In this series, I’ll go through classes and subclasses in Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition and apply them to their real-world associates in history and sometimes contemporary culture and suggest how you can flavour them in a way that feels more dynamic or realistic.
Whether you’ve been challenged to a duel of rapiers at dawn in an open field or you’re being ambushed by blade-swinging thugs in tight city streets, the image of classical fencing has always captured the imaginations of roleplayers of all types. That being said, is this your 5th swashbuckler Rogue? Is it wearing a little thin but you still love swords? Does the swashbuckler rogue even live up to the hype of emoting the spirit of actual fencing?
Let a competitive fencer and coach of over 20 years weigh in and give you a hand in breaking it down… oh, yes, I’m talking about me, nice to meet you!
To Rogue or Not to Rogue
The idea of a Rogue is often the depiction of assassins, smugglers, pirates, and agile swords-for-hire who have a penchant for subterfuge and espionage, so the image of a rapier at one side when you’re wearing all that leather just fits so well, but there’s so much more to it than that, I promise. Let’s start with the weapon first and move up from that.
Fencing, and by that I mean the art of fighting with a one-handed, sharp, thin blade, whether that be a Sabre, Scimitar, or Rapier came into popularity during the obsolescence of armour and the introduction of firearms in Europe around the 1400s. These weapons required (and still do) a great deal of agility, finesse, leg power, and speed to wield expertly. In fencing, we like to describe it as “running the 100-meter dash and playing chess simultaneously” since it takes tactics and forethought alongside agile form.
Immediately after reading that, did any of those words hit right for a different class? Perhaps a class some DM’s still don’t allow at the table? Well I bet flavouring it this way may get you a pass… hear me out. A Kensei Monk with a rapier and daggers, or a second rapier and do it Florentine Style! Or… a College of Swords Bard!
Hold your thieves cant obscenities for a minute forever-rogues, let me explain.
Although the Swashbuckler Rogue is effective for dexterity and stealth builds, the spirit of dueling and crossing swords with an opponent is a bit flat in the mechanics. The Fancy Footwork ability attempts to build the idea of agile footwork and keeping one’s distance between striking, but that completely misses the idea of what a swashbuckler does, facing their foe with blade work and stunts. Rakish Audacity, although fun to think about as a class ability on its own, seems minimal to evoke the spirit of fencing and facing your opponent. Where Swashbuckler really sings in its flavoured mechanics is the Panache ability at 9th level, this is perfect for the echoes of Douglas Fairbanks and Errol Flynn flair as you bring out the charm to rag-on or flirt with your opponent, making it harder for them to concentrate on the fight.
Now I’d never just leave a criticism without a potential solution. Fencing tactics involve a lot of the following: counter-attacks and defending whilst simultaneously attacking. So for earlier levels, I’d implant features that were reactions or actions that involved aggressive speed, rather than encouraging retreat or hit-and-run. For reaction abilities, I’d give the rogue a melding of the fighter’s parry and riposte Maneuvers, but instead, do this to make it feel more… duelist-like.
(Swashbuckler Rogue, to replace Fancy Footwork) Parry-Riposte
When you choose this archetype at 3rd level, your quick thinking and instincts allow you to counter poultry attacks against you. You can use a reaction against a melee weapon attack with a sword or dagger as a roll-to-hit, the number you roll must match or beat the attacking creature’s roll. On a success, the creature’s melee attack is negated and you can roll base weapon damage (Modifier+weapon damage) to hit them back. No other abilities can stack with this. This can be used to parry attacks directed to other allies so long as you are adjacent to them, but not behind them. If the creature hits with a natural 20, only a natural 20 can achieve a parry-riposte. (This is not Rapier-exclusive, other weapons included in this are scimitars, sickles, longswords and short swords)
(Swashbuckler Rogue, to replace Rakish Audacity) Knave’s Thrust
The most effective defense is a swift offense. Starting at 3rd level, you can tangle weapons with your opponent and slide your blade into target whilst keeping their weapon out of line with your fleshy bits. As an action, use a melee weapon attack to strike your target. They must roll a strength save against your attack roll, if they fail, their next attack against you has disadvantage as they are caught in your angled blade.
This one-two punch of changes at 3rd level would greatly re flavour early level rogue combat for the Swashbuckler and as a fencer myself I’d likely be interested in trying this subclass. It would definitely feel more like fighting a duel as a wiley tactician cutting their teeth while later abilities allow panache and elegance now that the foundations are solidly in place. That scaling alone is also accurately flavourful to the spirit of how one grows as a fencer.
Now for those other classes I mentioned not much would need to change. For the Monk, reflavour the word Kensei with [Insert backstory fencing school here] if you want to be fancy, a fencing club is known as a Salle, so to name it let’s say your Master’s last name was Pericolo, you can call the school Salle Pericolo. Re-flavour your unarmed strikes as blunt kicks, dirty elbows, and backhands, and use a rapier and daggers or dual rapiers. There, now you have an incredibly agile fencer with incredible speed to hit often. Monks only need reflavouring to feel like fencers, because in fact European fencing still requires similar amounts of flexibility, agility, strength, forethought, and psychological training.
As for the College of Swords Bard, this is really where a more uplifting swashbuckler hero can be played out. Imagine if Errol Flynn himself was a Bard, he’d definitely be from the College of Swords. The natural theatricality of the abilities and how inspiration uses can be replaced by these flourishes really makes one feel like a Hollywood Star or Ren Faire performer who started adventuring.
There, now you’re ready to thrust, parry, and lunge your way through Dungeons and Dragons with the athleticism and panache of fencers old and new! I certainly hope this helps all the future Inigo Montoyas and Don Diego Delavegas (That’s Zorro by the way) of your campaigns! From one swashbuckler to another, I salute you.
Written By: Christian A.V. Petrozza
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