Great Weapon Master 5E: DnD Feat Guide

Great Weapon Master is one of the feats that comes to mind instantly when it comes to building a powerful melee character who can consistently land hits. Often mentioned in the same breath as Sharpshooter, both have a popular -5 to hit/+10 damage mechanic that really add some OOMPH to melee attacks in the early game.

Great Weapon Master is also consistently mentioned as one of the strongest feats in 5th Edition D&D, although there has been some further debate on this point in recent years.

Great Weapon Master is a good, powerful feat in 5E that is a favorite for many melee builds due to the ability to add +10 damage to any attack that overcomes a -5 to hit. This feat is considered absolutely deadly on attacks where the player can roll with advantage.

So is 5E’s Great Weapon Master feat overpowered? Are there reasons to doubt its effectiveness? Let’s dive into a full breakdown of this popular yet somehow occasionally controversial feat.

viking axman great weapon master
Barbarians tend to really like this feat for obvious reasons.

Breaking Down the DnD 5E Great Weapon Master Feat

Some consider this basically the melee version of the 5E Sharpshooter feat mostly because both have the -5 to hit/+10 damage mechanic. However, these are very different feats.

Directly from the Player’s Handbook:

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.

Player’s Handbook p. 167

This is really interesting because one half of the feat applies to all melee weapons, while the other half of the feat ONLY applies to heavy weapons. So let’s break down the benefits and see what this difference means.

Benefit #1: When you score a critical hit or reduce a creature to 0 hit points with a melee weapon attack, you can make a single melee weapon attack as a bonus action.

I’m actually a bigger fan of this than the second benefit that gains a lot more attention. Any critical hit gives you an extra attack using the bonus action. Any time you reduce a creature to 0 you also get a melee attack as a bonus action.

I really like this and it can make a Great Weapon Master melee fighter at low levels jump to the next level as a good hit or crit can one-shot really low level enemies, allowing them to turn and then take out another one.

This is also a benefit that applies to ALL melee weapons.

Important Point: Why use the term “reduce a creature to 0 hit points” as opposed to “kill?” Because Half-Orc rage and zombies. You can reduce them to zero, but they’re still back up for one more turn or until they fail a save, respectively. In those situations the player with a free bonus action would get that extra attack.

Benefit #2: Before making a heavy weapon attack you can take a -5 penalty to the attack roll in exchange for +10 damage on a hit.

What’s interesting here is that this does NOT apply to all melee weapons, but only to heavy weapons that you are proficient with. And yes, that means there are builds that take this feat just for the first benefit.

The -5 to hit, +10 can be significant damage. From pure statistics on a long enough timeline, the math works out to this being a good exchange in the long run up to an AC of 19, however as someone points out, since there’s no spillover damage if a hit kills an opponent, that extra damage is just gone.

This means the real in-game implications argue that this ability is only good up to an AC 18 or even AC 17 depending on the campaign and situation.

However, +10 damage will straight out kill many low level enemies and still seriously wreck mid-level enemies. This is a way to up the damage on a melee based PC who is trying to keep up with spellcasters, sneaky rogues, and experienced Sharpshooter rangers.

It’s a good mechanic that is more effective in some situations than others.

What Weapons Work for Great Weapon Master?

Heavy weapons as defined in the PHB for 5th Edition include:

  • Glaive
  • Greataxe
  • Greatsword
  • Halberd
  • Lance*
  • Maul
  • Pike

*Lance is listed as two-handed when not mounted, but not heavy, though most DMs will make the ruling that the two-handed feature means this almost never used weapon would fall under the heavy requirement for the GWM feat.

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When Should You Attack Using Great Weapon Master in 5E?

This is going to take some math, but we’re going to make this as easy as possible for you. Let’s begin with a quick cheatsheet you can reference at a glance.

The following table is the % chance of successfully hitting based on your die roll, meaning if you only need a 1 to hit, your chances of hitting are 100%, while if you need a 20 to hit, your chances of hitting are only 5% (1 in 20) before adjustment.

The Probability of a Successful Attack (Based On the Lowest Possible d20 Roll Needed to Hit)

D20 RollNormal AttackAdvantage AttackDisadvantage Attack
For more specifics on how this math works, we highly recommend checking out Christopher Madan’s article Multiple statistical tests: Lessons from a d20. It breaks down the calculations behind this table in a way that is far easier to follow and understand than the average textbook.

Now that all the statistics are out of the way, let’s put the cheatsheet to work for our character in an actual battle!

I’m playing Max Power, an 8th level human fighter with a +3 proficiency bonus, a Strength score of 20 (+5 modifier), and wielding a +1 greatsword. We’re entering round 3 of combat, and through some trial and error, our party has figured out that the AC of the young green dragon we’re fighting is 18.

So what is the minimum I need to roll on a d20 to hit it?

18 (Monster’s AC) – 9 (Max’s Attack Roll modifier) = 9

Looking at the probability chart, I currently have a 60% chance of hitting the dragon without applying Great Weapon Master’s attack roll penalty.

But let’s say I want to try for that extra +10 damage to end this fight as quickly as possible. Great Weapon Master will impose a -5 penalty on my attack roll, meaning I now need at least a 14 to hit instead of a 9.

This drops our odds to 35%, meaning we’re now more likely to miss than hit. This isn’t a good trade-off, so Max is better off attacking normally to maximize the odds of doing some damage on his turn.

Fortunately, our tabaxi rogue, Smoke, is positioning themselves to flank the dragon, giving Max advantage on his next attacks. If we don’t use Great Weapon Master, our odds of scoring a hit soar to 84%, but if we do elect to power attack and take the attack roll penalty, we now have a 57.75% chance of hitting instead of 35%.

This makes our odds of a successful Great Weapon Master attack almost as likely as a regular attack before the flank, and since they’re still above 50%, it’s probably safe to go for the extra damage here.

That said, If the dragon is described by the DM as being on death’s doorstep, the extra damage probably isn’t worth it, so it’s probably best for the party if we skip the showboating and simply take the option that is most likely to do the last few points of necessary damage.

This brings us to the other important information you’ll need when deciding whether to use Great Weapon Master in 5e – your average damage per attack. Higher average damage diminishes your returns on power attacking, so you’ll also want to know when you’re going to consistently do more damage when using Great Weapon Master.

For the math, we’ll be turning to Desamir, from the Giant in the Playground forums.

Attack Bonus – (average damage/2) + 16 = Maximum AC

So let’s go back to Max Power, our trusty 8th level human fighter. A greatsword’s average damage is 7, + 5 from Max’s Strength modifier, + 1 from his +1 weapon, totaling 13. His attack roll modifier is still +9. Now let’s plug some numbers into the equation:

9 – (13/2) + 16 = 18.5

Max will deal higher average damage against any enemy with an AC of 18 or lower in the long run, so he’s good to go for power attacking the green dragon if the fight is poised to last a while, despite only having a 35% chance to hit.

It is worth noting that this equation’s math demonstrates that you’ll still do higher average damage over time even without advantage, but you’ll still want to exercise your best judgment when taking the probability of hitting into consideration.

Not all fights will last long enough for the higher averages to show up when they’re needed, and doing lower, more consistent damage is always better than doing no damage at all during a battle, especially if a round or two of less optimized damage would turn the tables in your favor.

Further, this equation doesn’t actually take advantage or disadvantage into account – you’ll want to dig into the resources supplied by Desamir if you really want to figure out the nitty gritty math.

Finally, here are some good rules of thumb to follow if you aren’t sure of whether it’s safe to go for Great Weapon Master’s extra damage:

  • Don’t take on Great Weapon Master’s attack roll penalty if you are attacking with disadvantage
  • You don’t need to know a target’s exact AC – knowing the lowest attack roll that has successfully hit an enemy is sufficient
  • Try to keep your odds of a successful attack roll above 50% when power attacking with Great Weapon Master

5E Classes That Should Take the Great Weapon Master Feat

To no one’s surprise, there are two classes that should pretty much take the Great Weapon Master feat with virtually every single build – the barbarian and fighter. These are two melee classes that are designed to tank and fight without having to worry about healing, support, or the other roles that classes like paladin and cleric need to worry about.

Additionally, neither of these classes have an abundance of bonus actions, often using them once to Rage/Second Wind and then never again during the fight. So the ability to get that extra attack from a critical hit or taking down an enemy is a very useful bonus that is always welcome.

For barbarians, the Reckless Attack feature gives you access to advantage on all your Strength-based attacks during your turn, even if you aren’t flanking or invisible, so your odds of scoring a successful hit, even with a -5 attack roll penalty, are dramatically increased in exchange for your enemies gaining advantage on attacks against you.

Fortunately, you can easily mitigate the damage you’ll receive this way through the 3rd level Bear totem ability, but even if you aren’t halving your damage, barbarians usually have a ton of hit points that will take most enemies a while to work through – and you’ll probably be hitting a lot harder than they are.

The fighter’s Champion archetype also pairs especially well with Great Weapon Master, as its ability to get crits off a 19 means the extra attacks come into play more often. Even if you aren’t playing a Champion, the fighter at high levels gets an insane number of attacks, which is all the more times they can connect a hit for that bonus action attack.

Add in the sheer number of ability score improvements that lead to extra feats (even before considering the 60%+ fighters who are human variant so they can start with an extra feat) and there’s no reason for a fighter to not take the bonuses offered here.

At low levels this feat makes barbarians and fighters absolute killing machines, and the extra attacks are beneficial even at higher levels when the -5/+10 mechanic often becomes more of a detriment.

There’s a reason that the Great Weapon Master Feat shows up high on our list for Best Feats for Barbarians and Best Feats for Fighters.

5th Ed Classes that should always take the Great Weapon Master Feat

  • Barbarian
  • Fighter

5E Classes That Should Consider Taking the Great Weapon Master Feat

The three melee classes that should at least consider the Great Weapon Master feat are the cleric, paladin, and ranger melee builds. They have the HP and AC options to make use of many of the features without recklessly endangering themselves.

Clerics and paladins in particular are often right up there with the barbarian and fighter in the thick of a fight, and able to tank insane amounts of hits while dealing the damage back out.

mounted knight
Not someone you want to face on the battlefield. Especially if they’re a Great Weapon Master.

While clerics can’t always take advantage of the heavy weapon benefits of GWM, as they only receive martial weapon proficiency from specific domains (Death, Tempest, Twilight, and War), the extra attacks from finishing off enemies can be devastating.

This is especially true with the classic cleric Polearm Master + Sentinel feat combo that is so overpowered…especially after casting Spirit Guardians and Spiritual Weapon. Freaking blender.

Paladins are similarly dangerous in combat, particularly while mounted. They can take advantage of a heavy polearm’s reach, GWM’s bonus damage, and their smiting abilities to deal brutal amounts of melee damage, allowing them to receive Great Weapon Master’s extra attacks with ease when their enemies inevitably fall.

Despite these examples, most of the best builds I’ve seen for these classes involve shields, as clerics and paladins tend to favor tankier gear, which usually includes a shield.

As a result, characters using a shield alongside one-handed weapons like a warhammer might want to consider the Crusher feat ahead of Great Weapon Master, or similar combat-oriented feats that give advantage to their specific fighting style instead.

For those who want to forego the shield and go two-handed with their weapons, however, the Great Weapon Master feat is a very powerful choice. This feat is generally a better fit for the paladin than most clerics, but clerics have a LOT of viable builds, so that’s definitely not a hard and fast rule.

While it is possible to use this feat with the melee build of ranger, I generally don’t recommend it. Rangers often use their bonus actions, and frequently find better results out of feats like Piercer, Fey Touched, or others that don’t require them to use heavy weapons.

Since they do have martial weapon proficiency, squeezing in the GWM feat is possible, even viable, but I question its usefulness when compared to the array of more flexible options available to a melee ranger build.

Why not artificer, warlock, or wizard melee builds? Simply put: hit dice. The comment of “Why are monks always the ones who die?” has come up multiple times in our D&D sessions, and it’s because they’re melee with a d8 hit die.

The d8 of the artificer and warlock and d6 of a wizard simply aren’t enough for them to take the hits other classes can – especially since none of these classes has much access to healing. Executing a good Battle Smith, Bladesinger, Hexblade, Pact of the Blade warlock, or War wizard build requires high ability scores and other feats that are simply more important.

This means that they basically run out of space for feats before the GWM feat would be useful. They also have common uses for the bonus action, making the first part of 5E’s Great Weapon Master feat less useful.

Most of these characters also need all the AC they can get, and tend not to have heavy weapon proficiency (save for Battle Smith and Hexblade), making the second part of the feat less useful or straight up unusable.

For these reasons, the Great Weapon Master feat in 5th edition D&D is not a great option for most warlock or wizard melee class builds.

5th Ed Classes that should consider taking the Great Weapon Master Feat

  • Cleric
  • Paladin
  • Ranger (melee build)
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5E Classes That Should NEVER Take the Great Weapon Master Feat

This is clearly a feat meant for melee, and works even better for those melee fighters willing to give up a little bit of AC to do more damage with a heavy weapon. For classes that have a wide array of uses for their bonus action, this feat is also less useful.

While the giant list of classes that should never take the GMW feat might make you think it isn’t a good feat, the truth is that just because it is narrowly focused doesn’t mean it isn’t powerful. This is a very, very strong feat – but it’s clearly meant to give pure melee characters more of an ability to dominate early and hang around late.

So here’s the full list of classes who should look elsewhere for a feat or who should just take another ability score improvement.

5th Ed classes that should never take the Great Weapon Master Feat

  • Artificer
  • Bard (with the possible exception of College of Valor)
  • Druid
  • Monk
  • Ranger (conventional build)
  • Rogue
  • Sorcerer
  • Warlock
  • Wizard
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Table showing best classes for Great Weapon Master feat – feel free to copy this table, just please link back to the original post here. Thanks!

Final Feat Grade for 5E Great Weapon Master

Great Weapon Master Feat Grade: A-

Is the 5E Great Weapon Master Feat Worth It?

My short take is that this is an excellent melee feat, but it is not overpowering the way some people tend to lift it up. People who have it as equal to Sharpshooter are overstating its power. People arguing it isn’t that good are going too far in the other direction.

The Great Weapon Master feat is powerful and any melee class with the full d10 HP dice that are going to abandon the shield to go all out on attacks with heavy weapons should be grabbing this feat.

While some might be surprised at the high grade because there are so many classes that don’t use it – I’ll point to the same thing for Sharpshooter and for the most popular spell feats.

For the classes that can use Great Weapon Master, it can be a great feat and is all but mandatory for the barbarian who is always on the front lines of a fight or the fighter who is looking to output more damage through their sheer number of attacks.

Great Weapon Master 5E Feat FAQ

Should I always use Great Weapon Master in 5E?

Actually, no. The extremely mathematically inclined DMs have run the numbers and they show that past a certain AC, it actually makes more statistical sense NOT to use Great Weapon Master’s -5/+10 feature. It is usually worth it on enemies with an AC 19 or lower, with the benefit scaling much better on lower AC enemies than higher ones.

For a specific case by case review, however, we covered the trickier math so you don’t have to.

Why is Great Weapon Master so good?

Great Weapon Master can make fighters, barbarians, and other melee classes absolute beasts against low level enemies by providing the opportunity to do enough damage to often kill in one hit, and grants another attack with every crit or enemy killed via bonus action, which is huge.

At higher levels the feat is much less useful, but it helps give melee characters more power in the early to mid game.

Can you use Great Weapon Master with a glaive?

Absolutely. In fact, to use the second half of the Great Weapon Master feat you need to be wielding a heavy weapon, which a glaive counts as.

Does Great Weapon Master damage apply to crits?

The +10 damage from a Great Weapon Master attack does NOT double. This is because only dice are doubled on a critical hit. Since the +10 is just added on, it remains +10 whether the hit is a critical hit or not.

Does Great Weapon Master work with versatile weapons?

The GWM feat can work well with versatile weapons, but it’s not optimal. The first benefit applies to all melee weapons, so the extra attacks from crits or cutting down an enemy apply. As of now, there is no means for applying the +10 Damage option to a versatile weapon, even when using two hands.

There are many DMs who will house rule this differently, however, so it is worth asking since that would make using this feat much more valuable to a PC with a versatile weapon.

Do I need to use a heavy weapon for the Great Weapon Master feat in 5th Ed?

The first part of the Great Weapon Master feat applies to ALL melee weapons. However, the -5 to hit/+10 damage mechanic can only be used with heavy weapons.

Thanks for reading and we hope you enjoyed this feat guide!

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