Describe the Scene
You have no need for initiative or battlemats yet. Give a brief overview of the encounter location and what is going on. Keep your perceptions list and preparations information handy so that you do not miss describing anything the characters might have perceived and deemed important. Make your description brief. Too much detail might alert players something else is going on other than their main purpose in visiting this location. Add a few unrelated and unnecessary details to mislead the group. You have two choices here: description of something static or description of an action.
Your best bet involves something static because perceptive players with good memories will feel less manipulated after the encounter — if they put the pieces together at all. For example, you can throw in mention of an exotic plant and a nice mural.
Describing an action can feel like GM manipulation, but it can be more effective at hooking players, so go ahead and use this if you need a stronger diversion in your description. Just be sure to use it very sparingly, and make them work for two purposes: diversion and world-building. For example, a hooded figure stares at the PCs from a shadowed doorway, or a child thief attempts to steal a rat on a stick from a cleaver-wielding merchant. These hooks can draw the PCs in to interactions with others, though after the encounter, sharp players might accuse you of putting these elements in there to trick them. If this happens too often, you might find that these diversions stop working or characters get more chaotic. However, who can resist checking out the mysterious stranger or trying to stop a homeless child from being cleaved? It works if you need that much attention elsewhere, plus, if you’re being clever, you can use these diversions to lead your adventurers into a new part of your ongoing campaign once you’re done with the assassination.
Give the PCs One More Action
Take a leap of faith here and let the PCs take at least one action in the scene before the assassination triggers. This gives them a sense of control and a feeling that the game is fair, because they could have tried sensing other things, asked you questions to get more information, taken cover because they are paranoid, and so on. Any of these things can still foil the assassination — and that could lead to more fun for everyone in terms of fall-out from the failed plot.
The leap of faith comes in because only the players know what the characters will do. They might investigate the fake details you planted or continue with their main purpose here, with any luck. However, the wizard might also cast detect invisibility and aim it right at the plant where the assassin hides. This is the beauty of the game. Enjoy such a moment, have a good laugh, and reward the player with required information about what they perceive.
If something happens to foil your plan, you might be tempted to move the assassin, plant another one nearby, or react in other ways to make the encounter go off as planned. That is your choice, but do not do so out of spite. In many situations, you can get away with these reactive changes but you need to ask yourself if that’s what you should do. An assassination encounter is charged with danger and emotion. Consider this: Could your little change have been foiled by the perceptions list that you now don’t have time to run through (unless you take a quick break)? Do you really want to take away the sense of accomplishment that the players gain by foiling an assassination attempt? If you’re not careful when you go about switching things up a bit, you could get into the same mess you would when you attempt to direct PC actions. If you decide to make a sudden change to this encounter, be very cautious and avoid railroading the players (and their characters).
You have set the scene. You gave everybody a moment to react, inquire, and take action. Now is the time you have been waiting for. If the assassin has surprise, launch the attack. If not, roll for initiative and look at your paper with the four cases on it for tactical inspiration.
Following the path of assassination in your game takes time. You need to plan beforehand. When you have given everyone a fair chance, however, you also have not forced things to happen, which can make players mad at you. You also have an assassin who has the best possible chance to carry out his mission and survive it based on all the elements in play in your individual game.
If things go awry, do not beat yourself up. Learn from your mistakes and plan another assassination when the story of your campaign calls for it. If things went well, then congratulations! Your players will be talking about this encounter for some time to come.
About the Author
Johnn Four helps game masters have more fun at every game. He wants your players to shake in fear, beg for mercy and then 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.