The Art of Off Hand Attacks in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition

offhand attack
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The clash of blades rings out across the dimly lit cavern as the party’s fighter trades blows with a ferocious orc warrior. Despite being outmatched in size and strength, the fighter wields a longsword in one hand and a dagger in the other, a blur of steel pushing the orc back. As the orc stumbles, the fighter sees their chance. The longsword slashes across its chest while the dagger, gripped in their off hand, plunges into its throat. With a gurgle, the orc collapses to the cold stone ground.

Moments like these are why some Dungeons & Dragons players love fighting with two weapons. Though the mechanics of off hand attacks in 5th edition are complex and widely debated, the image of a relentless dual wielding warrior carving through foes remains powerfully iconic.

On the tabletop, these mechanics require nuance and thoughtful character building to use effectively. But in the hands of a creative player, a character’s off hand weapon can provide unique tactical options and embody fantasy in spite of limitations. This guide will examine the rules around off hand attacks, address common questions that confuse players, provide tips to make dual wielding rewarding at your table, and showcase how to roleplay flashy off hand attacks with any class.

Defining Off Hand Attacks

A source of debate at many tables is the very meaning of “off hand attack” in 5th edition. The Player’s Handbook itself never uses this term, instead referring to the broader concept of “two-weapon fighting.”

At its core, two-weapon fighting allows a character to hold a light melee weapon in each hand. On their turn, they can take the Attack action as normal with one of the weapons. But if the attack action is taken with a light weapon, they can then use their bonus action to make one attack with the other light weapon in the other hand.

No distinction is made between which weapon is in the “main hand” versus “off hand.” The key limitations are that the bonus action attack does not add the character’s ability modifier to its damage unless they have the Two-Weapon Fighting fighting style, and it costs the valuable bonus action each turn.

The fighter in our opening scene utilized this two-weapon fighting by attacking first with their longsword, then using a bonus action for an off hand attack with their dagger. This allowed them to strike twice in one round, utilizing both edges of their blades to bring down a dangerous foe.

Some players fondly remember previous editions of D&D that used the terminology of “off hand attacks” more explicitly, applying attack roll penalties unless your character had the Ambidexterity feat. But this is not supported in the streamlined mechanics of 5th edition. That doesn’t stop some DMs from reintroducing penalties for off hand attacks through optional house rules, which we’ll examine later.

Does Bonus Action Timing Matter?

When utilizing two-weapon fighting, an off hand attack always costs your bonus action for the turn. But one question that arises is whether the off hand attack can come between the multiple attacks granted by the Extra Attack feature, or only after they have all been resolved.

The rules are ambiguous on this timing. However, lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford unofficially ruled through tweets that the off hand attack can come between your individual attacks if you wish. Since the trigger is “when you take the Attack action and attack with a light melee weapon,” your bonus action attack can occur after that first light attack rather than waiting until the full Attack is completed.

Many DMs allow this more flexible ordering, though some adhere strictly to resolving the full Attack first. Allowing intermixed attacks creates opportunities such as throwing your dagger at one enemy before slashing at another with your shortsword. Discuss with your DM how they rule the timing; creativity and communication are key for using off hand attacks effectively. Just be wary of slowing down combat if your dual wielding gets too flashy!

Dual Wielder Feat and Shield Use

For characters wanting to expand their off hand attack capabilities, the Dual Wielder feat is essential. This feat allows a character to utilize two-weapon fighting without being limited to light weapons. It also grants a +1 bonus to AC while wielding separate melee weapons in each hand, allowing dual wielders to offset the AC bonus provided by shields.

One debate around Dual Wielder is whether a shield used as an improvised bludgeoning weapon still counts as a “weapon” for the purposes of this feat. By a strict reading of the rules, there is potential for abuse, as carrying a shield does not preclude using two-weapon fighting. This would give a major AC bonus for barely sacrificing damage output.

However, most DMs rule that the intent of the AC bonus is to make up for not carrying a shield. Allowing both simultaneously goes against the spirit of the feat. But crafty players may still be able to argue their case at certain tables! Discretion is advised if attempting this debate with your DM.

Tactical Uses for Off Hand Attacks

Despite limitations, off hand attacks provide unique tactical opportunities. A common one is utilizing the thrown property. Weapons such as daggers and handaxes can be thrown instead of making a melee attack with the off hand.

This enables a character to engage enemies at different ranges in the same turn. Our fighter in the cavern scene could throw their dagger at one orc before closing to melee range against another. A ranger could soften up a charging beast with an off hand handaxe toss before impaling them with their rapier.

Magical weapons also combine well with off hand attacks. Carrying two different magic weapons means a character can switch freely between their properties against different foes even within a single turn. One weapon might deliver a frost attack to slow enemies, while the other bursts into flame. Or the off hand can provide a lifeline if the first attack fails against a resistant enemy. Having options keeps a dual wielder unpredictable and adaptable.

Class features and feats can also be enhanced by off hand attacks. A barbarian’s rage damage triggers with every successful attack, so an off hand strike boosts their output. The Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master feats are powerful on their own, but combining their options with two-weapon fighting covers even more tactical bases. Work with your DM to creatively utilize your entire arsenal.

Optimizing Damage vs. Roleplaying Flair

A common concern is whether dual wielding can match the damage output of great weapons or sword and board builds. With the right investment of class features and feats, off hand attacks can achieve solid damage numbers. But in general, focusing on bigger, two-handed weapons or utilizing Polearm Master will provide more optimization for damage-centric characters.

However, hovering on the fringe of optimization difficulties is where off hand attacks truly shine for creative players. Unusual races or classes wielding paired weapons can lead to subversive character builds, especially if you lean into the roleplaying. A scholarly wizard could learn basic combat skills but excel once they discover an enchanted dagger, unleashing their inner finesse fighter.

Even straightforward archetypes like rangers and barbarians feel fresh when cousin builds appear using two weapons instead of expected greatswords or greataxes. And few images are as evocative as a raging half-orc crushing foes between a warhammer and flail, disregarding “better” options.

Any class or character concept can be centered around dual wielding. Focus on the flair over mechanics, describe flashy spinning attacks and weapon juggling during lulls. Work closely with your DM and choose options that accentuate your character’s personality. Off hand attacks may not match optimized damage, but the payoff in memorable scenes and investment in your character’s style can be well worth it.

Engaging Off Hand Attacks for New Players

For players new to 5th edition, two-weapon fighting seems like an obvious choice to try early on. Taking the Attack action and getting a bonus off hand attack feels like a big increase in damage output. But this impression can lead to confusion once subtleties surrounding bonus actions, action economy, and optimized builds come into play.

If enthusiasm for dual wielding arises at your table, have a side discussion with new players to set proper expectations. Explain the action economy limitations, and how damage typically won’t match great weapons or Polearm Master until higher levels. Share how off hand attacks are useful for landing effects like sneak attack or getting in cheap bonus damage, rather than solely multiplying damage output.

You can also present it as an option to reskin later once the math and mechanics become clearer. Let the excited new half-orc barbarian wield two battleaxes at level 1 as long as they understand this base style can be altered later if desired. Dual wielding is often most rewarding for experienced players who understand its tradeoffs and take it for roleplaying flair over optimization. But that flair can absolutely begin at level 1 for a new adventurer.

The Dance of Blades Continues

The dance of blades during combat comes alive through creativity, teamwork, and embracing a flair for the dramatic. Though off hand attacks in 5th edition require nuance to use effectively, their uniqueness breeds memorable moments that enhance stories and roleplaying. Players willing to look past strict optimization and DMs open to collaboration can find excitement in this iconic fighting style.

Some final tips will help you implement compelling off hand attacks at your table:

  • Discuss dual wielding early when creating a new character so the DM understands your goals. This allows them to anticipate and incorporate relevant loot like magic weapon pairs.
  • Paint a vivid picture of your off hand strikes. Describe weapons blurring as they spin and slash. Signature maneuvers like throwing then recalling a dagger sell your character’s unique style.
  • Use off hand attacks to complement allies. Draw attacks of opportunity with your twin blades so the party's wizard can retreat unharmed.
  • Off hand attacks really shine in cinematic boss battles. Work with the DM to narrate an epic flurry of strikes as the party desperately battles an awe-inspiring foe.
  • Don't forget defense – parrying with an off hand weapon demonstrates true swordplay mastery. Envision yourself as an untouchable dancer, dodging and deflecting attacks amidst your own onslaught.

With the right mindset and a willingness to favor imagination over optimization, any D&D character can find joy in unleashing their off hand weapon. Each strike penned into a backstory, every combat tactic discussed with a patient DM, and each advantage creatively utilized leads to rewarding play. Savvy players understand off hand attacks offer not just extra damage but increased wonder and engagement through unique storytelling opportunities.

So next session, whether you’re a heavily armored fighter or studious wizard, unleash your inner swashbuckler. Let an off hand weapon become an extension of your character’s developing identity. Dual wielding may require nuance in 5th edition but the payoff in roleplaying flair and memorable moments at the table makes mastering this iconic fighting style well worth the effort.


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