Would a fighter deal more expected damage by picking the Polearm Master feat at any point before they maxed their Strength, or is it better to first always increase your Strength in terms of damage? What other conditions will strongly influence this?

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    \$\begingroup\$ The comment chain working on this question has been preserved in chat. \$\endgroup\$
    – Someone_Evil
    Oct 25, 2022 at 14:56

2 Answers 2


If you're making a lot of attacks, or are facing very high AC foes

We're trying to find expected damage when hit chance is relevant, so we need to look at actual expected damage: $$\text{Expected damage} = h(D+M) + cD$$ where \$0 ≤ h ≤ 1\$ is the hit chance, \$D\$ is the expected die damage (\$D = \frac{k+1}{2}\$ for a \$k\$-sided weapon die), \$M\$ is the ability modifier, and \$c\$ is the critical chance (normally \$c = \frac{1}{20} = 0.05\$).

We then want to find whether making \$n\$ attacks with a \$\frac{1}{20}\$ higher hit chance and a \$1\$ higher \$M\$ is better than making \$n\$ normal attacks and an additional attack with a d4 damage die (its expected damage denoted here as \$D_4 = 2.5\$).

Taking an ASI will thus be better when $$ n\left(h+\frac{1}{20}\right)(D+M+1) + ncD > nh(D+M) + ncD + h(D_4+M) + cD_4 $$ which, skipping a lot of algebra, simplifies to $$ h(D_4 + M - n) < \frac{1}{20}n(D+M+1) - cD_4. $$

If we assume that \$n < D_4 + M\$ (which will hold unless you're using some heavy homebrew, you're looking specifically at Action Surge, or you have some interestingly low values for \$M\$) we can further simplify this inequality to $$ h < \frac{\frac{1}{20}n(D+M+1)-cD_4}{D_4+M-n} $$ where the ASI will be the better choice if and only if the hit chance \$h\$ is less than the value of the expression on the right-hand side of the \$<\$ sign.

For example, for a single attack (\$n=1\$) with a d10 weapon (\$D=5.5\$), a +4 modifier (\$M=4\$) and normal crit chance (\$c=\frac{1}{20}\$), taking an ASI is only better if your hit chance is lower than \$0.073\$, which is probably not the case you want to optimize for.

From the inequality found above we can see that increasing \$c\$ or \$M\$ makes taking an ASI worse, while increasing \$D\$ or \$n\$ makes it better. However, there's very little room (outside of a few specific, and very powerful magic items) for increasing \$D\$ in practice.

Increasing \$n\$ has a more pronounced effect, with ASI being better for \$h<0.79\$ when \$n=4\$, and for all \$h ≤ 1\$ when \$n=5\$ (e.g. for a level 20 fighter under the effects of haste). This means that ASI isn't better until you're looking at very late progression (probably post level 20 progression).

Some calculated values:

n D M c h <
1 3.5 3 0.05 0.056
1 4.5 3 0.05 0.067
1 5.5 3 0.05 0.078
1 3.5 4 0.05 0.055
1 4.5 4 0.05 0.064
1 5.5 4 0.05 0.073
1 5.5 4 0.1 0.05
2 5.5 4 0.05 0.206
3 5.5 4 0.05 0.414
4 5.5 4 0.05 0.79
5 5.5 4 0.05 1.667

† If \$n > D_4 + M\$, then the ASI will always be better unless \$\frac{1}{20}n(D+M+1) < cD_4\$. If both of these inequalities hold, then a lower \$h\$ can favor taking the feat over the ASI. However, in practice that's only possible if \$M\$ is very low or \$c\$ is absurdly high.

‡ To be specific, increasing \$M\$ decreases the threshold for \$h\$ only if \$\frac{1}{20}n(D-D_4+n+1) > cD_4\$. In practice, the only cases where this might not hold is when you're making a single attack (\$n=1\$) and you're either using a d4 weapon (\$D=D_4\$) or have an expanded crit range (\$c ≥ \frac{2}{20}\$).


We will assume that the attacks do not require more than a 20 to be successful or a 1 to miss, that is, they fall into the normal sort of AC ranges.

There are three variables at play here (lowercase letters are fixed variables, and uppercase are random variables):

$$ \begin{align} p &:\text{the probability of a successful hit}\\ &-\text{calculated from AC and attack bonuses including the strength bonus}\\ s &:\text{the damage bonus before taking the feat or ASI}\\ &-\text{this is the Strength bonus but also any other bonuses such as magic}\\ D &:\text{the primary damage done by the weapon}\\ &- \text{1d10 for glaives and halberds, 1d6 for quarterstaffs}\\ B &:\text{the butt-end damage done by the weapon using Polearm Master - 1d4}\\ \end{align} $$

Allowing for critical hits the base damage before the feat or ASI is:


With an ASI the chance to hit improved by \$0.05\$ and the damage on a successful hit by \$1\$ so this becomes:


an improvement of:


With Polearm Master the improvement is solely the attack with the butt end. If we let the damage be \$B\$, a random variable representing the outcome of the d4 damage roll, the improvement is


So, the answer to your question is Polearm master is better when:

$$ \begin{align} 0.05B+p(B+s)&\gt p+0.05(D+s+1)\\ 0.05B+pB+ps&\gt p+0.05D+0.05s+0.05\\ 0.05B+pB+ps-p-0.05D-0.05s-0.05&\gt0\\ (1+20p)B-D+20p(s-1)-s-1&\gt0\\ \end{align} $$

Now, there are only a limited number of values that the fixed variables can take and since we are only interested in averages, we can replace the random variables with their expected values. So we can just crunch the numbers in a spreadsheet.

It turns out, that if you are using a glaive or a halberd it is always better to take the feat so long as your total damage bonus is better than -5. For a quarterstaff, it needs to be better than -3.

Since we can make the reasonable assumption that someone contemplating the Polearm Master feat does not have a strength score with a negative bonus, the answer is:

It is always better to take the Polearm Master feat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Should that be 17-18 strength or 18-19 strength? \$\endgroup\$ Oct 25, 2022 at 1:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ Why are you using 4.5 (a d8 weapon) instead of a 6.5 (a d12 weapon)? If you aren't using a polearm, might as well use a d12 or 2d6 weapon. I think accounting for extra attack would improve this answer and addressing the advantage case as well given that Barbarian's have Reckless Attack \$\endgroup\$ Oct 25, 2022 at 1:27
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    \$\begingroup\$ Can you also sum up that maths on words? Answers like this are pretty worthless to most people I would guess. You say almost always better, but the question asks when is it, so you need to be clear about the situations and not just values of p or s. \$\endgroup\$
    – SeriousBri
    Oct 25, 2022 at 7:25
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Korvin Why use a polearm if you're not using Polearm Master is my point. There's no reason to compare 1d10 + PAM with 1d10 + ASI. Because you'd always do 1d12 or 2d6 if you didn't have PAM \$\endgroup\$ Oct 26, 2022 at 3:14
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Exempt-Medic Polearms also have reach, which is often a desirable property. But it’s a fair point that the option of switching to another weapon could change the numbers. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Oct 26, 2022 at 4:02

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