When I drafted my list of supreme character builds for Dungeons & Dragons, I originally included a section that asked, “You can play this, but should you?” The answer became this post, but why even ask?
In a comment, designer Teos “Alphastream” Abadia identified the supreme builds as enjoyable concepts, but “generally horrible at the table.” Although any character can fit the right game, some optimized builds reduce the fun at most tables. Teos writes, “For me, the biggest social contract item for players is to contain whatever optimization they cook up to reasonable and fun levels.”
D&D’s design aims to create a game where all a party’s characters get to contribute to the group’s success. When a single member of the group starts battles by one-shotting the monster with a huge burst of damage, or one character learns every skill to meet all challenges, then that character idles or overshadows the rest and makes the other players wonder why they showed up.
DM’s guild designer Andrew Bishkinskyi singles out one optimization to skip. “The most skilled character is made to do everything, and exists by design to exclude others from play, which I don’t want.”
Early editions of D&D embraced this kind of specialization. Thieves started as the only class with any capabilities resembling skills, but rated as nearly useless in a fight. Nowadays, D&D’s class designs aim give every class ways to contribute through all the game’s three pillars of exploration, combat, and roleplaying interaction.
Combat makes a big part of most D&D games, so characters optimized for extreme damage tend to prove troublesome. I’ve run public tables where newer players dealing single-digit damage would follow turns where optimized characters routinely dealt 50-some points. I saw the new folks trade discouraged looks as they realized their contributions hardly mattered. 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 combat-optimized character. “The character was a nightmare of doing way more damage off the top, and no one else could get a hit in.” See Sharpshooters Are the Worst Thing in D&D.
D&D’s strongest high-damage builds make ranged attacks from a distance. Such builds can leave the rest of the party to bear the monsters’ attacks. Teos Abadia writes, “Even if we don’t have character deaths or a TPK, a ranged character can create a frustrating situation for the other characters, who find themselves relentlessly beaten up, constantly targeted by saving throws, and harried by environmental and terrain damage. Over the course of a campaign, this can be tough for the party. Players may not even realize the cause. They simply find play frustrating and feel picked on. If the ranged player keeps saying, ‘hey, I didn’t even take any damage—again!’ the rest of the party might start to realize why.”
If you, like everyone, enjoy dealing maximum damage, I recommend a character powered by the Great Weapon Master and Polearm Master feats. See How to Build a D&D Polearm Master That Might Be Better Than a Sharpshooter. If you favor a ranged attacker, the strongest builds combine Sharpshooter, Crossbow Expert, and an Extra Attack feature. In a typical game, pick two.
Biggest damage novas
A few D&D players welcome characters capable of starting a fight with a huge burst of damage for an unexpected reason: These gamers find D&D’s combat pillar tiresome. By bringing a fight to an immediate end, a nova just brings the session back to their fun. Perhaps these games need a better approach to combat, or even a switch to a different game.
In groups more interested in roleplaying and exploration, players might not mind letting an optimized character 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 bat and scouting, and nobody minds letting you finish encounters at the top of round 1.
But most gamers enjoy a mix of the D&D’s three pillars. For these players, characters designed to start fights with maximum damage prove problematic because when they work, no one else participates. “The issue is that even if those characters don’t completely trivialize an encounter, they can reduce the fun of other players by taking a disproportionate amount of the spotlight,” writes @UncannyPally.
You can’t blame the players aiming for these builds. The occasional nova can create memorable moments.
“It’s only fun the first few times a character charges in and essentially one-shots the boss before you get to do anything,” writes @pocketfell. “And of course, upping the hp of the monsters just means that when the mega-damage PC doesn’t get lucky, it’s a slog through four times the usual number of hp.”
I suspect that D&D class features that power damage spikes steer the game in the wrong direction. However, I respect D&D’s designers and they seem to welcome such features. For example, paladins can smite multiple times per turn. In more recent designs, rangers with the Gloom Stalker archetype begin fights with an extra attack plus extra damage. The grave domain cleric’s Path to the Grave feature sets up one shots by making creatures vulnerable to the next attack.
Surely, the designers defending such features would cite 2 points:
- Players relish the occasional nova. They can feel like an exploit that breaks the game, delivering a quick win.
- Some spells shut down an encounter as well as massive weapon damage. Fair’s fair.
I argue that encounter-breaking spells rate as problematic too, but D&D traditionally limits such spells to a few spellcasting classes, often at higher levels and only once per day.
I accept that as a DM controlling the monsters, I will almost always lose. A defeat for my team evil counts as a win for the table, so I welcome the loss. But I must confess something: For my fun, I like the monsters to get some licks in. Is that so wrong? Under suggestion and zone of truth, I suspect other DMs would echo the same admission. Some gamers even float the courageous suggestion that DMs deserve fun like the players.
A character with an untouchable AC doesn’t rob the spotlight from other players, but for DMs, such characters become tiresome. If you back up a maximum AC with, say, a class able to cast shield and block those rare hits, then your DM might not show disappointment when you miss game night.
To be fair, players who sell out for maximum defense wind up with few other strengths. These players enjoy their chance to shine at the end of every fight when they crow about not taking damage—again! I’ve learned to accept their source of bliss and welcome their characters. They may soak attacks, turning claw, claw, bite into useless flailing, but I can always add more attacks to go around.
In theory, tough characters should trigger the same annoyance as untouchable characters, but the barbarians and Circle of the Moon druids actually suffer hits, so their durability feels different.
In tactically-minded parties, tough characters and characters with high AC fill a role by preventing monsters from reaching more fragile characters. If your group favors that play style, your DM surely dials up the opposition past very strong and also pairs smart foes with clever strategies. Optimized characters of all sorts often fit that style of play.
Nobody minds a fast character. I love playing monks who speed around the battlefield stunning everything in their path. However, those stun attacks certainly bring less acclaim. See How to Build a D&D Monk So Good That DMs Want to Cheat.
If you play the healer and miss game night, everyone feels disappointed. ’Nuff said.
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I’d like to take issue with you when you say “Early editions embraced” this type of play. I suppose it depends on what you mean by ‘early’, but to my mind all of this maximising of characters started with 3e. Before then, a certainly with D&D and not AD&D, there is very little opportunity to do this. Old School play is essentially D&D without a gazillion classes, skill systems and feats etc. Such specialisation comes from a lack of imagination created by too much choice. The game ends up playing you, not the other way round as it should be.
Rather than punish players for powerful builds, I prefer to buff the characters that are less capable. I have awarded boons from the DMG to characters that were less optimized. In my current game the player character builds are focused on defense. I decrease monsters defense and increase their offense, otherwise many fights would take forever.
Last campaign, 4e, one player was the “Most Durable”. Obscenely high AC, and Resist All, and crit-triggered *bonus* Resist All, and lots of ways to self-heal (and get temps on top of it). Monsters that could hurt him would one-shot the other players. “Luckily”, he had a horrible Reflex defense (4e didn’t have saves, you attacked defenses), so archers and “armor-piercing” attacks and direct spells could still hurt him. And look out if there was a Dominate on the field! I (as DM) learned to have big armor-piercing brutes for him to fight, and a selection of more “normal” foes to challenge the rest of the party. But I also designed some encounters where he could shine and crow about how he took over 300 damage that fight (and didn’t go down). To make matters worse for me, 4e’s “basic Fighter” class had 5e’s Sentinel as a core feature! This PC would charge up to the biggest bad – usually a spellcaster – and lock them down for the fight… But once I worked out a fun solution for most encounters, everyone had fun with their specialties.
But I agree with pretty much everything in this article. These builds are great for a CRPG solo play, or as a thought experiment (“How I conquered the world with 5 kobolds at level 3!”) – but not fun to have at the table. Again, last campaign, the 4e Cleric was a bit salty at how the other characters kinda eclipsed him in every area (until the late teens in levels, when his build finally kicked in): The previously mentioned warrior was rarely hurt and could self-heal; the ranger was had a cleric multiclass feat, so he could heal. The wizard was a better blaster (well, duh). The wizard was better at Lore skills (INT-based), and the ranger was better at Nature and Perception (the cleric worshipped a Nature diety), and the rogue was a better Face. He’s was like “why am I even here? I’m 2nd at everything…” [Things did improve later, as I said, but those were some long “role-playing is my only fun” months for him.]
I will say that “fastest character” is not a real concern as long that character isn’t also the nova burster. I’m about to play a tabaxi Rogue/Swashbuckler who can move potentially 120′ in a single round (move 30, dash 30, bonus dash 60)… but not do anything when I get there!
I approach these from a dual perspective of what makes other players sad, but also what presents tough challenges for encounter design as a DM.
I’ll dive into all the items below, but first a quick fix that helps lessen the blow somewhat: In my games, I don’t allow multiclassing. It feels jenky and unnecessary to me, and it results in some of the more broken builds out there.
My thoughts on the types of builds below:
-I find Biggest Nova to be by far the most disruptive, as in my experience, most D&D adventures only have 1-2 really challenging fights a long rest, with the remaining fights being filler or meant to drain the resources of the party without posing a serious risk of death. Of course, a nova doesn’t have to be damage. A Wall of Force round 1 against the boss often effectively ends an encounter as effectively as flurry of Paladin Smites or a couple well placed Empowered Fireballs. It’s also striking to me that, while there are some zany multiclass combinations that allow for scary novas, a stock wizard or sorcerer is often well placed to lay down some really nasty novas that put what more martial classes can do to shame. The easy novaing of spellcasters is by far the biggest challenge for DMs and the biggest feel-bad for more martially oriented characters.
-Honestly, the 2nd most disruptive build is probably Most Skilled. The thing that’s annoying about this one is it requires very little investment. Some builds can get their skill modifiers so high that it trivializes non-combat encounters unless you artificially increase the difficulty or carefully plan out your social encounters to add a lot more complexity than you find in a typical D&D session. So, for example, a Bard need only take Expertise in Deceit and Diplomacy and pick up the Lucky feats (which is already an amazing feat), and they’ll be crushing most social rolls especially in conjunction with the extra dice they can throw on top and any spells they cast to help them, such as Enhance Ability. And of course, it also creates a situation where no one else wants to risk talking too much during social encounters lest the DM force them to make a Diplomacy or other social check with a much lower risk of success.
-Most Damaging: If by this you mean consistently high damage, I am not super concerned, as it’s rare outside a video game/mmo that consistently dealing solid damage beats novaing. That’s not to say that it doesn’t suck to be the party rogue, and see someone else regularly doing double your damage, but with what a leg up spellcasters have, I have a hard time telling people not to optimize martial characters as much as possible. And as I and others have emphasized in the past, the highest consistent damage builds are not ranged builds as, depending on the level, a Polearm or GWF (or both) build usually beats these easily. They trade off some of their damage dealing for the ability to avoid being hit, which is often not a very attractive trade-off for reasons I will dive into in my next point.
-Highest AC: As a DM, I only really worry about this when EVERYONE has high AC or is otherwise difficult to hit, which… sometimes happens. For example, take a mid-level party composed of a Fighter, a Cleric, a Rogue, and a Wizard. The Cleric and Fighter naturally have high AC between Plate/Half Plate and their shields. The Rogue can often spend every round darting out of hiding, firing with advantage, and then rehiding as a bonus action, making them tough to pin down. And the Wizard has Mage Armor and Shield, which means if they are hit by an attack, more often than that it’s more of a spell tax than it is a serious threat to them. None of these are particularly good targets for attacking; However, throw a Bard into the group and suddenly I am feeling a little better, as they are a relatively squishy target with only a few options to make themselves more defensive assuming my monsters can get to them. Or imagine a party where only the fighter has high AC. They can often be easily ignored while the monsters attack literally everyone else.
Toughest: The thing that can make this obnoxious are two really specific areas. One is Moon Druids. Weirdly, they are the true tanks of D&D, as Wild Shape gives them essentially 3X their normal pool of hitpoints every short rest. And then there is Polymorph, which can transform someone into a T-Rex giving them a pool of 136 hit points the enemy needs to chew through.
Fastest: This is only obnoxious in really really specific situations that are mostly theoretical. That is, sometimes in an open terrain, a PC can singularly engage an enemy that has no good ranged attacks and kite them MMO style. But most DMs would just have the enemy retreat to cover in this instance and refuse to engage. Otherwise, it rarely disrupts play.
Healing: Agreed, D&D healing just isn’t powerful enough to make this matter from a balance perspective, and players don’t find good healers threatening.
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