Rules Dart Board:
Sharpshooter, Great Weapon Master, and Power Attacks
Zach and I both agree that Great Weapon Master (GWM) and Sharpshooter are broken, especially on a low level human variant, but also in the mid-game where the feat’s bonus damage is so reliable that it makes other ways of playing less appealing to people who are interested in maximizing their damage.
(I know there are some pretty strong feelings out there about min-maxing and role playing, but my stance is that you can do both and wanting an effective character shouldn’t pigeon-hole someone into one of two or three options.)
We both have ways we want to try to fix these feats, but before I talk about how we want to do that, it’s worth talking about why we think they’re not quite right.
Usage Note: I’ll be referring to “Power Attacks” to reference the parts of these feats that allow an attack penalty in exchange for more damage. Fifth edition D&D doesn’t have a feature called Power Attack, but other editions of the game and other D20 systems do, and Power Attack is the easiest short-hand way of referencing that part of the feats.
When an Option is Broken
An option is broken when people aren’t having fun — either the DM or the other players. If everyone at the table is okay with -5 to attack rolls for +10 to damage, and enjoy that the biggest bad-asses on the battlefield have longbows and greatswords — awesome. Build parties around it without a second thought, and do it with our blessing.
But if you’re like us and believe that these feats shine so brightly that a lot of other approaches to combat are diminished by comparison, or if you think it’s weird that sharpshooters outperform spellslingers — or if you feel like the -5 penalty becomes too reliable in the mid and late levels of the game — or if you just want to try something different — well, the rules dartboard is here for your today.
Before you proceed, understand that the advantage to these two feats without any changes to them is their simplicity. They mesh nicely with the 5e system, give clear and easy to understand rules, and are pretty satisfying to use. If you decide to use rules from our dartboard, make sure you know what problem you’re trying to solve.
Whenever something seems broken at the table, make sure everyone is using the correct rule. For instance, the Power Attack feature we’re about to look at is much riskier when players know they’re only supposed to declare a Power Attack before they roll the dice. Getting to add +10 whenever you’re confident that you’ve beaten the AC by at least 5 makes the skill a lot stronger than it should be.
If the feats are still a gremlin at the table, consider a simple tag that mitigates their power. “Once per round,” for instance. But even then, make sure rules are being followed. A ranger with Horde Breaker who isn’t keeping track of his ammunition makes significantly more power attacks than players who do.
If all the rules are being followed, and a simple tag can’t bring the feat to a place you like, start looking at
more fun more complex options.
Great Weapon Master
Tying Power Attack to Levels
This is an approach to directly nerf the skill at early levels, but to make it scale linearly with a character’s level. The reliability to hit with the power attack in the feat remains, but the damage output is tweaked down just a bit to make it less attractive in the very early game.
At the highest levels, the damage bonus is +11, but the level one variant human with the feat is only gaining +7.
For alternative math and a different approach to the scaling, you might have the power attack do half the character level, rounded down, minimum 1, + proficiency.
That makes a level 20 character’s power attack -5 +16, but a level one character’s power attack -5 +3.
To hit the reliability of the power attack and to strike down the sense of unfairness in the feat at early levels, consider making the attack penalty scale at the same progression as proficiency, but simply start from a higher number. The reliability of the attack goes down, and tying the penalty to proficiency helps flavor the attack as a wild, Hail Mary swing. The penalty progression I’d try is -3 / -4 / -5 / -6 / -7.
Just be aware that these are direct nerfs, and the target player for them has the math down on the standard -5 +10 power attack pretty handily. In other words, make sure these exist when there is some other attractive Damage Per Round (DPR) option on the table and that you’re doing this to remove the shackle of opportunity cost, rather than to merely bring a player’s power level down.
Focusing on Power Attack’s reliability
This next shot at the dart-board is designed to make the ability a little less reliable and a little more fun. By making players decide that they’re using a power attack before the swing, you’re helping reduce the certainty of the power attack even after the players have sussed out a monster’s AC. And by randomizing the penalty and the damage, you’re making power attacks a bit more like crits and a bit less like balancing a checkbook.
The problem with this approach is that it’s slower. There are ways around this with good table management, but -5 +10 will always be faster than -1D6 + 1D6(2).
If you want to incentivize “gambling” on the attack a bit more, you can let the penalty dice be included in a crit (without getting multiplied again, of course). It turns a great sword’s power attack into 6D6 +2D6(2), which is fun, but also bonkers. (But it could be considered fair, since the player risked up to a minus -12 before they rolled the attack and found out they’re critting.)
Tying Damage to Ability Score
By tying the power attack of the feat to Strength, you make the feat less attractive at lower levels, and you make the reliable damage only as good as the character’s stat allows. Someone with +5 strength ultimately has the same power attack as before, but they’ll need either phenomenal level one ability score rolls to get this in the early game, or else they’ll need to choose between the feat and their ASIs, which is a bit more interesting and, I think, a bit more in line with the spirit with 5e’s other feats than the standard version of GWM.
You can also choose to modify the penalty to attack as described above, or have them declare a power attack before a roll if you’re worried about the reliability of the damage, but this lets -5 +10 exist in your game… so long as the person is also increasing their strength to match. The choice between GWM, Pole-arm Master, and Ability Score Increases (ASIs) becomes a bit harder to make, and other damage options become appealing to someone who cares a lot about DPR.
Making it different than Great Weapon Master
The Power Attack in the Sharpshooter feat is identical to the power attack given by the Great Weapon Master feat, so you can apply the language from the feats above to modify this one. You can even mix and match to make them feel different — but if you want your ranged-attack specialists in the party to feel different than your maul / greatsword brutes, I think there are more interesting ways to do it.
Subtracting accuracy from an attack doesn’t add to its damage isn’t very… sharpshooty, so let’s try to make Sharpshooter feel more like what the name implies. And, sure, you can flavor this in your head as shooting for a harder target – say, the whites of their eyes – but then when you hit, +10 damage doesn’t necessarily reflect that attack well, and letting characters flavor this as a called shot is one step away from letting them crit on demand.
So I don’t want to subtract accuracy… but my primary complaint is that the Power Attack is too reliably. Lowering the damage feels bad, and I’m already nerfing the guys who are up-close and personal, taking the most risks, so… what’s the solution?
Tying the feat to the Ready Action helps create the sense of lining up good shots, and tying proficiency to the damage helps create a sense of the player’s marksmanship improving over time, without giving them a guaranteed 10 damage. The power attack hits hard and is still very reliable, but comes at the cost of action economy, since monsters, lair actions, and other such things might occur between the readied action and the trigger. Smart players will tie their readied attack to very predictable creature actions, but that’s fine, since +proficiency damage feels significantly worse than +10 damage.
The images to the right (or, if you’re on mobile, the images below) are a couple of explorations into how this might look.
Finally, if all we’re concerned about is reliability, the Overkill option pictured last might suit your needs. This lets the archer get lots of extra damage versus smaller targets — which is when Power Attack would have come into play anyway, and doesn’t mess with immersion with lowering accuracy or imply a called shot. Plus, shooting through things is cool.
Like this? Hate it? Want to tweak it or show us how you’d do it? Leave a comment and let us know.