Iconic Design: Fighting Smart

Welcome to Guidance, Private Sanctuary’s source for tips and techniques for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, written by Everyman Gamer Alexander Augunas. Today, we’re going to be looking at an Iconic Design for the duelist prestige class.

Whenever new base classes are released to fill concepts that were originally covered solely by prestige classes, there are players who cry foul. “Why would you do that?!” they should, “You’ve killed this prestige class!” Don’t believe me? Well, this very thing happened (and continues to happen) with the eldritch knight and now its in the midst of happening with the duelist prestige class.

If you haven’t heard, Paizo recently put out a swashbuckler class in their new Advanced Class Guide product. I can understand the fuss that people are making with this one. Of course some players are going to worry about the duelist—it was never very strong to begin with and the swashbuckler is, given the right build, an excellent class. But does the swashbuckler eclipse the duelist? I say heck no! Just as the magus helped to redefine the eldritch knight, the swashbuckler helps to define the duelist. But that said, using the swashbuckler class to build into the duelist class is still an awesome idea, so that’s what we’re going to do today!

Build Concept

Let’s look at the tools we’re going to use today.

  • Swashbuckler (Inspiring Blade): I like this archetype for several reasons. First, it provides base class support for the duelist’s ability score dependences. Second, it makes getting Dexterity to damage VERY easy for the duelist, so we’re going to go with this archetype.
  • Duelist: This is a class prestige class and the linchpin of the build.
  • Fencing Grace: You probably haven’t heard of this feat and that’s okay. In the aftermath of the Paizo forums exploding over the newly printed Slashing Grace feat, Lead Designer Jason Buhlman stepped into the thread and revealed this feat in order to help simmer down some rather hot personalities. Essentially, Fencing Grace is Slashing Grace, except it only applies to rapiers and doesn’t include the “Poof! You’re a piercing weapon” language. It does grant Dexterity to damage for rapiers, though, and that is pretty sweet for this build. So yeah, I’m using a feat that won’t be out for a few more months. Opps.

Early Levels (1–7)

  • Classes: Swashbuckler (Inspiring Blade) 6, Duelist 1
  • Feats: Weapon Focus: rapier (Bonus), Fencing Grace (1st), Dodge (3rd), Weapon Specialization: rapier (Bonus), Mobility (5th), Improved Unarmed Strike (7th)
  • Abilities: Canny Defense, Charmed Life 4/Day, Deeds, Inspired Finesse, Inspired Panache, Nimble +1, Precise Strike, Rapier Training +1

Alright, early game we only just get our collective pinkie-toes into the duelist prestige class. It’s actually a bit of a pain to do, but swashbuckler makes it a little bit easier with its free Weapon Finesse feat at 1st level for free (swashbuckler’s finesse counts as Weapon Finesse). Additionally, the inspiring blade archetype gives Weapon Focus: rapier for free at 1st level too, meaning you immediately qualify for Fencing Grace at level 1. Good thing you’ve got a feat to spend on that!

After Fencing Grace, you spend most of your time working on the duelist’s class prerequisites. Dodge and Mobility are the big two that you still need, both of which are obtained by level 5. For the swashbuckler’s 4th level feat, I chose Weapon Specialization: rapier and I took Improved Unarmed Strike to build off of in the mid levels.

One of the nice things about the duelist class is that its precise strike ability stacks with that of the swashbuckler for the most part. Sure, you can’t spend panache to double the duelist’s bonus like you can with the swashbuckler, but that’s probably for the best because you’re going to want to save all of those panache points focusing on this build’s real strength: defense. This build is REALLY good at defense. By 7th level, you’ve got a +1 dodge bonus from Dodge, another +1 from the nimble class feature, a decent Dexterity score to take advantage of Fencing Grace, and the swashbuckler’s dodge deed, which allows the swashbuckler to spend a panache point to effectively add her Charisma bonus to her AC. Finally, you get to add 1 point of Intelligence bonus per duelist level to your AC as well. If you’re worried that your opponent’s attack is too high, then the best thing that you could do is spend your panache on opportune parry and riptose. You’ll have a good attack bonus thanks to Weapon Focus and Rapier Training, so there’s a good chance that you’ll be able to stop an enemy’s attacks in its tracks. It is worth remembering that rapier training also grants the swashbuckler a 15-20 critical threat range with her rapier (as Improved Critical), so enjoy those frequent critical hits.

This build is unique because Dexterity, Charisma, and Intelligence are all power skills for this build. Thanks to inspiring panache, you get to add your Intelligence and Charisma together when determining the number of panache points you have. You also get to add an increasing amount of Intelligence bonus to your AC bonus and you can use charmed life to add your Charisma to your saves or swashbuckler’s dodge to add your Charisma to your AC. All three stats pull at least triple duty for your build, so its definitely worth keeping them as high as possible.

Mid Levels (8 –14)

  • Classes: Swashbuckler (Inspiring Blade) 6, Duelist 7
  • Feats: Weapon Focus: rapier (Bonus), Fencing Grace (1st), Dodge (3rd), Weapon Specialization: rapier (Bonus), Mobility (5th), Improved Unarmed Strike (7th), Crane Style (9th), Crane Wing (11th), Crane Riposte (13th)
  • Abilities: Acrobatic Charge, Canny Defense, Charmed Life 4/Day, Combat Reflexes, Deeds, Elaborate Defense, Enhanced Grace, Mobility, Improved Reaction +2, Inspired Finesse, Inspired Panache, Nimble +1, Precise Strike, Rapier Training +1, Riposte

All right, on to the mid levels!

At this stage of the game, we’re starting to look at the build’s big guns. The duelist finally qualifies for Crane Style, which will allow her to fight defensively for an extra +3 bonus to her AC at a –2 penalty. Crane Wing allows the duelist to add an additional +4 bonus to her AC against one attack of her choice and Crane Riptose reduces the fighting defensively penalty all the way down to –1. And then, of course, the duelist’s elaborate defense class feature kicks in at 7th level, giving another +1 bonus to AC when fighting defensively per 3 duelist levels that the duelist possesses. If the duelist puts a few ranks into Acrobatics (she basically needs them to get into the class anyway), the total benefit in the mid levels is a +6 bonus to AC for a –1 penalty on attack rolls, plus a one-time +4 bonus to her AC against any one attack of her choice.

Improved Reactions slowly turns into the Improved Initiative feat and the duelist also gets the parry ability, which allows her to bank an attack during a full attack action in order to nullify an enemy’s attack against her. At 5th level she also can make an attack of opportunity against any creature she parries, and lucky for her she also gains the benefits of Combat Reflexes for free at 4th level.

As you can see, it is becoming increasingly more difficult to hit our duelist friend in combat. Not including the +6 that she gains from fighting defensively, she gains Dodge (+7), nimble +1 (+8), her Dexterity bonus, and up to +7 from her Intelligence bonus. If she wishes, she can also spend a panache point in order to add her Charisma bonus to her AC. That’s THREE ability modifiers to her AC. Wowzers!

Endgame (15+)

  • Classes: Swashbuckler (Inspiring Blade) 10, Duelist 10
  • Feats: Weapon Focus: rapier (Bonus), Fencing Grace (1st), Dodge (3rd), Weapon Specialization: rapier (Bonus), Mobility (5th), Improved Unarmed Strike (7th), Crane Style (9th), Crane Wing (11th), Crane Riposte (13th), Combat Expertise (15th), Greater Weapon Focus (Bonus), Critical Focus (17th), Bleeding Critical (19th)
  • Abilities: Acrobatic Charge, Canny Defense, Charmed Life 5/Day, Combat Reflexes, Crippling Critical, Deeds, Deflect Arrows, Elaborate Defense, Enhanced Grace, Mobility, Improved Reaction +4, Inspired Finesse, Inspired Panache, Nimble +2, No Retreat, Precise Strike, Rapier Training +2, Riposte

Now we’re looking at the end game for the character. The duelist ends with the deflect arrows feat (like we needed more defenses?), an ability that allows her to make an attack of opportunity against anything that uses the withdraw action within her reach, improved bonuses from improved reaction and elaborate defense, and crippling critical. This capstone is actually pretty good, especially for a swashbuckler. It grants the duelist the ability to deal 1d6 of ability damage or 2d6 points of bleeding damage each time she critically hits. Don’t forget that rapier training basically gives the swashbuckler a free Improved Critical effect with her rapier, so she’s criting on a 15 or better.

The duelist goes back into swashbuckler for a few levels after hitting her capstone, and this nets her another bonus feat, a few more deeds, another +1 to her AC from nimble, and another use of charmed life.

Feat-wise, I chose Combat Expertise, Critical Focus, Greater Weapon Focus: rapier, and Bleeding Critical as my feats. Dealing 4d6 points of bleeding damage on a critical hit just seemed too cool in my opinion and Greater Weapon Focus is another +1 bonus on attack rolls, and I can always use a better chance to hit. Combat Expertise might be a bit controversial, but remember that you can combine Combat Expertise with fighting defensively, so in all you can take a –7 penalty on attack rolls for a massive +12 dodge bonus to AC (+2 baseline, +1 from her Acrobatics ranks, +1 from Crane Style, +3 from elaborate defense, and +5 from Combat Expertise) on top of the +3 from Dodge and nimble that you’re already rocking. Before looking at armor or your Dexterity/Intelligence bonus (thank you, canny dodge), you’re already looking at a near constant AC of 25 at the cost of a –7 penalty to hit. You could also spend your panache to add your Charisma bonus to your AC or make even more parry attacks against your opponents, and every time you manage to parry someone you get an attack of opportunity at your full bonus that has a 30% chance to critically hit.

In short, this is a very different but very effective character build, especially for an enemy NPC.


Without a doubt, grabbing Mythic Combat Expertise is a must at the higher-end of the game. Nullifying that –5 penalty for an encounter will open huge doors for you. I’d also grab Mythic Improved Critical to improve my rapier’s critical threat range to 15-20/x3 and taking Mythic Dodge for an extra +1 to AC all the time and the ability to spend mythic power for an extra +10 is pretty fantastic. I’m not sure whether you can take Mythic Combat Reflexes because technically you have the benefits, not the feat itself, but if you’re allowed to, I’d do it.

Without a doubt, trickster is your mythic path with a dual path into champion if you can afford it. The deadly dodge power will allow you to add another +4 bonus to your AC AND allows you to make attacks of opportunity against anything that misses you while you’re receiving this bonus. On top of all of your other bonuses, you might be close to unhittable by non-mythic foes. Taking precision critical to double all of your delicious precision damage from your precise strike abilities is also an excellent idea. From champion, you might consider taking precision to remove your penalties on your iterative attacks or incredible parry, which would allow you to parry twice in a turn because you already have the duelist’s parry ability.

In terms of ability scores, I would pump them in this order, myself: Dexterity, Intelligence, Charisma. Charisma is good, but it has no “always on” benefits that Intelligence doesn’t have too. Intelligence gives more skill points, increases the benefit you get from canny dodge, and adds to your panache pool. Its pretty fantastic after you’ve pumped your Dex for more attacks and more damage.

And that’s my super-defensive duelist build! What do you think? Is this a build that you would use in your games? Why or why not? Leave your answers and comments below and I’ll see you next Friday with another new, innovative Iconic Design!

Alexander “Alex” Augunas has been playing roleplaying games since 2007, which isn’t nearly as long as 90% of his colleagues. Alexander is an active freelancer for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is best known as the author of the Pact Magic Unbound series by Radiance House. Alex is the owner of Everyman Gaming, LLC and is often stylized as the Everyman Gamer in honor of Guidance’s original home. Alex’s favorite color is blue, his favorite Pathfinder Race/Class combination is kitsune duelist, and you killed his father. Prepare to die!

Alex Augunas

Alexander "Alex" Augunas is an author and behavioral health worker living outside of Philadelphia in the United States. He has contributed to gaming products published by Paizo, Inc, Kobold Press, Legendary Games, Raging Swan Press, Rogue Genius Games, and Steve Jackson Games, as well as the owner and publisher of Everybody Games (formerly Everyman Gaming). At the Know Direction Network, he is the author of Guidance and a co-host on Know Direction: Beyond. You can see Alex's exploits at http://www.everybodygames.net, or support him personally on Patreon at http://www.patreon.com/eversagarpg.


  1. Darrell Vin Zant Reply to Darrell

    The biggest issue this build has is it’s saving throws. Neither Swashy, nor Duelist have good Fort/Will, so come 20, you have base saves of Fort +6, Ref +12 and Will +6. To help offset that, I’d probably sacrifice a level of Swashy for a level of Master of Many Styles Monk to net myself Imp. Unarmed Strike and a free Style Feat; if you do this at level 7, you can take Crane Style as your 7th level feat, and then take Crane Wing or Crane Riposte (because the Bonus Feat allows you to skip other feats in a Style Chain as long as you have the first feat), and then pick up the other feat at 9th.

    This ends up netting you an additional +2 to all of your saves, plus it also adds Wisdom to your AC. Since MoMS gives up Flurry, you don’t have to worry about the Rapier being a flurry weapon either.

  2. David S. Reply to David

    Really like this build and love the Inspired Blade. Well done …

  3. David S. Reply to David

    If you were going mythic with this swashbuckler I’d consider going all 20 levels in Inspired Blade … With a high enough INT & CHA [20 totally reasonable considering tomes & mythic bonuses] you’d net 10 panache points. Mixed with Precision x3, a haste or speed weapon, Mythic Improved Critical [14-20/x4] (remember 20th level capstone nets you x3 & mythic feat pushes that to x4) you could …

    Attack 5 times with Inspired Strike and burn 10 panache points to auto crit. Drill the enemy with FIVE critical hits at times FOUR damage!!!! Inigo Montoya on easy,magic steroids!

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