Fighting Styles in D&D 5e are interesting. They are coded to be a fighter specific feature, with the half-fighter classes of paladin and ranger getting a taste. In the text accompanying the Fighting Style feature, there isn’t anything to indicate this is a result of formal training or instruction. It simply says these styles are adopted as a specialty. Fighters get this feature at first level, while paladins and rangers wait until level two, and both have two fewer options to choose from than fighter. Other melee combatants, such as barbarians, monks, and rogues, are left out of this type of weapon training. The fighting styles all fall into three broad categories: active, passive, and memory-required passive. Memory-Required Passive as a category means these styles provide a passive bonus, but you have to actively remember to use the bonus, rather than add it flat into your bonuses when you calculate things. The fighting styles, when placed into categories, look thus:
Protection (F, P)
Great Weapon Fighting (F, P)
Two-Weapon Fighting (F, R)
Archery (F, R)
It should come as no shock to experienced gamers that both categories of passive styles are objectively superior to the active style, which is a shame. However, it takes a lot of work to get “always on” powers to balance well against “use” powers. The path of least resistance naturally inclines most people to want the first option, and they tend to be well-balanced, as it’s easier to model as a constant. On a psychological level, there is never a fear of the feature being useless because you forgot, it’s baked into your sheet math. Archery always provides a +2 bonus to your ranged attack roll. Defense always gives you +1 AC. Dueling always gives you +2 damage, as long as you use one one-handed weapon. Easy, and sheet-friendly.
Memory-required passive can take a hit here. They are “always on”, but require the player to remember them as the don’t always apply. Great Weapon Fighting always lets you reroll any 1s or 2s you roll on your weapon die once per attack, and take the second result. You can always do this for every attack, but you have to remember to do so, as it doesn’t automatically occur. Two-Weapon Fighting always let you apply your ability damage to your offhand light weapon attack, but the two weapon fighting rules are not an “always on” sort of thing. You might not spend your bonus action on the attack.
As many people have discussed, the Protection fighting style is cool, but lacking. I think it definitely gives the player the best sense of “I’m a protector”, and most people choosing the style want to feel that way. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things working against the style. You have to be within five feet of an ally, it costs a reaction, it doesn’t scale, and requires an early declaration of use.
Requiring an adjacent ally, even if it doesn’t take variable size into account, isn’t a big deal. I like that it requires you to be near an ally, rather than an opponent. It costing a reaction is also fine, but it requires a bit more oomph behind the feature. The Sentinel Feat provides some new uses of an opportunity attack and a way to spend your reaction while adjacent to a foe. I am fine with competing reactions, as Sentinel is a more offensive type of fight control, versus the defensive control Protection is trying to engender. Weirdly, the third feature of Sentinel actually works against the passive control granted by the feat, as the attack you make in reaction to a creature near you attacking someone other than you isn’t an opportunity attack. Anyway.
Not scaling is pretty rough. As the game progresses, most of the other fighting styles scale inherently. Archery, Duelist, and Great Weapon Fighting all get better as you get more attacks. Defense allowing the AC bonus means more avoidance across the board, even with creatures getting additional attacks. Two-Weapon Fighting doesn’t scale at all, and neither does Protection. They apply to a single attack, regardless of how the game progresses. Not great.
The early declaration for Protection is hard, as it triggers the reaction use when an ally is attacked. So two attack die are rolled, and the lowest result is taken. Only in the advent of different color dice that you declare one to be first roll and the other the disadvantage die or the baked-in features of Roll20 would you know if your imposition of disadvantage changed the outcome. Both dice could still be a hit and both dice could be a miss. In that case, you didn’t do anything.
Does it need a fix?
As written it reads,
“When a creature you can see attacks a target other than you that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to impose disadvantage on the attack roll. You must be wielding a shield.”
My version would read,
“When a creature you can see hits a target other than you that is within 5 feet of you, you can use your reaction to roll a number of d6 equal to your proficiency bonus and reduce the damage the target takes by the result. If this would reduce the incoming damage to 0, the target takes no damage.”
It scales, it’s responsive, and even a low roll isn’t a complete do-nothing result. Is it ideal? Probably not. Some bad rolls will make it feel icky. Still, pretty good based on some basic math over several monster types and CRs.
Two-Weapon Fighting – Fighter
Two-Weapon Fighting a bit thornier. The current Two-Weapon Fighting rules are still a reaction against 3e and 3.5e crazy dual-wielding shenanigans. 4e just had attacks associated with the weapon style, so it wasn’t the craziness of before. Now, far be it from me to think I understand perfectly the reasoning behind every 5e decision, but most everything has been to reinforce ease and speed of resolution. However, I think they over did it.
You can only use a light weapons in each hand, unless you take Dual Wielder as a feat. Let’s assume for a second you are a stupid elf outcast folk hero who uses scimitars. You are probably at least an 11th level fighter, so you get a third attack, and you have the existing two-weapon fighting style. You probably have defense as your other style from the ranger levels you ill-advisedly picked up in order for some bad story idea you wrote. Anyway.
On average in a round, you’ll do thirty-four points of damage, with your bonus attack landing and each attack breaking out to 3.5(weapon)+5(ability). If you had say, duelist instead, you could use a different weapon, like a rapier. You’d then be doing 4.5 (weapon)+5(ability)+2(duelist) three times, or 34.5 damage. This is every time, and never requires you using your bonus action for the attack. Even using one bonus action sets you behind, like second wind, or some of the battlemaster maneuvers. This is all perfect world modeling.
Of course, if you take Dual Wielder you can use double rapier or whatever shenanigans and also get an additional AC bonus. Why not? It’s a super good feat, if you are going this route. You could go dual rapiers then. This matters a lot. All of a sudden you are dealing thirty-eight damage with those four attacks, edging out duelist. Then again, if you take one of the feats affording you reaction attacks while you have duelist, it ends up being more or less a wash once more.
For a fighter, this isn’t really all that bad. However, it ends up scaling sharply downward the more you use bonus actions, even if you take a feat, since the entire style predicates use of your bonus action for damage.
Two-Weapon Fighting – Rangers
Now, let’s assume for a minute you aren’t a fighter and you are playing a ranger, instead, and still want to do melee damage. With duelist, you’d do 11.5 damage from level 2-4, and 23 damage from 5th level and up, not including your path features. With two-weapon fighting, you’d do 17 damage from level 2-4. and 25.5 damage from 5th level and up, not including path features. Not really surprising, as when you have fewer total attacks, having another attack is much more meaningful.
The path features change things up a bit. Colossus Slayer doesn’t really favor one fighting style over the other, but in edge cases until level five, two-weapon fighting is slightly better. Both Giant Killer and Horde Breaker favor two-weapon fighting until 5th level, 25.5 damage for two-weapon fighting vs. 23 damage for duelist, but above 5th level, duelist pulls ahead, 34 damage for two-weapon fighting vs. 34.5 damage for duelist. A small advantage to be sure. Dual Wielder is more beneficial here, as you end up at 37 damage, and it’s harder to get an addition attack through feats. However, ranger spells play a big part of the equation for these two fighting styles, as does concentration, you know, War Caster feat.
Hunter’s Mark is a bonus action to cast it, and to move it around the battlefield. This means when you cast it, it favors duelist over two-weapon fighting. The more you have to move the spell around, the more it favors duelist. The same is true for things like Ensnaring Strike, Grasping Vines, and well, not a lot else. If you are a melee ranger, you’re going to cast Ensnaring Strike and Hunter’s Mark like, a lot. The point is, if you are using spells, it heavily favors duelist.
If you never cast spells, and always solo-fight, then you’ll be better off with two-weapon fighting. If you do cast, and use your archetype features, then duelist is hands down better. Not even close.
Does it need a fix?
It’s actually not as dire as I thought it was, though it’s still not great. It shows part of the issue with passive vs. active, because if you miss even one use, the passive starts to pull ahead and it’s hard to catch up if you miss more than one chance. It could use a slight change, but keeping it simple is the key, and you don’t want to overload the power in those lower attack cases.
Two-weapon fighting as a general ability reads thus;
“When you take the Attack action and attack with a light melee weapon that you’re holding in one hand, you can use a bonus action to attack with a different light melee weapon that you’re holding in the other hand. You don’t add your ability modifier to the damage of the bonus attack, unless that modifier is negative. If either weapon has the thrown property, you can throw the weapon, instead of making a melee attack with it.”
and two-weapon fighting style reads;
“When you engage in two-weapon fighting, you can add your ability modifier to the damage of the second attack.”
I think you could get a long way with changing the style to read’
“When you take the attack action, if you are wielding a light weapon in one hand, you may make an attack with a different light weapon in your other hand. You don’t add your ability modifier to this damage of this attack, unless you spend you bonus action to do so. ”
It’s not quite as clean as it could be, but it moves the damage around and resolves a bit of the sharp scaling down if you can’t use your bonus action. I’d be ok with running this as a live rule.