The Assassin presige class feature called Death Attack says:

While studying the victim, the assassin can undertake other actions so long as his attention stays focused on the target and the target does not detect the assassin or recognize the assassin as an enemy.

(Dungeon Master's Guide, p. 180, emphasis mine)

Now, I do not know how to interpret this. For example, a creature rolling a succesful Spot check against invisibility gains a hunch that “something’s there”(DMG, p. 295). However, the creature has not detected an assasin, therefore a Death attack might still be performed, or so I believe. Similar case with listen checks: what has been detected is a suspicious noise, not the assassin. Or does that count as being detected?

A more extreme case is getting attacked by an assasin in Greater Invisibility, or while using the Hide skill to snipe. The logic "the assasin hasn't been detected yet, they only know something is hurling daggers at them" still applies.

What is the correct RAW intepretation of this matter? If it's unclear, what would be the most balanced way of intepreting this?


The intent of the rule, IMO, is that an assassin gets a death attack on someone not expecting to get ganked by you. So being alerted that "there's a suspicious invisible guy over there" does indeed foil a death attack since it puts the target on their guard against you (even though "you" are not totally clear to them, your presence and square is and that's good enough IMO). You have to be either be undetected or alternately not recognized as a threat (the standard "disguised as a barmaid" gambit). Anything that would kick someone into "I'm about to get attacked" mode, much as it denies flatfooted sneak attacks, denies death attacks.

Some of this is GM discretion (horrors!). Is that noise suspicious enough that someone really is in "time to whip out their weapon" mode if they hear it? Does the guy get a Sense Motive when you sidle up to him in barmaid guise and are vamping him to set up the close range stabbing? As a GM I'd rule "unknown invisible guy" is probably a dead giveaway - unless you're in a wizard's club where everyone has an unseen servant, in which case maybe not...

The assassin in my Reavers campaign has gotten off several successful death attacks in these scenarios:

  1. The party saw a derro in a room and decided to hang back, he stealthed up and sneak attack/death attacked him
  2. He's gotten sniper death attacks in while hiding in the ship's rigging during a melee; he studies a guy engaged with other folks for three rounds and then pops him
  3. He killed a crewmate he had problems with at dinner

Now, invisible folks do get sneak attack even when someone knows they're there - I consider death attack to have a higher prereq though.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I tend to agree with this. One other issue with "detection" is if you know someone's there, but then lose them again. If you succeed on a spot/listen enough to realize "some invisible guy" is to your left, and then next turn that guy succeeds on his move silently/hide and is now to your right without you realizing it, is he still "detected" even though you think he's somewhere else? In that case I'd say no and the three turn count can start over. \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Jul 21 '13 at 20:58

The rules pretty clearly state that the Assassin 1. must be detected, and 2. must be considered a hostile in order to foil Death Attack. (Or, as the rule says it, at least one of either not detecting the Assassin or not recognizing the Assassin as an enemy allows a Death Attack.) So yes, simply knowing that “something’s there” or “someone’s shooting at me” is insufficient.

As far as balance, Death Attack basically isn’t. The 3 round delay makes it useless in combat, party dynamics don’t often let the Assassin do a whole stealth mission solo so he can try to use it outside combat, and even beyond those details, the DC is usually low and lots of targets are immune to begin with. On the other hand, it’s an abrupt one-shot kill that, by definition, the target cannot respond to – when it works, the target just dies, that’s it.

You cannot really balance that; it’s too swingy. If it were more usable, it could arguably be broken, and even if it isn’t, it does kind of kill the fun of the game if it works too often. This sort of touches on a number of problems with the d20 System in general and 3.x in particular. For example, the skill system isn’t all that interesting: here, the Assassin gets to roll Hide and Move Silently, and the target gets to roll Spot and Listen. The Assassin hopes his are both higher; the target hopes at least one of his is higher. They can, before the encounter, try to increase the bonuses on these checks to push things in their own favor, but during the encounter itself? It is two opposed rolls that are effectively passive. Then the Assassin gets an attack roll; the target is still passive, and there’s not really any tactics either can use here: it’s just the roll of a die. @Magician’s Goblin Dice article nicely covers why this is such a serious problem.

Further, combat rounds are too “long” in the sense that hiding for three rounds during a fight so you can use Death Attack is a waste of time: you could have just fought with your allies (Flanking, say) for three rounds and you would have been more likely to kill your target than you are with Death Attack. Many encounters don’t even last three rounds.

The Assassin is not a bad prestige class; full BAB and full Sneak Attack is nice, and the spells are pretty awesome if you have, say, Spell Compendium. But Death Attack is basically a gimmick. It will rarely be viable, and though it will be pretty awesome the one time it works, it will only be awesome because you successfully used an ability that’s usually useless.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Actually, your very first sentence is false: the rules state he must be detected OR recognised hostile. That's why I asked. \$\endgroup\$ – kravaros Jul 21 '13 at 14:49
  • \$\begingroup\$ @kravaros Incorrect: my statement is the contrapositive of the rule, and is thus logically equivalent. Note to De Morgan's laws: the opposite of "(not detected) or (not recognized)" is "(detected) and (recognized)." As in "if (not detected) or (not recognized), then (can Death Attack)" is the same as "if (detected) and (recognized), then (cannot Death Attack)" \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 21 '13 at 15:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ Yes, but you are still wrong, since in order to death attack you need to be (not detected)^(not recognised)→(Death attack), therefore the contrapositive is (detected)ˇ(recognised)→(no Death attack). The De Morgan's laws are right, but the rules you used in them are wrong. \$\endgroup\$ – kravaros Jul 21 '13 at 15:56
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    \$\begingroup\$ @kravaros I don't see how you read "not detect the assassin or recognize the assassin as an enemy" as "not detect AND not recognize." It clearly uses OR. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 21 '13 at 16:00
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    \$\begingroup\$ It definitely does not say "(detected)∨(recognised)→(no Death attack)" it says "(Death Attack)→(not detected)∨(not recognized)" That is, you can only Death Attack when "(not detected)∨(not recognized)" is true, so being able to Death attack implies that "(not detected)∨(not recognized)" is true. The contrapositive of that statement is that "not((not detected)∨(not recognized))→(no Death Attack)" which is the same as "(detected)∧(recognized)→(no Death Attack)" \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 21 '13 at 16:11

If you are detected you cannot use the death attack, a spot check to reveal a hidden creature or object will (if successful) deny the death attack action. Furthermore a sense motive check to reveal hostile intent on -Said bar wench- is in fact, again if successful, another deny of the death attack action. You can only preform a death attack if your opponent is unaware of your presents and/or unaware of your hostile intent.

The tricky part of this question is when a assassin is hiding in a crowed of people and attacks! Clearly the other people saw him right- he was right their in the crowed. WRONG! making a hide check with sufficient cover will make you have concealment and thus require a spot check to notice - A crowed of people is sufficient cover for a hide check.

(You may make your spot check only if you are actively looking for dangerous or suspicious members of that crowed)

  • \$\begingroup\$ Wrong, you need to have both detected the Assassin and recognized it as a threat. If you catch a maid sneaking around your room, and don't see her as a threat, if she's actually an Assassin in disguise she may still Death Attack you. Similarly, if you know Dram the famous Assassin is a threat, but don't know he's there, he can Death Attack you too. \$\endgroup\$ – KRyan Jul 21 '13 at 16:24
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan not with a death attack, but yes she may still attack you. \$\endgroup\$ – Pro756 Jul 21 '13 at 16:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @KRyan To further explain my reasons and to help the answer I posted: You cannot use death attack with a successful disguise check, you can however use a disguise check to fool your target then allow yourself into a position as to make him unaware of your presents and then use your death attack. \$\endgroup\$ – Pro756 Jul 21 '13 at 16:33
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    \$\begingroup\$ IMHO, think the premise should be "not detected OR not identified as enemy" => "can use death attack." I read "does not detect ..." part as the conditions, not the implications. If I were to program it in a computer language, that's how I will parse the requirement. You just need one of the conditions to be true. \$\endgroup\$ – Extrakun Jul 21 '13 at 17:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Extrakun - Me too. They can know you're there, but if they don't suspect you, then you're in the clear and can death attack. The entire wording about "does not recognize the assassin as an enemy" is redundant if you need both conditions, as you can't recognize an enemy if you don't know they're there. The entire point is that you can use it if you can use disguise/bluff to not be seen as a threat, at least until you sleight of hand the dagger out and stick it into them. That's how the servant girl assassin works, and is how I rule it in my campaign. \$\endgroup\$ – Tridus Jul 21 '13 at 22:58

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