Hot on the heels of this question, Am I giving up too much with these Unearthed Arcana fighter variants?, I'd decided that I want to build a Half Orc barbarian/rogue for an upcoming low-magic* pirate campaign. I've got a few initial levels planned out, but I'm unsure what prestige classes (or main classes) to take from there.

I picture the character beginning as a wild man who uses his physical skills to suceed at sea, hence the barbarian. But he begins to learn that finesse is sometimes needed and you can often hit the unaware foe the hardest.

The campaign will be relatively low optimization. I want to dish out a lot of damage, but still have useful skills for non-combat situations. I'm looking for the following in a prestige class:

  • I'd like to retain BAB as much as possible, although I'm okay with missing out on one or two points.
  • I'd like to gain a lot of sneak attack. Sudden Strike and Skirmish are okay, but Sneak Attack is preferred because of the ease of use.
  • I'd like to stay in the "flavor" of the character as much as possible. Something like Bear Warrior is probably straying too far.
  • I don't think charging or animal companions would be a good fit for what I have in mind.
  • Spell casters are basically banned as PCs, although we may be able to get away with some spell-like abilities from a prestige class.

I was considering going Barbarian 3/Rogue 3 (not necessarily in that order) and entering Dread Commando, but I've read several places that it's not that great of a class and the prerequisite feats aren't very useful outside of qualifying.

What prestige classes can you recommend that fit this bill?

*I recognize that it's a bad idea to play D&D 3.5 with low or no PC magic. I have expressed my concerns to the DM that the system just doesn't work as "no magic". While he's a good DM, he doesn't have a lot of system mastery, especially with magic. On the one hand, I don't think he realizes what he's getting into. On the other hand, I trust him to run the game in such a way that we are not going to be overpowered due to lack of magic. In a way, I feel it will be along the lines of a E6 game.


  • I'm not completely tied to a Half-Orc
  • Tome of Battle is prohibited
  • Dips in spellcasting / psionic classes are prohibited
  • Content from Eberron may be allowed
  • Content from Dragon may be allowed

2 Answers 2


This winds up getting away from the idea of the hulking thug rogue/barbarian; the solitary barbarian level is used to grant mobility and agility rather than strength and endurance. That said, this is a very vicious combat build with lots of dirty tricks, very capable of pouncing on opponents unawares and tearing into them in an unholy frenzy.

The Assassin

For a low-optimization, low-magic campaign, where you want to focus on stealth and skills but still be able to deal the hurt, you could do a lot worse than the core assassin prestige class. It gets a number of low-level spells, so it should not be a problem for low-magic, but if there’s little magic available, you definitely want what little you can get.

If alignment is an issue, consider the avenger: it replaces the Evil requirement with a Non-Chaotic requirement, which is often much more amenable to characters.


Spells are the reason you go this route. The assassin spell list is quite solid, for as small a list as it is, and it will likely fly well in a low-magic game.

This recommendation does assume that you have access, at the least, to Spell Compendium. The core assassin spell list leaves a lot to be desired. If you want to use the avenger, also make sure your DM is OK with adding the Spell Compendium assassin spells to the avenger list. That’s in line with the guidance in that book for non-core spellcasting classes on pg. 3, so it shouldn’t be a problem, but it’s a conversation you should have.


The psionic assassin from Secrets of Sarlona also exists, and adds the very interesting option of using Expanded Knowledge for psionic minor creation, which is an excellent way to get poisons. That said, unless your DM allows other assassin spells to be converted into psionic counterparts, it’s not a great option. If you can, then you might as well?

Death Attack

Don’t focus too much on Death Attack; at best you can attempt it during a surprise round after spending three rounds studying your target out of combat. Attempting to hide and wait three rounds mid-combat is always a bad play.

Poison Use

Poison Use is meh; if you want to use poison, you want the Master of Poisons feat from Drow of the Underdark anyway. That said, Master of Poisons is a quite-solid feat, and Craft (poisonmaking) can get you poison at a huge discount (if you have a source of materials, ⅙ market price). Poisons provide a way to apply debilitating effects along with straight damage. See the Arsenic and Old Lace handbook for more details if you’re interested in going for poisons.

Again, if you are avoiding being Evil, you have to clarify something with the DM: poisons, according to Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide, are not evil, though usually illegal (and always dishonorable, which is why they are barred to paladins). Book of Exalted Deeds, however, says they are actually Evil – and then gives a definition/explanation of how and why they’re Evil that would include, for example, the natural poison of the couatl, that is, a notably Good creature. Book of Exalted Deeds is not a good book. Just make sure, if you don’t want to be Evil, that your DM agrees that Book of Exalted Deeds is stupid, and poisons aren’t any more inherently evil than swords.

Hide in Plain Sight

It’s a long time coming, but getting Hide in Plain Sight, along with taking the Darkstalker feat from Lords of Madness, will prevent a lot of the major ways to simply shut down your stealth. Highly recommended.

The Black Dog

This prestige class from Dragonmarked stacks with assassin levels for Death Attack DCs, and has a couple of excellent abilities aimed at poison. I’ve decided that poison is a good direction to take this, hence its appearance here.

The black dog requires the Mark of Hospitality feat, which in Eberron is limited to halflings. This is a matter of setting fluff, so if you aren’t playing in Eberron, the Mark of Hospitality might be available to half-orcs. On the other hand, I actually like halfling a great deal more than half-orc here. It does mean a shift from Strength to Dexterity which you may find undesirable, but half-orc is quite weak, and the halfling’s size is basically all to your benefit (average of −1 on damage rolls, but +1 attack, +4 to stealth, and +1 to AC). The existence of the strongheart halfling (Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting) really seals that deal.

Suggested Build

Strongheart Halfling Rogue 3/Barbarian 1/something 1/Black Dog 5/Assassin 10

At Rogue 2, the Penetrating Strike alternate class feature (Dungeonscape) is key, and at Barbarian 1, you really want the Lion Spiritual Totem alternate class feature (Complete Champion) to get Pounce instead of Fast Movement (you’re not a charger per se, but you do want to maintain mobility and full-attacks, and pounce is a really good way to do that).

I’d replace Rage with Ferocity, though I’d also consider Whirling Frenzy.

The something 1 I’m not sure about; barbarian 2 is OK but not great, rogue 4 is fairly mediocre...

Some options that should be no problem:

  • Fighter. You want Weapon Finesse at this point, so that’s a use for your bonus feat, and the Hit-and-Run Tactics alternate class feature from Drow of the Underdark trades some armor and shield proficiency you probably won’t use for +2 to initiative and Dex-to-damage vs. flat-footed foes, which is awesome.

  • Ranger. Simple: full BAB and 6+Int skills. Boring, but functional.

  • Anything that gives Sneak Attack +1d6 at first level. Again, boring, but functional.

Some options that probably aren’t allowed, but could be awesome:

  • Cleric. Best single-level dip in the game, bar none. Could be worth it even if you get none of its spells. Domain granted powers are awesome, and failing that you can trade them for Devotion feats (Complete Champion), many of which are excellent. Turn/Rebuke Undead is excellent for Divine feats, including the amazing Lolth’s Caress (Drow of the Underdark). While a halfling who worships Lolth is weird, with this build’s interest in poison it’s not a stretch to worship the goddess of spiders. Or if Lolth doesn’t exist in your setting, maybe you can just ignore that requirement.

  • Ardent or Psion. One level is sufficient to manifest psionic minor creation, which will get you a plant-based poison that lasts an hour. Not a bad deal at all.

  • Swordsage. Cloak of deception provides instant flat-footing for an enemy, once per encounter, while shadow jaunt provides great mobility. Wolf fang strike and sudden leap allow you to continue to dual-wield effectively even when you’re forced to move and cannot charge. If you later take Martial Stance, you can snag assassin’s stance for +2d6 Sneak Attack damage.

Anyway, you definitely want the Craven (Champions of Ruin), Darkstalker (Lords of Madness), Master of Poisons (Drow of the Underdark), and Weapon Finesse feats. Plus, black dog requires Mark of Hospitality (Eberron Campaign Setting).

The feats Extra Rage (Complete Warrior) and Wild Cohort could be very nice for you, if you can squeeze them in (maybe later, or if you take a Fighter level and have another feat to play with). Note that I don’t recommend Wild Cohort so you have a pet fighting alongside you: I recommend it so you have a reliable, cheap poison dispenser following you around. Unfortunately, both feats are kind of lackluster by the time they fit into the build I am proposing.

Anyway, your feats may look like this:

  • Bonus racial feat: Weapon Finesse
  • 1st-level feat: Master of Poisons
  • 3rd-level feat: Mark of Hospitality
  • 6th-level feat: Darkstalker
  • 9th-level feat: Craven
  • 12th-level feat: Extra Rage?
  • 15th-level feat: Wild Cohort?

With this combination, your attacks hit hard, and you are hard to find. You have poisons that you can use selectively, and they are very dangerous. You have a smattering of spells that will make a huge difference in a low-magic world. Seems like a pretty solid approach to me.

  • \$\begingroup\$ @Discord I suspect this may have gotten away from your desired fluff at this point, but I'm not certain on that point. Feedback is greatly appreciated: do you like the idea, or if not what do you feel it lacks? \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 10, 2014 at 20:00
  • \$\begingroup\$ I like it so much it's actually making me envision a different direction to take the character in. I haven't had a chance to look up all the different options you mention yet, but I like it so far. I've got to get some clarification from the DM now as well. A strict interpretation of "no spellcasting" would exclude the assassin. That's a shame, because I really want to play one now. \$\endgroup\$
    – Discord
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 13:30
  • 1
    \$\begingroup\$ @Discord You said “low-magic” so assassin struck me as very much fitting the bill. “No-magic” is very different, and basically straight-up “use a different system, you cannot fit the square peg through this particular hole no matter how hard you jam it,” and no, the assassin’s not particularly worth much without spellcasting. Death Attack is meh, Hide in Plain Sight takes too long to get, etc. I suppose if you were starting at a high enough level to start with HiPS it might be worth it, but I wouldn’t want to slog through six levels of “rogue with half the skills” for it; just use shadowdancer \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 13:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Discord I will point out that you’re aiming to take assassin starting at eleventh level with my proposed build. Your spell levels will literally be less than half what a fullcaster’s would be. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 13:44
  • 2
    \$\begingroup\$ @Discord I can't think of anything worse than 3.5 with a DM who doesn't understand the game and thinks removing magic or Tome of Battle is going to make things easier. This build has no magic until 11th level, so I stick by the first ten. After that... Spell-less blackgaurd maybe? With improved Sneak Attack to make up for it maybe? And level stacking for Death Attack DCs. Aura of Despair is awesome. But it's still pretty poor. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Apr 11, 2014 at 15:58

Option 1: Using Knowledge Devotion to Compensate for Medium BAB

You could play a medium base attack bonus class and compensate for your BAB with the Knowledge Devotion feat (Complete Champion, p. 60), which would allow you to gain an insight bonus to attack and damage rolls by making a knowledge check. In most games, this would be unreliable unless you put points into the six knowledge skills for identifying monsters. However, because you are playing a pirate campaign, I suspect most of your enemies will be humanoids, which fall under knowledge (local); sea creatures, which fall under knowledge (nature), or if you have a generous DM, profession (sailor); sirens, which fall under knowledge (nature); and ghost pirates, which fall under knowledge (religion).

Because you're interested in maximizing your sneak attack damage, I would recommend playing a Rogue, which gets sneak attack dice faster than any other class. You could dip to gain additional dice, but since your game calls for a less optimized character, that should be unnecessary. If the rest of your group is suspicious of optimization, it might also create unnecessary tension.

Since your background suggests a character with wilderness experience, you could use the Wilderness Rogue, which trades the skills Appraise, Diplomacy, Decipher Script, Forgery and Gather Information for Knowledge (geography), Knowledge (nature), Ride, and Survival.

Assuming an intelligence of 14, you would have 10 skill points per level. To represent your background, consider Hide, Move Silently, Spot, Listen, Knowledge (nature) and Survival. This would make you a great lookout and a vital addition on any excursions to treasure islands.

To represent someone skilled at fighting humanoids and familiar with port towns, you could add Knowledge (local). Assuming you maxed all of the above skills, which might not be necessary, this would leave you with three other points each level. For mobility, you could put them into Climb, Balance, Jump, Tumble or Profession (sailor). Alternately, you could dedicate them to Intimidate, Bluff, and Sense Motive so you have something to when the enemy vessel waves the flag of truce.

So what about combat? Here's where your feats come in. The only feat that is set in stone is Knowledge Devotion, as it is what allows you to compensate for your low base attack bonus.

If you have the dexterity or you're willing to spend time as a ranger, you could take the Two-Weapon Fighting tree, which is generally considered optimal for a damage-focused rogue. Your feats would probably be Weapon Finesse (1), Two-Weapon Fighting (3), Knowledge Devotion (6), Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (9), Craven (12), Staggering Strike (15), and Greater Two Weapon Fighting (18).

If you don't have the dexterity for the Two-Weapon Fighting chain, consider focusing on Staggering Strike to disable key opponents. In that case, your feats might be Craven (1), Knowledge Devotion (3), Power Attack (6), Staggering Strike (9), and Brutal Strike (12).

Option Two: The Real Sneak Attack Fighter

If you're comfortable sacrificing skill points, consider Rogue 4/Swashbuckler 16 with the Daring Outlaw feat (Complete Scoundrel, p. 76), which allows your Swashbuckler levels to stack with your rogue levels for determining your Sneak Attack dice. You only need two dice and the 2nd level Swashbuckler feature Grace to take the feat, so you could get it as early as level 6. Swashbuckler only gains 4 skill points a level, but it has full BAB, good fortitude saves, a dodge bonus to AC against one opponent, and a feature that allows you to add your intelligence bonus to damage rolls with light weapons or weapons that can be used with Weapon Finesse. Assuming your intelligence modifier is above 3 or 4, that is as good as gaining an extra sneak attack die.

If you decide to take the Two-Weapon Fighting chain, consider swapping out the Swashbuckler's dodge bonus for Shield of Blades (Player's Handbook II, p. 63), which grants you a shield bonus to AC whenever you make a full-attack while wielding two light weapons. It is less reliable than Dodge, but it applies to all opponents.

Option 3: A Swift and Deadly Warrior

You could also play a Swift Hunter: a Scout 4/Ranger 16 with the Swift Hunter feat (Complete Adventurer, p. 81), which allows your ranger and scout levels to stack for determining your Skirmish dice. To make skirmish activate, you would take the Travel Devotion feat (Complete Champion, 62), which would let you move your speed as a swift action for 10 rounds. If your GM likes having multiple encounters each day, you could take the feat a second or third time to gain additional uses.

Travel Devotion doesn't negate attacks of opportunity, but that's fine because you have access to Tumble. Scouts get the skill by default, and Rangers can trade Ride for Tumble using the Skilled City dweller option in the Cityscape Web enhancement.

Because rangers can cast spells, I suspect the vanilla version would be banned in your game. Fortunately, you have a way around that: the Champion of the Wild alternate class feature (Complete Champion, p. 50), which trades your spells for bonus feats at levels 4, 8, 11 and 14. You have to select the feats from a small list, but most of the options are decent, and they include pirate-appropriate options like Combat Expertise, Improved Trip, Improved Disarm, and Blind Fight.

Rangers also gain an animal companion, which appears to be at odds with your character concept. There are two alternate class features that get rid of the animal companion: Distracting Attack (Player's Handbook II, page 55), which causes your attacks to grant flanking bonuses to your allies, and Solitary Hunter (Dragon Magazine 347, page 97), which allows you to apply your favored enemy bonus to attack and damage rolls, not just damage rolls.

But you're a pirate, sir! No one in your profession is complete without a peg leg or a parrot, and between the two, I'd take a parrot. But don't settle for a run-of-the-mill bird from the local shop or an animal companion so far behind the power curve it collapses in even the mildest storm. Instead, use the Urban Companion alternate class feature from the Cityscape Web enhancement to gain a familiar.

"Thaliak, you're mad!" cry the millions of wizards who have lost their familiar to a stray fireball. Do not worry, friend. Rangers are much better at finding good familiars than those week, pale-skinned wizards who spend their lives in a library and those pretty sorcerers who think everything should come naturally. Your familiar will inherit 75 percent of your hit points instead of half and benefit from your two good saves, and if it somehow dies, you'll fight on without any loss of experience. After all, it only takes you a day to find a new one.

But why get a familiar? Because they use your skill ranks! With a seagull flying high above, no enemy ship will be able to surprise your crew, for you will get two Spot checks instead of one! If birds aren't your style, try a rat. As long as you have thematically-appropriate ranks in stealth, your little friend will be able to scope out enemy strongholds, search captured ships for hidden compartments, and spy on the first mate or anyone else you want to take down.

But wait, there's more! Your remarkably intelligence rat will help your resist scurvy by increasing your fortitude, a one-feat value! And if you keep him on your shoulder, you'll get another feat free! It boosts the two most important skills in the game, so I don't need any ranks in appraise to tell you that it's worth 19 gold and 99 copper!

Still not convinced? Consider this. If you're ever assigned guard duty, you can close your eyes; your rat or bird can watch the prisoner while you dream of wine and women.

In addition to this amazing companion, the Swift Hunter offers 6 skill points a level, two good saves, 19/20 BAB, four bonus feats, and three Combat Style feats. Since you'll get bonus damage on most of your attacks, Two-Weapon Fighting is the style of choice. And unlike the poor Daring Outlaw described previously, you don't need to meet the prerequisites! That means you can embrace your half-orc heritage and grow up big and strong.

But if you dislike ripping your foes to shreds in a rage-fueled fury. you have other options. The archery feats will let you clear that hapless merchant's deck before you board. Alternately, you could take the Strong Arm combat style (Dragon Magazine 326, page 97) to gain the ever-popular Power Attack alongside the loot-destroying but thematically-appropriate Improved Sunder, and the wanna-be mook slayer Great Cleave. Alternatively, if you want to throw the dagger inside your boot or the axe you've been carrying since your days in the wild, you could gain Quick Draw, Point Blank Shot, and Far Shot.

If I've sold you on playing a Swift Hunter, you might want to consult the Swift Hunter's Handbook. If you're still interested in prestige classes, I would suggest looking at the Sneak Attack section of Lists of Stuff to find ones that boost sneak attack. The Scarlet Corsair and Dread Pirate look thematically appropriate, but I don't have the high-level experience to evaluate their power.

What I will say is this: As you look at different options, keep in mind that much of the optimization advice online assumes a normal game, where melee characters must earn their place alongside mighty wizards, clerics and druids. In a group of brutes, you probably don't need to push your build to its limits. In fact, because all of you are likely to focus on dealing damage, you might need to hold yourself back to make sure you don't overshadow other players with less interest in optimization.


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