Everything You Need to Know About Sneak Attack 5e

By Jake Morley •  Updated: 12/24/21 •  19 min read

Every 5e rogue at Level 1 can use Sneak Attack. This class feature is a signature of the class and can be very useful in campaigns. Not only does it deal massive damage, but you can use it for great character moments.

Whether you’ve played rogues many times before or you’re just starting, you can learn all kinds of things about the D&D 5e Sneak Attack rules from this guide. We’ll take you through how the feature works and all the ways you can optimize your character from the bottom up.

sneak attack

5E Sneak Attack Basics

Sneak Attack is an iconic skill associated with the rogue class. The 5e Sneak Attack is slightly different from previous iterations, but it has a similar feel. Let’s break down how this class feature works in 5e.

Damage Bonus

In the most basic terms, Sneak Attack 5e gives rogues bonus damage if they hit while they have advantage on attacks. The thought behind this is that a rogue can get the drop on an enemy.

You don’t need advantage if there is an enemy whose target is within 5 feet of them, not incapacitated, and as long as you don’t have disadvantage.

Every two levels, you gain an additional d6 to the damage pool. At Level 20, you have 10d6 for Sneak Attack. That level of damage could one-shot kill an enemy if you roll a Natural 20 or have other boosts in place.

Limited Weapons

You can only use certain weapons with your Sneak Attack. The only weapons you can use are finesse weapons or ranged weapons. Finesse weapons are weapons that you can use your Dexterity modifier to attack and add bonuses instead of Strength.

While this can be hard to work with while you are low level or have only a couple of weapons, it shouldn’t pose a problem as you get more gear. Rogues can start with finesse and ranged weapons anyways, so you can begin using Sneak Attack as soon as you start playing.

Roguish Archetypes and Sneak Attack

At the 3rd Level, you can choose a Roguish Archetype. This is your rogue subclass and will give you certain themed features. They cover a wide range of skills and proficiencies along with combat abilities.

Each of the 5e Roguish Archetypes has its own features that can impact all different aspects of your character. Some of them affect Sneak Attack or give your rogue a completely different feel. You can choose them based on backstory or

We’ll go through these in alphabetical order, but it’s important to remember that some of these Archetypes are not available in the Player’s Handbook and other primary content. Many of them appear in other expansion books that you’d typically have to buy separately, such as Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything or Xanathar’s Guide to Everything.

Arcane Trickster

First up is the Arcane Trickster archetype. This is one of three Roguish Archetypes listed in the Player’s Handbook for entry-level players to choose from. This Archetype blends illusory magic with stealth skills to create the perfect mischief-maker.

What is most notable about this Archetype is that it allows your rogue to cast spells. Throughout leveling up, you learn to cast up to 4th Level spells. These spells are drawn from the wizard spell list, and you can learn all kinds of spells from that group.

There are no direct Sneak Attack boosts, but you could use the Versatile Trickster feature to help your Sneak Attack.

Versatile Trickster allows you to distract enemies with Mage Hand. This allows you and your allies to get advantage on attack rolls against them. This is perfect for hitting with Sneak Attack and dealing extra damage.

Assassin

The second of the primary Archetypes in the Player’s Handbook, the Assassin Archetype is built to be deadly. Assassin rogues are highly trained killers who strike quickly and efficiently. They are often hired killers or bounty hunters.

While Assassins do not have a specific improvement to Sneak Attack, pairing the Archetype boosts with Sneak Attack can deal massive damage overall. These hits can be incredibly lethal and hurt enemies just as much as other Archetypes that have improved damage pools.

The 3rd Level bonus you receive is perfect for maximizing Sneak Attack. Whenever you choose to attack an enemy that has not been hit, you have an advantage on attacks. On top of that, every hit that you score on a surprised enemy counts as a critical hit, and you can deal double damage.

Another example is that you could pair the Death Strike feature you get Level 17 with Sneak Attack to double your damage, including the additional 1d6 from Sneak Attack.

Your rogue can deal an awe-inspiring amount of damage with their Assassin features and their Sneak Attack. This makes the Assassin Archetype one of the best for building a dangerous rogue.

Inquisitive

The Inquisitive Archetype is designed to root out the evil in the world. They spend time examining the intents of others and seeing whether someone is genuine or not. They are investigators.

You can find this Archetype in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, along with all kinds of other content. While this Archetype is more equipped for social skills, two features improve your Sneak Attack ability.

The first is called Insightful Fighting. You unlock it at 3rd Level and can analyze your opponent’s fighting style. If you pass an Insight check that is contested by their Charisma or Deception score, you can use Sneak Attack against them.

This counts even if you don’t have advantage on the attack roll!

The second feature is along the same vein and is called Eye for Weakness. You gain this at the 17th Level. When you use your Insightful Fighting feature, you can add 3d6 to your total Sneak Attack damage.

For a Level 20 rogue, you can turn your 10d6 Sneak Attack damage into 13d6. This is immense and could shift the course of a fight in moments.

Phantom

Phantom rogues walk the line between the land of the living and the dead, harnessing this power to become exceptionally deadly and powerful infiltrators. They are at home in the darkest part of the world and commune with ghosts regularly.

The Phantom Archetype can be found in Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything expansion and has significant boosts for Sneak Attack. This Archetype allows you to deal necrotic damage in addition to your Sneak Attack damage at lower levels by utilizing soul trinkets.

At the 3rd Level, you gain the Archetype feature Wails From the Grave. After dealing Sneak Attack damage, you can turn necrotic power on another enemy within 30 feet of your initial target. You can use this feature as many times as your proficiency bonus and regain all the uses on a long rest.

You can roll half of your Sneak Attack pool dice (rounded up) and deal that total in necrotic damage to the new target. At the highest levels, that’s an additional 5d6 on top of your 10d6 from the first successful Sneak Attack attack.

The 9th Level feature also gives a Sneak Attack boost on top of all kinds of other perks. When you deal Sneak Attack damage to an enemy, you can break one of your soul trinkets. You can break it and use Wails from the Grave without expending a use, no matter where it is.

These two Archetype features will give you a potent Sneak Attack at a much lower level than usual. The Phantom Archetype is perfect for the edgy rogue and anyone who wants to lean into the dark, goth aesthetic.

Mastermind

The Mastermind Archetype is for the high society spy in all of us. If you’ve ever wanted to play James Bond or dive into court politics, ala Game of Thrones, this is the Archetype for you. It pairs very well with the Noble background and has a lot of fun storytelling potential.

It was released for 5e in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and is very fun to play, especially in roleplay-heavy campaigns. You can learn all kinds of new things about enemies and use that information to your advantage.

Unfortunately, this Archetype does not have any skills that give relevant bonuses to Sneak Attack. The Archetype features are mainly used for utility outside combat or information collection. It is an excellent Archetype, but not for Sneak Attack.

Instead, it would be best to choose this Archetype for roleplay-heavy games or for parties where there are a lot of other fighting classes. This is perfect for any party that needs an investigator or someone who can be a high society connection.

Scout

Scout rogues are more at home in the wilderness than in any city. They often work closely with barbarians, rangers, druids, and all other friends of wild places. Scouts also can work with armies and warring groups as ambushers or spies.

This Archetype debuted in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything and has two skills that will help your Sneak Attack ability. You have to wait until you get to higher levels to use these features, but

Your 13th Level Archetype feature is called Ambush Master. Not only do you get advantage on initiative rolls, but you’ll give yourself, and your allies advantage on attack rolls on the first creature you hit. This bonus lasts until the start of your next turn.

At the 17th Level, you get the feature Sudden Strike. This feature lets you take a second attack as a bonus action after your first attack. This can be activated when you’ve used Sneak Attack, but you can’t use it to make a second Sneak Attack.

Ambush Master, in particular, is a fantastic feature to use with your rogue’s Sneak Attack ability. You can give the rest of your adventuring party advantage on attacks and benefit from it yourself!

Soul Knife

Soulknife (or Soul Knife) rogues are rogues that use psychic and physical damage to their benefit. Psionic power is the crux of their power, and they blend magic with their roguish abilities.

The Soulknife Archetype doesn’t have a Sneak Attack-specific upgrade, but you can exploit the features it gives you to maximize your Sneak Attack damage. As long as you follow the rules for Sneak Attack, you use all of your Archetype features for the best results.

At the 3rd Level, you can summon a psychic knife and use it to make thrown or melee attacks. You can use this knife to initiate Sneak Attacks and benefit from the damage bonuses. After a successful hit, you can make a second attack for less damage overall.

Many other effects for this Archetype will allow you to use this knife for extra damage, and you can apply that to Sneak Attack. Utilizing your Psychic Blades will only make your rogue more formidable.

For example, your 9th Level Soul Blades feature will allow you to add more bonuses to your attack roll. If your attack misses, you can roll a Psionic Energy Dice and add that number to the attack roll.

Suddenly, depending on how much you add to the roll, you can turn a miss into a successful hit. You can apply this to your Sneak Attack rolls and means you are more likely to hit and deal that large pool of damage.

The 17th Level has a feature called Rend Mind. This feature allows you to make Psychic Blades appear inside a target’s mind and attack them. When you use this move to deal Sneak Attack damage, you force the opponent to make a Wisdom save.

If they do not pass a save (the DC is equal to 8 plus your proficiency bonus and your Dexterity modifier), you can stun the enemy for one minute or ten turns. This is perfect for dealing immense amounts of damage since you can use Sneak Attack each time you hit with advantage.

Overall, the Soul Knife Archetype is an excellent choice to optimize Sneak Attack, but it is less visible than the other options you have at your disposal. You’ll need to experiment and figure out what your DM will allow you to do to excel.

Swashbuckler

Another prevalent Archetype, the Swashbuckler rogue is at home on the high seas or who has a flair for the dramatic. They are typically pirates or brigands who enjoy life on the ocean and high adventure.

The Swashbuckler Archetype has two features that specifically improve Sneak Attack. They are directly involved with improving this skill, making the Swashbuckler Archetype one of the best ones to pick if you want to maximize your Sneak Attack.

Rakish Audacity, in particular, is a significant boost. You gain an Initiative boost and other Sneak Attack bonuses.

Namely, you don’t need advantage to use Sneak Attack if you are within five feet of your target, no other beings are within five feet of you, and as long as you don’t have disadvantage on attack rolls. You still have to follow the other Sneak Attack rules, but those are pretty standard.

Your 17th Level feature is also a way to use your Sneak Attack more often. Master Duelist allows you to take a missed attack and roll again with advantage. You can only do this once per long rest, but getting a free excuse to use Sneak Attack is worth the wait.

Thief

The last of the Archetypes included in the Player’s Handbook, thieves are just what they sound like. These are the cat burglars, the pickpockets, and the bandits of the world. However, treasure seekers and investigators may also count themselves in this category.

The Thief Archetype does not have immediate improvements to Sneak Attack, but one Archetype feature can give you more opportunities to use it.

At Level 17, you get the feature Thief’s Reflexes. You can take two turns during the first round of combat. Your first turn goes on as usual, and you take your second turn at your initiative minus 10.

Hypothetically, if your party has advantage on attacks, you could take two whole turns in the first round of combat and use Sneak Attack to deal a lot of damage. However, this won’t work if you are surprised.

Optimizing Sneak Attack

Sneak Attack is a Level One class feature, but there are so many ways you can utilize it at higher levels and do a massive amount of damage.

We’ve already dived into how Roguish Archetypes can improve Sneak Attack and give you bonuses, but there are other things you can choose to get even higher Sneak Attack returns.

These include utilizing Archetypes, choosing practical backgrounds and races, and working with your adventuring party. If you think about these things and use them to your advantage, you could build a mighty rogue with impressive Sneak Attack abilities.

The Best Rogue Archetypes

When building your rogue, you need to consider what Archetype you want to choose. If you’re going to focus on a Sneak Attack build, there are explicitly better Archetypes to choose over others.

The best Roguish Archetypes for Sneak Attack are:

  1. Assassin
  2. Inquisitive
  3. Phantom
  4. Scout
  5. Soul Knife
  6. Swashbuckler

Each of these will give your rogue the best opportunity to use Sneak Attack and deal massive amounts of damage with it. They offer opportunities to use this damage with other features, giving you expanded advantage chances and extra damage dice.

If you want to make a rogue who will do massive Sneak Attack damage, the Assassin archetype is the choice for you. With enormous damage deal-outs at lower levels, you only add more on top of the dice pool at higher levels.

However, if you want an Archetype that will give you the most advantage, you should choose either the Inquisitive or the Scout Archetype. Both of these have features related to providing advantage on attack rolls, and both are available at lower levels than most.

That all being said, any of the Archetypes on the list in this section are good choices. They all give boosts and will be great to optimize your rogue in different ways.

The best features for rogues to use Sneak Attack are ones that give your character advantage on attack rolls. However, if it is easier to hit, you can use your dice pool consistently to deal considerable damage over time.

The Best Ways to Get Advantage

There are a couple of consistent ways to get advantage on attacks. You’ll need to work creatively to gain advantage outside of Archetype features.

One is that you could consistently take cover and use a Hide action. This will let you get the jump on enemies and strike from the shadows. You can then impose the Surprised condition and give you and your allies advantage to hit.

Another is to work with other party members to get an imposed advantage. For example, if you and your party work together to flank an enemy collectively, you could set advantage on attacks multiple times.

You could also work together to incapacitate or knock down the enemy. This will give you another advantage. Your DM might also allow you to get advantage in different ways with other attack effects, such as if the enemy is Frightened or particularly injured.

Choosing the Best Background

A great way to optimize your rogue for Sneak Attack is to choose a background carefully. Backgrounds can give your character all kinds of advantages, including perks that make it even easier to use Sneak Attack.

There are so many great backgrounds in D&D 5e to choose from, but we’re going to focus on the Player’s Handbook ones for this guide. If you want to branch out into the new backgrounds, you’ll need to look them over in the expansions.

Of the Player’s Handbook backgrounds, these are the best ones for Sneak Attack:

  1. Criminal
  2. Outlander
  3. Urchin

This is a relatively small list, but they are fitting and have practical and thematic benefits.

Criminal is one of the top choices for rogues based on theme alone, but there are practical reasons to choose the Criminal background. One of the proficiencies you receive is Stealth, which can give you an advantage on attacks if you attack from behind cover to surprise an enemy.

The Outlander background might seem out of place on this list, but it also has a practical impact. The Wanderer feature for this background explains that you know how to navigate and a lot about the landscape you’re traveling over. 

That could translate to your rogue knowing the best hiding spots and ways to take cover while on the road and outside of cities. You could justify certain advantages to your DM while playing and potentially give yourself more opportunities to use Sneak Attack.

The Urchin background has the best of both worlds. Not only does it give you proficiency in Stealth, but you also know your way around a city. Using the Urchin background is vital if you try to play your rogue like an Assassin’s Creed protagonist.

Choosing the Best Race

If you want to optimize your abilities completely, it even comes down to your character’s race. Some races come packed with racial features that can help your Sneak Attack, while others can make things harder for you.

There is no bad player character race, but some give more useful stats than others. You can make any race work with a rogue build if you work with your DM the whole way through.

Tabaxis, in particular, make excellent rogues and can give you some significant boosts when it comes down to using your rogue features. You get an additional two points in Dexterity and Darkvision.

Humans are also another great choice since you can put extra points into your primary stat totals, thus increasing your Dexterity.

Elves and Half-Elves are other excellent options for the same reason. They give significant Dexterity boosts that won’t only help your Stealth and Sleight of Hand modifiers, but a higher Dexterity will improve your weapon modifiers as well.

Forest gnomes might not seem like an obvious choice, but their improved Dexterity is a significant benefit. Halflings have a +2 to their Dexterity score, which is perfect for a rogue.

Other Optimization Tips

Now that you’ve seen all of the starting methods you can take to improve Sneak Attack, there are other things you can do to improve it during regular play.

A quick way is to choose a feat that will give you a consistent advantage or damage bonuses. The Player’s Handbook has a wide selection, but other expansions also come with different feats that give your character bonuses.

Another thing you can do is think outside the box and take advantage of the set pieces your DM has arranged. They have made the setting for a reason; use it. Ideally, your DM will work with you and build on your plans.

Can your rogue find consistent cover since you are in a thick jungle? This might give them the advantage to hit an enemy who has no idea they are there.

Did your adventuring party arrange an ambush to catch the enemy off-guard? This could surprise all the enemies at once and give your party a chance to pick them off quickly.

Playing a rogue requires more than many damage dice and knowing when to use your features. You need to think creatively and develop strategies that will consistently allow you to use your skills to benefit the group.

Go for The Sneak Attack!

Sneak Attack is an iconic rogue class feature that can deal massive damage. Choosing certain archetypes, backgrounds, feats, and races can improve this skill and make you a demon in the initiative order. All it takes is a little bit of time, XP, and calculations.

Frequently Asked Questions

How does Sneak Attack work 5e?

5e Sneak Attack works by allowing a rogue character to deal extra damage when they hit while having advantage on an attack roll. The enemy is distracted or otherwise incapacitated, and your rogue takes advantage of that situation.

Can anyone do a Sneak Attack 5e?

Only player characters that have levels in rogue can use Sneak Attack. Even if you only have one level in rogue, you can use this feature. Sneak Attack is unlocked at rogue Level 1.

When can you use Sneak Attack 5e?

You can use Sneak Attack when your character has advantage on attack rolls or meets other criteria. Some Archetype features allow your rogue to hit with Sneak Attack damage at different times than the regular rules allow.

What classes can Sneak Attack 5e?

Rogues are the only class that can use Sneak Attack. If you are playing another class and want to use Sneak Attack, you’ll need to take a level in rogue to access this primary class feature.

Jake Morley

Jake, the founder of The Dungeon Rats, started playing D&D in 2012. He has continued to level up his player and dungeon master skills and wanted to share his journey and helpful knowledge with other like-minded individuals. He launched The Dungeon Rats in 2021 as an outlet for those interested in learning more about Dungeons and Dragons in hopes they can take what they learn and apply it at their own table!