Hipsters & Dragons

Because roleplaying is social, creative, fun… and kinda cool!

Great Weapon Master Feat… OP’ed or not?

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.

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8 Comments

  1. Cmag

    This analysis is so incredibly poor that I question the validity of this article. For starters, the control (without feat) does not get the bonus damage from two strength (as you previously assumed would be taken instead of the feat.) You’re comparing an 18 str fighter without the feat to an 18 STR fighter with the feat. Of course if strength is constant the character with the feat will do more damage!

    Another reason this analysis is skewed, is that the estimated party level has gone from 5 to 10, and yet the armor class of the enemy remains constant. At level 10 an AC of 15 is really low, meaning the target is either weak and below the minimum level for exp threshold, or a caster caught with their pants down. In fact the dungeon masters guide says a 10 CR monster averages 17 AC (pg 274). You need to adjust the armor class to the average of monsters likely to be faced by a level 10 party, ideally also using the average for level 5 in that test group (which was indeed 15). An appropriate AC would yield a much more reasonable comparison due to realistic defensive statistics at that level. Additionally, you’ve randomly given advantage one turn at level 10, but not at 5. This doesn’t really make sense when comparing it to the level 5 results for the reported scalability problem (which is what you’re really trying to show).

    Here I’ll do it quickly:

    Ted 20 STR without feat:
    Ted has to a hit bonus of +11, meaning he needs a 6 to hit AC 17 (75% chance). He does 2d6 + 7 (14) per hit. So in three rounds he does 0.75 x 14 x 6 = 63.

    Ted 18 Str with feat:
    Ted has to a hit bonus of +5, meaning he needs a 12 to hit AC 17 (45% chance). He does 2D6 +16 (23) per hit. So in Three rounds he does .45*23*6 = 62.1. Without advantage, Ted’s expected DPR is worse at 18 Strength with the feat. With that last round advantage the numbers are in the feat’s favor, 68.25 for Ted 20 STR no feat, to 73.485 with the feat, but that is about a 8% increase in expected value, and as I’ll explain that is at an additional cost.

    I also disagree with the notion that the expected outcome between this feat and taking two strength should be the same on a conceptual level, nevermind that with appropriate AC for higher levels the GWM has lower expected damage. This feat provides a higher variance but more damaging option, at the expense of two strength. Those strength points are significantly more versatile. For starters, they’re used outside of calculating damage. The additional strength provides a higher modifier on checks and skills that are STR based that this feat does not. A character who took the attribute points is also more versatile in combat options, as they can carry a single arm weapon and shield with them and switch while that would be inefficient for a GWM character. That extra 2 AC from a shield may come in handy and the one armed weapon is still benefited by +2 STR. Finally why in goodness’ name is this considered a problem when there’s Polearm Master that gives a bonus attack each round and creates 10 foot reach. It’s nuts.

    The real takeaway here is that GWM is situationally better than +2 Strength when the enemy is lightly armored, incapacitated, you can consistently generate advantage, or have a to hit bonus from something like Oath of Devotion Paladin’s sacred weapon. Otherwise at appropriate enemy AC it actually scales poorly as you level (which makes sense right, the 10 damage is a flat modifier). Have you done the analysis with your proposed results? I would never take any of your propositions over 2 STR. This isn’t broken, and to be honest I don’t think it’s actually very good. Especially when STR provides better skills/saves, versatility and pole arm master is another option which gives you free attacks from level one and scales well.

    • duncan

      Thanks for the detailed comment and analysis Cmag, even if you failed your diplomacy check with the opening gambit.

      Regarding AC, tougher monsters in 5e are generally tougher because they have more HP and abilities than because they have a higher AC in my experience. Also a 10th level fighter doesn’t necessarily fight CR10 monsters, as often as simply higher numbers of lower CR monsters. Again in my experience.

      I didn’t want to break down millions of examples with and without advantage etc., just wanted to glance at some situations regarding why most players think this feat is broken, as per this survey:

      https://thinkdm.org/2018/01/13/feat-strength-tiers/

      Your analysis shows it’s not that good, even bad, against high AC monsters. On the other hand if we do one more piece of analysis, we are going to see another picture maybe.

      Imagine Ted with advantage in every round, even against a high AC.

      Ted 20 STR without feat:
      Ted has to a hit bonus of +11, meaning he needs a 6 to hit AC 17 (93.75% chance with advantage). He does 2d6 + 7 (14) per hit. So in three rounds he does 0.9375 x 14 x 6 = 78.75 damage.

      Ted 18 Str with feat:
      Ted has to a hit bonus of +5, meaning he needs a 12 to hit AC 17 (69.75% chance). He does 2D6 +16 (23) per hit. So in Three rounds he does 0.6975x23x6 = 96.255 damage.

      There are a tonne of ways to get advantage in 5e. Obviously if Ted were actually a barbarian he can get it any time he wants to use the Reckless Attack ability, which pairs a bit too well with this feat IMHO. Or if Ted had a barbarian buddy who followed the totem of the wolf, he would be getting advantage pretty much every round. Or if he had a buddy with Shieldmaster feat he would also be getting advantage in many rounds.

      So perhaps the conclusion is that situationally the feat can be too strong, and many players have found ways to pair it with other abilities in a way that unbalances the game. I don’t really like the idea that a feat can increase your maximum damage output by 10 times the number of attacks you have. Also the potential bonus action attack can happen nearly every round against low level foes / a horde, so the damage output rises again.

      Polearm Master is a great feat. As a DM, I wouldn’t let the bonus action attack have a range of 10 feet.

  2. Joseph

    Isn’t that the point of feats? to have a specialty is very useful in certain specific situations? If the players often find themselves in extended encounters with large groups of mooks, then how is it unbalanced for them to as a team to make the decision of using feats to specifically deal with mooks instead of using class resources (especially when players shouldn’t be expected to know when they can recover said resources). In practice, unless you’re waging war against an entity, those situations are typically few and far between. Even if these situations turn out to be common, in context, it will most often result in them enduring the attrition until they fight the one in charge of the horde. Also just having a mage or two that can shut down barbarians (enchantment and illusion mages especially) or just use banish, then you can tactically cripple the party synergy for at least one turn.

    I would have to criticize both your insistence that feats excelling in situations that they’re specifically designed for are unbalanced because of the aforementioned reasons. I’d also heavily criticize your need to justify how “unbalanced” the feat is by quantifying how powerful it can be. This isn’t a videogame that you’re trying to beat or win in, but a pen and paper RPG; your players are setting goals for their characters and you are setting up obstacles within the boundaries of your world’s and fairness’ sakes. If you are aware of how powerful it can be on paper, then so is WotC and they likely have provided you with the resources to respond (tweak the Deathpact angel and have them or a reskin nanny your hoard, use flying creatures, or just not use hoards) or even to make your own (have you players make the decision to have to go through choke points,and take advantage of that. In sieges, castle gates often used large cauldrons of boiling oil on the infantry that broke through the gate). unless that +10 can be used literally anywhere, on any class at no reasonably tangible cost (which is only applicable to barbarians (kinda (if you have a fighter (if they decide to dedicate their feat for you (and your enemies have low ac anyway (and you have nothing between you and your target(s) (yes I’m aware you might’ve found this condescending))))))) it’s not unbalanced, you need to adapt as a DM.

    TL;DR: If you have the time and effort to try and rebalance a feat. you should probably spend the effort to figure out the limits of the feat first. Your argument implies the dm either can’t or shouldn’t do that much in the first place. What if you ARE, in fact, a novice dm? Feats as a whole are optional in the first place, and like multiclassing, you shouldn’t use those mechanics if you aren’t comfortable in your ability to adapt to player problem-solving skills (Keen mind needs you to be near literally on top of your notes at any given moment, I’d set that as the bar to what feats are capable of).

  3. Deimos

    I think two-handed weapons is the worst choice without a feat.

  4. Deimos

    The worst fighting style is for two-handed weapons. Really insignificant bonus to damage compared to sword and board at higher levels, but +2 AC from shield means a lot. There is simply zero point in taking big weapon besides roleplaying.
    IMHO Great Weapon Master just balances it

  5. Richard Cromwell

    I tend to agree that GWM is OP and I’m puzzled by people who don’t see it. Are there any front-line fighters who don’t take it?

    I think in my group I’ll limit GWM to one attack per turn at the most, same with Sharpshooter (which already has so many bonuses stacked on it it’s ridiculous). Of course, you can always just throw tougher and tougher enemies at the party to compensate, but part of the problem is that maybe not every party member is min/maxed so much. Those other players are going to feel useless in combat.

    Just my two cents. Thank you for sharing your ideas!

  6. Ned

    There’s no point crying over an “overpowered” melee character without some consideration for how they stack up to clerics and wizards.

    All you’re really doing is imposing your outrage on your players and taking away options for their characters.

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