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Playing the Rogue

posted Friday, January 20th 2006 by Jonathan Drain
Player AdviceThird Edition

The rogue, if used correctly and effectively, can be one of the most versatile and powerful character classes in the entire game. Despite lacking the fighter’s pure melee capability or the spellcasting classes’ magic, his abilities of stealth, disguise and escapism make the rogue an absolute master at unexpected and lethal attacks. In this first of what I hope to be a series of detailed articles, I’m going to give some advice on how to play one to best effect.

Character Generation and Advancement

As every munchkin knows, the first secret to any powerful character lies in min-maxing at character creation. A newbie player’s first mistake is to lack an understanding of what makes an effective character, and so you inevitably see characters with their skill points spread too thinly, needlessly high attributes in the wrong ability scores and awful feat choices. With the rogue’s massive number of skill points and opportunities for specialisation, it is exceedingly important to build him correctly from the outset.

Ability Scores

Rogues, more than other classes, rely on having a single very high ability score – Dexterity. Dexterity applies to your ranged weapons, your melee weapons assuming you take the Weapon Finesse feat, your armor class (remember that you’re lightly armoured), your Reflex saves (which synergies well with the Evasion ability) and to skills like Tumble and Move Silently. An eighteen in Dexterity is therefore a holy grail for rogues. However, unless you’re using points-buy or have a generous DM, you can’t always rely on rolling at least one score of 18 – the odds of getting one or more eighteens with the standard character generation method are only 9.34%.

In any situation, it should go without saying that your highest ability score goes into Dexterity. The only possible exception to this is if you are playing in a game which relies far more on skills and roleplaying than it does on combat, and this is rare in Dungeons & Dragons. Next, consider how to distribute your other ability scores. You can afford to put a mediocre roll into Strength, since the majority of your attacks will either be ranged or made with light weapons while making use of Weapon Finesse. This does have the drawback that your damage will be weakened, but this is less important since you’ll usually rely on sneak attack. As I’ll explain later, the trick is to get sneak attack as often as possible.

Put a good roll into Charisma if you are also maximising your Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, Gather Information and Disguise skills – very useful in an urban adventure or if you’re acting as the party’s ‘face’ in absence of a sorcerer or bard – or if you intend on making heavy use of the Use Magic Device skill. Remember that ability scores are more expensive than skill points, so only have a high Charisma if you’re also going to maximise Charisma-based skills. Intelligence is important if you insist on having access to a particularly wide array of skills. It goes without saying that Constitution helps every character’s survivability, and while you should not expect to be a permanent front-line fighter, a higher Con allows you to risk melee more often. Placing a low ability score into Constitution, on the other hand, is a death sentence for any character. Wisdom is less important than the others for a rogue, but if you go low-Wis you should take a little extra care to avoid having to make Will saves.

Race

Most races can make excellent rogues, so it’s a matter of what approach you want to take. Humans have an extra skill point per level if skills are important to you, and the extra feat might see excellent use in Skill Focus or a combat-related feat. Dwarven rogues might seem an unusual choice, but actually work very well for dungeoneers. Darkvision allows them to sneak up on opponents who lack the ability to see in the dark and lets them scout without a light source giving away their position. Stonecunning gives a bonus to finding secret doors and traps in stonework, and their racial bonuses help them survive when they mess up and accidentally set off a trap they’re disarming. Having +2 to Constitution can either make you tougher in combat, or allow you to put a lower roll into that ability score and save a higher one for Intelligence or the like. Their disadvantages are that their low speed is poor for tumbling around or through enemies, and that their Charisma penalty makes it harder for them to specialise in the “social” skills.

The elf’s Dexterity bonus makes him a natural rogue and opens up the possibility of playing a 20-Dex rogue from the outset, and his free proficiency in the longbow gives a small but convenient bonus to damage over the shortbow. Additionally, his racial bonuses to Spot, Search and Listen add an extra edge when he maximises these skills. The Search bonus in particular gives a valuable edge in the important role of finding traps, and along with the ability to find secret doors without even trying it helps dungeoneering, too. The low-light vision lets him stand ahead of the party in what would normally be a torch’s shadowy illumination radius, able to see normally while still able to make Hide checks against anything limited to normal vision. The Constitution penalty is harsh, though, so you may wish to specialise in ranged attack rather than melee, perhaps making characterful use of Use Magic Device.

Gnomes are a little underwhelming as rogues. Although the Strength penalty doesn’t affect a Dex-based character so much, the Gnomish rogue gets very little when compared to the halfling rogue. Half-elves are likewise a little underpowered compared to either a human or an elf, essentially being an elf without the Dexterity bonus or many of the other benefits. However, the bonus to Diplomacy and Gather Information is nice if you want to base a character around that, and as a variant rule you may wish to improve the weak half-elf by giving him the human’s bonus skill point per level. Half-orcs are the superior half-breed race when it comes to rogues, provided that you’re going for a purely combat-oriented “thug” type character for whom the Intelligence and Charisma penalties aren’t an issue. Your Strength bonus means that you might not even need Weapon Finesse at all until later levels when magic items will make your Dexterity significantly higher than your Strength, and a rogue with one level in barbarian, using his 40ft speed to flank and sneak attack with a greatsword while raging, is something to be feared. The Darkvision also gives you the same sneaking versatility as the dwarf but without the speed penalty.

Hobbits – er, I mean halflings – make excellent rogues. A +2 bonus to Dexterity, a +4 bonus to Hide and a +2 to Move Silently and a +1 bonus to both Armor Class and attack rolls. For pure sneaking and chance to hit with a sneak attack, you cannot go wrong with a halfling. At first level, it’s entirely possible for a 20 Dex halfling with Point Blank Shot to have a total of +8 to hit with any thrown weapon. This is balanced by a few disadvantages, however. Firstly, the damage you deal is weakened by your small size. Your rapiers and shortswords – assuming of course that you’re using a light weapon given your Dex bonus and Str penalty – deal only 1d4, not 1d6, for an average loss of one point damage. Your Strength penalty costs you another one point, unless you sacrifice another ability score just to keep your Strength afloat. Finally, your decreased speed makes it harder for you to Tumble far enough around someone to flank, since you can only tumble ten feet. Numbers-wise it’s difficult to beat – if you’re willing to accept the penalty of -2 damage and -1 square when tumbling you gain a total of +1 to Fort and Will saves, +2 to AC, melee attacks, ranged attacks (other than thrown weapons) and Reflex saves, +3 to Move Silently and thrown weapon attacks and +5 to Hide. Of course, you should weigh these up against other races, who can afford higher damage, more skills or darkvision.

Tieflings are often overlooked, since they’re in the Monster Manual rather than the Player’s Handbook. It’s hard to argue with +2 Dexterity and +2 Intelligence, as long as you’re willing to accept the -2 penalty to Charisma. If your only Charisma skill is Bluff then you’re still fine thanks to their +2 racial bonus to the skill. Again they have the darkvision – although this doesn’t let them see through their own darkness spell-like ability – and are immune to a small number of low-level traps they might set off – hold person, for example, since they’re outsiders, and burning hands since they have enough fire resistance to cover a small amount of damage. However, unless you’re interested in playing an unusual character – the most interesting character I have DMed for was a tiefling paladin – you might find their level adjustment of +1 to be too expensive for what’s on offer.

Likewise, the hobgoblin’s array of +2 to Dexterity and Constitution goes fantastically with his Darkvision and +4 racial bonus to Move Silently, but the level adjustment might not be worth it for some. The regular goblin (without the ‘hob’) has no level adjustment and is very similar to a halfling with Darkvision and a further +2 to Move Silently in exchange for a Charisma penalty, and other than a goblin in civilized lands being frowned upon by society they’re actually quite playable. If you’re really looking to munchkin it, though, the halfling gets a fair share more than the goblin in the way of miscellaneous useful bonuses. Another interesting playable monster choice is the kobold, although you may find his light sensitivity and large penalties to Strength and Constitution to outweigh the benefits of +2 to Dex and Search. The full-blooded Orc isn’t particularly suited to the rogue class, with a +4 Strength and Darkvision offset by light sensitivity and a -2 penalty to Intelligence, Wisdom and Charisma, and your DM may not be particularly happy at the prospect of a level 1 character potentially beginning with 22 Strength.

Skills

A base of eight skill points per level is the best of any class, and a decent Intelligence score along with the human’s skill bonus can make for a really versatile, skill-heavy character. The hard part is choosing which of your twenty-nine (count ‘em) class skills to invest in. You’ll probably have somewhere between six skill points per level (for a really dumb, thug-like rogue) to thirteen per level (a human with 18 Intelligence), although it’s more likely to be around 8-10. In most cases, you will want to get maximum use by keeping a small selection of skills maximised, since 10 ranks in Bluff is more powerful than 5 each in Bluff and Diplomacy.

The five basic skills every rogue should take are Disable Device, Hide, Move Silently, Open Lock and Search. The rogue’s primary role has always been that of a thief – err, perhaps I should say “treasure hunter” – and as such the party is in trouble unless they have a character who can find and disarm traps and open locked doors and chests. Hide and Move Silently are vital to the rogue’s ability to scout ahead and to sneak up on enemies for sneak attack.

In any campaign, maxed-out Spot and Listen are among the best skills and can go a long way to preventing your party from being surprised, and rogue is one of the few classes who can take them as class skills. Your DM may need to read up on these skills in order to set the correct Spot and Listen DCs. If you take these skills, make heavy use of them – you might get lucky and hear guards talking in the distance behind two closed doors.

For a primarily melee rogue, Tumble is a vital skill which gets much more useful at higher levels. A first level rogue with his four ranks in Tumble has a chance greater than 50% of using Tumble to move past opponents without provoking attacks of opportunity, which is an excellent way of getting into a flanking position to sneak attack. A seventh or eight level rogue may be able to tumble without even having to roll, and has around 50% chance of being able to move directly through an opponent’s space safely. Of course, since using Tumble reduces your speed by half, it is less useful for a halfling, gnome or dwarven rogue. For a normal Medium sized character, three squares should be enough to move around an enemy to flank, especially if you work out a plan in advance with another character such as the party’s fighter.

If the game includes an amount of non-combat, such as an urban campaign, it may be wise to invest in some of the “social skills” – Bluff, Diplomacy, Intimidate, and Sense Motive. If you can only afford to invest in one of these, Bluff has the added advantage of letting you feint in combat and create diversions in order to hide (“Look behind you!”). Adding to that the +2 synergy bonus to Diplomacy, Intimidate and Sleight of Hand that you gain for having five or more ranks in Bluff, and it should be an obvious choice. Still, don’t underestimate Diplomacy for defusing entire fights before they start (a settled fight still grants XP) and Intimidate for getting information out of someone whether they want to tell you or not. Disguise is another useful skill in an urban campaign, although easy availability of magic such as potions of alter self can make it less useful. Gather Information and Knowledge (local) can be useful for finding information which is particularly obscure or hard to come by, although these skills may be more or less useful depending on how much use of them the DM allows.

Use Magic Device can be an entire character concept onto itself. This skill works best if you specialise as much as possible in it to ensure maximum chance of success. A character with maximum ranks and Skill Focus (Use Magic Device) might have a high enough bonus to successfully use a wand or staff 40% of the time at first level and 100% of the time at tenth level. A well-equipped high level rogue can thus act as a secondary spellcaster, perhaps healing and buffing himself or his allies – a useful tactic when fighting opponents he cannot sneak attack. In addition to all of his rogue abilities, the rogue can now cast “Range: Personal” spells on himself that were balanced assuming that only spellcasters could use them, such as true strike, shield and alter self. Wands and staffs are cheaper and more portable than potions, and are not limited to 3rd level. Perhaps combine the Tumble skill with Expeditious Retreat in order to tumble 30ft the entire way around an opponent to flank.

Balance, Climb, Jump and Swim are nice if you see your character as being an athletic ninja-style figure, but at later levels you may find that a potion of fly will do the same job, admittedly at a higher cost. Try to weigh up the advantage of being able to use these abilities for free at any time without magic, with the other skills that you could be taking, and decide if it’s worth it for your character. Sleight of Hand is only really useful for hiding weapons and such on yourself in case of capture, since you’ll rarely find pickpocketing to be as profitable as adventuring. Decipher Script is best left to the party wizard, and this skill along with Escape Artist and Use Rope will, in my experience, only rarely be required.

Appraise, Craft, Forgery, Perform and Profession are somewhat weak skills which can more easily be done by third-party hirelings once you’re out of the dungeon, although a few ranks in any can provide a nice back-story and will see occasional use.

Feats

Your first feat should be Improved Initiative, almost without question. Combined with your high Dexterity bonus, your Initiative should be high enough to help ensure that you can act before your target in the first round, allowing you to sneak attack him even without hiding. Once you have ensured that you will attack first, the next thing is to decide how you’ll attack.

The most effective technique for a rogue is essentially to emulate one the ranger’s combat styles – archery or two-weapon combat. Archery allows the rogue to hide unseen at a safe distance from the main melee and shoot entire volleys of sneak attack arrows despite allies being in the way. Two-weapon fighting takes advantage of the fact that sneak attack deals the same damage on any successful hit, making it advantageous to get in as many attacks per round as possible. Other feat choices include specialising in non-combat, and specialising in Use Magic Device.

For archery, which works particularly well with elven rogues, the most important feats are Point Blank Shot, Rapid Shot and Precise Shot. Point Blank Shot only works within 30ft, but then so does your sneak attack. Rapid Shot potentially doubles the number of sneak attacks you can make in one round, and Precise Shot allows you to target any opponent regardless of how close they are to you. Rapid Reload is worth taking if you insist on using a crossbow, although a light crossbow only deals on average one point more damage than a shortbow and is no better than a longbow if you’re an elf. Far Shot is good if you intend to use exclusively thrown weapons, as otherwise a dagger thrown thirty feet takes a -6 penalty, but again, the feat’s wasted on a bow as sneak attack only has a range of 30ft, and you’re usually better off sticking with a shortbow.

Manyshot and Shot On The Run are useless, since they don’t let you make more than one sneak attack in the round, and ideally your tactic should be to full attack while remaining hidden in one spot (in the shadows, behind a shrubbery, etc). Superior choices when you’re strapped for feat ideas are Weapon Focus and Skill Focus (Hide), the latter useful because the jig is up if your target can see who’s shooting at him. If you’re likely to go into melee now and then and your Strength score is much lower than your attacks, go for Weapon Finesse. Don’t fuss too much about taking Improved Critical, since you can’t take it until high levels and sneak attack isn’t multiplied on a critical anyway. Finally, your 15th level feat should be Improved Precise Shot, allowing you to fire even when your targets are given cover by your allies.

For two-weapon fighting, the first feat you should take is Weapon Finesse in order to use your Dexterity bonus to attack. At first level, the penalties for two-weapon fighting mean that you’re often better off making the one attack at a higher bonus. Next feat slot, grab yourself a set of rapiers, pour skill points into Tumble, take up Two-Weapon Fighting and thank the 3.5 revision for merging Two-Weapon Fighting and Ambidexterity into a single feat. When you can’t surprise your opponent or sneak up on them, put planning into positioning yourself before each fight such that you’ll be able to charge in and flank to sneak attack. Other than taking Improved and Greater Two-Weapon Fighting when they come around, Weapon Focus (rapier) is nice for an extra boost to attack, Two-Weapon Defense will give you some protection in combat, and Quick Draw will help you get both swords out in a hurry if needs be. In the past I’ve played a character who used a quarterstaff instead, given how inconspicuous and easily available it is.

If you’re looking to eschew combat specialisation or have a feat or two to spare, throw a few Skill Focus feats in to boost up skills you really want to own at, or look up some of those feats that grant +2 to two related skills to see if there’s anything that matches something you’ve maxed out ranks in and want to be good at. If you’re maxing out Use Magic Device, it goes without saying that your first free feat should be Skill Focus (Use Magic Device), since it’s a skill that is really hard to use reliably without a ridiculously high bonus. If you’re maxing out Bluff and are more of a melee type, then you may like to try Improved Feint, which will let you sneak attack once in a round even if you are standing in plain daylight and aren’t flanking. If you’re an all-purpose rogue and really have no idea what feats to take, Stealthy is always good for that extra edge.

Equipment

Remember that you typically don’t have much in the way of carrying capacity, given that you’re eschewing Strength and may be playing a Small character with a Strength penalty. Don’t make the mistake of walking around with everything including the kitchen sink, even if you think it might come in handy some day. An 8 Strength halfling can only carry around twenty pounds before encumbrance limits his maximum Dexterity bonus to AC to +3 and drops his speed to 15ft.

In addition to your weapon of choice (likely to be twin rapiers or a shortbow with a quiver) it’s advisable to keep a backup weapon – a crossbow if you normally do melee, or a shortsword or rapier if you normally do ranged. A handy trick is to tie (with rope, not chain – chains rattle) the crossbow to your belt or a bandolier in some manner such that you can drop it once you fire it without losing it. Forget about keeping a bludgeoning weapon “in case something has damage reduction to it”, because most of that kind of creature are undead or constructs who you can’t sneak attack anyway. Carry a sap, though, to deal nonlethal damage in the event that you just want to knock somebody out and the fighter isn’t willing or able to take a -4 and deal some nonlethal at the outset. In addition, no rogue would be complete without at least one dagger on his belt and one or more secreted on his person in case of capture, a trick recently popularised by the television series Stargate: Atlantis.

Armour-wise, you’re basically choosing between leather, studded leather and chain shirt depending on how much armor class you’re willing to sacrifice to decrease your armor check penalty. If you were lucky enough to roll an 18 for Dexterity and decided to play a race with a bonus to it you’ll probably be taking studded leather since chain shirt limits your maximum Dexterity to +4. This is just as well, since chain shirt is expensive enough that a poor roll on starting gold will put it out of a rogue’s price range, and even on a good roll you can only afford it if you skimp on the rest of your equipment. It’s hard to go wrong with studded leather, and once you hit level 2 you’ll probably have enough gold to splash out on masterwork studded leather (zero armor check penalty to your Hide and Move Silently) or masterwork chain shirt (-1 penalty, but higher armor bonus).

It goes without saying that you should invest in thieves’ tools (30gp) and upgrade to masterwork thieves’ tools (100gp) as soon as possible. If you can, keep them hidden on your person – you’ll rarely have to pick a lock in a hurry, but you may be stripped of your equipment if captured. Other than that, go through the equipment list and, finances allowing, check for any items that work well with the skills you have. A bandolier with a few vials of alchemist’s fire wouldn’t go amiss if you can afford them, and remember that you can still sneak attack if you can make a direct hit with a vial of something. I’ve also heard that caltrops can be a good choice, especially if you’re scouting ahead and decide to set up a little ambush.

Other mundane items, some of which may not be listed on the equipment list, can be used to good effect in dungeoneering if you’re clever enough. Chalk can be used as a marker or ground into dust to give you more grip when climbing. Marbles can be spread out over a square to trip anyone who enters, passes through or fights in that square. Even food can be used – don’t forget the old trick of feigning death by lying down in a puddle of ketchup…

At higher levels, the most important item you can own is the most expensive pair of Gloves of Dexterity that you can afford, since you use Dexterity for almost everything. Magic weapons are the obvious choice, but remember that if you’re using a bow you can give your weapon a flat bonus (+2, +3, etc) while placing any the miscellaneous properties (ghost touch, merciful, spell storing) on the ammunition. Placing ghost touch on the weapon would cost more and usually not see any use. Armour-wise, you can’t beat a suit of celestial armor for 22,400gp, a set of chainmail (+5 AC) that counts as light armor, is enhanced by another +3 and affords an amazing maximum Dexterity to AC of +8.

By later levels your party spellcasters should be too busy casting high-level spells to bother with low-level things like haste, so if you’ve been taking Use Magic Device, invest in a wand of haste and use it before each fight. The speed bonus will help you get in a flanking position better, and the extra attack you gain will be worth it.

You may want to load up on magic items that keep you useful against opponents who are immune to sneak attack, such as oozes, undead, elementals and constructs. Against those who aren’t, if you didn’t take Use Magic Device you might like to spend the money you saved on some poisons. Take care applying it though.

Making Use of Your Class Abilities

Sneak Attack

By far the rogue’s most lethal ability, a lot of players fail to take advantage of every opportunity at which they can use it. Many only use it in the surprise round or when they’re flanking. As the sneak attack description describes:

The rogue’s attack deals extra damage any time her target would be denied a Dexterity bonus to AC (whether the target actually has a Dexterity bonus or not), or when the rogue flanks her target.

As an additional qualifier, it goes without saying that the rogue must be able to see his opponent to attack him, so he cannot simply switch off the lights and swing wildly. The section “Favourable and Unfavourable Conditions” in the combat rules describes a number of situations under which an opponent may be denied his Dexterity bonus to AC, allowing him to be sneak attacked.

Denying Dex to AC

One of the most obvious is if the opponent is blinded, or if for some other reason he cannot see the rogue. A character counts as blinded even if they are willingly shutting their eyes, which can happen if they see a creature with a gaze attack (or think they see one). They might shut their eyes in a snowstorm or sandstorm, which a character wearing goggles will not have to do. He may be unwillingly but temporarily blinded, even by simple measures such as having a bucket dropped over his head. Of course, he can only remove the bucket on his own turn. A character blinded with a blindness spell is permanently blinded, and can be sneak attacked freely even at a range.

If the target is not blinded but the rogue has hidden himself, the target likewise cannot see him. This is more difficult to do in melee, but is by far the superior method of ambushing an opponent using ranged weapons. Outdoors it is most feasible to make use of the terrain, ambushing from hiding positions in bushes or trees. In a dungeon it makes more sense to use darkness and shadows to your advantage, although this is ineffective against opponents who can see without light. Simply standing in a shadow, hiding and firing is enough to sneak attack a normal-sighted opponent, who may then notice you, but not until you have taken your round of attacks. For rogues with darkvision attacking targets without means to see in the dark, it is simply a matter of extinguishing the lights, effectively making the rogue invisible to the target, even if he makes melee attacks. With the addition of illusion magic, it is possible to fool even darkvision by creating an illusory wall or curtain in front of or around the rogue, with some holes or a grille that he can see out of – there do not need to be holes large enough for him to shoot out of, since the illusion is insubstantial. Likewise, it goes without saying that an invisibility spell makes for an easy sneak attack.

A cowering opponent loses his Dexterity to AC, which usually only happens when they are subjected to fear effects and cannot flee any further. Since they may have already fled, they may have left your sneak attack range, but there is also the possibility that they’ve fled closer toward you. Cowering is not a particularly common state for you to find an opponent in, though, unless they’re undead cowering from Turn Undead, in which case you can’t sneak attack them anyway.

“Flat-footed” is often used to mean “the state of having lost Dexterity to AC”, but more specifically refers to one who has not yet had a chance to act in a combat and as such is not ready to defend himself. An opponent will flat-footed if his party did not spot you before your party spotted his, giving you a surprise round – you can only make one attack in this round, but at least it’s guaranteed to be a sneak attack. Spot and Listen are good skills for this reason. Once initiative is rolled for both parties and the first normal round of combat occurs, any opponent who has not yet had a turn is still flat-footed and can be sneak-attacked. An opponent is also usually considered flat-footed if he is climbing or balancing, which is even more fun for you because their speed is slowed so they can’t quickly attack you or move out of your sneak attack range without dropping to the ground and taking falling damage anyway.

Grappling opens up some fun opportunities, and a party which contains a rogue and a grappler (a monk, fighter or perhaps an ogre) is in an excellent position. Remember that a character who is being grappled loses his Deterity to AC from any character who is not grappling him. This means that the rogue can’t grapple by himself, but he can shoot or stab away at any character who is in a grapple. A grappled opponent also can’t make attacks of opportunity against the rogue, so he can close for melee against something that has reach or move around an opponent without slowing down to Tumble. However, the rogue may wish to hold his attack until his target is completely pinned, not just grappled normally – otherwise, he has a 50% chance of striking his ally instead. He might use the time in between to get into position, such that even if the opponent breaks free of the grapple, he’ll still be able to attack by virtue of flanking.

Stunned characters can be sneak attacked, so a rogue can be used incredibly well in combination with a monk’s Stunning Fist or any spells or weapons which leave an opponent stunned. A monk’s improved speed can also be used to run up to flank or grapple opponents, again allowing the rogue to sneak attack and dealing more damage together than they could have individually.

Flanking

Flanking an opponent is a riskier but often more reliable way to launch a sneak attack, and comes with a free +2 bonus to hit. There’s no such thing as a “ranged flank”, since sneak attack in 3rd edition D&D counts as precision-based damage and not merely as striking someone in the back. From the combat rules again:

When in doubt about whether two friendly characters flank an opponent in the middle, trace an imaginary line between the two friendly characters’ centres. If the line passes through opposite borders of the opponent’s space (including corners of those borders), then the opponent is flanked.

For creatures which take up only one square, this simply means that you must have an ally on the exact opposite side from you. If you are able to set up an ambush or enter the chamber from opposite sides, this is a lot easier to achieve. If you have to burst into the room in single file, you’re in a trickier position because you need someone to get around behind them. Your best case scenario here is a single Medium-sized creature, standing three squares north of the door.


_|_|_    Key: E = enemy, an orcish warlord
_|E|_         R = rogue, human
_|_|_         F = fighter, dwarf
_|/|_         / = open door
  R F    Wall is to the north of R and F.

The rogue bursts in and tumbles through this opponent’s threatened area such that he is diagonally north-east of him – that’s one square north into the room, one square north-east and tumbling two squares north, equivalent to six squares because tumbling costs double movement – and makes a sneak-attack because his opponent is flat-footed. The fighter moves into the room such that he is south-west of the opponent, and thus a flank is set up. The enemy cannot not move more than five feet in his turn, or else he provokes attacks of opportunity from both the rogue and the fighter and cannot make a full attack against either.


_|_|R
_|E|_
F|_|_
_|/|_

Not all situations are this ideal. If the enemy was even one square further north, the rogue would only have been able to move to the east of him, and the fighter would have had to move north two more squares, provoking an attack of opportunity. However, certain things can make it easier. A monk, for example, might have a base speed of 40ft and be able to tumble as well as the rogue. The monk could move a total of eight squares, and by starting south of the door could tumble to northwest of the enemy – two north, one northwest and tumbling two north. From this position, even a halfling rogue could easily move in to flank. This is one case where a monk makes an excellent fifth party member.


M|_|_
_|E|_    M = monk
_|_|R
_|_|_
_|/|_

Likewise, a barbarian (base speed 40ft) willing to accept an attack of opportunity could walk all the way to the enemy’s north even if the enemy was two squares further north still. The rogue, assuming he was standing south of the barbarian who was south of the door, could then move double his base speed and charge the enemy.

Things get a lot easier once you get the ability to regularly succeed at DC25 Tumble checks. This allows you to run straight toward an enemy, tumble through his square and end at the other side, whereupon the party fighter or paladin can charge in straight and set up a flank. Tumbling into and then out of the opponent’s square costs twenty feet of movement, so a halfling rogue will typically need to spend his full round moving in up to twenty feet and then tumbling, and so may have to spend a full round moving to set up the flank for the fighter. Even a human can’t make an attack in the round unless he only needs to run ten feet into the room or has something to increase his speed. The aforementioned wand of haste will bump your speed up to 40ft (Small) or 60ft (Medium) for at least long enough to let you move either 20ft or 40ft before the Tumble without losing the attack.

Of course, if you are stealthy enough or your opponents are dim-witted enough, you can sneak in without them noticing, set up a flank position and then start the fight yourself. This also works if you’re just plain invisible.

Now, with larger opponents, or larger allies, flanking becomes a somewhat different game.


_|_|_|_
_|E|E|_   Key: E = enemy, ogre, takes up four squares
_|E|E|_        R = rogue, human
_|_|_|_        F = fighter, half-orc
_|/|_|_
  R F

Since the ogre’s ten foot reach covers not only every adjacent square but every square adjacent to that, the rogue can only step one square into the room before he has to start Tumbling. He moves one square north, tumbles one northwest and tumbles one north, total equivalent to five squares. The fighter, to flank, can occupy any position directly to the east of the enemy, not just the one directly opposite the rogue. He will, however, have to suck up an attack of opportunity.


_|_|_|_
_|E|E|_
R|E|E|F
_|_|_|_
_|/|_|_

If this seems unfairly difficult, the rogue still has one trick up his sleeve. A flat-footed opponent cannot make attacks of opportunity unless he has the Combat Reflexes feat. Therefore, if you can be assured of your party getting the surprise round, you have a standard action with which to move and set up a flank without risking an attack of opportunity or slowing down to Tumble. If you succeed and win the initiative, you then have a melee full attack with which you can sneak attack. If you don’t get a surprise around, you can still move and make one attack in the first round if you go before the enemy does or if the fighter goes before you and can set up a flank.

Other Class Abilities

Essentially, all of the other class abilities of the rogue are defensive (Evasion, Uncanny Dodge) or buff up Sneak Attack (Crippling Strike). Along with your high Dexterity the defensive abilites make you all but immune to losing your Dexterity to AC and heavily resistant to being affected by traps, which is just as well because you’ll be the one trying to disarm them. Evasion makes you resistant to a lot of nasty things like fireballs and breath weapons, just as well because your hitpoints are low. Essentially, the rogue’s class abilities all revolve around having a high Dexterity and almost always being able to rely on it to save your skin.

This article was originally an idea I submitted to Dragon magazine as a “Class Acts” article for rogues. When Dragon rejected this particular idea – they have very high standards and are particularly selective in what they publish – I decided to add it to this website. I got a little carried away, and for what was intended to be a 750 word article I ended up writing over 6,500.

Comments

  1. happytraveller

    February 10th, 2006

    This was a really usefull article…thanks, Coming back to the game after 8 yrs its a great highlighter of whats important & whats the most efficient way of setting up a new character & how to wade thro the good bad & useless skills…

  2. Wouter

    June 11th, 2006

    A nice and inspiring article for a beginning roleplayer such a myself. Thanks !

  3. Murtog

    May 19th, 2007

    Another good Rogue tactic is putting points in Bluff (which you may do anyway) allows to ‘feint’ in combat. Essentially you feint and your Bluff roll is opposed by their Sense Motive roll. If you’re successful your opponent is denied their AC next round… Sounds like a sneak attack opportunity to me!

    A great resource, Thanks!

  4. Denilus

    April 3rd, 2008

    Exceptional piece of work… I’ve read a lot of “Rogue’s tips” and yours is by far the best… had many good points not seen before. I’ll study this for a few days! If you actually have the chance to reply to a question, where is this optional rule appear, so that I can show my DM? “as a variant rule you may wish to improve the weak half-elf by giving him the human’s bonus skill point per level”
    Many thanks! Keep up the good work!

  5. Jonathan Drain

    April 3rd, 2008

    Denilus: You can find it in Unearthed Arcana, in one of the sidebars on race. I’ve got an article on it here.

  6. monkey

    June 5th, 2008

    thanks 4 info!

  7. Boli

    September 22nd, 2008

    Great advice! I had overlooked the usefulness of the improved initiative, and i think i will choose it for my level 3 feat, however weapon finesse is an amazing feat to start off with especially with a halfling.

  8. Neil

    November 15th, 2008

    Great article, I am just about to play a crossbow rogue and wanted clarification on sneakl attacks. Thanks

  9. D20 Source Hits 300 Posts! « Jonathan Drain’s D20 Source: Dungeons & Dragons Blog

    January 27th, 2009

    [...] Playing the Rogue A guide to making an effective rogue in D&D third [...]

  10. Aier

    February 27th, 2009

    This Article was very helpful in learning how to play my Rogue. As a first time D&D player I haven’t had an easy time figuring out how to play my character. This has at least given me an idea how to go about it.
    ~Aier

  11. Alkan

    June 29th, 2009

    Just a note: 3.5 doesn’t allow weapon finesse as a starting level Rogue, you need a BAB of +1, which rogues don’t start with. Switch that with TWF in your feats and I think this is a great guide.

  12. Shadow

    June 6th, 2010

    “Don’t fuss too much about taking Improved Critical”

    taking improve crit is a pain since you can use keened weapons much sooner, but to say it is not effective is a falsehood.

    doubling the range of a high crit range weapon with two weapon fighting, and telling blow gives a thief will get threat range every other round adding sneak attack damage to every critical.

    that means averaging sneak attack damage every 3rd round WITHOUT flanking.

  13. Phil

    January 15th, 2011

    Alkan, you are right that by the book you cannot take weapon finesse at first level, however every DM I’ve ever played with agrees with me that this is a stupid rule and houserule away the +1 BAB requirement.
    So top rogue tip: talk to your DM and see if yo can take the feat anyway.

  14. Cade Goodbarrle

    March 24th, 2011

    great article. Lots of good tips.

    Its later in level, but if your a halfling with a decent tumble skill, Underfoot Combat(Race of the Wild) is great to have. Forgetting how cool it is, the soft cover +4 AC bonus is unreal.

  15. Phoenix

    October 25th, 2012

    This is a great article. I am helping my friend make a rogue and this was invaluable

  16. Jopacr

    July 17th, 2013

    Not sure if it was mentioned, but a two weapon fighting rogue can’t wield a pair of rapiers without penalties. Your offhand should be a light weapon. I wield dual kukris.

  17. Tom Mooney

    September 2nd, 2013

    This guide has helped me out a lot actually. If its possible can you give me tips for flanking/sneak attack? I am part of a party with
    lvl 4 Halfling (Rogue) – me.
    lvl 4 Dragonborn
    lvl 4 human cleric
    lvl 4 half elf archer
    lvl 4 dwarf
    lvl 4 elf
    lvl 4 human wizard

    its our first time playing and i am very rusty with the combat ideal’s and also stealth. if you can help it will be much appreciated

    Many thanks! -Tom-

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