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SC: Swords. Why does it always have to be swords?

Swords. Why does it always have to be swords?

Excalibur. Stormbringer. Sting. I blame fantasy authors and history professionals that have over simplified things for this preoccupation with swords.


Swords. Why does it always have to be swords?

Excalibur. Stormbringer. Sting. What ever their name, magic blades have held the hearts and imagination of fantasy gamers since the dawn of RPGs. Unfortunately this has led to a somewhat warped and unbalanced view of magical weapons. In most fantasy campaigns I have been involved in over the last 30 years almost every magic weapon was a sword. Part of it is our training from fantasy literature. This has overflowed into the average "treasure chart" most games used, which generated weapons from monster stashes. An overworked and ill prepared GM just takes what the dice rolls up, which is a sword. Players respond in kind; Fighter types drool and pick up any sword, Mages go straight to the staves, and clerical fighters head towards anything that looks like a mace. Which is kind of strange, since fighters can use any kind of weapon and might specialize in non swords, would not magic weapons be made for these other fighters? And in the European Mystic traditions, the sword (or knife) is as valid a tool as a stave. Any adventuring type magic user might have picked up some skills, so why not a sword with the same abilities as a magic wand/ staff. And let us face it, most clerical types, who can harm another, do not have a real aversion to spilling blood. Yet clerical mystic weapons are normally maces - even in game systems where there isn't a class prohibition. So why isn't there a +5 Quarterstaff Holy Avenger out there? Do Gods of Law abhor all weapons other than swords? I have had a fellow player risk every players' character just to save his +1 Halberd because it was a magical non sword. There are just problems with this lethal lack of variety.

What to do about it? Well there is the spending of a few extra moments when you roll up the loot or take the "generic pile", by adding names and "brief" histories to the items. However, since you will be adapting what exists, you will just be getting enhanced swords. The one advantage of this is the players will be using folklore and history skills to possibly identify items they have found.

Like so many things in gaming, by spending a few scant minutes more will add a huge amount of results in the game. And it all starts in the background. Spend a few minutes to assemble a list of Master Craftsmen who had made magical items -and associated schools or works. Work out a thumbnail sketch of their personality, preferences, and foibles. Once you select a Master Craftsmen (or craftswoman), select a hero or several heroes who have wielded the weapon and build up a sort of history for it. (These heroes are usually pre-made and part of your setting's history, so you know the great hero of the Bromian war was Valdemor). Once you create the list of Craftsmen and get the hang of the concept, this is no more trouble than just dropping a name and historical brief and takes almost no additional time.

So now you will develop a weapon item with abilities both real and folkloric (things the story say it can do, which may or may not be true), and a nice little history that is tucked into your world. You can even add the folkloric abilities as powers, as things people believe to be the truth becomes the truth magically speaking. So legends born of epic critical hits or some odd use (such as the weather always changes when the weapon is drawn) can be added to the weapon AND to your game world.

I have found that by taking the few extra moments to make the weapon unique, there is a profound respect for each and every piece of mystic weaponry in the eyes of the players. A lowly +1 weapon is not nearly so insignificant if it had once be wielded by a mighty hero and been instrumental in the overthrow of the Dark Goblin King. (Okay, so the folklore abilities were +2 vs. Goblins and +3 vs the Goblin King). Besides, the resurrected Goblin King will be sure hot to get his hands back on it; just to make sure that some hero wielding it does not stop him again. Add to this that anyone wielding this weapon would be seen as a natural leader to stop the Goblin Hordes, adds a great deal of spice to a fairly low level weapon.

In addition, by taking the time to make each item and relic unique, the unpredictability works wonders keeping the troupe on their toes. Every item is treated carefully because you might not know everything it can do. It also adds to a sense of wonder that magic should have, even in a world with prevalent magic.

Since the GM will be thinking about "mixing it up", you can keep the weapons appropriate to the species, culture, and historical period they come from. So a magical Gladius from the Imperial period, or a bola of burning from the desert nomad, or Elven Spears of Light and Law to fight the orc horde, are now options, without having to work out epic items.

So even if it has to be a sword for thematic reasons, you will realize it does not have to be a generic enchantment. With a little time and effort you can change "standard" magic items into something special. So it might be a magic sword, but it is not going to be a generic magic sword.

Last Aside: One side effect of the process is that players stop harassing the GM for new and more powerful magic items every session or so. They will come to the understanding that each one takes time and thought. This allows the GM to keep the number of magic items to a minimum in the campaign, while still keeping the players properly enthralled with the campaign story and their cool swag. This also keeps the "arms race" of the campaign down to a respectable level (See Speed Limit )

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Dossta Siren no Orakio Cheka Man Mourngrymn

? Responses (50)

Goto Author

This is an article I did a while back. It is a bit dated and you can tell I was writing towards the D&D audience (D20 not around yet). Yet the points stands. While many of the items we create on the site are 'epic' and wondrous, campaigns are often filled with generic/ low level magic items - then punctuated by artifacts and special items. This article's process allows us to enhance even the most generic of magical items. Thus adding to the verisimilitude of the gaming experience.

Goto Author

You are right, there need to be more magical weapons around that are not swords.

Goto Author

I would definitely agree with you. I mean, why not use a broom handle, much cheaper, and easier to find (although, a fantasy hero would look kind of silly caring around a broom handle) :-)

Goto Author

Updated: edited to remove / from the ''s

Goto Author

I would just like to say, marvelous.

This is a superb idea that takes the mundane feel of every magic item into the WOW category. Every magic item I have ever come across that I can remember I know I cherished the special ones.

For a clerical character I used a double bladed sword once that was weilded by a holy warrior of Horus once and opted to keep it over two weapons, removing a defensive bonus for using a weapon in two hands (palladium house rules). I loved the concept of it and always imagined my character spinning around the combat field with a holy warriors weapon. I had a lot of grief when I gave it back to the church and the other weapons after that were mundane until I found a special weapon again.

I agree with this submission.

Goto Author

Another thing the GM and PCs often forget in the Magical Arms Race:

Weapons are not single purpose. Many, many weapons are also farming tools, or ritual tools, or generally useful implements. The rogue's backstabbing dagger, for example, may also be used for purse-cutting, trap-disarming, window-opening, lock picking, harvesting rare herbs (poisons), as a stylus for leaving messages, etc, etc, etc. The cleric's water sprinkler is heavy enough to pull double duty as a light mace, his walking stick long and strong enough to work as a quarter staff, and his censer heavy and reinforced to double as a flail - This, really, should be the driving factor in a cleric using 'blunt' weapons. To him, they're not weapons, but tools of the faith. It may even be illegal or sinful for him to carry a weapon expressly as a weapon. The ranger's axe or sledgehammer & wedge splits the evening's firewood, and his bow brought down the deer you've been eating for the last week. A druid's scimitar pulls double duty as a machete, allowing him to clear his way through the woods. The scythe and flail and kama and nunchaku are all farming implements. Many pole arms are essentially farming tools mounted on a stick.

Unless the character is expressely a fighter, trained deliberately for combat, then he should probably have a dual-purpose weapon.

Goto Author

Good point.

Goto Author

An excellent point to have made.

Goto Author

Yes. Just 'Yes'.

Goto Author

If you think in historical terms, maybe to broad a term for this thought but I'll wing it. Many warriors of viking tribes would carry a weapon that had a history to it. It was weilded when Chief so and so was defeated, it had the killing blow to drop whatever. I realize that Mon has stated that already but in the real world terms, this has been done. It was a commong practice for the warrior and the weapon to have many deeds associated to it. Just a thought.

Goto Author

Good point, too. :)

Actually, if magical weapons were somewhat common, and not easily detectable, all of them could with utter seriousness claim that THEIR weapon is a magical one. Didn't it kill the great bear over the dead body of his grandfather? Didn't it help to scare away that pack of wolves?

Remove the easy 'Detect Magic' spell/skill/ability/whatever, and you have 'magical items' wherever you go.

Slightly out of topic, but I hope it belongs here, too.

Goto Author

Ah, the sword question.

Why is the sword so over represented in fantasy? That goes to the symbolic power of the weapon as well as the social factors of the medieval period. War is the game of kings, and the sword is the weapon of the king, being the most difficult weapon to produce reliably. Creating the long, thin metal blade was quite an accomplishment in a time that lacked things like nickel steel, or the bessemer process blast furnace. Swords were deadly, expensive and as much symbols of nobility and the right to rule as gold, fealty, and the entire feudal system. Across the world, the daisho, or katana and wakazashi worn by samurai were the official symbol of being a noble/samurai. To be caught wearing the daisho without permission was penalized by death. It was perfectly permissable for most commoners to weild the wakazashi and smaller tanto since these were multi-use serving as much as tools as weapons in times of war. The sword is a weapon only, and to use it as a tool is demeaning.

Legendary swords - Caliburn, later renamed Excaliber, Damocles, the sword of god, Durandahl, the sword of Roland.

Other legendary weapons - ????

The blunt weapons, such as the mace, hammer, pick, flail, and other pole arms were the weaponry of the commoner, as these invariably had labor uses and indeed evolved from these purposes. What self respecting lord is going to ride into battle swinging the weapon of the commoner levies? These weapons were popular among the commoners as they were rather cheap, and easy to produce. All had wooden handles, and the amount of metal used was limited, and there was nothing to compare to the 24-36 plus inches of steel in a sword.

The sword is a phallic symbol, and that is all I am going to say about that.

Clerics and maces is a footprint of dungeons and dragons, where the clerical caste was limited from using swords since most swords dealt more damage than other weapons, and this would have rendered the fighter class pointless. Historical clerics had no qualms about using bladed weapons, indeed Archbishop Turpin from the Song of Roland believed that taking up the sword against the Saracen enemy was doing the work of God. As for the not drawing blood arguement against swords, is the slash from a sword so much more offensive that crushing someone's head in a spray of arterial gore with a mace?

The Arms Race

In the late medieval period and early renaissance, the sword began to see less and less action, and the plebian weapons of the mace, and hammer became more common, in parallel to the use of the arquebus and the brace of pistols. This was due to improvements in armor design and manufacture. A sword does little damage against a steel plate, no matter how sharp it is. These crushing weapons became almost mandatory to defeat a well armored foe, though the sword itself never fully fell from use.

Disagree? What is the ceremonial weapon of the USMC? In an age of laser guided munitions and armor defeating smart weapons, it is a sabre.

Goto Author

Correct on the sabre, but who can carry it in the Marines?

Goto Author

In the USMC, all Non-Commissioned Officers of the rank of Corporal and above may be issued a Calvary Saber. All Commissioned Officers may be issued a Mameluke scimitar, with the first having been presented to Lieutenant Presley O'Bannon of the forces that put down the Babary pirates by a tribal chieftain in North Africa out of gratitude for the operation in 1805.

In the US Military, the Commissioned Officers of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard have ceremonial swords as part of the proscribed uniform, as well as the USMC NCO and the West Point Officer Cadet.

Goto Author

Ding ding ding, we have a winner.

Now for the door prize, what is on top of the Dress Blue uniform cover and why?

I realize this is going off topic but I'm just curious to know if someone knows. Which Siren probably does.

Goto Author

Vajra, Sharur, Ruyi Jingu Bang, Trishula, Vijaya, Gandiva, Gada, Gungnir, Mjölnir, Gáe Bulg, Lugh's Spear & Chain, Rhongomyniad, Amenonuhoko, Tonbokiri, Nihongo, Otegine...

There are a lot of badass non-sword legendary weapons out there. Mostly from non-Western cultures.

And yes, I did just copy and paste from the Wikipedia page on legendary and magical weapons.

Goto Author

And if it *must* be a sword, how about an Urumi! You don't hear about these every day :)


Goto Author

We should make a codex of magical weapons that are not swords.

Goto Author

Havent we done that yet?

Goto Author

Haven't we done that already?

Goto Author

BUMP! to the post.

Goto Author

A bump, and a note:


A wooden training long sword (Waster or bokken) will mass, depending on wood and method of construction, between approximately 300g(0.6 lb) and 1 kg(2.2lb). A carbon steel long sword of 0.8m length is similarly likely to be approximately 1 to 1.5 kg. Even a claidhmore or a zweihander peaks out at 2 to 2.5 kg, and it was noted of a weighted, 6 pound calvery saber that "no living man can cut with it - The weight is so great that it is impossible to give it any velocity, and it's cutting power is therefore nil. A very simple test shows this." (Latham, Shape, p. 420-421)

The majority of swords are designed, balanced, and well implemented tools of war, not sharp metal clubs.

Goto Author

Having read this a few times and commented on it as well why I never took the full body of the comments to mind.

Previously it is explained what tools a priest carries with them on a usually everyday travel. Their walking staff, their water sprinkler or incense burner, and their censer (which I can't think of atm of what it looks like), are all realistic and common weapons implimented into everyday life of a cleric.

Why not double up the weapons of use? Im my setting I have a race that aborrs using weapons made for killing, swords for example. Yet they will use a bow, an axe, or certain hammers as all of them have a real world use. As been stated here. I think we could create a codex of mundane items that can double up as a weapon but also as a tool.

Goto Author

Technically, a censer is any heat proof vessel meant for the burning of incense. In Catholic churches and their near relatives, the censer is suspended from a chain, often from a stick, and referred to as a 'thurible'. This is the cleric's mace.

Goto Author

A well done article, that raises a good way for gamemasters to differentiate their games from the run-of-the-mill.

Although Swords are the 'Weapons of Kings', many other weapons have comparable ceremonial and symbolic value in different cultures. The ancient Celts and some Germanic tribes would give a spear and a shield to a young man when he was accepted as a man and a warrior of his people. The Mongols were attached to their composite bows, which would often be covered with fancifully tooled and dyed leather and have a matching bow case or scabbard to protect the weapon when it was not in use. The Persian Empire and the Holy Roman Empire both issued maces to officers as symbols of their authority, as did the Babylonians millenia before them.

Any of these weapons can make an attractive alternate to the more commonplace sword.

Goto Author

Aways been partial to Morning Stars/Horseman's flail :)

Just curious, do you all define a morning star? Mine has always been (D&D and other games aside), the spiked ball on chain., though a spiked club seems to be the most common definition. How boring :)

Goto Author

The morningstar can refer to both the spiked ball on the end of the chain, or to the DnD spiked club/mace weapon.

Goto Author

Doo-Doo-Doo-Doo-Doot. Stop! It's hammer time!

Goto Author

bonk. I just took bonk. The scary part is I remember when that was the Hot Song on the radio and MTV (yes children, at one time MTV really did play music all the time). So that sound track just floods my mind.

Goto Author

I remember when that video was NEW! gasp*

Goto Author


I remember being on a survival course with the Air Cadets (no jokes please :)) and the flight(squad) in the next tent had the tape. Only that tape. All Summer...


Goto Author


Yes, I will drag this from the grave often. It will never die!~

Don't make me sing bad rap again.

Goto Author

Don't make me sing bad rap again.

Wait. There is good rap?

Goto Author

I've been partial to spears and the like, personally, so I agree completely with the forlorn question in this thing.

Why does it *always* have to be a sword? I think the closest things I've made to a sword are Whiteblade and Twig... And next on the Item List is the Spear of the Dawn.

Goto Author

You like spears i like the almighty hammers... *Crunch*

Goto Author

The takeaway from this is not just that Fantasy Swords are just too cliche... and that there should be other warrior weapons. The reason that there are so many "magic swords" is that certain games have just swords on their magic item lists or that just swords are part of the magic item example in the game. The real takeaway from this is from the third paragraph on.

The takeaway is spend a few moments and customize your basic magic items (We all know you are going it for your big items). By spending a few scant minutes on background, history, and continuity grants greater effect:

a) list of Master Craftsmen who had made magical items -and associated schools or works

b) The craftsmen gives you styles, times, and effects can be slapped onto an item.

c) Select a hero or several heroes who have wielded the weapon and build up a sort of history for it.

d) If there was a historical event of note, where was the item?

This quick customization, without having to invest more than like six lines of work, create quality magic items without having to work out the entire story and history of these "grand items" (like we write up).

While I do have a rant about the preponderence of swords, that is what I hope you take away - The spending of a few moments on each item you can make things more interesting and increase versimilitude.

Goto Author

Editted last comment for odd syntax error

Goto Author

Hammers have always been my weapon of choice in any campaign i'm not GM'ing.

Goto Author

Bomp-bomp-ka-bump. Do NOT make me sing it again.

Goto Author

Hammer! Don't hurt 'em!

Goto Author

Can't touch this . . . thread. Seriously, though, this is a marvelously thought-provoking article. When I have a few minutes of prep time to spare, I'll aspire to pimp up more of my low-level magic items.

Goto Author

So, who knows the name of King Arthur's lance? Yes, he had one, and a dagger, and shield, too.

Goto Author

The comments on this sub are great; but consider this: why does it have to be a weapon at all? In fairytales people encounter all manner of things.

A golden bird in a cage which sings and begs for freedom.

A silver dress spun of moonlight to barter with the princess.

A pipe which when smoked summons an imp.

An egg to hatch a magical beast.

Most of them wander around without weapons or combat at all, using their wits, luck, and some help from friends. Consider even other universes. How does a pokeball work? What manner of potion device does Jeckyll wear to turn into Hyde? Any item from Warehouse 13? Those might be too obvious and not fit your theme but there are also LINDA items (Looks interesting, never does anything):

A cup which when placed in the sun slowly fills to the brim with water.

A staff which when broken in half can mend itself over the course of a day if the pieces are placed side by side and undisturbed.

A napkin which is always clean. It sheds dirt and grime when shaken out.

The best part about these items is that players tend to imbue them with undue significance, or show great creativity in attempts to *make* them useful.

Goto Author

I posted bits of this here...


The rest of the thread has its moments.

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