If I tell you one of my favourite books of all time is The Three Musketeers, you won’t be too surprised to hear that I have been eagerly awaiting a chance to play the rogue archetype, the swashbuckler, ever since a copy of The Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide and Xanathar’s Guide to Everything landed on my lap this Christmas (thanks Santa).
Swashbucklers of film and legend include not only D’Artagnan, Athos, Porthos and Aramis (the latter being my favourite), but also The Scarlet Pimpernel, Robin Hood, Zorro, and any number of pirates, such as the scurrilous Captain Jack Sparrow. They are typically brave and romantic fighters who favour finesse over brute force, and they can cut nearly as deep with their rapier-sharp wit as their actual rapiers.
Stylish, dashing and extravagant if you’re not considering the roleplaying opportunities that the swashbuckler archetype is going to afford you, then you’re missing half the fun. Having said that, the mechanics our friends at WoTC have rustled up also make it one of the most powerful archetypes in the game… especially if you know what you’re doing.
Let’s take a look at the mechanics then… they revolve around the two abilities you get at 3rd level, Fancy Footwork and Rakish Audacity.
When you choose this archetype at 3rd level, you learn how to land a strike and then slip away without reprisal. During your turn, if you make a melee attack against a creature, that creature can’t make opportunity attacks against you for the rest of your turn.
Starting at 3rd level, your confidence propels you into battle. You can give yourself a bonus to your initiative rolls equal to your Charisma modifier. You also gain an additional way to use your Sneak Attack; you don’t need advantage on the attack roll to use your Sneak Attack against a creature if you are within 5 feet of it, no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll. All the other rules for the Sneak Attack class feature still apply to you.
What does this mean? Basically put away your bow, because you kick ass at melee combat. Using these two features you can glide into battle, strike with two weapons, almost certainly deal your sneak attack damage (the only time you can’t is if you’re surrounded by enemies and/or miss with both attacks), and then glide out of danger. Possibly embellishing your movement with the odd cartwheel and backflip and taunting your hapless foes with some choice insults.
A bit more on your fighting tactics later, but now let’s see how I built my own swashbuckler: Drake Leopold Florentine Griffinheart III (…it’s always the third!).
Taking the standard starting block of 15, 14, 13, 12, 10, 8, I chose the human feat variant (p.31 Player’s Handbook) and placed my stats as follows:
Dexterity: 16 (15+1)
Charisma: 14 (13+1)
Dexterity is obviously going to be your key stat. Fighting with finesse weapons, it’s going to dictate your attack and damage bonuses, give you crucial bonuses to your AC and initiate, and also improve your modifiers on vital skills such as Stealth and Acrobatics.
Charisma is your next most important stat. If you’re not beguiling, deceiving and impressing the NPCs you meet on your adventures you’re playing a swashbuckler all wrong. You are the archetypal charming rogue… a loveable rascal who lives by the seat of their pants, and will need every bit of their dashing magnetism to get themselves out of the scrapes they find themselves in (often through the fault of that same dashing magnetism).
Next I went for Constitution because, even with your Fancy Footwork, you’re going to take some hits as your armour class is going to suck big time. At first level your leather armour (nerfed to AC 11 in 5th edition) plus your Dex. modifier will give you a suicidal AC of 14, and it’s not going to get much better. Studded leather will get you to AC 15, after that you have to wait til 4th level to boost your Dex. and get up to a still downright dangerous AC 16. So some extra hit points will be necessary if you’re going to live long enough to become a legend.
After that your other stats don’t matter too much. I normally use Strength as a dump stat for rogues but I wanted Drake to be at least a little bit macho so I stuck my 12 there. Wisdom is always useful for Perception checks and saving throws, so I prefer not to have a minus at least, hence the 10, and Intelligence is not going to be of much use at all… so 8 it is! (In fact Drake is a very smart and sharp-witted guy, however with a low concentration span and a complete disinterest in academia it makes sense that he sucks at the likes of Religion and Arcana. And by the way, just because a PC has a low Intelligence score doesn’t mean you have to roleplay them as a complete idiot).
Now for Skills…
As a rogue you get four skills to choose from, your background gives you two more and because I chose the Human feat variant I get another one… that’s seven to choose from in total!
Persuasion and Deception are vital for anyone who wants to ham up the style and swagger of this archetype, Acrobatics and Athletics are key for performing the kind of chandelier-swinging stunts that you’ve seen on TV, Stealth is very handy if you want to perform some of the traditional activities of the classic D&D rogue (something I enjoy a lot), Perception is the most rolled skill check in the game, and finally I plucked Performance as I decided that Drake was not only a blade, philosopher and lover… but a poet and storyteller as well. The principle topics of his poems and stories being himself and his legendary heroic deeds (some real, many imagined).
If I could have had one more I’d go for Animal Handling, especially as Drake’s backstory places him as a descendent of the founder of Waterdeep’s Griffin Cavalry, plus The Three Musketeers certainly knew how to ride a horse… but in practice I wasn’t sure it would be much use.
I put my roguish expertise on Acrobatics and Persuasion.
The Perfect Feat for Flavour
For each of my last three characters (Jaxx Storm a Cleric of the Tempest, Estelle a Paladin of Devotion and now Drake) I have chosen to play a human using the feat variant as I freakin’ love feats. They offer a fantastic combination of fun, flavour and power.
The one I chose for Drake is in fact not the most powerful of feats, but for me it rounds off the perfect set of skills a swashbuckler needs. I chose the Martial Adept feat, which enables me to choose two manoeuvres of the fighter’s Battle Master archetype and gives me a single 1d6 superiority dice that I can use once between rests. (See if you can persuade your DM to give you two d4s instead! Having only one is so frustrating!). The manoeuvres I chose are Riposte and Disarming Attack. You can read about them on p.74 of the Player’s Handbook.
Riposte is pretty sick… when a creature misses you with a melee attack you can use your reaction to punish their mistake with a blow of your own. And not only do you get your weapon damage, plus superiority dice damage, but most times you’ll get your Sneak Attack damage dice as well thanks to your Rakish Audacity class feature.
Riposte is so cool I keep forgetting to use Disarming Attack (well, with only one superiority dice to burn, opportunities are rare), but I’m confident it will come in handy, especially if the DM offers some benefits for doing so, like advantage striking an unarmed foe, or an opportunity attack if the target has to bend down and pick up their weapon. Even if the DM refuses to acknowledge your swashbuckling swagger with any tangible benefits you could use it to disarm an enemy of a magic weapon or item and pick it up yourself, or use a free action to kick their weapon across the floor. In the latter case you (and possibly your buddies) would get an opportunity attack when they have to move out of your reach to pick it up.
The rapier is of course the iconic weapon of the swashbuckler, which Drake pairs with a dagger to fight with two weapons. I’ve just realised in the course of researching this article that this is against the rules as written as the rapier doesn’t have the light quality necessary for fighting with two weapons, despite weighing only 2 lbs!!! This doesn’t make much sense, and I can only imagine it was not given this quality to prevent rules-abusing players from fighting with two rapiers, but given that you can fight with two scimitars (3 lbs each!) or two shortswords (2 lbs each), then in terms of realism there’s no reason for your DM to disallow a rapier and dagger dual-wield – especially as it is a historically accurate combination. In terms of damage the combo works out as exactly the same as the rules-legit two shortswords or two scimitars (1d8 +1d4, vs. 1d6 + 1d6), so in terms of game balance there’s no reason for your DM to disallow it either. Shame there’s nothing in the RAW to clear this up – especially as in the Sword Coast Adventurers Guide they have a box out encouraging swashbucklers to fight with two weapons – but I’m sure common sense will prevail on your table.
(Another option / solution would be to take the Dual Wielder feat, instead of Martial Adept, meaning you could fight with two rapiers and also get a +1 to your AC… however I am personally opposed to the aesthetic of fighting with two rapiers.).
After that you’ll want some studded leather (you start with basic leather but it shouldn’t take you long to upgrade), your thieves’ toolkit (from your roguish past) and a fair few daggers tend to come in handy. I also armed Drake with a sling and a blowgun (with a vial of poison) for those moments when there’s no chance to engage in melee. If you want to be that annoying rogue that pussies around at the back, sneak attacking with a short bow though you’re in the wrong archetype.
Being a resolute dandy, Drake also carries a vial of perfume and a spare change of the clothes, cut in the latest fashions of Waterdeep.
Playing a swashbuckler involves swooping into attack and then getting out of trouble using your Fancy Footwork. This is particularly easy when the party is facing one large monster. You move in, attack twice, and then step back half your movement to avoid the repercussions… the tank(s) in your party can take the hits. Next round half your movement in, attack, and half out again. Against numerous foes things are trickier, but you should be able to pick off bad guys engaged with your buddies or else attack isolated targets, meaning you continually get your Sneak Attack damage. If you do find yourself outnumbered you can use disengage and then move across the battlefield to attack a different creature you can use Sneak Attack against. You are constantly moving basically, slipping out of danger and cropping up where you can deal the most damage – and usually having a lot of fun in the process.
Given that the swashbuckler is a rogue archetype, no matter how heroic you intend your PC to be, I think it’s worth giving your swashbuckler a story that explains why they are so adept at slinking into the shadows, picking locks and conning wealthy widow(er)s into signing off their heirlooms and estates into your possession.
For Drake I decided that, after his father’s death, his scheming uncle convinced the rest of the family that he was in fact conceived before wedlock and therefore a bastard, not fit to inherit the name of Griffinheart, much less their grand country estate. Aged just 7-years-old, he and his mother were forced to relocate to Waterdeep, where Drake became something of a street urchin, growing up with the wrong crowd and getting mixed up with one of the local thieves’ guild for a short while. This explains his unique mix of both noble and criminal traits (as well as giving the DM plenty to work with in terms of material for future adventures).
Have a think about your PC’s backstory, and be sure to use the prompts in the backgrounds section of the Player’s Handbook. A good character is born of their backstory and you’ll start to get ideas and inspiration about how you want to play your PC when you start to answer questions about their family history, upbringing and education, and influential figures and events in their life up until now.
Drake dresses all in black, with the odd flash of pink, and goes by the name of The Black Maverick. In his cups, he is wont to reel off any number of self-styled titles such as The Duke of Debonair, The Marquise of Mayhem, The Count of Class and the Prince of Panache.
A swashbuckler doesn’t defeat his enemies in the most efficient way possible… where would be the fun in that? He defeats them in the most stylish way possible, even if that means courting extra danger.
– Cool Manoeuvres
Try and come up with some cool manoeuvres for your swashbuckler to try out on the battlefield, like throwing their cloak over an opponent’s eyes, attempting to undo someone’s breeches instead of hurting them, slapping their backside with the flat of your blade before Fancy Footwork-ing to safety. Sometimes your creativity will gain you an advantage on the battlefield, other times it might earn you inspiration from your DM, but at all times it should lend your game a lot of fun additional flavour.
– Signature Insults
Landing a good insult can be more satisfying than landing a good blow… maybe pre-generate a few that you can use in your next session. A couple I came up with (but I keep forgetting to use!) are:
I’ve felt a kitten lick me harder than that (for when an opponent scores a particularly low hit point blow).
Your swordplay is shabby, but my God your breath could knock out all five heads of a hydra at a hundred yards
My moustache has had more pussy than you… and I only grew it last month
Archaic insults could also prove to be a fun source of merriment at the table. Bandying around scorchers like fustylugs, lobcock, unlicked cub, beard splitter and scobberlotcher is likely to be memorable at the very least!
A Touch of Poetry
I’ve wanted to play a poet for a while now but it didn’t fit any of my previous characters… but it’s perfect for the swashbuckler. To make things easy on myself I’ve take the classic limerick format and use that to spin amusing ditties, such as:
There once was a rogue named Drake
Who yearned for an ale and a steak
He was short on coins
But long in the loins
So a deal with the landlady he did make
There once was a courtesan named Diva
People said she had a very hairy beaver
To see it myself
I had to pay half my wealth
But, damm it, now I’m a believer
As the adventurer has worn on though I’ve started writing poems to describe the real deeds of the whole party (not the imagined deeds of Drake), and it’s become a fun informal reminder of what happened in last week’s session. The DM even writes them down for us next to his own session summary!
There once was a druid called Mingan
There were vines only he could swing on
The others and Drake
Each got bit by a snake
Because they didn’t know how to cling on
There once was a bard with powers like Moses
– at least in very small doses
He parted the lake
For the heroes and Drake
We didn’t get wet… not even our toesies!
There once was a bard called Elandril
He wanted the scroll: Power Word Kill
But because he’s so greedy
We gave it to the needy
Now Tallulah can murder at will
And my personal favourite…
There once was a paladin called Tallulah
I really wanted to do her
I pretended to be a goner
So she’d lay her hands on my boner
Turns out it was easy to fool her!
Anyway I include this in case it inspires any poetic or storytelling leanings for your own PC.
Apart from being an egotistically prick, I decided to give Drake a pretty serious flaw. He’s scared of undead (which of course he doesn’t admit). I’m not sure the party have really noticed yet that he suddenly decides to switch to his sling whenever the dead come calling, and at one stage using some poor wenches as body shields… and whilst it can seem like you’re making an unnecessary rod for your back when you give your PC a flaw that the rules don’t call for, I think a character comes to life when you give them some weaknesses and can provide you with many more roleplaying opportunities than the all-conquering style of hero. Check out my phobias table for some inspiration on that front (although weaknesses needn’t be limited to phobias!).
Mike Mearls Speaks…
And to finish let’s see what Mike Mearls has to say about swashbucklers in 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Have you played this archetype yourself? Please share your experiences and tips in the comments!
And, if you liked this, check out my guide on playing a rogue assassin, where I demonstrate some canny optimisation choices as well as introduce you to my beloved badass bitch Xenia ‘Nightsting’ Zanetti of the White Scorpions Guild. (Well technically ‘formerly badass bitch’ as she recently got reduced to a pile of dust by an undead Beholder… but who knows if powerful magic might one day raise her from the ashes).