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?

Morning Star

If you’re a D&D fan and you’re at all keyed in to the news coming out of the Origins gaming convention, you’ve been hearing the word morningstar a lot this week. If you haven’t, but you’re interested, check out or follow @dndmorningstar on Twitter. Since it is tough for me to keep coming up with new and interesting words every f$&%ing week, I’m not going to turn it down when someone lobs a nice, slow pitch right across the plate. So: morningstar. Or, more correctly: morning star (take note, guys).

A Morningstar

A Morningstar

Firstly, let’s talk about the morgenstern – the morning star – a weapon that is often confused or conflated with the mace and the flail. A morningstar is a big, iron head mounted on a wooden shaft. The head is covered in spikes and often has one particularly long spike right at the top. And it was a versatile sucker. It would crush bone, crumple and puncture armor, and you could even thrust with the prominent point if an enemy got too close and you couldn’t get a good swing. Or against a downed opponent. And it came in large and small varieties for the footman and the horseman respectively.

A Mace

A Mace

Contrast this with the mace, which was smaller and lighter (though it came in footman’s and horseman’s varieties). The head of a mace could be solid, but it evolved into a flanged head over time. Additionally, as time went on, the mace became an all metal weapon: shaft and head alike were made of solid iron.

Finally, you have the flail. The flail was an articulated weapon. It began life as a farming implement: two short shafts connected by a ring used for threshing grain (seperating the wheat from the chaff). Over time, flails became more and more varied. The ring was replaced with a chain. The head became heavier. Sometimes it included spikes. The biggest, two handed flails had bigged spiked balls at the end and were sometimes called morgensterns, or morning stars, which just adds to the confusion, doesn’t it? Flails were great for getting around a shield and because they were easy to come by (at least the modified agricultural ones). But, they are imprecise, very difficult to use, especially in close combat, and couldn’t be used in organized military ranks because tended to be a danger to everyone within swinging distance of you.

A Flail

A Flail

But morning stars are not just weapons. Hell, the reason for the name is that the spikey ball looks like a shining star. Sort of. If you squint. And the most famous morning star is the planet Venus. It is so named because it glows so brightly that it can often be seen after sunrise, even after the bright sun has rendered all of the other stars invisible. Actually, in ancient times, Venus was known as two different objects: the morning star and the evening star. Until the Greeks figured out Venus was one thing, they thought it was two seperate planets: Phosphorus and Hesperus. The Romans had a different name for Venus, though. They called it “Lucifer” or “light bringer.”

Where's Venus?

Where’s Venus?

Which brings us to another morning star. The Morning Star, the Light Bringer, Lucifer, AKA Satan, the Devil. Well, maybe. See, the pop culture version is there was this angel named Lucifer or Satan in Judeo-Christian traditions who rebelled against his Creator and tried to seize the throne of Heaven. When they failed, they were cast down into a lake of fire and brimstone and became the rulers of Hell. Satan/Lucifer/The Devil now tempts mortal humans to evil because that’s what he does.

But the story is actually far more complicated and unclear. There have been so many translations and interpretations and so much ancient and medieval pop-culture was inspired by these stories, that it is now very difficult for scholars to disentangle. At one time, Satan (whose name in Hebrew means “accuser” or “adversary”) may have been a sort of prosecutor of humanity, such as in the Book of Job where he entices the Lord to visit misfortune on Job to prove Job was only faithful because he had such a good life (spoiler alert: Satan was kind of right in the end). Of course, most of the modern beliefs in the Devil and Hell come from John Milton’s Paradise Lost and The Divine Comedy (including The Inferno) by Dante Aligheri.

From Paradise Lost: Lucifer Inciting Rebellion

From Paradise Lost: Lucifer Inciting Rebellion

Of course, another great pop-culture version of the story is the tale of the Dungeons and Dragons, 4th Edition deity Asmodeus who, in ancient times, was an angel in the service of an unknown deity who led a rebellion. Asmodeus succeeded in ascending to deity status and the other deities were so terrified that they locked him and his followers (the devils) away in the ruins of the realm they had conquered: the Nine Hells. I’ve always found this story particularly compelling when you consider other bits of D&D 4E mythology. For example, the history of the tieflings as corrupted humans who pledged themselves to Asmodeus and the fact that humans seem to be the only sentient race in the D&D cosmos that don’t have a single patron or progenitor deity. I’ve often wondered if all of those things are interconnected. Did Asmodeus slay the deity that created humanity (and also who created Asmodeus, the angel)? Is that why humanity is so prone to ambition and corruption? Is that why an entire human empire was willing to give itself over to Asmodeus in return for power?

So, let’s end there, where we began, with Dungeons and Dragons. And a compelling question to use in your campaigns: why don’t humans attribute a single deity (or a small subset of the deities) as their personal deity? What does that mean? Is that why humans are so varied and adaptable compared to other races? Do they lack divine guidance? How else has that shaped human culture and society? What sort of stories can you build from these questions?

Some Pop Culture Depictions of Satan Emphasize Other Aspects... Thanks EA and Visceral Games

Some Pop Culture Depictions of Satan Emphasize Other Aspects… Thanks EA and Visceral Games

Sticking Place

“Grab your torch,
Mount your horse,
Screw your courage to the sticking place,
We’re counting on Gaston to lead the way.”

– Kill the Beast, Beauty and the Beast

GastonAhh, Beauty and the Beast, the greatest animated, children’s story about schizoid personality disorder and Stockholm syndrome ever made. Seriously, Belle was f$&%ed up. If Gaston had had her tossed in the asylum, he’d have been doing her a favor.

But, we’re talking about that weird line about screwing your courage to the sticking place. What the hell does that mean? Well, the line is a direct quote from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, where Lady Macbeth tells her hubby to be a man and murder King Duncan of Scotland. As near as we can tell, Shakespeare invented the term “sticking place.” And he never explained it.

But some scholars think it refers to the spot on a crossbow where a soldier had to lever or crank the cord back to ready the crossbow for another shot. Basically, tighten up your courage as tight as it will go.

CrossbowOf course, the crossbow predates Shakespeare by a hell of a lot of years. The earliest crossbows date back to China in the 5th Century BCE and also Greece at around the same time. The crossbow enjoyed a surge of popularity in the 12th Century and remained popular through the 1,500’s. Sure we’ve all heard stories about how devastating the English longbow was. And it was. But the crossbow had some advantages.

For one thing, the crossbows fires much heavier bolts, so they have more pentrating power. For another thing, it only took about a week of training before someone could use a crossbow reasonable accurately. While hand bows had longer range and faster rates of fire, it took years of training before someone could (a) overcome the pull strength of the most powerful bows and (b) acheive any sort of accuracy with direct fire. It was time consuming and expensive to train soldiers to use a bow effectively. In his book, Connections, historian James Burke suggested that the longbow didn’t even come into its own until there had been enough advances in farming to free some folks from the field and give them enough training time to get good at using the things.

Meanwhile, the humble crossbow had armor penetration, simplicity of use, and cranks and levers to help someone draw the damned thing. Crossbows could also be modified to fire stones or bullets. So, they also had the infinite ammo as long as there was some rocks around.

An army of crossbow men behind portable f$&%ing walls. Way cooler than Legolas.

An army of crossbow men behind portable f$&%ing walls. Way cooler than Legolas.

If I seem a little emotional about all of this, it is becuase I’m tired of seeing the proud crossbow passed over time and again in fantasy RPGs because everyone wants to be f$&%ing Legolas. The crossbow was a weapon of the people, something that everyone could learn to use.

So, next time you need to outfit an army in your D&D game, screw your courage to the sticking place, dump the elitist bow, and perforate your PCs with armor penetrating crossbow bolts.

Forte and Foible

Image“Lord Antwill hates crowds. He tends to slip away at every gathering for a few minutes of privacy to collect himself. He even often eludes his own bodyguards,” the informant said.
“Then I shall strike at the Emperor’s Ball. Exploiting the foibles of others must be every assassin’s forte,” replied the assassin.

Word games are my forte.

And yes I said forte,
to rhyme with snort;
like snorts of derision for those who say,
that the word should be pronounced for-TAY.

Yes, that is a clever little mnemonic so you can remember how to avoid my beating your head in with a dictionary. But let’s not quibble over pronunciation. I’m giving you two words this week, but they are closely related. Maybe kissing cousins.

Most folks know the word forte, as it is used here. It is something you are good at, it is your “strong point.” And the origin is no mystery. Bards say for-TAY when they want you sing with strength. We can fortify a fortress with folks of great fortitude to force enemy forces to flee. So, we know where forte is coming form.

Foible – yes, you get two words for today – foible is a word you might know too. You might think of it as a personal eccentricity or an odd habit, but it is actually more correctly defined as a personality defect or weakness.

And so, if you can turn your forte against foe’s foibles, you can win… a SWORDFIGHT.



See, forte and foible are both related to swords. The forte and the foible are two of the three (or sometimes four) parts of the blade of the sword. The foible is the upper third of the blade, starting at the tip. It is the weakest part of the blade. You need it for thrusting, but you don’t want to connect with it when you cut or slash an opponent because it will bend or break.
The forte is the bottom third of the blade, from the cross-guard up. This part of the blade is thick, tough, and heavy. You don’t want to strike an opponent with it either, because that means your opponent is too damned close. But it is the perfect place to catch someone else’s weapon when you parry.

The middle third of the blade doesn’t have a nifty name. It is just the middle. And, if you are slashing at someone, that’s where you want to connect with them. In fact, the spot between the middle and the foible is often called the cutting point. That’s the spot on on the blade you want to connect with for a good, solid slash that gives you maximum speed, strength, and power.

ImageOh, that fourth part that blades sometimes have? Well, big, two-handed weapons like a German zweihänder or a Scottish claymore sometimes included a section of the blade below the forte that was left unedged. Often, it had an extra guard just above it. This section, called the shoulder, was a place for the warrior to grip the sword to shorten his fighting distance when an opponent managed to get in too close. You couldn’t swing a big two-hander effectively from the grip against a foe who was close enough to kiss you (it all comes full circle). So you could switch one hand to the shoulder to shorten the swing.

Hopefully, now you can consider combat flavor text your forte.

Incidentally, if you want to learn more about medieval weaponry, check out the Medieval Weapons for Beginner’s Guide, four pages of great info from the Mercenaries Medieval Combat Guild.