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I enjoy playing Rogues, but they generally have a hard time keeping pace in a 3.5 game and are only Tier 4* per this answer. I've personally found one of the biggest hindrances to Rogues is the absurd number of creatures flat out immune to sneak attacks. Indeed of the 12 general types of creatures, 5 are completely immune to sneak attacks, which includes things like Undead and Constructs, which are often walking piles of hit points and usually plentiful in many campaigns. Not to mention the number of creatures of Huge size and greater whom can reasonably be construed as having unreachable vitals by the Rogue under normal conditions.

The ability's description is as follows:

If a rogue can catch an opponent when he is unable to defend himself effectively from her attack, she can strike a vital spot for extra damage.

The rogue’s attack deals extra damage any time her target would be denied a Dexterity bonus to AC (whether the target actually has a Dexterity bonus or not), or when the rogue flanks her target. This extra damage is 1d6 at 1st level, and it increases by 1d6 every two rogue levels thereafter. Should the rogue score a critical hit with a sneak attack, this extra damage is not multiplied.

Ranged attacks can count as sneak attacks only if the target is within 30 feet.

With a sap (blackjack) or an unarmed strike, a rogue can make a sneak attack that deals nonlethal damage instead of lethal damage. She cannot use a weapon that deals lethal damage to deal nonlethal damage in a sneak attack, not even with the usual -4 penalty.

A rogue can sneak attack only living creatures with discernible anatomies—undead, constructs, oozes, plants, and incorporeal creatures lack vital areas to attack. Any creature that is immune to critical hits is not vulnerable to sneak attacks. The rogue must be able to see the target well enough to pick out a vital spot and must be able to reach such a spot. A rogue cannot sneak attack while striking a creature with concealment or striking the limbs of a creature whose vitals are beyond reach.

With that in mind, if the criteria for sneak attacks was changed to delete the last paragraph, would that move the Rogue from a Tier 4 class to a Tier 3? The definition for each being:

Tier 4

Capable of doing one thing quite well, but often useless when encounters require other areas of expertise, or capable of doing many things to a reasonable degree of competance without truly shining. Rarely has any abilities that can outright handle an encounter unless that encounter plays directly to the class's main strength. DMs may sometimes need to work to make sure Tier 4s can contribue to an encounter, as their abilities may sometimes leave them useless. Won't outshine anyone except Tier 6s except in specific circumstances that play to their strengths. Cannot compete effectively with Tier 1s that are played well.

Tier 3

Capable of doing one thing quite well, while still being useful when that one thing is inappropriate, or capable of doing all things, but not as well as classes that specialize in that area. Occasionally has a mechanical ability that can solve an encounter, but this is relatively rare and easy to deal with. Challenging such a character takes some thought from the DM, but isn't too difficult. Will outshine any Tier 5s in the party much of the time.

I suspect that this has been attempted before at someone's table before. A good answer would discuss that experience and whether the player felt that Rogues ascended to Tier 3 in usefulness.

*Full discussion on tiers provided here.

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Probably not.

A well-prepared rogue can already get around a lot of those restrictions—wands of gravestrike, golemstrike, and vinestrike from Spell Compendium can be put in wand chambers, the penetrating strike ACF in Dungeonscape can get halved sneak attack damage against anything, and Dragon Magic’s Dragonfire Strike feat arguably allows you to bypass most of those immunities. All of these represent a fair amount of optimization—which means for fair comparison you also have to imagine whatever T3 class also optimizing a fair amount—but ultimately none of these are huge stretches. So the change is perhaps not as large as you imagine.

And really, the thing is, rogues never reach the damage potential of a barbarian—the bonuses of two-handed weapons are just too immense, and while the rogue is picking up Weapon Finesse and Two-Weapon Fighting just to enable their fighting style, the barbarian can be getting Combat Reflexes and Improved Trip, or Power Attack and Improved Bull Rush with an aim towards Shock Trooper, or Mounted Combat and Spirited Charge. And that’s not even assuming the Complete Champion lion spirit totem ACF that gets the barbarian pounce.

The rogue, of course, has a reasonable claim to solid consolation prizes there in the form of skills, but, well... skills are underpowered. Almost all of them are entirely replaced by low-level spells, and few of them are so frequently useful that spell slots are a significant limitation on that by low-mid levels. The very best—Hide, Move Silently, Tumble, and Use Magic Device—are definitely things that the rogue is going to be good at, and they’re great things to be good at, but they don’t really enable the kind of versatility that really impresses and gets improved Tier ranking. Use Magic Device, of course, gets closest, but aside from having it in-class, rogues don’t really have anything in particular to do with this skill—they cannot claim unique skills there the way an artificer or warlock can. Rogues don’t even necessarily have a lot of reason to pump Charsima—particularly not if they are going to be sneaking and fighting and therefore in desperate need of all the Dexterity and Constitution they can get.

And ultimately, those are four skills. A lot of characters can manage four skills. The fact that the rogue has another four-to-six skill points per level doesn’t really matter all that much.

Which is the way you have to look at classes: what are they getting over and above what anyone can do? Class features provide exceptions to the base rules—tailored, specific, sanctioned forms of cheating. When you look at a class, you have to look at what rules they get to bend or break. And that is where the rogue really falls down: its cheats are trapfinding, evasion, uncanny dodge, and a smattering of a few special abilities. Sneak attack is kind of a cheat, I guess, but when stock-standard two-handers are doing more damage, well... Anyway, half those features aren’t even unique to rogues, and trapfinding is almost blatantly written as “well the rogue needs something that incentivizes someone to play one,” but unfortunately the way Wizards chose to write it was to punish everyone else rather than really giving the rogue something impressive to do.

Early on, the rogue’s abilities can be exceptional enough. Skills are more relevant, the damage discrepancy is closer, and so on. But additional rogue levels just give little and less over time.

So sure, open up sneak attack: that’s a good change. There is certainly no balance reason for the limitations on it, seeing as the rogue can be massively out-damaged by people have no such limitation. But the real problem with the rogue isn’t sneak attack, or damage at all, but versatility. The ability to really do things that others cannot do. The rogue just have really limited options for actually doing anything unique. It needs more of them to be T3.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ And of course, Trapfinding cannot be used in general because Search requires a full-round action to check one 5 ft. square, meaning that searching for traps immediately slows down exploration to a snailing pace of 50 ft./min. The last group I played a rogue in did that by the book for the first session... and as everyone got bored, we agreed to forego traps altogether as it was just unmanageable :/ \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Jun 1 at 13:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ I'd add only that real argument against the house rule proposed by the question altering the rogue's tier is the deathstrike bracers (Magic Item Compendium 93) (5,000 gp; 2 lbs.). If the DM approves improving deathstrike bracers by adding to them even more deathstrike bracers, then, by the asker's definition, a rogue can pretty much straight-up buy his way into tier 3 by, like, level 6 or so. \$\endgroup\$ – Hey I Can Chan Jun 1 at 18:04
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Personally I find the tier system to be a bit restrictive of character building mostly because it measures against the potential of what a character can be rather than how effective you want it to be.

With that said removing limits on Sneak Attack would vastly improve a simplified Rogue, however, many of these limits can already be removed through various means most notable the Xstrike series of spells(Vinestrike, Golemstrike, and the like). Since these are already available to a rogue, and thus a rogue's potential isn't changed by removing limits, it stays at the tier it's at.

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    \$\begingroup\$ It’s not quite correct to say that the tier list considers things at the ultimate expression of their potential: more accurately, it aims to identify which classes are, with the same level of optimization “effort,” the most powerful/versatile. As I said in my answer, you can optimize a rogue more by using gravestrike et al., but then you have to compare the rogue against a somewhat-more-optimized dread necromancer or whatever (maybe one who chose animate dread warrior for advanced learning, which is quite potent). \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan May 31 at 21:27

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