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After asking this question about the Sword of Sharpness, I was presented with this answer which distinguishes between the two main features of the Sword of Sharpness:

Feature 1 (emphasis mine):

When you attack an object with this magic sword and hit, maximize your weapon damage dice against the target.

Thus feature 1 only applies to attacking an object.

Feature 2 (emphasis mine):

When you attack a creature with this weapon and roll a 20 on the attack roll, that target takes an extra 4d6 slashing damage. Then roll another d20. If you roll a 20, you lop off one of the target’s limbs, with the effect of such loss determined by the GM. If the creature has no limb to sever, you lop off a portion of its body instead.

This 2nd feature applies to attacks against creatures and has a 1/400 chance of lopping off the creature's limb.

There is also a third feature to the sword:

In addition, you can speak the sword’s command word to cause the blade to shed bright light in a 10- foot radius and dim light for an additional 10 feet. Speaking the command word again or sheathing the sword puts out the light.

My question: if the first feature doesn't apply to attacks against creatures, then why is the Sword of Sharpness a very rare weapon requiring attunement? Is there something amazing about cutting off a limb that outweighs its low probability of occurring? I am especially curious since there are many benign ways of creating light, meaning that to me the 3rd feature pales in comparison to the first two. But if the first 2 features don't synergize at all, then why is this item so rare (and consequently expensive)?

I ask since compared to other magical items of similar rarity, the sword, should it not synergize, seems a bit underpowered. Consider for example the Flame Tongue:

You can use a bonus action to speak this magic sword’s command word, causing flames to erupt from the blade. These flames shed bright light in a 40-foot radius and dim light for an additional 40 feet. While the sword is ablaze, it deals an extra 2d6 fire damage to any target it hits. The flames last until you use a bonus action to speak the command word again or until you drop or sheathe the sword.

Having a constant 2d6 fire damage seems, from a damage perspective, to be greater than the 1/20 chance of dealing 4d6 slashing damage. This sword also produces more light than the Sword of Sharpness.

A similar concern exists with the Scimitar of Speed:

You gain a +2 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with this magic weapon. In addition, you can make one attack with it as a bonus action on each of your turns.

Having an extra attack to use on my bonus action and consistently having +2 to hit and damage also seems to be a stronger option than the 1/20 chance of dealing 4d6 extra slashing damage or the 1/400 chance of lopping off a limb.

Assuming the above to be true, why then is the Sword of Sharpness a very rare weapon requiring attunement? What am I missing?

If my assumptions or arguments are wrong, please tell me, but to me this weapon seems like it should either have a lower rarity or have the first and second features synergize.

To add a higher level of objectivity, I am comparing both its damage output (no maximum damage against creatures, but 4d6 slashing on a crit and the chance to lop off a limb) as well as frequency of using its ability (1/20 to land a critical, 1/400 to lop off a limb) to those of other magical weapons of a similar rarity.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – mxyzplk
    Jul 7, 2017 at 3:35
  • \$\begingroup\$ In general, rarity does not seem to correspond closely to 'power level' or utility. Someone might be able to track down some quasi-official commentary to this effect. \$\endgroup\$
    – Roger
    Nov 27, 2018 at 20:45
  • \$\begingroup\$ Note: the version quoted in the question (and on the linked open5e page) is the SRD version, whose listed extra damage differs from the version in the DMG. (This is referenced in some of the answers.) \$\endgroup\$
    – V2Blast
    May 22, 2020 at 5:32
  • \$\begingroup\$ MAximiyed damage against objects often enough means you can literally carve your way into a castle... intended? \$\endgroup\$
    – Trish
    May 18 at 11:46

6 Answers 6

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The Sword of Sharpness has a utility as a magic item that is somewhat variable in that it depends on the player who has it, and on the DM. We'll take the features one at a time.

Light Source

This is fluff. Moving on.

Maximized damage against objects

The utility of this depends on the player and how creative they are in using it. If you never attack an object, this is pretty much useless. However, you can get a LOT of mileage out of attacking objects. Personally speaking, I've busted my way through walls to circumvent an ambush or trap. Cut the hinges off a door so I could remove it without destroying it (the rogue broke the lock while trying to pick it). I've cut ropes to drop chandeliers on my enemies, busted holes in an enemy's boat so we could escape while they sank, and wrecked the DM's death traps by destroying the mechanisms that made it work (he wanted us to go through this complicated disarming process...I worked all the delicate looking moving parts over with a Maul. It worked). Those scenes that turn up where, say...Wolverine carves his way through a wall with his claws? With a Sword of Sharpness, you can do that.

The ability to reliably deal maximum damage to objects, and reliably overcome most objects' damage thresholds if they have one, is really useful in the hands of a creative enough player.

Ask your DM about the environment, look around, think about what you can do with what you can destroy. That door doesn't have to be the only entrance...those light fixtures can be weapons.

Again, this is all stuff you can do with an ordinary weapon...but a Sword of Sharpness is much more likely to finish the job in fewer attempts.

Bonus Damage

Boosted damage on a Nat 20 is nice. Barbarians, for example, are partially built around their boosted crit damaged. And, per the DMG, it's a flat +14 damage on a nat 20, which has more reliability than 4d6, even if it has lesser peak damage output. To address your comparison to the Flametongue...bear in mind that the Flametongue's bonus damage is Fire Damage: one of the most resisted damage types in the game.

Limb Removal

Here is where we hit DM caveat territory. What does it mean to dismember a target? Well, per the DMG, that is going to depend on your DM, and it's going to depend on what you're attacking. If you take a limb off a Zombie or a Troll...no big deal. If you take a limb off something that is living and doesn't regenerate at an insane pace...they are in trouble. Let's walk through what happens here, realistically.

  1. You lose the use of that limb. Depending on if this was a leg or arm, it has a different impact, but it's simple enough to figure out.
  2. Here's the important bit. You immediately begin hemorrhaging blood rapidly. Taking an arm off severs the brachial artery, taking a leg off severs the femoral artery. With the degree of blood loss this would cause, you will be dizzy and drowsy almost instantly, unconscious within seconds, dead within a minute or two. They'll last longer if it is a 'clean' amputation (perpendicular to the line of the limb) because arteries can pinch themselves shut...but that doesn't work if the cut isn't straight across, and since this happened in combat, you probably didn't give them a nice perpendicular amputation. And even if you did...that level of damage and pain is going to put just about anything into shock...which, however the DM portrays that, certainly puts them out of the fight entirely.

Now, is your DM using it this way? That's DM caveat. But in a game that I am running, limb loss = immediate removal from combat and massive ongoing damage. Unless medical care is administered immediately, the victim of that attack is going to die. Ultimately, in one of my games, the difference between a Sword of Sharpness taking a limb, and a Vorpal Sword taking your head is whether or not you have a chance to save the victim before they bleed out.

Summary

If you don't come up with creative uses for your newfound ability to obliterate inanimate objects and your DM treats limb loss like an inconvenience, then I would agree with you that the Sword of Sharpness probably doesn't deserve its Very Rare rating. But if you get creative, and your DM treats limb loss like the catastrophic injury that it actually is...then it rates quite a lot better. And...+14 damage on a nat 20 is pretty significant (equivalent to average damage of a 13th level Barbarian's Crit damage bonus with a Greataxe), and since it is Magical Slashing damage, very few things are going to resist that.

I would personally rate this on the lower end of the Very Rare magic items...but I still think it deserves the title.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Great answer, just confused about one part. Why is there a flat +14 damage on a natural 20 per the DMG? \$\endgroup\$
    – jaredready
    Feb 26, 2018 at 23:42
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    \$\begingroup\$ @jready The SRD lists the Sword of Sharpness as doing +4d6 extra damage on a nat 20. The DMG (and dndbeyond) says it does +14 damage. I don't know why they changed it, they have never said...but dndbeyond is always the "latest version" of the rules. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 27, 2018 at 12:46
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    \$\begingroup\$ While light source is fluff, the one on the flaming weapon is not; you must have it shining brightly to deal damage. The sharpness doesn't require that. Second, it is about 10% with advantage, or nearly 15% with advantage and elven accuracy. But those are minor improvements, good answer. \$\endgroup\$
    – Yakk
    Apr 23, 2018 at 17:39
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    \$\begingroup\$ @guildsbounty Maybe because if it were 4d6, due to being a critical, it would become 8d6. With a static +14, it now does not double. I think.. \$\endgroup\$
    – BlueMoon93
    Nov 27, 2018 at 16:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a fantastic answer. But at the risk of being pedantic, I think you might mean "GM discretion" or "decision" instead of "caveat". Caveat in Latin is usually translated as "May [he/she/it] beware of" and usually means something like "warning" or "caution" in English. It can occasionally mean something like exception or qualification and has some specific meanings in certain legal jurisdictions. \$\endgroup\$ Jan 17 at 23:47
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After a cursory glance through the DMG...

... it looks like all swords and most weapons, outside of generic +1, +2, +3, or "Vicious" weapons, require attunement. Rods, Staves, Oathbow, Vorpal Sword, they all require attunement. It seems that anything that can be wielded as an offensive weapon that is held in the hand(s), even something like Ring of the Ram - despite there being several rings to which one doesn't have to attune - require attunement to benefit from the magical properties therein.

Not having the Sword of Sharpness require attunement would make it the lone exception.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Obviating attunement is quite a difference. Good catch. \$\endgroup\$
    – Chemus
    Jul 6, 2017 at 17:28
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Some Observations and Perspective

Not requiring attunement and still having a function against objects is sufficient reason to keep it at very rare, although I'm guessing that wasn't intentional in design.

No, I think the reason the sword of sharpness is placed one step below a vorpal sword is tradition, and nothing more. Since the very beginning, the vorpal sword, lawful, and the sword of sharpness, chaotic, have been put in D&D games, and growing weaker and more weary or complex with each iteration. They are D&D tropes like Fireball and Psionic Blast, bound to pop up somewhere in every edition.

So the real reason is because when assigning rarity, several items likely got grandfathered in, without taking into consideration severe nerfing rules as written.

Twas a time when rolling an 18-20 would immediately lop a limb clean off, no reroll required, and DMs had field days having blood spray everywhere. Different editions had different rules for limb loss. Notice I keep making references to the past? And horribly overpowered weapons? Losing a limb was pretty bad back then, you needed a 7th level cleric spell to get it back.

Vorpal swords were worse, because the 18,19, or 20 spelled instant death for any living thing that needed a head to survive. No reroll or confirm was needed way back in the day. So the sword became notorious, and terrifying if you botched.

In Clash of the Titans, Perseus is given a sword by the gods. He tests it on a large rock or piece of solid marble, and it cleaves right through the stone without a hitch. That's the weapon many DMs used for decades as a reference, but funnily enough, neither had any particular damage bonus vs. inanimate objects until 5e. What was lost in exchange, was a solid 15% chance on every attack of ruining someone's day. If you are fighting a stone throwing or two weapon wielding giant, or a dragon that is flying, and you chop off their limbs, it's game over.

So all of this nostalgia and memories were carried over: Vorpal sword was king of all swords with only the holy avenger its rival. Sword of sharpness was the next best thing. Not quite as good as instant death, but mechanically identical to instant carnage.

If it weren't for that attunement loop hole it presents, I would likely downgrade it to "rare" as well. In terms of combat effectiveness, 4d6 5% of the time is an average of less than +1 damage per hit and slightly more than +1 damage per hit if you roll max.

As for rolling max damage against objects? That's stupid for 5e. Here's why: Hit points are based on Object Size, while the toughness of an Object only determines its armor class. Now, a sword of sharpness, traditionally (and I mean traditionally, like 40 years of tradition) is supposed to be sharp enough to cut through tough objects. But what is the attack bonus vs. objects? 0. Nothing. So whether the object is made of cloth and balsawood, or Steel and Adamantine, the rules they wrote provide absolutely no increased probability of inflicting damage. They only increase the damage if you manage to hit, even though Mithral is AC 21 and Adamantine AC 23.

To be sure, the person asking this question has legitimate concerns. The most neutral thing that could be said is that the write up on the Sword of Sharpness for 5th edition was ill conceived. It is highly probable if you had one in your game you might never see it actually sever a single limb. All its flavor text advantages are marginalized by the quirky way in which it interfaces with 5e rules. The damage vs. object, the crit vs. limb, the lack of bonus vs. hardness, overlooking attunement, and the inconsistent damage bonus make it a mechanical monstrosity of very rare proportions.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I appreciate the perspective. Based on what you've written, it seems that you would agree with me in that the flame tongue or scimitar of speed would, from a weapons perspective, be "better" at the very rare level? \$\endgroup\$ Jul 7, 2017 at 13:15
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    \$\begingroup\$ @B.S.Morganstein significantly better \$\endgroup\$
    – András
    Apr 16, 2018 at 13:01
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Usability by crit fishers?

Crit fishing is building a class that maximizes crits. A class like this will have a better chance of activating the bonus damage.

  • Chance of rolling 20 on 1 die: 5% (average +.7 damage)
  • Chance of rolling 20 with advantage: 10% (average +1.4 damage)
  • Chance of rolling 20 with super advantage: 14% (average +2 damage)

Players can then use additional effects to boost their rolls, potentially increasing their damage further for important rolls.

Even when it crits, it's not great

The effect only activates on a 20. But I would assume that anyone going so far to get crits would probably try to optimize their crit range too:

  • Crit chances with 19-20 crit range: 10%, 19%, 27%
  • Crit chances with 18-20 crit range: 15%, 28%, 39%

Flame Tongue would be multiplied within these crit ranges, making it a lot more powerful.

Rareness isn't about power

I don't think the base assumption in the post is correct. A rarer item isn't necessarily better than one which is more common. It's just rare, that's all. Yes, often the have cool and powerful effects, but that's not a requirement for an item to be rare.

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Someone didn't do the maths when they worked on this conversion. As written (DMG) the Sword of Sharpness isn't even close to its predecessors.

Even if we assume that 'creature' is a subset of 'object' and so have the Sword of Sharpness maximise its damage dice the Sword of Sharpness does substantially less damage than Flame Tongue across scimitar, longsword and greatsword - the easiest way to see this is to look at average damage across 20 hits, which will, on average, also include 1 critical hit, and so include both the bonus damage from the Sword of Sharpness, and the doubled fire damage for Flame Tongue. Factoring in resistance to fire in the target, the Flame Tongue is still more effective than a Scimitar of Sharpness, although marginally less effective than a Longsword or Greatsword of Sharpness. (I'm ignoring the 1 in 400 chance of severing a limb, which is vastly rarer than in previous editions).

This is strange, as the conversion of the Vorpal Sword is much closer to what might be expected.

To align Sword of Sharpness more closely to the 5e DMG Vorpal Sword (as the swords were historically) I'd suggest:

sword of sharpness = +1 to attack & damage; ignore resistance to slashing; sever a limb on a natural 20.

vorpal sword (DMG stats) = +3 attack/damage, ignore slashing resistance, sever head on natural 20.

Severing a limb is not as immediately lethal as removing a head. There are multiple examples of people losing limbs and surviving through prompt medical treatment. The same cannot be said of decapitation. While the precise details would vary depending on body size, whether the target was avian, mammalian, reptilian, insectoid etc. etc., I'd suggest this for creatures where limb loss is more than an inconvenience:

Sever arm: unconsciousness after CON/5 rounds; death after 1-2 minutes following severing. Disadvantage on attack.

Sever leg: halve the above values, apply prone condition.

Thus the victim is not immediately removed from the fight - and can potentially be healed - so the Sword of Sharpness is less somewhat less powerful than the Vorpal Sword. Of course, it would be even less comparable to the Flame Tongue on a simple damage comparison, but the Sword of Sharpness was never about maximising damage dice...

Whether this implementation would raise the Sword of Sharpness to 'legendary', I don't know, but it's safe to say that the current implementation is vastly weaker than its rarity would suggest.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "Just a flesh wound!" I particularly enjoyed "The same cannot be said of decapitation." \$\endgroup\$
    – Jack
    Jan 17 at 22:28
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When these swords were originally popular back in the 1e..they were usally made intelligent with an ego as well..hence the rarity of them..imagine pick up a sword of sharpness( Excaliber) or a Vorpal(clash of the Titans) and while trying to attune to it having a power struggle with it..if you lost..you would be under the swords power..much like Stormbringer. These where not just laying around to be picked up on the corner. The could be the sole driving force behind a campaign.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Hi Brian! Welcome to the RPGSE! Unless a DM custom tailors them to feature the kind of sentience you describe, magical items in 5th edition don't require the kind of power struggle you're describing. I think the explanation of the lore is interesting but I am not sure that it truly answers the OP's question which is more focused on the balance of game mechanics. \$\endgroup\$
    – Rykara
    Apr 30, 2020 at 22:54
  • \$\begingroup\$ FWIW they were originally very popular in Original D&D, a few years before AD&D 1e, and most of them were also holy swords. See Greyhawk, and I summarized it in this answer \$\endgroup\$ May 21, 2020 at 2:54

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