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Cunning Tricks for Rogues

As discussed on a recent blog post, I don’t like Sneak Attack too much as a mechanic, for a variety of reasons (mostly related to balance and credibility).

Wary of attempting an extensive rewrite of this rather fundamental feature, I concluded that post with a simple House Rule which I will be testing out in my forthcoming campaign…. it states that “without advantage on the attack, Sneak Attack dice are reduced to d4s.”

Actually, the post spawned some pretty interesting discussion / comments, which in turn planted a seed in my mind that I’ve been watering recently in quiet moments.

Fine upstanding citizens… the lot of them! (Art by WOTC).

What has blossomed is these ‘Cunning Tricks’, which I present here now with the twin goals of a) making rogues more interesting to play, and b) giving them a boost in light of my mild Sneak Attack nerf and the general fall off the class experiences at 5th level (when every other class gets something absolutely badass…. and rogues get Uncanny Dodge. Meh!).

Restricted in their usage, and requiring a bonus action to use (thus competing with many of the rogue’s other options), these Cunning Tricks should add plenty of fun and versatility without unbalancing the class (hopefully!).

Many of them feel like the kind of tricks I want to pull when I do delve into this dastardly prototype, so hopefully others will agree they are ‘on brand’. Here we go…

Cunning Tricks

Starting at 5th level, you become a wily adversary and master of improvisation. You know the following Cunning Tricks, which you can perform instead of a Cunning Action (i.e. as a Bonus Action).

Where a Cunning Trick requires a saving throw, the DC equals 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Dexterity modifier. You can perform a number of Cunning Tricks equal to your proficiency bonus, after which you must finish a short or long rest before using them again.

Blinding Trick

You attempt to blind an opponent by throwing dust in their eyes, flicking an object over their head or by dint of a distracting blow. Choose a Large creature or smaller within 5 feet. They must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or be blinded until the start of your next turn.

Sly Trip

You attempt to unbalance an opponent with a deft trip. Choose a Large creature or smaller within 5 feet. They must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or be knocked prone. If they fail by 5, you may also reposition them to an unoccupied space within 5 feet.

Tumbling Defense

Tumbling out of danger, you move up to half your movement speed, adding your proficiency bonus to your AC until the start of your next turn.

More Cunning Tricks

Starting at 11th level, you know these additional Cunning Tricks.

Arcane Wriggle

You learn how to slip out of the effects of restrictive magic. Whenever you are called upon to repeat a saving throw at the end of your turn, you may retake the save at the start of your turn instead.

Disarming Trick

When you hit a creature with a weapon attack, you can use your Cunning Action to try to disarm the target. The creature must succeed on a Dexterity saving throw or drop one item of your choice that its holding. If they fail by 5, and you are within 5 feet, you may choose to grab the item as part of the trick.

Twist the Knife

When you deal your Sneak Attack damage, you may use your Cunning Action to ensure you inflict the maximum damage possible. You can reroll any 1 or 2s on your Sneak Attack dice rolls. You must accept the new roll.

Final Thoughts

So there we go… that was fun! I’ve kept these fairly simple… as I think rogue players don’t necessarily like complicated mechanics and dozens of choices. What I like about Blinding Trick for example is that it might be best used before or after taking the Attack action, depending on the situation. They’ll be some serious pressure on someone to play a rogue in my next campaign now.

Please share with your favourite scoundrel!

Balancing Act

Turns out my Final Thoughts were not my final thoughts… I was thinking about balance, and different ways you could incorporate these tricks into your campaign. More conservative DMs could treat these as ‘class feats’, allowing rogues to select Cunning Tricks instead of an ASI (and More Cunning Tricks as an additional ASI). That might be better if you haven’t nerfed Sneak Attack as I have.

Otherwise you could play around with what level you get the tricks, how many tricks you can perform a short / long rest. See the Comments section for more concrete suggestions.

More Rogue Stuff…

A Rogue’s Guide to Playing a Swashbuckler

How To Play A Rogue Assassin

Player Tips: Maximising Bonus Actions & Reactions

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6 Comments

  1. Michael

    This probably does make a rogue more interesting. I might make it a list you get to choose from rather than giving all rogues everything.

    Blinding Trick – wondering when it would be reasonable to Blind a giant. The rogue is on the Mezzanine level?

    Sly Trip – One size larger? Or disadvantage for 2 sizes? Can a gnome really trip up an ogre?

    Disarming Trick – probably does actually work at range – but not so much the catching part.

    • duncan

      Hi Michael

      Maybe you read an old version of the post, but the Blinding Trick and Sly Trip both have a size restriction baked in:

      “Choose a Large creature or smaller within 5 feet.”

      Similar to many Battlemaster Maneuvers…. and similarly I would give Large sized creatures advantage on the save… but haven’t baked that in the rules. If D&D official doesn’t bother, I will stick to their format! (As we discussed once, maybe it should be advantage per size difference over the tripper [with advantage stacking]).

      Oops, yeah I originally designed Disarm with range also in mind (having deliberately given melee rogues a boost in the original tricks), but then tacked on the weapon grab to make it a bit different to the Battlemaster Maneuver. Will clarify the range restriction on the second part of that now…

      • Michael

        No, I read the Large or smaller.

        In the first case I was questioning whether you could in fact try to blind something Huge. In the right circumstances I was suggesting you could.

        In the second case I was questioning whether Small could trip Large – suggesting that Large should be replaced with one size class larger to cater for that (as the official rules do in some places).

  2. Rick Coen

    I chose to steal the idea from Pathfinder to allow the Rogue in my game to “trade” Sneak Attack dice for extra benefits. For example, “Throat Punch: Give up at least 2 Sneak Attack dice. Target gets a CON save (DC 8+prof+DEX+[dice sacrificed]); on a failure, they are silenced for 1 round per [dice sacrificed], with a new save each round (DC reduces by 1 each round).” Or “Confounding Blades: Give up 2 SA dice; target loses its Reaction.”

    I think your Blinding Trick is too powerful. Unlimited Cause Blindness, as a Bonus Action? I’ll be doing that every round. Oops… 3 per short rest.] That’s better, but still really powerful; it beats a Trip or Tumble pretty much every time. A Blind target grants Advantage *and* suffers Disadvantage; a prone target (Trip) only grants it, and only in melee. Note that Battlemaster has Trip; they do NOT have Blind!

    • duncan

      Hi Rick

      Oh, those Pathfinder mechanics are pretty cool actually… (and diminishing saving throw DCs seem like a good idea in general).

      A couple of reservations… I’d typically be very reluctant indeed to shave damage off my SA if I thought there was any chance of killing my opponent (or contributing to a kill that round). The most debilitating condition of all is ‘dead’ after all, and improving an opponent’s chance of avoiding death to offer a chance only of imposing silence etc. is only very situationally going to be a good trade.

      A more minor reservation is Throat Punch, at least, feels like a separate activity to a weapon attack that deals SA damage and it’s a bit weird that it doesn’t tax the action economy at all. (Also, thinking about it, if you can punch someone in the throat, why not have done that with your dagger!? A slight logic glitch there).

      Still, I’d definitely be interested in how these mechanics play out… have you had a chance to playtest them yet? Any of these abilities work to good effect?

      Btw I don’t think Blinding Trick is as powerful as you make out… let’s consider a few things. Firstly, it’s melee range only and as a melee rogue if I try and use it before my attack, then I’m only left with only my main attack (and not my bonus attack) with which to deal my SA damage… obviously if the Blinding Trick works, the advantage will be nice and more or less cancel out the loss of the bonus attack… but there’s a decent chance it doesn’t work.

      Now, if having attacked – and hit (because if I miss, then I’m going to need my bonus action to attack again and deal SA, so I won’t be using BT) – then Blinding Trick is a cool add-on that will offer me some protection, but it wears off before I can attack again, so I only benefit from one of the effects. (My teammates might appreciate it however).

      Another point I’d make is that I don’t think you can compare these Cunning Tricks to Battlemaster Maneuvers, even though the mechanics are quite similar. Firstly because fighters get BMs from 3rd level (instead of 5th), secondly because fighters have slightly more BMs (4 at level 3, then 5 at level 7) than I’m giving Cunning Tricks to rogues, thirdly because BMs do extra damage + an effect, and fourthly because most BMs don’t tax the action economy at all… you can unload them with your regular attacks, meaning a fighter can unload all four of their superiority dice on opponents in a single turn at 5th level (using Polearm Master… or Action Surge). A Cunning Trick always requires a bonus action, so restricted to one a turn.

      Anyway, despite those counterpoints I do broadly agree with you 🤣

      So maybe we could give them out like this

      Level 5

      Sly Trip
      Tumbling Defense

      Level 7

      Blinding Trick
      Twist the Knife

      Level 11

      Arcane Wriggle
      Disarming Trick

      Also it’s always cooler to receive new abilities at multiple level points, rather than getting most of your toys at once.

      Final thought… I’m getting quite attached to the idea that you can just perform each trick once per short rest. It’s a trick after all… the enemy is not expecting it, but once they see it they won’t be fooled twice. So there’s a tiny bit of logic in having them only work once each.

      Cheers for the input, as always!

      • Rick Coen

        I have to agree, personally, about trading damage for an effect – especially an effect they can save against. “Dead” solves most problems! But there are absolutely times when trading 7 damage (2 SA dice) to silence the annoying caster is worth it. (Maneuver name aside… maybe the wizard doubles over from the sneak-attack-blade in the gut, and *that* is when you throat punch them?) It was an example, though, the list is like 22 items long (some gated behind “after 10th level”).

        In playtest, I allowed the party rogue to take 3+IntMod tricks at 3rd level, and 1 additional trick every time a new SA die was acquired; she thus has 5 (INT 12) at 5th level. She has used one trick to escape a grapple (at the cost of all SA dice), and one trick to create a bleeding wound (2hp/rd, costs 1 SA die) twice. (Most recent fights were against undead, so bleeding wounds weren’t much help.) Player is happier that the options have given her more interesting things to do as a single-class rogue, in a party with a Battlemaster/ArcaneTrickster that has a ton of different options.

        I’m not discounting the limits on Blinding Trick (and its interaction with / consumption of the Bonus Action). I was comparing it to the other Tricks you proposed, and Battlemaster maneuvers (as they are quite similar). From a balance perspective, a BM gets 4 moves per short rest; your rogue will get 3 Tricks. The BM will generally spend his dice one at a time, but as part of Attacks; the Rogue can only use hers one at a time, at the cost of their Cunning Action option. Yes, that’s more restrictive (for Tricks), but not overwhelmingly so. Not “+1 spell level” different (Thunderwave vs. Cause Blindness). Plus, maneuvers are the “thing” a BM gets, while these Tricks are a *bonus* thing *all* rogues will get. (Hence my compromise on “costs you SA dice”, versatility for power, instead of straight “add power”.)

        And yes, I’d Blinding Trick first, because success grants Advantage to me for my attack, making it very likely I land the Sneak Attack – indeed, potentially *enabling* my Sneak Attack in the first place! Trip would accomplish the same thing for *me*, but “blind” means *all* my allies get the benefit too, including the not-in-melee casters. Since both Trip and Blind give the target a save, take blind every time.

        “Only use each trick once per rest, because once someone sees the trick, they won’t fall for it again”… that only applies in the same encounter. I should be able to Blind-trick the ogre, and then later the town guard, and then later the thief we were chasing.

        Your proposal for spreading the Trick acquisition out… okay that mitigates the power differential. It takes away choice (something the Rogue class lacks), but delays Blinding Trick to 7th level, which seems like a nice bonus to come along with Evasion.

        Personally, I think the rogue is underpowered and underwhelming, which I know is not how you feel (from a previous post/article). They feel like they are powerful at 3rd, doing +2d6 on a hit, but at 5th the warriors are doing 2d8+10 (19) each round [1d8 sword + 16 stat + dueling] while the rogue is doing 4d6 +3 (17) [1d6 weapon + 3d6 SA + 16 stat], situationally, as their main class feature. A crit from a rogue is devastating, and they make the concentration-breakers (and ironically, best zombie-killers), but the warriors get more chances at crits, so overall damage balances out. And the warriors get more feats and powers for combat, generally, as well as having *choices* for their abilities. But I think I said all this on your “nerf Sneak Attack” article, so sorry for the repeat!

        Regardless… love your ideas, Duncan! I don’t agree with all of them, but they do get me thinking! 🙂

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