Rune Knight 5e Guide

Published on August 27, 2022

In this guide, we’ll be covering all the aspects of a Rune Knight fighter build in D&D 5e. The pros and cons of each ability, the best races that fit the class, and everything else.

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What is this guide?

This guide is meant as a deep dive into the fighter subclass, the Rune Knight.

For our full class guides, we use the following color rating scheme:

  • Red isn’t going to contribute to the effectiveness of your character build at all
  • Orange is an OK option
  • Green is a good option
  • Blue is a great option, you should strongly consider this option for your character
  • Sky Blue is an amazing option. If you do not take this option your character would not be optimized

For our subclass guides, we focus mainly on the Blue and Sky Blue options, because the other options are discussed in the parent guide or other subclass guides. We also discuss options that normally would be good for a typical build, but underperform when used in a subclass.

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What Is the 5e Rune Knight?

Taking some inspiration from Nordic mythology and the magical properties of D&D’s giants, Rune Knights harness the power of magical runes to enhance their physical attributes. These fighters offer a unique playstyle of spell-like abilities through their runes and give a lot of diverse martial options.

Strengths

Runes are powerful, and some runes are incredibly powerful. Each has its use cases, with a couple being must-haves. They each offer some unique function, occasionally once per rest or as a bonus action.

They also offer some handy self-buffs and survivability options. Their Runic Shield allows them to reroll enemy attack rolls for added survivability, and Giant’s Might is a great buff that mixes incredibly well with enlarge/reduce.

Weaknesses

Rune Knights offer surprisingly few downsides and are widely regarded as one of the best subclasses for fighters.

The biggest downside is that they don’t scale with Dex as well as other subclasses, so you’ll be mainly in the front lines with little ranged options. Their runes also have limited uses until 15th level, where it all gets doubled.

Best Races for Rune Knight 5e

Strength is our primary stat here for damage, as we will be up close and personal while in combat. CON is our secondary stat, as we’ll want to stay alive as long as possible. We also ideally want to pick a race that might have some natural weapons, as we are great grapplers and shovers, thanks to our Giant’s Might.

Many non-standard races are available, so we will only list those that are good options for this class. Remember that these are typically limited by the setting and source material chosen by the DM. Check with your DM before selecting any of the races listed below.

Standard Races

Dragonborn: Adding +2 to STR and +1 to CHA is great for paladins overall, and this is no different. The added bonus of damage resistance and a breath weapon is stellar and helps keep you going.

  • Chromatic: The Chromatic dragonborn from Fizban's Treasury of Dragons]allows you to get +2 STR and +1 CON, which is excellent. The bonus of a breath weapon is stellar, and the damage resistances are immunity can help with your tanking.

Half-Elf: You only get a +1 to your two key stats, but you get two different skills and darkvision. The CHA boost is nice, but we want the skills and stats.

Half-Orc: We get all the stats we need here, plus we can benefit from Savage Attacks. Darkvision and Relentless Endurance is also handy too

Human:

  • Variant: Always a safe pick, mainly because feats are much more critical to fighters to get an optimal build.

Non-Standard Races

Minotaur: I promise I don’t just favorite minotaurs for melee classes. They’re just really good, especially for 5e Rune Knights, as they favor a grapple style and can attack with their horns if their hands are full.

Loxodon: Similar to minotaurs, these give a great advantage for grappling and shoving, thanks to their trunk. You can also benefit from their natural armor feature, with a high enough CON.

Simic Hybrid: +2 CON and +1 STR is a great start. Once you're at 5th level, you can pick up the Grappling Appendages trait at 5th level for some excellent natural weapons.

Centaur: The perks of the minotaur, but now with more legs. Climbing ladders might be difficult, but you can more than make up for it with your charge and hooves.

Best Backgrounds for Rune Knight

Backgrounds are typically just for flavor purposes and extra skill proficiencies. You can go with whatever works best for you, as long as it comes with skills that scale with STR or CON.

If you want to go for the crafting flavor, Guild Artisan and Clan Crafter are nice. Otherwise, stick to something like Athlete, Soldier, Folk Hero, or Mercenary Veteran.

Optionally, you can create your own background for the most optional skills.

Rune Knight Ability Scores

You gain Ability Score Increases at 4th, 8th, 12th, 16th, and 19th level.

As a melee martial class, we’re going to be smacking a lot of things with our weapon. While many fighter subclasses can get away with DEX or STR for their build, Rune Knights are primarily STR-based. We’ll want to maximize STR as soon as possible, followed by CON for additional survivability.

STR: Bread and butter for us. We’ll want this at 20 as soon as possible. Critical for our melee damage, grapples, and shoves.

DEX: Somewhat vital if we don’t elect to get heavy armor, as well as an initiative bonus.

CON: Our secondary stat, since we will be in the fray so often. We’ll want this to be pretty high, so we can stay alive.

INT: Not necessary to us in the slightest. Dump stat.

WIS: Wis saves are pretty common saves, so we’ll want at least a little WIS.

CHA: Also not very important to us, outside social encounters.

 

1st Level

Hit Dice: We have a d10, which is excellent; we’ll have plenty of HP to keep on fighting.

Saves: STR and CON are great to have.

Proficiencies: Fighters get access to everything, so we’re in a great position.

Skills: Refer to our Fighter 5e Guide.

Fighting Style: Refer to our Fighter 5e Guide for an overview of all the fighting styles.

Second Wind: Nice to have in a pinch. Free healing can save your bacon when you can’t get out for some breathing room.

2nd Level

Action Surge: Good for combining with your grapple play style. Unfortunately, it doesn’t net another use of Giant’s Might after you get it at 3rd level.

3rd Level

Bonus Proficiencies: Smith’s Tools are one of the more useful tools in 5e and many high fantasy campaigns will run across Giants at some point.

Rune Carver: Runes are an absolutely stellar ability. They are extremely flexible because you can switch known runes each level and you can change the inscriptions each long rest. The rune’s save also uses CON, which doesn’t impede the Fighter’s typical gameplan.

  • Cloud Rune: Being able to transfer an attack that will hit a party member is twice as good as negating said attack or causing it to miss. This is especially nice because the damage of the attacks will scale with your level. Getting advantage on Sleight of Hand and Deception checks is a strange addition but a nice bonus.
  • Fire Rune: Restraining a creature on a failed STR save is solid for weaker, caster-type enemies and will allow you and your party to get attacks with advantage while preventing them from escaping. The 2d6 fire damage per turn is great but will become less impressive as you level up. Doubling your proficiency with tools is exciting, but certainly isn’t highlighted by 5e’s blatant disregard for tools.
  • Frost Rune: Animal Handling just isn’t a great skill and, while intimidation has its uses, it’s one of the more situational social skills. The +2 to STR and CON ability checks is fairly narrow because it really only applies to Athletics. +2 to STR and CON Saving throws is extremely situational because of the lack of attacks that call for them.
  • Stone Rune: The activated effect is extremely powerful. Not only is it a reaction, but the save or suck charmed effect can take even the most powerful enemies out of the fight for a couple of rounds. The passive effects are great as well; Insight is always useful, and Darkvision of 120ft is amazing for creatures that don’t typically have Darkvision and is a solid increase to those that do.
  • Hill Rune (7th-level): This rune gives a ton of damage resistances which will come in handy throughout the course of a campaign. The rune’s activated effect grants resistance to bludgeoning, piercing, and slashing damage for 1 minute, which will likely last the entire encounter and can recharge on a short rest. The advantage on saves against being poisoned and resistance to poison damage are more situational but still useful.
  • Storm Rune (7th-level): Arcana may not be a useful skill for most Fighters, but never being surprised while you aren’t incapacitated is extremely useful. The rune’s activated effect turns your reaction into an advantage/disadvantage roll for any creature within 60 feet. While you need to make the choice to use this effect before the dice is rolled, it can still be very powerful when you need an effect or attack to land.

Giant’s Might: This ability provides 3 passable abilities that, when stacked together, form a powerful feature. Becoming Large will allow you to carry or move heavier objects, as will the advantage on Strength checks. The extra 1d6 damage per turn on weapon attacks increases later on, but is pretty unimpressive.

5th Level

Extra Attack: Extra attacks are a core pillar for all fighter subclasses and the Rune Knight is no different.

You get a third attack at 11th-level and a fourth attack at 20th-level.

7th Level

Runic Shield: This ability’s main use is to negate critical hits but can be used any time you need a creature to miss a party member.

9th Level

Indomitable: Refer to our Fighter 5e Guide.

You get a second use at 13th-level.

10th Level

Great Stature: This feature really doesn’t offer much. The extra height is meaningless and the increase of Giant’s Might damage is still unimpressive.

15th Level

Master of Runes: Double the activations on your runes means double the fun. Most of the runes have very powerful activated abilities and triggering the twice per short/long rest is going to feel really nice.

18th Level

Runic Juggernaut: The extra damage is still unimpressive and the size increase won’t help much beyond the reach it grants. However, being Huge is pretty funny and will let you grapple almost anything your DM can throw at you.

Best Feats for Rune Knight 5e

  • Polearm Master: One of the best feats for martial classes. We will most likely be using a spear (which was errata’d to be included with this feat), which allows us to benefit from this feat. Paired with Sentinel, this becomes a deadly combo.
  • Sentinel: We all love battlefield manipulation, and this is one of the best ways to get some. Paired with Polearm Master, we can keep enemies in our grasp for quite a long time.
  • Tavern Brawler: Normally, we don’t care about this feat, but because 5e Rune Knights are excellent grapplers, this makes you a dangerous foe with a free hand.
  • Piercer: Because we’ll be using a spear, this allows us to get a lot of extra damage per turn, and it pairs well with the rest of our kit.

Rune Knight 5e Build Example

5e Rune Knights are an excellent martial class and one of the best fighter subclasses. They gain access to some powerful abilities with their runes and make fearsome grapplers and shovers thanks to their ability to change size. We’ll want to prioritize that melee damage and grabbing/shoving enemies around the battlefield.

We’re going to go with a metallic dragonborn (bronze) because it gives us the stats we want, plus some survivability and two breath weapons.

We’ll do a point buy so we can start with 17 STR and 15 CON at 1st level, as well as decent WIS. We won’t need to worry about DEX, but we’ll have a little for an initiative boost.

1st level
  • Race: Metallic Dragonborn (Bronze)
  • Background: Soldier
  • Ability Scores: STR 17 (+2), DEX 12, CON 15, INT 8, WIS 13, CHA 8.
  • Skill Proficiencies: Athletics, Intimidation, Insight, Perception
  • Equipment: Chain Mail, Trident (or a spear, with your starting GP), light crossbow, dungeoneer’s pack.
  • Fighting Style: Defense
  • Second Wind
2nd level
  • Action Surge
3rd level
  • Martial Archetype: Rune Knight
  • Rune Carver: Fire Rune, Stone Rune.
  • Giant Might
4th level
  • Feat: Polearm Master
5th level
  • Extra Attack
6th level
  • Feat: Sentinel
7th level
  • Rune Carver: Add Hill Rune
  • Runic Shield
8th level
  • Feat: Piercer (+1 STR)
9th level
  • Indomitable
10th level
  • Rune Carver: Add Storm Rune
  • Great Stature
11th level
  • Extra Attack
12th level
  • ASI: +2 STR (20)
14th level
  • Feat: Tavern Brawler
15th level
  • Rune Carver: Add Cloud Rune
  • Master of Runes
16th level
  • ASI: CON +2
  • Spellcasting:
    • Add: staggering smite
18th level
  • Runic Juggernaut
19th level
  • ASI: +2 CON (19)
20th level
  • Extra Attack

Other Fighter Subclass Guides

Sources Used in This Guide

Mike Bernier

Mike Bernier is the lead content writer and founder of Arcane Eye. Outside of writing for Arcane Eye, Mike spends most of his time playing games, hiking with his girlfriend, and tending the veritable jungle of houseplants that have invaded his house. He is the author of Escape from Mt. Balefor and The Heroes of Karatheon. Mike specializes in character creation guides for players, homebrewed mechanics and tips for DMs, and one-shots with unique settings and scenarios. Follow Mike on Twitter.

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