How do you handle assassin services in your campaigns? This situation offers you an opportunity to enrich your campaign and world through interesting encounters and possibilities.
In this excerpt from Assassin’s Amulet – my upcoming essential GM Toolbook – I reveal the gaming potential of contacting and hiring assassins in your campaigns.
This is a game world decision you need to make to suit your desired campaign atmosphere and gameplay style. You have two contact options and two hiring options.
A) Assassins do open business. They are easy to contact.
B) Assassins are secretive and difficult to contact.
A) Assassins have easy contractual terms and are easy to hire. Often it is just a matter of money.
B) Assassins are choosy about what clients or targets they accept, and are difficult to hire.
The A options put assassin employ at the easy end of the spectrum, and the B options put assassins in your game at the rare or difficult end of the spectrum. You are free to make the requirements fall somewhere in between or lie at the extreme end.
For example, assassins might have a guild and front themselves with a pasta restaurant. This makes them easy to contact once the PCs gather a bit of information and learn about this place and its nature. However, during a meeting the PCs learn only evil targets are accepted, and their chosen victim is neutral. You might allow some negotiation to take place and let the assassins break their rules, but overall the hiring process is difficult.
Open and accessible assassination makes it common and frequent. Decide if you want this theme in your world. It also means assassination encounters will be more common in your campaign, especially if the PCs earn enemies willing to take a contract out on them.
If you want a one-encounter, or to have assassins play a minor role in your game, make them difficult to contact and hire. Put a number of barriers and requirements in place so it is logical that assassination happens rarely, occurs in the background in your world and is unlikely to trigger against the PCs.
Organization or Freelancers?
Also, consider whether assassins operate as a group or individuals. Perhaps you have both modes in your game because each creates fun gameplay and world development opportunities.
In the freelance environment, there will be famous assassins who charge a lot more than the amateurs. This environment of notable NPCs oozes with flavor. However, it is a dangerous game because no guild or organization with great resources will protect freelancers from assassin-hunters and other threats.
An organization of assassins gives you great campaign options as well. Run like any other faction, with a leader, goals, enemies and resources, you have a wonderful source of plot hooks and NPC inspiration.
There is no reason you cannot do both in your game, as well.
For example, in a recent campaign of Johnn’s, assassins operated as freelancers. Being individuals, there was a range of access, hiring and quality options. The freelancers had reputations ranging from thug who rendered fast and brutal service to a mysterious and elite individual known only as The Rain Dancer who only existed in rumours and legend. In addition, a group of mages formed a shadow guild leveraging a demonic ally who gave them access to shadow demons to do their dirty work. He used a draft of Assassin’s Amulet for their base and way of operations.
Create Layers of Contact
Put up various contact barriers to weed out law enforcement, enemies and non-serious enquiries. Do this via layers of contact. The pasta restaurant, for example, might be an intermediary in all transactions. The owner meets with clients and ferries messages and payment between the assassins’ guild and clients. What the restaurateur does not know is his contact is just another layer, and not a member of the actual guild. The contact watches the restaurant ongoing to ensure the owner is not betraying the guild, shaving payments or causing problems. The guild is protected because it can eliminate either contact to stop anyone from tracking the guild down.
Individuals might also employ agents and screens to keep distance for self-protection. Perhaps a private investigator has a way to make contact with one or two assassins when his clients want that type of service. A great hook might be an Urban Ranger insinuates himself as an agent so he can work out details of the guild and possibly strike its top members when the time is right.
The Tone of Contact
While the preceding paragraphs detail the mechanics of contacting assassins, you should try to maintain the proper tone of the contact. Smoke and mirrors, shadows and shadowy figures—these should be maintained at all times. The assassins will not negotiate, either; they will either operate on a fixed price high enough to fund the occasional mission with extraordinary requirements, or they will separate the process of commissioning an assassination with the process of setting a fee appropriate to the difficulty of the mission.
The second approach is unusual because it more than doubles the exposure of the assassins, but sufficient creativity on your part should make it plausible. It also runs the risk of the assassins alerting the target in the course of the investigations used to set a price on the assignment.
Obtaining knowledge of the target and his defenses before setting a cost compensates for these hazards, as does the opportunity to refuse a contract fully informed.
Arranging the payment poses the third risk. Again, this step can either be separate and carried out only after the mission is complete—which exposes the assassins to customers unable or unwilling to pay, and all manner of other such troubles—or it can be incorporated into another step. Perhaps an estimated price is nominated when the target is first named and the final price when the contract is accepted.
GMs should be careful to put themselves into the assassin’s shoes when contemplating these arrangements. Think about what they need, what they can afford to have publicly known about the way they work and how much they would charge.
Application to Assassin’s Amulet
If you use the background material built into Assassin’s Amulet, much of the decision-making discussed in previous sections has been done for you. The assassins are somewhat secretive, they have a formal organizational structure and they usually operate in small teams from one or more central locations. At the same time, they are not especially discriminating when it comes to targets, provided their price is met, but the organization as outlined in these pages has substantial overheads, so those fees would be relatively pricy.
Remember that the contracts accepted by the Hands of Cyrene serve multiple purposes for the organization. The fees not only fund it, they also provide training and experience to the assassins, and they camouflage the contracts the Hands undertake in pursuit of their primary mission.
Two competing considerations come into play due to guild pricing of its services.
If they charge higher fees:
- Fewer outside contracts will be acceptable to both guild and customer
- The guild will attract less trouble from established authorities
- The assassins will be less skilled
- The Hands of Cyrene will have fewer resources for the pursuit of their primary mission
- Assassins will be relatively few in number
If they charge lower fees:
- Assassination services will be more available
- More customers can afford their services
- The organization can grow larger
- The organization will attract more trouble
- Assassins will be more skilled
- The Hands of Cyrene can devote more resources to their primary mission
Ultimately, the price assassins charge should be a reflection of how large a role you want the Hands of Cyrene to play in your campaign. The smaller that role, the smaller the organization, and the more they should charge. The larger the role, the larger the organization, and the more affordable their services should be.
This same logic dictates the solutions to other questions posed here. If the organization is widespread and takes on many contracts, the less they need to allow for the expense of completing any specific contract, and the more likely they are to simplify their problems by charging a fixed rate. Their security increases as a result, which is fortunate because of the increased trouble they will face from authorities. The more contracts they take on, the less secretive their existence is—if no one knows your organization exists, how can they use your services?
This one decision drives just about every other choice you have to make concerning the integration of the Hands of Cyrene into your campaign. Make it carefully and you are assured the best possible opportunity to integrate the Hands of Cyrene into your campaign.