NPC Tactics: Bandits and Assassins


In yesterday’s post, I discussed non-player characters who are likely to be found enforcing the local law; today I’ll talk about the ones likely to be found breaking it, starting with bandits. The bandit stat block isn’t the ideal template for your typical back-alley burglar or pickpocket—oddly, the fifth-edition Monster Manual omits that archetype altogether. At the end of this article, I’ll provide a homebrew stat block you can use for that type of NPC. Rather, the MM bandit is more like a highwayman (on land) or a pirate (at sea), and his or her primary motivation is loot.

The bandit’s physical abilities are all modestly above average, with Dexterity and Constitution in the lead: bandits are scrappy fighters who rely on their numbers. They wield “scimitars,” for reasons I can only guess at—maybe this is the closest thing 5E Dungeons & Dragons has to a cutlass? Maybe because it treats shortswords as primarily stabbing weapons and thinks bandits ought to carry slashing weapons instead? I dunno. The weapon properties are the same, and the damage is the same except for the type, and if there’s any kind of armor or enchantment that resists slashing damage but not piercing damage or vice versa, I haven’t found it yet. In any event, you can let the flavor of the setting determine whether your bandits are carrying scimitars, cutlasses, arming swords, dirks, gladii or whatever—they all do 1d6 + 1.

Bandits initiate combat by surrounding their targets in numbers large enough to encourage prompt surrender, and they count on their targets’ surrendering readily. Thus, any encounter with a group of bandits must be at least a Medium-difficulty encounter and really should be at least Hard (see page 82 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide); otherwise the bandits would have moved on in search of easier prey already. They surround their targets at a range of 40 to 80 feet, light crossbows at the ready, and issue their demands. (They have neither Intimidation nor Persuasion skill—they rely on their weapons and their numbers to do the convincing for them.) If the player characters refuse, they hold their positions, Attacking at range, until the PCs come to them, at which point they switch to their blades.

A bandit who takes any wound at all will Dodge (not Disengage) and relocate to the side of the nearest fellow bandit, in the hope that two might be able to beat an enemy that one alone can’t. It takes only a moderate wound (reducing the bandit to 7 hp or fewer) to give a bandit the idea that these folks aren’t the pushovers they’re supposed to be; if half or more of a group of bandits are moderately wounded, they’ll Disengage (action) and retreat. Any single bandit who’s seriously wounded (reduced to 4 hp or fewer) runs away using the Dash action, potentially incurring one or more opportunity attacks. On the flip side, if combat goes poorly for the PCs and they surrender, the bandits will happily rob them of their valuables and bid them adieu . . . although if there’s a PC of Noble background in the party, they may take that PC captive and hold him or her for ransom!

The bandit captain is distinguished from an ordinary bandit by higher physical abilities (this time, Dexterity and Strength take the lead over Constitution), high Intelligence and Charisma, proficiency in Athletics and Deception, a Multiattack action and a Parry reaction. A bandit captain will go beyond issuing a simple “stand and deliver” demand—he or she will engage in actual negotiation. For instance, if the PCs look like it would be a challenge to make them give up all their valuables, the bandit captain might suggest that for the modest price of 10 gold pieces per PC, neither side has to go to the trouble of seeing who really is tougher. Of course, the bandit captain also has no compunction against lying through his or her teeth.

The bandit captain lacks proficiency in Insight and thus has no particular talent for reading PCs’ motivations, but he or she can make some educated guesses based on appearances and fabricate a story accordingly. If the PCs are predominantly Folk Heroes and Outlanders, the bandit captain may claim that his or her band of brigands are righteous rebels resisting a tyrannical aristocracy. If the PCs are softhearted Acolytes or gullible Nobles, the bandit captain may say that poverty has driven them to banditry out of necessity. If the PCs are mostly Charlatans, Criminals or Urchins, the bandit captain may drop all pretense and say it’s all in the game, yo—or even recruit the PCs to join their outlaw band! These stories may be true, false or some of both, but it doesn’t matter one way or the other: all the bandit captain is interested in is getting loot out of the PCs by the easiest means possible. And if the PCs balk, “Well, then, I guess we’re going to have to do this the hard way.”

The bandit captain as described in the MM carries no ranged weapon except for a throwable dagger, and since he or she can dual-wield it along with a scimitar (cutlass, arming sword, dirk, gladius), there’s no good reason for him or her to throw it, especially when surrounded by bandits with light crossbows that do more damage. Plus, the bandit captain’s leading abilities are Dexterity and Strength, meaning he or she is going to go for swift strikes and big damage. That means the Multiattack action with two scimitar/sword attacks and one dagger attack. Finally, the bandit captain can Parry one melee attack per turn, and like the knight, he or she can judge which of multiple melee opponents poses the greatest danger and therefore most needs to be parried.

The bandit captain has a generous number of hit points (10 hit dice, compared with an ordinary bandit’s 2) and doesn’t mind being the focus of more than one PC’s attacks: if double- or triple-teamed, he or she will Dodge (action) and Parry (reaction) and let his or her bandit crossbowmen take potshots at the PCs from afar. The bandit captain isn’t particularly afraid of magic, either, having proficiency bonuses on Dexterity and Wisdom saving throws—two of the “big three.” However, if given an opportunity to attack with advantage, the bandit captain will seize it, even if he or she would otherwise be Dodging. (For instance, if the bandit captain is being attacked by both a fighter and a barbarian and the barbarian uses Reckless Attack, the bandit captain will take the opening and Attack the barbarian.)

Like bandits, bandit captains value their lives highly. If moderately wounded (reduced to 45 hp or fewer), they’ll keep fighting but also reopen negotiations during combat: “Surely [stab] we can come [stab] to some mutually satisfactory [stab] arrangement?” If seriously wounded (reduced to 26 hp or fewer), they’ll drop their weapons, surrender on the spot and agree to whatever terms keep them breathing.

Assassins, in the 5E MM, are spectacularly dangerous, primarily for one reason: the poison damage they inflict with their weapon attacks. Based on its damage and its effects, the assassin appears to use wyvern poison (see Poisons, DMG 257–58). At 1,200 gp per dose, this is pricey stuff. It stands to reason, therefore, that assassins don’t use this poison all the time—only when they’re on a mission to murder a particular target. If you eliminate the poison damage from the assassin’s weapon attacks, he or she becomes a CR 4 enemy, rather than CR 8.

Click here to reveal spoiler from Hoard of the Dragon Queen.

In the episode “No Room at the Inn” in chapter 4 of Hoard of the Dragon Queen, the party encounters a group of four assassins, disguised as nobles, who’ve taken over a roadside inn. As written in the MM, these assassins constitute an impossibly Deadly encounter for PCs at level 4, which is what the adventure assumes at this point. However, these assassins are on their way to Waterdeep and aren’t planning on killing anyone that night, so it makes no sense for them to have expensive poison on their blades. The encounter is still potentially Deadly if the assassins are CR 4, but no longer impossibly so. If even CR 4 assassins are too much for your PCs, other bloggers have recommended using the veteran stat block instead.


An assassin makes for a tactically fascinating—but slightly complicated—opponent. Its high Dexterity and Constitution but average Strength make it a scrappy fighter. Its ultra-high Stealth skill, along with its Assassinate and Sneak Attack features, makes it an ambush attacker. Normally, creatures with lower Strength try to compensate with numbers, but assassins typically work alone, or at least in very small groups, so while they could stick around and fight, maybe, they don’t want to. Consequently, that first strike is everything.

Here’s how it all comes together:

  • Assassinate: “During its first turn, the assassin has advantage on attack rolls against any creature that hasn’t taken a turn. Any hit the assassin scores against a surprised creature is a critical hit.” Therefore, assassins will not attack at all if they can’t do so with surprise. If they’re discovered before they attack—unlikely, given their +9* Stealth modifier, but possible—assassins beat feet.
  • Sneak Attack: “The assassin deals an extra 13 (4d6) damage when it hits a target with a weapon attack and has advantage on the attack roll.” Advantage comes from the Assassinate feature.
  • Multiattack: “The assassin makes two shortsword attacks.” Since these attacks both occur during the assassin’s first turn, the assassin gets advantage on both of them, and they’re both crits if they hit. However, Sneak Attack can be used only once per turn, so it applies only to the first successful weapon attack.

* There are a lot of errors in the assassin’s stat block. See the MM errata for a complete list.

Suppose an assassin is hiding in the rafters, waiting to kill Lord Milan of Lombard. Lord Milan passes beneath the assassin. His passive Perception of 10 isn’t enough for him beat the assassin’s Stealth roll of 21. The assassin drops to the floor (Acrobatics proficiency!) and uses the Multiattack action, with surprise, thus rolling with advantage both times. The first attack roll is a hit—therefore a crit, because of Assassinate—and also a Sneak Attack, for 2d6 + 3 weapon damage, plus 4d6 8d6 Sneak Attack damage, plus 7d6 14d6 7d6 poison damage (halved if Lord Milan makes his saving throw). Her second attack roll is also a critical hit but not a Sneak Attack, and it does 2d6 + 3 weapon damage plus another 7d6 14d6 7d6 poison damage (again, halved on a successful save). Altogether, the maximum possible damage is 22d6 + 6, or 83 hp 40d6 + 6, or 146 hp 26d6 + 6, or 91 hp on average. Criminy.

That should be enough to remove a target from play. If it’s not, the assassin skedaddles, using the rest of his or her move that turn to get as far away as possible. Note that while the 5E Player’s Handbook specifies that climbing uses 2 feet of movement speed for every 1 foot scaled, it makes no mention of how much movement is consumed by dropping—suggesting that it may in fact consume no movement at all. So after a maneuver like the one described above, or one in which the assassin is hiding in the shadows or behind a drapery and waits for the target to move within reach of his or her weapon, the assassin may still have all of his or her movement available! If the assassin uses an Acrobatic maneuver to escape, such as climbing out a window, or a Stealth maneuver, such as vanishing into a crowd, the chances of escape are improved further, since would-be pursuers might not have the skill to give chase.

I can’t stress this enough: The assassin does not stick around and keep fighting. If that initial strike isn’t enough to finish off the target, too bad. The assassin will try again later, when the right conditions present themselves again. Not now.

As written, the assassin also carries a light crossbow, so there’s an alternative scenario to the initial attack, which is that the assassin shoots from a place of hiding. Multiattack doesn’t apply to crossbows because of their reloading time, so in this instance, that first attack is everything. The assassin makes the attack roll with advantage, gets a crit on a successful roll, applies the Sneak Attack bonus and the poison damage, for a potential total of 2d8 + 11d6 15d6 + 3 damage, or an average of 50.5 64.5 hp. If at all possible, the assassin makes this attack from the maximum normal range of the light crossbow, which is 80 feet. This gives the assassin just enough distance to be able to take a second shot if needed, which will no longer include the bonuses from Assassinate, which applies only to the assassin’s first turn, or Sneak Attack, since the first shot will have given the assassin’s position away. But there’s still that poison damage, so the assassin can do another 1d8 + 7d6 + 3 damage, or 32 hp on average, before skedaddling. That makes this method of assassination approximately as effective as the melee-based method described above.

Any encounter with an assassin is likely to be followed immediately by a chase, so get familiar with the Chases section of the DMG (pages 252–55). It’s worth it!

Next: Religious NPCs, friendly and unfriendly.


Medium humanoid (any race), any non-lawful, non-good alignment

Armor Class 13 (leather armor)
Hit Points 13 (3d8)
Speed 30 ft

Str 10 (0) Dex 14 (+2) Con 10 (0) Int 10 (0) Wis 12 (+1) Cha 10 (0)

Skills Acrobatics +4, Deception +2, Perception +3, Sleight of Hand +6, Thieves’ Tools +6
Senses passive Perception 14
Languages any one language (usually Common), Thieves’ Cant
Challenge 1/4 (50 XP)

Cunning Action. As a bonus action, the cutpurse can Dash, Disengage, Hide or Use an Object; make a Dexterity (Sleight of Hand) check; or disarm a trap or open a lock using thieves’ tools.

Second-Story Work. The cutpurse can climb at a normal movement rate and can make a running long jump of up to 12 ft.


Dagger. Melee or Ranged Weapon Attack: +4 to hit, reach 5 ft or range 20/60 ft, one creature. Hit: 4 (1d4 + 2) piercing damage.

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9 responses to “NPC Tactics: Bandits and Assassins”

  1. Russ Avatar

    Assassin: “The first attack roll is a hit—therefore a crit, because of Assassinate—and also a Sneak Attack, for 2d6 + 3 weapon damage, plus 4d6 Sneak Attack damage, plus 7d6 poison damage”

    But critical hits also double sneak attack dice – PH, p.196 “If the attack involves other damage dice, such as from therogue’s Sneak Attack feature, you roll those dice twice as well” – so it’s even worse. The first attack roll does 2d6+3 weapon damage, plus 8d6 Sneak Attack damage, plus 7d6 poison damage

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Oh, wow, you’re right. Not only should the Sneak Attack dice be doubled, it seems that the poison dice should be doubled, too. Damn.

  2. Kevin Holgate Avatar
    Kevin Holgate

    The Sneak attack damage is doubled, but the poison is not. The poison is considered a separate damage expression.

  3. Jay Avatar

    There’s a cursed armor in 5e that offers resistance to one of the three weapon damage types, and vulnerability to the other two. If the curse is removed only the one resistance remains. It’s called the Armor of Vulnerability.

  4. Abelhawk Avatar

    In “No Room at the Inn,” there are no assassins. As written, there are just four veterans who have taken over the inn. Were they assassins in an earlier version of the module?

  5. Steven Smith Avatar
    Steven Smith

    Why Dash instead of Disengage, for the bandit and bandit captain when injured.

    1. Keith Ammann Avatar

      Because Disengaging is difficult, and not everyone knows how, or has the discipline to do it properly.

  6. […] bandits don’t have to be low-level random encounters! I like Keith Ammann’s idea that bandits should only attack when they know they have strength of numbers and that they are […]

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