Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

I ran evil-themed D&D campaign once, but only because Wizards of the Coast cornered me. They released Menzoberranzan City of Intrigue and promoted the book with the Council of Spiders season of Dungeons & Dragons Encounters. Fourth edition’s Encounters program hosted drop-in games at local game stores. This season made the players evil drow and fostered backstabbing and intrigue. As an Encounters dungeon master, I questioned the wisdom of the theme, especially in a program geared for new and returning players. Still, I dutifully ran the campaign as intended.

My concerns proved valid. Two of the regulars at my table seemed uncomfortable with the evil theme, and one player, call him Benedict, embraced the spirit of the treachery too well.

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

Lloth and Drow at Gen Con

In the final encounter, Benedict joined the season’s villain and killed the rest of the party. “It’s not personal. I’m just playing my character,” he apologized. Over the years, when someone excuses their character’s actions with “I’m just playing my character,” I’d grown to expect trouble. This time, two regular players from my table never came to encounters again. Maybe they had other obligations, but I suspect the unsatisfactory season contributed to them moving on.

I cannot blame Benedict. Like him, I started in the early years of the hobby, an era that celebrated a character’s ability to attempt any action, and where simulation dominated role playing. How better to simulate an imaginary world than to portray characters of all stripes? By this early ethos, total immersion in character trumped everything. If you failed to play your character to the hilt, then you did the game a disservice. Any game master who interfered with a player’s freedom of action was guilty of an abuse of power. If players’ actions defied their alignments, penalties might be in order, but if not, anything goes.

And the Council of Spiders Encounters season encouraged treachery.

Even so, I should have discouraged Benedict’s betrayal. Some players relish in-party conflict, but unless everyone at the table welcomes such conflict, in-party feuding just encourages hard feelings and lost friends. Folks who welcome treachery should play Paranoia, a game invented for the play style.

Before second edition, D&D promoted classes that fostered party conflict. With thieves and assassins, the trouble begins with class names that encourage bad behavior. What sort of thief fails to steal, and who presents richer targets than the rest of the party? What sort of assassin fails to murder?

As soon as thieves and assassins reached playtesting in 1974, the Greyhawk campaign run by D&D’s co-creator Gary Gygax saw trouble. On the EN World forums Gary reminisced, “One or two assassin PCs were played, but the party was always chary about them. Minor pilfering of party treasure was tolerated but having a PC offed by an assassin was most annoying. That happened once, maybe twice, with the offending PC then leaving the game, the player returning as a different character.”

Even as late as 1985’s Unearthed Arcana, the original barbarian class provoked trouble: “Barbarians in general detest magic and those who use it,” Gary wrote. “They will often seek to destroy magic items, and if successful, they receive an experience point award as if they possessed the destroyed items.” What could possibly go wrong?

The designers of D&D’s second edition started moving away from classes with names that encouraged trouble. In a podcast recalling second edition’s design, Steve Winter says, “The assassin went away because we had seen through letters from customers and talking to people so many cases of assassins ruining campaigns. People who played assassins felt like that was carte blanche to murder their fellow player characters. We got all the time letters from people asking what do I do with this player? He wants to play an assassin, but he keeps assassinating the other PCs.”

In a Dragon magazine issue 118 article outlining changes coming in second-edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, designer David “Zeb” Cook writes, “The assassin is a goner—virtually guaranteed. It is highly unlikely that any amount of appeal will save his neck. He is disruptive to party harmony and, more importantly, presents the wrong image about AD&D games.”

The thief also inspired in-party conflicts. Steve explains, “When you’re sitting around the table and the thief player is getting a little bored, and there is another PC standing right in front of him… I can’t count the times that I was at the table and somebody was like, ‘I’m going to pick his pocket.’ And right away everyone is like, ‘Oh don’t, please don’t,’ because everyone knows it’s just going to cause problems within the party.”

“He’s a thief! He steals from everyone and ruins friendships,” Zeb wrote. But thieves reflected better on AD&D than assassins and offered a more popular archetype, so Zeb defended the class. “This is more a problem of how the player is using the thief, not the class itself.”

Nonetheless, the class name inspired thieving. Second edition started a rebranding by making thieves a type of rogue. The Player’s Handbook explains, “The character classes are divided into four groups according to general occupation: Warrior, Wizard, Priest and Rogue.” By third edition, “rogue” permanently replaced “thief” as a class name.

Related: The Thief’s Strange Trip from Non-Combatant to Battlefield Domination

Related: A role-playing game player’s obligation


81 thoughts on “Why Dungeon & Dragons Dropped Assassins and Renamed Thieves

  1. Quiiliitiila

    Sounds like bad players, not classes. Playing an assassin doesn’t even remotely mean they need to kill other PCs, nor do theives need to steal from their companions.

    Additionally, with a decent group, multiple alignments of the good/evil axis makes for some of the most amazing roleplay. Players who can’t deal with anyone who doesn’t agree with them are ultimately the ones who bring low the spirit of the game, not the players who try to foster different alignments and views.

      1. Quiiliitiila

        I get it, some people only like playing games where all the players are virtually the same alignment and there’s no diversity in thought. But ultimately blaming classes for player actions is inane at best.

        Take the assassin class again for example, there is NO reason a player who is running one would need to kill another player. Nothing in the rules states shey should or gives rewards for PvP conflict. The assassin players who are killing their fellow PCs are just being idiots and fostering a toxic form of conflict.

        It’s incredibly easy for a DM to make a guild or organization that an assassin character could be a part of which gives them the opportunity to utilize their skills without feeling left out or the need to kill randomly.

        1. Max

          I sold my original PH long ago, so I can’t quote it for you. However, I can tell you that the rules as written encouraged party strife. I played a couple of assassins and had to actively go against the class description to fit in a party.
          Assassins were great for one-on-one sessions.

          1. Shadowspawn

            Encouraged, yes, but didn’t outright state that your only targets could be party members…in fact, the book only incentivizes the killing by the experience gained based on levels (not noting for or against party kills, mind). You could very easily play an assassin as a thief back then (clever RP to throw suspicion off yourself and your given Evil alignment) and not assassinate a single target…and then frame the necessary kills (at high levels, you were required to kill certain high-ranking assassins to advance in level) as something else (retaliatory strike for an “unprovoked” attack by the assassins, for example…just not telling the party *why* they attacked in the first place).

          2. Travis Farrar

            I’m looking at my AD&D PHB right now and there is nothing in the Assassin or Thief mechanics or descriptions that encourages the PC to Target, or rewards the PC for targeting, party members. It’s a simple matter for a player to adopt the idea that while their PC embraces a profession with a moral gray area, they are not required to practice that profession on their friends and comrades.

          3. mikemonaco

            And fighters always have to pick fights with other PCs, amirite?
            A lot of players definitely assume that thieves need to pickpocket otherp layers, and backstab, but there is nothing in the rules that encourages it

        2. Angel of the Dawn

          I agree with you, Quiil.

          It’s not like anyone picks an assassin or a thief and then says, “Hey, the description of the class suggest I should be a problem player.” The people that pick those classes and then use them to create party conflict were likely going to do that in some form anyway.

          A very easy way to avoid inter-party conflict is direct the players to create characters amenable to group play, regardless of class or race or alignment. Everyone agrees to this before play. If they protest that this is an unfair abrogation of their player agency, explain that the game isn’t about their character, the game is about the group. Politely invite them to find another table if conflict with other players is their motivation for playing.

          It’s worth stating the difference between player conflict and character conflict. Not all intra-party conflict is bad, and in fact I think some amount of this is necessary. A lot of really good roleplay can come from PCs with a diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. But everyone has to be a willing party to the conflict. No player should have fun at other players’ expense. So if the paladin’s player and the rogue’s player like having their characters bounce off one another — the rogue stealing from the paladin, who tolerates it in the hopes of redeeming the rogue — that’s great stuff.

          Honestly, changes to the class names are purely semantic, and didn’t magically fix problem players. That’s done at the table level.

          (As an aside, 5E reintroduced both the thief and the assassin as archetypes of the rogue class.)

      2. John Paine

        I don’t get this response. Quiiliitiila is completely correct.

        Being an assassin as a class implies that is your profession and you accept contracts to kill people. It doesn’t imply that you randomly kill people. It’s business. And killing your business associates (the party) would require quite the business opportunity to be worth it.

        Stealing from the party makes slightly more sense for a thief. But no one is going to keep hanging around someone who steals from them. So common sense dictates that you don’t steal from the party unless you are trying to get kicked out or killed by another party member. Same would go for a Barbarian who keeps breaking everyone’s expensive magic items. By the 2nd or 3rd time, that character would be asked to leave the party.

        D&D may offer a sandbox for you to act in ways that you would never act in real life. But just like real life, it’s still a cooperative endeavor. And if you can’t summon a base level of decency towards your partners, then they will no longer be your partners. It would be preferable that people just don’t cause the trouble in the first place. But just like in real life, they can and should just suffer reasonable consequences to being disruptive if they do. First as a character, and then as a player if they won’t stop playing disruptive characters. The response is the same. “Okay, we don’t like that. Do it again and you’re gone.”

    1. Sapphire Crook

      I mean, most Thieves Guilds tend to be written as having rules against stealing from guild members and such. Same should go for people who stop you from dying and getting arrested on a daily basis.
      Any thief or assassin with common sense knows its a trick you pull once; after that you’re either rich/successful, dead or on a redemption arc. And it better be for a reward worth potentially destroying this lifeline forever. Not 5 gp.

    2. Joshua Hardee

      I’ll second this. Assassins aren’t *murderers*. As Terry Pratvhett wrote, “NIL MORTIFI, SINE LVCRE”. If you do the job without someone paying you (and without a sense of STYLE) you aren’t an assassin, you’re just a common thug.

      (Also, who walks into an ALL DROW campaign and doesn’t expect the party to…well. DO WHAT DROW DO. I mean, incestuous bickering and petty betrayals are literally the while race’s shtick. )

    3. internerdj

      Also a problem with the DM, a player who only kills his party members is playing a serial killer not an assassin. A player playing an assassin needs a story reason for the targets. A player who is ruining fun with their choices needs a conversation, and the DM is most likely the one who will be starting that. I had a 2e player who was a necromancer and a griefer, things would have gone much smoother if I’d just had the conversation early.

    4. Redecorator

      I agree 90%. I would, however, add in that some expression of ground rules on player and party expectations can go a LONG way to ensuring that everyone has a good time.

      In the same fashion, there may be good pilots and bad pilots but everyone gets runway lights and a tower to guide them in. Set up the lights in advance and you’ll save the tower a lot of grief.

      I can’t fault a player who comes up with an idea that they don’t know is a bad one (well, maybe fault them a little but still, the issue can be sidestepped).

    5. Noel Fallstrom

      I agree that it is the fault of the players. However, the first step in any successful campaign should be to consider why your characters are adventuring together in the first place and what the players enjoy. When a group plays with a thief it should either be a trusted friend and thieves generally don’t steal from friends or it is a reluctant ally where the party never leaves themselves exposed and keeps the thief sleeping in a separate room and is never chosen to keep watch. When the expectations are different within the same group, it always leads to an unsatisfactory play experience.

  2. Jade Catt-Dean

    Two centuries later, and we still villify General Arnold for behavior that most of us boil down to ‘he was a traitor’. His story is nowhere near that simple, and he deserves better.

    1. Jonathan

      He was though? He sided against the US, leading troops to kill Americans, including people who surrendered.

      1. Jade Catt-Dean

        I see. So because he lead troops to kill Americans, including people who surrendered, we should forget all of his contributions to this country and ignore any mitigating circumstances for his behavior, right?

        It’s a good thing we’ve never had any other examples of Americans turning traitor and taking up arms against their neighbors. I mean, could you imagine if teachers from the country’s primary military academy willfully chose to kill their colleagues, students, and former subordinates?

        Lee, Beauregard, Jackson, Forrest, Stuart, Longstreet, Bragg, Pickett, and others. Arnold merits a boot memorial, for the part of him that died in service to this country, and the Confederate traitors are lionized in monuments, the myth of the lost cause, and reenactment. Military installations are named for these traitors. Might we give Gen. Arnold some consideration?

        1. Blackbird

          “All these bad people have monuments, why not this guy too?” is a pretty bad argument to be making. None of the Confederates should have memorials, Lee himself went on record when they lost the war saying that no one should even fly the Confederate flag anymore.

          1. Jade Catt-Dean

            Yes, it would be, but that wasn’t my objective. Perhaps I didn’t articulate it well, but I was attempting to heap scorn on the idea that continued vilification of Arnold was justified because ‘he was (a traitor), though’.

            None of these men should be celebrated, but I fail to see the reason Arnold should be especially vilified.

  3. alphastream

    In my very first campaigns we had two players where one would play a thief. Before long, he would start stealing from us. The other would then back him up and threaten. It was a source of friction in our Temple of Elemental Evil campaign, but when we played Barrier Peaks it escalated. Three of us tried to stop it and three wanted the freedom to do whatever they pleased. We separated, adventuring separately. That killed the game.

    I can now look back on those events and understand what this was truly about. D&D was for me, as with many players, an escape from the social challenges of my normal life. When evil characters began to push their agenda, our D&D game ceased to become a collaborative escape from the everyday and became again a social challenge to which we had to respond. Bullying was again in my life, as were systems (here, the DM) that failed to make life better.

    I understand why people (and even companies) are drawn to exploring the topic of evil PCs and stealing/murdering PCs, but it is enormously difficult to prevent problematic play at the table. It will be interesting to see if D&D unleashes a new wave of this with Descent into Avernus, or whether they provide the guidelines and motivations to keep players working together.

    Perhaps the most brilliant part in the Ashes of Athas organized play campaign I helped run for Dark Sun 4E was when Chris Sims proposed that we have everyone work for the Veiled Alliance. It instantly put every player on the same team, whether they were a Templar or a Gladiator or a nefarious rogue. Combined with a strong start that presented an obvious enemy, the players worked together despite the setting’s reputation for selfish play. In the years it ran we had a single case of bad play, and we were able to handle the situation (which came up at a convention).

    The worst problem with evil PCs or thieves stealing from fellow party members isn’t the lost items or even a death. It’s the impact it has on us as individuals, and how it upsets the very reason we came together to play and tell stories. We can introduce aspects that allow for party conflict, but when doing so we should look to find ways to mitigate that at the player level, or the game will suffer.

    1. Quiiliitiila

      A very well written response, and I’d first like to say that I agree with you. Playing in a game where there are characters who actively work against or disrupt the gameplay of other characters is in no way a fun experience, unless that’s what everyone set out to do in the first place. That being said, those who do this are bad players. A class is simply a set of rules for a character archetype, the PC comes alive with how the player chooses to play them. Assassins and Thieves can be played alongside Paladins and other good aligned characters with ease and can lead to great RP opportunities.

      Players who choose to create characters and then play them disruptively are to blame, not the classes. Any player who hides behind the class as a defense for their toxic actions is wrong and probably not suited to play in depth characters in the first place. Roll them a true neutral human fighter and call it a day.

      In the end, D&D and AD&D may have started as a simple hack and slash board game, but it evolved into a truly unique role playing game where you get to experience adventure as a wizard or a cleric or even a blackguard! How you choose to play those characters is up to you, it has never been dictated by the rulebooks or class descriptions.

      1. alphastream

        Sure, but I can choose as a designer to write mechanics that either bring people together for collaborative play or cause them to fight each other and disrupt party unity. I know which one I would rather see RPG companies design.

        1. Quiiliitiila

          Changing the rules because some players are schmucks isn’t a proportionate response in my opinion. I could also be mistaken, but nothing in the first or second edition rules specifically called for inter-party conflict in order to play a character class. Those were players merely interpreting the class description and choosing to play them a certain way.

          We may just have two different schools of thought on this though.

          1. alphastream

            To be clear, I’m speaking about designing, not DMing. As a designer I can write a rule one way or another way, and it can create different incentives for play. For an extreme example, I could publish a new spell that says “when a creature targeted by this spell considers you an ally, you gain xyz” and I’m very clearly creating an incentive towards targeting fellow “friends.”

            David’s article is examining how important names and other design elements are for play. They are extremely important. Often more important than we may realize. Any individual player or DM may or may not react to the design, but on the whole we are creating incentives for certain types of play. Assassins might be terrible at one table and not a problem at another, but what is more important is how they play overall. Overall, they caused problems.

            When I design professionally, I’m often doing so for organized play, where I get to see how the design impacts hundreds to thousands of players. I can often see the impacts at a large convention and gain a really fascinating view into how the design works. Incentives that seem unimportant can end up being very important at that macro level. It’s good to go back and examine whether the design is encouraging heroic play, camaraderie, positive escapism, and other elements that routinely are cited by players as reasons to play D&D. Any individual group can always choose otherwise, but the overall design of D&D should point its incentives in that direction, because that’s what D&D is about.

          2. Quiiliitiila

            I’ll concede that naming a class a specific way and creating abilities a specific way can foster a specific atmosphere for play. I still argue that how that character is played is always ultimately up to the player. In the instance of the thieves and assassins, there are no rules which state that anyone playing those classes need work against or blatantly betray the other players. Any player who does made the choice based off of how they interpreted the class and how they decided to run it.

            Changing the name could help, I agree, especially if it really is an issue with so many players seeing thief and thinking that they need to steal from the party. Perhaps a better solution would be adding a passage to the classes’ description which could outline different styles of play. That way players who are potentially new or slightly inept at RP could read it and not immediately jump to playing the stereotype in their own mind.

        2. Dave Dalrymple

          And as a designer, so much depends on how you present the material. When you present the Assassin as a core class that is always evil, with tables of how much targets of a given level are worth, you encourage the player to emulate the archetype of the amoral killer for hire. But when you present the Assassin as a subclass of the Rogue, with no particular alignment restrictions nor explicit pay scale, you make it more likely that the player will be a “stealthy attacker” rather than a “hired killer.”

    2. M Harold Page

      I think bullying is a very good description of this, even if that isn’t the underlying intent. By choosing to act in an inconvenient interpretation of “in character”, the problem player is really leveraging the social context to force other players out of character… because the in character response would normally involve a rope and a tree.

    1. Dan

      Not back in AD&D. There were no “subclasses”. Assassin, Cleric, Druid, Fighter, Illusionist, Magic-User, Paladin, Ranger. Bards were a bizarre hybrid multi-class that you couldn’t play until the party level was fairly high. And psionics was a completely unbalanced power system in an appendix that was tacked on to other classes, not a class of its own.

      1. Andy Butula

        Yes, and in second edition it was a thief kit, in third edition it was a Prestige class generally for rogues, and in fourth it was it’s own class again (and I think was released twice). There have always been assassins in D&D.

        The name change away from their stuck harder though.

  4. James Keyes

    I couldn’t agree any more. The concept of, “Its not personal. I am just playing my character.” Is something I have heard to justify asshole behaviour countless times over 30 years. Worse, the “expert” veteran players all agree that no one should interfere with this. It causes bad blood. And it is NOT just a few bad player, it’s a problem with the game. That said I don’t think thieves and assassins should be expelled from the game, but out the D&D rules should state clearly and unequivocally that rogues may NOT steal from party members, it’s a breach of trust and should get you expelled from the party at best, if not jailed or killed. I would make both pick pocketing and assasination attempts on party members automatically fail. The dice rolling and DCs for for such things are geared towards NPC’, no different than rolling bluff or diplomacy checks vs. party members. No need to roll dice for that, just roleplay it at the table. The DM is never going to say, “He beats your sense motive with his bluff and you believe him…not only that but his diplomacy is so great that you have decided to become his death sworn follower.” The game doesn’t work like that.

    1. Quiiliitiila

      It’s unfortunate that you’ve played with people who have this mindset, I’ve not been playing for as long as you (nearly at 17 years myself) but in that time I’ve vary rarely come across any DMs or players who encourage toxic behavior in the form of PvP conflict (unless the game was constructed for such). Any player who makes a character with the express purpose of stealing or killing other player characters is simply an asshole. Them saying that they are “just playing their character” means that they should roll another character, because obviously they made the conscious choice to RP that character as an ass.

      I have played in many games where party members were of opposing alignments and of many different classes. We always had some pretty heated RP about our ideologies or even actions, but no one ever moved against the other PCs in a way which would’ve caused unnecessary strife. As a party we were almost always unified for a singular purpose and it was that purpose that kept us together.

    2. Travis Farrar

      “but out the D&D rules should state clearly and unequivocally that rogues may NOT steal from party members, it’s a breach of trust and should get you expelled from the party at best, if not jailed or killed. I would make both pick pocketing and assasination attempts on party members automatically fail”

      Wow. No, please. I’d agree that there are situations where bad players can create problems with these classes or by over-using these excuses, but I’m never in favor of a hard rule limiting how you play your character. Besides which, rules on how to roleplay have never been a part of D&D. This is something that should be worked out between the players, and if a player doesn’t want to work within the group’s boundaries, that player should find another group. And if the group prefers internal strife and antagonism and you don’t, then find another group.

      I have been playing RPGs for 30+ years now and I’ve had only a couple of bad experiences with Rogues cheating the party or PCs fighting each other. I’ve had many more instances where these things, done correctly and between players who respect each other, have created some great moments, and in one case an inside joke (“gimme back my topaz” or just “TOPAZ!”) that has become part of our group’s interactions for about 15 years now.

      So by all means play by your own preferences and of this needs to be a rule for your personal game, go for it, but please let’s not limit the game for everyone.

  5. David Martinez

    What about the fact that 3rd edition brought assassin back as a prestige class? I played an evil campaign in 3.5 and I was the assassin who didn’t really want to go along with the party as I was chaotic evil. I just made it so I needed real incentive to “play nice” and didn’t outright plan to murder the rest of the party, though. I had to be hired and paid for the job, that’s all.

  6. EvilDan

    Having played and GMed a few evil campaigns, it’s a task for the players on how infighting and dastardly deeds go. When you pull a party of evil murder hobos through Grayhawk for example, it can be a very rewarding experience. Towns grow wise and eventually the king’s men try to hunt you down (we moved around 12th level).

    Be it blood and souls for x CE, kill ’em all as long as I get what I want NE, or they have broken their word, kill all who they know LE, if the group is right, anything can work, including assassins and anti-paladins.

    I miss 1st Ed.

  7. Billiam or Jimothy, whichever you prefer.

    In my experience (only played with groups that we’re all close friends) the words “I’m just playing my character” aren’t always bad. It’s the players who overplay or play a caricature of what they should play that are the trouble. The ones that go out of their way to be edgy and dark are the trouble. I have a PC right now who plays an evil aligned character in a group of good aligned PCs and they do just fine together. I also feel like he can make “evil” decisions without stepping on the rest of the characters toes and if he happens to then they revel in the opportunity to face a new challenge. When it comes down to it every group is different from others and sometimes someone may be the odd man out and in that case they should probably attempt to find like minded people to play with. As for PCs killing other PCs, unless they had an amazing reason that made perfect sense to the whole party then I would 100% make sure they never did it again or left the table in most cases I can think of.

    I can see how a group of people that met each other randomly at a game shop session should definitely try to fit in and go along with everyone else. It’s all situational in my mind.

  8. Russell Selkirk

    Look, this can happen with any group of players when you are playing with random or semi-random players rather than an established group that plays together regularly for years so know each other’s quirks and foibles fairly well.

    5E didn’t change the name of the class for any such reason, there changed it because the traditional roles of thief and assassin are merely subclasses of the main rogue class. It is much more streamlined that way and makes sense for the system setup.

    I’ve played in 3 separate “evil/Drow” games I’ve the last 35 years of my gaming history, they lasted anywhere from 6 months to a year on average, and we all played it to the hilt. Separate groups, though there was overlap in the two earlier runs prior to my relocation after college.

    I’ve actually played evil characters in non-evil groups and had no problems. Evil doesn’t mean asshole, it means your morals aren’t as upright (or conventional) that of those of good alignments. LE characters can work with other lawful characters as long as they have reason to do so. It gets more problematic when you have diametrically opposed alignments in the same group, but nothing should be off the table of the players are well experienced.

    1. Guile McFernis

      The idea that the assassin class was a wonton murderer was both asinine and hypocritical.

      How many times do the “good” player characters murder orcs, goblins, hobgoblins, kobolds, ogres, giants, and all other manner of intelligent, sentient, self-aware beings? Not only that but these actions, where players delve into underground lairs to commit genocide of these subterranean species, were rewarded with experience points and treasure.

      In fact, there were dozens of modules printed and entries in things like Dungeon Magazine where the players were being paid to go and kill sentient creatures. That is murder for hire, i.e., assassination.

      1. numtini

        I’d agree, but my understanding has always been this was another “clean up D&D” as part of TSR’s over-reaction to parental criticism, the Satanic Panic, etc.

    2. Eric Murotake

      I’d say that and flexibility in archetype. “Thief” almost automatically calls to mind a sneaky, fragile figure with a money fetish. Whereas “Rogue” can be any number of things, from swashbuckling dandy a la Erroll Flynn, to cunning social engineer who doesn’t steal treasure, but confidence.

    1. A

      [Pushes up nerd glasses]

      The maxim of the assassin’s creed goes, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted.”

  9. Eric Murotake

    I’d say another thing with changing “thief” to “rogue” was that it opened up more archetype possibilities. Rather than solely focusing on the thievery aspect, you can also have characters that are dashing swashbucklers or suave con artists, rather than just stealing thieves. Sure, you have that option, but it opens finesse combatants or social engineers as well

  10. Doug

    Assassin is a profession that involves killing for coin. The players confused serial killers and sociopaths with assassins.

    Likewise, thieves can still have loyalties. This was 100% a fault of the players. I don’t get why this game brings out the worst in some people.

    1. Eric Murotake

      I’d say it’s the general archetype those terms inspire. Thieves are generally considered more keen on profit than people, while assassins conjure images of a person who could kill their own loved ones if the pay was good.

      1. Travis Farrar

        Assassins can be assassins for many reasons other than pay (patriotism, religious zealotry,etc.) and even if they are profit motivated, it doesn’t mean they’d kill their own mothers for money. James Bond is an assassin, for example.

    1. PK

      How so? I’m seeing an awful lot of people explaining how to run assassins and thieves in a mature way. If anything, I’m seeing the comments as an effective counterargument.

  11. William Shattuck

    My favorite character was a Ranger (dark ranger) / assassin. He lived by his own code and tho an assassin believed in his own code of honor. He would never break a trust let alone turn on his companions, however if during an encounter if he knew for fact that a companion miss there target and the range weapon survived hitting him instead. He might return it to them similarly. A bit of a mercenary, a little on the chaotic side but always true. His companions sometimes would take steps to avoid issues with NPCs because he was a valued friend/companion. I had a lot of fun and never had any issues from the group.

  12. Gaiden.17

    These are highly caricatured and one dimensional portrayals of such skill sets. Not every thief is a kleptomaniac. Not every assassin is a sociopath. In fact either likely represents the extreme minority. Even assassins are likely overwhelmingly government funded (in which case there is at least a modicum of belief/purpose to the actions and not just monetary gain or the truest cruelty – killing for the hell of it). Why isn’t Robin Hood the thief stereotype? Why isn’t a sniper the quintessential assassin? Such portrayals of PCs as those described in the article sadly reflect the player far more than the class option.

    Of note, I’m not suggesting some vast component of gamers are kleptos or sociopaths. Rather (and I am suggesting) that – at least historically – gamers have included a sizeable population of repressed individuals and the game has been a vehicle to explore and express unbound behavior. I would venture that each of the bad experiences were more about a new sensation of power by said ‘Benedicts’ notably without the social constraints experienced in real life ‘ – even if limited to the confines of a shared imaginary mental construct.

    These were acts of rebellion and childish ones at that: taking out frustration at the world around them on their friends in a safe space (no matter if they or anyone else ag the table realized it). The excuse of just playing one’s character is disingenuous (absent the comic relief of a kender of course). But someone really trying to play a kleptomaniac would seek to understand what living as a kleptomaniac is really like: it’s an addiction and it tends to be ego dystonic. An assassin would be even more difficult to ‘just play’. Read American Sniper. Consider that a non-sociopathic assassin would be haunted by those he or she has killed – even if the acts were committed for that character’s perception of the greater good. I’m not convinced at all that such ‘just playing the character’-players are actually trying to role play.

  13. William Santos

    Assassins and thieves need DM management if in the hand of the wrong player. Good players don’t need the constant objective thrown at them. Kind of reminds me of kender handlers from Dragonlance and maho sorcerers from Legend of the five Rings. Both are bad things, they can be powder kegs.

    1. Shaun Jones

      I’m hearing a lot of stuff that doesn’t make sense to me. You cannot blame a class for a players bad behavior and/or a DMs failure to police it.
      If you have a Thief or Assassin engaging in disruptive behavior, like stealing from or killing party members, it is up to the DM to handle it, or allow the party to handle it. Removing or omitting classes that invite conflict takes something away from the game. This includes ruining game time for people who like those classes, but know how to utilize the PC.

  14. Winter

    I have to admit that I’m a bit in the bad players, not bad classes boat. Even for assassins. The main difference between (to my mind at least) an assassin and a murderer is that assassins generally speaking are paid or otherwise receiving something from their kills beyond whatever the newly deceased has on their person. So it’s not in character to randomly kill ones team mates.

  15. Jeff Fox

    My very first character was an assassin that I played as a thief for the party as a cover it was quite easy. The DM would just tell me from time to time that I received a message from the guild of a contract in the city we were in and it would become a sub quest for me to track and kill the target. The trick was doing it in a way that my other party members wouldn’t figure it out.

  16. Brittany Conover

    An assassin is someone who’s hired to kill people, specific people, not someone who goes around killing everyone. Sounds more like someone trying to use the class to be a murder hobo, either being too dumb to realize it’s a dumb excuse or just ignoring logic. You excuse the thief class saying “it’s the players not the class”, well it’s the same for assassin.

  17. Riftsrunner

    When I played, we had a DM that encouraged party banter, however, he made interparty shenanigans extremely difficult. If you were a thief, for example, if you attempted to steal from the party, he levied harsh penalties to succeed, saying that the party would always have an eye out for the thief practicing his trade on them. And a failed attempt resulted in further penalties because the other PC’s would break a finger or arm essentially sidelining the character for a while. Eventually the players learn that party thieves don’t take the chance of ruining their fun by griefing and stealing from the party.

    When I played an assassin, I had the DM designate a few NPCs in their campaign as contracted hits for me to assassinate and would place certain conditions on how they were to be killed (make it look like an accident, make them disappear with no trace, bring back proof they were dead, etc). This made it difficult at times with the party as I would need to kill an NPC in a way that the other players couldn’t do (I remember an NPC that need to be killed with a backstab and have their eyes removed, but no other wounds). I was also disincentified from party killing by the DM telling me that I would always be under scrutiny by the party and it would be extremely unlikely I would make it out alive. (After we stopped playing, he told me he would have made sure I got caught and penalized me. It would have played out as a really unlucky set of rolls of the dice as I failed and my party got criticals when they attacked me)

    1. Travis Farrar

      Very articulate argument. Thank you for contributing. I’m positive you’ve swayed the opinions of those with whom you disagree.

  18. Tim

    I wrote Dungeon Magazine back in the day about Assassins elimination from 2nd ed. Their logic was just as flawed 20 years ago. Assassin is an archetype, not a license to table flip RP games with friends.

  19. G-Block

    I once played a Neutral-aligned assassin – only because his stats weren’t good enough to qualify him to be a ranger. He was really a ranger wannabe with the tracking non-weapon proficiency. He only used his assassination skills to kill monsters and humanoids like gnolls and goblinkin.
    But then I played a Neutral Evil magic-user who convinced the rest of the party to set upon the Lawful Evil (and higher level) magic-user who was the DM’s pet player and had made a couple of deals with devils for extra magic gear. Sweet gear, but douche bag character. He had to go. That was the last game of the campaign.

  20. Carl Torvik

    Given that Assassins are killers for hire, it always seemed to me that they should be the LEAST likely one to attack their party. No one is paying them to do it – so why would they? (Unless the NPCs are paying them – in which case the problems are the DMs fault, not the players.)

    Anyone who blamed party conflict on the Assassin class was just looking for an excuse to cause problems – and any evil character would probably have served as well (or better).

    1. Carl Torvik

      To put it another way – Assassins may the the ONLY evil character you should allow in your campaign. They kill only when hired to kill, they have no reason to attack their party, they come with ready-made attachments to the NPCs and the world (guilds, contacts, associates of former targets, etc.) – and they have a reason to want a gang of people around to protect them and occasionally even help them on a difficult hit.

  21. M Harold Page

    Nice article! It’s worth remembering that many DMs are young/inexperienced, and that there’s often a complex social context wrapped around the game – player X is player Y’s boyfriend, the kid next door can’t be excluded etc. So it’s good to have some built in support for the DM’s efforts to keep things on track.

    1. Steve Killgore

      I run a world of Greeks and Vikings under 1E/2E rules and my most recent campaign chapter had an assassin character, we agreed to envision him as a duelist for hire.

  22. Dan

    Wouldn’t it have made more sense to link back to your previous post on the topic instead of copying the first half nearly verbatim, picture included?

  23. Technomad

    The thing is, quite a few character classes have the potential for major disruption. Clerics and paladins come to mind here—particularly if played by people who _want to_ disrupt things. Having a cleric or paladin who is constantly trying to get others, who may not even follow his god or be of his alignment, to act exactly according to HIS rules is a recipe for trouble. And if I were playing an assassin, I’d not want to randomly kill people, particularly the people I’m counting on to keep me alive.

  24. Mark Hamner

    Benedict is the only one that actually got it. Sounds like everyone else betrayed the game goal because their imagination couldn’t cope.
    Beware players and DMs that are fully contrary to the game design. “How dare you fully dive into the theme and backstab in a backstabbing focused game.” Lol

  25. PK

    This has never been a problem for me. I actually struggle to understand how it’s a problem- then I remember there was an awful lot of children playing D&D back then, DMs included. Ah, right.

    This is how I deal with all these issues:
    – As a Thief, you are expected to be able to skim a little bit off the top of any loot that you personally risked your life to get. If you are the guy that defuses every trap, you get to be rewarded. If anyone has any concerns with that, we will talk. HOWEVER, pickpocketing other players will automatically fail, unless either the other player is ok with it succeeding (or having the potential to succeed) or if the Thief is under the influence of an enchantment making the character irrational. In reality, the other players almost always grin and say “go on. roll.”

    – Assassins are not random killers, I make sure to ensure that players are on the same page and realize they do *jobs* not random murders, and killing PCs is just, not an option. There has been a lot said about this so I do not need to continue.

    – As a general rule the party is expected to work together. If one truly cannot figure out a reason to work with the party, one may always retire their characters. These days I allow retirement early and often and treat it as a victory in it’s own way, similar to the PC game PIRATES, where the more you accomplish during your adventuring life the better off you end up being. In some occasions, such as with open tables, it may be possible to create a second character that can, for example, adventure with the Paladin when the Paladin is around, while still playing the main character. These cases are incredibly rare! They are the extreme situations!

    – Speaking of that, I have more issues with Paladins that cannot tolerate small evils than I do with Assassins and Thieves causing problems. They’re the only one that *actually* has incompatibilities with other party members written into their class. I’m as likely to ask the Paladin to retire as the other way around.

    – That said, evil characters get scrutinized and I make sure the party is ok with them joining, and in fact these days I mostly run using the Lawful/Neutral/Chaotic system which ignores pinning down Good and Evil entirely. Chaotic characters can have issues but it’s harder to justify stabbing the party in the back with “I’m Chaotic” than “I’m Evil”.

    – Finally, I try to make sure everyone is comfortable at the table and steer the content away from subject matter that players find uncomfortable, either through skipping the details or by forbidding entirely by talking it over with the players.

    TL;DR: Use common sense, prioritize the group working together unless the group is all in on conflict, make retiring a character appealing rather than a punishment, and don’t be afraid to talk things over with the group to find what is off limits. This has served me well enough.

  26. Kent

    Assassins are best used as agents of the DM. Slip a piece of paper to your agent,

    “Bubblecheeks the Halfling is getting on my nerves. Eliminate with prejudice and humour. +3 xps”

  27. Lord Rime

    Of course, this article is somewhat undercut by the fact that in 5th edition the Rogue class has several archetypes, and right in the Player’s Handbook two of them are Thief and Assassin. And also all Rogues regardless of archetype learn Thieves’ Cant.

  28. Gary Kelly

    I played the old assassin class where you had to roll to assassinate someone every few lvs your percentage went up

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  30. Halfdave

    So first, you are not going to run a party with goods and have an assassin in the party!
    Second, a thief or assassin in the party is there to perform for the party of neutrals and evils. If one were try to kill a member of the party the others would try to kill the offender, this is simple that the party has a goal.


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