The massive damage inflicted by characters built on the Sharpshooter feat can overshadow other characters and make potentially interesting encounters resemble an execution by firing squad. See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D, but That Speaks Well of Fifth Edition.
Sharpshooter lets characters exchange -5 to hit for +10 damage. Many players combine it with Crossbow Expert, which lets a character wielding a hand crossbow trade a bonus action for an extra attack.
This post reveals how to build on Sharpshooter to create characters able to deal the most damage. Before you play these characters, consider whether they fit your gaming group.
If your group likes pitting optimized characters against a dungeon master who thinks a Remorhaz makes a suitable first-level foe, these builds fit.
If you want to show off your min-maxing skills, skip the sharpshooter. Such easy builds may fail to impress.
Optimal sharpshooters shoot hand crossbows rapid-fire. Does the flavor of your campaign fit a character firing a toy crossbow with the manic speed of a Benny Hill clip? I suppose some players fancy a character who resembles a genre-bending gunslinger, but I suspect the build’s massive damage draws more players than its flavor. (In second edition, the highest damage came from muscle-bound characters throwing darts. No one played that for flavor either.)
In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting your sharpshooter showboat during the battles. Or perhaps others in the group feel content in roles other than damage dealing. Perhaps the bard and wizard both enjoy their versatility, the druid likes turning into a beast and soaking damage, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.
Before playing an optimized Sharpshooter, ask your group.
Building a sharpshooter
The Sharpshooter feat is powerful because it makes each attack deal excessive damage in exchange for a manageable penalty on to-hit rolls. To make the most of Sharpshooter, create a character who (1) makes lots of attacks and (2) minimizes the penalty to hit.
Without feats or off-hand attacks, a rogue only gets one attack per turn. And with one sneak attack per turn, rogues want to be sure to hit. Taking a -5 to-hit penalty adds to the risk of losing a sneak attack. A ranged rogue can often reduce the risk by attacking from hiding to gain advantage, but Sharpshooter only makes a decent feat for a rogue, not a strong one.
Ranger and fighter make the best classes for sharpshooters. Both classes gain extra attacks through their careers, and both offer the Archery fighting style, which grants +2 to hit with ranged attacks.
Choosing a race
Most players interested in playing a sharpshooter opt for a human character. Humans can take Sharpshooter at level 1, and then Crossbow Expert at 4. Bring on the Remorhaz!
Still, levels 1-3 go fast, so an aspiring sharpshooter can choose another race without playing too long with a merely balanced character. An elf can more easily reach a 20 Dexterity while taking Sharpshooter at level 4, and then Elven Accuracy at level 8. When you have advantage on a Dexterity attack, Elven Accuracy lets you re-roll one of the dice. For most characters, this makes a weak benefit, but a fighter who chooses the Samurai archetype usually attacks with advantage. Oddly Elven sharpshooter Samurai make good characters. (But please invent an interesting backstory.)
For a crossbow-wielding sharpshooter, choose a human. At level 1, take Crossbow Master. At level 4, take Sharpshooter. (The fast advance to level 4 means a short wait for both feats.) At levels 8 and 12, increase your Dexterity.
For a longbow-wielding sharpshooter, choose a human or, for a samurai, an elf. Take Sharpshooter for your first feat, and then focus on increasing Dexterity to 20.
Building a fighter sharpshooter
Fighters can combine the Archery fighting style with more extra attacks than any other class. Action Surge lets fighters unload an extra round of attacks. Such bursts let sharpshooter-fighters kill legendary monsters in a turn, and lead the rest of the party to wonder why they showed up.
Conventional wisdom suggests that ranged attackers typically suffer weak defenses, but not fighters. Ranged fighters skip shields, but they have all the hit points and armor proficiency of a front-line fighter. Plus a crossbow expert proves deadlier in melee than a great weapon master.
The Battle Master and Samurai archetypes combine particularly well with Sharpshooter.
Battle masters gain four or more Superiority Dice that they can spend on combat maneuvers. The battle master’s Precision Attack maneuver helps make your sharpshooter attacks hit despite any penalties. “When you make a weapon attack roll against a creature, you can expend one superiority die to add it to the roll.”
Samurai gain 3 or more uses of Fighting Spirit. “As a bonus action on your turn, you can give yourself advantage on weapon attack rolls until the end of the current turn.”
Advantage from Fighting Spirit helps your Sharpshooter attacks hit despite any penalties. However, the feature takes a bonus action, which makes it a bad match for a crossbow expert. If your self respect prevents you from using a toy crossbow, play a Samurai.
For a longbow-wielding fighter, choose a human or elf. Choose the Samurai archetype. Take Sharpshooter for your first feat, and then focus on increasing Dexterity to 20. Elven characters can then opt for Elven Accuracy.
At level 15, the Rapid Strike feature often lets Samurai take as many attacks as a crossbow expert. “If you take the Attack action on your turn and have advantage on an attack roll against one of the targets, you can forgo the advantage for that roll to make an additional weapon attack against that target, as part of the same action.”
Building a ranger sharpshooter
Rangers can combine the Archery fighting style with an extra attack at level 5 and more attacks at higher levels.
For example, at level 11, rangers with the Hunter archetype use the Volley feature to launch attacks against every target in a 10-foot radius.
The best ranger sharpshooters choose the Gloom Stalker archetype. These rangers gain an extra attack on the first turn of combat, and also add an extra 1d8 to that attack’s damage. By level 5, a human with a hand crossbow can start every fight with 4 sharpshooter attacks. With a just a little luck, that amounts to 80-some points of damage. How many foes will live to the second round? Gloom stalkers can also add their wisdom to their initiative, so ask, “How many foes will live to their turn?”
At 11th level, the Stalker’s Flurry feature minimizes the chance of missing despite any penalty from Sharpshooter. “Once on each of your turns when you miss with a weapon attack, you can make another weapon attack as part of the same action.”
• How to Build a D&D Cleric Who’s Super Fun in a Fight
• How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter
• How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat
I already knew Sharpshooter was broken. Then the min-max master in one of my groups brought his son to the game. He just happened to have built this Sharpshooter/Crossbow Expert ranger … Sigh.
i made a character for a game my dm is starting soon. its a multiclass of rogue 1, artificer 2, and monk 12 (we’re starting at lvl 15), variant human with sharpshooter. every asi so far was used to max out dex and wis, so base ac is 20. i started rogue for the extra skills and expertise, went artificer for repeating shot, and kensei monk for extra dmg dice. if this character gets a hunting rifle, he can (and i did the math already) shoot something 240 feet away with a +6 to hit (+11 if not using sharpshooter) for 2d10 p +1d6 (sneak attack) + 1d6 elemental (ua spell arcane weapon) + 1d8 (kensei feature) + 1d4 (also kensei feature) + 10 dmg. and then he can shoot them again for a little less.
If you want a game to ‘win’, take up chess.
My second character was a ranged ranger. I profess innocence. I didn’t know the horrid beast I was creating back at the start of 5E! I didn’t go the hand crossbow route, just the old longbow, and I’m not Gloom Stalker, but it is still a very strong build. The huge benefit of being a ranger is from spells and features. Volley, as you mention, can regularly grant 3-4 attacks (vs your normal 2).
The spells are fortuitous, to say the least. You gain a number of options at various levels, and towards the end of your career you can make it through a long adventuring day with constant benefits. Hunter’s Mark is your early pick-me up, adding 1d6 to every hit. The 3rd level spell Flame Arrows (Elemental Evil) is a more flexible option, adding 1d6 fire on every hit regardless of target. That’s a nice damage boost with Volley. The 4th level spell Guardian of Nature is fairly insane: Great Tree form grants advantage on Dex attacks, 10 temp HPs, adv on Con saves, and surrounds you in difficult terrain. It’s a great choice for hard-to-hit foes. The great absurdity is Swift Quiver, a 5th-level spell, granting 2 extra attacks each round with your bonus action for 1 minute. That’s a minimum 4 attacks a round, and with Volley on your main attack you likely get more! All of these are concentration spells, so you choose the best for the occasion, but it means you are almost always getting one of these boosts once you are higher level.
The nice thing about ranger is that it is also super-flavorful, with lots of utility.
I should add that when I find I have a character like this, I work with the rest of the party to establish how powerful I should be and I tone it down appropriately. The ranger is a nice class because I can choose NOT to deal tons of damage or take out lots of targets. The flexibility lets me tone it down or up for greater group (and DM) fun.
Is it a thing, to build a character you intend to kill for their legacy character’s backstory? I’m thinking run a team of new characters through an exciting build where the sharpshooter is necessary to get through it, then when they’ve gotten a little more comfortable we kill off the tutorial sharpshooter and send in their legacy character for the next build?
Great write up, David. As someone who has played and had to DM a sharpshooter, there are ways to counter this build both hard and soft. Would you consider an article on those? Better if I and or others wrote something up in comments?
Fighters & Rangers need Sharpshooter to keep up with Barbarian & Paladin. Certainly never saw any sign it was OP. And you need a free hand to reload a hand x-bow so unless you’re a Thri-Keen the bonus attack is a one shot.
If you want OP – the Monk-20 IMC today hit a Kraken 4 times in one round & spent a total of 13 Ki for 4 Quivering Palm attacks, around 250 damage total.
One of the DM’s greatest tools for balancing powergamers, minmaxers, and other nonsense is the “what’s good for the goose is good for the gander” ploy. If you have a Sharpshooting XbowXpert nonsense character, then the party starts finding other such characters fighting against THEM – and those enemy machine-gun snipers shoot for the archer first. Sure, then the rest of the party has to deal with those archers when they’re done mollycobbling the PC sharpshooter, but after that game I expect the players will be having a pointed talk with their munchkin buddy. Especially if you as a DM have made it clear that encounters like this are the price one pays for playing the rules instead of the game.
Now, to be fair, there shouldn’t be anything explicitly wrong with playing the rules. But DMs exist for a reason. If these things are ruining your game, houserules are your friend. Sharpshooter only offers +5 flat damage, let’s say, or all such Combat Commando feats (Sharpshooter, XbowXpert, GWM, PAM, all the like) require the character to be level 8, or even 12, before one can take them. Or rule that a character can only take their choice of one from a list of such Combat Commando feats, which precludes combining Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert for maximum cheddar.
Sure, none of these are RAW, but if you’re not playing Adventurer’s League (and you shouldn’t be), who cares?
“or all such Combat Commando feats (Sharpshooter, XbowXpert, GWM, PAM, all the like) require the character to be level 8, or even 12, before one can take them”
At that point both the damage bonus to SS as well as GWM will already be completely useless.
Also, you just nerfed a build that will hardly manage to max its main stat und yet deals less damage than any barbarian or paladin while being easier to hit in any close-combat environment. If ranged characters ruin your game, just stop fights from happening on large, open areas.
This post is silly, sure this build is very strong at lower lvls but by lvl 7 or 9 at the latest full caster’s exponential rise catches up they can do a lot more burst and nuke damage, plus there are things like coffelocks and wizard with the magic initiate feat for sacred flame they can lock most bosses in a wall of force cage and rain sacred fire down on them while the boss can’t do much.
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Reload need ONE FREE HAND even with crossbow expert. Only one person mentioned it, but it is kind of invalidating the build.
The text reads as follows “When you use the Attack action and attack with a one-handed weapon, you can use a bonus action to attack with a hand crossbow you are holding.”
The hand crossbow you’re using for your bonus action attack is the same one-handed weapon you were holding and made the attack during your Attack action with. In other words, it only takes one hand crossbow to meet the requirements of the feat– you don’t need a second one.
The “one free hand” part comes into play with questions like, “Can I hold a shield and make multiple attacks with a hand crossbow,” or, “can I use my hand crossbow on multiple turns while using a sword as my main attack.”
errata made it clear in the ammunition part that you need a free hand. Crawford also clarified. The crossbow expert “loading” removal means you can attack multiple times but still need to use ammunition hence a free hand.
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