The Rogue slips behind a wall, his foe in sight. The rest of his companions circle up, and then bam! Sneak attack! An enormous ogre clutches its chest and dramatically falls to the ground, killed with a single blow. Everyone sighs and glances back relieved not to have to fight the massive creature. The Rogue strolls out from his hiding place, a smug grin sliding onto his face.
You, too, can impress your friends and take down enemies with a single, well-placed blow. Let’s dive into the finer points of sneak attack.
Table of Contents
The Basics of Sneak Attack
The basic text reads: Beginning at 1st level, you know how to strike subtly and exploit a foe’s distraction. Once per turn, you can deal an extra 1d6 damage to one creature you hit with an attack if you have advantage on the attack roll. The attack must use a finesse or a ranged weapon.
You don’t need advantage on the attack roll if another enemy of the target is within 5 feet of it, that enemy isn’t incapacitated, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll. The amount of the extra damage increases as you gain levels in this class.
You get 2d6 at level 3, 3d6 at level 5, 4d6 at level 7, 5d6 at level 9, 6d6 at level 11, 7d6 at level 13, 8d6 at level 15, 9d6 at level 17, and 10d6 at level 19. By the end, you’re doing an average of 30 points of Sneak Attack damage on top of your normal attack.
There are a few things to note in the description. Firstly, Sneak Attack works with ranged and melee attacks as long as they’re made with finesse weapons. Secondly, you don’t technically need advantage as long as you have an ally in melee, although you should probably try to get advantage whenever possible since it increases the likelihood that your attack will land.
Rogues have the optional feature from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything called Steady Aim. It gives you advantage on your attack that turn, but it also uses up your bonus action. Unlike other classes, Rogues have tons of options for their bonus actions, so that might be a deal-breaker for some players.
We talk more about different ways to gain advantage in our other article, but just to summarize here, there are a few main ways that Rogues can gain advantage and activate their Sneak Attack. We aren’t going to add in anything from other classes since we’re assuming you didn’t multiclass.
Attacking from a hidden position is usually your best bet. Rogues can use their bonus action for Cunning Action, giving you extra options like the Hide action. If you are near something you can dive behind, like some fallen rubble or a weird stone statue, you can hide behind it. Your next attack will be at advantage. Small creatures can hide behind Medium or larger creatures, too. Similarly, if you have a magical item (or a friend) who makes you invisible, you attack at advantage.
If you can’t swing those, you can also try to blind your enemies. Any time they can’t see you, you attack with advantage. If the enemy is prone, you have advantage on melee attacks but disadvantage on ranged ones. Attacks against paralyzed, restrained, stunned, and unconscious targets are also made at advantage.
Feats To Consider
As a Rogue, there are plenty of feats that can dramatically increase your effectiveness, especially when it comes to making use of your Sneak Attack. The Alert feat is almost mandatory for Assassin Rogues because it adds a flat +5 bonus to your initiative rolls and makes it so that you can’t be surprised. No more enemy surprise rounds at the beginning of combat, and you’re likely near the top of the initiative, so you can do serious damage right at the start.
Another great feat is Crossbow Expert or Gunner (depending on your weapon of choice). If you end up in melee, you can still make your ranged attack without worrying about disadvantage (and thus negating your Sneak Attack). Plus, if someone leaves your melee range and you get to make an attack of opportunity, you might be able to Sneak Attack them there, too. Remember, Sneak Attack works once per turn, not per round.
If you are a ranged attacker, the Skulker feat could do wonders for your build. If you hide and attack but miss, your position isn’t revealed. Normally, after making an attack (hit or miss), you reveal your position and will need to spend your next bonus action to Hide again. With this feat, you don’t need to move around if you miss.
Finally, although it is racially locked to elves and half-elves, the Elven Accuracy feat can take Rogues to the next level. Every time you roll an attack with advantage, you can reroll one of your dice. No more rolling a 1 and a 2. You can reroll one of those and have a much better chance of hitting your target. This feature isn’t limited to a few times per day either; it’s every time.
Most of the Rogue subclasses have additional features that let you use Sneak Attack differently than the average, vanilla reading. We cover those subclasses below.
As soon as you choose this subclass, you get the Assassinate feature, and it’s the defining aspect of this subclass. Starting at 3rd level, you are at your deadliest when you get the drop on your enemies. You have advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn in the combat yet. In addition, any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.
You can see why so many Assassin Rogues take the Alert feat, right? Plus, at level 17, you get Death Strike. When you attack and hit a creature that is surprised, it must make a Constitution saving throw (DC 8 + your Dexterity modifier + your proficiency bonus). On a failed save, double the damage of your attack against the creature.
By level 17, your Dex modifier should be +5, and your PB is +6. Constitution is often a strong saving throw for most high-level monsters, but a 19 can be a tough AC to beat, especially if you have some way of giving them disadvantage. Ideally, you would attack a surprised creature (automatically critting or doubling the dice), and they’d fail the save, so you’d do quadruple the normal damage.
Even if you were just using a mundane dagger (1d4 damage), that’s still an average of 126 points of damage. By level 17, you definitely won’t be using a nonmagical weapon, so that’s likely a very conservative estimate of your damage.
Arcane Trickster Rogue
There are a few interesting things with Arcane Trickster Rogues. For one thing, spells like booming blade can stack with Sneak Attack because it involves making a weapon attack. For another, the spell shadow blade automatically gives you advantage on attacks when you’re in dim light or darkness, thereby activating your Sneak Attack.
However, the best part is the level 13 feature, Versatile Trickster. At 13th level, you gain the ability to distract targets with your mage hand. As a bonus action on your turn, you can designate a creature within 5 feet of the spectral hand created by the spell. Doing so gives you advantage on attack rolls against that creature until the end of the turn. You can move that mage hand with your bonus action each turn, so you never have to worry about attacking without advantage.
You gain the Insightful Fighting feature at level 3, which is a bonus action to make a Wisdom (Insight) check against their Charisma (Deception) check. If you succeed, you can use your Sneak Attack against that target even if you don’t have advantage on the attack roll, but not if you have disadvantage on it. This benefit lasts for 1 minute or until you successfully use this feature against a different target.
Later on, at level 17, you gain the Eye for Weakness feature. While your Insightful Fighting feature applies to a creature, your Sneak Attack damage against that creature increases by 3d6. This puts you at 12d6 at level 17 and 13d6 at level 19 for an average of 36 and 39 points of damage, respectively.
The Phantom Rogue gains the 3rd-level feature Wails from the Grave which lets you target a second creature you can see within 30 feet of the target of your Sneak Attack and roll half the number of Sneak Attack dice for your level (round up), and the second creature takes necrotic damage equal to the roll’s total.
At level 17, the Death’s Friend feature lets you deal that extra necrotic damage to both the second target and your initial target. For reference, that means you do an average of 27 points of Sneak Attack damage and an additional average of 15 points of necrotic damage to the first target.
Rakish Audacity, the 3rd level feature, gives you a new way to use Sneak Attack in addition to an initiative bonus equal to your Charisma modifier. 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 Sneak Attack still apply to you.
Between this and the Panache feature at level 9, you can use your Rogue as a tank in battle since you don’t need anyone else to be in melee to get Sneak Attack.
At 17th level, you gain the Sudden Strike feature. If you take the Attack action on your turn, you can make one additional attack as a bonus action. This attack can benefit from your Sneak Attack even if you have already used it this turn, but you can’t use your Sneak Attack against the same target more than once in a turn. That means you could target two separate creatures and do your Sneak Attack against both of them in a single turn.
The 17th level feature Rend Mind says: You can sweep your Psychic Blades directly through a creature’s mind. When you use your Psychic Blades to deal Sneak Attack damage to a creature, you can force that target to make a Wisdom saving throw (DC equal to 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Dexterity modifier). If the save fails, the target is stunned for 1 minute. The stunned target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.
Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest, unless you expend three Psionic Energy dice to use it again. You won’t want to use this all the time, although by this level you’ll have 12 Psionic Energy dice to play around with. Like the Assassin’s Death Strike feature, the Wisdom saving throw DC should be 19 at this level and most enemies don’t have that kind of Wisdom.
Plus, stunned is one of the conditions that give you advantage on attacks so your future attacks should be able to use Sneak Attack too.
Though the Thief Rogue doesn’t gain any features that modify or enhance Sneak Attack, their 17th-level ability, Thief’s Reflexes, does give them a second turn in the first round (at -10 their original initiative) which gives you another shot at using your Sneak Attack, even against the same creature you attacked the first time. You can’t use the feature if you’re surprised, though, so it’s another reason to take the Alert feat we mentioned above.