D&D Creative Director Mike Mearls recently tweeted about revised Two-Weapon Fighting rules, including a poll about where its damage output should lie:
Any discussion regarding two-weapon fighting involves these mechanics:
- Two-Weapon Fighting bonus action
- Dual Wielder feat
- Two-Weapon Fighting style
Let’s explore these mechanics first to identify where we have wiggle room to improve melee fighting with two weapons.
Two-Weapon Fighting Bonus Action
Two-Weapon Fighting requires a number of things to work. There are conditional restrictions, an action cost, and a damage nerf. The conditions ensure that dual wielders are using two light melee weapons. Since light weapons cap out at d6 damage, that’s the first limiter. If you meet the conditions, you must use a bonus action to make a second attack. Since you only get one bonus action per turn, that’s the second limiter. Finally, the damage of the third attack is modified to remove the ability modifier. Since the damage is reduced, that’s the third limiter.
Dual Wielder Feat
We’ve discussed this feat before in assessing its power level vs. an Ability Score Improvement. Ultimately, it bumps your damage by allowing you to use bigger weapons. It also alleviates some of the fiddly bits for drawing/stowing weapons with your object interaction, which often get handwaived at the table to prevent players from cheesing free drops.
Two-Weapon Fighting Style
Fighters and Rangers can take Two-Weapon Fighting style, which allows them to add their ability modifier to the second attack.
The problem in this design space is that the cool stuff you can do to improve dual wielding (feat, fighting style) doesn’t give you cool mechanics. It just removes the impediments built into Two-Weapon Fighting. The feat kills the size restriction. The fighting style removes the damage limitation on the second attack.
With the feat, compare to Sharpshooter/Great Weapon Master, which give you the -5 attack/+10 damage mechanic.
Sharpshooter (SS) also does some restriction removing, in that the archer no longer suffers disadvantage at long range, and can ignore cover. However, these mechanics are built into the weapons and the world. They are not restrictions built into the rules of how an attack is made. There are other ways to overcome them. Gaining advantage can offset your long range disadvantage. Changing positions on the battlefield or enlisting the help of a support mage can address the hit penalty provided by cover. Compare this with the Two-Weapon Fighting restrictions that are built into the mode of attack, and cannot be overcome with battlefield tactics.
Great Weapon Master (GWM) doesn’t do any restriction removing, it just gives you even more cool stuff to do. When you kill or score a critical hit with GWM, you get to cleave another enemy. You’re permitted to use a bonus action to make another attack. This opportunity would never be available to the dual wielder, since their bonus action is already consumed by their mode of attack.
Admittedly, these feats aren’t a great basis for comparison. They’re notoriously some of the most powerful feats in the game. So much that they become a “must take” and often jump ASIs in priority, or draw players to select Variant Human so they can pick one up at Level 1. However, they represent the other playing styles, so unless two-weapon fighting gets similar juice, it’s going to be an inferior play style from a damage perspective.
Fighting Style Comparisons
Compare Two-Weapon Fighting with the other fighting styles. Again, while the other styles add a bonus to attack, damage, armor class (AC), or let you defend an ally, the Two-Weapon Fighting style just removes the restriction of adding your ability modifier to the second attack. Now, this could be a big benefit, providing up to 5 extra damage for an ASI-capped player. However, the benefit doesn’t scale like the fighting styles that increase attack or damage for each attack. Once the Fighter/Ranger hits level 5, they unlock an extra attack that also experiences the benefits of Archery/Dueling/Great Weapon Fighting.
Mearls approaches the problem by first identifying where to set the damage output. Generally, there are two schools of thought:
- Damage should be midway between a one-handed and a two-handed weapon.
- Damage should be equal to a two-handed weapon.
The midway damage philosophy knows that two chances to deal 50% damage gives more consistent damage output than one chance to deal 100% damage. It also leans on the fact that a chance to hit is a chance to proc other mechanics, such as critical hits, sneak attacks, and smites.
The equal damage rationale is that both your hands are occupied, so you should deal the same amount damage. Consider that a character wielding a two-handed weapon can loose a hand to do other things without dipping into action economy. The dual wielder needs to use an object interaction to stow a weapon, or drop it and risk it getting kicked away. You’re also consuming a bonus action that could be spent on something else.
The bonus action becomes a strong consideration for Rogues. Rogues have a lot of things to do with their bonus action (especially the Thief with their Fast Hands ability), and like to disengage to maneuver. As a skirmisher, the Swashbuckler suffers a little less due to its “built in” disengage, but it still likes to have its bonus action for other things. Thankfully, if the Rogue hits on the first attack, they don’t have to worry about this, but it does come into play.
Next week we’ll explore some different solutions to make two-weapon fighting competitive.