A blue skinned mage.

Shielded Aether Thief by Lake Hurwitz

Last time, we started through the rogue’s nine subclasses. Now we wrap up that journey. As a reminder, there are three main categories I am looking at as I judge the power level of each subclass: combat strength, allowance for a range of powerful builds, and how it interacts with multiclassing. So let’s finish up the rogue with the final four entries.

4. Swashbuckler

Pirates climbing on board a burning ship.
Angrath’s Marauders by Victor Adame Minguez

Where most rogues work with allies to trigger their main damage abilities, Swashbucklers push the class toward a duelist play style.

Level 3 – Fancy Footwork

When you choose this archetype at 3rd level, you learn how to land a strike and then slip away without reprisal. During your turn, if you make a melee attack against a creature, that creature can’t make opportunity attacks against you for the rest of your turn.

The first step the subclass takes is to grant rogues a watered-down version of the Mobility feat. Given the rogue’s generally weak defense, the ability to slip away from a powerful enemy after an attack without spending a bonus action is good. This feature does suffer as the number of enemies increase, but it’s definitely nice to have.

Level 3 – Rakish Audacity

You can give yourself a bonus to your initiative rolls equal to your Charisma modifier.

You also gain an additional way to use your Sneak Attack; you don’t need advantage on the attack roll to use your Sneak Attack against a creature if you are within 5 feet of it, no other creatures are within 5 feet of you, and you don’t have disadvantage on the attack roll. All the other rules for Sneak Attack still apply to you.

This is the subclass’s main selling point: the Swashbuckler doesn’t need a friend to use Sneak Attack. While this does add some consistency compared to other rogues, especially melee builds, I think this ability is average at best. Sneak Attack is so easy to trigger in 5E, especially with the Steady Aim feature from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything, that adding a new way to trigger it is a minor bump.

As for the increased initiative, charisma is a weak stat unless a character’s class revolves around it. Rogues are not one of those classes, so pushing them to invest in an otherwise weak attribute isn’t great. The Swashbuckler makes better use of charisma than other rogues, but the stat is of tertiary* importance at best.

Level 9 – Panache

As an action, you can make a Charisma (Persuasion) check contested by a creature’s Wisdom (Insight) check. The creature must be able to hear you, and the two of you must share a language.

If you succeed on the check and the creature is hostile to you, it has disadvantage on attack rolls against targets other than you and can’t make opportunity attacks against targets other than you. This effect lasts for 1 minute, until one of your companions attacks the target or affects it with a spell, or until you and the target are more than 60 feet apart.

If you succeed on the check and the creature isn’t hostile to you, it is charmed by you for 1 minute. While charmed, it regards you as a friendly acquaintance. This effect ends immediately if you or your companions do anything harmful to it.

Here we have the other reason for Swashbucklers to raise their charisma. In combat, this ability is bad. It takes a full action and does nothing if the creature succeeds the check. Even if their check fails, most rogues are too squishy to want a powerful enemy focusing solely on them.

Out of combat, this feature gets a lot better. Panache has unlimited uses and no negative consequences upon failure,* meaning that in out-of-combat social situations, the rogue should be able to use this ability until it succeeds. While I don’t think a rogue should invest too heavily into charisma and its associated skills, for a player who wants to do that, this ability is great.

Level 13 – Elegant Maneuver

You can use a bonus action on your turn to gain advantage on the next Dexterity (Acrobatics) or Strength (Athletics) check you make during the same turn.

Unless you are trying to make a grapple rogue, it’s incredibly rare that you’ll want to spend a bonus action for advantage on Acrobatics or Athletics in combat. Out of combat this feature equals advantage an all relevant skill checks. I like this a bit more than Panache, as Acrobatics is a dexterity skill, so most rogues will already be good at it. Unfortunately Athletics is strength based, but at least half of this ability is useful.

Level 17 – Master Duelist

 If you miss with an attack roll, you can roll it again with advantage. Once you do so, you can’t use this feature again until you finish a short or long rest.

One do-over on an attack per short rest is incredibly weak for a 17th-level feature. Fighters get a stronger version of this with Action Surge at 2nd level, and the Gloom Stalker can reroll a miss every round at 11th level. This feature could easily be upgraded to once a round and be just fine.

While not a combat powerhouse, I do appreciate how the Swashbuckler allows for a distinctive play style. The subclass also creates room for a charisma-focused* rogue that can operate as the party’s diplomat. Fourth place goes to the charismatic duelist.

3. Soulknife

A thief with a psychic blade.
Soulknife Spy by Miguel Mercado

I’m sad that the psionic mystic class never made its way out of development, but I’m glad to see some of its features present in the Soulknife.* I’m disappointed that this subclass continues to suffer from issues that have plagued custom weapon features since 5E’s inception, but it does enough right to be counted as a solid rogue option.

Level 3 – Psionic Power

You harbor a wellspring of psionic energy within yourself. This energy is represented by your Psionic Energy dice, which are each a d6. You have a number of these dice equal to twice your proficiency bonus, and they fuel various psionic powers you have, which are detailed below.

Some of your powers expend the Psionic Energy die they use, as specified in a power’s description, and you can’t use a power if it requires you to use a die when your dice are all expended. You regain all your expended Psionic Energy dice when you finish a long rest. In addition, as a bonus action, you can regain one expended Psionic Energy die, but you can’t do so again until you finish a short or long rest.

When you reach certain levels in this class, the size of your Psionic Energy dice increases: at 5th level (d8), 11th level (d10), and 17th level (d12).

The powers below use your Psionic Energy dice.

Psi-Bolstered Knack. When your non-psionic training fails you, your psionic power can help: if you fail an ability check using a skill or tool with which you have proficiency, you can roll one Psionic Energy die and add the number rolled to the check, potentially turning failure into success. You expend the die only if the roll succeeds.

Psychic Whispers. You can establish telepathic communication between yourself and others-perfect for quiet infiltration. As an action, choose one or more creatures you can see, up to a number of creatures equal to your proficiency bonus, and then roll one Psionic Energy die. For a number of hours equal to the number rolled, the chosen creatures can speak telepathically with you, and you can speak telepathically with them. To send or receive a message (no action required), you and the other creature must be within 1 mile of each other. A creature can’t use this telepathy if it can’t speak any languages, and a creature can end the telepathic connection at any time (no action required). You and the creature don’t need to speak a common language to understand each other.

The first time you use this power after each long rest, you don’t expend the Psionic Energy die. All other times you use the power, you expend the die.

This is one of the only times in 5E that I’ve seen an ability that is almost too efficient. At this level, Soulknife rogues will be hard pressed to spend all their psionic dice in a useful way between long rests. Psi-Bolstered Knack is the more useful of the two options, and it only spends a psionic die if the rogue first fails a skill check and then turns that failure into a success with this feature.

Rogues are good enough at most skills they use that they don’t fail that often, and degrees of failure small enough that 1d6 can make the difference are even less likely. Psychic Whispers is a niche ability that probably won’t be useful more than once per long rest.

This efficiency isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I’m a big proponent of designs that always allow players to do cool things, but I would have liked to see a psionic ability at this level that was generically useful enough to make the rogue able to use their dice in meaningful ways.

Level 3 – Psychic Blades

Whenever you take the Attack action, you can manifest a psychic blade from your free hand and make the attack with that blade. This magic blade is a simple melee weapon with the finesse and thrown properties. It has a normal range of 60 feet and no long range, and on a hit, it deals psychic damage equal to 1d6 plus the ability modifier you used for the attack roll. The blade vanishes immediately after it hits or misses its target, and it leaves no mark on its target if it deals damage.

After you attack with the blade, you can make a melee or ranged weapon attack with a second psychic blade as a bonus action on the same turn, provided your other hand is free to create it. The damage die of this bonus attack is 1d4, instead of 1d6.

This ability is incredibly awkward to me. It’s clear the designers wanted to give the Soulknife a weapon worthy of its name, but instead of allowing them to create a unique weapon, we get this quasi weapon that brings some needless complications with it.

The way this ability is worded, Soulknife rogues looking to use their main feature spend most of their time unarmed waiting to trigger the blades. This means that the Soulknife can’t benefit from features that require a weapon to trigger such as the Dual Wielder or Defensive Duelist feats. The lack of held weapons also means that the Soulknife has a much harder time triggering a reaction attack that would allow them to deal Sneak Attack damage twice per round.

Finally, Psychic Blades lacks any kind of scaling to keep up with the magical weapons that show up in the vast majority of 5E campaigns. This is not a problem unique to the Soulknife,* but that doesn’t make the issue any less impactful. At early levels Psychic Blades deals more damage than a rogue wielding two shortswords, but once +1, +2, or +3 weapons start showing up, that small damage difference disappears very quickly.

Level 9 – Soul Blades

Your Psychic Blades are now an expression of your psi-suffused soul, giving you these powers that use your Psionic Energy dice:

Homing Strikes. If you make an attack roll with your Psychic Blades and miss the target, you can roll one Psionic Energy die and add the number rolled to the attack roll. If this causes the attack to hit, you expend the Psionic Energy die.

Psychic Teleportation.As a bonus action, you manifest one of your Psychic Blades, expend one Psionic Energy die and roll it, and throw the blade at an unoccupied space you can see, up to a number of feet away equal to 10 times the number rolled. You then teleport to that space, and the blade vanishes.

Finally, the Soulknife has some psionic abilities strong enough to spend all their dice on. Homing Strikes is a strong accuracy boost that retains the efficiency of Psi-Bolstered Knack. Psychic Teleportation is a decent movement option, and while I wish it lacked the random element, it’s certainly nice to have.

Level 13 – Psychic Veil

As an action, you can magically become invisible, along with anything you are wearing or carrying, for 1 hour or until you dismiss this effect (no action required). This invisibility ends early immediately after you deal damage to a creature or you force a creature to make a saving throw.

Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest, unless you expend a Psionic Energy die to use this feature again.

This is a great scouting feature, allowing the Soulknife to spend up to 11 hours invisible if they spend all their psionic dice at 13th level. It’s a bummer that there’s almost no combat application for Psychic Veil, as the activation cost is way too high, but scouting features are at their best when attached to the class that often goes off on their own.

Level 17 – Rend Mind

When you use your Psychic Blades to deal Sneak Attack damage to a creature, you can force that target to make a Wisdom saving throw (DC equal to 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Dexterity modifier). If the save fails, the target is stunned for 1 minute. The stunned target can repeat the saving throw at the end of each of its turns, ending the effect on itself on a success.

Once you use this feature, you can’t do so again until you finish a long rest, unless you expend three Psionic Energy dice to use it again.

As many monk fans like to tell me, stunning an enemy for a round is very good. Stunning that same enemy for up to 10 rounds is even better. I really like that the save on this feature keys off the rogue’s dexterity rather than some other worse attribute. Paying three psionic dice is a steep enough cost that you probably don’t want to try and activate Rend Mind every round, but against stronger opponents it’s definitely worth using.

While I’m not a fan of how the Soulknife was implemented, the damage boost it grants at low levels coupled with its strong mid- and late-level features make for a good rogue subclass. Third place.

2. Phantom

A phantom rogue sneaking down a wall toward a guard.
Phantom Warrior by Anna Podedworna

Like the Soulknife, the Phantom was introduced in Tasha’s. The main difference between these two subclasses is that the Soulknife tries to do its own thing while the Phantom builds upon what the rogue already does.

Level 3 – Whispers of the Dead

Echoes of those who have died cling to you. Whenever you finish a short or long rest, you can choose one skill or tool proficiency that you lack and gain it, as a ghostly presence shares its knowledge with you. You lose this proficiency when you use this feature to choose a different proficiency that you lack.

A single skill proficiency that can be swapped out every rest is nice, if not terribly strong. I have a hunch that most rogues pick a single useful skill and leave it at that for the majority of sessions.

Level 3 – Wails from the Grave

Immediately after you deal your Sneak Attack damage to a creature on your turn, you can target a second creature that you can see within 30 feet of the first creature. Roll half the number of Sneak Attack dice for your level (round up), and the second creature takes necrotic damage equal to the roll’s total, as wails of the dead sound around them for a moment.

You can use this feature a number of times equal to your proficiency bonus, and you regain all expended uses when you finish a long rest.

This is the Phantom’s main feature. At level 3, this can be used twice for a total of 4d6 damage per long rest. While this isn’t terribly impressive now, it gets significantly better with the subclass’s next feature.

Level 9 – Tokens of the Departed

When a life ends in your presence, you’re able to snatch a token from the departing soul, a sliver of its life essence that takes physical form: as a reaction when a creature you can see dies within 30 feet of you, you can open your free hand and cause a Tiny trinket to appear there, a soul trinket. The DM determines the trinket’s form or has you roll on the Trinkets table in the Player’s Handbook to generate it. You can have a maximum number of soul trinkets equal to your proficiency bonus, and you can’t create one while at your maximum.

You can use soul trinkets in the following ways:

1: While a soul trinket is on your person, you have advantage on death saving throws and Constitution saving throws, for your vitality is enhanced by the life essence within the object.

2: When you deal Sneak Attack damage on your turn, you can destroy one of your soul trinkets that’s on your person and then immediately use Wails from the Grave, without expending a use of that feature.

3: As an action, you can destroy one of your soul trinkets, no matter where it’s located. When you do so, you can ask the spirit associated with the trinket one question. The spirit appears to you and answers in a language it knew in life. It’s under no obligation to be truthful, and it answers as concisely as possible, eager to be free. The spirit knows only what it knew in life, as determined by the DM.

This is the feature that upgrades Wails from the Grave from below average to an amazing damage boost. With some strategic critter stomping between encounters, the Phantom should now have four additional uses of Wails at the beginning of every fight. In addition, the rogue can restock these tokens as creatures die around them. The one downside to this feature is that it requires an open hand to create a trinket, limiting the Phantom to a ranged or single melee weapon build.

This feature also has some defensive and noncombat components. Death saving throws shouldn’t come up too often, but when they do, advantage is very welcome. As for constitution, the Phantom doesn’t need to worry about concentration checks, but there are still spells and abilities that target the stat, so it remains useful.

The “speak with the dead” portion of this ability is easily the weakest. It is highly situational, and since it lacks any sort of compulsion, it seems unlikely that enemies you helped kill will be feeling helpful.

Level 13 – Ghost Walk

As a bonus action, you assume a spectral form. While in this form, you have a flying speed of 10 feet, you can hover, and attack rolls have disadvantage against you. You can also move through creatures and objects as if they were difficult terrain, but you take 1d10 force damage if you end your turn inside a creature or an object.

You stay in this form for 10 minutes or until you end it as a bonus action. To use this feature again, you must finish a long rest or destroy one of your soul trinkets as part of the bonus action you use to activate Ghost Walk.

Now the Phantom can turn their soul trinkets into a powerful defensive boost. Not only do any attacks made against the rogue suffer disadvantage, but also the rogue can hide inside solid objects for the relatively low cost of 1d10 damage per round.

This feature also provides a powerful noncombat tool. A character with a high stealth bonus and the ability to walk through walls makes for an amazing scout.

Level 17 – Death’s Friend

Your association with death has become so close that you gain the following benefits:

1: When you use your Wails from the Grave, you can deal the necrotic damage to both the first and the second creature.

2: At the end of a long rest, a soul trinket appears in your hand if you don’t have any soul trinkets, as the spirits of the dead are drawn to you.

Now Wails is effectively doubling the Phantom’s Sneak Attack damage. It still requires a second target to trigger the damage, but an extra 5d6 damage every round is noticeable. The soul trinket generation is nice, but they’re so easy to make that I doubt many Phantoms will get much from this part of the ability.

I really like the Phantom, I just wish it didn’t take nine levels for the subclass to fully come online. For any campaign that looks to spend much time at levels 9 or higher, I would recommend this subclass as a great pick for an archery rogue. Voices from beyond have granted this subclass second place.

1. Arcane Trickster

A thief slipping a scroll into their robe.
Gateway Sneak by Matt Stewart

For those of you who’ve been keeping up with this article series, I doubt this comes as much of a surprise. As I’ve said before with the Eldritch Knight, spells are the strongest player option in 5E and giving spells to martial classes is one of the best ways to increase their power.

Level 3 – Spellcasting

Cantrips. You learn three cantrips: mage hand and two other cantrips of your choice from the wizard spell list. You learn another wizard cantrip of your choice at 10th level.

Spell Slots. The Arcane Trickster Spellcasting table shows how many spell slots you have to cast your wizard spells of 1st level and higher. To cast one of these spells, you must expend a slot of the spell’s level or higher. You regain all expended spell slots when you finish a long rest.

Spells Known of 1st-Level and Higher. You know three 1st-level wizard spells of your choice, two of which you must choose from the enchantment and illusion spells on the wizard spell list.

The Spells Known column of the Arcane Trickster Spellcasting table shows when you learn more wizard spells of 1st level or higher. Each of these spells must be an enchantment or illusion spell of your choice, and must be of a level for which you have spell slots. For instance, when you reach 7th level in this class, you can learn one new spell of 1st or 2nd level.

The spells you learn at 8th, 14th, and 20th level can come from any school of magic.

Whenever you gain a level in this class, you can replace one of the wizard spells you know with another spell of your choice from the wizard spell list. The new spell must be of a level for which you have spell slots, and it must be an enchantment or illusion spell, unless you’re replacing the spell you gained at 3rd, 8th, 14th, or 20th level from any school of magic.

Spellcasting Ability. Intelligence is your spellcasting ability for your wizard spells, since you learn your spells through dedicated study and memorization. You use your Intelligence whenever a spell refers to your spellcasting ability. In addition, you use your Intelligence modifier when setting the saving throw DC for a wizard spell you cast and when making an attack roll with one.

Spell save DC = 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier

Spell attack modifier = your proficiency bonus + your Intelligence modifier

It’s a shame the Arcane Trickster is limited to the enchantment and illusion spell schools for most of their spell selections, but even with those restrictions, the Trickster can grab Find Familiar and one of the melee weapon cantrips at level 3. Now the rogue has advantage on their single big attack almost every round,* and that attack has additional cantrip scaling.

While the subclass gets additional features after this, the spells take center stage. Options like Blur and Mirror Image make for good defensive buffs. For rogues who take the Sentinel feat, Mirror Image also works as an offensive buff, as attacks against one of the images allows the rogue to trigger Sentinel’s reaction attack for another instance of Sneak Attack.

Arcane Tricksters also have access to Darkness and Pyrotechnics. When combined with the blind fighting style, the Trickster is the only rogue that can generate its own heavy obscurement. At higher level, spells like Haste come online, granting strong defensive buffs and guaranteeing the rogue can trigger their Sneak Attack twice via the use of a readied action.

Level 3 – Mage Hand Legerdemain

Starting at 3rd level, when you cast mage hand, you can make the spectral hand invisible, and you can perform the following additional tasks with it:

1: You can stow one object the hand is holding in a container worn or carried by another creature.

2: You can retrieve an object in a container worn or carried by another creature.

3: You can use thieves’ tools to pick locks and disarm traps at range.

You can perform one of these tasks without being noticed by a creature if you succeed on a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check contested by the creature’s Wisdom (Perception) check.

In addition, you can use the bonus action granted by your Cunning Action to control the hand.

A minor buff to a decent cantrip is a fine feature, if a bit anticlimactic after how much I talked up the Spellcasting ability. This feature probably won’t be terribly useful in combat, as casting the cantrip still costs an action, but it has a lot of utility outside of combat.

Level 9 – Magical Ambush

Starting at 9th level, if you are hidden from a creature when you cast a spell on it, the creature has disadvantage on any saving throw it makes against the spell this turn.

On paper, this is a great feature given how many powerful all-or-nothing spells there are. Unfortunately, there are two major problems holding it back. The first is that most Arcane Tricksters can’t afford a high enough intelligence to push their save DC very high. The second is that the subclass gets spells so slowly that by the time it has access to options like Hypnotic Pattern, most campaigns are already over.

Level 13 – Versatile Trickster

At 13th level, you gain the ability to distract targets with your mage hand. As a bonus action on your turn, you can designate a creature within 5 feet of the spectral hand created by the spell. Doing so gives you advantage on attack rolls against that creature until the end of the turn.

If your Mage Hand has already been cast, this is a solid backup source of advantage if your familiar isn’t around and heavy obscurement isn’t working. Unfortunately, this feature also suffers from the action cost to cast the cantrip in the first place. If you don’t have Mage Hand up when combat starts, it’s basically never worth it to use Versatile Trickster.

Level 17 – Spell Thief

Immediately after a creature casts a spell that targets you or includes you in its area of effect, you can use your reaction to force the creature to make a saving throw with its spellcasting ability modifier. The DC equals your spell save DC. On a failed save, you negate the spell’s effect against you, and you steal the knowledge of the spell if it is at least 1st level and of a level you can cast (it doesn’t need to be a wizard spell). For the next 8 hours, you know the spell and can cast it using your spell slots. The creature can’t cast that spell until the 8 hours have passed.

Once you use this feature, you can’t use it again until you finish a long rest.

This feature suffers from the same issues as Magical Ambush. Many caster enemies will have an easy time beating the Arcane Trickster’s low spell save, and if the rogue did manage to stop the spell, it’s unlikely they would be capable of casting the spell they countered, rendering the second half of this feature useless a lot of the time.

Much like the Eldritch Knight, the Arcane Trickster doesn’t really care if its subclass features are good or not. Spellcasting is so powerful that these subclasses could have no features and they’d still be good. Thankfully, the Arcane Trickster has some okay features to stack with its casting, easily earning it first place.

That covers the final four rogue subclasses. Next week we take a look at the sorcerer.

I have also created a tier list for those of you who are interested.

Treat your friends to an evening of ritual murder – in a fictional RPG scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and escape a supernatural menace in our one-shot adventure, The Voyage.

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