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Executioner Assassin
Design & Development
By Rodney Thompson and Stephen Schubert

Back in September, we debuted the executioner assassin for consumer playtesting. Using playtest feedback, a second version was created for further in-house playtesting and development. Unfortunately, that version was accidentally labeled the final version and prematurely released. This month, D&D Insider presents the actual final version of the executioner assassin.

Because so many people participated in playtesting this class, we decided to share some of what went into the genesis of the build, the philosophies behind the decisions that were made, and the changes that occurred during playtesting and development.

Martial and Shadow

Rodney: One of the first major decisions—one that would shape the design of the project throughout its entirety—was the dual power source. We had already designed the ranger in Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms as a dual power source class, and I thought it would be a possibility for the executioner assassin, too.

I started this whole process by going back to the original source: the 1st Edition Player’s Handbook. I’d seen a friend play an assassin in RPG Group Manager Mike Mearls’s AD&D campaign (which we play from time to time for a break in the routine) and was struck by how different that assassin was from the one that debuted on D&D Insider (in Dragon 379). Different can be good, but different works best when it’s alongside something more traditional, allowing it to draw a starker contrast. So from the beginning, I wanted to create an assassin that looked a little more like the original assassin. That way, the shadow-only assassin would also stand out more, and we'd be offering a truly different option for players who like the assassin as a martial class.

At the same time, the assassin has come a long way, picking up some spellcasting as well, so I didn’t want to make a purely martial character. That led to the decision to go with martial and shadow as the power sources. Though this means little in terms of mechanical impact (it affects feats mostly), it helped provide a few guideposts around which the rest of the class’s design would revolve.

Assassin’s Strike

One of the first pieces of design that came about in this process was assassin’s strike. We’ve been trying to find ways to give classes unique, iconic abilities to help give them their own legs. With the executioner assassin, we started by thinking about just how an assassination attempt should proceed. We settled on the idea that an iconic assassination shouldn't be a knock-down, drag-out fight. It should be an explosion of action that lasts only moments but leaves enemies in a pool of their own blood. The assassin’s strike power rolls all of the assassin’s encounter powers into one; this single power has the effective output of any three (or four, if you take the executioner assassin’s paragon path) encounter powers, all in a single burst. Over the course of an encounter, the assassin isn’t putting out any more damage than any other character, or any less. But he can pretty much drop (or come close to it) one standard monster, grievously wound an elite, or take a big chunk out of a solo. That feels very assassin-like.

Of course, when you have only one encounter power, you need to make sure it’s used effectively, so I let it also add damage to another hit. Furthermore, I made the damage dice into d10s, not [W]s, so that the assassin could use a small [W] weapon (such as a dagger) and still reap a huge benefit from assassin’s strike.

Stephen: Assassin’s strike required careful consideration. Putting all of a character’s encounter-based damage into one attack has two implications. First, the character can take advantage of critical hits or situations that typically apply to only one encounter power but end up applying to all his encounter output thanks to assassin’s strike. As Rodney noted, the difference between his at-will and encounter output is similar to other classes, but spiking it into one attack certainly affects the equation. The huge spike becomes the class’s strength and really identifies the class. There will be some encounters where it’s less useful (hordes of minions, for example), and others where it shines.

The second issue is related to usage and the number of options the assassin has. He has an amazing encounter power, but just one. The character still needs enough other things to do during an encounter to make him interesting to play. That comes in two ways: through the guilds, which give the assassin specific sorts of attacks that require him to get into the right positions, and also (eventually) through the Death Attack feature, which encourages the assassin to hunt out weak foes and finish them off.

Poisons

Rodney: The use of poisons was probably the aspect that crystallized next during design. The poison-using assassin archetype is a good one, but our existing mechanics for poison weren’t geared toward repeated, constant use, which I knew I wanted for this class. This brought up considerations about how some of our other unique daily mechanics work, such as the warden’s forms or fighter stances. Eventually, this led to the realization that poisons could take the place of daily powers; not only could it work similar mechanically to those other unique daily mechanics, it also made sense from a story perspective. An assassin would craft his or her own poisons during down time.

It would have been easy to have every poison be a one-shot power that applied to a single attack, but given the nature of assassin’s strike (being the only encounter power), I wanted to build flexibility into the poisons. That led to the creation of poisons that last all the way through an encounter, poisons that last for a single attack (being much more like a traditional daily power), and poisons that are delivered by other methods, such as inhaling, that were more like attacks themselves rather than riders on other attacks.

The names of the poisons used by the executioner assassin are all drawn from the 3rd Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide list of poisons. Not only did it seem silly to invent all new poisons when the canon of D&D already had perfectly serviceable ones, it also allowed me to benefit from the varied natures of those poisons. The only stumbling block I ran into is that those poisons have no history or descriptions anywhere in print. The 3E DMG merely lists them on a table; it was up to me to flesh out those names into thoroughly explained poisons. This was a fun challenge, and best of all, I managed to work some adventure hooks and world design hooks into the poisons for DMs to run with if they so choose. An NPC poison broker might send the heroes after an enclave of mind flayers in order to obtain more brain extract to create doses of insanity mist.

The final bit of inspiration that really pushed the poisons into a great place was the idea that these could have built-in, out-of-combat uses. While poisons on daggers are interesting, there are great, archetypal stories of assassins striking through poisoned wine or food, or poison traps choking their victims with poisonous clouds. Each poison got an out-of-combat use so that those abilities could appear in classic situations. Coupling that with the fact that the assassin knows a lot of poisons and can choose from among them each day (producing multiple vials of a single poison if necessary) makes the assassin’s poison use highly versatile.

Stephen: We received some feedback related to how some of the poisons seemed to be “wasted” when used on ammo-based ranged weapons. Clearly, melee weapons are favored for poisons like greenblood oil—applying such poisons to, for example, an arrow might result in losing the poison if your attack with that arrow misses. The rule is there partly to encourage melee attacks with those sorts of poisons but also to improve verisimilitude. (If you poison all your arrows, why would the bonus apply only to the first hit? Shouldn’t the other arrows still be poisoned?)

The guild at-will attacks help us out here—the League of Whispers is more likely to strike from the shadows at range, and precision dart allows the assassin to guarantee poison application with a ranged attack. There could certainly be a different guild with a different array of at-wills that let you do the same sort of thing with a crossbow or bow.

Guild At-Wills

Rodney: At this point, I took a step back and considered how this class was going to play in combat as a whole. With only a single encounter attack power plus dailies in the form of poisons, I was a little concerned that the assassin could have a spectacular first round and less exciting subsequent rounds. Furthermore, I’d been looking for a place to put some of the more exotic assassin weapons, like the blowgun and the garrote, into the executioner assassin. The end result was a set of at-will attack powers that utilized those exotic weapons.

The at-wills were designed to be highly situational, so that the executioner assassin could spend a round setting up a situational attack, then get the benefit from it, giving the player a way to remain engaged even after his or her big damage powers were expended.

Interestingly, playtesters expressed concerns with the situational nature of the at-wills; they weren't realizing that the powers were meant to be situational. Because other classes have at-will attacks they choose from every round, players expected the assassin to do the same. As a result, the assassin's powers didn't look situational, they just looked hard to use.

One solution was the addition of a deadly strike at-will attack power, which could play along with those assumptions and be an attractive, high-damage option. In the end, though, both Design and Development agreed that what the class needed was an explanation that it was supposed to use basic attacks most of the time and only use the situational at-wills when the situation presented itself (or, preferably, was engineered by the assassin).

Stephen: As Rodney mentioned, in the playtest iteration of the assassin, some players didn’t pick up on how the class was intended to primarily use melee basic attacks. We also considered fine-tuning damage within some of the guild at-wills, with the idea that the assassin’s standard attack would look compelling most of the time and the situational at-wills would be useful for control effects. But splitting up the striker damage into an extra die in deadly strike and a damage bonus at higher levels didn’t translate very well into play. It was better to consolidate the striker damage into a simple die-per-tier mechanism. Deadly strike as designed could have been used as a basic attack, but it still wasn’t obvious to many players. So we instead reverted the class to using primarily basic attacks and included language adopted from the thief in Heroes of the Fallen Lands to describe how the assassin is a basic-attack class.

Early iterations of the class had a wider range of at will powers, but we wanted to pare down the decision making a bit. Knowing that the at-wills were going to be situational, we felt that it was a more enjoyable challenge for players to try to arrange for two or three situations instead of having a different tool for any situation. The class does well with its basic attack, so each guild offers three distinct at-wills. One of each guild’s powers is a way to guarantee poison delivery; another has some sort of control effect (in both cases here they knock a target prone); and the third is a situational at-will.

So Different; Still the Assassin?

One comment that I’ve seen on message boards and via e-mail throughout the playtest process is that some people are concerned over the lack of compatibility between the executioner assassin and the earlier assassin build. When designing a new build that is this different, it is absolutely something that is in the designer’s mind. In this case, I decided that it was OK if the only overlap between the executioner and the existing assassin was in feats and utility powers, since I thought the assassin’s strike and poison-based powers really reflected the martial nature of the executioner, while the existing assassin reflected its shadow focus. Although the executioner assassin and the shadow-focused assassin don’t share a lot of powers now, the door is never closed on making feats to allow for easier crossover between them.

Death Attack

Rodney: A lot of people have speculated that the Death Attack class feature (which allows the assassin to straight-up kill any enemy with a scaling 10, 20 or 30 hit points left after an attack) compensates for encounter damage, or striker damage, or daily damage. In truth, it’s none of these things. Death Attack emphasizes the assassin’s flavor and also helps speed past a sluggish part of the game.

First, there is little more disappointing than being the big, bad warrior, laying down a heavy crit onto someone, and then finding out that he’s still alive … only to watch the target die one turn later when the wizard hits it with magic missile. Death Attack helps compensate for bad die rolls and near-kills and increases the likelihood that the assassin will be the one to land the killing blow. Mathematically, there are so many factors that go into determining who strikes the killing blow that this doesn’t significantly impact the damage output of the assassin; it just helps nudge certain situations toward an outcome where the assassin deals the final blow.

Perhaps more beneficial is that Death Attack helps speed the battle past what is often its least exciting part: the end. With D&D combat, the tension is highest at the beginning of the fight (when players and monsters have a full array of resources) and lowest near the end (when players are out of resources and monsters are dwindling). The Death Attack ability is more likely to come into play later in the encounter (when more enemies are close to death), meaning that the assassin can make a monster die this round instead of getting close but having the entire encounter go one more round while the players wait for monster to topple. If the assassin gets to feel like an assassin for dealing several killing blows while also making sure the least tense part of the encounter goes by quicker, I call that a win.

Stephen: I’d echo everything that Rodney’s said here, but add that we did consider how Death Attack is a flavorful and situational increase to the assassin’s overall damage. Also, I’d reiterate that this gives the player another aspect of combat to focus on—your best move is sometimes to stalk weakened opponents across the battlefield.

Utility Powers

Rodney: One reason why I thought the executioner needed to be a build of the assassin class is tied to its utility powers. The assassin that was already provided in DDI had a lot of great, flavorful shadow-powered utilities. Rather than completely reinvent a lot of those, the executioner can take those powers freely. Given that I wanted the executioner assassin to be more martial with a dabbling of shadow magic, I thought this was a great way to give more options and choice to the executioner without having to make up a lot of new powers that would cover the same ground.

Filling Out the Class

Rodney: With the core components of the powers in place, I had plenty of ideas for how to fill out the class in a flavorful way. There were many things that I thought an assassin needed to be able to just do—such as dropping from rooftops into the street for an assassination, or disposing of a body subtly. That’s where a lot of “freebie” abilities come in; these are things that are neat and fun and all executioners should be able to do them, but they don’t warrant consuming a utility power spot. This is where abilities like nimble drop and shadow coffin come in. They’re fun, flavorful abilities that don’t affect the balance of the class, and they're useful without requiring the player to spend a valuable utility power selection on them.

Stephen: In one iteration of the class, there was a perception of “dead levels,” even when the class still got some bonus at some of those levels. In particular, the 3s and 7s looked dead—but only if you ignored the damage boost you got to assassin’s strike. Where most characters get a new encounter power, the assassin’s encounter power gets better.

That said, it seemed reasonable to shuffle things around a bit or add a new option to flesh out the class.

The class now gets hidden stab at 7th level, which is an evolution of hidden spear from an early iteration of the class. Hidden spear’s ability to make the target helpless was clearly overpowered, but through discussions with Rodney, we worked out a power that retains the “grab-n-stab” nature of hidden spear and incorporates the assassin’s ability to unleash a massive attack by letting the assassin guarantee to get his assassin’s strike on the target.


About the Authors

Rodney Thompson is an RPG designer at Wizards of the Coast. Originally from Chattanooga, Tennessee, his Dungeons & Dragons credits include Monster Manual 3, the Dark Sun Campaign Setting, Player Essentials: Heroes of the Fallen Lands, Player Essentials: Heroes of the Forgotten Kingdoms, and Monster Vault.

Stephen Schubert is a game developer for Wizards of the Coast, and is the Development Manager for RPGs and the Dungeons & Dragons game. He has provided development and design work for many 4th Edition D&D products, including the Monster Manual and Player’s Handbook series, and the D&D Gamma World game.