The halberd, glaive and pike: the legendary choice of arms used by heroes such as… erm…. wait…. no, just hang on a minute…. let me think…
I can remember, even decades ago, looking at the weapons table of my 2nd edition Player’s Handbook and thinking: “What’s the point of these ugly, impractical weapons in Dungeons & Dragons?” Ok, these barge poles with weird-shaped, Swiss army knife attachments at one end might suit a foot soldier or town guard in florid uniform, but heroes don’t use polearms… and they certainly don’t take them on adventures and into cramped dungeons.
I’d be willing to bet that less than 0.1% of players chose to fight with a halberd or glaive back in those days, but I’m pretty sure that figure has risen a lot in 5th edition with the introduction of Polearm Master feat.
The Player’s Handbook states the following:
You gain the following benefits:
- When you take the Attack action and attack with only a glaive, halberd, quarterstaff, or spear, you can use a bonus action to make a melee attack with the opposite end of the weapon. This attack uses the same ability modifier as the primary attack. The weapon’s damage die for this attack is d4, and it deals bludgeoning damage.
- While you are wielding a glaive, halberd, pike, quarterstaff, or spear, other creatures provoke an opportunity attack from you when they enter your reach.
Wow, suddenly history’s least sexy melee weapons are now Dungeon and Dragon’s most powerful ones!
You probably don’t need telling this, but Polearm Master feat is crazy good, even courting the dreaded ‘overpowered’ label. You get the principle advantage that two weapon fighters get – an extra attack using a bonus action – but with the added bonus that you get to add your Strength modifier to the damage, no fighting style required (i.e. leaving you free to select Defense or Great Weapon Fighting fighting style instead). And, unlike with two weapon fighting, your main weapon attacks do d10 damage. Plus, no one can get near you without taking a spike to the face first!
Not only does PAM offer you the most attacks, and therefore the best damage output, of any martial feat (more than Great Weapon Master! Which anyway you can use in conjunction with this feat, if you like…) but it also combines brilliantly with the Sentinel feat, and also with the Battle Master’s superiority dice. The fact that you potentially get two extra attacks a round (one from your reaction and one using your bonus action) really maximises your action economy and also means you can go to town on your opponent using your Battle Master maneuvers, forcing them to make multiple saves, even in the first round of combat – something that can easily swing a battle.
Much as I love this feat, I think it’s probably a bit too good in RAW, and moreover it has some logic-defying glitches that need amending.
Let’s dig a little deeper, one problem point at a time and hopefully make the feat more credible and balanced along the way.
Bizarre Bonus Attack Range: Glitch Fix
The first is a bit of a no brainer for me, and that’s the reach of the bonus action attack. Contrary to what Jeremy Crawford says, I think it absolutely has to be limited to a 5 foot range.
— Jeremy Crawford (@JeremyECrawford) April 1, 2016
For a wielder to strike out at 10 feet with the sharp/pointy end, they need to have their hands pretty far back on the shaft. In fact, one hand should be at the end of the shaft, so to attack anyone with that end the target would have to be within reach of your hand… i.e. really close range. Yes, you could adjust your grip, but constantly changing grips in a fight would put you at a disadvantage, and begs the question… if you have the time and technique to change grip, surely you could just strike out with the actual weapon end of the weapon again more easily? The bonus attack only really makes sense as a rapid combo, delivered at close quarters.
Inopportune Opportunity Attacks: Glitch Fix
My second proposed change is likely to be more contentious, but is based on simple logic too. I don’t believe you should be able to use the feat’s opportunity attack when you’re already engaged in melee with another opponent. Or rather I don’t believe you should be able to do so with impunity. If you are fighting one foe, and a second comes at you from the exact opposite direction, it beggars belief that you could turn around and stab the opponent charging you without being promptly hacked down by the enemy you just turned your back on. This actually leads me to a house rule that the world probably isn’t ready for yet, and that’s that taking an opportunity attack should trigger an opportunity attack from any hostile creature in range. (This rule actually makes a lot of sense. While it can set off a bit of a chain, it is limited by the fact each combatant only gets one reaction, and it creates realistic scenarios…. you want to retreat when your mate is there to cover you? Great, your opponent might not take their opportunity attack, fearing a reprisal. You want to retreat when it’s just you and the enemy… well then, it’s open season for a beating!).
Anyway, if you’re not quite ready yet to trust uncle Duncan on this one, you could simulate something that does the same job without changing the core rules. “While you are wielding a glaive, halberd, pike, quarterstaff or spear, provided there are no hostile creatures within 5 feet of you, other creatures provoke an opportunity attack from you when they enter your reach.”
Twirling Spear Syndrome: Glitch Fix
Another weird issue that could have been easily dealt with by including three additional words in the feat’s text, but for some reason wasn’t (see Tweet below), is that in RAW you can actually combine this feat with a shield, and then use a spear or quarterstaff one-handed and get both the feat’s bonus attack AND a shield’s AC bonus. Apart from the fact that feels like having your cake and eating it (actually, I can’t really take issue with this power balance as I more or less advocate the same ability for the Shield Master feat), it just conjures up a horrible twirling baton technique that befits a marching band’s drum major more than a man-at-arms.
@GunnerMcGrath The Polearm Master feat doesn’t require the quarterstaff to be wielded with two hands.
— Jeremy Crawford (@JeremyECrawford) November 6, 2014
I’m definitely not buying this as a valid combat technique, and therefore I would add the proviso… “When you take the Attack action and attack with only a glaive, halberd, quarterstaff or spear, using two hands, you can use a bonus action to make a melee attack with the opposite end of the weapon.
Now, I think all of these restrictions are common sense, and still leave an incredibly powerful feat available for selection. But, since I’m such a warm-hearted soul, I might be tempted to throw these poor deprived Polearm Masters a couple of compensatory buffs, to prevent any tears and tantrums around the table.
Since I’ve restricted the use of the feat’s reaction-based opportunity attack, I might give them another use for their reaction: they can add +1 to their AC for a single melee attack that they can see. That pole looks pretty handy defensively, so would be nice to reflect that. (I would like to offer more than just +1, but I don’t think I can really justify that when balanced with Dual Wielder and Defensive Duellist feats).
Secondly, since I’m not allowing one-handed spear users a bonus action attack anymore, I’m going to let their mastery of the spear mean that they can use a d8 as their damage die (or d10 if they do go two handed, a la the Red Viper), PLUS give them ‘reach’ when using a spear. This now sets up a rather nice combo with Shield Master feat, which they can use to collect the bonus action they are missing.
A little Hipster buff and you can imitate the Red Viper…
So there we go… shall we put it all together?
POLEARM MASTER: HIPSTER FIX
Ok, this is what PAM looks like on my table…
You gain the following benefits:
- When you take the Attack action and attack with only a glaive, halberd, quarterstaff or spear, using two hands, you can use a bonus action to make a melee attack with the opposite end of the weapon. This attack uses the same ability modifier as the primary attack. The weapon’s damage die for this attack is d4, it has a reach of 5 feet and it deals bludgeoning damage.
- While you are wielding a glaive, halberd, pike, quarterstaff or spear, other creatures provoke an opportunity attack from you when they enter your reach, provided that no other hostile creature is within 5 feet of you. You also gain another way of using your reaction: when using your weapon with two hands and another creature hits you with a melee attack you can see, you can add +1 to your AC, potentially causing the attack to miss you.
- Your mastery of polearms means that when you wield a spear it has the reach property, and your weapon damage die increases from a d6 to a d8 (and from a d8 to a d10, when used two-handed).
Not quite as elegant? Sure it’s not. But it’s hardly complicated either.
POLEARM MASTER BUILDS & TACTICS
If you want to build a deadly Polearm Master I’d definitely go for the fighter’s Battle Master archetype, as your maneuvers will give you complete dominance in martial combat. A paladin is a decent shout as well, as having up to four attacks a round means you can dish out four smites a round (at least in RAW, where Divine Smite is wildly overpowered… don’t worry DMs, I’ve fixed it for you!), while the 11th level Improved Divine Smite ability works better the more attacks you have, if you think you’ll be playing a long campaign.
If you choose human feat variant as your race you will be able to pick up the feat at 1st level, giving you up to three attacks a round from the off. At fourth level you might consider boosting your Strength, or picking up the Sentinel feat, which almost breaks the game when paired with PAM. The Sentinel feat means that when you hit a creature with an opportunity attack their speed reduces to 0, so using PAM a creature that enters your reach at 10 feet range might easily get rooted to the spot, leaving them unable to complete their move and attack you. A rather handy defense mechanism, and, if you’re really boring, you could attack that stalled creature and then move backwards and run the same tactic again as it reenters your reach! (Actually I’m not a big fan of the Sentinel feat’s text, which offers no saving throw and makes no exceptions to this ability… i.e. a dragon attempting to fly out of combat would be stopped by a Medium sized creature’s opportunity attack. Another of 5e’s little peccadillos, and no doubt the subject of a future blog post).
Actually, if you go Battlemaster you don’t even really need the Sentinel feat to mirror the same tactic. You can use the opportunity attack you get when someone enters your range to throw down a Menacing attack for example, and, if it fails its save, it is frightened of you and can’t come nearer anyway. And, if it can still get you with a ranged attack option, it now has disadvantage on its attack rolls. Meanwhile, if a creature uses the Dash action to try and engage you, out comes the Trip Attack maneuver which should leave them prone at your feet, ready for you turn.
On your own turn, you can also use the Trip Attack to good effect, especially if your DM allows you to use your polearm butt bonus action attack first (technically you’re not supposed to. But there’s a case to be made that you can use it in between the Attack action and any Extra attacks you get when you take the Attack action). Anyhow, using the Trip Attack on your first hit should allow you, or, if not, your allies to all pile in on the floored opponent with advantage.
Another thing you can do is use the Pushing Attack maneuver to push your opponent back and force them to enter your reach again on their turn. Depending on how far you intend to push them back, you might want to do this on your last attack, so as not to push them out of range of any remaining attacks you have.
I wrote a big post rating all the Battle Master’s maneuvers (plus I homebrewed a bunch more) and if you have a read, I’m confident you’ll avoid selecting the duds. After some more playing time, I’d also up Menacing attack to a full 5/5 as a choice.
Should probably also add that Great Weapon Master works pretty well with PAM too, and is best taken at later levels when that pesky -5 to hit is less of an issue. Smart players will also look to get advantage before invoking the -5 to hit, +10 damage feature.
If you want to fight with a spear and shield, Hoplite style, PAM and Shield Master actually work pretty well, especially if you are using my version of PAM, as then your spear does more damage, has more reach, and there’s no overlap over the use of your bonus action. Using this combo you attack as normal and then use your Sheild Master shove attack to push your opponent back. You are now free to step back another 5 feet (no need in RAW, as your reach is only 5 feet) and force it to enter your reach on its turn.
Wielding a 6 to 9 feet long halberd, glaive or spear is not always practical, and I feel DMs out there should be alert to occasions when such a weapon might be more of a hindrance than a tool. You can’t sheath it like a sword, you’re pretty much stuck with it in your hand(s) all the time – fine for guard duty, but not great for climbing up a wall etc. Realistically it would be a massive nuisance for any adventurer, but while I wouldn’t advocate micromanaging how it is handled in every small tunnel or busy tavern, there are undoubtedly times when the player will have to put their weapon aside, or not carry it with them (in a social setting etc.).
The other major disadvantage of making polearms your go to weapon is the distinct lack of magical halberds and glaives.
Players concerned by this might want to invest in my Platinum best seller Esquiel’s Guide to Magic Weapons, which features the Displacer Glaive, the Glaive of Vengeance and the Halberd of Heroism, alongside several magical spears. It’s also got a Magic Weapon Generator with scores of different properties you can mix and match to make infinite new weapons of any variety. A nice present for your Dungeon Master that should benefit you (and also a nice way to support this blog!).
As always, please share your thoughts, experience, and tactics / builds, in the comments. Hint: you don’t have to agree with me, but you should probably keep it polite if you want me to click ‘approve comment’ and not ‘spam’.