to soak up all the damage because other characters absolutely could not. And more play was concentrated at lower levels- AD&D was concentrated at "name level" and lower- you didn't have a whole lot of 15th level characters, and even if you did, they could no longer accumulate full hit points under the rules.
2. Healing. The whole thing about needing a cleric? Well, it was true. To heal in AD&D without magic you needed complete rest (no adventuring, no combat, no "downtime" to research spells or train); for every full day you did absolutely nothing but rest, you got back ... one (1!) hit point. After a week of rest, you got a bonus (or penalty) equal to your constitution, so a full week of rest was 7 hit points (+/- Con modifier). Only FOUR WEEKS OF COMPLETE REST would get you back to maximum.
3. Healing, contd. Unlike later editions, there was no "wand of cure light wounds," or "potion of healing you can buy like in the PHB" easily available. Healing during an adventure could be a big deal.
4. Death. Death came swiftly and suddenly in AD&D- not just through a "save or die," but also through damage. There was no "whac-a-mole," and no ability to make death saves. If a hit reduced you to 0 hit points (optional rule: as low as -3 hit points) you were dead. And dying ... it sucked. Yes, you could be raised, but you'd have to roll percentiles to see if you died permanently, and you'd lose a point of constitution permanently.

So, there was a confluence of reasons that caused "sword & board" to be the archetype for most martials during D&D's early era. To start with, since dex wasn't the "god" stat and did not cause an increase in damage, there was a high premium placed on strength for martial characters. This, combined with low survivability, issues of healing and hit points, availability of magic, and restrictions on the second weapon, meant that Armor Class was at a premium.

Here, a brief detour into a primary difference between 1e and 5e. In 5e it is generally the correct accepted wisdom that DPR (for combats) matters more than anything; after all, with bounded accuracy and monsters just being big ol' bags of hit points, marginal gains in your own armor class aren't worth as much as doing lots of damage to the opponent; since the opponent will hit you during combat, it is best to just end them as quickly as possible.

This ... just wasn't the case in 1e. You really wanted to avoid being hit! So if you were a fighter, then you really wanted a low AC. And since it wasn't likely that you would have a high dex, the quickest way to a low AC was a shield- a magic shield.

If you have Plate Mail and a Shield, then your AC is 2. That's impressive. But securing Plate + 3 and a Shield + 3? Well, then you're down to -4, and that's before any other bonuses. And here's the thing- magic shields were common. Standard "starter" modules like B2 would have 3 magic shield easily gainable by the party (along with two (2) sets of magic plate), and another four magic shield possible if you included the stuff in the keep (which you shouldn't).

Even looking at the DMG told you this, in a way similar to the over-abundance of magic swords. There was a 15% chance that a given magic item would be "armor or shield" (Treasure Table III)- that's second only to potions, and tied with scrolls. Then, a full 25% of all magic armor ... was a magic shield (Table III.F). On the other hand, there was an explicit restriction to TWF in AD&D- you could only use a dagger or a hand axe as the secondary weapon (unless you were using Dragon 68 or Dragon 127). While these magic items did exist (both hand axe +1 and dagger +1, for example, were not exactly rare in modules) it was incredibly uncommon to find more powerful versions of these items.

In effect, Fighters would most often be trading marginal extra damage for a serious hit to their Armor Class. While it was possible that the tradeoff would be worth it in some cases (a high level fighter, maybe a very rare Axe + 2 throwing as a secondary weapon, and gauntlets of ogre power/girdle of giant strength), it was rarely worth the increased damage that would be taken by the fighter given the limits on healing in early editions.

This began to change with the publication of UA in 1985. Quite simply, the introduction of weapon specialization quickly made it advantageous for characters to concentrate on dealing damage. By the time of 2e, TWF became much more of a norm.


3. The legacy of sword & board in 5e.
So what Jefferson was saying was 'Hey! You know, we left this England place because it was bogus. So if we don't get some cool rules ourselves, pronto, we'll just be bogus too.' Yeah? - Spicoli, the Valley Elf.

Today, the idea of martial character as "dex build," or as "TWF" is firmly entrenched within D&D and the rules of 5e. Allowing dex to affect damage, both for melee and missile weapons, while still lowering the armor class, has tended to privilege dexterity builds. While there are specific feats, such as Shield Master that allow for a traditional "sword and board" build, it has been my anecdotal observation that the classic AD&D archetype of the Fighter/Long Sword*/Shield combination is no longer the standard martial archetype, and that the design of 5e, both in making dex the overpowering stat, as well as including additional feats such as PAM and GWM if you choose to go the strength route seems to discourage the sword and board.

*And this is where you can get into the Bastard Sword distinction, if you so choose. :)



So- thoughts on the history and evolution of the sword & board archetype? And do you think that 5e (either with or without feats) does a good job in continuing to make sword & board viable?
 

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I personally feel that you can do Sword and Board in 5E with no probs. A lot of optimizers will probably say it's not optimized as Greater Weapon Fighting and Sharpshooter and whatever else push the damage for their respective weapon style types past the damage what can probably be gained/used via Sword and Board. Course we have Dueling which is supposed to augment one handed weapons. And that's not including potential damage via Battle Master Maneuvers.(which I'm probably biased/lean towards as I play a Half-Elf Battle Master.)

Still, that can all change or be made equal footing depending if the DM gives your Sword and Board user weapon that is basically the equivalent of a one handed two handed sword.

Heck, I make the argument/toyed with the idea of creating magic two handed weapons where a Greatsword is labeled as a "Defensive Modified" Greatsword where it provides a +1/+2/+3 AC boost to the wielder, in addition to the normal damage. Or just have modified armor where there is a larger shoulder plate that can be used for block for a two hander. Or you just make Helmets, which would be the equivalent of a "shield" for a two hander where it gives a +1/+2/+3 when worn.

I think a number of factors relies upon feats, Class, some form of DM Fiat, and other stuff I can't think of at the moment will ultimately affect how your 5E Sword and Board experience goes.
 



Sacrosanct

Legend
Publisher
As soon as you start factoring in magical shields (which was a pretty good assumption in 1e since they were common), the AC bonus (and other bonuses) from having a shield far outweighed the benefits of TWF and the aforementioned penalties. Unless you were playing Monty Haul or something, where you had vorpal swords in each hand lol.

Speaking of, in published 5e campaigns, there aren't a whole lot of magical shields listed. There's the big on in DiA, but other than that? How many magic shields are there compared to weapons?
 

Minigiant

Legend
SHIELD WALL! :)
For a game originally based on a wargame, shields are abnormally nerfed here.

I'm no expert on the history of wargames but the few wargames and strategy games I know value shield use a lot more.

Was shields always so devalued?

That would be odd as D&D was really only set up for sword and shield as the optimal fighting style.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
For a game originally based on a wargame, shields are abnormally nerfed here.

I'm no expert on the history of wargames but the few wargames and strategy games I know value shield use a lot more.

Was shields always so devalued?

That would be odd as D&D was really only set up for sword and shield as the optimal fighting style.

I think it was a combination of factors, many of which I go into in the thread above. Originally, the game did have a predominance of sword & shield (in fact, there were no rules for TWF in OD&D). But generally:

A. Privileging dexterity over strength (and everything, really).
B. Privileging DPR over defense.
C. Making death much easier to avoid, which also privileges offense.
 



Minigiant

Legend
I think it was a combination of factors, many of which I go into in the thread above. Originally, the game did have a predominance of sword & shield (in fact, there were no rules for TWF in OD&D). But generally:

A. Privileging dexterity over strength (and everything, really).
B. Privileging DPR over defense.
C. Making death much easier to avoid, which also privileges offense.

I think it is more to do with the weak implementation of shields.

A, B, and C won't matter if swapping from shield to another weapon wasn't such a low hit to defense in every edition of D&D. The increase in offense has to be factored in the decrease of defense.

An extra attack, even if situational or weak, is often better than +1 to defenses vs a massive d20 roll.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I think it is more to do with the weak implementation of shields.

A, B, and C won't matter if swapping from shield to another weapon wasn't such a low hit to defense in every edition of D&D. The increase in offense has to be factored in the decrease of defense.

An extra attack, even if situational or weak, is often better than +1 to defenses vs a massive d20 roll.

Well, I mean ... saying that they've made DPR too good ... is the flip side of saying that shields aren't good enough.

It's like an arms race, but while DPR is getting more and more (including finesse weapons that you can add dex damage to, feats for two-handed weapons, etc.), for the most part ... shields haven't kept pace. If anything, they've been nerfed, given that AC was more valuable in TSR-era editions, and magic shield are capped at +3 in 5e.
 

Zubatcarteira

Now you're infected by the Musical Doodle
I don't think you actually need high STR to make a decent sword and board character in 5e, shield + rapier lets you use dex and be pretty much as effective as you'd be with shield + longsword.

I found Paladins will also usually like shields with swords since smites let them keep a pretty high DPR without having to resort to GWM. PAM helps them a lot, but you can just use shield + spear or quarterstaff and it works out fine, afaik.
 


Minigiant

Legend
Well, I mean ... saying that they've made DPR too good ... is the flip side of saying that shields aren't good enough.

It's like an arms race, but while DPR is getting more and more (including finesse weapons that you can add dex damage to, feats for two-handed weapons, etc.), for the most part ... shields haven't kept pace. If anything, they've been nerfed, given that AC was more valuable in TSR-era editions, and magic shield are capped at +3 in 5e.

I'm saying that shield were never good.

Shields were just artificially kept via by the lack of rules for anything else but GWF and RWF.

The second the rules for another type of fighting was introduced or GWF/RWF were promoted, the weakness of W&S shone bright.

It's less that DPR getting more. It's that D&D was always heavily tilted to armor for defense at the detriment of shields. Armor took 6 to 8 slots on the AC range before specialization or magic thought the editions. Shields struggled to give even a +4 before specialization
or magic. Usually you got +1 or 2.

Armor could give you +8 to AC in 3e-5e Shields give you +2. You are trading +2 AC for +4 damage, 5 foot reach, or a whole nother attack.
 

Stormonu

Legend
1. Hit points. Sure, the fighters got d10 hit points and a con bonus. But the other classes were at a severe disadvantage- like MUs, who got d4 (and rarely had a con bonus). This meant that (for example) fighters had to soak up all the damage because other characters absolutely could not. And more play was concentrated at lower levels- AD&D was concentrated at "name level" and lower- you didn't have a whole lot of 15th level characters, and even if you did, they could no longer accumulate full hit points under the rules.
Wait a minute - where have I heard that argument before...?

On topic ... 1E was heavily slanted towards Fighters getting Plate + Shield (and magical at that), and all other forms of protections were substandard. Compiled with the fact weapon damage per hit didn't go up but fighter THAC0 did every level (and monsters, your primary "other" foe just lagging slightly behind), the ability to consistently hit the target vastly outpaced the ability to defend one's self. Shields were only helpful if they had magical bonuses, otherwise it quickly became wiser to put a weapon in the off-hand and take that opponent down faster.

Also, as I recall, shields (or at least the magic bonus) added to certain saving throws, such as against Wands or Dragon's breath. It's a nice add-on, but not something you want to rely on unless you intend to be standing in the way of a lot of dragons or wizards.
 

My only experience playing 1e was the Gold Box computer games. Since they did follow the math of the game correctly, that does give me some insight as to the value of shields.

Generally in a party of 6 I’d have one guy with a two-handed sword for more damage (especially on large opponents). The cleric would be mace/flail plus shield, there would be a thief and a magic-user, and the remaining 2 front rankers would be longsword plus shield. In these games you could choose to max your rolled stats (which I did), and there was almost always multiclassing or dual classing going on, so there was plenty of spellcasting, but there was no option for fighting with two weapons. Over thousands of attacks being made and received and play from level 1 up through mid teens (and some beyond) here are my conclusions:

Having a magical shield versus a bigger sword makes an enormous difference. I enjoyed the guy with the two-handed sword, but if the other two front liners had been doing that too I don‘t think things would have gone well. By contrast, if I had just had that guy use a shield too, I seriously doubt it would have hampered the party’s effectiveness. When you are fighting lots and lots of foes, not being hit as much usually matters more than potentially taking down your opponents faster. Occasionally (like fighting dragons in some games) taking down an opponent before it can pull out a second devastating attack and kill half your party is useful, but thats the exception—and in that case having mobility to get enough PCs beating down the opponent matters more than the size of the sword.
 

Minigiant

Legend
On topic ... 1E was heavily slanted towards Fighters getting Plate + Shield (and magical at that), and all other forms of protections were substandard.
Other forms of protection weren't substandard. They practically didn't exist. The fall happened when other protcetions and weapon styles appeared and showed the staleness of shields.

D&D was built on having one real path to defend oneself. Heavier and Heavier Armor.
1e gave Plate -7 AC and Shield -1.
3e gave Plate +8 (or 9)AC and a heavy shield+ 2
5e gave Plate +8 AC and a shield+ 2

1e gave a Greatsword 1d10 damage
3e gave a Greatsword 2d6 damage and a fighter can double up on Power Attack damage
5e gave a Greatsword 2d6 damage and a fighter can reroll 1s and 2s.

D&D put its combat focus on Weapons and Armor not Shields. Other games let shields shine. Hell, 4e let shields shine.
 

Dioltach

Legend
I think it's simpler: two weapons means more dice to roll. (Also, a lot of pop culture has heroes attacking with two weapons, which looks a lot kewler than sword and board.)
 

I wonder if shields would be more highly valued in 5e if more subclasses had "taunt" abilities that made enemies focus on you and/or get debuffed for attacking allies other than you. Then the AC increase might actually be put to use.
 

Minigiant

Legend
I wonder if shields would be more highly valued in 5e if more subclasses had "taunt" abilities that made enemies focus on you and/or get debuffed for attacking allies other than you. Then the AC increase might actually be put to use.

Likely no. Because the +2 AC is not worth the +4 damage or extra 1d6+X attack.

4e had changes and it made shields matter by giving shield users more dynamic bonuses that TWF fighters.

Also in 4e, the TWF was split between the fighter and ranger. The TWF ranger was all offense and mobility but lacked a challenge. The TWF fighter was defensive but couldn't not focus both attacks on a single target easily and didn't wear plate. Therefore a W&S fighter in 4E had way more AC than the TWF fighter for only a small loss in offense.
 

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