Thursday, June 19, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Vorpal Sword

For this week’s throwback I thought we would take a quick look at a quintessential favorite the vorpal sword. The term vorpal however does not find its roots in role playing games. It was author Lewis Carroll who first coined the term in his 1871 publication Through the Looking-Glass. This was the sequel to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865). The term appears twice in a poem called Jabberwocky which Alice reads:

He took his vorpal sword in hand
And later,
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

The vorpal sword as we know it in fantasy role playing first appeared in D&D Supplement 1: Greyhawk (1975). It was basically a sword of sharpness on steroids that would decapitate you! Since then there has been numerous iterations of vorpal swords across many editions of Dungeons & Dragons.

Greyhawk Page 47, 1975

In the current Playtest material of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons the weapon is still deadly:

Property [Attuned]: The weapon’s bonus to attack rolls and damage rolls increases to +3. Attacks you make using this weapon ignore resistance to slashing damage.

When the number you roll on the d20 for your attack roll using this weapon is 20, make another attack roll against the same target. If you hit again, the target takes an additional 6d8 damage. If the second attack roll is also an unmodified 20 and the target has 150 hit points or fewer, you lop off its head, killing it instantly. If the creature doesn’t have a head, you instead chop the creature in half, with the same lethal result.

I think the former is a fair modern interpretation but I probably will not be using it in my home brew campaign. To me the vorpal sword is one of those boogieman weapons that should be truer to its 1975 form. Instead my home brew version will read as follows:

Whenever you roll an unmodified 20 and the target has 150 hit points or fewer, you lop off its head, killing it instantly. If the creature doesn’t have a head, you instead chop the creature in half, with the same lethal result. If the target has more than 150 hit points it takes an additional 6d8 damage instead.

I never actually have given a non-epic level character a vorpal sword in my campaigns over the past thirty years. Swords of sharpness made the rounds in AD&D a few times and were very prized items. Many DM’s stay away from vorpal weapons for fear the BBEG will die in one lucky roll of the d20. I personally feel that if a player finds a vorpal weapon it should be of artifact quality and yes every BBEG should be scared of it! Likewise every player should still worry about that wayward and very hungry rust monster…

So what is your take on vorpal weapons and the snicker-snack of a natural 20?

Vorpal Swords are no big deal!


  1. We've run across exactly one in my 20 years of gaming.

    My character, a 15th level human paladin, was climbing up a tower and threw open a trap door. The anti-paladin we were hunting took his head off with the first hit, and then escaped as we gaped at the sudden death of our most powerful member. It was beautifully done.

  2. Glenn, great story. That is exactly the sort of legend that should be associated with a vorpal sword!

  3. Although I no longer have paper evidence, I'm pretty sure my Half-Elven Fighter/Cleric/Magic-user/Thief from Third Grade had a Vorpal Sword. Of course, he was pretty epic in that he had a floating castle that could travel through dimensions. There were also the many colored "snake staffs" that had various powers and the coveted "Black snake staff" that had the powers of all the others and few of its own. Now, there is a throwback

  4. Dude, I also just remembered the hawk-shaped spaceships that were a cross between the one Hawk from Buck Rogers flew and the one from He-man.

  5. I bet he did have a vorpal sword! You have a better memory then I do but now that you mention it I recall the snake staff collection :)

  6. As with shinais, a similar issue emerges from current and the old western types of club play. The rattan or other wooden types of broadswords are bulkier, uneven, inadequately weighted, and regularly have no conspicuous level side to repel with.