Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Holmes & Cook: The Assassin

Today I am going to hop into my Way Back Machine and end up in 1985 when I waisted more hours than I’d like to count playing The Bard’s Tale on my Commodore 64. While I am tempted to wax poetic about how much better it was than Wizardry (which also ate up a bunch of my time), how it owes a tremendous debt to D&D or how it emphasized exploration over story, these are not my primary reasons for reminiscing about one of my favorite computer games of my youth.

Rather, I bring it up as a starting point for what a Holmesian assassin might look like — one of the subclasses that Holmes hinted would be part of AD&D:
There are a number of other character types which are detailed in ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS. There are sub-classes of the four basic classes. They are: paladins and rangers (fighting men), illusionists and witches (magic-users), monks and druids (clerics), and assassins (thieves).
The Bard’s Tale, being (in essence) a D&D clone for the computer included several character classes which strongly resembled their D&D progenitors. Among these was the Hunter, which was described thusly:
An assassin, a mercenary, a ninja. The hunter can use most weapons, and has the ability (which grows with experience) to do critical hits in combat (i.e., to attack a nerve center or other vital area and instantly kill an opponent). A good skill.
Given that there really isn’t any kind of implied definition of what an assassin might be in either Holmes or Cook, it seems to me that this is as good a definition as any (especially since this thought experiment is about what my version of D&D might have looked like and The Bard’s Tale was definitely part of my gaming experience). The question then is what mechanic to use for the assassin’s critical hit ability.

Two suggest themselves from the rules of Holmes & Cook:
  • Some kind of percentile chance as per Thief skills. 
  • Most (if not all) of the monsters who have the ability to instantly kill a character allow for a saving throw to avoid death.
Whereas I think being able to instantly kill a dragon would be cool, it is only cool if it doesn’t happen frequently. Thus, I believe a combination of the two mechanics could be used. It would work as follows:
  • The base percentage for a critical hit would be based on the die roll of the assassin who hits her opponent. The number would be the difference between the roll and what was needed to hit. For example: if an assassin needed a ’15’ to hit an opponent, and rolled a ’20’ the base number for a critical hit would be 5%. 
  • This base number would then be modified based upon the level of the assassin. The average increase of Thief skills per level in Holmes & Cook is about 4%. Thus, for every level above 1st, the assassin adjusts the base chance of a critical hit by an additional 4%. 
  • Finally, if an assassin is successful at making a critical hit, the creature hit may make a saving throw vs. death to avoid instant death. A successful save means that normal damage is taken from the hit.
For example: an 8th level assassin (THAC0 17) successfully hits a red dragon (AC 2, HD 9) with a ’19’. She needed a ’15,’ so the base percentage for a critical hit is 4%. This is increased to 32% ([4 x 7] + 4) due to her level. Should she succeed in landing a critical hit, the red dragon would then need to roll a ‘6’ or higher on their save vs. death in order to avoid being instantly killed. I’m no math wizard, but I think that comes out to be about an 8% chance of the assassin instantly killing the dragon. Overall, an 8th level assassin has about a 2% chance per attack to instantly kill a red dragon. That feels about right.

Another example: a 5th level assassin (THAC0 17) rolls the same against an Ogre (AC 6, HD 4+1). Needing an ’11’ to hit, the base chance of a critical hit is 8% and 24% with level bonuses ([4 x 4] + 8). The ogre would need a ’10’ to save vs. death. In this case that is about a 12% shot at an instant kill. Overall, a 5th level assassin has about a 5% chance per hit to instantly kill an ogre. Again, that feels about right.

The assassin would loose all Thief skills save for Hide in Shadows and Move Silently but be able to use any weapon. Otherwise the assassin would function in every other way as a Thief.


  1. I'm following your logic, but wonder if the mechanic might get bogged down with math after every successful hit. But then again, players probably won't mind if it means an instant kill.

    With retention of Hide in Shadows and Move Silently, the obvious question: do these contribute to the assassin's chance to instant kill? Or is that baked in via possible to-hit bonuses?

    1. I've still yet to play test this — it will be interesting to see what players think about the math.

      In terms of HN and MS, I figure that the assassin needs an extra saving throw to save themselves in combat. After all, for a class designed to get critical hits, they are awfully fragile (leather armor and d4 HD)...

  2. FrDave,

    An unrelated question I know - but it struck me the other day while I was in my FLGS. One of the most popular wargames, Warhammer 40K, makes heavy use of Christian imagery, but warps it rather spectacularly. Do you have any thoughts on that?


    Conrad Kinch