Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Articles of Dragon "The Assassin's Guild"

Issue #64 of Dragon (August 1982) saw the appearance of "The Assassins' Guild" by Elizabeth Cerritelli and Lynda Bisson, two writers whose names I'd never seen before and, so far as I can recall, never saw again. Back then, it was far from unheard of to see articles by unknown authors, but, even so, the magazine had a stable of regulars whose work tended to appear again and again. I particularly looked forward to articles by Roger E. Moore and Ed Greenwood, as well as those by Gary Gygax and, much to my pleasure, the odds that at least one of them appearing -- if not all three -- was quite high during the period when I read Dragon regularly.

"The Assassins' Guild" was, as its name suggests, an article about the organization by which assassins operated. It was geared equally for referees and players, though, in my experience, the assassin was never a popular class (there were only ever two in all my years of playing the game and one was a half-orc cleric/assassin). On the other hand, assassins appeared regularly as NPCs in my campaigns. One of them, named Ashad Raghul (aka "The Man in Black") was the leader of the Black Brotherhood, an evil organization inspired by a reference in Dwellers of the Forbidden City and he and his minions bedeviled the PCs of two different campaigns. So, for me, an article like "The Assassins' Guild" was an intriguing one.

As it turned out, though, the article was fairly light on details or even ideas. Instead, its authors more or less just expounded on sections of the class's description from The Players Handbook without adding anything particularly valuable. However, the article also contained "the Laws" -- a collection of eleven commandments that the Assassins' Guild has laid down and enforces on all its members. The first law is "No one may plan and enact a premeditated act of murder except a member of the assassins' guild." Other laws govern things like the circumstances under which someone may be murdered, the proper use of poisons and traps, and the need for secrecy about the guild's activities even under pain of torture. In short, the laws covered all the primary activities of the assassin class and provided mechanisms for their enforcement.

I won't claim that "The Assassins' Guild" was a groundbreaking article. I can't even claim that it changed the way I viewed the assassin class and its role in the game. But I did use the laws presented in it as a model for the way the Black Brotherhood governed itself and, even now, the Laws influence how I envisage the Slayers Guild of Adamas in my Dwimmermount campaign. That's a lot more than can be said about plenty of other well-regarded articles and, ultimately, the only measure of quality that matters in gaming is whether it leads to fun at the table with your friends.


  1. Must have been a rule somewhere that all evil NPC Assassin organizations had to have a color in their name. My group was the Azure Cabal, a sinister group in blue masks whose master assassins could only be seen when a person was looking directly at them. Once in a person's peripheral vision, they would be invisible. Look away for a second or blink, and they could be gone.

    I stole the main model of my Assassin guild rules from "Dune" and the Great Convention mentioned therin. All rules began "The forms must be obeyed..." and so on. A strangely lawful bunch considering their line of work...

  2. Dragon, at least in that era, was very open to new writers, and friendly. I remember once calling about some paperwork issue--they'd forgotten to include some slip of paper that they referenced in the acceptance letter. It wasn't particularly important, as I recall, but I thought I'd better deal with it just to be sure.

    I called Dragon Magazine, got a secretary, who told me, Roger’s available, do you want to talk to him? So I got to talk to Roger Moore about something his secretary could have easily handled. He was happy to chat, (although I think a little bemused that I’d been put through to him).

    This would have been in 1987/88 or so.

  3. "No one may plan and enact a premeditated act of murder except a member of the assassins' guild."

    That has some interesting implications. I've always had trouble fitting assassins into the game world in a meaningful way - the classic mountaintop fortress assassin cult makes sense, but as a Lankhmar-style guild of criminals? It just didn't seem supportable. Asides from a very occasional contract from a jealous noble, who would use them?

    Well, everyone, apparently. Presumably whatever they do to unlicensed murderers is worse than the hanging one could expect at the hands of the law. And since assassins double as spies, they must have a pretty good network of Orwellian secret police to track things back to the culprit. Shadowy M-style criminal courts are a given. A guild of assassins would be a far more feared force than the city guard. Good way to make the players think twice before getting bloodthirsty during a city adventure.

  4. Anyone interested in this topic should glance at *The Blind Assassin* by Margaret Atwood. Although it's a "realistic literary" novel, set in Ontario in the 1920s/30s, one of the main characters is a pulp writer on the lam, and the novel presents, in long interludes, the story he tells his mistress about a decadent city that unknowingly sits on the brink of destruction. The members of the assassins guild are young-- children mainly-- discarded slaves who have gone blind making carpets. They are silent and perfectly adapt at moving in the dark.

  5. Ashad Raghul.....Batman villain Ra's al Ghul who is the head of the League of Assassins.


  6. Gavin,

    Believe it or not, I'd never heard of Ra's al-Ghul back then. The name is actually a play on the Arabic word for "black" -- aswad -- and the word for "man" -- rajul. In my youth, I thought I was being clever.

  7. Oh don't get me wrong, I'm not accusing you of anything. I just think it is funny that the names are so much similar. Happy coincidences when naming character is just something I find amusing.

  8. Better late than never. I have three evils in my campaign that an association with one will get the individual executed on the spot - Slavers, Necromancers and the Assassing Guilds. Marginally associated is the School of Illusion/Phantasm, mostly peopled by street performers and widely researched by magic-user thieves.

    Slavers are hunted, because they kidnap people and sell them to cults performing human sacrifice, Nercomanxcers perform vivisection on live human subjcts, and assassins, their ability to mimic any alignment is viwed in te game as a "moral insanity" and total evil.

    BTW, the assassin "MIssion Success" table is thr kind of thing better role played as an adventure as aopposed to rolled on a table.