Thursday, September 17, 2009

Wherefore Art Thou Assassins?

My knowledge of the assassin class goes back at least as far as my knowledge of Blackrazor…that is, back to the primordial beginnings of my gaming on the playground. I talked earlier about the “mad twins,” Todd and Trevor, who had been introduced to D&D by an older cousin (I think his name was Dennis, but I may be misremembering this), and who helped my own understanding of “real” D& fighting over who would get to cut the souls out of the other players/monsters using Blackrazor.

In those days of recess hijinks, Todd and Trevor would talk about what kind of character they played…generally fighters or magic-users but ALSO assassins. What’s an assassin? Well a hired killer of course. I’m 99% certain I already knew the real world term “assassin,” even at the tender age of 7 or 8 (don’t ask me why…Americans are brought up loving their violence)…perhaps due to “assassination attempts” on folks like Reagan and Lennon around about the same time (circa 1980).

But the idea that a person would kill other people for pay…now THAT was a mind-blowing concept. Not knowing what a hitman was, the idea that someone would actually give big sacks of gold for you to "off" someone…as a child I found the idea scary/intriguing and totally wicked-awesome.

Now, of course, not having any rule books our idea of character “class” was simply that…your class was how you were classified, i.e. your role and what you were supposed to do. Fighters would fight (duh!), magic-users would “use magic” (double-duh…though I specifically remember magic missile and fireball being the most popular spell names tossed around…maybe invisibility). Assassins were supposed to kill people…for money!

There was no discussion of thief skills or backstabbing or anything like that…hell, we didn’t even know what “hit points” were (we didn’t have dice after all…we were playing the equivalent of “cops & robbers” or “cowboys & Indians” except with D&D/fantasy tropes). Nope, you were either a dude that fought, a dude that cast spells, or a dude that killed people.

[just a side note before I forget: we also knew that magic-users didn’t get to use weapons like Blackrazor, so though the fabled weapon was generally in the possession of the fighter, sometimes the assassin would “use” it]

Anyhoo, I eventually got my actual set of the rules for my 8th birthday (c/o Tom Moldvay) and as with the conspicuous absence of Blackrazor from the Magic Item section, there was likewise NO ASSASSIN CLASS. As with Blackrazor, I jumped to the snap conclusion that the twins had been full of crap…they had no idea how to actually play REAL Dungeons & Dragons, and wouldn’t know a +1 sword from their own stunted genital. Assassins my ass.

It was a good 3-4 years before I got my first copy of the AD&D Player’s Handbook and found that lo and behold there WAS an actual assassin class. But even before that, I seem to remember getting confirmation of the class’s existence from someone else. Perhaps I cornered “Dennis” on the playground (he was an older kid that I never met more than once or twice). Perhaps it was Eric, one of the Boy Scout leaders in my troop (man, all those older Scouts played D&D. The local Eagle Scout…tall, handsome, incredibly competent…sported a super-cool dragon belt-buckle that I, for one, coveted fiercely!).

Regardless of where I got my info, this was AFTER I had already drank deeply from the well of Cook/Marsh’s Expert set. As it was explained to me, Assassins were not a class so much as a specialist henchman one would hire to slay rivals. Again, to me this was mind-blowing…that PLAYERS would actually hire a contract killer to assassinate a rival (another player?)!

Here I was living in this world of black and white, good and evil, and players are being given options to work out their differences in the basest way possible. I mean, to me “bad guys” were Chaotic, “goody-two-shoes” were Lawful, and most PC adventurers were hardcore Neutral. Orcs, being Chaotic, were a scourge upon the Earth, and wiping them out every man, woman, and child (as in B2: Keep on the Borderlands) was an act without moral ambiguity. They were EVIL, dammit!

[Yes, I am a kinder, gentler DM now…to both players AND monsters.]

So assassins…if there had been assassins in the B/X rules I am certain I would have used them and used them heavily. Thieves in my old campaigns were never treated as “assassins” (or “swashbuckling fighters” for that matter)…thieves were thieves! They stole things! They climbed into hard to reach places, picked locks, disarmed traps, etc. The backstab damage was pretty damn incidental compared to their other talents.

[side note: I think this is in part a result of B/X not increasing the damage multiplier of a thief’s backstabbing ability. It never increases above X2 damage in B/X of BECMI play. My B/X Companion had intended to include rules for increasing this, as was part of the OD&D and AD&D rules, but now I’m wondering…]

But by the time our game group actually got access to our first PHB, everyone was pretty well set in their “established role.” Jocelyn was a fighter, Matt was a cleric, Scott was a magic-user, Jason was a thief…and my little brother generally played dwarves or some type of demi-human. MY role was “the DM” exclusively in those days and since none of the players wanted to play (or hire!) assassins, they fell by the wayside a little bit.

‘Course later (when someone else had taken the helm) I had the chance to play an assassin myself, but by then I’d established my bard character, so go figure. There WERE a few assassins that got played; usually multi-classed, and often as side-characters run on solo adventures…there just didn’t seem to be any call for them as part of an adventuring party.

And why would there be? A party of adventurers is a team of people (mercenary or not, competent or not) that band together for a cooperative effort aimed at completing a mission (whether for gold, glory, or the greater good…doesn’t matter). What purpose could an assassin serve in such an outfit? Keeping the lesser party members in line? Sowing dissent in the ranks? One dungeon delve “adventure” provides scarcely enough time to scout a target, let alone “get to know it and formulate an optimal plan for assassination.”

I can see how one might play a non-traditional adventuring party consisting ONLY of assassins (perhaps with some magical support) that act as a scout-sniper/hit squad to take down enemies (King Snurre, Eclavdra, whomever). But since AD&D has the requirement that assassins be of EVIL alignment…well wouldn’t it make more sense for these characters to turn on the civilized nations that hired them, throwing in with the giants and the drow?

There’s a lot I like about BECMI’s take on the assassin (the “headsman/thug”). Their Neutral alignment. Their role as executioner, not just hired killers. Their hit dice as monsters rather than human characters (and make no mistake, people who assassinate other humans for either “the good of the nation,” or for money ARE monstrous individuals).

But I don't want assassins to simply be monsters. At least not in my B/X Companion. out the local assassins guild can be a fun type of dungeon crawl (I’ll have post my Assassins of Willip adventure sometime…THAT’s an interesting story). But it’s fairly limiting to the CONCEPT of assassins to make them simply a monster with an “auto-kill” attack. Hell, just give ‘em all poisoned daggers, you end up with the same thing (higher level assassins hit better, and higher level victims are more resistant to assassination due to better saves).

What I want for my game is a return to the assassin as a specialist hireling. Why does the PHB have an elaborate table of assassination prices? Is that how much the party has to chip in when “Shadowspawn” takes down Lareth the Beautiful? Come on!

Assassins are just people that kill for money…period. A knife against the throat of a helpless victim (paralyzed or sleeping) will auto-kill that victim. Poison…in a meal or on a blowgun needle…can also do the job. So can a noose or garrote around the neck. And an assassin that can cast a finger of death or use the kill power word is an operator that can command a high price for his (or her) service!

I do not think I’m going to include much in the way of “special rules” for assassins…just a general description and their cost to hire. But I’m still thinking about it, so it’s possible I’ll change my mind. Certainly an “automatic chance of assassination” is more fair and true to D&D than simple “DM fiat;” (and in true D&D form, the DM always has the option to cut random tables from their game), and for that reason alone I might include something akin to the assassination tables in the 1st edition DMG. But we’ll see. Assassins and assassinations ARE a part of high level play (especially with PCs that are ruling dominions) and they are something I want in my B/X Companion.

Any objections?


  1. Assassins are just people that kill for money…period. A knife against the throat of a helpless victim (paralyzed or sleeping) will auto-kill that victim. Poison…in a meal or on a blowgun needle…can also do the job. So can a noose or garrote around the neck. And an assassin that can cast a finger of death or use the kill power word is an operator that can command a high price for his (or her) service!

    This is the key. I've been thinking much along these lines for about a year or so. There's no need for a new class or special rules -- they're already there.

  2. Will the B/X Companion also have hints on how to defend against assassins? I'd hate to see my player's face as I roll their percent chance to wake up dead because they have rich enemies now. That might also be important.

  3. I've always been mystified by the concept that Assassins must be evil, that poison is evil, that animating the dead is evil.

    Assassins: You contract with a guy who is good with weapons. Maybe he's pretty stealthy. You tell him to go out and kill someone or some people. He comes back and you pay him. That is an assassin. Or a soldier, a mercenary, a gladiator, an executioner. Yet soldiers are not monstrous, they're patriotic. Mercenaries are just gritty folks with purchasable allegiance. Gladiators are just mean pit fighters. Executioners are dispensers of court-appointed punishments. Is your local lethal-injection dude guaranteed to be evil? I didn't think so.

    Poison: A chemical that is harmful or deadly to living creatures. Roundup is a pretty deadly defoliant. Is the Monsanto contracted farmer evil for using it? Often a fast-acting poison is a more humane way to kill something than stabbing it several hundred times. Atropine is a deadly poison derived from nightshade, but is one of the WHO's medicines required for a functioning healthcare system. Is your local opthamologist guaranteed to be evil? I didn't think so.

    Animation: If the target skeleton was the corpse of a guy who worshipped an enemy religion, or was of an enemy nation, and you would have killed him anyway, why is it such a bad thing to animate him and have him haul your stuff? Someone puppeteering your bones is worse than the initial killing? What about animating the bones of a bunch of giant rats? If it's sacrilege to fool around with the remains of any creature, better watch out! All those men working the glue factories and tanneries are hardcore Evil! Not to mention all the haunted stockyards and slaughterhouses. All those millions of restless 10HD cow ghosts must make it hard for the zero-level humans to work.

    Has there ever been justification for making these things evil-only? I've heard evidence that Evil PCs were fairly common in Gygax's campaigns, so it's not just to prevent players from using them for game balance.

  4. @ Myth: I am glad I'm not the only one going down this rabbit hole.

    @ D30: Once I started playing AD&D there was almost ALWAYS someone of evil alignment at the table. The question is not "should this be evil," but is this practical as a character class...AND does it describe what an assassin is? I think thing's can be simplified a bit (probably the reason I play B/X in the first place).

    @ Alex: While I don't like the way BECMI makes people roll for everything (should a vorpal sword get a saving throw?) and I loathe the way D20 nerfs old school kills (poison only does ability damage, giants get saves vs. hammers of thunderbolts?!), I'm not sure I'd let a random dice roll be responsible for a high level character's death,

    On the other hand, BY THE RULES, if a person is "sleeped" or held they can be automatically killed, no save. An assassin should be able to utilize these same rules to a degree. High level PCs will need to take appropriate precautions (hiring guards and paying them enough to be fanatically loyal...or simply building allies with neighboring states, rather then enemies). I also want PCs/NPCs to have reason to build elaborate castles with mundane and magical booby-traps. It's not just to F with random adventurers; its for protection!
    ; )

  5. Okay, so imagine the easiest assassination: killing a dude sleeping alone in the woods. The assassin must gather info to know when to strike, then actually get there, then sneak up and kill him. If the assassin at the edge of the firelight can make his Stealth roll, he will get an automatic kill.

    As you said, powerful characters will surround themselves with retainers and elaborate defenses. Instead of just walking up, the assassin must get past the road patrols, past the wall, into the keep, past the personal bodyguards, and through the lord's chamber. Essentially these are tests of first his Stealth and if that fails his fighting skill. If he makes all the stealth tests he gets the kill. If some tests result in a fight there is a chance everyone is alerted and the lord wakes up, ruining the stealth kill.

    But essentially the pre-mission setup is the same. The assassin needs equipment, information, and to travel to the site.

    So I'd suggest giving every assassin a chance at success based on level. Or just define all assassins as "novice", "veteran" or "master" so you don't need a huge table. The defenses of the target count as a penalty, of a standard X per barrier. The example above would have 5 barriers.

    If the assassin fails the roll, it means he was caught at some point. He must then roll again (assuming all assassins are equally good at stealth and fighting) and if he fails THAT one he is caught. If he succeeds he overcomes but flees.

    Succeeding very well on the fight reroll means he gets to the target anyway without raising an alarm. Failing badly on the fight reroll means he was caught and spills the beans about his employer.

    So you could set it up like this.

    Stealth Success Chance
    Novice: 40% (Equivalent to Level 1-2)
    Veteran: 60% (Level 4-5)
    Master: 110% (Level 9-10)
    (Every barrier is -5% on this roll)

    If you fail stealth, roll again.
    Under 10%: Fail. Assassin caught.
    Failure: Fail. Assassin slain.
    Success: Fail. Assassin flees.
    Over 90%: Success. Assassin reaches target anyway.

    Actually assassinating the target would be automatic if he made it there. Count magical defenses and such on the target as extra barriers. Assume the assassin's roll includes info-gathering beforehand to learn and prepare counters to these defenses (An anti-stoneskin dagger, etc).

    Assassins would charge based on their quality, probably multiplied by the barriers to the target. And they wouldn't be willing to attempt it unless their chances were good to begin with.