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.