Viking Shield
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Basic Information

The typical Viking Shield or Norse Shield is a round shield, 30 to 35 inches (75 to 90 cm) in diameter. They were made from ash, fir, linden or poplar wood that was light, and had fibers that would tend to bind weapons that struck them. The boss in the center would be metal, and often trim around the edges were also metal. Shields would be painted and decorated, and back in the day "skaldic shield poems" were written describing the images painted on famous shields.

That said, shields were thought of as expendable. Viking duels would often stipulate that the fight continued until one warrior had destroyed the other’s shield three times. Many viking dragon ships had mountings on the sides of the ship that could hold shields securely in place, to protect the crew while they rowed (as well as keep one vital piece of equipment safely stowed away in the tight confines of the shallow-draft ships they used, instead of getting underfoot).

Norse combat tactics relied quite a bit on shield formations. A shield wall was a common one, with lined-up overlapping shields that leave just big enough gaps for the back ranks to poke spear attacks through the barrier as needed. Another formation was svinfylking or “boarsnout” wedge configuration which was used to penetrate and break up the opposing forces organized lines.

The shield was not only a defensive measure, it could also be wielded to rush or smash the foe and knock them off guard. Even when attacking with a sword, the viking style involved leading with the shield at arms length to press the foes weapon and defenses aside, and then immediately follow with a weapon strike that's just to side of your own shield. This way you could keep the enemy off-balance and push for an opening, while simultaneously maximizing the coverage your shield gave you against their counter-attacks. This worked especially well with thrusting weapons, like the viking sword or a spear, because stabbing attacks would allow you to keep most of your body a good distance behind your shield and not require big sweeping motions that a slashing weapon might.

Miscellaneous viking shield trivia:

  • Female Norse warriors were known as Shield-Maidens.
  • Berserker and Ulfhednar types would sometimes chew on the edges of their shields while psyching themselves up into a frenzy before a fight.


2. Museum: Nordic Heritage Museum in Seattle - Some of the shield tactics and maneuvers mentioned above were detailed in a presentation I saw at the museum in early 2019

Game and Story Use

  • The discipline of shield formations was a great help in viking raids. The sort of militia rabble that could muster fast enough to answer a raid was likely to be disorganized, unequally equipped, and overall not a match for the coordinated teamwork of a shield wall.
    • If you're going to have those sorts of raids in your game, you may want to consider adding a small house-rule to make shield formations provide a heightened bonus to morale, armour or maneuverability during larger battles.
  • A highly decorated viking shield (one worthy of poetry) could be a great treasure, but ironically, it will lose it's value quickly if subjected to heavy combat.
  • Shields mounted on the sides of the ship will provide an armour bonus to the whole crew, but they may need some sort of cover (made of leather, fur, or textile) to keep them from being damaged by the salt water.
  • After a major battle, their are likely to be a lot of broken shield parts scattered about.
    • The motifs painted on these shields may be the only real clue to tell crimescene investigators who the true culprits are!
    • In a fantasy setting, small scavenger species (like goblins or kobolds) may descend on fresh battlefields for plunder. Given their small size, their lower standards for technology/craftsmanship, and their evil alignment (or at least lesser distaste for carnage) they may find all these broken shields as valuable plunder. That could lead to an interesting image of diminutive humanoid monsters wearing scraps of armor and shields that were just abandoned by both sides of the initial conflict.
  • Any norseman who expects to challenge fools to duels (or defend his own name when some fool challenges him) will want to own multiple shields. If storage space on the boat is at a premium, it's possible only the leaders will have the option of bringing more than one.
  • The edges of a berserker's shield might be a bite-stick to keep him from chewing on other things (like his arm or tongue), or the shield might be edged with a particular kind of wood that helps with the berserking process.
  • Many RPGs under-value the effects of a shield in combat. The vikings used their large shields to create openings, bash like a weapon, minimize foes effectiveness in battle, and control enemy movement. So if you're looking to run a viking-themed game you might want to consider some custom rules to reflect that. It sure sounds like a more effective tool than the default 5% reduction in hit percentage that some systems (+1 AC in a d20-based game) use as the primary effect of a shield.
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