My question is fairly straightforward: What is the combination of feats/race/class/etc that gives the most damage per round at level 1? I'd also be interested to see the maximum possible damage, but this is not the criterion for judgment--just a bonus.

I'm looking to create a level 1 character who is only concerned by doing as much damage as possible at level 1. I should note that there is no consideration for any level past 1 (albeit I am interested in your speculations about level progression). I'm also interested in the requirements for such a character (e.g. the minimum ability scores needed, DM approval, etc).

Here are the stipulations/settings that need to be known:

  • All Primary Source Books are available. Basically if it is RAW it is good.
  • No home-brewed rules. Starting amount of gold as per the default amount.
  • No exceptional magic items are available (only the common ones available anywhere).
  • All variants described in the rules are available (e.g. the variant human class).
  • Assume no situation modifications (e.g. terrain, advantage, etc).
  • Only assume modifications if they are *almost always available. This means we are only interested in DPR (Damage per round).
  • Assume no outside buffs from party members or other sources.
  • Any temporary buffs can be used as long as they last for the entire combat (or close to it). Rage, for instance, would count.

My research tells me that a Barbarian is likely the best choice for this offhand, I am wondering if anyone can come up with a better idea.


The short answer:

AC 0-5: Human Great Weapon Fighter with the Great Weapon Master feat wielding a Greatsword

AC 6-20: Raging Human Barbarian with the Polearm Master feat wielding a Polearm

AC 21-26: Half-Orc Two-Weapon Fighter

AC 27+: Human Great Weapon Fighter with the Great Weapon Master feat wielding a Greatsword, part II: the GWF returns.

The significantly longer answer is that here are some calculations I did for the options that seemed obvious to me. Interestingly enough, the Barbarian didn't make the top of the list in terms of pure damage, but it did make the top of the list once we added AC into the mix.

You can also add Caltrops to any of these builds (and you can afford a lot of caltrops) to add up to 1 dmg/r.

Other notes:

  • The only source material used for this was the PHB, as I do not have access to all of the adventure paths and supplements
  • Magic users need not apply: Cantrips are almost universally low-damage, and they never get to benefit from base stats to get those sweet, sweet flat bonus damage numbers. All other spells are too consumable to be considered, so they didn't make it to the number crunching stage.
  • Rogues were briefly considered, but sneak attack just isn't reliable enough when you can't count on nearby allies or advantage.
  • No cheese! I tried to stick to a purist approach here. There may be strategies that your GM approves like this but most reasonably GMs would ban that kind of build from their tables for being too OP. This list fits nicely within very vanilla RAW and RAI.
  • I gave all characters rolls of 18 for their stats, then added any racial strength bonus that applied. Point-buy only allows you to get to 16/17 instead of 19/20, and will lower your dmg/r across the board.
  • All damage is given in expected values, done by hand. It's possible I failed my Intelligence(Statistics) check, so if you see something say something
  • Humans used are Variant Humans, to take advantage of the bonus feat. Half-Orc is used otherwise as they're the only race I could find that can possibly add damage to their attacks through the Savagery feature, as well as giving a handy +2 Str.
  • No magic weapons are used, as they are out of the budget of level 1 characters even if they sell all of their possessions, max out their starting gold rolls, and take the Noble background
  • Using the point-buy system the half-orc takes a bigger hit than humans to both his to-hit values and his damage (the +2 doesn't get him to a higher Ability Modifier tier). This results in the Barbarian Polearm Master reigning supreme all the way to 24 AC, and the GWF picks up the slack at 25+, cutting the half-orc out of our equation completely.
  • You want numbers? Here's a Google Sheet with some numbers.

Without further ado, here is my list of damage-optimized level 1 characters (please refer to the above sheet for numbers with AC factored in).

Human Great Weapon Fighter with Great Weapon Master feat (22.75 dmg/r, +1 to hit)

  • +4 str bonus
  • +10 feat bonus (-5 to hit)
  • 2d6 (reroll 1,2) greatsword attack (22.333333 dmg/r)
  • 5% crit (.41666666 dmg)
  • Total damage on maximum Crit: 14+12+12 = 38 dmg

Human Barbarian with Polearm Master feat (20.3 dmg/r, +6 to hit)

  • +4 str bonus
  • +2 rag bonus
  • 1d10 polearm attack (11.5 dmg)
  • 1d4 bonus attack (8.5 dmg)
  • 5% crit (0.4 dmg)
  • Total damage on maximum Crit w/ both attacks: (6 + 10 + 10) + (6 + 4 + 4) = 38 dmg

Half-Orc Two Weapon Fighter (17.4 dmg/r, +7 to hit)

  • +5 str bonus
  • 1d6 shortsword attack (8.5 dmg)
  • 1d6 shortsword attack (8.5 dmg)
  • 5% crit including extra damage die from Savagery (0.7 dmg)
  • Total damage on maximum Crit w/ both attacks: (5 + 6 + 6 + 6) + (5 + 6 + 6 + 6) = 46

Human Two Weapon Fighter with Dual Wielder feat (17.2 dmg/r, +6 to hit)

  • +4 str bonus
  • 1d8 longsword attack (8.5 dmg)
  • 1d8 longsword attack (8.5 dmg)
  • 5% crit (.45 dmg)
  • Total damage on maximum Crit w/ both attacks: (4 + 8 + 8) + (4 + 8 + 8) = 40 Dmg
  • \$\begingroup\$ You missed the Charger feat - charge in bonus attack with +5 damage, run away (suffer AoO which is not relevant to OP question) and do it again next round. \$\endgroup\$ – Dale M Mar 23 '16 at 7:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ Hmm, good point. The only one of these builds it should impact is the GWF, as all of the others get more out of their bonus action attacks. I'll add numbers for it some time in the bearish future \$\endgroup\$ – lithas Mar 23 '16 at 14:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ I think its 0-4, 5-19 AC etc. It's showing the result on the die that has to beat the AC, not tie it. That's why it switches to the must crit result where it does (when the bonus cannot possibly hit on a 19 but could on a 20). Otherwise, the calculation would allow for 20 to hit without critting. \$\endgroup\$ – David Coffron Mar 25 '18 at 10:04

Human War Domain Cleric With Great Weapon Master Feat (42 dmg/r, +1 (+1d4) to hit)

  • +4 Str Bonus

  • +10 GWM Bonus

  • 2d6 Greatsword Attack (21 average With Bonuses)

  • War Priest Second Attack (42 Average With Bonuses)

  • Both Attacks Crits 52 DPR

(add 1d4 to your accuracy with bless, or add 1d4 to each of your attack's damage with Divine Favor)

  • dmg/r 47 With Divine Favor
  • Crits with Divine Favor 60

I tried this build in an Adventure's League setting (with slightly lower stats of course) and it did wonders on the battlefield, It's the best way to consistently dole out the best single target damage at 1st-4th level.

  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ While the build is interesting, you should take into account the AC from enemies, as it's currently misleading - the 42dmg/r is not actually dmg/r, it's dmg/r|hit. (i.e. "given that you hit") \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 30 '18 at 22:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ The average attack roll is a 14 so it should hit most low-level enemies fairly consistently. It works wonders on Zombies but falls short on Skeletons. For higher Ac targets I would recommend not using the +10 damage and go for two smacks for a 22dpr, still better then the polearm master builds and with a higher hit ratio (Average roll of 19 compared to polearm barbarian's 16.5) generally at low levels it either has good Ac or good Hp, rarely both and this build cleaves either apart more effectively than it's fighter/barbarian counterparts. (at least at first level) \$\endgroup\$ – Rowan Johnson May 31 '18 at 20:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ Fairly consistent is not 100%. Your actual damage/round is \$ 42 \cdot P(\textrm{hit}) \$ (actually we also need to consider 1s and 20s, but anyway) which will be stricly lower than 42. As I said, the answer is misleading. Optimization questions are mostly about math, so your answer needs to be more mathematically precise. \$\endgroup\$ – HellSaint May 31 '18 at 20:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see where you are coming from now, is there a way to offset the damage calculations compared to an opponent's ac if we don't have the ac? I could run up the numbers for every ac from 4-24, or is there a better way to display? Could I just insert a dmg/r/hit? Thanks for your help I'm still new to these forums. \$\endgroup\$ – Rowan Johnson May 31 '18 at 22:11

Fun cheese build

Human Monk with Magic Initiate Feat take Hex +1d6 to all attacks (22.7 dmg/r, +6 to hit)

+4 dex bonus

1d8+1d6 spear attack + hex (12 dmg)

1d4+1d6 unarmed attack + hex (10 dmg)

5% crit (0.7dmg) Total damage on maximum Crit w/ both attacks: (4 + 8 + 8 + 6 + 6) + (4 + 4 + 4 + 6 + 6) = 56 Dmg

Also if you buy 17 dex & wis +1 to each as human variant you get 18 AC. The downside is that you have to cast the hex as a bonus action which costs you the unarmed attack for 1 round per target. Also it can be lost to con saves.

  • \$\begingroup\$ Can you explain how you buy +1 dex and +1 wis in a level 1 character? Standard Array doesn't set this up, point buy does not set this up, so rolling for those stats and being lucky does. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 17 '17 at 17:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ You are right, you would need to roll stats to get the 18. In previous versions you could buy up to 18 though. So the plan was to buy 17 in two stats and get assign the two +1 scores for variant human. \$\endgroup\$ – Shaolin Jan 18 '17 at 2:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ It might be worth pointing that out in your answer in terms of the roll for 17 +1 for two, or rolling 18. Rolling up is a valid way to generate a character per the rules. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Jan 18 '17 at 2:54
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    \$\begingroup\$ Your calculations appear to be adding Hex twice. Spear attack two-handed is 1d8 plus 1d6 hex averaged is 8 damage, not 12. unarmed attack is 1d4 plus 1d6 hex which is 6 damage, not 10. \$\endgroup\$ – Eternallord66 Jul 18 at 15:53

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