Crusader is a base class from Tome of Battle that checks a ton of your boxes:
- Its emphasis is on attacks, with numerous “strike” options
- It does get smite, though as you say that’s pretty weak in 3.5e—but here it’s pure gravy, so that’s nice
- It has a divine flavor
- It gets a bit of healing—which is actually tacked onto some of the strikes, the crusader can hit an enemy with an attack and in the same process heal an ally nearby
- It doesn’t otherwise have spells
- Heavy armor proficiency, but you can ignore it
- No stealth skills—but see below for thoughts on getting them
Crusader is also my favorite choice of class for new players, because while you have to pick out maneuvers, Tome of Battle is one of the best-balanced books in 3.5e, so the player can just pick whatever sounds cool and it will be. The granted/withheld mechanic is somewhat difficult to explain (it works best if you put each maneuver on a card, and then draw cards to determine each granted maneuver), but it has the effect of constraining options in any one round of the fight, so that the player’s options are more focused. I have had a lot of success with the crusader, with both experienced and novice players.
The crusader does get medium and heavy armor proficiency, but those are easily ignored—it gets light armor proficiency as well. The biggest issue is that it does not get proficiency in Hide and Move Silently as class skills, which (as you may be aware) is very punitive in 3.5e.
Getting Stealth: Flexible Mind
Dragon vol. 326 has a feat, Flexible Mind, that allows you to make any two skills into class skills for all of your classes. Take it, pick Hide and Move Silently, and you’re done.
Getting Stealth alternative: Ruby Knight Vindicator
Also in Tome of Battle, the ruby knight vindicator is a prestige class that advances divine spellcasting as well as the sublime maneuvers from that book. It also gets Hide as a class skill (but weirdly not Move Silently), and its 5th-level armored stealth feature waives the armor check penalty on Hide checks (but again, weirdly not Move Silently). Finally, it allows the character to learn Shadow Hand maneuvers, which have a more mystic-ninja flavor to them, in addition to the options available to crusaders. So this could not be more perfect, really. Also, the 7th-level divine impetus class feature is really strong.
The big problem is ruby knight vindicator is that it is a prestige class—which means you can’t start in it, and you have to qualify for it. As written, you have to worship Wee Jas in order to become one—though there is an official Adaptation section that notes the class can easily be for other deities. The prerequisites also mean you need at least one level spent getting some actual divine spells as well as turn undead, instead of advancing crusader and getting more strikes. To maximize crusader levels, a single level of cleric can do it for you, and domains offer a ton of really useful options.1 I recommend the cloistered cleric variant—only one level so the BAB doesn’t matter, multiclassing restores the proficiencies, and the 6+Int skill points get quadrupled at 1st, which is very nice. Plus the Knowledge domain can be swapped for Knowledge Devotion from Complete Champion—a minimum +1 to attack and damage, with an opportunity to roll for larger bonuses.
But you might consider paladin—particularly, the chaotic good variant “avenger” found in Dragon vol. 310. That gets both Hide and Move Silently as class skills by default, and it gets turn undead as required by ruby knight vindicator at 4th level. This means more smite (smite law, in this case), plus the phenomenal divine grace feature and quite-strong aura of courage feature, plus lay on hands. These are, of course, defensive, though, and you spend four levels in the class in order to qualify for ruby knight vindicator, which could be a problem. Crusader offers a consolation prize, though: your non-crusader levels count half towards your initiator level, which means a 4th-level avenger/1st-level crusader starts with an initiator level of 3rd, allowing the selection of 2nd-level maneuvers in their initial set.
Unfortunately, even with all that effort, this is only a partial solution. The Move Silently skill is surprisingly annoying here: clerics can only get it via the Halfling domain, and ruby knight vindicators don’t get it at all. Now, really, the D&D 3.5e skill list is horribly bloated, and consolidating skills is an extremely common and strongly recommended houserule—Hide and Move Silently should just be one skill, Stealth, and so this should not be any kind of a problem. For that matter, the ruby knight vindicator’s ignoring Move Silently looks like it almost might be an oversight to me—adding it to the class skill list and to the benefits of armored stealth makes a lot of sense to me. But if you aren’t going to do either of those things, this character is going to need to do something for Move Silently.
The best answer, unfortunately, is again Flexible Mind, which maybe renders this entire exercise moot (though Shadow Hand and a bit of spellcasting are worth it in my mind).
- Trickery domain makes Hide, among others, a cleric class skill. Move Silently, on the other hand, is only available on the Halfling domain, which is problematic unless the character is a halfling. But again, with just one cleric level, there are much better options.
Flexible Mind means that the crusader approach is just better, in my opinion, but for your consideration, another option from Tome of Battle is the swordsage. For your initial boxes
- Strong striking options
- Hide and Move Silently in-class
- Light armor proficiency, plus the ability to add Wisdom to AC when wearing light armor
- More of a monk/ninja flavor, but monks are kind of “divine adjacent”
- No healing—harder to get some than crusader picking up stealth, too
Getting healing is harder, because the swordsage doesn’t have the Devoted Spirit discipline that makes the crusader so good at healing. You could multiclass to cleric to get some healing that way, but if you were going to do that, ruby knight vindicator starts to look appealing and crusader is probably the better entry there.
Getting healing: Paladin and Wis-SADness
(SAD is “single ability dependency,” meaning you only really need one score to be very strong)
One approach that I like, however, is to take two levels of paladin. That gets you lay on hands, which sucks but it’s something, and smite, which also sucks but plays up the divine part of things. More importantly, it gets you divine grace, which is phenomenal. Take the Serenity feat from Dragon Compendium to make all paladin Charisma-based features into Wisdom-based features, and take Intuitive Attack from Book of Exalted Deeds to make attack rolls with simple weapons use Wisdom instead of Strength, and suddenly Wisdom becomes a god-score for you—you add it to all saving throws (Will twice!), attack, AC (even in light armor), and once you get the 4th-level swordsage feature insightful strikes, damage too when you use a strike from the chosen discipline. If you’re a halfling, Yondalla’s Sense from Races of the Wild adds Wisdom to initiative, too, which is awesome.
Getting healing: Master of Nine
Master of nine is another prestige class in Tome of Battle, and it’s a powerhouse: learn eight maneuvers in five levels, get another maneuver readied every level (!), get the warblade’s 20th-level ability to use two stances at once (for up to a minute per day), and so on. It also gets access to every discipline, including the crusader’s Devoted Spirit, which means healing.
The problem is entry: in addition to knowing maneuvers from six different disciplines (which a swordsage can do fairly easily), it requires five feats, and most of them are... not things you’re likely to take on your own. As I’ve said before, doing this as a single-classed swordsage is a bad idea. But if you can get some bonus feats, it can be a strong option.
In particular, a single level of cleric can get you two of the feats (Darkness domain for Blind-fight, Time domain for Improved Initiative), and a level of monk can get two more (Improved Unarmed Strike and, with the Cobra Strike fighting style, Dodge). That leaves only Adaptive Style that must be taken with regular feats.
And the cleric dip, of course, means you have some healing even from the beginning. Again, I recommend cloistered cleric for Knowledge Devotion and the 1st-level identify, though it’s less important with swordsage as another class you’re taking.
Monk also provides Wisdom to AC while unarmored, while swordsage 2nd provides Wisdom to AC while in light armor—if you are reasonable about reading the swordsage ability as a maximum weight rather than a precise requirement, that would mean 2×Wisdom to AC, which is pretty nice. Flurry of blows isn’t terrible either (though you’ll almost-certainly prefer to use strikes as a master of nine, some strikes may be compatible with flurry, if they allow you to make a full-attack as part of the strike).
The other problem with entry is that master of nine requires 10 ranks in several skills. That means you can’t qualify until 7th, can’t take your first level until 8th. The class is strong enough to justify that, but it can affect things. Still, since you have the cleric dip and swordsage levels, you have already checked all the boxes even before getting to master of nine, so it’s not like the character is waiting until 8th to realize their goals.
Getting healing: why not both?
Trading a couple levels of swordsage in the master of nine build for a couple levels of paladin has some advantages worth considering:
- It only costs one initiator level, since the paladin levels count half towards that
- It means your 2-maneuver levels of master of nine fall on odd initiator levels, i.e. when you get a new level of maneuvers, limiting the effect of the lost initiator level
- Your first swordsage level comes at initiator level 3rd, which means you can choose 2nd-level maneuvers with your initial set of maneuvers
- You get divine grace
Again, Serenity from Dragon Compendium is a must, and at that point you probably want Intuitive Attack from Book of Exalted Deeds. Note that this approach has a major drawback, though: you never get to swordsage 4th, i.e. you do not get the insightful strikes feature, so no Wis-to-damage on strikes for you, at least not until after master of nine is complete. Wis-to-all-saves is way better than to Wis-to-damage-sometimes, but it’s worth knowing.
A note about healing
Healing spells in 3.5e, with the exception of heal itself, are very weak. They should only ever be cast in emergencies, or out of combat—because otherwise you spend a turn healing less damage than someone’s going to deal with a single attack, which is terribly inefficient. The crusader is the one exception in the game, because Devoted Spirit strikes allow healing while attacking, which is great.
Also, many of these options have really limited access to healing. The 2nd-level paladin/Xth-level swordsage approach has just lay on hands, and a really piddly one, too. However, even a single level of a class that gets a spell—even if they don’t have it, or any other spells, yet—means a character can use a wand. That means the 2nd-level paladin can use a wand of cure light wounds. This is the best way to handle healing in 3.5e: get a wand of cure light wounds, and just zap it repeatedly after each fight. It’s worth 750 gp, which is well within the affordable range for a party pooling resources before even hitting 2nd level. Aside from the pure crusader or pure swordsage, any of my recommendations would be able to use that wand.
The options are basically
- Crusader with Flexible Mind, hits all the boxes and is great for new players
- 1st-level cleric/4th-level crusader/ruby knight vindicator, hits all the boxes and is more powerful, but also more complicated
- 4th-level cleric/1st-level crusader/ruby knight vindicator, which is probably the most powerful option, but focuses heavily on spellcasting
- 4th-level avenger/1st-level crusader/ruby knight vindicator, hits all the boxes and is very strong defensively, but maybe loses some offensively
- Swordsage, which doesn’t have any healing or “real” divine flavor, but is otherwise spot-on
- 2nd-level paladin/swordsage, which does have healing, is extremely strong defensively with solid offense as well, but requires careful selection of feats and a very-high Wisdom score
- 1st-level cleric/1st-level monk/5th-level swordsage/master of nine, which does everything on the list but is perhaps a bit weak on the divine flavor
- 1st-level cleric/1st-level monk/2nd-level paladin/3rd-level swordsage/master of nine, which does everything on the list, has a stronger divine flavor, and is extremely strong defensively while maintaining a strong offense
I have played, and enjoyed, each of these options. My wife’s very first 3.5e character was an avenger/crusader, and it was very effective (though I mostly built it for her, aside from picking out maneuvers). I tend to think that the crusader or the paladin/swordsage are the best answers to the question, though, as they focus on the things you want to focus on, while ruby knight vindicator perhaps divides its focus some.