Back in Third Edition Dungeons and Dragons, there was a feat called Power Attack. This feat allowed a character to be less accurate in exchange for dealing more damage with melee weapons. Since then, this feat has appeared in Fourth Edition and Pathfinder 1e doing roughly the same with slight mechanical variations.
In Fifth Edition, we have two spiritual successors to Power Attack, Great Weapon Master, and Sharpshooter. The basic mechanical premise remains the same as it was twenty years ago: take a penalty to your attack roll for a bonus to your damage roll, but because Fifth Edition feats do a little more than their predecessors, both feats inherited additional abilities from other feats.
Table of Contents
- Great Weapon Master
- When Should I Use Great Weapon Master or Sharpshooter?
RPGBOT uses the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks, which is simple to understand and easy to read at a glance.
- : Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational. Nearly never useful.
- : OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances. Useful sometimes.
- : Good options. Useful often.
- : Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character. Useful very frequently.
We will not include 3rd-party content, including content from DMs Guild, in handbooks for official content because we can’t assume that your game will allow 3rd-party content or homebrew. We also won’t cover Unearthed Arcana content because it’s not finalized, and we can’t guarantee that it will be available to you in your games.
The advice offered below is based on the current State of the Character Optimization Meta as of when the article was last updated. Keep in mind that the state of the meta periodically changes as new source materials are released, and the article will be updated accordingly as time allows.
Great Weapon Master
This feat, GWM for short, has two primary functions. The first function is what I’m going to refer to as Power Attack, a -5 to hit in exchange for a +10 to damage, but only if we make a melee weapon attack with a weapon with the Heavy property. This limitation means we can only use Glaives, Greataxes, Greatswords, Halberds, Mauls, or Pikes, and that this feature is entirely unavailable to small characters. These are all Heavy, Two-Handed weapons, half of which have Reach as well. The Reach weapons are all 1d10 damage, while the others are either 1d12 or 2d6. I will go into the math of when to use this below.
The second function was called “Cleave” in previous editions and does not actually require a Heavy weapon, just a melee weapon. When we score a critical hit or reduce a target to 0 hit points, we can make an additional attack as a Bonus Action. This is pretty nice and has some combo potential.
Combos and Tactics
Having your round-by-round tactics built around Crit Fishing is generally a bad plan; even with something like Elven Accuracy we’d have a 14% chance to crit each turn, so trying to optimize how often we get to Cleave off of a crit is not the way to work with that feature. Instead, the right play is to grab a Maul and the Crusher feat.
If we do it that way, when we do get lucky and land that sweet critical hit, even if it’s on our last swing from Extra Attacks, we’ll still get Advantage during our Bonus Action Cleave attack. Some might think I’m being contrarian and suggesting we’re trying to crit fish with this combo, but we’re not. GWM and Crusher are both very good feats that just happen to also have synergistic bonus features when crits do occur.
But even though crit fishing is generally a bad plan, if you can get easy Advantage (maybe your table is using optional Flanking rules or you have Reckless Attack) and can fit 3 levels of Champion fighter into your build, you’ll get a crit on about 19% of attacks and 27.1% if you can somehow also get Elven Accuracy to fit.
Alternatively, if we or an ally simply cast Hold Person/Monster on the target all melee attacks automatically crit, guaranteeing us a bonus swing on each of our turns.
Sharpshooter has three functions. The first function is, like GWM above, a Power Attack. Mechanically it is identical except that Sharpshooter functions with all attacks with ranged weapons (like bows and firearms but not melee weapons with the Thrown property) instead of only Heavy melee weapons.
The second ability is removing Disadvantage from attacking at long range. All ranged weapons have two range values: short range and maximum range. Without Sharpshooter, attacks beyond short range have Disadvantage. Additionally, Sharpshooter removes ½ and ¾ cover penalties, which is a powerful defensive tool since cover becomes increasingly problematic as you get further away from your targets.
Combos and Tactics
If you only looked at SS and GWM, you might feel that SS got the short end of the stick. GWM gets to attack again on crit or kill and all we get is ignoring cover and long range penalties? Well you see that’s because the Archery fighting style is just that strong. With one level of Fighter, two levels of Ranger, or the Fighting Initiate feat, the Archery fighting style’s +2 bonus to attack rolls with ranged weapons makes SS much more reliable than GWM.
Those other features of SS are also not nothing. Cover provides a target either +2 or +5 to AC so ignoring it is great. Long range on the other hand imposes Disadvantage on the attack roll, so while being able to use the entire 600 foot range of your Longbow is a little overkill when we already have 150 feet to work with for short range, being able to use a hand crossbow or a sling out beyond 30 feet is very applicable in most combat situations. Interestingly, ignoring cover and long range penalties apply to thrown weapons even if the Power Attack part does not since many thrown weapons are melee weapons with the Thrown property.
When Should I Use Great Weapon Master or Sharpshooter?
Editorial Note: This section was originally titled “when should I go all in?” but we changed it for boring search engine optimization reasons. Baldur’s Gate 3 uses a toggled passive called “All In” for Sharpshooter, and while we can’t be certain, it would be a fun coincidence if that was taken from this article.
Mathematically, if we’re fighting at CR, and keeping up with our ASIs, we should need to roll an 8 on the die to hit expected AC at CR. This is a 65% chance to hit. If we were to subtract 5 from our to-hit roll, we would need a 13 on the die to hit, which is a 40% chance to hit.
But that math isn’t a complete picture. If we take GWM or Sharpshooter, we may be behind at least one ASI or we’re above level 12 (level 8 for Fighters due to additional ASI’s, or you might have taken Sharpshooter at level 1 as a variant human or custom lineage) and have maxed out Str/Dex. The numbers we have to work with for much of our character’s career are 9 to-hit (60%) and 14 to-hit (35%). A lot of factors can sway these numbers, but CR-appropriate creatures will follow this math on average.
That said, if we can Power Attack, should we always Power Attack? Well unsurprisingly, the answer is no, Power Attack won’t always be a DPR increase. Using our DPR calculator we can at least get a rough estimate of when we can though.
For the test, we’re a 12th level Hexblade using a Maul, for 2d6, and we have 20 Charisma, for +5 to damage. We will only simulate one attack.
If we don’t have Advantage and if the enemy AC is high enough that we need a 10 on the die normally, humorously the DPR is identical in both cases. (6.95 vs 6.95)
If we do have Advantage, if the enemy AC is high enough that we need a 12 to hit normally, we lose DPR from Power Attack. (9.05 vs 8.60)
If we have Advantage with Elven Accuracy, we gain DPR if they’re still a 12 to hit, but we lose damage if it’s a 13 to hit normally. (10.53 vs 9.49)
But those additional factors I mentioned before can easily sway this. Any other bonuses we might have to damage will lower the AC required to hit the tipping point. Something like Hex, Hunter’s Mark, Hexblade’s Curse, Rage, or any number of other class features or spells that give bonus to damage rolls will do this. The way to intuitively describe this is that, since you’re trading a percentage of your chance to hit for a +10 to damage, you only get to keep some percentage of that +10 damage. If the average of your bonus damage from those added sources is higher than whatever that percentage of +10 is, it’s not worth it. .
Put another way, you always lose 5 winning numbers when you power attack. If you have 12 winning numbers, you still have 7 winning numbers if you power attack. That’s a little more than a third of your winning numbers gone. If you only have 8 winning numbers, you’ll only have 3 winning numbers if you power attack, which is so small that you almost certainly won’t hit.
The Power Attack hit chance multiplied by 10 has to be greater than the average damage of an attack without the power attack bonus multiplied by the difference of the hit chances for power attack to be the right answer. That’s the way to do it by hand. The smart way to do it is just use our calculator with your own numbers.
We’ll now do the same test from above, but this time, we have Hex (+1d6), Hexblade’s Curse (+4), Lifedrinker (+5), and Improved Pact Weapon (+1).
Without Advantage, we need to hit on a 3 for us to gain any DPR. (23.48 vs 23.6)
With Advantage, we fare a little better, only losing DPR if the original to-hit needed a 9 or better. (22.44 vs 21.52)
This time Elven Accuracy gets us all the way to 11. (23.81 vs 22.02)
The takeaway here is that the more damage you already do, the more you risk by taking the -5 to hit for the +10 to damage. Again, use the DPR calculator on your own character’s attacks to find exactly where your numbers fall off; these two examples were extreme ends of added damage. Also notice that while the naked rolls had a wide margin of 7 between our two cases, Advantage and Elven Accuracy only differed by 3 and 2 respectively.