Question about notorious criminal organizations

Started by Delbareth, July 23, 2007, 02:49:51 AM

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Hello again

   I ask myself a lot of questions about the way such type of organizations can have a position in a fantasy world. Let's get an example. One of my character is in a town of Duthelm, where I decided to put a small guild of assassin (ony a small part of the nationwide guild). This town has about 10 000 inhabitants, and I guess this small guild has let's say 10 operational assassins. If one assassin assassinates one personne every ten days, it leads to 365 killed each year. It's 3.5% of the population! Murdered on contract :o! And if they work a little bit faster, let's say 1 killed every 3 days, it's 10% of the population which disapear each year :o. Ok in this case it's absolutely impossible, however killing one person every 3 days is not very tiring...  ???
My question is, if I want to have a belivable world, which of my hypothesis are false :
- 10 operationnal assassins for a town of 10 000?
- 1 kill every 10 days?
- 365 days each year ;) ?
Does it means that assassin is a very very cool job, with very few well paid work? Or, are they obliged to be taxi-driver during day to earn some money? Perhaps an assassination needs a lot of time to prepare. For commoners, I don't see why. 10 days is still very long in my opinion. For noble people, it may be longer... but the noble population is greatly lower so the problem remains.

Ok, it's not the end. I have another question.
   It seems to me that in Duthelm, this type of guild is known from the autorities. So what is the behavior of a typical guard seeing an assassination. Will he close his eyes if he recognizes the guild symbols/emblems? Will he put the assassin to jail? Is the assassin "put out" in a second time? Perhaps, the assassin need to show to the guard the assassination contract? Perhaps these assassins are official and well controled, but can do what they want?
   In such type of world, assassinate the neighboor is allowed, but you have to pay for it? Right? I'm not used to play in fantasy world, so I'm a little bit confused with such type of things. Thank you for advance for your nuuuuumerous answers  ;)

Les MJ ne sont ni sadiques ni cruels, ce sont juste des artistes incompris.


Hello Delbarath!

You always ask the most interesting questions. I love it!

Ok, let's talk about the assassins' guild. First of all, you mentioned that the town guild was a part of a larger nation wide guild. I don't remember Duthelm having a nation wide guild. I checked and I don't think Duthelm has a single nation-wide guild. There are references in Duthelm and elsewhere that talk about multiple groups of rogues that compete against each other, but no single organization.

But that's a minor point. Let's look at your assassin's guild. I, personally, have never really liked the concept of assassins' guild in fantasy worlds, with only a few exceptions. The problem with a guild full of assassins is the very problem you pointed out. There simply wouldn't be enough work to support an entire guild and, if there was enough work, the guild of killers would quickly chew their way through the population. It's exactly what you pointed out.

Therefore, I see the solution being the following:

1. I don't think a town of 10,000 people could support 10 assassins. In an average town, there wouldn't be enough work for them. I think there could be exceptions. A town that's caught in the middle of a war or on the brink of political upheaval could suddenly have LOTS of people with enemies they want to get rid of. But even something like that would be short-lived.

2. Frequency of kills - again, it's a matter of there being enough work for the assassins. In an average town of 10,000, there might be only ten contracts that come up in each month. This monthly number of contracts would vary a lot depending on the nature of the town. A grumman community would almost never have such a contract come up. However, a town in the Drakkellian Alliance might have many contracts come up each month. If there's not enough work to go around, some of the assassins would pack up and leave for a bigger city. The number of assassins in a town will naturally balance itself out to the amount of work available. Like most systems, it would eventually find equilibrium.

3. Assassin versus Rogue - I think a more natural solution is that many assassins would actually be rogues or thieves who sometimes take a killing job when one turns up. Instead of having guilds full of dedicated assassins, I tend to have guilds that are more generalized "underworld crime cartels". They have a mix of people working for them - some thieves, some thugs, some information brokers, a few leaders and a few specialists. In such an organization, there might be one or two of the thugs that are particularly good and get sent out on assassination jobs. In larger cities, the size of these underworld guilds would increase and a large guild might have several assassins "on staff" and they were be full time killers.

So, to sum up, the problem with your calculation is the original assumption. There wouldn't be 10 assassins each killing one person every day. In a city of 10,000, there just wouldn't be that many jobs. And ultimately, it's the number of jobs that come up that dictate the local assassin population. Supply and demand.

What is the guard's reaction to an assassination attempt? Well, all of the possible outcomes that you listed are possibilites in different cities and nations. It's possible that the local authority has sanctioned the killing and told the guards not to interfere. It's also possible that the guard might be paid off. Generally speaking, the government will arrest an assassin if they catch him (unless something has been worked out before hand - such as a bribery or some other behind-the-scenes intrigue). And it's always possible that an arrested assassin could be freed if the guild pays off the right people. it really depends on where you are.

In Duthelm, there are several underworld groups. These groups compete against each other and also work against the government. If an assassin is caught, he'll be arrested. However, there is so much bribery and corruption in Duthelm at all levels that anything is possible.


Thank you David for your detailed answer.

I totally agree with you on the fact that the number of contract limit the number of economically viable assassin in a town. But the example of the nation wide assassin guild in Duthelm was too simplified in comparison with what I thought. In fact it's related to religion and gods. One of my character planed to become an adept of Karenia in Duthelm (goddess of poison, murder and assassination). It is said that those adepts are skilled assassins, and I guess that this cult is not only centered in the Citadel. That's why I put a smaller "temple" in Stonehaven, with some assassins as priest/acolyte/adept... As you can see, it's not really a nation wide guild but it looks like. As I can't imagine a church with only 2 guys for such a town, I began to put a dozen adept-assassin.
Then I saw the problem of the number of assassination, so I decided to reduce the number of operationnal assassin and to say that each adept/priest of Karenia is not necesserely an assassin. In this case, it seems to me that it's difficult to say that they are just robber during their "free-time" between contract. But perhaps we can find and explanation. Perhaps they are remunerated by the church, because a lot of people pay for "divine protection" or something like that. :-\

It was a mistake to speak of a guild instead of a religious group, because it's also implied in the question about guards' reaction. All that you said is right and usefull. But perhaps the situation can be slightly different for a "religious assassin". The guard can fear Karenia and let the assassin works, or perhaps autorities allow the Karenia's cult knowing what are their activities... Perhaps the autorities taxes the church, maybe it's exactly the contrary... :-\
Les MJ ne sont ni sadiques ni cruels, ce sont juste des artistes incompris.


well going loosely by real world statistics the rate of murder is WAY less then 1/2 % per year

in 2005 in the USA there were 5.6 murders per 100,000 people..

looking at small towns in the USA and comparing to 10,000 peoiple
it could be only 1-2 people per year....

then again you go to somalia or some such place and it maybe
be 10 times that number for a town of 10,000

for a town of 10,000 you may have  larger number of
robberys,rapes and assults then actual murders...

frequency can depend on a number of things, needless to say it may
take an assasin from 1 day to 365 days to kill someone
it could easily take 30 days to plan and carry out a murder, in my
estimation this includes moments of opportunity. a target
could have varied schedules and even fake personnel posing
as targets while hes going in the opposite direction. he
could also being staying only 1-2 nights per location...
he could be surrounded by 50 guards...have a wizard...etc..

thats why your assasins will probably get premium dollar for a kill.

i'd say you might have 1-3 killers per town of 10,000...

come see Kramxel at


You're true. In reality, their are not as many murders. Even in US! ;D
And that's true that some lands are far from pacific civilizations, with more crimes than usual. A friend of mine was in Niger. A man was killed with machetes in a pub the first evening he was there! :o

About the time it take to do such a job, it's difficult to say. As you say, it greatly depends on the guy you have to asassinate. Anyway, for roleplaying game it could be very boring to do a 3 months plan to kill a commoners...
Well, I've  chosen to put only 2 assassins in this town, plus the character of the player (who is not fully efficient for the moment :D)

I thought about another point. In Khoras, and because it's a medieval world, a large portion of the population is in the country. In Duthelm, only 2.5% of the population is in the 4-5 major towns. It implies that a lot of people wanted to see their neighboor dead, are probably in the contry. Perhaps an assassin guild have to do some advertising, in order that peasant ask for their services. :D
Ok I think it's not really valuable in Duthelm. It's too wild and a peasant can kill its neighboor by itself (or with friends). But it could be a significant point in more civilized lands.
Les MJ ne sont ni sadiques ni cruels, ce sont juste des artistes incompris.

Nathan Sherman

A great series of books on assassins in Jhereg by Steven Brust. If your going to be playing assassins, I highly recommend these books (even if your not playing assassins, most of the books in the series are great).

One of the reasons to have assassins is that it's illegal to kill people if it isn't in self defense. If you get caught you will be imprisoned or executed. If you could just buy a permit that lets you kill, there would be no need for assassins. (Mad at someone? Go pay your fee and then stick him from behind while he's drinking at the bar). If you arranged to have someone killed, most civilized lands would hold you responsible if they were able to prove it. You need to have an assassin that leaves no trail back to them or to you to avoid the punishments of the local law.

One of the issues that hasn't been brought up is cost of a job. Assassinations are not cheap. The average person will never be able to afford to take out a contract for someone's life. I would imagine that it costs several thousand gold pieces for a professional, quality job (it costs 150 gold for a fifth level cleric to just cast a single third level spell for you according to 3.5 D&D). If you want to just hire a thug you could probably find someone who is desperate enough to kill for a few hundred gold, but this won't be a clean, untraceable killing.

So while the local baker might want the candlestick maker killed for years of insults and verbal abuse, he wouldn't be able to afford an assassin even with his life's earnings. He would have to go and beat him to death himself and face the local guard if they figure out he was the one responsible. 

An adventurer, politician, clergy or noble is the most likely to be able to pay for a professional job.

Now the flip side of it: As a professional assassin would only need to do one job to be set for many years of commoner living or one per year for the lifestyle of the nobility. When a decent meal is only costing you a couple silver, you can live very well on a couple thousand gold (something our adventuring characters seem to forget as they guzzle healing potions and pay thousands of gold for new magic items, etc).

Also, these are contract workers. It is one of those jobs where when you have work, the pay is great and when you don't have work, there is no pay. It might be many months between jobs but when you get one it covers you for quite a while. To make the job clean, one hit and the target is dead and you've moved on with no trace, you would have to do lots of preparation work. Remember, you not taking out the candlestick maker, you taking out someone that a noble wants dead enough to pay thousands of gold for and risk that if it is traced back to him, he might be executed. You need to know their routine, weapons, defense, guards, and strength and then weave this all into a location that they will be where you can make the kill and get away without witnesses or evidence.

What does the assassin do during the time he isn't on contract? I think that most assassins would have a cover, kind of like a spy does. Some reason that he doesn't have a normal day job. Rich inheritance, import/export business, two bit thug, etc. He would probably be a member of the local thief guild as the contact for business or some other front to help stay one level removed from the employer (just in case the person who paid for the contract gets drunk and talks and is found out by the guards, the guards won't be able to track down the assassin).

...not that I've put much thought into being an assassins or anything.


I really liked what you said about the methods, but these are slightly more religious. Delbareth I'm just thinking but it seems like Karenia's Priests would have ritual killings/sacrifices besides simple assassination, possibly with animals or followers of other faiths that have "issues" with Karenia. But Assassins are realistically more loner-types and base their decisions on ethical or psychological egoism, except for fanatics of relgious nature or members of other organizations where someone or something has garnered serious faith. You should probably research the Thugs and Kali worshipers as these are similar to the concept of a god/goddess of murder
He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.


For Nathan Sherman :
Your answer is very interresting. So you think that a standard assassin should have a cover to earn money or to spent time, or to look like commoners... Of course, if contracts are quite rare (because it's very hard, very expensive...) it solves the problem of the number of assassination per year per assassin. ;)

For Tanis :
I agree with you about the religious aspect which make these assassin different than others. In fact I thought about their philosophy in order to describe them.
- If they assassinate for their goddess anybody "without distinction", it's not very interresting in my opinion. They just have to kidnap somebody in a dark street.
- If they assassinate their religious enemies, there will be nobody to kill in a short time, and it's just a "religious war".
- If these assassin assassinate who they want (egoism version), they are just skilled criminal
- If they act like a guild of assassin, I find it to "artificial" for a religious group : we loose all the religious aspect.

So I think I will do a compromise. Some people can ask for an assassination, and pay (or do something for) the church. But anyway they are not venal and they have to approve such assassination. Is it good for them? Or is it an adept of Karenia or of a friendly cult? They are not just mercenaries. And from time to time they can do ritual assassination, either on poor people (prisoners or guy kinapped), or on enemies of Karenia. And Karenia could be worshipped just to obtain its protection (and the refusal of the adept to assassinate them).

In this way I think this cult will have a strong personnality.
Les MJ ne sont ni sadiques ni cruels, ce sont juste des artistes incompris.


I thought about another factor which may solve the problem (or at least a part of the problem).
I think that there is a strong "rural exodus" : a lot of poor commoners working a hard life of labor in the fields are probably attracted by the cities. Even if it's more dangerous, they can earn there a lot of money (in comparison). It seems to me that in middle-age, some peasant decided to become soldier in order to eat every day, and even if there was rmore risk.
So, my little calculations about the number of assassins in a town and their number of contract were quite incomplete. The high percentage of population killed each year (whatever the cause) is compensated by the birth plus the people incoming from countryside. In these condition, I think few percents killed each year is not so irrealistic.
Les MJ ne sont ni sadiques ni cruels, ce sont juste des artistes incompris.

Drul Morbok

15 years later, here's my idea of the role of assassins  ;D
I'm not saying it's the "right" way for all worlds - it is what adds most flavor as I like it.
And what I look forward to discuss with you guys.

Assassination is integral part of a system.
Murder is illegal - even if reality might mean no plaintiff, no judge.
Where killing someone is accepted by might making right, the term "murder" does not apply, as I understand it. different.
I see two ways:

1) in a system of opposing nobles/guilds/..., in the past too often rivalry escalated into open violence, so now, in a cynically pragmatic way, assassination is the less violent solution.
In such a system, between the factions there would be rules - spoken or unspoken - and if I comply with them, assassinating me would justify retaliation, so it's not done lightly.
As soon as I break the rules (which might include getting too powerful), I'm no longer protected by them, so assassinating me would be generally accepted.

In some way, assassination is a balancing factor, and accepted as such (at least unofficially, between those who know what's going on).
It might even be viewed as a courtless law system. Not necessarily a fair one...I might be framed, and the rules and their interpretations might be arbitrary.
Just like I could be framed into prison or death sentence in any corrupt system.

Hey after all, there's a reason why no roleplay takes place in a constitutional democracy with checks and balances and all the boring stuff  ;)

2) Religious assassins would be just another continuation of diplomacy by other means.
I.e. it is directed outward, as a display of power.
Dying after the assassination would be the highest deed the assassin could imagine in life. He might stab a political leader on stage, and offer no resistance to be hacked to pieces by the guards.
Actually assassins could even be expected to be this kind of "one hit wonder"...the seeming inefficiency is more than offset by the terror this disregard for their own life inspires.

I think there's a scene in the Conan movie where The Evil Guy just handwaves at some followers, which instantly jump from a cliff.
THIS display of power, plus taking out an important figure.

Come to think of it, the video game Skyrim features a pretty cool third idea:
Religious and pretty close to the idea of a guild with assassins for hire.

But I never claimed to give a complete list of what's possible  ;)