Building a Grappler [5e Character Build]

Grappling.

The word itself became a thing of controversy in D&D. Some people loved it, so

me hated it, some obscure builds even relied upon it.

One of the most resounding criticisms of D&D 3.5 was that grappling was slow, complicated, and often brought the game to a screeching halt.

The developers listened to the community and now grappling is much easier in 5th Edition. The downside is it does a lot less than it did in 3.5.

If you want to build a grappler, let’s start with the basics:

What can a grappler do in D&D 5e?

There are 3 paragraphs on grappling in the 5e Player Handbook. Fortunately, they’re also a part of the SRD:

In short, we make an Athletics check in place of one of our attacks and, if we succeed, the target gets the grappled condition and we can move them around the battlefield (though our speed is halved and they do not provoke Opportunity Attacks when moved in this way).

Notably, you can only grapple a creature up to one size size category larger than you: no small grapplers.

Let’s take a look at the Grappled condition:

Grappled

  • A grappled creature’s speed becomes 0, and it can’t benefit from any bonus to its speed.
  • The condition ends if the Grappler is incapacitated (see the condition).
  • The condition also ends if an effect removes the grappled creature from the reach of the Grappler or Grappling effect, such as when a creature is hurled away by the Thunderwave spell.

The main advantage is that a grappled creature has 0 speed, meaning they cannot move, mount, dismount, or stand up from prone. This leads us to the role of the grappler is 5e:

Grapplers keep enemies prone

Prone is a really good status effect in 5e, let’s look at what it does:

Prone

  • A prone creature’s only Movement option is to crawl, unless it stands up and thereby ends the condition.
  • The creature has disadvantage on Attack rolls.
  • An Attack roll against the creature has advantage if the attacker is within 5 feet of the creature. Otherwise, the Attack roll has disadvantage.

What’s not mentioned here is on page 190-191 of the Player’s Handbook

“You can drop prone without using any of your speed. Standing up takes more effort; doing so costs an amount of movement equal to half your speed. For example, if your speed is 30 feet, you must spend 15 feet of movement to stand up.”

Not sure who, but someone’s gonna stay down after that.

The role of our grappler is not just to grapple, but to knock enemies down and keep them there, giving our allies (and ourselves) advantage to hit them while they’re prone.

It should be noted this requires two Athletics checks, one to grapple and the other to “shove” them prone. There are some abilities that allow one of the checks to be replaced with an attack roll and a save; these are discussed later.

How to build the best grappler in 5e

Races

Notably, there’s a couple of options for race: variant Human (for the feat), Goliath (for the Powerful Build Feature). Both of these races net us Proficiency in Athletics which we must have before building any kind of grappler. 

The Goliath (from Volo’s and EE Player’s Companion) doubles the weight we can drag, bringing it up to 60 times our strength score. If we have an 18 STR we can push or pull up to 1080 pounds. Which should cover most large enemies. 

If your DM is never going to say that a creature is too heavy for you to move and you’re ok playing a human in a fantasy game, then the variant human might be the way to go.

Feats

There’s really only two feats that directly relate to grappling:

Grappler

Prerequisite

Strength13 or higher

You’ve developed the skills necessary to hold your own in close–quarters 

Grappling. You gain the following benefits:

  • You have advantage on Attack rolls against a creature you are Grappling.
  • You can use your action to try to pin a creature Grappled by you. To do so, make another grapple check. If you succeed, you and the creature are both Restrained until the grapple ends.

and the other feat may surprise you: Tavern Brawler which, in addition to granting us a much needed +1 STR it also allows us this:

  • When you hit a creature with an unarmed strike or an improvised weapon on your turn, you can use a bonus action to attempt to grapple the target.

 Unfortunately, Tavern Brawler is probably not worth it due to the unarmed strike or improvised weapon requirement.

The DM laughed when I brought a wrestler to a dragon fight. Who’s laughing now?

What’s neat about the Grappler feat is that we can make a grappled creature restrained: this gives them disadvantage on DEX saves and attack rolls, and gives everyone advantage on attack rolls against them. In short, this gives us the option to allow everyone, even the wizards and archers in the back row, to have advantage on attacks, but at increased risk to ourselves.

It’s definitely worth it if your party has a lot of ranged characters, and if you have multiple attacks the feat may be worth it just for the first benefit alone because it allows you to grapple and then attack.

So far: we have either variant Human with the Grappler Feat or Goliath for our race. Either way we start with Proficiency in Athletics and (using Point Buy) either a 16 or 17 in Strength. 

Best class for a grappler

Since Grappling in 5e is 100% contingent on beating the target’s athletics roll, Expertise(Athletics) is a requirement for any grappler.

There are three ways to get expertise:

  1. Bard, you’ll need 3 levels of it.
  2. Rogue, you’ll need 1 level of it.
  3. Prodigy, a feat from Xanathar’s guide, requires Human as race.

There’s also a couple of nifty spells to consider:

  1. Hex – A warlock spell well known spell for adding an extra d6 of damage to an attack. It also let’s you choose an ability and give the target disadvantage on those abilitiy checks. Since the target can only beat your grapple attempt with STR(Athletics) or DEX(Acrobatics) you just have to pick the right attribute to give it disadvantage against your grapple.
  2. Enlarge – A Sorc/Wiz spell that increases your size category by one size.
  3. Enhance Ability – A Cleric spell list that can grant us advantage on STR based checks.

Regrettably, both of these spells require concentration which will be difficult to maintain on a grappling character since we will be taking damage in melee. It’s definitely best if you can buddy up with a caster to have them buff you.

Finally, there’s also the BattleMaster fighter to consider. It has a few maneuvers that have a lot of synergy with a grappler:

  1. Trip Attack – If you’ve already grappled an enemy, attack them to force a saving throw and knock them prone. Since they’re not “moving” you maintain the grapple.
  2. Disarming Attack – When you hit the creature, force a save to make it drop its weapon. You can then just move the grappled creature away from its weapon.
  3. Commander’s Strike – Give one of your allys the chance to attack the grappled creature and take advantage of them being knocked prone, in exchange for one for one of your attacks.

Building the Best Grappler

We don’t have a plethora of options, but we do have enough to get started.

If we start as a variant human with the Prodigy feat, we can begin the game as a fairly effective grappler. If we take our first 3 levels in fighter we gain proficiency in all weapons and armor, Con saves (important later), good HP, and we can pick up the Maneuvers from the BattleMaster subclass. 

At this point, we’ll want to go to level 5 in fighter to pick up the second attack. If we have a +4 STR we’re now rolling our grapples at a very nice +10. We get two attacks so we can grapple and then follow up with some great Battlemaster Maneuvers to knock our enemies prone or disarm them.

This is completely unrelated to the article, but I found it while writing and it’s AWESOME!

From here on out, there are three paths we can take: 

  1. Continue as a fighter – not the most exciting option and we won’t get any spells, but we will get a lot of attacks, stat increases, and all the feats we desire
  2. Go pure rogue – At low levels, cunning action synergies well, allowing us to dart around the battlefield and grapple the right target each time. At higher level we gain Reliable Talent which allows us to never roll below a 10 on any Athletics check, making our minimum check at level 16,when we get Reliable Talent: 5 (stat) + 10 (Prof) + 10 (minimum roll) = 25 as the lowest we could possibly roll.
  3. Go Bard – There’s not a lot of spells that help us grapple, but thanks to the bard’s Magical Secrets we’ll be able to pick up any of the spells we want. This would also us to pick up expertise if we’re OK delaying it and swap out our starting feat from Prodigy to the Grappler feat.

With the bard option, it may be better to build Fighter 1/Bard 6/Fighter 2/Fighter 3/Bard X if you’re starting at level 7 or above.

This seems counter intuitive, but it gets you CON save proficiency which will be desperately needed if you’re concentrating on any spells during combat. It also prevents you from taking more levels of fighter than you need, resulting in a build that is a very competent grappler, melee combatant, and caster.

Conclusion

While grappling options are limited in D&D 5e, grabbing Expertise makes it fairly easy to build a competent grappler. Adding in BattleMaster maneuvers on top of it has a lot of synergy and opens more intersting combat options for a character, provided the character has at least two attacks in a round. Feat support is limited, but the Grappler feat is definitely worth it with the right character build and party composition.

 

If you enjoyed this article you may also like The Paragon of Luck and A Fistful of Dice.

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3 thoughts on “Building a Grappler [5e Character Build]

  1. There are 4(?) races with Powerful Build. What about Orc, Firbolg, & Bugbear.

    While the Bugbear’s reach is for melee attacks, and grappling is an Athletics check, some DMs allow Bugbears reach to initiate the grapple. Would like to hear your thoughts.

    No mention of Barbarian’s Rage?

    1. I considered using a Powerful Build race, but in 5e, Powerful Build is a lackluster feature. Despite being able to push/pull/drag more, the Powerful Build feature does not allow us to grapple up a size category or gain advantage on a grapple or really provide anything more than a very situational utility.

      As for Barbarian’s Rage, you could use it to gain advantage: a 1 lvl dip gets you the ability to rage 2/Long Rest (Rage grants Advantage on Athletics and therefore grapple checks) and it would be great for lower level grapplers and games where there’s few combat encounters between long rests.

      I could see a Barbarian 1/Rogue 10/Whaterver X build being VERY effective. The downside is that once your 2 rages are out, then grappling gets a lot harder and you have to fallback on being “just a rogue” which isn’t too bad at all.

      I’ll have to update it to include a breakdown of Rage at some point, thank you for bringing it to my attention.

      1. I’m playing almost exactly that right now (1 barb, 9 rogue), and if you grab shield master, you can grapple check, (almost always) succeed, then shield bash them (with another check) into the ground so they’re prone. Until I get a second attack, that’s basically my turn, but next turn, I get to sneak attack for 1 dmg (unarmed, yeay!) + 8 + 5d6. This has worked out great with some super fun interactions like running around the Big Bad’s guards in a wizard tower, grappling BB, dragging him to the giant broken window, and then shield bashing him to shove for 5 feet over the edge for that sweet, sweet falling damage (120ft tower for 12d6 falling damage)!

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