‘Scuse Me While I Stab This Guy

By | September 29, 2009

As part of our ongoing war involving sending one another distracting, productivity-crushing links during the day, Tarquin pointed me at this excellent post by limyaael, “On Assassin Characters.”   Go over there and give it a read.

While limyaael’s rants seem geared mostly towards people writing stories that contain these common fantasy archetypes, many of the points made in that post translate very neatly into playing those types of characters in WoW.  Let’s take a peek!

1) Your character is not special or important just because she’s an assassin.
I’d say that’s pretty much a given, but there are plenty of RPers out there who think their stealthy ninja killer is the first of its type.  There’s a whole organization for them, and remember that Matthias Shaw’s grandmother headed its predecessor, the not-so-subtly named Stormwind Assassins.  Hordeside, they’re called DeathstalkersGarona is a major lore character who also happens to be — you guessed it — an assassin.

Granted, these organizations only cover two races and one half-orc, half-draenei, but it doesn’t lessen the point: assassins aren’t any big surprise in the WoWverse.

Now, this doesn’t say that your character can’t have something that sets him or her apart from the others.  I’m never going to declare myself completely averse to interesting character twists.  A Tauren assassin?  Sweet!  Sure, there aren’t any Tauren rogues, but I’m not convinced that being able to hit the stealth button is the only legitimate way you can play an assassin.  The important things are these:

a) Make it plausible.  How does a big ol’ Tauren get away with it?  Hell, how did he come into the profession in the first place?

b) Remember that you’re character shouldn’t be defined by the twist and the twist alone.  If the only thing that makes him cool is that he’s got hooves instead of feet, well, it stops being interesting once people get used to it.  And if the character’s RP is simply stressing, repeatedly, how he’s the only Tauren assassin, well… where’s the personality?

2) The “thrill of the hunt” assassins are nothing new at this point.
It’s true… mostly. You’ll probably notice a theme as I go through this list. The exception always being “but if you can do it well, go for it!”

And I have seen it done well.  Noxilite’s Mallek is a perfect example.  What is he doing that makes it work that other people don’t always pick up on?  Look at limyaael’s point d: “The author is romanticizing murder.”  Mallek sure as hell isn’t.  He’s ruthless, he’s a monster, he’s unapologetic about it.  His player never tries to add any kind of “But!  But!  He’s really funny and endearing!  You should like him despite himself!”

Another way I think it could be done well stems from limyaael’s Evil Overlord quote: “I will only employ bounty hunters who work for money. Those who work for the pleasure of the hunt tend to do dumb things like even the odds to give the other guy a sporting chance.”  For this to work, I propose, you need to have another character to play off of, someone played by another human being, that is, not an NPC.  That kind of ongoing rivalry would have the potential to make excellent story fodder.  It also doesn’t have to mean that the two are gunning for one another.  It could just as easily be a Grosse Pointe Blank type scenario, where they find themselves vying for the same bounty more often than not.

3) Just because the character is an assassin does not mean that he or she is an awesome fighter.
No, really.  Skilled with a few different weapons?  Sure.  But a master of every kind of fighting in every situation is ridiculous.  If your PC can fight her way out of every possible trap, what’s the fun of playing her?  Bear with me here, because I’m going to talk about a character who’s a con-man and not an assassin for a minute.

Scott Lynch’s Locke Lamora is brilliant at disguise, adept at talking his way out of ugly situations, and a very quick thinker.  But once the fists and swords stop flying, Locke is screwed. (Unless Jean Tannen’s there.  But that’s another digression.)  Lynch’s willingness to let his main character get his ass handed to him is one of the things I really appreciated about the books.  He could just as easily have made Locke great with a dagger.  He didn’t.  It made for a far more interesting story.

The same goes for assassin characters.  If they can wriggle their way out of everything, we stop caring.  Limitations are good things.

4) Work out the framework for acceptance of assassins.
Blizzard did this for us, mostly.  See #1.  However, that’s society as a whole.  What about within the circles you want your character to be part of?  How is a guild filled with law-abiding citizens going to react if they find out one of their own moonlights for Matthias Shaw?  Do you really think it’s realistic to brag in front of the Guard about the job you did last night?

Probably not.  They’re known to exist within the society, yes.  But do they flaunt it?  Probably not so wise to do so.

5) Reconsider the “assassin’s mark.”
This ties in to the previous answer.  Is it wise to bear a tattoo marking you as an assassin?  If some noble’s looking for their uncle’s murderer, why wouldn’t he or she start by having everyone with a dagger proudly displayed on the back of their left hand rounded up?  Perhaps one that’s a bit more hidden could work, but if your FlagRSP description proudly points out the mark, or your character has a habit of running his fingers over the smudge of ink on the inside of his wrist in the hopes someone will ask about it, well.  Now you’re just being blatant.  Cut that out.

6) Know what is fatal.
This isn’t as essential to RP, but it still comes back around to believability.  No, you shouldn’t have to go out and google methods or have a heap of anatomy books on your desk, but if you’re going to suggest you can kill someone with your pinky finger, be ready to answer when someone else asks you how it’s done.

7) Think through the implications of murder.
This.  A million times, this. What does it do to your character’s psyche?  We’ve talked about in-character consequences before, haven’t we?  (I could swear we could, but I’m a failure at finding the post right now.)  If not, here’s the thing: whatever your character does, whatever choices he or she makes, there need to be consequences to those actions.  Maybe it’s something external: your assassin gets arrested or at least becomes a suspect.  Maybe it’s internal:  killing a lot of people probably fucks you up.

The consequences can be any range of things, but if you’re expecting people to believe that getting paid to take lives produces the same kind of character as the guy who gets paid to bake bread, I’m calling shenanigans.

Have at it, cats n kittens!  What other cliches do you see in assassin characters?  What examples do you have of turning them around into interesting for RP?


9 Comments

Linedan on September 29, 2009 at 2:55 pm.

I submit that hunters (mainly marks or survival) make the second-best assassins in WoW to rogues. What’s more assassin-y than somebody who can blow your head off from a third-story window while you walk down the street?

Beltar, for example, has done work as a hunter assassin in the past, and he’d do it again if the money (and target) was right. It’s a job, same as the dozens of other various things he’s done. He doesn’t have any romantic piffle about it…he shoots some poor sod, he gets paid, he goes and has a beer at the Pig. After a century, you tend to get a bit scarred to it all, especially if you’ve got the discipline not to *let* yourself think too much about who’s in your sights.

Psynister on September 29, 2009 at 3:14 pm.

I’d say Hunters are in the top three, though I’m not sure if they should hold 2nd or 3rd.

The other contender: Warlock.

What’s worse than getting shot with arrows while you walk down the street? The answer is simple, running away from your attacker and still feeling your life draining away by an unseen force and knowing that a demon comes to suck out your soul, that’s what.

I’ve wanted to roll a Warlock. Being an assassin sounds like a cool enough concept that I could do that for an RP character. The more I think about that, the more Hunter just slides on down to #3. Rogue > Warlock > Hunter

I think I just got myself an idea.

Itanya Blade on September 29, 2009 at 4:29 pm.

Mallek is more a killer than an assasin. And let’s face it, while Mallek will do things for money (After all, Then’laith did pay him to hunt down Keltyr, though she finally recanted her desire to kill the paladin in the end.) He’s also demented and unapologetic. But he also makes things out of people’s skin and such. But, in a way Mallek is romanticising murder. While, the character is distasteful, he is still playing him. He’s evil and dark and some people will be attracted to it.

“killing a lot of people probably fucks you up.” But let’s face it, most of the people we RP in WoW have killed lots of people. We’ve killed scarlets and trolls, grimtotems and sin’dorei. We have killed people. in fact, I would venture to say that this is probably the hardest thing that we have to deal with as RPers. In this, our characters are fundamental that different from us. They deal with that constantly.

Azeroth presents us with a warrior culture, albiet an idealized one. I think it is somewhat disingeious to try and abscribe what a modern person would think of feel to this. I can see how the lone killer would be different from, say, the paid mercenary, but both of them are paid to take the lives of others.

In Azeroth, life is not any cheaper than it is now, it’s simply easier to lose. And overall, I think that is something that is lacking in a lot of the way people deal with it.

Now, I think you are trying to make a moral distinction between merely killing and murdering. And that is something I think is not nearly explored as well as it could be.

Bricu on September 29, 2009 at 4:56 pm.

Being that we are modern people, we will view history and the created universe that is WoW, through the lens of our experience. RP can try and shift the perspective, but in the end, we are left with viewing and participating from within the context of ourselves. Given that our characters are our creations, their views on something will have–at the very least–an echo of our own view on both our history and the lore contained within WoW.

In a world where people can be resurrected or turned into shambling zombies, life is cheap. Given that in our world kids are murdered on a daily basis by other kids, our vaunted “value of life” is not that high at all.

In regards to the mounds of things we have killed to reach level cap: Bricu has killed over 21K of undead with his bare hands. In Battlegrounds, he’s killed 1000+ horde. He’s also died 908 times. When we level, RP or PVP we define exactly what we are going to use. Leveling and questing are mechanics that we use to reach level cap. Just because we are capped does not mean our characters have killed well–and been killed–countless times.

Itanya Blade on September 29, 2009 at 5:22 pm.

It doesn’t mean that they haven’t killed either.

Itanya Blade on September 29, 2009 at 5:27 pm.

I am going to continue to have an issue with the whole idea that merely killing people is going to screw you up. And while I agree that our sensibilities are going to influence our characters, I am not at all convinced that killing is nearly as psyche breaking. If only because I cannot help but think that if killing was nearly as shattering as some of us think it should be, then a soldier in any era would not be able to effectively integrate back into normal society.

falconesse on September 29, 2009 at 7:42 pm.

Mallek is more a killer than an assasin. And let’s face it, while Mallek will do things for money (After all, Then’laith did pay him to hunt down Keltyr, though she finally recanted her desire to kill the paladin in the end.) He’s also demented and unapologetic. But he also makes things out of people’s skin and such. But, in a way Mallek is romanticising murder. While, the character is distasteful, he is still playing him. He’s evil and dark and some people will be attracted to it.

I’ll agree that he’s more killer than assassin, but I disagree that his player romanticizes it. If other players/characters are drawn to it, that’s on the heads of those other players. It’s not because he’s making it look graceful and cool and “Look how angsty I am.” (And if you’re going for the example of Mirandella’s attraction to him, you have to remember that Mira herself was one very, very messed up character from the start, and Mallek preyed on her. Mira/Mallek is a bad example. If Davien fell for Mallek (ick), that would be a different situation altogether.)

“killing a lot of people probably fucks you up.” But let’s face it, most of the people we RP in WoW have killed lots of people. We’ve killed scarlets and trolls, grimtotems and sin’dorei. We have killed people. in fact, I would venture to say that this is probably the hardest thing that we have to deal with as RPers. In this, our characters are fundamental that different from us. They deal with that constantly.

Actually, this is way off-topic and a good subject for another post entirely, but I just want to respond with this: I don’t consider every single quest that has you go out and kill someone as a canon event. Threnn doesn’t have vats of Scarlet blood on her hands. Annalea didn’t ICly kill Garrick Padfoot at level 6. She probably didn’t even kill Princess. Davien didn’t run around slaughtering farmers in Southshore. We pick and choose which quests pertain to our characters. There might be some people who hold every single quest as character-canon, but I am not one of them.

Azeroth presents us with a warrior culture, albiet an idealized one. I think it is somewhat disingeious to try and abscribe what a modern person would think of feel to this. I can see how the lone killer would be different from, say, the paid mercenary, but both of them are paid to take the lives of others.

In Azeroth, life is not any cheaper than it is now, it’s simply easier to lose. And overall, I think that is something that is lacking in a lot of the way people deal with it.

If it’s disingenuous to ascribe what a modern person would feel about killing in Azeroth because it’s a different society, then doesn’t that make all of our stories disingenuous, whether they’re about assassins or flower-pickers? If we can’t know what it was like to live in a warrior culture, then how is it that any of our stories or characters’ perceptions are valid?

Now, I think you are trying to make a moral distinction between merely killing and murdering. And that is something I think is not nearly explored as well as it could be.

I’m not trying to make moral distinctions. The word “murder” was used three times in this post, two of them in quotes from the original. The one that’s mine is used from the point of view of the victim’s relative, not the assassin.

I am going to continue to have an issue with the whole idea that merely killing people is going to screw you up.

Hence the word “probably.” And there are tons of ways that being “screwed up” can manifest. It doesn’t mean people can’t function in normal society. Maybe they have ways of dealing with it either on their own or with someone else to help them work through it. My dad tells tons of stories about his time in Vietnam. But in 30 years, I’ve never once heard him talk about combat. He won’t. He’s a functioning member of society, but he’s still dealing with the war he left almost 40 years ago.

I think we’re getting very much off-track here, though, and I’m going to ask that you hold those thoughts — I’d like to pull those parts of your comments out into a post of its own so we can explore further. The initial point I was trying to make was that how a character feels and thinks about what he does for a living should be examined, and that even if he’s completely fine with his job as an assassin, his friends might not be quite as okay with it if they find out that’s what he’s doing (assuming his friends aren’t all members of SI:7 themselves, of course.)

Actions have consequences was my point, not “killing screws you up because I say so.”

Also, for the purposes of this thread, I’d like to stick to talking about characters whose concept is “assassin” rather than “soldier” or “mercenary,” though I understand the three are going to have areas where they overlap.

@Linedan – Beltar also has an excellent backstory showing how he got to be where (and who) he is today. He’s a very well-rounded character, not defined only by his cold-blooded killing ways.

@Psynister — I vote that you come back and fill us in on it when you do!

Bricu on September 29, 2009 at 8:04 pm.

I am going to continue to have an issue with the whole idea that merely killing people is going to screw you up. And while I agree that our sensibilities are going to influence our characters, I am not at all convinced that killing is nearly as psyche breaking. If only because I cannot help but think that if killing was nearly as shattering as some of us think it should be, then a soldier in any era would not be able to effectively integrate back into normal society.

Soldiers of any era have been trained to address the stresses of combat, including compartmentalization and how to dehumanize the enemy. This allows for increased coping during battle and allows for integration later. While a good number of soldiers effectively return to society, some have difficulties. USA Today reported that 1/5 of all soldiers today are at risk for PTSD–the modern version of Shell Shock. Hell, King Ashoka had a religious conversion following the wholesale slaughter of his enemies in southern India.

Bricu’s alcoholism stems directly from his interaction at Stratholme. Jolstraer suffered terribly at Stratholme, and occasionally disappears to his farm to cope with his nightmares and disappointments.

From a personal example, there is my Grandfather, Anton, who served at Normandy. He got married before he shipped out, became first LT by virtue of surviving the disembarkment at Omaha beach and refused to talk about his war experiences for the rest of his life. He adjusted wonderfully to post-war life–but he also had a family that accepted him, a church to belong to and enough support to make the change. But he would never talk about the war and could not watch WW2 movies. He told my uncle of his nightmares and he made it very clear that he would not let a member of his family be near a gun. He sold his rifles and German war Memorablia, even though my uncles and I were extremely interested in them. That was his way of keeping us safe from the trauma he suffered. Trauma he dealt with, but suffered through nonetheless.

Some soldiers are more resilient than others–and each one sacrificed something for their country. Today’s soldiers and families get more support than any other time in history, but combat changes people. They are trained to think they are not killing people, but killing OTHER, thereby saving themselves a lot of the trauma. But it still has an effect, and with each encounter, damage is done to the psyche.

Omega2 on September 30, 2009 at 9:17 am.

Very interesting posts, both here and on limyaael’s LJ! I have two characters who have done assassin work (but don’t consider themselves assassins), and I’m glad I’ve managed to avoid most pitfalls outlined here.

Betria, my hunter, being permanently squint, had to take up a couple jobs that involved murdering people. She didn’t like those at all, and will never do that again, simply because she’s not really a “murderer”. Even though she took a lot of care to avoid getting attached to her targets, the idea of killing someone who wasn’t ready or even expecting to die still gives her nightmares. Sure, she manages to carry on while serving the army, but that’s the catch: she’s fighting alongside soldiers ready to kill and die for their people, against other people (mostly orcs) who know they’re putting their lives at risk and will kill her if she gives them the chance. And she doesn’t like talking about that, either!

Rikkard, my warlock, is a different kettle of fish. It’s been a long time (ICly) since he had to murder someone he bore no ill will towards (the usual fare for an assassin), but he’d done it more than a few times and he enjoyed pretty much every bit of it, including burning the guy’s house down afterwards. How’s that? Well, he -was- a lot more power-mad back then, and he’s always looking for a good excuse to inflict massive amounts of burning death upon things. Since those wild times of his youth, he’s calmed down a little and only annihilates things that needed to go down anyway (undead, demons, criminals/monsters attacking him…). He’s still unhinged, just a lot better at hiding it.

And here’s an interesting twist: most of those items pointed out here (except maybe #4, depending on the context) would fit -bounty hunters- just as well as assassins. They’re professional, they’re not flashy, they’re not all-powerful, they generally don’t like publicity, they need to know how and when to kill, and they have an even harder job in having to catch people alive (depending on the bounty, of course) so they can be brought to whatever justice hired them. Hell, even Jango and Boba Fett got shafted every now and then when their traps went south or their equipment malfunctioned.

It’s funny how assassins have that “wow, kickass” stereotype, yet bounty hunters are more often than not just cannon fodder to make heroes and anti-heroes look good, even though both stereotypes are in essence the same: someone who’s paid to go out and do grievous things to people they probably never even care about.