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Old Screeds

Reformed Assassins [30 October 07] and Invoking Rule Zero.

The rules of D&D leave a lot of room for interpretation. The Dungeons and Dragons Sage offers advice for those who don't understand how the rules work, or who need to resolve some ambiguity. The column is called "Sage Advice," but some people treat the column not as Sage Advice, but as "Sage Revelations From On High That Offer Revealed Truth And Cannot Be Questioned." You can begin to get a feel for where I'm going with this.

Yes, I strongly disagree with one of the Sage's recent pieces of "advice." Here it is in full:

What happens when an assassin becomes non-evil?

A character who no longer meets the requirements of his prestige class not only can’t advance any further in that class, but he also “loses the benefit of any class features or other special abilities granted by the class.” (Complete Warrior 16) You retain Hit Dice (and the hit points derived from), base attack bonus, and base save bonuses granted by the prestige class.

The rules don’t specifically list skill points (and class skills) as falling into either category; the Sage recommends that the character retain these functions even if he no longer meets the class requirements.

So your repentant assassin would lose his sneak attack, death attack, poison use, save bonus against poison, uncanny dodge, improved uncanny dodge, and hide in plain sight class features, as well as his assassin spellcasting and any weapon and armor proficiencies gained from the class. He’d keep the skill ranks he bought with his assassin levels, as well as the hit points, base attack, and base save bonuses gained from those class levels. He also couldn’t gain any more assassin levels until his alignment returned to evil (at which point he’d also regain the various features he lost when his alignment changed to non-evil).
This same text can be found in the most recent FAQ.

My first objection is that the Sage cites a splat book, the Complete Warrior, as his source. Well, that holds no water for me. Splat books are notoriously poor in their game design -- and certainly, since they are optional, should not take priority over a core book rule, I say.

Instead, let's look at what the Dungeon Master's Guide has to say on the subject (from page 176):

Unlike the basic classes found in the Player's Handbook, characters must meet requirements before they can take their first level of a prestige class. The rules for level advancement (see page 58 of the Player's Handbook) apply to this system, meaning the first step of advancement is always choosing a class. If a character does not meet the requirements for a prestige class before that first step, that character cannot take the first level of that prestige class.
Note that the words "take their first level" and "take the first level" are used, in total twice in three sentences. That's key. There is specifically NO mention of any requirement for taking the second and subsequent levels of a prestige class. None!

So in the absence of any rule in the DMG, what are players to do? The answer is Rule Zero.

Your Dungeon Master (DM) may have house rules or campaign standards that vary from the standard rules.
That's the text from page 4 of the 3.0 rules Player's Handbook, where it is specifically labelled as rule 0. Essentially the same text appears on page 6 of the 3.5 PHB, without the "0" label.

But Rule Zero is more than that. It is the philosophy that you are free to modify and adapt the rules to fit your own needs. In this case, that means we can make our own rules for situations in which the core rules are silent. But although one can create house rules willy nilly -- maybe fireballs heal damage in your game, or jump checks are resolved by how high the players can actualy jump -- straying far from the rules makes your game less and less like Core D&D. If you do choose to add creative features to your game, I suggest that you make a new feature like an existing feature.

That's a philosophical complement to the freedom Rule Zero gives you. It concedes that the Core Rules are balanced, fun, and playable ... and that the best way to make a new rule that is also balanced, fun, and playable is to make your new rule similar to the ones that already exist in the game.

For example, a prestige class with a fighter's BAB advancement should have no more than four skill points per level. For example, a feat should not improve as you advance in level, unless it gives a limited number of attacks with a saving throw, in which case the number of attacks and save DC can improve. For example, no nonmagical item can grant more than a +2 circumstance bonus on a skill check. You get the idea.

So what about changing alignment? Well, there are already rules similar to the one we need that apply to base classes:

  • Clerics, Druids, and Paladins who change to a prohibited alignment cannot advance in the class and lose all class abilities and spells.
  • Barbarians who change to a prohibited alignment cannot advance in the class and lose the rage ability, but retain all other class abilities.
  • Monks and Bards who change to a prohibited alignment simply cannot advance in the class, but retain all class abilities.
So the rule seems to be something like this, as phrased by me:
If you change alignment and violate a requirement of a base class, then you cannot thereafter advance in that class. In addition, classes with powers from divine sources lose those powers. Classes with abilities that are tied thematically to alignment (like barbarian rage and chaos) lose those abilities. Non-divine, non-thematic abilities are not lost.
If we apply this rule to prestige classes, what do we get? In my opinion, something like this:
  • Arcane Trickster: No advancement. All abilities retained.
  • Assassin: No advancement. Death attack can only be used to paralyze, not kill.
  • Blackguard: No advancement. All abilities and spells lost.
  • Dwarven Defender: No advancement. Defensive Stance lost.
To me, this seems much more in keeping with the Core Rules than the dictum handed down by the Sage.

Update [11 April 08]: Take a look at this good assassin option at the Wizards site.

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