September 23, 2023

Polearmed and Dangerous

Your next 5th edition D&D character should use a polearm. I know it’s not a sexy choice, but hear me out.

Despite all of the benefits of using polearms, I myself have never played a D&D character who specialized in them and can’t recall ever playing with one who did. However, there are many reasons not to overlook this entire class of weapons.

I get it. Swords are cool. I’m a proud sword owner myself (what a shocker). They’re a powerful symbol and have a near spiritual mystique to them. After all, King Arthur didn’t pull an axe from the stone, and Elrond didn’t reforge the shards of a broken mace. Numerous manuals on swordsmanship and technique survive from medieval Europe where very few such treatises on other weapons seem to have ever existed. But in actuality, swords were not the most important weapon on the battlefield.

When engaging in close combat on foot, medieval armies strongly preferred polearms as their primary weapons. The French were famous for their use of the glaive. Italian and English armies favored the Bill. Eastern European warriors liked to carry bardiches as their weapon of choice. One reason polearms were so ubiquitous is they provided far superior reach. Even a skilled sword wielder would have trouble getting inside the range of a halberdier. Additionally, polearms were better able to create leverage points to bypass heavily armored opponents. Swords were relegated to a backup weapon in most cases.

Aside from added realism of a martial character using a polearm, there are a bevy of mechanical benefits as well. Specifically, I’m referring to the glaive, halberd, and the pike. All of these weapons are cheaper than a greatsword, deal a respectable d10 of damage, and have a 10’ reach. The improved threat range allows for a great deal of nifty combat tricks. First, you go from being able to attack into 8 squares to being able to hit 24 different spaces. Because your weapon now adds an extra 5’ to where you can attack, it’s like picking up an extra square of movement. You also have the ability to perform more hit and run tactics. If an opponent has the misfortune of beginning their turn 10’ away from you, you can attack and move far enough back each turn that they’ll never be able to reach you with a melee attack. If you’re partnered with a mage that likes to cast web or other AOE spells, you can hit targets without having to worry about dealing with any adverse effects yourself. And these are all with just a simple proficiency.

In the past, there were legitimate mechanical reasons to ignore reach weapons. I can specifically recall in 3.5 that all reach weapons had the drawback of being unable to strike adjacent foes. Unlike in real life where the quick jabs and thrusts of a long spear could keep an enemy safely away from you, you had just one measly attack of opportunity before someone rendered you unable to attack. None of these penalties exist in 5e.

When you introduce the Polearm Master feat, these weapons really start to shine. Once you acquire this feat, you get an additional attack each turn. While it may only be for a d4 damage, whoever comes out ahead in the action economy usually wins a fight. You also gain the option to use an opportunity attack on anyone who just enters your massive threat range. When you start to tally up all the added benefits of polearm use, it starts to almost look like you’ve picked up a slew of new class benefits.

Aside from all of the practical and mechanical benefits, there are also narrative and roleplay opportunities. Consider what using a polearm says about your character. You’re concerned with effectiveness and practicality. You’re no crazed axe-wielding skirmisher or troglodyte with a club. You have insight into the ways of the battlefield beyond many other combatants. You’re not so easily swayed by the conspicuous symbolism of the sword either. You’re not some rapier wielding fancy lad. You understand better than most that war isn’t about cutting a dashing figure. It’s about the application of force and the exploitation of any possible advantage to achieve victory. You almost wish the sword fighters could get closer to you as you cut them down. That way you could see the look on their faces as they realize they picked the wrong weapon.