Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 27, 2020
Low level hexblade in D&D

Dungeons & Dragons is an asymmetrical game, the roles and responsibilities of the players and the DM are not the same. That is especially true for game preparation. Unless you play a very improv style campaign, the DM has some work to do between sessions. If there are to be tactical battles with miniatures and battle maps, whether physical or digital, the DM has to prepare them. So what our group does is running two campaigns with two different DMs in parallel, alternating the sessions, and thus giving each DM twice the time to prepare between sessions. I DM Dungeon of the Mad Mage, and somebody else DMs Tomb of Annihilation.

So, in Tomb of Annihilation we are halfway through the final dungeon, so we started discussing what comes next. The other DM is pushing for somebody else to become DM of a campaign. But as nobody else has any DM experience, we decided to let the new DM start with something easy: The Lost Mines of Phandelver, the 5E starting kit. We only played the first dungeon of that one already, and with a few tweaks the adventure could be quite fun again.

In consequence, I was wondering what character to play. Now the internet is of course full of D&D character build guides to make the most powerful characters possible. But, first of all, raw power isn't the only consideration when creating a new character in D&D. And, second, one needs to consider the level range of the campaign that is being planned. Lost Mines of Phandelver is a low-level campaign, and unless we come up with a way to take the same characters into some follow-up campaign, the characters might well end their existence at level 5 or 6. Which means that great multi-class build you saw on the internet, requiring this many levels of one class, and this many of another, is most likely not going to happen. I need a character that is fun to play from level 1 on.

This requires some knowledge of the evolution of the different character classes. For example in a low level campaign, a Circle of the Moon druid is quite powerful, as turning into a bear at level 2 is stronger than anything any other class can do at that level. Spellcasters like wizards tend to be limited by their number of spells per day at low level, and become very strong at high level. Class balance in 5E D&D also strongly depends on how often the group takes short or long rests; my other group (which didn't want to switch to Roll20, so is on pandemic hiatus) tends to long rest a lot, which makes certain spellcasting classes much more powerful.

Now I have a certain fascination with the warlock class in 5E D&D. But I only played one once, and the class clearly has its weak points. Fortunately those are less evident at low level. In fact, if all spellcasters tend to run out of spells early at low levels, and are reduced to spamming cantrips, you'll probably prefer a warlock spamming eldritch blast augmented by hex and the agonizing blast invocation to a wizard spamming fire bolts or a cleric spamming sacred flame. Also, in order to paper over the weaknesses of the warlock class, WotC added a rather powerful subclass in Xanathar's Guide to Everything, the hexblade.

I love this sort of magically enhanced melee fighters! I once played two 5E bards in two different campaigns, and found the lore bard with his many concentration spells boring, while the sword bard was great fun, swashbuckling with two scimitars. And that sword bard, as well the dexterity-based paladin I played in another campaign, taught me one thing: Getting more than one attack at low level is quite strong. Now you will find a ton of hexblade builds on the internet, often multiclassing with fighter or paladin. But there is also a basic version that works with just the warlock class and already at low level: A variant human warlock hexblade with the polearm master feat. While you can't actually wield a real polearm as a hexblade before level 3 and the pact of the blade pact boon, the polearm master feat actually works also for the quarterstaff you can wield at level 1.

The polearm master feat gives you several additional attacks: One as a reaction if an enemy comes into melee range with you, and one attack per round using the other end of the staff. But if you have cast hex on the enemy, you add 1d6 of damage to each of those attacks. And if you are outside melee range, you still have the basic eldritch blast cantrip of the warlock, which with hex is already very powerful. While I am doubtful that this would scale very well to very high levels, the hexblade gains some rather powerful abilities at level 5. Eldritch smite works a bit like the divine smite of the paladin, which is to say that if you only use it on crits, your crits become ridiculously strong. And the hexblade curse allows you to get crits on rolls of 19 and 20, so multiple attacks with a higher crit chance make such an event more probable.

Personally I also like the roleplaying potential of the warlock, being beholden to his patron. With a brand new DM on his first campaign, I'm not sure how well that is going to work out, but the potential sure is there. I quite like the image of that quarterstaff swirling dark spellcaster. The hexblade option to run into combat and wreak havoc with a staff at low level is an obvious improvement of the basic warlock spamming eldritch blasts all day.


Sounds like you have found a build that you are excited to try. I would suggest a swashbuckling rogue is also fun with its ability to get sneak attack even fighting alone and the ability to avoid opportunity attacks.
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