The Nonlethal Ninja

Welcome to Iconic Design, where we discuss the creation of exciting new character builds for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game!

When I’m designing NPCs for my campaign or followers for my PC, I like to try and come up with fighting styles that accurately reflect the character. The bard, one of my favorite classes in Pathfinder, lends itself nicely to this concept both with its archetypes and its standard class features. That said, if archetypes have a weakness, it’s that most of them contribute to a sense of homogenization between characters because there isn’t much variety in what they trade. To this end, multiclassing is one of my favorite pastimes because a well-planned multiclass build can add a lot of personal identity to a character that something like an archetype or a hybrid class can never hope to replicate.

  Today, we’re going to be looking at using a low-level dip into the bard class to bring a healthy splash of identity to an otherwise tried and true character build.

Background

This character build was inspired by a follower of my PC in a homebrew campaign that I play in with some regularity. My PC, a kitsune samurai, was raised by elves and only discovered that he wasn’t alone in the world in the middle of our campaign’s first major story arc. This kitsune, discovered in the hull of a slave ship we had conquered, would ultimately become my first follower when my PC reached 7th level. Now I’m the type of guy who likes to see stories with my followers and cohorts progress just as much as my actual PC, so when my GM was hit with a stuttering brain-fart while RPing as this follower as he addressed my soon-to-be-cohort, I translated the loss for words as love paralysis. This story eventually reached its culmination in the most gushy, romantic love scene I have ever seen anyone RP in a 3rd Edition game; in person no less!

This build was ultimately created from this NPC, Shai Wavecrest, who came into the campaign a lover and decided to build himself into a fighter in order to prove to himself that he was worthy of my cohort’s affections. I hope you enjoy watching this progression (and where I would like to see it go) as much as I’ve enjoyed planning it and being a part of it.

Build Concept

When designing Shai’s build, I had several goals that I wanted to meet.

  • Shai’s build needed to show a progression from his whimsical, bardic roots to a more resolved warrior; I chose ninja as the primary focus for the class.
  • Although I wanted Shai to be a serious melee contender, I also wanted his fighting style to be both unique and reflective of his whimsies. Shai began the game as a ship hand who loved to sing, so that was something that I felt needed to be preserved somewhat in this build.
  • I wanted to focus on a “traditional” ninja rather than a “mystic” ninja. The cohort, whom I will likely detail in her own column some day, was designed to be more of a mystical ninja.

This is the build that I have selected in order to meet these goals:

  • Super-Mega Multiclass. In all, Shai is a multiclass bard, fighter, and ninja. In his background, he starts as a bard, gains fighter training from my PC to improve his confidence, and ultimately learns the ways of the ninja from my cohort.
  • Singing needs to be an important part of this class. For this reason, I decided to design the entire build around the versatile performance class feature.
  • Shai has always been squeamish about combat in our game; mostly because he doesn’t like the idea of hurting others. I decided early on that he would specialize in dealing nonlethal damage to opponents. He’s less of the “you’ll live” type of ninja and more of the “I don’t want to hurt you,” type.

Early Levels (1–7)

Shai is a kitsune who began his career as a bard with the lotus geisha archetype, which you can find in the Dragon Empires Primer from Paizo. An entertainer always felt right for Shai and I adore the archetype’s eastern style. Shai’s bardic training ends abruptly at 2nd level after obtaining versatile performance: sing. Shai does leave with a few nice tricks, however; enrapturing performance allows Shai to use his fascinate bardic performance against foes with exceptional proficiency and between his kitsune racial bonus and the archetype’s Spell Focus (enchantment) bonus feat, the few enchantment spells that Shai has access to are surprisingly potent. At 3rd and 4th level, Shai receives fighter training from my PC, Kyr’shin, who is a lore warden fighter (another crazy multiclass build that I’m likely to talk about someday). Finally, by 5th level Shai is ready to start taking levels in the ninja class.

  • Class: Bard (Lotus Geisha) 2 / Fighter (Lore Warden) 2 / Ninja 3
  • Feats: Spell Focus: Enchantment (Bonus Feat), Weapon Finesse (1st), Piranha Attack (Bonus Feat), Two-Weapon Fighting (3rd), Combat Expertise (Bonus Feat), Weapon Focus: Sai (Bonus Feat), Bludgeoneer (5th), Dazzling Display (Bonus Feat), Sap Adept (7th)
  • Abilities: Bardic Performance (6 + Cha/Day; countersong, distraction, fascinate, inspire courage +1), Ki Pool (Cha + 1 Points), Ninja Tricks (weapon training), No Trace +1, Poison Use, Sneak Attack +2d6
  • Bard Cantrips Known: ghost sound, lullaby, message,
  • Bard 1st Level Spells Known (2/Day): charm person, vanish, ventriloquism

Yowzers, that’s a lot of bonus feats, eh? When designing multiclass characters, the power for the build always comes from a combination of two places: interactions between feats or interactions between class abilities. In this case, Shai’s build is defined by both feats and a very important class ability, versatile performance: sing. Shai is designed to distract his opponents via singing; versatile performance allows Shai to substitute his Perform (sing) bonus for his Bluff skill checks, so Shai feints opponents by singing at them. Both the ninja class and the lotus geisha archetype grant Shai proficiency with the sai, which is a light bludgeoning weapon that works perfectly with the Bludgeoneer and Piranha Attack feats. (The latter is from the Sargava, the Lost Coloney player companion.) When Shai gains Sap Adept at 7th level, his successful attacks will ultimately deal 1d4 + 2 (Piranha Attack) + 2d6+2 (sneak attack plus Sap Adept). At this stage of the game, Shai’s damage is behind that of a full ninja by a decent chunk, but he has many more tricks up his sleeve to make up for it. A noteworthy point is that Shai’s enrapturing performance allows him to focus his inspire courage ability upon himself if he chooses, granting himself (or any other one target) a +2 bonus instead of his usual +1.

Mid Levels (8 –14)

Here on out, Shai focuses solely on ninja levels to enhance the groundwork laid out in the early levels of the game.

  • Class: Bard (Lotus Geisha) 2 / Fighter (Lore Warden) 2 / Ninja 10
  • Feats: Spell Focus: Enchantment (Bonus Feat), Weapon Finesse (1st), Piranha Attack (Bonus Feat), Two-Weapon Fighting (3rd), Combat Expertise (Bonus Feat), Weapon Focus: Sai (Bonus Feat), Bludgeoneer (5th), Dazzling Display (Bonus Feat), Sap Adept (7th), Improved Disarm (Bonus Feat), Shatter Defenses (9th), Sap Master (11th), Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (13th)
  • Abilities: Bardic Performance (6 + Cha/Day; countersong, distraction, fascinate, inspire courage +1), Ki Pool (Cha + 5 points), Improved Uncanny Dodge, Light Steps, Ninja Tricks (combat trick, evasion, fast stealth, offensive defensive, weapon training), No Trace +3, Poison Use, Sneak Attack +5d6, Uncanny Dodge
  • Bard Cantrips Known: ghost sound, lullaby, message,
  • Bard 1st Level Spells Known (2/Day): charm person, vanish, ventriloquism

One thing worth pointing out is that Shai is a kitsune in my home game, which gives him access to +1/6 additional rogue talent as a favored class option. By this stage in the game, Shai has earned two additional rogue talents; personally, I picked pressure points (a ninja trick) and either combat swipe (Improved Steal as a bonus feat) or sneaky maneuver (from the Magical Marketplace player companion). Both are great additions to the build and I haven’t quite decided which I like more.

 Looking at how the build has progressed, you can see that Shai’s build capitalizes on the sai’s traits as a disarming weapon.But most importantly, Shai grabs Shatter Defense to combine with the extremely powerful Sap Master feat and from there on out, the build focuses on augmenting what Shai already has. Sneak attack damage goes up, more attacks with Two-Weapon Fighting are earned, and Shai gets better with the disarm maneuver. By 14th level, Shai’s damage is as follows: 1d4 + 6 (Piranha Attack) + 10d6+10 (sneak attack, Sap Adept, and Sap Master). Remember that for Sap Master to kick in, Shai needs to be striking a target that is flat-footed; this means that simply flanking your opponent is not good enough. Luckily for us, Shai specializes in feinting foes by singing at them, and with Improved Two-Weapon Feint at 13th level, a single successful feint attempt makes foes flat-footed against all of Shai’s attacks until the end of the turn. Because he’s only giving up one attack of four (two attacks plus two from Improved Two-Weapon Fighting) there are plenty of opportunities for Shai to strike his foes with a literal truckload of nonlethal sneak attack damage.

Shai has the offensive defensive rogue talent to supplement his somewhat self-preserving nature, but the talent itself is marvelous, offering five times the benefit of Dodge against a foe Shai has sneak attacked by 14th level. I’m not sure if Sap Master further increases this dodge bonus; that’s likely up to your GM, as I haven’t seen an errata on it or anything. Even if it doesn’t, a +5 dodge bonus to AC is huge for a lightly armored ninja.

Endgame (15+)

As a follower, Shai will likely never make it this far in his career, but it’s fun to theorize it, so here you go!

  • Class: Bard (Lotus Geisha) 2 / Fighter (Lore Warden) 2 / Ninja 16
  • Feats: Spell Focus: Enchantment (Bonus Feat), Weapon Finesse (1st), Piranha Attack (Bonus Feat), Two-Weapon Fighting (3rd), Combat Expertise (Bonus Feat), Weapon Focus: Sai (Bonus Feat), Bludgeoneer (5th), Dazzling Display, Sap Adept (7th), Improved Disarm (Bonus Feat), Shatter Defenses (9th), Sap Master (11th), Improved Two-Weapon Fighting (13th) , Greater Disarm (15th), Two-Weapon Rend (Bonus Feat), Enforcer (17th), Greater Two-Weapon Fighting (19th)
  • Abilities: Bardic Performance (6 + Cha/Day; countersong, distraction, fascinate, inspire courage +1), Ki Pool (Cha + 8 points), Improved Uncanny Dodge, Light Steps, Ninja Tricks (combat trick, crippling strike, evasion, fast stealth, feat, improved evasion, offensive defensive, weapon training), No Trace +5, Poison Use, Sneak Attack +7d6, Uncanny Dodge
  • Bard Cantrips Known: ghost sound, lullaby, message,
  • Bard 1st Level Spells Known (2/Day): charm person, vanish, ventriloquism

Shai’s picked up a few new feats, specifically Greater-Two Weapon Fighting, Greater Disarm, and Two-Weapon Rend. Shai’s disarms now send weapons clear across the room and he can make a third attack with his off-hand weapon. Because of the low probability of this attack hitting, some might prefer grabbing Two-Weapon Defense for an additional +1 shield bonus to AC instead, but a flurry of attacks seems much more ninja-like to me. Two-Weapon Rend is nasty, allowing Shai to deal an additional 1d10 damage plus 1-1/2 times his Strength modifier if he hits an opponent with both his primary weapon and his off-hand weapon; just stacking on the ridiculous amounts of nonlethal damage to the build! At his apex, Shai’s damage looks as follows: 1d4 + 6 (Piranha Attack) + 14d6+14 (sneak attack, Sap Adept, Sap Master) + 1d10+1-1/2 Str (if Two-Weapon Rend triggers). That’s a lot of bruises; an average of 123.5 nonlethal damage if Shai manages to hit with one primary weapon attack plus one off-hand attack; note this value does not include successful hits with multiple attacks, Shai’s Strength bonus, or weapon enhancement bonuses to damage rolls Shai might possess. Also remember that Shai has three attacks with his primary weapon and three attacks with his off-hand weapon by 20th level; one primary attack will likely be spent on feinting with Improved Two-Weapon Feint for a total of five attacks per round, six if he decides to use a ki point to gain another attack. Because Shai is a kitsune with Weapon Finesse, he’s likely going to want to go for the agile weapon property on his sais if the option is available.

And there you have it; a level 1–20 build for a ninja-type character built around nonlethal damage. What do you think? Is this an effective build for a character? Is this something you would consider running as a PC or NPC despite the fact it focuses on nonlethal damage, or is that too much of a game-breaker for you? What types of situations could you imagine using a build like this? Leave your answers in the comments below!

 Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long over 90% of his colleagues. Affectionately called a “budding game designer” by his partner at Radiance House, Alexander is the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series (Radiance House) and a handful of other Third-Party Products. Before founding the Everyman Gaming blog, Alexander gained notoriety for writing the GM’s Guide to Challenging Encounters, which remains accessible to this day. His favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune ninja, and his favorite pastime is bringing honor to his clan via the silent and systematic elimination of his shogun’s enemies.

Edit: Special thanks to reader Darrell Vin Zant, who pointed out that feinting was not a good route for Shai to take. For Sap Master to function, the target needs to be flat-footed and the easiest way to make this happen is through the Shatter Defense feat. The build has been updated to accommodate this.

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3 thoughts on “The Nonlethal Ninja

  1. I enjoy the multiclassing within this character it shows that multiclassing is not a dead art in Pathfinder
    I would never play a Non Leathal Character but this could be a great NPC to subdue the PCs for a more powerful NPC. Keep the great characters coming (wish you were in Northern California so you could be a part of my gaming group I love players who build efficient yet flavorful characters)

  2. I love the idea of the non-lethal Ninja, and have even theorized some builds before. I do notice some problems, namely that Feinting does not make a character flat-footed. If you feint a creature, you deny them their dexterity bonus, but you don’t make them flat-footed.

    Sap Master is an… interesting feat. Because Sap Master allows you to roll double the damage dice, anything that rides off the number of sneak attack dice (bleeding attack, Sap Adept, Offensive Defense etc) should also gain double the bonus when using Sap Master. I’d wager most GMs would find this cheesy, but I’d argue that getting a target flat-footed is a difficult prospect once combat has started. I would say the best way is to replace the Feinting feats with Dazzling Display/Shatter Defenses so you can make a creature flat-footed after you hit them once.

    Also, just to clarify, your PC is a multiclass Fighter, your Cohort is a Ninja, and the follower is a multiclass non-lethal Ninja? And the follower is trying to woo the cohort?

    The only way to make that more complex is if the Cohort is trying to woo the Fighter! Still, sounds like lots of fun, though very difficult to pull off.

  3. @Joey: You’ll see plenty of crazy builds from me in the coming weeks! Direct your players here to show them that a little bit of system mastery goes a long way in building a unique character via multiclassing.

    @Darrel: Thanks for the heads up about feinting. I missed that and this article has been updated to suggest a demoralizing fighting style instead. That said, I’m not likely to make this change for Shai; feinting via singing with versatile performance is a huge part of his character. More likely then not, I’ll pr Maybe I’ll revisit this again in the future. 🙂

    To clarify, my PC is a kitsune Cavalier 4 (Honor Guard, Gendarme) / Fighter 4 (Lore Warden) / Rogue 1, his cohort is a ninja 5 (scout) / ranger 2 (freebooter) and his follower is, at the moment, a bard (lotus geisha 2). And at the current point in the storyline, my follower successfully wooed my cohort. Sometimes you just need to be in a relationship with a stable guy who sings well. 😉

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