After the release of Volo's Guide to Monsters, I was bantering with some friends about character concepts with the new races. One that came up was a Kobold Paladin—and once that seed was planted, the character idea has developed personality and backstory and wants to become a real PC.

My question: Is a Dexterity-based paladin build competitive with a Strength-based paladin as a front-line fighter?

The stereotype for paladin that's presented is a burly, heavy-armour-wearing, heavy-weapon-swinging pillar of righteous wrath. If we challenge the stereotype and make a high-dex, lightly-armoured finesse paladin, what effects would it have on the class's combat effectiveness (which seems to be tied primarily to damage output and survivability) in filling the role of a front-line fighter?

  • AC: Low STR means no access to heavy armour. Full plate is a fixed AC 18 but studded leather (AC 12 + DEX mod) will give AC 17 by Lv8 and without spending ridiculous wads of cash (which would probably put the full plate out-of-reach until about this level anyways).

  • Damage The best finesse weapon deals d8 damage (average roll: 4.5), heavier weapons usually deal d10 (average roll: 5.5). That's only 1 point of damage difference (on average), which shouldn't be make-or-break territory?

None of the other Paladin features that I saw seemed to use STR as an attribute—so as far as I can see the only hits to making this holy kobold avenger are -1 to max AC, -1(average) to damage output.

Am I missing anything? Alternatively, are these seemingly-small disadvantages actually much larger than they appear?

In case it helps, feats are allowed, as are any rules from official supplements from WotC

  • Hello there. I am voting to close as too broad because currently this question is highly opinion-based. If you update the question to include more specifics, such as exactly what makes a build viable for you, then we can probably answer this in a much better fashion. Currently, "viable" can have a different meaning to every user so you'll need to define that in the context of this question. – LegendaryDude Dec 2 '16 at 17:52
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    I agree with @LegendaryDude that we need a bit more info. However, I'm hoping you manage to edit the question to have a good definition of 'viable' as I would love to see more Dex-based options! – Christopher Dec 2 '16 at 17:56
  • Hmm. Perhaps you could help me rephrase? Since a Paladin is typically a STR-based class, what I'm wondering is what sacrifices would a character be making to go all-out-DEX / low-STR If there are class features that rely on high STR stat, the kobold wouldn't be able to make use of them, for example. I also don't know what the -1 to max AC would translate to as far as survivability goes, since a paladin is typically a front-line fighter (from my understanding) – Dave B Dec 2 '16 at 17:57
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    @DaveB I think it's better now, as we can make objective statements about what can be done with a high DEX mod vs high STR mod and objectively determine a difference of 1 in AC, so I've retracted my VtC. – LegendaryDude Dec 2 '16 at 18:43
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    @DaveB Are feats allowed in this game? Most often they are allowed, but they are optional rules so it's important to ask. Answering no will have a pretty significant impact on what could be considered a good answer. – LegendaryDude Dec 2 '16 at 23:30
up vote 19 down vote accepted

Yes, this build is competitive...though not optimal

A difference of one AC is just a 5% chance to hit. That's pretty insignificant all things considered. The difference really comes down to...

Comparing fighting styles: Based on this analysis of fighting styles by DawnForgedCast, ff you both take Dueling and use a shield, your damage output is effectively the same. You will use a rapier instead of a longsword, but your AC difference remains at 1, and your damage is effectively the same: 1d8+5 (Ability score)+2 (fighting style). In this case, the only difference between the two of you is that you are only a little bit easier to hit, but you will likely have better initiative and better at range fighting success (for flying creatures and the like).

If the strength paladin takes Dueling, but you take Two Weapon Fighting and Dual Wielder, your damage will be better than his, though you will now have an AC difference of 2 instead of 1. Still, that's only a 10% difference. Not ideal, but great weapon fighters accept this difference too.

This next step requires taking a level in fighter to get the two weapon fighting style. If we assume a strength based paladin takes Great Weapon Fighting and Great Weapon Master, and you Take Two Weapon Fighting and Dual Wielder, your AC difference becomes 0, and you will retain a higher to hit potential. You can now dual wield rapiers as well. And, you will have the fighting style you took from Paladin as well. If you take Defense, your AC will actually be 1 higher than a GWF paladin.

However, your average damage is much lower than the strength paladin assuming he hits with bonus damage from GWM, but it's actually higher when the strength paladin doesn't take the to-hit penalty for extra damage. Assuming of course you use your off hand bonus action attack as often as possible and that you hit with it.

With all that in mind, going the route of a Dex paladin will mean that you won't be optimized for damage. However, you will only have an AC difference of 1, and can even close the gap entirely compared to a conventional damage optimized build. You will also very likely have a better initiative score and be able to use ranged weapons to more effect than a strength based paladin. Though you may not deal optimum damage, you will deal competetive damage, and you will be plenty well equipped for your role in the team.

The above method will however require you to spend a level to get fighter, which can ultimately put you back and prevents you from capping out your paladin for your last sacred oath feature. Which may or may not matter depending on how long your campaign goes for.

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    Unfortunately, paladins do mot get access to two-weapon fighting style... It's always bothered me :( – MrNattious Dec 2 '16 at 20:03
  • You are correct! Shame on me for forgetting such a thing. I've changed my answer a bit to mention multiclassing into fighter as a solution – Adam Dec 2 '16 at 20:08
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    If you take a level in fighter, you would get a second fighting style. TWF and Defense, without the Dual Wielder feat already matches Heavy armor AC, and with the feat, surpasses it. – inthemanual Dec 2 '16 at 21:13
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    Something worth noting, is that a sizable chunk of Paladin damage comes from their Divine Smite, and at higher levels, the Improved Divine Smite add-on to their regular attacks, both of which are independent of weapon damage, or for that matter, what attribute you use to attack with. When you're dealing smite damage, a point or two difference will rarely be noticed either way. – Randomorph Jan 9 '17 at 17:17
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    The problem with a multiclass Dexterity Paladin is that you still need Strength 13, which may or not be an issue for traditional races, but for a kobold with its Strength penalty it might be prohibitive. – Shago Apr 9 at 13:47

Not far behind Strength, but still behind

Damage

There are 4 ways to occupy your hands in melee combat:

  • 2 handed weapon
  • 1 handed weapon in one, other empty
  • 1 handed weapon in one, shield in the other
  • 1 handed weapon in each hand

In all of these options either Strength based Paladins are clearly better, or the option is bad for every Paladin.

2 handed weapon

No Finess weapons here, so Str obviously wins.

1 handed weapon in one, other empty

This option is only enticing for Grapplers, you need Athletics for that, so Str again.

1 handed weapon in one, shield in the other

As others mentioned, both can do it, with same DPR. AC is one worse for the Dex based, not offset by the verstility of ranged weapons in my opinion. Str Paladins can use Javelins if they really can not get close.
The main appeal of this build is the nearly sure Advantage for you and your melee allies with Shield Master. However, as with the previous option, you need Athletics, so Str wins again.

1 handed weapon in each hand

Paladins can cast spells with Somatic and Material components while wielding a Shield and a weapon, and everyone can while wielding a 2 handed weapon (you hold it in one hand while casting). If you have a weapon in each hand, you need Warcaster to be able to cast.
On top of this, dual wielding is only competitive before level 5. So I would say this is not a good option for any Paladin.

Dex based Paladins are not weak, but they are weaker than Str based ones.

AC

This depends heavily on your DM. In most cases, you have way more gold than ASIs.

This means Heavy Armor provides better AC than Medium Armor + Medium Armor Master.
If you maximize your attack stat at every opportunity as you should, you reach 20 at level 8 (assuming point buy). In Light Armor your AC is 17, in Medium 17 if you have 750gp, 16 otherwise, and in Heavy it is 18 if you have 1500gp, and 17 otherwise. On level 12 this much gold is trivial, so 18 AC is easy for a Str based paladin, but for a Dex based one the next ASI has to be spent to get to the same level.
So he will be +2 behind on Cha.

Yes, it is competitive

There is very little in the way of frontline-ness that you cannot achieve being Dex-based instead of Str-based.

AC

Yes, your base AC will be a bit lower. However, there are several things you can do to augment your AC:

  • Medium armour master feat combined with half plate gives you an AC of 15 + Dex mod (max 3), or 18
  • The dual wielder feat grants you a +1 AC when you have two weapons in hand (and also lets you dual wield rapiers!)
  • Rogue 5 gives you uncanny dodge, a reaction that halves the damage of a targeted attack
  • The paladin's defense fighting style gives you +1 AC when wearing armour
  • A one-level dip in draconic sorcerer gives your kobold hardened scales, and causes AC to be 13 + Dex mod, and for the option to take shield as a first level spell

Damage

There are many options available to Dex-based characters to augurent your damage—and some of them also appear in the AC boosting section, too!

  • Dual wielder feat, as noted above, lets you wield two rapiers (d8+Dex/d8 damage). This also gives you another chance to apply smite damage (and increases the chance of a crit from 5% to 9.75%)
  • Rogue multiclass gives you sneak attack damage. That's 3d6 extra if you go rogue 5 for uncanny dodge. And be sure to take swashbuckler as your archetype (from The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide) since it applies your Cha mod to initiative rolls and gives you more options for sneak attack
  • A 1-level dip into fighter gives you access to two-weapon fighting, which allows you to add your Dex to your off-hand attack's damage. A 2-level dip also gives you action surge, yet one more attack once per rest!

No (Optional) Feats

If you're not using the feats optional rule, rogue 5 will still give you a smattering of defensive options that are not 'always on' like +AC, but on only when you need. Draconic sorcerer, as well, is still a great option—and very in-character! Blade ward is a good cantrip to have in your back pocket just in case, and either acid splash, poison spray, or fire bolt can be thematic for a kobold playing at draconic might!

Damage options are always easier to come by than defensive options, so the lack of feats will not impact you that severely. No dual wielder means d8 rapier and d6 shortsword. Only a loss of 1 point of damage on average. Sneak attack—especially being a kobold who can get advantage frequently—and a dip into fighter still allows you to use your Dex bonus on your off-hand attack.

Or, if you prefer to focus on AC, drop the fighter level and go sorcerer 2, which gives you the ability to 'refresh' a level 1 spell slot to use shield one more time with your 2 sorcery points.

Conclusion

There are a few ways to shore up what you perceive as shortcomings, but they will cost you in ASI and/or paladin levels.

Paladin 13/rogue 5/fighter 2 will give you 3 ASI's from paladin and one from rogue. That is enough to boost your Dex to 20, let you take medium armour master, and dual wielder. That still leaves you one ASI for another feat or possible improving your ability scores.

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    Going with Kobold, who has pack tactics, gives advantage when an ally is within 5' - so with dual-weilding wouldn't that increase the chance of at least one crit all the way to ~18.5%? I would kinda like to take the kobold up to a high enough level where the aura of fear-prevention expands out to 30' just for the "If the kobold isn't scared then I'm not running!" effect, but other than that minor quibble this build sounds pretty fun :) – Dave B Dec 2 '16 at 22:00
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    You are right, @LegendaryDude, that feats weren't stated as an option. I have edited it to address that, and added one more multiclass option for more AC. NAKED KOBOLD!!!! – Christopher Dec 3 '16 at 1:00
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    @Christopher - or "armour" made from paper plates and tin foil so that the character still fills the knight in shining armour trope? I came back and read this shortly after I happened to read the "Inspiring Leader" feat in the player's guide and imagining the puny kobold's voice goading its fellows to greatness - Now I'm picturing that same scene with the char either in its skivvies or in junk mail. Thanks a lot. :P – Dave B Dec 4 '16 at 0:07
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    When Two-weapons fighting without Dual Wielder feat both weapons must be light. – Shago Apr 9 at 13:18
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    The problem with a multiclass Dexterity Paladin is that you still need Strength 13, which may or not be an issue for traditional races, but for a kobold with its Strength penalty it might be prohibitive. – Shago Apr 9 at 13:47

Yes, in some situations.

A DEX-based Paladin has very little that is strictly worse than a STR-based one.

I'll address your question's points:

AC: Low STR means no access to heavy armour. Full plate is a fixed AC 18 but studded leather (AC 12 + DEX mod) will give AC 17 by Lv8 and without spending ridiculous wads of cash (which would probably put the full plate out-of-reach until about this level anyways).

With your AC, the -1 to potential AC is definitely true, however this is potentially mitigated through a couple of channels, notably:

  1. A spellcaster casting mage armor on your character (AC 13+DEX)
  2. Wearing Half plate armor, with the Medium Armor Master feat, increasing the maximum bonus from Dex to +3 for medium armor.

It should be noted however that neither of these options come without a cost.

Damage: The best finesse weapon deals d8 damage (average roll: 4.5), heavier weapons usually deal d10 (average roll: 5.5). That's only 1 point of damage difference (on average), which shouldn't be make-or-break territory?

Funnily enough, the damage is less of an issue than the AC.

While it is true that while the best finesse weapons only have a d8 damage die, only two-handed non-finesse weapons have a larger damage die. A longsword or battleaxe have d10 only while wielded in two hands, and glaives, greatswords, greataxes, halberds, mauls, and pikes are all two-handed weapons. A lance is a special case, which has drawbacks and is only one-handed while mounted.

In this situation, a DEX-based Paladin shows up a negative point: Less versatility.

While comparable as a Sword-and-Shield Paladin, a DEX-based Paladin can not compete with a STR-based one as a "great-weapon fighter", due to the fact that no two-handed weapons have the finesse property.

As noted in the comments by THeibert, a DEX Paladin will also have a higher DEX saving throw, allowing them to better escape the worst of the effects of many damaging spells. This may well outweigh the penalty of a -1AC in terms of survivability, especially in a caster- or dragon-heavy campaign.

In summary, while not competitive as a great-weapon fighter, a Paladin who fights sword-and-shield style, a DEX-based Paladin would have 1 less AC than a STR-based one unless they spent a feat or had a friendly caster cast mage armor on them. The Paladin would also have comparable damage, but to do so would be locked into using a rapier, and thus only dealing piercing damage.

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    Is the piercing damage limitation one that actually affects combats often? Most monsters and abilities I've seen refer to "Bludgeoning, piercing and slashing damage", sometimes with a "from nonmagical sources" thrown in there. There don't seem to be very many occasions where the differences in physical damage types actually come into play...? – Dave B Dec 2 '16 at 20:14
  • In my experience in this edition, no. The biggest issue is that the Paladin would be restricted in the kinds of magic Weapons they would use. – MrNattious Dec 2 '16 at 20:17
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    @Adam without a doubt! It's just something to keep in mind is all. As a DM myself, my players often "coincidentally" come across weapons they prefer to use, so with the right DM, it's not a problem at all :) – MrNattious Dec 2 '16 at 20:29
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    Something else that could be noted, alongside the AC improvement options, is that you'll have a higher DEX save, allowing you to take reduced damage from spells and effects, and have a better chance to avoid traps. Depending on the situation, this difference could far outweigh the AC difference. – inthemanual Dec 2 '16 at 21:18
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    @Eidolon108 In this edition I believe they do not, but instead have a vulnerability to Bludgeoning – MrNattious Dec 2 '16 at 21:36

Yes.

Armor

Unless you are using stealth for scouting or surprise, you can still wear a plate armor by just taking the speed penalty, if you fight mounted it won't matter anyway.

Heavy Armor. Heavier armor interferes with the wearer’s ability to move quickly, stealthily, and freely. If the Armor table shows “Str 13” or “Str 15” in the Strength column for an armor type, the armor reduces the wearer’s speed by 10 feet unless the wearer has a Strength score equal to or higher than the listed score.

Alternatively the Medium Armor Master feat would allow you to have the same AC wearing a half plate, while avoiding the speed penalty and stealth disadvantage.

Damage

Unless you use two-handed weapons or a versatile weapon with two hands you would be dealing the same amount of damage, which caps at 1d8 for one-handed weapons. With a notable exception for the lance which deals a whopping 1d12 damage and can be used one-handed while mounted, but sadly is not a finesse weapon.

Ranged Attacks

You would be better with ranged weapons, period. Throwing javelins is OK only at short range (30 ft); more than that you're rolling with disadvantage, also javelins deal less damage than longbows.

One thing to note is that you can't use divine smite feature with ranged attacks, and only two smite spells work on ranged attacks: Branding Smite and Banishing Smite, but you won't be able to go nova by using both divine smite and a smite spell on the same attack.

Also if you're planning a lot of ranged attacks the avenging paladin has access to the ranger's spell Hunter's Mark which is useful both for melee and ranged attacks. Although Hunter's Mark is very useful you cannot use it paired with smite spells, as both are concentration spells.

Saving Throws

Dexterity saves are way more common than Strength ones, so there's better survivability.

Initiative and Surprise

Higher initiative is always better for any character. If you use stealth to surprise your enemies and beat them on initiative you're effectively acting twice before they even get the chance to, which could led to better damage output.

You could even take the criminal or urchin background for the stealth proficiency. If you go this route consider taking the Medium Armor Master feat to avoid disadvantage without sacrificing AC.

Multi-classing

You're probably dumping strength, well in that case forget about multiclassing, you need Strength and Charisma 13 to multiclass. For a kobold would be even harder because of its Strength penalty.

To qualify for a new class, you must meet the ability score prerequisites for both your current class and your new one, as shown in the Multiclassing Prerequisites table.

Maybe your DM can remove this restriction or change Strength to Dexterity as a house rule, if you talk with him or her.

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