The Basics of Dual Wielding in D&D 5e

Dual wielding two one-handed weapons is, I swear, one of the most frequently-used fighting styles in D&D 5e. And why wouldn’t it be? Slashing two swords or laying down the hammer with two warhammers looks frickin’ awesome! After all, looking cool in combat is how you win Dungeons and Dragons.

Exhibit A: Me in WotLK trying to justify dual wielding > 2h frost tanking because it looked cool.

In practice, dual wielding is a bit wonky, especially for newer players who are, from my experience, much more likely to build a dual wielding character. They don’t have as much experience with the system and typically don’t fully understand the downsides and restrictions that come with being a dual wielder.

For the record, the point of this post isn’t to dissuade someone from playing a dual wielder. But there are some very real restrictions and limitations that we need to be cognizant of when we play and invest in this type of character because we’re going to need to make some costly investments to make this work!

dual wielding fighter slicing up goblins on top of a rock
See? Dual wielding is slick as hell. Credit: WotC.

The Mechanics of Two-Weapon Fighting

I keep calling it dual wielding, but the correct term for the mechanic in D&D 5e is Two-Weapon Fighting. However, from my experience, everyone just calls it dual wielding.

The gist of Two-Weapon Fighting is this, you can use a bonus action to attack with a light one-handed melee weapon. You can only make this bonus action attack after you take the Attack action with a light one-handed melee weapon in your main hand.

The caveat of this bonus action attack made with your off-hand weapon is that it DOESN’T include your ability modifier to its damage. Besides this, it’s the same as any other weapon attack.

The Player’s Handbook (PHB) has the rules for Two-Weapon Fighting on page 195 if you wish to do a bit more reading on the subject!

Who Can Dual Wield?

Literally, any character can dual wield provided that they are following the conditions that Two-Weapon Fighting outlines.

Whether or not your wizard will want to dual wield two daggers is another conversation. It’s awfully difficult to cast spells without a free hand for your component pouch or focus.

Is Dual Wielding Worthwhile?

Now here’s the crux of the issue. Is it worthwhile to use two light weapons such as shortswords as opposed to say a two-handed greatsword or even a longsword and shield combination? That’s up to you and how much stock you put into character optimization and what your goals are for your character build.

I will say that dual wielding does have a few niches in the game. The largest niche being melee combatants before they gain their Extra Attack class feature at level 5.

Early Game Melee Combatants

Prior to gaining Extra Attack these characters generally have only a single Weapon Attack with their action. They also generally don’t have a whole lot of features, spells, or other such things to use as a bonus action. If they have an unused bonus action, then they aren’t milking their action economy for its true potential.

Dual wielding is one way for these frontline melee combatants to gain both a second attack on their turn and grant them a regular bonus action in combat. Sure, a single hit won’t deal as much damage as a greatsword, but a dual wielder gets two attempts to hit their target on their turn as opposed to just one.

Two-Weapon Fighting does limit the weapon choices you have, and by partaking in this fighting style you are effectively missing out on +2 AC by opting to not use a shield. The early game is by far the easiest time to lose a character so you’re taking on a huge risk by forgoing this AC to dual wield, but that’s your call to make.

If damage output is your top priority then this is a potential path you can take for the early game.

drizzt do'urden and a clusterfuck
Arguably one of the most iconic Forgotten Realms characters dual wields so it’s clearly fine to do so. Credit: WotC.

Rogues

Dual wielding can be a huge boon for rogues. They never gain the Extra Attack feature unless they spend five levels multiclassing to obtain it. Being able to wield two shortswords, daggers, or another one-handed light melee weapon can give them a bit of insurance for landing their Sneak Attack.

Though, that’s assuming that it’s a better call to wield a second weapon rather than use Fast Hands or Cunning Action. It’s a nice option to have though, but rogues aren’t hurting for uses for their bonus action by any means.

Improving Your Two-Weapon Fighting

Fret not! There are ways of making Two-Weapon Fighting much more powerful, but they require a bit of an investment. When you level you occasionally gain ability score increases (ASIs). Well, alongside cranking up either your Strength or Dexterity ability scores, you can also take feats to improve your overall combat capabilities.

One such feat is the Dual Wielder feat which, expectedly, improves your Two-Weapon Fighting considerably.

You can also either choose a class that gives you the Two-Weapon Fighting, Fighting Style or multiclass into one of them to improve your damage output with your offhand weapon.

Fighting Style: Two-Weapon Fighting

This Fighting Style is pretty straight-forward. If you take it, the offhand weapon that you’d use your bonus action to make an attack with can now include your ability modifier in its damage. This is a significant power boost for any character that’s angling to stick with dual wielding throughout their adventures.

The drawback to this Fighting Style is that only two classes can actually take it. The fighter and the ranger are the only two classes in the PHB that have access to this specific Fighting Style. The fighter gets theirs at level 1 while the ranger gets it at level 2.

My Swashbuckler Rogue build included a one-level dip into fighter for the Duelist Fighting Style, but you can certainly make a case for doing so for the Two-Weapon Fighting Fighting Style if your rogue is going to be brandishing two one-handed weapons.

The blood hunter is a homebrew class but has gotten a lot more love than most other homebrews. It’s worth mentioning that it also is a class that can take this specific Fighting Style.

The Dual Wielder Feat

You master fighting with two weapons, gaining the following benefits:

  • You gain a +1 bonus too AC while you are wielding a separate melee weapon in each hand.
  • You can use two-weapon fighting even when the one-handed melee weapons you are wielding aren’t light.
  • You can draw or stow two one-handed weapons when you would normally be able to draw or stow only one.

PHB pg 165

Feats are fun, but they’re not always worth the price of admission. It’s tough sometimes to justify spending one of your ASIs on a feat rather than giving yourself a +1 to the modifier of one or even two of your ability scores.

ThinkDM did the math on this one, it’s essentially always better to just ignore this feat and stick to pumping your ASIs into your Strength or Dexterity if you’re after damage. Not to mention the fact that you get other bonuses besides straight-up damage for increasing your ability modifier.

With that said and done, it’s not a completely terrible feat. You’ll gain some flavor and quality of life features by taking the Dual Wielder feat. It’s just more optimal to crank up your Strength or Dexterity to 20 before grabbing this one.

Conclusions

Dual wielding looks cool and is fun in terms of its flavor. The mechanics of it can be a bit rough in practice and sub-optimal, but at the end of the day, it’s not detrimental to your party to play a dual wielder instead of a more optimal choice such as a great weapon fighter or a sword and board fighter.

All in all, Two-Weapon Fighting isn’t all that complex in D&D 5e. There’s certainly room for improvement in my opinion as it does feel a bit clunky, but it’s extremely accessible for any character to use and it’s pretty clear-cut in terms of its mechanics.

Basically, you just have to make sure you’re wielding two one-handed weapons with the light property unless you have the Dual Wielder feat. If you make an Attack action with your main hand weapon, then you can make one with your offhand as a bonus action. However, you do not include your ability score modifier in the attack’s damage unless you have the Two-Weapon Fighting Fighting Style.

Keep all of that in mind and get to hacking, stabbing, and bashing your way through hoards of enemies at top-speed!

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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2 Comments

  1. Love the analysis but you lost me somewhere in the end.

    You mention at the conclusion of this article “… at the end of the day it’s not detrimental to your party to play a dual wielder as opposed to a great weapon fighter or a sword and board fighter.”

    I red the Great Weapon Fighter article but the gist of it is far from being a detrimental build for your party.

    I respect your opinion and your research and I really want to clarify that my position is not to judge you or your article but understand your opinion on why the Great Weapon Fighter and Sword & Board fighter builds are detrimental to a party’s composition as I wasn’t able to derive this from the linked article former and I can not see the point for the later.

    • Sorry that was probably poor wording on my part! I’ll clean that up later.

      My intention was to say that the 2H and 1H & Shield fighting styles are regarded as more optimal choices compared to dual wielding. However, if you choose to dual wielding is still a perfectly viable option even if it isn’t the most optimal choice.

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