When the time gets close, you start to get excited. Will you pull this encounter off successfully? Will your players be surprised, amazed, and excited? You want everything to work out perfectly. That is when you fall into the deadly GM trap of leading the play.
Allow Players to Direct Character Actions
It starts with an assumption. Perhaps you decide the party order or character positions without checking with the group to avoid triggering their spidey senses. Then you dictate surprise—no rolls, character perceptions or special senses taken into account. You might even skip description and jump right into the action…
You just want to make this happen. It is so easy to fall into the trap of just saying everybody is surprised and to start rolling. You lay out the results, including a few more actions for the assassin than might have been possible, so he gets away or gets off another shot.
This type of GM error drives players crazy. You have directed too much and players feel like they should have been given more details and interaction opportunities. Arguments might start. Players ask questions about what the situation was like a few seconds ago. With reluctance, you answer, and it turns out a character should have had a skill or sense check because of some rule.
Your encounter turns into chaos. The assassin is exposed. Turning back the clock means players take action fully aware an assassin is nearby. Refusing to change how things played out makes some players angry and others frustrated.
This has happened to me, and let me tell you, it is hell. Friendships and game-equitable atmosphere are more important to me than the game, so I always go the rewind route and play things out again, this time with players directing their PCs. The assassin is screwed now, as is my great gaming moment. However, I have learned the hard way to not direct character actions, especially because I am working hard to achieve a specific game effect.
By the Book
Play the game according to the rules. Do not sacrifice your game master style just to push for a special moment. Run your game the same way for an assassin encounter as you do all other encounters to ensure fairness and consistency. There are still ways to pull off an amazing assassination encounter and play by the book.
Pick the Place, Hide the Assassin
The assassin will want to stake out the best place to make his attack and get away. As GM, you need to choose this place ahead of time and detail it. Make a list of character perceptions. This will include skills, abilities, technology and equipment, special abilities, and magic. Get it all listed out.
Detail the location against this list. For each perception item, have an idea or specific description entry ready. If the perception allows a die roll so you cannot predict what gets perceived ahead of time, assume success. If the character fails their check, that is a small victory for the assassin. The detail that ended up being unnecessary only cost you a few moments of planning, but it ensured you were ready and the game was fair.
If the assassin is aware of the PCs as a threat ahead of time, have the NPC take countermeasures for each perception he knows the PCs have. Hopefully the assassin has scouted out the PCs in this case, and knows their secrets.
If the assassination will take place so the PCs are bystanders, the NPC should take precautions against all likely perceptions, but he might miss a few unusual ones. A careful or experienced assassin will put more effort into this stage to rule out all contingencies, so it is fair to have him prepare for most, if not all items on the list.
For example, detect evil via spell or class ability. That has a range. The assassin might choose to attack well outside this range. He could get a magic item that masks his alignment. He could create a diversion, so the cone of detection is unlikely to fall in his direction leading up to the attack. He could hide behind cover that blocks detection.
Regardless of what tactic you have chosen, the assassin has thought about this, and you are ready for it when the encounter triggers. This makes a huge difference in your confidence. If challenged by players as to why their evil-radar did not pick up the NPC, you are ready and players will appreciate the fair reply.
[to be continued]
About the author
Johnn Four helps GMs have more fun at every game. He wants your players to shake in fear, beg for mercy, and declare you Best GM Ever next time you run an assassin encounter. If you want more GMing advice about assassins, check out his new Legacies Campaign Setting website. Find out what combat strategy assassins need when fighting PCs, how to roleplay assassins, and how to turn contacting and hiring assassins into awesome gameplay.