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Thoughts about the D&D sword classification system 
22nd-May-2008 11:52 pm
French dragoon
This entry comes about as the result of an organizational mistake I made a rather long time ago, when I deleted an old (and somewhat inaccurate) entry that discussed the sword classification system popularized by the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons--and somehow forgot to replace it with a new one. Here's the belated replacement.

In its most basic form, the D&D classification scheme divides swords into four classes that are fundamentally meant to classify the sword types of medieval Europe or a fantasy world with equivalent technology, although in the process of its growth it has been extended to cover swords from several other cultures as well. Short swords covers short-bladed weapons that are just long enough to escape being classified as daggers. The next category used to be known as long swords, but the 3rd Edition onwards calls it by the single word longswords; either way, this category includes long-bladed swords that are basically one-handed weapons but can occasionally be used in two hands. Next comes the bastard swords category, which covers swords that can be used either one-handed or two-handed--an option formerly available by default to all proficient users. The 3rd Edition's modification to this category came in terms of mechanics rather than nomenclature, restricting ordinary users to wielding it two-handed and demanding the expenditure of a Feat slot to gain the ability to use it one-handed. Last but not least is the category of massive swords that can only be wielded in two hands, known as two-handed swords up to AD&D 2nd Edition and as greatswords from the 3rd edition onwards. Simply said, the system rests on the premise that there is a continuum of size and weight running from the short sword to the longsword, then to the bastard sword, and finally to the greatsword. A curious artifact of this system is that it classifies the Japanese katana as a bastard sword--an idea that we will review later.

It would be extremely difficult to compare the D&D system to any medieval European system of sword classification because, honestly, there was no such thing as a uniform and unambiguous classification system at that point in European history. However, modern scholars have utilized the benefit of hindsight to build a rough consensus about the terminology of medieval European sword forms, and not surprisingly this terminology differs from the D&D system on several important points.

Following medieval practice, the system gives the simple name of sword to long-bladed swords with short one-handed grips. It has also been known to borrow the 16th-century term arming sword for the same category, although this term is only consistently used when there is serious risk of confusion with the use of "sword" as a generalized term. Its definition of longsword follows that offered in the swordsmanship manuals of the late-medieval and Renaissance German masters of the Liechtenauer tradition; that is, it refers to a sword with a long blade and a long grip that can comfortably accommodate two hands. The category bastard sword falls into a fuzzy area that lies between and overlaps the "sword" and "longsword" categories. One line of opinion sees it as being practically identical with the longsword. Another maintains that a bastard sword is fundamentally a one-handed sword that can be used with two hands while the longsword is a two-handed weapon that can be wielded with one. A third opinion prefers a threefold division whereby the "bastard sword" is an intermediate category of swords (lying squarely between "sword" and longsword") that can be wielded equally well in one hand and in two hands. The last two opinions accept that their standards of classification are subjective and will vary from one wielder to the next. Regardless of this disagreement, we can already see one aspect where the modern hoplological consensus diverges from the D&D one: in D&D, a "bastard sword" is larger than a "longsword," while in the consensus system the former is either the same as or smaller than the latter.

What about the greatsword and two-handed sword? Now, the two-handed sword is quite an unambiguous category in either classification system, and it is not surprising that both systems concur on assigning the name to massive blades like . . . well, the two-handed swords of the Renaissance period. Greatsword is a much more contentious term. In its most specific sense, it refers to Type XIIa and Type XIIIa swords under Ewart Oakeshott's classification system; at the largest end of its spectrum the category overlaps with two-handed swords, but for the most part its blades are the equivalents of longswords in terms of size and weight. (And in any case the longsword category also overlaps with two-handed swords at the highest end of its size-and-weight bracket.) So what's the difference between the two? Well, both categories cover blades that have adequate capabilities in both cutting and thrusting, but I think it would be fair to say that greatswords in general are more cut-oriented while longswords (like the Oakeshott types XVa and XVII) are relatively more thrust-oriented. Remember that relative is the keyword here and that there is a great deal of variation within the categories themselves (for example, the XIIa is more thrust-oriented than the XIIIa and the XVa more cut-oriented than the XVII). So, on the whole, this is another point of divergence between the classification systems: where the 3rd and later editions of D&D considers the "greatsword" as being definitely larger than the longsword, modern scholarship in arms and armor see the two as being roughly equivalent in size and weight.

(As an interesting aside about the lack of consistency in authentic medieval sword terminology, many medieval documents use the phrase "two-handed sword"--especially "espee a deux mains" and its close variants--to call the swords that modern scholars would put under the heading of "longswords.")

I have not talked about short swords because here the D&D definition fits squarely with the modern hoplological consensus; both refer to blades that are, by and large, barely long enough to be called swords.

Having established the fundamental differences between the D&D system and the modern academic consensus about the classification of medieval European swords, we can now branch off to some other tangential points. The first is, as I've said before, the classification of the katana. I've always cringed when I see it classified under the heading of "bastard sword" over several editions of D&D because the katana is relatively light and short as far as swords go; if it had been brought to Europe before the age of modern intercultural understanding, I have no doubts that the Europeans would have classified most exemplars as one-handed "swords" without a second thought. Yes, there were exceptions like Sasaki Kojiro's three-foot-long blade. But before anyone thinks of using those exceptions as a basis for the classification of more normal katana, think again about why they're called "exceptions." Please.

There's one really funny thing in all this: the real-world system that the D&D classification resembles most is--surprise, surprise--the Japanese one. It is fairly common knowledge that at least from the Edo period onwards (17th century and later), Japanese blades were categorized as tanto if they're less than one shaku (approximately one foot) long, as shoto ("short sword") if they're between one and two shaku, and as daito ("long sword") if they're more than two shaku in length. The parallels between this and the D&D sequence of dagger-short sword-long sword is quite striking, although I don't know whether any edition of D&D or AD&D ever explicitly took the Japanese classifications as a base of reference for constructing its system. Incidentally, I'd suggest Dr. Richard Stein's Nihonto site for those who would like to find more information about the Japanese classification system as well as about Japanese swords in general.

Lastly, I want to make sure that nobody would think this post is meant to lambast Gary Gygax's creativity. At the time Gygax created the original Dungeons & Dragons game in 1974, reliable information about historical arms and armor was still rather inaccessible to the general public, and the system he created was certainly better than nothing in that it gave a uniform, logical basis for comparison between various kinds of weapons. The fact that modern research has given us a better (and more accessible) understanding of sword types that just happens to differ on several respects from the original D&D classification system is a different matter, and I wouldn't try to go about saying which people in the long D&D lineage deserve the blame for failing to keep the classification system up to date.
24th-May-2008 11:31 am (UTC)
The most interesting definition of a bastard sword I ever encountered was Egerton Castle, who said that a bastard sword was "longer than a short sword, and yet shorter than a long sword".
24th-May-2008 01:58 pm (UTC)
He's not wrong in that sense--the only thing that must exist in any definition of "bastard sword" is that it must be an intermediate group between two other categories. Castle's specific wording makes me wonder, though, about whether he's defining "short sword" and "long sword" according to George Silver's terminology.
20th-Jun-2008 02:52 am (UTC)
I've also seen bastard swords referred to as "hand and a half" swords, just to add another level of confusion. :)
20th-Jun-2008 02:53 am (UTC)
Not that it really matters, but that was me.
20th-Jun-2008 05:44 am (UTC)
It's true that the term "hand and a half" only confuses the issue further, because--just like "bastard sword"--different people see it in different ways. Some have tried to take the subjective factor out of the definition by defining "hand-and-a-half" swords as those having distinctive "coke bottle" grips, while others try to ascribe it to swords whose pommels' shape merges smoothly into the grip to provide additional gripping space. But of course there's no universal agreement about which definition is the most appropriate--and there are lots of people who don't mind the subjectivity in determining the lines between "sword," "bastard sword," and "longsword."
27th-May-2008 11:04 am (UTC)
Now if we could only get the game designers at WotC to read your article and adjust the game a bit closer to reality. It'll never happen though, because the weapon categories have become standard these days, no matter how odd and unsupported by history they might be. *sigh*

As I recall in the original Oriental Adventures, the katana was just its own weapon, and it was assumed it only mattered in an OA game. It wasn't until a bit later that the idea occured to people that there might be this mix an match of types of weapons among characters/cultures within a game. Besides, I think the whole fetishization of the katana as some sort of ultimate weapon can be laid at the feet of the original Highlander movie. (That and a tendency for a certain era of geeks to walk around NYC wearing trench coats.) But the problem with it's classification is clearly due to the notion that a Bastard sword was interpreted as the only type of sword that is sometimes weilded one handed and sometimes weilded two handed. Since the Katana fit that description, that's how it was organized.
27th-May-2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
I don't know. If I had written this a year earlier, it might have had some effect. But now there's only about a month left until the projected publishing date of the 4th Edition, and I'm pretty sure that such a timeframe would be far too short for any reasonable attempt at redefining the weapon categories and figuring out a workable balance for them.
27th-May-2008 02:29 pm (UTC)
Well, the books have been printed, and are in the process of being shipped to points of sale. So yeah, a little bit late to the punch on that count. Of course, you make the assumption that they actually try to balance things over at WotC, which as best I can tell rarely happens. They just get the stuff done and out the door.
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