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Coming from 5th Edition, the Weapon Finesse feat doesn't seem particularly useful for non-Rogues since it doesn't let you use your Dex mod for damage. Are Dex-based melee builds which don't get Sneak Attack just not very good in 3.5? If they are, what makes them so?

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Weapon Finesse is used for a couple of builds:

  • Many high Dexterity creatures in Monster Manuals would be given Weapon Finesse (some times as a bonus feat) to improve their attacks.
  • Builds using the Shadow Blade feat with a Shadow Hand martial discipline from Tome of Battle.
  • Drow Fighters get Dexterity to damage vs flat-footed targets. Take with Surprising Riposte feat to get make targets flat-footed.
  • The 2nd level of Champion of Corellon Larethian from Races of the Wild grants Elegant strike which Dexterity to damage in addition to Strength for longsword, rapier, elven thinblade, elven lightblade, elven court sword, or scimitar.
  • The Corsair prestige class from Dragon Magazine #321 has Roiling Sea to add Dexterity to Damage instead of Strength for light weapons.

There is a handy X stat to Y bonus list.

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  1. There are other damage riders beyond sneak attack, and rogues aren’t the only ones that get sneak attack in the first place. Might not be what you meant by “non-rogue” but worth knowing.

  2. There are ways to get Dexterity to damage—Shadow Blade from Tome of Battle is the best, easiest way, but there are a fair few others that are either pricier or more conditional, but still functional.

    You can also get other ability scores to damage—swashbucklers get Intelligence, a bunch of things can do Charisma (even multiple times over), and so on.

  3. Compared to 5e, 3.5e has a bit more options for doing things other than damage with an attack. Again, Tome of Battle is the star here, though even core, anyone can do the kinds of things that only battlemaster fighters can do in 5e. Most of these are Strength-based (even if you have Weapon Finesse¹), but there are still options you can pursue, and at lower levels, even just the Improved {maneuver} feats give a large +4 bonus.

  4. Multiple Ability Dependency is a huge issue in 3.5e, and Weapon Finesse can mitigate it. For instance, a monk needs Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, and Wisdom. That is simply more ability scores than the game supports; no character can be good in four different scores and stay good at them. Weapon Finesse allows a monk to drop Strength, which helps a lot. (Intuitive Attack, from Book of Exalted Deeds, is like Weapon Finesse for Wisdom instead of Dexterity, and may be even better for monks, but it has the same lack-of-damage issue.)

All that said, for the most part, in Core 3.5e, rogues are the only ones making really good use of Weapon Finesse. Alternative options are minimal, and most of the other weapon-wielding classes want to be Strength-based with a two-handed weapon: two-handed attacks deal more damage (1½×Str to damage, doubled bonuses from Power Attack) and don’t necessarily require additional feats (as Dexterity does in Weapon Finesse and the Two-Weapon Fighting line), plus most such classes have proficiency in heavier armors. Even the barbarian and ranger, who likely will use light armor, prefer Strength (when melee, in the ranger’s case): barbarians because of rage, and rangers because their combat style bonus feats allow them to ignore the Dexterity requirements on two-weapon fighting, allowing them to do two-weapon fighting while retaining full Strength for accuracy and damage.

The odd one out is, again, the monk—but the monk is a deeply weak class. Monk 1st and 2nd are solid levels, but there is little reason to stay a monk after that—which means a monk is going to want to multiclass and rogue is a very attractive option (among Core options, that is) for doing so. So while a monk may well want Weapon Finesse, they probably also want rogue, so that kind of becomes a moot point.


  1. Though it’s not a wholly uncommon houserule to allow Weapon Finesse to apply to combat maneuvers when performed using a weapon. Pathfinder 1e—a D&D 3.5e spin-off—made that official, even.
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Weapon Finesse is still a useful feat. Dexterity is mandatory for Two-Weapon Fighting feats, and Weapon Finesse works with natural weapons, which means that overall Dex-based builds can have many more attacks than Str-based builds. They therefore scale better with flat increases to damage, which are much more numerous in 3.5 than in 5e. Sneak Attack, Favored Enemy, Inspire Courage, and many more all add flat damage.

It's also worth pointing out that Dexterity is a much, much better ability than Strength. Strength increases melee to-hit and damage, and increases carrying capacity, which plenty of DMs don't even track. Dexterity increases ranged to-hit, Reflex saves, Armor Class, and Initiative. Going first is extremely important at higher levels, especially for a melee character, who will be fairly helpless if an enemy spellcaster gets to go first and just block them off with a wall of stone or something. Also worth noting is that Dexterity skills are vastly more useful than Strength skills, which all become obsolete at level 5 when the party wizard learns how to cast fly.

There are a variety of ways to add Dex to damage: hit-and-run tactics from Drow of the Underdark, the fierce weapon enhancement from Arms & Equipment Guide, Shadowblade from Tome of Battle, and the Champion of Corellon Larethian from Races of the Wild all do it, each with various restrictions or hoops to jump through. Still, Dex-based builds will—in general—deal less damage than Str-based builds. The reality is that Power Attack has a Strength requirement, and Power Attack is the easiest way for a melee character to deal a bucket of damage. But Dex characters will be harder to hit, more likely to actually get to take a turn, and have better skills for out of combat.

Lastly, damage just isn't all that important in 3.5. Crowd-control is king, and killing an enemy who's been put to sleep or paralyzed doesn't require all that much. Even if a Dex build only does 80% of the damage of a Str build, how often will that actually mean that an enemy lives for an extra round? It will happen, sure, but the truth is that D&D rarely has the kinds of DPS checks that MMORPGs often have. In fact, characters who deal more damage are more likely to encounter harder enemies; most DMs balance encounters based on the party's capabilities. As long as the melee character can deal even a vaguely reasonable amount of damage, they'll be fine.

So yes, Weapon Finesse sees plenty of use. Dex builds sacrifice some amount of damage compared to Strength builds, but have enough other advantages that they're still very comparable, and in many contexts quite a bit better.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Strength is also useful for the "break objects" action. Not that many people use that, but I had a 7th level halfling that theoretically could Kool-aid man through a solid foot of masonry (Break dc 35) :) \$\endgroup\$
    – Alan
    Jan 21, 2023 at 1:28
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I will not repeat all the great analysis of the other posts here, just adding something nobody has mentioned yet:

In 3.5e compared to 5e it is very common to get weapons with extra damage. Having a flaming weapon that deals +1d6 extra damage is almost a must at low to mid levels and it only goes crazier from there on. Weapons itself deal more damage in 3.5e, so your source of fixed points extra damage is only really important to the super optimized melee builds that multiply it and make it count. If your character just wants to hit with a melee weapon at times, a measly +1 or +2 to damage is dwarfed by the actual weapons damage of probably at least 1d6+1+1d6 a "normal" magical shortsword would do at levels a little beyond starting level.

So if melee is not the focus of your character and you already have a decent dexterity score for other reasons, if you want to be able to hold your ground on your own, it is an option to get your +hit from dexterity and let the weapon itself do the heavy lifting damage wise. Basically trading money for attribute points you don't have or want to spend elsewhere. It' might not be a great character build optimization wise, but it is something that you can do in 3.5e that will simply not work mechanically in 5e.

This is assuming that you "find" magic items, and strength enhancing items go to the classes focussing on strength first. If your game treats magic as a supermarket, where you go into a villages grocery store and just get any magic item from the shelf you want the moment you step into the store, it might still be better to go the strength route and get a few strength enhancing items instead of a spendy weapon.

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