Until the third edition of Dungeons & Dragons, players hardly worried about what their characters had in hand during battle. Since then, the game’s designers have tried and failed to free players from needing to keep track. What your character held only started to matter when a expanding number of options met a much shorter combat round.
When Dungeons & Dragons appeared in 1974, no one worried about what characters had in their hands. Two-handed weapons dealt the same 1d6 damage as lighter arms, so you may as well carry a shield if you could. The rules presented no options for wielding two weapons. No one needed to worry about how their elves managed to cast spells while wielding a sword and shield, because elves could only switch from fighting man to magic user “from adventure to adventure, but not during the course of a single game.” Besides, the requirement to speak and gesture would not enter the game for three more years.
In 1975, the Greyhawk supplement distinguished weapons with different damage dice. Now fighters could opt to use a two-handed sword for greater damage or to keep their shield and wield a regular sword. Gary Gygax presumes his audience of grognards will know that a halberd, for example, requires two hands. Even today, the rules do not mention that you cannot equip a shield and wield a two-handed weapon, because the designers assume everyone knows. (Although, they mention that you can only benefit from one shield at a time.)
In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Gary introduced the option to fight with a weapon in each hand, but with penalties to each attack. Then in 1985, Unearthed Arcana opened the way for drow player characters. “Dark elves…may fight with two weapons without penalty provided each weapon may be easily wielded in one hand.” In the wake of Unearthed Arcana, author R. A. Salvatore created the ranger Drizzt, who could wield two blades due to his drow heritage.
I’m convinced that between Drizzt’s first appearance in The Crystal Shard (1988) and the introduction of second-edition AD&D in 1989, the two-weapon fighting ability jumped from drow to rangers, with Drizzt as the carrier. Second-edition author David “Zeb” Cook disagrees, “I’m not sure where the ranger took shape, though I know it wasn’t an imposition because of Drizzt. It was more to make them distinct and it fit with the style and image.”
But while Zeb led the second-edition design, many others contributed. A two-weapon ranger lacks any fictional inspiration other than Drizzt. Most likely, someone introduced the two-weapon style to rangers to put Drizzt within the rules, without realizing that his ability sprang from the drow race. Or perhaps, some designer simply liked how Drizzt’s scimitars fit the ranger class’s “style and image.”
The 6-second round
In AD&D, no one paid attention to how a spellcasting, two-weapon ranger managed to free a hand to cast, or how much time he needed to sheath both swords and draw a bow. Combat rounds lasted a full minute, and offered plenty of time to exchange gear. On page 61 of 1979 Dungeon Master’s Guide, Gary wrote, “One-minute rounds are devised to offer the maximum of play choice with the minimum of complication. The system assumes much activity during the course of each round.”
Gary modeled the round after the feints, maneuvering, and unsuccessful attacks seen in the climactic sword fight in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). Still, players imagined rounds as a simple exchange of blows. One minute seemed far too long for that, and no one could explain why a bowman could only fire once per minute. In response, Gary devoted half of page 61 to defending the minute-long round.
Nonetheless, Basic D&D always held to 10-second rounds, and then third-edition D&D shrunk the round to 6 seconds. This fitted what players imagined, but it offered far less time to maneuver. As a product of the shorter round, drawing or sheathing a weapon became a move action.
In actual play, few players paid much attention to what their characters held. For example, they typically ignored the two move actions required to swap a bow for a sword. The actions may have better simulated the activity of a 6-second round, but the accounting added no fun.
Making the rules match play
Surely, the fifth-edition designers noticed that few players bothered tracking the
actions required to switch weaponry, spell components, and so on. They noticed that players who performed the accounting found no fun in it. So the designers attempted make the rules match the way players obviously wanted to play—with little concern for time spent swapping weapons and gear. In addition to your move and action, “You can also interact with one object of feature of the environment for free, during either your move or your action.
“If you want to interact with a second object, you need to use your action.”
The “free” action to manipulate one object may seem the same as fourth edition’s minor action, but if offers one important advantage: it plays faster. In fourth edition, players learned to tick off their actions as they used them. When they reached the end of their turn, they often realized that they still had a minor action to spend. Somehow, that unspent minor action seemed precious. It’s an action and I only get one! So they would pause to think of some way to spend it. I will never get back the hours I wasted watching players try to find dream up uses for their minor actions. Turning a minor action into something “free” makes it something players can ignore without angst.
But the one, free action fails to offer enough latitude to let players do things like sling a bow, draw a sword, and then make an attack, all in one turn. On September 9, designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Without a special feature or feat, an Attack action could include sheathing or drawing a weapon, not both.” I understand the need for such a strict interpretation. I never want to hear, “Every turn, after I fire an arrow, I draw my sword in case I have a chance to make an opportunity attack.”
In practice, most players will switch weapons without a thought to the actions required, and without trying to pull any shenanigans. As a dungeon master, you have two choices: You can attempt to enforce a strict action economy, and tolerate the eye-rolling of players who dislike pedantic lectures on the rules. Or you can grant players some latitude and assume that perhaps the ranger saw the approaching goblins and slung her bow on her last turn, before drawing her blades on the current turn. We all know that turns exist to make the continuous action of the round playable. Perhaps the activity of the last turn blurs a bit with the next. However, when rules lawyers want to use a reaction, they have the same weapons in hand as when they ended their turn.
Related: Sky Roy at Bright Cape Gamer follows up on this subject and suggests a bit of “cinematic flexibility.”