8: Sneak Attack Mini GuideSneak Attack has the potential to be a very powerful damage source, but it is highly susceptible to immunities and tactical avoidance, and often comes with low attack bonuses (due to combinations of middling base attack bonuses, penalties accrued by additional attacks and by conflicting attribute priorities).
This part of the guide will attempt to break down how to force sneak attack conditions, how to penetrate immunities, how to make multiple attacks in a round and how to make them hit reliably.FORCING SNEAK ATTACK
The two primary ways of forcing sneak attack are flanking a target and denying it its Dexterity bonus to AC.Flanking
is straightforward. Get on the other side of a target from an ally and hit them in melee. Most parties will have other melee range characters, pets or summons to flank with. If they don't, a sidekick is only a feat or two away (Wild Cohort, Shape Soulmeld: Necrocarnum Circlet + Open Least Chakra or the insane Leadership/Undead Leadership/Dragon Cohort line of feats, if they're campaign-legal), or can be inexpensively bought with some GP (either by just buying a pet or grabbing an inexpensive Desert Wind Cloak for Distracting Ember's 1/encounter 1-round flank buddy). It can also be accomplished with the Distracting Attack
Ranger ACF, which has an awkward bit of phrasing that may allow a character with 4 ranger levels to flank with himself.Denying Dex to AC
is a bit more involved. This can be divided further into two approaches: becoming invisible
and inflicting status effects
. Of the DMG conditions that deny a character's Dexterity bonus to armor class, few are directly available to the Assassin without obnoxiously low saves or sabotaged action economy. But in broad strokes, the conditions that permit sneak attack are: Blind, Feinted, Flat-Footed, Grappled, Helpless, Paralyzed, Stunned
can deny targets their Dex bonus to AC. Practical ways to use this in combat include:
- Cloak of Deception (ToB): Swift boost for a full round of greater invisibility. If you learn the maneuver through a pair of Least Shadow Hands, it's 3k to use 1/encounter forever. Very good value.
- Greater Invisibility: Relatively high-level spell, and comes with a standard action casting time, but the most direct way to get the job done.
- Invisible Fist (EoE): Monk ACF for immediate invisibility for a full round, every 3 rounds. Very useful defense, but also an easy way to force a full round's sneak attack.
- Ring of Blinking: A bit pricey, and comes with a 20% failure chance on your attacks, but fantastic defensive and utility benefits and permanently deny targets their Dex to ACs.
- Swift Invisibility (SpC): 30 gp for a wand charge to force one sneak attack against creatures that can't see invisibility. Relatively inexpensive as a backup Dex-denial plan, and already a useful tool for its defensive and utility benefits.
can be easily achieved through these methods:
- Blind: Dust Eggshell grenades from Oriental Adventures are cheap (10gp/ea) and provide multi-round blindness with a ranged touch attack; these are especially useful for ranged builds to throw on their lowest iterative attacks. Red Tidewater from the Planar Handbook could work as a lower-powered fallback.
- Feinted: Feinting is difficult for many sneak attackers to incorporate into full attack routines, but Invisible Blade, Scarlet Corsair, Beguiler and Assassin [see Insightful Feint and Absorb Weapon spells] all have class features that can combine with Surprising Riposte to make targets flat-footed at the cost of a swift action, which can turn this into a viable combat strategy
- Flat-Footed: This status is automatically applied to every attack before the target takes a move, so that usually means anything that helps get the surprise round (stealth abilities like skill ranks, Darkstalker, Rings of the Darkhidden, etc.) and initiative (Cunning Insight, Illumian Uur Sigil, etc.) will help apply this condition, as will the Distract Assailant spell (albeit at a low DC). Additionally, flat-footed status can be inflicted by forcing a target to make balance checks; this can be done with Marbles (A&E), Lard (Dung) or the Grease spell – the disadvantage to all of these is that they either require prep time or compete with attacks for a sneak attacker's standard actions.
- Grappled: The easiest way to inflict grappled conditions is to bring a mook into a fight to grapple for you. The Wild Cohort feat is an easy, cheap and usually acceptable way to bring a grappler into a fight, but its grapplers tend to be weak.
- Paralyzed: The Assassin's Death Attack can inflict Paralyzed status as an alternative to direct death, as can the Bloodfreeze Arrow spell (CoR, but note the very low DC). This can also be viable for sneak attackers with Monk levels and the Freezing the Lifeblood feat (CWar)
- Stunned: Stunning Fist and Sudden Stunning Weapons (DMG2) are the most typical ways for a sneak attacker to inflict Stunned status, but it's a pretty common side effect of illusion and lightning spells.
Many of these can also be achieved by using your party.
The rest of your group is probably engaging the baddies, and there's a good chance what they're doing can be turned into a sneak attack: a Fighter that runs into melee sets up a flank; a grappler denies enemies their dex bonus; the Glitterdust, Hold Person or Grease spell that a caster throws at the enemies also makes them vulnerable for sneak attack. The point isn't to beg your allies for free stuff, but there's a good chance your allies are doing something you can use: even if your go-to Dex-denial strategy isn't working in a fight, you might be able to use the other events going on in the battlefield.
There are other ways of forcing sneak attack, but they're generally inefficient
. Try not to need them:
PENETRATING SA IMMUNITIES
- The Telling Blow feat (PHB2) turns a critical hit into a sneak attack. The most common scenario, using something like Keen Kukris, will only threaten on about a third of its attacks; a crit-focused build like Disciple of Dispater will still threaten less than half the time. Investing resources into forcing SA through one of the other modes produces greater damage with greater reliability. This is a bit less blatantly impractical with low-level ranged builds, but eggshell grenades are still inexpensive and more reliable.
- The Persistent Attacker ambush feat (CSco) costs a huge chunk of sneak attack, and only forces one SA in the subsequent round. Between the SA dice cost and the single sneak attack that using the tactic permits, expected damage is greatly reduced.
- The Vital Strike spell (CMag) costs a swift action to force a sneak attack with one of your attacks in a round. It should be clear that one sneak attack in a round is going to be worth much less damage than more than one sneak attack in a round, which is why this spell isn't particularly useful. (Its one advantage is reliably slathering on SA-triggered status effects
- The Wracking Touch spell (SpC – not on the Assassin's list, but available via wand) also forces sneak attack damage with a touch attack. The spell's one advantage is that the charge can be held to force that sneak attack without eating in-combat actions, but again, being in a position to full attack with SA dice on all of the round's attacks is going to deal much more damage than sneak attacking once.
There are two really easy ways to penetrate sneak attack immunities:
- The Penetrating Strike Rogue ACF (from EtCR, Dung) allows half sneak attack damage against flanked SA-immune targets. The downsides are that reading strictly, this isn't sneak attack damage, so it doesn't trigger things like ambush feats or craven, it's only half damage, and it's specific to flanks, so dex-denial strategies don't work with it. The upsides are that Penetrating strike doesn't cost any actions, comes almost free with 3 Rogue levels and that it doesn't care why its target's immune; it just works.
- Wands of X-strike from SpC are dirt cheap, and allow Plants, Constructs and Undead to all be sneak attacked for full SA damage, even at a range. The downsides are that the spells aren't on the Assassin spell list, the wands occupy either a hand or a wand chamber (Dung), take a swift action to activate and are very specific to the sources of a creature's SA-immunity. These work best with a wand bracer (Dung) for easy access to the full array of wands, even if its swift-action draw effectively leaves sneak attack disabled for the first round of combat.
Some less effective ways of penetrating SA immunity include:
- The Razing Strike feat, which acts as a mini-Arcane strike, plus SA against a creature type determined by whether the sacrificed spell was arcane (then constructs) or divine (then undead). Overall, the feat is very shoddy, unless the campaign is heavily laden with encounters of the specific creature type.
- Greater Truedeath/Destruction Crystals (MIC): Expensive, creature type-specific, takes up a weapon augment slot and requires a +3 weapon to enhance, but doesn't require any levels or activation time.
- Deathstrike Bracers (MIC): Not particularly expensive and apply to almost all crit-immune creature types, but a very tight daily limit (3 rounds/day).
Concealment is also an automatic SA shutoff. There are several ways around it, but the most direct is just denying concealment. This may be achieved through Magic Items (eg. Blindfold of True Darkness, Blindsighted weapon, Revealing weapon
), spells/powers (eg. Ebon Eyes, Touchsight
) or permanent build resources like Shape Soulmeld (Shadow Mantle) + Open Lesser Chakra (Shoulder)
A less efficient way of circumventing the limitation is the CMage Critical Strike
spell, which ignores concealment for a single attack. Applying the bulk of sneak attack damage to a single attack is antithetical to the most damaging strategies, so sensory concealment-negation will typically be more desirable.MULTIPLE ATTACKS
The more attacks you can make while sneak attacking, the more sneak attack damage you do. That much is pretty simple. The complicated part is building for extra attacks, then making it work tactically. This guide gives a quick list of ways to increase a character's attacks per round. For most Assassins' purposes, there are three main directions for maximizing attacks per round:
- Volley Archery: The major advantages are that full attacks are easy for you to make, and that full attacks are hard for your targets to make against you. The major disadvantage is that sneak attacks are more difficult to force than they would be by engaging in melee. Most extra attacks with this approach come from Rapid Shot, haste, the Splitting weapon enhancement and Arrow Demon polymorphs (not practical with the Assassin's levels and class features, but with a wand, skin of the proteus, phylactery of change or UMDed custom runestaff, it can be more practical).
- Two Weapon Fighting: Low-hanging fruit for melee attacks. The notable downsides are high dex requirements (typically means Weapon Finesse, ranged combat or item-reliance on Feycraft gear) and attack penalties to all of a round's attacks. The upsides are relatively straightforward access and a certain degree of flexibility between melee and ranged combat. This style is complemented most directly by Swordsage or Warblade dips for Tiger Claw boosts.
- Natural Weapons: For melee-focused sneak attackers, these usually pay off the most directly. Their major advantage over TWF is their reduced penalties: while attacking with natural weapons, every attack is made with the same modifier, with a static reduction from the full bonus. This means a sneak attacker can both make a lot of attacks in a round, and expect them to have a good chance of hitting. The disadvantages are that more attacks mean higher enhancement costs, and that ranged combat becomes more difficult (essentially requiring Blood Wind). These are most easily obtained through Alter Self and class dips (especially Totemist). Note that when used alongside a weapon, they do not override a character's iterative attacks from Base Attack.
Note that the first two setups are one Quickdraw feat away from becoming competent throwers, which is salient for several angles of a sneak attacker's routine, namely Master Thrower and grenade weapons' Touch attack resolutions, and the delivery of other alchemical weapons like tanglefoot bags and eggshell grenades.FORCING HITS
The potential problem is that if a character can't hit, the character can't sneak attack. Catching someone in a position to sneak attack often accompanies a +2 bonus and targets flat-footed AC, but with sneak attackers' low attack bonuses, that's sometimes not enough. There are two major ways to increase hit chances: Increase your character's attack bonus or decrease the target's AC.
Increasing attack bonus is something most characters do. I'll assume most of it's going on already, by accumulating the normal weapon and ability enhancement gear, vying for tactical bonuses in combat from flanking, higher ground, etc. Devotion feats (Law
especially), Rage clones (Barbarian's Rage
, Wildrunner's Wild Scream
, etc.) and ToB's Discipline weapons
are very fast ways to boost those numbers up.
Decreasing target ACs is most directly and most efficiently done by making touch attacks, such as those facilitated by Wraithstrike
, those associated with grenade weapons
, Master Thrower's Weak Spot
thrown weapon trick, or those associated with spells like Flame Dagger
or Ice Axe
. Common status effects also reduce the target's AC, such as entangled, prone, or many of the conditions that trigger sneak attack vulnerability.