Tactics and Tips03/07/2006

Fightin' Dirty (Part 3)
A Focused Look at Alternative Combat Tactics

In the first two parts of this series, we looked at specific special attacks described in the Player's Handbook: bull rush, disarm, feint, and grapple. This week, we focus on shield bash and sunder.

Shield Bash (Player's Handbook, page 125)

In the movies, people get bashed about by shields an awful lot. In a cinematic point of view, hitting someone both looks cool and makes a lot of sense. I'm sure that in historical battles, fighters smacked each other around with their shields on a constant basis. However, hitting someone with a shield is a suboptimal choice in D&D, since it's an off-hand attack and you lose the AC bonus of the shield after you make the attack. But, sometimes it makes sense to bash someone with your shield.

When and Why You Should Shield Bash: You should attempt a shield bash when you need that extra attack and can't wait for the next attack you can take in the initiative queue. Players tend to forget that Two-Weapon Fighting applies when attempting a shield bash. Thus, your ranger could still gain the protection from a shield and take advantage of his class ability. If you plan on using this tactic on a regular basis, make sure that you pay the extra 10 gp to add shield spikes, thus increasing the damage. Also, pick up the Improved Shield Bash feat as soon as possible.

Even if you lack the feat, attempting a shield bash works best when you're attacking an opponent with a relatively low AC, to help compensate for the reduced attack. Another way to boost your chances of a hit is to perform a feint attack first (see Fightin' Dirty, Part 1 ), then smack your opponent with two attacks while he is denied his Dexterity bonus. If your character carries a shield, do the math ahead of time and have that written on your character sheet so that the game doesn't come to a grinding halt when you attempt a shield bash and have to go through the Player's Handbook to find out the penalties.

House Rule Alert!: One of my players came up with an interesting twist on shield spikes, which I thought was cool enough to keep in my game. Instead of the standard, pointy spikes, his were twisty and hooked, designed to snag and hold onto weapons like a disarm. These special spikes cost 50 gp and grant a +2 bonus on disarm attempts with attacks from the shield. To simulate the chance that his opponent's weapon got snagged by the shield, I allowed him to roll percentile dice whenever an opponent attacked him with a weapon that was potentially affected. He had a 10% chance each time of the weapon getting caught, initiating a regular disarm attack. Notice that I put the burden of keeping track of this unique function on the player -- if he forgot to roll the dice, it didn't happen. Your results may vary!

Sunder (Player's Handbook, page 158)

Like disarm, sunder is perfect for running an opponent's day by taking their weapon (or other important object) out of the fight. Sundering a weapon is relatively difficult, but not always impossible.

When and Why You Should Sunder: Like disarm, sundering a weapon should be saved for taking a particularly important or nasty weapon out of the fight. When fighting a low-level opponent with relatively few hit points, you're better off attacking him directly instead of wasting time on destroying his weapons or shield. However, if you want to keep your opponent alive, sunder can both render him much less dangerous and opens him up to potential Intimidation checks (see below). Sundering a weapon ahead of time also makes grapple checks (see Fightin' Dirty, Part 1) much more appealing.

Don't even consider sundering unless you're wielding a weapon that deals high amounts of damage. The best choices are two-handed weapons: falchion, glaive (yes, you can sunder with polearms!), greataxe, greatclub, heavy flail, greatsword, and the like. At low-levels, save your sundering against weapons that have hafted weapons, such as battleaxes, due to their low hardness and hit points -- wait until your average damage meets or exceeds the average hardness plus hit point value of typical weapons before you attempt this against swords. Sundering an opponent's shield (preferably wooden) reduces his AC, setting him up from additional attacks from your allies. In fact, you could assign one of your high-Strength fighters as the designated "sunderer" (yes, that's a word), slowly whittling away your opponent's offensive and defensive capabilities so that the rest of your group can deliver the killing blow.

House Rule Alert!: Nothing makes a person feel weak and helpless more than having her weapon get annihilated right in her hands. In my games, I grant a +4 circumstance bonus on Intimidate checks when someone attempts to demoralize an opponent (see the Intimidate skill on page 76 of the Player's Handbook) after a successful sunder check on that opponent. This bonus still applies if combat ends and the PC attempts a regular Intimidate check to "persuade" the opponent into spilling the beans or to make her more compliant.

Game Resources: To use the material in this article to its fullest, check out the following resources: Dungeon Master's Guide, Monster Manual, Player's Handbook.

About the Author

Eric Cagle cut his teeth at Wizards of the Coast, but now lives the extravagant freelancer lifestyle. Look for his name on D&D, d20 Modern, and Star Wars books. Recent credits include d20 Apocalypse, Races of Destiny, and Monster Manual III. He is also a contributor to the Game Mechanics, Green Ronin Publishing, Dragon Magazine, and this lovely website. Eric lives in Seattle where the coffee is dark and bitter like his goddesses.

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