How to Contact and Hire an Assassin

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0529

A Brief Word from Johnn

Assassin’s Amulet Discount Ends Very Soon

Just a reminder that, when my new book – Assassin’s Amulet – comes out in October, I will offer people who sign up for the early bird notice an exclusive discount on the book.

You will receive a special code by email you can use during checkout.

This is only for Roleplaying Tips readers. It’s one small way to thank you for choosing to read this newsletter.

Sign up here to receive the discount code:

Riddleport Season 2 Opens with Carnage

I saved the Season One ender session report for this issue. We just played the first session of Season Two last week, and I will update you soon on how the PCs’ arena battle with their dragon spawn enemies went.

There was much carnage. I even wore my Killer DM hat. It’s great to be GMing again after a summer hiatus.

How to Contact and Hire an Assassin

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.

Begin Excerpt:

Assassin's Amulet cover

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.

Contact 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.

Hiring Options

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.

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Riddleport Session 23 – Dragonspawn Bitchslap

For the first time, the PCs deliver a major blow to a faction in the city, and they do it on purpose. ‘Till now, the group has been reacting to things happening to them and around them.

Things were different this time. They had a goal, made a plan and executed it as a team. Unfortunately, their chosen enemy had a few surprises in store for them.

Calistril 27, 4708AR

The Chalice Bastards, as the PCs are called by the locals, head back to the recently discovered caves under the city. They return to the harem-like chamber to confront the short, turban-topped man they encountered before.

The PCs wanted answers. The bad news: the man is gone. The good news: his harem isn’t. The characters use all their charm and guile to weasel information from the ladies and learn the man’s name is Epherion and that he is a smuggler lord.

Then the PCs learn that one of the girls is actually Felicia, Gaston Cromarchy’s daughter. Gaston is Riddleport’s leader. The PCs ponder over the implications of this as they return to their inn. Gang Duties

Vigor and Crixus speak with Rictus (their vampiric patron) trading the info gleaned from the caves for their weekly payment. Rictus agrees to forgo another payment if Epherion is killed.

The PCS also sell Rictus the Rod of Lordly Might found as treasure awhile ago. Back when they were first level, I’m sure none of the characters in their wildest dreams thought they’d ever give up an item like this willingly. But their current debts and obligations weigh heavy.

The rest of the party goes to see why Wren is late with their fence money, only to find her dismembered in her apartment. The group investigates the grisly scene and find a note written in blood by her hand that says “Saul.”

Further investigation and NPC interaction ensues. The group learns Epherion is staying at a nunnery of Shelyn, which also happens to be HQ for the drow faction. Rictus tells them their top priority is to find Iggwilv’s Prize in the caverns.

We Challenge You

With most of the session spent exploring and roleplaying, there’s time left for one encounter. We decide to play a bit late to fit it in.

Long story short, Vigor the paladin picked up a negative level a few sessions ago. When he asked for relief from his church, they said if he killed the dragon spawn leader, Akiku, his glory would be restored.

So, the PCs concoct a plan to whack the faction leader. They do some investigation and learn he would be susceptible to a personal challenge from Rictus, lord to lord, to an arena match between their champions.

The PCs arrange this and plan an ambush for Akiku as he travels with his entourage to the arena for the noon spectacle.


The Bastards open up with an ambush in the streets – a retinue of dragon spawn pass by and Akiku follows five minutes behind with four dragon spawn animals as an escort. He is slain quickly, his corpse illusion to look like a covered wagon, and is then dragged back to the inn for “processing” by the PCs.

The paladin’s glory returns and the PCs quickly gear up for their arena battle. Though the leader is dead, honor compels them to complete the challenge against the dragon spawn champion. The session ends as the PCs grimly head to the fight.

Post-Game Analysis

This session played in late June and ended Season One of the campaign.

We have a brief discussion at the end of the session. The players are frustrated by the lack of party cohesion and purpose.

In a previous RPT issue I talked about there being good stress from challenging play and bad stress from poor GMing, campaign structure or gameplay element.

While the players love the content of the campaign – survival in an evil pirate city factioned-up by eight crime lords and their monstrous allies – they dislike the constant party friction from all the personal side plots and different directions everybody wants to go.

In my mind the irony is that, in a campaign with freedom to do whatever they want, the PCs choose to disagree. 🙂

However, the problem is my fault for not working with the group on more integrated backgrounds from the beginning, with mutual and multiple goals for the PCs to pursue as a group.

Further, in this campaign I’m holding the cards close to my chest. I want the PCs to work at gathering information and untangling all the faction and NPC relationships and plots.

However, in a group of six PCs where each has their own circle of NPC contacts, side plots and goals, it’s difficult achieving the unity needed to successfully interact with NPCs. When it takes a lot of party discussion to decide which NPCs, locations or clues to investigate next, gameplay slows.

That structure is my fault. Plus, I’m also paying for not spending more time before campaign start designing various game elements, such as key NPCs and locations. In a sandbox campaign, it’s essential to do a certain amount of prep so you can lead the PCs better with clues and information if they get stuck.

We ended Season One with great feedback and keen interest to resume play in the fall, but with a slightly different campaign structure to keep gameplay rolling along fast and furious.

Resources Used

No new GM aids or tools used this time. Primarily the 1st edition AD&D module, Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth, Monster Manual V for the dragonspawn, and Pathfinder Core Rules. Oh, and my lucky dice, of course.

GM Advice

I’m very glad the players had their heart-to-heart with me. It’s important everybody has fun. Our discussion revealed the game needs to change a bit for the return of maximum fun to Riddleport.

So, I encourage you to stay open to player feedback:

  • Ask for it often
  • Best time to get it is after a session while details are still fresh
  • Do not get defensive or take things personally (probably the hardest thing to do)
  • Repeat feedback back to your group to make sure you understand what they’re telling you
  • Act on it, but make small tweaks over time instead of sweeping changes all at once
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How-To Game Master Books

In addition to doing this newsletter, I have written several GMing books to inspire your games and make GMing easier and more fun:

NPC Essentials

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Filling the Empty Chair

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Inns, Taverns, and Restaurants

How to design, map, and GM fresh encounters for RPG’s most popular locales. Includes campaign and NPC advice, plus several generators and tables:

Adventure Essentials: Holidays

Advice and tips for designing compelling holidays that not only expand your game world but provide endless natural encounter, adventure, and campaign hooks.

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One More Tip

GMing A Western RPG

From Jeremy

Avoid setting the game too late. The urge is to make sure your heroes have repeating rifles and good revolvers, but a lot of the “real” wild west happens between 1850 and 1880.

Too early and there’s no one much to interact with, too late, and the place is too civilized.

I think roleplaying how the hero gets into the west is important too. Most people started out as tenderfoots of one sort or another.

For the first few adventures, having a home base – a fort, town or trading post – is important as a point for generating adventures and ideas and interactions.

There’s a lot of good resources online. The PBS series The West generated a Wild West timeline that is exceptionally good.

There’s also a site Legends of the Old West with a lot of good information.

One idea I had for a western campaign, and one I still think would be a good one, would be to begin the campaign during the Jayhawk War in 1858-1859 along the Missouri Kansas border.

Have the characters take sides, then go through the civil war (more of it was fought in the west than most people realize) and then go on after the war. There’s a lot of good material there.

Just after the war you have the Intercontinental rail lines finishing, indian wars with the Lakota, Cheyenne, Arapaho, Ciowa, and others, and huge mining booms in Nevada, Colorado. Later, in the Dakotas and Montana, the beginnings of the old cattle driving trails.

The main thing with a western game, and the thing I’ve run up against repeatedly while trying to run one, is to avoid getting so caught up in historical issues that you lose sight of the important factor: it’s a game.

Your players don’t know when most of this stuff happened, and even if they do, it’s fiction and therefore you can change history.