The great thing about Dungeons and Dragons is that there is no correct answer beyond, “Are you having fun?”
So, like all good things in life, the answer is:
Depends. What do you want out of your character? What is available to you?
Let’s break down all the bits and pieces of this debate so that you can make the best decision.
The Simple Stuff
Rapiers and Shortswords are both martial weapons.
They both weigh 2 pounds (if your table cares about that kind of thing), and they are both finesse weapons, so you will use your DEX instead of STR for your attacks and damage.
That’s it. That’s all they have in common, and your typical sword-and-shield, medium- to heavy-armored character doesn’t really care about anything else.
They will most likely be using a weapon with a larger damage output, and this debate is moot.
Furthermore, a rapier is 1d8 and a shortsword is 1d6. The damage difference is not much, meaning that your character’s flavor will make the ultimate decision in this debate for most casual players who think simply about these things.
Do you want to smile and haberdash your way through a pile of witless enemies? Grab a rapier, and channel your best Errol Flynn voice.
Do you want to flourish with two swords or grab a shield and Sparta your way against an oncoming horde? Grab a short sword (or two), and cry your own name into battle!
If that’s all you need, then you are done here. Go and have fun! That’s the whole point, after all.
Most players probably aren’t cursed with the need to get across every nuance of flavor without sacrificing their numerical presence on the board. They get to just enjoy their character.
But that’s not you is it? You’re here for the nitty gritty details so you can maximize your character’s ability to do their thing! Let those other players die of cliché poisoning; you will play for flavor and mechanical efficiency!
You will own in both personality, role-playing, and combat. We support this. We are this.
Welcome to the Black Citadel. Read on, my friend.
The Not So Simple Stuff
The main difference (other than the price, of course) lies in the short sword and its tag: light.
From The Player’s Handbook:
Light. A light weapon is small and easy to handle, making it ideal for use when fighting with two weapons.
Herein is the meat of the matter. What will you do with your offhand?
Option 1: Two-Weapon Fighting, Where the Short Sword Shines
“Hey, Bro, I heard you like to sword, so I got you a sword so you can sword while you sword.”
The easy answer is, of course, Two-Weapon Fighting, which allows you to make an attack as a bonus action with a light weapon so long as you are already wielding another light weapon.
Generally speaking, this strategy is best for Fighters, Rangers, and some Rogues.
From The Basic Rules:
When you take the Attack action and attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a different light melee weapon that you’re holding in the other hand.
You don’t add your ability modifier to the damage of the bonus attack, unless that modifier is negative.
If either weapon has the thrown property, you can throw the weapon, instead of making a melee attack with it.
The shortsword is the ideal main weapon for an ambidextrous warrior. You can pair your shortsword with another shortsword or any of the light weapons below and get two attacks per round.
From The Basic Rules:
|Club||1 sp||1d4 bludgeoning||2 lb.||Light|
|Dagger||2 gp||1d4 piercing||1 lb.||Finesse, light, thrown (range 20/60)|
|Handaxe||5 gp||1d6 slashing||2 lb.||Light, thrown (range 20/60)|
|Light hammer||2 gp||1d4 bludgeoning||2 lb.||Light, thrown (range 20/60)|
|Sickle||1 gp||1d4 slashing||2 lb.||Light|
|Scimitar||25 gp||1d6 slashing||3 lb.||Finesse, light|
|Crossbow, hand||75 gp||1d6 piercing||3 lb.||Ammunition (range 30/120), light, loading|
Using this mechanic, your combat versatility goes through the roof. You can add bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage to your repertoire as well as a ranged attack for any fools who try to run away.
Now, if you have a higher DEX, which you should since you are using a short sword as your main weapon, be sure to stick with a weapon that is also finesse.
A dagger is a good, versatile bet, but another shortsword will never let you down.
Granted, with Two-Weapon fighting, you do not get to add your ability modifier to the damage.
Two-Weapon Fighting Style Proficiency, Dual Wielder, and Crossbow Expert
Rangers and Fighters get the fighting style ability, which gives them several options to customize and improve their particular flavor.
If you are such a character and you choose the Two-Weapons Fighting style, you add your ability modifier to your damage with your off hand. This does not change which weapons you have access to.
The Dual Wielder feat does not let you add your ability modifier to your off-hand attack. It does, however, allow you to use one-handed weapons that are not light in your off hand.
While this does open you up to using dual rapiers or even a rapier and another weapon, by the time you are high enough level to consider that option, you will have a favorite combination already picked out.
Lastly, another option for two-weapon fighters is the Crossbow Expert feat. Normally, when wielding a crossbow, you have to load it, which cuts into your action economy.
However, with this feat, you can wield a shortsword in one hand and hand crossbow in the other, thus giving you a ranged, off-hand option that is numerically better than a dagger.
An Exemplar of Two-Weapon Fighting: Gladius, Warforged Fighter (Psi Warrior)
Dr. Joanna Hargrave was an artificer of great renown in a dangerous world.
When jealousy got the better of her rivals, Dr. Hargrave and her family’s lives were threatened, so she activated a proto-warforged golem named Gladius and assigned them as her personal guardian.
Gladius came to sentience one late night when a rival finally made an attempt on Dr. Hargrave’s life. The assassin detonated a bomb that would have killed both Dr. Hargrave and her daughter, and Gladius could only cover one.
They knew that if they saved Dr. Hargrave, they would be fulfilling their programming, but Dr. Hargrave would be injured beyond all healing if her daughter died.
If Gladius protected Dr. Hargrave’s daughter, their programming would have failed, but in saving her daughter she would be saving Dr. Hargrave from her worst fear.
The moral dilemma fried their logical/emotional algorithm and forced them to make a choice.
Gladius protected the artificer’s daughter, and now visits with Dr. Hargrave’s descendants every few years, acting as a memory keeper, guide, and guardian to Dr. Hargrave’s grandchildren.
As an NPC, Gladius can serve as a hired bodyguard, a companion to an artificer, or a key information holder of History.
Option 2: Spell Casting? Use a Rapier
For this strategy, the rapier is the better option, hands down. It is 1d8 instead of 1d6, and since you won’t be expecting to wield a second weapon, you won’t need to worry about the rapier not having the light descriptor.
Spellcasting gestures might include a forceful gesticulation or an intricate set of gestures.
If a spell requires a somatic component, the caster must have free use of at least one hand to perform these gestures.
See that? You must have at least one hand free to use either your spell casting focus or your material components. So why not put a rapier in your other hand?
When playing a sword wielding spellcaster, there are three things to consider.
Shoring Up and Protecting Your Precious Few Hit Points
As a Cleric or a Hexblade, you could opt to use a shield, but if you did, then you would no longer have a free hand and therefore must take the War Caster feat if you wish to cast spells without dropping your shield every time like a chump.
Instead of using a shield as a Hexblade or a Cleric, or if you are Bladesinger or an Arcane Trickster, consider casting:
§ false life
§ armor of agathys
§ shield of faith
§ protection against good and evil
§ blur, or
§ mirror image
What Will I Be Holding in My Off Hand?
Normally, this will be your arcane focus (to cast spells with, dummy), or you’ll be dipping into your component pouch if you are playing a hard-core game where you actually keep track of such things.
Alternatively, you could have an array of wands, potions, magical grenades, rods, staves, or a slieu of wondrous items to confound and confuse your foes. Consider:
§ Bag of Tricks
§ Wand of Magic Missile… or any wand, really.
§ Alchemist Fire
§ Potion of Healing
What Spells Can I Cast?
Any of your normal spells. However, there are spells you can cast as Bonus Actions, which means they work well when stabbing with a rapier.
The folks here at the Citadel just happened to have this handy chart for the best spells of up to 3rd level that take either a bonus action to cast or use a melee weapon as their focus.
A sword-wielding spellcaster is one of the most satisfying archetypal character concepts to play. There are a thousand different ways to build them with nearly limitless inspirational characters from around the globe to emulate.
An Exemplar of Sword and Spells: Lost, Changeling Rogue (Thief)/Cleric(Trickery)
Lost was raised as a human, and so profound was their abuse by their superstitious adoptive parents that Lost had no memory of changing form before they hit puberty.
For a decade, they thought they were keeping a secret that no one knew, but eventually they slipped and came out to their parents as a changeling.
Of course, Lost’s parents knew they were a changeling, but so great was their superstition and bigotry that they denied it ever being true and forced Lost to either leave their village or be publicly executed as a demon.
Naturally, they left. Lost has since been on an existential journey to discover what they are, what true family is, and what trust is.
As an NPC, Lost is a survivor who follows the trickster’s spirit faithfully.
They believe that truth is that which is immutable and by exploring the malleability of perceptions and what people choose to believe, they can find that which is Ultimate and cannot be changed.
Lost can literally show up anywhere, anytime, for any reason.
Option 3: Literally Anything Else? Use a Shortsword
For monks and rogues.
Sometimes you don’t want to be bogged down into using that off hand in any specific way, or maybe you want to punch someone. Sometimes you can even punch them in new and interesting ways.
For monks, a shortsword is an easy way to get slashing damage at 1d6 and cut down on the bulkier 1d8 of a quarterstaff.
Furthermore, it assumes you leave your off hand open, giving you the versatility to attack, shove, disarm, or any other option you may have gained access to throughout your leveling process.
The best subclass for a shortsword wielding monk is easily Way of the Open Hand.
At third level you are granted the ability to manipulate your foe across the battlefield and leave them open for punishing shortsword attacks – especially if you have rogue levels and take advantage of sneak attack after leaving them prone.
For the rogue who grabbed a shortsword because it can stay out of the way and who is sometimes too close to throw a dagger, the thief subclass is for you.
Their Fast Hands ability will allow you to interact with an object with your open hand while not sacrificing the versatility of a short sword.
You can throw a dagger one round, throw a grenade the next round, hide, or perform any number of game-changing maneuvers as bonus actions.
An Exemplar of Free Hand Versatility: Tee-ran A’ Sore’us, Kobold Monk (Way of Ascendant Dragon)
Tee-ran comes from a kobold tribe hired by a large city to dig and manage their sewer system.
Tee-ran always knew he would be a warrior. He loved the fact that he was a dragon! Even if only a small one.
He knew, though, that the blood of kings and god-like beings flowed in his veins, so he trained. Hard. Every day.
Occasionally he would make trips to the surface to spy on any of the martial arts schools in the city, even braving ridicule and violence if he tried to join, but he never stopped trying, and he never stopped training.
After one particularly brutal beating, Tee-ran lifted himself off of the bloody mess he had become on the dojo floor and stood as tall as he could manage.
Something happened deep inside, and his fists erupted into flame. Tee-ran fought his way out with a new fury and started looking within for the knowledge he sought.
Now, as an old kobold, he operates his own dojo in the city and will never turn a student away, no matter how unlikely.