Friday, September 17, 2010

Essential Assassin

"We’ve charted a new direction in class design with the Essentials products" - Bill Slavicsek, Essential Cleric preview.

The Executioner Assassin is new build (though it actually includes two sub-builds) for the assassin class, with a format inspired by the Essentials books, brand new mechanics, and a couple of twists in the resource system. Executioners are strikers that use both the shadow and the martial power source, making them the first build in the game with multiple power sources.

Ever since the first Essential previews, we have wondered what that "new direction" would mean for future classes. We will still have to wait for a complete answer, but it is easy to tell what it means for the assassin class: freedom. This is a build full of wacky design ideas, often breaking the (somewhat rigid) structure we have come to expect from a 4E class description, though keeping the underlying core intact. More or less, anyway.

The first thing that caught my eye about the assassin rules is that they are unexpectedly interesting to read. I love reading page after page of powers as much as the next guy, but even I have to admit that the original 4E format sometimes comes off a little dry. Following the new Essentials style, the Assassin has additional flavor text and descriptions for every feature and power, in just the right amount (a single paragrapth at a time) to spice things up without getting boring. Moderately extensive writeups for race-specific assassins, such as humans or drow, are also included.

The power progression feels familiar, yet special. You get at-will, encounter, daily and utility powers as with any other (non-Essential) class, though there are a few caveats. All of the non-utility powers are written so as to be build-specific, so that the Executioner can't benefit from previous assassin attacks, and vice versa. The at-wills available are different for each Executioner sub-build, and you can actually gain more as you level up. The daily powers keep their usual number and strength, but have been reflavored as special poisons which the assassin can craft and use each day. Also, they have been grouped by tier, so that at level 9 you can choose among three level 1 poisons, where previously you would have powers of level 1, 5 and 9. There is a slight mechanical change in that it looks like you'll be able to use multiple instances of the same poison each day, but other than that it is the same as traditional dailies, with a very cool flavor. And then, there is the encounter power.

This is where the assassin deviates the most from the norm, but I think it's more than worth it. Rather than choosing up to 3 different encounter powers, the executioner assassin has Assassin's Strike, a single encounter attack which improves as you level up. The trick is that Assassin's Strike deals roughly the same extra damage as the three encounters put together. In one fell swoop. This single, devastating attack really captures what an assassin is about, to me, and feels about right, power-wise. The loss in build and play options is somewhat compensated by the additional at-will slots, and the inevitable gap in power level (compared to classes that have 3 attacks with weird effects) is left to fill by class features.

And there are a LOT of class features. True to the Essential template, the assassin class has its own progression table for each tier, with new features spread out across levels. The partial switch to the martial power source is evident here, in that there is less emphasis in shadow illusions and teleporting (one of the cooler things about the old assassin), and more plain acrobatics and physical prowess. Features that let you land gracefully on a fall, or create clever disguises are examples of this mundane theme, though shadow magic becomes more prominent as you level up. This way, the paragon tier brings an extremely nice little feature with no combat implications but great story potential; called Shadow Coffin, it allows you to magically capture an enemy corpse, to hide your tracks or use it later as proof of death.

Oddly, for all the color and inventiveness that is present in other areas, the main striker feature is as bland as it gets: an extra d6 added to all weapon attacks. This is functional but boring, and would be a bit of a letdown if it wasn't complemented by one of the most awesome and flavorful offensive mechanics I have seen in quite a while: the Death Attack. Gained at level 3, Death Attack lets you automatically finish off enemies with less than 10 hit points (a threshold that increases as you level up) after you damage them. This seems quite potent, and fun, and more than justifies calling this build the Executioner - bloodied enemies will fall quite easily at your hands, and there is a potential for one-shotting enemies at lower levels that not even a barbarian would match.

The executioner also succeeds in an area where the previous assassin design felt lacking - the use of weapons. Both builds are proficient with ki focuses that allow an assassin to wield effectively any tool at hand. However, the original version of the class did little to incentivize the exotic weapons one usually associates with assassination, so the optimal style of play consisted in swinging brutish two-handed blades - not the most fortunate flavor match. The executioner fixes this by having weapon-specific attacks. A lot of them, in fact, and for many different weapons.

Each of the new assassin at-wills is associated with a specific weapon, such as the kukri, blowgun, or shuriken. These have long been (rightfully) regarded as crappy weapons, weak even when compared with the humble dagger. However, by having at-wills specifically tailored from them, the assassin can squeeze power out of them like no other class in the game.

For example, the kukri power lets you charge and deal 2[W] damage (at-will!), which after accounting for that weapon's terrible damage die ends up roughly equivalent to an attack with a heavy weapon such as a Mordenkrad. The blowgun attack deals miserable damage by itself but is more accurate than any other at-will in the game, making it great in combination with poisons, Assassin's Strike, or Death Strike. Or all of them thrown together - there is no such thing as overkill, for an assassin.

Also, if these specialized weapons and maneuvers fail, you're still free to make basic attacks with the heaviest stick you can find. Executioners are able to use their dexterity for basic attacks, swap weapons with ease, and switch from melee to ranged attacks without effort, so they should be able to have a much more eclectic fighting style.

And that's about it. As with other Essential classes, there are no class-specific feats in the article, though I'd be surprised if the generous array of feats for the classic assassin didn't hide several gems (without feature requirements) for the new build. The class is presented as a Beta version, so that playtest feedback can be sent before the final version is compiled in November. Nevertheless, my initial impression is that, barring a couple of typos and the odd table, the class is highly polished - more so, perhaps, than the previous assassin. The power level looks well adjusted, the mechanics appear to be quite fun, and the whole package is full of personality and flavor. The class framework is definitely unorthodox, but isn't really all that far off your regular 4E striker, in its core. I don't know if I'll have the chance to play with the class anytime soon, as my turn to DM our campaign comes closer, but I'd definitely recommend it.

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