Friday, January 27, 2012

The "Magical" Assassin

I have this fantasy where I have time to post something again on this blog - oh wait ... I seem to have time right now!

I want to talk about assassins.

It's true that a lot of campaigns won't allow them.  I know that for some, it's the whole idea of a class dedicated to cold-blooded murder, and the squick related to that ... but for most, I think that's just a convenient excuse for a bigger issue:  players don't know how to run them.

There are certain tropes that have built up over the years in D&D - mostly engendered by young people who did not understand very much about life, or about nuance - and one of the worst of these is that an assassin can simply walk up to someone, anyone, on the street, and 'assassinate' them.  Even worse, there exists the idea that in the middle of combat, when the opponent misses, the player assassin declares, "I assassinate him!"  Whereupon the 14-year-old DM answers, "Roll percentile die!"

This ridiculous scenario is fostered by the belief that assassins don't have much going for them.  They have the same crappy hit points as a thief, they haven't got even the thieving abilities of a thief, they don't fight any better than a thief ... and it takes more X.P. per level to go up.

Jeez.  Why would anyone run an assassin?  Heck, better treat that assassination ability like an instantaneous reloadable magic spell that can be applied all the freaking time.

And that's what happens.

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 are 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?"

Like yes, what I'd really like to do now is have all my players squat motionless around a table while the assassin in the party spends the next four hours carefully hunting down the pre-generated victim, who obviously can't wait to die.  Or, alternately, the five minute episode where the assassin picks up his contract, heads around to the bar where Pick the Needle is known to down drinks, dispatching him with a quick percentile roll before turning up again amidst the party counting his cool 200 g.p.

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?

But heck - I'm known to be biased about such things.

So basically, having gotten rather sick with the assassin schtick, DM's just settle the problem once and for all by denying the existence of assassins as a class.  Sure, people still "assassinate" . . . but without the percentile roll.

My personal feeling is that the percentile roll is fine.  I have no trouble with an imagined assassin having a solid biological understanding of the humanoid body, and being able to take advantage of that with a swift knife thrust, or a garrote, or what you like.  I really don't mind this being a percentage, it's a works-or-not kind of roll.

But there has to be an infrastructure behind that roll that makes sense.  The assassin HAS to surprise the victim - and the assassin HAS to do so at a distance that allows absolutely no time at all.  It doesn't do any good to surprise the victim from seven feet away . . . unless the assassin is running flat out, and if so, a little surgery is going to be a little more difficult.  In films, assassins who go for the throat NEVER miss . . . but in reality they would all the time.  So we're talking adjustments - adjustments for weapons, adjustments for movement, adjustments for all kinds of circumstances.  But I don't think those adjustments are easily managed by a few tables . . . there are too many circumstances.  For myself, I tend to play it so that whenever the assassination set up isn't perfect, the assassination chance is halved, or quartered, depending on how many relevant details there are.

What's perfect?  You're in the shadows; the victim steps out a few feet from you; the victim is distracted by a pocket watch or something in the sky - and you step out and kill him.

Now, if you make that happen as an assassin, I'll give you the experience points for assassination.  But if you blunder around and don't think things through ... well fuck, who does?  I have yet to have a player who really has the cold natured heart necessary to carry forth the process behind the assassination.  I've been hammering on this point for quite a few years and for quite a few years I come up short.  It doesn't really surprise me - on some level, I think that if you have a player at the table able to really think like a killer, you might have to wonder just what you're doing having this person in your house.

Still, that's how the assassin ought to approach it:  "How do I put myself in the right place at the right time to murder that fellow once he is standing right next to me?"  And the removal of obstacles is definitely the point.  That's not as easy as it looks.

Moreover, players cannot 'join' an assassins guild.  All guilds would be based on one high level assassin with followers.  Players cannot, by definition, act as mindless followers for a non-player character . . . it would mean basically accepting that the DM was going to run your character for you.  Therefore, the only assassin's guild the player can 'join' will be the one the player inevitably starts.

Which means, if the players want to have a contract to kill someone (plausible), they're going to have to figure out how to get one from an NPC non-assassin looking for an assassin.  Good luck with that.  I'd love to see a player really figure out how to do that ... it would really take some serious freakin' thinking.  I know as a DM, I'm going to be picking any plan apart for the opportunity to send the guards in and catch the player - it better be a really good plan.

Still, anything's possible.

Inside the party, I can see benefits for the rational thinking assassin.  Someone's harassing the party?  The assassin will take care of it.  That guard's in the way?  The assassin will take care of it.  Three guys are following the party?  The assassin will take care of them.  And so on.  With forethought and planning, always.  Never - absolutely never - by walking up to them, waving hello, and magically assassinating them.


Franz said...

@ Alexis: Well, gee, of course it takes planning...that made it one of the harder "class abilities" to use back in my old AD&D days. I look forward to (hopefully) playing up to your expectations.

The only reason I asked about the assassins guild was to know if there was someone I was beholden to or needed to mind my "p's & q's" about...I wasn't looking for contracts (I believe the PHB specifically states PC assassins do NOT belong to the guild).

However, that's just by way of telling you where MY head is at...I certainly don't disagree with anything in this post.

One question, though (of course): if there's no guild, does that change the whole assassination-to-advance-in-level-requirement? I suppose it would be more suitable to change it to a "create-your-own-guild-to-advance" requirement.

[though I should probably just worry about achieving 2nd level first, huh?]

; )

Alexis said...

Assassination-to-advance always struck me as a silly idea. The druid equivalent, equally silly. My rules have long been that you go up levels just like any other player ... you'll top out at some point, but every class has a top-out point sooner or later.

What this means is that there are quite a number of 'grandfather of assassins' wandering around. Probably every major city, big places with hundreds of thousands of people, probably have one or two.

And yes ... there's quite a number of high level druids, too.

Blaine H. said...

Sorry to hear you have had many a bad run in with assassin players over the years. I have had my own fair share of bad experiences with them but I have had the slightly scary occasion of seeing two excellent assassin players over the years.

You are very much right, they are cold, calculating, and meticulous in their preparations. One was a courtier styled assassin, the player made that assassin the life of the party and often would spend weeks preparing to make her move, often backing off from a plan if something completely unexpected arose. In her off times, she kept the party clear of political problems. The game was a city based campaign so having her take time from her parties to assist the adventuring group wasn't too hard.

The second was much akin to the assassin you detailed in your description. He spent most of his time being the group's eyes and ears in new areas, clearing out problem points that might have slowed the party (usually magistrates and nobles). He was also the party information merchant. His kills were mechanical in their efficiency, always having at least two escape plans and multiple quick disguises of non-magical means on hand in the advent of an unforseen mistake. He even went as far as to only carry non-magical equipment just to even spell casters looking for magic gear.

They were a blast to run for.

Lord Thanatos said...

I never got to play an assassin. Our game now doesn't allow thieves OR assassins. Reading about it though, it just always seemed like a solitary class. Didn't seem like it meshed well with group play. Especially with the amount of planning and detail you talk about to make it interesting, it seems like the game would have to be put on "pause" for a while as the assassin and DM played their game together.

Of course every big city would have it's darker elements, and that would be a ton of fun to put into play. It's just I don't think "real life" assassins go around in a big group. They seem more like the loner type. So in a group, RPG setting, doesn't seem like it would work too well.

JDJarvis said...

The by the book Assasin sure does carry a lot of baggage with it. Like a society with Good lords and heroes that tolerates an established Assassins guild or a neutral one that does so when it gains political power (very unlikely).

I favor Assassins as Thug-cultists who are mostly free to do as they wish until they are called upon to fulfill their destiny. The abilities of the monk class also work better for me as Assassin abilities than does the not quite-a-thief.

Butch said...

What's your thought on monk advancement at higher levels, Alexis? If I recall correctly, that's another class that only allows for one guy (in the world, presumably) to be of a certain level.

Alexis said...

The same. I'm for multiple monks.

Lukas said...

For the record, I pity the sap who has multiple assassins following him. Pair them up with a mage, cleric, druid or bard and I'm sure terrible things could happen. Imagine one setting up the distracted moment, while the other comes up from behind with the knife. Or the amount of befuddling and enhancements the spellcasters can also grant. A group playing smart could definitely work WITH an assassin. Definitely.

Quincy Jones said...

Of course there's a dearth of a competent assassins. Very few players capable of planning and executing a flawless assassination in explicit detail would ever do so. It's almost a given someone like that being highly paranoid; he wouldn't want people to know how he thinks, and he's not going to tip his hand for a game.

You could play with an active serial killer every week and never even know it. He'd probably run a cleric.

kimbo said...

I like your reworking of thief abilities away from pass/fail % rolls. Have you considered doing the same for assassin's skills and related stuff (traps, poisons etc)?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Since I work with AD&D, I don't have much trouble with the various original assassin rules. Anyone, really, can use poison, traps and such are created by thieving skills, and my surprise rules work fine for assassination.

I haven't planned on changing those things because they're fixed and they're not broken.