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Dual Wielding: An Elegant & Balanced Solution

The Dungeon Coach is one of the best D&D 5e homebrewers out there, in my opinion, and in this video he talks about the inferior damage output of two weapon fighting (aka dual-wielding) in 5e, vs. two-handed weapon fighters, and why he feels that’s unfair. After all, both these offensive styles require using both hands and sacrificing the use of a shield.

I am not so down on two weapon fighting in general, as the Dungeon Coach. While the overall damage output in hit points is not as good as with great weapon fighting, the ability to split your damage between multiple opponents is underrated.

With dual wielding, if I need to do 4 hp to kill off a badly injured opponent, I can do that and still take my next attack elsewhere. The two-handed weapon fighter has to waste a bunch of damage just to kill that near dead foe and has one less attack than the dual wielder to deal damage that counts to a new opponent. In short, more damage gets wasted when you deal less, more powerful attacks (note: the Great Weapon Master feat does fix this scenario for two-handed weapon users, as reducing an opponent to 0 hit points grants a bonus action attack… however, you have to take the feat to get that ability of course).

Some other advantages of two weapon fighting is that it gives you an extra chance to score a critical hit each round, you can potentially wield weapons with different properties (having a hand-axe or dagger with the thrown property can come in handy), and if you have access to the Two-Weapon Fighting Style then, of course, you can apply your damage modifier an additional time per round vs. the two-handed weapon user (again certain feats, like Polearm Master enable you to do that with a two-handed weapon, but it’s not built into the style).

Having an extra attack each round, also means you use an additional divine smite (excuse me while I puke!) or superiority die per round, or apply your rage damage bonus again if you’re playing a barbarian.

Historical proof of Unarmoured Defense at work (Image source: Wiktenauer)

Still, I think there’s a general consensus amongst D&D players that two weapon fighting could use a little boost. The Dungeon Coach suggests that the secondary weapon attack should simply be part of the same action as the primary weapon attack, and shouldn’t require expending a bonus action. I’m almost on board, but then he goes too far for me by saying that when Extra Attack comes online, he’s going to keep granting an additional offhand swing for every primary attack. When combined with Action Surge, things start to get a bit silly for my liking! A fighter could be making 8 attacks a round at level 5, using their Action Surge! (It’s not fully explained in this particularly video, but it seems that the Dungeon Coach has other homebrew rules that brings this all into balance, including 1.5 x Str modifier for two-handed weapon users and reducing fighter’s number of attacks in general).

So, I won’t go as far as the Dungeon Coach with my own homebrew fix, but I will lean into the idea of reducing the load on the two weapon fighters’ action economy (…at least on one condition!).

Two-Weapon Fighting (Hipster Fix)

Ok, so here’s my remix of the rules given on p.195 of the Player’s Handbook:

When you take the Attack action and attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in one hand, you can make an additional attack against the same target with a second light melee weapon that you’re holding in the other hand. You can make this additional ‘offhand’ attack a maximum of once per Attack action (no matter how many attacks you have). Alternatively, you may use a bonus action to attack a different target using your second light melee weapon. In all cases, you don’t add your ability modifier to the damage of this additional attack, unless that modifier is negative.

I feel like this fix is good news for everyone without getting overpowered. The two-weapon fighter doesn’t get any more attacks a round, but now when they action surge their offhand attack is also doubled (giving them a total of 6 attacks instead of 5, vs. the 4 attacks of a two-handed weapon user), and they can keep their bonus action for something else. The rogue (usually considered an underpowered class) gets to use their cunning action more often on account of having their bonus action freed up more often. The barbarian can enter a rage using their bonus action and still attack twice, keeping up with their two-handed weapon users. A ranger can find more synergy with hunter’s mark. The monk gets a much needed boost.

Of course in each case, to avoid expending their bonus action, the character is losing some of the versatility of being able to attack different targets, but that’s kind of the point. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.

In my imagination it also makes sense. Swinging a blade at a target you were already focused on feels like it could be done as part of the same action. Attacking a separate target, using your weaker hand, feels like it should require some additional focus and action economy – and with my ruling it does, as then you go back to using a bonus action.

So there we go! What do you think? Convinced? Or not quite… hit the comments section below!

More Martial Fun…

I love a bit of swordplay… here are some other articles I’ve penned about martial mechanics, often featuring some fun new homebrew.

The Best Battle Master Maneuvers (incl. Unearthed Arcana + Homebrew)

Make Weapons Great Again: New 5e Weapon Properties

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13 Comments

  1. Michael

    You’ve missed out the fact that Dual Wielding is actually the most powerful choice at low levels. It’s only when Extra Attack comes along that it starts feeling like you’ve made the wrong choice.

    My gut feeling remains that whatever boost Dual Wielding gets it should be tied to receiving an Extra Attack. Otherwise it’s not so far from my own homebrew – that anyone with Extra Attack can use their Free Action to attack with their off hand.

    (The other main difference is that your rule (as usual) is a massive boost to rogues.
    Don’t think I hadn’t noticed.)

    • duncan

      I don’t think it’s the most powerful at low levels, because (as the video points out) you can do 2d6 + modifier with a 2-handed weapon, or you can do 1d6 + modifier + 1d6 with two weapons… ie. the same total damage, but in one case you’ve used your precious bonus action. So 2-handed weapon wins (not to mention there are better feats to complement this style).

      Your homebrew gives a much stronger bonus to dual wielders, if they are also allowed to still make a bonus action attack. Now every martial class is making 4 attacks at level 5, which is already probably too strong vs. 2-handed weapons (as they do much more than half the damage), but when combined with smites and superiority dice is definitely too many for my liking. A battlemaster can totally lock down the field when they can bring that many superiority dice into play per round….

      • duncan

        ps. rogues are officially a weak class according to Treantmonk…. they need a boost!

      • Michael

        Free Action instead of Bonus Action – not in addition to. Though they can still use the Bonus Action if they need their Free Action for something else – e.g. drawing their weapons.

        • duncan

          Ok, pretty smart solution then and the key results in both house rules are very similar…. I must concede that your homebrew is superior if you just want a rule that fixes dual wielding for martial classes, with no knock on effects for rogues etc.

          I also like the fact that it makes sense that the ‘Free Action’ (which technically doesn’t exist as a mechanic) would normally require handling something, and here it does too… just it’s a sword.

          I still slightly prefer my version, precisely because of the knock on effects it has, and also because it’s situational. I tend to like situational rules because they can make combat seem more realistic, if there’s some logic behind them (as I hope I showed there is with mine). The fact that they only come online at times makes the game more dynamic as well…

          Also my rule makes two weapons a really good option for barbarians, whereas yours not so much, as they are still losing an attack on the first round of every combat they rage in until level 5. I guess it’s not the end of the world, but…

          • Michael

            You say the Free Action doesn’t exist but it exists enough that there’s a list of things in the PHB that you can do with it, which (importantly) includes drawing a weapon – or two weapons with the Dual Wielder Feat.

          • duncan

            Yes, but it’s not officially called a Free Action… Free Action is just a name players have given to the aforementioned list of “things you can do in tandem with your movement and action.”

            Closest it gets to an official name, I guess, would be “Interacting with Objects Around You” after the table’s title.

            The list is quite generous and certainly savvy players will find ways of using this “free action” to their advantage pretty frequently.

            Some player action economy tips here, for those who might want to read more:

            https://www.hipstersanddragons.com/maximising-bonus-actions-and-reactions/

  2. Pkbyron

    Hi Duncan,

    For me Two weapon fighting has two big issues: 1) the additional attack roll is an enabler for Smites and Sneak Attacks in combo with Critical Hits; 2) It blocks lots of martial features with the Bonus Action.

    This is the mod I made in my game to fix both issues:

    When you have a light weapon in your primary and secondary hand and you take the Attack action you can chose to make a combination attack that consists of a strike from each weapon.
    When you do this combination attack your second weapon attack is made with a -4 mod, and if this attack misses you spend your bonus action as you regain your balance. You can not make a second attack if your bonus action is already used. Also, your second weapon attack can not be used in combination with other class features such as Divine Smite or Sneak Attack, etc; Battle Master maneuvers are the exception to this rule.

    If you have the two weapon fighting style the secondary weapon attack penalty (-4) is removed, and there is no restriction or loss of bonus action. Additionally, the restriction regarding combining with other class features is removed.

    Additionally – Dual Wielder needs a bit of boost too IMO: my hack adds a +1 to either Strength or Dexterity to the feat.

    My Design Thinking:
    – making it part of the attack action means it doesn’t clog up the Bonus Action for the fighting classes (Monks, Rangers, Cavaliers, Samurai, etc).
    – restriction on other class features address the damage dice fishing by characters without the fighting style – many rogues have a dagger in the off hand simply as a second chance to land Sneak Attack, as do Paladins searching for an extra Crit.
    – non-proficient two weapon fighting should have significantly less chance to hit. A penalty mod (-4) was chosen instead of disadvantage because its ever present, and doesn’t get washed out when character gets disadvantaged.
    – it adds an additional penalty for missing (loss of bonus action) so that it is not just a free hit roll with nothing to lose for those who don’t have the fighting style.

    • duncan

      Hey PK.

      Hmmm, this basically seems like a rule to punish (my beloved) rogues!

      A fighter or ranger take the two-handed fighting style (which they were going to take anyway) and they basically get a free attack. (I’m ok with that!).

      A rogue now can’t dual wield, because no one is going to take a -4 penalty that also risks using their bonus action as a punishment – least of all a rogue!

      I don’t think there’s any need to shutdown a rogue’s SA given they can only do it once per round, and if they’ve chosen dual wielding they at least need to get into the danger zone to deal their SA. Here you’re just pushing rogues towards one of my least favourite builds, the ranged rogue who uses SA from the sidelines, taking just 1 attack per round, but using their bonus action to ‘aim’ (or hide).

      I agree with your concerns about paladins, but IMHO you shouldn’t be building rules around the broken mechanic of Divine Smite and the metagamers waiting for a crit. You should fix DS 🙂

      https://www.hipstersanddragons.com/divine-smite-5e-dnd/

      • Pkbyron

        Thanks Duncan, your comments are fair. Rules are opinions, and that’s where different views are good to hear.

        Most classes don’t get Extra Attack – and most characters doing two weapon fighting that I see in the games I run, are using it as a no cost back door into Extra Attack; To my mind, all it does is weaken the Fighter’s class. This is the underlying issue that needs solving IMO.

        Flipping the table – Imagine if other classes were able to get the Rogue’s 5th level feature of Uncanny Dodge with but a minor restriction – e.g. no heavy armor.

        These are game mechanics that need to be protected:
        – Wizards : Fireball, Fly, etc.
        – Fighter : Extra Attack
        – Rogues: Uncanny Dodge
        – Clerics: Destroy Undead

        So, no – I was not trying to punish rogues 🙂

        Perhaps the simplest hack here might be to make two weapon fighting simply ” +1 to AC in melee for using two light weapons”. And those who invest in the fighting style “get +1 to hit and damage when using two weapon fighting, and your primary weapons isn’t restricted to being light and it is used to determine damage”.

        Very interesting discussion. Thanks for your blogs and discussion.

        cheers

        • duncan

          I see your concerns, and agree with the importance of protecting signature class features. A few little counterpoints to consider:

          An extra attack with a light weapon and without a damage modifier is next to nothing, so I don’t think its as precious as all that and something that needs to be protected (even if it can be hacked for extra DS… but as I say better to fix DS!).

          Also the Extra Attack feature is already far from unique to fighters. EVERY martial class gets it, plus Bards (College of Valor) and even Wizards (Bladesingers) and Warlocks (Pact of the Blade) can access it. (In fact almost the only class that can’t get it is the rogue!).

          For me the fighter’s untouchable / signature ability is Action Surge, and the fact that TWF doesn’t benefit from it is probably one of the key things that needs to be fixed with TWF.

          Michael’s fix does achieve that, without throwing anything else out of whack, if you want something simple to run with.

          Btw, Uncanny Dodge is a really really really average ability. It seems cool, but a wizard can cast shield and have that same damage wiped off completely, along with any nasty effects that might have come with it (poison / grapple etc) and gain protection against ALL other attacks until the start of their next turn. A barbarian effectively has uncanny dodge on all the time it is raging, every attack, of every round – without using a reaction. So for a class that typically enters melee and is restricted to wearing studded leather (which sucks in 5e… should be AC 13 at least!), Uncanny Dodge is scant protection…

          Overall I def. would not consider UD a major benefit when thinking about class balance. “Average feature” would be a generous appraisal indeed.

          Anyway, always fun to bandy opinions about! Thanks for contributing to the discussion – and thanks for keeping reading!

  3. Frederick Dale Coen

    I haven’t seen TWF in higher level play yet, so I can’t tell if it needs a boost. At levels 1 to 6, I’ve only ever seen the TWF PCs in two campaigns use both strikes against the same opponent. (The second campaign went to 8th, but the TWF’er was a bard that multi’d into Warlock and started Blasting instead of TWF’ing.)

    Having said that, your tweak is a straight up boost to everyone but the Fighter. The Rogue can Cunning Action *and* TWF. (My swashbuckler loves you.) The Bard can Inspire or Healing Word *and* TWF. The orc double-ended-axe warpriest can strike with both axe blades and still control his spiritual weapon (an axe, of course!) too. The Fighter can TWF and… um… yeah, nothing changed. (Maybe, in some campaigns, he can swig a healing potion.)

    So while your tweak doesn’t actually change TWF at all, it indirectly boosts every class that *might* TWF *and* has a Bonus Action to do.

    • duncan

      hey Frederick

      Good points, but let me now point out some counterpoints.

      My fix offers a massive boost to TWF fighters, because now it scales with Action Surge – which happens once a combat basically. Now they can go crazy with 4 attacks from 2nd level. (And I don’t think this is overpowered because feats like GWM and PAM probably still make THW slightly better).

      Smaller points: Second Wind is also a bonus action, and the maneuvers Commander’s Strike, Feinting Attack and Rally all require a bonus action.

      So the fighter gets a pretty big benefit from this ruling.

      As for the other classes… they have a chance of doing an extra 3.5 hp a round to a target they’ve already attacked. (Ok for the rogue it might be they get a disengage they wouldn’t have had otherwise).

      Casters might not really benefit as they probably need a free hand for somatic components, but depends on the DM really – so that Bard might be restricted to Bardic inspiration, effectively as I say adding just 3.5 hp a round maybe to a target.

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