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I want to give one of my good characters a vorpal Dwarven Ax. My first thought is about alignment issues. I realize that it's how it's actually wielded that would cause alignment conflicts, but is it necessarily "good" to be chopping people's heads off, when another less dramatic and disrespectful form of death will do?

Additionally, I want to know if there are any, and what limitations should be enforced. If my character is up against an enemy 2-3 size categories larger, would the vorpal magic be enough to finish the job? Does the character need to physically jump up to the height of the neck? What if the neck is thicker in diameter, than the total length of the blade of the ax?

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Not enough to be a true answer, but... You always have the right and power to change the Vorpal flavor by letting it kill the creature outright, severing its soul or animus from the body but leaving its neck intact. Beyond this change, I'll let vorpal-immune creatures still immune to this kind of weapon. – Erik Burigo Apr 4 '11 at 13:41
Historically, in many cultures, beheading was considered one of the cleaner, more honorable, and more merciful ways to execute someone. The less honorable criminals were handled with methods such as being drawn and quartered. – TimothyAWiseman Dec 17 '13 at 22:39
up vote 10 down vote accepted

I would say, no. In general, killing vs. not killing is more of an alignment concern than how you kill them.

Some deities might be interpretable as being against vorpal. And characters at the very lawful end of the spectrum might have issues. But ultimately this is a DM/player call. It isn't an assumption of the setting.

(Personally, I'd recommend against alignment restrictions here, except perhaps for the most holier-than-though cleric or paladin. Vorpal is a marquee ability in the game, and as a player I'd be disappointed to have it locked away from me)

The thing to remember here is that vorpal weapons are magical. Spectacularly magical. About as magical as it's possible for a weapon to be. Exactly HOW the beheading occurs isn't specified (perhaps the size of the weapon's cutting edge is enhanced by magical energy, allowing for the severing of distant or large necks). All that really matters is that if you can hit it, you can trigger vorpal.

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+1 - I'd also say that it shouldn't depend on alignment. If at all it should depend on the culture of the player character if Vorpal was acceptable for him to use or not (for example, perhaps cutting off a head is considered an honorless deed, no matter what the target of the attack is). Further, imho Vorpal isn't even that good for its price - there are quite alot creatures and creature types outright immune to its effects so the enhancement's worth also heavily depends on the prime opponents faced in the campaign. – user660 Apr 3 '11 at 19:19
@baelnorn Alignment comes into it. Lawful characters by definition follow a code of conduct of some kind. So they will have the highest potential for a conflict. Chaotic characters reject such restrictions, and have a lower chance for problems. Neutral characters are in the middle. – AceCalhoon Apr 3 '11 at 21:12
I stand by my statement that I consider it more a conflict of culture than of alignment. A LN dwarf cleric from a dwarven society where even minor crimes are punishable by death by decapitation may have a different position towards Vorpal weapons than a LN elf cleric from an elven community where absolutely no crimes - not even major ones - are ever punished by death. – user660 Apr 3 '11 at 21:30
@baelnorn Agreed. My point was that alignment ALSO matters. A lawful character from either society will be more likely to have issues than a chaotic character from the same society. – AceCalhoon Apr 4 '11 at 3:15
Of course, anything Norse-based, as well as probably some other cultures, consider the cultural impact of mutilation. In some religions or cultures, you must be "whole" to enter Paradise. Someone who wields a weapon that hacks off heads and limbs may be looked at like someone loading pork-greased bullets in the Middle East. – Sean Duggan Apr 7 '14 at 17:33


I can think of many more sadistic ways to kill someone than beheading them (the chaotic player characters in my games seem to be very good at inventing new ones!). Decapitation is messy, but not inherently evil. I agree with @AceCalhoon that this is much more of a cultural thing: samurai, for example, are lawful (Complete Warrior, page 9) but if Kurosawa's films are anything to go by, they have no moral qualms with severing their opponent's limbs.

Other Limitations/Gotchas

The description specifically mentions that oozes, constructs and undead (other than vampires) are immune to vorpal weapons.

I would think that a beheaded vampire would assume gaseous form as if it had dropped to 0 hit points, although the wording in the DMG is ambiguous.

Plants and elementals are immune to critical hits, but does that make them immune to vorpal weapons? This would seem to be up to DM discretion. Swarms should certainly be immune.

The description also says that an aberration is immune to vorpal weapons if it has no head, even though it is otherwise subject to critical hits.

Magically fortified armor protects against critical hits and sneak attacks (DMG p219). I think it is up to DM discretion whether this armor would also provide protection against vorpal weapons.

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A point that might be relevant is that beheading has at various points in history been considered a relatively pleasant death. Sure, it's messy, but it involves no pain below the neck, and more importantly, is over pretty quickly.

Realistically, fatal battle wounds could include ruptured organs, internal bleeding, effectively unstaunchable blood loss and other such trifles, all of which would lead to long, agonizing deaths. Compared to that, beheading is mercy. In fact, that's why the guillottine was important during the fench revolution: It 'democratised' execution by making the beheading penalty available to everyone.

D&D stylises death and injury a great deal: A character dropped to negative hit points will typically die in under a minute unless stabilised, since dying in agony over a period of hours doesn't generally fit well with the 'heroic fantasy' theme. Still, unless the player characters are in the habit of bandaging up fallen foes, a quick end would still be more merciful than 1-9 rounds of bleeding out.

Also, adding to the "It's Cultural" argument, in at least one D&D setting I could name, vorpal weapons were widely used by the unquestionably evil Yugoloth. Make of that what you will.

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