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L5R has the most specific example in my immediate memory. In one game, the players were in a diplomatic situation and a Shosuro Shinobi (ninja) was sneaking around to stir the pot. This was a starting level game, and some of the players had not taken Investigation (and thus couldn't explode their rolls for being untrained). Even at a rudimentary level without increasing anything the Shosuro would easily beat every roll the party made that didn't have a void point backing it. Therefore the players felt like they had no chance at winning.

Now, I run a fairly sandbox world and for players not in the know I throw out overt "don't poke the bear" warnings and remind them that min/maxing their characters can leave them open to just such an attack. However, I don't use them because the players don't really get to do anything, but I want to incorporate ninja\shinobi that are more than just random dudes and dudettes in black PJs.

Sometimes the bad guys would realistically send some skilled and sneaky assassins against the PCs and by the rules it's hard to see how they wouldn't easily succeed in wiping them out.

TL;DR How can a GM use competently undetectable characters as antagonists without it being perceived as unfair to the players?

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"Because protagonist"? More seriously, I'm not sure this can be answered as system-agnostic—I can think of a number of games in which NPC assassins exist just fine without bending the rules or invoking GM fiat. There is something particular about a type of game that makes this problematic, maybe? – SevenSidedDie Feb 27 '13 at 0:56
Wait, you mean you don't send assassins to kill the PCs while they sleep? Why? – Cristol.GdM Feb 27 '13 at 1:31
@Scrollmaster In the OP's example, I suspect the answer is "Because they would immediately cause an effectively unavoidable TPK and thus end the campaign in an unsatisfying manner." I believe the OP is trying to reconcile the meta-goal of ensuring enjoyable and satisfying play with a conflicting desire to maintain a realistic and believable world-setting, without sacrificing too many interesting potential narratives. – GMJoe Feb 27 '13 at 1:52

10 Answers 10

up vote 4 down vote accepted

Make sure the assassin is warranted. Some previous player behavior should have warranted someone coming to kill them. Note that this doesn't have to be for notorious reasons; a do-gooder with enough reputation could become a target for assassination.

Drop hints that assassins exist. Perhaps the assassin scouts the party in a bar, interacting with them enough to gauge their strengths/weaknesses. Have the PCs encounter assassinated NPCs (maybe killed with a specific, rare poison). Put up rewards to catch the assassins.

You want some clues that something is going on, to give the players a chance to prepare. Speaking of which...

Is the party keeping a watch? If they aren't setting their own guards, barring the door, or setting a magical field of protection, they're practically asking to be assassinated. If not, consider having an inept assassin fumble the job first to get them on their toes.

Make sure to follow the games rules for surprise attacks. Most systems have some ability that allows you to detect a surprise attack, and get at least a partial reaction. Don't deny the PCs their listen, spot, notice, etc checks.

Finally, be prepared for success. A player may be frustrated if their character dies, but don't just leave them to roll a new one. Have an NPC available to perform a resurrection (for the right fee), and consider letting the player play an NPC while his character is dead.

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This question has been heavily edited since my answer. Make sure to check out the other great answers too! – Ryre Dec 5 '13 at 22:33

As I understand your question: sending a basic Assassin to kill the players seems unfair, but not being able to send Assassins seems unfair too.

Why do Assassins seem unfair?

Yes, sending an assassin to murder the PCs in their sleep is kind of a jerk move. Because you are using a challenge that your characters can't overcome.

However, this is not limited to Assassins. You could create a lot of "unfair" challenges: a courtier or diplomat could put the characters on the "to kill" list of every single Clan. Or just have enough Status to order the characters to kill themselves. A hacker in Shadowrun could put the PCs on the FBI's "Most Wanted" list. Or just find someone suffering from leprosy, and send him rub his face on their clothes. Conversely, a bunch of fighters would also be an unfair challenge for a group of courtiers.

By specifically targeting an aspect where the characters can't defend themselves, you are essentially making an impossible challenge. You can, yes. Why don't you do it? Because then it wouldn't be an interesting Challenge.

An interesting Challenge can be overcome.

Think about it. Why isn't any daimyo sending their whole army after the PCs? Why are the PCs always facing in battle things that are roughly as strong as them? Since you are the GM, why don't you just send a dozen half-demon half-dragon half-elemental Tarrasques? Or simply declare "Well, brain aneurysm. Bam." ?

Because that would be boring.

One of the GM roles is to create interesting challenges for the players. And one of the first rules to design interesting challenges is not to make them impossible, but not to make them too easy either. You mentioned Assassin PCs, but surely you don't let them assassinate anyone that easily? Surely there are walls to pass, guards to avoid, insomniac wife to neutralize? Surely if you allowed an Assassin PC to automatically assassinate people without having to do anything, they would complain that it was boring?

Assassins can be an interesting challenge.

Therefore, the GM has to design challenges that can be overcome. But assassins seem like they can't be overcome, right?

Yup. So your role as a GM is to twist the situation so that the players can overcome it. Maybe they have guards, or an insomniac wife, whose murder will make some noise? Maybe the assassin will murder the wrong person? Maybe someone will warn them that the assassin is coming?

The PCs are not living in a vacuum. If they do something that give a motive to someone who has an available assassin, they should be able to realize it (why do you think Shadowrun characters like being anonymous?).

Alternatively, you can just balance your Assassins the same way you balance fighting encounters. But instead of having opponents with roughly the same fighting abilities as the PCs, send assassins with hiding skills roughly on the same level as your characters detecting skills.

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My answer to this is that they can. There's nothing stopping you creating NPCs that are effective assassins. But I would turn it around and ask the question 'Why would you want to?'. If doing so creates an interesting situation or twist in a story that you and the players involved are happy with then go ahead and do it.

I actually had a similar situation to this come up in a game I was running. There was a well established NPC that had been travelling with the group for a very long time, and it had been demonstrated many times that she was a very effective combatent and sneaky person. One of the PCs did something that upset her so much that it was logical for her to want to kill them (it involved them putting her daughter in mortal danger). I discussed this with the player in question and put forward my observation that the logical thing the NPC would do now would be to attempt to kill his PC whilst they either weren't looking or were asleep. He was absolutely fine with this, and the plot developed along those lines. I made sure the character went out with a bang, and everyone was happy.

So yes, its possible, but make sure that everyone is happy with the consequences before you do it.

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Huge +1 for discussion! – Rob Dec 4 '13 at 16:58

I look at it from an alternate perspective. Why not?

In the end, I think it depends a lot on what kind of game you're playing, and the communication with the players.

I've played in games where it was high stakes all the time. If you weren't on your game, you ended up dead, and in many cases without a chance to strike back. The thing is- we expected that, and that expectation was our way of striking back/defending ourselves. We were also involved in the same sorts of games- basically trying to disarm/kill/otherwise take out our enemies before they did the same to us.

The thing to remember in those cases is that there are several ways to foil an assassin- but in the end, given adequate incentive and not caring about Pyrrhic victories, it's always in the assassin's favor. So eventually, through more careful planning on the opposing side's part, and sheer chance, someone is going to die.

But if that's the game, then that's just the stakes being called.

On the other hand, if the PC's don't expect it, then you're taking advantage of GM fiat to play on a whole different playing field than they are. And you should expect the fallout that accompanies that. There's a certain amount of trust and a social contract with between the players and the GM- and that's definitely a no-no.

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For any society to work, there must be limits on what assassins can do. "If they could wear any clothes, any disguise, then what could anyone do but spend all day sitting in a small room with a loaded crossbow pointed at the door?" T. Pratchett, Night Watch. – TimLymington Mar 1 '13 at 22:33
I'd disagree with the inestimable Mr. Pratchett (haven't read that particular book). There doesn't need to be limits on what assassins can do, only what they can accomplish. If your NPCs go by the same rules as your PCs, especially in regards to unintended failure, this will be the difference. – SnakeDr68 Mar 1 '13 at 22:47

Do not let the rules shackle your story.

If you are playing to create a drama/story, then you should think of how a stealthy NPC would enhance the game play. There is rarely a need to kill someone if you can use them to further your goals. Just manipulate them into doing your bidding, or make them take the blame for something, or remove all the evidence they had of your nefarious deeds -- ever read The Spy Who Came In From The Cold?.

Besides, who said that death was the end? So, you have a total party kill... Now, the PCs are in Hell and have to get out to exact their revenge. Or maybe one of them is killed, the others get him back only to find that they ripped him from Eternal Bliss.

Even if only one PC dies, they could come back as a ghost. They could become incorporeal "guardian angel" to the rest of the party.

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Wondering why you aren't sending assassins to kill the players in their sleep is part of roleplaying. Noticing that a moderately decent assassin could manage to completely outfox the entire party does not mean the asker is suddenly not a roleplayer. – doppelgreener Feb 27 '13 at 9:50

Why would there need to be anything beyond “courtesy to the players”? This just wouldn’t be fun, so it doesn’t happen.

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I can maybe see it being fun in a Game of Thrones–type of game where life is cheap and death sudden even for popular protagonists, if as a player you controlled a big stable of characters. That's not a very common play structure though. – SevenSidedDie Feb 27 '13 at 1:43
In most games where assassinating player characters would be detrimental to play experience, the most enjoyable part of discovering there are assassins after you is discovering the assassins and foiling their assassination attempts. Depending on your GMing style, this might mean that assassination attempts simply don't target player characters in your campaign - or it might mean that any assassins that do appear happen to give away their presence or intentions through sheer bad luck or carefully-designed incompetence. – GMJoe Feb 27 '13 at 1:46

Usually, you hit the PCs on their strong point.

Lets say you found a party with all their stats, skills, abilitys, ranks, and what have you put into swords. Yep, every last one of them. There's five people in this party, and only one of them crossclassed enough to tie his shoelaces, but they're skilled enough with those swords to block bullets, disarm Edward Scissorhands, and actually win at Fruit Slice. Three guesses what part of the game these guys like.

Sending an assassin after them is bad form. But so is sending a diplomat, anything incorporeal, or even a guy with a gun. The players are really interested in solving problems with swords. Now, if all of them were diplomancers, then sending a sword wielding foe against them is probably bad form. If they all maxed awareness and spot, then assassins are perfect to challenge them! (Though what they do when they see it, I don't know.)

Ideally, you have a well rounded party. For each skill area, someone is focusing there. Then, different challenges are a way for each of them to shine and have a moment in the sun. If you want to encourage them to put points in an area, throw a few terrible ninjas at them and mention "Gosh, could have been really bad if this guy was halfway competent." That said, maybe your players just aren't interested in that part of the game.

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Typically playing against their strengths is my approach. However, my players always know to expect left field. Any veteran players are kind enough to warn the rookies about my GM style and I am especially cautionary on a personal level about min/maxing. That said, why would the family known for using ninja assassins only send the hired sword to do a stand up fight? – CatLord Feb 27 '13 at 15:42
Playing against the player's strengths can be very fun, but the goal is to do lots of the part of the game that everyone enjoys. So, attacking Guy-With-Sword with a bow might be interesting, because that's a problem that can be solved with a sword. Sending a Diplomancer against him however is probably not interesting, unless you also want him to solve this problem with a sword. – IgneusJotunn Feb 27 '13 at 18:46

Your question seems to be related to the classic issue some people have with sandbox games. In a pure sandbox game, a party of 1st level characters will surely be killed if they decide to take on a dragon or an ogre, and they can't complain that the challenge level was scaled to their level, since that's one of the core tenets of a sandbox game.

Now consider again your scenario. You asked "What do I do when the PCs are outclassed". Well, if they're outclassed, they'll be killed. If they go against a wily nobleman with assassins at his beck and call, they will probably be assasinated. If you're of the sandbox persuasion, then you won't scale down the challenge. The difference between going into the ogre swamp and angering a lord is that the lord probably doesn't have any specific mechanics that mark him as Too Strong For You, and he's probably located in the same place the PCs start from. But he's still a powerful enemy. You don't anger a lord without facing the consequences. If you're a first level character, you keep your head down and don't make waves. You want to survive? Take on low-level challenges, even in a social/political context.

All the above, of course is relevant only if you prefer the more realistic sandbox type of game. Personally, I like a cinematic plot and dramatic villains that talk way too much. But it seems that your sensibilities won't hold with a villain that refrains from killing the PCs just because they have a little "I'm a PC!" sticker on them. :)

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Is the key underline of your answer "Caveat Emptor"? – CatLord Feb 27 '13 at 15:45
I interpret it as that and like what @lisardgg said... Players who are knew to this kind of play could or should maybe given a warning, but if they repeatedly stumble into situations where they are clearly outclassed: heads, spikes, walls! – fgysin Feb 27 '13 at 16:42

From a wholly narrative perspective - see all the answers from Scrollmaster and Phil.

From the BBEG's perspective there are a couple more issues to consider. These are the costs and benefits of using the assassin against these particular people.

Sending an assassin to kill the players has an opportunity cost on top of the cost of the killing itself. If this well-trained Shinobi is here, he's not in the palace where his stealth skills are more useful.

The flip-side of this coin is the benefit of sending the assassin. If the PCs aren't interfering in something vitally important to his goals, why should he bother doing anything with them. The lieutenants can handle threats on that level. When they are messing with something on the critical path of his project, that's when he needs to worry about them.

On the other hand, sending some assassins-in-training with slightly lower skills or attributes is cheaper, the trainees get some education out of it and this threat is eliminated. If they can't actually handle it, well, that was a risk. Now the BBEG has more information and has weeded out some incapable people so he wins either way.

This feeds back into the narrative perspective. By the time that the PCs are enough of a threat to warrant the big guns, they are likely to know what those big guns are going to be by comparing to the small guns they have been facing up to now.

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I agree with this to an extent. It does make sense to make the threat level of the assassins parallel to the threat against whomever sent them. But as stated above, in the divine game of rock-paper-scissors any specialist of a comparable level will outmatch his differently classed peers. The L5R game from my question was called Unfair because the shinobi was all but undetectable to the party at large. – CatLord Feb 27 '13 at 15:51
Exactly. The Shinobi would have been unnecessarily over-skilled to deal with the threat as the BBEG saw it. He would have been better used elsewhere in the plans where there are Investigation-trained players. – Simon Gill Feb 27 '13 at 16:02

I'd start by stating that Assassin NPCs are not as bad per se.

The problem is when one of those pesky assassins is an ally who overshadows the party or when it's an enemy who can kill a party member if the PC is unlucky / automatically.

If you want to play an NPC assassin have him go for some allied NPC. Have the PCs know and figure how to stop him. I've once played against a stealthy thief in a D&D campaign. My character managed to catch her because our DM didn't know of a feat that could have made the thief impossible to spot so be sure not to make things impossible. And have someone else be the target, while involving the PCs.

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