Among new class options, the Warlord is highly coveted. Especially so among 4th Edition (4e) veterans. In fact, the Warlord is probably the most popular class concept that hasn’t been graced with a playtest treatment via Unearthed Arcana.
We caught our first whiff of Warlord design development from D&D Creative Director Mike Mearls on the Happy Fun Hour. The Warlord subclass build received robust development over a month of development (2018.3.6, 2018.3.13, 2018.3.20, 2018.3.27). This design was a subclass for the Fighter class. It is encouraging to see design on this front, even if some feel that the Warlord should instead be designed as a standalone class. However, we can’t gauge what rate these streamed designs are pushed through the system. While some more recent Happy Fun Hour designs have appeared in official printed materials (the Order Domain Cleric and Circle of Spores Druid in Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica), early popular designs (such as the Pact of the Kraken Warlock) have yet to see the light of day.
With no expectations as to when we might see an official Warlord (sub)class, how close can we get with the current options in 5th Edition (5e)?
First, let’s identify our design goals in building a Warlord class.
The Warlord is a master tactician. This speaks to using Intelligence as a key ability score. The build will feel at home if we can select abilities that can key off of Intelligence. This makes design tough since Intelligence abilities are not ubiquitous in 5e.
General changes at the top level of 5e make Intelligence less common among all classes. These design changes has nerfed the ability by installing the proficiency system to manage skill investment.
Specifically, the Wizard is the only class that relies on Intelligence directly. Third-casters Eldritch Knight and Arcane Trickster also rely on Intelligence. But, they don’t come online until level 3. This renders them all difficult options for multiclassing.
There’s also an argument to be made for Charisma, since the Warlord is a leader, but that should come secondary to Intelligence.
The Warlord also needs skills that can be used to assist allies in combat. This can come in several forms: granting extra attacks, changing battlefield positioning, buffing allies and granting them advantage, and buffing party defenses.
Kitbashing the Warlord
In order to achieve our Warlord goals, we’re going to need to do a little bit of multiclassing. What can we rip from a few different classes to make this work?
One class feature that really captures the essence of the Warlord is the Mastermind Rogue’s Master of Tactics class feature. Coming online at level 3, Master of Tactics enables you to use the Help action on a target within 30 feet.
Along the way, you’re going to pick up a few other Rogue class features that we can reflavor as Warlord abilities. While Cunning Action also competes for your bonus action, it presents more options for a tactically-driven character. Sneak Attack also gives a damage bonus for working together with teammates, since you can trigger it by flanking.
Master of Intrigue and Thieves’ Cant can be used to bring the theme through in narrative moments. This opens the door for the Warlord to be the party face, if you want.
Although Intelligence no longer drives skill choice, you can pay homage to that old mechanic with the Rogue’s Expertise, supporting the Intelligence-driven theme of the Warlord.
Thematically, the Mastermind Rogue fits well with the Warlord’s style.
While Bards are Charisma-based spellcasters, their abilities also jive well with the Warlord theme. Naturally, Bardic Inspiration can be used to spread buffs among your allies in combat. This flavor is very tactile because it allows your allies to roll more dice, so they actually feel like you’re helping them in combat.
During downtime, Song of Rest will help you heal your allies back up. You can reflavor this ability as the benefit of working for a well-organized mercenary company.
As with the Rogue, Expertise lends some Intelligence-driven flavor to the Warlord. The Bard also supports this theme with its Jack of All Trades class feature. This character will be very skilled.
You can take a few options in terms of Bard College.
College of Lore offers additional skills. Also, you can use Cutting Words to leverage your Bardic Inspiration dice against your foes.
College of Swords and College of Valor are the more martial-driven options. While swords is a little punchier, valor gives Combat Inspiration to boost your allies’ damage.
Less thematic options in College of Glamour and College of Whispers can also be fun, but play less like a Warlord.
Ideally, your Bard spell selections should support your team. This is hard to find among cantrips, but there are some really solid options among slotted spells. I’ve listed some below.
Bane can be a nice boon to a spellcasting-focused party, due to the lack of other options for inhibiting saving throws.
Earth Tremor is a great spell for the tactically-driven Warlord, who can leverage the secondary effect that creates difficult terrain.
Faerie Fire provides a general attack buff that can help your allies.
Cloud of Daggers can be a fun tactical option that allows you to make chokepoints and move manipulation particularly dangerous, allowing you to put your tactical skills to work.
Enhance Ability is great because it supports the ally-buffing theme, while possessing enough versatility to fit different situations.
Martial Adept/Battle Master Fighter
Many who don’t feel a Warlord (sub)class is necessary ascribe their position to the fact that the Battle Master Fighter covers most of the Warlord’s bases. Indeed there are many maneuvers that emulate Warlord powers in the Battle Master’s toolkit.
There are a couple ways to get access to these maneuvers. If you’re sitting at Rogue 3/Bard 3, you might feel inclined to bump either (or both) up to Level 4 so that you can access these maneuvers via the Martial Adept feat. Depending on your party’s typical adventuring day, this may feel a little flat, since you only get one superiority die to use the maneuver each time you take the feat. If your party doesn’t take two short rests for every long rest, you may not be getting enough juice to make the feats worthwhile.
Instead of spending 2 levels getting to Rogue 4/Bard 4, you can spend 3 levels in Battle Master Fighter to get access to the maneuvers. These will give you a greater number of options (3 vs. 2), bigger superiority dice (d8 vs. d6), and more uses of your maneuvers (4 vs. 1). While it comes online later, you get some pretty sweet goodies in the meantime. For example, you can use your action surge to proc Master of Tactics, or cast a buff spell that you can access via your Bardic spellcasting.
Mechanically, consider asking your DM if you can use your Intelligence modifier for the save DC of your maneuvers, instead of the usual Strength or Dexterity choice.
Among your maneuver options, some resonate a little more with the Warlord class. Commander’s Strike is a must, as it allows an ally to use their reaction to make an attack. Maneuvering Strike is also essential, since it grants your allies greater battlefield mobility.
Beyond these prime options, I recommend focusing on other maneuvers that can grant your allies advantage on attacks: Distracting Strike and Trip Attack.
Alternatively, there are options which you can use to defend your allies, such as Goading Attack and Menacing Attack. You might want one of these if having both Distracting Strike and Trip Attack feels redundant.
While Rally seems a natural fit, it may overlap with Mantle of Inspiration if you choose to go Glamour Bard. The number of temporary Hit Points can also be a little underwhelming if you take this option at Level 9.
I hope this gives you some good ideas about how you can craft a certain theme by multiclassing thematic aspects of different classes. Just remember to identify your design goals and then seek out features that fulfill those themes.