The Elven Shank [5e Combat Effective Grappler]

A tattoo covered elf saunters by, swaying unsteadily from side to side. Clothes in tatters; the smell of booze emanates so strongly from the elf that your eyes begin water.

The dingy tavern falls silent as the elf bumps into a mountainous half-orc, spilling his ale. The half-orc turns to face the elf and the tavern grows silent as a tomb.

Towering over the drunken elf, the half-orc bares his teeth and growls. He throws his cup to the floor with a loud CLUNK! and reaches for his weapon.

In a flash, the elf has got him: a single delicate hand around the half-orc’s throat. Almost without resistance, the hulking warrior gasps and collapses to the floor: dead. 

It was over so fast you barely saw the elf draw a single shiv from the folds of its tattered clothes. The single, fatal strike was so quick that, for just a second, you question if it was only your imagining.

As onlookers stare stoopified, the elf picks something off the body of the half-orc and disappears through the doors of the tavern.


In yesterday’s article I explored how to build the best grappler. In today’s post I’m going to present “The Elven Shank” a build that uses grappling to be a highly potent force in combat.

Before we get into the specifics, I am going to use a dagger for this build purely out of flavor. There’s no reason you couldn’t use a rapier or other one-handed weapon for higher damage, but something about this build says “I’ve done hard time, and I’m going to shank you with my toothbrush.”

The Elven Shank

The elven shank has 4 elements that make up the build:

  1. The Grappler feat
  2. The Elven Accuracy feat
  3. Multiple (at least 2) attacks
  4. Race: any type of elf or Half-Elf (required by 2)

For the race, any type of elf will do though I’d recommend Wood Elf for the WIS and movement increase.

The core concept is pretty simple:

  1. Use first attack to grapple an enemy. You now have advantage on attacks against that enemy (thanks to the Grappler feat).
  2. Pump as much damage into the second attack as possible. You will not miss, you will crit. A LOT.

The Rogue class fills most of our need by itself; however, we will need to multiclass to get a second attack. Our options for that are:

  1. Fighter (5 levels)
  2. Bard – College of Swords or College of Valor (6 levels)
  3. Barbarian (5 levels) 
  4. Paladin (5 levels)
  5. Cleric – War Priest (1 level)*
  6. Warlock – Pact of the Blade with Thirsting Blade Invocation (5 levels)
  7. Monk (5 levels)

*The War Priest allows a character to make a bonus action attack with a weapon as long as they use the Attack action. While grappling uses the Attack action, the limit on the bonus action attack is  once per WIS bonus per long rest and therefore is not very desirable

I decided on Fighter (Champion) 5/Rogue X

We’ll be starting with a DEX score of 17. At 4th level it will get bumped up to 18 when we take Elven Accuracy. 

Pick any Rogue sublcass you like. Assassin is nice for automatic crits in the first round of combat. Swashbuckler will make you into the best possible grappler with its 13th level feature to grant advantage on STR (Athletics) checks. The Scout, at 13th level, will get you (and your allys) advantage on all attacks against a single creature for the first round of combat.

All of them are good choices.

Let’s take a look at the build at  9th,15th, and 20th level:

9th level (Fighter 5/Rogue 4)

Core features: Improved Critical,  Attack(2), Expertise(Athletics), Elven Accuracy, Grappler, DEX 18, 2d6 Sneak Attack

Assuming a measly 13 in strength we have a +9 Grapple bonus. When we attack with advantage we have a 27.1% chance to land a critical, dealing 2d4 (shank damage)+ 4d6 (Sneak ATTACK!) + 4 (DEX) + 2 (Dueling FIghting Style) = 24 Damage.

While this isn’t great output for this level, it is output we can manage every single round, indefinitely since it uses no resources. If we find this output is too low we can still fallback making two attacks per round and using our allies to gain sneak attack damage.

The damage trade-off is not for nothing though: our Fighter features i.e. Second Wind and Action Surge make us significantly tougher than a typical rogue.

Let’s see how the build progresses:

15th level (Fighter 5/Rogue 10) 

Core features: (Everything from last time),  5d6 Sneak Attack, DEX 20

Now with our measly 13 STR we’re looking at a grapple bonus of +11, the same 27.1% chance for a crit on advantage and dealing 2d4 (shank) + 10d6 (sneak) +5 (DEX) + 2 (Dueling) = 41 damage, nearly double the damage output of our 9th level build.

20th level (Fighter 5/Rogue 15)

Core feautes: (Everything from last time, reliable talent, 8d6 Sneak Attack

Our grapple bonus is now up to + 13 and we can never roll lower than a 23 thanks to reliable talent. When we crit, which we will be doing at least every third round, we will be dealing a respectable 2d4 (shank) + 16d6 + 5 (DEX) + 2 (Duelling) = 59 damage.

Keep in mind that an enemy has to use its action to break our grapple and, thank’s to Reliable Talent, that is likely to never happen.

This frees us from having to make repeated grapple attempts and we can just focus on doing what the Elven Shank does best…shanking. We can even use our Action Surge to sneak in an additional two shanks per short rest.

There are certainly higher damage builds, but this one is pretty well rounded, having a nice mix of:


  • Fighter HD
  • Second Wind
  • Evasion
  • Uncanny Dodge
  • STR, CON, and WIS prof (thanks to Slippery Mind)
  • Fey Ancestry (Adv vs charmed, can’t be put to sleep)


  • Sneak Attack
  • Improved Critical
  • Elven Accuracy
  • Action Surge


  • Cunning Action
  • Fleet of Foot
  • Proficiency in 6 skills (Perception, Athletics, +4 others)
  • Expertise in Athletics
  • Expertise in 3 other skills

Customizing /Improving the Elven Shank

What’s neat about this is that if you want to emphasize one category over another i.e. more durability, more damage, or mobility/utility you can swap out the 5 fighter levels for the following:

More Utility

Monk – Drunken Master/Open Hand/ Shadow will all increase your Mobility/Utility and get you access to the powerful Stunning Strike ability. You may be able to ditch armor entirely, but most importantly of all, the monk increases your shank damage to a d6. Very important. Also, the Drunken Master just fits the theme perfectly.

More Durability

Barbarian – Advantage on all Strength checks, and a little bit of extra damage while raging, is probably worth it alone. Path of the Zealot will add an extra 1d6 + 1/2 of Barbarian level to the first attack you make each round, increasing your average damage output. Meanwhile a Bear totem barbarian will have greatly increased durability thanks to having resisting to all damage, except psychic. 

Mostly just a Rogue

War Cleric – If you want to be mostly just a rogue who uses grappling as a fallback option, a single level of War Cleric will allow you pick up 10d6 sneak attack and the Elusive feature. This is a good option if you can almost always count on your allys to grant you sneak attack, but you want a back-up option just in case.



While there are other grappling builds that can deal a lot of damage, most of those builds are even sillier than this one and require the use of strange items, high level spells, or a LOT of team-work with your casters.

If you’ve ever wanted to play a durable, shank-wielding, damage dealing elf who has probably done hard time, then this is the build for you. 

If you enjoyed this article you may also like A Fistful of Dice or the Eldritch Sniper.

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1 thought on “The Elven Shank [5e Combat Effective Grappler]

  1. Above all, thanks for writing awesome guides.
    Im having tons of fun reading yours =)

    Besides, I can’t get reason of using DEX over STR.
    We can just focus on STR and use it for finesse weapon and grasp more grapple bonus.

    What is the advantage of using DEX?

    thank you

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