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Archery is a combat style with a lot of advantages over melee, but suffers in terms of damage. I'm planning a character based around using Dragonfire Inspiration for damage - none of the silly restrictions of Sneak Attack, and it helps out allies, too. I'd prefer to be making full attacks with Rapid Shot.

It's fairly easy to pick good feats and magic items for archery, and I have a good idea of what I want to take there. Similarly for race, the need for dragonblood makes it pretty easy to pick. However, there's very little support for archery by way of classes.

So my question is, what class(es) should a Dragonfire Inspiration-based archer take? For this character, I don't care too much about Bard spellcasting, so the main things I'm looking for are:

  • Full BAB
  • Progressing Inspire Courage
  • More uses of Bardic Music
  • Abilities that will make full-attack archery easier or better (for example, not provoking opportunity attacks)
  • Abilities that make Inspire Courage easier or better (for example, activating Inspire Courage as a swift action, or maintaining 2 Bardic Music abilities simultaneously)

Classes I'm already looking at (the "show your research" section):

  • Bard: Gives more music uses, progresses Inspire Courage. I'll probably take at least 4 levels, since there's no loss of BAB after the first levels. But 3/4 BAB means iterative attacks come slowly and the fourth one never.
  • Exoticist Fighter + Exotic Weapon Master: I like Exoticist Fighter 1/Exotic Weapon Master 1 better than Order of the Bow Initiate 2 for not provoking opportunity attacks, since there's less pre-reqs and I get to use a greatbow this way. More levels of Fighter are a definite possibility, since there's lots of feats that I need or want.
  • Order of the Bow Initiate: As previously mentioned, I can get its best trick in a much easier way. Its normal best trick is expanding Sneak Attack range, but that doesn't matter for me.
  • Warblade or Crusader: Full BAB, and with Song of the White Raven, progresses Inspire Courage and allows swift action activation. I'm not too interested in maneuvers, though, since they're mostly focused on melee.
  • Arcane Archer: Full BAB, and Enhance Arrow is nice, I guess.
  • Warior Skald: Full BAB, extra music uses, progresses Inspire Courage. But the pre-reqs are awful (for this character, I mean).
  • Dawncaller: Full BAB, extra music uses, progresses Inspire Courage. But being a goliath is awful (for this character, I mean).
  • War Chanter: Full BAB, extra music uses, maintain 2 Bardic Music abilities.
  • Harmonious Knight Variant Paladin: Full BAB, Divine Grace, 1 use of Inspire Courage that can't be progressed.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ The feat Words of Creation (BE 48) is potentially devastating in this context… depending on how the DM rules. Any idea on how such a ruling would go? \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 10:18
  • \$\begingroup\$ @HeyICanChan I'm not sure, but I was already planning on taking it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 11:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ What level are you looking at? I have a build that comes online a bit later that I’d like and I’m not sure whether that will work for you. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 13:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FrancisJohn And even if they weren't, I'd still be getting those proficiencies elsewhere. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 1:06
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    \$\begingroup\$ @FrancisJohn " As a crusader, you are proficient with simple weapons, martial weapons, light, medium, and heavy armor, and all shields" (ToB 9) but I'd read warblade too quickly: "You are proficient with simple and martial melee weapons (including those that can be used as thrown weapons), light and medium armor, and all shields except tower shields" (ToB 21). My apologies. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 21, 2016 at 1:08

3 Answers 3

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Chaotic Good silverbrow human worshipper of Gruumsh, and ideally also of Milil. Yes, this is a bit strange, and is addressed in the answer, including alternatives.

Level Class Feat Bonus Feat (source) Special
1st Harmonic Knight Dragonfire Inspiration Cleave (human),
Point-blank Shot,
Precise Shot (flaw)
Inspire courage +1, 1/day
2nd Divine grace
3rd Warblade Stone Power Maneuvers
4th Targeteer Rapid Shot (targeteer) Greatbow
5th Arrow swarm
6th Battle Howler
of Gruumsh
Song of the White Raven Bardic music,
0—2nd spells (as bard)
7th Whirling frenzy
8th War cry
9th Words of Creation Howling rage
10th
11th Warrior Skald Bardic music
12th Song of the Heart Words of rejuvenation
13th Demoralize
14th
15th any Marcher’s chant
16th Inspire heroism
17th Words of fear
18th any
19th Words of panic
20th Words of fury

Classes

Harmonic knight is a variant from the Champions of Valor web enhancement for paladins of Milil. It offers BAB and Inspire Courage, and Divine Grace where Charisma should be a secondary score for you (after Dexterity). You’ll need to use a Chaotic-Good-compatible paladin variant (e.g. of liberty).

Warblade from Tome of Battle allows you to take maneuvers, though as you say, not many are very useful to you. Anyway, what you’re really going for is access to the Stone Power and Song of the White Raven feats from the same book; Stone Power is an actually-useful replacement for the Power Attack we need for prerequisites, and Song of the White Raven dramatically improves your inspiration by allowing you to activate it as a swift action. So one maneuver should be from Stone Dragon and another from White Raven. Charging minotaur is a Stone Dragon strike that doesn’t care what weapon you use. You could alternatively take the defensive stonefoot stance, but that leaves you no good options for White Raven. Speaking of, bolstering voice is a defensive stance and leading the charge is a stance that improves allies (but not you since you won’t be charging). Anyway, aside from these, grabbing moment of perfect mind seems worthwhile.

Targeteer from Dragon vol. 310, as pointed out by Matthew M.’s answer, is a strict improvement over exoticist for you. Arrow Swarm is awkward and possibly not worth it, but you’ll have it. Or you could take Vital Aim instead, to get Dex-to-damage on ranged-weapon attack rolls against creatures vulnerable to critical hits. It would also be worth asking your DM about the hit-and-run tactics option from Drow of the Underdark—officially, since both targeteer and hit-and-run tactics want to replace tower shield proficiency, they cannot be combined, but maybe you can work something out. +2 to Initiative is nice, and Dex-to-damage against flat-footed targets within 30 feet is very nice.

Then we get to the prestige classes. Battle howler of Gruumsh from Dragon vol. 311 and warrior skald from Races of Faerûn share the same awful feat prerequisites, and hit a lot of high points for you. You get bardic music, full BAB, some bard spellcasting, and rage, which you can and should swap for whirling frenzy, which is explicitly a variant on rage, rather than a variant option for barbarians. Between Rapid Shot, arrow swarm, and whirling frenzy, you’re entitled to taking a penalty up to −9 for up to four extra attacks. You most likely won’t actually want to do that very often, but between inspire courage and (later) inspire heroism, you will have substantial attack bonuses.

I don’t bother with exotic weapon master from Complete Warrior, though it could easily be swapped in replacing a level of warrior skald. Personally, I don’t consider provoking to be a major problem for archers, since a 5-foot step often takes care of the problem, but YMMV.

Religion and alignment

The religion requirements here actually get a little murky: Milil must be your patron as a paladin, but you “must worship Gruumsh before all other gods.” So Milil likes you for some reason even though you like Gruumsh better. You could, with DM approval, just adapt these classes to a single god, but you could also take this opportunity to come up with a cool backstory to explain why this strange character is the way they are. I’m thinking something like Milil choosing a human born into a human/orc/half-orc tribe that worship Gruumsh to be a champion, and bring those to light. The character might thus be effectively putting Milil to the test, to see if he is actually stronger than Gruumsh, both for him- or herself and for the tribe.

Either way, though, the rules don’t actually object to this. Paladins do not have restrictions on their choice of deity to worship except in Faerûn (which Milil is from), but even there the requirement about putting Gruumsh first does not actually conflict with what Forgotten Realms Campaign Setting has to say about paladin patron deities.

However, if you cannot adapt the classes and the strangeness of the combination is too much for you or your DM, replace harmonic knight below with levels in bard. Your BAB and saves will suffer, but you’ll get better spellcasting and more music. You could even swap a level of targeteer for another level of bard, getting Song of the Heart as a bonus feat per Eberron Campaign Setting’s Music of Creation variant. You must remain Chaotic for battle howler and Good (Exalted, even) for Words of Creation, however.

Feats

As for the order of feats, the first priority is ensuring that you enter battle howler on time, then that you have Dragonfire Inspiration from Dragon Magic, and then that your archery is actually functional. Only after that do we improve your music, first with Song of the White Raven to let you use your first turn each combat, and then with Words of Creation from Book of Exalted Deeds and Song of the Heart from Eberron Campaign Setting to dramatically amp up the bonuses from inspire courage and dragonfire inspiration. Don’t forget to pick up a badge of valor from Magic Item Compendium and cast inspirational boost from Spell Compendium.

Extra Rage from Complete Warrior would be a decent feat to take at some point, since you’ll only get to use whirling frenzy twice per day from battle howler, though there are other options.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Wow, it would never have occurred to me that you could use Whirling Frenzy for ranged attacks, and I hadn't encountered Battle Howler of Gruumsh at all. Is there any particular reason why I'd need Precise Shot that early? Other than shooting into melee sucking without it, I mean. Just from the POV that it'd be easier to talk my DM into one flaw than two. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 14:09
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Miniman You could delay it, but I’d consider your archery nearly non-functional until you have it. Unfortunately, archery is an area that requires a lot of feat taxes; you might consider asking for your DM to just abolish those rather than grant you bonus feats, if that works better. If you do delay Precise Shot, I’d look long and hard at replacing Arrow Swarm with it. \$\endgroup\$
    – KRyan
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 14:14
  • \$\begingroup\$ That makes a lot of sense - I might just take another level of Targeteer later on, it's not like Arrow Swarm would be useful early. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 14:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ That is a really pretty table. They're really well-suited to this purpose. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 14:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ While Real Men take the feat Extra Rage—obviously—, lesser folk can get by without; see here. I'm really torn by the doubling up of patron deities, though,… especially these deities. Maybe an ignorant, isolated dude has accidentally conflated Gruumsh and Milil into, like, a fantasy version of Ozzy Osbourne or Al Jourgensen? It's a stretch. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 17:34
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I just couldn’t get this idea out of my head, so I wanted to write it down.

Unseelie fey deepwyrm half-drow or forestlord half-elf (yes, that implies faerie, dragon, elf, and human somewhere in the family tree). Unseelie fey is from Dragon Compendium, half-drow is from Races of Faerûn, and deepwyrm half-drow and forestlord half-elves are from Dragon Magic. The difference between deepwyrm half-drow and forestlord half-elf basically comes down to detect magic 3/day and disguise self 1/day vs. tree walk \$\left(1 + \frac{1}{5\text{ HD}}\right)\$/day. The tree walk is probably better, overall, but it’s a minor difference. The full-blooded forestlord elf could also be an option, but it doesn’t really offer much to make up for the −2 to Constitution.

Unseelie fey is arguably LA +0, but really it doesn’t list an LA—the claim of LA +0 is based on the sample unseelie fey gnome, who is listed with LA +0. The template is really unreasonably powerful for LA +0, but I cannot find another reasonable way to get the fey type on an elf. Various prestige classes that do it take much too long.

This eases considerably if your DM either lets elves count as fey (as they do in some editions of D&D) or allows other fey creatures to become arcane archers (killoren from Races of the Wild, per choice). As mentioned, unseelie fey is unreasonably good, so frankly I encourage a DM to take this approach for a more balanced game.

Level Class Feat Bonus Feat (source) Special
1st Harmonic Knight Charming the Arrow Dragonfire Insp. (flaw),
Point-blank Shot (flaw)
Inspire courage +1, 1/day
2nd Divine grace
3rd Targeteer Precise Shot Rapid Shot (targeteer) Greatbow
4th Sha’ir 0–9th spells
5th
6th Unseen Seer Weapon Focus Damage +1d6
7th Silent Spell (un. seer) Advanced learning
8th Div. CL +1
9th Arcane Archer Combat Casting
10th Imbue arrow
11th Sublime Chord 4th–9th spells
12th Words of Creation Song of arcane power
13th Abjurant Champion Abjurant armor,
extended abjuration
14th Swift abjuration
15th Quicken Su Ability
16th Arcane boost
17th Martial arcanist
18th Unseen Seer Song of the Heart Damage +2d6
19th Advanced learning,
guarded mind
20th Div. CL +2

This build is basically an exercise in having our cake and eating it too. We get Charming the Arrow, divine grace, dragonfire inspiration, imbue arrow, and 9th-level spellcasting off of the sor/wiz list.

Harmonic knight is good for the same reasons it was in my other answer, but now Charisma is a primary score, not a secondary one.

Targeteer is another repeat, only a single here since levels are so tight, but it gets us a feat we need and proficiency with a greatbow. I would gladly take something else that had full BAB and offered two useful feats over targeteer, but I don’t know of any.

Sha’ir is a weird spellcasting class from Dragon Compendium; I chose it because it gives arcane spellcasting at the wizard’s rate (not behind like sorcerer), but uses Charisma. Wizard would work too, but would either result in fairly-wasted spellcasting until late, or a need for Intelligence.

Unseen seer from Complete Mage advances our sha’ir spellcasting and gives ¾ BAB so we can enter arcane archer early enough. The advanced learning feature is very useful, however, for picking up hunter’s eye, a 2nd-level ranger divination from Player’s Handbook II, and the bump to divination caster level then improves it. Hunter’s eye gives you some sneak attack, which is nice for its own sake and also because that is then boosted by the unseen seer’s damage bonus (which otherwise goes to waste).

Arcane archer then rounds out the front half of the build with two levels for imbue arrow. There are vanishingly few good uses for this ability, but one of them is tagging people with antimagic field, which is just devastating.

From there, sublime chord from Complete Arcane effectively resets our spellcasting progression. Getting in will be difficult due to the extensive skill requirements; unseen seer’s 6+Int skills helps immensely. Sublime chord spontaneously casts arcane spells of 4th to 9th level from the bard and sor/wiz lists, which is excellent.

We progress sublime chord with abjurant champion, also from Complete Arcane, and then more unseen seer, to keep our BAB up. Between six levels of unseen seer and two each of sha’ir and sublime chord, we get +7 BAB in ten levels, and the other ten levels are in full-BAB classes, for a total of BAB +17.

For feats, we are mostly hitting familiar goals: Dragonfire Inspiration from Dragon Magic, archery feat taxes, and inspiration-boosting. Can’t take Song of the White Raven, so Quicken Supernatural Ability from Tome of Magic will have to do. The big new piece here is Charming the Arrow from Fey Feature: Life in a Noble House, which allows us to use Charisma for ranged-weapon attacks.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'd probably never attempt to play this in an actual campaign, but it's all kinds of impressive. \$\endgroup\$
    – Miniman
    Commented Jul 19, 2016 at 23:25
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Rather than using the Exoticist Fighter variant I would advise using the Targetteer Fighter variant (Dragon #310, p. 38) instead.

You get a specific skill list and bonus feat lists, but the two main points are:

  • Proficiencies: All Simple, Martial Ranged Weapons and Two Exotic Ranged Weapons of your choice; All Armors and Bucklers.

  • Special Abilities: 3 different special abilities, which you can pick in place of a bonus feat (1 for 1), among which Arrow Swarm. It has a pre-requisite of Rapid Shot, and allows, when making a Full-Attack, to take a -5 Attack Roll penalty on all attacks to get instead 2 more attacks at your highest bonus

As long as you already have the Rapid Shot feat, you can grab Proficiency in 2 Exotic Ranged Weapons and Arrow Swarm in a single level of Targetteer; it's really worth a dip for Volley-based archers.

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