The Assassin, the Spy, and the Sage

Three experts, the assassin, spy, and sage, require special treatment. Each of these, unlike other hirelings, can affect the direction and content of an on-going adventure. Used carefully and sparingly, these three are valuable DM tools to create and shape stories in a role-playing campaign.


Assassination is not a discreet occupation per se, but a reprehensible mind-set. The assassin requires no special skills, though fighting, stealth, and even magic are useful. All that is really needed to be an assassin is the desire and the opportunity.

Hiring an Assassin: When a player character hires an assassin (which is not a good or lawful act), he is taking a chance. There is virtually no way to assure oneself of the reliability and dependability of such a person. Anyone willing to make a business out of murder is not likely to have a high degree of morals of any type. Clearly, this is a case of "let the buyer beware!"

Once a character has hired an assassin, it is up to the DM to determine the success of the deed. There are no simple tables or formulae to be followed.

Consider the intended victim: Assassination attempts by one player character against another should not be allowed. This type of behavior only leads to bitterness, bickering, and anger among the players. NPC-sponsored assassination attempts against player characters should be used sparingly, and then only as plot motivators, not as punishment or player controls. Any time a player character is targeted, role-play the encounter fairly—give the PC a chance.

If the intended victim is an NPC, the DM should decide the effect of the assassination on his game. Sometimes, player characters do these things out of spite. At other times the deed may be motivated by simple greed. Neither of these is a particularly good motive to encourage in a campaign.

If the death of the NPC would result in a major reworking of the campaign for no good reason, consider seriously the idea of making the attempt fail. If the death of the NPC would allow the player characters to by-pass or breeze through an adventure you have planned, then it's not a good idea. Don't just tell the players, "Oh, that'd be bad for the game so you can't even try to knock that guy off." Work the attempt—and its failure—into the storyline.

Precautions: If you decide the attempt is legitimate, consider the precautions the intended NPC victim normally takes. These may make the job particularly difficult or easy. Kings, emperors, high priests, and other important officials tend to be very cautious and well-protected. Wizards, with wise magical precautions, can be virtually impossible to assassinate! Devise specific NPC precautions before you know the assassin's plans.

Wizards make use of magic mouth, alarm, explosive runes, and other trap spells. Priests often rely on divination-oriented items to foresee the intentions of others. Both could have extra-dimensional or other-planar servants and guards. They may also have precautions to foil common spells such as ESP, clairvoyance, and detect magic. Kings, princes, and other nobles have the benefit of both magical and clerical protection in addition to a host of possibly fanatically loyal bodyguards. If the victim has advance warning or suspects an attempt, further precautions may be taken, and the job can become even more difficult.

The Plan: After you have decided (secretly) what precautions are reasonable, have the player describe the plan he thinks would work best. This can be simple or involved, depending on the cunning of the player. This is the plan the assassin, not the player character, will use, therefore the player can presume some resources not available to the player character. However, you must decide if these resources are reasonable and truly exist.

For example, if the player says the assassin has a map of the castle, you must tell him if this is reasonable (and, unless the victim is extremely secretive and paranoid, it is). A plan involving a thousand men or an 18th-level thief is not reasonable. The player character hasn't hired an entire arsenal!

Finally, compare what you know of the precautions to the plan and the success or failure will usually become clear. Ultimately, the DM should not allow assassinations to succeed if he doesn't want them to succeed!

In general, allowing player characters to hire assassins should not be encouraged. Hiring an NPC to kill even a horrible villain defeats the purpose of heroic role-playing. If the player characters can't accomplish the deed, why should they be allowed to hire NPCs to do the same thing?

Overuse of assassins can often result in bitter feelings and outright feuding—player vs. player or player vs DM. Neither of these is fun or healthy for a game. Finally, it is a very risky business. Assassins do get caught and generally have no compunctions about confessing who their employer is. Once the target learns this, the player character will have a very dangerous life. Then the player character can discover the joy and excitement of having assassins looking for him!

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