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Old Screeds

Assassin of Assassins [13 December 05] Beating uncanny dodge.

Pity the ambitious thief or assassin. She wants to move up in the Guild, but there are many people above her in the organization with more experience than her. The natural answer is to thin the ranks a little, making some room for personal advancement. The only problem ... the best tool in our would-be guildmaster's arsenal is her sneak attack and death attack, and characters with uncanny dodge and improved uncanny dodge -- such as high level rogues, assassins, and barbarians -- are much much less vulnerable to common sneak attacks.

See, in order to make a sneak attack against most creatures, you usually have to meet a required circumstance. Some ways to do that include:

  • Catch the target by surprise (flat-footed, say).
  • Attack while you are unseen (invisible, say, or sniping).
  • Flank your target.
  • Attack a target who is being grappled by someone else.
  • Attack a blind, stunned, cowering, or helpless foe.
  • Attack someone who is unsteady, such as a target who is climbing or balancing.
For an assassin to use a death attack, you have to study your target for three rounds and then make a sneak attack. But during the study period, you must remain hidden, or your target cannot recognize you as a foe. If your target has Improved Uncanny Dodge, then attacking with surprise, attacking unseen, and flanking are useless. Your remaining choices are to attack your target after the target has been grappled, blinded, stunned, cowed, or made/found unsteady.

But the death attack is really the recourse of the weak. If you could defeat your target toe-to-toe, you would not be wasting three rounds in study first. If you cannot beat your target in a straight-up fight, then your goal is to make the death attack, force that save vs death, and skedaddle before your target makes mincemeat of you. Your job becomes impossible, oh you weakling, if you have to grapple, blind, stun, or cow your target first. Even worse, get a friend to grapple. Isn't there a better way than that?

Indeed there is! The Arcane Trickster, a prestige class from the Dungeon Masters Guide, has this ability:

Impromptu Sneak Attack
Beginning at 3rd level, once per day an arcane trickster can declare one melee or ranged attack he makes to be a sneak attack (the target can be no more than 30 feet distant if the impromptu sneak attack is a ranged attack). The target of an impromptu sneak attack loses any Dexterity bonus to AC, but only against that attack. The power can be used against any target, but creatures that are not subject to critical hits take no extra damage (though they still lose any Dexterity bonus to AC against the attack).
Which is to say, no need to flank or surprise. No need to grapple, blind, or cow. Any attack is suddenly a sneak attack. The moral of this story: Impromptu Sneak Attack beats Improved Uncanny Dodge!

But how do you make an assassin / arcane trickster? One good option -- start with rogue, which gives you 1d6 sneak attack plus four ranks each in Hide, Move, and Disguise. Then add five levels of wizard, giving you Mage Hand and third level spells. Add a second level of rogue for the extra four ranks each that you need in Hide and Move Silent. Add a level of assassin for a second 1d6 sneak attack damage and the death attack ability. Take three levels of arcane trickster, and you are all set.

Note that because your wizard and rogue levels are not equal, make sure you are a human, half-elf, elf, or halfling ... or other race with wizard or rogue as favored class (goblin might be an option).

If you are super-impatient, you can skip that second rogue level and boost your Hide and Move Silent skills with cross class ranks as a rogue 1 / wizard 5 / assassin 1 / arcane trickster 3. And if you are extra patient, you might consider the bard 7 / assassin 3 / arcane trickster 3. That bardic fascinate may be just the thing you need to get your three rounds of study in.

And those who are really cuckoo for prestige classes can take a level of shadowdancer, getting access to the hide in plain sight ability. That's another sweet way to get three rounds of study in. Of course, alert guildmasters make sure that there are never shadows within 30 feet of them -- unless they are shadowdancers, too.

When I first read the Impromptu Sneak Attack ability, I was not impressed. Big whoop -- you get to make a sneak attack. For an arcane trickster under the effect of, say, blink or greater invisibility, every attack is a sneak attack, anyway! What good is one more? But as the card that trumps Improved Uncanny Dodge, the ability reigns supreme. So ha! Take that, Uncanny Dodgers! Here's a bit of arcane trickery to wipe the smug immune-to-sneak-attacks look off your mug.

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