D&D 5e weapons nomenclature: When a longsword is not always a longsword

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D&D and weapons

longsword
= Labeled diagram of a sword and its scabbard. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Weapons have always been a big part of Dungeons & Dragons. This makes sense considering combat has played a large role in D&D since the game’s earliest days. True, a Dungeon Master and players can enjoy tabletop roleplaying without combat, but usually there is some kind of conflict. Even for the most non-violent-oriented RPG players, often those interested far more in the RP aspects of the game than combat, there tends to be some form of conflict as this creates tension, and without this tension the characters within the game are living rather humdrum lives and the game itself can become quite dull.

So, conflict ensues, which often enough leads to physical conflict, actual combat. Despite the fantasy aspects of D&D, the magic and the monsters, weapons tend to make an appearance, usually weapons that are taken from the real world and history.

If not earlier, at least since the original Unearthed Arcana was published for Advanced D&D in 1985, there have been plenty of charts, lists and images showcasing different types of weapons. Earlier books had their fair share of weapons, but it was really that edition of Unearthed Arcana which expanded the traditional D&D weapons list into lesser familiar and more unusual tools of combat, including multiple long listings of (then) new types of weapons for the game as well as a sizable appendix section which featured rows upon rows of artwork of different types of poled weapons as well as more than a little information about all the different types of poled weapons.

Soon thereafter, the original Oriental Adventures was released, this book featuring weapons even more unfamiliar, at least to the Western eyes of the time.

Since those days, each edition of D&D has featured plenty of weapons, from the relatively mundane to the truly esoteric. Third Edition (and later 3.5 and Pathfinder) pushed that to new levels with Exotic Weapons often specific to a particular race or class.

And then a few years ago we came to Fifth Edition.

longsword
Typical Type XVIIIa long sword as used in German and Italian fencing schools in the first half of 15th century. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5e D&D

Fifth Edition D&D took a very different approach to gaming overall and to weapons in particular. For the first time, the game had a rather limited number of weapons available to player characters. This was on purpose. This version of the game is meant to be streamlined. DMs and players alike are meant to depend more upon their imaginations than any rules printed in black and white. For some gamers this is a boon, for others, not so much. But it is what it is.

To these ends, fewer weapons are listed within the actual rules. In fact, one table, that on page 149 of the 5e Player’s Handbook, is enough to show basic stats for every weapon in the game. These weapons are broken down into Simple vs. Martial and Melee vs. Ranged, plus a handful of the weapons have various properties such as Finesse, Light, Thrown, Versatile, Two-handed, etc.

But some gamers want more. They want more classes, more races, more rules, and definitely more weapons.

Because of the lack of weapons rules within Fifth Edition, some gamers have made use of third-party publications and some have simply made up their own rules.

However, the rules as written allow a lot of leeway and, as is always the case for 5e, beg for gamers to utilize their own imaginations.

For instance, concerning that chart on page 149 of the PH, back on page 146 it specifically states the “table shows the most common weapons used in the worlds of D&D …” So, those listed are weapons that can be found relatively easily, but are by no means the only weapons available.

Beyond this, gamers are not only allowed to create their own rules for weapons, but are encouraged to do so. As it says on page 235 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide, “The rules serve you, not vice versa.”

So for weapons not listed within D&D’s official products, gamers are tasked with creating their own rules. For some this will be a simple task, but for others it might seem daunting.

What to do?

WLA brooklynmuseum Battle-Axe with Dragon Head
WLA brooklynmuseum Battle-Axe with Dragon Head (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The easiest way to create new weapons, or new weapons rules, for 5e D&D is to begin by taking a look at what is available, at the types of weapons listed, their damages, weights, properties, etc., and comparing them to the type of weapons you want to bring to the game.

For example, straight from the rules on page 78 of the PH, it states, “you might use a club that is two lengths of wood connected by a short chain (called a nunchaku) …” Basically, one uses the rules for a club but gives the actual weapon the name of “nunchaku.” You would simply be substituting the rules for a club for the nunchaku, which doesn’t have any official rules as of yet.

This is simple flavoring. It’s just words. You’re calling something by another name. Fifth Edition is made for this.

But it’s not always enough. Some gamers want more. Specifics are needed. To those ends, imagination is called upon yet again. Maybe you want your nunchaku to give a defensive bonus when used to knock aside an opponent’s weapons, so you allow the nunchaku to add a +1 to its user’s Armor Class. Or maybe you create a specific Feat that lets a nunchaku user take on multiple opponents at once, or do dazzling actions with the nunchaku, or allows Reach, or something else. It’s really up to you and what you want to bring to the table.

The easiest way to bring a weapon into 5e is to compare it to weapons that already exist within the game, then use your imagination and common sense to come up with rules for this new weapon.

A longsword by any other name is still a longsword, or is it?

weapons
This sword is probably Swiss and dates to ca. 1500. The Carl Beck collection has a similar example, dated to the 2nd quarter of the 16th century, identified as the judicial sword (i.e. a ceremonial sword) of Sursee. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Okay, let’s keep things simple and look at some weapons which aren’t mentioned in the official rule books.

I’ll start with the longsword.

You’re probably already shaking your heading and saying to yourself, “This idiot REALLY doesn’t think the longsword is in the Player’s Handbook.” Of course the longsword is in the Player’s Handbook. The longsword is possibly the most common weapon in all of Dungeons & Dragons.

But a longsword isn’t always a longsword.

Sometimes a longsword is a hand-and-a-half, or a bastard sword. Sometimes a longsword is used in one hand, sometimes in two. Sometimes a longsword is an arming sword, and sometimes it’s not … actually, it’s usually not. Sometimes a longsword is really long, and other times it isn’t. Occasionally a longsword is even referred to as a two-handed sword, or it has some fancy German or French or Italian name.

A lot of this simply comes down to just that, a name.

To make matters a little more complicated, the weapon many of us refer to today as a longsword hasn’t always been called a longsword. Historically, a sword was simply called a sword, at least until about the mid-to-late 19th Century when historians and their armchair equivalents began to get serious about classifying weaponry.

So, what I mean when I talk about the longsword not being in the PH is that not all the weapons sometimes referred to as longswords are specifically mentioned in the PH. The Player’s Handbook obviously has a listing for longsword, but that singular listing covers a lot of ground, being something of a middle-of-the-pack longsword when compared to all the various weapons that are sometimes considered longswords.

This is one of the reasons why the 5e longsword has the Versatile property, allowing it to do 1d10 damage when used in two hands instead of its usual 1d8. This gives the weapon a bit more breadth in style, allowing it to stand in for various types of longswords.

Speaking of longswords, there is the estoc (also called a “tuck” among other names). The estoc is built much like a longsword, usually with a sizable cross guard and a lengthy blade. The main difference is the estoc’s blade has little to no edge, most of its damage coming from a sharpened point. In this case, I would suggest using the rules for the longsword for the estoc, except I would have the weapon provide piercing instead of slashing damage.

When it comes to truly large swords, Fifth Edition has the Greatsword (a whole 2d6 in damage!), but historically such weapons were basically considered just big longswords or just big swords. For that matter, they weren’t all that common in combat.

Even when it comes to shortswords, there is variety within the real world. Most people probably think of the shortsword as something like the Roman gladius, but there have been plenty of other types of shortswords throughout history. For instance, though it has some similarities to the rapier, in my opinion the smallsword has more in common with the rules covering the shortsword because of the amount of piercing damage done and because smallswords tend to be much shorter than a rapier.

Curved swords are another matter. 5e really doesn’t have much to say about curved swords, other than it does include a listing for the scimitar. Where would a tulwar fit into Fifth Edition? What kind of damage would a saber do? The easiest path to follow would simply be to use the rules for a scimitar for such weapons, but other possibilities abound if one uses one’s mind.

Concerning bladed weapons shorter than a shortsword (and any discussions concerning length differences tend to be subjective), there is always the dagger. The dagger in 5e D&D covers a lot of different ground, from the knife to the bowie to the more rare, such as a tanto or shobo or whatever. Using the provided stats of a dagger for any of these or similar weapons would be more than appropriate.

Poled weapons

Glaives
Glaives (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now we get to the crux of the matter. Of all weapons, swords are covered relatively well in the current version of D&D, at least compared to other weapons. But what about all those weapons you want to include which don’t show up in the rule books?

Any grognards who spent time playing earlier editions of the game will recall the plethora of poled weapons available. Voulges, bill hooks, spetums, bardiches, and much more were there for characters. Fifth edition, however, only features the glaive, halberd, pike, lance, spear, and the trident. For most gamers what’s available in 5e will suffice, but others will want more.

Again, it’s mostly a matter of naming. Whatever poled weapon one wants to have, pretty much it can be covered by the weapons which officially exist within the game. If your paladin wants to lug around a pole axe … well, basically that’s a halberd. If your fighter wants to carry a lochaber axe, just call it a glaive or a halberd and move on. Anyone hoisting a military fork is more or less using a trident, though one with reach that can’t be thrown, at least not easily. The DM might want to make some minor adjustments, such as the type of damage dealt by your weapon, or maybe even the amount of damage, but these do not have to be difficult changes.

Two things to keep in mind are common sense and game balance. Just because your character uses a fancy-sounding voulge-guisarme or a fauchard-fork, that doesn’t mean the weapon should do 3d6 or more damage, nor that it should have all kinds of special properties. If you as a player believe your weapon should allow your character to do some kind of fancy move or deal extra damage or what-have-you, talk it over with your DM, but remember to stay fair to the game and to your other players; it’s more than likely something can be worked out, maybe a minor rule added to your weapon or maybe your character will need to take a Feat for some extraordinary combat maneuvers.

Bludgeoning weapons

Flanged mace.
Flanged mace. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A club is a club is a club. Well, maybe. It’s true a mace is basically a club with a metal head, but sometimes a mace will have a metal shaft as well, and there are some cases of a mace’s head being made of some other material, such as stone or hardened wood, etc. Then there is the morningstar, basically a mace with spikes sticking out of the head, but there are plenty of other bludgeoning weapons which fall into the mace or club category. Let us not forget the flail, for instance.

Historically there is sometimes a distinction made between a footman’s and a horseman’s bludgeoning weapon. Typically a horseman’s mace is shorter and a footman’s mace is longer. Whether or not this leads to any mechanical differences within the game, that’s up to your DM and your own imagination.

Ranged weapons

In my opinion, Fifth Edition covers ranged weapons fairly well. The majority of those which are common in history can be found within the game’s rules as is, whether we’re talking thrown weapons or weapons which launch some kind of missile.

However, this version of D&D does lack some of the more peculiar ranged weapons from earlier editions, such as the repeating crossbow. If the rules from the earlier editions are available to you, then you can use them along with some logical guesswork to make weapons for Fifth Edition. Otherwise, as always, use some common sense and remember game balance.

Exotic weapons

These weapons are usually limited to a particular class or race, but not always. For those not familiar with such weapons from earlier editions of D&D, they usually include things such as bows with multiple strings, Elven weapons, Orc shot puts, Dwarf double axes, and even some specialized Monk weapons. The easiest way to adopt these to Fifth Edition would be to find their counterparts in earlier versions of D&D; I would suggest searching out a Third Edition PH or even the fabled Arms & Equipment Guide. The old rules might not fit 5e, but they should be close and shouldn’t take much changing.

If you don’t have access to earlier versions of D&D, again, compare the weapon you want to what is currently available in the game. If you want a huge axe with blades at both ends, it can be done, but you’ll have to consider the properties and damage such a weapon should have as well as if special training will be needed by a character or NPC to use such a weapon.

Firearms

Firearms are a matter I won’t attempt to cover here, though Nerdarchy writer Joshua Brickley recently offered his own take on the subject.

Timing Out

Okay, I’ve rattled on long enough about weapons. After all my talking and writing, what it all really comes down to is gamer imagination and what the DM will allow, which is the heart of Fifth Edition D&D. As I’ve said multiple times, common sense and game balance should be applied, though I’ll add that a little believability should also be included (unless you’re playing or running some wildly fantastical game, that is).

If nothing else, I hope I’ve given you something to think about. If you would like to share your own opinions, please feel free to in the comments section below.

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A former newspaper editor for two decades in Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Ty now earns his lunch money as a fiction writer, mostly in the fantasy and horror genres. In his free time he enjoys tabletop and video gaming, long swording, target shooting, reading, beer tasting and recalling fond memories of his late wife and their beagle baby, Lily. Find City of Rogues and other books and e-books by Ty Johnston at Amazon.

  1. charlesgramlich
    | Reply

    Some lovely blades here.

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