Assassins & poison

Max Klinger, Rivals (source)

Max Klinger, Rivals (source)

Recently, when compiling a document of Finchbox classes, I noticed that, especially after basic house-rule adjustments, the assassin and thief classes seemed awfully similar. Both had d6 HD, light armor skill, backstab, low attack bonus, and a (slightly different) collection of skills. The only significant contrast was that assassins had disguise and poison-craft whereas thieves had the troubleshooting skills (search, find/remove traps, open locks, etc).

This is not enough to justify two separate classes for me, so the choice is to either reformulate the assassin or drop it. Another approach, I suppose, would be to replace both classes with something like the LotFP specialist, which can be customized, but I already know I don’t want to do that. For these rules, I prefer to have more focused, atmospheric classes. And I do want to keep the assassin as an option. So here is a modified S&W assassin, focused more on the ideal of single-shot kills (compared to the opportunism and utility that comprises the essence of the thief). Both classes still have backstab, but the increased martial focus of this assassin, along with the added poison-craft subsystem (described below), and lack of dungeon utility skills, distinguish the two classes. Max level in this game is 10.

The poison-craft description is still somewhat wordy, and I hope to tighten it up in the future, but for now this should be good enough to communicate the rules. I, of course, reserve the right to modify the poison rules if they don’t satisfy me in play. More poison recipes will be added later to bring the total above 10, so that high-level assassins don’t converge in poison knowledge.

Edit: added PDF version.


  • Hit die and weapon damage: d8
  • Starting saving throw: 15
  • Armor training: medium
  • Attack bonus: medium

Special abilities & restrictions:

  • Backstab: +4 to attack from surprise, +HD damage (5th: +2HD, 9th: +3HD)
  • Poison recipes, one per level (odd: random, even: pick)
  • Ambusher: a party with an assassin is more likely to surprise enemies (usually, 4 in 6)
  • Skills: disguise, poison-craft, stealth (as thief of same level)
  • Optional: vow of guild loyalty and guild connections


A flask of poison may be concocted as a downtime action for 100 SP. Applying poison to a weapon requires a poison kit (which is a significant item), an exploration turn, and a poison-craft check to see if the poison is used up. Each time the assassin hits with a poisoned weapon, another poison-craft check should be made to see if the poison application has worn off. In any case, a poison application will not last longer than a single excursion. Poison may also be extracted from a poisonous slain creature with a successful poison-craft check (this requires a downtime action, but doesn’t involve any expense). Any number of poisons may be carried in a poison kit without consuming further encumbrance slots.


  1. Affliction: +1d6 damage
  2. Anticoagulant: if further wounded, takes 1d6 bleed damage per round (save ends)
  3. Blindness: target is struck blind (new save allowed 1/day)
  4. Debilitation: -2 physical penalty, +1 damage from any attacks
  5. Delirium: unable to focus, hallucinations, actions have random targets
  6. Doom: death after one exploration turn
  7. Mage-bane: unable to cast spells (new save allowed 1/day)
  8. Paralysis: unable to move (new save allowed 1/exploration turn)
  9. Sleep: slumber for 8 hours (new save allowed if damaged)
  10. Suggestion: groggy, will obey general commands (charisma check needed)

All poisons allow a save to avoid the effect, and generally work only on living creatures approximately human-sized or less. Effects on other creatures are by referee ruling.

13 thoughts on “Assassins & poison

  1. George Cassie (@castlin)

    Perhaps instead of an additional check when you hit with a poisoned weapon, they could be given “viscosity” ratings or such, and an attack under (or over) that rating removes the poison. Seems like it would play similar to the equipment deterioration you’ve posted about before.

    If it was a “roll high, lose poison” system that might be interesting because then you don’t suffer deterioration and poison loss on the same roll. Also it would mean crits would always apply poison (if you’re using crits) at the cost of having it expended. What an assassin would want then is to roll exactly what’s needed to hit, and no higher, which seems appropriately thematically as well.

    Different “viscosity” ratings would also give you another way to balance poisons.

    Also I had a spell similar to the “anticoagulant” you describe in another game. I found the extra d6 damage easy to forget to apply, but when changed to taking an extra amount (1 point I think?) of damage from each attack, the numbers came out about the same without an extra die roll.

    You might be gathering I don’t like extra die rolls 🙂

    1. Brendan Post author


      That viscosity idea is intriguing. I like the general idea, but would be wary of overloading the attack roll too much, given that it’s already used for equipment deterioration. I do like the thematics of wanting the attack roll to be right on and not too high, though I’m not sure all players would appreciate natural 20s being “bad” somehow for attack rolls.

      Perhaps tying it to the damage roll would be another option? In fact, maybe just use the damage roll as the poison-craft check? So low damage rolls don’t exhaust the application. Has promise, but need to think on it more.

      I hear you regarding remembering to roll extra damage dice, but I figure that is the player’s responsibility, and we usually seem to remember for recurring damage from burning oil, so hopefully it won’t be too bad. It’s not like the player of an assassin character has that much else to track, right?

      1. Gus L.

        I like the class rewrite, poisons are good. Only issue I see is tracking poison application, I say it from GM and player experience with tracking it. Personally I’d be less generous, 1 attack per application. This encourages planning when to use the poison, and using on missiles. Application should exhaust poison on a random basis, and need to be done prior to each poisoned attack (possible in missile, action consuming in melee). That’s my take, but nice work (albeit I might give only light armor).

      2. Brendan Post author


        Re: armor, yeah maybe, but also note medium armor will penalize stealth checks by one (maybe I should reiterate that in the class description).

  2. Brendan Post author

    Edit: added the ambusher special ability, an offensive mirror of the ranger’s alertness ability.

    Ambusher: a party with an assassin is more likely to surprise enemies (usually, 4 in 6)

      1. Brendan Post author


        Do you really think ambusher is that much more powerful than the ranger’s alertness ability? (I think the math is similar.)

        I already give bonuses based on preparing an ambush, irrespective of class, so the ability here is that it is passive and doesn’t require such prep (though it will, of course, still be modified by situation).

    1. Gus L.

      Yeah a round of attacks + assassin’s backstab is really deadly. Well maybe not with finchboxes higher hp, but initiative is still king in osr combat.

  3. Mark

    I concur with Gus’s view. The thing that most stood out was the Ambusher rule – really powerful ability. Getting first drop is critical in equal combats. Ignoring fluff this seems better than the standard rogue.

    I know you do not want to go with the Lotfp version but an assassin would pretty easily fit in there – just add an extra skill for poison craft. Done. If the assassin wears armour above light then stealth is impossible and there are penalties for tinkering or open locks. Alternatively you could modify the sneak attack rule so that the assassin has the old % chance of killing as per AD&D.

    I added two extra abilities to my rogue class (based on Lotfp’s specialist).
    1. Quick reflexes – we use group initiative (no Dex mod added) but the rogue may choose to roll their own initiative and add their Dex modifier to operate on a different time sequence. This often means they have the first turn in a combat which can be very important (i.e. close the door in the medusa’s face).
    2. Slippery – (stolen from 52 pages!) as long as there is a friendly melee ally in combat with the enemy the rogue can attack and then withdraw without being targetable by melee foes. Captures the idea of them working the fringe of the combat. This does not replace Sneak Attack.

    1. Brendan Post author


      The flexibility of the specialist is exactly why I find it somewhat unsatisfying. It’s like a class building toolkit rather than a class itself. Though I do like the design of the LotFP skill system generally. (That and I generally find point-buy systems fiddly; I totally realize that may be a personal quirk, however.)

      You and Gus might be right about the ambusher ability, but I would still like to see it in play. Assuming someone actually creates an assassin (so far the classes in play are demon hunter, fighter, magician, paladin, and ranger).

      I think there is no question that an assassin is better in combat than a rogue, but having a thief with a better search chance could allow a party to find a secret door or pick a lock in (say) 1 turn rather than 3, and thus avoid a random encounter, so I’m not sure the comparison if drawn more broadly is actually so conclusive.

      The slippery talent is interesting. I’ve thought about allowing thieves certain maneuverability options when they act prior to enemies (that is, win initiative), but the slippery approach may be easier to use in play. Maybe allow attack/retreat if lightly armored with a successful dexterity check.


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