Pathfinder - The Arcane Archer Handbook
Last Updated: October 8th, 2018
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I will use the color coding scheme which has become common among Pathfinder build handbooks. Also note that many colored items are also links to the Paizo SRD.
- Red: Bad, useless options, or options which are extremely situational.
- Orange: OK options, or useful options that only apply in rare circumstances
- Green: Good options.
- Blue: Fantastic options, often essential to the function of your character.
The Arcane Archer is a very popular concept, combining the excitement of firing a bow with the magical power of an arcane spellcaster. The Arcane Archer's primary role is as a striker, but depending on your core classes you may be able to fill other roles including Face, Librarian, Scout, and Support.
Despite its potential, the Arcane Archer is forced to compete with the Myrmidarch Magus, which attempts the same concept without the complexities of a prestige class. At any given point, you'll need to compare the Arcane Archer to a Myrmidarch of the same level to decide if the Arcane Archer is a worthwhile option.
Base Attack Bonus: The base attack bonus requirement means that you won't get into the class until at least 6th level, but it's more likely that your first Arcane Archer level will be your 7th character level because so few arcane spellcasting classes have full BAB.
Feats: Aside from weapon focus you'll want these spells anyway if you plan to rely on a bow.
Spells: Only requiring 1st-level spells means that you can take a single level of a variety of spellcasting classes to qualify.
Arcane Archer Class Features
Hit Points: d10 hit points is great, especailly compared to the d6 for most spellcasting classes.
Base Attack Bonus: Full BAB.
Saves: Good Fortitude and Reflex saves, and your spellcasting class will probably have high Will saves so you'll have decent saves across the board.
Proficiencies: You'll already have proficiency with bows, which are the only weapon you care about, but adding medium armor and shields can be helpful AC boosts.
Skills: 4+ skill ranks won't make you a skill monkey on its own, but if your spellcasting is Intelligence-based you may have a lot of skills to throw around..
Spells per Day: The Arcane Trickster advances spellcasting at every level, meaning that you only give up spellcasting levels for your Sneak Attack class. Note that, like every other prestige class with spell advancement, classes which have a specific "Spells Known" table will learn new spells, but classes like the Witch and Wizard which can learn spells on their own do not gain new spells known. This is inconvenient, but you can always buy new spells.
Enhance Arrows (Su): If you don't have a +1 weapon by three levels into this class, you're probably already dead. The elemental damage abilities are nice, and you can combine them with a different element permanently applied to your bow. Distance won't matter much. Holy/etc. is fantastic, but you won't get it until at least 15th character level, at which point you could have bought it long ago. With the exception of the enhancement bonus all of these effects will work alongside other effects, so you're effectively using a weapon of considerably higher power.
Imbue Arrow (Su): This is the Arcane Archer's signature ability. Keep in mind that the spell must be an area spell, so you can't put Shocking Grasp on an arrow like the Magus can. Fireball and similar effects are obvious choices, but don't overlook things like Haste or other spells which aren't directly offensive.
Seeker Arrow (Su): Situational, and you can usually solve the same problem by putting a fireball on Imbue Arrow.
Phase Arrow (Su): A single arrow won't do enough damage to be meaningful most of the time. Archery is all about voluminous numbers of arrows.
Hail of Arrows (Su): Fantastic in large encounters. The ability doesn't specify that you need to be able to see targets, but I assume you still need to know to target them, and you probably also need ammunition. Still, you can kill whole armies with this. With the Distance enchantment from Enhance Arrows your bow range is absurdly long.
Arrow of Death (Su): Even though the save is Charisma-based and you might not be a Charisma-based spellcaster, a base DC of 20 is still excellent. The ammunition limitation is frustrating, so save this for high-priority foes.
Arcane Archers are conventionally built using two classes: a martial class for the Base Attack Bonus requirements, and an arcane class for the spellcasting. In addition, you can use classes like Bard and Magus to cover both sets of requirements.
Your martial class will consume the majority of your levels before diving into Arcane Archer. Because your spellcasting class will generally have 1/2 BAB, you'll probably take either four or five levels in your martial class, and will likely return to your martial class after you run out of Arcane Archer levels.
Barbarian rage doesn't work with spellcasting, and barbarians aren't built to use bows.
The combination of fighter-exclusive feats, armor/weapon training, and the fighter's feat slots make the fighter a great go-to option. 6th level gives you a bonus feat which, you may not need, which means you can put another level into your spellcasting class before going into Arcane Archer.
Technically doable, but doing archery well requires a mountain of feats and paladins don't get the bonus feats for it to work. If you insist on a paladin build, I recommend the the Divine Hunter archetype, which helps with the feat tax and allows you to apply Divine Bond to your weapon. By doing a Paladin/Sorcerer split, you can double-dip on Charisma, which is fun.
6 levels of ranger will get you two feats from your combat style, and the ability to ignore their prerequisites means that you can get Point Blank Master at 6th level without fighter levels. I recommend hunting around for archetypes that trade Favored Enemy and/or Favored Terrain for something more interesting. You also won't get much from the ranger's spellcasting, so don't invest heavily in Wisdom.
Along the same lines as the Ranger, and you give up many of the Ranger's abilities which will quickly become obsolete without level-based scaling and replace them with things like Sneak Attack and Slayer Talents. I still recommend taking the Ranger Combat Style talents to get archery feats, but your 4th-level talent is open.
While any arcane spellcasting class qualifies, this section only discusses full spellcasters because those are the sorts of classes which make the most sense for this branch of your build.
Arcane Archers lost a lot of spellcasting due to their split focus, so the Arcanist invalidates its own versatility by dramatically reducing the quantity of spells which you have available.
The Sorcerer's biggest appeal is their large pool of spell slots. If you plan to use the same spells repeatedly but don't need to worry much about utility or skills, sorcerer is a good option. The emphasis on Charisma is also helpful when you get Arrow of Death.
Functionally similar to wizard, but you trade Arcane Bond for a Hex. The two spell lists are different, so consider carefully which one you think will work best for you.
The go-to for two-class Arcane Archers, the wizard's Intelligence will pad your skill ranks, and you'll get new spell levels as fast as possible.
Technically you could meet all of the Arcane Archer's requirements using a single spellcasting class, but this guide assumes that you want to get into the class as soon as possible. These classes can meet all of the Arcane Archer's requirements in a reasonably timely manner, but still have good enough spellcasting to be a worthwhile option.
Bards are a weird choice. As support casters, they lack most of the offensive options associated with the Arcane Archer. You won't be throwing fireballs, but you might find that your support spells and enchantments can be equally effective with some clever thinking.
The only class with full BAB progression and arcane spellcasting, the Bloodrager can qualify for Arcane Archer at level 6. The Bloodrager's already limited spellcasting will be handicapped even further, so you'll need to mostly ignore the Arcane Archer's signature Imbue ability. However, you'll still be an excellent archer and you will benefit greatly from the Arcane Archer's other class features. Be sure to add the Adaptive property to your composite bow so that your damage can benefit from your fluctuating Strength bonus when you rage or change size.
Magus without the Mymidarch archetype is technically possible, but there is basically no reason to do it. Myrmidarch simply adds too much which feeds into the Arcane Archer. You'll need 8 levels to qualify for Arcane Archer, but during those 8 levels you're casting spells and shooting your bow. Ranged Spellstrike lets you attach single-target spells like Shocking Grasp or Disintegrate to your arrows, so once you add Imbue Arrow from Arcane Archer you can put all of your spells on arrows. 8 levels gets you one step of both Weapon Training and Armor Training, providing small but helpful improvements to your attack, damage, and AC. You also get enough Fighter Training to qualify for Weapon Specialization, which opens up several other important feats for archers. You even get to cast spells in medium armor and ignore arcane spell failure, so you can wear a breastplate or mithral fullplate.
The Myrmidarch does have one drawback which might dissuade you at first glance: you give up 1 spell per spell level. But before you throw up your hands and abandon the Myrmidarch, compare it to your typical two-class Arcane Archer. At ninth level you get your first level of Arcane Archer. A fighter/wizard will be on their third level of Arcane Archer, but will only have the spellcasting of 3rd- or 4th-level wizard. You'll be casting third-level spells, while the fighter/wizard is just getting 2nd-level spells.
The exact makeup of your ability scores varies depending on your choice of spellcasting class. Prioritize Dexterity. Get a bit of Strength for bonus bow damage, some Constitution for hit points. You never need your spellcasting ability to exceed 16, but more never hurts.
Dexterity bonuses and bonuses to a spellcasting ability are fantastic. Small size can also be helpful for the bonuses to attack and AC.
Dwarf: Nothing specifically useful for the Arcan Archer.
Elf: Bonuses to Dexterity and Intelligence are perfect for anything built around Magus, Witch, or Wizard. The bonus to overcome spell resistance will be helpful to compensate for your low caster level.
Gnome: Halfling is strictly better.
Half-Elf: The flexible ability bonus is basically the only thing that helps you.
Half-Orc: The flexible ability bonus is basically the only thing that helps you.
Halfling: Small size and a bonus to charisma mean that you'll want to build something Charisma-based.
Human: Flexible ability bonus, and the feat will help with the archery feat tax..
- Magical Knack (Magic): Absolutely required. Two caster levels gets you a ton of additional damage and duration from your spells. You give up several levels of spellcasting throughout the 10 levels of arcane archer, so this is useful even if you build around bard or magus.
Most of your skills will be defined by your base classes. Expect to continue investing in those skills, but consider putting ranks into skills added by Arcane Archer if you don't have them already.
- Perception (Wis): The most rolled skill in the game.
- Ride (Dex): Riding imposes penalties. Find a way to fly instead.
- Stealth (Dex): You have high enough Dexterity that Stealth should be doable.
- Survival (Wis): Situational.
Your selection of feats follows the conventional Point-Blank Shot tree for the most part. You might pick up feats to complement your spellcasting, but with greatly diminished spellcasting it's probably not wise.
- Composite Longbow: Using a bow is the purpose of the class.
Armor is presented in the order in which you should acquire it, rather than alphabetical order.
- Mithral Buckler: You'll suffer a -1 penalty to your bow attacks because using a bow requires two hands, but the inexpensive AC bonus provided by a slightly enhanced mithral buckler is easily worth the attack penalty.
- Mithral Shirt: The best armor you can reasonably get unless you make it to +10 Dexterity modifier, at which point Haramaki becomes your best armor option.
- Mithral Breastplate: Arcane Archers get proficiency with medium armor, but unless your spellcasting comes from bloodrager, bard, or magus you'll suffer arcane spell failure while wearing a mithral breastplate.
- Adaptive (+1000gp): Strength can be an easy and inexpensive way to add some extra damage to your bow, especially at low levels. You'll probably never improve your natural Strength score, but at high levels you might consider upgrading your belt to include a Strength bonus. If you do, or if you occasionally use temporary Strength bonuses like Bull's Strength, consider the Adaptive weapon property rather than using a composite bow with a potentially mismatched Strength bonus.
Example Build - It Turns Out That Magus Was the Answer the Whole Time
Because of their split focus on spellcasting, an Arcane Archer will never be quite as good with a bow as a single-class fighter. Because they get so little spellcasting, dual-class builds with a full spellcasting class will still have terrible spellcasting. For the entirety of a 20-level run, the Magus/Arcane Archer will have better spellcasting than a Wizard/Fighter/Arcane Archer, having more spell slots of each level, reaching each spell level earlier or at the same level, and having a caster level advantage of at least 5 caster levels. Dual-class builds literally can't compete.
So, to summarize: 8 levels of Magus (probably with the Myrmidarch archetype). If you still really want to play an Arcane Archer, take two levels of it to get Imbue Arrow, then consider going back to Magus. If you're absolutely set on playing the prestige class, stick it out for the full 10 levels, then go back to Magus.