Great Weapon Master the focus of some contention in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition. But, if you’re new to the hobby, you might not understand what it is, how it works, or why it’s considered overpowered.
This article goes over everything a beginner D&D 5e players needs to know about the Great Weapon Master feat.
Let’s start off with the simple stuff; explaining what Great Weapon Master is.
The Great Weapon Master Feat Explained
Great Weapon Master is an optional feat in D&D 5e. It improves on the combat prowess of characters wielding a melee weapon with the Heavy property.
Like many other feats in D&D 5e, Great Weapon Master comes with two benefits. The first lets you make an additional attack when you score a critical hit or reduce a creature to zero hit points. The second is the big one, and, honestly, the reason you take this feat in the first place.
From page 167 of the Player’s Handbook:
"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."
How Does Great Weapon Master Work?
So, how does Great Weapon Master work in 5e?
Well, it’s actually pretty straight forward. Just follow a few easy steps.
- Declare your making a melee attack with a weapon you’re proficient with that has the Heavy property
- Declare you’re using Great Weapon Master for the attack
- Subtract -5 from your Attack Modifier
- If you hit, roll the weapon’s damage die or dice normally
- Add your normal damage modifier
- Finally, add +10 to the damage on top of that for your total
Basically, you calculate damage for Great Weapon Master as: Weapon Damage Die/Dice + Damage Modifier + 10.
Let’s look at an example.
Say we have a 4th level Fighter with a 16 Strength for a +3 Ability Score Modifier. Our Fighter is using a Greataxe which as the Heavy weapon property. And, since they’re proficient with all martial weapons, they’re also proficient with the axe.
To start thing out, our Fighter’s Attack Modifier is +5 (+3 for the Strength modifier and +2 from proficiency). The Greataxe deals 1d12 slashing damage on a hit. With this in mind, let’s look at an attack.
First off, our Fighter is using Great Weapon Master. So, we subtract -5 from their Attack Modifier meaning our total is +0. Not great, but they’re lucky and still get a hit in. Now, let’s look at how to calculate damage with Great Weapon Master for this example.
1d12 (Greataxe damage die) + 3 (Strength modifier) + 10 (Great Weapon Master)
If we rolled a 7 on the damage die, our total would be 20 points of slashing damage (7+3+10=20).
Now, what happens if we roll a critical hit?
Great Weapon Master Crits
The second benefits of Great Weapon Master has little to no effect on critical hits in 5e. That said, the first benefit does grant you an attack as a bonus action.
Rules as written, you only double the number of damage dice rolled on a crit. You then add your damage modifier on after the fact. So, the +10 from Great Weapon Master doesn’t change.
Now, if you’re playing with the house rule where you double the total damage, then yeah, that’s a huge bonus. That +10 becomes a +20. But, that’s not official and not from the rule books.
What Weapons Work with Great Weapon Master?
To use Great Weapon Master on an attack, your character must wield a melee weapon with the Heavy property.
This cuts out a lot of weapons that aren’t eligible for the damage bonus.
The six weapons you may use with Great Weapon Master are:
Unfortunately, this means you can’t use Great Weapon Master with the longsword, battleaxe, or warhammer.
When to Use Great Weapon Master in 5e
Knowing when to use Great Weapon Master is important for optimizing your character’s damage output. If you’re missing too often because of the -5, then you’re putting your character and your party in danger.
So, when should you use Great Weapon Master in combat?
Personally, I use the formula by the user, Desamir, over on the Giant in the Playground forum. They go into a ton of detail on how they figured this thing out. But, I’ve played a with this formula in mind and it was really helpful.
The formula looks like this:
Let’s break this formula down.
- Maximum Armor Class
- This is the highest AC you should use Great Weapon Master on. For example, if the formula gives you an answer like 16.5, that means you should use Great Weapon Master if your target has an AC of 16 or lower.
- Attack Bonus
- This is your character’s total Attack Modifier before factoring in the -5 from Great Weapon Master.
- Average Damage
- This is the average damage from your melee attack. Now, this includes both the average from your weapon’s damage die and your Ability Modifier. But, it does not include the +10 from Great Weapon Master. For example, if you have a +3 from your Ability Score and use a Greataxe which as an average damage of 7, you’d use 10 as your Average Damage in the formula.
I highly recommend you read the forum post for full details on how Desamir calculated this formula. Y’know, if you’re interested in the math behind it.
Now, I will say even though it should go without saying; don’t metagame an enemy’s Armor Class.
Metagaming your DM’s creatures is rude and ruins the fun for other players. So, don’t go snooping through the Monster Manual or other sourcebook for a monster’s AC just because your want to use Great Weapon Master. But, if you work out their AC over the course of combat (remembering what attacks hit and which don’t), that’s fair game as your character works out their opponent’s defenses.
Is Great Weapon Master Overpowered?
Great Weapon Master is a very strong feat. It’s so strong that some D&D players and DMs feel it’s overpowered. While it’s an amazing feat, I wouldn’t say it’s overpowered.
Here’s the deal; yes, a flat +10 damage on a hit is huge. But, often, -5 is a -25% chance of rolling to hit in the first place on a flat, unmodified d20 attack roll.
Some DMs like Hipsters & Dragons did some speculative scenarios for looking at the damage output of Great Weapon Master. In certain circumstances, yes, Great Weapon Master seems overpowered and a little broken.
Basically, in the early levels, you’re looking at only a few extra points of damage every round. But, even by 10th level, a Fighter’s damage output per combat round has a difference of roughly 20 points between characters with and without Great Weapon Master. Which is fairly significant.
Furthermore, -5 doesn’t seem like big of a hit at higher levels especially once your character’s proficiency bonus starts increasing.
This all said, the biggest case for Great Weapon Master being not overpowered is the damage itself.
Look at it this way; you still need to hit to get the bonus damage. If your character faces heavily armored foes, they’ll have a harder time getting that damage bonus.
Also, Great Weapon Master is worthless against flying and ranged enemies or creatures with immunity to mundane damage types.
Creatures like lycanthropes with their immunity to non-magical, non-silvered weapons mean hitting with a mundane greatsword does nothing. Now, if you give a player character a magical weapon with the Heavy property, then yeah, that negates that hurdle.
But, ranged enemies or creatures with flying speeds make Great Weapon Master useless since it requires a melee, meaning within reach of a character, attack.
All it takes from you as the DM is a little creativity in your combat encounters if you’re worried about a character with the Great Weapon Master feat.
Also, there’s the matter of non-combat encounters. Great Weapon Master doesn’t help in solving a riddle or navigating a tricky political encounter.
…Well, I guess it could. But, that’s a brute force method that’s also easily circumvented by the potential consequences of attacking in a non-combat situation.
When to Take Great Weapon Master in 5e
When you should take the Great Weapon Master feat depends on the character build you’re going for.
If you optimize your character around combat, you should grab Great Weapon Master as soon as possible. But, if you’re going for more of an adventure or social build, it doesn’t matter that much.
Taking Great Weapon Master also depends on the game you’re playing. If there’s less combat and more social politicking, a combat feat doesn’t help you as much.
There’s also the matter of sacrificing your Ability Score Improvement (ASI) for the feat.
Usually, you should get the maximum Ability Score of 20 in your class’ core stat as soon as possible. So, you might want to wait a few ASIs before grabbing Great Weapon Master.
Conclusion on the Great Weapon Master Feat
Great Weapon Master is an amazing feat in D&D 5e. There’s really no arguing that. But, I wouldn’t say it’s overpowered.
It has specific stipulations to use. You need to land an attack roll to even get the +10 bonus to your damage. And, the -5 to your attack modifier isn’t not significant.
One final note because I can’t state this enough; don’t metagame using Great Weapon Master.
If you’re using Desamir’s formula, please don’t go poking through the Monster Manual or adventure module for monster stat blocks.
Also, if you’re a DM, work your combat encounters around some of your party’s weaknesses. Not even just for Great Weapon Master. Force your player’s to think outside of the box and make combat puzzle-like.
What do you think; is Great Weapon Master overpowered or not? What are some interesting ways to prevent it from becoming too strong? Leave a comment below and follow Role Player’s Respite to receive notifications of new posts!
1 thought on “The Great Weapon Master 5e Feat”
“… work your combat encounters around some of your party’s weaknesses.”
No, that is not how you design fun encounters. You should be building them around your party’s -strengths-. Create obstacles for the players to overcome using the features and abilities they chose. That’s what’s going to make them feel smart and strong.
Building encounters around a party’s weaknesses will constantly present the players with obstacles that they are unprepared for, making them feel dumb and underpowered. It will make them feel like they built the wrong character and will wonder if they should’ve played as something else. It will make them have less fun with the character they wanted to be because they aren’t solving problems with the cool features they chose, but rather must disregard them for new solutions every battle.
If that sounds like you’re making the fights too easy and you’re just handing victory to the players, then you still have a lot to learn about encounter-design. If a combat encounter and its difficulty are designed correctly, where the players have every opportunity to win, but there is still a very real and noticeable threat of failure, the players will only blame themselves (not you) if they lose. That’s how you’ll know you got it right. And even if they never die, the thing that will still make your players feel fantastic in the end is that they overcame obviously-mortal threats using the characters they made.