In Depth: 4E Assassin and Q&A with Mike Mearls

assassinLast week Wizards of the Coast released a new class for Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition called the Assassin, an exclusive class only available to subscribers of their D&D Insider service. So far they have released the Heroic tier and Paragon tier for the class, with the Epic tier coming out this Friday. If you’re a fan of the Assassin class in previous editions or have just found the Rogue and other sneaky characters unsatisfying, I recommend you read further and see if this new class sounds like something you’d like to play. I was also lucky enough to ask Mike Mearls, the designer for the class, a few questions about it to get a better idea of how it all came about.

The Assassin is a striker and our first look at the Shadow power source which most likely will not show up in core books until the Player’s Handbook 4 which we assume will come out in early 2011. The best armor an Assassin can wear from the start is leather and they are proficient with light shields, while their starting selection of weapons is much wider than the Rogue with access to all one-handed simple weapons and all military heavy and light blades. One of the first deviations in the design that I noticed  is that the Assassin has the hit points of a Controller, which means this class will always be a good bit squishier than other strikers. This class also uses the same Ki Focus concept as the Monk, allowing it to be more effective with a wide range of weapons for both weapon and implement powers, as well as allowing you to improvise weapons much more readily and freely.

Each Assassin is differentiated by what type of guild training they have had, which determines the class abilities of different builds just like any other class. I really like the fluff  behind this because it adds some interesting reflections onto your character based on which build you choose, especially considering one guild has ties to the Drow while the other has ties to Githyanki. The Night Stalker Assassin gets your standard stat bonus to damage if no other enemies are adjacent to your target, while I find the Bleak Disciple more interesting because it allows you to balance your low hit points and defenses by gaining temporary hit points when you damage an unbloodied enemy.

Assassin’s Shroud is the new class’ feature which lets you put up to four shrouds on a single enemy that you can invoke to do 1d6 damage per shroud (+3 at paragon, +6 at epic) to that enemy and all of the shrouds are removed. This means that the longer an Assassin gets to study a target (by placing shrouds on them), the more damage they can do in a single round later on. Combine this with the Bleak Disciple class ability and you have some very cool timing aspects to each encounter where the Assassin loads up on temporary hit points and lays down shrouds, then finally springs into action and causes a lot of trouble.

Perhaps the most unique aspect of this class is its tie to the Shadowfell through the Shadow power source, granting it numerous abilities to turn invisible, meld with shadows, or teleport through shadows. The class ability Shadow Step is an at-will short range teleport that lets you jump from adjacent to one enemy to another. While Rogues are adept at moving through combat and avoiding Opportunity Attacks, the Assassin turns into living shadow and can bypass Opportunity Attacks altogether over short distances.  When it comes to the class’s power selection, many of them lean very clearly towards the controller side of things with effects that pull or slow enemies. Leaping Shade is an at-will attack that balances out the timing issues a bit by dealing 1 bonus damage per shroud on the target (and does not cause the shrouds to go away).

Another new mechanic introduced is encounter powers that use multiple rolls to hit, but are still resolved as one attack (just doing one extra damage die for each of the rolls that hit.) This not only means the attack is more likely to penetrate resistances than three smaller attacks would, but it also gives your shrouds a better chance of being fully effective. Several of the daily powers interact with shrouds (adding two instead of just one) or attacking one creature but then effecting / damaging all creatures within a small burst of that one. Other Assassin powers have some really unique properties like allowing you to merge with your enemy’s shadow for one round (causing attacks against you to hit them), creating a shadow duplicate of yourself for a short time to flank enemies with, hide in the middle of combat, fly through the air, gain darkvision, or even become an illusory duplicate of someone.

The PDFs for the class include a nearly complete list of feats for the class include one for each of the core races; in addition there are four paragon paths presented that each build on the themes of the class in interesting ways. Obsidian Stalker is an expert of pursuit with many phasing powers, even gaining the ability to move through enemies spaces. The Shadowblade path can create a blade made of pure shadow, allowing you to pull shards from your fallen enemies that can be used to gain benefits.  The Soul Thief uses a similar mechanic, gaining soul shards from fallen enemies that can be used to apply more shrouds, increase attack rolls, or to remain in shade form while attacking.  The last path is called the Venomed Soul which seems to nicely fit the roll of the master of poisons Assassin: it even has a paragon path feature called Master of Poisons which pretty much speaks for itself.

Having read through the class rules and all of the Heroic / Paragon powers, I really like the Assassin class because it introduces a feel to timing in a battle. Unlike other strikers, there is actually some advantage to waiting and attacking later, and I believe that will work together with other striker classes to create some very fun and intriguing interactions both in and out of combat.  I think on the surface the class is similar to the Rogue and Avenger but I believe in actual play it will stand out quite well on its own due to the strong focus on the shadow power and how the influences the whole feel of the class.

If you can’t tell by now, I was very intrigued by this new class, so I asked if designer Mike Mearls would be able to answer some questions for us!

Critical Hits: With the Assassin set up as an exclusive D&D Insider class, was the design and development for it any different than working on a class for a Player’s Handbook or other books? Were there any additional considerations or concerns you had while working on it?

Mike Mearls: There were some subtle differences, primarily in how we handled extra options. For instance, all of the races from the PH and PH 2 received Assassin feats. Normally, space considerations prevent that sort of design. Since you’re not restricted to a specific number of pages with a D&DI article, you can afford to run a bit deeper into details or specific options.

Otherwise, the process was mostly the same as any character class. It was nice focusing on one class, rather than designing an entire array of classes, but that simply made things go by faster. It definitely proved that we can do new classes this way, though.

CH: Could you discuss the decisions behind the Assassin’s Weapon Proficiencies?  (as opposed to the Rogue or Monk’s very limited selection of weapons.)

Mearls: There are two primary reasons why the Assassin’s weapon list ended up the way it did.
First, and this was really important, the Assassin couldn’t look just like a Rogue in a black cloak. Otherwise, why bother with the class? So, it was important to have some level of distinction in every area we could think of. When it came to weapons, that meant we’d let the Assassin use whatever he wanted (though they start with simple weapons and heavy blades, primarily because swords seem more like an Assassin’s typical weapon that a battle axe or warhammer).

Second, on a mechanical level the Rogue feels really, really happy that his striker mechanic (sneak attack) gives him more punch than other class’s striker mechanics. If the Assassin had been limited to light weapons, he’d have to get more dice (or a bigger flat number), and that felt like another intrusion into the Rogue’s space.

CH: Could you explain a bit more about how the Assassin’s Ki Focus ability works?  (Like the Monk can they consider unarmed as using an implement, and can they consider ANY object to be their Ki Focus?  How do you imbue a ki focus with magic?)
Mearls: Mechanically speaking, a ki focus is like a holy symbol. You don’t hold it and it has its own special item slot. The big difference is that you can use the attack and damage bonus, along with the powers, of a ki focus when using a weapon or implement attack. The bonus and powers basically sit on top of your weapon. If you have a magic weapon, you can use either the magic weapon’s bonus or the ki focus’s bonus, but not both.

A ki focus item might be a manual or some other item that you study. In game terms, you equip it into your ki focus slot. In game world terms, you study its secret, extract its magic, and focus on it. When you’re done with it, you simply transfer that focus and its power back into the manual or the training weapon or whatever you used to gain that focus.

An Assassin could make unarmed attacks and gain his ki focus’s benefits. Of course, with weapon powers, his damage wouldn’t be that great. Now, if he somehow had a way to make his unarmed strike better, then the Assassin could easily be an unarmed warrior.

CH: What was the main inspiration/precedents for the Assassin’s Shroud mechanic?

Mearls: The shroud mechanic started out as a mechanic from the 3e Assassin prestige class. I was always disappointed that the Assassin had been placed into the design space, rather than presented as a standard class. I liked the idea of the careful killer who studies a foe before delivering an attack. The shadow flavor on it was a way to take that idea and meld it into the shadow power source.

The other big step was the damage on a miss. That was originally Andy Collins’ idea, and it came after we saw the success of the Avenger. There’s definitely a type of player who loves reliability, so the Assassin caters to that. It also gives you a good reason to delay damage. Normally, the sooner you can damage something the better. The shroud mechanic makes taking out down payments on future damage a good investment.

CH: The Assassin’s Shroud ability brings into play encounter duration for how effective the class can be as a striker, what were some concerns and considerations while designing this especially with regards to balancing it with other strikers?

Mearls: The big worry was that the Assassin would wait to get a big attack, and then watch his chance go by when his target died at the hands of another PC. That’s part of how the Assassin ended up with his at-will teleport ability and low hit points.

In play, it turned out the Assassin had to do some planning to make sure he reaped the benefits of throwing a lot of shrouds on one target, but that was how the class was meant to play. Combined with teleport abilities and low hit points, the Assassin worked out well as the striker who darts in and out, popping in to hit a foe and either escaping or remaining safe because his attack defeated his enemy.

The big thing is that, in the end, the Assassin player gets to judge the tempo of the shrouds. You can throw a shroud and immediately attack, or build them up over time, depending on how things look like they’ll play out. That choice was big, since forcing the Assassin to wait could cause problems with faster encounters.

CH: What are your thoughts on the Assassin class as it compares to the Shadow Assassin paragon path for Rogues and the Zealous Assassin paragon path for Avengers, how are they differentiated from one another and what warranted having a separate full Assassin class?

Mearls: This gets back to what I talked about before with the Rogue. The Assassin really needed a key, new trait to make him feel different. That’s why you see the Assassin so deeply rooted in the shadow power source. We didn’t have the Assassin planned out from day 1 as part of the game, so there are areas where we use the word “Assassin” to mean the more general, hired killer, rather than a specific user of shadow magic.

In some ways, it was a blessing, since it pushed us to really find new mechanics for the class. The teleport ability and the shrouds both came from the desire to make this class feel different. We really had to deliver on a shadow power source that was interesting enough to make the class distinct.

CH: Why does the Venomed Soul paragon path’s Venomous Action ability rely on ongoing poison damage, when the Assassin class has very few powers that confer ongoing poison damage?

Mearls: Venomous Action is meant to encourage the Assassin to use poisons with his other attacks. You can take powers, or you can buy/make alchemical items that can confer ongoing poison damage. It ties into the idea of the Assassin as setting up an enemy, such as by using the poison, attacking, then using an action point if the attack hits the poison affects the target.

CH: Which aspects of the Assassin class can we look forward to seeing echoed in future Shadow classes?

Mearls: The core concept of shadow, as applied to the Assassin, is the concept of a character giving up some part of his soul for a boon from the Shadowfell. Since the Shadowfell is the realm of death, a shadow magic practitioner allows part of himself to die, but in return the Shadowfell grants him a mote of shadow power. So, you can expect other classes that use the shadow power source to create similar bargains. The specifics, though, are a bit different for each class.

I’d like to extend a very big thank you to Mike for taking the time to read and answer our questions!


  1. Excellent interview! I like the insight into the class design; especially when comparing to other classes.
    .-= Matt James´s last blog ..Arcade =-.

  2. Matt: Thanks! While reading through the PDFs I started to wonder what the thoughts were behind many of the decisions, so it was great to get Mike Mearl’s answers (and so quickly too!) and learn exactly what his thoughts and reflections are on it now that it’s been released.

    The biggest disappointment for me right now is that I won’t get to play one any time soon!

  3. Hmm…users of the shadow power source needs to have a part of themselves die to create a connection? I wonder if that means that all shadow source classes will be slightly squishier than their non-shadow counterparts, but with more ways to become slippery(i.e. invisible, teleport, etc)?
    .-= Cedric´s last blog ..Fine Print =-.

  4. Walter Kovacs says:

    Yeah, it seems that shadow may be the opposite of primal in terms of the HP. Then again, they’ll likely have constitution as a secondary (or maybe even primary) stat for the various classes.

  5. Thanks to you both!!! Very excited to see this class in the CB next month. One wonders if there is a multiclass feat coming. ;O)

  6. It’s an interesting perspective that sheds some light on the wizard HP for the Assassin.
    .-= Wyatt´s last blog ..Monsters of Eden: Those Earthbound =-.

  7. Vinicius Zóio says:

    Everything I read about Shadow makes me think a Necromancer is in the works for the PHB IV 🙂

    Oh glorious day when I shall reign supreme with a necromantic fist! ^^

  8. Bravo! That was a great article and insight from Mr. Mearls. I hope some of the Shadow source gets tied into some Dark Sun, maybe even a new class eventually in the Dark Sun PHB.

  9. Thanks everyone!

    @Cedric: That’s an interesting though, but at this point I’m assuming the low HP and “slippery” focus is more a result of how the Assassin works rather than the Shadow power source. Still, it’d be pretty cool to have another defender with lower HP and more maneuverability similar to the Swordmage.

    @Derrek: I certainly hope there’s a multiclass feat!

    @Vinicius: Considering the Shadow attack powers are called Hexes, I think the Necromancer is definitely going to be one of the main Shadow classes with Hexblade also a strong possibility.

    @Andrew: Well thanks to Newbie DM’s recent interview with James Wyatt we actually know that the Dark Sun Player’s Guide is not going to have a new class in it instead focusing on new kinds of mechanics (exactly what that means we don’t know yet). I assume it’ll have something like using power points for other classes, or something else strange like that!

  10. Loved the article, but I think there is one minor error in it. The Shadow Step power is not limited to teleporting from enemy to enemy. It only states adjacent to a creature. I noticed this and immediately thought of the Assassin/Defender tag team. The Defender marks a target while the Assassin literally hides in his shadow, then teleports on his turn to a flanking position. The reverse would also serve as an excellent method of retreat.


  1. […] In Depth: Assassino 4Ed e Perguntas e Respostas com Mike Mearls “Semana passada, a Wizards of the Coast lançou sua nova classe para Dungeons & Dragons 4ª Edição chamada Assassino, uma classe exclusiva disponível apenas para os assinantes do serviço D&D Insider. Fiquei muito intrigado com essa nova classe, então perguntei se o designer Mike Mearls seria capaz de responder algumas perguntas pra gente.” […]

  2. […] thing is certain, however. The Assassin class is a thing of beauty. Similar articles:4E and me: unbalancedRoleplaying religionA new chapterThe […]