Hello all! Welcome back to another Underrated or Underpowered. Our first subclass in this series was the Thief Rogue, and so we’re going to start the new year with another rogue! This time around, we’ll be looking at the Assassin Rogue. Get those stealth scores up and those crits ready, let’s get right into it!
The Mark of Death
Similar to every other rogue subclass, you’re going to be picking up your Assassin features at level 3. The list of abilities is split into two very different sides: one that focuses on doing big damage during surprise rounds and one that focuses on political intrigue and subterfuge. We’ll take a look at all of these first and I’ll give my opinions on them.
At level 3 you gain two bonus proficiencies that include the disguise kit and the poisoner’s kit. Both of these tool kits are actually quite useful as opposed to say, a forgery kit. You also gain the Assassinate feature, the namesake of the subclass. With this, you gain advantage on attack rolls against creatures that haven’t acted in combat yet and any attack against a surprised target is a critical hit. Now, as a rogue you’ll often be moving first in initiative. Having advantage against a target guarantees your sneak attack, making sure that you’re for sure going to be doing a ton of damage during your first turn. This works hand in hand with the crit on a surprised target. If there’s one thing paladins and rogues have in common, it’s that they both get equally excited when they hit a crit. Being able to roll more dice than the wizard casting fireball is a euphoric feeling. Sadly, it’s a feeling that you’ll only experience if you’re able to convince the pig-headed barbarian to launch a surprise attack. Many enemies will take measures to ensure they’re not snuck up on. Likewise, the rogue will probably always say they were in stealth before combat started. Make sure you talk to your DM so you can get the most out of this ability and always, always make sure to declare your stealth!
Level 9 brings us Infiltration Expertise. This ability lets you create a false identity with 25 gp and 7 days of work. It establishes a history, a profession, and affiliations. It can also afford you clothes and forged documents. If you adopt this new identity as a disguise, other creatures believe you are that person until given an obvious reason not to… Okay, now this is where things get a bit strange. Theoretically in a vacuum, this ability can be insanely useful. It can be used for subterfuge, to sneak into a castle or a cult hideout, to get discounts at a store, etc. However with the format of 5th edition adventures, this ability will probably never see use. Many adventures can’t afford the 7 days it takes to build the false identity, and very rarely will you ever gain any actual use from it. If you were to sneak into a cult using a false identity, you are now in the middle of a hideout by yourself without any allies. If you were to play in a homebrew political intrigue game and everyone is on the same page, you could get great use out of this! But with the way modules and pre-built adventures are being released, very rarely will you ever get to use this ability I feel.
At level 13, you receive the Imposter ability. With this, you can expertly mimic another person’s speech, handwriting, and mannerisms. You must spend 3 hours studying those three components of the person and to the casual observer, your ruse is indiscernible. If a creature is wary, you have advantage on Deception checks to conceal your identity. Similar to Infiltration Expertise, this ability in theory can be very useful. The biggest drawback though is that very rarely will you ever be able to study the speech and mannerisms of someone you’d want to realistically mimic. Maybe with your Infiltration Expertise you can get into the aforementioned cult hideout and listen to their leader give a speech, find some of their documents, etc. But then… what do you do with that knowledge? What can you realistically do with this ability? In the modules, there just doesn’t ever really seem to be a place to use this where another method wouldn’t work as well or better. Combining this with a disguise kit could yield some results… but at this point the wizard/warlock/sorcerer can also just use Disguise Self and Tongues and probably get a bit farther than you could. Very cool idea, but sadly I feel like in the current state of 5e you won’t get much use out of it.
The final ability and capstone of the Assassin Rogue is Death Strike. With this, when you attack a creature that is surprised it must make a Constitution saving throw. On a failed save, you double the damage you deal to the enemy. Wow, is this ability exciting. You already crit on a surprised creature, but doubling that crit?? That’s effectively 18d6 from sneak attack alone. Add weapon damage, some poison, and a buff or two in there? You’re probably looking at over 300 damage. Important to note with this, it also doubles your ability mod that you add to your damage and any other flat amounts such as Sharpshooter! However, there are a few drawbacks to the ability! First of all, it does ask for a Constitution saving throw. Many creatures have inflated Con saves. At this level your DC is most likely going to be a 19, higher if you can get your Dex above a 20. Using this ability on a big bad will probably never quite yield the results you want. Maybe look to use it on a big bad’s bigger lackey, such as the wizard or something in the room that’ll buff the creature. Lastly, this ability is unlocked at level 17, which is very, very late in the campaign. Most campaigns don’t even go up that high in level, so it’s quite rare that you’ll get to see this ability.
You Can’t Spell Assassin without…
Compared to other rogue subclasses, the Assassin is probably the one with the most clearly defined role. Deceive or sneak your way into surprising your enemies then deal a ton of damage to them. However, the tools that supplement this turn out to be the subclasses greatest weaknesses. As I said before, outside of very niche circumstances, you will get very little use out of Infiltration Expertise and Imposter.
Another thing to note about rogues in general is that their level 9 and level 13 ability tend to be underwhelming compared to their level 3 and level 17 abilities. Perhaps the only subclass I’d say has a really strong level 9 and 13 is the Arcane Trickster. However, even those abilities from other subclasses such as the Scout, the Thief, and even the Swashbuckler can see more use in and out of combat in your standard campaign than an Assassin.
Lastly, it’s unfortunate to make the combat-based abilities for the Assassin completely contingent on surprise rounds. With how finnicky and subjective surprise rounds and just surprise in general can be, you may go a couple sessions before even being able to use Assassinate. Other rogue subclasses can use their ability pretty much every combat. Even the Mastermind can find use of its ability every round of combat.
You can probably see this one coming from a mile away, but I believe that the Assassin Rogue is Underpowered. While the Rogue class itself is very good, having a subclass that is completely reliant on one subjective mechanic is not very good for the character. Likewise, having abilities that cater to a very specific way of playing the game that’ll barely ever see use outside of that niche is a very awful feeling. The best way to make the Assassin work is to get up to about level 8 for that second ASI and then multiclass out of it, whether it’s into ranger, fighter, or even something crazy like wizard!
And that will do it! Heralding in the New Year, I greatly look forward to spending this next year helping you guys learn about new subclasses, spells and abilities. Thank you all so very much for the opportunity to write out my thoughts on these things and actually reading through it. It means more than you could ever know 🙂