Last Updated on January 22, 2023
Honestly, archers always seem to be the coolest people in fantasy stories. Whether you want to play a swashbuckling, sharpshooting outlaw like Robin Hood, a modern trickshot master like Hawkeye (or, uh, Hawkeye Jr.? Lil’ Hawk? Crowvision? I didn’t really pay much attention to that show when it was on), or an elven warrior of unsurpassed skill like Legolas, there’s a lot that’s very appealing about taking skill with a bow to the extreme.
In Dungeons & Dragons 5e, while pretty much every class can pick up a bow and use it to put something pointy through the eye of the nearest orc, there are a few classes that are a cut above the rest. Among them, the option that calls out to archery fans the loudest is the Arcane Archer, a Fighter subclass that combines devastating long-range damage with some interesting magical utility options, despite not being a spellcaster.
In this guide, we’re going to be giving you the full rundown on everything you need to know to decide whether to play an Arcane Archer in your next D&D 5e campaign.
We’re going to break down this subclass’s strengths, weaknesses, and features and how your choice of character race, background, ability score distribution, feats, and more can help you be as effective as possible on the battlefield.
Black Citadel’s Ranking and Tier System
In our ongoing series of 5e class guides, we use the following color-rating scheme:
Red – C Tier. Red options can sometimes be situationally useful and might make for an interesting narrative choice but are largely less effective than other tiers.
Green – B Tier. A solid choice but nothing that is absolutely critical for a build, or it can be very good but only situationally.
Blue – A Tier. An excellent choice. Widely regarded as powerful in some way, useful, highly effective.
Purple – S Tier. The best of the best. Objectively powerful or transformative in some way. No choice in D&D is essential, but these options are definitely worth considering when you create your character.
Our goal here is to provide scannable but comprehensive guides for you as you develop your character.
What Is an Arcane Archer Fighter in DnD 5e?
Arcane Archers use enchanted arrows to control, disable, and debuff their enemies. The subclass also has access to a number of abilities designed to make it devastatingly effective with ranged weapons, from magically infused ammunition to being able to redirect a missed attack at a different target.
The Arcane Archer is a subclass (also known as a Martial Archetype) of the Fighter in D&D 5e. Fighters gain access to their subclass at 3rd level, which grants them several special abilities as they level up with new elements of the subclass being unlocked at 7th, 11th, and 15th levels.
The Arcane Archer was officially added to D&D 5e as part of the Xanathar’s Guide to Everything sourcebook.
These Fighters study a unique elven school of archery that weaves magic into ranged attacks, giving them greater versatility and allowing them to dish out devastating damage. Among elven cultures, Arcane Archers are held in high esteem as an elite caste of warriors who stand watch over the fringes of elven domains.
Over the centuries, members of other races have studied and picked up the closely-guarded techniques of these elven archers.
The Arcane Archer’s Strengths
I’m going to be upfront with you here: there are some serious problems with the Arcane Archer. The subclass has issues — issues that I will get into properly in a minute. Oh boy, will I get into them.
For now, though, let’s talk about the things this class does well.
First of all, it’s a Fighter. I talk about this a lot, but the Fighter is an amazing class. It’s self-sufficient and simple but always gives you something to do. You get Ability Score Increases (or feats) all the time, extra attacks, and fantastic abilities like Second Wind and Action Surge.
The Fighter often gets dunked on for its subpar subclasses (apart from the Battle Master. That martial archetype is absolutely perfect), and the Arcane Archer’s abilities are no exception, but this is because the base class itself is So. Damn. Strong. So, even if the Arcane Archer’s abilities aren’t especially powerful, the foundational class underpinning it has got you covered. Now, let’s look at what actually works on the Arcane Archer.
Arcane Shot is a pretty versatile, powerful ability that manages to lend a really unique flavor to the subclass — despite its limitations — and does a lot to make the Arcane Archer feel very different from other subclasses that just give a martial character some spellcasting options (like the Eldritch Knight).
You can use your magically infused arrows to banish enemies to other dimensions, ensnare them in razor-sharp vines, and more. Truly, the Arcane Archer does a lot of work to make you feel like you have a quiver full of trick arrows to choose from, especially at higher levels when you have a full six options to pick from. Also, the fact that every one of your Arcane Shots gets a little power boost at 18th level is a lovely cherry on top of this class’s sundae.
However, it’s actually this subclass’s mid-tier abilities (Curving Shot and Magic Arrow) that really make this martial archetype feel dangerous. Being able to redirect a missed ranged attack roll to hit a different enemy just feels so freaking cool, and in campaigns where magic items are more scarce, the ability to have all your attacks with a ranged weapon count as magical is super powerful.
Still, they’re not really enough to make up for some of this class’s major structural issues…
The Arcane Archer’s Weaknesses
When I design adventures and my own games, the first thing I do is sit down and map out the kind of play experience I want people to have when they engage with my content. I try to nail down some core images in my head — moments I think people will want to experience when they engage with a particular type of story or gameplay.
If I’m writing a game about playing pirates in a mysterious archipelago inspired by Southeast Asian mythology and Ghibli’s Spirited Away, you’d better believe I put time and effort into making classes that could engage with spirits and perform strange acts of ritual magic, not to mention a very non-D&D magic system to support it.
You’d better believe that I made rules for ship combat and chases, random tables for plundering merchant ships, and for dying in a duel with style. You’d also better believe I didn’t make rules for clumsily reloading muskets in the middle of a fight, for encumbrance, or for dealing with any amount of money smaller than a shiny gold doubloon.
Basically, I thought about all the stuff that I wanted people to be able to do in my game, made rules to help those things happen in fun and dramatic ways, and ignored pretty much everything else. Most importantly, I tried to make sure that the rules didn’t get in the way of that fantasy — that I wasn’t promising one thing and delivering something else.
I’m not saying that encumbrance and tracking ammunition (or food and torches for that matter) are bad rules. I love a good resource management element to my dungeon crawls as much as the next sadistic grognard. But, no one wants to sit down to play a swashbuckling Erol Flynn pirate adventure on the high seas and find out the real monster was squandered rations and lack of access to clean drinking water.
This, in a very roundabout way, is my biggest issue with the Arcane Archer: It’s a subclass that promises to let you be Hawkeye, Robin Hood, and Legolas all rolled into one but… doesn’t actually let you feel like those characters — not even at 20th level.
Actually, especially at 20th level.
The major issue here is Arcane Shot. You pick up two uses of this ability per short or long rest at 3rd level, and then… you never get any more. Sure, you get more types of Arcane Shot as you level up, but you still only get two before you have to take a short rest — even when you unlock Ever-Ready Shot at 15th level, you’re only getting one use of the shot per fight, which really isn’t enough.
The issue here is that some of the things you can do with Arcane Shot are pretty powerful. Banishing Arrow, Grasping Arrow, and Seeking Arrow in particular are fantastic abilities that can completely change the course of a fight. But you almost never get to use it and, when you do, there’s still a chance it will fail.
Also, while some options you have access to are great, the rest are… pretty tragic. Most of the Arcane Shot options aren’t good enough to give up a use of something like Grasping Arrow, and you will never have enough uses of Arcane Shot to justify experimenting with some of the weirder or more situational options.
Arcane shot is the heart and soul of this martial archetype and — in comparison to a subclass like the Battle Master, which gets to throw out four maneuvers per short rest — the Arcane Archer never gets to do the thing that makes this subclass feel like the kind of hero it’s supposed to feel like.
The true joy of being a specialist archer superhero has to be having a huge toolkit of trick arrows at your disposal, whether you’re grappling up a building, shooting explosives at people, or anything else you can think to glue on the end of a stick that you shoot at people. The Arcane Archer lets you do this but nowhere near often enough to make you feel like you’re getting the fantasy that the class promises you.
Not only is this quite frustrating to play, but it can leave you feeling quite underwhelmed in fights, not to mention that it does absolutely nothing for your effectiveness out of combat.
“Fixing” the Arcane Archer
Short of completely rewriting the list of Arcane Shot options, there’s a very simple solution to the Arcane Archers’ lack of Arcane Shots: increase the number of times you can use the ability per short rest. There are three ways that make sense and, if I had a player who was interested in playing this subclass in one of my games, that I would allow at my table.
The number of times you can use Arcane Shot per short or long rest is equal to your character’s Proficiency Bonus. This creates a nicely scaling number of uses that will grow from 2 to 6 over the course of a character’s career. It’s not going to break the game, but it definitely makes the Arcane Archer feel more powerful.
Obviously, this means that a level-20 character who multiclasses three levels into Arcane Archer Fighter would still get access to all six uses of Arcane Shot (even though they only know two types), which feels like it would be abused. But Arcane Shots are kind of similar in power level to a 1st- or 2nd-level spell, so at high levels, I don’t think it really matters.
The number of times you can use Arcane Shot per short or long rest is equal to your character’s Intelligence Modifier (minimum of 1). This has a nicely built-in cost in that it makes the Arcane Archer especially multi-ability dependent now that Intelligence becomes a genuine high priority for the class. Sure, you can put a bunch of points into Intelligence to get four Arcane Shots at 3rd level, but unless you rolled some seriously amazing stats, this probably means sacrificing your Constitution or Wisdom score.
However, I must admit that the issues I have with the Arcane Archer have more to do with the gap between the Hawkeye fantasy and reality than how the subclass actually feels to play.
Honestly, once you get over the difference between what you thought the Arcane Archer was going to be and what it actually is, the subclass itself is pretty freaking fun — especially when you use the right feats.
At lower levels, a feat like Sharpshooter combined with the Archery fighting style turns you into a damage machine. Then, you can combine a feat like Telekinetic with your Grasping Shot to encase people in thorns and then drag them around for some juicy extra damage. Or you can multiclass into something like the Assassin Rogue for a juicy damage boost.
While you don’t have a utility toolkit at your disposal all the time, this is the kind of subclass you can play the same way you’d play a Champion Fighter, a totem Barbarian, or some varieties of Ranger: you sit back, roll a bunch of attacks, and relax.
Honestly, knowing that I only really have one or two big decisions to make in a fight regarding which abilities to use means I have a lot more mental energy left to focus on stuff like roleplaying, positioning, and coming up with answers to problems in ways that don’t involve just picking an option from my character sheet.
It’s how I like to play D&D, and if you’re a newer player or just want a relatively simple martial Fighter with a couple of cool trick shots up their sleeve, it might make the Arcane Archer the right choice for you.
Of course, the fact you can’t really play this subclass straight up from 1st to 20th level is probably an indicator that its design isn’t a complete success. But, I think if you set aside your desire for a great big toolkit (if you want that, play a Wizard or a Battle Master), the Arcane Archer is definitely more fun than it looks.
Arcane Archer Progression: Subclass Features
Let’s break down the features that Arcane Archers get access to at 3rd, 7th, 10th, 15th, and 18th level.
Note that we will not be going into detail concerning the other features (like Second Wind or Extra Attack) shared by all Fighters. If you want a full-length rundown of the Fighter class, you can check out our guide here.
Starting at 3rd level, you learn to magically infuse your arrows with arcane power, enhancing your attacks with special effects.
Once per turn, when you fire an arrow from a shortbow or longbow, you can choose to add an Arcane Shot effect to that arrow. You declare you are applying the effect after the arrow hits a creature, unless the option doesn’t involve making an attack roll.
You can use this ability twice per short or long rest, regaining all expended uses at the end of the rest. You learn two Arcane Shot options at 3rd level and another when you reach 7th, 10th, 15th, and 18th level.
Also, when you reach 18th level in the Fighter class, each Arcane Shot option improves, either granting you additional damage or an extra effect.
Okay, plenty to unpack here. In addition to the issues with never having enough Arcane Shot uses (something which unlocking a wider range of options as you level up only makes more painfully obvious), the special bonuses you get at 18th level are rarely more potent than an extra 2d6 of force damage. At 18th level, when spellcasters are getting access to spells that can remake reality on a whim, this feels seriously underpowered.
It honestly feels as though this subclass wanted to be the Battle Master 2.0 but was forced to be different and ended up being rather inconsequential. Maybe I’m underestimating how powerful Arcane Shot options are, but it really feels like a core element of the subclass has been nerfed so hard that it doesn’t really move the needle.
Arcane Shot Options
If you can regularly take short rests and have the mental fortitude to conserve your Arcane Shots until the opportune moment, then there are some great options to choose from.
All Arcane Shots count as magical effects, and each one is associated with one of the schools of magic. Like spells, some options require an affected creature to make a saving throw. When this happens, the Arcane Shot’s save DC equals 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier.
Using a burst of abjuration magic, you force your target to make a Charisma saving throw and momentarily banish them to the feywild on a failed save. The banished creature’s speed becomes 0, and it is incapacitated until the end of its next turn when the target reappears in the space it left (or in the nearest unoccupied space if that space is now occupied).
After 18th level, your Banishing Arrow also causes a target to take 2d6 force damage when the arrow hits it.
An undeniably powerful way to disable powerful enemies, and apart from things like demons and fey, most monsters don’t have great Charisma save bonuses. Great if you want to stop the BBEG from completing their evil plan or set up a combo with the Wizard with some kind of big AoE damage effect.
Enchantment magic causes this arrow to make a Wisdom saving throw or temporarily become charmed by you (or an ally of your choice within 30 feet) until the start of your next turn (unless the chosen ally attacks the charmed target, deals damage to it, or forces it to make a saving throw).
The target also takes an extra 2d6 psychic damage, which increases to 4d6 when you reach 18th level.
Wisdom saving throws are too common to make this genuinely effective compared to something like Banishing Arrow, and the damage isn’t especially good either. Still, if you need some super quick mind control and the rest of your party is allergic to enchantment spells, I guess this is an okay choice.
You shoot an arrow crackling with evocation magic, which explodes on impact. The target and all other creatures within 10 feet of it take 2d6 force damage each. The force damage increases to 4d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
AoE force damage without a saving throw is a legitimately good way to empower your attacks when you really need to take down a mob. This obviously tapers off a lot as monster HP pools grow — to the point where it’s going to be verging on obsolete when you hit 5th level. Still, it’s a nice way to splash some damage around at lower levels, and force is objectively the best damage type.
You shoot an arrow wreathed in necromantic energy that deals an extra 2d6 of necrotic damage to a target and forces it to make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, the damage dealt by the target’s weapon attacks is halved until the start of your next turn.
The necrotic damage increases to 4d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
I love this in principle, but a huge majority of the monsters that deal nasty weapon damage or have brutal multi-attacks also have high Constitution scores, meaning it’s too unlikely you’ll end up landing this to justify burning one of your extremely limited uses of Arcane Arrow.
This arrow uses conjuration magic to create grasping, poisonous brambles that wrap around the target. The creature hit by the arrow takes an extra 2d6 poison damage, has its speed reduced by 10 feet, and takes 2d6 slashing damage the first time on each turn it moves 1 foot or more without teleporting.
The target, or another creature that can reach it, can use its action to make a Strength (Athletics) check to remove the brambles against your Arcane Shot save DC. Unless removed, the brambles last for 1 minute or until you use this type of Arcane Shot again.
When you reach 18th level, the poison damage and slashing damage both increase to 4d6.
In terms of both tying up (literally) your most dangerous enemies and dealing damage, Grasping Shot is far and away the most powerful Arcane Shot option. Even if your target successfully makes their Athletics check the first time round, you’ve still dealt damage and prevented them from doing anything else — which honestly means that, even taking the worst-case scenario into account, this is almost always a better disable option than Banishing Shot.
Then, you have the potential to guarantee that damage by using the Shove action or something like the Telekinetic feat to move the target around the map.
You use transmutation magic to transform your arrow into an ethereal projective that, instead of hitting on an attack roll, shoots ahead of you in a 30-foot long (and 1-foot wide) line.
The arrow passes harmlessly through objects, ignoring cover, but it forces all creatures in its line to make a Dexterity saving throw. On a failed save, a creature takes damage as if it were hit by the arrow, plus an extra 1d6 piercing damage. On a successful save, a target takes half as much damage. The piercing damage increases to 2d6 when you reach 18th level in this class.
Harder to land and deals less damage (with a less useful damage type) to fewer enemies than Bursting Arrow. Honestly, I don’t know who playtested this subclass but I suspect their name was Mr. Norbert Oone.
By infusing your arrow with divination magic, you gain the ability to shoot it at a target no matter how well hidden from you. Instead of making an attack roll, you choose one creature you have seen in the past minute. The arrow flies toward that creature, moving around corners if necessary and ignoring three-quarters cover and half cover.
If the target is within range and there is a clear path for the arrow to reach it, the target must make a Dexterity Saving throw to avoid taking damage as if it were hit by the arrow, plus an extra 1d6 force damage (2d6 at 18th level). You also learn the target’s location. On a successful save, the target takes half damage, and you don’t learn its location.
This might be the most interesting and unique ability in the whole Arcane Archer subclass. There’s nothing else in D&D 5e that works like this, and I find it incredibly refreshing. It’s also the perfect counter to sneaky invisible enemies or even someone trying to hide in the shadows or a crowd.
You weave illusion magic into your arrow, surrounding your foe with a wall of impenetrable shadows. The target takes an extra 2d6 psychic damage (4d6 after 18th level), and it must make a Wisdom saving throw or be unable to see anything farther than 5 feet away until the start of your next turn.
Legitimately a useful way to attack a foe as though unseen or hidden, escape an enemy, or otherwise turn the tables on them. It’s just a shame the duration is so short and that Wisdom is such a common saving throw, or I’d be really, really into this.
Arcane Archer Lore (3rd Level)
At 3rd level, you gain proficiency in either the Arcana or the Nature skill, and you choose to learn either the prestidigitation or the druidcraft cantrip.
A nice little bonus that adds some magical flare to your character. Personally, I would rule that you can use your arrows as a spellcasting focus of sorts, allowing you to cast either prestidigitation (the better choice by far) or druidcraft from the point where the arrow lands to make the ability feel a little more tied to the subclass, like the Arcane Trickster’s invisible Mage Hand Legerdemain.
Curving Shot (7th Level)
Starting at 7th level, when you miss with an attack roll made with a magic arrow, you can use your bonus action to reroll the attack roll against a different target within 60 feet of the original.
I cannot overstate how useful and cool this is. Honestly, this is the ability that makes this subclass feel most like the idea I have in my head of an Arcane Archer. Also, by this point, you’ll be making three (soon to be four) attacks per round, so the chances you’ll miss one are pretty high. Being able to redirect them is a really nice way to increase your overall damage.
Magic Arrow (7th Level)
From 7th level, when you shoot a nonmagical arrow from a shortbow or longbow, you can make it magical for the purpose of overcoming resistance and immunity to nonmagical attacks and damage. The magic fades from the arrow immediately after it hits or misses its target.
A really nice addition, especially in campaigns where access to magical items is less common.
Ever-Ready Shot (15th Level)
At 15th level, if you have no uses of Arcane Shot remaining when you roll initiative, you regain one use of that ability.
It’s definitely not enough of a boost to make the subclass feel powerful (or even less horribly resource-starved), but it’s something.
Multiclassing an Arcane Archer
As well as giving you new, diverse ways to create interesting character concepts, multiclassing can be a great way to either emphasize a particular class’s strengths or compensate for its weaknesses.
With a class that struggles to align with its core concept (not to mention actually be effective in combat) as much as the Arcane Archer, the right multiclass pairing can be a great way to close that gap.
Unfortunately, the Arcane Archer relies quite heavily on having solid Dexterity, Constitution, and Intelligence scores. Adding a multiclass pairing that pushes us in the direction of a fourth ability score runs the risk of making the class feel seriously underwhelming. Therefore, while we normally suggest at least three multiclass pairings, today, we’ve only got two.
Whichever one you go for, put two levels into it once you reach 3rd level in Fighter, then leave it alone until you unlock that all-important 7th level for Curving Shot and Magic Arrow.
A few levels in Rogue will give an Arcane Archer access to disengage, hide, and dodge as a bonus action, not to mention some reliable Sneak Attack damage. Grabbing a magically focused Roguish Archetype like the Arcane Trickster can do a lot to make the Arcane Archer feel more magical, or you can double down on something like the Assassin — using Shadow Arrow and Seeking Arrow to turn you into the ultimate long-range killer.
One of my biggest issues with the Arcane Archer is that the subclass doesn’t feel especially… “arcane.” Grabbing a few levels in Wizard will give you a host of cantrips and lower-level spells to use in combination with your Arcane Shots. Also, if you grab the War Magic subclass, you can use Arcane Deflection and Tactical Wit for a nice survivability and initiative score boost, respectively.
Character Creation: Building an Arcane Archer Fighter
While Fighters don’t pick their subclasses until 3rd level, there are plenty of decisions you’ll make at character creation that can make or break your build later in the game. Let’s take a look at the decisions you’ll be making at 1st level that can help you build an effective Arcane Archer.
- Primary: Dexterity
- Tier II: Constitution, Intelligence
- Tier III: Charisma, Wisdom
- Absolute Dump Tier: Strength
Regardless of whether you use Standard Array, Point Buy, Roll 4-drop-1, or some other method to generate your ability scores, an Arcane Archer will be most effective with their highest ability scores placed into three main stats.
First, you’re going to want a stat that fuels your physical abilities — specifically your ranged weapon attacks, Acrobatics skill checks, jumping, grappling, and making saves. This means prioritizing Dexterity above everything else.
Next, Intelligence is going to be a big part of the Arcane Archer’s build as it sets your Arcane Shot save DC, not to mention skills like Arcana, History, Nature, and Religion if you have them. Also, if you plan on multiclassing into an Arcane Trickster Rogue or War Magic Wizard down the line, this is going to be a necessary stat.
On relatively equal footing (higher if you want to focus more on the “archer” part of “Arcane Archer”) is Constitution, which is going to help stave off exhaustion, make saving throws against poison, and (most importantly) give you more hit points.
After that, Wisdom is a good shout as it powers your Perception; there’s not much good being a ranged damage-dealer if the enemy keeps on sneaking into melee range and punching you in the face. Charisma never hurts, especially if you get proficiency in a social skill like Persuasion, and Strength is more or less completely wasted on this subclass.
Seeing as we exist in a post-Mordenkainen Presents: Monsters of the Multiverse world, where a huge swathe of the more exotic races no longer have inherent ability scores attached, picking a race-class combination has become a much more fluid, fun prospect.
No longer do we need to hunt through all the playable races in D&D 5e for an option with the right combination of ability score bonuses to suit our class (of course, you can still do that with the races in the Player’s Handbook), but rather we can look at more fun stuff like innate spellcasting and natural abilities — not to mention just what we think is cool.
Now, all characters using this method of generation get to either increase one ability score by +2 and another by +1 or increase three different scores by +1. You still can’t increase a starting ability score above 20.
It’s assumed that if you’re playing something using the new generation method, you’re either putting +2 into Dexterity and +1 into Intelligence or Constitution or +1 into all three. Your stat generation method can also play a role in how you prioritize your bonuses.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of our favorite playable races (some from Monsters of the Multiverse and some from the “classic” fantasy races) that make a great foundation for an Arcane Archer.
When you’re playing a hero who focuses entirely on ranged combat, being able to out-position your enemies and negate the issues of cover is incredibly valuable. With a flying speed equal to their walking speed (assuming you stick to light armor), Aarakocra make excellent Arcane Archers, always able to get an advantageous angle on their targets.
Both thematically and mechanically suited for an Arcane Archer, the High Elf combines a Dexterity (+2) and Intelligence (+1) bonus with a free Wizard cantrip and Perception proficiency, all of which synergize about as well as you could possibly hope with the Arcane Archer.
New Goblins from MotM can hide and disengage as a bonus action. This, in addition to dealing extra damage equal to your proficiency bonus when you attack an enemy one or more sizes larger than you, makes them close to the ultimate long range sniper.
Advantage on saving throws against being charmed or put to sleep is just a cherry on top of a very dangerous sundae.
Inheritors of a remnant of their ancestors’ curse, Shifters can gain temporary hit points and some other combat buffs when they partially transform. Depending on their chosen flavor of curse, Shifters can get access to more temporary hp and extra AC, better unarmed damage, or advantage on Wisdom checks.
However, for the Arcane Archer, it’s the Swiftstride variety that works best, giving you access to temporary hit points and additional movement as a reaction that doesn’t provoke opportunity attacks. For a subclass that’s all about staying at range, it’s a perfect way to keep out of trouble.
Variant Human/Custom Lineage
However you want to approach it, the racial options that let you distribute Ability Score Increases however you like and give you a feat at 1st level are literally never a bad choice. For the Arcane Archer, which benefits so much from feats like Sharpshooter, Elven Accuracy, and Alert, it’s hard to justify picking up anything else.
Backgrounds are a great way to help flesh out your character’s personal history as well as being your only real option for accumulating more skill proficiencies outside of your class’s starting selection.
Each background also has its own special feature – something that I maintain remains a woefully underused aspect of D&D. For example, the Criminal’s natural ability to draw upon a network of contacts for information, leads, and jobs or the fact that the Sage’s Researcher feature means that, even if they can’t recall a piece of lore, they know exactly where to go to get it.
These features can do a lot to help your character feel like a part of the world in which they live as well as just being useful — whether that means lore, quests, assistance from factions, or even some free retainers.
As a Fighter, your starting pile of skills isn’t great, and you’ll want to grab as many that align with the Arcane Archer’s two favorite stats (Dexterity and Intelligence; there aren’t any Constitution skills) as possible.
Mechanically, the Urchin (Stealth, Sleight of Hand) gives you some great Dexterity-based proficiencies, and options like the Noble, Knight, and Haunted One (a good choice of Intelligence-based skills and some of the best starting gear in the game) can all make for solid Arcane Archer backgrounds.
That being said, there’s no reason you shouldn’t just pick something you think is interesting. I would definitely recommend paying attention to more than the attached skill proficiencies; languages, tools, instruments, and the special feature are all a key part of your background and can do a lot of work when it comes to fleshing out your character.
Languages and Skills
Any race you choose is going to be able to speak Common, and beyond that, you should choose languages that fit with your background and the campaign you’re playing in.
In addition to skill proficiencies granted by your background (I usually try to snag something useful and Dexterity or Intelligence based), all Fighters get to choose two skills from Acrobatics, Animal Handling, Athletics, History, Insight, Intimidation, Perception, and Survival.
Acrobatics: This is how you dodge falling rocks, escape grapples, and run up falling rocks like you’re Legolas in the worst Hobbit movie.
Animal Handling: Arguably the worst skill in the game and only works on domesticated animals. Still, if you think it’s going to be a horse-heavy campaign, have at it.
Athletics: Unless you’re doing a Strength build, this is kinda useless.
History: Synergizes with your Intelligence score, but unless you want being a history nerd to be a big part of your character’s personality (I actually have done this in a recent campaign, and it was pretty fun), there are more important skills to prioritize here.
Insight: Great for reading people and basically the only social skill you’re going to have access to (unless you count animal handling).
Intimidation: Charisma isn’t really your forte, but if you expect to be doing a bit of double duty as the party face, this is your only real recourse for a social skill. That being said, pretty much every background with a Dexterity-based skill proficiency also gives you a somewhat unwanted Charisma skill too, so you can probably get a better one like Persuasion or Deception instead.
Perception: Honestly the best skill in the game for any character (especially an archer looking to get the drop on their enemies) because it’s how you unlock new information about the world. Spot enemies coming, find hidden doors, and generally know as much as possible about your surroundings.
Survival: Survival is key to traveling safely through the wilderness and fits nicely into the theme of the Arcane Archer, but unless you’re the only person in your party who could even contemplate taking this skill, there are better things you could be doing.
When you create a Fighter, you get to pick a fighting style that helps to emphasize what you’re good at in combat. There are six fighting styles in the Basic Rules and a further five available through Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
I would normally lay out each option with its pros and cons, but we’re playing a freaking Arcane Archer, so you’re going to pick the Archery fighting style, which gives you a +2 to attack rolls made with ranged weapons. I guess you could pick Defense for extra AC while wearing armor, but it would be a missed opportunity.
Not only is this going to give you the most frequent bonus (especially as you gain extra attacks) to your rolls, but it also synergizes fantastically with the Sharpshooter feat, which is more or less a requirement for your build.
Speaking of which…
Feats are an optional rule that allows you to forgo an ability-score increase in favor of a special ability or bonus that can (in some cases radically) alter the way your character works. Fighters get a ton of Ability Score Increases, which means they also have a bunch of opportunities for feats.
For a subclass like the Arcane Archer which, frankly, struggles to feel powerful, the right feats can do a whole lot to augment this somewhat troubled build.
Sharpshooter is virtually a requirement for this subclass and does an awful lot to make the Arcane Archer feel like a viable option. Not only does this feat mean you can attack enemies up to 600 feet away with a longbow without disadvantage, but you also get to ignore half and three-quarters cover.
Your Archery fighting style (assuming you picked it), not to mention Curving Shot when you unlock it, also do a lot to support the active element of the Sharpshooter feat; you can opt to take a -5 penalty (which becomes -3 with Archery) on your roll to hit in order to deal an additional 10 points to damage. In the early game, this is absolutely devastating.
Alert is a great feat for archers who want to make sure they see the enemy coming before they get seen in return. You gain a huge +5 bonus to initiative rolls and cannot be surprised unless you are incapacitated. Great for an Arcane Archer who also does a lot of the party’s scouting.
Magic Initiate: One of my favorite feats you can pick up on just about any character, but especially on a somewhat limited spellcaster like the Ranger. Magic initiate lets you learn two cantrips and a 1st-level spell of your choice from the Bard, Cleric, Druid, Sorcerer, Warlock, or Wizard spell lists. Make your Arcane Archer feel more, well, arcane.
Elven Accuracy (Prerequisite: Elf, Half-Elf): If you end up playing an Elf, this racial feat lets you effectively get double advantage on an attack roll. For a ranged character who can take the time to hide whenever possible, this is a must.
Final Thoughts on the Arcane Archer
From a disjointed conceptual execution to a dearth of meta resources that undermine the subclass’s core abilities, there’s a lot to make you look at the Arcane Archer and run screaming in the other direction. However, I think that with the right combination of background, race, feats, magic items, and maybe a few multiclass levels, this subclass really starts to shine.
It’s definitely a fixer-upper, but given a little love and patience, this martial archetype can really wreck their enemies’ shop.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.