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Old Screeds

The Annotated Arcane Archer, Part Three [30 April 08] Three Generalists.

So far I have talked about taking Arcane Archer levels as a specialist -- either as an arcanist or as an archer. But what about the middle ground? Can you have it both ways? Here are three character builds that combine a fair-to-middling amount of casting with above-average shooting.

The Jack-o-Trades. The ultimate jacks of all trades in the core rules are Bards, and they also make superb Arcane Archers as well. Good attacks, excellent skill synergies, excellent saves, and spells that hit an archer's sweet spot make for a versatile character who is no slouch in the combat department, either. Take ten levels in each class for a simple and effective multiclass combo.

Bard casting offers some real gems, including both buffs -- Expeditious Retreat, Cat's Grace, Heroism (a second level spell), Haste, Tiny Hut, and Greater Invisibility -- and area spells that are peachy used with Imbue Arrow -- Grease, Glitterdust, Silence, Calm Emotions, Confusion, Crushing Despair, Slow, and Shout among them. Pick up Scribe Scroll and put all your buff spells on paper -- that lets you use your relatively few spell slots for area spells you can imbue, and whose save DC you want as high as possible.

Use your skills to widen your capabilities. As a bard, maximize your mobility with five or more ranks in Tumble, and max out your Perform skill to optimize your fascination and countersong abilities. If you like talking, ranks in Diplomacy and Bluff come in handy. The obvious synergy is scouting, so you might want to take Listen, Spot, Hide, and Move Silently from both classes. If your party lacks a ranger, you might take Search as a Bard, and Survival as an Arcane Archer; add the Track feat and you're all set. Riding is a great option for a shooter, since you can ride and make a full attack with your missile weapon in the same round -- you might want to use Leadership to attract a viable mount, or just use your bardic Phantom Steed spell.

If you take ten levels of bard and then ten levels of arcane archer, your bard-only skills (like Perform) will be capped at 13 ranks, unless you buy them at double cost cross-class. To avoid that, take 8 levels as a Bard, then switch to Arcane Archer for two, three, or four levels. Take another level of Bard, putting all your ranks into one or two of your favorite Bard-only skills. Take another two to four levels of Arcane Archer, and then your final level of Bard, again pushing ranks into Bard-only skills. In this way, even with no Int bonus, you can expect to max out your Perform and Search ranks at 17, as just one example, rather than 13. (The disadvantage is that you delay attaining the ability to cast 4th level spells, so you have the weigh the beneft of higher ranks ultimately versus not casting Greater Invisibility and Shout as soon as you otherwise could. But keep in mind that you only cast one of those spells a day anyway, and then only if you have an 18 Charisma -- or a 14 Charisma, an Eagle's Splendor spell, and a lenient DM!)

The Sniper. This build gets its required Arcane spellcasting from an unusual source -- the Assassin! Start with five levels of Rogue, then three levels of Assassin, and two levels of Shadowdancer. You could go for four levels of Assassin and just one level of Shadowdancer if you prefer a couple extra spells over darkvision and two skill ranks. At this point you have a +6 BAB -- just enough to qualify for Arcane Archer -- so then take ten levels of Arcane Archer.

But clearly, the beauty of this build is not BAB or second level Assassin spells. It is sniping! With Hide in Plain Sight and some reasonable buffs, you can expect to be firing a sneak attack arrow every round -- each one doing an extra +5d6 of sneak attack damage -- plus poison. For more on how to snipe, check out this screed I wrote on the topic.

The Sniper makes a great scout and spy, with skill synergies in almost all the Arcane Archer skills. With a 14 Int (recommended so that you can cast one second level Assassin spell a day), and four-to-eight base ranks per level, you get lots of skills, so make the most of them.

Assassin spells are nothing to write home about, but use True Strike for your Arcane Archer specials, like your arrow of death, and imbue arrows with obscuring mist to make a fog bank spell at first level, with your DM's okay. Cat's Grace is a sweet once-a-day boost at second level.

The Shot in the Dark. One of the best defenses in Dungeons and Dragons is total concealment. It offers a 50 percent miss chance and, in practice, immunity to most spells, since most spells require line of sight. The usual disadvantage is that either (1) you have to blind your foe, which is not easy, or (2) you use total darkness to afflict both yourself and your enemy -- but then you suffer as much as your target by not being able to see anything. But what if you could negate the disadvantages for yourself?

This build uses a maxed out Listen skill and blindsight by proxy to allow you to shoot foes you can't see. Start as a Ranger, then add five levels of Wizard, another two Ranger, and two of Horizon Walker. Three levels of Ranger and two of HW let you max out your Listen ranks. Your bat familiar gives you Alertness (+2 to Listen) and a +3 unnamed bonus on Listen checks. The HW's Hills Terrain Mastery gives a +4 competence bonus on Listen checks. Take Skill Focus Listen for another +3. Add all that up, and by level 10 you have a healthy 13 ranks +12 in bonuses, total +25, and more if you have a Wisdom Bonus.

That means you can figure out the square your target is in, especially if he just moved there and you can beat his move silent roll -- if he was even trying to move silently. If he was not trying to move silently, odds are the DC to pinpoint his square by sound will be very low, especially with your +25 on Listen checks. If he is quiet becase he is not moving, then you know he is still in the same square. If you can pinpoint his square, you can shoot into it -- although your target still gets a 50 percent miss chance in defense.

Meanwhile, your bat familiar has blindsense within 20 feet, and since you are a fifth level wizard, his Int is 8 and he can "speak with master" -- especially to say things like "There! Ahead 15 feet and to the right!" Add in the Blind Fighting feat and Darkvision from the HW's Underground Terrain Mastery for extra sensitivity.

What the heck! Take a 4th level of ranger, pick up an animal companion that has scent, and keep a wand of Speak with Animals handy so your wolf pal can tell you the location of foes by smell. Or use a Bag of Tricks for the same purpose.

With your listen, darkvision, second-hand blindsense, and second-hand scent, it would be a cruel DM indeed who did not let you know the square in which you can find your enemy, at least within 20 or 30 feet. Maybe your DM thinks, "What's the harm? Even if he knows the square, there's still a 50% total concealment miss chance."

In melee, that miss chance is not too bad, since Blind Fighting lets you reroll your misses. But you are an archer! This is a Shot in the Dark build, not a Swing in the Dark. Blind Fighting is good for moving faster in the dark, and you don't lose your Dex bnus to AC if you are unable to see -- but it does not let you reroll missed shots.

At low levels the True Strike spell lets you ignore the miss chance due to concealment (and the +20 to hit is also quite nice). If you pick the right square, you can shoot an arrow -- with no miss chance -- at your unseen foe. But you can only cast so many True Strikes a day, and you get one shot every other round (since in the off rounds you are casting).

A better option by far is a "Seeking" bow. With one of those, you get to ignore ALL miss percents. Fire five times a round into the right square, and every shot ignores that nasty 50 percent miss chance.

But for this strategy to work, you need to be in the dark! Not some namby pamby Darkness spell dark, and not even a Deeper Darkness spell dark! Those spells do not create the pitch black you need -- they create "shadowy illumination" that only offers a measley 20 percent miss chance. One could argue that in a naturally pitch dark place, say a cave, casting "Darkness" actually improves visibility!

No, you need the kind of true blindness that comes from total concealment. And the best way to get it is with smoke, gas, and clouds. Obscuring Mist is a great example, along with the other fog and cloud spells. Keep in mind that your strategy works if you are in the cloud and your foe is outside. Stay out of line of sight in the cloud and shoot out.

So cast those Obscuring Mist spells. Still, every Obscuring Mist is a Burning Hands or Grease you are not imbuing. What if you could create a fog cloud at will, with no limit or cost in spell casting? The 2,000 gp Horn Of Fog gets that job done.

But in a mist or cloud, you cannot move beyond the edge of the mist. And if you have to cast your spell or sound your horn at the start of each battle, that's a round of arrows you don't get to shoot. How much better to get your hands on a moveable mist -- one that travels with you. Activate it once and it keeps on creating fog forever. Lucky for you, there is just such a mist machine option the Eversmoking Bottle. Open this affordable 5,400 gp item and strap it to your pack. Forget about it and walk around in a giant cloud. Keep your ears open, and you are all set to take your shots!

So keep out of sight, locate your enemies by sound and smell, and shoot with your Seeking bow. Use your free Scribe Scroll feat to buff up with Flame Arrow, Haste, Cat's Grace, and more. Imbue your Fireballs and Glitterdusts and Burning Hands. Use your True Strike for the Arcane Archer specials, like Arrow of Death and the varied once per day abilities. Keep your ears open, and you'll be ready to shoot your way to the top! Especially if the top is shrouded in clouds!

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.

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