The Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition group on Facebook recently enjoyed a long discussion about the damage output of rogues. In response to some concerns that the rogue might be unbalanced, Travis Marcum contributed a series of insightful, analytical, and in-depth comments showing that the rogue’s damage output isn’t perhaps as out-of-whack as it might first seem. Mr. Marcum has kindly given us permission to adapt his posts into a single guest column, which appears below.
Kaboomination Fuel: For the 5e Party, Everyone Gets to Bring Some Pain
by Travis Marcum
The rules are written so that, if a rogue is paying attention and her allies are cooperative, the rogue should be able to make one attack every turn with her Sneak Attack dice as a bonus.
If you’re going straight rogue, however, it is worth noting that rogues do not by themselves get the Extra Attack ability. And that is a balancing factor. If any rogues want to get Extra Attack, they’re going to have to multiclass, and thus slow down the progression of their Sneak Attack dice.
Therein lies the rub with going 1 to 20 rogue: You can, pretty effectively, nail a single, really hard hit each round. And your crits are absolutely ridiculous (because you roll all your dice—normal weapon dice plus Sneak Attack dice—twice). But if you miss your swing, you’re stymied. Even dual-wielding, you’re still one potential swing below another non-caster with Extra Attack.
That’s your balancing trade off.In previous editions, particularly 4th, I remember seeing rogues who were consistently the most potent hitters out of our group. In D&D 3.5, a rogue could gain sneak attack bonus dice on multiple attacks in a single round. On top of that, they gained multiple attacks relatively quickly, with a +15 to hit at level 20. Truly, rogues had a pretty ridiculous amount of damage potential in previous incarnations of the game.
With 5e, however, you have to keep in mind that every class brings a pretty fair amount of pain. Given a bit of time, I could probably break down the average “maximum” damage in a single round of combat for each class, but let’s just look at the damage dice potential of a few. For this analysis, we won’t count stat bonuses–just the dice and some sample bonuses granted by class features.
For the sake of simplicity, we’ll put all of the characters in this analysis at level 5.
The 5th-level rogue has no specializations that grant a bonus to damage. At all. Thief, assassin, and arcane trickster all have the same relative damage-dealing capability. Arcane trickster has a very slight variable wobble because of spells scaling. However, Sneak Attack reads that you must use a finesse or ranged weapon to gain the effect. Spells, sadly, don’t seem to count.
So, at 5th level, it seems like the highest total damage dice a rogue could bring to bear in a single turn (without feats) is 5d6, if he or she is dual-wielding short swords or scimitars:
1d6 + 3d6 Sneak Attack (1st attack)
+ 1d6 (2nd attack, without Sneak Attack bonus)
Other than Sneak Attack, rogues gain absolutely no other abilities that increase damage potential as they level. So, that’s that. In the example above and with a feat, you could change up to rapiers instead of short swords or scimitars, raising your output to 2d8+3d6 in a single round. But, basically, all of your increases are coming from the scaling of Sneak Attack.
A 5th-level battle-master fighter has three separate abilities that increase damage potential:
Now, the fighter only gets one Action Surge per short rest. Effectively, this limits battle-masters to one Surge per combat, assuming a DM allows players time to recover after most fights. With each short rest, battle-masters also get 4d8 Superiority Dice, which they can spend at a rate of one per attack until they run out.
That being the case, you need to look at two different totals for battle-masters:
- The maximum dice they can push out in a turn
- How much damage they can do after they run out of those extra abilities–or when they elect not to use them.
Let’s start with the latter.
Assume you’re our test fighter. You use a greatsword (base 2d6 damage), and specialize in Great Weapon Fighting. As a result, you can reroll any 1s or 2s, once, each time you roll damage with a great weapon. That won’t change the dice total, but it is something to keep in mind when averaging damage as we deeper into this thought experiment.
Without using Action Surge or Superiority Dice, you get two greatsword attacks each round (thanks to Extra Attack) for a dice pool of 4d6, or 2d6 each attack.
Not too shabby.
Now, let’s look at your maximum. You decide to go all out.
On your first swing, you use a Superiority Dice for a Trip Attack. (Each expenditure of a Superiority Die does extra damage, but also comes with a secondary effect–in this case, tripping.) That’s 2d6+1d8. Then you get to use Extra Attack. For this attack, you elect to spend another Superiority Die on, say, Menacing Attack. That’s another 2d6+1d8.
So far, we’re at 4d6+2d8 — but we’re not done with your turn yet. You still get to use Action Surge. You invoke Action Surge to take the Attack action a second time. You swing again, spending another Superiority Die to employ Distracting Strike.
That’s another 2d6+1d8, for 6d6+3d8 total.
But we’re still not done with your turn. Some players (and DMs) miss this: The way Extra Attack reads, whenever the Attack action is used, the fighter gets another attack. Put simply, Action Surge doesn’t grant an extra attack; it grants an additional Attack action. That difference is important.
This means you gain the benefit of Extra Attack when you use Action Surge. And you can spend another Superiority Die. Because we haven’t frustrated the opponent enough by distracting, menacing, and tripping him, let’s disarm him.
That’s another 2d6+1d8.
In one round, that’s that’s 8d6+4d8 dice of potential damage for a 5th-level fighter. Now, admittedly, that’s going for broke, using all of your tricks for the encounter in one go. But it’s absolutely possible. And on top of that?
Fighters get to wear the best armor in the game,
Superiority Dice damage scales upwards at 10th and 18th levels,
and they can gain an extra Superiority Die with a feat.
So at the trade off of one fewer die per round than the rogue (on average), fighters gain stronger armor and much higher burst potential.
I’ll do one more class. We’ve covered a striker and a tank. To round things out, let’s do artillery.
The two specializations of sorcerer don’t really differ much in terms of damage output as the sorcerer levels. There are some very minute differences here and there, but by and large sorcerer gains its damage boosting ability from universal spell scaling and metamagic, which all sorcerers get.
The metamagic abilities that most impact the number of dice you can pump out in a turn are Twinned Spell and Quickened Spell. Ultimately, they do the same thing in different ways: You get to cast two spells in the same turn. Quickened Spell is more utilitarian, but also costs more Sorcery Points to use.
At 5th level, you have two 3rd-level spell slots and 5 Sorcery Points, both of which recover after a long rest. That would potentially allow you to use Quickened Spell twice, or Twinned Spell 5 times. Like Sneak Attack, Twinned Spell requires a bit of finesse; you have to get your friends (and/or the bad guys) to line up in the right ways. There’s also the AoE versus single-target discussion to have, and the whole notion of breakpoints and effective dice and all that, but… again, for simplicity sake, let’s just consider the flat dice total in a turn.
Although I often prefer magic missile for its reliability, I think the clear decider here for just pumping out ridiculous dice totals–we’re assuming that the rogue, fighter, and sorcerer are all hitting with each attack–has got to be scorching ray.
When cast with a 3rd-level spell slot, scorching ray lets us cast four rays at 2d6 each for a total of 8d6. If you Quickened that spell, you’d be able to cast it again for another 8d6, for a grand total of, in a single round of combat, 16d6 dice of damage.
That you can do once. Per long rest. Because you’re now out of 3rd-level spell slots.
You still have 1st- and 2nd-level spell slots, as well as cantrips, and 3 sorcery points. But you’re scaling down your potential dice pool of damage with each sorcery point and spell slot that you use, until you’re down to 2d6 or 2d8 cantrips and stay that way until you get a long rest. So you have huge damage potential, but you need to parse it intelligently.
And I think that’s enough to get an idea of how 5e is balanced. Every class can produce huge damage. Some do it consistently but don’t get the huge spikes. Others get some earth-shattering kabooms, but the rest of the time aren’t doing as much once they run out of kaboomination fuel. The balance, to my mind, is about as even mathematically as it has ever been. The average across the classes is genuinely close, particularly over long combats.†