I’d been thinking this was the week for Unearthed Arcana’s artificer class. It turns out that despite living in Georgia, where it is cool, gray, and rainy, heavy snow in Washington can keep WotC folks out of their offices and thus upturn my plans. Somehow Washington’s typical weather came here, and as a result you, dear reader, get the conclusion of the History of the Warlord a week early.
On the surface, there is no official warlord or commander class in 5e, as you probably know. (Unofficial ones come later in this article, never fear!) Instead, there are several subclass and feat options that support warlord gameplay. If you’re sticking solely to official content, perhaps because you’re playing in the Adventurer’s League, you need to just… not care about the word written into your class name.
Over the course of this series, I’ve talked a lot about the mechanical influence of the bard on warlords. We’re not surprised, then, that one of the best warlord-like options in 5e is the bard that is more like a fighter. Sure, I’ve covered the bard in fullness before, but let’s take this real quick:
- Bonus Proficiencies sell the fighter-like side of the concept, granting proficiency in medium armor, shields, and all martial weapons.
- Bardic Inspiration dice are a great mechanic for letting the leader aid the acting character in a way of the acting character’s choosing. All bards can grant dice that can add to an ally’s ability check, attack roll, or saving throw. Valor adds damage rolls and Armor Class to that list, rounding out all common combat rolls.
- The thing to see about this – and I’ll come back to it – is that the acting character’s freedom to apply the Bardic Inspiration die does make it a fairly passive form of engagement for the bard. It makes sense for the bard; maybe less so for the warlord.
- Extra Attack doesn’t really bear explaining, does it? (But everything about the College of Valor could have been stronger if this blended into spellcasting a bit better. I will say that two attacks and Bardic Inspiration or a healing word is a respectable round of actions.
- Battle Magic lets you combine casting and a weapon attack, though not in a way that blends with Extra Attack. Your spell list is not especially warlord-like, though – I’d be happy to see more specialized support/leadership spells show up in official and unofficial sources.
It stabs, it heals, it inspires, it maintains concentration on heroism. That’s a very good base of functionality, though it also makes War Caster a bit closer to a must-have than is exactly preferable. Also, Song of Rest is a great feature concept for any warlord class.
This doesn’t need even as much discussion as the bard, but Guided Strike, War God’s Blessing, and bless cover a multitude of sins. It’s a cleric who could reasonably describe themselves as a warlord in-character, but much less so in what we’re here to talk about today. (That said, clerics are great leader types in 5e.)
Battle Master Fighter
If you’ve been reading my articles for any length of time here, you probably know that I love the Battle Master to pieces. Let’s run down the maneuvers that are most warlord-friendly.
- Commander’s Strike is conveniently both the first on the list and the most important to my argument. It’s a name we recognize from 4e. Here, the wannabe-warlord sacrifices one attack and their bonus action (so it’s real harsh on two-weapon fighters), and an ally spends their reaction to attack. Those three separate action costs are key controls to stop a team of Battle Masters from giving a rogue buddy too many extra attacks. (But do remember that a Commander’s Strike for a rogue buddy is some of the best damage output you can get from this maneuver.)
- Disarming Strike is a debuff to an enemy rather than a buff to an ally, but it’s incredibly good at doing that.
- Distracting Strike sets up an ally to attack with advantage. Another core warlord concept, and I love that it’s explicitly focused on keeping the fighter engaged in the cut-and-thrust of the battle to apply that effect.
- Maneuvering Attack is the warlord’s now-classic granting of movement to allies during the warlord’s turn. In this case, it’s good for fixing positioning or getting a vulnerable character out of danger, since the movement it grants doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks.
- Menacing Attack tosses out the frightened condition. That’s a great debuff, even in the very short term, if you can land it.
- Pushing Attack is forced movement, and every form of rearranging the battlefield is the warlord’s purview. It’s a defender’s purview too, but that overlap is just fine.
- Rally lets the fighter hand out temporary hit points equal to the CS die result + Cha bonus as a bonus action. Great, great warlord functionality; I was amused to watch one Battle Master in my game “heal through” a lot of damage coming to one character by spending all of his CS dice on this over the course of several rounds.
- Trip Attack qualifies, in that it gives allies advantage and debuffs the enemy. I’m pretty sure there are plenty of 4e warlord exploits that include knockdowns.
That’s a lot of different ways that Battle Masters can pick up some warlord tricks, and most of them emphasize direct action in the fight. To put that another way, the fighter’s attacks aren’t incidental – they deliver the effects in their own right. As written, this also supports melee and ranged “warlords” equally. All that this really lacks is true healing function – Rally is great but it doesn’t do the whole job.
Purple Dragon Knight/Banneret Fighter
The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide has another warlord-like fighter, which for ease of use I’ll be calling the Banneret. Its mechanical concept is “I kick ass, do you wanna be like me? Then just do what I do!”
- Rallying Cry modifies your Second Wind by adding three more targets. Those targets regain your level in hit points, rather than d10 + your level. It’s a nice splash of per-short-rest healing.
- Royal Envoy handles the social side of being a knight or warlord with proficiency and expertise in Persuasion. I think the whole concept would’ve been better served by pushing this down to 3rd level, or at least the part that grants proficiency in the first place. Gaining new skill proficiencies at 7th level means your party has already solved who is doing the main of that kind of task, and it isn’t you.
- Inspiring Surge shares your Action Surge with one creature, granting it one attack, at the cost of the creature’s reaction. At 18th level, you can get a second ally in on the action surging. The party that stabs together stays together, that’s what I know. (Keep in mind that you get your second Action Surge per short rest at 17th level, so this feature improves in that regard also.)
- Bulwark shares your Indomitable feature, helping one more party member with a reroll of a failed save. Again, classic warlord condition cleansing/extra save attempts.
The Banneret gets a lot of flak, from what I understand. I think this is one of the easiest-to-play warlord mechanics I’ve ever seen, and it deserves credit for that. Do what you’re going to do anyway, and make the rest of the party better while you do it. On the other hand, it feels thin on features, and Rallying Cry doesn’t reach the mark of strong single-target healing, if your party needs that. I’d like to see 7th level get a little meatier, personally.
The Mastermind rogue isn’t a warlord, though it is a leader and one of its core mechanics – getting to Help as a bonus action, at range – is going to show up in the DM’s Guild products I’m examining below.
I don’t think any other class has anything you could currently call a warlord-like subclass. Picking up Inspiring Leader, maybe Martial Adept (probably for Commander’s Strike), and maybe Healer makes it somewhat plausible to turn any class into a support/leadership type, but it’s definitely not covering the whole concept.
Robert J. Schwalb’s Warlord
Not too long ago, Robert J. Schwalb released Call to Arms: The Warlord on DriveThruRPG. He has come up before in this series, I usually like his work, and it’s no surprise to me that the PDF is sitting pretty at Platinum Bestseller status. The text includes the 20-level class and 6 subclasses.
The warlord gets:
- d10 Hit Dice.
- Proficiency in all armor, shields, and weapons.
- Proficiency in Wisdom and Charisma saves. I’m a bit surprised by this choice.
- Two skills, from a list that is a touch shorter than the fighter list. I’m just about always going to favor being more generous with class skill lists, especially when you pick a small number from that.
- Battlefield Commands are very much like Bardic Inspiration, except that they start at a d4. Still scales up to a d12 at 17th Also, they’re always per-short-rest – there’s no messing around with starting out as per-long-rest and shifting to per-short.
- Basing them off of Charisma for a non-casting class is a brutal piece of multiple attribute dependency. The text suggests that you need Charisma more than Str/Dex, but I assume it’s still important to hit with weapon attacks as part of contributing to battles.
- Probably we all know this, but I’ll toss it out anyway – the reason Bardic Inspiration starts as per-long and advances to per-short is that they don’t want to make a class dip into bard too strong. You’ve got to commit 5 levels to the class to get the good version.
- Commanding Presence is Commanding Strike, without a damage bonus, but you can just keep on letting your allies attack. It costs you one attack, and costs your ally their reaction. This feature changes as you advance, allowing you to choose allies who are farther away.
- I’m concerned about the power level of this feature. If you have the option to choose a rogue that meets the conditions for Sneak Attack, you’re basically doubling their potential damage per round. There’s no other character class that relies on single-attack damage to that degree.
- Secondarily, I think that encouraging the warlord to forego all of their attacks to let the rest of the party attack more is going too far toward optimal play being mostly passive.
- Inspiring Speech lets you grant each party member temporary hit points equal to one of their Hit Die rolls as part of any short rest. This could probably use some scaling function.
- Subclass features show up at 3rd, 7th, 11th, 15th, and 18th levels.
- ASI/Feats show up at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th – the standard.
- Extra Attack at 5th, no surprise. Extra Attack 2 at 11th – more surprising. (Keep in mind that Extra Attacks are also a scaling function for Commanding Presence.)
- Battle Leader at 6th level lets everyone within the range of your Commanding Presence (remember, area scales with level) add your Charisma bonus to their weapon attack damage. This is completely crazy good if there’s a monk or two-weapon fighter in the party. (That 6th-level monk is potentially kicking out +15 to +20 damage per turn… woof.)
- It stings that the warlord doesn’t gain this benefit for themselves. That’s a stark encouragement to use Commanding Presence to give away more of your attacks.
- Call to Arms at 6th level adds your Battlefield Commands die to the whole party’s initiative (but doesn’t cost a BC die).
- Rouse the Troops at 10th level lets you spend 1 minute speechifying so that you allies can spend Hit Dice, rather than needing a short rest. If they spend a Hit Die, they can also remove one level of exhaustion, but they can’t remove more than one level of exhaustion per day. Giving Berserker barbarians one more “safe” use of Frenzy per day is a big deal.
- Advantageous Action at 14th level lets you Help an ally as a bonus action. You also get to tack on one extra effect: removing frightened from one creature within 30 ft, a few temporary hit points to an ally within 5 ft, or healing a creature at 0 hit points within 5 feet.
- Legendary Commander at 20th level lets nearby allies add your Charisma modifier to saving throws, and when they roll BC dice, roll twice and take the better result.
That’s the core of the class. It has a lot of features and different ways to use its actions, but I feel like there’s a lot of pressure for the warlord to stand back and look pretty so that they’re making the rest of the party feel cool, but never even picking up dice themselves. Let’s see if the subclasses (Military Stratagems) change that.
This is your high-risk, high-reward style.
- Daring Assault at 3rd level allows allies to make a Power Attack-like choice: -5 to hit, +2d6 damage.
- Desperate Avoidance at 7th level lets you (just the warlord) choose to roll a save with advantage, in exchange for making attack rolls with disadvantage until the end of your next turn. 1/short rest. This would be a questionable value proposition (since you declare before you roll the first d20 of the save), but since you don’t have a good reason to make an attack roll on your turn…
- Hold the Line at 11th level lets your allies choose to roll saves with disadvantage, but if they do, “half-damage-on-a-success” turns to no damage on success. It’s an interesting idea.
- Risky Gambit at 15th level lets you spend a bonus action to have an ally provoke a special opportunity attack. If the provoked creature chooses to make that attack, it grants advantage to all attacks against it for a round. Another feature that can benefit the warlord themselves!
- Lay the Trap at 18th level encourages you to put yourself at risk. A creature that misses you with an attack grants advantage to you and one of your allies for your next attack against them.
This does take some valuable steps toward getting the warlord into the middle of the action and actually doing stuff, but three of the exciting choices are still allies-only. You’re still too close to being an NPC in your own gameplay.
This stratagem is about being the center of attention – your displays of awesomeness inspire your allies.
- Inspiring Strike at 3rd level effectively tacks on a Help action to each hit you land (i.e., you grant advantage to the next person to attack that creature). The optimal use, then, is to attack multiple targets in a round, if you can land multiple hits. D&D doesn’t often reward you for spreading damage rather than focusing fire, so it’s interesting to see this.
- Inspiring Presence at 7th level grants proficiency and expertise in Persuasion. See my above comments on the Banneret.
- Glorious Sacrifice at 11th level lets you roll a save with disadvantage when you and at least one other creature save against the same effect; everyone else who saves against that effect gains advantage. Fine bit of showboating, this.
- Portentous Escape at 15th level lets you inspire allies with your heroic resilience – granting them a modest number of temporary hit points.
- Rally the Troops at 18th level (setting aside the too-close similarity to earlier feature names in the core class) lets you spend an action to heal a creature you gave a BC die to – roll two of your BC dice (so 2d12) + your Charisma modifier. I’m shaky on whether this expends the die or not.
This does a good job of at least making the warlord into more of a rockstar than a backup singer. As with Banneret’s identical feature, I think Inspiring Presence should get pushed down to 3rd level and replaced. Everyone needs more good ways to engage in non-combat scenes.
This is a raiding and skirmishing style. I think this is the first mobility improvement we’ve yet seen in this class? Considering how big a component that is for other warlords that we’ve looked at in this series, it’s a surprising thing for Schwalb to leave on the table up to this point.
- Make Haste is a +5 ft speed buff for allies that start their turns in your Commanding Presence aura.
- Skirmisher increases your speed by +10 ft, but you have to be in light or no armor and not carrying a shield. This improves to +20 ft at 15th You also impose disadvantage on opportunity attacks against you.
- I really wish shields were allowed, because rapier-and-buckler is a fun, legitimate swashbuckling warlord.
- Nimble Troops at 7th level lets your allies add your Cha modifier to their Str (Athletics) and Dex (Acrobatics) rolls while they’re within your Commanding Presence aura. This is incredibly dominating if there’s a grappler on your team, or if you’re trying to escape monsters that grapple every time they hit.
- Hit-and-Run at 11th level grants you allies a +10 ft speed bonus until the end of their turn when they spend your BC die.
- This is okay, but not huge in most cases – times when you need more than your normal movement often aren’t the same rounds that you want to spend a BC die. It combines a bit better with later features, since you’re increasingly okay with moving after you’ve made your attack even when the enemy is still standing.
- Seize Advantage at 15th level makes it so that anyone who misses you or a nearby ally with an opportunity attack grants advantage on the next attack roll against it. It combines well with Skirmisher to pay you off for provoking opportunity attacks.
- Unbound Horde at 18th level imposes disadvantage on all opportunity attacks against your nearby allies, and if you move on your turn, your allies can spend their reaction to move 10 ft. Now that is a heck of a mobility fixer (though costing your allies their reactions means those allies aren’t protecting territory with opportunity attacks).
I like the image of the Dex warlord (ranged or finesse-melee) that this puts forward. My concern is that the subclass doesn’t quite gel until some of the higher-level features kick in. Don’t get me wrong, extra speed is always nice – there’s just a sense of early setup with a very late payoff, in Seize Advantage.
The concept of this Stratagem is summed up in the name of its third feature: “Trick Up Your Sleeve.”
- Find A Way at 3rd level… actually, this is worded oddly. I’m pretty sure there’s a typo involved, because this requires a miss but says it turns a hit into a miss. Anyway, what’s theoretically happening here is that instead of rolling the BC die to convert an undeclared miss (but, let’s face it, you can probably figure out if a roll is worth spending your die) to a hit, you expend the die and convert it to a half-damage hit, without rolling the die and thus risking a bad roll. Expending both the die and your reaction to do this is not particularly great in most circumstances.
- Shifting Resources, also at 3rd, lets you spend a bonus action to reassign BC dice that you’ve already granted. This is not a high-priority concern in bard gameplay, so I’m not yet sure why warlords need it.
- Trick Up Your Sleeve at 7th level lets you add your proficiency bonus to your d20 roll, even if you already add your proficiency bonus to that roll, 1/short rest. It’s not clear from the description when in the resolution process you declare the use of this feature. It is, at least, directly beneficial to the warlord.
- Close Call at 11th level lets you add a BC die (that doesn’t come out of your normal pool of BC dice) to a failed ability check or saving throw, 1/minute. I like it for making the warlord succeed at things more often, and for not drawing from their BC dice economy.
- Timely Warning at 15th level lets your ally spend a BC die as a penalty to an attack roll that hits them. If this does convert the hit to a miss, they get to keep the BC die. This doesn’t cost their reaction, so they can in principle do this any number of times in a round. This could be a shockingly powerful buff for the party’s highest-AC character. Considering that it’s the first really impressive feature in this subclass, I’m less worried about it than I could be, but an AC of 20 or more, plus a d10 or d12, could be steadily unhittable.
- Hidden Resources at 18th level lets you spend a bonus action to restore a per-short-rest racial or class feature to an ally, 2/long rest. As I said in 13th Age’s commander class, letting your allies re-use their cool tricks is always good stuff.
I don’t feel like this quite comes together into a playstyle, except that you’re sometimes better at doing the same actions you normally use. Then at 15th level, you gain the most impressive tanking buff in the whole game, an average +5.5 AC that doesn’t cost anyone’s action and (as long as you only use it when it could possibly help) probably just keeps on giving.
The flavor text says that this is about exploiting enemy weaknesses. Let’s see what that means.
- The Weakest Link at 3rd level makes your successful attacks apply a mark, on a bonus action. Your allies add half your Charisma modifier to their attack rolls against that creature until the start of your next turn.
- On the plus side, it forces you to go be active. On the downside, handing out a +2 to hit (your goal is to get this to a +2 as soon as possible; a +3 is possible but very unlikely) is not a great fit with 5e’s approach to bonuses.
- Attention to Detail at 7th level lets you Help yourself to advantage on an ability check, 3/long rest.
- Commander’s Cunning at 11th level lets you use your reaction to expend someone else’s BC die, imposing disadvantage on an incoming attack roll. This is the Protection fighting style, but… worse? Except for the better range. (This feature should probably have some range limit, but it doesn’t.)
- Exploit the Advantage at 15th level adds +1d6 damage to your mark. That at least helps The Weakest Link be more than a flat add to attack rolls.
- No Room for Failure at 18th level works about like Rally the Troops, as it heals an amount equal to two of your BC dice + your Cha modifier, but it’s triggered when that ally would fall to 0, and it definitely expends their BC die. This is a great feature, though it does strongly encourage your allies not to spend their BC dice.
- Battlefield Command dice are so much more central to warlords than Bardic Inspiration dice are to bards (since bards have, you know, spells) that they should probably have more of them. The warlord features that require the target to have unused BC dice gives this a harsher edge.
A mark-based playstyle is fine, though this one’s limitations are brutal on your action economy. You need to figure out when you’re going to spend the bonus actions necessary to hand out those BC dice. I’m not terribly impressed with this subclass, though as I’ve said it does a better job of getting the warlord into the action part of the fight.
Well that stratagem name is a lot to live up to. The flavor text doesn’t tell me much.
- Tactical Edge at 3rd level is interesting, I’ll say that much. This is a die (called a “tactics die”) that can add to attack rolls, and isn’t part of your Battlefield Command dice. At the start of the fight, it’s a d4. If no one uses it in the first round, it grows to a d6; otherwise, you regain it as a d4. It doesn’t have to get preassigned – you just decide to grant it when someone within 60 feet who can hear you needs it. There’s modest pressure to just let it grow, which could result in wasting it because the fight is suddenly over.
- Student of History at 7th level grants proficiency and expertise in History.
- Indomitable Offense at 11th level further rewards your allies for spending their BC dice: once they do, they gain half the die result as an AC bonus until the start of your next turn.
- “Until the start of your next turn” is an awkward timing trigger here, because there’s no guarantee that there’s an NPC turn between their use of the die and the start of your next turn.
- Superior Tactics at 15th level gives you a second tactics die that works just like the first. That’s fun to have, and definitely reduces pressure to let the tactics die grow.
- Master Tactician at 18th level lets your buddies reroll BC dice so that the result is never below 3.
The core mechanic is interesting, and it hands out bonuses more steadily than Battlefield Command dice alone. Using the tactics dice or deciding to let a miss ride so the die can grow is probably a fun decision moment, and it’s good that it calls the warlord’s player to make some moment-to-moment choices on other people’s turns. There’s no pressure at all for the warlord to go stand near the fight.
I want to like this warlord, Robert J. Schwalb is a better designer than I am, and I haven’t played it or seen it in action at the table, so I could be wrong. There’s a certain combination of action, involvement, and fun dirty tricks that make the 4e warlord so much fun, and that seems to be missing here. If being mostly an observer in a fight sounds like fun to you, I’m so not here to tell you that your fun is wrong. But I love the 4e warlord and the 13th Age commander (just on the strength of reading it), so I have some foundation when I say that I don’t think this one comes together.
The other problem with this warlord is that the subclasses aren’t conceptually or mechanically distinct enough. There needed to be about half as many subclasses so that they’re not retreading the same space.
I had intended to round out this article with another full review and analysis of another OGL commander, this one by George Sutherland Howard. Since I’m already way over 4,000 words and it’s midnight, that gets to be its own review article later this month.