Go, stalk the red deer o’er the heather,
Ride, follow the fox if you can!
But, for pleasure and profit together,
Allow me the hunting of Man—
(from Chapter Heading) Plain Tales from the Hills : Pig Rudyard Kipling
Technically - and somewhat pedantically - speaking an assassin is anyone who indulges in assassination, even on a one time basis. However, leaving aside the complex question of what divides assassination from general murder and observing the requirements of the Arcanawiki for RPG and Speculative Fiction compatible entries we can afford to tighten the boundaries of the business up a little.
For these purposes, an assassin should be a professional, probably at the higher end of the skill spectrum and specialising in the stealthy removal of targets. Fantasy assassins in particular may well belong to a guild or a specific religious cult1. These organisations may well have strong (if somewhat dissonant) codes of business ethics concerning client loyalty, job completion and who is - and is not - an acceptable target2. They will also tend to operate training schools for "apprentice assassins" and extensive support workshops producing specialised weaponry and equipment. Such extensive "private enterprise" assassination businesses need careful handling in an RPG setting to avoid raising awkward questions concerning their continued existance.
The next step down from the "guild assassin" is the "master freelancer" - a lone individual who works by contract for organized crime (whether mafia or thieve's guild will depend on setting). They too may be characterised in a variety of ways, from the cold-blooded professional to suave sporting gentleman or monster for hire - but in most cases they would seem to be fairly cinematic and must also be considered carefully when integrated into a setting. Similar characters can also be retained by specific power groups - a given crime family, noble house or the like - to much the same effect. Often the master freelancer will be seen to have gained his skills in some more legitimate employment (for example, as a military sniper) before turning to crime.
Perhaps the final - and most congruent - type of professional assassin is the government sponsored killer. This position answers a lot of the queries raised by the other types - such as why they are not hunted down by the state (given that almost all governments disapprove of other people killing people on their territory) and where their work comes from. Such operatives may belong to the military, the police force or an intelligence agency. Many of the historical examples - such as the Nizari assassins and the Japanese Ninja tend to fall into this category and even into the modern day there are many governments tacitly acknolwedged as retaining at least some professional assassins.
The highly cinematic assasin is a master of all forms of death - "accident", "suicide", unarmed combat, poisons, explosives, melee and ranged weapons (and doubtless others), whilst more congruent ones will specialise. A group of skills is likely - for example the ex-special forces operator who has more or less mastered all forms of violent death, the former physician who is a master poisoner or the apparent non-entity whose assigned targets simply seem to die by coincidence within a specified time period. Cultic assassins in particular may also use "signature weapons" for religious purposes.
Game and Story Use
- Can be an … interesting … career choice for a PC. For a start, assassins are often portrayed as loners - in a strictly realistic setting this ain't necessarily so, but to fulfill the conventions of the thing, it normally will be.
- Also the relentless, cold blooded killing may get a little wearing - especially as if done properly an assassination should not involve much in the way of combat.
- Of course for a suitably grey campaign, this may be fine, otherwise consider the following:
- PC(s) acts as a freelancer for organised crime and is sufficiently expensive that their targets will almost always be fairly heinous characters in their own right (innocents are killed by a far cheaper brand of killer in this setting).
- PC(s) acts for the resistance, hunting down members of an oppressive, authoritarian regime (although this campaign might be a little intolerant of errors on the players part…).
- PC(s) are hunting big ticket criminals and terrorists who cannot be brought to justice through normal means.
- PC(s) are hunting some supernatural evil or otherwise killing things that are definitively evil.
- Under some circumstances, a good basis for a solo campaign - also, as noted, there is potential for a "hit team" party.
- The religious assassin cult is also an interesting one - from the more or less morally neutral Faceless Men of George R. R. Martin's Westeros, to the (more or less historical) Thugee or Nizari assassins to various fantasy religions where followers of a death-god hunt prestigious souls for their master (or, more subversively, hunt down and recover those who cheat death).
- Working out the exact rules under which an assassination occurs can add important flavour, especially if the PCs are the targets - or hired to protect the targets.
- Leaving someone an assassination in your will might be an interesting surprise. Even more so if you are leater reconciled with the person in question but forget to have your will updated - or the updated copy is somehow lost. Or your executors simply fail to complete the appropriate paperwork.
- As noted, the traditional "Assassin's Guild" of many fantasy settings can challenge the suspension of disbelief with great ease and needs careful handling.
- An obvious enabling mechanism would be a well established concept of private war in which the Guild are contractors who undertake to prosecute the war on behalf of a client.