In the most ancient myths and legends, there are always powerful weapons that stand out above the rest. Excalibur for King Arthur. Mjolnir for Thor. Such armaments become synonymous with their wielders and take on lives of their own in lore and stories passed down through generations.
In Dungeons & Dragons, one weapon has achieved this legendary status above all others: the Holy Avenger. This guide will explore the history, mechanics, stories, and mythos surrounding D&D's most iconic blade to provide the ultimate resource for dungeon masters and players alike. While there are many magic swords in the D&D multiverse, none capture the essence of divine power, order, and wrath against evil quite like the Holy Avenger.
Origins and History
The earliest origins of the Holy Avenger stretch back to the 1st edition of D&D, though it did not acquire the formal name we now know until later editions. In the original Greyhawk supplement, a special magic sword for paladins was introduced, known simply as the Holy Sword +5. This weapon had limited sentience and anti-magic properties, automatically dispelling any magic within a 1-inch radius when drawn and held by a paladin.
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition, the Dungeon Master's Guide designated this weapon as “Sword +5, Holy Avenger.” It gained the abilities to inflict extra damage against chaotic evil foes and surround the paladin with a 5 foot aura of magic resistance. By 2nd edition, the Holy Avenger moniker had fully solidified, though the mechanics continued to evolve.
Throughout the various D&D editions, famous paladins came to be associated with Holy Avengers across the many campaign settings. In Greyhawk, the Holy Avenger Clamour served as the blade of Lord Piergeiron. Tyr, the god of justice in the Forgotten Realms, carried the massive Holy Avenger Duty's Bond.
These examples barely scratch the surface of the numerous tales surrounding Holy Avengers across the planes and ages. Their origins became shrouded in mystery, myths pointing to ancient secrets and divine gifts to the earliest knightly orders who fought the encroaching darkness. While the mechanics shifted with each edition, the legend only grew, making the Holy Avenger one of the most coveted magic items in all the realms.
Mechanics in 5th Edition
The folklore surrounding this blade has led paladins on countless quests to locate these elusive weapons, but what exactly does a Holy Avenger do in D&D 5th edition?
- The Holy Avenger appears as any type of sword, typically a longsword. It functions as a normal, non-magical weapon for anyone besides a paladin.
- The sword requires attunement from a paladin to unlock its full magical potential.
- When attuned, it grants a +3 bonus to attack and damage rolls made with it. This comes in addition to the normal bonuses from the paladin's attributes and proficiencies.
- Against fiends and undead, the Holy Avenger deals an extra 2d10 radiant damage with every successful hit. These creature types are vulnerable to the divine energy channeled through the blade.
- While the sword is drawn, it emits an aura of power in a 10 foot radius. The paladin and friendly creatures within this aura have advantage on saving throws against spells and other magical effects. If the paladin reaches 17th level, the aura's radius increases to 30 feet.
Between its excellent attack and damage bonus, extra radiant damage, and protective aura, the Holy Avenger can make any paladin a formidable force against the supernatural evils that threaten civilization. This power comes with responsibility, however, meaning Holy Avengers are seldom gifted lightly.
Acquiring a Holy Avenger
As artifacts of legend, Holy Avengers do not commonly appear for sale in the magic item shops of any city. A knight cannot simply save their pay and purchase one upon reaching the proper level. Instead, these blades become prizes at the culmination of daring adventures and simply locating one often becomes a quest of its own.
The Dungeon Master's Guide indicates that legendary magic items, including the Holy Avenger, generally become available starting around 15th level. Even then, the circumstances typically involve ancient ruins, forgotten temples, lost relics of saintly orders, or the hoards of evil creatures. A Dungeon Master might carefully plant clues about a Holy Avenger hidden away in some dangerous and remote place specifically to spur the party into action upon reaching the mid-levels of play.
In some cases, DMs use a Holy Avenger as a grand reward for accomplishing some major milestone within a campaign involving fiends, undead, or other supernatural threats. After many sessions of struggle against such foes, finally locating and retrieving this divine sword can feel extremely rewarding and open up more heroic possibilities for the party's paladin.
Crafting a Holy Avenger is another option, though one restricted only to the most devoted servants of good. Doing so requires attuning to the rare Holy Aura spell along with other expensive components and sacred materials totaling upwards of 150,000 gold pieces. The time investment stretches for months, praying over the sword while imbuing it with holy power. As such feats often mark the climax of an entire character's progression, DMs should consider this path carefully before allowing it.
Playing With a Holy Avenger
Once a paladin at last attunes to their very own Holy Avenger, new horizons open up both for them and the rest of the party:
For the Paladin:
- The bonuses to attack and damage make them a veritable angel of death against the supernatural threats typically faced in mid-to-high level play. Cleaving through demons and turning hordes of zombies become commonplace.
- The extra radiant damage combines especially destructively with a paladin's Divine Smite ability. BLASTING unholy foes with massive damage becomes the expectation.
- The aura's protection empowers the entire party. Fellow adventurers can take more risks against evil spellcasters knowing that they have advantage on those dangerous saving throws.
- Roleplaying the responsibility of bearing such a storied relic lends gravitas and a chance for character growth. How will it influence the paladin's choices and reputation going forward?
For the DM:
- A Holy Avenger requires planning around due to its power level. Assess if the party has sufficient challenges remaining to make its benefits shine but not unbalance gameplay.
- Its mythic status presents opportunities to drive conflict and story. The church that safeguards it, the fiend who desires it, the curse that taints it – lean into plot hooks and lore.
- Tailor its capabilities and origins to integrate neatly into your setting. Is it angelic in nature? Infernal? Which deities bless and oppose its use? Make it matter.
- To avoid warping low-level gameplay, consider “nerfing” an Avenger found unexpectedly early via curses or other side effects that dampen its abilities until the party is truly ready.
Holy Avengers can make paladins feel nearly unstoppable against the specific foes they specialize in confronting. For the DM, managing this power and presenting opportunities for its thematic use becomes paramount once introduced. When done well, though, few magic items feel as impactful in D&D.
Famous Holy Avengers
Part of crafting a compelling tale with a Holy Avenger involves connecting it to the setting's history and conflicts. Holy Avengers often gain names and legends of their own which echo down the ages:
- Duty's Bond – Also known as the Bastard Sword of Torm, this Massive blade serves as both weapon and holy symbol for the Loyal Fury and paladins devoted to him. Its Atonement ability is particularly effective against betrayers and oathbreakers.
- Titan's Wrath – Once wielded by the brilliant Tactician and knight Johannes Tigersbane, this Holy Avenger is now Lost to time. It was said to amplify the abilities of commanders, increasing the might of any forces led into battle.
- Foehammer – This broad Greatsword crafted by dwarven clerics Channels the zeal of ancient crusades against giants and aberrant horrors. It pushes enemies back with massive force.
- Radiant Edge – A more recent Holy Avenger, Radiant Edge was instrumental in Ylaria Shadowslayer's famous showdown against the vampire lord Anthus and his minions in the age-old crypts below Baleton.
These examples illustrate how a DM can infuse a Holy Avenger with connections to past wielders and their deeds. This in turn ties the weapon to conflicts, organizations, religions, and more for the party to potentially explore. Even without mechanics, a Holy Avenger's history alone can drive exciting adventures!
Expanding the Fantasy
While paladins stand as the prototypical Holy Avenger wielders, DMs interested in expanding these weapons beyond the “typical” might consider the following:
- Holy Avengers for Other Classes – Magic item feats like Amulet of the Holy Symbol or Improved Channeling allow Clerics to also use Holy Avengers. The DMG mentions other classes attuning in special circumstances.
- Sentient Holy Avengers – Granting an Avenger personality and goals makes for intriguing roleplay and questing.
Though most Holy Avengers lack inherent personalities, DMs can transform them into sentient magic items. This introduces many possibilities:
- The sword's personality reflects its original wielder now long passed. Their soul might inhabit it as a patron to guide the current bearer.
- Its original divine maker or associated deity speaks through the blade directly, granting boons in exchange for spreading their influence and destroying specific foes.
- It functions on a purpose like any sentient item, demanding quests that further its own obscure goals. Failure to comply can lead to conflict.
- Give it a will of its own that seeks out evil and influences the paladin at inopportune moments. Letting it “take control” temporarily can be fun!
Making a Holy Avenger sentient fits well for DMs who enjoy roleplaying these artifacts as characters. Their agendas could spur entirely unique adventures!
Alternative Holy Avenger Forms
Though normally swords, DMs can explore Holy Avengers that use different weapon forms:
- The oldest legends tell of saintly dwarven crusaders who carried blessed Warhammers and Battleaxes against the foul creatures deep beneath the earth.
- Blessed Bows crafted by elven clerics allow paladins and rangers to strike against evil from range, replacing the sword's melee-focused powers with new ranged smiting abilities.
- Holy Lances wielded by the most virtuous knights, meant to be couched atop a mighty steed rather than drawn on foot for ritual combats and mass charges against abominations.
- Holy Symbols such as shields, tomes, and other held items carried by holy warriors in place of blades to channel their righteous wrath against wickedness.
Varying a Holy Avenger's form fits nicely for specialized paladins, unusual campaign settings, or simply DMs wishing to surprise players used to the classic greatsword.
The Holy Avenger stands tall as one of D&D's most legendary magic items, hearkening back to ancient myths of god-gifted weapons and the chosen heroes who wielded them. Whether your inspiration stems from Medieval tales, Arthurian epics, or Tolkien's works, this guide provides DMs and players a definitive reference on Dungeons & Dragons' own iconic blade.
May it serve as both inspiration and reference in your own campaigns, empowering your paladins in their ceaseless fight against evil while forging unforgettable stories in your worlds. The light of the Holy Avenger shines as a beacon of hope, proving that even in the deepest darkness, absolute good can triumph when brave souls take up righteous weapons.