This article focuses on the differences of shields and shield work between Amtgard and Belegarth. It does not attempt to discuss other medieval combat sports and while it touches on many other parts of fighting as they relate to shields the focus is entirely on boards.
Before discussing the differences in shield usage it’s useful to consider the rules divergences that underlie them. There are four rules differences that mostly explain why shields can’t be used in identical ways. They are as follows, mostly in order of significance. First, Belegarth has a sufficient force requirement and an associated weight requirement while Amtgard does not. Second, Belegarth allows shield contact to be initiated against both the body (other than the rear quarter) and the shield while Amtgard does not allow a fighter to initiate contact with a shield. Third, almost all Belegarth games use their full rules set while Amtgard has two very common rules sets. Fourth, shields in Belegarth break on two sufficient force red weapon hits rather than three.
It may seem counter-intuitive that the sufficient force rule should be listed first. After all, if I am putting them in order of significance, the fact that you can initiate shield contact in Belegarth seems like a pretty big deal. I am not discounting this but the rule of sufficient force seems to matter more. While it varies from field to field and generally sufficient force tends to be harder at “national” Belegarth events than in practice, its enough harder than Amtgard to make shields a little more effective all the way around. In Amtgard there are a few angles you can get around a shield, where it is very hard to land with a lot of force. In Amtgard these are sometimes very sweet shots. In Belegarth, they are ‘light’ and considered misses. This makes all shields effectively a tiny bit bigger. Not much, but it’s a game of inches so even a little matters.
This also has ramifications on what types of shield are most effective. Sufficient force rules help to make heater or tear drop shields better in Belegarth than Amtgard. This is because the point on these types of shields covers the legs a little more. While it’s not super easy to control the point of a tear drop enough to completely eliminate a hit, without exposing yourself to a worse attack, it’s much easier to absorb some of the hit and reduce the force below the sufficient level. The same effect can be seen with down swords held behind the shield. This means that Belegrim fighting in Amtgard may find their legs a little more exposed. However, many parts of Amtgard have significant social pressure against leg attacks so this is not a given.
The weight requirement in Belegarth probably contributes to the fact that Amtgard is overall a somewhat faster game. While a perfectly balanced twelve ounce sword shouldn’t be notably slower than an eight ounce one, being off balance certainly slows heavier weapons more. It may also be because significant numbers of Belegrim started simultaneously seeking fighting excellence a few years after significant numbers of Amtgarders did. It seems likely that such a gap will close over time. However, facing a generally slower opponent pool makes shields less vulnerable and therefore a little more effective. The opposite holds true when translating to Amtgard. Your shield work needs to be a little bit tighter to make up for slightly higher average speed.
The legality of initiating shield contact certainly creates a difference in shield work between the two games. Probably the most common kind of shield contact in Belegarth is the shield kick, used against a downed opponent. This can be an effective way of opening up a turtled opponent and is very much worth learning. It has its deficiencies, though. While a downed opponent has limited mobility and doesn’t want to come out from behind his own shield much for fear of being caught out, the shield kick does expose the leg to a noticeable degree. Of course, this can make it an effective feint and it can also be covered by good shield work on the part of the kicker. Again this is a place where teardrops and kites have a advantage. Kicking the shield of an upright opponent is also legal but few fighters have the strength to do this effectively and the agility to do it without being exposed for too long. Still it’s damned impressive when it works. In Amtgard skillful turtles have to be dealt with more carefully. Usually this means using your mobility against them. (Note, this is a recommendation for good lateral movements and attacking along a wide front rather than one for corkscrewing them, which is sometimes considered rude.)
The other forms of initiating shield contact in Belegarth are slightly less common but can be very situationaly effective. There are a couple of basic ways to hit your opponent with a shield; with the face or with the rim. Contact with the face of a shield is a lot like shield work in Amtgard only its less rules bound and therefore easier (and more fun). In Amtgard close fighting, you try to steal as much of your opponent’s personal space as you can without initiating shield contact (aside from a possible rub). You try to position your shield to where they can’t effectively move their shield to defend without initiating contact. It’s a little like basketball positioning to draw the foul. In Belegarth, it works much the same except; you are allowed to hit them all you want. This means you can seriously jam their shield with yours and cut off all kinds of angles. This makes the close shield on shield game relatively similar between the two games even though one game allows contact and the other doesn’t. This is a place where the transition for a close in Belegarth fighter is harder than for an Amtgarder going the other way.
Center grip or punch shields have many of the same virtues but are generally not quite as suited for close in work as a strap shield. However the greater range of motion allows you to bash your opponent from farther away. Such a bash needs to be coupled with a good and immediate attack plan, because the bash may obstruct an opponent’s shot or cover an his vision for a short period, but working your shield at long range from your body encourages your opponent to go around it. In Amtgard some of this same shield work exists but like the close in work, you have to be careful not to be the one to initiate contact.
In Belegarth, initiating contact with the face of the shield also has usefulness in breaking lines. This is usually a suicidal attack designed to give the people behind and to either side of you clear shots and to open a bit of a hole. It really is as simple as it sounds. You put as much of your body as you can behind your shield, take a running start and crash into the enemy you think you can best dislodge, knock back or go through. This attack may easily overwhelm the person you hit but it leaves you vulnerable to attack from at least two rear flanks and quite possibly the front as well, if you don’t kill the man you bashed or if there are any backers to the line. Still if both opponents on your rear flanks try to hit you, they likely are opening themselves to your teammates, allowing you to break the line more effectively. In Amtgard, the lack of this option means lines should always be outflanked or if the line is anchored making that impossible, broken with poles or concentrated force on whatever flank you can get to. This means Amtgard lines in anchored positions are notably harder to break.
The other kind of shield contact in Belegarth is rim contact. For strap shield users this can be fairly effective and is arguably as big a difference between the two sports as shield kicking. There are two related and common forms of rim attack. First is the rim to armpit area used against a same-handed shield man. It can lock the opponent’s weapon outside your shield long enough for you to get in a nice killing blow. Obviously this must be followed up with a quick attack since no one will allow you such a superior position for long. The other useful kind of rim contact is against the opponent’s rim, often used to pry his shield out just enough to get in a successful attack. Obviously you need to have inside positioning and to seize the initiative to make this work. For Belegrim there is no close analog to either main rim attack in Amtgard. You can sort of do some similar close work to the armpit rim attack but without the ability to initiate contact, this attack loses most of its worth. The pry attack is entirely useless. Your best bet is to do without these two attacks and work other skill sets.
The third rules difference is that there is one common kind of Belegarth game, as opposed to two very common Amtgard rules sets and a third somewhat common rules set. Almost all Belegarth games are played according to the full Book of War rules. This means every game has a leavening of armor and at least a few missile weapons. In Amtgard the two common kinds of games are ditch battles and full class games. The slightly less common kind of game is militia. Across the nation ditches and full class games are nearly equally common but the differences from park to park and event-to-event are striking. Some older Amtgard groups will do nearly one hundred percent ditch battles while other groups will do almost all battle games. Ditch battles allow all melee weapons but no other rules. There is no armor, missiles, magic or breaking of shields with red weapons. Full class games allow a wide variety of abilities but tactically this largely breaks down to many more ranged attacks. Militia battles, where common, are mostly a compromise and can be seen as the closest to Belegarth of the three, although allowing the possibility of much more armor.
For the purpose of understanding the differences in shields and their usage between the two organizations, it is most instructive to compare Belegarth games under the Book of War to Amtgard ditch battles. This is because those two offer the greatest contrast in shield use. The primary differences here are that Belegarth has armor and missiles. The armor helps and hurts all weapon combinations close to equally, although it can be argued that a breast plate is a little less useful for a guy who has a shield in front of his chest a most of the time than for some one who doesn’t. Missiles on the other hand definitely make shields more desirable and therefore common in Belegarth than in Amtgard ditches. There are a couple of other rules applying to missiles in Belegarth that make shields even more useful. First, the head is a legal target for missiles (and only for missiles) in Belegarth. Second, archers call their own shots and there is no such thing as sufficient force for an arrow. All these factors mean that it’s quite useful to have a large blocking device in front of you when advancing on an enemy line in Belegarth. In Amtgard, dual weapon wielders and polearm wielders are even better flankers and skirmishers in ditches because they can’t be shot from afar.
For a Belegrim put into an Amtgard full class battle game, the transition is not so much onerous tactically as it is onerous overall because of the large number of rules and the confusing set of effects. Without going into significant detail, tactically battle games have many more ranged effects including a number that do not require a physical hit. This makes the whole game more of a skirmish, advance, retreat, and flank where possible than a similar Belegarth game would be. Also as a shield fighter in a full class battle game, you want to find a wizard or healer and get either imbue shield or harden on your shield as many lives as possible, as this makes the shield a passive and active defense against nearly everything that physically hits it.
The final rules difference between the two games is that it takes three hits with a red weapon to break a shield in Amtgard and only two in Belegarth. This difference is exaggerated by the previously discussed frequency of ditch battles in Amtgard where shields cannot be broken at all. Since all Belegarth games are played under the same rules, red weapons there always break shields in two hits. For Amtgarders, this has a few ramifications. First, you pretty much can’t stand close to a red weapon without committing to him. In a line situation you can commit defensively by getting a reasonable sword block on his swings. This will mean they won’t strike your shield with sufficient force. This can also be attempted while rushing a red weapon but be aware you are very likely exposing your sword arm. More likely, you have to make an all out commitment and rush the red immediately. If he chooses to try and blast through, and you are skilled with your sword, this isn’t a bad choice, even in Belegarth. It’s not as advantageous for the shield man as a similar position in an Amtgard militia game, for example, but it’s still a good place to be. Of course, this assumes the red weapon wielder doesn’t have support and can’t run faster backward than you can forward.
For Belegarth players coming into an Amtgard ditch battle, you will find that red weapons don’t affect shields, so short poles and two handed swords are much less common on the ditch field; and when they are used it is almost exclusively as support weapons on a line. Longer poles are perhaps a little more common in an Amtgard ditch than a Belegarth battle but for a shield man defending against them is a lot like defending against missiles in Belegarth. They come from different angles and less range but tactically they work much the same so the transition for a Belegarth shield man is less changed by poles than an Amtgarder’s transition is changed by minimum red weapons.
Considering the preceding paragraphs detail the differences in using a shield between Amtgard and Belegarth, it’s easy to overestimate the actual effect of all these little differences. Certainly they are not negligible but the fact that each difference is examined in detail overstates, to some extend their real effect. An Amtgarder could play Belegarth all day without changing his shield work and it likely wouldn't get him killed more than a handful of times. Likewise a Belegrim could use his shield work in Amtgard unchanged except where required by the rules and it would only hurt his efficiency somewhat. He would have to move his shield less and be aware that faster Amtgarders were constantly looking to get even a light hit past his board. The value in examining these differences is that it teaches us to understand our boards even better in both games. Since sword and shield is the most common weapon set up in Amtgard and even more so in Belegarth, that’s always valuable.