One of my players asked my opinion on sneak attack, and how I handle it at my table. It was sparked by their experience with another DM who has nerfed rogues in his campaign because he feels the sneak attack is over-powered. To mitigate this at his table he only allows the first attack a rogue makes to get the sneak attack modifier. I have to disagree with this. The sneak attack is no more OP than the fighter’s plethora of feats chained together to deliver handfuls of damage, or the barbarian’s unstoppable rage buffs.
First off, there’s nothing in the rules to indicate this is how the mechanic works. All that is required is the rogue’s target to be unaware of the rogue, or unable to defend himself. Now, I’m a purist. In Pathfinder a rogue can use their sneak on anything. To me a sneak attack still only works on creatures with discernible anatomy and vital parts. Not undead, for example. That’s it though. If the rogue can flank a target and hit him, she gets her sneak attack. If the rogue has more attacks in that round, and can still manage to flank or take the target unaware, they get another sneak attack.
Let’s break this down tactically so I can show you where I think that other DM is perhaps missing an opportunity and nerfing the rogue for no good reason. Remember, the rogue has to take her target unaware. How many times do you think you can shank an ogre in the kidney before he takes notice of you? Once right? If the DM, and players, are thinking tactically the sneak attack is already nerfed. But, it’s done in such a way that the rogue, and her party, can regain the tactical advantage for the next sneak attack. In a game like Pathfinder a combat round is 6 seconds, and everything happens at the same time during that round. Every member of the party gets all of their attacks, as does the monsters, all simultaneously. What some DMs and players forget is that players do not need to perform all of those actions sequentially, or even on their initiative. They can hold an action, see how one attack pans out before making another, and so on.
So imagine this is our battlefield. Our rogue is joined by a fighter and a wizard in a cave occupied by a grumpy ogre. The rogue has the initiative and was scouting ahead so is behind the ogre in the shadows when her friends show up. Taking her first attack, of which she gets two, she stabs the ogre in the side as he passes. Her sneak attack is successful, and the ogre knows she’s there. Here is where the DM needs to think tactically, as well as how the will ogre react. I don’t know about you but if someone shoves a knife in my side I’m looking for that person. So the ogre turns, now aware of the rogue. If the rogue proceeds with her next attack it cannot be a sneak attack per the rules. But, let’s say the rogue holds her next attack and let’s the fighter do something, looking at him for help, or shouts “help me out here.” Her friend, the fighter, steps up and slashes the ogre across his now exposed side. See, the ogre turning has put the fighter in a flanking position and given him an advantage. Of course, if the wizard had the initiative after the rogue he could try a hold spell, or some sort of distraction to get the ogre’s attention. It may or may not work. That’s all part of the story.
Now, this is the part that needs some creative thinking. Who poses the most threat to the ogre? The scared-looking little rogue with the pig sticker, or the hulking fighter with the big sword? Sure, ogre’s aren’t smart, but even the simplest animal can usually make a snap decision about threat level. The ogre turns to face the new, larger threat, opening himself up to the rogue’s second attack which is now flanking, and qualifies for a sneak attack. It’s just that simple, but easily overlooked by newer players and DMs. Holding an action can be one of the most useful things someone can do in combat. In Pathfinder it’s called delaying, and readying actions. The above example of course is playing a little loose with the combat rules. There’s nothing that says the rogue has to take their full attack one right after the other. In fact the rogue can make the attack, with the intent of a follow-up but if the first attack goes awry they can decide to sacrifice the second attack to make a move action, slipping into the shadows to find another opportunity.
The point is, as the DM it’s your job to deliver good story, challenge the players, and make sure that there’s a margin of success at least a little larger than the margin of failure. Intentionally nerfing a mechanic should be a last resort when you can simply challenge the players with more tactical and interesting thinking. Don’t say “No, you just can’t do that,” make them think about how they can accomplish it.