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Compared to other similar weapons, there seems to be zero reason to use a flail.

\$\begin{array}{|l|c|l|c|l|} \hline \textbf{Weapon Name} & \textbf{Cost} & \textbf{Damage} & \textbf{Weight} & \textbf{Properties} \\ \hline \text{Flail} & 10\,\text{gp} & \text{1d8 bludgeoning} & 2\,\text{lb.} & \text{-} \\ \text{Warhammer} & 15\,\text{gp} & \text{1d8 bludgeoning} & 2\,\text{lb.} & \text{Versatile (1d10)} \\ \hline \end{array} \$

Both weapons are martial.

I can't imagine a scenario where a character feels they need to forgo the versatile trait to save 5 gold. Especially classes that can start with any martial weapon they choose.

What advantages does a flail have? Am I missing something?

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    \$\begingroup\$ kissing-cousins: glaive and halberd \$\endgroup\$ – nitsua60 Sep 12 '16 at 23:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ Interestingly, flails weren't even real weapons. publicmedievalist.com/curious-case-weapon-didnt-exist \$\endgroup\$ – Almo Sep 14 '16 at 12:21
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Almo they say the "military" flail didn't exist. Not the flail itself. Might have been used in tournament duels or stuff like that. I might amend my comment based on that, but your comment seem to be a little too extreme by saying it simply wasn't real. \$\endgroup\$ – Olivier Grégoire Oct 3 '16 at 8:28
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The flail has no mechanical advantages over the warhammer.

As you correctly note, the only mechanical differences between a flail and a warhammer are the price and the Versatile property. To a player only concerned with having the best weapon mechanically, there is no reason to use a flail.

One of the big differences between 5th edition and previous editions of D&D is that it makes no attempt to assure that all character options are totally balanced against eachother. There are many cases of some character options being worse than others, especially in the weapon table. To give some other examples: the Quarterstaff is better than the Mace, the Handaxe is better than the Sickle, and the Rapier is better than the War Pick and Morningstar.

These weapons were probably included so that, when a player asks their DM if they can have a flail, because they think flails are cool, the DM can say yes, and have rules that apply to that weapon, rather than making something up on the spot.

Unearthed Arcana added Flail Mastery feat that makes the weapon more viable against shields, have a chance to knock enemies prone on opportunity attacks and add +1 to attack rolls with the weapon. However, as access to Unearthed Arcana material isn't a given in all games, this feat isn't something that a player can assume to have access to.

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The only advantage a flail has over a warhammer is it is 5GP cheaper.

Some campaigns use starting money, instead of starting equipment, so that may be a reason to start with a flail.

Once the purchase price is no longer a obstacle, the warhammer will be the more optimized choice. Even if you plan to always use a shield, or always dual-wield, something unexpected might happen, and the versatile property is probably worth the price of a warhammer.

Then what good is a flail?

A more compelling reason to use a flail would be if your character came across a special one: be it magic, adamantium, or silvered.

The 5GP price break may also become more relevant if you are outfitting a larger fighting force.

So that's all good then?

Don't take this answer as a defense of the rules as written. I find it boring that there is one single best choice for one-hand martial bludgeoning weapons, and choosing any other option is leaving optimizations on the table. In my own games, I've got house rules for bludgeoning weapons so that there are more trade-offs, like there are for the edged weapons.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ In response to your point about outfitting larger fighting forces: there is a reason why larger forces did not generally use flails - the chains or ropes would get all tangled up together. It's also abysmally bad at defence, and one takes a while to recover after making a swing. \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Sep 14 '16 at 6:10
  • \$\begingroup\$ While true, those points don't address the mechanics of the flail as presented in the rule books, which is the issue. The flail is pretty good about whipping around and behind shields, too, but since this is not an official rule mechanic, it's not germane to the question. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Sep 14 '16 at 13:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Sorry, that was unclear. Yes. My intent was to point out that the comment was not addressing the answer or the question. \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Sep 14 '16 at 19:12
  • \$\begingroup\$ @keithcurtis You should use the @ symbol to respond to other comments, otherwise the commenter is not alerted that you have done so. I am fully aware that my comment is not relevant in a purely RAW scenario. That is why it is a comment, and not an answer to the question. I thought that readers, particularly DMs should be made aware of the disadvantages of flails in group combat. Certainly my group could not get away with outfitting an army with flails without me warning them that this strategy was doomed to failure (I run a fairly realistic game though). \$\endgroup\$ – Ladifas Sep 15 '16 at 21:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Ladifas, Thanks, I'll try to be clearer in the future. I try to think of comments as suggestions to improve the answer, and was just trying to head off what I felt to be leading into a digression. (No slight intended.) \$\endgroup\$ – keithcurtis Sep 16 '16 at 23:29
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As a long time DM... Mechanically, the Warhammer would probably be the best choice. For RP, and doing a lot of stupid and weird stuff.... the flail would be a better option.

I can't count the number of times I've had players in all editions of DnD get a flail and explain to me...

  • How a flail can be a reach property (A flail can pretty much be any length of chain... as long as it's a weight and chain.)

  • How a flail can be an effective trip weapon.

  • How a flail can be used to slide along a taught rope (zipline).

  • How a flail can be effective at aiding in grappling.

  • How a flail can be a touch weapon, the argument was it'd be hard to parry with anything other than a shield so the victim would be treated as unarmed. Pretty compelling argument as we even put it to the test.

  • Then we had a rogue use a flail as a weight to sink a body to the bottom of a river.

  • Wizard casted an enlarging spell on a flail after a fighter threw it... and it became a rolling metal boulder of spikey death.

  • With giant strength, and a reduced weight spell a barbarian used the flail to launch himself across a large streatch of land and slam into a fort.

  • Monk used the flail ball as a torture weapon after increasing it's weight.

… the list goes on.

Point is... it really depends. If you're doing a campaign where you can't run your forehead repeatedly against a brick wall to solve a problem, then the flail. But if you're just doing solid fighting—Go warhammer.

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If you're roleplaying the start of a campaign, a flail has the advantage that it is an implement used by a farmer, so a young farmer might have one immediately available: it has other uses than just being a weapon.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't think that's the same type of flail. The farm-implement called a flail generally had a long pole and required two hands to use as a weapon. Presumably, these farm implements wouldn't cost 100SP. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flail_(weapon) \$\endgroup\$ – Tim Grant Sep 15 '16 at 11:47
  • \$\begingroup\$ I guess the question really is that if your character is a farmer lad just heading off adventuring, would you let them take their flail and use it as a weapon? I would, just for the sheer narative value :) \$\endgroup\$ – GreenAsJade Sep 15 '16 at 22:04
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There is no mechanical advantage to the flail

In previous editions, flails had the advantage of being better at disarming & tripping. In 5e, they've done away with that.

But not every character is built to be mechanically optimised. If they were, there would be very little variation between them. Every fighter would be either Optimised Melee Fighter Template or Optimised Ranged Fighter Template with only non-mechanical details, such as name, changing. Some people want to know Which Fighter (TWF Fighter vs. Great Weapon Fighter) is better optimized for Dealing Damage? - others will decide based on their character concept, that this guy is going to be a Duelist.

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The advantage that a flail has is the advantage that a martial weapon has over a simple weapon.

The flail and mace are both one handed weapons with bludgeoning damage. Neither has the versatile property.

The flail does 1d8, the mace does 1d6. (Weapons Table, Basic Rules, p. 46)

Comparing it to the war hammer, which has the versatile property and is a martial weapon, the flail comes off second best. This only matters, cost wise, at early levels in a campaign where having to make choices based on rolling for gold pieces factors into it.

  1. Choose Equipment (Basic Rules, p. 9) Your class and background determine your character’s starting equipment, including weapons, armor, and other adventuring gear. Record this equipment on your character sheet. All such items are detailed in chapter 5, “Equipment.“ Instead of taking the gear given to you by your class and background, you can purchase your starting equipment. You have a number of gold pieces (gp) to spend based on your class, as shown in chapter 5.

Looking on page 43 of Basic Rules ... Starting Wealth by Class ...

Cleric...5d4 X 10 GP.

The advantage shows up in the case of a cleric where the character prefers a (weapons) / (shield) fighting style, and perhaps gets the Shield Master feat. Being able to use a flail is advantageous over a mace. Another reason to use a shield and a one handed weapon is that a cleric can use the shield, emblazoned with her holy symbol, as a spell casting focus.

For classes that start with proficiencies in martial weapons, the warhammer seems the better choice.

Regarding weapons proficiencies for a cleric: War and Tempest domains have martial weapons proficiencies, most other domains do not. The Life Domain cleric has proficiency in medium armor, shields, and simple weapons. (Basic Rules, p. 21) Being able to use a flail with proficiency, as a Tempest cleric, is a slight advantage in damage over the mace.

Compared to other similar weapons there seems to be zero reason to use a flail.

Beyond what I already covered, it may be a matter of style. Optimization isn't everyone's chosen method for character creation, nor play style.

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    \$\begingroup\$ -1: While your example (a cleric that wants a one-handed weapon and a shield but doesn't have the money for a warhammer) works, it sort of falls apart because the basic cleric equipment package includes a) either a mace or a warhammer, and b) a shield. If a cleric wants a warhammer and a shield, they can get one easily. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Sep 12 '16 at 20:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DuckTapeAl Depends on the domain. If you are using a non proficient weapon, you are at - to hit over all and the slight damage boost does not help. The lack of hits will make a lot of damage = to zero. It's a niche advantage, at best. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 12 '16 at 20:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ ...what? This whole question is about the difference between a Flail and a Warhammer. Is there a domain that gives you proficiency with the Flail and not the Warhammer? I can't find one. \$\endgroup\$ – DuckTapeAl Sep 12 '16 at 20:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DuckTapeAl That isn't how I read the question. It asks "what is the advantage of the flail" and gives just one example of a weapon. He asks Compared to other weapons which is plural. My point? He isn't comparing like with like. I chose a weapon where you can see a slight advantage. PS the cleric starting kit says exactly "• (a) a mace or (b) a warhammer (if proficient)" and I point out that if you start with martial weapons proficiency, there isn't an advantage. The other point on style is not wrong, as optimization isn't everyone's cup of tea. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Sep 12 '16 at 20:50
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Having used a flail in live action roleplaying, the weapon has a nice advantage in that it can get around a shielded foe (the balls on the end of the chain can wrap over the shield edge and hit the person behind it, although not with full force.) This was in real life combat its main virtue. They actually had two handed flails given to footman for the purpose of breaking shield walls, although in role playing we only see the single handed version since the two handed version is so unwieldy as to seriously encumber the user (although it might make an interesting one off weapon find.) In most respects its not a great weapon beyond that purpose, being so imprecise and unwieldy. When doing table top roleplaying I typically modify the rules to let the flail negate some of a shield's protective value, but with damage penalties. However I deem them weapons incapable of striking a critical hit (if you are using critical hit rules) and I increase the critical miss penalty (again, depending on if you are using critical miss, not everyone includes that). That's if I feel like being very technical :) Generally the flail tends to be one of the 'house rules' type weapons.

As already mentioned, 5e dumbed down the flail rules as to render it pointless if you are playing strictly by the book. FWIW I always found the older edition rules around tripping and disarming weird and usually disallowed them; again this was never a purpose to which the flail was applied in real life combat. In general whenever I hit rules that are weird or unclear I tend to fall back on martial history to help me clear things up.

Regarding the warhammer, if we again fall back on history, these weapons were designed to deal with the fact so many foes in close combat would be fully steel clad, and swords in many cases less useful because the sword edge could not cleave often the plate armor, instead glancing off and wasting most of the energy of impact. If I am applying house rules I give damage modifiers along those lines. FWIW a hammer is also an easier weapon for an unskilled person to pick up and deal some damage, compared to a sword which needs some training to use well. So I give NPC farmers, peasants, etc weapons like that.

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The flail is a converted farm implement (as stated above). This has the obvious advantage of already being farm ready when the others are trying convert their swords back into plows.

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protected by Oblivious Sage Jan 30 at 18:32

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