Using Assassins In Your Games

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0087

  1. The Trouble With Assassins
  2. Figure Out The Rules First
  3. How Will They Affect Your Game World?
  4. Use The Terms Of The Contract As A Roleplaying Opportunity
  5. How An Assassin Can Affect Your Stories
  6. Use A Disguised Character Sheet
  7. Assassin’s Defences
  8. A Good First Impression: My Only Personal Experience Of An Assassin As A Player

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Speed Up Initiative With Index Cards
  2. Idea Generator Technique
  3. Counting Rounds 
  4. Use Careers To Motivate PCs

A Brief Word From Johnn

Game Hunters Forum?

A reader suggested that a Game Hunters forum be added to my site’s forums so people could advertise player/GM wanted ads. Do you think this is a good idea? Are there enough places on the web doing this already? How could this forum be made more useful than the other forums out there?

Any feedback and advice would be appreciated.

Issue Posted In Forum 

I’ve posted this issue in my forums for your feedback, commentary, and tips additions. Feel free to continue sending me private emails, but also use the forum to share your thoughts about this issue with others.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

Roleplaying Games Articles & Reviews

Check out my other Roleplaying Games web site:

In This Week’s Spotlight: “How To Get Honest Feedback From Your Group, Part Two”

Tips and ideas for generating some constructive opinions on game play within your group.

New Product Reviews:

Tome and Blood: A Guidebook to Wizards and Sorcerers
Game Review: Gaming Frontiers Magazine 

Using Assassins In Your Games

The Trouble With Assassins

My experiences so far with assassins have revealed one major problem–one that I feel you must deal with before using them in your campaign: assuming that they have some form of instant or quick kill ability, can they be used against the PCs?It’s a double standard that can wreck everyone’s sense of disbelief during play.

Can PCs be assassinated, after months of hard development work by the player? If not, why? Everybody else in the world seems like fair game, what gives the PCs such special immunity?To make matters worse, PCs often become major targets as they grow in power. Villains and competitors would naturally seek ways to eliminate them and assassins make a good, evil choice.

So, deal with this issue first before introducing them in your game, either just by yourself, or in a discussion with your whole group.

I haven’t found the perfect solution yet, but here are some ideas:

  • Adopt a story-style of GMing where the heroes always prevail–like in the movies, as opposed to a realism/nitty gritty style where the PCs are on a level playing field and fair game (anyone from r.g.f.a or any roleplaying theorists know what these GMing styles are usually called?)
  • Fudge your dice rolls. Alert the PCs before the assassin shoots, or have the assassin miss the first shot
  • Give lots of warning: foreshadowing, clues, an alert from an ally to “watch your back”
  • Use slow assassination methods like poison or curses
  • Provide easier access to save the PC: raise dead or resurrection, a ring of ‘9 lives’

Figure Out The Rules First

It’s a good idea to get a solid grasp of how assassins will operate under your game rules. This will not only prevent “accidents” during the game, such as unintentional PC kills, but it will also determine how your assassins will conduct and roleplay their business in-game.Are there instant kill rules in your game? Learn them and think about how they’ll impact assassins.

For example:

  • The Coup de Grace rules in the D&D 3E Player’s Handbook require a victim to be helpless first
  • The Death Attack ability of the Assassin prestige class in D&D 3E Dungeon Master’s Guide requires the killer to study their victim for 3 rounds before attacking
  • The assassination table in D&D 1st Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide lets assassins instantly kill by making a simple d% roll

Each of the above rules requires a hired killer to operate differently in-game. So, do a little thinking and preparation before introducing them into your game.

How Will They Affect Your Game World?

Have you ever read the Vlad Taltos series by Steven Brust where assassination is no big deal and mostly used as a warning? Compare his assassins to Raymond Feist’s Midkemia books where an assassin turns a whole kingdom upside down with a poisoned crossbow bolt.Give some thought as to how the existence of assassins changes your world:

  • Are they organized into a Guild or several groups? Or do they only operate solo?
  • Are they common or rare?
  • How does law enforcement handle their existence and incidents?
  • Does the average citizen know about and fear them? Or are assassins only used against the powerful?
  • What defence(s) do potential victims have and employ to protect themselves?
  • How much does a job cost the employer/contractor?
  • How does one contact the Guild or an individual operative for a job offer?

In fantasy worlds, at least, I feel that assassins would have to specialize in order to survive. For example, dealing with a magic using victim would require a completely different set of skills than a monstrous NPC victim, or one who lives on another plane. Factor this into your assassin designs as well.

(I highly recommend the Steven Brust and Raymond Feist books for fantasy GMs: )

Use The Terms Of The Contract As A Roleplaying Opportunity

There are many roleplaying opportunities to be had with assassins. One example is to define an unwritten Assassin’s Code of Honour that true professionals stick to:

  • Never divulge the name of your employer
  • You may only have one employer at a time
  • Once you accept a contract you must complete it at all costs
  • You must perform your mission to the letter of the contract, including all special instructions from the employer
  • Leaving a personal ‘calling card’ near the victim is encouraged
  • Non-victims cannot be harmed
  • Women and children are not acceptable targets

This brief list opens up all kinds of opportunities for stories, encounters, NPCs, and roleplaying:

  • The fallen assassin who betrayed the code
  • Employers with creative requests
  • Assassins with unusual calling cards and reputations
  • An assassin is tricked into accepting a contract whose victim is a female PC
  • Background atmosphere, such as newspaper headlines that read ‘Black Rose Killer Strikes Again!’

Be creative with your world, campaign and assassins, and look for roleplaying opportunities around every corner.

How An Assassin Can Affect Your Stories

Hired killers usually make protecting their own hide their first priority and capping their victim their second. This means that most assassins will be cautious–gathering data, learning what they can about their victim, and creating a bulletproof plan that ensures a clean getaway.With this in mind, consider that an assassin can get to know his victim indirectly or directly:

  • Indirectly
    • Research
    • Talking with friends, family, employer, associate
    • Assassin uses his own contact network to uncover info
    • Victim’s bank, doctor, accountant, hairdresser, etc.
  • Directly
    • Observe the victim from a safe distance
    • Directly meet and interact with the victim

These methods can greatly impact your stories and generate good encounter ideas:

  • PC, as the victim, hears stories from different friends and acquaintances about a mysterious stranger asking lots of questions
  • Assassin might hire capable people in the area (i.e. the PCs) to help in the research and the PCs eventually learn the true purpose behind their tasks
  • Roleplay a direct encounter (or several) between an information gathering assassin and his soon-to-be victim (a PC)
  • The assassin needs to know the daily routine of his victim (a PC), which means the GM needs to know the daily routine. So, the players are treated to several mystifying, seemingly mundane encounters focused on ‘a day in the life’ of the PC
  • The assassin decides to befriend his victim (a PC) by hiring thugs to attack the character and then showing up to save the day (killing the thugs in the skirmish to prevent the truth leaking out).

Use A Disguised Character Sheet

When roleplaying the assassin as an active NPC in a story, trick the players by making up a separate “disguise” character sheet to use at the game table. Feel free to even leave it unprotected for curious players to glance at. :)Also, it helps a lot if you don’t think of the NPC as an assassin. Play the NPC just as if his disguise were real. This will help you from accidentally spilling the beans or giving something away unintentionally.

Assassin’s Defences

Depending on what game you’re playing, your assassins might have to take precautions against magic or technology. For example, in D&D, there are spells that can detect evil, know alignment and protect victims from evil. An assassin would learn about these things, as part of his training or experiences, and have counter measures and counter-counter measures.Look through your rule book’s magic item lists or hi-tech equipment lists and search for things that would give an assassin an edge.

Most guilds would specifically seek these items out in the game world and equip their assassins accordingly. Also, most assassins would funnel much of their earnings back into their equipment to ensure a long and healthy career.So, first figure out what could endanger an assassin in your campaign, and then defend your NPC as well as he can afford.

A Good First Impression: My Only Personal Experience Of An Assassin As A Player

This isn’t a tip but just a personal anecdote that you might find amusing, and possibly useful.The first time I played Cyberspace, a cyberpunk game from I.C.E., a fellow PC was slain by an assassin in the first minute of the game. In the first minute of the whole campaign, actually. A sniper took him out in the eye, if I recall correctly.Thankfully, the player took the shot in good humour, quickly rolled up another PC, and re-joined us a half-hour later.However, the effect the encounter had on us other players was great.

We usually play fantasy, so this event was a hard and fast lesson about hi-tech–it’s deadly at long range. It also made us feel that our PCs were constantly vulnerable to a silent, invisible killer who could be out there at any time. Another coup for the GM of a cyberpunk campaign.So, I’m not saying you should try this trick on your players (who might be far less amused), but it is something to consider when planning to introduce assassins in your campaigns. Try to find ways to instill fear of these professionals into your players and their PCs.

Anyone want to venture any tips on doing this? If so, send them in to me at [email protected]

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Speed Up Initiative With Index Cards

From Greg S.

Here is a great technique I picked up at GenCon for speeding up combat. The tip was in a 3e game, but could be used for any initiative based system.

  1. GM has all character names on index cards.
  2. All participants roll initiative, including the opponents.
  3. GM sorts the cards by initiative roll, including a card for the opponents.
  4. GM moves through the cards each round. Top card takes their turn.

Although I am a long time fan of rolling before each round, this has proved to be so efficient that I am using it exclusively in my own game. Even the players have been happy with the improvement.

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Idea Generator Technique

From Toran

Here’s a little creativity technique (originally derived from a product design class) that both I and a good friend and fellow GM of mine have found quite useful…

I guess every GM knows this horror scenario — you’ve got a group of roleplaying-addicted players just waiting for you to come up with yet another ingenious adventure to keep them on the edge of their seats, but you’ve been struck by writer’s block for the past two weeks already and can’t think of anything, no matter how hard you try.

In this case, the first thing to do is to get everything related to roleplaying, your current campaign world, setting, whatever, off your mind. Then you take a single random picture from some magazine, newspaper, catalogue or what-have-you and write down what comes to your mind about it; what it shows, what feelings it conveys and why, which graphic elements are obvious, what spontaneous associations you have looking at it — write down everything, no matter how obvious, ridiculous or unimportant it may seem.

I usually write all that down on separate paper, but I was told it works even better when you cut out the picture of your choice, stick it on a large sheet of paper and write down your imaginations all around it with a big colored felt-tip, just like a mind map.

Now comes the fun part: As soon as you have gathered about 10-20 different thoughts about the picture, you try to link each one to your roleplaying background. This sometimes means making very large, imaginative jumps, and some of the end results will be simply too ridiculous for use in a serious roleplaying campaign. But, in ten original thoughts, there are usually at least two or three useful ideas. And in my experience, that’s already enough to spark one’s imagination, produce new ideas and thus end the writer’s block…

Hope that helps!

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Counting Rounds

From Locus_X

I have problems with keeping track of who has done what attacks in my game of RIFTS, but the main problem is with HOW MANY attacks. In Rifts, my players tend to super charge their characters (which I’m fine with, I just super charge the villains) and have up to seven or eight attacks per round.

So, what I do is have Poker chips. You toss one into the pot for every attack. At the end of the round, you retrieve. Easy.

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Use Careers To Motivate PCs

From Daniel

I don’t know if you’ve covered careers in a previous issue, but they are a great way to motivate PCs and avoid tired cliches.

Think of the RPG like monopoly (or any other trading game). Give the PCs a higher social status, or encourage them to take ownership of a business, or establish their own. Then make them work for it.

If they run a smith, make them buy equipment, raw materials, then (based on the economy) make them deal with excess demand or no demand. No sales equals no money.

And now the real nasty bit, when a call to adventure occurs, how will they manage their business? Delegate to an employee? Close it down? Can they sell it?

In general, think about the economics of the environment that the PCs are in…

Related to this, consider life in a poor economy: the next town they ride into has a shortage of product X… the shelves in the “general store” are empty… the tavern serves watery ale and stale bread only… obvious shows of wealth may result in violence etc.

Keep up the good work.

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