Let’s talk about assassins. Not the idealistic ones in white (popularized by the shiny ongoing series Assassin’s Creed), lest we get into a conversation about what they were thinking when they decided to make the game about pirates. Nooooooo, the fun kind. The kind that one guy at your D&D table is always wanting to play, but you’ve never let him because assassins are “evil,” as if that concept has any real meaning in a game that’s literally about a group of people who go around to other people’s homes (YES ORCS AND OGRES ARE PEOPLE YOU RACIST) and murder them for their stuff. Oh, no, THAT’S perfectly fine but when somebody wants to add a little necromancy or a few contracts with dark forces or a little regicide to the mix SUDDENLY THEY’RE THE BAD GUY.
Depending on your setting, there might be any number of types who will willingly kill for coin. Bandits, sellswords, mercenary thugs, heck your typical adventuring group is like three of those things, but none of them are usually (usually) played up for the fear and awe they inspire.
Assassins are a different breed.
Used properly, assassins are spoken of in hushed tones and terrified whispers. They can go anywhere. Be anywhere. No target is safe (at least, so the masses believe). And those who don’t believe, well, their foolishness only makes them more vulnerable.
I’m hoping this discussion can be useful for anyone running an RPG, but I’m mainly going to be discussing what I learned about doing assassins right from playing the Dark Brotherhood arc in Skyrim, so here’s your one warning: the following paragraphs will almost definitely include spoilers for Skyrim. If you haven’t played Skyrim, go play Skyrim. Right now. I’ll wait.
I kid. But anyway you were warned.
Unless the players are (for one reason or another) on speaking terms with a particular assassin, they should generally never encounter them directly. All the better to keep the mystery alive. The last thing you want is to suffer from Conservation of Ninjutsu and turn your shadowy killers into cannon fodder. Maybe one of your players is finally getting to play one. Maybe you all are. Maybe that’s an entire campaign idea.
Sorry, I was going somewhere with this. Hang on. Oh, right. Assassins should be rare and mysterious even if someone is playing one.
But they might have heard things. Perhaps they might stumble on the aftermath of a particular assassin’s work. Perhaps they might, if your campaign allows for it, be targeted for recruitment.
The paradox of numbers: or, why there is a guild
Lone killers don’t tend to last long. Unless they have the strength of an organization behind them, or the aid of like-minded and similarly skilled individuals, they inevitably fall prey to law enforcement or revenge killing. A guild fills that role. But at the same time, assassins cannot afford to become too numerous. Only the most skilled are worthy, and dedication to the guild is absolutely imperative. In a way, the guild provides a sense of family and structure as well as direction.
Really it’s just like an adventuring party except with a better base of operations and cooler toys.
A particularly large group of assassins might organize into localized cells with only a few members each. Think somewhere between four and twelve highly skilled and fiercely loyal people. Going up against them isn’t something to be taken lightly, ever. The Dark Brotherhood think of their fellow assassins as family, and we all know how dangerous it is to screw with someone’s family, don’t we?
The single best policy any group of assassins could have is to make it clear to their potential clients that you don’t contact the assassins directly. They contact you. If you need them, they will know.
Example: if you want to contact the Dark Brotherhood, you perform the Black Sacrament, pray to the Night Mother, and should you be deemed worthy an assassin will find their way to you to arrange the contract.
This notion of a ritual is perfect for darker assassins, regardless of setting. Whether the ritual works as described or the assassins have informants who let them know when someone is trying to reach them (neighbors tend to start whispering when you perform dark rituals in your house) isn’t particularly important; what’s important is the people (and the players) should believe it works. Really, the ritual ought to demand a certain level of depravity and commitment to perform; it helps ensure that the clients are serious. After all, law enforcement is unlikely to engage in grave robbery or worse just to catch a group of shadowy killers.
It also suggests a number of alternatives. Perhaps the assassins took refuge on another plane, and the ritual breaks down the barriers enough to let them through. Perhaps they are ghosts, or even demons. Or perhaps they are simply very, very good at faking it.
The Dark Side: Assassins of Any Class
Let’s talk briefly about the sorts of magic an assassin ought to embrace.
In brief; necromancy, illusion, alteration, and restoration. Perhaps even a broader focus on conjuring.
Rare indeed is the assassin who can get by “going loud” with fire, lightning, or the like. Not that it’s taboo; simply that it’s difficult to hide when a bolt of lightning gives away your position every time you use your main attack. Powers that manipulate the mind, causing fear or whispered reassurances or blinding rage? Now, that’s far more useful. A summoned demon elemental or a few skeletons can distract foes while you slip in from behind, but a well-placed illusion might do the job just as well.
Meanwhile, respected members of the Dark Brotherhood gain the ability to call the spirits of past members back into service. Spooky, and fun. If you can’t make an entire encounter out of that idea I don’t know how to help you.
Assassins, as a group, are very practical. You can argue all you want about the morality of borrowing somebody’s corpse for a job, but it’s not as if they were using it anymore.
I guess what I’m saying here is
Embrace the freaking taboo. Get yourself a shadowy organization running in the background and if you’re feeling really brave, let one of your players sign on. Just don’t cheapen them. If you’re doing it right, a few assassins can be a way-scarier enemy than any lich, and as an added bonus a super fun diversion for a player. -Well, as long as he’s not secretly planning to murder the party while they sleep, because that just isn’t fun. Or cool. Or okay. At all.
Tune in next time for a special I like to call “Paladins on Trial: Detect Evil is Inadmissible in Court.” Unless I forget to write it. Which is a real possibility these days.