Now let's look at the character who wants the advantages of the Arcane Archer prestige class, but does not want to take more than one or two levels of Wizard or Sorcerer.
GETTING THERE: How to become an arcane archer.
First, in general I suggest taking two Mage levels. The second level gives you a +1 BAB, so it does not hurt either your attacks or taking the PrC as soon as possible. And getting an extra level of Mage gives you extra useful spells and a +1 on your Will save, which is worth it. Sure the d4 hit die sucks, but as an archer, your job is to stay out of combat, not to be soaking up damage.
Second, your biggest choice is what Warrior levels to take as you prepare to qualify for Arcane Archer. The choices are Fighter, Ranger, Paladin, and Barbarian. Let's look at each in turn. Once you have your two levels of Mage, you need five Warrior levels to get the requisite +6 BAB that an AA requires.
Fighter. This option nets you Weapon Specialization and two more bonus feats, so that makes it very powerful. Of course, you need Point Blank Shot, Precise Shot, and Weapon Focus (bow) to qualify for Arcane Archer. You might also consider Mounted Combat, Mounted Archery, and Weapon Specialization; or Dodge, Mobility, and Shot on the Run (followed by Rapid Shot and Manyshot); or Rapid Shot, Far Shot, and Weapon Specialization.
The power gamer in me notes, however, that five levels of Fighter is a bit of a waste, since Fighter 5 nets you very little versus Fighter4. No saves advancement, no extra feat. So you might consider Mage1/Fighter6, since the extra feat and good saves at Fighter6 beat the extra spells gained at Wiz2.
Ranger. Here you are looking to leverage your Combat Style, and so -- as with Fighter -- it may be worth it to go Mage1/Ranger6 to pick up Manyshot. There are some very nice synergies in skills with the Ranger/Arcane Archer, so this is the route if you want to be a sneaky tracker. Your animal companion makes a decent mount, too, and ranger spells are not bad -- especially Imbuing Arrows with Entangle. You can also imbue your spells wth Detect Snares and Pits as well as Alarm, for a twist.
Paladin. Paladin5/Mage2 is ideal here. The half-elf Paladin5/Sorcerer2 may be the best way to leverage that charisma synergy. Paladin 5 gives you one of the best mounts in the game -- the Paladin's celestial mount -- and you should use that. By the way, your DM may let you give up your familiar and let you stack your Mage levels with Paladin levels to boost your mount, and even give you other bennies with Improved Familiar and/or Leadership (treating your mount as a cohort).
Note that the best part about firing arrows while mounted is that you can move (using the mount's move) and make a full round attack with arrows. That boosts the value of Rapid Shot and Haste effects. And keeps you out of harm's way. Note that if you do want to shoot while mounted, you'll be using a short bow. Remember that your mount's bonus hit dice give it extra feats and skills of its own -- you might want your mount to take feats like Improved Natural AC, Combat Expertise, and cross-class ranks in Tumble for better mobility and defense. Track and cross-class ranks in Survival are also useful. Skill Focus may also be a useful feat.
Barbarian. There's not a whole lot of synergy here. Raging does not boost archery substantially, and you can't cast spells while raging. I'm not fond of this combo. But see below.
Multiclassing. To become an Arcane Archer, you need that +6 BAB, but where you get it does not matter. Five levels of Paladin is as useful in this regard as two of Ranger, one of Barbarian and two of Fighter!
So as you consider your multiclassing options, keep in mind that it makes better sense to advance to some levels compared with others. Here are some useful breakpoints: One level of Ranger is good for skills and tracking; two for combat style and its free feat; three for the Endurance feat you can use for entry into the Horizon Walker PrC (see below). Two levels of Paladin are the sweetest, for the save bonus if you have a decent charisma. One level of Fighter gives a free feat; two gives two; don't go to third. One level of Barbarian gives rage; four gives two rages per day -- if you think it is worth it.
The Horizon Walker prestige class requires the endurance feat (free to Ranger3) and 8 ranks in Know Geography (a class skill for Wizards and Rangers) -- therefore you can take it at fifth level. Since the HW has a Fighter's BAB progression, taking a one- or two-level dip does not delay your progression to AA. But what can the Horizon Walker offer you that Fighter or Paladin or Ranger cannot?
For one, if you do want to be a Barbarian, Wizard2/Barbarian4/HW1 gives you two rages per day and (with desert terrain mastery), immunity to the fatigue that otherwise afflicts you after raging.
For another, if you want to specialize in perception, a Ranger/Mage with a couple levels of HW gives you a +4 bonus on Listen (a bonus that no magic item can give you) and Darkvision. I'll go into more detail on this option in my next screed, in a PC build called the Shooter in the Dark.
THE PAY-OFF: How to make the most of your archer specialist.
How do you make the best use of your full-ten-level Arcane Archer? If you are clever about your spell use and item selection, you can make the Arcane Archer into quite the potent shooter.
You don't have a lot of spells, but choosing carefully will add some spice to your archer. If you wear armor (and you should wear armor), then chose spells that have no somatic component. That way you avoid all chance of arcane spell failure. Good spells to consider include True Strike and Feather Fall. True Strike is especially useful for putting extra punch behind your Seeker arrow, Phase arrow, and Arrow of death. Other non-somatic possibilities include Ventriloquism and Flare. You can cast spells such as Alarm, Identify, and others, when your armor is off -- at a camp, for example.
Keep in mind that your Mage levels let you use scrolls (with the chance of error) and wands (with no error) as well. That wand of Cat's Grace is less costly than Gloves of Dex +4. Good wands include wands of Expeditious Retreat, Shield, Mage Armor, Glitterdust, Heroism, etc. Also remember that you have a familiar who can help in many ways (thought not in combat, alas), including Aid Another checks to boost some skills.
But the true pay-off for a dedicated Arcane Archer is the Enhance arrow ability. Now, the enhancement bonus of a magic arrow does not stack with the enhancement bonus of a bow, so there is really no use at all in shooting +3 arrows with a +3 bow, because the bonus is +3 to hit and damage, not +6. Thus, the archer who wants to maximize his use of magic weapons should boost the enhancement bonus of either arrow or bow, but not both, and then boost the other with equivalencies that do extra damage. For example, instead of attacking with a +3 bow and +3 arrow, it is better to attack with a +1 holy bow and a +3 arrow.
Still with me? So the savvy Arcane Archer will beef up his bow with bonus damage dice (flaming, frost, merciful, etc), letting his enhanced arrows do the heavy lifting in the traditional enhancement bonus department.
Note that the Enhanced arrow only works with a "nonmagical arrow." So you can't boost a magic arrow with the ability. There's no saying you can't use it with an adamantine, silvered, or cold iron arrow, though, so keep a selection of those in your quiver.
If you consider the Enhanced arrows to be the equivalent of (at 9th level) a +5 weapon you get for free, then what will you do with the 50,000 gp you are not spending on 50 +5 arrows? Well, the Quiver of Ehlonna (aka the Efficient Quiver, in the SRD) is quite nice, as are Bracers of Archery. And of course, you can always spend more on your bow.
This is part one of a three-part series on the Arcane Archer.
- The first part is for arcanists who want to take a two-level dip for the Imbue Spell ability.
- The second part is for archers who want to take full advantage of all the arcane archer's abilities.
- The third part is for generalists who want decent spellcasting and a wider range of strategies for diverse situations.