Monday, February 27, 2012

Assassins - Additional Thoughts

I want to talk some more about the assassin class. Sorry.

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 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, more thing that requires further reflection, I guess.


  1. Assassins are definitely problematic. I like them alot too but as you've covered off they just don't seem to work. I think to work assassins need to scrap that % auto kill thing and take on a more distinct roll. I don't know if you are familiar with the computer game Diablo II,but assassins are a playable class in it. They are dedicated to killing wizards, functioning as an anti- wizard type class. I think that might work in d&d since there are lots of evil wizards/shamans/cultists for them to fight.

    1. The 'specific target' thing is something I considered, but A) isn't generic enough for my purposes and B) sounds too much like a D20 ranger.

  2. A thought comes to me as I was digesting what you have said here. You do raise a point about the assassin class. However, couldn't you look at the "low level" stuff as the assassin paying his dues? That the assassin, along with the fighter, magic-user, etc. are all getting to that point where; the assassin is useful, the fighter can have a few dust-ups with the courtiers, the cleric can make connections and the magic-user can start researching more powerful spells.

    1. 'Paying dues?!' For how long? I'm only halfway to 2nd level after 4 weeks...the magic-user has at least been able to cast a spell every single session. My character hasn't been able to do shit!

  3. The one version I ran of the assassin class was they were retainers to noble houses and it was passed down within the family. Like butlers, it is a profession passed from father to son. They were trained by the various 'experts' within the house on etiquette, fighting, infiltration, general knowledge and of course a extensive instruction on poisons and how to deliver them.

    It is a specialized campaign, but if you are only running one or two people it can be a lot of fun. Just have to toss the dungeons aside.

  4. The way I see it, the B/X thief IS an assassin. Or rather, what I mean is, the B/X thief can be played as an assassin. I've also toyed around with letting thief players swap out thief/assassin abilities at first level. Meaning, instead of pick pockets, maybe they want a Handle/Create/Identify Poison skill that would take the place of pick pockets. This could be a mechanical way to make a thief more of an assassin, for example.

  5. Hmm... I feel like the ACKS assassin did a pretty good job of hitting your issues with the class. They attack as fighters, but have fewer HP and rogueish armor. They backstab as thieves (and with any weapon), but the only other thief skills they have are hiding in shadows and moving silently. And the percent chance to kill is gone. Mechanically, they're distinct from both fighters and thieves, but they're also useful in a dungeoneering situation as a scout or light fighter.

    1. Yeah, I was going to mention the ACKS assassin if nobody else did. It's basically a B/X fighter/thief, and I think it fits the archetype pretty well.

  6. 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!

    Not even if the assassin can get up near the eye sockets?

    1. The giant would 'see' you the blade's too short to hit the brain through that access way. Sorry.
      ; )

  7. I have them penciled into my game as a prestige class for rogues that like to kill more than they like to steal. They forgo most of the improvements in stealing type skills for improved backstabing skills, learning about poisons etc.

    As for back stab type damage, I rationalize that for monsters as them knowing where the best places to stab are. (cut the hamstrings, get into the spine etc)

    1. No one can be an anatomy expert on ALL monsters; my idea of an assassin is a bit like Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York.

      The prestige class idea isn't a bad one (3rd Ed did that)...but it would be the only such class in my game...and I want a little more consistency.

    2. Oh, well I have healer, paladin, ranger, necromancer, and bard prestige classes also, so it does not stick out for me.

      And of course you can not be an expert on all monsters... that is why you still have to roll to hit. ;)

  8. Interesting post, but I think you're mis-stating what niche protection is. I think it's exactly the same thing you're describing as "redundancy."

    D&D is a great example of a game with niche protection hard-coded in. Want to be a fighter but cast spells and use a magic staff and out-do the Magic-User? Good luck with that, you're hard-coded to not do that stuff. Want to be a chivalric fighter? Aha, cavaliers do that better than you without any downside, which tramples a bit on the fighter's niche - which is an example of not protecting a niche properly.

    You're calling it redundancy, but you exactly the describe the thought process I go through when I write with niche protection in mind - what does this character type do that others do not, and does it make earlier examples less useful if I make it this way? When I wrote ninjas and assassins - yeah, assassins (heh) - up for GURPS Dungeon Fantasy 12, I had to make sure they weren't a) doing things other templates do as their main strength better than those other templates (the assassin doesn't out-fight the fighter types, or out-steal the thief) and b) did something better than anyone else (assassins do the best job sneaking up on stuff to kill it). Why? Because if I fail to do A, I make another character type redundant, and if I fail to do B I make the new character type redundant and useless. Doing either makes choosing the character a bad decision by the player, which means I didn't do a good job as a designer.

    How I prevent that is by defining a niche, and then seeing if the new character can fill another niche that is as-yet undefined yet is useful and fun to play in the game. GURPS lacked a really dedicated "sneak up and kill something" type, although you could make a thief that did it okay if you really tried. So I saw that opening and added something there.

    You seem to call that an issue of redundancy, but I explicitly call that niche protection.

    Otherwise, though, thought-provoking ideas on assassin PCs. I'm a big fan of assassins, although I'll admit there are a lot of issues with how D&D handled them throughout the ages.

    1. Peter - I see I didn't explain my thought very well, but I'm doing a separate post on the subject.
      : )

    2. I'm looking forward to it.

  9. There's nothing to say you can't create "urban" D&D adventures at low levels where an assassin might be useful. I've toyed around with the idea of it myself. The "dungeon" would be the city's sewers, catacombs and water system. Medieval cities are also a good dungeon-like environment with narrow streets and castles. Any number of people might employ an assassin, including criminals and dishonest merchants looking to eliminate competition, not just rulers.

    I agree though, the assassin class begs for a different sort of D&D adventure that lends itself to thieves and assassins where fighters, clerics and magic users are placed in a supporting role, and the focus is more on espionage, intrigue and roleplaying rather than combat.

  10. From a game design perspective, I like Drance's approach the best. Have a pool of skills from the Thief and Assassin (throw in Thief-Acrobat if you like) and let the player pick them a la carte. I'm sure most players would toss picking pockets, but that's because it's useless in most campaigns anyway.

    For our purposes let's call this class a Rogue. There could be some basic rules applicable to all Rogues (backstabbing, weapon/armor limitations, etc.), but it's really more of a customizable class.

    Maybe even, as Rogues level up, they can decide if they want to get better at the skills they already have, or buy new ones. So you could have a 5th level Rogue who has 5th level Climb Walls, 3rd level Hide in Shadows and 1st level Disguise.

    Not D&D? Well, that's why you're doing your own game, right?

    1. @ Butch (& Drance):

      Already doing something like that (with skills), but want two distinct theme classes for this game...a thief and a thug.

  11. Regarding the dumb-dumb premise of the game, you've mentioned before that "nowhere is there anything resembling this premise," but I do know of one very good example.

    It's called Roadside Picnic, and it was originally written in Russian by two brothers, during the Soviet era. The book is basically about the cities that spring up after several D&D-style dungeons appear on Earth overnight, and about the scruffy pillaging thieves who risk their lives and their sanity trying to pulling alien artifacts out of these dungeon-esque Zones. Many of the artifacts have more than one copy, are called swag, have nicknames, and even start being treated as passe by the people who are killing themselves to retrieve them (and by the people who buy them off our little scoundrels.) There are unique artifacts too, and both common and unique hazards, and all of it's very weird. Even the thieves have a class name, stalkers, and it's clear that they get better and better at delving the more they survive it.

    And the thing is, it's not just a good example of the D&D premise in literature; it's a good book period, probably the best piece of Soviet-era Russian science fiction, and certainly one of the best Russian science fiction books ever written.

    1. When was Roadside Picnic written? It sounds like it may have been based on the D&D game itself!

    2. It was written in Russian in 1971, and the first English language edition was published in 1977. So it couldn't have been influenced by D&D, and D&D couldn't have been influenced by it. Maybe it was just a coincidence, or maybe both pairs of authors were reacting to the same ideas and themes in other fantasy literature, which are hard for us to see in retrospect.

  12. Just a few comments about the Cavalier:

    1) It's HD is d10, not d12 (see UA errata in Dragon Magazine)
    2) Weapon of choice is a different thing than Weapon Specialisation (also clarified in UA errata.)
    3) Cavaliers are quite limited in the type of weapons they use, and when they acquire proficiency in them. They almost never use missile weapons.
    4) Cavaliers are limited in the armor they wear. They will ALWAYS choose the "best" armor types, regardless of magic. So, a "simple" plate mail will be favoured over a magical chain+2, say, with all the problems that follow (slower reactions, slower movement etc.)
    5) You can be a Cavalier only if you start with a high social class (randomly rolled.) If not, you start at negative levels as a squire.
    6) Cavaliers advance more slowly than fighters.
    7) There are alignment restrictions.
    8) They will tend to engage the strongest opponents (which can easily result in a dead cavalier.)

    All in all, I find the class's pros and cons balance fairly well, and in my campaigns I have only had very few Cavaliers (even using the special dice rolling method in UA.)