[RPG] What was the first published appearance of the Holy Avenger (or Holy Sword, or similar “holy” weapons meant for paladins) in the Forgotten Realms


Anyone who has ever played D&D surely knows of the holy avenger, the mighty magical sword whose true power manifests only in the hands of a paladin.

For purposes of a campaign to be set in the Forgotten Realms, I am attempting to ascertain where the notion of the paladin wielding a special sacred weapon first crossed into official Realms material. The Realms have experienced several in-narrative events created to coincide with, and explain, rules changes that came with each new edition of D&D — the (first) Sundering, the Time of Troubles, etc. The functions of magic, and magic items, have often changed through these events. To understand how (or if) the holy avenger has changed in the Realms, I need to identify its starting point.

In case it helps, I trace the holy avenger back to early editions of D&D where it was presented as but one token of a broader type: the holy sword. The first printed appearance of the holy sword I can find is in Supplement 1: Greyhawk, which presented the holy sword as if it were a class feature part-and-parcel of the paladin:

Paladins with any form of "Holy Sword" are virtually immune to all magic (see MONSTERS & TREASURE, MAGIC & TREASURE, Swords).

(See p. 8.) Two kinds of holy sword were offered there, namely the holy sword +5 and the sword of sharpness. (See pp. 46-47.) In AD&D 1e, the DMG likewise described the holy avenger (technically named "Sword, +5, Holy Avenger") as "a holy sword." (See p. 165.) And the 1e PHB again treated the holy sword like a class feature, though without actually describing the properties of the weapon itself:

If a paladin has a "Holy Sword" (a special Magic Sword which your referee is aware of and will explain to you if the need arises), he or she projects a circle of power 1" in diameter when the Holy Sword is unsheathed and held; and this power dispels magic . . . at the level of magic use equal to the experience level of the paladin.

(p. 22; emphasis mine.) In 2e, the PHB (see pp. 27-28) did essentially the same. At least two 2e volumes specific to the Realms go on to mention holy avengers (though not holy swords):

  • Faiths & Avatars mentions holy avengers in reference both to characters with the Crusader kit (p. 184), and to the weapon carried by the avatar of Torm: "Duty's Bond, a massive two-handed holy avenger +5 with all the powers of a sun blade as well" (p. 163).

  • Warriors and Priests of the Realms mentions the holy avenger, but curiously only in reference to evil Crusader characters. (See p. 64.)

Both Faiths & Avatars and Warriors and Priests of the Realms show publication dates in 1996.

However, given that Faiths & Avatars couches its write-up of Torm in terms of his activity during the Time of Troubles, it is conceivable that an earlier-published Realms novel might have portrayed Torm in his mortal life as a paladin wielding Duty's Bond or some like weapon.

Are these the earliest-published references to holy avengers (or holy swords) in the Realms? Or is there an earlier origin, perhaps in 1e rulebooks or an early novel?

Best Answer

The holy avenger was officially part of the Forgotten Realms since the beginning.

The official beginning of the Realms in a game publishing sense1 starts in 1987 with the Forgotten Realms Campaign Set—the “Grey Box”—published for first edition AD&D. By that point the holy avenger was already an integral part of AD&D, appearing in the DMG (1979) on page 165.

Note that Supplement 1: Greyhawk is a 1975 supplement for the earlier, original D&D game (dubbed “original D&D” or “0e” (zero-e, oh-e)) published in a box of three stapled booklets in 1974. The holy avenger by any name was a well established part of the game before AD&D or the Forgotten Realms were even conceived of as publishing products at TSR.

The 1987 edition of the Realms predates the idea of AD&D edition changes and the accompanying cataclysms in the Realms. Those were later inventions by minds at TSR after Gygax had been forced out. This makes the holy avenger part of the baseline Realms from which every edition change and cataclysm later derived.

So for the purpose of tracing the origin of the type of magic sword, it’s integral to the Realms, and its AD&D description is the baseline version, before any Realms events that changed how magic works.

  1. A note on when official-ness applies to the Forgotten Realms. The origin of the Forgotten Realms predates D&D entirely, circa 1967, as it was an invention of Ed Greenwood’s childhood imagination before he encountered D&D. It’s not possible that anything derived directly from the D&D holy avenger was part of this pre-D&D conception of the Realms. Even when Greenwood was publishing his home game’s details in Dragon articles, it wasn’t “official” at that point even if his home game likely had a holy avenger at least in their rulebooks, as Greenwood’s articles were just a fan sharing his ideas and Dragon at that time often published fan/homebrew material that wasn’t endorsed as “official”. As Greenwood wrote more articles, the line between official and fan eventually blurred, to the point that TSR bought the Realms and published a novel and the Campaign Set in 1987. This answer uses that year as the most meaningful and clear beginning to the “official” Realms. The very first official publication was actually the novel Darkwalker on Moonshae, but only by a month since it was written in tandem with the official campaign set, so that doesn't impact the 1987 start-date.