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Ontario Pathfinder Society | Asmodean’s Advice – Dexterity Based Melee
Asmodean’s Advice – Dexterity Based Melee

Asmodean’s Advice – Dexterity Based Melee

Okay, so this week I was asked to look into something I don’t do very often, and that’s melee. More specifically, Dexterity based melee.  So I pulled out my books and scoured them for options I found interesting.  There are going to be holes in my advice.  But that’s ok.  Point them out to me.  Discuss them.  Disagree with me, and tell me if you think I’m wrong.  Flex your creative muscles and help improve everyone else’s character design process


So you’ve decided you want to be a melee character that focuses on Dexterity.  You’ve taken Weapon Finesse and put a good portion of your point buy into Dexterity, and slightly ignored or dumped strength.  Since your Dex is higher, you gain an improved To Hit, AC, Reflex Save and Initiative over a character that splits points between Dex and Str.  Unfortunately, you’re doing less damage than you think you should.  So you’ll need to find ways to improve your damage output.  Here are a few suggestions.

Weapon Specialization.  This feat line is pretty much a no brainer if you’re planning on building a Dex based fighter.

Sneak Attack.  Many Dex based melee characters are Rogues or Ninjas.  They counteract the strength deficiency with sneak attack.  Archetypes like the Scout (APG) allow you to get your sneak attack more often (anytime you charge and eventually any time you move more than 10 feet).  The feat Improved Feint works as well.  Unfortunately these options limit you to a single attack in a round.  You’ll do a decent amount of damage with your attack, but it generally won’t be overpowering.  You really want to find a way to get a flank and a full attack.  You’ll have to master readying actions and delaying until your allies are in position to get effective sneak attack damage. Hopefully your teammates will notice this and help out.  As long as you’re trying to flank anyway, the trait Dirty Fighter will get you an extra point of damage when doing so.  Ranks in Acrobatics plus Dodge and Mobility will allow you to get into position easier, or Gang Up (prereq: Int 13 and Combat Expertise) will allow you to flank an opponent when you have 2 allies threatening it (which unfortunately doesn’t happen as often as you’d like).   The Two Weapon Fighting line will eventually get you extra sneak attacks on a flanked foe.  Adding Two Weapon Feint will allow you a full attack (minus your first attack) with sneak attack when you don’t have a flanking partner.

Piranha Strike (Sargava, the Lost Colony).  It’s the equivalent of power attack for light weapons.  You get an extra 2 damage in your main hand and an extra 1 damage in your off hand (increasing as your BAB increases, just like power attack).  It has Weapon Finesse as a prereq instead of Str 13 and you’ll still need a BAB of +1.  I would typically use this with a short sword, kukri, wakizashi or unarmed strike.  One thing to note is that you can’t use Piranha Strike with one handed finessable weapons such as the Rapier or Whip.

The Agile weapon property (Pathfinder Society Field Guide).  This +1 enhancement allows you to add your Dex to any finessable weapon.  You can put it on an Amulet of Mighty Fists if you’re using natural attacks or unarmed strikes.  This won’t stack with Dervish Dance though.

Dervish Dance (Inner Sea World Guide).  This feat allows you to use a Scimitar in one hand and add your Dex to both attack and damage (which you normally can’t do since a Scimitar is not a light weapon).  Interestingly, this feat is it allows you to count the Scimitar as a one handed Piercing weapon for the purposes of qualifying for feats and abilities.  This allows you to use a Scimitar with the Duelist Prestige class or the new Swashbuckler’s Swashbuckler Finesse ability.  If you want to two weapon fight with this one, you’ll need improved unarmed strike, a blade boot (Adventurer’s Armory), or some other weapon that leaves your off hand empty (armour spikes can be controversial, so be wary of table variation if you decide to go this way).  The Rogue Archetype Swashbuckler gives you a martial weapon proficiency (which can be used for the scimitar) and the Bard Archetype Dawnflower Dervish (Inner Sea Magic) gives you Scimitar Proficiency and Dervish Dance as a bonus feat (you also get double your bardic performance modifiers, but only on you).  If you’re using Dervish Dance, you may want to consider having a 13 Strength and using Power Attack as you can’t use Piranha Strike with a Scimitar.

Just a quick final note:  you can use Piranha Strike and Agile weapons, or you can use Dervish Dance and power attack.  The two styles are mutually exclusive.  I prefer the agile weapon route, but you might not.  So, that’s my quick look.  Tell me what I missed, tell me what you like doing.  Any and all comments will help us all build more fleshed out characters.  To put this all together, here’s a sample character, Alexandra Lightblade, a dervish from the dunes of Qadira:

Alexandra Lightblade
Human Slayer 6 / Duelist 5
N Medium humanoid (human)
Init +12; Perception +14
AC 29, touch 21, flat-footed 20 (+6 Armour, +2 Deflection, +6 Dexterity, +1 Dodge, +2 Intelligence (dodge), +2 Natural), +8 when leaving a threatened square
hp 91 (6d8+5d10+28)
Fort +12, Ref +19, Will +9
Speed 30 ft.
Melee +3 Scimitar +16/+11/+6 (1d6+15/18–20) and +1 Agile Blade Boot +13/+8 (1d4+13/20)
Ranged +1 Adaptive Composite Longbow +18/+13/+8 (1d8+1/x3)
Special Attacks: Favoured Targets (2 targets, +2 to Attack and Damage, not included in attack line), Precise Strike (+5 damage to any living thing that can be critical hit, not included in attack line), Sneak attack +2d6
Str 13, Dex 23, Con 14, Int 14, Wis 10, Cha 10
Base Atk +11; CMB +12; CMD 33
Feats: Combat ReflexesB, Dervish Dance, Dodge, Improved Initiative, Improved Two Weapon Fighting, Iron Will, Mobility, Power AttackB (included in attack line), Two Weapon Fighting, Weapon FinesseB, Weapon Focus: ScimitarB
Skills: Acrobatics +21, Knowledge (Dungeoneering) +16, Knowledge (Local) + 16, Perception +14, Perform Dance +11, Stealth +21, Survival +14 (+17 tracking)
Languages: Common, Kelish, Elven, Halfling
SQ: Grace*, Improved Reaction*, Parry*, Precise Strike*, Riposte*, Slayer Talent x3 (Finesse Slayer, Combat Trick, Weapon Training), Track
Combat Gear:  +2 Mithril Chain Shirt, +3 Scimitar, +1 Agile Blade Boot, Belt of Dexterity +4, Cloak of Resistance +3, Amulet of Natural Armour +2, Ring of Protection +2, +1 Adaptive Composite Longbow, Efficient Quiver, 60 Cold Iron Arrows, 4000 gp in other equipment/consumables

*From the Duelist Prestige Class (Core Rulebook)
This build uses the following books:  Inner Sea World Guide (Dervish Dance), Adventurer’s Armory (Blade Boot), Ultimate Equipment (Adaptive propery), Advanced Class Guide Playtest Document (Slayer class).


  1. Paul Jackson

    Paul Jackson - December 3, 2013, 12:50 pm

    The swashbuckler in the advanced class guide is meant to fill the role. At the moment IMO it fails miserably at that design goal but one can hope.

    The basic fact right now is that a Dex based fighter will do considerably less damage than a str based one, even after significant optimization. And one has to work much harder to get that optimized dex fighter.

    But they can be a lot of fun and, especially in PFS, they can be good enough to be functional. My dawnflowet dervish bard definitely pulls her weight (she is 8th level now).

    One very useful dip for a dex based fighter is urban barbarian. They get a controlled rage that adds to dex. My bard has a level. Brings the overpowered furious weapon enchantment into play.

    There is also a good prestige class, the Aldori sword lord. Only really comes into its own at level 6. Great if you have lots of GM credit, but it can work with a character who has reasonable str as well as Dec.

    • JesterKraken - December 8, 2013, 9:02 pm

      I just made a Swashbuckler to play-test with the group in Whitby. I have to agree with you, Paul: I had to sacrifice a higher Charisma score in order to get better attack and damage rolls.

      Even if the character gets Weapon Finesse (w/certain weapons) at 2nd level, this is a potentially crippling bonus; the ability to wear a buckler is counteracted by the penalty to attack rolls due to wearing a shield (WHY, Paizo, why?!). It’s only really good for the Combat Manoeuvres bonus.

      This is one thing I feel 4th ed. D&D (and, from my experience of the play-test, D&D Next) has on attacks. If you were Dex-based, you got a Dex bonus to damage as well as attack. If Pathfinder implemented some thing like the following, I think agile-fighting builds would have a better go of it:

      – Use your Dex modifier instead of Str for attack rolls
      – apply 1/2 your Dex modifier to damage

      This way, the difference isn’t COMPLETELY lopsided (for then, who would bother with Strength?) but Dex-fighters don’t have to monkey around for several levels to compete with the classic fighter.

  2. hakkai - December 4, 2013, 3:34 pm

    I personally love the flavour of Dex-based melee characters, as to me they represent the sort of combatant who is precise and relies on tactical striking rather than brute force. Unfortunately, there’s really no way to compete damage-wise against the well-optimized (see: Powergamed) STR-based melee combatant. What you gain instead is the higher AC, better Reflex Saves and faster Initiative. But there is a significantproblem with the Dex-based character if you are STRICTLY building for damage: Feat Tax

    Since you’ll most likely be dumping STR (or at least keeping the bonus to a minimum), you’ll have to rely on feats such as Weapon Finesse, Weapon Focus, and Weapon Specialization to get you the attack bonuses needed to hit. Simply due to Weapon Finesse, you are relegated to the specified weapons, which can hamper the damage dice aspect of your output.

    While Piranha Strike does a lot to help the Dex-build by being an alternative to Power Attack, many Dex-builds rely on classes that don’t have full BAB progression (Rogue, Bard), so the effectiveness of the feat is inherently worse. The penalty to hit is increased significantly when you consider the Two-Weapon Fighting feat tree, which will stack on the penalties to hit.

    Speaking of TWF, STR-based builds with a full-BAB class will gain their iteratives much quicker than a half or 3/4 BAB Rogue or Bard. To compete effectively, the main choice for DEX-based builds would be to pick up Two-Weapon Fighting, which simply piles on the feat tax (especially if you decide to pick up other feats in the tree).

    Lastly, the fact that you cannot gain Dex-bonus to damage outside of Dervish Dance (another feat-tax) or an Agile weapon hurts immensely. Since weapon damage dice largely become obsolete in the later levels, it’s the static bonuses to damage that really count – Str builds will have this in abundance but Dex-builds will have to work very hard to compensate.

    A quick tip is that you can stack the Scout archetype (APG) with the Knifemaster archetype (UC), which increases your Sneak Attack hit dice with knives and kukris(!) and lowers your hit dice with other weapons. Unfortunately you do lose key class features (Uncanny/Improved Uncanny Dodge, Trapfinding), but you gain improved combat potential. A popular build is the Knifemaster Scout that two-weapon fights with kukris. A team-oriented player could try to pick up Butterfly’s Sting (FoP), which allows you to pass on your confirmed critical to the next melee character. Coupled with a Keen weapon or Improved Critical, you could be a huge asset by passing on crits (perhaps to the STR-based Big Dumb Fighter in your party).

    This is very source-heavy, but another really cool option is to look at the Sawtoothed Sabre exotic weapon (ISWG), which specifically can be used to TWF. Of course, you’d either need to pick up Exotic Weapon Proficiency or be a cleric of Achaekek (Gods and Magic), but it’s just about as close to being an assassin as you can possibly get! Just a thought 🙂

  3. Paul Jackson

    Paul Jackson - December 4, 2013, 5:19 pm

    Another possibility is the natural weapon dude with an agile amulet and just enough str for power attack. Does quite well at low to mid levels but it has real problems dealing with damage reduction.

    My Champion of Irori (paladin/monk) is another example of a dex based ftrish sort. Has reasonable str so he can use weapons when needed but his bread and butter are unarmed strikes. Not a massive damage dealer he is good enough for PFS (he makes up for the lack of raw damage in a number of ways)

  4. EricMcG

    EricMcG - December 4, 2013, 6:30 pm

    One advantage of Dex based fighters is that they tend to carry ranged weapons as well. Str based fighters tend to dump their Dex and I’ve seen many that don’t have range weapons of any sort. I’ve seen their DPS drop from 23 to effectively 0 against flying creatures or long range battles. They are relegated to hurling harsh language. The 10′ wide chasm is also the bane of most Str fighters.

    I like the Zen Archer for Dex based fighter, particularly after he gets Shot-To-The-Face (aka Point Blank Mastery). Well buffed, he can have an AC of 32 and can flank the front row while shooting the casters in the back area. He also likes being enlarged, one of the few Dex based types to do so.

    For a Str based fighter I prefer more of a balance between Str and Dex. The Ref save and improved Init are both helpful and there are more feat trees available. I sent mine down the Whirlwind track, although he’s only used it once: against 2 invisible elves and some furniture (hey, he can so he did). It also means he can pull out a bow and still be useful. Personally I like to confound the GM with unusual tactics rather than brute force and/or cheese.

    • JesterKraken - December 8, 2013, 9:09 pm

      This point on the lack of ranged options for Str-based fighters brings up the curiosity of throwing weapons. Why are ranged weapons powered by strength of arm (instead of a tensile bowstring or centrifugal force, like a sling) using Dex for attack rolls?

  5. Gar G.

    Gar G. - December 9, 2013, 1:16 pm

    Adding to that, the suggestion of the Knifemaster Scout can also do something handy that isn’t commonly seen: throwing knives. There isn’t really much support for people who want to focus on throwing weapons, but Dex-melee people who have extra daggers can always chuck one. You don’t even need to drop’n’draw to bring out a bow, then back again to the knives. If you decide to be rude and interrupt the GM’s boxed text with it, you’ll get to hang a sneak attack off of it as well.

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