D&D General Attacks With Two Weapons, Game Design, And the Evolution of D&D

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
A topic that has come up now repeatedly (first arising in the context of my posts regarding Drizzt and Rangers) is the idea of Dual Wielding, aka Two Weapon Fighting, aka Attacks with Two Weapons. I think that it's worth developing into a separate post given that the topic is more general than just two-weapon fighting, and delves into a few subjects that I think are interesting on their own- how we look at rules, how the system affects gameplay (and vice versa), how 1e and 2e are both similar and different, and how time affects the way we look at rules and remember events.

NOTE: I will use TWF as a general acronym for dual wielding, two weapon fighting, and attacks with two weapons.

1. The Difference Between "Attacks with Two Weapons" in 1e and Two-Weapon Fighting in 2e.

I’ve been going to this high school for seven and a half years! I’m no dummy!

I'm going to detail the history briefly here. If you're not into the history, the TLDR is that in 1e, you could attack with two weapons, which meant that you were able to attack each round an equal number of times with each weapon. So an illusionist with two daggers got two attacks a round; a high level fighter with a sword and a dagger would have four attacks a round. In 2e, this rule was changed to provide no more than one "extra" attack with the off-hand. If you think this is incorrect, there are plenty of other threads to argue this point! I am more interested in the design implications of this. However, I think it is important to "show your work." So-

OD&D didn't have explicit rules, that I am aware of, for TWF. The first appearance of it is for the Drow in G3, which provides that they are able to use both hands to attack and defend, and provides that they either get one or two attacks per round (implying that it depends on what they are using and whether or not they are using a shield or extra weapon). Notably, the Drow are equipped with a secondary weapon of a dagger- this is important for the DMG rule. The Drow's TWF continues in the remaining modules in the series (D1 on) as well as the Fiend Folio (1981). We see that TWF also exists in the campaign setting for "high dexterity" NPCs through the existence of same in Deities and Demigods (1980). The actual rule for TWF is contained on page 70 of the DMG (1979) and states in full, under the heading of Attacks With Two Weapons:
Characters normally using a single weapon may choose to use one in each hand (possibly discarding the option of using a shield). The second weapon must be either a dagger or hand axe. Employment of a second weapon is always at a penalty. The use of a second weapon causes the character to attack with his or her primary weapon at –2 and the secondary weapon at –4. If the user’s dexterity is below 6, the Reaction/Attacking Adjustment penalties shown in the PLAYERS HANDBOOK are added to EACH weapon attack. If the user’s dexterity is above 15, there is a downward adjustment in the weapon penalties as shown, although this never gives a positive (bonus) rating to such attacks, so that at 16 dexterity the secondary/primary penalty is –3/–1, at 17 –2/0, and at 18 –1/0. The secondary weapon does not act as a shield or parrying device in any event.

I'm not going to parse this any farther, but there are some notable things about this passage- first, it allows for any character class to TWF, although the implication is that Clerics would not be able to take advantage of this due to weapon restrictions, it was also the case that at the time, there was precedent for some Clerics to have different weapon restrictions. Second, there was absolutely no limitation on the number of attacks- there is no hint, or limit, stating that the secondary weapon only received a "single" or "bonus" attack. That's just not how the rule read or worked. The limiting principle, as was clear, was the type of weapon used, and that you gave up the use of a shield or parry (defense). In other words, you sacrificed defense for a limited ability on offense.

Later, we see that in 1985, we have examples of a class getting explicit TWF (the Kensai, in OA, as a 7th level ability) as well as a PC race (the Drow, in UA), and it was put into a setting as well (Grey Mouser, et al, City of Lankhmar). To the extent any of this was unclear, Roger Moore had a definitive article in Dragon Magazine in 1982 explaining the rule (and slightly expanding the weapon list).

Now, when 2e came around, you had a different ruleset; it changed many rules, for example. When it came to TWF, it added it as a class ability for Rangers (at no penalty) and also allowed it for Warriors and Rogues (at a penalty). It massively expanded the weapon choice (the second weapon had to be smaller, but so long as it could be wielded in one hand, you're good to go), and it made a new explicit limitation- you get one additional attack per round with your secondary weapon, "regardless of the number of attacks he may normally be allowed." (PHB 2e 96).

To sum up the rules and the differences between TWF in 1e and 2e (core rules):
1e: You could use a dagger or hand axe only as your secondary weapon. Any character could TWF (but clerics might be restricted due to weapon choice). You had an effective "doubling" of attacks. Attacks were at a penalty (high dex could ameliorate the penalty).
2e: Only warriors and rogues could TWF. attacks were at a a penalty (except ranger) and high dex could ameliorate the penalty. You could use any smaller and lighter weapon as the secondary weapon. You could only get one extra attack with the secondary weapon.


2. Why 2e Changed the Rule, and What it Says about the Evolution of D&D and the Design of the Game from 1e to 2e.
Remember – Two wrongs don’t make a right, but three rights make a left.

Let's start with something which may not be obvious to people today; I am sure that there are people who read the section above and are salivating. "Double the attacks? Just wait until I optimize that, suckers!" Here's the thing, though ... 1e didn't play like that. At least ... not at first. To understand why, we have to take a brief detour into how 1e was played (pre-UA).

Let's start with the basics- we are going to ignore all the classes except Fighters (and I will only say this once- Fighter subclasses are included unless I say otherwise). Maybe it would be cool for your high-dexterity Illusionist to TWF. Maybe your Thief or Assassin will do it. But having a secondary attack with a dagger isn't going to affect much in the game. But what about the Fighter? What about DEATH WIELDER MOWING DOWN THE OPPOSITION?

We need to start with a few basic principles- first, high level play tended to be rare (I am going to ignore Monty Haul campaigns, because TWF was the least of the problems). So the Fighter didn't get an additional attack until level ... 7. And that was 3/2. They didn't get to 2/1 until LEVEL 13 (15 for Rangers).

Second, the Fighter probably took that Dex penalty. Remember that in 1e, for a Fighter, strength was king- Dex was good, but hadn't yet evolved into the god-stat, and what we now call "dex builds" were exceedingly rare. Fighters were the only class that were able to get percentile strength, and excess constitution bonuses, so it was almost inevitable that the Fighters would put their two highest scored in Strength and Con, and Dex would be a distant third. Prior to ability inflation, that meant that those dex penalties could hurt.

Third, and most importantly, defense really mattered in 1e. We are now used to the whole "whac-a-mole" and "attrition of hit points" style of play, but in 1e, the best way to survive was to not get hit. So (ignoring the parry rules for now) when you gave up a shield as a fighter, it was a big deal. Because magic shields were a dime-a-dozen in 1e. Every low-level module had +1 and +2 shields practically littering the ground like peanut shells at a baseball game, and it was not uncommon at mid-levels to get a +3 or +4 shield. Which meant that by the time you were really benefitting as a fighter from the extra attacks, you were trading 5 points of AC. Which was massive.

Fourth, and finally, the weapon restriction mattered. Daggers and hand-axes? Not only did they do very little damage, but (unlike swords) it wasn't like there were super-powerful example of them in terms of magic. Dagger +1? Sure. But the d4+1 (d3+1) for a magic dagger hardly seemed worth it. And while a hand-axe was d6/d4, magic ones were less common in play than daggers.

So that's why it didn't really matter that much. Of course, if you have someone who is true optimizer, I am sure that they can squint at this, and find examples of edge cases where it does matter! For example, Fighters get to attack critters under 1hd at a number of times equal to their level, so a TWF fighter could theoretically be, "Conan, killer of small vermin and kobolds with daggers." A very high level Fighter with a girdle of giant strength could apply the strength bonus to both attack, and get up to four per round. A high level ranger could be devastating against "giant class" (aka, humanoids). But if you're high level, you're going to be pretty, pretty good anyway. It should hardly be surprising that martial characters find ways, if they really want to, to shine at high levels! Getting some dagger attacks thrown in wouldn't break the game.

So what changed? The same thing that everyone who has played 1e will say- Unearthed Arcana. Unearthed Arcana is what eventually led to the 2e rule change. Because of the addition of Weapon Specialization, and the addition of Method V of rolling abilities. In reverse order- people can, and do, argue about the best way, or the proper way, or the default way, to roll abilities in 1e. But while methods (from 3d6 to 4d6k1) in the past would provide you with mediocre, decent, or sometimes good abilities, the addition of Method V in Unearthed Arcana would often give you a GREAT character. Suddenly, it became that much more likely you would have a high Strength, Con, AND Dexterity.

But what really began to change the balance was Weapon Specialization. For the first time, fighters could get multiple attacks at first level. So, if you specialized in a hand axe (for example), you suddenly had 3 attacks at first level if you used TWF. Instead of this being a secondary consideration, a Fighter could double specialize in hand axe and receive +3/+3 in addition to their strength (melee) or dex (thrown) bonuses with the hand axe. In other words, the addition of more rules suddenly made the original rule ... not work. As the rules accumulated, the original limiting principles that governed TWF in 1e no longer acted as a break.

Which meant that when 2e came around, and Specialization was codified, there had to be some new limits. It was no longer neither necessary nor sufficient for the limits to solely be on the weapons; in fact, since those limits were being partially lifted, you needed new ones. As new rules interacted, a more stringent rule had to come in to take the place of the prior rule.


3. On Rules and Memory- Reading 2e Back into 1e.
It happens sometimes. People just explode. Natural causes.

Whenever I make one of these posts, I do my very best to scrupulously check dates and original sources. Partly it's because I enjoy doing the research, and partly it's because I am fallible. My memory of things is not always correct; for example, I have a strong memory of playing a certain module at a certain time, but I know for a fact that it couldn't have happened because the module wasn't released for several years after that memory! It's not that I want to be deceitful- either to myself, and certainly not in recounting the story, but just that after the passage of decades, events can morph, change, and bleed into one another. It happens.

The whole of the TSR era can often act like that type of confused memory. The primary issue is that all of the TSR products were largely interchangeable and interoperable. It was possible to, for example, play through B2 - a module designed for OD&D and released for B/X - using rules for 2e. In addition, the prevalence of homebrew, 3PP, semi-official rules (Dragon, Strategic Review), and lack of internet at the time for standardization can make things incredibly confusing, not to mention the nomenclature ... (Oh, Basic? Do you mean Holmes, Moldvay, or Mentzer?).

Nevertheless, there often is a strict delineation in those rules. 1e was different before UA ... and different than 2e. Holmes Basic (which is OD&D) is not Moldvay Basic (which is the BECMI line, or "Basic"). People often "read into" certain rules other rules that they remember from other eras in TSR - for example, I have seen that it is exceedingly common for people to "read back" 2e rules into 1e, primarily because they played 2e more recently.

I mention this both because I have seen it (for example, Gygax was famously again crits, and they did not exist in 1e in the core rules*- in fact, even rolling a 20 did not guarantee that you hit (it did in BECMI/RC). This changed in 2e, with the optional critical hits in the DMG that many adopted. However, there are those that still remember core rules (as opposed to homebrew) that provided for critical hits in 1e. Memory is funny that way!

It's interesting, because the way you approach the game continues to inform your decision. Arguably, from what I have seen, the approach to certain rules and rulings in 5e that is taken by people who are most used to 1/2e, 4e, and 3e/PF are very different, despite the fact that the actual rule in 5e is the same for all of them.

But that's a different topic.

*There was always 3PP and optional rules; I believe there is an article back in '76 for a variant samurai class.
 

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Whenever I make one of these posts, I do my very best to scrupulously check dates and original sources. Partly it's because I enjoy doing the research, and partly it's because I am fallible. My memory of things is not always correct; for example, I have a strong memory of playing a certain module at a certain time, but I know for a fact that it couldn't have happened because the module wasn't released for several years after that memory! It's not that I want to be deceitful- either to myself, and certainly not in recounting the story, but just that after the passage of decades, events can morph, change, and bleed into one another. It happens.

This is why it's silly to harp on somebody misremembering something. I mean, I remember the Berenstein Bears just as clearly as anybody else...
 


TwoSix

Uncomfortably diegetic
Let's not forget TWF reaching its apex with 2e Combat and Tactics. A fighter (or other classes if you're using S&P) could spend their starting proficiency slots to gain Ambidexterity, Two-Weapon Fighting Style, and Weapon Specialization, which essentially gives them 5/2 attacks with +1/+2 bonuses (scaling to +3/+3 with Mastery at level 5) in addition to their Strength bonuses.

It was the weapon fighting style for pretty much every melee character in late 2e, and became so synonymous with munchkinism that both 3e and 5e hit the style so hard with the nerf bat it never truly recovered.
 

S'mon

Legend
You had an effective "doubling" of attacks.
It (1e) doesn't actually say or imply this anywhere, does it? In fact from what you say, there's no actual indication that TWF gives ANY extra attacks?

I always thought it gave +1 attack, but I'm not too surprised to hear it doesn't actually say that.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
It (1e) doesn't actually say or imply this anywhere, does it? In fact from what you say, there's no actual indication that TWF gives ANY extra attacks?

I always thought it gave +1 attack, but I'm not too surprised to hear it doesn't actually say that.

Pretty sure I went through the history. That said:
"If you think this is incorrect, there are plenty of other threads to argue this point!"

It's not an interesting topic to me, given that the later interpretation tends to cloud people's minds.

Note that the whole "+1 attack" is a rule that did not exist until the 2e PHB. The same thing happened in the Basic line- the RC (published after 2e) makes the rule that you get one additional attack per combat round. (RC 110).

Compare and contrast the rules in the Masters set (BECMI), which was written when AD&D (1e) was still the system, and does not have the "+1 attack" limitation- instead providing a second attack at a mastery level lower, and at -4 (so one lower on the matrix, AND -4). (Master 19).
 

Alzrius

The EN World kitten
For example, Fighters get to attack critters under 1hd at a number of times equal to their level, so a TWF fighter could theoretically be, "Conan, killer of small vermin and kobolds with daggers."
I'd say that the rule about fighters getting extra attacks against certain exceptionally-weak monsters deserves a look-back thread of its own, but there's already a great blog post about it over on Song of the Blade.
 

Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
I'd say that the rule about fighters getting extra attacks against certain exceptionally-weak monsters deserves a look-back thread of its own, but there's already a great blog post about it over on Song of the Blade.

That was always one of my favorite obscure rules, although, given that it was in the text of the class in the PHB (albeit not in the main text), I never understood why it was obscure.

I did not know the Chainmail history- that's cool! The rule always made sense to me given that the combat round in AD&D = 1 minute.
 


Snarf Zagyg

Notorious Liquefactionist
Was checking if there was any basis for your statement. I saw your 'don't dispute this statement' line. :p

Other than ... the fact that the alternate rule that people keep citing .... doesn't exist until 2e (and the later RC)?

Or that contemporaneous sources (such as the Dragon Article from 1982) indicate that the natural reading of the rule is the correct one?

Or any one of innumerable other reasons? The reason I put that in there (and most of the essay) is there are only so many times I can respond to someone saying, "But wait, how do you know it isn't just +1 attack per round" when that rule did not exist until the 2e PHB.*

It makes me feel like I'm taking crazy pills. How do I know, for sure, that a rule that didn't exist for 10 years ... didn't retroactively apply? I don't know ... trust me. I guess. shrug ;)
 

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