There are three feats that the vast majority of Dungeon Masters consider broken, according to this survey by Think DM.

One of them is Lucky, the only feat to get banned on my table and one which I discussed previously on this blog (and which in turn generated scores of conflicting comments, with many people rushing to its defense. I’ll let you read their reasons yourselves). Another is Sharp Shooter, which perhaps I’ll talk about another time. The third, and today’s topic, is Great Weapon Master.

It’s an interesting feat for sure… the Player’s Handbook states:

Great Weapon Master

You’ve learned to put the weight of a weapon to your advantage, letting its momentum empower your strikes. You gain the following benefits:

  • On your turn, when you score a critical hit with a melee weapon or reduce a creature to 0 hit points with one, you can make one melee weapon attack as a bonus action.
  • Before you make a melee attack with a heavy weapon that you are proficient with, you can choose to take a -5 penalty to the attack roll. If the attack hits, you add +10 to the attack’s damage.

The concept is simple. You’re a big brave brute who has sacrificed a shield (and an ability modifier to take this feat), in order to do maximum possible damage with each swing of your blade.

The first of the two benefits raises few eyebrows… critical hits are pretty rare after all, as is reducing a creature to zero hit points.

The second benefit is where the controversy comes in. An additional 10 damage is massive. If you consider a greatsword does on average 7 damage, it’s kind of crazy that there’s a feat that allows you to do another 143% of that damage as part of the same attack. Everything hinges on that -5 modifier… but in a game of low ACs and high bonuses to hit, not to mention various potential ways to get advantage on your attacks, is that enough of a penalty to justify that huge damage haul?

Ready to do serious damage…

Some Maths…

I’m not going to go super nerdy on this one… this is Hipsters & Dragons remember! I’ve got some art house movies to watch with a locally brewed IPA later tonight (ok, the next episode of Vikings, with some cheap Spanish wine…), but let’s do some simplified sums. I’m doing this on the fly… in other words I haven’t drawn a definitive conclusion about the feat myself yet. Plus the maths might be shoddy, so stay sharp.

Taking a 5th level fighter as an example, let’s see how much damage he does using this feat in three rounds of combat against an opponent with AC 15, versus how much he does without using it. Let’s say he’s got 18 Strength, and a +1 sword by now. His name is Ted.

For simplicity sake I will discount how critical hits effect the maths, and assume there is no advantage on these rolls for now.

Without the feat (5th level fighter)

Ted has a to hit bonus of +8, meaning he needs a 7 to hit AC 15 (70% chance). He does 2d6 +5 damage per hit (12) and has 6 attacks in three rounds. Therefore he does 0.7 x 12 x 6 = 50.4 damage in total.

With the feat (5th level fighter)

With his -5 penalty, Ted now has only a +3 bonus, meaning he needs a 12 to hit (45%). He does 2d6 + 15 damage per hit (22) times the 6 attacks. Therefore he does 0.45 x 22 x 6 = 59.4 damage total.

Hmmmm, it’s not too strong. Just 9 hit points difference, and if you chose to increase your Strength by 2, instead of choosing this feat, you would have dealt an extra 4.5 hit points in those six attacks. That said, I feel that the damage outputs should be closer, if not even. With outputs like this it just means you will opt to use the power nearly every time, and reliably come out on top…

Anyway let’s run the same example with a 10th level fighter, and assume this time that Ted has advantage on his attack rolls for one of the three rounds. Being 10th level, Ted now has a +2 sword.

Without the feat (10th level fighter)

Ted has to a hit bonus of +10, meaning he needs a 5 to hit AC 15 (80% chance), with advantage 96% chance. He does 2d6 + 6 (13) per hit. So in two rounds he does 0.8 x 13 x 4 = 41.6, and in the final round 0.96 x 13 x 2 = 24.96. So a grand total = 66.56 damage

With the feat (10th level fighter)

With his -5 penalty, Ted now has a hit bonus of +5, meaning he needs a 10 to hit AC 15 (55% chance), and with advantage (79.75%). He does 2d6 +16 (23) per hit. So in two rounds he does 0.55 x 23 x 4 = 50.6, and in the final round 0.7975 x 23 x 2 = 36.685. So a grand total = 87.285 damage.

Ok now I’m beginning to see what people are complaining about. That’s pretty big gains over just three rounds. This feat is definitely going to start unbalancing the game at higher levels, especially if it’s being paired with other skills like the barbarian’s reckless attack feature to get advantage more frequently.

In general I like the concept… take a risk, and get a reward… I probably wouldn’t go far to say the feat is broken, but with 5th edition’s low AC monsters and its frequently employed advantage mechanic, the risk / reward dynamic doesn’t feel quite right, and it does come over as overpowered.

Hipster’s Fix

The first part of the feat works just fine in my experience, and is especially fun when mopping up low level mooks in a fight. I am happy to leave that well alone. As for the second part, here are my suggestions…

Option 1

The simplest way to fix the problematic part of this feat would be to keep the same risk, but reduce the reward. In general the flat 10 extra damage doesn’t sit well with me. It’s too dull, and too guaranteed, and it doesn’t scale on a critical (annoying from a player’s perspective!). So I would simply substitute the +10, for 2d6 extra damage, which is a) more fun and b) a bit less powerful, ie. more balanced.

When you bear in mind that most characters using Great Weapon Master feat will also have selected the Greater Weapon Fighting Style that allows you to reroll 1s and 2s, then the average damage is actually 8.33 (not 7), so only slightly nerfed from 10. Especially as between 5 and 10% of the time (ie. when you get critical hits) you will be doing 16.67, which will bring the average up some more.

Option 2

Another way of approaching a fix, would be to say, you can only land these killer +10 blows when you have advantage on the attack roll. Only when you’ve snuck up on your opponent unseen, or they’re rolling about prone on the floor, do you have the time to put your full force into the blow and have any hope of hitting. This means you don’t get to use it so often, but when you do, it tends to pay off big.

Option 3

A third idea I had would be to simply say… whenever you have advantage on a melee attack roll with a heavy weapon you deal an extra 1d6 damage. No penalty to hit. Simple and situational, this saves on any maths and also indecision that sometimes accompanies this feat (“shall I take the penalty or not? Erm, err.”) which can eat up valuable game time.

Option 4

Just thought of a fourth option. You could make dealing the extra damage reliant on a using a bonus action as well. This seems to have some logic… such a powerful blow might take a little extra time to work up to, as you adjust your stance and wind up for the kill. This is perhaps the best way to keep GWM on the table as written, but preventing it from getting out of hand, as it would limit its use to once per turn. This same solution works well for limiting the burst damage of divine smite. Hmmm, it does however screw with the first part of the feat, whereby you get to make a free melee attack as a bonus action, if you kill / crit a creature. You could however give extra attack as a free action on those occasions.

There you go! How have you got on with Great Weapon Master feat on your table? Have you come up with a fix that works for you? Please comment below, and feel free to pull me up on my tired, probably incorrect maths, obvious things I forgot to take into consideration and anything else. Just keep it polite, as you normally do.

Oh by the way, did you check these 5e magic weapons I homebrewed? They are free for use in your game.