Sunday, May 16, 2010

On Assassins

The assassin is a tough one. I won't deny that the main reason I used it is nostalgia. That being said, I did my best to make it a useful and hopefully enjoyable class. I think there are two main problems with the assassin class. The first is that the assassin really doesn't fit well into the "dungeon" environment. Assassins should be plying their trade in the homes of fat merchants or in the castles of the local lord or even in the alleys and side streets of a city-state, but not really in a mythic underworld. I suppose someone might hire an assassin to take out a major power in a mythic underworld (that might make a good fantasy story, in fact), but will they do it over and over again? The whole point of dungeon delving is power, whether via gold pieces, magic items or hidden knowledge. Assassins have their own path to power, and I don't think it usually goes through dank caverns and trap-laden corridors beneath the earth.

Problem number two is "assassination" boiled down to a single roll of the dice. In C&C it is a death attack - observe for a few rounds, attack, victim saves or dies. How anti-climactic can you get? And what happens when the Ref starts setting groups of assassins on the PC's? Big damage with a single attack seems to already exist in most systems with the thief's back stab, so why an assassin?

Despite all of this, I was determined to take a shot at creating an assassin class. The first step was looking for an archetype. If you're doing a barbarian, you look to Conan. If you're doing a ranger, you look to Davy Crockett or Aragorn. So who is the archetypal assassin who is a main character in a story? The character that immediately springs to my mind is Bond. James Bond.

In Bond you have a stealthy, deadly (license to kill) errand boy who solves problems. Once you latch on to a spy as an archetype, you also need to look at the history of spies and assassins in the pre-modern eras that fantasy gaming encompasses. You have the Elizabethan spy ring of Sir Francis Walsingham (pictured to the right), the ninjas of feudal Japan, the poisoners of Renaissance Italy, and many others. Taking these influences together, and leaning on previous versions of the assassin in D&D-style games, I came up with this ...

What follows is Open Game Content

The assassin is a sub-class of thief that specializes in stealthy killings for a fee. They are commonly used as spies, and most major city-states have at least one or two spy rings from rival city-states in operation. Like thieves, assassins are useful as scouts. Their skills are not as wide-ranging as thieves, but they are more effective as combatants.

Prime Attribute: Dexterity, 13+ (+5% experience)

Hit Dice: 1d6+1 (Gains 2 hp/level after 9th level.)

Armor/Shield Permitted: Leather and shields.

Weapons Permitted: Any.

Cheat Death (1st): Assassins have an uncanny ability to escape certain doom. Assassins enjoy a +1 bonus to saving throws vs. death. Skilled escape artists, assassins use saving throws to wriggle out of non-magical ropes or chains, and they have a 1 in 6 chance to escape from magical bindings, like magical ropes or chains or spells like hold person or paralysis.

Decipher Script (1st): Assassins can decipher writings by making a successful saving throw. This includes unfamiliar languages, codes and incomplete messages.

Disguise (1st): Assassins train as thespians and masters of disguise. Assassins usually carry some odds and ends (soot, putty, rags for stuffing) that allow them impersonate others. The assassin's diguises are usually effective on a roll of 1-4 on 1d6, provided the assassin is impersonating a person of the same race and gender. Impersonating another humanoid race lowers his chances by one, and impersonating another gender also lowers his chances by one. Impersonating a monstrous race lowers his chances by two. Even if the disguise is effective, those who know the impersonated person well receive a saving throw to see through the rouse.

Sneak Attack (1st): If an assassin takes an opponent by surprise (i.e. in a surprise round or simply attacking someone in a "non-combat" situation) or by attacking from the shadows, an assassin attacks at a +4 bonus to hit. A successful hit inflicts double normal damage. As the assassin gains experience, the damage inflicted increases. At fifth level, a sneak attack deals triple damage, and at ninth level a sneak attack inflicts quadruple damage.

Stealth (1st): Assassins have the following special abilities: Hiding in shadows, moving silently, climbing sheer surfaces, picking pockets (and other acts of legerdemain) and picking locks (with a set of burglar's tools, which cost 25 gp). Use of these abilities requires the assassin to succeed at a saving throw (in essence, making a saving throw to avoid failure). Non-assassins have a 1 in 6 chance of successfully performing these abilities.

Hiding in Shadows: Hiding in shadows requires shadows, of course, and is as effective as the invisibility spell, except that the thief cannot move while hiding in shadows.

Moving Silently: This means moving without making any sound at all. A thief moving silently and scouting ahead of a party can avoid an encounter entirely if his opponents are surprised.

Climb Sheer Surfaces: This means surfaces with no, or almost no, hand or toe holds. The Referee might require multiple saving throws for long climbs, and might regard failure as merely "no progress" or actual falling.

Poison (1st): Assassins are well practiced at using poisons, and have no chance of poisoning themselves when applying it weapons or slipping it in food and drink. Assassins can identify poisons on a roll of 1-3 on 1d6 and neutralize most poisons on a roll of 1 on 1d6, provided they have some herbs and other chemical agents on their person (a supply of 10 uses of these items costs 25 gp and can be obtained from most alchemists or herbalists).

Finally, an assassin can use these same herbs and agents to produce poisons of their own. At level 1, assassins know how to brew sleeping draughts and poisons that cause nausea (-2 penalty to all rolls). These simple poisons last one hour, and victims receive a saving throw to avoid the effects. These simple poisons can be applied to an assassin's weapons as a sticky paste. They cost 50 gp to make and take 1 day to brew a single use.

By level 3, an assassin has learned to make more potent poisons that can either inflict 1d6 points of damage for every three levels an assassin has attained (i.e. 1d6 at level 3, 2d6 at level 6, 3d6 at level 9 and so on) or that cause paralysis for 10 minutes. Again, saving throws are allowed. These poisons can be applied to an assassin's weapons as a sticky paste. They cost 250 gp to brew and take 1 day to brew a single use.

At level 9, assassins learn how to make a potion of poison that forces imbibers to save or die instantly. This poison cannot be applied to weapons. It costs 1,000 gp to brew and takes 1 day to brew a single use.

LevelExperienceHit DiceAttackSaveTitle
9200,0009+47Master Assassin
10320,000+2 hp+56Master Assassin
11440,000+4 hp+55Master Assassin
12560,000+6 hp+64Master Assassin


Well, I'm heading off to Chicago tomorrow for a research conference, so I won't be updating the blog for a few days. I hope by Thursday or Friday to finish and post my first downloadable "issue" of NOD, collecting most of the April posts. Until then ...

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