AD&D1e: Common men & the shield wall


Too often players and DM come to the game table imagining some solitary friendless hero who charges off by themselves. Should the DM not be soft, weak and useless and fudge the dice to save them from their foolhardiness, this would-be Rambo typically perishes horribly sooner rather than later. The wise player realises that they are part of a party, a team of adventurers who work together to accomplish their goals of gold and glory. As the dwarves in The Hobbit put it,
Far over the Misty Mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away, ere break of day
To seek our pale enchanted gold

We must away - not "I", but "we". In the early days of D&D, players often came from wargaming clubs, and so this could be taken for granted. Now when players are coming from watching movies with solitary heroes or playing first-person shooters, it cannot be taken for granted. This is a style forgotten by most, and so we bring in house rules which encourage scouting, planning and teamwork. This leads to more effective adventuring, but is also more fun at the game table, because the players spend less time looking at their character sheets and in rulebooks, and more time chatting and planning together. 

As always, the idea of the house rules is to encourage players to plan and work together, to reward player wits over having a pile of magic items or really good attributes. Among the those we use are, 
  • Common Men have 1 weapon proficiency, noncombatants none, and are at -3 to nonproficient weapons; men-at-arms have 2 proficiencies and are at -2 otherwise. 
  • Shield walls grant +1 to AC for each adjoining character (ie +2 for those in the middle, +1 for those on the flanks). A shield wall must be under the command of a fighter of 1st or greater level, should they fall, the wall will break up. 
These two rules alone provide explanation for why villages on the marches have not been overrun by hordes of goblins and the like. Unarmoured Common Men proficient in spear and bearing wooden shields, can for the cost of 2gp each have AC7 (equivalent to studded leather armour normally costing 15gp) in the shield wall, or AC8 (equivalent to leather armour normally 7gp) on its flanks. Leather armour would not be out of the reach of most, bringing them to AC5 or 6 (equivalent to chain or scale, normally costing 75 or 45gp), A dozen or so of these men, well-led by even a 1st level fighter (and in a land of constant conflict, there ought to be one of these in most sizeable villages), would be a serious obstacle for a small band of humanoids - and a large band of humanoids would not have to encounter many such village groups before it became a small band. In a larger village or small town, these could be backed by men proficient in short bows, javelins or darts, who pelt the humanoids as they advance. 

As for Men-At-Arms, their chief advantages are the second weapon proficiency, so that they might use either melee or ranged weapons, and their morale will naturally be better than that of a Common Man. Per the DMG pp29-30, these men-at-arms will be of varying types (light infantry, crossbowmen, etc) and vary from 1-5gp each monthly in cost, though it is usually considered that this does not include room & board and the like. Higher pay will give more loyalty. 

The television show Rome, though some dullard pedants will quibble with the details, shows how effective a well-led shield wall was, even one dominated by 0-level Men-At-Arms - against foes unable to make such a formation. And it shows how badly it went when someone broke it, as soon as Pullo's on his own he's struck in the back, accidentally strikes his own leader, and so on. 

Player-characters should be able to hire men-at-arms from time to time, since if the circumstances of the campaign are such as to favour adventurers running around slaying, they will favour 0-level Men-At-Arms running around slaying, too. That they cannot level up does not reduce their lust for gold and thirst for glory. If the hiring player-character is a fighter, they may lead them in battle, including in a shield wall; should they be some other class, they will have to hire a Veteran (1st level fighter) or greater as a sergeant - a henchman to lead the Men-At-Arms. 

At a minimum the player-character ought to hire three Men-At-Arms, since that is the minimum for a shield wall, and these can sit individual watches at night in the camp in the wilderness and still themselves get a good night's sleep overall, and they can march three abreast in a 10' wide corridor in the dungeon, either before the player-character or behind them. Should one of the Men-At-Arms fall, the player-character can step up to take their place, provided they themselves have a shield - thus they must be a fighter or cleric. 

Ideally the three Men-At-Arms will have some sort of missile weapon. Shortbows are an excellent choice since they can fire twice per round, thus exposing an enemy to six attacks per round. However these are two-handed, which means when the enemy closes to melee the men must take a round to ready their shields and melee weapons. A better choice is to have them carry three javelins each (allowing one ranged attack for three rounds), or darts - late Roman legionaries carried five war darts upon their shields, and though these do but 1-3 hit points of damage each, 3 of them may be thrown in each round. The three Men-At-Arms would thus be doing 9 attacks for a round or two. 

If the player-character hires six Men-At-Arms, this is twice as many men, but is more than twice as effective. Two men can stay on watch at any time. Three men can be left to guard the camp and its supplies and stored treasure while the other three go into the dungeon with the player-character. With six men, it now starts to be reasonable to have lookouts some distance from the main camp, for example with a camp in a forest a quarter-mile from a road, have a pair somewhere near the road. In combat, any man falling in the front rank can be dragged back out of danger by one behind him, and his mate quickly step up to take his place. And of course, a single rank can now march across a 20' corridor or room, or can circle around a more vulnerable character such as a wounded Man-At-Arms, magic-user or the like. 

Defensively, with a group of six the front rank can have spears and the rear rank pole-arms of some sort, all set against a charge - so that charging enemies, themselves at most three abreast, face six attacks rather than three.  Offensively, they can all bear ranged weapons. The front rank can drop to a knee and still fire, while the rear rank fires over them. This would be 12 shortbow, 6 javelin or 18 dart attacks in each round, and would surely give most enemies something to seriously consider. 

With eight Men-At-Arms led by a sergeant, even a magic-user adventuring without other player-characters can be well-defended. 

Well-fed, housed and well-treated, these Men-At-Arms should be loyal enough. The player-character should in normal circumstances proceed cautiously, as the PHB puts it and "avoid unnecessary encounters", and this is no different when accompanied by Men-At-Arms. They are men with lives and dreams, they are not mere sword-fodder to be tossed casually aside like a gnawed chicken bone. 

In principle they need only be paid their normal monthly fee of 1-5gp, but a wise player-character will be more generous - these men may some day be the ones removing the unconscious player-character from a dungeon while under attack from monsters. Will they loot him and leave him, or risk themselves to save him? 

Once there are more than 10 or so Men-At-Arms, an NPC sergeant becomes almost compulsory to organise them all. The party will then want a cook, a labourer or two, and a cart with a teamster to carry the food, tents &c. It does not take long before we see bands of 20 or more, though only half of them combatants. Many newer players and DMs will consider this strange and alien, but it helps make sense of "Bandits, number encountered 30-300" and like encounters in the Monster Manual

A sensible division of treasure found in dungeons is,
  • GP and above, each player-character receives 2 shares
  • each henchman (NPC above 0-level), 1 share
  • Treasury, 1 share - to deal with day-to-day expenses of food and drink, wear and tear on campaign equipment, feed for animals, replacing expended arrows, etc. 
  • EP and SP divided among the men-at-arms
  • CP divided among the non-combatant hirelings - teamsters, cooks, valets and so on
Men-at-arms and noncombatant hirelings have always been useful. The shield wall house rule makes them more useful still, and it encourages players to treat AD&D1e as a tactical exercise, involving scouting, planning and teamwork. It gets players talking to one another and thinking, which is more fun for players and DM both. 

Hold the line!


  1. Once assembled in the skirmish line, the Roman infantryman will rotate out of the fight so that the man behind him takes his place, every 30 seconds of combat or so, with 8 or more men in queue behind him. That way no one man tires out during the battle. At least that's the ideal, for absorbing the static charge. Fight for a minute, maybe two, horn sounds, rotate out, keeping your head down and shield forward, and the man behind you lunges into your spot. You step back, take a draught of water, maybe some wine and a mouthful of bread, stand ready to do the same. You might fight a whole battle and only do 10 minutes total of combat.

    1. There is some debate as to the details, but it's logical that troops would be rotated through. Commonly there was a lot of waiting before battles, so men would have to be rotated through to take food and go to the toilet and rest, and battle itself would of course be very fatiguing - there's no sense having some poor exhausted bastards staggering around in the front rank when there are fresh men right behind them.

      So there'd be some sort of rotation happening both in and out of battle.

    2. I'm reminded for some reason of the opposite situation: men who'd spend days in combat on Iwo Jima and be sent "to the rear" to "recover" when "the rear" was 100 yds. back on the beach, which was just as subject to mortar fire and Banzai charges as they were "further" inland.

      Conversely in "The Pacific" (which does show some of the combat on Iwo Jima, but focuses largely on Guadalcanal, Peileu, Tarawa and Okinawa), Robert Leickie is sent to the rear during one campaign due to combat stress; he was wetting his cot.

      They send him to an island that is within visual distance of the island all the fighting is going on, but the hospital is essentially like a resort: clean white beaches, picnic tables with umbrellas, hamburgers, ice-cold coke in bottles, french Helmet for my Pillow he doesn't reflect much on his rotation to the rear but in the series he seems kind of dumbstruck by how, just a mile or two away from the front, he's basically at a vacation spot!

      I'm sure the average Legionnaire would, once overcoming the shock of the new technologies, be just as dumbstruck by that idea too!


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