This article was first broadcast in Episode Eighty Six on 28th August 2019.
Ostron: Who switched off the lights in here — Lennon, why are you in a barrel, and Ryu, what did you just hide behind your back?
Ryu: I didn’t break into the vault and get two swords for Lennon, if that’s what you’re asking.
Ostron: Two swords? Ok, why?
Lennon: Well… hang on, let me get out of this barrel…
Well, all the talk of John Wick last week got me thinking of a cool character concept I want to play, but I thought I should practice dual-wielding first — you know, to get into character. Right, now, does anyone have a spare puppy?
Oooookay, well, I’ll admit that fighting with two weapons is objectively cool. Whenever someone shows up in a book, show, or movie and they’re holding a sword in each hand, you know they’re a badass. (Or they’re a squire for the badass, carrying their weapons, so badass by association?)
Two-weapon fighting in D&D carries a lot of benefits. In many cases it is the fastest way to acquire multiple attacks, and therefore output more damage. In older editions the privilege was limited to those who could afford to devote a feat to it, with other feats making it even better, like removing the limitation on what weapons could be used with two hands.
So if fighting with two weapons in D&D is so good, there must have been examples all over the place where it happened in history, right? I mean who doesn’t love using two swords?
It turns out, Everybody. Everybody doesn’t love using two swords. Widespread use of two weapons is only reliably documented among two groups: European nobles dueling in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, and Japanese Samurai. The Samurai are possibly the only group that regularly employed the technique in their military engagements. That’s not to say they used it often! Swords were normally a last-resort weapon, with spears and bows being their primary weapons of war.
Two-weapon fighting is possibly the most glaring example of “gamifying” real life. Fighting effectively with two weapons takes an extreme amount of training, practice, and dedication. Martial arts that offer training at all in fighting with two weapons usually only do so for students that are very advanced. If D&D were trying to be really authentic, no one would be able to do two-weapon fighting proficiently until level 12 or higher.
The reason is simple; most humans aren’t ambidextrous. The average person is going to have far more control and finesse with one hand than the other, and fighting with a sword in particular requires careful control. Even when two weapons are used, one of them is usually for blocking more than anything. This is very true of the European fencing we mentioned earlier, where the second weapon was often a short dagger with a large handguard. That dagger was almost always used for parrying. The major reason people did it with a sword rather than a shield was that the weapons were worn around town and nobody wanted to lug a huge piece of wood or metal on their back everyday.
Another thing universally true of dual-wielding is that nobody regularly grabbed two broadswords and went at it, or even two rapiers. There was either a long and a short blade involved, or both weapons were short. You have to know fighting technique to get the specific reasons the long/short or short short combination is better but the simple reason is that if you have two long weapons it’s a lot more likely the user will run them into each other. Even in movies when someone does happen to use two long weapons, they’re usually holding each one off to the side of their bodies and they do a lot of spinning to move one or the other in range for fighting.
One of the more popular examples in modern media is from Game of Thrones in Season six where Sir Arthur Dayne dual wielded longswords. If you watch his fighting (just Googling Arthur Dayne will give you at least 3 youtube hits right at the top), apart from when he intentionally crosses them to block, he always keeps them far away from one another, at one point even holding one sword behind his back to keep it out of the way. It’s also worth mentioning that in that world he’s considered possibly the best swordsman ever. With a short weapon or weapons in the mix, there’s less chance the two will hit each other and even if they do it’s much easier to recover.
There’s no way to reintroduce this concept to the D&D world without it being annoying for players. As mentioned, D&D rules in all editions make it much easier to learn two-weapon fighting as a character than it would take in real life. However, if for some reason you find yourself playing in or running a campaign focused on realism and a character shows up that effectively fights with two weapons, that should be a major clue that they’re well trained and very experienced.
Ostron: So, do you still wanna dual wield?
Lennon: Eh… it’s kind of a hassle… and it’s made me realise something
Ostron: What’s that?
Lennon: I need firearms
Ryu: Ooh! Say no more, I know where those are. Be right back!