1)          The thief must be behind the target.

2)          The target must have a definable “back”, be generally humanoid in shape, and the thief must be able to reach the target’s back (ie. if both target and thief were standing on the ground, any target creature over “Large” size couldn’t be backstabbed).

3)          For a successful backstab attack, only the base damage caused by the weapon is multiplied. Bonuses due to strength or magic are not multiplied; they are added after the rolled damage is multiplied.

4)          The attack bonus and damage multiplier for a backstab only applies to the first attack the thief makes, even if the thief is using two weapons at the same time. Normal rear-attack bonuses apply to all other attacks however.

5)          Provided an opponent is unaware of a thief and has no compelling reason to suspect a rear attack then that target may be backstabbed without requiring a surprise roll. Otherwise, the opponent has to be surprised for a backstab to be even attempted.

6)          Multi-classed or dual-classed fighter/thieves must use their thief THAC0 when making a backstab, and cannot use their weapon specialisation bonuses to attack and damage rolls in a backstab attempt. However, strength modifiers for exceptional strength do apply.

7)          A backstab can’t be attempted if charging.

8)          Missile weapons cannot be used for a backstab.

9)          Any melee weapon permissible for use by the thief class can be used for backstabbing.

10)       A thief can never achieve more than quintuple damage for a backstab.


1. Ref: 2nd Edition Player’s Handbook

Backstab (From Character Classes Section)

Thieves are weak in toe-to-toe hacking matches, but they are masters of the knife in the back. When attacking someone by surprise and from behind, a thief can improve his chance to successfully hit (+4 modifier for rear attack and negate the target's shield and Dexterity bonuses) and greatly increase the amount of damage his blow causes.

To use this ability, the thief must be behind his victim and the victim must be unaware that the thief intends to attack him. If an enemy sees the thief, hears him approach from a blind side, or is warned by another, he is not caught unaware, and the backstab is handled like a normal attack (although bonuses for a rear attack still apply). Opponents in battle will often notice a thief trying to manoeuvre behind them--the first rule of fighting is to never turn your back on an enemy! However, someone who isn't expecting to be attacked (a friend or ally, perhaps) can be caught unaware even if he knows the thief is behind him.

The multiplier given in Table 30 applies to the amount of damage before modifiers for Strength or weapon bonuses are added. The weapon's standard damage is multiplied by the value given in Table 30. Then Strength and magical weapon bonuses are added.

Backstabbing does have limitations. First, the damage multiplier applies only to the first attack made by the thief, even if multiple attacks are possible. Once a blow is struck, the initial surprise effect is lost. Second, the thief cannot use it on every creature. The victim must be generally humanoid. Part of the skill comes from knowing just where to strike. A thief could backstab an ogre, but he wouldn't be able to do the same to a beholder. The victim must also have a definable back (which leaves out most slimes, jellies, oozes, and the like). Finally, the thief has to be able to reach a significant target area. To backstab a giant, the thief would have to be standing on a ledge or window balcony. Backstabbing him in the ankle just isn't going to be as effective.

Table 30: Backstab Damage Multipliers

    Thief's Level                   Damage Multiplier

        1-4                                           ×2

        5-8                                           ×3

        9-12                                         ×4

        13+                                          ×5

The ogre marches down the hallway, peering into the gloom ahead. He fails to notice the shadowy form of Ragnar the thief hidden in an alcove. Slipping into the hallway, Ragnar creeps up behind the monster. As he sets himself to strike a mortal blow, his foot scrapes across the stone. The hairy ears of the ogre perk up. The beast whirls around, ruining Ragnar's chance for a backstab and what remains of his day. If Ragnar had made a successful roll to move silently, he could have attacked the ogre with a +4 bonus on his chance to hit and inflicted five times his normal damage (since he is 15th level).

Wounds (From Combat Section)

Sometimes an attack has both a die roll and a damage multiplier. The number rolled on the dice is multiplied by the multiplier to determine how much damage is inflicted. This occurs mainly in backstabbing attempts. In cases where damage is multiplied, only the base damage caused by the weapon is multiplied. Bonuses due to Strength or magic are not multiplied; they are added after the rolled damage is multiplied.

2. Ref: Player’s Option: Skills and Powers

Backstab (10): Thieves are practiced in the art of quietly eliminating guards and sentries. If a thief strikes a target from behind with surprise, the thief gains a +4 bonus on his attack roll, and the blow does additional damage. Table 24 defines the extra damage:

Table 24: Backstab Damage Multiplier

        Thief’s Level               Damage Multiplier

        1–4                               x2

        5–8                               x3

        9–12                             x4

        13+                               x5

3. Ref: 1st Edition Player’s Handbook

Backstabbing is the striking of a blow from behind, be it with club, dagger, or sword. The damage done per hit is twice normal for the weapon used per four experience levels of the thief, i.e. double damage at levels 1-4, triple at 5-8, quadruple at 9-12, and quintuple at levels 13-16. Note that striking by surprise from behind also increases the hit probability by 20% (+4 on the thief’s “to hit” die roll).

4. Ref: 1st Edition Dungeon Masters Guide

Opponents aware of the thief will be able to negate the attack form. Certain creatures either negate surprise or have no definable “back”, thus negating this ability.

5. Ref: Dragon Magazine, February 1995 (Issue No. 214, pg 78)

Would a thief’s backstabbing attack always qualify as an ambush as defined on page 111 of the Player’s Handbook? What about surprise? Would the thief automatically gain surprise if she wasn’t seen and made a successful move silently roll?

The penalties for being ambushed (no chance for a return attack and roll for surprise to see if the ambusher gets a another free round of attacks with sur- prise) do not always apply to the victim of a thief’s backstab attack. To qualify as an ambush, the ambusher must be aware of her victim and prepare her attack ahead of time. In addition, the target must be unable to detect the foe prior to the at- tack. For example, a thief who hears a monster approaching, successfully hides in shadows until the monster passes, then successfully moves silently and closes to the attack probably deserves to be credited with an ambush. On the other hand, a thief who turns a corner and finds herself facing an opponent’s unguarded back should be allowed to make a backstab attack, but cannot stage an ambush.

Technically, a thief must surprise an opponent before she can claim any backstab bonuses (see PHB, page 40); that is, the backstab requires surprise, it does not guarantee it. Note that an unseen thief who makes a successful move silently roll has an extra chance to achieve surprise, see DMG, table 57, page 102; the target should suffer a -2 penalty for the thief’s silent movement and very likely an additional -2 for not seeing the thief lurking behind. In any case, most DMs I know dispense with the surprise roll and allow a backstab anytime a thief makes an attack from behind against an opponent who is unaware of the thief and has no compelling reason to suspect a rear attack. In such cases, I still recommend a normal surprise roll. If the victim is surprised, the thief gets two attacks before there is an initiative roll. The thief’s first attack gains the backstab bonuses and the second attack is a normal rear attack. If the surprise roll fails, the thief is assumed to win initiative and gets the backstab bonuses for the first attack and the victim and turn around and return the attack if she survives.

6. Ref: Dragon Magazine, August 1996 (Issue No. 232, pg 92)

If a thief sneaks up on a sleeping character and attacks him, does he get extra damage from a backstab? Attacking a sleeping opponent has the same attack modifiers as a backstab according to the new rules in the PLAYER’S OPTION™: Combat & Tactics and Skills & Powers books.

A backstab requires that the thief be behind his target and that the target be unaware of the thief or unaware of the thief’s intention to attack. Sleeping characters generally aren’t very aware. Many creatures can’t be backstabbed at all; however, see the next question.

My DM insists that thieves gain extra damage from backstabbing only because they know how to strike at a creature’s vital organs. He allows characters to get damage bonuses from backstabbing only if the target creature actually has a spine. He says backstabbing doesn’t work against undead at all. Is this right? It seems to me that the damage bonuses ought to apply to anything that has an actual front and back.

Overall, your DM is being more generous than he has to be. If you read the description of the backstab ability in Chapter 3 of the Player’s Handbook, you’ll learn that part of the skill involves knowing where to strike. The PHB goes on to say that a backstab target must be a humanoid with a definable back and that the backstabbing thief must be able to reach a significant target area. So, your DM has expanded the list of possible backstab targets by opening it up to anything with a spine. In either case, your thief character couldn’t backstab a roper or beholder. Incorporeal undead should remain immune to backstabs, judging from the text in the PHB (no significant target areas). One could make a similar argument for other undead as well; zombies just don’t care if somebody sticks a knife into their kidneys. On the other hand, most undead are humanoid, which is the basic requirement for backstabbing. A skeleton or a ghoul probably is going to find a severed spine inconvenient. In campaigns where the DM strictly limits backstabbing to humanoids, corporeal undead should be susceptible (if they’re humanoid). If the DM has loosened up the general restriction (as yours has), there’s justification for limiting backstabbing in other ways (as your DM also has).

7. Ref: Dragon Magazine, January 1997 (Issue No. 237, pg 94 & 95)

Can a thief wearing a ring of invisibility use the ring to become invisible and then attempt a backstab during the same round? The backstab, of course, will make the thief visible. Can the thief use the ring again that round to become invisible before foes can strike?

In a word, no. Using a magical item (or drinking a potion) counts as a character’s sole action for a round; see the What You Can Do in One Round section in Chapter 9 of the Player’s Handbook for details. It’s okay for a character who has just used a magical item to exchange a few words with someone or make minor adjustments to his position (a move of 5’ or less), but major actions such as attacks, spellcasting, or significant movement have to wait until the next round. It would take the thief in your example at least three rounds to disappear, deliver a backstab, and then disappear again, as follows:

·        Round one - Disappear. No other actions allowed except negligible ones (as defined in the PHB).

·        Round two - Move up to half the current rate and deliver the backstab. The thief is now visible and must remain so until the next round. If the thief had to move more than half his current movement rate to reach his foe, he cannot attack until next round. Note that charging allows a character to make a full move (plus a little extra) and still attack, but many DMs balk at backstabbing while charging.

·        Round three - Disappear again. The character can take no other actions except negligible ones. If the thief wins initiative, any attacks made against him suffer a -4 penalty for the invisibility. If the foes win initiative, however, they attack before the thief becomes invisible and suffer no penalties. In some campaigns, a successful hit might even disrupt the thief’s attempt to become invisible (depending on how the DM decides the ring works).

8. Ref: Dragon Magazine, September 1991 (Issue No. 173, pg 164)

Can a thief who has been observed by an enemy successfully backstab that enemy if the enemy ignores the thief and attacks the thief’s party instead? The rules say only humanoid creatures can be backstabbed. Does this exclude animals such as bears or wolves?

A successful backstab requires an element of surprise. If an opponent spots a thief manoeuvring for a back attack, the opponent will not be caught unaware and cannot be backstabbed. Interpreting the rules strictly, only humanoid creatures - bipedal, one head, two arms, two legs, tail optional - can be backstabbed. Game balance probably won’t suffer if the DM also allows common, four-legged animals to be backstabbed, but note that many animals have good senses and are pretty hard to sneak up on. Note also that the thief must be able to locate and strike a vital spot to get the damage multiplier from a backstab. A creature the thief has never studied or encountered before probably cannot be backstabbed, and neither can very large creatures, such as dragons and dinosaurs, or amorphous creatures, such as slimes and jellies.

9. Ref: Dragon Magazine, May 1991 (Issue No. 169, pg 98)

I have a dual-classed fighter/thief whose thief level finally has exceeded his fighter level. Can he use weapon specialization bonuses while backstabbing?

Neither dual-classed nor multi-classed characters can combine class abilities. If your fighter/thief backstabs, he must use his rogue THAC0 and must forgo specialization bonuses; he can, however, use his warrior strength bonuses. Strength and magical bonuses to a thief’s damage are applied after the backstab multiplier.

10. Ref: Dragon Magazine, October 1994 (Issue No. 210, pg 96)

Can thieves use their backstab damage multiplier when using a thrown weapon such as a dagger?

The rules don’t say the thief has to use a melee weapon to make a backstab, but I don’t recommend that you allow backstabbing with missiles - it makes the ability too easy to use.

11. Ref: Dragon Magazine, November 1988 (Issue No. 139, pg 66) 1st Edition

Can thieves back-stab with missile weapons?

Thieves cannot use missile weapons for backstabbing attacks.

If a thief using two weapons makes a back attack, does he get his “to hit” and damage modifiers for both weapons?

The + 4 “to hit” and the damage multiplier only apply to the first blow; the second weapon gets the +2 “to hit” modifier for a rear attack but no damage modifier. The same holds true if the thief gets multiple attacks due to surprise.

When a thief makes a back attack, are any damage bonuses for strength or a magical weapon also multiplied?

No. The multiplier applies only to the weapon’s base damage; other damage bonuses are applied after the multiplication is made.

Can a thief ever get more than quintuple damage for back-stabs?

No. Quintuple damage is the limit.

12. Ref: Dragon Magazine, November 1988 (Issue No. 219, pg 81)

The Complete Book of Humanoids allows some pretty large creatures to become thieves (voadkyns, minotaurs, and hornhead saurials). Can these creatures backstab man-sized opponents? What weapons can they use when backstabbing? Are there any penalties when they move silently or hide in shadows?

Humanoid thieves certainly can backstab man-sized opponents, but some restrictions apply. Being smaller than an opponent can interfere with backstabbing because the thief can’t always reach a vital area; this is seldom a problem if the thief is bigger than the opponent. Like any other thief, a humanoid thief must wield a melee weapon from the thief weapon list (club, dagger, knife, broad sword, long sword, short sword, or staff) when backstabbing. Table 14 from the Complete Book of Humanoids gives racial adjustments for all thief skills. Most of the larger races have no modifiers to the move silently ability, and several actually get bonuses to the hide in shadows ability - thief abilities are the products of skill and training, not size. However, large creatures’ size might be a handicap in some situations. For example, a minotaur might have a hard time moving silently through a forest where its head brushes against overhanging branches. The DM must handle these situations on a case-by-case basis.

13. Ref: Dragon Magazine, July 1992 (Issue No. 183, pg 96), Extract from Sage Advice response

Regarding “combining” multi-classed abilities: The word “combine,” as used on page 45 of the PH, is meant to convey the fact that the character can freely use his abilities during a single encounter or adventure without penalty, as opposed to dual-classed characters, who can suffer experience penalties if they fall back on their old class abilities too soon. It is not meant to convey that a multi-classed character can use abilities from two or more classes simultaneously. Regarding fighter/thief backstabs: The TSR house ruling – not the “Skip” ruling – on this matter is that the character must use his thief THAC0. You have quoted page 45 accurately, but the rules contradict themselves here. Two of a fighter’s most important “abilities” are unrestricted weapon and armour use, and these are severely curtailed in several multi-classed combinations: fighter/wizards are prohibited from wearing most metal armour, fighter/clerics can’t use edged weapons, and fighter/thieves can’t wear metal armour without reductions to thief abilities. This is hardly unrestricted use of fighter abilities. The TSR staff’s concern here is for game balance. The thief’s backstab ability can do pretty darn hefty damage, and generally it is best for the campaign if a backstab attempt fails once in awhile. Still, the letter of the rules supports your view. So does game logic; if thieves carefully study anatomy and learn to place their attacks so as to inflict maximum damage, it stands to reason that fighter abilities might allow them to hit an opponent’s “soft spots” more easily. This particular conundrum won’t be officially cleared up until that far-off day when an AD&D 3rd Edition comes out. Until then, I suggest you either follow the advice given in issue #169 or allow fighter/thieves to use their fighter THAC0 when backstabbing, but only with the standard +2 rear attack bonus. For purposes of game balance, the +4 bonus and fighter THAC0 is just too tough a combination for the campaign’s bad-guy NPCs to withstand. From the standpoint of game logic, the training in precise blows a thief learns while perfecting the backstab (a highly favourable situation for the attacker) overlaps the fighter’s generally superior training in the use of weapons in all situations.