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 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.”