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Reviews: The Assassin's Handbook
 
by Joe G. Kushner


Assassin's Handbook cover

The Assassin's Handbook

Written by David "Zeb" Cook and Wolfgang Baur
Published by Green Ronin Publishing
$14.95
64 b & w pages

The Assassin's Handbook brings the Assassin back as a core character class with lots of ways to customize and utilize them in a game. This book is not just for the players, but for the GM as well. It not only provides a range of crunchy bits in terms of feats, poisons, spells, and Prestige Classes, but also organizations that utilize them.

The book starts off with the Assassin core class. This covers all the basics, from which races prefer the career of assassin and which alignments most often crop up, to class abilities, skill points, hit dice, and how they get along with other classes. The Assassin, as presented here, is more Rogue than Fighter. They get a D6 hit die and lots of stealth based skills, as one would expect. As they progress, Assassins gain bonus feats every four levels from a select list. In this manner, players have another avenue to customize the character beyond the simple bounds of the class. This is one of the reasons why the Fighter is so popular, and has the potential to do the same for the Assassin.

In addition to his bonus feats, an Assassin gains a killing blow ability that increases in usage and power as the Assassin rises in level. The bad news is that trying to make such an attack requires a lot of concentration, much like casting a spell. This means that the Assassin opens himself up for attacks of opportunity. As he rises in level, the Assassin overcomes this vulnerability, and can use the killing blow more times per day. The Assassin also gains sneak attack, but not at first level, and some arcane spell use.

Chapter Two provides more ways to customize an Assassin character with three prestige classes: Fida'i (religious assassins), Houri (seductresses), and Shadow Mage. Two of the Prestige Classes are generally better left to GMs though, as fanatics generally don't live too long, and the role playing opportunities for the Houri may not be appropriate for all groups. To help them in their missions, the Fida'i and Houri both gain spell like abilities, as well as special bonuses based on their prospective fields. For the Fida'i, it's Convention. For the Houri, it's Pillow Talk. The former provides a bonus against mind effecting spells; the latter, a bonus with several charisma based skills. The Shadow Mage, the very playable Prestige Class, gains spellcasting ability as well as mastery over shadows through the use of darkvision, a very cool Shadow Familiar, and the bonuses to hide. This is a short chapter which could've benefited from some class combos or more Prestige Classes.

Chapter Three introduces the new spells that Assassins and Shadow Mages have access to. These spells are listed, first through fourth level, in level order and then by alphabetical order with a brief description. The problem with these spells is that some of them are too powerful. Martyr's Death kills the caster but causes all creatures within 30 feet to make a Fortitude Save or die and those that save still take 1d12 points of damage. I know it's a spell that kills the caster, but it's only 4th level. This is a spell I can see players getting real mad at the GM for using, as an NPC's life is cheap. I do see a time however when a "heroic" Assassin might use it to kill a very tough target or buy his brothers time to complete their mission. The spell Void Armor, antoher 4th level spell, gives the caster a shadow suit of masterwork full plate. Anyone who touches it suffers 1d10 subdual if they fail a Fortitude save and weapons must save against Fortitude or shatter. Again, this is another chapter that's too short and suffers from not having any spells above 4th level for Shadow Mages.

Chapter Four, Equipment, provides both mundane and magical means to augment your characters. Here, Assassins can purchase drugs like Marching Powder and Opium to augment their mental state or use wedges to hold open doors. The meat of this section is the magic items, which include weapons like shadow dagger and shadow sword which are invisible in darkness and held in the userŐs shadow like a sheath. Another drug, a magical one this time, is the hashish of paradise and the black lotus incense. Unfortunately, there are no artifacts or relics and it is once again, a short chapter consisting of only two pages. Where are the unique weapons or options to augment daggers and short swords?

The next chapter breaks into Skills and Feats. This is a bit misleading as there is but one skill, Craft Poison, which provides different poison types and the DC needed to craft them. The bulk of this chapter is new feats that Assassins can chose with their bonus feats. This includes the highly cinematic Death From Above, which provides the user a bonus to attack and damage when he leaps onto an opponent. Other feats make poisons more dangerous like Extend Poison, Empower Poison, Maximize Poison, Poison Focus, Poison Use and Quicken Poison. Another one of my favorites, Weapon Panache, isn't necessarily limited to Assassins. This feat utilizes the user's Charisma instead of Strength on attack rolls to reflect his confidence with the weapon.

A Dose of Death
Chapter Six, Poisons, provides a wide range of real world and fantasy based poisons. Want to know what Black Widow Venom does? How about Arsenic? Hemlock? These real world poisons are listed in a massive table with poison name, type, save, initial damage, secondary damage and price for quick reference. Some of these poisons are capable of inflicting permanent ability damage. Some of the fantasy poisons are truly nasty, like Angel Kiss, a poison that doesn't take effect until the poisoned person falls asleep. Necropotent Elixir is another brutal concoction, used mainly to target arcane spell casters as it not only inflicts blindness and deafness, but has a damaging effect on Intelligence.

Chapter Seven, "Among Shadows & Blood," is a great section for GMs who are unfamiliar with where assassins come from in history and what role they served. It also serves to introduce the Vultur and Sirat, one a group of professionals, the other fanatics. The text touches on the solitary assassin, but notes that such deranged individuals are perfect for GMs to customize.

The introduction to the Vultur is built on in Chapter Eight. The organization is broken into different kingdoms. Families are ruled by the Black Council, the highest authority among the Vultur. This Council determines if the Vultur will accept assassination of the Emperor or his heirs. These families have to be careful though as they are a tool and one that gets hunted down by the people who once used them to handle their own problems. The authors provide the reader with information on each kingdom, including the different individuals at different power levels, what their specialty is, background information, allies, and enemies. With all these Kingdoms and their sub-families, the GM should have no problem customizing them to his own campaign. However, all this information can overwhelm a campaign if the GM isn't careful and adds all of this material at once.

For those who need more ideas on how to incorporate the Vultur, Chapter Nine provides details not only on finding the Vultur, but also on how much assassinations cost. Of course, when playing an Assassin character, there are rules for joining the Vultur. There are also rules that the Vultur must follow, The Code, which is pretty simple stuff that probably applies to most guilds of Assassins.

Chapter Ten provides the deeper details of the Sirat, a fanatical cult of Assassins that seeks to return the followers of the God of Retribution to the Straight Path, a path free of corruption from kings who buy justice. These Assassins were exiled from the mainland, but were able to take over a mountain fortress. Those who know a few things about Middle East history or Al-Qadim might find this idea familiar. The Straight Path is further defined as the essence of Law that must be followed to the littlest detail. This belief system is even provided a Domain with granted powers and Domain spells. Just as the Vultur have their Kingdoms, the Sirat have their leaders. The Lord of the Mountain has his Eyes. There are seven Eyes of the Prophet, one for each of the smaller citadels; Faith, Truth, Justice, Purity, Law, Sacrifice, Courage. Each eye has a separate task and background information on their role and rise to power within the organization.

The first map in the book also makes its appearance here with an overview of the Valleys of the Sirat with the Eagle's Eye fortress and numerous smaller castles and villages within that valley. A larger map shows the Eagle's Eye fortress in greater detail.

The term Fida'i comes into use again in Chapter Eleven. Here, the term refers to the organization of killers who are held in high regard by the Sirat. These individuals are tested physically and mentally prior to entrance to the organization and once they've become Fida'i, have to make many sacrifices to insure that they follow their proper path. For example, they can have no close friends, no lovers. No marriage, and no boasting of their association. When not on duty, they barrack with others of their organization. In exchange though, they're honored with the task of carrying out assassination in the name of the Sirat, and living better lives than others in the valley.

In addition to providing details about the organization as a whole, the section also includes notes on how players can join. At the same time, the book warns that joining may not be appropriate for all campaigns, since it's not joining an order of mercenaries, but an organization devoted to the Straight Path. In addition, there are bounties on different individuals within the organization. Bring in the Lord of the Mountain and claim 100k. Not bad for a day's work.

Another mention is made of the war between Assassins as the Sirat and the Vultur do not get along. See, the Vultur originally only killed some within the Sirat because they were paid to. The Sirat found this a little insulting and returned the favor with religious vengeance. Now the Vultur are a little annoyed that the Sirat took it personally, and so on, to point at which one must wipe the other out.

Chapter Twelve gives the GM one last set of tools: pregenerated Assassin NPCs. These characters include Assassins of different ranks and classes and provide full stats and background information for GMs to flesh out their own campaigns. Assassins range from the Lord of the Mountain himself to a lone Assassin Sirat.

Conclusions
So what could be done to make this book better? I thought that there were too few Assassin Prestige Classes for one thing. Three is good, but the standard that the Shaman's Handbook set was much higher and left me expecting more from Assassin's. In addition, the Shaman's Handbook set other standards that Assassin's fails to follow. The first is information on using Assassins in Freeport. The next is no Character Folio Addendum. The last is the lack of an index.

The spell list suffers the same problem. While it's adequate for the Assassin class, it's short on spells for the Shadow Mage, which would have access to higher level spells than those listed. More information on making your own assassin's guilds would've been more appropriate than listing the two guilds here. I also dislike the black tables with white background, as their rounded edges and gross contrast are just ugly. Lastly, there should have been some information on using monsters as assassins. I'm not talking about huge rampaging monsters that attack of their own right, but rather, small creatures trained by a master to kill their prey. You know: scorpions, snakes, spiders -- the poisonous little guys that no one thinks about.

The layout is simple: two columns of text broken up by illustrations with a border of skulls on the outer edge. For an example of internal art, the back cover piece is in black and white internally. I personally don't like most of Anthony Waters work, but find that the work of Michael Phillippi more than makes up for it. That you can check out over at his part of the Green Ronin gallery. Some of the best artwork I've seen in a role playing product is in Assassin's. The maps are clear and highly readable.

I like the concept of Assassins as a core class more than I do the Shaman. However, the Shaman class provided more tools for making the class part of your own setting and utilizing it with existing Green Ronin products, whereas The Assassin's Handbook presents lots of background information that could've went elsewhere (the website) and made room for more rules. Still, the book does make the Assassin a core class; it does include some spells, some prestige classes, some magic items, and lots of poisons. I'm hoping that some web supplements will fill in the gaps in this book. If that happens, consider my rating a bit higher.

Until then, consider your options for assassination carefully and watch out for those Houri. Their pillow talk is murder.


 

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