Wednesday, April 2, 2014

How Do You Handle a Thief's Backstab Ability in Combat?

I've had trouble with the thief's backstab ability (in combat) in the past, especially when playing without tokens or facing on the map. It has the potential to be either overused or underused, depending on the interpretation of the DM.

What I've been using recently, and it has never been written down prior, as DM fiat required me to figure out a solution on the spot, is as follows:

- if the target is engaged in combat with another


- the PC attempting the backstab has not engaged the target prior

the PC may spend one round getting into position. on the next round, the PC rolls a Hide in Shadows attempt, and if successful, he gets the bonus of a backstab. If he fails, he gets a +2 bonus to hit, but no backstab.

It works thus far, and may come up once per session (if that), usually against a BBEG.

How do you handle backstabs? Do you even allow an attempt in melee?


  1. Several ways to handle it. I usually rule that the thief can't engage anyone in combat but must immediately make a HS check when combat begins to slip away in the confusion of the fight. You could also roll a 1n6 chance of surprise on the engaged fighter.

    Regardless on how I allow it, the thief only gets one BS unless something odd occurs (the thief goes invisible, the target has been blinded, etc.).

  2. I let them declare that they are "cloaking" before combat, but they are revealed when they backstab. Otherwise I let common sense and/or dramatic license (i.e. how "cool" it would be) decide.

  3. I've known some DM's to only allow it on a surprise round where the thief was already hidden. I find that basically makes it unusable. I tend to allow a hide in shadows check provided the thief isn't in melee or being actively watched (combat has you focused on who you're in melee with). If the thief makes his HiS, he can get an attack.
    I have a cool magic item thieves enjoy getting as well, a blink dog tail that let's them "pop" up to 40' three times a day. Kind of a mini teleport. Pop in, back stab, hope you kill them or win initiative and can pop back out! :)

  4. I usually handle it based on situation. At the beginning of combat, if the thief is in a hidden position, I generally allow a backstab. Once combat begins, IFF they are not engaged they can spend a round attempting to hide (HS check). Then they can attempt a backstab next round (against a foe I deem a reasonable target -- no jetting across the fight to take out the mage). If their HS check was successful, I allow the backstab.

  5. I am pretty stingy with it, I almost never allow it in combat. My logic is that if the target is already fighting for their life they are not going to allow someone to sneak up and jab a knife between their ribs. The constant ebb and flow of combat means that there would not be a nice, static, target for the thief to plant a knife into.
    I would probably allow the magic item James mentioned to be used to deliver a back stab once per combat, just because it is cool and adds a little oomph to the groups combat abilities.

  6. If you sneak up on a foe in combat you can backstab it. The target can't have an adjacent buddy who you haven't also snuck up on. Someone can break away and circle the enemy to come up behind them for a backstab, it shouldn't be too hard. If thereks no rear gaurd in the force attacking your allies.

  7. In Dungeon Fantasy (GURPS) Thieves can do stealth in combat at something like a -10 penalty (with some other conditions too IIRC). This means that it's notionally possible for a thief to blend into the shadows if no one's paying close attention, and then if he can approach from a combatant's rear he can perform the GURPS equivalent of a backstab.

    Having a combatant drop out of sight in the middle of a fight doesn't strike me as impossible, or even unlikely, given tunnel vision.

  8. If I can remember, and sometimes I can't, but I believe as long as the thief is able to get in position behind the target he could perform a backstab. If the target is engaged with someone no real stealth is needed. If the target is free of opponents a stealth roll would be required.

  9. I tend to default to our longstanding interpretations of the 1e AD&D rules for backstabs.

    So, any who can attack from behind gains a +2 to hit. A thief needs an unaware target (or helpless) to bump that to +4 to hit and the level appropriate damage multiplier.

    Ways for the target to be unaware:

    Starting with a surprise round is best and I just require that the thief not be in plain sight of the target when surprise is gained. If he is out of immediate sight and can get close enough during the surprise segments he gets the backstab.

    Invisibility is usually good. Against an unengaged target the thief rolls a move silently to avoid giving himself away and if successful, whammo. Against a target in melee I don't require a roll from an invisible thief unless the target has some unusual senses.

    Otherwise if the target is already in combat I allow thief backstabs using these guidelines: if the lighting is such that shadows are available (underground with torches or lanterns is good) then the thief has to start out of melee, have room to maneuver behind the target without moving into melee while maneuvering and make a hide in shadows role. In melee I assume there is enough noise that the thief has auditory cover.

    If the target is not in melee (say the caster in the back) then the lighting conditions need to be appropriate and the thief will need to make both a hide and move silently roll while maneuvering.

    With these guidelines thiefs can get a backstab off in most, but not all, combats and sometimes two in a longer fight against a lot of foes.

  10. My group uses minis, so a flanking thief is a backstabbing thief. It adds a lot of combat viability to the thief, allowing them to deal damage on par with the fighter. Of course, they have to be a lot more careful with positioning, so I feel it balances out. Not to mention that a thief ends up being much, much more fragile in combat compared to a fighter.

  11. I keep it very simple. If the target doesn't know you're there (you were hiding as he walked past, are invisible, blending into the background as per elf/hobbit, or any other reason why the target doesn't know you're there), you get a backstab on your first attack that round. If you are not hidden from the target in some way (bearing in mind a round is an abstract minute of combat , then no backstab. I should say we play a Chainmail variant (Spellcraft & Swordplay), so even mid-level thieves have multiple attacks per round and combat is usually over very quickly.

  12. I allow a thief to make a Hide in Shadows roll anytime a foe who knows he exists is distracted (combat counts) since I've always seen Hide in Shadows as Batman's ability to disappear. If the foe doesn't know he's there, no roll needed to hide. If he wants to backstab however, he has to sneak up behind foe with a move silently roll. If successful, he can move into position (if in range) and backstab with the standard bonuses for a rear/surprise attack.

  13. I'm with the "must be hidden" crowd. If it's an open fight, even if the thief maneuvers around behind the target, the target knows he or she is there. No backstab.

    If the thief can hide and sneak around, yes to the backstab.

    I do allow backstabs out of combat when the thief is known if it's a complete surprise. For example, a concealed dagger or an invisible blade thrust into the gut of someone the thief is talking to will count as a backstab.

  14. I keep it simple, and let it be the thief's "thing" during combat. Within reason, a simple hide check for their move to "sneak" around, and they get their backstab.

  15. I had trouble with this rule as well. I broke it down into two different types of attacks.


    Surprise Attack:

    Requires that the thief make a successful stealth check and a successful melee attack roll on an unsuspecting foe. Failing the stealth check means that the attack has automatically failed as well. A successful Surprise Attack inflicts maximum damage + level. In general, the DC for the stealth maneuver is DC 12 vs foes of equal or less HD than the thief, DC 18 for higher HD. However, a lower HD creature with enhanced, all-around senses might instead be DC 18. A higher HD person fighting three other combatants or otherwise disadvantaged might be DC 12. The Surprise Attack can be tried on an opponent once per encounter.


    A thief using a blunt melee weapon may opt to try to KO unsuspecting human-ish foes instead of inflicting damage. With a successful attack, the victim must make a DC 12 Fort save to remain conscious, otherwise they are out for 1 turn. The KO attack can be tried on an opponent once per encounter.

    Sneak Attack:

    May be attempted while the thief is engaged in melee combat with a foe. Requires that the thief make a successful stealth check and a successful attack roll, as in a Surprise Attack. The Stealth roll represents the thief trying to maneuver around to hit a weak spot. Failing the stealth check means that the attack has automatically failed as well. A successful Sneak Attack causes maximum damage.

    BTW, I'm not selling anything, I'd just like some feedback on the rules.

  16. I make it not tied into sneaking, per se; any attack made on a foe already engaged, regardless of by who, will automatically hit if the target fails an appropriate roll (perception or related), which encourages players to gang up on foes. If the target's roll succeeds, the player rolls like normal to-hit. Crit misses hit friends in that situation.

  17. Hide in Shadows one round
    Move Silently, the next round (to move behind the guy)

  18. I require a Move Silently roll, since the target isn't looking and a hiding thief can't move BtB. The thief must not have engaged the target in a way that made him conspicuous (ie no melee or open missile). However, I don't really think of it as a combat ability. Like Assassination it's an alternative to combat.


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