Flawed House Rule: “Realistic” Sneak Attack

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.

Comments (11)

ws (December 18th, 2007)

If you ask me, prohibiting sneak attack on flanking is the unrealistic ruling. As you’ve outlined, sneak attack is important to the rogue class.

The opponent’s vulnerability and attack power has to be taken into account too. A fighter might be able to stand an entire round of attacks against a dragon, while a rogue of the same level might be done with just the bite attack. And the first sneak attack is very ineffective if the target has a medium-to-high AC and high hit points.

Yes, maybe 5d6 extra damage ‘seems’ unfair, but the rogue’s attacks hit about 30% less AND he’s dependent upon someone else in order to reliably get that sneak attack damage.

Wrathkeeper (January 1st, 2008)

+5d6 isn’t unfair at all. I do it all the time as a paladin. I cast Divine Sacrifice and give up 10 of my 176 HP. Add that to my Evil Bane longsword at level 16, and that’s a grand total of +13d6 damage per round. If I Surge it, that’s another +12d6. So what we have available to us vs. Rogue’s base Sneak Attack? There should be no house rule interfering with it.

DMJ (January 26th, 2008)

I’m a big fan of a rogue’s sneak attack and i’m always looking for ways to make character combos. If you read on sneak attacks it clearly states that it is granted whenever a rogue catches his opponent flat footed. Flat footed is whenever an opponent loses his or her or its dexterity. There fore if a rogue was to feint via bluff skill(feinting in combat) then the rogue can basically catch his or her opponent flat footed practically every round. If a player focuses their character around this then i’m pretty sure a rogue can be quite powerful. And with the right feats you can avoid attacks of opportunitys and such and make your rogue even deadlier.

KasraKhan (July 19th, 2008)

I only let my rogues in my compaigns (I’m DM) use sneak attack once per round, and not only do I not find it flawed, my players accept my judgement without any reservations. You number-crunchers seem not to realize that there is more to the game than combat, and in every non-combat situation, the rogue outclasses the fighter by volumes. Maybe my game just has more skill checks than most, who knows.

In epic compaigns, the rogue is truly without a doubt the fighter’s superior even in combat, as feat progression slows for the fighter and all classes gain access to more bonus feats. Additionally, combat-minded rogues will likely have branched to assassin and can simply chill in defense in between death attacks (+5 defenders, total defense, combat expertise), and only rogues have access to the Epic Dodge feat, possibly the best feat in the game.

Renthar (July 23rd, 2008)

Let’s see…
Rogue. At 5d6 sneak damage…that means level 9. We can assume that his dexterity is at least 18, if not even 20 (gloves of dexterity +2), so modifier +4/+5, with Weapon Finesse (let’s say Rapier). Now, base attack bonus: if I remember right, it should be +6. And moreover, if you’re taking it by surprise or feinting, the defender loses his dexterity modifier to AC. So, the rougue takes a +11 modifier to hit an AC that, with no dex mod, it’s around 18. So, the rogue hits with a 7 or higher, dealing 6d6+sumfin’ damage. I think that’s really good: and one Sneak attack per round is more than enough. At the same level, a fighter might deal 4d6+sumfin’ at max, assumin that he uses a greatsword and he hits two times.

Quicksilver (August 28th, 2009)

At Renthar and Kasrakhan. What CR 9-14 monster has 18 AC without their dex bonus?

Young Adult - Mature Adult Black Dragon
24 AC - 29

The story is different with a hydra, or air elemental, but all tank monsters will have a very high AC. So assuming 18-19 is flawed.

Second, to say that your players are ok with your ruling is like saying that the people of puerto rico didn’t complain about a new law put into place. Its a new law, there’s really no point in arguing it. If it doesn’t make a Ton of people unhappy, then theres no reason to discuss it, just so long as the group can keep going (oh that law effects maybe one player). Plus, if being a skill heavy character is more rewarding than not in a game, then you’re less likely to hear complaints from someone who has the option of focusing on skills or focusing on combat.

Level 9 warrior with specializations, focuses, greaters in this and that, dual-wielding or not, amulet of nat armor, ROP, heavy armor, twice as many HP (likely due to con/con gear), combat oriented gear, and whatever forgotten n-body things that may exist, will have a far superior advantage than someone who has to perform those split roles of anti-traps/social/sneaking/stealing/sensing things. If a rogue focuses on battle, he’ll be decent at output while not being good at taking hits, this’ll put him into being mediocre at his other roles.

Ian (December 19th, 2009)

"If you ask me, prohibiting sneak attack on flanking is the unrealistic ruling. As you’ve outlined, sneak attack is important to the rogue class."

Just because it is important to the rogue class doesn’t make it realistic. It does make the game more balanced though.
I don’t have a problem with the rule, but I understand why other people don’t like it.
The idea of flanking someone to get better shots at them makes a lot of sense…the unrealistic part is that warrior classes can’t do it as well…especially fighters. A professional soldier can’t figure out a pretty good place to stab someone to do more damage and end the fight quickly but a burglar can?

Zach (April 11th, 2010)

This is how we discovered that rogues can become very easily broken with sneak attack. As someone outlined before… you get sneak attack when you catch your opponent denied their dex to AC. Enter… the ring of blinking. You now have a 50% miss chance against you and a 20% miss chance against you opponent and your opponent is denied their dex to AC.

Be an elf with 30 dex (20 dex + 4 stat levels + 6 item) and 16 strength (+4 Str item) Mix 16 levels of rogue with of fighter specialized towards two-weapon combat. Add a Ring of Blinking, Boots of Speed, and 2 +2 Brilliant Energy Kukris (Weapon Focus, Weapon Spec, Imp Crit, Weapon Finesse) and for 10 rounds a day you get a guy that has a full round attack of +30/30/30/25/25/20/20/15 vs guys with no dex/armor/shield (which against a full defense fighter would be a loss of as much as 23 AC) with a 15-20 critical range doing 1d4+7+8d6 per main hand and 1d4+5+8d6 per off hand. That’s 37.5/hit or 35.5/hit… before criticals. If they all hit that’s 294 damage on average. If they were to do max damage… 584 damage. All that… with a possible AC of (10 + 10 dex + 8 bracers + 5 RoP + 5 Am Nat + 1 Haste = 39 AC + 50% miss chance)

Rogues are the path to complete and utter annihilation of anything in their path… That’s why we limited sneak attack to once with each weapon per round.

30 years of DMing (January 2nd, 2011)

Your sitting at your computer focusing on this post and WHACK! someone hits you in the back of the head.

Do you ignore this attack?

…2 seconds passes(the lentgh of 1 round)..

Do you forget that you just got hit in the head?

Not likely…

If a rogue fients in combat he can use sneak attack again. Otherwise once you hit someone in combat they know your there.

kiv (October 7th, 2011)

@30 years

Your example is poor, because it doesnt take into account a flanking situation. If I am fighting someone, and someone is to my back, they are at my back, period. The person at my back can attack me in vital points that I cannot defend against. My weapons are in front of me, making parrying impossible, my eyes are in front, so I can’t dodge it.

It is not unfair, because proper tactics would dictate that the defender, that KNOWS the rogue is there, should NOT leave the rogue at his back. He should turn and face the rogue, and leave a less deadly adversary at his back. Additionally, it doubly makes sense to use that tactic, because the rogue is likely easier to kill than his original oponent.

I say if the enemy leaves a rogue at its back, and does nothing to stop it or mitigate the situation, then he deserves the sneak attack every round against him.

The reason I stumbled on this page was looking to see if rogues get SA on every attack, or if it’s once per round (per 3.5 rules). On with my search!

Gamer-man (August 16th, 2012)

The assumption that the sneak attack should work once for “realism” would require that sneak attacks are open to everyone (if you are caught off guard, there is no reason why being slashed unexpectedly with a great sword would be less of a threat than being stabbed in teh back with a knife), instead the rogue’s sneak attack represents a greater expertise at using advantage, and through that, there is no reason why a rogue would only be a better expert in a first flank attack, and then forget everything he knows in followup sneak attacks.

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