Classical Abilities – Another Look at Turning & Backstabbing

Backstabbing & TurningJolz darted his vision about the room before resuming his work on the lock that continued to confound him. The door had slammed shut and locked as soon as his group had entered the room. As he worked, an ancient curse had awakened a horde of slumbering skeletons. The battle was going well, but they were becoming overwhelmed – they’d need a way out soon. Nearly finished, he heard a cry of alarm. Moil, “mage extraordinaire” was cornered by two of the bony creatures. Muttering something about interruptions, Jolz drew his blade and approached the distracted creatures carefully. The foul things had no backs (well, backbones didn’t really count), but his keen eye could make out certain weaknesses in the joints. With a couple of surgically precise slashes, the skeletons fell into a pile and ceased to be a threat. Nodding in thanks, Moil returned to the battle, while Moil returned to the task at unlocking their escape route.


Lils heard the cracking of the sarcophagus lids even before the first bony caricatures came into sight. Muttering a prayer to the Goddess, she hefted her mace in one hand and gripped her holy pendant in the other. While she figured the crypt would be cursed, she hadn’t expected such a willful response from the long dead necromancer. Grant and Moil flanked the archway preparing for the onslaught; but Lils stood her ground – planting her feet and standing out in the open. She wanted to be the skeletons’ first target. Surging forward, the skeletal horde came into view, bony claws and rusty swords swinging about. Lils had but one word to speak. It was an ancient word, a word brought down from the Celestial Tower by the Goddess herself, and not a part of any known language. Imaging the word in her mind, Lils felt the power of the word build and she shouted at the skeletons in what could only be described as joy. As she spoke the word, a rippling wave of energy crashed into the vanguard of skeletons. As the skeletons were hit by the wave, each glowed incandescently for the briefest moment, before exploding softly into a fine powder. The Goddess and her word had no patience for abominations. Grant saluted, but cautioned more would be coming. Gripping her mace once again, Lils took up a position in front of Moil and prepared to finish the rest of the skeletons the old fashioned way.

Greetings, all! I hope you enjoyed the little narrative at the top of the article, because it illustrates what I want to talk about today – iconic abilities. Specifically,I want to talk about those iconic abilities attributed to the Thief (Rogue) and the Cleric. These classes are both a part of “The Big Four”, and each has a specific ability that practically defines the class. As DnDNext approaches, I want to share with you my take on how these iconic abilities should be treated in the next version of the game.

On Thieves And Backstabbing

Thieves (or Rogues in more recent versions of the game) are sneaky. They stick to the shadows, and while they often do their best to avoid combat, they are really good at finding an opponent’s weak spot, attacking that spot mercilessly, and then looting the body afterwards. Originally, this power was called, “backstabbing” and the Thief had to literally be at the foe’s back. If the Thief then successfully surprised his opponent (a d6 roll), then the Thief would do extra dice of damage (based on the Thief’s level). In later editions of the game, “back-stab” was softened to “sneak attack”. Sneak attack also did extra damage, but could only be applied if the creature had a definable “back”. Sneak attack continues to be used in the 4th edition of DnD, but can be used against any opponent as long as the Rogue (Thief) has Combat Advantage.

Am I in favor of keeping the Thief’s iconic back-stab for DnDNext? You bet. However, I would split the ability into two different ones. I realize that’s a slight complication of the ability, but hear me out. First, I would bring back the true back-stab. For the back-stab, I would see it being used only once in a combat per enemy (this represents the element of surprise as once the Thief strikes, that enemy is more aware). The Thief must be behind the target, and the creature must have a discernible back.

The second ability makes use of the fact that Thieves are really good at finding a weak spot on their opponent. To represent this, I think the Thief should get a little extra damage (not as much as back-stab, but more than just a damage bonus) on every 3rd round he is engaged with an opponent. This extra damage is only available if the Thief has some advantage against the opponent. That advantage could take a variety of forms but might mean a height, position (such as flanking), or the enemy’s condition (such as stunned, etc.). I’m not crunching the numbers here, but I think it allows the Thief to get into position and do extra damage, particularly if the cost is having to get into direct melee combat with the enemy. I’m not sure what I would call this ability, but something like “Exploit Weakness” would be nice.

On Clerics And Turning Undead

While Clerics have always been known for their usefulness as Healers, one of their occasionally overlooked abilities is their power to Turn Undead. Turning Undead is simply the ability to manifest holy (or unholy in the case of evil Clerics) energy that either destroys or turns undead. While I don’t think there’s really any argument that Clerics in DnDNext shouldn’t be able to Turn Undead, there are many opinions on what exactly that looks like. My thought is that Turn Undead is a once an encounter (or if the “encounter” unit goes away), once every 10 rounds type of power. In addition, that power should have a different effect based on the type of undead creature it is used against. I’m not going to list out every possible undead creature here, but here are some examples.

  • Mindless Undead (Skeletons, Zombies, etc.) should catch fire (or vaporize if low hit points) and/or flee for several rounds.
  • Beastly Undead (Ghouls, Wights, etc.) should catch fire and/or flee for several rounds.
  • Ghostly Undead (Wraiths, Ghosts, Specters, etc.) should be banished for several days and/or flee for several rounds.
  • Intelligent Undead (Mummies, Vampires, Liches, etc.) should catch fire and burn for several rounds. They would NOT flee, but might be held motionless as long as the Cleric is concentrating and doing nothing else. Really powerful undead might not be held back, particularly if they’re near a strong source of necromantic energy.

I’ll let the math crunchers decide how much damage the Cleric should be able to do. However, I do feel that the Cleric’s ability to Turn Undead should improve as she gains levels. Full disclosure: The very first thing that hooked me into DnD, happened in 8th Grade Geography class. My friend (who had recently received the “purple box”) OD&D game, was expanding the “Clerics VS. Undead” table to higher levels. I asked him what the weird table (comprised of Ts, Ds, and numbers) was. His answer started me on a now 35 year journey of gaming. To say I’m a little nostalgic for a return to such a table, would be an understatement. I’ll be happy if DnDNext uses a different way to scale the Cleric’s Turn Undead power, but I really did love that table.

Well, that’s our discussion for the day. I’m hoping that DnDNext maintains these distinctive class powers for new gamers to enjoy. The public play test can’t get here soon enough.


My Name is Randall Walker and This Is My Game.

Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. R.M. Walker, who can be found in numerous places on the internet as “DeadOrcs”, is a long time gamer with some 30 years experience playing RPGs. Despite occasional forays into the bizarre, Randall has always come back to Dungeons & Dragons.

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About DeadOrcs

R.M. Walker, who can be found in numerous places on the internet as “DeadOrcs”, is a long time gamer with some 30 years experience playing RPGs. Despite occasional forays into the bizarre, Randall has always come back to Dungeons & Dragons.

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