The designers of fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons want to avoid changing the game as it exists in print. In a Tome Show interview, designer Mike Mearls said they would only make changes if something proves “horribly broken.” Although no character options seem to qualify, a few rate as troublesome enough to land on designer Jeremy Crawford’s undisclosed “watch list.” A few more dominate enough to overshadow lesser PCs. Here are 7 examples.
7. Dealing massive damage during surprise rounds – Paladin 2/Assassin 3/Fighter 2
At level 3, a Rogue who takes the Assassin archetype treats any hit scored against a surprised creature as a critical, which doubles the Rogue’s sneak attack dice. The 2nd-level Paladin’s Divine Smite adds even more dice to double. To land more critical hits, add two levels of Fighter for Action Surge and a second batch of attacks. If you want criticals without surprise, continue to level 3 with the Fighter’s Champion archetype for crits on 19-20.
Is it broken? No. How often does a party or even a sneaky PC gain surprise? When a party does gain surprise, this advantage typically leads to a romp even without an assassin going nova.
Without surprise, you have a Rogue who must boast a Strength and Charisma of 13, and a Paladin who either skips the protection of heavy armor or sneaks with disadvantage.
Related: Dealing Death: Handbook of the True Assassin
6. Healing at low levels – Druid 1/Cleric 1
The 1st-level druid spell Goodberry creates 10 berries that PCs can eat to heal a hit point. Whenever a Life-domain Cleric uses a 1st-level spell to heal, the target regains 3 additional hit points. This bonus applies to each of 10 healing berries produced by Goodberry. At levels 2-4, gaining 40 hit points of healing from a 1st-level spell rates as outrageous. An official Sage Advice post confirms this interaction.
Is it broken? No. Although you can upend a bag of M&Ms into your mouth, eating a single Goodberry demands an action. As levels rise, the healing stays at 40, and the class pairing just yields a Druid/Cleric who can’t wear metal armor, or a Cleric/Druid who can’t be a Druid. Adventurers League players will drop the combination before they reach level 5.
5. Locking down monsters – Monk 5 and Hex
Update: Hex only imposes disadvantage on ability checks, and not on saving throws, so this combination doesn’t work. Jay Elmore tells me that some players combine Hex and grapple to impose disadvantage on their target’s Strength checks.
At level 5, every class gains a game-changing ability. Monks get Stunning Strike. After striking, they can force their foe to make a Constitution save to avoid being stunned until the monk’s next turn. A stunned creature can do nothing except endure attacks made with advantage. Few foes will survive more than a turn or two of the onslaught.
The Warlock’s 1st-level Hex spell lets the monk impose disadvantage on one type of save, say Constitution. Hex lasts at least an hour and can move from victim to victim. The extra 1d6 damage added to each blow just adds a lagniappe of pain. (Also a good name for a Zydeco-Metal band.)
A Monk can gain the ability to cast Hex in two ways: Take the Magic Initiate feat or a level of Warlock. With the feat, Monks can only Hex once a day—still enough for a hour-long adventuring day and at least one boss smackdown. The level of Warlock costs both the level and a 13 Charisma, but gains multiple castings.
Is it broken? No, but the combination tends to dominate every boss fight. If I were a better person behind the DM screen, I would enjoy watching monks seize the spotlight as they turn my biggest threats into piñatas. Forgive me though, because sometimes I fake my admiration.
I have a memo to anyone designing D&D adventures, including many pros who should know better. No single foe without legendary actions can pose a fight to a group of PCs.
4. Dealing melee damage – Great Weapon Master
The Great Weapon Master feat lets characters trade accuracy for damage. “Before you make a melee attack with a heavy weapon you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack’s damage.” With fifth edition’s bounded armor classes, this trade usually makes great deal. Your fighter gets no benefit from rolling 20-something to hit a typical 14 AC, but that extra 10 damage stings.
A fighter who gains many extra attacks at higher levels and from action surges can multiply the extra damage by several attacks.
Is it broken? The combination falls short of breaking the game, but it overshadows other melee-fighting strategies.
Related: Great Weapon Mastery How to -5/+10 Like a Pro
3. Dealing consistent ranged damage – Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert
Exactly like Great Weapon Master, Sharpshooter lets characters trade accuracy for damage. The trade can yield even more damage per round, because a sharpshooter with the Crossbow Expert feat gains an additional attack.
Crossbow Expert lets a character attack with a one-handed weapon, and then use a bonus attack to make another attack with a hand crossbow. D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “Crossbow Expert does allow a character to shoot a hand crossbow as an action and again as a bonus action.” So fighters with the feat can use their usual multi-attacks, attack with a bonus action, and optionally spend an Action Surge for another volley. Plus, you can make these attacks from range. (The fifth-edition designers often undervalue the benefit of attacking from a distance.)
As a downside, loading requires a free hand. Also, the Great Weapon Masters will mock your tiny weapon.
Is it broken? Players who play any martial archetype that has ever appeared in fantasy face being overshadowed by an improbable character who rapid fires a tiny crossbow for massive damage.
Some DMs will rule that the crossbow used for the bonus attack cannot be the same as the one used for the regular attack. This forces PCs to stow a crossbow, freeing a hand to reload. In organized play, any DMs making this ruling will hear players howl that the ruling “COMPLETELY AND ARBITRARILY INVALIDATES MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.”
2. Dealing bursts of ranged damage – Warlock 2 / Sorcerer 3+
Warlocks gain fewer spell slots than other casters, forcing them to spend more rounds blasting with their Eldritch Blast cantrip. In compensation, eldritch invocations make Eldritch Blast much better than other cantrips. The best invocation, Agonizing Blast, lets Warlocks add their Charisma bonus to their blasts’ damage. It makes the essential, first invocation to take at level 2. Even when PCs never take another level of Warlock, the number of beams from their Eldritch Blasts increase as their level increases.
Once a 2nd-level Warlock can blast the game’s most powerful cantrip, a switch to the Sorcerer class unlocks a way to cast another in the same turn. Third-level Sorcerers can take the Quicken Spell metamagic option, which lets them spend sorcery points to fire another Eldritch Blast as a bonus action. As a level-5 PC, Quicken Spell allows firing 4 beams in one round. By the time such characters reach level 11, they can quicken their blasts for 4 straight turns, dealing up to 6d10+30 damage per turn.
Is it broken? Warlock and Sorcerer both use powers based on Charisma, so the classes combine well. Whether the combination breaks the game depends on how many encounters your game tends to pack between long rests and fresh allotments of sorcery points.
Honorable mention: At level 14, Evokers gain the Overchannel ability, which lets them boost a spell to deal maximum damage. After one use, the overchannelling Wizard takes 2d12 of damage per level of spell—a steep price. But cantrips count as level 0, so overchannel Firebolt every turn!
Designer Jeremy Crawford tweeted, “As written, an evoker can overchannel a cantrip without taking damage (on my watch list). A DM could say no cantrips.” Sure, and INVALIDATE MY ENTIRE CHARACTER CONCEPT.
Update: The Player’s Handbook errata changed Overchannel so it doesn’t benefit cantrips.
1. Surviving damage – Druids in the Circle of the Moon path
At 2nd level, a Druid can take the shape of beast along with all its hit points. When Druids return to their regular shape, they return to the hit point total they had before they transformed. In effect, a 2nd-level druid can lose most of the, say, 68 hit points of two brown-bear forms before even dipping into their regular supply.
For Druids in the Circle of the Land, the beast form lacks combat strength, so they transform to scout. No one enters the Circle of the Land. Druids in the Circle of the Moon get beast forms that can fight. Plus, Druids assume the Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution of their beast forms, so they can make all three physical attributes dump stats.
Some players make their Druids even tougher by adding levels of Barbarian for their Rage ability and the resistance it grants to piercing, bludgeoning, and slashing damage. Moon Druids never seem endangered, so the combination probably offers more protection than anyone needs. Multiclassing dilutes the Druid’s overall power, because it slows access to more powerful beast forms.
Is it broken? Jeremy Crawford has the feature on his watch list, but calls it better on paper than in play.
Many critics of the Moon Druid cite the level-20 archdruid’s ability to shapechange an unlimited number of times, which makes them virtually invincible. But all level-20 characters have abilities that would qualify them for the Justice League.
Nonetheless, in the role of defender, Moon Druids change the balance of the game. In level-appropriate encounters, Druids never become endangered. Once a Druid learns to screen party members, they rarely feel threatened either.
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I’m generally okay with a single player that chooses one of these options. In organized play, I don’t tend to see several of these at a table, and overall the fights still work.
My pet peeve is the use of spells that completely nerf the encounter. Hypnotic Pattern and Banishment are the big ones. Some wizards cast banishment every encounter on the biggest threat (sometimes with an auto-fail saving throw). If you have designed encounters, you know that this is just an insane change to the encounter balance. There is no way the encounter can be a proper challenge when the biggest thing never gets to act or when the party gets several rounds of not getting attacked.
Unfortunately, parties seem to enjoy this. I’ve see as both DM and player tables that do this in every combat of the adventure. My favorite was a table where I was a player, and every other player was from a home group where they took turns DMing. When it was their turn to DM their home game, they hated the spell and other broken options. When they were the player, they used the same things they hated as a DM. I asked why they didn’t just agree not to use the broken options… they didn’t really have an answer for that. Hmm.
Back in the early days of this blog, I wrote about spells that ruin adventures. Fifth edition either dropped or redesigned those culprits. However, I think I may have fodder for a post titled “spells ruin encounters.”
If it’s nerfing an encounter, it’s because you’ve allowed it to. Instead of claiming they’re breaking the game, add ways to deal with it in your encounters.
Hypno Pattern is a concentration spell, a charm, and only a 30ft cube at 120ft. Well within range of a Longbow. Hard to pin down on certain types of creatures (Elves, for instance are resistant). Hard to hit multiple groups of enemies (flank the PCs if they’re abusing this).
Banishment is even closer range (60ft), also concentration, and it sends a creature to its home plane. What’s stopping you from having something in the creature’s home plane Dispel the Banishment? Or having the creature return from Banishment with backup from its home plane…
If you’re the nerd lord, don’t let them push you around.
I’ll add that as an author, I refuse to write for these situations. I write for the normal party and the normal builds. I make the assumption that if a player built a character to destroy the encounter I wrote, then that must be part of their fun and that’s okay. If a player built a crazy character or chose auto-nerf options, and they actually want a thrilling challenge, then I assume the player will ask their DM to make adjustments. The last thing organized play needs is to try to compete against these kinds of players/tables, because it really hurts the ability of normal groups to enjoy the game.
I think you write with the proper mindset. When I DM for a table of cheesy, optimized characters, I will amp up the difficulty, but I don’t worry too much about making things challenging. Such groups often relish the chance to flaunt their characters (and the lack of challenge their builds create). What vexes me is when just one player shows up with the tricky character build. They love to shine and eliminate the challenges, but perhaps at the cost everyone else’s fun.
Unfortunately the, ‘One player to ruin it all,’ is never fixable; it’s a culture issue and is best dealt with by good player selection. Player skill will always vary; some players enjoy optimization and others may not.
From my experience DMing, it’s much easier to overpower an encounter and tune it down in real time rather than underpower it and ramp it up.
I’ll tend to have my NPCs and enemies take actions or use behaviors that aren’t combat actions – so when I tune down an encounter it’s not as noticeable.
For example, if the group of orcs is coming on too strong early on in combat – I’ll have them be more chaotic and arrogant with their movements and actions. They might waste an action taunting PCs with a chest beat or laughing in their face. If momentum shifts suddenly in combat, one orc might break rank and run in terror for a turn or two before being called back (Or not return). Enemies will have rationality or instinct as well; taking down the strongest enemy is a reasonable strategy – so having pack tactics chasing down the tank or OP player is realistic. These are all variations within combat that can be leveraged to tune it down as needed.
As someone who really enjoys optimization (And who has also DM’d), my unspoken rule is one of respect; the DM who leaves me to my own devices will get a self-policing PC who understands the importance of keeping that power in check. Sure – my Paladin might be able to slam smites over and over for extra nova damage; but it’s also equally reasonable that his own ego would prevent him from going OP NOVA for every little thing. Spending a turn using lay on hands to heal a teammate rather than launching a multi-attack can noticeably reduce team DPS without being obvious. Personally, the value of character optimization isn’t to one-shot every enemy…it’s to have that extra bit of UMPH at the point of the encounter when things look grim that changes the momentum and inspires the bards for generations to come. I’ll also openly explain what my PC is capable of to the DM prior to encounters so they can adjust accordingly if desired.
Hex imposes disadvantage on ability checks, not saving throws.
For that Sharpshooter / Crossbow Expert combo, would you allow a character who has Mage Hand and wants to use that as the free hand for reloading?
Not completely broken, but the Warlock ability to cast Darkness starting at 3rd level and see into that darkness with Devil’s Sight took many of my fellow players aback one game, enough so that a few called it broken even when it was to their advantage.
I did argue that Warlocks face enough limits that it’s really fairly balanced but it does seem rather powerful for 3rd level. Ideally the Warlock casts it trapping a foe within and then spams Eldritch Blast until the creature drops. What the DM quickly figured out the first time I did it was simply to have the creature(s) within either retreat or advance so it did slow things down but wasn’t quite as nullifying as it could have been. And I argued that from the standpoint that the Warlock has to basically invest half of available spells for it and forego the staple Hex (also Concentration) it works out. Further while RAW doesn’t specifically deny it, it reads like you can’t cast Darkness on an object another creature is carrying or wearing which does limit things a bit. Also the DM was quick to note that the area of effect is a sphere 15′ radius, which if placed at round level is actually pretty limited. Many giants have their head in the clear, and most humanoids are effectively clear of it at 10′ radius or so.
My character did experiment with casting Darkness on a dagger which let him suppress it by sheathing the dagger. He’d then move clear of the party, draw the dagger and advance. He’d stay in the darkness which he could see in and stay with his target keeping the target blind.
I did find a rather wicked combination a few levels later. My character was a Dragonborn Rogue/Warlock. Not necessarily an “optimized build” but interesting to play (and a fun backstory and traits). I forget the exact point but once he reached 3rd level as a Rogue (after 3rd as a Warlock) he took Arcane Trickster Archetype to the surprise of all as he had a very low Intelligence. However, that provides 3 more cantrips and two 1st level spell slots which does expand things for a Warlock considerably as if he used Warlock spells he cast them with those abilities letting him have two low level spells without waisting his Warlock slots.
Where things got a bit broken was with Magehand Legerdemain. On a few notable occasions (he was sparing with the Darkness trick to avoid offending other players) just before a fight he’d cast Darkness on a dagger and sheath it. Then cast Magehand. At an opportune time he could unsheath the dagger and manuver it as a bonus action leaving both hands free. While it somewhat tethered him, and forced him to choose between using Cunning Action or moving the dagger, it did open up a great many options. Targets could not easily get out of the Darkness. He could stay in the darkness and since he wasn’t seen he’d qualify as hidden giving him Advantage on attacks which made Sneak Attack with little reprisal deadly. With this technique he could tie up large sections of a battlefield and several creatures while the party concentrated on taking out others.
Yes, it neutralized a couple boss monsters and even let him take one on and out solo.
Oh, and while it’s a little tricky, dumb Arcane Tricksters simply avoid spells which require attack rolls or saves. Since they don’t have many known spells this isn’t too much of a hardship. Sleep and Magic Missile are very handy and avoid the problems of an 11 INT very nicely. In the case of the Warlock multiclass, however, there’s very little problem. Make the bulk of Trickster Cantrips Utilities and use Warlock spells with the spell slots primarily.
You often don’t even have to move away from your party. In darkness they attack with disadvantage, because they can’t see the target, and advantage, because target can’t see them, so they just attack as if darkness doesn’t exist. You can thank Next for throwing out miss chances. Darkness still prevents other ways to gain advantage and targeted spells, though.
As a DM of a Hoard of the Dragon Queen campaign, our level 3 druid dueled and defeated a level 5 halfdragon fighter as a Brown Bear. I’d have to agree it’s quite powerful, but he did get really lucky. They met the halfdragon again, this time when level 4, and almost died within the first few turns. The only reason he survived was the wizard’s subtle Phantasmal Force that made the halfdragon blind because a phantasmal Stirge was eating his face, giving the halfdragon disadvantage and the druid advantage on all attacks.
It’s also not quite as powerful when you’ve got swarms of enemies that ALL attack the bear with 11 AC. Our druid’s actually almost died more than anyone else in the party.
There were only 3 players, so I made an mercenary NPC I’ve always wanted to play as to make it 4 (Magnus from Kid Icarus: Uprising). He’s a human battle master fighter with a giant sword, so naturally I created him with Great Weapon Master, not really knowing how powerful he really would be. At level 4, he deals a good 50 damage on his turn, as he’s got Precision Strike and the Lucky feat to counter the -5 penalty. Kind of a bad decision as a DM, but they don’t complain!
Despite both of these builds being in the party, they’ve had a surprising number of VERY close calls without me adjusting anything.
I think it’s worth mentioning that Warlock 3 / Sorcerer X is a much more powerful combo. the 2 2nd level warlock slots can be funnelled to give the character 4 Sorcery Points every SHORT Rest, which is essentially the level 20 capstone ability. This allows for a more sustained burst damage, as you can metamagic on quick trips and have a renewable resource for Sorcery Points to do so.
From a GM stand point I’ve always had one or two in my groups that designed characters that would “break” the game. They can’t.
The GM has an unlimited budget. I present what appears to be the the big bad and when the party blows their best powers to nerf the encounter I let them celebrate. Then I send in wave two.
I will almost double the number of encounters on a group that can shortcut. I give them a set number of long and short rests per adventure that they can take whenever they like, but when they are out they are out. It’s like a video game, just turn up the difficulty level for advanced players.
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One consideration for some of these builds, or concerns about spells is that perhaps the DM doesnt understand how they actually work. For instance Banishment requires material components that are essentially a quest in themselves to get, and if the monster is from your plane, it only goes bye bye for a minute….. suddenly not vey game breaking…oh and what about Legendary resistance feature of a worthy monster , or other defensive traits. Some spells require line of sight, or components that just dont happen consistently.
I do believe that Good Berries does have the potential to be broken. While you said “Although you can upend a bag of M&Ms into your mouth, eating a single Goodberry demands an action. As levels rise, the healing stays at 40”. For it to potentially stay at 40 is assuming they are only casting it once. You can cast it several times, and as they stay good for 24 hours, you can get a lot of after healing battle done.
Regarding goodberry/disciple of life, this DM does consider it broken. I ruled that the extra healing from the cleric feature manifested as additional goodberries, not added potency on every goodberry.
I believe that the Hexblade Padlock build can be pretty broken in 5E. at 4 Warlock/5 Paladin Wielding Scimitars you’ll have 3d6+10 on normal attack with Divine Smite, Hexblades Curse, and Vow of Enmity, while using Two Weapon Fighting and Extra Attack. Ranged damage with Eldritch Agonizing Blast 2d10+6. 17AC, Hellish Rebuke, and False Life make you surprisingly resilient and threatening too.
Disciple of Life doesn’t apply to goodberries. It says “whenever you use a spell of 1st level or higher to restore hit points to a creature, the creature regains additional hit points.” Goodberry is a spell that summons magical berries, not a spell that restores hit points to a creature.
Yes it does apply to Goodberries, since the official Sage Advice link confirms it. You can read it how you want if you are the DM, but the link makes it official.
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