Friday, 23 September 2011

just a job to do

This month's RPG Blog Carnival hosted by Roleplaying Tips deals with assassins. Sun Tzu argues for assassination as a tactic in The Art of War and Machiavelli warned against the hired assassin as political tool of the people. Yet assassins rarely think of themselves or others beyond the job - to them, it's not personal.  While the assassin may get to know their target in intimate detail, they maintain a detachment that a serial killer cannot have.  Murder by sudden or secretive attack is a profitable trade and effective method of shaking up politics, religion and ideologies.  Yet there is variation within the profession.

Death For Sale
The hitmen of Murder, Inc had a regular salary as retainer as well as fees for killings.  Their families also got payments and in the event of arrest, the hitmen could depend on heavyweight legal support.  They were contracted for assassinations across the United States as part of a loosely-organised, multi-ethnic syndicate (the National Crime Syndicate). Some were hardened killers versed in rope, ice-pick, knife and gun.  Others were opportunists.  Murder Inc was finally brought down due to internal betrayals, a consequence of being purely for proift.

Humble Mercenaries
The shinobi (or ninja) were mercenaries.  Everything samurai were not, recruited among the poor, they worked in secret to topple their targets.  Stealth, disguise and subterfuge enabled their roles as spies, terrorists, arsonists and assassins.  During the Sengoku era, families formed villages to train specialists famed in their prefecture.  A demand for untraceable agents capable of dirty deeds ensured the shinobi would survive.  Families became clans and guilds.  Manuals were found describing techniques based around the elements of fire, earth, water, wood and wind and common disguises.  Devices and weapons used by shinobi worked on utility and concealability.  Their mystique was such that magic was attributed to their abilities.  The shinobi were hierarchical, genin (lower man) worked for chunin (middle men) who in turn worked for the jonin (upper man) who represented the clan or family to potential employers. 

Tools Of State
The fida'is (self-sacrificing) who served Alamut served a political and religious cause.  Maligned as rabble and drug-addicts, the truth was more complicated.  As Assassins took contracts for money, they played a long game, accepting only contracts that helped their own cause even where contracts were paid for by Crusaders.  The network of mountain fortresses held (Alamut was one of many) provided a defensive strategy that required the power of the Mongols under Hulegu to finally break.  Even though a fida'i was a pawn in greater schemes, they were extensively trained.  Learning language and culture as well as stealth and disguise skills.  Their youth gave them physical advantages and these were married to a cultivated patience and cold calculation.  They worked for rafiq (companions) and propagandists who in turn took orders from the enigmatic 'Old Man of the Mountain'.

These iconic assassins have distinctive approaches yet their hierarchy stands at odds with the lone wolf favoured in some media and games.  Assassins are in a deadly business, collaboration with allies ensured their survival.  Even James Bond has Q-branch and M's supervision before working with a varied mix of other agents.  These examples provide blueprints for assassin characters, yet anyone with the appropriate detachment and correct aptitudes could sell their services.

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