It took me all of five seconds to pile in on various feats and class abilities I felt were too deadly when I first started this blog in 2016… but it’s taken me five years to tackle 5th edition’s most commonly-occurring damage spike: sneak attack.
Nonetheless, in a belated show of impartiality, I’d like to share my misgivings about the rogue’s sneak attack.
Which are as follows:
My 5 Misgivings About Sneak Attack…
1. Unconvincing Premise
While it works as a game mechanic, sneak attack has never really made sense to me. Why is a back-alley chancer so much better at sticking a sword in an opponent than a trained fighter, who presumably also can look for an opportune moment to strike and take advantage of an opponent being distracted?
2. Disproportionate Damage Dice
What is it with 5e’s obsession with flashy damage? All it does is make usual damage feel like a real let down… when my high level rogue assassin was fighting with two weapons, if I managed to hit with my first attack and do my SA damage, then I could barely be bothered to make my second attack. An unmodified d4 offhand weapon attack felt so puny in comparison to two handfuls of d6s as to be pointless.
Meanwhile, I’ve often made my fellow players’ melee damage look trivial in comparison when fighting with my swashbuckler… that doesn’t make anyone feel good at the table, neither me nor them. I’ll all for damage bonuses but when a shortsword sometimes does 1d6 and other times 9d6 damage in the same hand, it feels like proportion and balance has gone out the window.
3. Ranged Rogues
Is there anything more annoying than a rogue using a light crossbow, and utilising full cover, to decimate the battlefield with impunity? I don’t care if the PC taking no chances on the sidelines is just that… on the sidelines. But if they’re doing the most damage while not even putting their bodies on the line, that’s just galling.
4. Too Few Restrictions
Ok, you can’t use it when you’re isolated in melee, but given that D&D is all about fighting together in adventuring groups, you can pretty much deal sneak attack damage every round. Even when surrounded, you simply disengage and then stab an opponent locked in melee with an ally, leading to some stupid scenarios (see below). Not only that, but all the rules from earlier editions that meant thieves could only backstab creatures that had physiological weaknesses like throats, brains and hearts etc. have been stripped away for the sake of simplicity. In 5e you can backstab a zombie… or an ooze. You can also sneak attack a gargantuan creature, even if you can only reach its little toe.
5. Stupid Scenarios
I guess you could argue backflipping out of combat (using disengage) to go and impale a distracted opponent is the very impish epitome of roguishness, but the evading of any kind of one-on-one melee to run half way across the battlefield to attack someone else feels kinda dumb to me most of the time. This of course is exactly what the sneak attack mechanic encourages, and players start to act in weird, immersion-breaking ways in order to get their beloved SA.
Can Sneak Attack Be ‘Fixed’?
Overall, I’m not sure how the rogue would look without a powerful sneak attack – pretty meh, I guess! And the mechanic is already one of the most complicated of 5th edition’s, and I imagine any attempt to ‘fix’ it would start making it very clunky, very quickly.
I do feel, however, that a distinction could easily be made between a sneaky attack against a distracted foe and a genuinely stealthy backstab against a creature that didn’t see you coming… so for that reason my own little Hipster Fix will be the following. When you have advantage to hit your sneak attack dice are d6s (as usual), but when you’re only gaining sneak attack damage due to an enemy being within 5 ft. of your target, your dice are d4s instead.
And because I’m a grumpy bastard I’d reserve the right to withdraw SA privileges against certain foes (ghosts, shadows and gelatinous cubes spring to mind!) and in certain circumstances (fighting a huge / gargantuan creature – this could lead to some fun scenarios of rogues jumping on a dragon’s back or climbing up a giant’s leg to deliver their SA damage!).
Those fixes certainly don’t deal with all of my reservations, and if anything they make the ranged rogue (may they burn in hell!) even more appealing, but I think they should be easy to implement and most players won’t rage quit at these fairly mild nerfs.
What about you? How have you played sneak attack at your table? Exactly as RAW, or using some restrictions from previous editions or house rules? (I read every comment I get, and I do my best to reply whenever time permits!).
Finally, For Players…
Oh, and if you’re here as a player and sorely disappointed at the lack of sneak attack playing tips presented here, I think it would be hard to surpass this advice on Flute’s Loot.