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In this review, we will take a deep dive into the Arcane Archer features and see how these synergize with the Fighter class features. Then we will review feat, race, and multiclass options that work well with the Arcane Archer, and finally, we’ll combine all these into some build concepts.
As always, these are just my thoughts. If you have any other ideas about the Arcane Archer please let me know in the comments below!
Arcane Archer Lore – 3rd Level Arcane Archer Fighter
You get to learn one of Prestidigitation or Druidcraft. Neither is hugely impactful but either offers some roleplay opportunities that are otherwise rare for a Fighter (Eldritch Knight excepted).
You also get an extra proficiency in either Arcana or Nature, which synergizes nicely with the need for a higher Intelligence score than for most Fighter subclasses.
Arcane Shot – 3rd Level Arcane Archer Fighter
Also at level three, you pick up your signature ability, Arcane Shot. You can only use this twice per short rest and this doesn’t improve until 15th level. The Arcane Shot options only work with an arrow fired from a shortbow or longbow, which is very restrictive. Your DM might allow you to use these with other ranged weapons. The Arcane Shot save DC works out as 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier.
You find yourself pushed to use a shortbow or longbow and invest in Intelligence and Dexterity. This will restrict how many feats you can take and likely also restrict you to light or medium armor.
This doesn’t stack up too well in comparison with a ranged Battlemaster, who can use any kind of ranged weapons and whose DC is based on Dexterity. A ranged Samurai or Eldritch Knight is also a strong alternative.
You have 8 Arcane Shot options altogether, you will get to choose 2 options at level 3, adding more as you level up until you eventually reach 6 options at level 18.
It’s worth noting that only the options increase and not the uses! One criticism of this subclass is that you don’t get enough uses of Arcane Shot. A quick fix would be to agree with your DM to allow you to get proficiency bonus uses per short rest, which works out identical until you reach level 5 but will allow you to use your Arcane Shots more from that point onwards.
6 of the 8 Arcane Shot options allow you to choose which effect to apply after you have hit a creature with an attack. The other 2 options offer a saving throw, with a bit of guaranteed damage if the save succeeds. This means you will almost never waste one of your Arcane Shots, each one will have some kind of impact.
Arcane Shot Debuff Options
4 of the options are somewhat similar in that they debuff a single target for a turn.
Enfeebling Arrow does 2d6 necrotic damage on a hit (rising to 4d6 at level 18) and forces a Constitution save or the target will have its damage halved until the start of your next turn.
- This is the worst save in the game to target and will get increasingly harder to land as the game progresses because Constitution saving throw bonuses grow disproportionately high compared to all other saving throws on average.
- The debuff is also not that great, banished creatures (see below) will do zero damage.
Beguiling Arrow does 2d6 psychic damage (4d6 at level 18), and forces a Wisdom save or the target we charmed by one creature of your choice until the start of your next turn.
- This targets a better save, but will only stop an enemy from attacking a single one of your party members – they can always attack someone else. Again this seems very lackluster compared to banishing a creature.
Banishing Arrow does no damage at this level (2d6 force damage at level 18) and forces a Charisma save or banishes the target to the Feywild until the start of your next turn.
- Again a better save to target than Constitution, but no extra damage this time.
- The target has zero movement speed and is incapacitated while it’s banished.
- This is a great way of getting some control on the battlefield and keeping one dangerous target out of the combat for a whole round.
- While the target cannot attack any of your party members, it also can’t be attacked itself.
Shadow Arrow does 2d6 psychic damage (4d6 at level 18) and forces a Wisdom save or be unable to see anything more than 5ft away until the start of your next turn.
- A decent save to target, and some bonus damage on a hit.
- Not worth using on a foe that is already in close combat with one of your party members, as the debuff does nothing at this point.
- Great to use on a spellcaster as most spells require line of sight.
- Your party will gain advantage on attacks against the target, and they will have disadvantage on attacks against targets more than 5ft away. There are not many ways to gain a reliable source of advantage on ranged attacks, but this is one.
- This is not as good a defensive option as banishing the target but you can still target the affected creature and get bonuses to do so.
As a summary here, Enfeebling and Beguiling Arrow are both poor options and would likely be the ones I would never take. The choice of Banishing or Shadow arrow will likely depend on circumstances – if fighting two equally strong enemies banishing one of them and concentrating all the parties’ fire on the other sounds like a great choice. If facing a single dangerous target such as a spellcaster you can both greatly hinder them and buff your party members’ attacks against that target with Shadow Arrow.
Arcane Shot Damage Over Time Option
Grasping Arrow does 2d6 poison damage and wraps an enemy in poisonous brambles, its movement speed is reduced by 10ft and it takes 2d6 slashing damage the first time on each turn that it moves without teleporting (both rising to 4d6 at level 18). The target or any creature that can reach it can use its action to make a Strength (Athletics) check against your Arcane Shot save DC to remove the brambles, otherwise, they stay for up to 1 minute.
- This is a minor movement debuff, however, the damage is the main draw for this Arcane Shot.
- There is no saving throw for this, the effect is guaranteed. There is no limit to the size of the creature.
- It requires a check to remove it, along with a wasted action. Usually, ability checks are contested by checks, however in this case the check will contest your DC, which will be at least 12 (assuming a starting Intelligence of 14), rising to a potential 19 – meaning a creature with a Strength of 20 would need to roll a 15 to escape.
- Removing an enemy’s action (potentially wasted if they fail) is always great.
- The poison damage caused by the hit is the most common damage immunity in the game, but the magical slashing damage is rarely resisted or avoided.
- This option is open to lots of ‘forced movement’ shenanigans (a bit like the Spike Growth spell) – if you have a Warlock in the party they could Eldritch Blast + Repelling Blast to trigger the effect on their turn. Even a Shove would also trigger the damage. Double-check this with the DM but RAW this is how it seems to work.
This is the best Arcane Shot option. Even doing poison damage, it’s so much better than the other single-target options. It’s basically a ‘must-have’.
Arcane Shot Area of Effect (AoE) Option
After the arrow hits, a Bursting Arrow detonates and immediately causes 2d6 force damage (4d6 at level 18) to the targeted creature and all other creatures within 10ft.
- This is not ‘extra damage’ so won’t be doubled by critical hits.
- It’s not party-friendly, it will damage your allies as well.
- There is no save for half.
- Assuming you will only use this if catching at least 2 creatures in the blast, it’s a guarantee of at least 4d6 extra damage.
This gives you a minor AoE blast effect. It can be really impactful if used on a mob on low-hitpoint creatures. Because it doesn’t need a save it’s a great option to take early while your Intelligence is not that high yet.
Arcane Shot Saving Throw Options
Piercing Arrow has no roll to hit. Instead, an ethereal arrow shoots forward in a 1ft wide 30ft long line, causing damage as if it was hit by the arrow plus 1d6 extra piercing damage (2d6 at level 18) to every creature in its path, with a Dex save for half damage.
- This has a very short range although it can pass through objects and ignore cover
- If any creature fails its save, you also learn its location
- It can hit multiple creatures although you would be lucky to hit more than 2
This option seems to have fairly niche uses, probably best saved for when you are able to hit multiple creatures with it. As you are likely to take the Sharpshooter feat anyway, the ability to ignore cover will be largely redundant.
Seeking Arrow also requires no roll to hit. It will fly around corners ignoring all except full cover until it hits your chosen target, which you must have seen within the last minute, or until it reaches the end of its range. A hit creature takes the damage from the arrow plus an extra 1d8 force damage and its location is revealed, with a Dex save for half damage and avoiding the reveal.
- Again this one has situational uses but could be handy if you are fighting sneaky creatures who are trying to use stealth against the party or a wizard who has just turned invisible, or if your target is otherwise heavily obscured from you as by a Fog Cloud or Darkness spell.
- Again ignoring cover is made redundant by Sharpshooter
Overall I think my favorite options are Grasping Arrow and Bursting Arrow and I would probably take those first, and then one of Banishing or Shadow Arrow.
Additional Arcane Shot Option – 7th and 10th Levels
I would probably add one of Banishing or Shadow Arrow and Seeking Arrow.
Additional Arcane Shot Option – 15th and 18th Levels
Another two options, it’s pretty late to get these.
Magic Arrow – 7th Level Arcane Archer Fighter
All your non-magical arrows now count as magical for overcoming damage resistance or immunity.
This is a very welcome benefit in a low magic campaign. You still have to carefully manage your arrows.
Curving Shot – 7th Level Arcane Archer Fighter
When you make an attack roll and miss, you can redirect the attack roll to another target within 60ft using your bonus action.
You won’t be able to make bonus action attacks because you can’t use your special abilities with crossbows and therefore have no reason to pick up Crossbow Expert. This is a reliable use for your bonus action and is only weak if you’re facing just one enemy. Otherwise, it’s a solid boost to your damage output.
Ever Ready Shot – 15th Level Arcane Archer Fighter
You gain one use of Arcane Shot if you roll initiative and have no uses left.
It’s a bit late for extra shots but at least you now get at least one per combat. You’re probably best off using both on your first combat after a short rest and then picking up one on each subsequent combat, to get the maximum possible uses.
Arcane Archer Subclass Summary
The Arcane Archer doesn’t get that many features and what it does get it doesn’t get to use that often.
The Fighter’s damage scales well to higher levels of play with the extra attacks that the Fighter gets and the Arcane Archer gets to choose when they can apply extra damage or effects to their attacks, which gives you lots of tactical flexibility.
You have no choice but to go for a Dexterity-based build, with Intelligence your second priority.
Sharpshooter is a must-have.
Telekinetic is an interesting option. You get to boost your Int, gain an invisible Mage Hand, and utilize a bonus action shove that can be used to help an ally escape a grapple or avoid an opportunity attack, or push an enemy off a bridge – or to trigger the bonus damage of Grasping Arrow on your own turn. The only limitation is the range of 30ft.
Piercer is a strong choice if you’ve maxed out your Dexterity and Intelligence.
Picking up Fey Touched gives you one use of Misty Step once a day and allows you to pick up Hex or Hunter’s Mark for 1d6 extra damage on every shot. Because you’re fighting at range and Fighters get proficiency in Constitution saves this helps to get the most out of our limited uses of the spell.
If you like Shadow Arrow then Elven Accuracy pairs well with the disadvantage the target will get if it fails its Wisdom save.
Pretty much every race will work well with the Arcane Archer. Smaller races will be stuck with a shortbow. High Elves and Wood Elves are the best fit thematically.
As always, Custom Lineage and Variant Human are great choices with yet another feat.
One level of Rogue or Ranger could provide the opportunity to do a little extra damage with Sneak Attack or Favored Foe, and let you pick up expertise in one or two skills. A second Ranger level gives access to Hunter’s Mark and a couple of spell slots to use it with, plus some extra utility/defense from the Ranger spell list. A second Rogue level gives Cunning Action, which will improve your mobility with a bonus action Dash (great for kiting or getting out of trouble).
A couple of levels of Artificer would allow you to pick up some more cantrips and spells, and also provide access to the Repeating Shot infusion, which will grant a +1 to hit and damage and mean you’ll never run out of ammunition. It also synergizes nicely with your need for high Intelligence. Faerie Fire is a really nice spell to pick up to give yourself ranged advantage vs enemies.
A third level in Artificer would allow you to pick up the Battle Smith Specialist, which allows your attacks to use Intelligence instead of Dexterity, and would make your character single-ability score dependent – and also provide you with a fun pet (and other consistent use of your bonus action). If you decide to go this route it might be best to start off as a Battle Smith to get the Intelligence-based attacks as soon as possible, then switch over to your Arcane Archer the rest of the way.
There’s not a huge amount of flexibility in the Arcane Archer. Your race choice will likely decide whether you are going with a shortbow or longbow. You should definitely pack a melee weapon but you’re not going to be using it often.
A nice simple build is a High Elf with the Minor Illusion cantrip (potentially giving yourself a place to hide), with Sharpshooter picked up at level 4, Elven Accuracy at level 6, and then concentrating on boosting first your Dexterity and then your Intelligence to the max. Shadow Arrow will be one of your go-to choices for that ranged ‘triple-advantage’.
Being a Rock Gnome, starting with 3 levels in Artificer/Battle Smith, then switching to Arcane Archer and riding your Steel Defender. Adding Sharpshooter, Fey Touched (Intelligence boost + Hex), and Mounted Combatant (to keep your Steel Defender safe). You’ll take a while to reach your first feat (level 7) so this might be suited to a campaign that starts a bit later.
Arcane Archer Review Summary
The Arcane Archer gets a bit of a bad rep. It’s usually felt that a suitably configured Battlemaster is a superior ranged option, and there’s little flexibility in the Arcane Archer subclass. Having said that, the Arcane Archer gets some unique options, its features are solid, the shots are never wasted and a couple of them are very good.
You only gain your extra bonus damage at level 18, which is a long time to wait if you’re playing an extended campaign. For a high-level one shot, however, I think the Arcane Archer would be a really fun pick.
That wraps up my review of the Arcane Archer!
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