September 22, 2023
Link to article: Do Scythes Make Sense in Combat?

Do Scythes Make Sense in Combat?

In D&D 3.5e, there were 51 melee weapons. 4e technically an unlimited amount since all you had to specify was if the weapon was heavy or light, and you could say it was whatever you wanted. 5e however, paired weapon choices down considerably. The Player’s Handbook only contains 28 options. Anecdotally, one omission seems to be highlighted over and over: the scythe.

I can see why. It’s literally the weapon the personification of Death itself carries around.

I’m sorry, but the scythe makes no sense as a weapon. First, consider the angle of the blade. It’s 90 degrees from the shaft. This makes a lot of sense when cutting tall grass or wheat, but it falls short if you’re trying to attack a foe with it. You’d have to angle it behind them and pull towards yourself. You’ve already entered into a worse position than attacking with a sharpened stick. With even a rudimentary spear, you have the benefit of increased reach keeping your opponent far from you. With a scythe, you have to give that up and somehow find an angle around them to line up with the sharp part of the blade. Since both your hands are occupied holding the scythe, even someone wielding a lowly dagger would have a clear shot to stab you.

Alternatively, you could use it as a piercing weapon and try to make contact with the point of the blade. This would probably be a better option since you could have a natural arc that aligns with where many types of armor are weak around the neck. But again, you’re saddled with less reach than a pike and a long wind up that leaves you completely exposed to counterattacks.

All of this isn’t to say scythes were never used in combat. Poorer militias and skirmishers would often repurpose farm equipment when more specialized weapons weren’t available. The 16th century German Peasants War saw widespread use of scythes. However, they typically repurposed their agricultural implements into war scythes by reattaching the blade to extend upright from the pole (which is admittedly less cool looking). There is one notable treatise on scythe use in single combat from renowned fencer Paulus Hector Mair, but it’s not clear how seriously this can be taken. There’s no documented evidence he (or anyone else for that matter) ever used a scythe in a duel, and he attributes this technique dubiously to “the ancients.”

Image Credit: Wizard’s of the Coast Players Handbook 2003

Unfortunately, the scythe as depicted in the Dungeons and Dragons 3.5e and Pathfinder 1e handbooks is nearly unusable as a frontline fighter’s weapon.

It’s actually for magic users.

When you stop to think about it, a farming scythe is far closer to a wizard’s staff than a polearm. It could easily double as a walking stick and has a substantial headpiece to insert magic gems or center enchantments. I’d imagine this would primarily appeal to necromancers for the obvious symbolism, but any arcanist with a flare for the dramatic could use it as well. While it’s totally impractical to mow down enemies with the blade, imagine instead releasing a torrent of fire or necrotic energy with a mournful, sweeping arc.

Because of the agrarian connection, I could also see this being an extremely popular choice for druids. If you’re of an old school inclination and believe druids should be prohibited from using metal, the blade could be carved of wicked looking bone. In a subversion of expectations, perhaps this scythe encourages plant growth.

Of course, this would also be an appropriate choice for clerics of the death domain that aren’t frontline tanks. As cool as it looks, giving up a shield to wield one of these doesn’t compensate for the added aesthetic qualities.

When you consider a scythe as primarily a magic staff, then its limited combat potential begins to make much more sense. After all, it is still a blade on a stick. If you’re out of spells and the enemy is closing fast, you can still swing it as a last resort. It’s better than nothing.

And since it’s Halloween and all, I don’t want to leave you with all tricks and no treats. Please find my version of a D&D 5e magic scythe below. If you like it, you might also like our collection of minor magic trinkets.