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Can a short sword be used to deal slashing damage?

The Weapons Table seems to list short swords as having only the damage type of piercing, and lacking the slashing damage type. However, this strikes me as either a mistake or a misguided decision. Short swords are typically described as and visually depicted as having a double-edged blade, which should mean that it is able to cut.

From The Forgotten Realms wiki (emphasis mine):

In essence, this weapon is a smaller version of the longsword but longer than a dagger or dirk, having many of the same parts including a generally double-edged blade, cross-guard, grip, and pommel. The blade is typically from 12 to 20 in (30 to 50 cm) long with a sharp point. An average short sword costs 10 gp and weighs 2 lb (0.9 kg).1 First edition D&D defined the short sword as "all pointed cutting & thrusting weapons with blade length between 15 in (38 cm) and 24 in (61 cm)."2

Other 3rd Edition material also described as being effectively between the length of a longsword and a dagger - both of which are capable of slashing - suggesting that, all other properties the same, it should be able to as well.

I've heard some arguments that the short sword is intended to model certain historical weapons, such as the gladius, which were primarily used for stabbing by Roman soldiers after the reach of their spears had been breached. Even so, the gladius also sported a double-edged blade and seemed capable of slashing if necessary.

Of course, this problem only comes into play when fighting a monster with damage resistances or vulnerabilities to one damage type over the other. Even if the weapon was not primarily designed for slashing (which still seems in question), I would think that under such circumstances of life and death, at the very least, this would be possible.

Is there any reason, historical or otherwise, as to why a character could not slash with a short sword?

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    \$\begingroup\$ If I may make a suggestion: The answer to your boldfaced question is — unsarcastically — The rules. A more productive question might be either Is there an official way to have a shortsword deal slashing or slashing and piercing damage? or Would game balance be adversely affected if a shortsword could deal slashing or piercing damage? Both of those might work better and get you helpful answers. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 0:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ So this is a designer intent question? You literally want to know Why did the designers choose to have shortswords deal only piercing damage instead of, logically, piercing or slashing damage? That's cool, but those kinds of questions can lend themselves to a lot of unproductive speculation as design decisions are often lost to history, committee, and ego. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 0:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Sort of, but more important is whether or not I would be justified if changing the rule for my own gaming purposes. Surely someone here has some insight into this, and can present data and evidence to back up their response. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 0:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ So the question becomes something like From experience, how does changing the damage a shortsword deals from piercing damage to piercing or slashing damage impact the game? (If you're okay with impact as a verb.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 0:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ (I'm not trying to give you a hard time. The way the question's phrased right now means that anyone who disagrees with you and says Yes risks downvotes unless he backs it up by being a history professor, swordsmith, rhetorical mastermind, or a fool. You've made your case, if anything, too strong for disagreement to be a reasonable option, forcing him to refute all of the information you've provided and make his own case.) \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 0:35

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D&D 3.5e isn't historically representative.

If you look at the picture of the swords in the Player's Handbook, you will find that the longsword is actually a picture of a bastard sword, the bastard sword is actually a picture of a longsword and the greatsword is actually a zweihander. There were no "greatswords" per se, it was just a generalization for D&D to classify big long heavy sword that requires two hands.

The bastard sword, or hand and a half sword, had a standard grip for one hand, but also tapered at the bottom with a hefty pommel that could be gripped by the second hand. If you look, once again at the Player's Handbook, that is the photo used by the longsword.

The longsword, historically, was not a one handed blade. The handle grip was designed for two hands. It was a lot lighter and more mobile than the two-handed sword.

When it comes to one handed swords, once again it is a generalization. The Anglo-Saxon Seax wasn't primarily a stabbing (piercing weapon). It was an edged weapon (slashing) and it has been noted as such due to the lack of handguard. Handguards, not only helped protect the fingers from another attack, but also prevented your hand from sliding up the blade when stabbing.

Look at this "short sword" (seax) from Owen Bush. There is very little to stop your hand from sliding off the grip if a stab is made. That would make stabbing with it less likely. Could you stab? Sure, why not. Is it optimal? No.

Look at this "short sword" (gladius) from Cult of Athena. There is a very pronounced handguard to prevent your hand from sliding forward. Also look at the very prominent piercing tip. That would make slicing with it less likely. Could you slice? Sure, why not. Is it optimal? No.

Reading the short swords description in the Player's Handbook will reveal that it is often used as an off-hand weapon. Due to the piercing nature and the european influence of D&D, the short sword in the player's handbook is most likely modeled after a main gauche.

Look at this main gauche from True Swords. It is a little longer than the typical dagger, with a very very deliberate pointed tip. Main gauches, in historical fencing, were designed to parry and stab in conjunction with a rapier, foil, epee, etc.

The wakizashi, in Oriental Adventures, is listed as having the same characteristics as a masterwork short sword. However, wakizashis were made along with and with similar techniques as the katana. One doesn't need to go far to see the cutting tests with the katana.

Look at this wakizashi from Casiberia. The wakizashi has the slight bend to the blade, emphasizing a cutting edge, rather than a piercing tip. Can you pierce with a wakizashi? Of course. Will it slice better? Absolutely.

Use Houserules for alternatives.

Wanting a thrusting short sword? Style it as a gladius. Want a slashing shortsword? Style it as a seax. Your culture and region of play in-game will determine what weapons are available, in use, and how they are used.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ I thought I'd read somewhere (yeah, somewhere) that the thing about the longsword was that, historically, it didn't exist; such a weapon is, more properly, a broadsword, the D&D longsword's blade being, I dunno, too ridiculously skinny or something for any kind of effective slashing. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 3:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan Texts I have read from HEMA always refer to the two handed sword as a longsword. Broadswords are typically a disambiguation of any sword that is designed for cutting rather than piercing. For example, a cutlass, saber, or falchion would all fit the description of a historical broadsword. \$\endgroup\$
    – Ruut
    Commented Jul 29, 2015 at 3:56
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The shortsword is probably meant to be the Roman gladius

The gladius was the sidearm of choice for the Roman legions, and was short, stout sword that was used primarily for thrusting—because it was used primarily in formation with enormous shields and there was no room to swing anything. But this inability to slash was because of the allies around you that you didn’t want to slash, not because the weapon itself was incapable. It had an edge—doubled-edged, even—and could cut.

Which gets into the first point: for the most part, every sword can slash and every sword can pierce. Cuts and thrusts are part of just about every sword-fighting style in history.¹ D&D, however, has a conceit where having more damage types available was an advantage, and most weapons don’t. Moreover, each weapon in 3.5e has only one listed damage value—only a few exotic weapons have different damage values for different damage types. In short, even though a gladius could cut, it’s most famous for thrusting, and to an extent was optimized for thrusting. So D&D only lists its famous, optimized use. If you tried to slash with it, maybe it should do less damage or something, but that’s overwhelming the extremely limited abstraction threshold that’s in use here.

The other point here, though, is that they didn’t call it “gladius,” they called it “shortsword,” which of course is a rather generic term that covers a large variety of weapons.² Plenty of “short swords” are much more suited to cutting and slashing than thrusting and piercing. There isn’t any particular advantage of having one damage type versus some other damage type (as opposed to having multiple, which is an advantage). So a shortsword that deals slashing damage—but not piercing damage—would not be a problem as far as the game is concerned. Like the shortsword modelling of the gladius, this would be an abstraction—relatively few swords can’t pierce—but it would befit the game.

  1. Yes, that includes rapiers. Rapiers were optimized for thrusting, but they absolutely had an edge and could slash. Later developments (small swords, e.g. Arya’s Needle in the HBO Game of Thrones) would actually ditch the edge and become truly thrusting-only, but those were specialized duelist weapons whose primary advantage is that they were less physically demanding for people who weren’t swordfighting on a regular basis but still needed to carry something (“no gentleman is dressed without his sword,” etc). Then again, considering D&D’s notoriously poor nomenclature, perhaps what it calls “rapier” is actually meant to be a small sword—after all, it is piercing-only, lightweight, and doesn’t have reach, which makes it rather different from actual rapiers, which could also slash, were very heavy for a one-handed sword, and the whole point of them was that they could reach much, much further than other swords.

  2. For that matter, the Latin word “gladius” just meant “sword” and we’re just appropriating the Romans’ word for “sword” to refer specifically to their swords. The Romans themselves would have referred to a katana, say, as a gladius, had they ever seen one. (If they wanted to be specific about a katana, it’d probably “gladius japonicus,” presuming they accepted the modern Latin rendering of “Japan” into Latin, which exists primarily for the sake of taxonomy.) What we call just “gladius,” they referred to as “gladius hispaniensis,” or “Hispanic sword,” since they copied the design from that of Celts living in what is now Spain, who had been part of Hannibal’s forces in the Second Punic War. Ironically, part of its advantage over the design they had been using—based on the Greek xiphos—was that the gladius hispaniensis was better at cuts and slashes, compared to the xiphos which more strictly thrusting-focused. Still had an edge on both sides and could cut, though.

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