In this article, we break down the damage-dealing capability of the great weapons, analysing damage probability, monster damage resistance, and killer blow likelihood. Read on to find out which weapon to whack with!
TL;DR - if you're in a rush, skip to the conclusion here, or read on to soak up the good stuff :)
"My mouth is drier than Vecna's vanquished virility. Bring me some strong Dwarven ale, barkeep!"
Hogarth had sunk a good number of tankards and was jolly well inebriated. About to proceed to his favourite pastime - whacking a few yocals - he paused, hazily wondering which weapon to whack with? Would "Chopper" (his Greataxe) or "Cleaver" (his Greatsword) be better for the job?
Anyone who has played a tanky, melee class will have faced this age-old, two-handed conundrum. What's that you say, what about that other two-hander, that bloody huge hammer, the maul? Good point! Let's throw that in too.
Round 1: Best damage type?
Both Greataxe and Greatsword inflict slashing damage, however, the mighty Maul deals bludgeoning damage. In over 400 monsters listed in the Monster Manual, only a handful have resistance, vulnerability, or immunity to these damage types:
Note: if you are interested in the monsters behind this chart, skip down to the Appendix at the bottom where I've listed them out in a handy table.
Surprisingly, Bludgeoning arguably wins by a gnat's whisker. That puts the mighty Maul in front with one point. Now let's look at the meat of the argument, damage capability.
Round 2: Which one hits harder?
All three weapons can deal up to 12 HP damage, so they all hit equally hard, right? Not quite, or at least not when you consider damage over time.
Let's have a look at how you can roll each damage score from 1 to 12 for each weapon:
We can see two very different spreads resulting from one die vs two. This creates a couple of interesting points to consider, firstly the average damage:
So the Greatsword and Maul with 2d6 both yield winning average damage scores of 7 HP versus only 6.5 HP for the Greataxe. So over time, the Greatsword and Maul will deal higher overall damage than the Greataxe. A point each for the Maul and Greatsword:
What's that you say? You've heard that Greataxes are more likely to kill with one hit? A point well-made sir, and that is the topic of our next Round.
Round 3: one-shot kills
Let's have a butchers at the high (and low) end of the damage spectrum:
Hurrah! A mighty one in four chance of rolling 10, 11 or a 12 damage using the Greataxe - finally the beloved weapon of the Dwarves gets a point?
Yes, but... It's also more than three times as likely to roll low damage... Let's call that a point apiece:
Round 4: Which one is cooler?
This one will cause some fierce debates and I write this knowing the conclusion could be the downfall of this blog.
For me, the Greataxe has to be paired with a Dwarven hero to showcase its awesomeness, and who better than Gimli, son of Gloin:
The Maul (or at least a humongous two-handed warhammer) was forever forged into my memory when I read the Icewind Dales Trilogy by R.A.Salvatore. This was where I first met Aegis-fang, the hammer forged for Wulfgar by the infamous Bruenor Battlehammer. Wulfgar and his hammer have since earned the accolade of being immortalised into the annals of Magic the Gathering:
Finally, the Greatsword. When I think of a whacking great two-handed sword I am taken back to when I first set eyes on the box cover of HeroQuest. This 1988 game was a gateway to RPG for many an unsuspecting board gamer. Hasbro recently acquired and re-released HeroQuest in 2021, although the cover was sadly recreated. Here is the original cover:
OK, so which of these three two-handers is the coolest? It's a tough one, and too close to call, so we'll call this one a draw!
Conclusion: Putting it all together
Well done fair adventurer, you made it to the end of this scroll of truth and we will now reveal which big badass weapon you need to pick for Tanky McTankface!
Well, sort of... because despite the scoreboard, it depends! So, here goes:
- Fighting Squishy foes: Use the Greataxe 🪓
The Greataxe will give you a higher chance of one-hit kills (especially if you have some nice modifiers for high strength). This is not guaranteed to be the best option in all fights - but if you kill a monster with a single swing of that badass axe you can legitimately force the party bard to write a song about you. Nuff said.
- Fighting tanky foes: Use the Greatsword or Maul ⚔️|🔨
There is no arguing with the fact that these weapons do more damage on average over time, and so if you are ground-pounding some BBEG, pull out your Maul or unsheathe your 6 foot sword!
- You have chosen the Great Weapon Fighting Style: Regardless of foe, use the Greatsword or Maul ⚔️|🔨
This level 1 option will allow a re-roll of any 1's or 2's on a damage die. This scales up with the double dice of these weapons and so makes for a killer weapon / feature combo.
- You are a level 9+ barbarian: Regardless of foe, use the Greataxe 🪓
With the Brutal Critical feature at level 9 you can roll one additional weapon damage die when determining the extra damage for a critical hit with a melee attack. Since it is a single die, a Greataxe's d12 beats a measly d6 for the Greatsword or Maul.
The usual caveats apply: the huge number of possible combinations of classes and options in 5E D&D mean that there will be exceptions to the above. However, hopefully, this article has armed you with strong arguments to apply when choosing which burly weapon you will adorn your tanky hero with. Happy adventuring!
Appendix: Table of monster damage characteristics
|Immune||Black Pudding Ooze, Ochre Jelly Ooze||None|
|Resistant||Swarm of Bats, Swarm of Insects, Swarm of Poisonous Snakes, Swarm of Quippers, Swarm of Rats, Swarm of Ravens.||As slashing, plus: Awakened Tree, Treant|
|Vulnerable||None||Ice Mephit, Skeleton, Minotaur Skeleton, Warhorse Skeleton|
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