What would you think of Dungeons & Dragons feats that gave these benefits?
You gain immunity to all melee attacks.
Before making a melee attack, you can teleport to within melee attack range of your target, attack, and then teleport back to your original position.
Overpowered? Absolutely. I’m not competing for worst D&D designer. My broken feat designs make a provocative way to show the big advantages of attacking from range.
When you attack from a distance, melee attackers can’t hit you. You can fire past obstacles that hamper movement. You can switch targets without having to move. No wonder melee attackers tend to be barbarians and paladins; no sensible person would opt for such inefficiency and risk.
Ranged attacks suffer drawbacks: Targets can gain cover. If foes move next to you, then your attacks suffer disadvantage and you stop being immune to their melee attacks.
Fortunately for ranged attackers, the game’s two most broken feats dismantle all these disadvantages. With Sharpshooter, you ignore cover. With Crossbow Expert, you can make ranged attacks while within 5 feet of enemies without suffering disadvantage. With these feats, melee attacks no longer endanger you because you inflict such massive damage that by the time a foe reaches you, it’s dead.
D&D’s designers seem to think ranged and melee attacks represent two different, but mostly equal styles, when really, ranged attacks offer massive intrinsic advantages. Why else would the game’s design so often reward ranged attackers with extra benefits that surpass anything melee combatants get?
Exhibit A: Ranged rogues can hide and then pop up to attack from hiding, gaining advantage and a sneak attack. Melee rogues almost never get to attack while hidden, but at least backstabbers can sneak attack without advantage when an ally stands next to a target. If that edge only applied to melee rogues, then the game would offer different but comparable boosts to archers and backstabbers. But archers benefit from adjacent allies too. Remember backstabbing? Now it rates as a strategy for players seeking the roleplaying challenge of playing an inferior character.
Exhibit B: The Sharpshooter feat offers more proof that D&D’s design favors ranged attackers. Compare Sharpshooter to its melee counterpart, Great Weapon Master. Both feats let characters exchange -5 to hit for +10 damage. But rangers and fighters—the classes most likely to take Sharpshooter—can also opt for the Archery fighting style, which grants a +2 bonus to attack rolls with ranged weapons. In practice, sharpshooters gain 10 damage for a mere -3 attack penalty. Great weapon fighters get no such boost to accuracy.
Also, great weapon masters must stand in harm’s way.
Also, great weapon masters usually must move to attack and to switch targets—so inefficient.
Sharpshooter rates as the strongest feat in the game, but the Crossbow Expert feat multiplies the power. Crossbow Expert nullifies the biggest weakness of ranged attackers—the disadvantage of attacking with an adjacent foe. Plus, by using a hand crossbow, the feat allows an additional attack. Sure, a hand crossbow averages a point less damage than, say, a longbow, but when each hit still deals 13-15 points of fixed damage, the damage die is just gravy.
On the occasional critical hit, great weapon masters get an extra attack. Crossbow experts get one every damn turn.
My exhibit C further proves the D&D designers’ brazen favoritism toward ranged attackers. Fifth edition drops the spell Protection from Normal Missiles, a spell that dates to the original little, brown books. The prosecution rests.
What makes sharpshooters the worst thing in D&D?
Before I explain, understand that by labeling sharpshooters as the worst, I’m aiming a backhanded compliment at the strength of the edition. In any other edition of D&D, a feat as overpowered as Sharpshooter would not even rate on a list of the system’s flaws. Old editions suffered cracks at the foundation. Fifth edition suffers from an absurd feat.
When compared to other character types focused on dealing damage, sharpshooters overshadow other characters. DM Thomas Christy has hosted as many online D&D games for strangers as anyone. He says, “I have actually had players complain in game and out about how it seemed like they did not need to be there.” In a Todd Talks episode, Jen Kretchmer tells about asking a player to rebuild a crossbow expert. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” Pity the poor players who thought playing a hulking barbarian swinging a 2-handed great sword seemed like a recipe for maximum damage. Every turn, they’ll be embarrassed by a pip-squeak who reaps monsters with a toy crossbow.
I don’t aim to slam archers. They make an evocative archetype. And if you want to play an archer, play a sharpshooter. Next week, I’ll explain how to build a good one. I rarely want my players to feel obliged to build weakened characters. Dungeon masters can adapt to make sharpshooters a little less dominant.
By including overpowered feats that erase all the disadvantages of ranged attacks, the D&D design collapses the options for martial characters to two: (1) pick Sharpshooter or (2) pick something plainly weaker. Anything another build can do, a sharpshooter does better. Crossbow Expert enables fighters to gain all the out-sized benefits of Sharpshooter while attacking from melee and sporting enough hit points and armor to serve as a front-line tank.
Sharpshooters deal damage so efficiently that they throw D&D’s encounter math in the trash. Potentially interesting encounters against low-hit-point foes like spellcasters resemble an execution by firing squad. The evil wizard never acts. Unless DMs want every encounter to become a romp, they need to toughen the monsters and adopt tactics that slow ranged attackers. Dungeon masters: Do both.
Toughen the monsters. Before encounters, use your prerogative as a DM to boost the monsters’ hit points. The hit point totals in the creatures’ stat blocks just represents an average. Giving the monsters an increase within the die formula falls within the D&D rules.
Slow ranged attackers. Setting up encounters to slow sharpshooters isn’t about thwarting them. It creates situations more tactically interesting, situations that give other characters more chances to shine.
Start by adding total cover to your encounters, and then play creatures with the good sense to duck between their turns. This hardly counts as high strategy. If you throw a rock at a rat, it runs for cover. Faced with melee and ranged attacks, many foes will stay out of sight and let intruders come into reach. That usually works. By reputation, treasure hunters are bloodthirsty and undisciplined.
Such tactics encourage characters to move to engage. Melee fighters get more to do. They deserve to shine.
Total cover takes just a few columns or stalagmites.
One caution: Newer players can find foes that duck behind total cover frustrating. You may need to dial down the tactic or explain the rules for readying actions.
Start some monsters out of sight—especially the boss.
In the typical D&D battle, all the party’s foes start in plain sight. This makes the strongest monster an easy target for focused fire. Too often the evil mastermind dies before acting, or even before mocking the foolish do-gooders who dare to oppose them. The players never learn of the fiendish plan that will end their pitiful lives. Start that climactic battle with the main foe positioned somewhere the players cannot see. Let the characters spread out to attack the guards and lieutenants, and then have the biggest threat move into view on its turn. In D&D, villains must fight and monologue at the same time.
When some enemies begin out of sight, fights benefit. First, this gives some total cover. Plus, the battle feels more fluid; the situation more uncertain. As characters move into the room, they spot unseen foes. As monsters emerge, the players wonder what other surprises wait.
Battles with movement and cover tend to play to the strengths of melee characters. The monk finally gets to flaunt her speed! That hopeless, sub-optimal backstabber gains places to dash, disengage, and reasons to engage. The paladin can drive foes from hiding. Sure, these sorts of encounters may frustrate and threaten sharpshooters, but that just adds an extra benefit.
Next: How to Build a Sharpshooter Who Wins D&D (If the Rest of Your Group Doesn’t Mind.)
Related: How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter