Thursday, February 1, 2018

He's Got a Poisoned Dagger... I've Just Gotta Fight Him

Assassin, as written, is an awful class.

A thief who gets better weapons, worse thief skills, an insta-kill attack that isn't super likely to work, an overly complicated disguise skill, and your very own set of rules for NPCs attacking you. 

...let me expound on that. If you poison your weapon, and someone within 10 feet notices, they will either call the guard, attack you, or both. Ridiculous. "Hey, this guy can kill us in one hit with his poisoned sword...let's get 'em. You have the ability to turn people nearby into instant vigilantes. 

AD&D 1st edition has a lot of rules that leave me scratching my head, or pinching the bridge of my nose (presumably to stop the blood from gushing out) 

OSRIC omitted this from the poison section of the assassin class, but I was disheartened to see it rear its ugly head in BX Advanced, which I recently purchased. Swords & Wizardry Complete throws the rule out entirely. 

If the assassin has the fighter hold his poisoned dagger, do people notice? Could the fighter get attacked? This rule is specifically tucked into the assassin class write-up...but then, 1st edition was always sort of passively-aggressively discouraging you from using poison. Stick a guy with a sword? Sure, that's life in Greyhawk. Stick him with a poisoned sword? You're the absolute scum of the universe. The S&W companion even adds bonus damage to the attacks of the aggrieved witnesses, so enraged are they by the sight of a poisoned weapon. Le sigh.

Of course the rule is easy enough to toss aside, but... I'm trying to wrap my head around the genesis of the rule. Is there some Vance or Howard story where poison just pisses someone off to the point that they're ready to attack an armed assassin? Help me understand. I need to understand.


  1. Sounds like a really clumsy attempt to add a cost to the benefit of sticking a one hit kill poison save onto a weapon attack.

    Seems to me a much more workable and elegant solution would be to just make effective poison very hard and expensive to get. The fact throughout our murderous history every knight, knave, and man at arms wasn't slathering anything bearing a sharp edge with poison indicates it wasn't as easy to get the instant lethality an assassin would hope for.

    The only literary precursor I can think of is the final innings of Hamlet, and in that case I think the only reason anybody realized that Laertes' blade was poisoned was he fessed up after both he and Hamlet had been stabbed with it.

    I dunno how a random bystander would notice or recognize a poisoned blade. Unless we're dealing with cartoon fantasy poison that glows bright green and makes sizzling holes in the floor when it drips off the weapon.

    1. That sounds like fantasy acid, which is also present in old school D&D.

      And regarding Hamlet... Laertes told Hamlet that he had "not half and hours life" left in him, so it's still not instant.

      Black Dougal got robbed.

  2. I always assumed, given the table provided on p19 of the Player's Handbook, that this was intended as an awkward way of explaining what happens for any characters using poison in AD&D. After all, only the Assassin has a "yes" in the "Can they use Poison?" column; Clerics and Paladins get "never" and every other class gets a "?", implying to me that it's up to the referee whether other classes can use poisoned weapon rules, presumably using those provided under the Assassin class ... which "yes" can use poisoned weapons regardless.

    Of course, I've always had an adolescent love for the class, after reading that they get a "roughly 50% chance to kill an opponent outright" on certain melee attacks. And these days I'm even more excited about the disguise rules ...

    1. The disguise ability is cool. I'm kind of surprised bards don't have the same ability.

      Then again, it seems like the assassin was also supposed to be an ersatz spy.

  3. I've had some similar thoughts about assassins lately, especially after trimming the fat on my campaign's bard class. B.J.'s solution is one I would agree with, although a campaign not focused on survival (i.e., making players spend their hard-earned money on food and lodging) would probably see cost be a minor obstacle at best.

    As to their abilities, I would probably just remove Climb Walls and Remove Traps (if not others) entirely. The assassin would be more likely to disguise themselves to gain access to a place, instead of jimmying doors and windows open; the latter would be more appropriate to a second-story man (maybe requiring thieves and assassins to work together, to fill in each other's weaknesses).