Putting together Cant to fight for our next scenario has had me thinking about and revisiting some ideas I've had about archery. I've touched on some of these thoughts here when I wrote about Hawkeye. I tend to like most of the fighting man classes, the classes that primarily interact with the game by hitting things with metal objects. I don't know why that is, but I just tend to use those classes the most in my games as NPCs.
Three classes hop to my mind when considering archery and building a character that's focus is related to archery. Those classes are Fighters, Rangers, and Rogues (Ninjas too, kind of, more later). You can easily go other routes, but to me it seems like those other routes dilute the focus of the archery. The Arcane Archer certainly has merits as a prestige class. But, you could discuss and argue your way back and forth all the live long day about the merits of the ranged Magus archtype, Monks using the Zen Archer archetype, and the various Marksman psionic abilities and which ones are superior and how they make each of them superior in what way. Doing that complicates things by adding spells/supernatural abilities into the mix. This meandering monologue is more straightforward and centers on hitting things with weapons. There is no best class for doing anything in Pathfinder, but there are certain classes that are better at certain aspects of things. Who is better at using Stealth, Ranger or Rogue? That depends. Are we in a terrain that the Ranger has as his favored terrain so he can use Hide In Plain Sight and also gain his favored terrain bonus on Stealth checks? Are we using Stealth to snipe with a ranged weapon with a Rogue that has the stealthy sniper and sniper's eye Rogue talents? Does the Rogue have the terrain mastery Rogue talent and are we in that terrain? It's all situational. Unless you're a Shadowdancer. They're the best at Stealth. Although, I suppose a Sorcerer or Wizard could be pretty decent as well. Why make a Stealth check? Just cast greater invisibility and silence on yourself, then take Shadowdancer as a prestige class. Hmm. That actually sounds like an oddly entertaining little build. I might have to explore that for silly reasons.
Anyway, you get what I am saying? There is no best at everything, and there is no best at a large aspect of the game, like combat for instance. You can say the Fighter is the best at combat. It's not. Barbarians are almost always going to be stronger and have more hit points, Wizards and Sorcerers are almost always going to have spells that Fighters can't penetrate and others that probably deal more robust damage than a swung sword or they'll have control effects, Clerics are almost always going to be able to put themselves back together while attacking the Fighter (assuming they have Quicken Spell) or while using control spells on them, and so on. Don't get me wrong, I'm not maligning Fighters at all, I can think of fairly simple counters for a Fighter to use against each of those other classes in combat. Anyway, what I'm saying is that niches and specialization are where a class gets really good at something, everything else is just a broad guesstimate. When I talk about classes being good at archery, it still feels like a pretty big aspect of the game to be talking about. Do we mean archery as in just shooting arrows at people like an archer? Do we mean sniper style one shot one kill archery? Do we mean archery as in stalking and hunting with a bow? Which is a reach, but it's the only way the Ranger class is relevant to this discussion.
So in my Hawkeye post I talked a little bit about people always associating Rangers with archery for some reason. I've spoken of Rangers being a weird class to me to Jason and not really understanding the purpose of their combat style feats and I think he said it probably has to do with Aragorn being called a ranger in The Lord of the Rings and having a bow and if Lord of the Rings had it, Dungeons and Dragons needed it too (goblins, orcs, orcs and elves hating each other, elves and dwarves having grudges against each other, treants/ents, halflings/hobbits, 2nd Edition and earlier lore that elves don't actually die when they reach their maximum age limit, they just vanish from the mortal world and go someplace else, etc). I've never read The Lord of the Rings books, so I have no idea how rangery Aragorn gets, aside from the woodcraft he uses in the films. From personal experience, any time anyone in my group wanted to do something with bows and arrows or ranged combat, they chose the Ranger class. This held true for 2nd Edition, 3rd, and 3.5. As much as it confuses me now, I did it a time or two myself. Looking back, it blows my mind. Rangers have no ranged combat special abilities in the 2nd Edition Player's Handbook. Seriously. I have it out right now. They can wield two weapons in light armor, use the tracking proficiency even if your game doesn't use non-weapon proficiencies, and they have a favored enemy. They are literally no better at archer than a Fighter or Paladin.
Looking at the Ranger of Pathfinder, what makes it good at general purpose archery? It has a +1/level base attack bonus, that's as good as it gets when making attack rolls using weapons in combat, so that's definitely a bonus. But, they don't exactly have a monopoly on that, Fighters and Paladins both get the same base attack bonus, as well as Soulknives. So using this as criteria means Rangers, Paladins, and Fighters are all equally good at general purpose archery and ranged combat. Combat style, ok yeah, if a Ranger chooses the archery combat style they gain five archery geared bonus feats from a listed selection over twenty levels. They also don't need to meet any prerequisites, which is a decent bonus. The Paladin doesn't get anything like that, so he's dropped, which we were all expecting. The Fighter, well hmm, he gets bonus combat feats, one every even level and one at first level as well, for a total of eleven over twenty levels. All archery feats seem to be combat feats and the Fighter gains slightly over double the number of bonus feats that a Ranger would gain from the archery combat style (all of which are combat feats). Oh, but the Ranger doesn't need to meet any of the prerequisites for those feats. Well, first of all, if you're going to have something like Shot On the Run so you can move a bunch and make a ranged attack any time you move, why don't you already have Dodge and Mobility? If you are going to be running around combat triggering attacks of opportunities from firing in melee range and moving past people, seems like a +5 dodge bonus to AC would be handy. Also, a Fighter has double the number of bonus combat feats, he can easily afford to take all of the prerequisite feats for something like Pinpoint Targeting or Shot On the Run. Plus, the Fighter doesn't lose all his fancy feats if he puts on heavy armor like a Ranger does. So yeah, the only actual archery stuff that a Ranger has going for it that is unique to it is five bonus feats that it doesn't need the prerequisites for and it loses if it puts on heavier armor. That's it. There are no other archery related abilities in the Ranger class. There aren't even any archetypes specialized in ranged combat for the class, except the Trophy Hunter, and they use guns.
So in closing, while the five bonus combat feats for archery do seem like they would make Rangers into good archers, they don't. They just make Rangers better suited to archery than Paladins. Rangers don't have any other abilities that support ranged combat. They don't even have Weapon Focus or Specialization for bows on their archery combat style bonus feat list.
So archery. I break archery down into three aspects. Straight up shooting arrows really really well, sniping and using deadly shots to maximize damage because you are stealthy and your enemies are unaware of you, and stalking and hunting foes while carrying a bow as your primary weapon. This third thing is only here to honor the grizzled huntsman that acts as a scout trope.
In terms of straight up shooting arrows, the Fighter wins. His base attack bonus, bonus combat feats, and his access to weapon specialization feats makes him superior to the Rogue and Ranger at shooting arrows. His weapon mastery abilities further increase this competence. You give the Fighter the Archer archetype and now you've got something that can shoot in the midst of melee with no problem while tripping and disarming with arrows. Just from twenty levels and the focus and specialization feats you'll have +27 to attacks and +9 to damage and longbow arrows will do x4 damage on critical hits. This doesn't factor in any ability scores or the weapon itself. Plus you'll have a whole mess of other feats to modify what you can do with a bow and be able to increase the arrow damage with a composite bow and a higher than 10 Strength.
Sniping, which to me is making ranged attacks from hiding to maximize damage. Obviously, certain classes like the Ninja, Ranger, and Rogue are going to be better at this than others. The Fighter, even if you pile his skill points into Stealth, isn't going to be particularly adept at shooting from hiding. Even if he was, he still lacks some necessary abilities. The Ranger is a passable sniper, especially if in his favored terrain, which provides bonuses to Stealth and Perception. He's got the hiding covered. But his damage output isn't going to be any better than if he were standing right in the middle of his enemies plinking them with arrows. His base damage could possibly be superior, and his chances to hit would certainly be, but the chances of inflicting a pile of sneak attack damage are a pretty potent thing to consider when talking about striking from stealth with ranged attacks. So the Ranger, to me at least, as out, even though he gets a death attack (albeit at 20th level, and one that only affects his favored enemies and has some heavy restrictions on how often it can be used).
So what is sniping? Sniping is hiding and then shooting someone with a ranged weapon while trying to remain hidden. The way it works is that if you have used Stealth successfully to hide at least 10 ft. from someone, you can make a ranged attack against them and then a Stealth check to remain hidden on your turn. The Stealth check has a hefty -20 penalty, but, there's always a chance you could remain hidden. To me, successful use of Stealth means the target is effectively invisible until detected with Perception or you have line of sight on the person using Stealth (unless they have special abilities like Hide In Plain sight where just being able to look at them doesn't mean they can't use Stealth), or the various other means. All this does is grant a +2 to attack rolls against sighted opponents and deny them their Dexterity bonus to AC, which is not the same as being flat-footed. This means that a successfully sniping character with sneak attack can get some sweet sneak attack bonus damage in, along with having an easier time hitting enemies.
Who is best at sniping in my opinion? Fuck if I know, it's either Ninja or Rogue though. I lean more towards Rogue. The Ninja and Rogue are just about the same class, and because Ninjas have Ninja tricks that allow them to take Rogue talents and Rogues have Rogue talents that allow them to take Ninja tricks, they are effectively the same class outside of a few abilities that Ninja has that allow them to use poison and make them more difficult to track and grant them added mobility. The Rogue has some abilities that make them better with traps. The Ninja is designed to be a stealthy killer with some handy supernatural abilities (like using greater invisibility at will for 1 ki point), while the Rogue leans more towards a more versatile role. They both have sneak attacks and they both have death attacks (though the Ninja has the option to get his earlier and it takes longer to pull off and the Rogue's is more versatile). The greater invisibility ki abilities is definitely a pretty strong indicator of being damn good at hiding and attacking from stealth.
One thing that sets the Rogue apart from the Ninja is the Sniper archetype. This archetype halves the range penalties for ranged attacks and also grants the Rogue +10 ft. to the range at which they can do sneak attack damage every 3rd level. The base range is only 30 ft., so this is pretty handy if we are talking about a character that intends to snipe enemies with the intent of dealing large piles of sneak attack damage to them. So sniping as a Rogue is a little dangerous starting out. The check penalty to snipe is hefty, the range is short, and Stealth isn't perfect. Targets can still determine where the arrows are coming from and then head in that direction to look for you. Stealth isn't magic, it doesn't truly make you invisible, and you are much easier to find. But, without even min/maxing or dumping Charisma to boost Dexterity, I can get a +10 to Stealth checks at first level with a Rogue (or any class that has Stealth as a class skill and takes Skill Focus [Stealth] at first level). If I make a Goblin, I can squeeze out a +14 without taking Skill Focus (Stealth). Rogues and Ninjas make pretty slick snipers, they've got sneak attack damage and strong stealth capabilities that are not tied to a particular environment like the Ranger.
Stalking, hunting style archery. The kind where you ghost through the woods with bow in hand picking out tracks and other sign and sneak up on your quarry and put an arrow in them before they're aware of your presence. This isn't truly a third kind of archery. It's more like a combination of the first two kinds of archery I've rambled about combined with woodcraft. There are two classes that are good at nature stuff. Druid and Ranger, and any class that has ranks in Survival can track. The Ranger's woodcraft mostly centers on tracking and hunting and ghosting through specific environments and he automatically adds half his level to Survival checks to track. The Ranger is really really good at hiding as well, he has the camouflage and hide in plain sight abilities, which mean he doesn't need cover or concealment to use Stealth (I forgot to mention earlier that you need cover or concealment to use Stealth) and can hide while people are looking right at him. These are fantastic abilities, but they're tied to his favored terrains. He can't use them anywhere else, and he only gains four favored terrains over the course of twenty levels out of a selection of eleven. Looking at a map of a campaign world, you can figure out which ones are most prominent and might be of the most use, but there are no guarantees your GM will be an enabler. The Ranger, to me, is the second best class suited to archery, and his tracking skills are much superior to the other classes, which makes him a great hunter, but not necessarily a great archer or sniper. He can shoot a bow competently with his combat style bonus feats, but he can't make it his way of life like a Fighter can and he can't do one shot one kill style ranged attacks like a Rogue or Ninja because he has no sneak attack. His 20th level death attack only works against favored enemies and he can only do it once per day per favored enemy, so it's not exactly as versatile as having sneak attack or the death attack of a Rogue or Ninja. The Ranger is basically a mishmash of whatever the designers felt they could pile together to create a class that kind of filled the woodsman/scout niche in the game.
Archery. Fuck. Yeah.