When I wrote a post rating the Sharpshooter feat as overpowered and naming its combination with Crossbow Expert as the worst thing in Dungeons & Dragons, some readers stepped up to expose my bad take. But nobody said the feats were weaker than I claimed, because most folks who read my posts have played D&D.
Many folks refuted the power of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert by naming a spell with the power to win an encounter. Animate objects (5th), mass suggestion (6th), and forcecage (7th) make particularly good examples. My posts on the most annoying lower-level spells and higher-level spells add ammunition to this line of thinking. Still, a look at the spells-per-level tables shows that even high-level spellcasters rarely get more than one chance to cast one of these spells per day. D&D lead designer Jeremey Crawfordexplains, “We constrain how many spell slots you get at those upper levels. You’ll look at your table of spells slots and you’ll go down the slope and you’ll get down there and you’ll go, “Oh, just one.” And it never goes up. That’s on purpose because it allows us to make 9th-level spells, for instance, just crazy bonkers. But you get that crazy bonkers no more than once a day.” Meanwhile, a martial character optimized for damage blows up every encounter.
Most commonly, folks tried to refute my point by citing other character builds they rate as even more broken. What could possibly be more ridiculous than the Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert feats combined with either a fighter using the Samurai martial archetype or a ranger using the Gloom Stalker archetype? Also, you might ask how to build such ridiculous characters (but only because your story concept arrives there organically). Read on.
1. Great Weapon Master + Polearm Master
Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master offer the combination of feats most comparable to Sharpshooter and Crossbow Expert. Great Weapon Master lets characters trade -5 to hit for +10 damage with a heavy weapon, including polearms such as halberds and glaives. Polearm Master lets characters use a bonus action for an extra attack. Sure, the extra attack only starts with 1d4 damage, but when each hit still deals 13-15 points of fixed damage, the d4 is just seasoning. Plus, you can use a reaction to attack creatures who enter your 10-foot reach.
To create a character based on this combination, choose human to take Polearm Master at creation, then add Great Weapon Master at level 4.
Either barbarian or fighter makes a good class to combine with these feats.
Barbarians can use Reckless Attack to gain advantage, making landing blows at -5 easier.
The Battle Master fighter gets combat maneuvers like Trip Attack that enable you to gain advantage on follow up attacks. Later, the fighter gains more attacks. Plus the Riposte maneuver lets you use your reaction to attack creatures who miss you with a melee attack.
Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?
As strong as the combination of Great Weapon Master plus Polearm Master seems, three factors make it less troublesome in play.
These warriors must enter melee and stand in harm’s way. Flying foes can avoid their attacks.
These warriors usually must move to attack and to switch targets.
No fighting style comparable to archery offers a +2 bonus to hit with great weapon or polearm attacks.
Paladin also makes a fun combination with these feats, but the class needs both Charisma and Strength, so trading ability score improvements for feats hurts more.
2. Polearm Master + Sentinel
Polearm Master and Sentinel creates a combination of feats able to frustrate monsters and dungeon masters alike. The polearm master gains ways to trade bonus actions and reactions for extra attacks. When the sentinel lands an opportunity attack in a polearm’s 10-foot reach, the creature’s speed becomes 0. The combination of reach and literal stopping power lets these warriors plug a 25-foot gap.
To build a character based on this combination, choose human to start with your favorite of the two feats.
For fighters, choose the Defense fighting style. The Battle Master martial archetype brings several abilities that save your bonus actions and reactions for the feats. The Goading Attack, Lunging Attack, and Sweeping Attack maneuvers seem like particularly good picks.
The Cavalier martial archetype also combines well with these feats. The Unwavering Mark helps you draw attacks and punish foes who attack your allies.
Barbarians make a good match because they can shrug off damage better than any other class. Choose the Path of the Bear Totem Warrior for resistance to everything but psychic damage while you rage. The Path of the Ancestral Guardian also makes a good choice, although the Spirit Shield feature takes the reactions needed to power your Sentinel abilities.
Unlike armored fighters, unarmored barbarians need Dexterity and Constitution to gain a high armor class, so they suffer more when they trade an ability score improvement for a feat.
Are these feats better than Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert?
A character built on these feats rates as the best way to frustrate monsters and DMs looking to maneuver past the party’s front line. Still, these characters shine less in bigger spaces, when attacks come from multiple directions, and against ranged and flying foes.
While these combinations prove strong, they lack the consistent dominance of Sharpshooter plus Crossbow Expert. But forget feats. The most common builds rated as more powerful combined a paladin’s martial proficiency and smite ability with a spellcasting class able to fuel more smites.
Next: The best multiclass combinations with paladin
Without knowing any rules—without knowing a d20 from a d12—new Dungeons & Dragons players can join a party and love the game at least as much as veteran players. Everything feels fresh and thrilling, so often the newcomers have more fun. They play without rules by just imagining themselves as heroes and asking what they would do.
For the rest of us, knowing the rules can interfere with that primal experience. Instead of interacting with the D&D world, we slip into interacting with the rules. So when we hear footsteps approaching a door, instead of nocking an arrow and drawing a bow, we ask to ready an attack action for when a monster opens the door. In this example, that ready action breaks the rules because ready only applies during combat’s initiative order.
My last post described 3 times when players ask to use rules not even in the game. The game omits the supposed rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more economical design forced them out. That post explained the designers’ choices and how to explain the missing rules to players.
Still, although the rules only allow ready actions in combat, lack a system for called shots, and omit the delay action, characters can still aim a drawn bow at a closed door, shoot for the tentacle gripping a friend, and perhaps even wait for the slow paladin to stop blocking the door.
This post offers advice for ruling on all those requests without inventing rules that the designers skipped for good reasons.
1. Readying an action outside of combat.
Players usually ask to ready outside combat for one of two reasons:
They expect trouble and want to stay alert.
They want to attack first.
D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford explained how he handles the request to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table.” Alternately, you could grant the character advantage on perception checks and a cooresponding +5 to passive perception until the situation changes or you judge that the characters’ attention would ease to a normal level. Nobody can stay especially alert all the time except barbarians with Feral Instinct. Impinging on a class feature would make barbarians angry. You wouldn’t like that.
Often, attempts to gain the first attack fall under surprise rules. When a party prepares to attack something inside a closed door and that foe remains unaware of the threat, then the monster starts combat surprised. If the monster knows about the threat, then the situation matches the usual start of a fight: Everyone is ready. Roll initiative to see who goes first. DMs who rule that a character with an arrow pulled only needs an instant to aim and shoot might give that character advantage on initiative. Don’t make the first attack automatic. We’ve all seen countless scenes where some skilled fighter stares down a poised weapon, and then uses lightning reflexes to strike first.
2. Called shots.
Usually players ask to call shots to gain a quicker route to taking a foe from a fight. To that I say, “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”
The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide limited called shots with a rule that remains sound in fifth. “Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed by the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”
Such a limit quashes most interest in called shots, so the designers opted for rules economy over adding rules for called shots. Still, players may want to temporarily impose a condition like Blinded, Deafened, or Prone. Conditions in D&D typically last a round or allow saves every turn. Players could also aim to distract, slow movement, or disarm.
The latest Dungeon Master’s Guide includes rules for disarming a foe (p.257). For other conditions, game designer Justin Alexander suggests some sensible, but untested rules. His post details the design decisions behind called shots. Called shots typically suffer a penalty of -2 or -4 as judged by the DM. (Don’t impose disadvantage, because that creates an incentive to call a shot whenever an attack would suffer disadvantage anyway. D&D lacks double disadvantage.) If the called shot succeeds, then you deal damage normally and the target must make an appropriate saving throw or suffer the effect. I recommend calculating a saving throw DC using a formula similar to the Battle Master fighter’s Maneuver save DC. Add 5 + your proficiency bonus + your choice of Strength or Dexterity modifier.
Delay a turn.
Fifth edition skips the delay action because the extra option adds extra rules baggage and may slow play.
Nonetheless, in one case players who delay their place in initiative can smooth play without adding any complexity to the rules. That case comes when you first arrange initiative before any creature takes an action. Too often, the slow, tough characters at the door roll low while the quicker skirmishers in back roll high. Those tanks wind up bottling up the door because the rules offer no way for the bladesinger in back to just wait for the paladin to step out of the damn way. Before initiative starts, let players opt for a lower initiative count.
For the players who enjoy the tactical intricacies brought by the delay action, groups can import the delay rules in earlier editions of D&D and in D&D’s sister system Pathfinder. Here are the rules the designers wished to avoid.
By choosing to delay, you take no action and then act normally on whatever initiative count you decide to act. When you delay, you voluntarily reduce your own initiative result for the rest of the combat. When your new, lower initiative count comes up later in the same round, you can act normally. You can specify this new initiative result or just wait until sometime later in the round and act then, thus fixing your new initiative count at that point.
You never get back the time you spend waiting to see what’s going to happen. You also can’t interrupt anyone else’s action (as you can with a readied action).
Your initiative result becomes the count on which you took the delayed action. If you come to your next action and have not yet performed an action, you don’t get to take a delayed action (though you can delay again).
If you take a delayed action in the next round, before your regular turn comes up, your initiative count rises to that new point in the order of battle, and you do not get your regular action that round.
When you Delay, any persistent damage or other negative effects that normally occur at the start or end of your turn occur immediately when you use the Delay action. Any beneficial effects that would end at any point during your turn also end. You can’t Delay to avoid negative consequences that would happen on your turn or to extend beneficial effects that would end on your turn.
Sometimes Dungeons & Dragons players ask to do things that the rules don’t handle—and not just because no roleplaying game’s rules can cover everything. The game omits the added rules because they would run against D&D’s design approach. Often, past editions of the game even included these extra rules, but fifth edition’s more consistent design forced them out.
This post isn’t about the rules fifth-edition Dungeons & Dragons could have included, but which the design skips for brevity. The D&D designers intentionally avoid providing rules for everything. “We want a system that trusts the DM to make the right call for any particular situation, rather than create many highly specific chunks of rules text in an attempt to cover every possible situation,” writes designer Rodney Thompson.
What actions aren’t covered by the D&D rules because they defy the game’s design choices?
1. Readying an action outside of combat.
In the early days of D&D, players liked saying, “I ready my sword” or “I nock an arrow.” Back then, initiative ran by house rules and DM whim, so this sort of declaration might win an edge. In an example of playing D&D that Gary Gygax wrote for the Europa zine in 1976, the DM grants the party +1 to a d6 initiative roll for being prepared. Only Unearthed Arcana (1985) actually put a benefit for readiness into print. “A bow specialist who begins the round with arrow nocked, shaft drawn, and target in sight is entitled to loose that arrow prior to any initiative check.” (See For 10 Years D&D Suffered From an Unplayable Initiative System. Blame the Game’s Wargaming Roots.)
Despite the lack of rules benefits, such declarations might prevent an adversarial dungeon master from deciding that because you never said that your sword was drawn, a fight caught you unprepared. In those days, many gamers saw thwarting and punishing players as part of the DM’s role. That attitude has fallen from favor. Nowadays, even though you never mention that your character started the day by putting on pants, we still assume pants.
The old spirit of readiness continues today. In a Sage Advice segment, D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford says, “People often want to ready actions before combat has even started.”
Why “readying” does nothing. Jeremy says, “The ready action is an action you take in combat, so there’s really no such thing as readying before combat has started.”
What a DM should say. Maybe nothing. “I rarely correct them,” Jeremy says. He interprets the ready request as the player signaling their intent to stay alert. “Usually what that means is they won’t be surprised at my table. So even though I won’t have the mechanics of the ready action play out, I will still reward them for thinking in advance and signaling intent.”
To more rules-oriented players say, “In D&D, everyone who isn’t surprised starts a fight ready. Initiative lets us decide who among the ready combatants goes first.” (Surprised combatants also have a place in initiative, but they take no actions while surprised.) For more on what to tell players about initiative, see What to do when a player interrupts a role-playing scene to start a battle.
2. Called shots.
Sometime in every player’s D&D career, they get the idea of skipping the process of hacking through all a creature’s hit points by simply chopping off their weapon hand or blinding them with a blow to the eyes. Earlier editions of D&D termed attacks that aimed for a specific body part “called shots” and the game once included rules for such strikes. No more.
Why the rules don’t include called shots. The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook explains, “Hit points represent a combination of physical and mental durability, the will to live, and luck.” That’s a lot of possibilities. The game rules rely on this vagueness to allow characters to regain all their hit points after a short rest rather than a long hospital stay.
The moment characters start attempting to gouge their foes’ eyes out and villains return the favor, the game loses the useful abstraction of hit points. Also, if aiming for a particular body part proved more effective, why would anyone bother with regular attacks? The second-edition Dungeon Master’s Guide allowed called shots, but explained, “Because the AD&D game uses a generalized system for damage, called shots cannot be used to accomplish certain things. Against a creature, a called shot will only cause the normal amount of damage allowed the weapon. Attempts to blind, cripple, or maim will not succeed.”
What a DM should say. “Your characters are experts at combat. With each attack, they use their skills to find the best opportunity to land a blow that deals the most damage and that offers the best chance of taking your foe out of the fight.”
3. Delaying an action.
In third and fourth edition, players could delay their actions to later in the initiative count. This helped players coordinate actions with other players using an advanced strategy called you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down. Players who remember the flexibility of delaying still ask for it.
Why the rules don’t include delaying. The fifth-edition designers chose to eliminate delaying to simplify the rules and speed play.
Many spell durations and combat effects last until the beginnings and endings of turns. An option to delay complicates the rules for such effects and the bookkeeping needed to track them. “Simply by changing when your turn happens, you could change the length of certain spells,” explains the Sage Advice Compendium. “The way to guard against such abuse would be to create a set of additional rules that would limit your ability to change durations. The net effect? More complexity would be added to the game, and with more complexity, there is greater potential for slower play.”
An option to delay encourages players to analyze and discuss the optimal order for their turns during every round. “Multiply that extra analysis by the number of characters and monsters in a combat, and you have the potential for many slow-downs in play.”
What a DM should say. “Everyone in a fight acts at once. We just have turns to make some sense of that activity. If you delay, you do nothing while everyone else acts. At best, you can start an action and attempt to time it so that it finishes right after something else happens. That’s called readying an action.”
Often the most exciting moments in Dungeons & Dragons come from die rolls. When we throw the dice, dungeon masters and players alike surrender control to chance. Dice add surprise and risk to the game. See D&D and the Role of the Die Roll, a Love Letter.
Every D&D game has rolls important enough to grab everyone’s attention. Does the dragon’s breath weapon recharge? Did the inspirational speech win an ally? A die roll can spell the difference between victory or defeat, and sometimes between life and death. As a DM, you can spotlight these moments to heighten the drama and excitement.
Even DMs who typically roll in secret can benefit from making some rolls in the open.
Choose rolls that bring high enough stakes to grab attention.
Make sure you feel comfortable honoring the outcome of the roll, whatever it brings.
Announce what the roll means. “If the lich fails this save, it dies. Otherwise, it’s turn comes next and it has an 8th-level spell ready to cast.”
Announce the target number. For maximum drama, don’t make players wait for you to interpret the results. Tell everyone the number to look for on the die. “The lich needs a 13 or better to save.”
Then throw the die into the middle of the table. Let everyone watch the roll together and share the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.
For some rolls a DM would usually make, I sometimes ask a player to make the roll. For example, I almost always ask a player to roll to see if a monster’s big attack recharges.
D&D’s lead rule designer Jeremy Crawford favors this trick too. “Sometimes I love making it impossible for myself to fudge rolls and will have players roll for me. Partly because as any DM will be able to attest, it’s too tempting when you tell yourself I’ll just roll to see what’s going to happen, but then you look at the die and think ‘eh, I don’t really like that result.’
“There’s something powerful about giving it to the players, and then we’re all agreeing we’re handing over the decision to fate. When I’m feeling particularly impish as a DM, I like having the players do it especially when it’s something bad because then they don’t feel like the DM did that to me. You rolled the die.”
We don’t use this stunt because we worry that players think we can’t be trusted with the roll. Instead the trick works because we all can feel like if we want a certain roll strongly enough, we might sway the outcome. Sure, those of us who play D&D rather than Las Vegas recognize that sense of control for a lie, but we feel it all the same. That feeling heightens the drama of the roll. The DM didn’t make things go wrong. I rolled the die.
The trick of explaining a roll, naming the target number, and then having a player cast the die works especially well for random encounters.
In a dungeon, the threat of random encounters forces urgency on players. Instead of slowing down for painstaking caution, and instead of stopping to chop down a locked door, characters have to keep moving. In the wilderness, random encounters give a journey more weight than “You spend three weeks travelling from Waterdeep to Neverwinter without incident.” (Sometimes you may want to fast-forward through a trip; other times distance should matter.)
For random encounters to benefit your game, players need a sense of the threat of wandering monsters. Nothing makes the threat more obvious than saying, “You’ve spent an hour in the tomb. Someone roll a d20 for me. On a 17 or higher, something bad happens.” See You Roll for Random Encounters Wrong (and so Do I).
If you want your D&D game to tell a story, why bother with the dice? Why bother with a random element capable of foiling our plans?
The fifth-edition Player’s Handbook calls Dungeons & Dragons a game about storytelling in worlds of swords and sorcery. If D&D players only wanted to collaborate on stories, we could join a writers’ room and pitch dialog, beats, and character arcs just like in Hollywood, but without the paychecks.
Instead, we add dice.
The oldest known d20 comes from Egypt dates from somewhere between 304 and 30 B.C.. The die may have rolled in a game, but oracles may have cast it in divination rituals. Blogger James Maliszewskiwrites, “There’s something powerfully primal about tossing dice and waiting to see the numbers they reveal.” Like an oracle’s die, our dice lead our characters into an unknowable future. The dice make us surrender some control, because they add the risk that the story won’t go as we plan. Events beyond our control make the game unpredictable and exciting. We embrace that.
After countless stories, we all start to see patterns repeated. We still enjoy them for many reasons, but even the best can seem like a familiar dance performed well. So when a tale breaks the pattern, the unexpected becomes riveting.
Stories from D&D games can follow patterns of their own. Two combat encounters plus a roleplaying interaction take us to the big bad, and then to dividing treasure. We dungeon masters have an extra incentive to follow the expected track that we prepared, so the dice help us let go. They nudge us off course and remind us to welcome uncertainty. Writing about dice and random encounter tables, Teos “Alphastream” Abadia explains, “Such tables help to remind the DM that chance can and should be a powerful element. It can be a subtle reminder that the printed page isn’t one single script and that different outcomes (whether on tables or not) are good.”
D&D lead rules designer Jeremy Crawfordlikes how rolling in the open forces him to honor the outcome of a roll even when his own inertia might sway him to override it. “As often as possible, I like to stick with whatever the dice tell me, partly because as a DM I love to be surprised. I love that sense whenever I sit down at any table where I’m DMing I don’t actually know what’s going to happen because I don’t know what the dice are going to say. The dice can turn something I thought was going to be a cakewalk into a life or death struggle.”
The dice in D&D, especially when combined with random tables, can fire imagination. Forget dice for a moment and think of the power of random thoughts colliding to fuel creativity.
Poet William S. Burroughs coined a cut-up method of writing where he scrambled words on scraps of paper and then assembled the jumble into new poems. If poetry seems too high-minded to connect with a game rooted in pulp fantasy, then consider this: Rock musicians like Curt Cobain, Thom York, and David Bowie used the technique. Burroughs asserted, “Cuts ups are for everyone.”
David Bowie explains his use of the process, “You write down a paragraph or two describing several different subjects, creating a kind of ‘story ingredients’ list, I suppose, and then cut the sentences into four or five-word sections; mix ’em up and reconnect them. You can get some pretty interesting idea combinations like this. You can use them as is or, if you have a craven need to not lose control, bounce off these ideas and write whole new sections.”
Bestselling DM’s Guild author M.T. Black uses a program to make random lists of titles, plots, and other idea seeds. He explains, “I use randomness all the time when I’m creating an adventure. Otherwise I find I’m just slipping back into very comfortable tropes and ideas. Randomness really helps me bring something fresh to the table.”
Creation doesn’t stop during writing and preparation. It extends into the game session when the dice inject that random element.
Random chance separates the players’ success or failure from the dungeon master’s fiat. In a role-playing game, no one wants the DM to control the characters’ fate. When player characters succeed, the players want credit for the victory; when PCs fail, the DM wants the dice to take the blame.
Random rolls reduce the DM’s power to control the game. In a sense, these rolls unite DM and players in a shared enterprise. Everyone watches the roll of the dice together and shares the surprise when the result shows where fate will take them.
D&D historian Jon Petersonwrites, “Die rolls impart to players a sense of fairness, they also give the referee a way to decide events impartially when they can’t trust themselves. Back when referees were adjudicating between competing parties (and in early D&D, they still were, sometimes). Referees needed a way not to show favor, even unconsciously, to one competing party over another. Dice play an important part in hedging against the risk of unintended bias.”
In modern D&D we tend to associate dice with the attacks, checks, and saves at the core of the game, but the games’ founders used dice to impartially settle questions about the game world. Many DMs still roll to direct a monster’s attack, but otherwise the technique seems faded. Now we seldom roll to learn a shopkeeper’s disposition, or the guards’ morale, or for the weather. To settle these and other questions in the game, we seldom think to just ask the dice.
D&D adventure designer Will Doyle knows the technique’s power. “I use ‘lucky rolls’ literally all the time. For example, player is sneaking down a corridor, I call for them to make a lucky roll to see what happens. On a 10 or above, it’s probably clear. Roll lower than that, and guards come whistling along.”
Ultimately, how much your rely on luck depends on your taste for a game that can feels as surprising and as messy as life. James Maliszewski associates a big dose of random chance with old-school gaming and writes, “Much like life, old-school gaming is often ‘just a bunch of stuff that happens’ and sometimes that stuff can be frustrating, boring, or even painful. The only ‘meaning’ that stuff has is what the players and their referee bring to it.”
How much of the future do you and your players want to force, and how much do you want to keep unexpected?
“What do dice represent?” D&D video creator Matt Colvilleasks. “They represent the future and the fact that the future is ultimately unknowable,” “You know we may know the odds of the different horses in a race and who’s likely to win and there may be a horse that is very heavily favored to win, but that doesn’t mean that they’re guaranteed to win. No. Because the future is uncertain. That’s what the dice represent.”
Eventually, everyone who plays Dungeons & Dragons finds a place where rules seem to defy logic and common sense. These quirks tend to stem from three good reasons:
The D&D rules don’t attempt to cover every situation. Few players would want to grapple with so many rules, so the design brings a more compact set of rules that apply to most of what happens in a game. To make sense of unusual situations and corner cases, D&D relies on the judgement of dungeon masters.
Rarely, the designers wrote rules that failed to work as intended. Often when the rules as written serve well enough, the D&D team chooses not to tamper with the text.
The D&D rules accommodate a legacy of earlier editions spanning 40-some years of history.
I asked D&D enthusiasts to name the strangest quirks in the rules. This post lists some of the best answers. I skipped the part of D&D that most brazenly defies reality: The rules for damage and recovery. Those unrealistic hit points enable the games’ combat-intensive, dungeon-bashing style, so I count that absurdity as a feature. (See Why Gary Gygax Added Unrealistic Hit Points to D&D.) To learn to love hit points, just avoid asking questions. For example, I wish I could stop wondering how (#13) one healing potion completely cures a new adventurer while a legendary hero needs to guzzle 20 for a similar recovery.
12. Characters with the Lucky feat can close their eyes, swing blindly at a foe, and gain a better chance of hitting than they would get from attacking as normal. When you use Lucky, you roll an extra d20 and choose your attack roll from any of the d20s you rolled. When you roll at disadvantage, you roll two d20s. So Lucky lets you choose your best roll from any of the three dice: the two dice rolled for disadvantage and the one for lucky. Use the force, indeed!
10. Archers shooting blindly into impenetrable fog hit as easily as they do when they see their targets. A blinded attacker suffers disadvantage and typically gains advantage because their target can’t see the strikes to defend. Advantage and disadvantage cancel, so the attacks roll as normal. This makes some sense for melee attackers flailing in the dark. For someone shooting blindly, the lack of a to-hit penalty flouts common sense.
9.Daylight fails to generate sunlight. Daylight originated from the first-edition spell Continual Light. Back then, every new D&D player counted themselves as the first to realize a 2nd-level spell enabled them to easily destroy vampires! They were wrong. Then, as now, you don’t become a D&D designer without being pedantic enough to rule that light “as bright as full daylight” falls short of “direct sunlight.”
8. The Chill Touch cantrip isn’t a touch spell and doesn’t deal cold damage. In past editions, the spell really had a range of touch, but even then, its damage came from negative energy, the necromantic damage of the era.
7.Faerie Fire doesn’t deal fire damage or involve fairies. The spell references naturally glowing fungus.
6.Detect Evil and Good doesn’t detect evil and good. The spell’s name comes from past editions when it worked as described. Back then, too many players took shortcuts through adventures by detecting for evil and murdering potential villains in the first scene. Now the spell detects the creature types that are supernatural representatives of good and evil.
5. Only crossbow experts and sharpshooters can attack with a net without suffering disadvantage. Nets are ranged weapons with a normal range of 5 feet, so most net attackers must either make a ranged attack within 5 feet of a foe or at long range. Either way, the attack suffers disadvantage. Crossbow experts can make ranged attacks within 5 feet of a foe without disadvantage. Sharpshooters can make ranged attacks beyond normal range without suffering disadvantage.
4.Invisibility, a spell that makes you invisible and monitors your movements to see if you intended to hurt someone, rates as simpler than Greater Invisibility, a spell that just makes you invisible.
3. Creatures who lose temporary hit points to caltrops can have full health and still move slower. Worse, they can’t regain their speed until they take more damage. The speed penalty from caltrops only ends when you regain a hit point, so you might need to lose more hit points to have some to heal.
2. A cleric can cast a spell like Aid with somatic and material components while holding both a mace and a shield with a holy symbol. But casting a spell like Cure Wounds that drops the need for material components requires putting the mace or shield away. Fewer components makes the spell more cumbersome because the shield only doubles as a somatic component when you also use it as a spell focus to satisfy a need for material components. Confusing? Awkward? That’s why I’ve never seen this rule enforced. (See the Sage Advice Compendium.)
1. By relaying an object from creature to creature on consecutive turns in a 6-second round, a group can make the object outrace a jet. In an actual fight, everyone acts at the same time. But in the game, turns serve as a simple but unrealistic way to make sense of 6 seconds. To squeeze turns until their absurdity shows, just have everyone on the party run a relay. If each of 7 characters dashes 60 feet before passing a baton to the next person, the baton travels at almost 50 miles per hour. The more characters who can move an object in a round, the faster it goes. To weaponize this quirk, hire 1000 laborers to pass a 10-foot pole and create a peasant railgun. No DM allows such weapons, but some encounters force players to transport things like potions or keys across the battlefield. DM Tom Christy enforces a house rule where no object can be manipulated by more than one of each type of action in a round. No chaining move actions to rocket something across the battlefield.
All this points to the importance of the DM. D&D designer Dan Dillonwrites, “If a confluence of circumstances in D&D creates rules interactions that don’t make sense to you, ignore it. Change it. Do what makes sense for the given situation the characters find themselves in.”
For example, if you prefer a game where shooting into darkness yields disadvantage, impose it. If you want Lucky characters to always suffer a disadvantage from disadvantage, then tweak the rule. Lead rules designer Jeremy Crawford suggests letting the lucky character choose between either (a) the lower of the two disadvantage dice or (b) the lucky die.
“The rules aren’t written to cover every possible circumstance,” continues Dan Dillon. “Think about how many pages would have to be added to the already 316-page Player’s Handbook if we added every possible ‘unless’ to a rule that applies advantage or disadvantage to an attack roll.”
The designers could try to patch every quirk and corner case, but if they did, you wouldn’t want to play that game.
Despite using common language, the Dungeons & Dragons rules feature such precise wording that a close reading answers most questions and foils many schemes to break the game. You can tell that the designers dreamed up plenty of min-maxing exploits, and then engineered text that prevented any shenanigans.
Sometimes the implications of the game’s precise phrasing take experience to spot.
For example, the description for alchemist’s fire says, “Make a ranged attack against a creature or object, treating the alchemist’s fire as an improvised weapon.” That text includes plenty to unpack. Alchemist’s fire is treated as an improvised weapon, so unless you’re a tavern brawler, you don’t add your proficiency bonus to attack. Because the throw counts as a ranged attack, you add your Dexterity bonus to your attack roll. Most players miss the next implication: Ranged attacks add your Dexterity bonus to the damage roll. The specific rule for alchemist’s fire changes the general rule for when a ranged attack inflicts damage. “On a hit, the target takes 1d4 fire damage at the start of each of its turns.” As with any other damage bonus, the one for Dexterity only adds to the attack once.
As I learned the D&D rules, I noticed phrases that once seemed innocuous, but that now reveal importance.
For example, consider the phrase “that you can see” in spell descriptions. Many spells require the caster to see the target of an effect. Invisibility rates as the game’s most potent defensive spell because so much magic requires sight for targeting. Sometimes the phrase “that you can see” turns against the players. Spirit Guardians lets casters spare any number of creatures they can see from the spell’s effect. Any invisible or otherwise out-of-sight allies must suffer the guardians’ effects.
Many monsters can cast spells “requiring no material components.” This enables a flameskull to cast Fireball despite lacking pockets full of bat guano and sulfur. (Flameskulls also cast without somatic components—an essential accommodation for their lack of hands.)
Monsters able to cast spells “requiring no components” gain a significant advantage: These creatures can cast spells without being interrupted by a Counterspell. “To be perceptible, the casting of a spell must involve a verbal, somatic, or material component.” With no components, no one notices the casting until it finishes.
The monsters able to cast without components mainly fall into two categories:
• psionic creatures like githyanki and mind flayers • constructs
Many character features allow extra attacks “when you use the Attack action,” which creates a limitation that often goes unnoticed. For example, a monk’s extra unarmed strike requires an Attack action, so a monk cannot just take the Dash or Dodge action and then use a Bonus action to get some licks in. This same phrase prevents two-weapon rangers from casting a spell, and then making an attack with their off-hand weapon.
Most extra attacks delivered “when you use the Attack action” cost a Bonus action, but the barbarian’s Form of the Beast feature lets you make extra claw attacks as part of your Attack action. This enables such barbarians to rage and to still make that extra attack.
The D&D rules overload the terms “attack,” “melee,” and “ranged,” giving them different meanings in different contexts. That can fuel confusion. The Attack action usually includes an attack (unless you choose to grapple). But sometimes you can make an attack with a Bonus action, often “when you use the Attack action.” Spellcasters can take the Cast a Spell action, and then make a spell attack with something like a Fire Bolt. Spells like Booming Blade and Green-Flame Blade have you to make a melee attack (and not a spell attack) with a weapon as part of the Cast a Spell action.
No wonder the 2nd edition of Pathfinder attempts to cut the fog by calling a single attack a strike.
“Melee” and “ranged” can describe types of weapons and types of attacks. Usually the weapons and attacks stay in their lanes, but when you hurl a melee weapon it crosses into oncoming traffic.
A melee weapon, such as a dagger or handaxe, remains a melee weapon even when you make a ranged attack by throwing it. Normally a ranged attack adds your Dexterity bonus to damage, but the thrown property can change that general rule. The thrown property says, “If the weapon is a melee weapon, you use the same ability modifier for that attack roll and damage roll that you would use for a melee attack with the weapon. If you throw a dagger, you can use either your Strength or your Dexterity, since the dagger has the finesse property.”
When used to make a ranged attack, melee weapons that lack the thrown property count as improvised weapons. They add your Dexterity bonus to the attack and damage rolls, and deal 1d4 damage.
If I were king of D&D, my edition would adopt “strike” for a single attack, and I would consider phrases like “close attack” and “distance attack” in place of the overworked “ranged” and “melee.”
Sometimes a close reading of the D&D rules leads to interpretations that might differ from what the designers first intended. Perhaps lead designer Jeremy Crawford got questions about sneak attack, reviewed the rules, and then thought, I didn’t mean that, but it still works.
Your rogue can use the sneak attack feature “once per turn,” but it’s not limited to your turn. During a round, rogues can sneak attack on their turn and again on someone else’s turn, typically when a foe provokes an opportunity attack.
For spells like Wall of Fire and Blade Barrier, the distinction between turns and rounds also becomes important. These spells deal damage the first time you enter their effect on a turn—anyone’s turn. This means that if a monster gets forced through a Wall of Fire on consecutive turns, they accumulate more damage in a round than if they had just stayed in the fire. I suppose you get used to the heat.
Magic the Gathering designer Richard Garfield rates Dungeons & Dragons as the most innovative game of all time. Nonetheless, in any ranking of influential games, Magic’s revolutionary design surely vies for a top spot. You might suppose that a card game like Magic would differ too much from a roleplaying game to have any influence on D&D’s rules, but Magic’s design shaped the D&D editions to follow. Today, innovations from Magic extend to the roots of fifth-edition D&D.
5. Templated text changed how rules get written—and the 3rd-edition design team.
When Magic’s designers faced the problem of bringing order to countless cards, they used templated text: they described similar game rules with consistent wording imposed by fill-in-the-blank templates. Today, the patterns of templated text appear throughout modern D&D’s rules. But the move to templated text also lifted a D&D-outsider to lead the game’s third-edition team. Ben Riggs tells this story in a convention seminar.
Early in the development of third-edition D&D, Wizards of the Coast purchased TSR. Skaff Elias had served as a designer on several early Magic sets and ranked as Senior Vice President of Research and Development. Skaff felt that the upcoming D&D edition could fix “sloppiness in the rules” by using templated text. Skaff and Wizard’s CEO Peter Adkison told the D&D design team to switch the spell descriptions to templated text, but the team kept resisting his directives.
Eventually, the D&D team readied the release of a playtest document that still lacked templated text. They claimed rewriting all the spell descriptions according to formula would prove impossible because hundreds of spells would need templating in 48 hours to meet their delivery deadline. Nonetheless, Adkison and Skaff took the challenge themselves, working through the night to rewrite the spells and meet the deadline. Even after that heroic effort, the rules document that reached playtesters lacked the templated descriptions from the CEO and the Design VP. The design team had simply ignored their bosses’ hard work.
The failure infuriated Adkison. He lifted Jonathan Tweet to the head of the third-edition team. Designer Monte Cook remembers Adkison’s new directive: “If Jonathan says something it’s as though I said it.” Unlike the TSR veterans on the rest of the team, Tweet had started his career by designing the indie roleplaying game Ars Magica and the experimental Over the Edge. As a member of the D&D team, he convinced the team to adopt some of the more daring changes in the new edition.
4. Keywords now get careful use throughout the rules.
Much like Magic, D&D uses keywords to describe many elements in the game. Often the keywords bring few rules of their own, but other things in the game interact with the keywords. So Magic has no rules specifically for “white” or “green,” but cards with “protection from white” work in a special way.
In D&D, conditions like “charmed,” creature types like “beast,” and descriptors like “melee” work as keywords. Such keywords power templated descriptions like, “While charmed by this spell, the creature is…” and, “The next time you hit a creature with a melee weapon attack…” In early editions of D&D some words got treatment that resembled keywords. But before Magic proved the technique’s power, keywords in D&D hardly saw the pervasive, rigorous treatment they do now.
3.Specific beats general came from Magic, but started in a hugely-influential board game nearly as old as D&D.
In Magic, the text on any card can change the rules of the game, so a card like Platinum Angel can say, “You can’t lose the game and your opponents can’t win the game.” Among traditional games where all the rules fit on the underside of a box lid or in a slim pamphlet, this made Magic revolutionary. The original Magic rules explain, “If a card contradicts the rules, the card takes precedence.” In other words, specific beats general. Similarly, page 3 of the Player’s Handbook explains how when a game element breaks the general rules in some way, it creates an exception to how the rest of the game works.
Earlier editions of D&D included game elements that broke general rules, but the unwritten principle left new players to struggle with the apparent inconsistencies. Judging by how frequently D&D lead Jeremy Crawford restates the principle, players still struggle with it.
The principle of specific beats general dates to the revolutionary 1977 game that inspired Magic the Gathering and countless others. Bored with the familiar patterns of their Risk games, the designers of Cosmic Encounter wanted a game where every play felt different from the last. In Cosmic Encounter, each player controls a different alien species able to break the general rules of the game in some specific way. With more than 150 rule-breaking alien species in the game and its expansions, Cosmic Encounter offers endless, disruptive combinations.
2. With more reliance on rulings, D&D does less to separate flavor from rules.
Magic the Gathering cards typically fill any space left after their rules text with italicized flavor text. So, Platinum Angel might say, “She is the apex of the artificer’s craft, the spirit of the divine called out of base metal.” Other Platinum Angels share the same rules, but different flavor text.
Traditionally, D&D mingled rules and flavor text, but fourth edition fully adopted such separation. The power descriptions even duplicate the practice of putting flavor in italics. This practice fit fourth edition, which defined combat powers as tightly as cards. The designers aspired to create a game where flavor never bent the rules, so a DM never needed to decide if, for example, you can take ongoing damage from cold and fire at the same time.
In fifth edition, the separation mainly appears in the monster books, where rules appear in formal boxes while flavor comes between the rectangles.
1. Reactions came from Magic’s instants and interrupts by way of D&D miniatures.
In Magic the Gathering, players can act at any time, stopping another player with cards originally called interrupts. The constant activity helps make the game so compelling, but it forced the designers to develop rules to make sense of the actions and reactions.
In early editions of D&D, players might interrupt another turn for an improvised action, but such acts needed a DM’s ruling. By third edition these actions counted as free and still mainly relied on a DM. Counterspells used the system’s only means of interrupting—the readied action.
When Wizards planned a line of D&D miniatures in 2003, the company aimed to expand sales beyond roleplayers to gamers who favored competitive wargaming. The Miniatures Handbook turned third edition’s combat rules into “a head-to-head skirmish system for fighting fast, tactical battles.” The book’s authors included D&D designers Jonathan Tweet and Rob Heinsoo along with Magic designers Skaff Elias and Mike Donais. The new miniatures would come boxed in randomized assortments complete with cards describing rules for each figure, so in ways, the package resembled Magic. The competitive skirmish game could no longer rely on a DM’s rulings to resolve interruptions, but the team wanted some of the richer play suggested by a game like Magic.
The design collaboration worked. Elias and Donais brought experience from a competitive game with strict rules for timing interrupts and reactions. “While designing Miniatures Handbook, we realized that free actions hid a potential smorgasbord of cool new mechanics,” wrote designer Bruce R. Cordell. “We subdivided the free actions into immediate actions (a free action you can take when it isn’t your turn), and swift actions (a free action you can take when it’s your turn).”
Swift and immediate actions entered the D&D roleplaying game through Cordell’s Expanded Psionics Handbook (2004). “The concept that swift and immediate actions could serve as one more resource available to a player opened up new vistas of possibility, expanding options in the game.”
In fifth edition, swift and immediate actions evolve into bonus actions and reactions.
1.Dungeons & Dragons co-creator Gary Gygax introduced the Magic Missile spell in the original game’s first supplement, Greyhawk (1975). “This is a conjured missile equivalent to a magic arrow, and it does full damage (2-7 points) to any creature it strikes.” After that sentence, the description tells how higher-level magic users shoot extra missiles.
2. Gary took the idea for Magic Missile from the 1963 movie The Raven. The movie ends with a wizard duel between Vincent Price and Boris Karloff. Karloff flings bolts of energy at Price, who brushes them aside with a flick of his hand.
3. The exchange that inspired Magic Missile also led to the Shield spell, so the original Player’s Handbook (1978) explains, “This shield will totally negate magic missile attacks.” This property remains in fifth-edition D&D.
4. The original description of Magic Missile led players to dispute whether casters needed to make a to-hit roll. J. Eric Holmes, the editor of the 1977 Basic Set, opted for yes. His rules explain that casters must roll the same missile attack as a longbow. TSR editor Tim Kask helped Gary plan Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. “The only thing that I won was that Magic Missile always hits for 1 to 3 points of damage,” Tim said. “It took me two-and-a-half weeks of arguing. I kept telling him that that’s the only thing the little guy gets and if it’s hit or miss, then he’s dead.”
Magic missiles always hit without allowing a saving throw, even though in the Dungeon Master’s Guide (1979) Gary stresses the importance of saves. Player characters “must always have a chance, no matter how small, a chance of somehow escaping what otherwise would be inevitable destruction.”
5. D&D’s fourth-edition designers seemed uncomfortable with a spell that always hit without a save, so the edition’s original version required an attack roll. When D&D fans griped that fourth veered too far from the game’s roots, the designers appealed to nostalgia by again making the missiles always hit. The 2010 rules update announces the change.
6. In fifth edition, wizards can add missiles by casting Magic Missile with a higher-level spell slot. In earlier editions, higher-level casters gain extra missiles for free. Back then, magic users started as weak characters who only launched one missile when they cast their day’s only 1st-level spell. But wizards steadily gained more spells, and higher-level spells, and even their first-level spells like Magic Missile gained strength. At higher levels, wizards boasted much more power than any other class. Gary Gygax felt comfortable with dominant, high-level wizards so long as they suffered through lower levels as feeble magic users. Today’s designers strive to match the power of every class at every level. Part of that balance comes from attaching a price to extra missiles.
7. In fifth edition, the missiles strike simultaneously. This means the strikes count as a single source of damage for things like resistance and that 3 magic missiles striking a character at 0 HP does not count as 3 failed death saves. A concentrating spellcaster hit by multiple missiles makes one Constitution save against a difficulty class set by the volley’s total damage. See 9 More Fifth-Edition D&D Rules Questions Answered by the Designers.
Update: In a newer answer to the same question, lead-designer Jeremy Crawford reversed the answer given at the convention Q&A. He now says the make separate concentration rolls for each missile. This makes Magic Missile an efficient way to break concentration.
8. Strictly by the fifth-edition rules, when you cast Magic Missile, you roll 1d4 and use the result to set the same damage for every missile. This stems from a rule on page 196 of the Player’s Handbook. “If a spell or other effect deals damage to more than one target at the same time, roll the damage once for all of them.” The interpretation comes from lead-designer Jeremy Crawford. In practice, Jeremy allows players to roll separate damage for every missile, just like Gary did in 1975.
Many Dungeons & Dragons players love animal companions for their characters, but the game’s fifth edition suffers uneven support for the archetype. Only specific character builds gain access to pets, and creating a character with an effective companion often requires a deep understanding of the game. For instance, of all the game’s class archetypes, the Beast Master ranger earns the most criticism for being too weak. To make beast masters able to hold their own, players must make some canny choices. More on that at the end.
The best route to an animal companion depends on what you want your companion to do. The more capable the pet, the more limited your options. A friendly mascot for your adventuring party hardly requires anything, but a pet capable of battling alongside a higher-level character confines you to just a few character options.
Ask yourself what you want from your pet. This post tells how to find the right creature companion.
For a friend or mascot, befriend and train a creature. In a tweet, D&D lead designer Jeremy Crawford writes, “Want your D&D character to have a pet or companion? Here’s a little secret: You don’t need special rules for this. Through roleplaying and ability checks (most likely Animal Handling or Persuasion), you can have a buddy, as long as your DM is OK adding a creature to the group.”
Dungeon masters: When players encounter hostile animals, the characters may try to make friends instead of fighting. Players love turning an angry beast into a mascot or companion to the party. Players attracted to this strategy love seeing it succeed. Treat the creature as a non-player character. As with any tag-along character, the best such animal companions prove useful, but never surpass characters.
Update: This simple approach poses one problem: After the party befriended a creature, the party leveled up to meet greater threats while the friend remained the same fragile creature. At just level 5, most characters survive a flameskull’s fireball, but an 11 hp wolf needs extraordinary luck to live, and a 5 hp tressym goes to meet Sharess, goddess of cats.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything offers a remedy: The sidekick rules offer an easy way to add a special companion to a group of adventurers. “A sidekick can be any type of creature with a stat block in the Monster Manual or another D&D book, but the challenge rating in its stat block must be 1/2 or lower.” This means that sidekicks could range from that wolf or tressym, to a bullywug rescued from a monster who enjoys frog legs, to the kobold Meepo, future dragonlord.
Whenever a group’s average level goes up, the companion gains a level in a sidekick class of warrior, expert, or spellcaster. They gain the additional abilities and hit points required to survive and contribute without ever overshadowing the rest of the party.
For a horse or similar mount, play a paladin. At level 5, paladins gain the ability to cast Find Steed which summons a spirit that takes the shape of a horse or similar mount. At level 9, Find Greater Steed brings a flying steed such as a Griffin. This mount lasts until you dismiss it or until it drops to 0 hit points. You and your mount can communicate telepathically.
The Find Steed spells share a feature and flaw with many of D&D’s pets. Rather than gaining a live companion worthy of an emotional attachment, the spell brings a spirit. The spiritual steeds boast the intelligence of Maximus, the determined horse in Tangled, but I wish for personality to match too.
In an interview, D&D Designer Mike Mearls said, “Some people really like the feeling that a companion animal is a flesh and blood creature, but there are a lot of advantages to presenting it as a spirit companion or something similar.” In fifth edition, the designers mainly chose the advantages of spirit companions.
Still, nothing says your spirit mount can’t show personality. Perhaps particularly brave and true horses serve in the afterlife as a paladin’s steed. Now I want to play a paladin who struggles with temptation paired with a horse whose spirit mission includes dragging my hero out of the tavern before he has one too many.
For a scout, helpful distraction, or spell conduit, learn Find Familiar. I’ve seen enough familiars in play to witness their utility, but before researching this post, I still underestimated their power. For the price of learning a mere 1st-level spell, Wizards gain a scout, an extension to all their touch spells, and a battlefield helper. If players made better use of familiars, the spell would count as broken.
Find Familiar lets you summon a spirit animal in a variety of forms: bat, cat, crab, frog (toad), hawk, lizard, octopus, owl, poisonous snake, fish, rat, raven, sea horse, spider, or weasel. Just about every animated sidekick matches something on the list of familiars. Want to play like an animated Disney hero with a wise or comical critter for a companion? Sadly, familiars can’t talk. The designers really missed an opportunity here. Even players who claim they can’t do voices can do a toad voice. It’s so fun.
Still, your sidekick can help. Try these uses:
Use your flying, creeping, or swimming critter to scout, while you watch through its eyes. My players used a familiar to explore five levels of the Tomb of Nine Gods while the party stood safely in the first hall. Doors stopped the creature, but so much of that dungeon stands open.
Use your flying familiar to perform the Help action on the battlefield, giving allies advantage on attack rolls. Eventually, an annoyed monster will smack down your bird, but that’s one less attack on friends, which may save a 50 gp healing potion. Re-summoning the familiar costs 10 gold, which counts as money well spent.
Use your flying familiar to target touch spells from a distance. For clerics who heal through touch, gaining a flying familiar might justify the cost of a feat. Play a grave cleric with a raven familiar.
Use your familiar to channel damaging spells like Dragon’s Breath. Familiars can’t attack, but with help, your little toad can spew acid in a 15-foot cone.
To gain a familiar, select one of these options:
Wizard: Learn Find Familiar
Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Chain
Warlock: Choose the Pact of the Tome and the Book of Ancient Secrets invocation. You get two level 1 rituals, plus the ability to inscribe any class ritual.
Bard: Choose the Lore archetype and use the Magical Secrets feature to learn the Find Familiar spell at 6th level. Or at level 10, any bard can use Magical Secrets to learn the spell.
Any Class: Take the Magic Initiate feat to get a 1st-level spell.
Any Class: Take the Ritual Caster feat to get any ritual spells.
For a more dangerous familiar, play a Pact of the Chain warlock. Warlocks who opt for the Pact of the Chain can choose an imp, pseudodragon, quasit, or sprite as a familiar. These hardly count as animal companions. But unlike animal familiars, these creatures can attack—although after level 9 their bites and stings and tiny arrows amount to little. All these creatures fly and most turn invisible, so they make particularly good spies and spell conduits.
For an unusual mount, play a Beast Master ranger and a small character. Neither a familiar nor a paladin’s steed count as true animals. For a flesh and blood animal companion, opt for the Beast Master ranger archetype.
A small beast master such as a halfling or gnome can ride their medium animal companion as a mount. Ride a wolf for its pack tactics, 40-foot speed, and cool factor. Ride a giant wolf spider for its climb speed, poison bite, and creep factor. Ride a giant poisonous snake for its brazenly phallic implications.
For a partner in battle, play a Beast Master ranger and a creepy, crawly beast. Beast masters’ animal companions earn a reputation for weakness. At level 3, when the companion arrives, the poor beast has merely adequate hit points. As the party levels, the creature will have fewer hit points and worse AC than the wizard, despite having to fight in melee. Meanwhile, the wizard’s familiar makes a better scout.
The Beast Companion class description suggests taking a hawk or mastiff as an animal companion. D&D designer Dan Dillonsays that such choices set players up for failure. Beast masters should not take beasts with a challenge rating below 1/4. If you want such a pet, follow Jeremy Crawford’s suggestion and train a creature to be your friend. Or spend a feat learning Find Familiar.
Unfortunately, warm, fuzzy, charismatic beasts like lions, tigers, and bears have size and challenge ratings that disqualify them as animal companions. If you want a furry friend, wolves rank as decent and panthers as adequate. But the very best companions make some folks say ick. For a pet that makes an able battle partner, choose one of these options:
A flying snake offers a 60-foot fly speed, flyby attack, and poison damage.
A giant crab brings decent AC, Blindsight 30 ft., grappling, and a swim speed. Plus, I understand such companions perform calypso-flavored musical numbers.
A giant wolf spider boasts Blindsight 10 ft., a climb speed, and poison.
A giant poisonous snake offers Blindsight 10 ft., a swim speed, and poison.
Dungeon masters: As special non-player characters, allow rangers’ animal companions to fall unconscious and roll death saving throws when reduced to 0 hit points.
With the D&D rules as written, animal companions lack the armor proficiency required to wear barding without suffering disadvantage on attacks, checks, and saves. Nonetheless, I doubt allowing a few extra points of AC breaks anything. Besides, cats in armor look adorable.
Update: To enhance the beast master archetype, Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything presents three primal companions typed for land, sea, and sky. Beastmasters can summon these primal beasts as a companion instead of befriending the creatures in D&D’s monster books. You can choose to describe your creature as a hawk or mastiff or anything that fits a type, without the risk of selecting a creature too weak to prove effective.
Rangers can spend a bonus action to command the primal beasts to attack or to take an action other than the dodging they do on their own. This marks a big improvement from archtype’s original companions, which typically required an action to command.
The primal beasts offer effective companions that can feel warm, fuzzy, and charismatic. The primal companions tend offer more hit points than real creatures. Plus, if these spirt beasts drop to 0 hit points, you can revive them for the price of a spell slot. As spirit creatures, you can summon new and different beasts after a long rest.