Last week we explored the mechanics and design goals of two-weapon fighting. This week, we’re going to examine some hacks to make it more competitive with other fighting styles. Feel free to borrow pieces of these to spruce up two-weapon fighting in your game. While the goal is to achieve a system that fits into the existing ruleset like a puzzle piece, it may be that one hack works better than another depending on party composition.
Main Hand Strength, Off-Hand Dexterity
Fighting with two weapons requires a special combination of strength and dexterity. Perhaps this should reflect in the mechanics. In this version of two-weapon fighting, one attack is made by adding the strength modifier to attack and damage, while the other is made by adding the dexterity modifier to attack and damage.
In most cases, this will temper the damage of the second attack, since its drawing from multiple ability scores. Still, a player who wants their character to identify with this play style can make the investment to make it strong. Requiring strength investment increases the importance of one of the weaker stats in the game, and is on-brand for a melee combatant. Requiring dexterity investment pushes the players towards the medium armor archetype, and is on-brand for a nimble fighter. Making dual wielders multiple ability score dependent (MAD) is probably not such a great sin, since Fighters are generally single ability score dependent (SAD), outside of Eldritch Knights. Rangers suffer a little more, since they want Wisdom investment for their spells.
Thematically, this hack opens the opportunity to play with weapon properties. We’ll explore that in the next section.
Adjusting the weapon restrictions of two-weapon fighting offers an opportunity to tweak the system while maintaining the mechanics. Consider the following hacks in the context of the Strength/Dexterity Rule above, or adopt them as you see fit:
- Light weapon restriction. The strength weapon shouldn’t be limited by the light property. This would allow you to achieve the main hand/off-hand feel that some players want to achieve. Effectively, it only increases the damage by an average of one (d6 to d8). Rogues will still need to use finesse weapons if they want an opportunity to Sneak Attack.
- Finesse weapon restriction. Limit the dexterity weapon to finesse weapons. This would ensure mechanical harmony with the rules. It would also support the main hand/off-hand flavor. This would change some of the available weapons. If the light weapon restriction is also removed, rapiers and whips will now be eligible for two-weapon fighting. This opens the damage spread (rapiers are d8) and range (whips have reach), which may raise balance concerns. A finesse requirement would exclude clubs, sickles, and some thrown weapons (handaxe, light hammer). These weapons might be a nice ribbon to add back in while building the feat.
The biggest concern with these extra changes are that they increase the potential damage dice (d8+d8) beyond a two-handed weapon (2d6). That’s likely too much, since two-handed weapon damage is generally considered the upper limiter. In the end, this might shake out because using a different ability modifier is going to cause the attack to hit less often, bringing down the average damage.
Scaling Damage Dice
One way to manage damage output is to allow the extra attack while scaling down the damage die. There’s a couple ways you can do this:
Martial Arts Model. You can make the off-hand attack a set damage die, like the bonus action unarmed strike a Monk can make with Martial Arts. This is liberating because it allows you to flavor the weapon however you want. Mechanically, it provides an easy way to dial in the power of two-weapon fighting. If you prefer it to match a two-handed weapon, use a d6. If you prefer less damage, use a d4.
Reduced Damage Die. Instead of a fixed number, you can reduce the size of the damage die by one. For example, a d8 becomes a d6 and a d6 becomes a d4. While this is easy to implement, it feels gamey and requires a fiddly explanation about the “size” of a damage die. Mearls has tinkered with this concept before.
Removing the bonus action requirement for two-weapon fighting opens it up for other class goodies. Two-weapon fighting should not cannibalize defining class features. This is especially true for the Rogue’s Cunning Action (including Thief’s Fast Hands), the Barbarian’s Rage, and spell buffs for the Ranger and Eldritch Knight Fighter. Mike Mearls made mention of this on Twitter:
An added bonus is that the Dual Wielder feat can now target your bonus action to give you cool stuff to do. Though the less heralded part of the Great Weapon Master feat, the opportunity to attack again on a kill or critical is powerful.
These hacks leave some room in the design space to improve the Dual Wielder feat. While the feat is balanced perfectly in accordance with 5e design intent, the strength of its cousins (Great Weapon Master/Sharpshooter) arguably warrants a power bump to keep it competitive. (You might choose instead to nerf GWM/SS, but a nerf is seldom received as fairly as a buff.)
Light weapon restriction. While the current feat frees you from a light weapon restriction, the new feat can allow you to use light weapons as finesse weapons while two-weapon fighting. This will open up the simple thrown weapons that were lost in the finesse switch.
Bonus Action Feature. With the bonus action freed up, the sky is the limit on the type of class feature you can build.
- Bonus Attack. When you are wielding two melee weapons that you are proficient with, you may use a bonus action to make an extra attack with one of them.While this is just the same rule that was there before, you’re really granting a third attack, since the bonus attack on the original.
- Spin Attack. When you are wielding two melee weapons that you are proficient with, you may use your attack action to make one melee attack against all creatures within 5 feet.The Spin Attack is built on the whirling dervish concept. The balance requires the attacker to find a strategic position where their special attack will not damage allies. In special situations, the prospect of damaging allies might be worth the sacrifice, or assist to continue a Barbarian’s Rage.
- Double Attack. When you are wielding two melee weapons that you are proficient with, you may use your attack action to make a melee attack against one creature. You may add your Strength and Dexterity modifier to the attack and damage bonuses of the attack.This allows the two-weapon fighter to “nova” against a specific target, increasing their chance to hit and combining their damage bonuses into a single attack. This arguably becomes weaker with more attacks, but combining attack bonuses creates a greater chance to connect against high-Armor Class (AC) targets encountered at higher levels.
Reaction Feature. We can also look elsewhere in the action economy space for ideas on cool stuff to do. Using two weapons presents different defensive opportunities than a sword-and-board. Therefore, a reaction-based feature would be a good idea. An attack feature such as the Battlemaster’s Riposte ability would allow the Rogue a chance to proc two Sneak Attacks each round, without the superiority dice limiter. As that’s probably too strong, I would defer to a more defensive feature. Consider the following:
- Parry. When you would be hit with an attack, you may use your reaction to roll a die equal to the damage die of a finesse weapon you are holding, and subtract the result from the attack roll. This may cause the attack to miss.
Attack Feature. Now, you don’t even need to dip into action economy. Both Great Weapon Master and Sharpshooter’s -5 attack/+10 damage feature can be triggered on attack. While I wouldn’t propagate that feature, you might feel it fair to do so. In order to scale, it might be fair to tie such a mechanic to the proficiency bonus.
Scaling Damage Dice. If you’ve elected to scale down the damage dice, whether through the Martial Arts Model or Reduced Damage Dice, the using the feat to alleviate this restriction follows the classic method of damage enhancement.
Ability Score Fluidity. If you’ve decided to follow the Main Hand Strength/Off-Hand Dexterity Model, you may enable your players to escape the system by investing in a feat. Personally, this seems a little easy to overcome the multiple ASI investments it would require under the hack, so you may choose to limit this benefit to swapping attack or damage bonuses only.
Consider some of these options in building your own Two-Weapon Fighting homebrew. Next week, we’ll provide you some guidelines and a tool to balance the damage output across these hacks.