How to Build a Sniper in D&D 4e

There’s a great sniper scene in the movie Full Metal Jacket where a sniper takes out one of the soldiers, and the rest of the squad is pinned down debating whether to rush out and save him.

You can’t easily recreate the same scene in 4th edition D&D. Instant kills are unpopular and combat tends to happen at short range. Still, it’s possible as a DM to create an encounter with long-range attackers.

Sniper as a warmage

The warmage was a concept formalized in third edition’s Complete Arcane. It’s an arcane caster who wears light armour and learns offensive and support magic through arcane military training rather than research.

Build such a creature by statting up a level 1 wizard with the war wizard build, using the quick NPC rules. Add some light armour to up his AC to around the average for his class.

The key here is to give him the Magic Missile spell, with an unusually long range of 20 squares or 100 feet. The latest version of this spell will only deal 2 or 3 damage, but they can use Stealth (given +6 from training and Dexterity) to hide immediately after they shoot, and a full level 1 encounter will have five warmage snipers working together for an automatic 15 total damage to one PC per round, enough to bloody a PC. If the enemies get close they switch to a spell like Stone Blood or scorching burst.

Sniper as rogue

The rogue (scoundrel) class can take the Sharpshooter Talent class ability, which grants +1 to attack and increases the range on a crossbow to 20 squares, or 40 at penalty. The advantage over the warmage setup is that they gain 2d6 bonus damage when they have combat advantage from being hidden, and they can hide every round after firing. For a rogue with 13 Dexterity, the average damage of 1d8+2d6+1 is 12.5 per hit.

The thing is, this might actually be very unfair. You’ve got an opponent 20 squares away that you can’t see, perhaps a team of five rogue snipers, and they’re hitting you for a third to a half of your HP per shot. The NPC rules allow it, but monster rules tend to hold to a certain balance.

Sniper as a monster

There’s no reason in 4th edition D&D to limit yourself to normal character rules for building opponents, even if your snipers are human. Simply start with any artillery creature of the appropriate level and work from there. Look for one that strikes at a very long range, and give it helpful terrain like a position atop a cliff. Count the terrain as part of the encounter XP budget, if it gives a strong advantage to the opponent.

Comments (4)

Brian Ballsun-Stanton (March 14th, 2012)

For what it’s worth, I’ve answered this from a character perspective

I’d be fascinated to see how you think a sniper duel would play out between the NPCs you proposed and my suggested designs.

Rob (March 14th, 2012)

keep in mind that the only crossbow that a rogue can use sneak attack with is the hand crossbow.

Philo Pharynx (March 14th, 2012)

You talk about the fairness of this - here’s how I would play it. You add a single sniper to a normal encounter that has a couple points that supply hard cover to the sniper. This gives the PC’s the interesting challenge of choosing to protect themselves from the sniper or to position themselves best to take out the other attackers. The sniper is more like a hazard than a combatant, so it shouldn’t have overwhelming damage. If the party defeats the other attackers, the sniper will sneak away before the party can close with them. The sniper will try to keep difficult terrain between him and his targets to slow down pursuit - or perhaps a few traps.

This is the perfect setup to make a truly hated recurring villain. The party will always be worrying about getting attacked from a distance and start trying to figure out ways to deal with the range issue. Make the party work to figure out who it is and to try and meet him on their terms. When they finally figure out a way to meet the sniper at close range it will be truly satisfying.

I would go with a seeker with a longbow. They have a long range of 40 squares before feats, items and utility powers. There are many ways for these classes to avoid the penalty for long range firing. I’d choose the seeker over the ranger because the control effects keep them as a serious threat. The added striker damage makes it too easy to take down a single character if they decide to have one person break off and go after the sniper. The seeker also has an at-will that can slow it’s targets, making it hard to close the distance. It’s even possible to go with a greatbow for a range of 50 (+ feats/items/powers)

Loonook (March 19th, 2012)

So I’ve been looking at this per your writings here and just have never found the sniper feasible in most D&D settings. While you do have intelligent individuals hinting at drilling a mage from long range in modern fantasy (Kincaid from The Dresden Files comes to mind), it just seems like a lot of effort to go into something that would be best handled by either a Challenge or a Trap/Obstacle sort of encounter. In Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan, Enemy At the Gates the sniper sort of… transcends the whole ‘PC’ concept and delves directly into an obstacle. There is an individual in hiding (Spot) firing with some sort of device. The party must respond back to the item through locking down the sniper (possibly ‘tying up’ the obstacle with suppressing fire, wall spells, vision impairment) and then move on the position/strike the position.

While I like the idea of a sniper as a ‘monster’ I would honestly prefer to run one as a sort of challenge because it prevents me from having to worry about figuring out a monster stat block, gives the players multiple options to allay the concern as would be presented in real life (obscuring the line of sight, counterfire, suppression), and makes the PCs think a bit more laterally on their feet.

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