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&D...by 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. Sure...cleaning 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.