Sneak Attacks and the Executioner

I decided to look at how to represent Sneak Attack as a set of Echelon talents. I looked at the Executioner class from Iron Heroes, and to a lesser extent the Thief class. Each has its own special abilities, with about 2D6 per tier for Executioner and 3D6 per 2 tiers for Thief. If those rates seem reasonable (and at Keith’s suggestion), this calls for two talents and possibly a capstone. The executioner would take both talents plus the capstone, while the thief would take only one, or possibly keep one at top tier and the other a tier or two behind.

Sneak Attack focuses on, er, sneakiness, while Backstabber focuses on damage abilities powered by a token pool. At Keith’s suggestion I’m treating Backstabbing as a cornerstone Martial Tradition, presumably taught by a secret order of assassins. Both make use of a Sneak Attack token pool to power special abilities.

Sneak Attack common talent

Basic sneak attack can be made against flat-footed opponents; extra damage is given by the second column of the table. The common talent focuses on an increasingly broad set of circumstances under which an attack can be made.

Basic 1D6 Sneak Attack Pool, Backstabber’s Eye
Expert 2D6 Flanking Attack
Heroic 3D6 Create Distraction
Master 4D6 Undodgeable Attack
Champion 5D6 Universal Sneak Attack
Legendary 6D6 Brazen Attack
Backstabber’s Eye
By making a Sense Motive check to study an opponent you gain 2 sneak attack tokens. The DC of the check is the opponent’s Attack bonus or, if he is aware of you studying him, the result of a Bluff check. There is a modifier of -10 if the Sense Motive check is taken as a free action, -5 for a move action, +0 for a standard action, and +5 as afull action.
Flanking Attack
Spend 1 token. You can make sneak attacks when the opponent is flanked; he need not be flat-footed.
Create Distraction
Spend 2 tokens. If your attack hits, the opponent makes a Spot check with DC 10 + your level bonus + number of tokens spent or loses track of you until his next action. He does not threaten you, and you may make sneak attacks against him. If you move away you can make a Hide check to evade his notice.
Undodgeable Attack
Spend 2 tokens. You may make sneak attacks even against someone with Uncanny Dodge. If Uncanny Dodge becomes a tiered talent, you may backstab someone with Uncanny Dodge at the same or lower tier.
Universal Sneak Attack
Spend 4 tokens. You may make sneak attacks against creatures otherwise described as “immune to sneak attacks.”
Brazen Attack
Spend 4 tokens. You may make a sneak attack at any time, not just when the target is flat-footed or flanked.

Backstabber Cornerstone Talent

As a Martial Tradition, this gives +1 Martial Training Bonus per tier, which does not stack with similar bonuses from other Martial Traditions.

Basic 1D6 Sneak Attack Pool, Hindering Cut, Backstabber’s Eye
Expert 2D6 Armour-Piercing Strike
Heroic 3D6 Bleeding Cut
Master 4D6 Improved Hindering Cut
Champion 5D6 Improved Bleeding Cut
Legendary 6D6 Hamstring

A sneak attack can be made against any flat-footed opponent; it adds the damage given in the second column of the table. Special attack forms can be made with ordinary or sneak attacks. They require spending tokens from a sneak attack pool, where the opponent makes a Fortitude save against DC (10 + your level bonus + number of tokens spent + sneak attack dice if any)

Sneak Attack Pool
You gain a sneak attack token pool. At the start of an encounter the pool begins with a number of tokens equal to the level bonus.
Hindering Cut
Spend at least one token; if the opponent fails a Fortitude save you may impose a -1 penalty to the opponent’s attack and defence, or a -1 square penalty to speed, which last for one minute and stack.
Armour-Piercing Strike
Once per round as a free action, spend 2 tokens to reduce the opponent’s DR from armour by your tier number (1 for basic, 2 for expert, and so on)
Bleeding Cut
Spend at least 2 tokens. If the opponent fails a Fort save he loses 1D6 GP at the start of his action for 3 rounds.
Improved Hindering Cut
As Hindering Cut, but for every 2 tokens spent above the first, increase penalties to attack and defence by +1. You can’t increase the speed penalty, and the additional tokens don’t increase the Fort save.
Improved Bleeding Cut
For every 2 additional tokens, increase Bleeding Cut damage by 1 point, up to your level bonus.
Spend 6 tokens. On a failed Fort save reduce the target’s speed to zero for a number of rounds equal to your tier (was 1+Wis mod)

Executioner Capstone

Each tier requires Sneak Attack at (tier)D6, and (tier) BAB. These can be achieved with just the Backstabber cornerstone talent or sneak attack talent alone; it’s not necessary to have both. Every second tier grants additional sneak attack damage.

Basic 1D6 Executioner’s Eye
Expert 1D6 ?
Heroic 2D6 Crippling Stroke
Master 2D6 Improved Crippling Stroke
Champion 3D6 Deathstroke
Legendary 3D6 Execution Stroke
(tier) Executioner’s Eye
You start a combat encounter with (tier*2) sneak attack tokens. Thus with the Legendary Executioner capstone, you start with 12 tokens.
Crippling Stroke
The original costs 4 tokens and on a failed Fort save imposes temporary penalties to physical ability scores, which aren’t appropriate in Echelon, so this needs some thought.
For every 2 tokens spent, increase sneak attack damage by 1D6, to a maximum of the current tier’s normal sneak attack damage. No save.
Improved Crippling Strike
For each 4 additional tokens this increased ability score damage by 1 point. Needs some thought.
Execution Stroke
Spend 15 tokens. On a failed Fort save your opponent drops to -10 hit points and is dead.

Closing Thoughts

Iron Heroes is a D20 system, which means it has ability scores, which Echelon doesn’t. Thus Crippling Stroke and the Improved version need some thought as to a kind of damage worse than draining hit points. Perhaps these strokes impose conditions like Stunned or even Helpless for some rounds?

It might be excessive for Executioner to grand additional sneak attack damage. Perhaps it should grant additions to the Fort save DC instead, or perhaps increase Sense Motive.

How many tokens to spend for the common talent needs some thought; most of these abilities weren’t in eIron Heroes and thus haven’t been playtested.

The Expert capstone might needs a special ability. Bear in mind that it does get the minimal improvements: an additonal 1D6 of damage, and improved Executioner’s Eye.


  1. This is a nice first draft, David.

    I was happy to see “As a Marital Tradition, this gives +1 Martian Training Bonus per tier” because I find myself stumbling on that all the time.

    As a martial tradition, Backstabber should probably be associated with a few other things. Sneak Attack is a good common talent to associate, perhaps a Combat Style or two (probably focusing on finesse weapons rather than power weapons — in Iron Heroes Executioner gets access to Power mastery feats but uses them with Finesse weapons). Perhaps link to Hide (interacts with Create Distraction) or another “this is gonna suck… for you” kind of talent. I think generally four to six talents should be associated with a tradition, no fewer than three; I have accounted for about that many, if not specifically (Sneak Attack, Combat Style, Hide, Sucks-for-You… maybe Move Silently as well?).

    Remember that a Martial Tradition is in principle only effective when used with associated talents (as a Caster Tradition only applies its benefits while casting spells from associated Spell Knowledge talents). Backstabber shouldn’t work with greatswords, but Sneak Attack could (not a cornerstone, thus no association to limit it).

    The RSRD rogue ability “opportunist” might be adaptable for use somewhere. Per RSRD it allows an attack of opportunity when a threatened opponent is damaged, it could be changed to allow an attack of opportunity sneak attack instead.

    This looks pretty good.

  2. The prerequisites for Executioner are a little light, though. Sneak Attack dice and Martial Training Bonus equal to level can be satisfied with just Backstabber or by Sneak Attack and a Martial Knowledge talent (a Combat Style would do it). These are good choices since they are appropriate.

    According to Iron Heroes, Executioners are not just about the physical stabbity part, but got there through training and study. Perhaps a Lore component (I will no longer call it “Knowledge skill”, in part because a person creating a “Knowledge Knowledge Bonus” deserves to be beaten). Whether this is a Lore talent suiting a particular target or killing skill (Venom Mastery, as I recall, is a Lore talent) may not be important. It might be hard to argue for geography, though.

    At that, maybe ‘poisoner’ (doesn’t accidentally poison himself using poison, per RSRD Assassin ability) might be a good Expert executioner ability?

    So perhaps prerequisites something like: (tier)d6 sneak attack, (tier) Martial Training Bonus, (tier) Lore. Doable in two talents (backstabber and lore) or three (sneak attack, combat style, appropriate lore).

    I’m not excited about being able to add Sneak Attack damage in three places, it could add up to too much. I’ll try it like this for now, but might end up restricting the number of sneak attack dice to the same value as maximum Training Bonus — Executioner can backfill for missing Backstabber or Sneak Attack, but not add more if you’re missing either.

    Three prerequisites is probably about right. Shadowdancer and Dwarven Defender basically have three each, right?

    • David Lamb

      I waffled over whether to include more D6 with Executioner, even at 1D6 per two tiers. I’d be content to see them go, but having a maximum is probably a better idea.

      Can a Lore prereq be stated as “Lore applicable to stealth or understanding opponents, such as alchemy (for poisons), or specific foes (such as geography for humanoids)” (if that inclusion from the RSRD still applies; it always seemed a bit odd to me).

      • Setting maximum could mean a character might “waste” some Sneak Attack dice (have them but not be able to use them), but I’m kind of okay with that. Simple phrasing based on “maximum Training Bonus” has the perhaps odd effect that if you were to take, say, Master Backstabber, Master Sneak Attack, and Master Executioner you’d have a cumulative total of 12d6 Sneak Attack dice to work with. At this point your maximum Training Bonus is only +8, so fully a third is ‘wasted’… for now. Written this way, you have enough Sneak Attack dice to cover you through 24th level (Training bonus +12 at 23rd). I’m not sure this is the consequence I am looking for. It might be better to say something like “+1d6 to a maximum of $tier*2d6”. If you have just one or two talents the restriction won’t really affect you, if you have all three it will.

        I think “Knowledge: Local” for humanoids was just so there was somewhere to put them.

        I don’t see why such a prerequisite couldn’t be phrased that way. I might consider requiring a specific one if there is an ideal fit, but choosing from several based on defined criteria should be fine.

  3. David Lamb

    I’m still struggling with how to put all the pieces together for common talents, let alone Martial ones. When I first read your comment about “associating martial traditions with talents” I had no idea how to state such a thing mechanically; I’ll have to reread the martial talents post a 3rd (or maybe its 4th by now). Basically I don’t yet understand what to say about Backstabber in my original post about hide, move silently, sneak attack other than “backstabbers often take…” Are you saying they should be prereqs too?

    I suppose I can list backstabber abilities as “requiring finesse weapons;” that much I understand. I’m not sure of all the implications of having Sneak Attack apply to a broader range. For someone with both Backstabber and Sneak Attack, do the backstabber’s extra D6 cease to apply when the Sneak Attacker uses a greatsword? or just the pool-driven talents?

    • Possibly something like “the special abilities of this Tradition are usable with the following talents:” and list them. For Martial Traditions it might indicate that the special abilities are usable with particular weapons or when using a particular combat style, for Casting Traditions the abilities are usable with the spells of the associated talents, and so on.

      I don’t think associated talents should be considered prerequisites for a Tradition. They are likely to be taken together, but there is no requirement. I am willing to entertain the idea, though, particularly since I can see places it could be good to have paired talents, as when a particular cornerstone would be appropriate for a tier except for being a little too powerful. Ogre cornerstone at Large size, for example, might be too much for the Heroic cornerstone but might be okay with a Heroic Size talent next to it. Because of how the talent slots are gained it would thus be necessary to have Expert Size (“Big” — half-orcs and whatnot likely have this fairly often as well) in order to upgrade at the appropriate time… you could play an undergrown or juvenile ogre this way.

      Let me think about it. There are possibilities here and I’m willing to be talked around.

      I had assumed the finesse-specific Sneak Attack dice would go away when using non-finesse weapons, but you raise an interesting possibility. There is precedent for still gaining partial effect from Tradition abilities when not using associated talents: Martial Training Bonus and Caster Training Bonus don’t care; there is an option to have it matter but I don’t think I’d use it myself. Having the Sneak Attack special abilities only work with finesse weapons and the bonus damage work with any weapon is an intriguing possibility.

  4. David, rather than bothering with tokens, how do you feel about simply trading dice of sneak attack damage for the additional effects? For instance, with Hindering Cut you reducing your sneak attack damage by 1d6 and if the target fails a Fort save he suffers the described penalty. Bleeding cut costs 2d6 but the target takes d6 points of damage for each of his next three actions; 50% increase for not doing it now. Improved Hindering Cut lets you spend more dice of damage for greater effect (and I’d let the movement penalty stack, I kind of like the idea of leaving an opponent unable to chase me… I see Hamstring does that in one shot).

    I kind of like this because it also lets me shift the special effects out of the Basic tier. I don’t really want Basic tier to be very interesting, if you take my meaning, and I’d like it to be really simple to play.

    • Though I do realize that trading dice damage for a little bit of Armor Piercing (reduce armor-based DR) is kind of silly at this exchange rate, 2d6 vs $tier DR.

      If armor gives an AC bonus rather than a DR bonus I’d be willing to consider “reduce damage dice for a like bonus on attack rolls, to a limit of opponent’s armor bonus”, though.

    • David Lamb

      It takes me a while to get used to a new idea, so “how I feel” may not be the right question 🙂 One factor to think about is whether you want token pools at all; I haven’t heard you discuss them recently.

      Keeping track of 3 rounds for bleeding cut might be either more or less bookkeeping annoyance than tokens; using actual tokens for a token pool feels like it would be convenient, and I have unfond memories of having to keep track of multi-round effects as a DM. But there might not be a whole lot of difference between the two for many people.

      If Basic needs to be boring, why not move the various special abilities up one level? there was a missing Executioner capstone ability at Expert, and the Crippling Stroke ability was problematic, so compressing the levels might make sense.

  5. If we change Sneak Attack special to be fuelled by dice of sneak attack damage, what if we change the Executioner capstone so that rather than granting additional dice of sneak attack damage it lowers the cost of sneak attack specials? Thus an Master Executioner might be able to use a Master-tier ability from one of the other two ‘for free’, doing full sneak attack damage and gaining the special?

  6. Pingback: Another Take on Sneak Attack | Echelon d20 - An RPG framework based on the d20 system.

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