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Sneaking and Stabbing for Fun and Profit
Death from the shadows, the iconic rogue is the master of stealth, trickery, and generally stabbing people in the hurty bits. 5th edition D&D gives you a huge variety of roguish stabby styles and rogues have far more character options at their sticky fingertips than just an edgy lad with a knife and a hood. Get ready for some skullduggery as we go through everything you need to know in this Rogue 5E DND class guide. Prepare by reading this guide and setting up a game of D&D with our awesome rogue dice sets.
What Are Rogues?
Dnd 5e Rogues are so diverse that it's hard to pin them down, but there's the rogue we know, the rogue of tradition and the iconic idea of the rogue. And then there's everything a 5e rogue could be. The iconic rogues are burglars, or assassins, dark hooded figures who look at the world as a list of potential marks. This iconic rogue disappears in the night only to return with blood covered knives, pilfered magic items and loot, and dismisses them with smirks and excuses. But in 5th edition dungeons and dragons that niche for rogues has expanded out to include magical tricksters, brilliant detectives, charismatic swashbucklers, and yes, even thieves and assassins. Mechanically rogues are martial characters built around their sneak attack feature, that rewards you with a ton of DPS for either surprising your opponents or sticking with your allies for support. Rogues often deal amazing amounts of damage like a front-line fighter or ranged fighter, scout out traps, sneak about unseen, and are often the go-to for many skill checks.
Some of the most iconic characters that would probably be rogues in D&D include Carmen Sandiego, Westly from The Princess Bride, Robin Hood in most of his incarnations, Catwoman, Lupin the 3rd, Black Widow, and Loki of both Norse mythology and his marvel incarnation.
Rogue Class Features
Before you gain a single level and we get into builds and options, we should go through the fundamental rogue abilities that make a rogue a rogue.
More than anything else, sneak attack is really what sets a rogue apart from all the other martial classes. Rogues don't get more attacks as they advance in level like other classes do, instead you get more and more dice for your "sneak attack" that applies to a single attack. This sneak attack kicks in up to once each turn with a ton of extra damage on your attacks, so long as your attack met a few specific requirements. The way it's phrased in the player's handbook is a little odd and I've seen a lot of players get confused by it. Essentially, you've got two requirements that have to be true to get a sneak attack off, and a 3rd condition that can be met with 1 of 2 things.
These two requirements must be met for a sneak attack:
- Your attack must be with a ranged weapon, or a weapon with the "finesse" feature.
- Your attack cannot have disadvantage.
Then, you have to meet one of these two conditions:
- You have advantage on the attack.
- Your ally (or at least an enemy of the thing you're attacking) is within 5 feet of your target, and isn't incapacitated.
Now that you've met all these requirements, what actually happens? When you make an attack that meets these requirements, and it hits, you can choose to do a bunch of extra d6s in damage. You can find the number of these sneak attack dice on the sneak attack column of the main rogue table in the player's handbook, but you start at 1d6 and go up another 1d6 every 2 rogue levels.
It's important to note you don't have to declare that you're "using" a sneak attack, you can just choose to apply it after you successfully hit. You also don't get an "extra sneak attack" if you hit more than once, it doesn't cost anything, but it's still a once a turn ability.
So, mechanically, you're very incentivized to either stick with your allies to meet that last requirement or sneak off on your own to surprise your enemies for that sneak attack benefit. You have advantage on opponents that can't see you, so hiding away in the shadows is often a good play for a rogue. It's a bit awkward to have your combat abilities dictated by your allies, so try to always have a backup plan.
The other half of the rogue equation is your skills with well, rogue skills. For a start, rogues get to choose a whopping 4 skill proficiencies from a list that includes some of the best options. Then you get a feature called "expertise" at 1st level and again at 6th level. Each time you gain expertise, you get to select two rogue skills or tool proficiencies and you'll get to add double your proficiency bonus in them.
These great rogue skills mean you'll likely be the absolute best in the party at your chosen skills or with your chosen tools. Tools proficiency can be of immense value depending on what you pick. Be impossibly stealthy, have a deft hand at picking locks, or select Perception and be the party's early warning system.
Starting at 2nd level, you'll have the option to use your bonus action to perform any of three things that normally take an action to use: Dash, Disengage, or Hide.
All of these actions are amazing and fit well into what is normally a rogue's playstyle. Need to cover ground more quickly? Simply Dash as a bonus action and then Dash again using your action. You just covered 3 times your movement speed in a single turn.
Do the monsters have you on the ropes? Stab the critter one more time before using a bonus action to Disengage and exit the melee without getting hit on the way out.
Need to get off the enemy radar or simply reset to sneak attack from range again next turn? Use your bonus action to Hide behind any convenient cover and get ready to snipe again. For most characters using the hide action mid-combat is prohibitive, but for you it's basically free!
Uncanny Dodge & Evasion
You get uncanny dodge at 5th level and evasion at 7th, but I want to talk about them together because they work together to make you more survivable.
Think of uncanny dodge as your emergency button. It allows you to half the damage coming in from any attack, even a spell attack or a melee attack. Note that technically you have to declare that you're using it when you're hit before you know how much damage is coming in. Though I've seen a lot of DMs let you declare it afterwards. Regardless, when you get caught in the dragon breath or the necromancer's big damage spell, make sure to remember your uncanny dodge and keep yourself alive.
Speaking of dragon breath, at 7th level you get evasion which is one of the best defensive abilities in the game. Basically, your nimble butt is better than most at avoiding big AOE saving throw type effects. Whenever you get hit by a fireball or a dragon breath or anything else that forces you to make a Dexterity saving throw, you take half the damage on a failed save, and take NO damage on a pass.
Remember that you can stack these two features together. If you fail the saving throw on that big dragon breath attack, you can use your uncanny dodge to halve it again and only take a quarter of the damage!
Building a Better Rogue
Rogue Ability Scores
Rogues more than most classes get their ability priorities shifted around depending on what archetype they take but there are a few constants that you should consider on character creation and when your ability increases.
With very few exceptions, Dexterity is always going to be the ability score you'll want as high as possible. The attacks you'll be making rely on Dexterity, and you'll likely be wearing light armor which will be enhanced by a high Dexterity score. At character creation you'll want to try and get your Dexterity up to 16, and you'll likely want it up to 18 with your first ability score improvement and may very well be best served by spending all of your ability score increases in Dex at later levels.
Next is Constitution. As with most martial classes that expect to get into combat every now and again, it's helpful to stack up a few points of Con to get some extra hit points. For many rogues, you'll want a Constitution of 14 or 12.
Then when it comes to the mental abilities of Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, it will really depend on your rogue archetype and what skills you'd like to focus on. If you plan on playing the magical arcane trickster, you'll want to prioritize Intelligence. If you're playing a dashing swashbuckler or want to be a devious face of the party, you'll want to prioritize Charisma. Wisdom doesn't have any specific archetype function, but it is linked to some key skills like Perception you may want to improve.
Finally, while I have seen some very strange builds make use of it, for most Rogues Strength is a bad ability score that they can't really utilize, and this should usually be a rogue's dump stat.
Rogues have proficiency in light armor, simple weapons, and a smattering of melee weapons including shortswords, longswords, rapiers, and hand crossbows.
To start off with, light armor lets you add your entire Dexterity modifier, and most of your actual AC is just going to be coming from your Dex mod. You start off with regular leather armor, which is strictly worse for you than studded leather (1 AC better). You should endeavor to get studded leather armor as early as possible, and you'll likely be wearing that armor for the rest of your campaign.
The weapon selection is less straightforward, though in order to actually inflict sneak attack damage you'll either need to be utilizing finesse or ranged weapons.
For ranged weapon options either the shortbow you start with or a hand crossbow are usually the best options. Or if you're willing to give up a free hand try a light crossbow for a little bit more damage. Make sure to keep a full quiver of arrows or bolts if your DM wants to keep track of such things.
For the melee options, you'll need to decide if you want to dual wield or go two-handed. Dual wielding has the advantage of granting you that extra off-hand attack, which means another chance at landing that sneak attack if the first swing misses. Two-handing a weapon has higher damage potential, but a lower chance of landing a hit.
If you go with dual wielding, you really only have two options, daggers or shortswords. The tradeoff is that shortswords do a bit more damage, but you can also throw daggers as a ranged weapon in a pinch.
For two-handing a weapon the only real option is the rapier. It has the highest damage potential while still being a finesse weapon for sneak attack.
Beyond that core gear, rogues gain a lot of utility from a full pack. You start out with your choice of a burglar's pack, a dungeoneers pack, or an explorers pack. Each pack is chock full of little useful baubles like chalk, ball bearings, and oil. Things that a clever player can use to get up to shenanigans. If you're in a bind, don't forget about your pack, it may have some creative solutions inside.
5e dnd is a forgiving and flexible format. You won't have too much trouble with really any combination of race and class. However, if you're looking to optimize your build, you'll want a race that gives you a +2 bonus in your primary ability Dexterity. For most rogues you'll then be looking for a bonus in Constitution, though in the case of arcane tricksters and swashbucklers you'll be looking for bonuses in Intelligence and Charisma, respectively. We'll focus here on the races that fit the majority of rogue archetypes and the following races gain at least a +2 bonus in Dexterity:
All elves gain a +2 Dex bonus and between their many subraces you can take your pick of +1 Con, Int, or Cha. The base elf gets you darkvision and a free Perception proficiency, and there's quite frankly no wrong answers when it comes to the subraces. Though for your "standard" rogue I like the Shadar-Kai the best. +1 Con, necrotic damage resistance, and a free spooky teleport? Yes please, they're even thematically edgy already.
All halflings gain +2 Dex and with the stout variety you'll also snag +1 Con. Halflings are and always will be one of the best rogue options. And while I've picked out stout halflings specifically you'll still be fine with any of their subraces. The halfling lucky feature is just insanely strong and will keep you alive in situations that would kill other characters by passing key ability checks or making that crucial attack. Lightfoot halflings also get a special mention for their infuriating ability to hide right behind their allies for sneak attack shots.
Both humans and variant humans will always be the ultra-flexible option for any class. Base human gets +1 to every ability score, and variant humans get to pick two scores for a +1 bonus, alongside a coveted first level feat. Grab the standard human if you want to go for the "jack of all trades" and be the party skill monkey, go for variant human if you're trying for any specific combat build that needs a ton of feats.
Goblins get the perfect rogue suite of +2 Dex and +1 Con. Goblins are almost tailor-made as rogues and their fury of the small feature can be stacked onto a sneak attack for some incredibly insane damage totals. Regrettably though you lose out with some overlapping features as the goblin nimble escape ability is practically just a watered-down version of your cunning action. If you can tolerate the "loss" there, goblins still work quite well as all around rogues.
When you reach 3rd level, you'll get a chance to select your "roguish archetype". Your choice of rogue subclass will determine a ton of your class features, and this choice of roguish archetype can dramatically impact how your character plays and functions.
A magic-using Rogue, what could be cooler than that? You get Spellcasting at level 3, allowing you to learn Wizard spells. Once you get to level 9, Magical Ambush will make the victims of your spells face disadvantage on saving throws if you are successfully hiding from them. Playing an arcane trickster can be very different from a typical rogue build or a simple magic initiate, so much so that we've included a full arcane trickster guide you can find further down!
Want to play the fantasy RPG equivalent of a hitman? This is your roguish archetype. At level 3, Assassinate gives you advantage on any attack roll against an opponent that has not yet taken a turn and gives you an automatic crit against any surprised victim.
If you've ever wanted to play Sherlock Holmes, this is how you do it. You gain a bunch of skills and bonuses to investigations and you can outwit your enemies to gain advantage for your sneak attacks. Probably one of the best picks if you're playing investigators heading into a mystery adventure where you'll be needing to look for clues.
This is the rogue you play if you want to manipulate events, without putting yourself in harm's way. Aside from all the unique roleplay tricks and tool proficiency, you also get an ability that makes interesting use of the "help" action. You can easily keep out of danger, while granting your allies advantage from a distance. Grab this for a roleplay heavy adventure, and just use your physical abilities as dump stats.
Phantom rogues are extra spooky, touched by death or planes of negative energy. Mechanically they’re a very interesting mix of damage dealing and flexible utility. Their starting abilities let you swap out a tool or skill proficiency when you rest and deal extra necrotic damage to another target when you sneak attack. The later soul token feature is fantastic, simultaneously making you more survivable, deal more damage, and gives you potential access to ghostly clues and knowledge. Try the phantom out if you’re looking for both utility and damage in your rogue archetype.
The scout rogue is honestly my favorite rogue archetype; you gain some survivalist abilities like a ranger, but the "skirmisher" ability is just so darn useful. You get to play "keep away" when an enemy gets close to you, and you can sometimes go entire combats without the enemy getting a swing on you. Also strangely works well for bandits, as you can snag something and usually get away free.
Why cut your enemies with metal when you can throw MIND KNIVES. Wackiness aside this archetype adds a special resource called “psionic dice” to your psychically inclined rogue, and you get to add these dice to rolls or turn them into literal psychic knives. You also get free telepathy which is nothing to sneeze at. Overall it fits a similar role as the phantom rogue as a DPS/Utility option, though I find the soulknife has lower but more reliable damage output.
A Swashbuckler rogue is a stylish and charismatic rogue that can use their panache to artfully dodge their opponents and talk their opponents into duels. It also has features that dip into Charisma and really lends itself to the "face of the party" role. If you go for this archetype, you'll want to make sure Charisma is one of your better ability scores. Grab this if you want to play a melee rogue dripping with charisma and charm.
This is the archetype most people think of when they imagine a Rogue. Unfortunately, it starts out underpowered. But if you can make it to levels 9-13, Supreme Sneak will give you an advantage on dexterity checks when you move no more than half your movement speed during a turn and Use Magic Device will let you ignore all class, race, and level requirements while using magical devices. Now go rob some marks.
All Rogues need to have a high dexterity. So always place your highest ability roll into this stat. Aside from this, there are a few possible builds for a Rogue.
Every party needs a "Face" character; somebody who knows how to talk to people. This type of character is a master of deception, insight, and intimidation, emphasis on the deception. They can get allies on the side of the party or lie and manipulate to avoid combat or find new opportunities. If no one else is playing this role within the party, you may want to play your Rogue as this type of character.
For a Face Rogue, make Charisma your second-highest attribute. Choose Con or Wis for your third priority and dump your bad rolls into Int and Str.
An Arcane Trickster is a Rogue who uses magic to deceive others and are delvers of the arcane. If you are going to choose this archetype (more on that below), choose Int as your second-highest attribute. Make Con or Wis your third choice. Dump your bad rolls into Str or Cha. More on this later.
Burglar, Assassin, or Other "Traditional" Thief Rogue
If you are going to play a traditional "thief" or "assassin" Rogue, make Con or Wis your second-highest attribute. Con will allow you to survive combat longer if you get cornered by your marks, while Wis will help with Perception and Insight. Throw your bad rolls into Str, Int, and Cha. This archetype is usually great at delving through the dungeon, picking locks with thieves' tools, and generally scouting and trap finding their way through the dungeon.
Whenever you would gain an ability score improvement you may instead select a feat (this is technically an optional rule but practically every DM allows it). Feats grant you interesting abilities, at the cost of those ability points. Ability score improvements are valuable, so selecting a feat over one should never be taken lightly. The following feats are ones you may want to look into as a rogue and may be worth the cost.
Alert - +5 to initiative, keeps you from being surprised while conscious, prevents your enemies from gaining advantage on attacks if they are hidden from you.
Skulker - Essentially a prerequisite if you plan on sniping your marks, this feat lets you hide practically in plain sight, lets you see in dim light, and essentially gives your enemies the Skyrim style "must have been the wind" syndrome as they don't notice you when you miss a shot from hiding.
Sharpshooter - Great for Rogue that use ranged weapons. It allows you to ignore penalties for long range, half cover, and three-quarters cover, plus take a -5 attack roll penalty in exchange for +10 damage.
Mobile - Increases your speed by 10 ft. and prevents marks from using their reaction to make attacks of opportunity against you.
Rogue Protection Tips
So, your party is in danger. How can you protect your friends?
Rogues don't have many ways to buff party members. But what they can do is recognize danger and avoid it. See "Rogue utility" below for examples of how to do this.
Your agility and stealth are your best allies on the battlefield. Either try to stay away from the melee and snipe your enemies while they're unaware of you, or dodge and weave in and out of melee using the disengage action as a bonus action through your cunning action ability. Generally speaking, if the rogue is taking the hits, he's in trouble. Stay on the edge of the battlefield as much as you can but get your stabs in when it's safe.
Rogues really shine outside of combat. Use Perception and Insight to recognize danger and keep your party out of trouble. If a situation looks too dangerous, leave your party behind, and use Stealth to infiltrate the enemy, then report back when you're done. If you're playing a Face character, use Persuasion and Deception to find clues, convince guards to let you by, and accomplish other social aims. If playing an Arcane Trickster, use Investigation and Arcana to find answers to your party's questions about non-magical or magical subjects. It's also worth noting your 7th level evasion ability can potentially save you from a lot of traps or suspicious magic items. It may feel harsh, but as the rogue you're often a good choice for the first person to go through the door or touch the magic item.
As you get so many proficiencies with skills and tools, you may also find yourself firmly logged as the party "skill monkey". Proficiency with thieves’ tools can get you through locked doors (and should usually be a good choice for expertise). But also look through some of the underutilized other tools. Like calligrapher's supplies for making forgeries, or tinker's tools for
Optional Rogue Features
In Tasha's Cauldron of Everything every class got a set of optional features that act like a sort of upgrade patch to fix issues and improve things that needed improving. These features are technically optional, but assuming your DM allows them, make sure to include these class features with your new rogue:
Rogues only get one new feature but it's a doozy. As a bonus action you can grant yourself advantage on your next attack, at the cost of reducing your movement to 0 until the end of the turn. This is a massive buff that means you'll no longer need to rely on surprise or your allies to get the all-important sneak attack.
A Note on Thieves' Cant
As a rogue, one of your starting features that most people forget about is a special language called "Thieves' Cant". It's a sort of collection of jargon and symbols that underground networks use to communicate. Most DMs rule that Thieves' Cant is not a "language" per say as a closely guarded cypher. A rogue in any language might say something like "The weather is quite fine today, isn't it, Timmy?" and anyone listening, or scrying can understand the words, but without knowing Thieves' Cant they don't know that means "Being followed up to five in party." Thieves' Cant is unique because it's not the words, it is coded talk that really sets it apart and makes sure that magic or not, this is a way for rogues, assassins, and thieves to keep their secrets. Try it out in your games if you run into another rogue, you may be able to learn some important background information you wouldn't otherwise get in your campaigns.
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Arcane Trickster Guide
The Arcane Trickster is a character type that's been around D&D for a long time, and it's essentially a delicious mix of Rogue and Wizard that works together like chocolate and peanut butter. The 5e Arcane Trickster is an incredibly easy take on the concept that is built into the Rogue Class as an archetype, no multiclassing required. Pick the Arcane Trickster if you like the idea of stealthily casting spells or magically picking pockets.
Arcane Trickster Build
As a mix of Rogue and Wizard, your two most important stats are going to be Dexterity and Intelligence. You'll usually want to make Dexterity your highest stat, and Intelligence a close second. After those, prioritize Charisma if you want to keep doing the duty of the party "face" or Constitution if you want to be a bit more survivable in combat. Wisdom and Strength aren't likely to be important for you, unless you're doing an extremely strange build or multiclass.
As Dex and Int are your most important stats, the "best" races to use are ones that give you a bonus to both. For an optimized Arcane Trickster, play a High Elf, Eladrin, Forest Gnome, Deep Gnome, or Feral Tiefling.
Beyond keeping Int in mind, you really don't need to do much else to optimize an Arcane Trickster. The build options are going to come down to what spells you pick and how you want to play your trickster. Also, since you're at least partially taking on the role of party wizard, consider picking arcana as one of the skills for your expertise feature.
Best Spells for Arcane Trickster 5e
The big difference between an Arcane Trickster and most other rogues is your spellcasting and the workings of magic, and there's a bunch of wizard spells that can be incredibly useful to a rogue's playstyle.
Oddly enough, one of the best reasons to BE an Arcane Trickster is a cantrip you receive automatically when you select the archetype, Mage Hand. Mage hand is an incredibly useful spell on its own, but you also get the class feature "Mage Hand Legerdemain" at 3rd level. This powers up your mage hand beyond what other casters are capable of. Slip a bomb into somebody's pocket, open a suspicious door from a distance. I can't tell you how amazing it feels to unlock a trapped chest from safety 30 feet away.
Beyond the insidious goodness of your powered up mage hand, I advise using one of two general Arcane Trickster builds: "Stealth Utility" or "Magic DPS"
A lot of sneaking scenarios could be solved if just the guards looked away for only a moment, or a bit of information got to the right person at the right moment. If you want to solve this sort of problem, try taking the Message and Minor Illusion cantrips to start with, they're simple ways to get out of a lot of bad situations.
You can really rely on your sneak attack as your damage dealer, and just pick and choose utility spells like Disguise Self, Knock, Fly, and Invisibility. Think of yourself as a problem solver, and you can bypass a lot of threats before they know you're there.
Rogues are already excellent damage dealers and adding a few spells can increase that rate in a rather sneaky way. You sadly can't add your sneak attack damage to spells, but there are ways you can add spells to your sneak attack. The Sword Coast Adventurer's Guide gave us a couple of wizard cantrips that you can cast as part of an attack. I recommend grabbing Greenfire Blade and Booming Blade, their big limitation is the use of an action, but as sneak attack can only trigger once a turn anyway, and it can trigger off the attack made as a part of these spells, you essentially get to stack their damage together.
Once you get up to 2nd level spells, things can get really crazy. Xanathar's Guide to Everything gave us the gorgeous spell Shadow Blade. It's a concentration spell that creates a magical shadowy blade you can make melee weapon attacks with, and beyond how cool that sounds/is it is also a light, finesse, and thrown, weapon that deals a base 2d8 psychic damage.
Let's count this out, assuming a 7th level Arcane Trickster with let's say 16 in both Dexterity and Wisdom. Conjure a Shadow Blade, maneuver yourself to get a sneak attack, and then use Greenfire Blade whenever you attack with it. The Shadow Blade deals 2d8 + 3 psychic damage, Greenfire Blade deals 1d8 fire damage and 1d8 + 3 fire damage to the guy standing next to him, and you deal 4d6 sneak attack damage. That's 3d8 + 4d6 + 3 damage (and 1d8 + 3 to another guy) EVERY TURN. Now go forth and try not to use your magical stabbing power for evil (or don't, you are a Rogue after all).
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Last updated: January 27, 2019
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