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I've played 3.5 for quite some time, and this has been something I've never quite understood, at least with respect to rules as written.

On pp 311 of the 3.5 Player's Handbook, under the entry for 'off-hand', it mentions you incur -4 penalty when using your off-hand when attacking and you only apply 1/2 your Strength bonus to damage. The Strength bonus to damage is covered elsewhere; under the Strength ability entry, several places under equipment, in the combat section and in many examples. However, this particular off-hand penalty is not mentioned elsewhere. Under Two-Weapon Fighting (pp. 160), the normal off-hand penalty is -10. This penalty also did not make it into the SRD. Oddly, in the Rules of the Game articles, "Two-Handed Fighting (Part One-Three)," this penalty is mentioned up front, and used in one attack of opportunity calculation. [Please note: this is only true in the pdf version, evidently the html version has been updated and does not include this] In the main FAQ, there are mentions of off-hand, primary and secondary, with respect to iterative attacks (not two weapon fighting), but again, no mention of this penalty specifically. There are several references to "all the penalties for attacking with two weapons (see Table 8-10 in the PH)".

How and when does this penalty apply? Does it stack with the penalties from table 8-10? Is it an oversight and should be ignored?

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4 Answers 4

up vote 12 down vote accepted

It gets factored in as part of the calculations only for the offhand if you don't have the Two Weapon Fighting feat, but honestly you should just ignore that wording as it's confusing. Two-Weapon Fighting spells it out much more clearly:

If you wield a second weapon in your off hand, you can get one extra attack per round with that weapon. You suffer a -6 penalty with your regular attack or attacks with your primary hand and a -10 penalty to the attack with your off hand when you fight this way. You can reduce these penalties in two ways:

If your off-hand weapon is light, the penalties are reduced by 2 each. (An unarmed strike is always considered light.) The Two-Weapon Fighting feat lessens the primary hand penalty by 2, and the off-hand penalty by 6.

If you look carefully, the extra -4 is showing up in the first part, where your main hand gets -6 and your off-hand gets -10. It's still there with a light weapon (-4, -8). It disappears if you take the two weapon fighting feat, which reduces the main hand penalty by 2 and the off-hand by 6 (the difference is the -4 you noted being removed).

So while everything is being applied correctly, the wording of the part you noted is bad. Just use the Two-Weapon fighting entry itself, as it's wording is clear and the table summarizes very well what's going on.

The total penalties go like this, if you're curious:

Main-Hand: -2 for using two weapons, -2 for non light weapon, -2 for not having Two Weapon Fighting Feat = -6

Off-Hand: -2 for using two weapons, -2 for non light weapon, -2 for not having Two Weapon Fighting Feat, -4 for off-hand penalty (the rule you were curious about) = -10

edit - Using the example from the RotG article, you could argue (as the author does) that the off-hand penalty applies if you're wielding two weapons but only attacking with one of them (whichever weapon you picked as your off one). The off-hand would take the -4 for being offhand, but not the two weapon fighting penalties (as you're only attacking with one weapon). That's the cited example.

It never applies if you're only using one weapon, no matter what hand it's in, because "off-hand" is something that only appears under the two weapon fighting rules. The rules don't care which hand you use if you're only wielding one weapon.

By my reading, it also doesn't apply even if you're wielding two weapons but only using one of them to attack. RAW treats that as your main hand, no matter what. But if you wanted to use the Rules of the Game article's interpretation, then you'd have to pick an off hand as soon as you pick up a second weapon. Either way, when only wielding a single weapon it doesn't matter which hand you use.

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If it let me accept two answers, I would. This answer is accurate. –  Wyrmwood Oct 27 '13 at 19:41
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@Wyrmwood And the other answer isn't. There's nothing in the rules about being handed. If you're using one weapon at a time it doesn't matter which hand it's in. The off hand -4 rule applies ONLY when using two weapons. (If you'll note, there is nowhere on a character sheet to denote if you're left or right handed, that's on purpose: it doesn't matter to the rules.) –  Tridus Oct 27 '13 at 20:07
    
That doesn't make sense. –  Wyrmwood Oct 27 '13 at 22:25
    
I was going to accept Alex answer, since it explains it, but technically, this was the first correct answer. Clearly from the main FAQ (that mentions off-hand attacks with respect to iterative attacks and not two weapon fighting) and THE PDF VERSION of the RoG articles (they are DIFFERENT from the html page...) Skip Williams and others at least early on included handedness in 3.5. Oddly, I have not found any official redaction or mention of this, though there are many errata to both the Rules of the Game and the Main FAQ... –  Wyrmwood Oct 28 '13 at 1:35

It's an editing oversight from the 3.5 rules update.

The D&D 3.0 version of had another feat, Ambidexterity, which was part of the two-weapon fighting chain.

Ambidexterity [General]
Prerequisite: Dex 15+.
Benefit: The character ignores all penalties for using an off hand. The character is neither left-handed nor right-handed.
Normal: Without this feat, a character who uses his or her off hand suffers a -4 penalty to attack rolls, ability checks, and skill checks. For example, a right-handed character wielding a weapon with her left hand suffers a -4 penalty to attack rolls with that weapon.
Special: This feat helps offset the penalty for fighting with two weapons.

So, in the D&D 3.0 Player's Handbook, characters could be right-handed or left-handed, and "off-hand" penalties applied even with a single weapon.

For D&D 3.5, the designers removed Ambidexterity in the following way:

  • They combined the bonuses of 3.0 Ambidexterity and Two-Weapon Fighting into the 3.5 Two-Weapon Fighting feat.
  • They removed all (well, most) mention of handedness from the rules altogether. There is no "off-hand" when using a single weapon.

(See Tidus's answer for a fuller discussion of the two-weapon rules in the D&D 3.5 text.)

Apparently the editors didn't tweak this particular glossary entry during the version update. It's not wrong per se, but a bit ambiguous because it's not entirely in line with the rest of the 3.5 rules.

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This is possible, but I don’t consider it the most likely explanation. The glossary definition works just fine provided you understand its context, which is as a glossary entry to be referenced as you read the TWF rules. It didn't really have to be cut. –  KRyan Oct 28 '13 at 1:34
    
@KRyan You're right that it's not wrong per se, just kinda misleading. I modified the language a bit. –  Alex P Oct 28 '13 at 1:45

OK, I’m honestly not sure if this is a valid answer because I don’t know what the question is any more, but some quotes:

Actual, Published Rules

Player's Handbook, Combat: Two-Weapon Fighting

If you wield a second weapon in your off hand, you can get one extra attack per round with that weapon. You suffer a -6 penalty with your regular attack or attacks with your primary hand and a -10 penalty to the attack with your off hand when you fight this way.

“This way” refers to the way in which you get an extra attack per round. It is optional both to take a penalty and to gain the extra attack; you do not take the penalty unless you choose to do so and if you choose to do so, you get an extra attack.

Player's Handbook, Feats: Two-Weapon Fighting

This just repeats some of the rules from the Combat section also titled Two-Weapon Fighting.

Rules of the Game

First of all, I want to emphasize that Skip Williams often misspoke, occasionally quite blatantly, during these articles. They do not carry any official rules weight, and any contradictions between these articles and the official rules should be completely ignored: the official rules trump these articles every time. See also the errata rules for 3.5, which are printed at the top of each errata document.

Rules of the Game: Two-Handed Fighting (Part One)

Off Hand, Off-Hand Weapon: When attacking with two weapons, the character must designate one of his hands as his off hand; the weapon held in that hand is treated as his off-hand weapon. The game rules don’t really care about whether you’re right-handed or left-handed, and it’s even OK to change your off hand designation from one round to the next.

(emphasis mine)

Right off the bat, even using the Rules of the Game articles that have no bearing on the actual rules, these terms apply only when attacking with two weapons. Not when you attack with a weapon while holding another in the other hand, not while you attack with a weapon while holding nothing in the other hand, not when you attack with a weapon while having a blade sticking out of your boot, but only when you attack with two weapons simultaneously, i.e. use the Two Weapon Fighting combat option to gain an extra attack.

Primary Hand, Primary Weapon: If a character is only attacking with a single weapon, it’s fine to treat that as a primary weapon, regardless of what hand it’s held in. When a character fights with two weapons, he can designate either one as his primary weapon.

(emphasis mine)

To belabor a point, while you aren’t using two weapons, whatever weapon you are using is the primary weapon, period. You don’t even have an off hand or an off-hand weapon.

Once again, you can carry a weapon without using it, which means just because you have a weapon in the other hand (say, a shield, or an unarmed strike), does not mean you are using Two Weapon Fighting and therefore you get no penalties.

Rules of the Game: Two-Handed Fighting (Part Two)

You do not have to choose between the attack and full attack actions until after you have made your first attack on your turn (see page 143 in the Player's Handbook). However, if you intend to attack with two weapons during your action, you must take the correct penalty for each attack or give up your opportunity to use your second weapon (because the rules require you to take a penalty on attacks you make with both your primary and off hands).

(emphasis mine, though the italicized Player's Handbook is present in the original)

Once again, the choice to take the penalties associated with Two Weapon Fighting are conditional on choosing to attack with two weapons, i.e. use Two Weapon Fighting. He explicitly states that you can choose to take no penalties, you just don’t get the extra attack. However, Skip here implies that the torch is unavailable even if you have attacks for other reasons (high BAB, haste spell, etc), but if that implication is intentional (rather than just an artifact of assuming level 1 without special features as a base case), then he is wrong. Yes, he can be wrong, and if he is, his inaccurate statements have absolutely no bearing on the actual rules: the Rules of the Game articles are intended only as clarification, and if mistakes were made, they do not serve as errata, changing the rules. The errata rules make this very clear. The Player's Handbook is the primary source on all of this, and anything contradicting the PHB should be ignored, under the rules.

Once you take a two-weapon fighting penalty, the penalty applies to all the attacks you make with that hand during your current action. It does not apply to attacks you make during some other character's turn. For example, say your torch-wielding swordfighter from the previous example has a base attack bonus of +10. With the full attack action, the character could make two attacks with the sword: one at +10 and the other at +5.

(emphasis mine)

Here we see how ephemeral the "off-hand" designation is: it lasts only for the full attack in which the Two Weapon Fighting option is used. Attacks thereafter (an attack of opportunity in the same round, any attacks at all in future rounds) do not receive any penalties (unless you use the Two Weapon Fighting option again). You do not have a permanent off hand, you merely have an off-hand weapon for the duration of the full attack in which you choose to use Two Weapon Fighting.

Ranged weapons you don't throw use most of the rules for two-weapon fighting; however, the Two-Weapon Fighting feat and related feats don't apply to ranged weapons that aren't thrown.

(emphasis mine)

Just another example of Skip being wrong. This rule is not present anywhere in the actual published rules, it's literally something he appears to be making up for the purposes of this article. Under the official rules, this should be ignored as an error.

Rules of the Game: Two-Handed Fighting (Part Three)

Mentioned only for completeness, this article does not discuss off-handedness in any meaningful way that wasn't already covered in previous articles.

Just as another example of Skip being wrong, though this one is much more dubious:

*The damage bonus for the double weapon's primary end is +3 Strength, +2 enhancement, +2 weapon specialization. The damage bonus for the double weapon's off-hand end is +1 Strength (1/2 of +3) and +2 weapon specialization.

(emphasis mine)

The rules do not actually state at any point that double weapons are treated as a one-handed weapon and a light weapon for the purposes of damage. They state they behave like a one-handed weapon and a light weapon for the purposes of attack rolls but say nothing about damage rolls. By a strict reading of the rules, you actually get 1½ Strength to both ends. This is likely an oversight, however, so this particular “mistake” may be more with the PHB's editors than with Skip. Still, if the goal was to clarify the rules as written in the PHB (which is nominally the purpose of the articles, and certainly the only valid thing for them to do under the errata rules), then this is another error.

Conclusion

You only have an off hand, of any kind, while using the Two Weapon Fighting combat option. Which hand is “off” is freely chosen at the time you choose to invoke the Two Weapon Fighting option, and that designation applies only during the full attack in which you are using the Two Weapon Fighting option. If you do not use Two Weapon Fighting (i.e. do not get an extra attack), you do not have an off hand at all. There is no innate property of either hand that makes it an off hand. All 3.5 characters are, effectively, ambidextrous.

It is only when you choose to attack with both weapons simultaneously (i.e. use the Two Weapon Fighting combat option) that you must designate an off hand; this is the hand that you do not favor in the attack; you put your body and weight primarily behind the primary attack, and off hand is just a little extra (hence halved Strength). It is a function of the particular action you are undertaking, not a property of that arm, hand, or weapon.

The Glossary exists only as a secondary rules source, by definition. The Glossary exists without context: the statements contained therein are only for easy reference, not rules in and of themselves. By the errata rules, in the case of any contradiction between the Glossary (a secondary source) and the original place in which the term is defined and used (the primary source), the primary source trumps the secondary source. The Glossary can only repeat information, not provide new information; that would be a contradiction. In this case, there is no contradiction: the Glossary merely provides a definition, but without context. By looking to the primary source, the context becomes clear: the term “off hand” only applies while using the Two Weapon Fighting option to gain an extra attack.

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Heh, I thought to myself "this doesn't make sense, he's reading a different article". Well, he is :) Evidently, the Rules of the Game articles on this topic were updated (and the first mention of changing handedness clearly can't work with any notion of 'weaker handedness'). Oddly the old articles can still be downloaded from the same page as a pdf. The HTML is the updated version that forgoes any mention of the penalty during an attack of opportunity (where TWF penalties do not occur). –  Wyrmwood Oct 28 '13 at 1:51

The rule on page 311 seems to be intended for those (rare) occasions when you're only fighting with one weapon, but you're using it in your off-hand.

For instance, if your main hand has just been chopped off, or you're drinking some tea while fighting Kobolds.

For fighting with two weapons go with the Two-Weapon Fighting description as Tridus explains.

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I deleted the comments here because they dissolved into uncontrolled back and forth. If your comment thread reaches the end of the page, it's too long. Please edit the points into the answers. –  C. Ross Oct 28 '13 at 0:27
    
A strict reading of the glossary entry could lead someone to this conclusion. Further, language in the main FAQ and pdf versions of the Rules of the Game article (still posted) also assume this understanding. –  Wyrmwood Oct 28 '13 at 1:41

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