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Inspired by this question: Would allowing the Rogue sub-class (Assassin) to benefit from Supreme Sneak be unbalanced?

The Assassin roguish archetype is considered by some to have very weak class features at levels 9 and 13. The linked question suggests replacing the Infiltration Expert feature with the Thief rogue's Supreme Sneak feature, which I think fits thematically and mechanically, although a sneaky rogue with proficiency and Expertise in Stealth probably won't really need it or notice the benefits that often.

In a campaign where the Assassin's RAW features at levels 9 and 13 won't really come into play, I like the idea of replacing one of them with Supreme Sneak as the linked question suggests, but that got me thinking: what about the 13th level feature, Imposter?

For reference, the Imposter feature description (PHB, p. 97):

At 13th level, you gain the ability to unerringly mimic another person's speech, writing, and behavior. You must spend at least three hours studying these three components of the person's behavior, listening to speech, examining handwriting, and observing mannerisms.

Your ruse is indiscernible to the casual observer. If a wary creature suspects something is amiss, you have advantage on any Charisma (Deception) check you make to avoid detection.

Naturally, the first place I looked to was the 13th level feature of the Thief rogue, but I don't think Use Magic Device is appropriate because it doesn't fit with the theme of being an assassin, and it's also a defining feature of the Thief archetype, hardly the same as a feature about sneaking, which by comparison is quite generic.

So, I considered the other roguish archetypes, looking for something that seemed thematically appropriate, and found the Scout's 13th level feature, Ambush Master. It sounds like something that fits the flavour of a stealthy assassin, without being too niche like Imposter.

The description of the Ambush Master feature (XGtE, p. 47):

Starting at 13th level, you excel at leading ambushes and acting first in a fight. You have advantage on initiative rolls. In addition, the first creature you hit during the first round of a combat becomes easier for you and others to strike; attack rolls against that target have advantage until the start of your next turn.

This feature seems to synergise well with Assassinate, especially the advantage to initiative rolls... but maybe it synergises with it a bit too well? It's certainly a lot more combat oriented, and clearly makes the Assassin archetype stronger than RAW, but does it make it too much stronger?

Would swapping the Assassin's Imposter feature for the Scout's Ambush Master feature cause any major balance issues for an Assassin?

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  • \$\begingroup\$ So it sounds like playing an assassin is just not the archetype to go with for this campaign. If you're already dropping half of the archetype specific features, why even play one? If playing an assassin just isn't going to fit the campaign, and half the features aren't going to be useable for the character, then they shouldn't be playing an assassin at all. I would recommend that rather than swapping in abilities from other archetypes, that the player just take a different archetype. Probably full scout would be best if this is going to be a dungeon-crawl/hexploration campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – RevenantBacon Feb 14 at 15:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ @RevenantBacon Would it not be worth putting that as a "frame-challenge" style answer, rather than a comment? I can understand the "why just not play as an Assassin" position, but I prefer to find a way to make things work rather than giving up (see also my question on Zealot barbarians in a campaign without resurrection magic). Or at the very least, does this comment not make more sense as a reply to my comment under Glenn's answer, rather than here (since you refer to things I said in that comment, but not the in question)? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 14 at 15:05
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It would only be unbalanced if left written as is.

The theme behind Assassin Rogues feels centered around solo abilities and surprising your opponent. Let's look at their sub-class features:

Starting at 3rd level, you are at your deadliest when you get the drop on your enemies....any hit you score against a creature that is surprised is a critical hit.

Starting at 9th level, you can unfailingly create false identities for yourself.

At 13th level, you gain the ability to unerringly mimic another person’s speech, writing, and behavior.

Starting at 17th level, you become a master of instant death. When you attack and hit a creature that is surprised...

All of these abilities are centered around surprise, whether it's gaining actual surprise in combat, or by presenting yourself as something you are not. These abilities make the Assassin Rogue not much of a 'team player'.

By comparison, the as-written 13th level Scout ability is something that would come into play in every combat, and benefit the entire party every time. I think that this 'team benefit' approach goes against who the assassin is, and the fact that it has nothing to do with surprise, even more so.

Now, if the Scout Ambush Master ability were changed to only come into effect when an actual ambush happened (i.e. surprise), then that would make a lot more sense thematically. Something like:

Starting at 13th level, you excel at leading ambushes and acting first in a fight. You have advantage on initiative rolls. In addition, the first surprised creature you hit during the first round of a combat becomes easier for you and others to strike; attack rolls against that target have advantage until the start of your next turn.

On a side note, I do believe that the core idea behind Ambush Master meshes with an Assassin Rogue much better than Imposter does. Imposter feels more appropriate for Mastermind Rogues.

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    \$\begingroup\$ That's an interesting note about the "solo" nature of the Assassin, I hadn't clocked that before. Just to reconcile your title with your answer, are you saying that, as-is, it would be a bit too powerful, but if tied to the Assassin's focus on surprising foes (i.e. you adding the word "surprised" to the feature's description), then it would then not be too powerful? \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 14 at 10:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Imposter meshes with assassin because it helps them get to their target without being detected. It's the trope of an old salesman who's been visiting the residence for months suddenly turning out to have been replaced by a faceless assassin taking their guise, but their disguise was so cunning nobody noticed until it was too late. Think Arya Stark assassinating Walder Frey, not ninja assassin attacking from hiding. \$\endgroup\$ – Theik Feb 14 at 10:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Doesn't the surprised condition already give advantage to attackers? Making half of this feature useless (Adv. on initiative is still pretty good, although Barbarians get that earlier than 13) \$\endgroup\$ – Glenn Driver Feb 14 at 14:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @GlennDriver Technically, all the Surprised condition does is prevent the creature from taking actions or reactions until the end of their first turn. However, I think sneaking up on a creature is the only "non-DM-fiat" way to surprise an enemy, so by virtue of being an "unseen attacker" you then would have advantage. A technicality, but it does mean that, for a normal case of "sneak up on the bad guys", you would only be unseen for the first attack, so PCs with Extra Attack would only get the one attack with advantage. With Ambush Master in play, though, everyone gets advantage all turn long! \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 14 at 14:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for this point "The core idea behind Ambush Master meshes with an Assassin Rogue much better than Imposter does. Imposter feels more appropriate for Mastermind Rogues." Though, I would say that, however much we argue for the "solo flavour" of the assassin, in the end D&D 5e is not a solo game and the assassin is meant to be played within a group - whether this is doing high initial damage to get the drop on mobs or by supporting others' in their attacks, in the end it serves the same purpose. \$\endgroup\$ – Orc's Plunder Feb 14 at 15:21
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It's probably balanced

In the grand scheme of things, having a (much) better chance to crit one enemy isn't all that over powered. Sure at level 20 you get 20d6+2*weapon damage, but really a Wizard doubles that with one cast of Meteor Swarm anyway. It also adds a little more of a team player aspect for 1 round.

The Real Changes

The problem I see with this is the Rogue being front loaded with all of their abilities. They get 1 super awesome (1st) round of combat and then they're back to being a regular rogue. Taking the Imposter away forces the assassin into almost exclusively combat situations. It takes away sneaking into a castle disguised as the lord and going in and gutting him with one hit and being able to sneak back out. Could you do it without this feature? Yeah, if you take Actor and have a very good disguise check. The Imposter feature also has synergy with the 9th level ability. Not having Imposter doesn't make the 9th level feature useless, but it does make it much more useful.

While I personally wouldn't do this, in the context of your game where the 9th and 13th level features aren't used all that often then I would say make the change. It doesn't seem like it will make the character any more powerful than the already Demigod status most level 13's have. The Assassin is a front loaded archetype to begin with, I'm not sure adding more to that is gonna make it less fun. It will make the first turn your Assassin gets a big one, and everyone likes big numbers!

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    \$\begingroup\$ Regarding "The Real Changes", bear in mind the premise of this question is for an Assassin in a campaign where the RAW Assassin features (at 9th and 13th) won't come into play (such as more of a dungeon crawl or a hex crawler like ToA or something). I wasn't suggesting this change as a blanket change to Assassins everywhere (since, in a more roleplay-heavy espionage adventure, the Assassin's "weaker" features would actually be really interesting, don't get me wrong...). \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS Feb 14 at 14:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS I did miss the part of the question where you said that the 9th and 13 level features don't come up that often. I'll add to my answer based on that \$\endgroup\$ – Glenn Driver Feb 14 at 15:27
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As a general rule you should avoid having every feature of a subclass being combat oriented.

The Assassin is built around getting close to someone and attacking them before they know there is a risk of combat. Its 3rd level feature gives it nice damage from doing so. Its 9th and 13th level abilities make it easier to do this. And its 17th level ability boosts the yield again.

The 9th and 13th level abilities are, however, out-of-combat abilities. They can set up a combat, but are not useful once in it.

Supreme Sneak is a mostly non-combat ability. Ambush Master, however, is a pure combat ability.

The Assassin shouldn't have 3/4 abilities being pure combat (as in, in initiative order) abilities, and the remaining one being sometimes useful in combat (as in, in initiative order). That is bad subclass design.

That doesn't mean they aren't weak. I'd consider merging the 9th and 13th level abilities into one and give it at level 9.

Then invent a new not-combat-oriented ability for 13th, and maybe boost the level 3 one as well at 13 (so it goes off if it is your first turn, and you haven't been detected by the creature you are attacking).

Maybe medicine skill and herbalism kit proficiency. And an ability to poison food and drink.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for saying what I was thinking. Essentially, different subclasses may get features that directly enhance combat at different levels. The Thief's main feature that's directly useful in combat is at 17th level (the 9th-level feature improves mobility; for Fast Hands at 3rd level, it's mainly the bonus-action Use an Object that could be useful in a fight - though limited to nonmagical items). For Scout, it's at 13th and 17th level (though Skirmisher at level 3 and Superior Mobility at 9 give it... mobility). For Assassin, it's Assassinate at level 3 and Death Strike at level 17. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 15 at 6:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ ...And by basically replacing the not directly combat-enhancing abilities with those that do directly enhance combat (especially attacks/damage), ultimately, it's just sort of a straight improvement. This is fine to the extent that a subclass is underpowered, but at a certain point you risk making it overpowered. And even besides that, as you point out it's basically just making them a one-trick pony - all combat. To some degree, other martial classes are already like this, but rogues in particular are seen as versatile, useful both in and out of combat; this takes away from that a bit. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 15 at 6:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @NathanS: I don't think my comments really add much new info; they just sort of expand on what's already said. Yakk's answer probably does this in a more concise/less repetitive way than my comments do :P \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast yesterday
  • \$\begingroup\$ @V2Blast Fair enough, I just saw too full comments and wondered if there was an answer in there, but if you don't feel like your answer would be different enough, that's fine :) \$\endgroup\$ – NathanS yesterday
  • \$\begingroup\$ @v2bl A combat only subclass is out if balance even if not overpowered. \$\endgroup\$ – Yakk yesterday

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