We’re going to start a small Build series of articles on the site due to the popularity of the “Building the Perfect Necromancer” article.
I’m a big fan of Brent Week’s Nightangel trilogy, if you haven’t gotten around to reading it, it’s fantastic and gives an excellent skullduggery and cutthroat feel. Other sources of inspiration include Paul Kemp’s portrayal of Erevis Cale from the Forgotten Realms D&D setting. Video games like the Dishonored series and Thief have always romanticized the magical thief though not an assassin. If we want to talk about assassins, we have to make a callback to the Assassin’s Creed franchise by Ubisoft. Assassins are trained in the art of dealing death, ranging from weaponry, poisons, or subterfuge. There are various ways to portray assassins in Dungeons & Dragons for 5th Edition, and we shall delve into ways to maximize their combat capabilities.
Assassins – Not just a hired blade
Many assassins are trained as contracted killers, some belong to a guild of similarly skilled individuals, some belong to religious cults, and several might be an independent contractor. But not all assassins are soulless killers, some may fight for a cause or even serve the greater good. Good-aligned assassins are hard to come by, but more than not, most stick to a neutral stance tipping along law and chaos. Many assassins worship gods of death as well as gods of murder, some may revere patron deities of thieves or secrets. In the Forgotten Realms, Bhaal is the Neutral Evil god of assassins and murder, but some assassins turn to Mask, the Shadowlord, and god to thieves. The goddess Shar, Mistress of Loss is also seen to be worshipped by assassins. Assassins who worship Cyric, the Prince of Lies are often insurrectionists or usurpers, vying for domination. In Greyhawk, Nerull is the god of murder and necromancy, but assassins in Oerith also respect Wee Jas, the Lawful Neutral goddess of death and magic. There are plenty of assassins that worship the Raven Queen as well, maintaining the order and balance of life and death. Coin is a powerful instigator and motivator for assassins, so while higher ideals are fantastic, nothing beats a selfish cutthroat out to make some gold.
What we’re looking for in our builds:
- Sneak Attack damage output
- Maximizing damage through critical hits
- Evasive capabilities
- Utility (in and out of combat)
Things to keep in mind:
- Sneak Attack triggers only once per turn on an attack that hits if you have advantage on the attack roll OR an ally is adjacent to the attack target and isn’t incapacitated.
- The weapon must have the finesse property or a ranged weapon.
- The Evasion feature only works on Dexterity saving throws.
- Uncanny Dodge uses a reaction.
- Cunning Action is a bonus action to Dash, Disengage, or Hide.
Assassin Build #1 – the Purist
Our first assassin build is a pure Rogue build going from 1 to 20th level in the Assassin archetype. In this sort of build, we have the maximum number of Sneak Attack die (+10d6), along with some powerful abilities to accompany it.
Let’s break down some pros & cons on a straight 20th-level Assassin Rogue
- Full Sneak Attack progression (+10d6)
- Reliable Talent feature to help with poor dice rolls
- Blindsense up to 10 feet, great against creatures that invisible
- Slippery Mind is an excellent feature against casters hoping to dominate you
- Elusive makes it so you can’t be caught surprised by another assassin
- Stroke of Luck is a great feature to connect with the Assassinate feature (see below)
- Assassinate is the most potent Rogue feature available. Not only do you have an advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t acted in a turn of combat yet. You also score a critical hit anytime the assassin hits with an attack against a surprised creature. Those surprise rounds become incredibly deadly.
- Death Strike is a save or die effect. Should the creature make their saving throw, they take double the damage of the successful attack. This does stack with Assassinate as it’s a critical hit trigger and not necessarily a doubling effect. The math for a 17th-level Assassin Rogue comes out as (assuming +4 Dexterity mod & a shortsword) 1d6 (shortsword) + 10d6 Sneak Attack + 4, with an automatic critical hit, it becomes 22d6 + 4 damage which is then doubled. This averages out 81 damage, which is on par with a Wizard’s Disintegrate spell at an average of 75 damage.
- Expert in deception, there are ways for Assassins to craft new identities and even mimic speech, writing, and behavior for that perfect cover.
- Lack of utility beyond skills which leads to higher reliance on magical items
- Infiltration Expertise and an Imposter fit a particular narrative niche, along with using disguises. Very narrative focused and situational. Beyond those niches, the features feel empty and nonessential.
Assassin Build #2 – The Whispering Minstral
Once Xanathar’s Guide to Everything was released, one of my most anticipated classes was the College of Whispers Bard. The class option was essentially an assassin as a Bard. The class featured the ability to invoke terror, steal the personas of victims slain and eventually even the knowledge they possessed while alive. This was a class that had a lot of flavor and thematically appealing.
Let’s break down the pros & con for a 20th-level College of Whisper Bard
- Being a bard. Seriously, the bard has proficiency in a myriad of skills, they can use bardic inspiration to help their allies, they can sometimes heal, they learn rare magic at 10th-level, and cast spells.
- Access to 9th-level spells. Power Word Kill has a nice assassin feel to it.
- Psychic Blades as a feature is essentially Sneak Attack for this bard, but capping to 8d6 psychic damage at 15th level. You expend a bardic inspiration die to deal this extra damage whenever you hit with a melee attack. Just like Sneak Attack, you can only invoke this power once per turn.
- Psychic Blades deals psychic damage, which has the fewest resistances in the game besides force damage.
- Magical Secrets as a feature grants the Whisper Bard access to spells from other classes. Such as the haste spell from the Wizard spell list, or even the Shadow Blade or Steel Wind Strike spell found in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. This bard can learn assassin spells like Finger of Death or Disintegrate at these high levels, along with useful spells like Clone or even Foresight to never be surprised.
- Mantle of Whispers and Shadow Lore features are features with after effect abilities that reward you for killing foes to reach your targets.
- Not a pure Assassin
- Limited uses of Psychic Blades which tends to force the Whisper Bard to choose between aiding the party or expending to deal damage.
- Superior Inspiration isn’t a great capstone. You’re better off multiclassing either after 16th or 18th level if you want to remain strictly a Whisper bard for most of your career.
Assassin Build #3 – the Whisper Knife
So after reviewing both Whisper Bard and the pure Assassin build, I think we can play around with some multiclassing to try to fill the gaps of each one’s weaknesses. Based on what we know, here’s one probable build to mitigate useless features and optimize for damage and/or utility.
We’re looking at a 5th-level Assassin Rogue/14th-level Whisper Bard
- Sneak Attack at 3d6. Psychic Blade deals 8d6 psychic damage per expenditure.
- Assassinate can still trigger the critical hit. Assuming we combined with Psychic Blades, the current damage formula equals 1d6 (shortsword) + 11d6 damage + 4 Dexterity modifier, with the critical applied, it becomes 24d6+4 damage or 88. Without the Psychic Blades feature, the Assassin sneak attacks are not as potent as a pure Assassin but may sometimes be more than enough for guardsmen or minor NPCs.
- Still gets Evasion and Uncanny Dodge.
- Bard’s Jack of All Trades is added which helps with the loss of the 6th-level Expertise from Rogues
- Magical Secrets at 10th and 14th level, which means this build gets four spells from other spellcasting lists. Good choices are Haste, any Paladin Smite spell (particularly Staggering Smite), Reverse Gravity is a great choice to make your target vulnerable.
- All the College of Whispers features for the Bard acquired. These are some potent features out of combat, which I feel are much more worthwhile than the Impostor and Infiltration Expert.
- Font of Inspiration to help regain expended bardic inspiration die after a short or long rest.
- Less reliant on magic items due to spells, but magical items are still very useful nonetheless.
- Low Sneak Attack die. You trade off consistent Sneak Attack damage for explosive damage instead, which can reduce your overall damage output compared to at purist Assassin.
- Loss of Reliable Talent, which isn’t the greatest loss since the Bard provides Jack of All Trades and spells like Enhance Ability to help out.
- No class capstone abilities. You lose out on such features once you multiclass but the bard one isn’t really a great loss. The Rogue is a useful one, but it’s very passable as well.
- This build only grants access to 7th level spells, which is not the worse loss in spellcasting capabilities.
Other useful configurations would have Assassin Rogue 10/Whisper Bard 10, but you do lose out features, and honestly, the Infiltration Expert is just not worth it. This configuration gives back more Sneak Attack die, but you lose out on the Shadow Lore Whisper Bard feature which is not a total loss.
Build #4 – the Shadow Assassin
Another option that is possible would the ninja route, specifically the Way of Shadow Monk tradition which does have some assassin qualities but does not contain the explosive output like a pure Assassin. What the Shadow Monk provides is mobility, unlike anything the Rogue would normally possess. The Shadow Monk’s capstone could be potentially potent, but due to the number of level commitments, it doesn’t feel worth it.
For this build, we’re looking at Assassin 8/Shadow Monk 12
- Sneak Attack at 4d6.
- Flurry of Blows, for 1 ki point, you add two more unarmed strikes which grant additional attacks to hit for Assassinate.
- Unarmored Defense, if you build with a high Wisdom score, you do not worry about armor as much in this build.
- Martial Arts damage die becomes 1d8, which means you can make even a dagger deal 1d8 damage instead. May not seem like a big deal but increase the average dice damage from 2.5 to 4.5, which almost doubled.
- Deflect Arrows is very useful
- Slow Fall is fantastic
- Stunning Strike is quite potent for Assassin builds
- Still keeps Evasion and Uncanny Dodge
- You still have all five Ability Score Increases
- +20 feet to movement speed
- Stillness of Mind is a great ability if you’re afraid of being frightened or charmed.
- Purity of Body – immunity to poison and the poisoned condition
- Shadow Arts possesses some great spell-like abilities such as pass without a trace or silence
- Shadow Step is the all-star ability, using a bonus action to teleport up to 60 feet & you gain advantage on the first melee attack before the end of the turn.
- Cloak of Shadows is a great feature to help grant advantage on attack rolls.
- You lose a fair amount of Sneak Attack dice
- Double Evasion – you really don’t need it again, and it feels like a wasted level on either end.
- Shadow Step uses a bonus action, which includes using Ki Points for Flurry of Blows and Step in the Wind along with all the Cunning Actions of the Rogue
You can also use alternative builds such as Assassin 5/Monk 15 to give more focus to the monk, which grants access to Diamond Soul and Timeless Body. If you want more focus on the Rogue side, I would suggest Assassin 8/Monk 6/Any other class 6. We’ll talk more about other ideal builds below.
Build #5 The Whispering Shadow
Alright, we’re going to combine all of the good things we can acquire all these build ideas and try to address it to the best of our capability.
This build ends with Whisper Bard 10/Assassin 4/Shadow Monk 6
- Magical Secrets for Whisper Bard
- Psychic Blades deals 5d6 whenever this build hits.
- You get Expertise from both the Bard and Assassin
- Keeps Uncanny Dodge
- Keep the Shadow Arts and Shadow Step features from the Monk
- Access to 5th level Bard spells
- Keeps Assassinate feature
- Keeps the Stunning Strike feature
- Low Sneak Attack die (only 2d6)
- Lose access to Evasion from both Rogue and Monk
- One less Ability Score Improvement
- Smaller ki point pool
- Psychic Blades uses Bardic Inspiration die so there are limited amounts
Alternative styles and builds may prefer a ranged build which consists of Whisper Bard 10/Assassin 7/Fighter 3. You will want to focus on the Archery fighting style and you get the Action Surge feature. On this alternative built, I heavily suggest the Swift Quiver spell from the Ranger spell list when you get the Magical Secrets feature from the Bard. You will maximize ranged combat and while you do not have the means to teleport out of the danger as frequently, this build maximizes having allies in the fray. Going Fighter 3 and going the Champion archetype, you can score a critical hit on a roll of 19 or 20s now.
Spellcasting – YES or NO?
Spells are the most powerful feature in D&D. Magic items that grant the ability to cast certain spells are inherently useful. Ideally, spells that neutralize threats, provide means for the assassin to escape danger, or grant battlefield control are extremely useful.
Spells to come instantly to mind:
- Invisibility/Greater Invisibility
- Pass Without A Trace
- Misty Step/Far Step
- Suggestion – Suggest the victim closes their eyes and cover their ears. Instant blindness and deafness.
- Haste (I mean, do I really need to explain extra actions?)
- Hold Person/Hold Monster
- Blindness/Deafness. No concentration, always worth it.
Some items to consider:
If you’re going ranged combat, the Oathbow is a great choice if you have a particular target that must die. There are not a lot of ranged combat options but the idea is to keep your distance.
For close combat or melee combat, I heavily suggest daggers or shortswords. Elemental damage is your best friend but avoid fire and poison as many creature types have resistance or immunity to them, especially at higher tiers. Remember that while dual-wielding looks cool, you lose out on bonus actions which are important for using Cunning Actions/Ki actions.
While you may be tempted by Cloaks or Books of Elvenkind, don’t get them. They use up your attunement slots and you can get considerable boons from spells instead. Rings of Evasion are sometimes handy but again, passable. Anything to grant you the ability to escape, such as a Cape of the Mountebank is a great item to possess when your assassin finds themselves surrounded or in a pickle.
Psychic damage is a great type to exploit against most creatures unless you’re fighting against mind flayers and aboleths, then you might want to steer clear of it.
Spells to consider are haste for almost all builds, and swift quiver if you’re going ranged combat. Again, spells that grant the ability to escape such as misty step or dimension door are fantastic boons for an assassin.
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