Why Can’t Assassins Be Good?

In my Shattered Star campaign, one of the players has started taking an interest in the assassin prestige class. This led to a rather interesting conversation about morality—and specifically about the assassin’s alignment requirement.

By Bradley K.McDevitt

 

The basic question seems to boil down to this: is it always evil to kill someone for hire?

For example, imagine this scenario. A powerful and charismatic orc chieftain has risen to prominence among the tribes lurking in the nearby hills. He has gained much influence among the other tribes and is preparing a great army to sweep across the border.

  • Scenario 1: A band of adventurers track the orcs to the lair, fight their way inside, slaughter much of the tribe and finally slay the orc chieftain. These are the acts of noble and good adventurers fighting for the common good. They are lauded by the nobles of the land, beloved by the populace and rewarded for their heroism.
  • Scenario 2: A lone assassin sneaks into the orcs’ lair, evades the sentries and finally finds the orc chieftain enjoying the company of his concubines. Without warning, the assassin strikes and kills the chieftain. He escapes the orcs’ lair and returns to collect his reward. He is clearly—irredeemingly—evil.

Huh?

What’s In A Name?

A lot of the problems we have with an assassin’s alignment is directly linked to the prestige class’s name. “Assassin” has a lot of negative connotations and baggage in real life and this (inevitably) bleeds over into the game.

Clearly those who kill for pay must be evil. But hang on a minute. Often, adventurers are paid by their employer to perform a certain task. This invariably leads to violence and killing. Sometimes that’s the point of the mission. For example, when the PCs are tasked to root out an evil cult terrorising the locality or slay a necromancer raising an army of the undead they are essentially hired killers. How many adventuring groups would even consider trying to resolve either situation with diplomacy?

Instead of calling the prestige class “assassin” how about using one of these names instead:

  • Protector
  • Defender
  • Slayer
  • Guardian
  • Stalker

Does it still feel like an evil class?

Assassin Prerequisites

Obviously, some of the assassin’s prerequisites are somewhat problematic. Putting aside the alignment restriction, in particular:

  • Special: The character must kill someone for no other reason than to become an assassin.

However, it’s not exactly a herculean design task to redesign this prerequisite to something more suitable for a good-aligned (or neutral-aligned) character. For example:

  • Special: Slay an enemy of the realm for no other reason than the protection of innocent life (or law and order).

This—in turn—gives the GM the opportunity to design an entire organisation (secretive or otherwise) for his campaign world. It could be devoted to the defence of a certain realm, religion or set of ideals. That’s pretty cool as in one stroke, the GM adds flavour and detail to his world and opens up a little-used option for his players to explore.

What Do You Think?

For me these simple changes transform the feel and flavour of the prestige class and make it much more viable as a player option. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

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45 thoughts on “Why Can’t Assassins Be Good?

  1. To be honest there’s little an Assassin can do that a decent rogue/thief can’t do. If I were to run D&D in Greyhawk the only monks and assassins would be the Scarlet Brotherhood ones, so by definition they’d all be evil, or lawful neutral and heavily indoctrinated at best.

    • I’d go down a different route. I’d like to create a Scarlet Brotherhood archetype (or kit depending on your edition) and differentiate them that way. That makes the SB special without removing the assassin option from the players.

  2. the Thief is a little lacking when compared to the Assassin and is definitely geared more towards urban campaigns. May favorite class has always been the Theif/Rogue ever since 2nd edition but when it comes to choosing a prestige class at level 3 in 5th edition, I just don’t see myself choosing the Thief prestige. Me and my group see the Assassin more as just the name of the prestige class and not necessarily meaning they are a killer for hire because the combat abilities of the Assassin appeals heavily to us in our adventures but most of our groups would not be adventuring with a killer for hire for example. Its almost as if they should have included another prestige class that has a more combat geared mentality that’s not an assassin if assassins have to be evil.

  3. The only character classes I can think of who might try diplomacy first would be a Bard or a Paladin, if only to give the enemy a chance at redemption. As for changing the name of the class, I feel that a split might be in order to separate the protectors from the assassins. One kills to protect and the other kills for coin. I also think that to the point of killing the chieftain, that an assassin would want to remain anonymous because if found out than it could interfere with killing other targets.

  4. I don’t think they should be good but don’t think they should all be evil.
    Churches have been known to hire outside contractors and even train their own..James Bond is the perfect example of the assassin..works for the governing power/country..not evil but definitely a bad ass

    • I’m not sure I agree. It would not be difficult to find evidence that supports the idea that James Bond is evil, and even as a vocal proponent of “Good does not mean Nice” I’d be willing to consider it.

      He is, however, on our side and is the protagonist of the books and movies… despite his behavior and actions he is a sympathetic character. We like him.

      It doesn’t mean he isn’t evil, though.

      • I’ve always thought of spies, saboteurs, and secret agents as “necessary evils.” That is, you’re paying people to lie, conduct covert operations, and do the “hard things” that must be done in order to keep a nation secure and peaceful against “worse” evils.

        I would agree with your assessment that James Bond – while his intentions and job description are “noble” – is basically lawful neutral at best, lawful evil at worst. He is not an agent of chaos – he does nothing for his own purposes except bed beautiful women. Of course, most of the time, such beddings are also “for King and Country!”

        • I remember a discussion years ago on rec.games.frp.dnd regarding the use of detect evil to find, well, evil, in the King’s Court.

          “I found one! I found one! Look, look, he’s evil! And he’s close to the king!”
          “You imbecile. I am the one who does the things that must be done, that you won’t do because it would tarnish your shining armor. Without me, your work would come to naught because the real dangers don’t stand and fight in the light where you can find them, but lurk in the shadows and hide behind a facade of innocence where you dare not touch them. Go play ‘hero’, little boy, protected by the hand of your goddess. Men who are prepared to be touched and tainted by darkness are working here so you can enjoy the light.”

  5. Yes, assassins should be evil. In our world, our assassins (hitmen,some CIA, etc.) are usually psychopaths, i.e., evil. There is a difference between taking a job that might killing in the course of it, and a job where a cold-blooded hit is the mission. If you’re playing a game where good characters can do the later without alignment consequence, then I submit you may be playing Good wrong.

    • How do you classify a military sniper? Would you consider a sniper a type of assassin?

      And would you consider a marine scout sniper a psychopath? Is it cold-blooded to kill an enemy from a distance when that enemy is trying to kill your friends and allies?

    • Blimey. Joel! Good find! I had vague recollections of writing that article for WoTC when I started this article, but couldn’t find my notes. I haven’t yet done an update for the class, but I might well do!

      • Not really that surprising. I had a character that was working up to playing this class, though, sadly, it petered out before I got that far. Now I have another character just starting up (under Council of Thieves) that might be interested in it as well… if there was a place I could point to an official version. Hint. Hint… 🙂

  6. I always wanted to play James Bond or Silk. Always bummed that I must be evil and must murder someone just to be in the club. Both were Assassins for their nations, not freelance murder for hire. I agree that not EVERY assassin has to be EVIL.

    • actually I mis-read or misinterpreted the question. I believe not all Assassins are evil, but none of them are good. Look at the Punisher movie for example. He was a loving family man, but good men do not go on rampages of death and destruction. Not saying he became evil, but he definitely skirted the line for a while.

  7. The Book of Exalted Deeds had a prestige class called the Slayer of Domiel. It is essentially a good aligned assassin. They target demons, tyrants, and the like.

  8. did I miss something somewhere, I am relativity new to 5th so I might not be up to date on some things, but where does it state the character must kill someone for no other reason than to become an assassin? am I missing it somewhere in the players handbook or is that an update found on line or are we talking about a different game like Pathfinder?

      • ok thanks 🙂 I mistakenly thought of D&D 5th edition assassin, must have reread the entry in players handbook like 4-5 times looking for the pre-requisite of killing someone lol

  9. You bring up a good point. That is one of the reasons I left alignment completely out of https://fyxtrpg.com , at least as a specific mechanic. I have never really liked the crutch or hurtle that alignment has forced into games. A character’s alignment, good or evil, is all a matter of perspective and is often subjective. Leaving the alignment requirements out of the Fyxt RPG has really opened up player choice and what and how they roleplay. Don’t get me wrong, rp and how a character acts in the game will affect everything around them. But the artificial barrier it causes can often be way too limiting. I like how you have opened this up some and will allow players that are NOT evil to be able to play what can really be a pretty fun class. Really, why do you have to be evil to be an assassin when murderhobo seems acceptable in most groups.

  10. I have had this argument with my players many times. In the end I have to put it down to one thing. Killing people for money, or in cold blood, is wrong and an evil act. Even if the person they are killing is evil. (example half of Cheliax) But in the end it comes down to two points

    First
    Adventures do kill orc encampments, or slaughter the evil cult. Most of the time it is because the orcs are invading, and causing problems in the country side, or the Evil Cult is sacrificing people for dark reasons. (If your players are killing them off, and the only reason is because they are payed to do so. Then they need to look at there aliments and have a little talk.)

    Assassins on the other hand, do kill for pay. They do not care who they kill, as long as they get payed. My players have brought up the idea of Assassins creed Video game, kill one to save 100, or avoid killing anybody but your target, sounds good in theory. My argument to that was what is the aliment of Altair from the first game. The agreement we came up with was Lawful Evil, He kills on command from his higher ups not asking questions as to why. Is not afraid to kill anybody who stands in his way, never tries to talk his way out of a fight.

    Then we looked at Ezio, his aliment falls closer to Neutral Evil. He is self serving for the most of the first part of the game. Killing for revenge, then he sets up the assassins as an organised entity, intent on stopping the Templar’s from completing their evil deeds, not by turning ally agiansed them or by stopping them economically. But by doing what they do best buy killing. (i am sure there are instances, where they did. But I have trouble finding one that did not involve killing somebody.) In the end they were evil in the Pathfinder definition.

    Second
    The next problem is the system, my players even went so far as to make an Assassin class (and a Shadow Dancer Class). I completely will not allow it in my games due to balancing issues. But when the requirements evil it makes them think twice about playing one when the party is generally good for one reason. Another is Assassin’s generally work alone to kill a target, so most of the party is left out, on there own wile the assassin tries to solo a target meant for the whole party (usually this ends up with them dieing then blaming me for their deaths.) There is not one player who can do everything, I don’t care how much of a meta gamer you are, you can’t do everything on your own.

    Then you have to relies just how powerful an assassin can be with the death strike. It can become the rocket launcher, the party uses to solve all there problems. Fighting a big bad boss, and your assassin kills them in one shot, so you have to use the DM stick to save them and you never hear the end of it.

    • Interesting how you say Altair is lawful evil, and especially how you attribute that to following orders without question. Lawful evil is usually described as following the word of law (and rewriting it) for your own selfish benefit.

      “Selfish” always comes back as the cornerstone of D&D “evil”. I might argue that Altair follows orders without question, leaving the decision making to others, making him a passionless lawful neutral.

      In fact, lawful neutral seems to fit an assassin’s profile in many situations, the cold killer who might be righting a wrong, or might be carrying out a grudge. It’s not their place to decide if it feels right. They also follow their own codes a lot of the time, not necessarily the one imposed on them by society (whether that society is good or evil)

      I agree with your summation of the assassin as a rocket launcher, though. Death Strike is a horrendous skill with a lot of potential to break a game if the player is not roleplaying well and holding back his all outside of the most cathartic of scenarios.

  11. Hmmm the class “assassin” reflects one who kills for money, by whatever means to get things done.not a good natured class at all.There is nothing good about it, it’s a class that if played right would use deceit, deception, lies and betrayal. turning others against one another and poison in lenu to bribing or disposing of anyone who would talk against said actions or mission.The nature of the class makes it evil-that simple.

    A “Neutral” based theme of a Assassin could be a “Mercenary”, at best.All around blade for hire, they get the job done but are not as devious per say(hence probably not as effective either).More of Fighter with said abilitys..

    Unaligned as a house rule option fix’s the issue all together.You go by how you choose to play BUT if the class is expected to have a underlining way it’s played it gets enforced.Hence a Palidan would be expected to be good and all that as a class requirement, however the player has more control over what they do as they are “Unaligned”.They still suffer if they do direct evil things that violate the definition of the class it’s just not as direct based depending on what’s going on and how the “player(s)” are playing.

  12. There is a good aligned assassin class in the book of exalted deeds (3.5)

    Slayer of Domiel 73 Assassins, of course, are evil by their nature and the nature of what they do: committing murder for money is a completely evil act. However, sometimes the skill set of an assassin is required for more noble purposes. Claiming the power of the paragon archon Domiel, the slayers of Domiel are a disciplined, secretive order of stealthy spies and—when the need arises—assassins who serve the cause of law and good. Rather than relying entirely on stealth and poison, the slayers of Domiel use supernatural means to dispatch evil foes.

  13. This is a very good point. My friends and I play pathfinder and I wanted to play an assassin but did not want a bad alignment. So we changed the name to bounty hunter, tweeked some of the requirements and we invented a playable character for me….she was awesome…..

  14. Years and years ago, I played a lawful evil human fighter / assassin that ended up working for for an order of Paladins to do the dirty work for them.

    Was a long time in game time and real time (over two years of actual time). For the other players to trust me. And this all started when my character called out the one member of our party who was the knight paladin about certain rolls in life. He challenged me to a duel, he chose weapons I chose location. He chosed bastard swords and I chosed his orders main temple. After a long journey and a long fight a won. He lived and I had a new job.

    It was a very fun campaign that lasted five years.

  15. I play a little with most people’s perception of the alignments anyway. Assassination for profit (be it monetary or political) is evil thus keep the requirement for the class. I have no issues with players playing “Evil” characters especially as most PC’s end up that way.

    However I do not accept the first assertion of the party killing the tribe of Orcs as “Good”.

    You have been warned wiping out a temple full of devotees and priests just because you don’t like thier God or destroying a Xvart village because they objected to your trespassing to get to the Gnoll fortress will get you an Alignment shift in my game.

  16. There’s nothing inherent to the concept of the assassin that suggests they have to be “for hire.” As for the alignment restriction, whether it makes sense really depends on how you want to define and conceptualize “evil.”

    There’s a cheesy 80s action film called Remo Williams, in which the eponymous character is trained as an assassin in the service of the US government. His work isn’t for hire, it’s for the good of the state. Presuming the state is good, and presuming he goes out of his way to, shall we say, “minimize collateral damage,” and presuming the targets are genuinely a danger to the state or to other innocents … it’s hard to argue that he’s doing something that’s evil. Illegal, certainly, but then do you want to open the “illegal” ?= “evil” argument?

    The assassin’s alignment restrictions are in place because D&D isn’t all that nuanced. The main practical difference between good and evil in D&D is that good doesn’t proactively kill other good guys. Since the assassin doesn’t care who he kills, and since he has to kill for his own gain to become one, he can’t be of “good” alignment.

    Which, if your motivation is money, is pretty much how I’d parse it — if you’re a hitman doing it for money, you’re killing in your own interest. If you’re indiscriminate about it, you’re evil. If you’re picky about your targets, you’re at best neutral. If you’re doing it on behalf of an organization, you’re effectively the alignment of the organization — so decide for yourself if there are scenarios in which a “good” organization can have someone assassinated, because my opinion on the matter varies with the weather. Finally, if you’re doing it on behalf of some principle or calling, then I’d have to say that you’re at best neutral, because “good” callings don’t usually start with “try covert murder.”

    This got rambly. Sorry bout that — I’ve gone over this topic a lot!

    • That being said, alignment restrictions are purely fluff — there’s no game balance reason I can see why you can’t have good-aligned assassins if you want. Cheers!

  17. As with most things the “why” is what determines if something is “good” or “evil”. Take, for instance, the Smoke Knights from Girl Genius. Clearly some are evil and some aren’t, but all of them would certainly be considered “Assassins” in gaming terms.

  18. I allowed an assasin who was a very devout worshipper of a war god. She only took jobs that came through the church hierarchy to further the faiths goals. This particular branch is lawful neutral. The back ground story was that she was part of an old order of the churches order.

  19. In 3.5, there was a class in the Book of Exalted Deeds called the Slayer of Raziel, where you could play a good-aligned assassin. It’s completely possible if you’re not afraid of doing some tweaking and a DM’s willing to help you out. Another foil back then would be the Vigilante class in 3.5’s Complete Adventurer.

    Context matters, and all you have to do to play a good-aligned Assassin is to change the context. Perhaps the assassin in question had to slay an evil by him/herself with their own skill. Perhaps they are charged with protecting good-aligned priests from enemy assassins or other sundry threats. Or they may apply their skills for the sake of a good ruler.

    Having someone with an assassin skillset could make them a rather good bodyguard if teamed up with the right people.

  20. There is no way for a being who kills for pleasure or monetary gain to be considered good. However, the skills of the assassin prestige class could easily be made into a more spymaster with elimination duties class without many if any changes. I could even see the prerequisite must kill someone to become an assassin only worded must kill a target to complete their training and be accepted into the core/organization. This would be a more lawful type of assassin, but i would still say their moral compass was pointing away from good. even killing defenseless creatures in the name of protecting the innocent is an evil act… but in defense of the innocent I would say it counterbalances the evil to a more neutral act.

  21. Both scenarios used as examples are not the actions of a ‘good’ person/party as we use morality in the real world. They are both applications of force that result in a benefit for one group at the cost to another group.

    In a fantasy setting, we have Gygaxian remnant of what good vs evil is. Where eye for an eye is justice, and where I can murder evil creatures and be ‘good’ because they are evil. This handwaves the morality of the act because the end not only justifies the means but redeems the agent.

    We accept the premise that good and evil are absolutes as defined by our manuals. And because this is a crafted rule, there is no reason to hold onto it if you don’t want to. Much of the debate over whether assassins are evil, is just an exercise to create a consensual form of permission (or deny said permission) where no permission need be granted.

    If you declare both of the examples given to be good acts or both to be evil, or you split, them that’s the premise of your world. Inform the players how it works and move on from there.

  22. Sounds good…there have been assassin classes in the past that were justified because they worked for the church…
    I always had a problem with the evil only rule… I run a rogue /fighter that is lawful neutral… Basically he is an assassin without the extra cool skills.. but he has a code and upholds his contracts once taken so he has a reputation

  23. Alignment requirements are ALMOST always unnecessarily punitive and repressive. Monk HAVING to be Lawful is a misunderstanding of the idea of discipline. It makes more sense to say a Monk can’t be Chaotic, and therefore allowing for a lawful or neutral Monk. The same with Barbarians. Of course they tend towards chaos, but why would a neutral Barbarian be some kind of offense to the idea. Barbarian tribes HAVE laws. Often very very specific codes of behavior. I understand Paladins, but then again…why do neutral and chaotic gods not have avatars in the world. Assassins? This entire game is based on killing. Is killing stealthily really an intrinsically evil act while kicking in the door and slaying at will are capable of being good acts? I’m very fluid with alignment in my game and the table barely notices except for the occasional meeting an assassin who is a decent and heroic mortal.

  24. I once played a pretty successful 3.5 DnD Beguiler/Assassin. However, I found the the roleplay much more engaging than the combat. It was difficult to get in that one-hit kill often, although it was satisfying when it occurred. I had to mostly rely on the Beguiler skills to get anywhere and then found them best suited for party support.

  25. 1979 was a simpler time and we were all 12 year olds playing this fancinating adventure game called D&D and their were white hats and black hats err I mean paladins and anti-paladins. And morality was white and black. But now we’ve grown up and learned that alignment might be 50 shades of gray or just gray. Plus skads of people playing Assassin’s Creed will force you to make a change in the view of the assassin.

  26. I fully agree and have been saying this for years. The line between lawful PC’s killing orcs and assassins are often blurred at the gaming table and very hard to distinguish between the two.