NPC Tactics: Swashbucklers and Master Thieves

Today I take a look at two roguish NPCs in Volo’s Guide to Monsters, one flashy, one furtive: the swashbuckler and the master thief.

The swashbuckler of Volo’s doesn’t bear much resemblance to the swashbuckler rogue archetype in the Sword Cost Adventurer’s Guide. Instead, it has a passive feature, Suave Defense, that increases its armor class and an action economy–enhancing feature, Lightfooted, that grants it either Dash or Disengage as a bonus action. (This is actually a slightly nerfed version of Cunning Action, which also allows the user to Hide.)

The swashbuckler is distinguished by an exceptionally high Dexterity; expert proficiency in Acrobatics, Athletics and Persuasion; and a triple Florentine-style Multiattack. The Dexterity suggests a sniper, but the swashbuckler’s attacks are melee-focused. (The dagger can be used as a ranged weapon, but a swashbuckler who does this forfeits two-thirds of that Multiattack.) Because its Strength and Constitution are only slightly above average, we have to imagine a fighting style that somehow allows the swashbuckler to strike at melee range yet avoid getting hit on its opponents’ turns. How do we achieve this, given that the swashbuckler has only a normal 30-foot movement speed?

In my meta-analysis “Dodge, Dash or Disengage?” I examined the three actions a combatant can use to retreat from a battle. The trouble for the swashbuckler, whose armor class is high enough to make Dodge the standout choice, is that Lightfooted doesn’t grant Dodge as a choice of bonus action. He or she has to choose between Dash and Disengage. On the other hand, the swashbuckler isn’t fleeing most of the time, but simply trying to minimize the opponent’s ability to deal damage.

There are two possible cases: Either combat begins with the swashbuckler and his or her opponent within melee reach of each other, or it begins with them out of reach. If they’re in melee reach, then the swashbuckler can Multiattack (action), then either Dash or Disengage (bonus action), then move. If they’re out of melee reach, the swashbuckler must use some or all of his or her movement (move), Multiattack (action), either Dash or Disengage (bonus action), then make use of any remaining movement.

Let’s stipulate that the swashbuckler’s opponent has the baseline movement speed of 30 feet. This means that in order to keep an opponent from striking back, the swashbuckler has to get more than 30 feet away. The greatest possible movement the swashbuckler has in one turn is 60 feet, which requires Dash. If the swashbuckler is 35 feet from his or her opponent, he or she must both Dash and move to come within melee range, then has only 25 feet of movement remaining—not enough to get out of reach again. So a swashbuckler who’s out of range to begin with doesn’t have much incentive to come in range. Rather, swashbucklers should wait for opponents to come to them.

The second difficulty the swashbuckler faces is the provocation of an opportunity attack every time he or she moves out of an opponent’s reach, unless he or she Disengages. But Disengage doesn’t give the swashbuckler enough movement to stay out of reach—for that, he or she has to use Dash. That being said, if your opponent has an Extra Attack or a Multiattack, it always makes sense to risk one opportunity attack in order to avoid being targeted by two or three. Thus, against such opponents, the swashbuckler should generally prefer Dash over Disengage.

However, if the swashbuckler is engaged in melee with two or more opponents, that equation flips. Now it becomes a function of how many opportunity attacks he or she is subjected to while slipping out of reach, and how many of those opponents are likely to pursue. If the number of opponents is greater than the total number of attacks the swashbuckler’s equally fast or faster opponents can make as actions, the swashbuckler should Disengage. If it’s equal or less, the swashbuckler should Dash. “Equally fast or faster” is important: A half-elf swashbuckler (speed: 30 feet) surrounded by hostile halflings (speed: 25 feet) can outpace them easily and should Disengage without a second thought.

Now, this all assumes level ground. But look at the illustration of the swashbuckler in Volo’s, leaping around in ship’s rigging. (And holding onto a rope with one hand, which is going to have to have an effect on that Multiattack, but that’s a side issue.) If the swashbuckler can climb out of reach, rather than simply leg it, this opens up other options. Climbing speed is only half normal movement speed (more accurately, every 1 foot of climbing distance costs an extra 1 foot of movement—Player’s Handbook, page 182), but on the flip side, unless opponents are both athletic enough and inclined to pursue, the swashbuckler doesn’t have to go as far to stay out of reach: 10 feet is enough, rather than the 35 feet he or she would normally have to cover. Apply the equation again, this time counting the total number of attacks that opponents who can keep up by climbing can make as actions, and Disengage may be a more promising choice than it would be otherwise.

Swashbucklers should always make maximum use of terrain to make pursuit difficult. If they can jump up, down or through a terrain feature that opponents can’t, they should.

All that being said, the fact that the swashbuckler uses finesse weapons exclusively adds a wrinkle to the reading of the high-Dex, medium-Strength,  medium-Con ability contour as “sniper.” Since Dexterity, not Strength, is the swashbuckler’s attacking ability, he or she could also be read as a shock attacker. By this interpretation, the swashbuckler doesn’t play coy but rather charges in to land that triple Multiattack as swiftly as possible, then Multiattacks again on his or her next turn before retreating out of range. This charge-attack-attack-retreat, charge-attack-attack-retreat rhythm gives the swashbuckler good odds of dealing substantial damage while minimizing risk to him- or herself.

Swashbucklers value their pretty faces. If you can moderately wound them (reduce them to 46 hp or fewer), they’ll start looking for an escape route and will take it at the next opportunity. They’ll also keep a running patter throughout the battle, taunting the opposition if it’s weaker, dickering for an alternative to fighting if it’s stronger.

The master thief is just that: a thief. He or she is not an assassin. A thief, ideally, wants to get what he or she came for with as little hassle as possible—high-speed, low-drag. He or she has every incentive to avoid combat, along with anything else that might interfere with a clean getaway. Thus, the master thief fights only to remove such interference as swiftly and cleanly as possible, to punish a rival, or if cornered.

With exceptional Dexterity and high Constitution, the master thief is a scrapper who’ll have to remain engaged for a while to finish an opponent off if he or she can’t do it immediately with a Sneak Attack. But again, the master thief doesn’t want to remain engaged in melee, because it’s a waste of time. Since the master thief also uses a finesse weapon (the shortsword), it may be helpful to think of him or her as a shock attacker as well. The master thief strikes first and hard with a Sneak Attack. Either that eliminates the opponent, or it doesn’t; either way, the master thief isn’t strongly inclined to stick around for more.

The master thief is proficient in Acrobatics, Athletics and Stealth, using the last of these to get around undetected and all three to get away. The Cunning Action feature grants Dash, Disengage and Hide as available bonus actions; unless surrounded by opponents, the master thief will mostly use Dash and Hide.

Based on the master thief’s features, proficiency modifier and Sneak Attack damage, he or she is a level 7 rogue. Like the apprentice wizard, bard and martial arts adept, the master thief has approximately twice as many hit dice as his or her level suggests—only in this case, it’s one die fewer. This may be in part because the combined effect of Evasion and Uncanny Dodge is to double the master thief’s staying power. This NPC is hard to catch and harder to kill.

The master thief always wants to be the one to strike first, ideally from hiding, because the easiest way to gain advantage on an attack roll (the primary trigger condition for Sneak Attack) is to be an unseen attacker, and ideally from melee range, because the master thief’s Multiattack grants three shortsword attacks, whereas he or she can shoot a crossbow only once. Sneak Attack applies to the first hit; if all three attacks land, that’s a total of 7d6 + 4 stabby damage, about 28 hp on average.

That’s probably not enough to finish off an intermediate-level adventurer, however, so the master thief needs to decide quickly whether it’s necessary to finish the opponent off or make a hasty exit. In most cases, the master thief will err toward exiting. Between a decently high AC and the Uncanny Dodge feature, the master thief can choose Dash (bonus action) over Disengage without fear, because even if he or she is struck by an opportunity attack—or even multiple opportunity attacks—the damage will be halved.

Also, it’s interesting to note that nothing in the PH specifies that an action and a bonus action can’t be the same, so the master thief can use Dash as both an action and a bonus action, tripling his or her movement! Alternatively, a master thief who suddenly finds him- or herself surrounded can use Disengage as an action and Dash as a bonus action (or vice versa), allowing him or her to move a full 60 feet without being subjected to a single opportunity attack.

The master thief doesn’t need to be seriously or even moderately injured to flee: he or she flees immediately after striking that first Sneak Attack blow, except when taking one more turn to try to finish an opponent off. That being said, a master thief who’s seriously wounded (reduced to 33 hp or fewer) while being pursued by opponents will stop fleeing, surrender to his or her pursuers and try to cut a deal. There ain’t nothing the master thief is willing to die for.

Next: Trolls! I can’t believe I forgot to do trolls! Better take care of that before I return to Volo’s.

5 thoughts on “NPC Tactics: Swashbucklers and Master Thieves

  1. The reason NPC class approximations have disproportionately high HP is that PC classes usually have way more offensive output than defense. They’re simply not balanced for PVP. This curve evens out at higher levels though. The Mage and Archmage statblock actually have hit dice reflective of their Wizard level.

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