Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Tuned to the Urban: Assassins

Yesterday in the comments section, Lukas asked if there weren't classes who were as tuned to an urban environment as druids and rangers are to the wilderness.

Well, naturally.  Thieves and assassins.

To my mind, cities are divided along two foci ... people and money.  However the manner in which they are associated with the city, both pool in the same place and the problems of a city are the problems of having too many people and those people having too little money (often, just to suit themselves).

Money, obviously, falls into the thief's territory.  On the other hand, where it comes to studying people, watching them, following their patterns and motivations, knowing what to expect of them and where to find them when the time is right, that is certainly the assassin's territory.

Many DMs don't like assassins, and I think the reason is this:

"Lisa, if you don't watch the violence,
you'll never get desensitized to it."
The last thing I have any intention of doing is to Disneify the violence in my world, or the manner of play my players want to indulge in.  I don't care if players become murderers.  I don't care if they want to be Javier Bardem in No Country for Old Men or Peter Kurten.  Yesterday also, jbeltman accused me of being firmly in the 'low fantasy' camp.  He's right, but not in the way he meant.  I don't believe there's any kind of fantasy for which I won't stoop low.

I like assassins.  I don't have many players play them, and usually they're played like a sort of poor, rambling thief who bothers to use their assassination skill every four levels (their choice, not mine), but personally I like having them in my world and I like the way they work.  They make excellent NPCs and they are scary as shit.  Just like real assassins are.

The other day I dug out my copy of Sydney Pollack's Three Days of the Condor, from 1975.  Unfortunately, I couldn't find a decent copy of the scene ... but there dialogue runs like this.  It is late in the film, and the main character Turner is talking to Joubert, the assassin:

   Turner: I'd like to go back to New York.
   Joubert: You have not much future there. It will happen this way. You may be walking. Maybe the first sunny day of the spring. And a car will slow beside you, and a door will open, and someone you know, maybe even trust, will get out of the car. And he will smile, a becoming smile. But he will leave open the door of the car and offer to give you a lift.
   Turner: You seem to understand it all so well. What would you suggest?
   Joubert: Personally, I prefer Europe.
   Turner: Europe?
   Joubert: Yes. Well, the fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation. Someone is always willing to pay.
   Turner: I would find it… tiring.
   Joubert: Oh, no — it's quite restful. It's… almost peaceful. No need to believe in either side, or any side. There is no cause. There's only yourself. The belief is in your own precision.

It's a simple presentation of an assassin who is not a gleeful killer or a nutjob, who is not sexually driven or depressed.  In other words, its a very rare Hollywood presentation.  There are good reasons for that.  Hollywood does not want to present sanity and cool-headedness mixed in with casual murder.  It scares Lisa.

(last night, watching this Ted Talk, in which the speaker earnestly wants to share the shit out of you, there's discussion of one of those scenes from the Bourne movies with forty people in a room packed with screens and computers, tracking the movement of everything on the planet ... except that it is terrorists manning the tools.  We don't see this in a movie because Americans don't want to see three Arabs sitting in a van tracking Bruce Willis using satellites that were privately launched in Sudan.  It's just a little too creepy)

Okay, let's go back to Joubert's character.  I particularly like the line where Turner says, "You seem to understand it so well ..."  To me, this is the crux of the good assassin.  Not the one that flies into the house and slaughters everything, no.  The one that watches the house for days, works out where the target sleeps in the house, what the target eats for breakfast, whether or not the target likes his job or is good at it, etcetera.  And in the larger sense, how the target's street identifies the target and all the target's friends, and how they're going to behave when the target is dead.  In short, how do people relate to each other, how do they function in the world?  In the grand scheme, an assassin ought to be able to stand at a corner, gaze at the crowd and work out which one of them loves his wife.

It's a difficult thing to hammer into a game mechanic.  So I'm willing to be flexible where it comes to the roleplay.  Still, there are things that can be calculated, and most of them come under this Infrastructure idea I've had for about a week now.

It's the assassin who ought to be able to tell you if the people are healthy or not.  It's the assassin who would know who are the toughest guards, or which one ought to be struck first in a fight.  Imagine having a character who can ask you, the DM, "which one has the most hit points?" and getting back an accurate answer, more accurate as the assassin increases in levels.  It is the assassin who would know if a lawyer was honest; or if the king ruled for real or as a puppet; or what the guards were doing when not on their rounds.  Want to find a good, safe inn with the best food?  Ask the assassin.  He or she would know just from looking at the people walking in and out.

To kill people, you have to know people.  You have to watch their little habits, their gestures, their tells.  The thief has his or her eye on the little pouch, and how well the carrier protects it ... but the assassin is watching the carrier's soul, and how well the carrier is protecting THAT.

That's the sort of theft that interests an assassin.


Butch said...

To kill people, you have to know people. You have to watch their little habits, their gestures, their tells. The thief has his or her eye on the little pouch, and how well the carrier protects it ... but the assassin is watching the carrier's soul, and how well the carrier is protecting THAT.

I agree with this, but it also sums up my problem with Assassins and Thieves -- their activities, if played correctly, are not party activities. Studying the target isn't a party activity -- or if it is, you're asking everyone else to be your assistants in your grand game.

I could see a terrific solo adventure with an assassin. Or perhaps as a part of a very specialized urban adventure. (I could see a very interesting and fun campaign of political intrigue and underhanded treachery... "From the drawing rooms of Marseilles to the back alleys of Prague" type of thing... Mission: Impossible set in a medieval setting.)

But if you're not playing that way, what role do Assassins play? Sadly, as you've said, when they're part of a standard dungeon delving party they either play as watered-down thieves or they use their assassinate ability as if it were a Finger of Death spell.

Lukas said...

You're really selling me on having my first henchman an assassin.

Alexis Smolensk said...


It's not rational to see the church as strictly selfishly motivated in the manner you suggest - not supporting massive reconstruction projects would make it vulnerable to secularism. The church would have to use EVERY method to keep its people loving the church. In the real world, the church has not historically gloried in suffering, even though suffering drives people towards the church.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Butch, I've seen you make this argument about assassins before ... and you are SO WRONG. So wrong.

In the very narrow perception of how to apply an assassin that you have - find target, kill target - your argument applies. But that's it. Consider.

Is the captain going to ditch you on the island? Ask the assassin. The assassin has had two weeks to watch the captain. Who on the island should you ask in order to set out on the right road? Give the assassin a morning to make a few inquiries. Are the peasants along the route ready to give information? Have the assassin intimidate a few of them. Local patrol is harassing the party? Have the assassin stare them down, make them realize it isn't worth their while.

In every case, the assassin ENABLES the party. I learned a long time ago, living in highly urban environments, that how I look influences what tables me and my friends sit at, what service we get, whether we're harrassed walking down the street and so on. All group activities, all supported by my willingness to look and act authoritatively and confident.

You've failed to take the logic of knowing people in the full context, and realize how an assassin can pave a route through a market place the way a ranger does through a swamp.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Let me give you another example. The party in the online campaign is about to make landfall on an obscure island in the Aegean, where none of you know anybody.

The cleric will logically attempt to use his pious demeanor to obtain respect. The fighter will expect to be admired. The magic user will apply his intellect to identify what problems need to be solved and how the party might solve them. The monk would logically be reserved, ready to act but having no interpersonal skills.

But an ASSASSIN would take one look at the place, guage it, and tell the party what the people there actually want. What their needs are. From their perspective. The cleric is too much in his own religion, the monk too much involved with contemplation, the mage too clinical, the fighter too aloof.

That's a PARTY-oriented contribution.

When you think assassin, stop thinking squirmy little worm, like in a cheap detective novel. Start thinking criminal social mastermind, like Lucky Luciano or the fictional Moriarity.

Butch said...

Well... if Assassins in your game have the ability to know the intention of an individual or populace, that would be very useful character to have along.

Alexis Smolensk said...

Careful how you misquote me. I didn't say 'intention.' I said need and want. Very different things.

Butch said...

"Is the captain going to ditch you on the island? Ask the assassin. The assassin has had two weeks to watch the captain."

That's not knowing her intention?

Look, I love this idea of the Assassin to the city as the Ranger is to the wilderness, but I'm just poking at the edges here. Are the abilities you're describing are truly Assassin-based talents -- do they have to roll to ascertain someone's needs and wants, for example? -- or are they available to anyone with the inclination, Conflict cards, roleplay ability, and/or Charisma to pull it off?

Alexis Smolensk said...

Holy crap Captain Literal.

Fuck, in language we have something called "connotative meaning." What this means is that, when we are NOT making laws, and we are merely trying to get across ideas, as language was designed to do, we don't automatically ascribe the most literal meaning to every group of words. We think, conjecture, "what would the speaker actually mean when the speaker says this?"

Do you really, honestly, in your heart of hearts, think what I meant was that the assassin would be able to read the captain's mind? Was that really, honestly, your best intepretation of that statement, or are you just being a tremendous prick to put me on my back, as you say, "poking around the edges."

What I mean is, the assassin can make a rational, useful guess as to the Captain's personality, and reasonably ascertain that the captain is not the sort to ditch a party and break a contract, while at the same time there has been evidence to suggest that the captain's interest in the island is more than just curiousity, but that she seems to be taking note and asking questions about a possible opportunity for her, which she would be losing if she ditched the party. Thus, taking flight without warning doesn't seem to be in captain's nature, in the assassin's opinion.

Holy shit. This is type. Am I going to have to describe everything down to the stupidest minutia just in case you might happen to think the assassin knew what the captain planned to do the very next minute all day long? Cause that is going to waste a fuck of a lot of my time.

Matthew Mantel said...

Hollywood does do a good job of portraying the assassin. The first that comes to mind is the assassin from Day of the Jackel. I don't recall the titles but there was a rash of "hitman movies" from the late 60's and early 70's. Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog also seemed sane.

YagamiFire said...

Alexis, after reading this I must say I am sure I'd enjoy playing an assassin in your world. I dare say (if you'll you're forgive my temerity) that you, in turn, would probably enjoy having me as well. You've hit upon all the high points of why I like assassins. Canny observers. That is their nature. They also wonderfully reward smart play and cleverness. I always hate seeing them played as inelegant, stupid thugs or unimaginative psychopaths...and now, of course, robin hood-esque Creedssassins. If one can't be smart, patient and helpful the assassin class isn't for them.

porphyre77 said...

To kill people, you have to know people. You have to watch their little habits, their gestures, their tells.

That reminded mE of a Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser short story (The Curse of the Smalls and the Stars, in wich two assassins "become" their potential victimes.

Anonymous said...

Before finally deciding upon the monk, the assassin was closely considered as Andrej's first henchman. I've always enjoyed having the calss around and remember you describing a "ken" ability in the original, online Dachau campaign that never really got used much then, as I recall.

YagamiFire said...

I'll also mention that this has really made me realize that you are laying a foundation here that could help with concepts like "Aristocrat" classes that have always fallen flat for lack of anything to do or infect. People of influence and means have always been defined, in large ways, by their ability to interact with and impact infrastructure...and here you are giving them the meat & potatoes they need to actually get stuff done in a tangible, meaningful GAME-RELATED way.

Color me interested.

JB said...

Makes me hanker to play an assassin again...though I might need an actual mechanic like you suggest (my last go was a little obtuse about human nature compared to what you describe).
; )