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Two-weapon fighting: why it’s good, why it’s bad, and how to bring it fully up to par.

Content of the article: "Two-weapon fighting: why it’s good, why it’s bad, and how to bring it fully up to par."

To start, I would like to define some terms, since there's a lot of potential for confusion. Within this post, these definitions apply:

dual wielding: wielding a separate melee weapon in each hand.
two-weapon fighting: using a bonus action to attack with a light weapon.
Two-Weapon Fighting: the fighting style available to fighters, rangers and bards.
Dual Wielder: the feat that provides a bonus to dual wielding.


Why it's good

Now, the title of this post posits that two-weapon fighting is actually in a pretty okay spot already. To prove that this is the case, I've run some numbers to compare the various options that martials have with one another, both with and without the corresponding fighting styles.

The four options that I've chosen to compare are a greatsword, a halberd, a longsword with a shield, and two scimitars. For fighting styles, I've assumed that the first took Great Weapon Fighting, the second took Defense, the third took Dueling, and the fourth took Two-Weapon Fighting. I'm also assuming a character with 20 STR that has the Extra Attack feature.

Without fighting style

Weapon Average DPR # of attacks AC bonus Bonus action Other benefits
Greatsword 24 2 no
Polearm 21 2 no reach
Sword&shield 19 2 +2 no
Dual wielding 21 3 yes

With fighting style

Weapon Average DPR # of attacks AC bonus Bonus action Other benefits
Greatsword 27 2 no
Polearm 21 2 +1 no reach
Sword&shield 23 2 +2 no
Dual wielding 26 3 yes

So far, so good! Without fighting styles, dual wielding is tied for second place with the halberd in terms of damage. With a fighting style, it's only very slightly behind the greatsword. While two-weapon fighting does use up your bonus action, getting to spread the damage over three attacks is a substantial benefit: it means that a missed attack reduces your damage by only a third, rather than half, and it gives you an additional chance to trigger on-hit effects like rage damage, smite or Hunter's Mark.

These tables are a good visual representation of what I think each fighting style should excel at. The greatsword should have the highest damage per attack; the polearm should have the best range; the shield should provide the most defense; and dual wielding should let you make the most attacks. These identities will inform the analysis of what dual wielding's problems are, and what should be done to correct those problems.


Why it's bad

First of all, obviously, if you use your bonus action for something else during your turn, dual wielding is a lot worse than the other options, going down to a mere 17 average damage and losing the benefit of a third attack. I think this is a valid trade-off, but it could stand to be a little less severe.

The bigger problems, though, is that two-weapon fighting really does not scale well with the fighter's 11th-level Extra Attack feature, and that its associated feat is quite underwhelming compared to the others'. The tables below shows the stats for a 12th-level barbarian with a feat, an 11th-level fighter without a feat, and an 11th-level fighter with a feat. It is assumed that the greatsword wielder takes Great Weapon Master, the halberdier takes Polearm Master, the duelist takes Shield Master, and the dual wielder takes Dual Wielder (upgrading their scimitars to longswords).

12th-level barbarian (two attacks, no fighting style, with feat)

Weapon Average DPR # of attacks AC bonus Bonus action Other benefits
Greatsword 24 (36) 2 (3) sometimes big swings
Polearm 29 3 yes opp. attacks; reach
Sword&shield 19 2 +2 shove spell defense
Dual wielding 24 3 +1 yes

11th-level fighter (three attacks, with fighting style, no feat)

Weapon Average DPR # of attacks AC bonus Bonus action Other benefits
Greatsword 40 3 no
Polearm 32 3 +1 no reach
Sword&shield 35 3 +2 no
Dual wielding 34 4 yes

11th-level fighter (three attacks, with fighting style, with feat)

Weapon Average DPR # of attacks AC bonus Bonus action Other benefits
Greatsword 40 (53) 3 (4) sometimes big swings
Polearm 39 4 +1 yes opp. attacks; reach
Sword&shield 35 3 +2 shove spell defense
Dual wielding 38 4 +1 yes
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We see that in each case, the greatsword and the shield still excel within their respective niches: the greatsword deals the most damage, while the shield provides the best defense. However, dual wielding is beginning to lose out. For the fighter without feats, it does still have the most attacks, but both the polearm and the shield catch up in damage without even having to invest their bonus action, and that's on top of their bonuses to AC and range.

Additionally, getting to make one bonus attack simply isn't as impactful when you're making three attacks—or six with Action Surge— to begin with. At level 10 or lower, one missed attack per round puts the dual wielder ahead on damage; from level 11 onward, the greatsword is favoured even with one missed attack, and only slightly behind with two.

Once you introduce feats, dual wielding quickly becomes very underwhelming. Its niche of having the most attacks is taken over by the polearm, which also boasts additional range, more opportunity attacks, and higher damage. On classes without fighting styles, it does still have the advantage of +1 to AC compared to the greatsword or the halberd, but I would argue that that does not outweight the benefits of other options.

So to summarise, dual-wielding has the following problems:

  1. It's very weak on turns when you use your bonus action for something else.
  2. It scales poorly with extra attacks, especially on the fighter class.
  3. Its associated feat is underwhelming, causing other feats to make dual wielding obsolete.

Who should dual wield?

Before we fix these problems, though, we should identify who should benefit from the changes. A common solution that I see posited is that two-weapon fighting should simply be tied to the Attack action, rather than a bonus action. While this would undeniably be a powerful boon, I feel that it would benefit the wrong classes: rogues would love it, but they already make good use of two-weapon fighting; meanwhile, the fighter would occasionally benefit, but most of the time they just won't get to use their bonus action at all.

So to get a clear picture, I'd like to list the martial classes, how they use two-weapon fighting at present, and how desirable it is to buff dual wielding for them.

Barbarian
Their rage damage gives barbarians incentive to use two-weapon fighting, and dual-wielding axes or hammers is a flavour classic for the class, so it should definitely be a viable option—and in my opinion, it almost is. The barbarian does use their bonus action to enter rage, but after that one turn, it is usually available (excepting some subclasses).

Bard
The College of Swords grants the Two-Weapon Fighting style, and since these bards can use Bardic Inspiration for their flourishes, their bonus action isn't too tied up. Still, they will want to cast spells or inspire allies occasionally, so a minor buff to dual wielding wouldn't hurt.

Fighter
The fighter is one of the classes that actually gets the Two-Weapon Fighting style, so it should definitely be a viable option for them. However, the mechanic doesn't scale well with their Extra Attacks or their Action Surge. On the bright side, using their bonus action is not usually an issue for this class.

Monk
Monks can already make bonus attacks with their fists, so they aren't usually interested in two-weapon fighting. And that's a good thing, too: four attacks at lvl 2, or five at lvl 5, would be a bit too much. That being said, the Dual Wielder feat is interesting for them: since they can't wear armour or shields, the AC bonus is appealing. Besides, a monk with two weapons is fairly flavourful, so I wouldn't object to monks picking up the feat.

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Paladin
Paladins don't get the Two-Weapon Fighting style, but they can still make decent use of two-weapon fighting thanks to their Divine Smite. It's a little more niche than for the barbarian, but still, it should be an option.

Ranger
Like the fighter, the ranger gets the Two-Weapon Fighting style—and unlike the fighter, they don't get Great Weapon Master to compete with it. Hunter's Mark also synergises very well with two-weapon fighting against large health pools. It does require a bonus action to cast initially, but after that, an extra 2d6+MOD every turn is nothing to sneeze at. (I would even argue that rangers are another reason why two-weapon fighting should remain a bonus action: allowing them to cast/shift Hunter's Mark and make three attacks each turn would boost their already considerable damage output even higher).

Rogue
Surprisingly, one of the best users of two-weapon fighting, since it doubles their chance to land Sneak Attack. It does mean they don't get to use their Cunning Action, but I would consider that to be a good thing: it's exactly the kind of strategic choice I like. While rogues don't usually grab Polearm Master, they do have another feat that competes with Dual Wielder: Crossbow Expert.


What should change

Earlier, we identified the problems with dual wielding. Now it's time to start talking solutions. The goals are as follows:

  1. Two-weapon fighting should remain a bonus action, lest it becomes too good for rangers, rogues and monks. However, dual wielding shouldn't be overly punishing when you use your bonus action elsewhere.
  2. Two-weapon fighting should occupy the niche of making the most attacks, with or without feats. For fighters in particular, that niche should not become meaningless as the fighter gains extra attacks.
  3. Dual Wielder should be an appealing option for all dual wielding characters, but especially those that engage in two-weapon fighting.

To help meet the first goal, I propose the following changes to the two-weapon fighting rules:

When you take the Attack action and attack with a melee weapon that you're holding in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a light melee weapon that you're holding in the other hand.

You don't add your ability modifier to the damage of the bonus attack, unless that modifier is negative. If either weapon has the thrown property, you can throw the weapon, instead of making a melee attack with it.

The melee weapons you are holding must meet at least one of the following criteria:

a) both weapons must have the light property; or
b) one of the weapons must be a club, dagger, sickle, or light hammer.

In practice, this means you can choose between wielding two d6 weapons, or having a d8 in one hand and a d4 in the other. DEX-based dual wielders might take the classic combination of rapier and dagger, while their STR-based comrades could opt for a warhammer and sickle. On the turns where you engage in two-weapon fighting, the difference in damage is neglicible. But on the turn when you enter rage, getting to wield your versatile weapon two-handed and swing in with a d10 instead of a d6 puts you a fair bit closer to the other options.

(As a corollary to the above, I would recommend having scimitars, handaxes and shortswords come in pairs when you hand out magic items, and only requiring one attunement slot for the pair. That way, the old-school d6 dual wielders aren't just strictly worse than the new main-hand/off-hand options.)

For the fighter without feats, the solution is pretty simple. Simply change their 11th-level Extra Attack feature to read as follows:

Beginning at 11th level, you can attack three times, instead of twice, whenever you take the Attack action on your turn. Additionally, when you engage in two-weapon fighting, you can make two bonus attacks instead of one.

Without feats, and assuming a d8+d4, this gives the dual wielder an average damage of 44 over five attacks—slightly ahead of the greatsword, but using up their bonus action. Action Surge makes them tie at 72 damage each. If the dual wielder uses their bonus action for something else and spends their action making two-handed d10 attacks, they instead deal 32 damage over three attacks—on par with the halberdier and slightly behind the duelist.

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And finally, the Dual Wielder feat. Each of the other feats strengthens their fighting style's niche: Shield Master provides defensive options, Polearm Master lets you keep enemies at bay, and Great Weapon Master allows you to make more powerful attacks. To strengthen Dual Wielder within its niche of more chances to hit, here's what I came up with:

You master fighting with two weapons. You can draw or stow two one-handed weapons when you would normally be able to draw or stow only one, and you gain the following benefits while you are wielding a separate melee weapon in each hand:

• You get a +1 bonus to AC.

• Once per turn when you miss with a weapon attack, you can immediately make another weapon attack with your other hand, as part of the same action or reaction.

Obviously, this is best when you engage in two-weapon fighting: more attacks mean more chances to miss, which mean more chances to benefit from the second bullet. However, even when you use your bonus action for something else—a Storm Herald's aura, a casting of Hunter's Mark, an unarmed strike from Martial Arts—you can still benefit during your action.

Unlike just putting two-weapon fighting into the Attack action, though, this does not increase anyone's maximum potential in either damage or number of hits. Monks who take the feat will get their four Stunning Strikes more consistently, but they won't be able to get five. Rangers can cast Hunter's Mark and get two triggers more consistently, but they won't get three.

At the same time, it makes a dual wielder's reactions more potent. Opportunity attacks, as well as features like Giant Killer (Hunter) or Riposte (Battle Master) are effectively made at advantage, which provides a nice parallel to the other feats: Shield Master provides a defensive reaction, Polearm Master makes opportunity attacks more frequent, and Great Weapon Master makes them more powerful.


One last table

With all the changes above, let's see how it compares. The fighter is back to using a pair of scimitars instead of longswords, but does get the benefits of an extra attack and a reworked feat. Are they up to par?

11th-level fighter (three attacks, with fighting style, with feat)

Weapon Average DPR # of attacks AC bonus Bonus action Other benefits
Greatsword 40 (53) 3 (4) sometimes big swings
Polearm 39 4 +1 yes opp. attacks; reach
Sword&shield 35 3 +2 shove spell defense
Dual wielding 43 5 +1 yes retry misses

I would say so.

Source: reddit.com

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