Saturday, January 28, 2012

Don't Sass an Assassin (Part 2)

Another post on my new favorite class!
Part of the problem that 14-year-old players buy into that kind of bullshit is that the idea drifts upon the wind that assassins in D&D are something like the modern day syndicate Hit Man - a fellow who takes contracts for money. Gygaxian Logic dictated that a 'guild' had to be created where said contracts could be distributed out, where assassins could get together for coffee and cakes after the job, and of course the local officials paid just to look the other way. So once again, there's another trope ... the assassin stomping into your campaign and asking you straight up, "Hey, where's the assassins guild? How much do I pay them? Have they got any contracts for me?"

Can I just say: do we need more proof in this world that the originators of D&D were a bunch of really, really, flabbergastingly stupid pud-pounding morons?

The first time the assassin is introduced to the Dungeons & Dragons game, it is as a specialist hireling in Volume 3 of the "Little Brown Books" of OD&D. The cost to hire such a specialist is 2000 gold pieces per mission, and the total description is confined to a single small paragraph:
Assassin: The role of this hireling is self-evident. The referee will decide what chance there is of his mission being accomplished by noting he precautions taken by the intended victim. Assassins are not plentiful, and some limit on the number employable during any game year must be enforced.
Certainly there were assassins in medieval times. In Europe during the middle ages up through the 17th century there are are number of high profile assassinations, including both Henry III and Henry the IV of France. For the most part, these assassinations were close range stabbings or shootings (William of Orange)...or kidnappings followed by murder. Often, an assassin (or would-be assassin; many attempts were foiled) would be captured after committing the deed, tried, tortured, and executed. The idea of hiring an assassin for a one-time mission at an exorbitant price is not all that far-fetched.

But that isn't what Alexis is talking about.

It is in the Dave Arneson penned Supplement II: Blackmoor...the same book that introduces the monk class (as a sub-class of cleric)...that we first see the assassin class introduced to D&D lore. Arneson's assassin, later incorporated into Gygax's PHB, is less detailed than the later version, and there are several differences, but this is first place we hear of an assassin's guild.

The historical assassins (the semi-legendary Hashashin of the Middle East) were active from the 11th to 13th centuries, killing political rivals and military targets. An organization situated in a mountain fortress, they were more like a modern day terrorist Al Quaeda...complete with a blurry line between political ideology and religious rhetoric. Their killings are said to have also been close range, stabbing types and they were said to refrain from causing civilian casualties (they were all about avoiding "collateral damage"), so getting up close and personal to a target would have been ideal for proper identification. Suicide bombing would probably have been "frowned upon."

It is the Hashashin, complete with their "Old Man of the Mountain" leader that would seem to be the basis for the guild assassins presented. But for me, this fits perfectly within the context of Arneson's Blackmoor...a more exotic, eastern-type supplement for the OD&D game. Blackmoor itself feels quite a bit more sword & sorcery (in the old school literary style) than the saintly paladins of Gygax's Greyhawk supplement. Much of S&S blended curvy (eastern) swords and warm climates in their tales...not to mention the SciFi-mix found in Temple of the Frog. In a fantasy world (like a John Norman Gor), why not have guild-card carrying assassins? The motivations and predilections of the fantasy culture itself may be less than wholesome or righteous.

Recall that one finds no Christianity in Deities and Demigods.

Arneson's assassins only go to level 13 (Prime Assassin) with an extra title, "Guildmaster," obtainable by challenging the local Guildmaster to a duel to the death. No experience point total is necessary to achieve Guildmaster status, any 13th level assassin can choose whether or not he wants to challenge. Arneson's rules are explicit that:
...there is no actual level above Prime Assassin, although there is power attained with the rank of Guildmaster.
The maximum hit dice for an assassin is 13 (as a 13th level "Prime Assassin"). The only benefit, besides acquiring followers and the ability to build a stronghold or control a barony, is a marked increase in assassination chance: +20% across the board. This by itself might be motivation to pursue the "death duel" route; unfortunately, Supplement II offers no real guidelines for when and how to use the assassination chart (unlike the AD&D books). As with many things in OD&D, it was probably a house-ruled issue. Perhaps it was only meant to be used for NPCs of the "specialist hireling" list. Arneson builds upon the original entry in Volume 3, clearly stating that specialist charge is based on hiring a 6th level assassin (he also extrapolates out the payment rates for lesser and greater skilled murderers). Remember that the original specialist text states, "The referee will decide what chance there is of his mission being accomplished..." Perhaps this percentage table is to serve as a guideline for the referee when it comes to hired NPC missions. Again, there is NOTHING in Arneson's text for the assassin class that indicates:

a) that an assassin has a chance to auto-kill (i.e. "assassinate") an individual
b) that an assassin achieving surprise has an special "assassination" attack

Here is what he does say are their abilities:

- thief abilities (though as a thief 2 levels lower)
- ability to use shields and ANY kind of weapons (including any magic weaponry)
- disguise ability (as the PHB)
- extra alignment languages (with an intelligence above 16)
- an ability to freely use poisoned weapons (including the ingestible type)

That is IT. One might even presume their backstabbing ability is two levels less than a standard thief, based on the text given. The "greater power" Arneson refers to regarding Guildmasters may indeed only mean the addition of followers, a stronghold, and the possibility of controlling a barony...all things that WOULD mean considerable power in a game that involved more than personal combat on a small-scale, dungeon-crawl. Note also that in Arneson's Blackmoor, any thief that meets the requirement to become an assassin (a strength, dexterity, and intelligence greater than 11), MUST be a part of the guild. In Blackmoor:
"All assassins are part of the Assassins Guild."
Thus, the guildmaster has absolute control over all such killers in the area (defined as a large city or 2500 square mile area). This might serve as additional impetus for a 13th level assassin to seek the office (all assassins under the guildmaster are required to give 10% of their earnings to the guildmaster!).

It is Gygax, working to fit Arneson's work into AD&D, that hammers the class into a different shape.

In AD&D, assassins MUST be evil. In Blackmoor, the requirement was that assassins MUST be Neutral...again, in a sword & sorcery fantasy (non-historic) world, such "killer guilds" must remain impartial and "business only" in order to not be eradicated by the local powers that be. But in a world of paladins and rangers, how could such beings be allowed to exist? A sticky quagmire for solved by making them evil and forcing them underground, I suppose.

Which I would guess is the way MOST AD&D campaigns treat assassins guilds (if they allow them at all). I know that's what I've always seen in campaigns that included assassins.

While Arneson linked GP cost of missions to character level, it is Gygax who links the "assassination table" directly to the class as a form of special attack (allowed only in surprise situations). As I wrote in my earlier post, my old campaigns (those I ran and those I played in) never saw the assassination percentages ever rolled, as no assassin PC ever took the time to "plan" an assassination (as specified in the DMG). However, the more I look at it, the more I wonder if this was EVER intended for use by PCs, prior to Gygax's book.

Gygax also makes "Guildmaster" into a 14th level, one only reached through the dueling of a rival, and adds a 15th level ("Grandfather") to lord it over ALL the evil assassins of the AD&D campaign world. This is especially ridiculous in the context of the AD&D assassin class: no assassin player character is REQUIRED to be a member of an assassin guild. And if you ARE a "solo assassin," what's to prevent you from seeking out your own city and starting your own guild? Why must you work your way into someone else's network when you've spent the first 13 levels of your career as an independent operator?

In some ways, it feels like Gygax was basing his assassins guild on the Corleone family of Mario Puzo's Godfather novels. Coppola's first The Godfather film came out in 1972, The Godfather II was releases in 1974. The AD&D Players Handbook has a copyright date of 1978. Could it be that the 15th level "Grandfather" is a Gygaxian substitute for "Godfather?" These movies revolve around the violence and murder of rival crime families, with a single powerful leader (the head of the Corleone family) to whom all others are beholden...unless, of course, they can take him out and assume leadership and the title of "Godfather." Considering EGG's penchant for including literary references and pop culture, such an inspiration for his version of the "assassin" would come as little surprise to me.

Hmm...more on this later.
; )


  1. Was there an assassins guild in Lanhkmar? Or am I just confusing that with the thieves guild in the Fafhrd and Grey Mouser books?

  2. My AD&D group plays assassins as written. They are feared adversaries, rolling on the assassination table whenever they win surprise. Success = automatic death, but failure comes with the considerable consolation prize of automatic weapon damage, usually including poison (save or die). Assassins are great for undermining the sense of invincibility sometimes displayed by high-level D&D characters.

    Back in the '80s, one of my players ran an assassin. He didn't fit in with the rest of the group's rangers and paladins, so it was essentially a one-on-one campaign, where he took assignments from the guild, carefully cased his marks, meticulously planned his hits, and executed them with artistic flair.

  3. @ Desert Scribe: Only a thieves guild as far as I can recall. And while I've read later (post-D&D) books that have assassins guilds, I know of none PRE-D&D that would have been an inspiration for the class.

    @ Brian: What you describe (with your 80s campaign) is, I'd wager, fairly typical of campaigns that attempted to use the rules as written in a pseudo-historic "medieval fantasy" setting. It's about the only way TO work with the class if one assumes the culture is, at heart, "good."

  4. There is an Assassin's Guild in Lankhmar, but that story was published well after AD&D came out.

    The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars, (c) 1983.

  5. There's a "Slayers Brotherhood " mentioned in Deities & Demigods for the Nehwon mythos section.

  6. I always assumed the thief and assassin guilds of both D&D and Lankhmar were irony and/or satire.

  7. @Robert

    I think one could run a thieves guild either as satire or seriously. I don't see them as potentially all that different than gangs, or drug cartels, or crime families, or yakuza, or some medieval craft guilds that were extra pushy about competition.