In the interest of getting the most out of a character class that received very little love in D&D v3.5, I’ve taken a look at a couple of methods for optimizing the Rogue’s best combat feature: the Sneak Attack.
As you may know, a Rogue gets bonus damage whenever he is within 30 feet of his opponent, and that opponent is “flat footed” or flanked in relation to him. There are a number of ways to acheive the “flat footed” or flanked condition. Traditionally a Rogue will sneak up on his oppenent (by means of Hide and Move Silently). Additionally, the Feint maneuver can deny an opponent his dexterity bonus (rendering him effectively flat-footed). Flanking is a simple matter of getting an ally and proper footwork. I’ll be focusing primarily upon the suprise (sneaking & hiding) aspect of the Sneak Attack.
In order to take full advantage of the Dungeons & Dragons 3.5 rules to deliver optimal damage, the Rogue will want to make as many Sneak Attacks as possible during a combat. This can be accomplished by attacking, withdrawing, hiding, stalking, and repeating as necessary, but there remains a mechanism by which a Rogue may take several attacks before his opponents get their guards up.
This is accomplished through a careful selection of feats. Both the Two-Weapon Fighting and Archery subsets of feats allow for additional attacks, but are generally thought to be non-complimentary. In the case of thrown weapons, however, both paths apply. Quick Draw, Two-Weapon Fighting, Point-blank Shot, and Rapid Shot are the primary feats for this attack-optimization scheme.
*edit on 2005-01-24: a similarly-cheesy Fighter variant for milking thrown attacks can be found at the Privateer Press Forum
Quick Draw is required for a thrown-weapon specialist, as readying a weapon is required after every attack (loading a bow apparently is easier than drawing a knife in D&D). This allows the Rogue to make more than two attacks in a round with thrown weapons. After taking all available attacks, the Rogue can then draw again as a free action and thus never be caught completely disarmed.
Two-Weapon Fighting per the PHB, page 160, the Two-Weapon Fighting style applies explicitly to thrown weapons. Combined with Quick Draw, this feat allows a 1st level Human Rogue with a Dex of 15 (minimum for Two-Weapon Fighting) to have two Sneak Attacks at +0 to attack with an additional 1d6 per hit against a flat-footed opponent.
Rapid Shot allows for an additional ranged attack during a full-attack action. While not directly useful during a Suprise Round (which only is good for one standard action), this can be extremely useful if the Rogue’s opponents are flat footed for other reasons. This can include the first round of normal combat, provided that the Rogue acts before his target (a combatant does not recover from the Flat Footed status until his initiative, and is thereby elegible for Sneak Attacks). A 3rd level Rogue can attack once during the suprise round with a +4 with an additional 2d6 damage. During the following round, if he attacks an opponent whose initiative has not come around yet, he may make three Sneak Attacks at a +0 with the same additional 2d6 damage per hit. That is potentially 8d6 of sneak attack damage before the opponent has had a chance to react (presuming some good attack rolls).
Point-Blank Shot gives a +1 bonus on attack rolls for ranged opponents withing 30 feet, which happens to be the distance from which a Rogue can Sneak Attack from. This effectively reduces the penalty a Rogue gets from fighting with two weapons. A 6th level Human Rogue can make one Sneak Attack during a suprise round at a +7 to attack, with an additional 3d6 damage. During the subsequent Full Attack action, he can make three Sneak Attacks (against an opponent that is still flat-footed) at +3, for a total of 12d6 extra damage if all land.
Improved Initiative is a nice finishing touch. Once Rapid Shot enters the picture, it becomes especially valuable to win initiative after the suprise round. Add a +4 bonus to a Rogue’s high Dexterity and you’ve got the odds in your favor. At 9th level a Rogue can attack once during the Suprise Round at +9, with an additional 5d6 damage per hit, and upon winning initiative take four sneak attacks at +5, +5, +5, and +0 with the same additional 5d6 per hit. Assuming the last attack misses (with no attack bonus, it is quite likely at that level), the Rogue would do 20d6 in sneak attack damage while his victim (or rather, worthy opponent) still hasn’t pulled his pants up.
The strongest feature of any Rogue is his skills, however interesting or potent the Sneak Attack ability may be. Therefore a couple of skills should be used to bring out the full potential of a combat-oriented Rogue:
- Bluff: for use in feinting and otherwise taking advantage of slow-witted opponents. Can be used to generate impromptu Flat Footed situations.
- Sense Motive: It would be tragic for a clever and nimble Rogue to get duped by some brutish Fighter, wouldn’t it?
- Hide: If your opponent knows you’re there before the fight starts, you lose the Suprise Round and may not catch anybody flat footed at all.
- Move Silently: See Hide.
- Listen: awareness of one’s surroundings is a matter of life an death in combat and pre-combat as well. Nobody sneaks up on a competant combat Rogue.
- Spot: See Listen.
- Tumble: upon discharging a hail of darts and knives at your opponents during a suprise round and a full action, any survivors are likely to close that 30 foot gap for some payback. Extract yourself from the melee on the following round without risking an attack of opportunity by tumbling out. QED
Additional feats as the Rogue progresses through levels past 6 can further this path as well. Weapon Focus in a favored thrown weapon improves the chances of hitting (always a benefit), Improved and Greater Two-Weapon Fighting each add additional attacks when your Rogue qualifies, Skill Focus gives a significant edge on frequently-used skills from the list above, with the minor (+2/+2 bonus) two-skill improvement feats such as Acrobatic can make a Rogue effectively surpass his level-based skill cap by 5 ranks.
Taking into consideration the typical ACs your Rogue will encounter, you may determine that taking many multiple attacks with stacking -2 attack adjustments will still result in a fairly large ratio of hits to misses. If this is the case, I recommend taking Improved Initiative before Point Blank Shot. One helps you go before your target, maintaining the sneak attack, the other improves your chances of hitting.
If you’re already hitting, why blow the feat? Conversely, if you are looking at very even odds on your attack rolls, take your Weapon Focus before Improved Initiative. Typically if your opponents have high ACs while flat-footed, they are unlikely to have the high Dexterity stats that would result in them frequently beating your initiative.
Similarly, if you find your Rogue missing quite often, bulk up on your Weapon Focus and Point Blank Shot even earlier, before you stack Rapid Shot with your Two-weapon Fighting. What good is all that bonus damage if you aren’t connecting? The order of feats given above assumes your Rogue will be hitting with a reasonable frequency, attacking lightly-armored targets.
A Rogue following this path can make for an extremely traumatic encounter for an adventuring party with poor Spot and Listen skills, as he unloads on them for shocking amounts of damage before they are given their fair chance. If the party survives, and the Rogue escapes through means of tumbling, bluffing, hiding or other guiles, such an NPC could give even the heartiest of adventurers nightmares.
As a player character, a Rogue following this path is rather a novelty character, and if allowed to use his skills to their fullest (especially against creatures with few hit points) is somewhat likely to overpower whatever group he’s in, so if you’re DMing a group with such a character, be prepared to make concessions so that the rest of the party can keep up with their light-footed, dagger-chucking munchkin companion.
*note: this article was revised after determining that in D&D v3.5 one cannot take more than one attack during a Standard Action, unless otherwise stipulated in the rules.