Game: Assassin’s Handbook
Publisher: Green Ronin
Review Dated: 17th, September 2002
Reviewer’s Rating: 5/10 [ Perfectly acceptable ]
Total Score: 5
Average Score: 5.00
One of my favourite companies in the d20 scene at the minute are Green Ronin. The quality of their writing is top of the line and their products are wonderfully professional. The Assassin’s Handbook also has great writing and a professional layout and quality to it – but the concept falls flat on it’s face.
I think class books are a solid idea. When they’re done right class books can help players and GMs alike to add flesh to the barebones of character concepts inherent in the class. When a class book is done right it can help steer people away from clichés and yet keep them safely in the realms of believable concepts. The same is true of race books, Green Ronin’s own Dwarf book, Hammer and Helm is a great example of this. The Assassin’s Handbook is not.
Yes, the Assassin’s Handbook is a core character class book. One thing the book does is to move the assassin from a prestige class to a core class. This means that much of the new mechanics for assassins in the Handbook is mutually exclusive with “standard” assassins. Even if you like the Assassin’s Handbook more than I do you’ll have to wait until your next campaign, your next campaign suited to assassins, before you can use it. I’m not at all convinced that the assassin is a core character class and this certainly does not bolster my opinion of the book. You’re playing a trained killer – that’s a fighter. You’re playing someone who conceal himself in the shadows and then time his attack with deadly skill – that’s a rogue. You’re playing someone who can stealthily approach their target, aid their approach or escape with a bit of magic and strike accurately with missile from afar – that’s a ranger. You’re playing someone who kills selectively and according to deeply held religious convictions – that’s a paladin. A mixture of any of these – a multi-class. A specialised form of any of these – a prestige class. In addition, leaving the assassin as a prestige class avoids the problem of the “elite rookie”. If your PC is a member of the hometown’s small militia and has some experience with combat and melees then you can play a level one fighter. If your PC is an apprentice to the city’s wizard and you can cast a small collection of petty magic then you can play a level one wizard. What’s a level one assassin? An assassin in training with practise in killing unimportant people only? That doesn’t sit so well. Further more, to play this book’s assassin and make full use of the character’s spell list you’ll need to be able to get your hands on Pocket Grimoire Arcane. The advantage of turning the assassin in to a basic character class is that you can then make prestige classes especially suited to it and that’s what happens in the Handbook.
There are three prestige classes in chapter two and they’re pretty good. The basics are all done right; nothing’s missing from the requirements, they’re detailed through 10 levels, have decent features and explained clearly. The Fida’i are those religious zealots who become killers to further their cause. The Houri are courtesans and consorts who are also deadly spies and killers. The Shadow Mages, the least of the ‘real life’ inspired of the prestige classes, introduce nice touches like the Shadow Familiar and the Shadow descriptor for new spells. I do like the Shadow Mage prestige class and there are plenty of other things I like in the Handbook. The positive discovers in the book save the review score from the abyss and starts the climb back towards average.
The third chapter of the book contains a couple of pages of new spells. The spells are an interesting mix; some of them are clearly high fantasy, high effect spectaculars whereas others have a distinctly low fantasy, nitty gritty feel to them. High fantasy spells include Smoke Form, a scarily low third level assassin spell, and Void Armor, one of the new shadow described spells. Examples of the low fantasy style can be found in Fast Escape and Part Crowd.
The following chapters, in order, present a page or two of new equipment, skills, feats and poisons. The new equipment, skills and feats are what you’d expect from a D&D targeted d20 book but the poisons are not. The poisons warrant a mention. Two types of poisons are used in the Handbook; fantasy and real life poisons – but it’s really the rule style that matters. Standard d20 poisons act straight away and have a secondary effect just a minute later. In real life poisons can act very much more slowly and this, as Green Ronin rightly point out, can be just the effect the assassin wants. So, to address this and to give players (and DMs) the best of both worlds, the Assassin’s Handbook presents two different subsections for poisons and presents the effects of each as suited. For example, Hemlock’s initial onset is within 30 minutes and the secondary effect an hour later.
By this point in the book we’ve reached a short history lesson. In a few pages we run around the world and briefly look how assassins and myths of assassins arose. This works quite well since it brings a wider scope of character to the assassin. It makes a point that those weird guys who dress in black because it looks cool, roam from city to city and ‘assassinate’ people just to stay in practise are as rare as they are insane. Yet, annoyingly, this seems too common in some fantasy RPGs. More likely is that the assassin is a religious or political killer and that they’re working with others of a kind. We’re also pretty much halfway through the 64-paged book by now.
The other half of the book is spent detailing a shadow war between two groups of assassins, the Vultur and the Sirat, who represent the political and religious motivations in turn. The complex relationship between these two groups, the key locations, people of note and interesting events are presented in a 30 or so paged campaign backdrop. I think the phrase “campaign backdrop” is more appropriate than “adventure” because there’s no series of scenes chained together to take the players from point A to point B. Instead the DM’s told what’s going on and who’s interested and they’re left to insert that into their campaign if they want. This, I believe, is the way to present all pre-written story ideas but it does strike me as a slightly strange offering in an “Assassin’s Handbook”. Stranger still is the percentage of the book that this takes up. Half. That’s awfully high. The last half of the book seems to be best used as a comprehensive example of how cults or organised assassins could work in a traditional fantasy world. It has the distinct disadvantage that you’ll only be able to use it once with any set of players. It also means you, as a DM, may find yourself handing out the book so players can create their new assassin character and telling them to wrestle the temptation and not read the last half of the book.
If you don’t like the core assassin class and if you’ve used the “campaign backdrop” in the back then there’s only a few pages left in the Handbook. The chances are that you’ll have to rule out the prestige classes too. By now you’ve lost the spells and many of the feats and skills look shaky. The poisons are good and remain good though. When judging a RPG product I always look to see if it succeeds in doing what it sets out to do. Once that’s established I can alter the over all score by adding points for quality and exceptionally attractive or clever ideas or perhaps taking off points for being too expensive, having grammar worse than mine or being entirely unoriginal. The Assassin’s Handbook doesn’t really achieve much of what it suggests it should but it does not fall on its face. I think the book has been miss-titled and wrongly branded. If the same book had been given a different cover and sold to me as a specific study of the Vultur and the Sirat for any given campaign world then I might have liked it more. In the end, though, I was able to appreciate parts and writing quality throughout. The overall effect is a decidedly middling mark for the Handbook.