Thursday, August 1, 2013

Making a Killing

The assassin class was one of the innovations in Supplement II: Blackmoor, and hails more or less (there is some difficulty with who wrote what in the supplement; its editor, Tim Kask, has said that the assassin material was revised) from Dave Arneson's work. There has been ample objection to this class over the years, and it was used in 1e AD&D but excluded from 2e with the concept that an assassin is not a true "class" function. By that measure, a thief shouldn't be either; neither stealing nor killing is a pure class. Similarly, it is pointed out that assassins aren't heroic; again the thief speaks against ideals of pure heroism. Both are breaking major moral and ethical rules as a way to make a living. So none of the arguments against them really wash for me.

The assassin character type adds to the game a built-in structure, the Assassins Guild. This lasted into 1e, but was made optional for PC assassins; in Blackmoor they are all guild members, PCs included. It also makes the fascinating observation that assassins are neutral, whereas AD&D stuck them firmly in the "Evil" side of its alignment matrix. That certainly colors your Blackmoorish neutrality and chaos differently, I think, considering that thieves can be neutral or chaotic, and hired by lawfuls. It also works in terms of insulating assassins from either "side" when viewing law vs chaos as a fight with two sides instead of a grand ethical dilemma. Assassins are for hire and don't take sides.

An assassin's guild was part of Fritz Leiber's Lankhmar, built into the "Slayer's Brotherhood." This certainly seems much closer to the concept of the Blackmoor assassin than the somewhat muddled accounts of Islamic killers in various medieval sources. It has little basis in reality, but presents a fantasy setting with a very distinctly grey sense of morals. The mere existence of an assassin's guild means that society, tacitly or openly, accepts its existence.

Blackmoor introduced levels that require you to fight a superior, both for monks and assassins. With monks fights aren't necessarily to the death; with assassins they are. A Guildmaster assassin got there by killing his predecessor, period. AD&D added to this the Grandfather of Assassins, a level above that again can only be reached by more murdering. Too many assassins reaching higher levels automatically spells trouble, and a whole high-level campaign could be waged simply around a PC as a Guildmaster Assassin.

What is really interesting to me is the question of the assassin in a dungeon crawl campaign. Having an assassin PC seems like an invitation to basically switch over to a city-based campaign. But assassins are low-functioning thieves (2 levels lower than the already paltry thief numbers) per Blackmoor, and will be skilled poisoners as well. Consider - instead of the traditional "hack through the opponents" mission, an assassin PC could really thrive in a "faction dungeon," getting hired (with the available treasure) to take out assassinations on all the leader-types of different monster factions. It really puts the normal dungeon crawl on its head, but I think it's a fascinating possibility, even for solo play.

A final tidbit that I think wasn't followed up well enough appears in the Blackmoor assassin write-up: "Details of poison types will be handled in some future supplement when alchemists are fully covered." There's a bit more in the Dungeon Masters Guide, but doesn't really give us that full treatment I would like to see.


  1. The major influence that you've missed on Blackmoor, and notably on assassins, is the red-headed step-child of influences on D&D -- notably, the Gor novels by John Norman.

    While there are certainly aspects of assassins that developed from Lankhmar, the overarching idea developed from the assassins of Gor, where they were mercenary slayers of men, not warriors of an honorable caste... Dave was obviously a fan of the early Gor novels.

    1. Yes, I've heard about the Gorean influences on Arneson. I'm not familiar with the books aside from their reputation (i.e. the sex slavery stuff) and so didn't feel comfortable commenting on them. I'm not aware of an assassin's guild in Gor, and as far as I know that particular idea's pedigree seems to lie with Leiber.

  2. Always felt that the Thief's Backstab was a sufficiently high-damage surprise attack that the Assassination table was unnecessary. It also uses the existing HP system, which means a low-level Thief probably can't auto-kill a high-level victim unless the Thief rolls maximum damage and the victim rolls low HP, etc. It's already built in. If anything, tweak the Thief into an Assassin by giving him -2 levels in Thief skills but +2 levels for Backstab.

    The Assassin's other abilities like Disguise and Poisoning should be percentage skills like with the Thief. Successful Poisoning of a weapon or drink gives the victim -4 to save (although a weak poison would give +4, and a strong one no modifier, and of course the different poisons have varying levels of effect on a failed save just like in the 1E DMG). I'd just use the Hide in Shadows chance for Disguise and the Pickpocket chance for Poisoning.

    Or go the 2E route with Thief skills (which I prefer) where you start with base chances and allocate skill points as you level up. The Thief could have access to Disguise and Poison abilities as above. Backstab would offer a multiplier for every 25% you put into it, maximum 100% at a bonus x4 multiplier (which is to say, x5 damage on a backstab). Rather than the percentage actually being rolled against it's just a points-sink that you can specialize in or ignore as you prefer.

    1. @1d30

      Agreed. I think the thief, or perhaps fighter/thief if using multi-classing, adequately covers the assassin archetype (I don't care for the 2E point-buy thief though; too fiddly).

      I'm still looking for poison mechanics that I like and that also give thief-types some benefit in using poison over characters of other classes.

  3. Many view the assassin as a gimped thief. They forget about the assassination tables that give the assassin a one shot kill capability on any surprise attack. Even if it misses the assassin will do double damage. The removal of the assassin as a class in 2e was one of many reasons I never warmed up to that system. This from a guy who likes to play paladins.

    1. I think (but it's been a bit since I read the book) the Assassin needs to declare whether the attack will be a Backstab or an Assassinate.

      If it's a backstab, he rolls to hit and if it hits he multiplies damage.

      If it's Assassinate, he rolls to hit, and if hits rolls on the big kill table, and if the kill percentage fails it's just a regular attack.

      So the attacker needs to decide whether the chance at an instant kill is worth it or he just goes Backstab for the high damage. Generally I would think if the Assassin is attacking an injured target he should Backstab. If he's attacking a target that he has 60-70% chance to kill but who has enough HD to withstand the Backstab - does he want the guaranteed high damage which makes a finisher easier, or the "kill or low damage" binary outcome of the Assassinate table?

      Also the Assassin or Thief, since he attacks from ambush or stealth, should incur a 4 in 6 chance to surprise (as with Invisible attackers and Elves sneaking, and the best chance for all except I believe a single Giant Spider which can surprise 5 in 6 - but am probably wrong). The victim will probably be surprised for at least 1 segment, meaning the attacker gets at least one extra free shot against a No Dex target. But he might be surprised for 4 segments, meaning 4 attacks. Thus it's possible for an Assassin to get the jump on a pair of guards and silence them both before they have a chance to cry out ...

      I'm not sure, but I think the 1E Backstab / Assassinate rules state you need surprise to backstab / assassinate. In this case, a surprise roll of 4 on d6 is a death sentence. Might need to check the DMG (as usual for 1E).

  4. (Crossposted from G+)
    A friend and I came up with the theory that a primary feature of monks and assasins was for NPCs: Assassins are there to be hired (by or against the PCs) and monks are to make it so the PCs consider whether an unarmed NPC is really worth picking a fight with.

    I'd have to ask him what else we came up with as this was a couple months ago. Another thing to note of Blackmoor is the sheer number of monsters that have no treasure, possibly introduced to provide more risk in the game: Beetles and such are all-risk with very little reward.

    There's also Giant Otters and Giant Beavers: Both are Intelligent, and Giant Beavers can be traded and bartered with! Giant Otters mess with travel and mounts, scaring horses and overturning boats and wagons, even though they only attack when defending their young. Both are also worth a lot for their pelts. Giant Otters however, can can lead a chase around the dungeon without springing any traps (though the PCs may) while the Beavers will "sound the alarm" and rally as a militia!

    I think it's important to not just look at the literary inspiration for OD&D, but also the wargamer side.

    1. That's true - but at the same time, Arneson also intended the Sage to be a playable class and was over-ruled, possibly by Tim Kask or someone else at TSR. So I think the assassin was probably playable.

      Also - remember the size and scope of the Blackmoor campaign. Someone could've run an assassin as a "side" character, not everybody in Blackmoor was part of a static party of allied adventurers.

    2. How about Druids? Weren't they originally NPC enemy-types? This might be a complete delusion of course ... better check all my rings.

    3. Yes, druids were first NPCs in Greyhawk (using both M-U and cleric spells), and then fleshed out as a class in Eldritch Wizardry.

  5. Actually, I always wondered if the exclusion from 2E AD&D of the Assassin really was mativated by morality concerns.
    Maybe to much people considered the Assassination tables too much of a "game breaker" back then.


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