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Return to Norðlond with this detailed Norse-flavored setting for the Dungeon Fantasy RPG.
Return to Norðlond with this detailed Norse-flavored setting for the Dungeon Fantasy RPG.
600 backers pledged $26,030 to help bring this project to life.

Viking Shields

Posted by Douglas H. Cole (Creator)
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So, if you know me, or have heard me speak on various podcasts, you'll know that one of the reasons I got into the whole Viking thing was that I grew fascinated by the physical archaeology of the period. I started to write Dragon Heresy for 5e - because "everyone knows" it's impossible to get a license for GURPS!

But I'd never fought with a shield before. For the Dragon Heresy kickstarter - the origin of the setting that in the Dungeon Fantasy RPG is called Nordlond -  I filmed a bit of "Doug talking, mostly about Vikings" as something like a "Designer's Notes," or really, just talking about the inspiration for the game.

In this particular case, I really was convinced that shields were way more useful than the +5-10% decrease in hit chance they're typically given. Given that it was in the top three, maybe the top two things you went to battle with (weapon, helmet, shield), a mere 10% change in hit chance seemed odd. I decided to try and find some Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) classes local to me to find out, and lo and behold, I found Asfolk. Not only was it "using a shield," it was "using a Viking shield," which fit in with the themes I was exploring.

Check out the video!

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Phase One

Once I started training, I also started crafting. I first started making planked training shields. All power tools, no taper, but at least using North American Basswood (as a proxy for linden wood in Europe). The bosses mostly offered online were too heavy and too thick compared to historical samples, which could be 5-9 ounces. I settled on heavy duty stainless steel salad bowls as the closest proxy!

These represented a serviceable improvement over a lot of the stuff you can find online, with ahistorical construction, weight, and the feel of the handle in the hand (all of my shields wound up having D-section grips, just like many of the historical shields did, because my attempts to "improve" on the design of folks 1,000 years ago taught me something really important: 

Our ancestors were not stupid. If they did something, especially when it might be worth their life, they did it for a reason.

Sometimes that reason could be wrong. Or supplanted by future methods or ideas or technology.

But for shield grips, turns out that they had it pretty well down pat.

New, "improved" grip style. Turns out it REALLY wants to rotate in your hand and gets you killed.
New, "improved" grip style. Turns out it REALLY wants to rotate in your hand and gets you killed.
Old-school handle style favored by ignorant barbarian murder-hobos, who had better sense for what works than I did.
Old-school handle style favored by ignorant barbarian murder-hobos, who had better sense for what works than I did.

So, over time, I refined my materials and methods. Various boss styles and methods (though that salad bowl was awfully accurate), different carving methods, and lo and behold, turns out that using a hand rasp is REALLY good for carving handles; better than a router. Again: go figure. Rivets and copper nails because they mimicked the soft iron of ancient nails better than modern ones. And linen stitching is surprisingly robust against hard use.

Phase Two

My second round of shields upped the ante a bit by tapering the profile of the shield starting about 7" from the edge, and took the thickness from about 8-9mm at the boss, down to 4-6mm at the edge. Then I folded goat rawhide around the edge, and stitched it on. This provides remarkable tenacity during a shield bind, and was even more robust than one would think. I made several shields this way, and one of them I've used for darn near a year in class.

The "fox" shields were particularly interesting. The one on the right weighed 7 lbs and was deliberately thicker than usual, and edged with thick hide (roughly the thickness of a dog rawhide chew). It was designed to be used by the jarl of the Viking Encampment at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival - Jarl Aesa - and she used it in re-enactment-style demonstrations and shows all season long. It did eventually crack - they hit hard and don't use the edge as much as we do in class - but it held up well to a lot of abuse.

When I gave it to her, she'd ordered one, but I built her two. She'd complained that it was really hard hauling her current half-inch plywood shield around all day, especially on parade when the job was "walk around and look like what people think a Viking noble should." I handed her the "combat" shield and she said "Oh, so this is the parade shield." 

I just smiled.

The other one was aspen wood instead of poplar, and was lighter. Thinned down more. Used the salad bowl as the boss. Thin goat-hide edging. It weighed 4.5 lbs, which is the lower bound on historical finds. Her eyes simply lit up when she held it. The paint job was pretty cool too, even if I do say so myself.

Phase Three

The latest phase, which will be the shield I'll build for anyone who pledged at the Shield-Guard level in this Kickstarter, or who purchases a top-end shield from my online store, were very much inspired by a video by Thrand Godfrey (Thegn Thrand) that showed just how freakin' robust hide faced/backed shields could be.

 Also, of course, by Roland Warzecha of Dimicator, and his work in reconstructing the techniques that a lightweight shield like this might/would have used! This very much informed my rules writing and design choices in both Dragon Heresy (my version of what happens months after GURPS and 5e get drunk and have a tryst at a party) and of course, rules choices and options in GURPS and the Dungeon Fantasy RPG.

Both of these 

So I started building one, and documented my progress and methods - and mistakes! - in this blog post:

Crafting: Hide-faced Viking Shield Experiment

The process was eye-opening for many reasons, but at the end, I created a really usable shield, very tough, that was faced and backed with goat hide, which was 0.42 to 0.5mm thick. The wood was tapered and shaved to 8-9mm thick at the boss . . . including the hide. At the edge, it's less than 5.5mm thick, including four layers of hide - the facing/backing, plus the edging, for 2mm total thickness of skin, then another 3.5mm of wood, maximum. I had to be very careful to get the wood that thin without cracking it.

Ultimately, I managed to make a shield that simply handles beautifully. It's very rapid to rotate in the hand and press a shield bind, and you can feel the added rigidity of the composite structure caused by the layering of wood and glue and hide. The boss was made by my instructor to dimensions taken from shield bosses in museums all over Europe, and I carved the handle myself.

One day, I hope to paint it with this design:

I've already started, to some extent:

That's not spray-paint like my prior shields, either! I used a milk-based paint with what I think is either a powdered charcoal or black iron pigment, which I hand-mixed and the put on. You can see the hide takes the paint beautifully. I've started sketching in the dragon in pencil to take a white paint . . .but for some reason these days I feel like I'm low on time.

What about the Dungeon Fantasy RPG?

The nifty thing about the Dungeon Fantasy RPG is it's based on GURPS, which already has much more robust shield rules, and flexibility of usage, than most, if not all, games on the market.

It already protects you and closes off lines: +2 DB is the equivalent of being two size modifiers smaller in most cases . . . it protects half the body (check! The shield is sized to half the warrior's height).

You use it actively to ward off defenses. Well, check.

You can strike with it. Yup.

You do a LOT of feinting with it. Mmm hmm.

And you can grapple with it. As I write this, we're $338 away from having the shield-bind rules that are in Fantastic Dungeon Grappling right there in the boxed set.

So if you want those rules in the game . . . pledge to the Kickstarter for DFM2, or get the add-on for the FDG booklet here at Citadel.

And if you want a shield of your own, well . . . we can arrange that too!

Todd Stephens, Notorious BNG, and 3 more people like this update.

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