I’d noticed — as I’m sure all of you did, too — that I hadn’t written here for a while. I don’t play that many games that require a processor, other than League of Legends, so not many of my potential topics are particularly newsworthy. So I asked Incontrol what I could write about, and he suggested I do what I did with the bard: pick an underpowered Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 class and make it shine. While I take exception to the implication that the bard is underpowered, I took a look at a class tier list (eyes glazing over the bard’s ranking…) and picked some random schlub from the lower echelons.
Though I chose the swashbuckler (Complete Warrior) by chance, I do have some affection for the class. One of my favorite NPCs was a catfolk swashbuckler — who was quickly killed by Incontrol’s character. Consider this sweet, sweet revenge.
So, you’ve decided to play a swashbuckler. Whether it’s because you like pirates, or the word “swashbuckler” just sounds awesome, or you’re just really excited about Fiora, none of that matters. What does matter is this: Does your party stand to face a lot of undead and/or constructs? If the answer is yes, then I’d strongly advise you against taking any of this advice. Well, except that sentence. And that one. And that one. You know what I mean.
When I think of swashbucklers, I think of witty, charismatic combatants, a la Zorro. I’m sure that’s what Wizards had in mind, too, when they designed the class. However, they’re a bit underwhelming in melee, and if you want to focus more on social aspects, your combat prowess is likely to suffer. Or so people think.
Taking a look at the swashbuckler as a melee combatant, two class features in particular stand out: Insightful Strike and Improved Flanking. Almost makes up for your abysmal armor options as a melee combatant. The former adds your intelligence bonus to damage rolls with light weapons, and the latter increases your to-hit flanking bonus by 2. Hm, an ability that does not work against undead or constructs and an ability that makes you more accurate when attacking a flanked opponent. You know what that means? It’s time to SPLASH ROGUE!
But we’ve gotta plan things out. We can’t be just diving into rogue levels all willy nilly. Swashbucklers get Weapon Finesse as a bonus feat. They add their intelligence bonus to damage rolls. But in this build, your most important combat stat will likely be charisma. You’re going to be party face and melee DPS. You’re welcome, and your party’s welcome. For more party face goodness, assuming your DM — and you — are OK with your character being a bit skanky, or at least flirtatious, you should ask about using the Wizards-approved Seduction class feature that lets you use your ‘buckler’s charms to sexually attract — and then draw information from — NPCs.
Now, for the completed version of this build, you’re going to want to prioritize charisma, followed by dexterity, constitution, intelligence, strength and wisdom, in that order. At earlier and middle levels (before about level 15), dexterity will be of more importance than charisma in combat.
As you’re starting out as a young, fetching swashbuckler on the go, you’ll want to consider life as a whisper gnome (Races of Stone), if you think you’ll have the charisma to spare. The dexterity and constitution bonuses (not to mention size bonus to armor class) will noticeably improve your survivability — you don’t have access to a lot of armor — and being a gnome also opens up use of the Titan Fighting (Races of Stone) feat, which will do wonders to mitigate your relative lack of defenses. If you’re not going to be a whisper gnome, human is always a good choice.
Another fundamental choice you’re going to have to make is alignment. If you’re evil, you can take an Assassin (Dungeon Master’s Guide) dip later on, bumping your sneak attack by an additional d6. If evil’s not your thing, that’s fine; you can just take an extra level of swashbuckler to beef up on that juicy d10 hit die. The extra level in ‘buckler will also net you an additional +1 dodge bonus (for a total of +2, not counting the feat) and an extra point of base attack bonus.
So, if you’re evil, you’ll be taking nine levels in swashbuckler. If you’re not, or a level in assassin doesn’t appeal to you, go for the full ten in swashbuckler, have a blast. Swing around your rapier, cut your initials in things. You know, live life.
Whoops. Did I say rapier? Well, I mean, you can use a rapier, but if you want to fully realize your potential, I’d advise switching over to dagger(s), punching dagger(s), or kukri(s). I personally prefer the kukri for the larger critical hit range. You may be thinking, “But whyyy can’t I uuuse a rapieeeer?” Well, first off, stop whining like that; it’s annoying. Second off, unwad your panties and I’ll tell you that it’s so you can qualify for Invisible Blade (Complete Warrior) later on. Also, having two hands to fight with is just better. Also also, those weapons still apply Insightful Strike. And besides, you can still cut your initials in things with a kukri, you big baby. Anyway, before we get to those sweet, sweet Invisible Blade levels, it’s time to splash rogue.
I’m thinking five levels in rogue. Yeah, I guess it’s a bit long for a splash, but it provides a solid sneak attack base (+3d6) and, more importantly, Uncanny Dodge. As a low-armor melee combatant with a lot of dodge buffs, the ability to rarely be caught flat-footed is pretty frickin’ helpful. The swashbuckler’s Improved Flanking and free Weapon Finesse make your flank-induced sneak attacks more likely to hit. With those levels taken care of, you can end your rogue splash…
… and continue on to Invisible Blade. There are some skill requirements, but having taken levels in rogue and prioritizing your intelligence attribute, they shouldn’t be a problem. Unfortunately, you’ll also have to have taken Far Shot, Point Blank Shot, and Weapon Focus (dagger/kukri/punching dagger). While this build isn’t focusing on ranged combat, I suppose those feats couldn’t hurt your secondary weapon choice. Once you take your fifth level of Invisible Blade, you can feint as a free action. Essentially, you get a Bluff check on any attack you want, and if your opponent fails, they’re treated as flat-footed, a.k.a. sneak attack food. This is where all those points in charisma — and, by the way, you should be maxing your Bluff skill — pay off.
You may be asking why bother with the ‘buckler levels if the point is to get consistent sneak attack damage out of free-action feints. Well, not every enemy you face will fall for your feints. In fact some — like nonintelligent foes — won’t even be susceptible to them. That’s where your swashbuckler flanking bonus comes in. If you’re flanking an opponent, you’re already getting sneak attack damage. But you have to hit your opponent first, so that little boost to your to-hit rolls during flanking make a difference, more so in earlier levels than after 12. Your class-feature dodge-to-AC and Reflex save bonuses also help make you an effective melee combatant. The d10 hit die and full-progression base attack bonus certainly don’t hurt, either. The Reflex bonus also dovetails nicely with the rogue’s Evasion class ability. These potent combinations work well with the swashbuckler’s free Weapon Finesse to cut down on melee sneak-attackers’ problem with MAD (multiple attribute dependency).
After your five levels in Invisible Blade, your final two levels are really up to you. I find dipping into Assassin and Nightsong Enforcer (Complete Adventurer) for the sneak attack bonus boosts particularly nice, which would bring it to a healthy +8d6 damage on successful sneak attacks.
If you happened to not listen to me and still wanted to play a swashbuckler in an undead-heavy campaign, first off, hey, screw you, too, second off, you could switch to a Swashbuckler 8/Cleric 1/Rogue 3/Invisible Blade 5/Skullclan Hunter 3. You’ll miss out on Evasion, and you’ll have to have put eight ranks into Knowledge (religion), and your sneak attacks will only deal 6d6 bonus damage, but you can deal sneak attack damage to undead. Oh, and you get the benefits of a level 1 cleric, so, uh, I guess that’s something.
So, to recap, the Card and Dice Preferred Build (TM) for the ‘buckler based party face and melee slasher goes as follows:
Swashbuckler 9/Rogue 5/Invisible Blade 5/Assassin 1 [or Nightsong Enforcer 1]
3: Two-Weapon Fighting
6: Far Shot
9: Point Blank Shot
12: Weapon Focus (kukri)
15: Titan Fighting (Races of Stone) [or, if going for Nightsong Enforcer and you’d rather exchange damage for defense, Craven (City of Ruin)]*
18: Improved Initiative [if going for Nightsong Enforcer. Otherwise: Craven]
*Craven adds your character level to your sneak attack damage. That can be pretty serious business.
I didn’t cover magic items or weapons in this guide, because, frankly, those are so subject to DM fiat I feel I wouldn’t be quite useful. My advice? Pick magic kukris that hit hard.
Well, that’s all for this week, folks. Until next time, stay smart, stay safe and, I really mean it, do not play a Truenamer. Even I can’t save that class.