Tarkanan Assassin Tactics

The Tarkanan assassin is a hired killer, but that (plus their Dexterity and their Armor Class) is where their resemblance to the standard assassin in the Monster Manual ends. Most conspicuously, they don’t have the Assassinate trait—or even Sneak Attack! Clearly, this non-player character requires a fresh approach.

As one might expect, the Tarkanan assassin is a shock attacker, with a decent enough Constitution to put up with a bit of a scuffle but primarily interested in getting in and out of combat quickly. Proficient in Athletics instead of Acrobatics, they’re more likely to tackle their target than shoot them while hanging upside-down outside a window. They’re also proficient in Sleight of Hand, perhaps for slipping poison into someone’s drink—it’s not enough by itself to conceal spellcasting. Deception proficiency suggests an aptitude for disguise, and Perception plus Stealth is the hallmark of the ambush attacker.

Tarkanan assassins have darkvision, which is interesting, because House Tarkanan, according to the lore in Eberron: Rising From the Last War (chapter 4, “Crime in Sharn: House Tarkanan”), comprises members of many races, not just those with darkvision. Does this mean that House Tarkanan doesn’t employ humans, halflings or changelings as assassins (and why wouldn’t you hire changelings to perform all your asassinations?), do they somehow acquire darkvision as part of their initiation into the order of assassins, or is it an unmentioned side effect of their aberrant dragonmarks? The book doesn’t say. Choose your own favorite explanation.

Unlike the vanilla assassin, Tarkanan assassins possess a small amount of innate magical ability: the power to cast fire bolt (or, alternatively, a different cantrip) at will and a 2nd-level chromatic orb (or a different 2nd-level spell) once per day. These are both ranged spells, not suitable for close quarters.

The Tarkanan assassin does possess a melee Multiattack, two Shortsword attacks that deal additional poison damage, and the fact that they use a finesse weapon is consistent with their reliance on Dex. But I get the sense that the stab in the back is just one of several tools in their kit, and probably not their favorite. If you’re trying to murder someone, you don’t want to be close to them if your initial attempt fails. On the other hand, two Shortsword hits, juiced up with poison, deal an average of 27 total damage, enough to kill your run-of-the-mill noble outright.

But we can game these abilities a bit and find a sweet spot that offers the best of both worlds, thanks to the Unstable Mark trait, which deals force damage in a 10-foot radius around the Tarkanan assassin whenever they cast one of their innate spells. Let’s say that they start combat by sneaking up to a distance of 10 feet from their target—close enough to deal a bit of additional damage to the target with Unstable Mark, far enough away that they don’t have disadvantage on a ranged spell attack—and lead with fire bolt.

If this doesn’t bring the target down—and if they’re any more formidable than a typical commoner or noble, it probably won’t—then the target’s reaction determines their next action. If the target runs toward them to start a fight, they retaliate with a melee Multiattack. If the target runs away, they hurl a chromatic orb at them if they can get a nice, clear shot, or another fire bolt otherwise.

A sidebar offers a table of alternatives to fire bolt and chromatic orb. Shocking grasp is touch-required, so the Tarkanan assassin will have to lurk in a doorway and wait for its target to pass within reach. Poison spray requires a saving throw, so the Tarkanan assassin gains no attack roll advantage from being hidden, only the element of surprise. Friends is a clever way to improve the Tarkanan assassin’s disguise by granting advantage on their Deception check, allowing them to walk right up to their target, say, “Hey there, chum!” and then stab them in the gut. Minor illusion and dancing lights are chancy, since there’s no guaranteeing how the target will react to them. But with respect to minor illusion, in general, a sound people can’t see is more convincing than a vision they can’t hear.

Burning hands seems to contain a typo: All the other spells in this list are 1st-level spells boosted to 2nd level (as implied by their effects), but burning hands is just the straight 1st-level burning hands. It should probably deal 4d6 damage rather than 3d6. Even so, it’s not a spell for an assassin: It lacks precision, and there’s no way for the caster to improve their chances of success. (In contrast, chromatic orb and ray of sickness are spell attacks.) Thunderwave is even less apt, having the same drawbacks plus dealing poor damage and making a whole lot of conspicuous noise; it doesn’t even knock targets prone. Charm person is just supercharged friends, superseding the need for a disguise. Sleep can be an amusing way to clear the area around a robust target by causing everyone around them to pass out.

But I think there’s a missed opportunity here. Since chromatic orb can deal acid, cold, fire, lightning, poison or thunder damage—caster’s choice—why not give them an at-will cantrip that deals one of these damage types and let its element be their signature? Fire bolt and shocking grasp, sure, but instead of minor illusion and dancing lights, how about ray of frost, primal savagery and booming blade?

In fact, given that a hit with ray of frost slows its target, this cantrip would be a beauty for the Tarkanan assassin. It could lead with ray of frost cast from 10 feet away; if the spell attack hit, the assassin could then chase their opponent down and stab them to death for the best per-turn damage available to them. If the spell attack missed, the assassin could lob a cold chromatic orb at them as they fled. Just something to think about.

The Tarkanan assassin wants to spend no more time than necessary taking out its target: two turns against an unsurprised target, max. Whether or not it’s done by then, it Disengages if it’s within melee reach of more than one opponent, Dashes otherwise, moves away at full speed and tries to vanish—around a corner, into a crowd or into the shadows.

Next: warforged soldiers.

10 thoughts on “Tarkanan Assassin Tactics

  1. Thunderwave also has the same typo as burning hands, dealing 2d8 instead of 3d8.

    Charm Person is more than supercharged friends- it makes sure 2 bodyguards are not protecting the target, and let you leave afterwards, which is a pretty big deal.
    Sadly, this is not very useful on PCs.

    Btw, proficiency in athletics might suggest that if they need to chase a single running target, they might choose to grapple before stabbing.

    1. Proficiency in Athletics=silent takedown. From a hidden position, sneak up on target, grapple them into a chokehold, hold it for maybe three or four rounds while shivving their liver and kidneys with a poisoned multiattack, sneak away.

      1. the problem with that though is that grappling doesn’t give you any particular advantage on attacks. If you’re hidden and you sneak up on someone so you get a surprise round, why would you forgo advantage on your first multi-attack with the sword? Grapple also doesn’t keep the target quiet, so you wouldn’t get three or four rounds of free shivving on them, AND it doesn’t stop them from attacking you, so it’s also three or four rounds of them just headbutting you back.

        More likely to me is sneaking up while hidden and using advantage with the Chromatic Orb from 10 ft away? That’s 22 damage off the bat and then moving in with the sword; if you multi-attacked with the sword first, you’d only get advantage on *one* of the hits.

        The Athletics proficiency is a little perplexing, because their strength isn’t very high. Who are they grappling or shoving that the +3 is going to make it worth the risk when they could just hit them instead?

        I wonder if this has more to do with like, shoving a guy over so you can run away?

        1. Grappling does not inherently allow you to keep a target quiet, but I’ve ruled in the past that a PC that snuck up on a humanoid from behind and grappled them put them in a chokehold, and that for as long as they kept the grapple, the creature was unable to speak/scream/etc. What a PC can do an NPC can do. Is it worth it to get the first attack with advantage if that attack won’t kill the target? No, not if you’re trying to assassinate them quietly. It costs nothing to scream, so if the first attack isn’t a kill, your attempt on their life has been given away.

  2. I think the assassin ought to lead off with Chromatic Orb. They’ve been hired to do a job, and that job is to make sure a specific person becomes dead. Why exactly would they not use their biggest gun at the first, and best, opportunity?

  3. How do I subscribe to the blog? I only seem to get notifications intermittently, or when a post I’ve replied to gets further comments. I don’t get regular response when you post a new article. – even if I tick the “Notify me of new posts by email” box.

  4. A few points as I read the article:
    1. The Athletics score should help with climbing and jumping. As I understand Sharn, it’s a city of spires and walkways. If I was a Tarknaan assassin, I’d be using it to jump from a balcony to a skywalk for a quick get away rather than trying to tackle someone or grapple them.
    2. Darkvision could be provided by an infused item created by an artificer: House Tarknaan certainly has the resources necessary to keep a couple of those working for them…willingly or no.

    Your thoughts are always appreciated.

    1. the landscape of Sharm makes the Athletics score make a little more sense — I think this also make it more plausible for the assassin to get into the 10-ft range for spell damage while also remaining hidden.

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