We are all used to the image of the muscle-bound warrior charging headlong into the melee, sword gleaming, sweat dripping, an oath to some martial god howling from his mouth. It’s all very well and it looks great but if you treat combat as a chance to show off and play the hero, you will very often find yourself rolling up a new, first-level character very quickly.
Combat is a dangerous place. It’s why rogues are generally found lurking in the shadows and wizards opt for casting protective spells from afar. In the real world, combat is more about defending than attacking. Attacking is tiring, it leaves you open to well-placed counter-attacks, it can get you killed. Better to stand your ground, employ defensive tactics, tire your opponent, wrong-foot them, catch them off guard and wait for the perfect moment to strike. The Shield Master ability is the perfect feat to employ to make such a strategy even more effective.
Who can use the Shield Master feat?
There is no prerequisite for using the Shield Master feat, so essentially anyone who is permitted to use a shield (essentially everyone) can opt to take it.
Using the Shield Master feat
As the Player’s Handbook reminds us shields are not just for protection but also valuable pieces of equipment when on the offensive. If you have the Shield Master ability, when wielding a shield you gain the following abilities.
- If you take the Attack action on your turn, you can use a bonus action to try to shove a creature within 5 feet of you with your shield. Such an action turns the shield into an additional attacking weapon.
- Provided that you aren’t incapacitated, you can add your shield’s AC bonus to any Dexterity saving throw you make against a spell or other harmful effect that targets only you.
- If you are subjected to an effect that allows you to make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage, you can use your reaction to take no damage if you succeed on the saving throw, interposing your shield between yourself and the source of the effect.
Is the Shield Master feat any good?
The honest answer is, yes…but it used to be a lot better.
As the rule was originally written, the player chose when to use the bonus action shove attack, meaning that they have the option of using it before or after the regular attack. This made perfect sense because it allows a warrior to go charging into the fray, shield first, pushing their opponent back with the bonus shove attack, perhaps even knocking them to the floor. Then, they could follow this up with a regular weapon attack whilst their opponent was in a prone and vulnerable state.
In 2018, the ruling was altered to state that the bonus shove attack could only happen after the regular attack, meaning that the conventional weapon attack went first and then the bonus shove followed. Perhaps this was done to smooth out some perceived imbalance in the rules but it is certainly the less logical state of affairs.
This is where the “remember whose world it is” ruling should be applied. If you think that the more logical, and perhaps more brutal, “Shove first, swing second,” option feels right for the campaign that you run, then feel free to stick with it. If the updated, opposite scenario feels better suited, use that. Your world, your rules.
Using Shield Master feat against spells
Of course, a shield, especially in a fantasy world, is not just a defence against warriors trying to cleave you in twain with the razor-edged family heirloom, it can be useful in getting between yourself and the effects of the spell that the angry spell caster has just thrown your way.
Again there is some discussion as to which spells the Shield Master feat works against. The key phrase is the one that says
“… against a spell or other harmful effect that targets only you.”
Spells that, “target only you,” obviously don’t include spells that are cast against an area or more than one target, but only ones specifically meant for you as an individual. This means that with mass target spells such as Fireball, the Shield Master feat does not afford you the dexterity bonus to your saving through which comes from having the feat. Sadly, almost all spells are not single target specific and so don’t give rise to that bonus.
As a general rule, here are the spells against which the Shield Master feat will give a bonus.
- Acid Splash, as long as the caster doesn’t choose to target 2 creatures.
- Chain Lightning, if there are no other targets within 30 feet of you.
- Hellish Rebuke
- Otiluke’s Resilient Sphere
- Sacred Flame
But, as is always the case, do what feels right for your DnD campaign, if you want the Shield Master bonus to be more liberally applied, then make it so. We might all be using the same rule books but DnD is a game of the imagination, a game where you can create a unique experience for your players and a one-off world for them to live in. It should never be a one size fits all, off the shelf experience.
Shield Master is a feat that can be applied in many different ways. But however you apply it, it is a feat that adds a bit of realism to the game. Glorious and reckless charges into the thick of battle might be a lot of fun but hiding behind shields or using them to bludgeon your opponent to soften them up a bit first is a bit more realistic.
Does realism have a place in fantasy games? After all, don’t we enter into such worlds to get away from realism? Well, perhaps a better word might be “logical.” No matter what strange creatures roam your world, what motivates your characters, what twisted god they serve and how they get their kicks, a world only makes sense if it follows at least some degree of logic. Acting defensively, tactically and cautiously is a logical way to not get yourself killed and Shield Master feat gives you those options.