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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10 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 better choices compared to dual wielding. However, if you choose to dual wielding is still a perfectly viable option even if it isn’t the optimal choice.

  2. Fighters:

    From a min-max perspective,a 2 weapon fighter is really sub-optimal. Two weapon fighting doesn’t scale. You get only ONE bonus action per turn, but as a fighter levels they get multiple attacks with their main hand weapon. attack action. That means the effect of the bigger die of the main hand scales, while the off hand does not. This is particularly so for the burst damage effect of Acton surge, (twice as many main hand attacks). Burst damage is really important in the game, being able to burst down a specific opponent in a fight can make the difference between victory and defeat.

    Average of a d6 is 3.5, average of a d8 is 4.5 and of d12 is 6.5. Assuming a STR of 16 (+3 mod) at 1st level 2 weapon fighting is marginally better than with a 2 handed weapon (10 dmg/rnd vs 9.5). But at 2nd level with action surge the 2-handed weapon fighter averages 19 burst dmg, while the two weapon fighter is at 16.5. It just gets worse from there.

    At 5th level when you get extra attack the great weapon fighter is averaging 19 on a normal round, 38 with action surge, while the two weapon fighter is average 16, 29 with action surge.

    At 11th level the fighter with a two handed weapon using action surge inflicts greater average damage in a single round than a dual wielding 20th level fighter can while also using action surge.

    The two weapon fighter if marginally better on sustained damage, and marginally worse on action surge damage than weapon & shield, but you’re giving up +2AC for what is effectively a wash.

    Basically, dual wielding fighters are crippled. I’d be happy to share my spreadsheet with the numbers if you are interested.

    Rogues:

    Now for rogues it a different matter. The Rogues damage scales primarily from the sneak attack bonus. Sneak attack is once per turn, so with 2 attacks they have two chances to get in their sneak attack damage. This can be a big deal. For argument’s sake lets assume a 6th level rogue with a DEX of 18 (+4), proficiency of +3, for a plus 7 to hit. Target AC of 18 gives us a 55% chance to hit, ergo a 55% chance to get your sneak attack damage. Now add the off hand weapon. The probability of missing is 45% for each attach, but the probability of missing BOTH attacks (and not getting your sneak attack damage that round) is only 20.43% That’s a significant boost to your average damage output. The 2nd attack increases the chance you get your sneak attack bonus damage from 55% to almost 80%. Obviously the math is going to vary depending on your chance to hit But assume the chance to hit is 40%, using two weapon attacks you chance to land your sneak attack is still going to be 64%, significantly better than with a single weapon.

    I can’t think of a case where a rogue would be better off not using two weapon fighting. If they hit with their first attack they can use cunning action as their bonus action for something else, if not they have a 2nd chance for their sneak attack to land.

    • Great analysis, and thanks for linking your spreadsheet!

      The most interesting takeaway for me was the insight on is how a sword & board fighter doesn’t miss out on much damage compared to a dual wielder (without the feat).

  3. In the initial sheet, I didn’t take into account ASIs or feats, but when you look at that, at least until both hit 20 STR, it actually gets a bit worse not better/

    Taking the feat doesn’t really improve things, here’s why:. The two-weapon fighter taking the feat gains an average of 1 more damage due to the increased die size. The weapon and shield or great weapon fighter also gains +1 from the ASI increasing his/her strength, but they also gain +1 to hit which means a 5% greater chance to it also, so a 5% increase in in average damage output too. The two weapon fighter should catch up with the other options strength wise at 12th level or so.

  4. Sorry, but your information is useless because it is true only if you have 100% chance to hit. Below comparison of two builds TH (variant human with great weapon fighting style and GWP fit) and TW (variant human with two weapon fighting style and dual wielder fit) at 5 lvl and 11 lvl against creature with 60% to hit. TH with great sword 2d6 and reroll 1 or 2. TW with 1d8 weapon. At 5 lvl STR+4, 11lvl STR+5
    5lvl
    1hits 2hits 3hits avr dmg
    TH 48% 36% 0 14.4
    TW 28.8% 43.2% 21.6% 17.1

    11lvl
    1hits 2hits 3hits 4hits avr dmg
    TH 28.8% 43.2% 21.6% 0 23.4
    TW 15.36% 34.56% 34.56% 12.96% 25.2

    Where n hits mens how many attacks hit the creature, avr dmg – average damage per round. I dont consider critical hits (just 5% probability) and dont use -5 to hit +10 to dmg because small chance to hit (35%). In the raw dmg they are close. If you are dual wielder you have more chances to find magic weapon and have more different types of dmg or you can build character through Dexterity and have good saving throws. But if you are pole arm master you have more flexibility in feats with the same dmg.

    Two weapon fighting is not useless and if fighter is not your main class (ranger, paladin, rouge etc.) it will be more useful coz you have one extra attack.

  5. I have to say this is a well thought out article, but I must disagree with some points made. Dual Wielding isn’t for flavor, for some characters it’s a potential way to DOUBLE damage output. Of course some classes will favor this over others– some variations of Rangers, Fighters, even Barbarians will enjoy the benefits of attacking with 2 weapons. Barbarians may even get more out of this with their Reckless Attack Feature, at level 2, being able to attack at advantage with every melee attack for the round (3 attacks if dual wielding at level 3 with Frenzy going with berserker), at the cost of being attacked at advantage– however this doesn’t really matter when most enemies will be using attacks that the Rage gives resistance to. Fighters eventually get Action Surge, and fighters/Rangers gain fancy bonuses if they choose dual fighting styles.

    Flavor is irrelevant in some of this. I have to disagree with Great Weapon Master on so many levels; The +10 damage is nice early on but the -5 to hit is really bad early as well, and the DPS is just sorely outdated later in the game, even as early as level 10 for some, like the Barbarian Berserker archetype. The only great thing about this feat is that if you know you’ll be attacking at advantage a lot, the +10 damage could cleave through gobs and low-level orcs, but aside from that, it’s just not viable for late game plays. As survival in the early game matters more than meme strats later on.

    Dual Wielder gives you +1 AC for free which also works around Unarmored Defense for those classes, and allows you to draw both weapons out at the start of combat at the cost of one. In essence though, let’s just say we have 2 level 5 with 18 strength as both are a kind of melee warrior class, be it fighter, barbarian, ranger, etc and using a martial melee weapon (we aren’t using class specialties here, just raw stats); We will use averages and assume 2 out of 3 hits for 2d8 + 8. This is on average 6+6+8(ABmod) for a total of 20 damage. You make 2 attacks with a greatsword with great weapon master, we will assume that statistically only 1 hits because level 5 and -5 to hit HURTS early on, that greatsword on average gets 3 on a d6 for 6+4+10 for 20.

    It’s sort of an ebb and flow of things– the great weapon master will eventually get to respectable levels of dps, but -5 to hit doesn’t really start to diminish until like level 13+ where the proficiency mod to attack takes the sting off from choosing this on your attacks. I also usually don’t play with the optional feats. It just feels like some are obviously better.

    I also have to say 5e really just nerfs melee/ranged. Spellcasters are grossly overpowered and I normally have to homebrew the fact that you should naturally be able to attack twice in 6 seconds with a one handed weapon and get an extra attack for using an off-hand weapon and this shouldn’t eat a bonus action. The extra attacks every 5 levels are fine as there has to be some form of progression for classes that don’t use magic. Every time I run 5e though the biggest complaints I get is that non-magic classes just feel so powerless in the beginning. A wizard immediately doing 1d10 for free every round just completely eliminates the need for melee users. It gets tiresome to see my table having this “If you aren’t using magic you’re a rogue and that’s only for trap removal” thing.

    • I appreciate the comment, but most of this information is completely incorrect.

      First of all, offhand weapon attacks do not add your ability score to the damage so it’s not truly doubling your damage unless you’re playing a class that can take the two-weapon fighting style feature. Not every martial class can take this mind you, only Rangers and Fighters can.

      That’s not how the Path of the Berserker’s Frenzy feature works. It allows you to make a single melee weapon attack as a Bonus action on your turn while you are raging. You cannot have 2 bonus actions on a turn so you cannot have 3 weapon attacks while dual wielding as a barbarian at level 3.

      Great Weapon Fighting is fantastic. I’m not sure where you’re pulling the level 13+ break-even point out of. In fact, a martial character with 16 STR will see plenty of mileage out of the -5/+10 portion of the feat. I made a calculator for this if you’d like to see for yourself: https://www.dungeonsolvers.com/2018/03/24/gwm-sharpshooter-5e-calc/

      This is also disregarding that GWM gives 2h martial characters a way to make an extra weapon attack as a bonus action.

      If you don’t play with feats (that’s your choice, but keep in mind it’s one of the ways that martial characters can compete with spellcasters with feats like GWM, Crossbow Expert, Sharpshooter) the PCs will also not be able to dual wield weapons without the light property. So change the math you did from 2d8 (no 1h weapon gives this) to 1d6 per hit. Your example for a dual wielder is now: 3.5 + 3.5 + 8 = 15
      2h would get: 7+4+10 = 21
      The avg of 1d6 is 3.5 not 3 for the record.

      But I do agree, there is a huge discrepancy between the power levels of the feats in 5e.

      Admittedly I haven’t played 4e and only played a little of AD&D/2e, but it seems par for the course that magic users are considerably more powerful. It’s always been an issue. I’d say hopefully 6e closes the gap further, but I’m not holding my breath :P!

      It takes time for the spellcasters to ramp up. That early game bracket is where I find the martial classes to be more consistent than their spellcaster counterparts. Once the casters get better spells and more slots they’ll eventually completely outdo them, of course, but it’s certainly not at level 1.

      I mean, even using the examples you gave me your martial characters will outdo a wizard’s fire bolt.

      Level 1 numbers assuming a +3 modifier
      Wizard: 1d10 = 5.5 avg damage
      2H Fighter: 2d6+3 = 10 avg damage
      DW Fighter: 1d6+1d6+3 = 10 avg damage

      Also am I misunderstanding something or are you saying that you homebrew offhand attacks to not need a bonus action?

      I hope this clears things up!

  6. I’m afraid you have made a fundamental, but very common error in your presentation of two-weapon fighting. Your separation of attacks/weapons into “main hand” and “off hand”.

    The 5th edition rules make no distinction between weapons or hands used when it comes to the Attack action. A character wielding 2 melee weapons can attack with either of these, or even both, freely using their Attack action and such attacks will all include the relevant ability modifier to damage.

    It is only the bonus action attack, whichever specific weapon is used with it, that suffers the loss of the ability modifier to damage. That attack is effectively “paired” with one of the attacks from your Attack action.

    While this distinction is pretty academic when characters start the game, once they gain the Extra Attack feature the difference becomes more significant, particularly with Fighter’s who can get to 3,and even 4 attacks per Attack action.

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