Assassins should be compelling NPCs in every encounter in which they appear. This article, an excerpt from the forthcoming Assassin’s Amulet, describes how to run Assassins as compelling characters to roleplay and deadly adversaries to fight. And don’t forget to vote for the cover!
Step 1: Pick an Archetype or Example
Creating an assassin NPC personality becomes a lot easier if you have a character concept already in mind. This provides a framework to which you can just add flesh. To mask your inspiration so players will not recognize it, layer on a couple of differences or twists. You are welcome to build a complex NPC from scratch, but if in a hurry, pick a character from a book or movie to model.
Quick archetypes to mimic: James Bond, Drizzt, Chuck (from the TV show), Rorshack (from the Watchmen), Batman.
Even people you know might make excellent candidates. Consider your neighbors, relatives, co-workers and other people you frequently see.
Step 2: Add Personality
What makes the character interesting and different? Make a list of about five notable traits and behaviors. How do they act and talk? What seems to motivate them? What do they own? Who are their friends and why?
There are two kinds of NPC traits: normal and extreme. Extreme traits include strange quirks, bizarre attributes and rare personality disorders. You do not want to give every NPC an extreme trait, else your campaign becomes comical or bizarre. You need normal—but interesting—NPCs around so the extreme ones stand out.
If you run a single assassin in your campaign, go ahead and give the NPC an extreme trait plus a few normal ones. If you run several, such as the Hands of Cyrene guild, give a quarter of the group unique extreme traits plus normal ones, and the other half just a variety of normal traits.
Step 3: Pick an Assassination Style
This further distinguishes your NPC and set him apart from other assassins in the campaign. Some example styles:
- Master of disguise
- Tough gunfighter or swordsman
- Knife and hand-to-hand fighter
- The master poisoner
- Explosions and mayhem
Step 4: Pick a Personal Style
Form a personal style for the NPC out of the unique blend of archetype, traits and assassination style you have created for them. There are a few different approaches you can take when crafting NPCs, but for assassins you should design a distinct style for him and make his roleplay and game presence all about that style.
Another word for style is flavor. What kind of impression does the NPC give—first and last? If you can define a distinct flavor, then roleplaying the NPC will be fun, easy and memorable.
- Where does he live and how does he live? Perhaps he prefers grungy inns, or maybe he lives under an identity in luxury.
- How does he dress? Does he wear different clothes on the job versus off? If so, create a common element that reflects his style that is present regardless of how he is dressed, such as a color, a scarf, special glasses or a stubby cigar.
- How does he walk? Give him a swagger or special gait.
- What is his attitude towards others in general? Is he mean, kind, egotistical or indifferent?
- Does he have a catch phrase or special mannerism? Perhaps he salutes everyone, or says “death and taxes” in conversations like it has a special meaning.
Step 5: Create a One Sentence Style Summary
String a few adjectives together that describes him well, and perhaps mention the character he might be based on. Boil down what you have created in the first four steps into a short and compelling summary.
During the game, read the summary to get into the character’s headspace before you start roleplaying him. The one sentence summary is short enough to read quickly, which is why it is important to keep your summary down to just a few words.
In addition, the summary should be punchy and descriptive enough so you can get into character in an instant. This is why you went through the first four steps. You needed lay out a bunch of details first, to get an idea of just who this NPC is, before you distilled him down into a compelling summary.
In play, make all the NPC’s aspects mirror the style defined by the summary: methods, equipment, appearance and mannerisms. Quite often, you will improvise new features and traits as you GM. The inspirational summary will guide you so the NPC develops consistently.
- “Speed and smooth moves combined with feigned indifference, he is actually quick to judge, get offended and hold grudges.”
- “Spotless, impeccable, professional and polite, he delights in inflicting pain of any kind in others.”
- “A giggling flake and womanizer with a drink always in hand, he never leaves home without 10 knives secreted on his body ready for sober action at any time.”
Additional Traits to Consider
How did the assassin acquire his skills? Was he self-taught? Did he have a mentor? Was he a member of a guild or society of assassins growing up? Perhaps he acquired the skills of killing or stealth first, before recruitment.
Each situation could leave a different imprint on the NPC’s personality. For example, a situation could make one NPC individualistic while another becomes reliant on a team structure.
How does he spend his money? Where does he live? Does he make much income as an assassin? Does he need another job or income source? Does he live in poverty or affluence? It might be interesting, for example, to have the NPC dressed as a slob in tattered clothing but brandishing an expense of magical dagger in his belt.
Why is the NPC in the business of killing? You might consider starting with the NPC’s motivation and working his other personality aspects out from there. For example:
- Career—he is good at it, he enjoys it and he wants to excel at it
- Fun—he likes the chase, the kill, the power or a bit of all three
- Psycho—his motives are irrational, perhaps stemming from a mental disease or drama experienced earlier in his life
- Fell into it—his first job was an accident; he likes the money and plans on doing it for a little while longer
- Forced into it—he has a debt to pay off, his employer is blackmailing him or perhaps he is a slave
- Does not know anything else—he is good at his job and does not think he has any other useful or marketable skills, so he is trapped into making a living this way.
A key question that will dictate much of the NPC’s behavior: does he keep his identity as an assassin a secret? James Bond, for example, rarely hides his identity; but he does not act like a killer, so he can mix with social company without fear of retribution unless he is recognized by an enemy.
Mafia hitmen do not hide their identities either, and instead build reputation and tradition so there are other options than killing to get business done.
Assassins who keep their work secret will need to create at least one alternate identity to get by with in life to do such things as shopping, romance, religious services and socializing. In most cases, this identity is different from a disguise, and gives them a way to separate work from personal time.
Create a contradiction
This is true of any compelling NPC, but an assassin has hardcoded into his profile a feature that is easy to contradict: he kills. Look for a character trait that seems at odds with this fact. Perhaps his hobby is painting, or he is a doctor or he has a young daughter he must sometimes take on the job with him.
Surround him with normal people
Add common people, real people, in encounters where you need to roleplay the assassin. Assassins must seem special, even if it is just in your mind. If everybody in the encounter is special or extreme, you lose a lot of the roleplay flavor with the assassin. Normal people help provide contrast so players can notice the roleplaying queues you make.
As an advanced technique, put the assassin as a mundane person amongst the PCs and other extreme-personality NPCs so the assassin appears to be the normal one. This creates a bit of irony, as well, which can make the scene a lot of fun to roleplay.