D&D 5e: Arcane Archer Fighter Guide
D&D 5e: Arcane Archer Fighter Guide
Role in the Party
Combining martial might and magical effects, the Arcane Archer fights from afar, loosing hails of enchanted arrows into their foe that bind, burn, and blast.
Powerful Fighters that are capable of dealing consistent ranged damage and bolstered by arcane reinforcement, Arcane Archers are combatants that support their party members while focusing on putting down the main threats.
This guide breaks down the Arcane Archer subclass, class features, skills, background options, feats, and more.
The Arcane Archer Fighter subclass is found in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. Click here to pick up your own copy of Xanathar’s Guide to Everything!
Arcane Archer Features
Arcane Archer Lore: At level 3, the Arcane Archer embraces the theory around the magic that fuels their abilities. The character gains proficiency in either Arcana or Nature and also learns the Prestidigitation or Druidcraft cantrips.
This is decent and adds some of the necessary skills so that the character can pretend to be the mage it isn’t. Choose whichever skill fits your character best, but when it comes to cantrips unless you have a specific reason, it’s best to choose Prestidigitation, because it’s simply a much more versatile spell.
Arcane Shot: The main ability of the Arcane Archer. Arcane Shot is an attack modifier that adds effects to one attack per turn, decided after the attack hits. If the Arcane Shot in question needs a save, the DC is 8 + proficiency bonus + INT mod.
The advantage of this is there’s no wasting the ability. You choose to trigger it only after you land a hit against an enemy of your choice. The downside of this is it can only be used once per turn, so if an enemy makes their save, that’s your entire special ability gone.
The Arcane Archer can make two Arcane Shots per day, with all uses refreshing on short and long rests. That’s a very restrictive amount of uses and doesn’t scale at all as the class levels.
The Arcane Archer gains two Arcane Shot choices at level 3 and learns additional choices at levels 7, 10, 15, and 18. There are only a disappointing 8 Arcane Shot options, meaning that most high level Arcane Archers are going to feel a little samey.
All Arcane Shots also gain increased power at level 18, which is listed in the descriptions below:
Arcane Shot List
Banishing Arrow: The enemy hit has to pass a CHA save or disappear until its next turn is over, specifically counting its speed as 0 and as incapacitated so it can’t heal or buff itself, or some other cheat.
At 18, this does 2d6 bonus Force damage, whether it passes or fails its save.
This is one of the best options on the list. Fire this at a key enemy to literally remove them from the fight. In a chaotic fight, one less enemy to deal with is a major deal, and against a boss, this can give everyone a turn to refresh and regroup. It’s very good.
Beguiling Arrow: The enemy hit takes 2d6 extra psychic damage, and if it fails a WIS save, it’s charmed by one of your allies for a turn.
At 18, the damage doubles to 4d6.
This is bad. The intent was probably to prevent them from taking aggressive actions against the charmed ally, but nothing is stopping the creature from attacking the rest of the party, as it only offers charm to one person. The effect also drops if the charming member of the party attacks the target, and many enemies are outright immune to being charmed anyway.
There is no situation where this is better than the other options on the list. Don’t take it.
Bursting Arrow: The target, and every target within 10ft, takes 2d6 Force damage as the Arcane Shot explodes.
At level 18, the damage doubles to 4d6.
Force damage is rarely resisted, and 2d6 is a lot of damage early on. Unfortunately, the scaling kills this. It’s going to quickly become less and less relevant as the party levels. Remember, two levels after the Arcane Archer gets this, the Wizard can throw an 8d6, 20ft radius Fireball.
Overall, it’s not a bad option. Take it early and abuse it while you can.
Enfeebling Arrow: The target hit takes 2d6 Necrotic damage, and has to pass a CON save or deal half damage with weapon attacks for a turn.
At level 18, the damage doubles to 4d6.
So, this is Ray of Enfeeblement, a 2nd level spell, except significantly worse. Firstly, let’s point out that this requires a CON save, and the kind of big, punchy melee enemies that you’re going to want to use this on normally have a very high constitution score, so they’re likely to pass the save.
Second, Ray of Enfeeblement always goes off if it hits, for at least one turn. This… doesn’t. The spellcaster probably also has more than two available slots to cast it with, too. This isn’t a great pick.
Grasping Arrow: The target hit takes 2d6 poison damage, then is enveloped by magical brambles (no save.)
This lowers the target’s speed by 10ft, and if it moves at all on any turn, it takes another 2d6 slashing damage. The target, or another creature, can spend an action to try and pass an Athletics check to remove the brambles.
At level 18, the poison damage and slashing damage both increase to 4d6.
So, this does double the base damage of all the other options, with the potential to deal ongoing damage every turn, doesn’t require a save for the effect to go off, and can deal bonus damage if the party has ways to force the target to move, as well? (The ability says the slashing damage triggers every turn.)
This is the best Arcane Shot choice, by a long way, and it’s highly recommended you take it as one of your first choices.
Piercing Arrow: Fire a penetrating arrow that hits everything in a line 30ft long and 1 foot wide, similar to the spell Lightning Bolt.
Creatures in the line of fire have to make a DEX save, or take the arrow’s damage +1d6. A successful save reduces the damage to half.
At level 18, the bonus damage increases to 2d6.
If there were ways to increase the damage of the arrow, for example, Sharpshooter’s bonus +10 to damage, this would be fantastic. But almost everything (Smite, Elemental Weapon, et al) requires an attack roll, and it’s been confirmed not to work by the designers.
So you’re firing a slightly more powerful arrow while trying to line up the maximum amount of targets in a 30ft line. Unless you’re fighting some very agreeable enemies, this probably means 2-3 targets. It’s not great.
Seeking Arrow: The Arcane Archer picks a creature they have seen in the last minute and fires a shot. The arrow seeks that target out unerringly, and if the arrow can find a path, it does.
The target has to make a DEX save or be hit. This does an extra 1d6 damage and reveals the location of the target to the Arcane Archer. Passing the save halves the damage and lets the target stay hidden.
At level 18, the bonus damage doubles to 2d6.
This has great flavor and can be useful to find enemies that turn invisible, teleport, or pull other shenanigans.
Shadow Arrow: The target hit takes 2d6 psychic damage, and has to pass a WIS save or only have visibility of 5ft for a turn.
At level 18, the damage doubles to 4d6.
This is surprisingly good. The effect is, as far as I know, unique in 5e, and it’s a great way to shut down ranged attackers, spellcasters, and even flying enemies. The effects will vary depending on your GM, but the image of a dragon suddenly blinded and flying into a tree seems too good to pass up.
Magic Arrow: From level 7, every arrow the Arcane Archer fires counts as magical for overcoming damage resistances. This is a necessary upgrade, and it’s nice to have it just built into class features so you don’t have to worry about hunting out magical gear.
Curving Shot: Also at level 7, once per turn, when the Arcane Archer misses with an arrow, they can spend a bonus action to make an attack roll against a new target, guiding the arrow into them instead.
This is fantastic, it’s mechanically useful, flavorful as all hell, and synergizes perfectly with the Arcane Archer’s core features, as well as some of the staple ranged attacker feats. (Sharpshooter…)
Ever Ready Shot: From level 15, the Arcane Archer’s magical quiver never runs dry. If they roll initiative with no uses of Arcane Shot, they gain one use of the ability.
More uses of Arcane Shot are always good to have, so this is perfectly fine. It just comes a little too late to save the class.
As a Fighter, and a ranged Fighter especially, the Arcane Archer is exceptional at dealing with a constant stream of turn by turn DPS. The combination of Archery Fighting Style and Action Surge means that a well built character can do massive amounts of single target damage.
Arcane Shots only reinforce this, offering a list of special effects, some of which are very powerful. Removing an enemy from the battlefield, slowing down an enemy and dealing consistent damage, or throwing out AOE blasts turn after turn are all great effects to have on hand.
At later levels, access to magical arrows and a strong reroll ability that adds a lot of consistency against missed attacks mean that the Arcane Archer’s ability to deal damage every single turn stays relevant.
Subclass aside, the Arcane Archer is a Fighter. That means it comes built-in with a big d10 hit die and proficiency in every armor and weapon style in the game for natural tankiness, a free short rest heal, and Action Surge, which is in the running for the most reliable ability in the game.
The Arcane Archer directly competes with the Battle Master in the Fighter with interesting attacking skills space, and unfortunately, it comes off significantly worse.
The biggest single issue with the Arcane Archer is resources. The subclass only gets a paltry two arcane shots per rest. While they do come back on short rests, those aren’t guaranteed, and even if you do get one, it’s standard for the party to go through a couple of encounters before resting.
So, doing the math, that offers 1 Arcane Shot per encounter. Which can easily be saved against and do nothing. Compared directly with the Battle Master, it has half the resources at level 3 and doesn’t have any of the same scaling, so it’s even worse off at higher levels.
General scaling is another issue of the class because it’s ever so slightly schizophrenic. Many of the arcane shot options start strong, but there’s no improvement to any of them until the class hits level 18! Many campaigns don’t even come close to this level, and most of the game is played in the low to mid levels anyway, which means that the arcane shots you start with are what you get.
There’s also the fact that, outside of firing special arrows, the Arcane Archer just doesn’t do very much. It shoots arrows, and they deal damage. Occasionally, it fires a slightly magical one, which might do something vaguely special. That’s about it.
The lack of flexibility also extends outside of combat. The Arcane Archer subclass offers a single skill as its only nod towards non-combat things even existing. This leaves the character relying on the base Fighter class’s skills and abilities. Which aren’t much. It’s worth making sure that you choose skills that are going to be used regularly.
Best Race Options
Gem Dragonborn: The Arcane Archer can struggle with crowds of low HP enemies, so building in a breath weapon that can be used multiple times per day, in the same attacking action as Bursting Shot, is a way to solve this problem.
Permanent telepathy is nice, but the once per day minute of flight that activates on a bonus action is the big deal here. Now the big melee enemies that you hate can’t even touch you as you pelt them with arrows.
Warforged: A whole group of benefits that are great for Fighters. AC bonuses, skill proficiencies, a language, and a bunch of immunities and resistances keep the character standing through incoming damage, perfect for a backline DPS class.
Variant Human: The Arcane Archer is feat hungry, and grabbing one at level 1 (let’s be honest, 90% of the time, it’s Sharpshooter…) smoothes out the power curve that much more.
Choosing the Right Skills
Fighters don’t get many skills, so making the right choices are especially important.
Perception is near essential, both because every character should take it, and because you’re an archer. You can’t shoot things you can’t see.
Characters in lighter armor might want to consider Stealth, and Athletics is fine if you also have some Strength.
The remaining skills should be spent on fun things, in character, or fit the party and campaign. One or two knowledge skills are decent if the character has the stats for it. If you have spare points to put into CHA, social skills are also something to consider.
Sharpshooter: Almost essential to the build. Increasing effective range, ignoring cover, and the ability to take a penalty to hit to almost double your per-shot damage, all for the price of one feat?
This is an auto-take for basically every Arcane Archer, especially once they hit 7, and can turn any misses into another free attack roll.
Crossbow Expert: No one said an Arcane Archer couldn’t hold a melee weapon. Use a hand crossbow to deliver all of your Arcane Shots, while swinging a sword in your off hand.
You can even use two hand crossbows and relive all your action film fantasies. Arrows that pass through walls or curve around corners to find their targets, twin ‘“guns”, and diving rolls into melee range. It’s a fun fighting style.
Piercer: A stat increase and a free reroll one on damage dice a round, is a good way of getting some extra mileage out of your arrows. With the number of attacks the Fighter throws out, one of the dice is going to roll low, so this is essentially a free damage boost.
Sailor: Perception, Athletics, two sailing skills, and a nicely rounded out background that slots right into the class.
Guild Artisan: If you’re leaning social, the two skills and language here are a great pick up, and the Artisan’s Tools allow for some interesting options, even if you don’t go for the obvious choices of Smith or Tinker.
Urchin: Two stealth skills that the high DEX of the Arcane Archer works well with, as well as two sneaky toolkits, including Thieves Tools, which are vital if the party lacks them.
Mastermind Rogue: Expertise, more skills, and Cunning Action are all very nice things to glue into the Fighter chassis. Sneak Attack is extra damage every turn, as long as an ally is within 5ft of the target.
Mastermind gives us something to do with our bonus action every turn. Now we can help an ally, giving them Advantage on an attack, acting as a marshall and commander. This build could easily be split as the character levels, taking as few as 7 levels of Arcane Archer, and still being effective.
Gloom Stalker Ranger: 3 levels here get us a lot of things we want. Another fighting style is nice, and Ranger spells have a lot to offer an archer build (Hunter’s Mark, Ensnaring Strike, etc.)
But we want Gloom Stalker specifically. Darkvision is nice if you don’t have it, but disappearing from enemy Darkvision is incredible on a character that wants to play the distance game. An initiative boost, more speed, and an additional attack on the first round of combat work to ensure that the vital first turn always goes well.
Artillerist Artificer: The spellcasting utility and magic item creation of the Artificer are both going to be very handy to this build, in and out of combat.
But we’re stopping by to grab the Eldritch Cannon ability, so we can have all the guns. This is a fantastic little ability that can either be held by the character, or act as a semi-mobile turret that can fire an AOE gout of flame, a knockback shot that deals surprisingly good damage, or create a temporary HP shield on party members. All as a bonus action.
Would I recommend playing an Arcane Archer Fighter?
The unfortunate truth is that the Arcane Archer isn’t very good. If you’re insistent on playing a character that specializes in trick shots, you’re much better served to choose Battle Master, instead.
Not only will you have more tricks to play with, both in the number of special shots known as well as the total number of uses, but the character can effortlessly shift into melee combat and still be useful.
The Arcane Archer can do fine against most of the content in D&D 5e. It’s still a Fighter, after all. It’s just a shame that such a cool, thematic subclass is saddled with slightly mediocre abilities and a lack of interesting ways to use them.