Shield Master Unleashed

Everyone agrees that characters should be able to charge an opponent with a shield and shove them to the ground. There’s two ways to get this done in 5th Edition D&D:

  • You can do this normally by using one of your attacks to make a shove attack.
  • The Shield Master feat allows you to to this by tapping into your bonus action. As a result of some errata, you can only use the bonus action shield shove after you use your Attack action.
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.

Since this rule functions in an “if…then” arrangement, it requires that the Attack action comes first. There’s no making a promise that you’ll attack later. You’ve got to do it first.

Crawford Tweet on Shield Master

The Problems

The Narrative Problem. The problem is that narratively, the forced order makes no sense. In fact, it almost seems to make more sense that you could charge in and lead with the shield shove. This limitation is an artifact of game design.

The Mechanical Problem. If the order is reversed, the shove mechanic can result in an illegal action. For example, if you shove a character out of your reach (say, off a cliff), then you can no longer take the Attack action.

This is where most tables just play on. It’s not like you lose your action. You can just use it to attack something else. But, if there’s no other creatures in range, then you can’t take the attack that you promised to Shield Master. Thus resulting in an illegal action.

The Solutions

At this point, there’s a few ways you can handle this:

Solution 1

You lose your action to the illegal action. Alternatively, you still take the Attack action, but you can’t make any attacks because you lack legal targets. You can move but otherwise your turn is over. This is a hard but simple ruling. 

Implementing Solution 1 is easy. Add a sentence that your attacks expire if there are no legal targets after you complete your bonus action shove.

Before or after 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. If there are no legal targets to attack, your action ends.

Solution 2

You can use your action to do other things. This makes sense narratively because you should still have that “time” on your turn to take an action. What is preventing a character from taking the Dodge action having successfully eliminated the immediate threat?

The problem with Solution 2 is that it allows you to break the action economy a bit. You can use the bonus action shove to knock a character out of range and then select a new action aside from attacking. This is a pretty niche exploit. Adding a caveat that “you must move close to the nearest target if possible” makes the mechanic too wordy and cumbersome. It can also be worked around by a crafty player who is sure to exhaust their movement before taking the attack.

What’s the worst that can happen if we skip this restriction and open it to other actions?

  • So what if a character decides to take the Dodge action after shoving a target off a cliff? It’s a sensible defensive action. You could drop prone even if you have no movement left.
  • So what if a character uses a Ready action to prepare to attack a creature that comes within range? It’s a sensible tactical decision. It’s not like it really consumes any more time during your turn.
  • So what if a character shoves a target into formation to set up their Cast a Spell action? You mean the battlemage bull rushed the goblins into a pantry before unleashing Burning Hands? That’s awesome!

Are any of these things overpowered? Compare with what we expect the player to do regularly. It’s a very powerful melee tactic to shove a creature prone then unleash all your attacks with advantage. As well it should be–it’s a feat!

If we’re afraid that knockdown then advantage attacks is too powerful a tactic, this mechanic should have a different limitation than restricting the action economy. Perhaps something like the Charge mechanic that Centaurs use:

Centaur Charge.png

Strong mechanics should apply equally regardless of the order you select the mechanics. The Charge mechanic works because movement can be used indiscriminately in the course of your turn. You’re not restricted from using it before or after your action. In the same way, opening up the action economy preserves verisimilitude.

Before or after 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. If there are no legal targets to attack, you can choose a different action.

Solution 3

If you have no legal targets after making the Shield Master shove, you treat it as having made a normal attack. This allows you to still move, use any remaining attacks, and preserves your bonus action for other uses. 

While perhaps the most elegant fix, Solution 3 would be an absolute nightmare to craft into succinct language, as it does really weird things with exchanging action economy that are unprecedented in 5e design. You could try installing a workaround that allows you to use the bonus action to make an attack if you succeed with a shield shove. This creates another issue that you can’t end your attack with shield master. It’s fixable, but you’ll have to describe what happens in each scenario, which is really clunky. If you want to do this, you can just add this bullet point to the existing rule:

If you take the Attack action on your turn, you can use an attack to try to shove a creature within 5 feet of you with your shield. If you do so, you can use a bonus action to make a weapon attack against a creature within range.

Final Fix

Trying to work out how these mechanics should work leads to the inevitable conclusion that it is best resolved by subtraction, not addition. Really, what is the point of tying the bonus action shield shove to the Attack action at all? Just set it free.

Sure, advantage on a bunch of attacks sounds good, but compare it with other weapon loadouts: Two-weapon fighters get to use their bonus action to make a normal attack that does damage, so it doesn’t matter much that Dual Wielder is one of the weaker feats. Great weapon fighters get bonus action attacks on a critical hit or kill, not to mention the massive +10 damage mechanic from Great Weapon Master. Polearm fighters get a d4 bonus attack with all their modifiers. Archers get to ignore cover and distance and also get +10 damage from Sharpshooter, which can be compounded by Elven Accuracy.

Our readers think Shield Master is great, but not as good as Great Weapon Fighting, Sharpshooter, Elven Accuracy, or Polearm Master. If this sentiment is any indication, it has some room for improvement without upsetting game balance.

Shield Master

Sword-and-board fighters get the benefit of higher Armor Class (AC) and Dexterity saving throws, so they shouldn’t be keeping up with the damage output of these other options. However, giving them one extra shove attack is not going to make up the damage difference against these other more favored options.

With that being said, here is my final fix for Shield Master:

You can use a bonus action to try to shove a creature within 5 feet of you with your shield.

Keep it simple.

4 thoughts on “Shield Master Unleashed

  1. You do realize that you can take actions between actions, right? Here is an example:

    1) Walk up to target.
    2) I am taking the Attack Action. I have now committed to attacking the target.
    3) Before I make my attacks, I take a Bonus Action to make a contested Athletics (Strength) vs Strength / Dexterity (Ath/Acro) to attempt to prone the target.
    4) I make my attacks whether I succeed or fail.

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    1. Depends on your table. A better rule is one that plays consistently at every table because there aren’t multiple interpretations.

      Jeremy has said that you can’t take bonus actions in the middle of actions unless the bonus action provides otherwise. However, he’s more recently said that he lets the bonus action shove happen after one attack. Neither of those statements support your reading of the rule.

      Now, I personally agree that your ruling makes sense. I’d just prefer a rule that is less subject to being ruled upon.

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  2. The mechanical problem you describe is actually just another narrative problem. If you shove a character out of your reach, you can still attack, but you might have to swing your sword in the air. That doesn’t break the rules, but it is kind of silly.
    See PHB 194, “Pick a target within your attack’s range: a creature, an object, or a location.”

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