posted Tuesday, December 18th 2007 by
Back in July I wrote about a flawed “house rule” or DM’s variant of double-rolling hit dice, something which seemed great on the surface but upon closer inspection affected the game in unexpected, negative ways. Here’s another one of those house rules.
I’ve encountered several DMs who won’t let a rogue sneak attack more than once per round or even once per combat. The reasoning here is that once a character has been struck, he’s no longer oblivious to the rogue’s presence, and won’t fall for the same mistake twice. For realism’s sake, the DM rules that only the rogue’s first attack can deal sneak attack damage, or perhaps only the first round of combat.
This is a nasty rule. To begin with, the character’s ability is being reduced in power from what the designers intended. The rogue is already weaker in combat than the fighter, with lower base attack, hit points, weapon proficiencies and combat abilities, and frequently also lower Strength. Cut out his sneak attack, and he’s a wholly suboptimal combat class. The rogue’s boon is that he stands to deal significant bonus damage when he can sneak attack. This means that the rogue’s power is rated entirely on when, and in what circumstances, he can perform his ‘backstab’.
However, if we turn to the Favorable and Unfavorable Conditions chart and consider when the defender loses his Dexterity to AC, what we see is that the rogue frequently can only attack on the first round, as realism dictates. Your sneak attack most frequently kicks in against surprised opponents, which includes a surprise round (sensibly enough), the first round (when you go before your oppponent) and when you’re invisible or hidden. Attacking, even from a distance, requires you to ‘de-cloak’, just like in Star Trek. We also have a few less common cases, such as a stunned or blinded opponent, but these are generally less common.
There is, however, one major situation in which the rogue doesn’t even need to take his opponent by surprise: flanking. A holdover from when you had to stab someone in the back (and D&D accomodated this with strict facing rules), flanking simply requires you to be in melee combat with an ally on the opposite side. Full-time sneak attack, and you don’t even need to be sneaky about it. That said, it’s not as easy to achieve as you might think. Even spending numerous feats on feats Weapon Finesse and the Two-Weapon Fighting tree, rogues are weak in melee combat and take a risk by entering it. The Tumble skill is also necessary to move around without provoking Attacks of Opportunity, which you risk by moving within any opponent’s threatened area.
Thus, while you can flank to deal hefty sneak attack damage, a rogue is not the sort of character who can take toe-to-toe combat lightly. He has barely more hit points than a wizard, sub-fighter combat ability, and around the same armour class as the fighter – it should be lower, except that shields were never popular in 3e and the game was playtested assuming that 15 was a high Dexerity score. The rogue thus accepts a greater risk than the fighter in melee, at the benefit of increased damage output. Not terribly rogueish, perhaps, but a valid choice nonetheless.