Last time I talked about sneak attack, I asked whether people felt the whole extra damage thing was central to the rogue’s identity and if it should be something all rogues have. I read through the comments here, on Facebook, and various other places, and looked at the poll. It’s clear that most of you want sneak attack, but you’re split when it comes to it being essential to the rogue class and something that could be an option. Here’s the thing: I’m divided on this too.
The rogue in the current playtest document has sneak attack, and it’s a combination of the 3rd Edition and 4th Edition rules. The extra damage as of right now goes all the way up to 10d6 at the highest levels, but a rogue can use the damage against anybody. At first glance, this feels right, but the more I turn it over in my head, the less satisfied I am with how it works. For starts, an extra 10d6 damage whenever the rogue hits with advantage? At the highest levels, a rogue’s dishing out 20d6 damage a round before we even get to weapon damage and other damage boosters. Sure, this is fun for a while, but I know people who trip up adding together 4d8 or even putting a d20 result with a single number.
The other thing I’m having a hard time with is that we want monsters to retain their relevance longer. Rather than have player characters graduate from orcs and move on to some other humanoid to fill the same niche, we want higher-level characters to simply fight more orcs. If we pull this off, then dealing 10d6 plus weapon damage plus a scad of other modifiers against an orc with 13 hit points is not unlike using a rocket launcher to swat a fly.
Finally, I’m starting to think that any character who strikes an enemy from behind should be dealing extra damage. I mean, if you’re really, really sneaking up on someone and you hit when your target is not ready for it, shouldn’t you deal more damage? Why do rogues have a monopoly on this sort of skullduggery?
I’m dancing around an idea, so I might as well come out and say it. Here it is: Everyone in the game can backstab. Rogues, if they want, can be the best at backstabbing. Let me unpack this before you show up at my windmill with torches and pitchforks. Backstab becomes an option for any character attacking a target with advantage. It might look something like this:
Backstab: When you have attack advantage against a creature, you can give up advantage to deal 1d6 extra damage on a hit.
This option lets you swap out an accuracy bonus for extra damage. Easy.
Now let’s tackle the rogue. Currently, sneak attack lets the rogue hit our expected damage output. If we take away sneak attack as it works now (1d6 at 1st level, plus 1d6 every other level), the rogue instead gets a Rogue Fighting Technique feature at, say, level 2 and again every couple of levels or so. The feature might let you choose one of the following benefits every time you get it.
Combat Maneuver: The rogue gets two combat maneuvers (think at-will powers).
Widget: Some sort of skill-like benefit or trick.
Weapon Specialization: A cool benefit tied to one of the rogue’s weapon groups.
Sneak Attack: Whenever you backstab a creature, you deal 1d6 extra damage. Each time you gain this benefit, increase the extra damage by 1d6.
What I like about this is that sneak attack modifies something that lives in the basic rules and sneak attack no longer has to define the rogue.