Monday, January 30, 2012

Don't Sass an Assassin (Part 3)

What does a AD&D assassin look like?

For me, this is an important question, perhaps THE most important question. Can a member of the assassin class distinguish himself (or herself) from other classifications of adventurer. And if not, why not? Better yet, if not then do you really need such a class?

After all, all adventurers are in the business of "killing folks for money," what we'd commonly call "assassination." Some get there cash by robbing their victims, some claim it as a reward (assassin's fee) from some noble or wizard that hired 'em in a tavern. Often, they get paid from BOTH ends...after all, it's not like the target will be complaining (and the party probably killed all his friends and family when they invaded his cave network lair). Adventurers kill EVERYthing...monsters, humans, demihumans...if it has loot in a locked chest and makes the mistake of living in a hole in the ground, it's simply a matter of time before someone's character comes kicking down the door.

So it's not enough (for me) that when I ask "what niche does the assassin fill in the fantasy milieu?" you say, "well, he kills people for money." They ALL do that, boy-o.

Let's step back for a moment, shall we? What is it that inspires a player to want to PLAY an assassin? Assuming, of course, that the player rolled a Charisma greater than 5 and so is not forced to play an assassin.

The idea of the hired killer is fairly ubiquitous in today's cinema. One doesn't have to stroll very far through the video isle (action section, please) to find many motion picture jewels featuring assassins and "hit men." Ninjas, of course, are popular (Ninja Assassin being perhaps the last film of this type in the theater). You can find the weird assassin movie (Wanted) or the sentimental assassin movie (Mr. and Mrs. Smith) or the Hong Kong action assassin movie (Chow Yun FItalicat in The Killer and others) or French assassin movies (anything with Jean Renau, naturally) or the big budget Hollywood assassin movie (Assassins with Stallone and Banderas) or the stupid direct-to-video assassin movie (Direct Hit with William Forsythe...yes, I have watched it) as well as Oscar-winning movies about assassins (No Country for Old Men).

Hell, there are even geriatric assassin films (here I'm thinking RED, though watching Tommy Lee Jones take on Benito Del Toro in The Hunted might fit the bill as well).

Hired killers, CIA hitmen (gosh, I forgot all the Bourne Identity movies!) and ninjas (the films of the early 80s and the better done 1995 Lambert film, The Hunted)...these are all over the silver screen and DVD store, and the image most folks get when they start thinking about AD&D assassins...or maybe Dwayne Johnson from the first Scorpion King movie (wasn't he supposed to be some sort of "assassin?" I think so).

Me, I get a different cinematic image in my mind: the fat poisoner in the 1994 French film Queen Margot.

Unfortunately, I couldn't find an image of the guy...he was only a minor (if important) character in the film, after all. And at that, his appearance is fairly nondescript, no more unkempt than any other 16th century Parisian, certainly not as "courtly dressed" as others in the palace, portly and middle-aged. He's no ninja, exhibits no "bad ass" attitude, nor does he appear to be any type of hand-to-hand combatant. And he's no cold-eyed sadist either...hell, he's downright jovial with the young ladies, and as interested in an illustrated text (uncommon for the time) as any hobbyist scholar.

But there is no doubt he is an assassin. He has no scruples about sending a younger girl to her death as a living weapon, doing so with total nonchalance. Likewise, it's no skin off his nose to poison a member of the nobility at the behest of his employer...and when he accidentally offs a member of royalty with his weapon of choice he doesn't bat an eye.

THIS is an assassin...not some caricarture twirling his "evil" moustache. Not some guy who talks in a Clint Eastwood whisper and perpetually buried in a shadowy corner. Certainly not some ninja with a black skimask.

A normal enough looking individual, nondescript, easy-going, friendly enough...and no scruples whatsoever when it comes to the task at hand. And that task is the murder of individuals by stealth and subterfuge, for the right price.

In a medieval society, even a fantasy one, you're talking about a person who must be able to work in social circles. Not a person living the loner lifestyle (like Jean Reneau in the Professional). A person without friends and family...without going to stick out like a sore thumb and be picked up by the local constabulary. Or lynched by the rabble if he's protected by the powers-that-be.

Better to hide in plain sight. Better to be an upstanding member of the community. Better to have people whisper about your reputation behind closed doors, but have no proof of your involvement...or be protected from on high against those who do have evidence of your deeds.

I'll make a final post on this subject later today or tomorrow, in which I'll discuss my latest character.
: )


  1. I see where you're coming from. This kind of assassin would work very well in an urbane setting. I do think there is a place for the outlaw hired gun type of assassin also though, especially in a frontier type of game.

    Also, one point about caricatures and twirling mustaches. We have been so accustomed to seeing things ironically that I think it is easy to forget that sometime people want to look scary and evil, because it makes them more effective. Ancient Greeks painted Medusa on their shields. Pirates displayed the skull and crossbones. Football players try to psych out the opposing team. Etc.

  2. The original Assassins or Hashishaya were a warrior cult of Muslims. They were a secret society of religious fanatics who used the drug hashish in their religious rituals. Their supreme leader bore the title "grandfather".