Parry, thrust, now for witty banter! Swashbucklers dance their way through combat with a flashing blade and a disarming smile. They’ve gone through multiple iterations as D&D has gone on, sometimes blending elements of both rogue and fighter and sometimes becoming something altogether new. If the thought of big feathered hats, swinging on ropes, and dueling rapiers appeals to you, then grab a book of smug one-liners and get ready to narrowly escape the law as we go through everything you need to know.
What Are Swashbucklers?
Masters of both wit and blade, the swashbuckler has technically been flaunting their charms since 2nd edition D&D (though they were only a warrior kit back then). They briefly became their own class in 3rd edition, and now in 5th edition they sit firmly as a rogue archetype, though one with a firmly unique identity. Swashbucklers are charming, debonair, they’re all about flamboyant style rather than lurking in the shadows, though you’ll lose your gold all the same. Commonly they’re pirates swinging from the rigging, performers entertaining as much as they steal, or heartthrobs who leave swooning suitors at every port as they evade the law. Mechanically, swashbucklers aren’t all that different from your typical rogue, but benefit from a very different playstyle. A swashbuckler can quickly get in, deliver a sneak attack, then back off unscathed, no stealth required.
Swashbuckler Class Features
To reiterate, swashbucklers are a rogue archetype, which means they’ll gain all the rogue class features and you can learn more about those in our rogue guide. Here we’ll go into each unique archetype feature gained by the swashbuckler archetype and how best to utilize them.
This is one of the fundamental features you gain when you first pick up the archetype at 3rd level. It says that whenever you make an attack roll against a creature, they don’t get to make attacks of opportunity against you for the rest of your turn.
It’s important to note that this feature only requires an “attack”, not a “hit”. If you target the enemy with any sort of attack, their opportunity attacks are turned off for the rest of your turn regardless of whether you hit or not.
This is where most of the “hit and run” play style comes in, because so long as you have a single target, you can run in to stab your enemy, and dip back out to a safe range every single turn without repercussion.
This is the other core feature the swashbuckler archetype gains when you first take it at 3rd level, and it does two very important things.
The first thing it does is add your Charisma bonus to your initiative rolls. Sweet and simple, and it stacks on top of your normal Dexterity bonus to initiative rolls as well. This means in most cases you’ll be going first or early in initiative. It also incentivizes you to prioritize a high Charisma, which will likely lean your character towards a “face of the party” style rogue.
The second feature improves the parameters you need to get a sneak attack. The raw feature is poorly worded, and I’ve seen a lot of players get very confused by it. The text isn’t replacing your sneak attack parameters, it’s adding new ways for you to land it. All told, as a swashbuckler these are the following ways you can trigger a sneak attack:
- Make an attack roll with advantage using a finesse or ranged weapon.
- Make an attack roll using a finesse or ranged weapon while one of your allies is within 5 feet of the target, that ally isn’t incapacitated, and your attack isn’t at disadvantage.
- Make an attack roll using a finesse or ranged weapon against a target within 5 feet of you, and there are no other creatures within 5 feet of you, and your attack isn’t at disadvantage.
Those first two are the normal sneak attack conditions that every rogue has, the 3rd one is unique to swashbucklers. It’s meant for “dueling” and means so long as you get a target alone, you’ll always have sneak attacks against them.
This is a HUGE boost, as most other rogues need to either rely on stealth or having their allies charge in with them to get sneak attack. Swashbucklers can be more independent, and so long as they aren’t swarmed, they can hold their own.
At 9th level you gain the second payoff for that high Charisma score. Panache provides you with two special ways to use your Charisma (Persuasion) checks.
The first is a combat utility that functions like a taunt. As an action you make a Persuasion check contested by their Insight check, and if you win the contest your target has disadvantage against everything but you for the next minute. It does have the caveats that your target has to hear and understand you (makes sense) and if you run more than 60 feet away from them the effect ends. This still ties in well with your “hit and run” tactics, as you can provoke somebody and then keep dipping away while your allies have free reign, almost putting you into the tank category in the right situations.
The second use is out of combat, and it’s a practically free charm effect you’ll always have at your fingertips. You make a Persuasion check contested by their Insight, and if you win the contest your target is charmed by you for a minute. Extremely useful as a face of the party, free charm person with unlimited uses? Yes please.
Up at 13th level you can now use a bonus action to gain advantage on your next Dexterity (Acrobatics) or Strength (Athletics) check. Not all that exciting as a tier 3 ability, but it’s useful and especially out of combat you’ll essentially always have advantage on these checks.
At 17th level you gain the swashbuckler capstone and it’s a doozy. After you miss with an attack, you can immediately try again with advantage (and therefore sneak attack). The ability recharges on a short rest, which means you’re basically free to do it once per combat.
Building a Better Swashbuckler
As swashbucklers are a rogue archetype in 5th edition, most everything that’s true about building a rogue is true for building a swashbuckler. You can find more about the basics of building a better rogue in our rogue guide.
What we’ll focus on here are the main points where swashbucklers differ, and their unique strategies and builds.
Swashbuckler Ability Scores
Swashbucklers don’t differ all that much from other rogues but gain a bit more when it comes to the Charisma modifier. This makes them fit quite snugly into the “face of the party” role that many other rogues also fall into, but they’ll gain some mechanical benefits for that Charisma modifier beyond role playing opportunities.
Dexterity is still going to be your most important score and should be as high as you can possibly get it.
Charisma should be your next highest score, though you don’t need to prioritize maximizing it and a 14 or 16 will serve you just fine.
Finally, Constitution should be your next highest ability score or tied with Charisma. Swashbucklers are still a melee class and you’ll need to be able to take a few hits.
Beyond that any remaining points should go towards Intelligence or Wisdom for boosts to various skills and saving throws.
Finally, as with most rogues, Strength should be your dump stat.
You could play any race as a swashbuckler, though for optimization you’ll want a race that improves your Dexterity, and ideally one that also boosts your Charisma or Constitution. The following races have a +2 bonus to Dexterity, and +1 to either their Charisma or Constitution (or the ability to select it) making them optimal choices for a Swashbuckler:
Base elves gain +2 Dex and between all the subraces you’ll be able to pick up +1 in your choice of Charisma or Constitution. Of the options, the sea elf fits thematically if you’re going for a pirate and a swim speed can be relevant to your campaign. Otherwise, I’d recommend eladrin as their Fey Step ability synergizes quite well with the swashbuckler play style.
Goblins gain +2 Dex and +1 Con. Fury of the Small stacks up one hell of a wallop combined with sneak attack. Though just like with other rogues, goblins lose a lot of their utility due to the Nimble Escape feature matching the rogue features, meaning you don’t actually gain anything from it. Still, the ability scores line up well and they’re not a bad choice. Also, the idea of a flamboyant goblin swashbuckler is amazing.
Grungs gain +2 Dex and +1 Con. Grungs are thematically locked into the land of Chult from the Tomb of Annihilation adventure, which means your DM may not even allow them in other settings. Their big draw for swashbucklers and rogues in general is the ability to poison your blades with your own dart froggy slime. It doesn’t scale well though, so it’ll only be a major boost to your damage output at very low levels.
Base halflings gain +2 Dex and lightfoot halflings gain +1 Charisma and stout halflings gain +1 Constitution. I consider lightfoot halflings as one of the top swashbuckler options. The abilities line up perfectly, and the Lucky feature is amazing in any situation. Stout halflings are also a fine option and pick up poison resistance for your trouble.
Human (Base or Variant)
Base humans gain +1 to each ability score and the variant human gains +1 to two abilities of your choice (and a feat). Humans are always going to be the most flexible race, and this is no exception. If your DM is allowing it, variant human is also the fastest way to pick up one of the swashbuckler feats we’ll be getting into in a moment.
Tabaxi gain +2 Dex and +1 Cha. Finally, these cats are my pick for the absolute strongest race option for swashbucklers. Their ability bonuses line up perfectly, but what puts them over the top is their Feline Agility feature. Swashbucklers want to stab and back off, and this feature gives you a burst of speed that will let you dash in, stab, and dash away unharmed back well out of range. If you’re building a new swashbuckler, give the cats a chance.
Feats are truly optional, and you can use feats to specialize a character in any number of ways, but if you’re picking through the feat options there are a few feats that synergize with the swashbuckler in an ideal way:
You can’t be caught by surprise and hidden enemies don’t get advantage against you, all of which is golden but the reason it fits the swashbuckler so well is the +5 bonus to initiative. Combined with your Dexterity modifier and Charisma modifier you could easily have a +10 bonus to your initiative rolls and going first in combat is a key part of the swashbuckler battle plan.
A new feat out of Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, this lets you pick up another point of Charisma while gaining a vital spell for swashbucklers, Misty Step. Sometimes you won’t have the movement needed to zip in, attack, and get out, and sometimes you really need to make that happen. A misty step at the right time can completely change the combat situation, and it’s worth the cost of a feat to pick it up.
An excellent choice for any high Charisma class, this lets you pump up the squad with temporary hit points equal to your class level + your Charisma modifier by spending 10 minutes giving rousing speeches. As a force multiplier this feat is solid, and that temp HP can really make the difference.
Last updated: January 27, 2019
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