Last Updated: May 12, 2023
Bugbears are all about offense. They’re an ideal ambush predator, with good Strength and Dexterity, Stealth proficiency for free, and Surprise Attack which provides 2d6 extra damage if you can surprise an enemy. At low levels, 2d6 is a significant damage increase, possibly allowing you to kill weak enemies in a single blow and tip encounters in your favor from the outset.
However, the Bugbear’s strengths also mostly pigeon-hole them as a martial character. Little about the bugbear’s traits makes spellcasters appealing, so you’re largely limited to martial classes and warlocks. If you use the Customizing Your Origins option rules or the updated version of the Bugbear published in Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse, you may find that spellcasting classes can benefit from the Bugbear’s traits. Long-Limbed makes it easy to attack while staying out of reach, and Surprise Attack notably works with attacks of any kind, so even regular spellcasters may enjoy starting combat with a big damage boost. However, the Bugbear still works best in melee where they can take advantage of Long-Limbed.
Long-Limbed has some complicated implications because it doesn’t work like a reach weapon. Long-Limbed gives you reach on your turn, which means that you can use it offensively without getting into the complications of using reach defensively. If you use a reach weapon your reach is 15 feet on your own turn, allowing you to exceed the reach of most creatures in the game. However, since you lose this reach between turns, enemies may be able to freely move away from your without provoking Opportunity Attacks. It also doesn’t extend the range on Booming Blade or Green-Flame Blade, so don’t get any ideas there.
Surprise Attack is probably the Bugbear’s most defining trait, but the version published in Volo’s Guide to Monsters was challenging at best. The damage boost is excellent at low levels, but quickly diminishes in effectiveness since it doesn’t scale. And since it only works on enemies which are surprised, whether or not you can use it depends heavily on the result of your initiative roll and on whether or not your party can successfully ambush your enemies. Building around Dexterity and looking for bonuses from things like Guidance can do a lot to improve your chances of success, and when you do roll well you need to be certain not to miss, so look for ways to make multiple attacks like Extra Attack, Two-Weapon Fighting, or Eldritch Blast.
If you’re using the updated version of the Bugbear published in Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse, Surprise Attack is dramatically improved, and becomes the Bugbear’s defining tactic. Rather than requiring the target to be surprised and only working once per combat, it now simply requires that the target hasn’t acted yet. This makes the Bugbear an absolutely terrifying threat in the first round of any combat, and rewards the ability to make multiple attacks early in combat. However, you need to be careful not to fall into the trap of only being useful on your first turn, and of course you still need to roll well on initiative to make Surprise Attack matter.
Or, you could just lean into only being useful for one turn so hard that you overwhelm the math of the game.
Table of Contents
- Bugbear Versions
- Bugbear Classes (MMoM)
- Bugbear Classes (Customizable Origins)
- Bugbear Classes (Classic Rules)
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.
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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.
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There are effectively three versions of the Bugbear. The original was published in Volo’s Guide to Monsters.
Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything introduced the option Customizing Your Origin rules, which gave us the second version and allowing players to reassign the Bugbear’s ability score increases and their skill proficiency.
Most recently, Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse re-published the Bugbear. The new version is a significant improvement. First, it replace the Bugbear’s Ability Score Increase trait with the new standard for ability scores, allowing players to assign either +2/+1 increases or three +1 increases. The Bugbear also gained Fey Ancestry (which was updated to only affect charm, and all goblinoids got it), Sneaky went back to a fixed skill proficiency and now also allows bugbears to squeeze into small spaces, and Surprise Attack got a significant improvement.
Bugbear Classes (MMoM)
The Battle Smith and the Armorer both get Extra Attack, which is exactly the vehicle that you need to keep Surprise Attack relevant as you gain levels. Plus, after turn 1 you’re still an artificer. Of course, most armorers and battle smiths dump Dexterity and march around in heavy armor, but an infiltrator artificer is a great fit for the Bugbear. Artillerists can use Scorching Ray and the Force Ballista cannon to make multiple spell attacks, but that’s not available until 5th level and you get more spell levels and spell slots very slowly.
Surprise attack works really well with Reckless Attack because Reckless Attack boosts both your chances of hitting and your chances of dealing a critical hit. You could also go for two-weapon fighting to get an additional attack, and/or Path of the Beast’s Claws can get you an extra attack. Unfortunately, it’s hard for barbarians to invest in Dexterity until late in the game, which hurts your chances of acting early in combat. You could increase Dexterity over Constitution to really lean into the gamble, but I’m not certain that it’s going to pay off.
College of Swords and College of Valor both get Extra Attack, and the Bard’s Jack of All Trades allows you to add half of your proficiency bonus to initiative rolls, improving your odds of acting early in combat. The Bard doesn’t carry the martial offensive options of other classes, so you’re really leaning on the damage from Surprise Attack if you go this route.
While I typically have a poor view of College of Swords, I think there is a potential build here. Go for two-weapon fighting and grab a pair of daggers. Start combat with daggers in hand, throw both of them, then use your free item interaction to draw a dagger for your second attack with Extra Attack. That gets you three attacks at range (albeit very short range), then you can run behind your allies and go back to casting spells. You can do the same thing with College of Valor, but College of Swords offers Defensive Flourish, which can boost your AC for the round, which is helpful if you’re going to be stuck in close quarters.
Spiritual Weapon makes an attack, which is enough to trigger Surprise Attack. Combine that with one weapon attack, and that’s decent damage. It’s not a fantastic build otherwise, but it might work for a trickery cleric.
Many Wild Shape forms get Multiattack, and Surprise Attack isn’t dependent on anatomy, so it works while wild shaped. Circle of the Moon is your best bet here since druids are generally terrible with weapons and even the Circle of Spores typically only gets one attack. If you’re expecting a fight, Wild Shape into something with Multiattack and decent Dexterity.
Circle of Spores can also make use of Surprise Attack due to their reliance on weapon attacks, but without Extra Attack it’s hard to capitalize on Surprise Attack. Polearm Master helps, but unless you can get Shillelagh going before combat starts, you’re likely only getting one attack. Long-limbed makes hit-and-run tactics much simpler, which may be worthwhile due to the Druid’s relatively poor AC.
Fighters get more attacks than anyone except the Monk, and even the Monk can’t replicate Action Surge. Monks can manage 4 attacks long before the Fighter can, but from level 11 onward, the Fighter can do 6 if you have Action Surge available.
For an easy build, go for Samurai and take Fighting Style (Archery). Build around Dexterity to boost your initiative rolls and take advantage of Stealth. On turn 1, use Fighting Spirit as a Bonus Action, then use Action Surge and make as many attacks as you can with a longbow. Between Fighting Style (Archery) and Advantage from Fighting Spirit, you basically can’t miss, so the damage bonus from Surprise Attack is a near certainty.
The most attacks anyone can manage until at least 5th level, and from 6th through 10th levels the Fighter can only match the Monk if they use Action Surge. Between the Monk’s absolute dependence on Dexterity, numerous attacks, and high move speed to get into melee and potentially chase targets, the Monk is a great go-to option. Subclasses like Way of Mercy can offer some additional damage boosts, too.
To really reinforce how good the Monk is as an option: At level 2 you can use Flurry of Blows to make three attacks, dealing a total of 3d4+6d6+9 (avg. 37.5) damage (not accounting for accuracy). At level 5 that jumps to 14d6+16 (avg. 65). At just 1 Ki point for that small mountain of damage, that’s a pretty great turn 1. Way of Mercy can add another 1d6+3 (assuming 16 Wisdom), too. If you want to get extra crazy, add three levels of Assassin for the guaranteed critical hits against surprised enemies (I guess Sneak Attack is in there, too). At level 8, that’s 34d6+19 (avg. 138). Then to cap it off, add two levels of fighter to get Action Surge and make two more attacks on turn 1 for a total of 48d6+27 (avg. 195). The build has several challenges (no magic attacks, all melee so movement is an issue, no ASI at level 8) and it doesn’t account for accuracy, but the math is really fun, and an Eldritch Claw Tattoo will solve some of the bigger issues.
A Dexterity-based paladin could do okay and won’t struggle as much as a war cleric trying to use weapons, but the Paladin never gets more than two attacks and two-weapon fighting generally isn’t an easy option for paladins, so Surprise Attack is usable but not especially powerful.
Both archery and two-weapon fighting are great ways to deliver Surprise Attack, and the Ranger is almost always built around Dexterity so they’re a natural fit. Your 1st-turn burst of damage won’t be as good as the Fighter or the Monk’s, but they’ll still be very good.
The Gloomstalker’s bonus attack in turn 1 works very well with Surprise Attack, and their Wisdom bonus to initiative helps ensure that you’ll act before your enemies. 2 attacks at level 3 and 3 attacks at level 5 give you plenty of opportunities to apply Surprise Attack. You might also try two-weapon fighting for an additional attack, or you could spend your Bonus Action on Hunter’s Mark.
If you take 2 levels of fighter for Action Surge on top of Gloomstalker, you can get 6 attacks on turn 1 (7 with two-weapon fighting, but if you go this route Hunter’s Mark is a better use of your Bonus Action). With a longbow and 18 Dexterity, that’s 8d8+18d6+24 (avg. 123. Remember the d8 bonus damage from Dread Ambusher.) at level 7. If you’re in the dark, you also attack with Advantage, which is a huge improvement.
Rogues don’t get Extra Attack, but the Assassin’s Assassinate feature guarantees critical hits if your target is surprised. Go for two-weapon fighting, and you can get a big pile of damage turn 1. A level 3 assassin rogue could deal 16d6+6 (avg. 62) damage if they use short swords and manage to hit surprised targets twice on turn 1, nearly matching the damage of the 5th-level monk build proposed above.
Sorcerers don’t have Extra Attack or a cantrip like Eldritch Blast, so making the Bugbear effective requires leveled spells. Fortunately, we have Scorching Ray. While Scorching Ray’s damage isn’t especially impressive on its own, Surprise Attack fully doubles that damage, and since you add an additional ray per spell level, you enjoy a nice upward linear progression for your entire career. Compare this damage to Fireball: You’ll effectively get 4d6 damage per spell level to one target compared to Fireball’s 2d6 per spell level dealt in an AOE. Fireball is equal against 2 targets and better against 3, but against single targets, Scorching Ray is terrifying. 12d6 damage (avg. 42) at spell level 2, and it scales faster than martial characters can typically match.
You can also use Quickened Spell to get an attack cantrip in on turn one. It’s not a ton of damage (compared to what you’re already doing) unless you pick up Eldritch Blast, but it’s way more damage than anyone else can get from Quickened Spell. Spell Sniper or a level in Warlock are definitely worth considering. You might instead take two levels of fighter for Action Surge so that you can cast Scorching Ray twice in one turn (yes, that is allowed. The restriction on leveled spells only applies if you cast a spell with a Bonus action casting time, such as by using Quickened Spell).
Eldritch Blast works great with Surprise Attack, but it is less turn 1 damage than what the Fighter can do with Action Surge. The Fiend offers access to Scorching Ray, which will make more attacks than Eldritch Blast and still benefits from both Surprise Attack and Hex, so it makes for a very easy blaster build. Even if you don’t go for The Fiend, an Eldritch Blast build is still both easy and very effective, and Surprise Attack adds some extra damage on turn 1 without any effort beyond picking your race. Add on Agonizing Blast, and Eldritch Blast’s damage can still compete with Scorching Ray at a much lower resource cost. Both options are excellent, so it just comes down to how you want to spend those resources.
While using Hex or Shadow of Moil is typically the go-to Bonus Action for Eldritch Blast builds, consider Metamagic Initiate or levels in sorcerer to pick up Metamagic (Quickened Spell) so that you can cast Eldritch Blast a second time. Two levels in fighter for Action Surge adds another Action which you could spend on Eldritch Blast (or Scorching Ray if you have it and aren’t worried about running out of spell slots).
Wizards have the same Scorching Ray option that sorcerers do, but without Quickened Spell you can’t quite match the Sorcerer. The Wizard is by no means a bad option, it’s just not as insane as some of the others.
If you allow spells from the Acquisitions Incorporated source book, Jim’s Magic Missile is another great way to apply Surprise Attack, allowing just as many attacks as Scorching Ray using a spell slot one level lower. However, the risk of rolling a 1 and hurting yourself is high and increases as you add more missiles, so I only recommending risking this if you have Advantage.
Bugbear Classes (Customizable Origins)
This section assumes that you’re using the option “Customizing Your Origin” rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. If you’re not using those rules, scroll down to the next section.
A battlesmith artificer is an enticing option for the Bugbear. Put your increases into Intelligence and either Dexterity or Constitution, then stand behind your Steel Defender and use Long-Limbed to attack with reach. The Armorer would also work: using Guardian armor’s Thunder Gauntlets from reach allows you to attack then run away without relying on something like Boots of the Winding Path. And, of course, Surprise Attack works with any sort of attack, so basically any variety of artificer can make use of it. You can use Guidance to add your initiative rolls, which will improve the likelihood that you will go first and be able to use Surprise Attack.
Move the Dexterity increase into Constitution and consider moving the skill into something like Perception, but otherwise the Barbarian is a great fit for the Bugbear. Surprise Attack is made considerably more reliable thanks to Reckless Attack, though you’ll still need to roll well on initiative. At 7th level, Feral Instinct gives you Advantage on initiate rolls, which does a lot to help.
The Bugbear’s traits lean heavily into making attacks, and the Bard has few meaningful attack options. Subclasses like College of Swords and College of Valor make weapons a bit more appealing, and College of Whispers can add a damage boost with Psychic Blades which works nicely with Surprise Attack, but resorting to an attack on your first turn of combat is typically the least impactful thing that a bard can do. Long-Limbed will help keep martial bards out of harms way, but that’s simply not enough to make the build appealing. Jack of All Trades also adds to initiative rolls (remember: they’re a Dexterity check), which will help with Surprise Attack.
Using Magical Secrets to learn Scorching Rays is a good option, especially for lore bards who get Extra Magical Secrets at level 6, giving you access several levels early, but you may not want to wait that long when other spellcasters can get Scorching Ray at level 3.
Weapon attacks aren’t a great choice for the Cleric, and the Bugbear’s traits don’t fix that. Surprise Attack works with spell attacks like Spiritual Weapon or Guiding Bolt, but I don’t think that’s enough to make the build appealing.
Light domain is an exception because they get access to Scorching Rays, which provides a linear scaling delivery mechanism for Surprise Attack.
Rearranging the Bugbear’s ability scores can make them a decent druid in a few subclasses. Circle of Spores can take advantage of Long-Limbed to stay out of reach, reducing the risk posed by the Druid’s notoriously poor durability, and since Surprise Attack will work in Wild Shape you can use ambush tactics to get an early damage boost in combat. Circle of Wildfire gets Scorching Ray, providing a scaling delivery mechanism for Surprise Attack.
Sadly, other subclasses won’t see significant benefits from the Bugbear’s traits.
The Bugbear works great for the Fighter. Long-Limbed makes it easier to reach distant enemies without giving up an advantageous position, and Surprise Attack can give you a nice damage boost. I recommend building around Dexterity to improve your Initiative rolls.
The Bugbear’s additional skill reduces the skill gap between the Monk and the Rogue, and Surprise Attack provides a damage boost which feels a lot like Sneak Attack. If you can, use Flurry of Blows on turns when you can use Surprise Attack so that you maximize your chances of hitting. Long-Limbed also lets you attack with reach without sacrificing your Bonus Action attacks, which is largely impossible for other monks without resorting to magic items.
Your best bet is a Dexterity-based build to capitalize on Surprise Attack. Without the Fighter’s abundant Ability Score Increases it’s hard to build any interesting synergies with the Bugbear’s traits, but Long-Limbed still lets you reach enemies from relative safety and you can use Surprise Attack and Divine Smite on the same attacks for a big pile of damage in turn 1.
An extra skill closes the skill gap between the Ranger and the Rogue, and Surprise Attack offers a nice damage boost. Long-Limbed allows you to stay safely out of reach, making melee builds much safer.
An extra skill, Surprise Attack stacks with Sneak Attack, and Long Limbed allows you to attack from outside of most creatures’ reach. Since you’re less likely to need Cunning Action to Disengage, you can instead use it to Dash or you can safely use your Bonus Action for two-weapon fighting and still move away from your target after attacking.
Surprise Attack works with spell attacks, but that’s basically the only benefit. Grab Scorching Rays and quicken an attack cantrip and start combat with a big pile of damage.
Probably the Bugbear’s best choice if you want to play a spellcaster. Surprise Attack works with spell attacks, and while that’s not a huge impact for most spellcasters it’s excellent on the Warlock since Eldritch Blast allows you to make multiple attacks.
Surprise Attack works with spell attacks, but that’s basically the only benefit.
Bugbear Classes (Classic Rules)
This section assumes that you’re not using the option “Customizing Your Origin” rules presented in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything or the updated version of the race published in Mordenkainen’s Monsters of the Multiverse. If you are using those rules, scroll up to the previous section.
Bad ability spread.
Dexterity might not seem like an obvious benefit for a barbarian, and it’s not as good as Constitution, but the bonus is still helpful for filling out your half-plate. Reach makes it easy to compete with larger creatures or attack smaller foes at a distance, and Sneaky allows you to be an ambush predator. Use Reckless Attack while attacking surprised foes to ensure that you hit with Surprise Attack.
Bugbears don’t have anything which caters well to bards. You could get by as a Swords or Valor bard, but at that point you would do better playing a barbarian or a fighter.
Without a Wisdom increase your spellcasting will lag. Using weapons isn’t a great choice for clerics, which makes Surprise Attack hard to use, but you can notably use Surprise Attack with Spiritual Weapon, so it’s not a total waste.
Without a Wisdom increase, the Bugbear will be bad at Druid spellcasting, and Wild Shape doesn’t care about any of the Bugbear’s physical advantages. You can use Surprise Attack while in Wild Shape, so a moon druid who likes to ambush foes would be a fun novelty, though as Surprise Attack’s bonus damage becomes less impressive so will the combination.
With good physical ability scores and built-in reach, you have a lot of great options with the fighter. If you want to use a reach weapon to capitalize on Long-Limbed, pick up Polearm Master and Sentinel to keep enemies perpetually outside of their own reach while still able to reach them comfortably with your pointy stick.
Reach is hard for monks to get, but reach and a small Dexterity increase are the only things that the bugbear has to offer that specifically cater to the Monk. Surprise attack is a nice damage boost, especially at low levels, but it’s no better for the Monk than for any other martial class.
Strength and reach are great, but Dexterity and Stealth do very little for most Paladins, and the Paladin is already very MAD so it’s hard to capitalize on both Strength and Dexterity.
For a martial class limited to medium armor, the +1 Dexterity increase is probably enough to fill out your +2 Dexterity bonus to AC so you can focus on your Strength. Reach is nice, and you get Stealth proficiency for free, making it easier to keep up with other sneaky, skilled classes like the Rogue.
The Strength increase is totally wasted on a rogue, but reach is hard for rogues to get, you get Stealth proficiency for free, and Surprise Attack stacks with Sneak Attack so you can deal 3d6+weapon damage at first level and one-shot many enemies.
Without a Charisma increase, the Bugbear will always lag behind other sorcerers.
Without a Charisma increase, the Bugbear will always lag behind other warlocks. Surprise Attack does work with spell attacks, which is great for the Warlock since attacks are more of a go-to option than for the Sorcerer or the Wizard, but that benefit isn’t enough to offset the lack of Charisma increase
Without an Intelligence increase, the Bugbear will always lag behind other wizards.