When DM's Say "You Know Who," They Don't Mean Lord Voldermort

When DM’s Say “You Know Who,” They Don’t Mean Lord Voldermort

“[The scimitar] is a long, curved, single-edged blade intended mostly for horsemen. It is a popular weapon for light cavalry. Members of the foul race of yuan-ti often use scimitars.” – The AD&D 2E Arms & Equipment Guide

“Scimitar: The curve on this blade gives it the effect of a keener edge.” – The D&D Player’s Handbook (v.3.5)

“Scimitars are only light weapons in the new PHB because otherwise Drizzt Do’Urden makes no mechanical sense” @travisnorris of Twitter.

No one really understands the weapons in D&D. No one. Not even weapon scholars. Of course, it’d be easier to understand them if the new Player’s Handbook could be bothered with a sentence of description for each weapon. But even then, D&D grossly oversimplifies weapons. We look down at that equipment list and see entries like long sword, mace, flail, greatsword, and we may think there was just this one thing called a long sword or a mace or a flail, maybe with some minor variations. But that just ain’t the way it works. There were a bajillion f$&*ing swords that would all be broadly classified as a “long sword” by D&D standards. It was different from region to region and era to era. And D&D draws from a LOT of eras and regions.

Take, for example, the scimitar. That blade that various D&D PHBs and supplements describe as a scimitar could be a shamshir, a pulwar, a shotel, or a talwar. You could make a case that it matches up with deeply curved falchions. You could call it a f$&%ing sabre. Hell, scimitar isn’t even the name the people who made the first real scimitars gave it. That was a European name for a blade that had been in use for centuries that they really only got to know intimately during the Crusades. The name scimitar didn’t come into use in Europe until the 1,600’s, but the first scimitars were in use in Egypt 3,200 years before!

Scimitar, AKA Shamshir, Shotel, Falchion, Etc.

Scimitar, AKA Shamshir, Shotel, Falchion, Etc.

So what is a scimitar? The scimitar is a curved backsword, a single edged sword with a single-handed grip. It wasn’t much use for thrusting like most European swords were, but the curve made it especially dangerous. As you slashed with the curved sword, you didn’t need to draw your blade back to reset it. You kept swinging in an arc, following through your cut. And as you followed through, the sword was cutting through your opponent. It was pretty nasty and there are some accounts that it could cut a limb or head clean off. Because it was light and because of its curved shape, it was very effective from horseback, which is why it is similar to the cavalry saber. The biggest drawback of the scimitar was it’s range. Because of the curve, you had to fight at much closer range. Still, when the European straight sword met the Saracen’s scimitars (that’s the broad term for Muslims) during the crusades in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and northern Africa, they discovered they were very skilled with their curved swords. Some even used the scabbards in their off hands to parry.

We Have Reached the Meme Singularity

We Have Reached the Meme Singularity

But this leads to a weird question: why do D&D druids use scimitars? The scimitar is most notably a Persian weapon, right? Actually the Persian name for it was the shamshir, which means “lions paw.” But except for the association with cats in the name, there doesn’t seem to be any compelling reason for the scimitar. Well, according to hearsay, which I can’t confirm, Gary Gygax himself gave an answer in an internet forum. He said it was the closest weapon he could think of that was similar to the sickle that existed in AD&D. And why might a druid wield a sickle? Well, because of something called the ritual of oak and mistletoe.

According to the prolific Roman author, Pliny the Elder, Magicians in Gaul (members of the druidic social caste – hence druids) used to harvest mistletoe whenever they found it, especially during certain lunar cycles, because of it’s sacred healing powers. And they would use sickles to cut it. The sickle is, of course, a small crescent shaped farming tool. The druids were very into the moon.

The D&D Druid: A Perfect Reflection of Real Druidic Traditions

The D&D Druid: A Perfect Reflection of Real Druidic Traditions

But the thing is, that connection is actually stronger than maybe Gary himself recognized. See, in the mid-11th century, curved backswords started to appear in Europe and were especially popular amongst conscripts and peasant militia (as opposed to the straight swords used by knights and nobles). These blades came in two varieties. One was broad and thick, curved, but heavy. And the other was slimmer, lighter, and more deeply curved. That second one, the more popular one that lasted up through the 16th century, was very similar to the Persian shamshir or scimitar. But it was longer and heavier. Thing is, that sword had a name. The name was falchion. And falchion comes from the Latin word “falx,” meaning sickle.

So, D&D druids wield scimitars. Scimitars are similar to falchions. Falchions are named for the Latin word falx. Falx means sickle. And real druidic magicians used sickles in their sacred rites. Good job, Gary.

One Depiction of the Shamshir-e Zom... the Emerald-Studded Blade

One Depiction of the Shamshir-e Zom… the Emerald-Studded Blade

So how can you use this in your D&D game? How about a neat legend for some inspiration. Let’s end this with the story of the Shamshir-e Zomorrodnegār, the Persian name for the “emerald-studded sword” and Amir Arsalan, the Legend of Arsalan. This is classic Persian legend of a gifted hero named Arsalan. In the story, there is a terrible demon called Fulad-zereh. The witch who sired the demon used magic to make the demon invulnerable to everything except the emerald-studded shamshir, which had originally belonged to King Solomon. But the demon had gotten hold of it and guarded it carefully because it was the one thing that could kill him. The sword itself was also said to protect the wielder against evil magic. Of course, if you can’t get inspiration for your game out of that story, you might be interested to know that the name Arsalan translates to “lion,” and THAT name might lead you to some more wonderful inspiration for your game.

That's Right: The Heroic Legend of Arslan Manga ... What Did You Think I Meant?

That’s Right: The Heroic Legend of Arslan Manga … What Did You Think I Meant?


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