I love a sword. There are a lot of great swords in fantasy. Whether it is the sword that was broken, the sword of truth(from more than once franchise), Excalibur or some massively over-sized weapon from any number of anime and video games they are the heart of fantasy battles. But the problem is that swords have been overused in fantasy and the swords that are used are mostly very similar in type. I’ll talk in another post about using other weapons, but for now I want to focus on why you might want to cut back on the number of swords and how to make the swords you do use more interesting.
First, swords weren’t as common as you might think. There are a number of reasons that at many points swords were not the dominate weapon on the battlefield. Thinking about these reasons and adjusting the battle can help make your fantasy world more interesting.
The most basic reason for less swords is that a good sword is hard to make and it becomes harder with longer swords. This is important because a badly made sword will shatter as soon as you use it in battle. A good sword will require not only a very skilled blacksmith but the right materials and a lot of time. (It can take a few weeks or even months for a blacksmith to make a sword and it takes a well trained and skilled blacksmith to do it.)
Of course this changes dramatically depending on the technology level of your world. In the medieval world there were technology advances that made swords cheaper, but even then cheap weapons were cheap. A good sword would cost several years worth of wages for a typical person and while you didn’t have to be fabulously wealthy to have a sword someone who was poor would almost certainly use a far less expensive weapon.
The other reason is that swords generally aren’t the best weapon against someone who is wearing armor. This isn’t generally an issue in most fantasy as most fantasy ignores the concept of armor completely or ignores its real impact on the battlefield. This is a great opportunity for a smart fantasy writer to tell some interesting stories but I’ll cover that later. For now it’s just worth noting that the point is that a traditional sword isn’t really very good at piercing well-made plate armor and any slashing blow is going to slide off plate and may not even be effective against chain mail. You can adjust the sword to be better against both of these, but often it’s better to just use another weapon.
The real point for this post isn’t to say not to use swords, but to consider how to make them more interesting. The problem is that in fantasy a lot of the swords are very similar. The longsword is an interesting enough weapon but over hundreds of years and huge distances there was a lot of variety in weapons. If you’re going to have medieval weapons in your story it’s worth considering what type of sword you want to use.
One simple point that can add a bit of variety to a sword is how many hands are used to wield it. There are three basic options here. One handed swords that are typically used with a shield, or something else in the other hand, two handed swords which are much larger and likely used with armor to defend the person using the weapon and the more flexible hand and a half handed weapons. The third is a weapon small enough to use with one hand but with a hilt long enough to allow the use of two so that you can fight in whatever way is most useful at the time.
But that is by no means the only way to distinguish a sword. Another common distinction is the way you want to use a sword to attack. For most swords there are two types of basic attack, the thrust and the slash. The reason a sword is useful is because of it’s good with both types of attack, but it’s still worth having something specialized for the type of fight you expect to have. If you’re expecting to fight people in armor then you may want to give up much of the slashing value of the sword by making it thinner and tapered to a smaller point so it can go through the armor rather than bouncing off. On the other hand, if you’re in the aforementioned armor-less fantasy world a curved slashing weapon is actually very useful. A slash is less likely to get stuck in something and you can fight more enemies at once with it. Also a curved slashing blade will cut deeper easier and likely be lighter.
Finally there is the point of weight. A well-balanced sword is generally considered ideal and lighter is in many ways better. Both of these are true in many cases but not all. Swords are heavy and balancing it will make it easier to use and faster and it’s clear that a lighter sword is going to let you fight longer. But there are other points to be considered. If you add weight to the end of a sword by making the blade wider you can give it some of the advantages of an ax. Primarily that it will hit with a bit more force. Of course you’re going to get tired much faster. This is also true of making a sword heavier, but a thicker blade will also tend to be a bit more rugged and survive longer. Again the decision you use one over the other is going to depend on what you’re using the weapon for. If you’re fighting unarmored men then fast and light is the way to go, but if you have men in armor then extra weight in the right place can let you actually do damage to them.
None of this is to say that the centerpiece weapon of a fantasy shouldn’t be a sword I’m just saying that it doesn’t have to be. Swords were one of many weapons used at the time and one of the most important weapons on the battlefield and there are advantages to using them. A sword is well understood so requires less work to do as a writer when describing it. But it’s well known and everyone has read stories with a sword it in. That makes it less interesting so if you want to have the weapons in your fantasy that are interesting consider what the sword is being used for and that should let you make some adjustments to the basic weapon to make it more interesting or perhaps you should just consider a weapon that isn’t a sword at all.