Katanas. Many love them, some believe they don’t deserve the love, and everyone’s heard of them. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what makes katanas such an iconic weapon, but many would point to the barely there yet elegant curve in the blade or the thick chisel tip. The katana’s aesthetics, whatever else you may say about the sword, are excellent, and people do have a lot else to say about the sword.
Die-hard fans of the blade will often cite the katana as simply being a superior weapon, capable of outperforming similar European swords when it comes to cutting through objects.
And of course, there will be those who object and say that even the common longsword was capable of doing a better job than a katana. The debate rages on and is probably best left to historical martial arts experts.
I’m here to talk about D&D.
The katana’s fame has led many who admire it to try to wield it in the world of 5e. Though it has captured the imaginations of millions, the katana has never been officially included in the game, though it probably should have been. Still, there’s plenty of room for homebrew, and so fans of the weapon will often try to write stats for it in their games.
But where homebrew starts, so do the arguments. If you want to propose stats for this sword in 5e, you’ll probably end up debating every aspect of its potential damage, its history, its composition, sword smithing, battle tactics, the philosophy of combat, and probably even the nature of sharpness itself. It’s simply too controversial a weapon.
I (probably) won’t settle the controversy for anyone, but it is possible to bring this iconic weapon into 5e without either breaking the game or doing it an injustice.
Katanas vs. Longswords
Before we get into the blending of 5e and the katana, it’s worth taking a brief look at the details of the debate for those unfamiliar.
The katana is usually described as an extremely durable and extremely powerful sword whose design and creation use techniques simply superior the European sword making. The katana’s curved blade is said to be better for cutting, and its repeatedly layered metal (apparently) gives it a superior durability and edge.
For its detractors, the katana may have been a decent sword for the time period and location, but Japan’s relative scarcity of high-quality iron deposits meant that the sword was actually no stronger and was perhaps weaker than its longsword counterpart.
Moreover, these detractors usually point to the fact that slashing would do little against plate mail, and numerous theoretical death battles between samurai and knights abound.
There is some truth to both sides; the katana’s significantly thicker blade does make it more resistant to bending (though not immune to shattering), and the katana does excel at cutting. That said, the sword was created and refined in a different combat context than the longsword, and it does suffer against plate armor as a result.
These pros and cons cause a great deal of confusion when trying to assign the katana stats in 5e. How should one represent the katana’s weaknesses against plate mail? Should it do extra damage against unarmored opponents?
However, these questions miss a broader point about 5e. Trying to replicate the real-world nuances of the varying kinds of blades in the world (or armor for that matter) will quickly spiral out of control; the rules system will simply never be able to handle it.
D&D Weapon Design: The Abstract Blade
When is a sword not a sword? When it’s a 1d8 (or 1d10).
That is to say, the weapons of D&D, swords included, are not a means to replicate the dynamics of combat. Instead, they are a means for characters to do a particular amount of damage, of a particular type, in a particular kind of way.
In that sense, a sword is no different from a spell like Fireball or Eldritch Blast.
D&D works best when we can treat its world as real, but the world must be abstracted before we can edit the game itself effectively. For that reason, the katana in 5e should be understood not as a sword but as a stand-in for a particular kind and severity of damage that can be used in particular situations.
Of course, its real-world nuances play into this but certainly not to the degree of trying to give people in plate armor resistance to these swords.
Given what’s said about the katana (which may be to varying degrees true or true enough) and what is needed to bring the blade into D&D 5e, what role should the katana play in the game?
Perhaps a little disappointingly, it does play a role similar to a longsword. A katana’s stats need to represent it as a weapon with a melee-only range that does enough damage to justify it being the primary weapon someone might use.
It also is a relatively light weapon (in weight, not in terms of the weapon property) and relies more on the skill of its user than on its sheer mass to deal damage.
That puts the katana fairly cleanly in the same niche as the longsword. Making it do more damage than 1d10 would bring it into the territory of the great sword, which a katana is clearly not.
On the other hand, to make it do less damage would be to place it in the same niche as a scimitar or short sword, ignoring its multi-century history of being an extremely effective two-handed sword. The katana is a weapon designed to allow the wielder to leverage the strength of their whole body in a two-handed grip. In contrast, both short swords and scimitars intentionally sacrifice power for mobility (and potentially a shield).
In fact, I would suggest that the katana not have the versatile trait like the longsword. Being able to be used with either one or two hands makes sense for a longsword. These are weapons that can come in a variety of forms, some of which are certainly intended to be occasionally used one-handed.
Katanas, on the other hand, have a hilt that can be gripped one-handed but are noticeably heavier than your average longsword. Moreover, not only do they allow you to use a two-handed grip, but they require a fighting style that brings the whole body to bear on the katana’s cutting edge. It might be difficult to represent this nuance in game, but the effect of these attributes is that katanas are never seriously wielded one-handed as it would play directly against the blade’s greatest strengths.
Portraying the katana as a non-versatile longsword is likely to grate against fans’ sensibilities. However, for the game of D&D 5e, this is the best approach to fit within existing guidelines.
D&D 5e clearly designs and implements its weapons around their role and stats rather than their real-world counterparts. Just take the rapier: by all rights, a rapier would have 0 chance of harming someone in plate armor, but this is clearly not a factor in 5e. Instead, rapiers are designed to fill a Dexterity-based niche with a damage level comparable to a longsword. The real-life look and name of the weapon are almost incidental, except for a general resemblance in niche.
Similar reasoning applies to katanas. In fact, approaching homebrew weapons by means of game design, rather than effective realism, is a technique that can be applied broadly, and I strongly recommend considering this angle with any other homebrew equipment you might want to introduce.
Of course, the reasoning stats given here apply only to the base weapon, the standard katana. Throw magic into the mix, and things can get a little wonky.
While implementing stats for a katana might be tricky, once you’ve established a baseline, there are plenty of magical swords whose abilities you can copy for a balanced magical katana. Take an afternoon, and browse your options!
However, if you want to complement your homebrew weapon with some homebrew magic, more caution is needed, and game design needs to be considered. Magic weapons can grant bonuses to your abilities, provide damage boosts, and even add completely new options for you on the battlefield. If you’re not careful, these three boosts can get overpowered quickly.
Homebrewing Magical Katanas
At the end of the day, magic items are designed to be powerful. They’re designed to give you game-changing abilities, powerful upgrades, and new options in combat. However, there’s a difference between powerful and overpowered.
A lot of lovers of the katana might be tempted to go too far with magical versions of their favorite weapons. Here though, it can be a lot easier to see where something may be coming out of balance.
Mostly, I recommend looking at the power levels of similar magic items. Remember that while combat bonuses can be really nice (like bonuses to AC or to hit chance), straight damage boosts and abilities are often where the trouble lies.
Be wary of designing your own homebrew items that deal extra damage, no matter how tempting the extra-powerful katana might be. Remember that the damage you add will come up again and again and again, and it’ll really add up. Consider time or situation limits on the bonus damage granted.
Lastly, new abilities can be a literal game changer. Higher bonuses and more damage mean you’ll have to scale up the CR of your encounters, but new abilities will mean potentially rewriting whole swathes of a campaign because of some niche solution you didn’t anticipate.
A new kind of ability, especially open-ended abilities, regardless of how powerful you intend it to be, should be worth a pretty hefty suite of bonuses or a moderate damage boost when dealing out your magic.
However, new abilities are also where you can really indulge in some of the mythos surrounding katanas. For example, a high-level katana might allow its user to split any object of a certain size in half once per day, even steel! Or you could allow a katana the ability to perform that famous slash-finishing move from anime on a critical hit.
Both of these abilities can seriously tip the scales of an encounter, so I would be wary of simply copying them over to your campaign. Hopefully, they provide some ideas for how you can make your base katana into something more worthy of the admiration heaped upon it.
Katanas in Your Campaign
Before we wrap up, it’s important to remember that not everything is about perfect game balance and realistic statistics. The katana is an elegant weapon; whatever you think about its effectiveness in combat, you cannot deny that not only was it a successful weapon in Japan, but it was also an extremely beautiful one.
The katana’s smooth lines, carefully designed sheathes, and unique look have all helped to give it the cultural impact it has today.
Building katanas into your D&D campaign without having a way to acknowledge where they come from and what they might represent to a character beyond being a sharp piece of metal would be a simple waste.
Thus, leaning into describing the katana as a weapon with specific cultural value or perhaps one with a particular associated fighting style is an important step in importing this blade into your world.
While I’ve focused mainly on the design of D&D, this sword has roots. Leaving them out of the picture would be a quick way to lose a lot of what makes the katana such a fascinating sword.