Grappling can be very useful in D&D 5e. Let’s look at an example:
The wyvern managed to approach the 4th-level party unnoticed and grab the halfling cleric, Beryl, in its wicked talons. The way it moves implies a lift-off straight up once its turn comes, but the goliath rogue–barian, Ahtren, has other plans. He runs up, entering a Rage, and grabs the scaly bastard by the neck. Now a contested check to see if it works: Ahtren’s +9 Athletics check (+5 Strength, +4 from Expertise in Athletics) with advantage (Rage) against the wyvern’s +4 Strength. Ahtren beats it handily, all but piledriving the predator into the ground.
In 5e, grappling lets you keep an opponent from moving, forcefully move them, or even make them an easier target. You can drag them out of cover, make sure the rogue can Sneak Attack (depending on turn order), keep them Prone to give your allies advantage, and combo with Feats for extra nastiness.
There are many ways to build a competent grappler depending on how much you want to specialize—and a lot to consider when deciding the build’s particulars. In this article, we’ll go over exactly how grappling works, why it’s best friends with shoving, all the cool things you can do with it, and what the best options to build a grappler are. Let’s get to it.
How does Grappling Work in 5e?
The Grappling Rules
To grapple a creature—it can’t be more than one size bigger than you and must be within your reach—you perform a special melee attack. Instead of rolling to-hit against the creature’s Armor Class, you initiate a grappling contest.
If you have more than one attack per action, grappling uses only one of those attacks. You must have at least one free hand to be able to grapple a creature. You can grapple more than one target at once. Presumably, as many creatures as you have free hands.
In a grappling contest, the grappler rolls a Strength (Athletics) check against the target creature’s choice of either Strength (Athletics) or Dexterity (Acrobatics). If the grappler’s check beats their target’s, they successfully inflict the Grappled condition on them.
The Grappled Condition
Here’s what the Grappled condition entails:
- A Grappled creature has its speed reduced to 0 and can’t benefit from any bonus to its speed.
- The condition ends if the grappler is incapacitated.
- The condition also ends if the Grappled creature is removed from the grappler’s reach or vice-versa. For instance, if someone else shoves or Thunderwaves either away, the grapple ends.
- A Grappled creature must use its (entire) action to escape the grapple by repeating the contested check and winning. Even a creature with more than one attack per action must spend their entire action, so shoving the grappler away doesn’t allow one to immediately attack.
The grappler can drag or carry the Grappled creature by moving, but they move at half speed while doing so.
And that’s it. Grappling alone doesn’t sound that powerful yet, but few mechanics are when isolated. Things get real dangerous when you combine it with shoving, however…
Shoving + Grappling = Awesome
Shoving, like grappling, is a special melee attack against a creature no more than one size bigger than you that is within your reach. The contested check is the same, but the possible outcomes are not. When shoving a creature, you either push them 5 ft. away from you or knock them Prone. And the Prone condition is a nasty one:
- A Prone creature has disadvantage on attack rolls.
- Attack rolls within 5ft against a Prone creature have advantage (otherwise, disadvantage).
- A Prone creature’s only movement options without getting up are crawling (which means a halved movement speed) or magic.
- To get up from Prone, a creature must spend half its movement speed.
This last topic is what makes grappling nasty. A Grappled creature has 0 movement speed, so they’re locked in place and Prone unless they magic away or the grapple ends. Until then, the grappler (who is not Prone) can hit them with advantage, and so do all their friends if they do so within 5 ft.
Absolutely deadly if they’re friends with a rogue or paladin.
This is why a grappler build benefits tremendously from Extra Attack and ways to grapple or shove as bonus actions (more on that later). Using these, they can knock a target Prone and grapple them in a single turn. When this isn’t possible, shoving the target into the ground is the next order of business once a grapple is in place.
Can You Restrain Someone With a Grapple?
At this point, some of you must be going, “but what about the Restrained condition? It does the same stuff that a shove-grapple does and imposes disadvantage to Dexterity saves!”
Fair point, but inflicting restrained in the heat of combat, without magic, is only possible by taking the Grappler Feat (Player’s Handbook [PHB], pg167) and doing this:
“…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.”
It’s pretty bad, and that’s not the only way in which this Feat is garbage. You’re better off keeping the opponent Prone with your grapple.
Why Play a Grappler
It’s the supportiest way to perform tanking duties! What better way to keep an enemy brute or striker away from your glass-cannons than jiu-jitsuing the hell out of them? Besides, being Grappled and Prone is a pretty heavy debuff to deal with.
You can also get weird with it; combine grappling and flying to weaponize fall damage (as described here). Grapple enemy leader → make puppy eyes at wizard → fly. Or you’re a druid, grappling while turned into a giant eagle.
The higher you go, the more the fall hurts. Fall damage is a handy way to circumvent immunity or resistance to nonmagical or non-silvered weapon attacks. You can also split the damage by dropping one enemy atop another. Learn more about falling here.
Drowning an opponent is also a possibility, but much more niche. Not only can you push their head into some liquid, but you can also dive down with them in your grasp. As a grappler, you need a high Constitution score, which means you can hold your breath a lot longer than most. Or breathe underwater if you happen to be giant octopus-shaped.
Finally, grappling goes well with a more nonlethal playstyle. Easier to apply manacles to—or tie up—a Prone, Grappled target, for instance. Or even just tie them up with rope, as every adventuring party has. If you’re playing an evil campaign, this could go to some very dark places, which I discuss here.
All that said, you may want to deprioritize grappling in your build if any of these sounds like a dealbreaker:
- You are not that great against larger numbers of enemies.
- You are better suited to augment the damage-dealing capabilities of your allies than dish out serious pain yourself.
- You suffer a lot of damage.
- Your battlefield mobility is severely limited while grappling (which could be helped by increasing your speed, written about here).
Building a Grappler
You now possess the requisite knowledge to get to work on your very own grappler!
To do this, you have to be strong, and you need to be able to withstand a lot of beating, so your main stats are Strength and Constitution. You also absolutely need proficiency in Athletics.
Below are your best choices when building a grappler:
- Mountain Dwarf: +2 Strength, +2 Constitution.
- Variant Human: Free Feat! Grappling can benefit a lot from some feats, as we’ll see. Free proficiency, take Athletics.
- Half-Orc: +2 Strength, +1 Constitution, Relentless Endurance for enhanced survivability, Savage Attacks to benefit even more from the crits you’ll get from your Prone enemies.
- Goliath (Volo’s Guide to Monsters, pg 108): +2 Strength, +1 Constitution, Athletics proficiency, Stone’s Endurance for survivability. Powerful Build does not apply.
- Bonus Aaracockra: if you’re cheeky and want the 50 ft. flying speed to play with fall damage. Nothing else about them is useful for this.
The Bugbear from Volo’s Guide (pg 119) might have come to some of your minds. I regret to inform you all that their Long-Limbed property only works on their turn, so they can’t maintain a grapple from 10 ft. away. The +2 to Strength is handy, though.
Classes & Archetypes
- Barbarian: Tank par excellence with the d12 hit die, and Rage. Rage is ridiculously good for grapplers, not only enhancing tankiness but giving the barbarian advantage on the grapple checks. Fast Movement improves dragging/carrying speed, Brutal Critical is great for all the times you’ll roll with advantage without even using Reckless Attack.
- Path of The Berserker (PHB, pg 49): Frenzy to get more attacks against the Grappled target, Mindless Rage to be so angry you can’t be Charmed or Frightened.
- Path of The Totem Warrior: (PHB, pg 50): Mix and match beastly aspects. Bear, Wolf, and Eagle are where it’s at.
- Druid: Wildshape! The d8 hit die doesn’t matter when you can turn into large beasts with a lot of hit points and the strength to match. These forms can eventually fly and swim, too.
- Circle of the Moon (PHB, pg 69): A no-brainer. Wildshape into gnarlier animals (Circle Forms), heal with bonus actions while wildshaped (Combat Wildshape). Elemental Wildshape is crazy powerful. See earth elemental.
- Fighter: Built for toughness with a respectable d10 hit die, Athletics proficiency, Constitution save proficiency, Dueling Fighting Style to benefit more from having a free hand, Action Surge for essential re-tries, Second Wind to not die, plus all the Extra attacks.
- Battlemaster (PHB, pg 73): Maneuvers for versatility and tankiness. Grappling Strike (Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything (TCE), pg 42) for bonus-action grappling. Disarming and Menacing Attacks are evil on a grappler.
- Eldritch Knight (PHB, pg 74): Enlarge yourself and grapple adult dragons. Eldritch Strike with advantage to make your evocation spells near surefire.
- Rune Knight (TCE, pg 44): Giant Might to get big and tackle adult dragons too, with advantage. Frost Rune for temporary +2 on checks and saves using Strength and Constitution.
- DM’s Guild Recommendation—Pugilist: You get bonus action grappling on level 1, but it must come after a weapon attack (pugilist weapon or unarmed). Class features that make you super durable enhance the D8 hit die. Athletics proficiency.
- The Squared Circle: A full-on grappler Archetype. Spend moxie (pugilist Ki) to grapple as an opportunity attack, force the target to reroll their attempts to escape or grapple and knock a creature Prone with the same bonus action. Use Grappled enemies as cover, grapple larger foes than others could, and more. If your group allows non-official content and you want to build a grappler, a Pugilist of the Squared Circle Fightclub is a great pick.
Multiclassing For Grappling
A smart multiclass combo—even just a dip into another class—can go a long way toward building a super-effective grappler.
The best dips happen to be counter-intuitive ones.
Perhaps the best dip you can take when building a grappler is rogue, simply because you can take Expertise with the Athletics skill at your first rogue level, doubling your proficiency modifier for it. The second level gives you the ability to dash with a bonus action, which translates well to forcing your Grappled targets to move.
You can also get Expertise from bard. You have to stick around until 3rd level, but then you can choose the bardic College of Lore for Cutting Words to subtract 1d6 from your target’s attempts to break your grapple, as many times per long rest as your Charisma modifier. Having decent Charisma means you can get good mileage from Vicious Mockery to impose disadvantage on attempts to break your grapples.
Moving on: Circle of The Moon druidbarians are terrifying. Rage combined with Combat Wildshape makes for insane durability and does wonders for grappling regardless of body configuration. I’ve discussed this build in greater detail here.
Also, two levels of fighter are a great dip for all classes, thanks to Second Wind and Action Surge. Battlemaster maneuvers are great for any martial class if you want even more fighter in the mix.
- Alert (PHB, pg 165): you probably don’t have high Dexterity with a grappler, but getting to go early in most fights is great. The earlier you shut down your target, the better.
- Mage Slayer (PHB, pg 168): this one is spicy. It gives you advantage on saving throws against spells cast by creatures within 5 ft. of you. Additionally, you can use it to punish enemies that try to magic away from your grasp with a melee attack. This is particularly good on a class that can put a lot of hurt in a single attack, like a paladin.
- Mobile (PHB, pg 168): Makes you better at dragging foes thanks to the added movement speed, and makes it easier for you to reach whoever you want to bear-hug. Further tips on maximizing speed here.
- Sentinel (PHB, pg 169): Super solid feat for any martial build. What makes it great for a grappler is that, should a target break the grapple and attempt to move away, you can force them to stay put with your reaction.
- Shield Master (PHB, pg 170): bonus action shove after you take the attack action. Get more damage without losing momentum in the grapple+shove process! Sheathing and unsheathing a weapon are free object interactions, so you can have your hand free or on a sword hilt when it counts.
- Tavern Brawler (PHB, pg 170): The bonus action grapple after an unarmed attack or improvised weapon attack can be handy for unarmed builds (Again, a plug for the Pugilist). Combos well with a battlemaster’s Trip Attack to get your target Grappled and Prone in one fell swoop.
Grappler (PHB, pg 167): Do not pick it. This is only here for me to reiterate how much it sucks. It does badly what shoving+grappling does well.
Any magic item that increases your strength or size is great for this. Such as:
Same for items that increase survivability like +X armor or items that afford resistance to common damage types. It’s also worthwhile to invest in protections for the mind, especially when you don’t walk the Path of the Berserker. Good items in this vein are the Stone of Good Luck and the Cloak of Protection.
Alternatively, if you have a 6th-level Artificer in the team, their Resistant Armor infusion would also help.
Congratulations, now you know everything you need to know to play a kickass grappler! As usual, let’s recap the key bits:
- Grappling is the supportiest way to play a tank. Not good against crowds, though.
- Grappling alone: kinda “meh”. Grappling + shoving: amazing.
- Grappler Feat: garbage. Don’t take it.
- Grappling + flying: weaponize fall damage (more on that here). Grappling + swimming: drown your enemies on occasion. Grappling is also nice for more nonlethal play.
- Races for grapplers: Mountain Dwarf, Variant Human, Half-Orc, Goliath.
- Classes for grapplers: barbarian, druid, fighter, pugilist.
- Multiclass dips for Grapplers: rogue, bard, fighter. Barbarian if your main is druid.
- Feats for Grapplers: Alert, Mage Slayer, Mobile, Sentinel, Shield Master, Tavern Brawler.