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I'm playing a ninja (Complete Adventurer 5–10). The ninja has the special ability sudden strike that's like sneak attack except that the extra damage is dealt only when the opponent is denied its Dexterity bonus to AC and not when the ninja is flanking an opponent.

My ninja's only level 1 and can't yet turn invisible. (That's level 2.) Other than gaining a surprise round, how can my level 1 ninja use to his advantage the special ability sudden strike?

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I wrote an article on this in 2006, titled Playing the Rogue. A target loses his Dex to AC under several circumstances:

  • Blinded: The target willingly shuts his eyes, or his eyes are covered, or he cannot see. This can happen during a sandstorm or blizzard, or if you rigged a bucket above a door to drop on his head using the Disable Device skill, or the target thinks they see a creature with a gaze attack and shuts his eyes, or the party wizard casts a blindness spell (or you Use Magic Device'd a scroll of the spell, and most monsters don't have a cure for blindness handy).
  • Cannot see the attacker: You're effectively invisible to it due to stealth (Hide/Move Silently), concealment (perhaps obscured by terrain features), magical invisibility, or darkness. Note that you cannot sneak attack in darkness, unless the target is still visible to you: perhaps he's lit with a low-range light source like a candle, and you're ranged attacking from 30 feet away. Play a dwarf or half-orc rogue or ninja and sneak attack in complete darkness using your darkvision.
  • Cowering: from fear; this isn't common except with turned undead, which you can't sneak attack anyway.
  • Flat-footed: You got a surprise round, or it's the first round of combat and they haven't taken their turn. Worth investing in Spot and Listen for this reason.
  • Climbing or balancing: Ambush your opponent at a tricky terrain feature like a narrow ledge, rock face or climbing rope, knowing he will have to move slowly back to solid ground or fall to evade it.
  • Grappled: A character loses dex to AC from targets who are not grappling him. It's not great, because it takes two PCs to pull it off, and unless the target is also pinned he has a 50% chance to strike his ally. The main advantage to grappling is that you can manoever around a held target without provoking attacks of opportunity; this is more useful for the rogue, who gets sneak attack while flanking, but you and your allies can still get the attack bonus.
  • Stunned: such as by the monk's Stunning Fist.
  • Helpless: A paralyzed, held, bound, sleeping or unconscious or target is vulnerable to sneak attack. He's also vulnerable to coup-de-grace too, which is quite nasty. Poison can reduce an opponent's Strength or Dexterity to 0, which will render him helpless. The ninja gets poison use as a class skill, but poison can be expensive.
  • Feinting: the Feint special attack lets you use the Bluff skill to make an opponent lose his Dex to AC on your next attack that round. It's useless until you take the Improved Feint feat, which reduces it from a standard action to a move action. At high level it becomes easy to feint, since most enemies don't take ranks in Sense Motive to oppose your Bluff, but even with Improved Feint you only get one attack per round this way instead of a full attack, and only against opponents who are already adjacent on your turn.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I have a very high hide bonus, as I'm playing a halfling ninja. Would being hidden count towards the "cannot see attacker" and make them flat footed against my attacks? \$\endgroup\$ – Arr MiHardies Oct 24 '11 at 15:25
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes. (I've edited my answer to include this.) After you attack, you are no longer hidden. Read up on the hide skill and cover and concealment rules for the specifics of how and when you can hide. \$\endgroup\$ – Joe Dovahkiin Oct 24 '11 at 20:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ The attack that benefits from a feint does not have to be the same round as the feint. “This attack must be made on or before your next turn.” So “on...your next turn” qualifies. \$\endgroup\$ – Robert Fisher Apr 7 '15 at 15:51
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The Feinting in Combat action of the Bluff skill is another way to get an opponent denied their Dexterity bonus to AC:

You can also use Bluff to mislead an opponent in melee combat (so that it can’t dodge your next attack effectively). To feint, make a Bluff check opposed by your target’s Sense Motive check, but in this case, the target may add its base attack bonus to the roll along with any other applicable modifiers.

If your Bluff check result exceeds this special Sense Motive check result, your target is denied its Dexterity bonus to AC (if any) for the next melee attack you make against it. This attack must be made on or before your next turn.

Condition-wise, blinded, stunned, and helpless creatures also lose their Dexterity bonus to AC. Other characters can also help you, since grappling also denies the Dexterity bonus to AC for creatures not in the grapple.

Thematically, the ninja class is designed to engage in a surprise attack and kill or seriously wound the opponents before they can react. Their sudden strike class feature expected to be a little more difficult to pull off than the rogue's sneak attack, but they are given other powers to compensate.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Add in invisible blade, beguiler or any other way to feint as a free action and feinting is truly the way to go. Odds are if your bluff check won't work, it wasn't going to take your sudden strike damage anyway. +1 \$\endgroup\$ – LitheOhm Sep 18 '12 at 5:14
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  • You don't need a surprise round, your opponent will be flat footed also in the first round until he/she acts (you will be able to use sneak attack if you have a higher initiative roll)

Flat-Footed At the start of a battle, before you have had a chance to act (specifically, before your first regular turn in the initiative order), you are flat-footed. You can’t use your Dexterity bonus to AC (if any) while flat-footed. Barbarians and rogues have the uncanny dodge extraordinary ability, which allows them to avoid losing their Dexterity bonus to AC due to being flat-footed.

  • A character is flat-footed while climbing or balancing. In the combat modifiers descriptions:

Flat-footed (such as surprised, balancing, climbing)

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Flat-Footed and lose Dex bonus to AC are not always the same! There are a large # of situations where a character can lose Dex bonus to AC and not be flat-footed. There are also a few situations where a character can keep Dex bonus to AC even if he is flat-footed. I have seen people make this mistake so many times, even game designers sometimes get it wrong and write their mistakes into books. Ok, here I go again: Here is the actual text of the Barbarian 2nd level ability "Uncanny Dodge: (Ex): At 2nd level, a barbarian gains the ability to react to danger before his senses would normally allow him to do so. He retains his Dexterity bonus to AC (if any) even if he is caught flat-footed or struck by an invisible attacker. However, he still loses his Dexterity bonus to AC if immobilized."

Even though primary sources trump secondary sources there are splat books which include classes and prestige classes with Uncanny Dodge and say "as Barbarian (PHB) you can not be caught flat-footed." It doesn't say that at all! Instead it says, "You can keep your Dex bonus even if caught flat-footed." That is a very big difference for an Iajutsu Master who can ONLY do his extra bonus damage dice when the foe is flat-footed. And it doesn't matter if the foe can keep his Dex or not, only that he is flat-footed. In other words, if you specialize in winning initiative so you can use Iajutsu bonus damage, then you roll and as luck would have it, you actually DO win initiative, then you can feel free to strike the Barbarian (or anyone else for that matter!) and do you bonus damage dice!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the Stack! You might like to read the tour and help center pages. We're not like a typical discussion forum - your answer needs to address the question, which it only partly does. You've said that flat-footed is not the same as "loses dex bonus to AC", and "there are a large number of situations" where you can lose dex. Could you suggest some of these situations that a ninja may be able to create in combat? \$\endgroup\$ – Adeptus Jul 11 '16 at 4:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ It's unclear whether you're critiquing the question, or answering it while correcting an erroneous assumption it makes. Can you edit your answer to indicate more clearly how this post is connected to the question? For example, the question says only “ninja”, not “Iajutsu Master”—if you have reason to believe that the Iajutsu Master is what the question is asking about, you need to say that plainly. If that's not what you're doing, you should explain why you're mentioning the Iajutsu Master. Thanks! \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jul 11 '16 at 5:25
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Invest in mitral mist chain shirt from magic item compedium. 7 times a day you can make a mist in your square that conceals you but you can see through it. It's 3400 GP.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to the site! Take the tour. The mithralmist shirt does, indeed, on command 7/day create mist that grants (not total but regular) concealment, so foes can still see through it, but the ninja could use this concealment as a hiding place from which he could launch attacks after hiding in the mist the shirt creates. That's complicated and this answer should explain how that works in detail. (It should also mention that the shirt is out of the price range of most level 1 PCs.) Thank you for participating and for trying to help strangers! \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Feb 26 '18 at 14:51
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At level 1 a ninja has very limited resources for forcing a foe to lose its Dexterity bonus to AC. These are likely the most reliable.

  • Go first. Really, the advice here is Act before the enemy. No one should sneer at the fact that the nonhuman level 1 ninja's only feat is the general feat Improved Initiative (PH 96), and no one should sneer at the fact that the human level 1 ninja's other feat is the regional feat Blooded (Player's Guide to Faerûn 35). Creatures during combat are typically flat-footed (therefore losing their Dexterity bonuses to AC) before they've had a chance to act, so the special ability sudden strike is totally usable both in the surprise round if the ninja acts in the surprise round and the foes don't or if the ninja acts first and if the ninja in the first regular round acts before his foes. In short, start fights then finish them… quickly.
  • Make foes balance. A creature typically is treated as flat-footed—therefore losing its Dexterity bonus to AC—while balancing on a precarious surface. A ninja can carry a 5-ft. square of precarious surface with him in the form of—I'm not making this up—a bag of marbles (Arms and Equipment Guide 22, 24) (2 lbs.; 2 sp).

    However, the skill Balance is a little wonky (as per this question), and marbles, unsurprisingly, went untouched by the 3.5 revision, so the DM may make minor adjustments to marbles to suit the campaign (see Why a Revision? on Dungeon Master's Guide 4). This DM rules that a creature can take a standard action to deploy a bag of marbles in its own or an adjacent square and that a creature that moves into a marbles-covered square, tries to move out of a marbles-covered square, or that makes an attack from a marbles-covered square makes a Balance skill check (DC 15). Failure by 5 or more means that the creature's rendered prone and that the creature for 1 round can't move from the marbles-covered square. Failure means that the creature for 1 round can't move from the marbles-covered square. Success means that the creature counts that square twice when computing how far it can move this turn. Alternatively, a creature can make a Balance skill check (DC 20). The results of a failure by 5 or more and a failure remain the same, yet success means that the creature counts that square normally when computing how far it can move this turn. However, in all cases, while the creature is in the marbles-covered square—no matter how briefly!—, that creature is balancing, so while it's there (unless it opts to neither move from the square nor attack while in the square or it has at least 5 ranks in the skill Balance) it's "considered flat-footed" and loses its Dexterity bonus to AC.

    Embarrassingly, this makes the Home Alone-style comedy option probably the best low-level option if combat's already begun. Really, only a small percentage of creatures published for the game have the 5 ranks in the skill Balance that are necessary to not be considered flat-footed while balancing.

  • Create smoke that only you can see through. The 0-level druid spell fire eyes [trans] (Masters of the Wild 88) for 10 min./level grants 1 touched creature the ability to see normally through mundane fire, fog, and smoke, negating any concealment they provide. A potion of fire eyes costs 25 gp. Probably the least complicated way of creating 2 rounds of opaque smoke in a 10-ft. radius is the smoke spy button (Dragon Compendium Volume 1 118, 119) (30 gp; 0 lbs.) when the button's thrown against a hard surface. (This GM recommends the button be treated as a splash weapon with the standard range increment of 10 ft.)

    While the potion's duration continues, the ninja can see through smoke as the button's smoke is only alchemical not magical. Creatures in the smoke will likely be effectively blinded by it (therefore losing their Dexterity bonuses to AC).

    At well over 50 times the cost to cover the equivalent area in marbles, the price may be prohibitive and, even if it's not, the smoke's 2-round duration isn't much time to kill all the foes, but the combination weighs a lot less than a bag of marbles, and it looks cooler. (To the ninja, anyway. I mean, most folks can't actually see what the ninja's doing because of the smoke.)

Remaining methods hinge on battlefield conditions, even more on luck, or on—ew!—allies. None of them are pretty or reliable.

  • Deliver sudden strikes from the shadows. In theory, this is what a ninja should do, but, in practice, at low levels it's really difficult. A level 1 ninja hasn't yet obviated the d20 when it comes to making Hide and Move Silently skill checks, so it's down to a lot of random chance whether or not a ninja can this way set up an ambush or create a diversion in combat to hide. Also, hiding places—spots where concealment or cover are readily available—must first exist… and some DMs (like me!) don't provide as many hiding places on a tactical map as they probably should.
  • Deliver sudden strikes from above. A creature typically loses its Dexterity bonus to AC while climbing. Forcing a foe to climb is fairly difficult, but may be possible. The game already grants bonuses for having higher ground (PH 151), and every bonus on attack rolls is precious at low levels, so attacking foes while atop cliffs, trees, balconies, and so on causes many low-level foes to have scale a surface to reach the ninja.
  • Use the special attack feint. The special attack feint allows the ninja to take a standard action to make a Bluff skill check that's opposed by the foe's Sense Motive skill check. The level 1 ninja is still at the mercy of the random number generator, making this an imprecise and—far worse—action-intensive option. And no level 1 human ninja wants to spend his feats to acquire the soon-obsolete feat Improved Feint (PH 95).
  • "You hold him, I'll hit him!" A creature that's grappled loses its Dexterity bonus to AC against foes outside the grapple. Thus having a "buddy" grapple a foe so that the ninja can attack the foe and deal the foe the sudden strike damage is a thing. A mercenary—a level 1 warrior—can be employed for 2 sp per day (DMG 105), so acquiring a band of five ne'er-do-wells for one day is but 1 gp. It's likely few foes at low levels can down the whole band before one succeeds on a grapple, and one success is all the ninja needs… maybe. See, when a ranged attack's made from outside a grapple into a grapple, its random who's actually attacked, but it's totally safe for a ninja to just run up and stab with his sword a grappled foe. (Contracts with mercenaries should specify payment upon a mission's completion anyway… just in case.)

    In a similar vein, having the party monk use successfully the feat Stunning Fist (PH 101) against a foe certainly works, but a level 1 ninja can't himself take the feat Stunning Fist (and even if he could he couldn't also benefit from its effect on his foes). Similarly, the party sorcerer can affect foes with the 1st-level Sor/Wiz spell color spray [illus] (PH 210) or sleep [ench] (PH 280), but this armchair tactician recommends, if possible, performing—or getting a mercenary to perform—a coup de grace on an unconscious or sleeping foe rather than merely attacking it.

A level 1 ninja can't even use a dagger surprise (Rules Compendium 117), a Sleight of Hand skill use, because it mandates the ninja possess the feat Quick Draw (PH 98), and that feat has a prerequisite a level 1 ninja can't meet.

Suggestion: Don't try to make combat all about sudden strike… for now

With all this in mind, I recommend at level 1 largely ignoring the special ability sudden strike. Trying to use it at level 1—beyond just surprising foes—often means failing to use it or even getting killed trying to use it. The ninja should try to get a surprise round then go before his foes in the initial regular round of combat… but he should also carry a longspear and be ready to just stab foes to death normally like any other high-mobility footman. It won't be until level 3 or higher when feats and wealth aren't as tight as they are now that sudden strike becomes even somewhat reliable, and it won't be until much later—like when, for example, a ring of blinking (DMG 230) (27,000 gp; 0 lbs.) can be acquired—that the special ability sudden strike will be actually reliable.

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