As a complete, brand new class from an unexplored power source, the assassin is the most ambitious content delivered so far by D&D Insider. We have already been shown the Heroic and Paragon Tiers, and Epic will follow soon. The verdict? Totally worth it. What we have here is a very compelling character concept, with a set of game mechanics that perfectly fits this flavor while looking both fun and different from previous classes.
An iconic assassin
Assassins are strikers who use the Shadow power source (more on this later!), excelling at melee and short range attacks. Clad in leather armor, and wielding either heavy or light blades (though nothing prevents them from taking any weapon they want, once they take the proficiency feat), their supernatural techniques can also manifest through implements. Their feature a new approach to implements - rather than requiring specific items, they are capable of using any weapon as implement. There is also the option to use a Ki Focus (also explained below). Finally, they have proficiency with light shields, which I assume will be rarely used, as two-handed weapons are just too tempting an option for striker characters.
As for ability scores, they depend mostly (and unsurprisingly) on Dexterity, with Charisma and Constitution as secondary abilities. Two class builds are presented. The Cha-based one, called Night Stalker, focuses on offense, with a bonus to damage against lone enemies, whereas the Con one (Bleak Disciple) provides a nice defensive boost, in the form of temporary hit points granted when hitting nonbloodied enemies. Conveniently, this ability distribution fits perfectly with the Revenant race (which is also DDI-exclusive), as well as other very appropiate races, such as Drow or Changeling.
The set of class features is generous, dripping in flavor and cool stuff, yet remaining at an appropiate power level. It reminds me to the warlock class (but, thankfully, without the design flaws that plagued it) in that each feature is evocative and fun on its own, but they really shine (darkly) as a whole. The most impressive feature, and the one that has me excited about trying the class, is the Shadow Step, which allows short-range at-will teleportation between other creatures' shadows. The striker damage feature is called Assassin's Shroud, and amounts for the usual d6 of damage per turn. The twist, here, is that you have the option of delaying the damage, accumulating shrouds on an enemy over the course of several turns, in order to get a bonus when you finally unload this extra damage. This way, you will face the strategic choice of dealing damage immediately or waiting for a greater reward. The last feature is called Shade Form, and turns you into an insubstantial shade until you attack, once per encounter.
One of the things that I found most intriguing about the class before it was released was its use of the Shadow power source. What would it be like? Would it do anything that wasn't already possible with the known power sources? From a flavor standpoint, Shadow power comes from the Shadowfell plane itself (who would have guessed? Though, at least, there's no mention of the Shadowdark), is acquired through creepy means involving binding one's soul to said plane, and is often viewed viewed with suspicion, or even banned.
In game, Shadow doesn't actually look too different from arcane magic, except that every single power (they are called Hexes) seems to be obsessively related with some kind of darkness. There's plenty of invisibility, concealment, blinding, dark zones and stealth checks, but you also get some really imaginative (shadowy) mechanics, such as using shadows for teleportation, getting extra damage through shadows of adjacent creatures, shadow dopplegangers and even merging with an opponent's shadow. The most used damage types are Physical, Psychic and Cold,with some occasional Poison or Force attacks. Necrotic damage is notably absent, though. Interestingly, Shadow is the first power source to come with a specific disadvantage to their users, as assasins' HP are lower than normal, for their role.
With a name that suggests an origin in the disappeared Ki power source, the assassin's Ki Focus is a mechanic unique to the class, although I'd expect monks, among other classes from PHB3, to end up with access to it, as well. The idea of a Ki Focus is that it's an inner, intangible part of a character that can nevertheless be enchanted the same way a regular weapon or implement could. Magical bonuses from a focus could then be applied on any weapon or implement attack that the character made. Sadly, no actual examples of Ki Focus enchantments are provided. As a temporary patch, the article's author suggests, in an unofficial post, that generic weapon enchants could be applied to a Focus.
The selection of feats provided with the class is excellent, with decent quality and unprecedented quantity. There's a couple dozen feats, mostly for the heroic tier, supporting all races from PHB and PHB2, though not from Eberron or Forgotten Realms. Races previously featured in DDI, other than revenants, are also absent. As for the paragon paths, there's just four of them, but they are pretty good. I particularly like the Shadowblade, which allows you to collect 'gloom shards' from slain enemies, that can be spent for small effects, and the Soul Thief, which has a very similar mechanic (using 'soul shards' instead). There's also the Venomed Soul PP, with venom-related features that also present interesting choices.
This is yet another great reason to take a look at D&D Insider, if you are not a subscriber. Nevertheless, for those who might be tempted to get a 1-month subscription just to take the class, I'd recommend to wait until next month, as the class hasn't been uploaded to the Character Builder yet. Until that time, I'll have to remember the art of manually filling a character sheet.