I like crossbows as a concept. There's just something about the loading and the aiming and the thunk. What I don't like as much are rapid-firing automatic crossbows or the kind of machinegunning that Crossbow Expert lets one do. Unfortunately (for me), 5E is built around martial classes doing two to four attacks per Attack action which just... doesn't worth with a Loading weapon.

That said, I'd like to make a character for who doing that one shot per turn is actually a viable use of their turn, rather than something you do when your preferred options ran out (for example, out of spell slots and your damaging cantrips don't work because of immunity/antimagic etc).

Ultimately, I'm looking for something similar to, say, a gish using one of the SCAG cantrips to attack once with their weapon of choice for good damage. And preferably not something that takes action+bonus action+concentration+spell slot to deal half the damage of a same level fireball.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Questions about characters built around thrown weapons like this may also be relevant to you, given the relatively similar restrictions a throwing-focused build has on the number of attacks they can make. \$\endgroup\$ – CTWind Oct 19 '18 at 16:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ Are you trying to find a build with a single attack action that makes sense or are you trying to find one with extra attack that works? \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Oct 19 '18 at 20:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Single attack action, since making extra attack work would mean machinegunning the crossbow. \$\endgroup\$ – vonBoomslang Oct 19 '18 at 21:56
  • \$\begingroup\$ This is two separate questions, as evident from the "Artificer" answer. Question one: are crossbows without CE viable? Question 2: how to be viable with a single attack? \$\endgroup\$ – András Oct 23 '18 at 4:10

How about a Rogue?

Since Sneak Attack damage only applies to one hit per turn, there's only limited benefit to getting additional attacks (namely getting a second chance to hit), but rogues get lots of useful ways to use their bonus action outside of Two Weapon Fighting. Since the feature is built around getting a single strong attack each round, the damage of Sneak Attack is designed to scale to be (roughly) competitive with classes that get additional attacks.

Sneak Attack

Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe's distraction. Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an Attack if you have advantage on the Attack roll. The Attack must use a Finesse or a ranged weapon.

You don't need advantage on the Attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn't Incapacitated, and you don't have disadvantage on the Attack roll.

The amount of the extra damage increases as you gain levels in this class, as shown in the Sneak Attack column of the Rogue

You would need to find a way to reliably qualify for sneak attack damage each turn, but that's actually not that hard as long as you have melee fighters in your party since firing at an enemy that is within 5 feet of one of your allies grants you Sneak Attack damage.

In 5e there are no penalties for firing into melee, so you don't have to worry about that. There is the risk of an enemy getting cover from you ally or another enemy, but taking the Sharpshooter feat lets you simply ignore this cover. It also removes disadvantage from long range (allowing you to Sneak Attack from 320/400 feet away with a light/heavy crossbow) and gives you the option to add a +10 damage to your attacks in exchange for -5 to hit (generally a risky option for a rogue, since a miss robs you of sneak attack damage):

Sharpshooter (PHB, p. 170)

You have mastered ranged weapons and can make shots that others find impossible. You gain the following benefits:

Attacking at long range doesn't impose disadvantage on your ranged weapon attack rolls. Your ranged weapon attacks ignore half cover and three-quarters cover. Before you make an attack with a ranged 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.

As a rogue you're limited to the Light Crossbow (1d8) or the Hand Crossbow (1d6). If you really want the Heavy Crossbow (1d10), your options include:

  1. Multiclass (1 level of fighter, barbarian, ranger, or paladin give martial weapon proficiency)
  2. Take the Weapon Master feat using an ASI, or at first level with Variant Human
  3. Ask your DM about using the optional training rules (DMG 231) to gain proficiency.
  4. The Hobgoblin race from Volo's Guide to Monsters (VGtM 119) has the trait Martial Training which grants proficiency with 2 martial weapons of your choice, including Heavy Crossbow. (Thanks Nicolas Budig)
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    \$\begingroup\$ Rogues need a second attack very much, if the first one missed \$\endgroup\$ – András Jun 2 '19 at 12:35

The Artificer

I agree with divibisan that a Rogue may be your best option, but I'll add an alternative. The Artificer (from Unearthed Arcana: Artificer) does not get extra attack, and much like the Rogue, focuses on creating a high damage output on a single shot per round. A light re-skin of the Gunsmith Artificer Specialty from the Artificer class in Unearthed Arcana may fit your needs. The specialty utilizes a Thunder Cannon (Firearm) that could be re-skinned as a crossbow (See below, emphasis mine).

Thunder Cannon

At 1st level, you forge a Thunder Cannon. It is a ferocious weapon that fires leaden bullets.

You are proficient with the Thunder Cannon. The firearm is a two-handed ranged weapon that deals 2d6 piercing damage. Its normal range is 150 feet, and its maximum range is 500 feet. Once fired, it must be reloaded as a bonus action. If you lose your Thunder Cannon, you can create a new one over the course of three days of work (eight hours each day) by expending 100 gp worth of metal and other raw materials.

The ability initially closely matches the heavy crossbow martial weapon in range (150/500 vs 100/400) and damage (2d6 vs 1d10, both piercing), but rather than having the loading property, it requires a bonus action to reload.

The class abilities Thunder Monger, Blast Wave, Piercing Round, and Explosive Round could all be flavored as specialty crossbow bolts. The Thunder Monger ability, which can be used for every attack, roughly matches the rogue's sneak attack damage.

You can read more about the class here. You should ask your DM if Unearthed Arcana material is allowed in their game and if they approve of your changes.

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No, you always want to have as many attacks as possible

Of course it depends on your definition of viable, but every class has either better options, or can't afford to attack only once per turn.

Possible Candidates

If you get Extra Attack, obviously you want to use it. Even Eldritch Knights (level 18) and Valor Bards (level 14), who get a single attack on their bonus action after spending a spell slot, need something for the rounds when they can't spend a slot.

Eldritch Knights are the best candidates between levels 7 and 11. Below they lose too much by not using Extra Attack, above 3 attacks are better than 1 cantrip + 1 attack. There might be special circumstances where the latter is better (when you have disadvantage) but those are too rare to matter. If you need a ranged option, just use a Longbow, you only lose 1 damage in these rare situations.

Rogues especially need a second attack, either from Two-weapon fighting or Crossbow Expert + Hand Crossbow. They lose more than anyone if they miss with their first (only) attack.
This answer shows that the advantage with Crossbow Expert (and a hand crossbow) is about 39% when calculating with the usual hit chances.

Clerics do not get Extra Attack either, but at level 11 latest they are better off with cantrips.

Even with Crossbow Expert, there is only one good crossbow

Hand Crossbow gives you an additional attack as a bonus action, that is a feat's worth.

Otherwise you just spent an ASI to get what every bow is capable of out of the gate, +1 damage above Longbow, strictly worse than the ASI while you are below Dex 201. Even after you reached max Dex, there are so many better ways to spend your ASI, like Sharpshooter, Alert, Lucky, Medium Armor Master or Resilient.

1) +2 Dex from an ASI would give you the same to damage, and +1 to attack, save, initiative, stealth, etc.

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A few approaches I found on my own but didn't really appeal to me.

  • PHB Beastmaster ranger - your Action becomes one pet attack and one own attack - I'm not sure if Beastmaster and viable belong in the same sentence, though, and the covenant version doesn't work this way.
  • Eldritch Knight - use some manner of cantrip (at 7th) / spell (18th) and shoot the crossbow... once... instead of attacking four times since I'm a Fighter in the first place...
  • College of Valor Bard - the same as above! ... at 14th level. On a class that's already starved for Bonus Actions.
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Kensei Monk

The Kensei Monk actually provides a decent platform for a ranged attacker via Kensei's Shot. The downside remains the lack of use of the Extra Attack, but what you've got is a means of using your Bonus Action while ranged to get an extra d4 on the damage of your shot.

If you decide to go with Sharpshooter, that can increase your total damage on that shot - and when you hit 6th level you can use the Kensei Deft Strike ability to expend a ki point to add your martial arts die to the damage (a good use of ki from ranged) as well as the 11th level Sharpen the Blade to use Ki to add additional magical to-hit and bonus damage.

That pesky extra attack

Since you're not looking to 'machine gun', you could keep a supply of darts or some other throwable weapon available (and that can use your Kensai weapon with) to offer a shorter range ranged option and still get the benefits of Kensai Shot. It's not optimal, but it's an option.

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Unfortunately, I wouldn't think that'd be the case, as many classes would gladly ditch the crossbow for a longbow, 9/10 times. However, there are cases where the longbow and heavy crossbow aren't accessible, such as with Small creatures. If this is the case, then I'd suggest going with the hand crossbow and taking up Crossbow Expert along with picking up a shortsword such that you can make the melee attack and then fire with the hand crossbow. But that's just me.

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