Master at Arms: Shieldbearer is the 16th instalment in Blackdirge Publishing's Master at Arms series. Each product in the series features an historical overview of a particular weapon or class of weapons, and then presents a short 3 or 5 level prestige class and NPC based on this prestige class. Master at Arms: Shieldbearer focuses on the shield, and in particular the light and heavy shields, with a 3-level prestige class, the Shieldbearer. This 8 page pdf product is compatible with the revised d20 core rules.
The product presentation is of a very high quality, and includes some very good art by Jesse Mohn, who pretty much does the art for most of the Master at Arms series. I like the standardized format to the presentation that's maintained throughout the series, and the consistent quality in a series that already has 16 titles is good to see as well. This product is pretty much error free with some good and concise descriptive writing. The only minor slip up is the use of terminology to refer to light and heavy shields as small and large shields. Other than that, a very good product with some strong writing and well-conceived mechanics.
This product focuses on developing the shield for the d20 game to make it fit the historical usage better. To that end, author Aeryn Rudel presents the Shieldbearer prestige class. As noted in the pdf, the aim is to make the shield competitive against other options such as the two-handed weapon wielder with the Power Attack feat. It does this by turning the shield wearer into both a more offensive character, as well as a more defensive character.
The former is achieved by relying on the shield bash in combat (and hence two-weapon fighting), while the latter is achieved by adding a number of useful new abilities that give the character improved defence, such as a shield parry (although as a slight negative it's fairly easy to get your shield destroyed this way) and a limited damage reduction. In addition, the 3-level prestige class as presented makes it easier to wield shields in general. Those that have watched films and series like 300, Troy, Alexander, Rome and others will note the effective military use of shields in combat.
Historically, the shield was used as an extremely effective defensive weapon, but also as a very effective offensive weapon. While the two-weapon fighting requirements don't necessarily makes this the 'optimum' choice for combat in the d20 system, it suits the historical flavor very well, and that's always where the Master at Arms series shines. The prestige class presented takes the knowledge of history and effectively builds it into a good, realistic prestige class.
Does the prestige class make the shield a viable choice within the high damage Power Attack two-handed weapon d20 arena? I think it does. It certainly improves in an area where the shield is made more effective in combat, as it becomes more than just something you can wield for static defence or just occasionally bash someone with. The prestige class allows you to use the shield to intercept charges, to actively deflect blows and use the deflection to bash opponents with the shield, and to use the shield as a means to hide your weapon, thereby giving you a distinct advantage on your next weapon attack. It adds a versatility to the shield and sword combination by providing more active options to the character.
Naturally all this comes with a good dose of history and some interesting design notes. Add in a flavorful NPC and you have a very good and useful product. Seeing the Shieldbearer prestige class makes me want to play one, and that's always a good sign in any product on the market. If there's something you've seen a shield used for, I think this prestige class caters very well to those ideas and concepts of shield use. A thoroughly enjoyable pdf, and a great, short, and focused prestige class.
[5 of 5 Stars!]