I’ve had a chance to play an assassin now in two recent campaigns: Alexis’s on-line AD&D campaign (short-lived, but I got a few posts in) and Randy’s fairly gonzo LL game (using the AEC rules…we’ve been playing for three or four weeks now). Anyway, having gotten the opportunity I have a few thoughts on the class, pertinent because I want to include “assassin” as a subclass of “thief” in my own version of D&D Mine.
“Problematic.” That’s the main word that comes to mind.
Let’s talk about class for just a moment. D&D is the originator of the “class” character in RPGs…a simple choice that provides one’s imaginary avatar with a suite of in-game abilities based on its definition. “Class” has been used in a variety of different “morphs” since the advent of D&D…you can even see an abstract version of it in the form of “clans” or “blood lines” or “OCCs” or “archetypes” or whatever across a myriad of RPGs.
In D&D, class and level are the main determiners of HOW your character “plays” in the game.
Compare the fighter class with the magic-user class as an easy illustration. The fighter gets a bunch of armor and weapons, a ton of hit points, good attack progression, and multiple attacks at high level. She doesn’t get any other skills or spells or special abilities to speak of. The magic-user has nothing BUT spells…no armor, no real weapons, not even very many hit points. A player that runs his wizard like a warrior will probably be killed very quickly; a player who runs her fighter like a wizard (hanging back and not getting into melee) is not going to be very effective in helping a party overcome its goals.
Okay, so different classes have different roles to fill. I know I’ve talked about this before with regard to the B/X classes. For the most part, it holds true for non-B/X classes as well; that is, that a character’s class determines “role” and thus “style of play.”
For me, in designing a class-based game, I’m not interested in what the current brain trust refers to as “niche protection;” for me, that whole idea is a non-starter (D&D is about being challenged and meeting those challenges, not about worrying whether or not someone’s stepping on your toes. Who gives a shit as long as you’re getting your cut of the treasure? Jeez!). No, my interest as a designer is in variation of game play…does a class give you a way to play the game that is different from other classes? Niche protection is a bunch of BS…redundancy is the REAL killer. Or at least the thing that highlights useless padding.
FOR EXAMPLE: a fighter and cavalier in AD&D are very similar characters…except that the cavalier is better. It rolls D12 for hit points and gradually increases all its physical attributes, plus it gets bonuses to attack rolls with a variety of weapons. Yes, the cavalier has a “code of honor” that it has to follow…but if you were already planning on playing a chivalrous fighter (as some folks do) then why wouldn’t you simply play a cavalier?
The cavalier makes the fighter redundant and obsolete in aid of allowing more power-gaming. That’s not very good design (in my opinion). Sure, cavaliers aren’t available to (most) demihumans as a class option, but for the MAIN species (humans) it’s hard to argue against taking it, simply for the sake of in-game effectiveness. Unless you really, REALLY want to be Chaotic Evil or something (I’ve known one player for whom that was the case).
So let’s talk about the “problematic” assassin.
I like the assassin character. With some work, I think that it IS a valid class of adventurer, rather than a redundant one. Playing an assassin is very different from playing a thief (helped by the absolute lack of thief skills until third level), and very different from playing a fighter (despite the good variety of weapons, the character has no armor and few hit points). It provides a good mix of skills in the form of non-magical disguise (infiltration), the ability to learn languages, and the ability to auto-kill targets (with planning and/or achievement of surprise).
The problem is, the class is almost completely unsuited for the dumb-dumb premise of the game.
The basic premise of D&D is a bunch of roguish looters going exploring for treasure, using their skills to overcome the challenges they encounter along the way. Clerics provide good fighting and support, fighters provide excellent front-line fighting, thieves are skill monkeys that can navigate a number of obstacles, and magic-users can specialize in many areas, depending on their spell selection. Depending on what the characters encounter, a specific character acting in a specific role can come to the fore and help the party to succeed and continue.
But that’s not how the assassin rolls.
An assassin works best with specific objectives involving (duh) infiltration and murder. And their specialized ability to “kill” is (in my games anyway) limited to normal, living humanoid types. I don’t allow the “assassination” of dragons or trolls or aboleths or even hill giants (like the assassin’s dagger is going to penetrate the thick flesh of a giant? No way…you need to cut that kind down with an axe and a lot of attrition!). They’re at their best when they know what they’re up against and can formulate a plan. Wandering around a dank dungeon hoping to surprise an orc is pretty much the opposite of what an assassin is all about. And an otyugh? Forgeddaboutit.
But that’s the bulk of D&D adventures, at least at “low levels.” At higher level, characters have earned a reputation and may be tasked with various missions from dominion rulers…or they’ll be rulers of their own dominions and have their own agendas. But at low levels, they’re still just in the “exploration” phase of their career, looking for some adventure and some quick coin that will advance them. And that type of random/reaction style adventure doesn’t give an assassin any way to exercise his methods. He's left hanging out, trying not to get killed for half a dozen levels.
Sure, you could simply allow a player to start playing with a mid-level assassin (mid-level assassins can function as low-level thieves) to give the character a bit more versatility, but then you get the redundancy problem. Why play a weak thief when you can play a strong thief? Or (assuming a good amount of thief skill in your assassin) why play a thief with thief skills when you can play an assassin with thief skills (and include the capabilities of the assassin as well)?You see the problem?
Now, in a game that features role-playing and political intrigue, the abilities of an assassin, even at low levels is pretty good. But in that type of campaign, fighters and clerics and other adventurers become fairly useless…most fighters aren’t going to be getting into dust-ups with the courtiers on a regular basis (not so much that they need to wear plate armor anyway). And how many undead are going to need turning in the urban environment. Not too many, one would hope (unless you're playing some sort of "medieval World War Z" thing).
No, assassins are pretty much useless in a standard low-level campaign with a standard low-level party. The sad truth of the matter is the BEST targets for assassination are their own party members...which is, of course, a self-defeating idea at best (even if you killed all the other PCs, their replacements would surely string you up by your testicles). For this reason, assassination is about as useful in the game as a thief's "pick pocket" ability...which is to say, not very goddamn useful at all.
So why the hell would one even bother making an assassin character class? Well, I can think of a couple reasons: one so-so and one not-very-good. The "so-so" reason would be that the class fits a very specific campaign setting...perhaps one with heavy intrigue or where fighter types were nerfed or there are no thieves or where adventures are not typically of the "go down the hole looking for loot" variety. Perhaps Blackmoor, as originally conceived by Mr. Arneson, was intended to be such a campaign setting...or perhaps it just sounded like a good idea at the time.
The not-very-good reason is this: you had to make the assassin a class, because the assassination ability had to be measured granularly, i.e. in levels.
For instance, it wasn't enough to say "an assassin is a faceless dude hired to kill people." No...because the people normally targeted for assassination are folks of importance...like high level PCs. And a high level PC can easily shrug off assassination attempts from non-class individuals. So you give the "assassin" an "auto-kill" attack...but it's not fair to give the thug a straight 75% or 50% or even 25% chance of automatically killing someone. I can hear the thought process:
'Well maybe he'd have an 60% chance to kill a 10th level character, but only a 30% chance of killing a 15th level character.'
'Yeah, but what if he's a grand master assassin or something? Shouldn't the Old Man of the Mountain have a better chance to kill even high level characters?'
And thus is born the idea of giving an assassin levels...which necessitates making a once NPC specialist hireling (see the original Little Brown Books) into an actual character class.
Heron, one of my gaming buddies, wrote me an email a ways back, saying something like "well, you DO know the assassin is a useless character, right?" And I'm starting to come around to his way of thinking. Which is too bad since I really like the idea of a clan/cult of assassins. And unlike my B/X Companion version of the assassin (a simple NPC monster), I'd really like to give players the option of playing an assassin. Not because I want them to play evil characters (my version of D&D Mine has alignments, but "evil" isn't on the menu), but because the character class gives an alternate way of playing the game. And variety is a good thing.
Well, that and I dig my version of the character class.
Ah, well...one more thing that requires further reflection, I guess.