Friday, January 27, 2012

Don't Sass an Assassin (Part 1)

I know I've been waxing nostalgic about AD&D lately. This post might well have a bit more of that.

I've posted before how far back in time my relationship with the assassin class goes...way back to my primordial beginnings on the playground (circa age 7 or 8)...long before I ever laid eyes on a D&D book or rolled a single strange-shaped dice. In the realm of elementary school recess, when we "played D&D" (i.e. "played pretend") there were only ever three character "classes:" the fighter, the magic-user, and the assassin. That was OUR Big Three, thank you very much, and nary a cleric in sight (well, other than the nuns and priests of my Catholic elementary school, but that was, of course, different).

However, I wouldn't lay my hands on a copy of the AD&D Player's Handbook till age 11 or so. And as it was only 2010 that I laid hold of Supplement II, age 11 was my first introduction to the official assassin class.

[interestingly, we had been using the DMG and the MM for close to two years, in conjunction with the B/X rule sets. Imagine our surprise at multi-class characters, bards, psionics, druids, etc. Hell, previously we'd had a ton of frustration whenever trying to use a monster that had some spell-like ability NOT detailed in the B/X books. Crazy!] the time we actually picked up the PHB, no one really wanted to play an assassin. Jocelyn's main character was a fighter. Matt had a cleric. Scott always played magic-users. And Jason had a long established Thief. While my younger brother often played with us, he was generally relegated to a "shorty" role like dwarf or halfling (later his penchant would change to barbarians). No one was interested in a class that maxed out at level 15 while other (human) classes stretched onto infinity.

No one but me, that is...but I was usually the group's designated Dungeon Master.

And even when I DID get to play (when we started trading off the roll of DM in the campaign), I spent the bulk of my playing time as a those days of "high level" play, I would never have settled for a character that was limited to 15 levels.

[yes, high level...once you reach a certain level in the game, death becomes a fairly moot point given the access to wishes and resurrection-type magic. The real problem with sustaining high level play is giving players something to play for...which came for us because we were heavily invested in the campaign world, i.e. that play that happens AFTER one achieves the "end game" conditions in D&D]

But the assassin class was always fascinating to me. To many of us, really. There was no "ban" on evil characters in our campaign and most of us ran characters on the darker side of Chaotic Neutral anyway. In fact, now that I'm reminiscing there were a couple-three assassin characters in the campaign, though they were all "secondary" characters to a player's "main" PC.

There was Shadowspawn (yes, named for the Thieves World character), played by Matt. Matt's main character was a lawful good cleric of Athena, but he was a big TW fan, and Shadowspawn was based heavily on his namesake, wearing black leathers and carrying knives in every conceivable location.

Then there was Dark Flame ("Darkflame?"), played by Scott. Scott's characters were almost all wizards of some sort, and DF was no exception, being a Drow multiclass magic-user/assassin. He had a reversible cloak/outfit and would generally portray himself as an elven magic-user so as not to get thrown in the hoosegow. As if anyone would F with a drow anyway.

Even one of my bard characters incorporated a bit of assassin, being a fighter-assassin-bard mix (you can blame Gygax for that one, as his character Gellor in the Gord series was a ranger-thief-bard; once we read that we ruled sub-classes were okay for bard advancement if Gary said it was okay).

Oh, yeah...and my little brother played an assassin (briefly) named "Dirty Harry."

All of these characters were, of course, capital-E "evil" as per the alignment requirements of the PHB...but being cold-blooded killers didn't mean they necessarily went out of their way to be disgusting assholes...they just didn't have much love in their hearts. And while they were capable of murder for pay (what adventurer isn't?) they still found a way to interact with their fellow player characters without their career choice getting in the way (probably helped that no one ever played a paladin in our games).

And yet, I don't recall a single "assassination" ever taking place.

I was reading Alexis's post on assassins the other day (natch, since it directly pertains to the character I am currently running in his AD&D campaign...more on that later), and while I grokked his point, it was far and away outside my experience as a player.

I'm reading the PHB right now, and I can see that an assassin is allowed an assassination attempt if he (or she) achieves surprise. But I honestly don't remember ever simply allowing an "assassination attempt" (and it wasn't very often an assassin, working solo, achieved surprise...especially in a dungeon or "marching order" type setting). Our guide was more of the blurb in the DMG (page 75) about achieving "optimum conditions" - gaining "absolute trust" from a target, attacking someone asleep, or drunk and unguarded. It also says:
If the assassination is being attempted by or in [sic] behalf of a player character, a complete plan of how the deed is to be done should be prepared by the player involved, and the precautions, if any, of the target should be compared against the plan.
See, no one ever took the time to prepare a PLAN of assassination...and just happening to surprise a guard or monster doesn't mean you have time to formulate "a complete plan;" you get one or two segments of surprise, period! In our campaigns, if an assassin was lucky enough to achieve surprise, he'd generally just try to backstab the opponent in such a spur of the moment circumstance.

So, no, we didn't have any "magical" assassinations. Even though we were playing AD&D in the age range of 11-15, we could still read the books, and we took the rules as canon (the same reason we incorporated speed factor and other minutia into our game).

Likewise, while there were assassins guilds (we had a rather infamous one in the town of Willip in the Greyhawk campaign), none of our assassins were members of one. Per the PHB (page 29) player characters did not have to be members of a guild...and since we didn't want to be beholden to anyone, we chose not to belong.

Which meant there were never any "assassination assignments" and never any "fees for assassination" paid out. Duh!

In practice the idea, or concept, of the assassin was cooler than the practicality of playing one...that is, unless you were really interested in working the concept. And because assassins in our campaign were secondary to our main character (or, in my PC's case, secondary to the prime role of "bard"), none of us dug deep into what it meant to be an assassin: seeking clients, earning a reputation, jockeying for guild status. None of the assassins in our campaigns ever got higher than 9th or 10th level so the issue of challenging guild masters (for higher level advancement) never came up.

In review, I feel there was never an issue of "playing the class right," but there was a missed opportunity for exploration of an interesting character concept. And as I'm older and (somewhat) more mature, I find myself having some regrets that I didn't "take the plunge" and run with it.

Which is the main part of the reason I've decided to play an assassin in Alexis's AD&D campaign.
; )

[I find I have more to say on the subject of assassins, so it appears this might develop into a series of posts; oh, boy!]


  1. If I may make the point; an individual trained to kill by means of taking advantage of the weak points of the body - the throat, the eye, the temple and so on - hardly needs more than a few seconds to carry out that murder. If an assassin should randomly stumble upon and surprise someone from the front; and if the assassin is not surprised; and if the assassin has the appropriate weapon in hand for the angle of incidence - then there's no reason in the world why the assassin shouldn't have a chance to successfully carry out the kill. A chance isn't a guarantee, after all.

  2. @ Alexis:

    I can certainly see that point of view.

    On the other hand, why wouldn't a fighter (who is, after all, also trained to kill) have the same chance in the same circumstance?

    (understand I'm not disagreeing with you...but see also my Part 2 post on the subject)