A row of Vikings stand resolute in a shield wall waiting for the Orc charge, each confident that the wall will hold, knowing what follows will be a counterattack using shield and sword on the offense. A Spartan fighter spins, choosing to shove back an opponent using his shield before spinning to follow up with a devastating spear attack. A Captain America DnD build uses Shield Master and some worked up homebrew with the DM to do their thing.
Whatever the flavor, the look, or design, there’s something about the 5E Shield Master feat that really tugs at the imagination. Does the actual feat hold up, or is this a case where the actual feat as written can’t live up to the hype?
Shield Master is a solid martial feat that can give solid benefits to a melee class build that should be considered by any build using a shield. The flavor of the feat is excellent and because of wording becomes crazy strong in 5E campaigns with a high number of magic items.
So is Shield Master the right feat for your build, or should you be looking elsewhere? Let’s breakdown this feat inside and out to find out!
Breaking Down the Shield Master Feat
The first step to fully understanding the shield master feat is to look at its exact wording in the 5th Edition Player’s Handbook. Let’s take a look at it!
Directly from the Player’s Handbook:
You use shields not just for protection but also for offense. You gain the following benefits while you are wielding a shield:
- If you take the Attack action on your turn, you can use a bonus action to try to shove a creature within 5 feet of you with your shield.
- If you aren’t incapacitated, you can add your shield’s AC bonus to any Dexterity saving throw you make against a spell or other harmful effects that targets only you.
- If you are subjected to an effect that allows you to make a Dexterity saving throw to take only half damage, you can use your reaction to take no damage if you succeed on the saving throw, interposing your shield between yourself and the source of the effect.
The Player’s Handbook, p.170
There are few feats where the specific wording is so important as with Shield Master. So let’s break down these three major benefits to get a full understanding about what this feat has to offer.
Benefit #1: If you take an attack action, you can use your bonus action to shove a creature within 5 feet of you with your shield.
This is the least important of the three benefits, though there are some potential situations where it can definitely help hold the front line. Shove is not a well-known mechanic in 5th Edition, but it basically works like this: you make a Strength Athletics check versus an opponent’s STR/ATH or DEX/ACR (their choice) and if you win you either shove the opponent back five feet or shove them to the ground.
There’s a big difference between the two, so whether it’s automatic, you need to declare which is which, is a detail that you should make sure to get straightened out with the DM prior to trying to figure out which way it works or how to rule it mid-game.
If the DM allows you just to put them in prone, or has a “degree of failure” to determine which result (push or knockdown) happens, then that’s not only important to know ahead of time but it also changes just how strong this benefit potentially is.
You can find the full description for the shove action in The Player’s Handbook on page 195.
Benefit #2: You can add your shield’s AC bonus to your Dexterity save on a harmful effect or target that is aimed at you.
This was so close to being spectacular, and is still very situationally strong, but that wording that eliminates AOE effects (aimed at you) really sucks a lot of the potential wind out of this part of the feat and it’s a shame because it’s the one thing that keeps it from being a solid A as a total feat. That said, this benefit is excellent.
A +2 to a saving through is not insignificant by any stretch – and that’s the minimum bonus for this benefit that comes with just a basic shield!
That will be a +2 standard but because of the way it’s written if you have a magic shield that is +3 or +4 that would be the bonus you would add to your character’s Dexterity save, and that is a significant bump.
So while this doesn’t work on say a fireball or meteor swarm, that bonus is applied to any direct attack spell like Catapult, Eldritch Blast, or Scorching Ray.
Benefit #3: If you are taking a dexterity save due to an effect you are subjected to, you may use your reaction to place your shield between you and the effect. Instead of taking half damage on a successful save, you take no damage.
On the plus side, thanks to wording, this DOES apply to AOE effects. Any AOE effect that requires a Dexterity Save allows a shield master to use their shield as part of the defense. They don’t get the AC bonus, but if they succeed on the Dexterity save they take 0 HP of damage instead of half.
This is very powerful, especially when dealing with 8th or 9th level spells that can wipe a mid-level party. This inherently makes this benefit scale with the party and the campaign as taking 0 HP of damage from a 3rd level fireball is nice but taking 0 HP of damage from a 9th level meteor attack is even better.
Does Shield Master Give Shield Proficiency?
No, the Shield Master Feat does not grant proficiency with shields. Which is a bit odd since being proficient with using shields actually is not a prerequisite for taking this feat.
So does this mean you need shield proficiency to use this feat? Can you use the feat without any proficiency in using shields?
Get ready, because this is where it can get weird.
According to Page 144 of The Player’s Handbook, if you use armor or a shield that you’re not proficient in, you have disadvantage on all ability checks, saving throws, or attack roll that involves strength of dexterity. And spellcasters can’t cast spells.
So there is a world where if you have shield master but no shield proficiency you can roll to take no damage on a save, but be rolling at disadvantage to do so.
Or dodging a targeted spell with a +5 with a maxed out magic shield, but at disadvantage.
Like I said, depending on how you build, it can get very strange very quickly.
Wait, How Does Shield Master Work Vs Fireball?
Because of benefits 2 & 3, questions can definitely pop up on how a player with Shield Master will react to various situations in-game. There is also arguably a situation that could call for a DM’s ruling.
- Fireball is an AOE effect therefore you do NOT get the AC bonus of your shield on the save
- You do get to roll a normal dexterity save and if you succeed (and still have your reaction) you can take that to no damage
- If you don’t have shield proficiency then you can still save for no damage, but with a disadvantage role
So what if your character taunted or mocked an enemy NPC so much they did target you specifically with a fireball? While a bit vague, RAW would say that this still counts as an AOE because even though you’re being attacked, there is no attack roll.
However, a DM that ruled that a moment was so extraordinary that it was like a direct attack, I might allow the player as a bonus to use that AC bonus. But again, that’s a homebrew 5E ruling, and while that will work for some tables for others it will be RAW only, and that’s perfectly fine, too.
Which gives you a situation where you could be rolling at disadvantage with a +2 for 0 damage on success. Like I said, this feat, and the inherent gray area shields inexplicably seem to have in different 5E rulings, can lead to some unusual circumstances.
Shield Master Without Shield Proficiency: aka It’s About to Get Weird
There are two major conflicts taking place whenever a character wants to use shield master without having proficiency.
- The benefits granted by the 5E shield master feat
- The disadvantage on saves imposed from not having proficiency
Each of these is imposed on every roll, which can lead to some pretty interesting situations.
To be clear: you want shield proficiency if you are taking the shield master feat, unless you can get a DM to home rule that you get shield proficiency with the taking of the feat, that means looking at something like one level of fighter, paladin, cleric, or a class that gives you that proficiency.
If desperate, you can also take the moderately armored feat, but that is generally not the best way to go when multi-classing is available, IMO.
5E Classes That Should Take the Shield Master Feat
While there are plenty of interesting builds that can make the shield master feat work, especially for variant human or variant race (from Tasha’s) rules that can take an extra feat at level one (which can take some of the sting out of needing to take the moderately armored feat if you’re at a RAW table), certain classes are just a great natural fit out of the box.
Fighters, Paladins, and melee-build rangers should all look at taking the shield master feat
Fighters start with shield proficiency, are going to be front line, and almost always use a shield. Giving them the ability to reduce fireball damage from half to zero on a successful save, or adding the shield AC to direct attacks, is a pretty big boost for what fighter PCs can face from magic-based enemies.
Paladins start with all the proficiencies needed, give buffs at middle to higher levels, and granting them even more bonuses on the defensive side can allow them to tank with even the strongest of fighters and barbarians. Shield Master is a great feat for Paladins.
Rangers are archery-based 98.9% of the time, but if you’re trying to make the melee build work, then giving a Ranger the ability to add extra to an already impressive Dex save or to dodge AOE damage completely is a winning strategy, especially since dual wielding in 5E sucks (sorry Drizzt Do’Urden fans).
Any Captain America Meme Build – Because, c’mon, of course this would be the obvious top feat on your list.
5th Ed Classes that should always take the Shield Master Feat:
- Ranger (Melee Build)
- Any “Captain America” Meme Build
5E Classes That Should Consider Taking the Shield Master Feat
Clerics are a class that can definitely use the shield master feat, especially if your party is heavy on squishy magic casters and light armor specialists then the need to play tank becomes even more important since Clerics are generally the top healer in most parties. And if a cleric does down that leaves the sorcerer, wizard, monk, and rogue in a bad spot.
Whether Barbarian and Monk could work depends on the build and DM rulings on AC, how shields interact with AC, and any potential homebrew rules or allowances to simplify how shields work.
However, in certain situations with very specific builds where the shield is added as in addition to the special unarmored AC of those two classes then it can be an excellent addition to these martial classes.
5th Ed Classes that should consider taking the Shield Master Feat:
- Barbarian (some special builds and depending on DM homebrew rules/shield proficiency interpretation)
- Monk (some special builds and depending on DM homebrew rules/shield proficiency interpretation)
5E Classes That Should NEVER Take the Shield Master Feat
While it’s an excellent feat with very good flavor text and outstanding benefits, it is relatively narrow in focus. That means despite being a very good feat, there are several classes that it just doesn’t fit with.
Because of this, you should feel free to go ahead and skip shield master if you are playing any of the following:
5th Ed classes that should never take the Shield Master Feat:
- Rangers (regular archery build)
Final Feat Grade for 5E Shield Master
Shield Master Feat Grade: B+
Is the 5E Shield Master Feat Worth It?
The Shield Master feat takes a bit of time to get your mind around the details, but it’s a excellent feat that can be very powerful with the right classes. This is great to improve defense against magic and area attacks in particular, and scales very well to high levels because it grows with stronger magical shields and still zeroes out the AOE damage on a successful save of increasingly more dangerous spells.
If you have the right character build, the shield master feat will be a welcome addition to your character’s toolbox.
Shield Master Feat FAQ
Is Shield Master a good feat in 5E DnD?
Shield Master is an excellent feat that offers a lot mechanically in addition to really nailing the flavor text in a way that makes sense and melds into a campaign perfectly.
Does Shield Master give shield proficiency?
The shield master feat does not give shield proficiency. While this is not a requirement to take the feat, it’s highly recommended to avoid the non-proficiency penalties that will otherwise apply.
Can I use the Shield Master feat’s shove before the attack?
Not with RAW. While generally you can use your movement, bonus action, and action in any order you choose in 5E, specific rules trump general ones, and the specific rule from the Shield Master feat is that the bonus action can be used if (and only if) you have used the attack action. Meaning that the order of operations demands an attack action first.
Can you throw a shield in D&D?
Yes, but you would lose the AC bonus on any attacks that would then come at you, it would take up your attack action, and it would probably only do damage as an improvised attack, which is almost always weaker than other options available.
How can I get shield proficiency to use the Shield Master feat?
If you are playing with rules as written (RAW), then gaining proficiency with shields is pretty much the only redeeming part of the moderately armored feat. Although I would argue there’s a good chance that going one level of fighter would provide you with more benefits (including shield proficiency) than going with moderately armored to clear the way for the admittedly much, MUCH better feat of Shield Master.
Can a Druid in wild shape form use Shield Master?
As much as I love the idea of a giant gorilla running around playing Captain America, it’s very hard to pull off. Any shield a Druid is carrying melds into them as the wild shape works like the polymorph spell.
However, if the fighter carried an additional shield dropped for this exact purpose…not only would I allow it as DM, but if you’ll excuse me, I now have a b.s. Captain America Druid Build that I need to torment my next DM with.
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Proud to embrace the locally created moniker of “Corrupt Overlord” from one of the all time great Lords of Waterdeep runs, Shane is one member of the Assorted Meeples crew and will be hard at work creating awesome content for the website. He is a long-time player of board games, one time semi-professional poker player, and tends to run to the quirky or RPG side of things when it comes to playing video games. He loves tabletop roleplaying systems like Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, Werewolf, Fate, and others, and not only has been a player but has run games as DM for years. You can find his other work in publications like Level Skip or Hobby Lark.