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The goal of this question is to compare both Ranger level 11 features Whirlwind Attack & Volley and examine their comparative strengths and weaknesses for Rangers.

Whirlwind Attack

You can use your action to make a melee attack against any number of creatures within 5 feet of you, with a separate attack roll for each target.

Volley

You can use your action to make a ranged attack against any number of creatures within 10 feet of a point you can see within your weapon’s range. You must have ammunition for each target, as normal, and you make a separate attack roll for each target.

At level 11 you would have two attacks available during a normal action so you would need to have at least three enemies within 5 feet of you to make Whirlwind Attack viable from a pure damage output standpoint. The way I see it, you need to have good positioning, a number of enemies clustered, and be willing to sacrifice the utility of focused fire. I have trouble seeing this as being more useful than Volley.

Is there something that makes this choice mechanically competitive besides being in a campaign where you are frequently engaging hoards of swarming melee combatants?

As a rough surface calculation I am looking at volley as ranged AoE which can effectively hit 16 squares, while Whirlwind is a melee attack that can hit 8. The only direct advantage's to melee attacks that a melee focused ranger could have is a +2 to damage with every attack, or an additional melee attack as a bonus action. So if Whirlwind attacks and hits all 8 squares it can do 16 extra damage on a melee focused build. Or if we went with two weapon fighting one extra attack that would probably max out at slightly less than 16.

At a bare minimum if I could add one single target with volley to an ideal whirlwind I would getting almost the same exact damage spread.

If I were already surrounded by 8 opponents obviously WW is better, but chances are I don't actually want that to happen in the first place.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Does Volley only hit 16 squares? Looking at a grid that would be true if you're targeting an intersection between four squares, and not targeting an enemy that's centered in it's square. I would expect it to hit 25 squares, or maybe 21 if you want to leave the corners off to better simulate a circle. \$\endgroup\$ – aherocalledFrog Dec 13 '19 at 20:58
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I run a group with several melee combatants, including a melee ranger. We have not gotten to L11, but I can tell you from my experience that an ability that would allow you to attack more than 2 enemies is incredibly useful.

Here's the thing, as you level up, you're supposed to not only face greater threat level foes, but you're going to be facing more low level foes at once. Adding powers to a power list that allow a ranger to effectively operate as crowd control, especially when they are dealing more damage and can knock a low level foe out completely, is a great power.

Think about this for a moment, let's take the lowly goblin a CR 1/4 foe. Using a party of 4 characters, at L1, 4 goblins are a deadly encounter (50xp *2). At L5 it takes 27 of them to be a deadly foe, and by L11 you need 72 of them to be a deadly encounter.

While no, you're not likely to face off 72 goblins at L11, you may face off against 10 CR 2 opponents in a deadly encounter. This means there is likely to be a situation where you will have 3+ foes around you if you are engaging in melee combat.

From experience, I can tell you that this is a frequent occurrence for melee characters, they are often swarmed by 3, 4 or even more low level foes and potentially need to be able to deal damage to all of them, especially if they are much lower level and can be killed in one shot.

As far as whether it's a mechanically sound choice over Volley, that likely depends on both your character and your campaign. If your character is never going to use a ranged AOE (his ranged attack isn't good or he is a front line fighter), that's not going to be a good choice for him. However, if your character is a ranged ranger, Volley is a no brainer over this.

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Mathematically Whirlwind is equal to taking attack actions at each opponent one by one if you have 3 opponents adjacent to you (or 5 if you are a dual wielder). This means it is useful only in the rare case of you having 4+ (or 6+) opponents surrounding you. These can be calculated by equating the number of attacks you receive while you take down all opponents within reach by both tactics. This is without having hordebreaker. If killing opponents quicker is your main aim, only then whirlwind is useful when you are surrounded by 3+ (or 4+ for dual wielder) opponents, at the cost of taking more damage.

I think whirlwind is way underpowered compared to the other option (volley) because while you use whirlwind the opponents always attack you, so what I wrote above is always true. But there can be circumstances where the opponents can't reach you as you use volley, making it equivalent to regular attacks if there are 2 opponents anywhere within your bow range.

I would buff whirlwind as house rule as follows, given that the idea is holding back several opponents in a dazzling multi-attack routine (like a Drizzt wannabe), it should have a defensive component: "Each opponent that you make an attack by whirlwind gets disadvantage on their next one attack at you, until your next turn." OR if you want to add an offensive component, "Whirlwind attack rolls have advantage" due to the unexpected angles of attack.


Mathsy bits:

n = number of opponents

k = average number of attacks you need to make to take down one opponent

x = your regular attacks/turn (including off-hand attacks, assuming they are identical to your primary attack)

Attack action: You'll need k/x turns to take down each opponent. So for the first k/x turns you'll receive n*k/x turns worth of attacks from the opponents. Then (n-1)k/x for the second k/x turns, etc. down to 1*k/x for the last k/x turns against the last opponent. So they will deal [n(n+1)/2]k/x turns worth of attacks in nk/x turns. You are dealt at average (n+1)/2 turns worth of attacks per turn of combat.

Whirlwind: You'll receive n turns worth of attacks every turn, for k turns; totaling n*k turns worth of attacks.

So if you equate the total number of attacks you receive: [n(n+1)/2]k/x=nk => n=2x-1

If you equate the combat duration: n*k/x=k => n=x

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Ammunition is a balancing factor. Volley consumes one piece of ammunition per target. Many groups don't track ammunition closely, since arrows are cheap and most characters are using only a few per combat; when the Volley Ranger is using a fistful of arrows per attack, it becomes more of an immediate concern. Aside from the logistical issues with buying and carrying all those arrows, there is also a tactical concern with emptying your quiver (which holds at most 20 arrows) and having to retrieve and ready a fresh one.

Whether this is a sufficient drawback to make Whirlwind Attack competitive depends a lot on the circumstances of the campaign and the style of the table, but it's a factor to consider.

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Whirlwind attack is not affected by the Slow spell, as highlighted in this answer to another question.

From the Sage Advice compendium:

No. Whirlwind Attack is unusual, in that it’s a single attack with multiple attack rolls. In most other instances, an attack has one attack roll. The rule on moving between attacks (PH, 190) lets you move between weapon attacks, not between the attack rolls of an exceptional feature like Whirlwind Attack.

Part of the spell description of Slow says:

Regardless of the creature's abilities or magic items, it can't make more than one melee or ranged attack during its turn.

So, one mechanical advantage is Whirlwind Strike can hit multiple targets even when under the effects of Slow. Now, Volley works in the same way so it isn’t an advantage over that, but it is an advantage over making a a regular attack even with Horde Breaker - as normally you could hit up to 3 targets but if you were affected by Slow you could only hit one. With Whirlwind Strike you can hit up to 8 and ignore the effects of the spell.

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