Last Updated on January 22, 2023
The knife in the dark… The faceless killer… The death you never saw coming. Rogues are a surprisingly versatile class, with a diverse toolkit that can make them dexterous trap breakers, silent scouts, and, of course, devastating single-target damage dealers.
The Assassin subclass takes the Rogue’s infiltration and single-target damage abilities and hones them to a razor’s edge.
Welcome to our guide to the Assassin Rogue. Our goal with this series of subclass guides is to give you a scannable, comprehensive introduction to playing different character builds in Dungeons & Dragons 5e.
We’ll start off this guide by breaking down what sets the Assassin apart from other classes and roguish archetypes – its strengths, and some of the weaknesses you’ll need to be aware of and compensate for if you want to play an Assassin to the fullest.
We’ll also look at a few of the potential options for multiclassing an Assassin that help accentuate its strengths and compensate for its weaknesses.
Then, we’re going to go into detail concerning how to build an Assassin from 1st level, breaking down which Ability Scores to prioritize, as well as the best races, backgrounds, and skills to help round out this build, including some suggestions Feats that can help bring out the best in the subclass.
Once we’ve covered character creation, we’ll look at the unique features that define the Assassin as you level up from 1st to 20th level, as well as present you with an example build to help you make your own dealer of death.
Black Citadel’s Ranking and Tier System
In our ongoing series of 5e class guides, we use the following color-rating scheme:
Red – C Tier. Red options can sometimes be situationally useful and might make for an interesting narrative choice but are largely less effective than other tiers.
Green – B Tier. A solid choice, but nothing that is absolutely critical for a build, or can be very good but only situationally.
Blue – A Tier. An excellent choice. Widely regarded as powerful in some way, useful, highly effective.
Purple – S Tier. The best of the best. Objectively powerful or transformative in some way. No choice in D&D is essential, but these options are definitely worth considering when you create your character.
Our goal here is to provide scannable but comprehensive guides for you as you develop your character.
What Is an Assassin Rogue?
Want to play a master infiltrator who can walk right into a heavily-guarded room and bury a knife in their target’s heart? An unstoppable bounty hunter? The ultimate spy? The Assassin is the subclass for you.
In many ways, the Assassin distils and simplifies the Rogue, taking a class that can – with the right build – do a little bit of everything, from combat to scouting to burglary to social situations, and condenses it down to two things: infiltration and assassination.
You are going to end up doing those two things very, very well, but at the expense of the broad utility skillset other roguish archetypes like the Thief or the Arcane Trickster enjoy.
Because of how hyper-focused the Assassin is in terms of mechanics, they can be one of the easiest roguish archetypes to play for beginners – somewhat akin to the Champion Fighter or the Light Domain Cleric, the Assassin does what it says on the tin simply, elegantly, and doesn’t do much else.
The Assassin’s Defining Abilities
- Lethal damage when you get the drop on enemies
- Master infiltrator
- Capable poisoner
The Assassin is all about getting the drop on your enemies. If the bad guys surprise you, see you coming, and get to act first, then a lot of your damage disappears into thin air. So, make sure you get the drop on your opponents.
Your Assassinate ability comes online at 3rd level, and ensures that you have advantage on any attack you make against a creature who hasn’t acted already in combat on the same turn.
Also, any successful attack you make against an enemy who is surprised is automatically a critical hit. This stacks amazingly well with your Sneak Attack feature – which grants you an extra d6 of damage on a damage roll with a ranged or finesse weapon once per turn, and grows in power as you level up to the point where you can deal an extra 10d6 damage per round when you hit 20th level.
Land a surprise blow with your Assassinate feature and that Sneak Attack damage becomes 20d6 at 20th level.
Then, once you unlock your Death Strike ability at 17th level, any surprised creature you hit by an attack must pass a Constitution saving throw or take double damage from your attack.
That means that you’re applying your weapon damage plus your Dexterity modifier plus 20d6 of Sneak Attack damage times two as part of your surprise round.
This means that gaining a surprise round, followed by a great initiative roll, can drastically affect your usefulness in combat.
The other edge to the Assassin’s blade is the archetype’s ability as an infiltrator.
Rangers might be good at passing without a trace through the wilds, and the Scout Rogue might be the class’ best all-around stealth-focused subclass, but no one can outfox an Assassin when it comes to getting past guards, moving unseen in a crowd, and stealing the face of another to do it.
When you choose the Assassin at 3rd level, you immediately gain proficiency with the disguise kit, which is useful in and of itself. Then, once you reach 9th level, things start to get really sneaky.
Your Infiltration Expertise lets you spend a week and 25 gp creating a false identity for yourself. Establish yourself as a wealthy merchant looking to build a granary nearby to gain an audience with the local lord.
Spread rumors about your desire to purchase a certain cursed artifact, along with the information that you have the money to pay for it; take on the guise of a humble servant of a local goddess, harmless enough to pass through the city without attracting the attentions of the local watch.
You can’t steal someone else’s identity until 13th level when your Impostor ability lets you unerringly mimic someone’s speech, writing, and behavior.
Once you’re close to your target, you can also use your proficiency with the poisoner’s kit to craft undetectable killing draughts, or paralytics to lace the edge of your blade.
The mixture of infiltration skills and brutal damage output makes the Assassin capable of being a very subtle character well-suited to campaigns rife with political intrigue and social dueling, while also being one of the most potent damage dealers in the game – striking from the shadows to erase their enemies from existence before melting back into the darkness.
I think this is one of the best classes in 5e when it comes down to mechanically recreating the idea I have in my head of being a spy or assassin – a la James Bond, Agent 47, or Jaqen H’ghar.
The Assassin’s Limitations
- Lacks versatility
- Infiltration skills can often fall by the wayside in combat-focused campaigns
- Highly dependent on good initiative rolls
That being said, any subclass that focuses on being very, very good at just a few things is inevitably going to end up being quite bad at just about everything else.
First of all, when it comes to defense, support, utility, exploration, disarming traps, and when it comes to just about anything that doesn’t fall within the sphere of either ambushing your enemies or infiltrating social situations, this subclass isn’t going to do much for you.
That doesn’t make you weak by any means, and you’re likely to have party members who can compensate for your shortcomings, but if you like to be the player who has something for every situation, then you might struggle. If you like to be the best in a few situations, however, you’re in the right place.
Also, when it comes to the things that you’re actually good at, there’s a schism between Assassinate (3rd) and Death Strike (17th), and Infiltration Expertise (9th) and Imposter (13th). The former pair emphasize pretty constant combat, whereas the middle two abilities push you towards more of a roleplaying-focused playstyle.
That means that, if you’re playing in a campaign that’s all about courtly intrigue and veiled threats made while strolling through perfectly manicured gardens, then your 3rd and 17th-level abilities are going to feel a little useless.
If you’re playing a classic dungeon crawl campaign (the more likely scenario) that involves walking to a big hole in the ground, murdering everything inside it, and figuring out how to haul anything shiny back to town to sell, then the ability to convince the goblins living in the big hole that you’re actually Morton the Accountant who likes to beg big on the ponies probably isn’t going to do much for you.
Obviously, no campaign is free from social situations or combat, but the Assassin (much like James Bond, glibly murdering foreigners in between turns at the baccarat table) does best when there are opportunities for both.
When the knives do come out, you’re also going to want to take great care to try and get the drop on your opponents. A surprise round can let you deal a shocking amount of damage to a single enemy before the fight has even begun.
Then, once it’s time to roll initiative, a low score can make the difference between successfully landing a killing blow every round and missing half of your attacks. Make sure your initiative is as high as possible.
The Weapon of Warning
I wouldn’t ever dream of saying a subclass doesn’t work without a specific magic item, but for the Assassin a Weapon of Warning is pretty close to essential gear.
You can read our full guide to the Weapon of Warning here, but essentially it gives you (and your allies) advantage on initiative rolls and ensures you can’t be surprised. In the hands of an Assassin, this might be the most useful pairing of equipment and class features I’ve seen anywhere in D&D.
With a subclass as specialized as the Assassin, multiclassing can be a great way to either compensate for its shortcomings or double down on the things it does best. The Gloomstalker Ranger requires you to take three levels outside of Rogue.
The Oath of Vengeance Paladin and the Grave Domain Cleric only require two levels, although taking more levels of Grave Domain can give you a potent boost to your spellcasting.
Gloom Stalker Ranger
The Gloom Stalker is easily the most roguish path for a Ranger, and its features synergize beautifully with the Assassin. You get access to the disguise self spell, which complements your infiltration abilities, but it’s your Dread Ambusher and Umbral Sight features that really gel with the Assassin.
Dream Ambusher gives you a boost to your initiative rolls, as well as an extra attack with a juicy 1d8 of bonus damage on the first round of combat. Umbral Sight not only buffs your darkvision, but helps you stay hidden from creatures that can see in darkness and low light.
Grave Domain Cleric
Grave Domain Clerics are all about death and darkness – a perfect thematic fit for an Assassin in service to a cult or religious order of killers. You also gain access to some useful spells to round out your utility and your Channel Divinity option Path of the Grave lets you inflict double damage on a target for a whole round.
Combine that with your already fearsome Sneak Attack and Assassinate Damage (and again later with Death Strike) and you can easily dish out more than 200 damage on the first round of combat.
Oath of Vengeance Paladin
Dexterity-based Paladin builds are hugely underrated, and the fact that the Assassin is basically a single ability-dependent subclass means you’ll have some extra points to sprinkle into Charisma without compromising your other vital abilities too badly.
Any character with the ability to crit often is a great fit for a Paladin multiclass, because your Divine Smite’s damage dice are also doubled. The Oath of Vengeance takes everything useful about the Paladin and dials it up to eleven: you get access to spells like Bane and Hunter’s Mark, and your Vow of Enmity is another great way to get even more advantage on a single target.
Tier II: Constitution, Charisma
Tier III: Intelligence, Wisdom
Absolute Dump Tier: Strength
Strength: Almost completely useless. Skip it. Anything higher than 10 is basically a waste.
Dexterity: When you sit down to build an Assassin, your first (and, unless you’re planning on multiclassing, last) concern is going to be a high Dexterity score. You’re going to be wearing light armor, so your Dexterity is going to determine your AC. You’re going to be using ranged or finesse weapons, so your Dexterity is going to link to your damage. And you’re going to be directly relying on your Dexterity to have a high initiative bonus, which is linked to the majority of your damage output. Get this to 20 as soon as you possibly can.
Constitution: More hit points are, as always, never a bad thing – especially for a class that thrives on flying solo.
Intelligence: Useful for Insight checks and maybe some flavor skills like History or Arcana, but unless it’s part of your character concept, you can skip a high Intelligence score.
Wisdom: Useful for Perception checks to get the drop on enemies, but otherwise non-essential.
Charisma: You’re actually rather well equipped to serve as the party’s face, so a high Charisma score can end up being useful if you’re trying to trick and talk your way past the palace guards.
As we’ve established above, we’re going to be prioritizing Dexterity, Charisma, and Constitution, so any races that give us a bonus in those departments are a good start. Then, any races that give us some good abilities or access to Feats are going to help whittle down those choices.
All elves get a nice +2 bonus to Dexterity to start things off, meaning you can begin with 16 Dexterity at 1st level and have 20 by 8th. You get Perception proficiency, darkvision, and advantage on saves against being charmed.
All good stuff. Wood Elves also get a useful +1 to their Wisdom, faster walking speed, and the ability to use Mask of the Wild to hide, even when lightly obscured by foliage, heavy rain, falling snow, mist, and other natural phenomena – a great point of synergy with your Cunning Action.
I pretty much always recommend the Variant Human no matter the class I’m writing a guide for because they can kind of do it all. You get a +1 bonus to two ability scores of your choice (go for Dexterity and something else, which is great if you’re planning to multiclass later), a skill proficiency of your choice, and a Feat at 1st level, which is amazing.
I would wholeheartedly recommend Alert as a way to further boost your Initiative to ensure you’re practically guaranteed to get advantage on your attacks.
Everything about Tabaxi (D&D’s resident cat people) screams Rogue, and they’re especially suited to being Assassins. You get a +2 to Dexterity and a +1 to Charisma, which complements your abilities perfectly.
You also get a boost to your movement speed, a great climbing speed, proficiency in Perception and Stealth, and darkvision. A great choice all round.
Backgrounds are both a great way to help flesh out your character’s personal history, and your primary source of skills.
Each background also has its own special feature – something which I maintain remains a woefully underused aspect of D&D; take the Criminal’s natural ability to draw upon a network of contacts for information, leads and jobs, or the fact that the Sage’s Researcher feature means that, even if they can’t recall a piece of lore, they know exactly where to go to get it.
Background features are a fantastic way to make your character feel competent within the environment in which they live, as well as help the DM flesh out the world around you.
As an Assassin, your background can be a great way to figure out what kind of killer you are – sworn to the service of a guild, the renegade ex-cultist of a death god, or an international woman of mystery.
The Acolyte can be a great source of flavor if you’re looking to play an initiate raised in service to some dark cult or guild of mystics. You get Insight and Religion proficiency – neither are perfectly optimal but Religion is one of the few skills the Rogue doesn’t get access to right out of the gate.
Also, you gain access to shelter and healing from those who share your faith.
The Criminal/Spy background also fits perfectly with an Assassin. You gain some useful equipment, proficiency in Deception and Stealth, and access to a network of underworld contacts.
Or, if you prefer to go all-in on the very Game of Thrones intrigue-focused playstyle, the Courtier gives you proficiency in Insight and Persuasion, as well as some extra languages, and the ability to have your finger on the pulse of whatever noble intrigues are affecting the local area.
Choose this if your campaign is likely to get political, or you want to fully step into the role of the party’s face.
The Rogue’s starting skill list is pretty fantastic. You get to choose four skills from Acrobatics, Athletics, Deception, Insight, Intimidation, Investigation, Perception, Performance, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth at 1st level, which is fantastic. Only Bards are better skill monkeys.
Combined with your background and any proficiencies granted by your race and you could start the game with proficiency in up to eight skills, which can go a long way towards compensating for the Assassin’s somewhat singular focus on stabbing and sneaking.
Choosing skills can depend on your party composition (there’s no sense picking up Arcana if you already have a Wizard and a Knowledge Bard in your group, for example) but the roguish ones are never a bad bet.
Primary: Sleight of Hand, Stealth, Deception, Perception
Tier II: Acrobatics, Investigation, Persuasion,
Tier III: History, Religion, Intimidation, Performance, Survival
Absolute Dump Tier: Athletics, Arcana, Nature, Medicine, Animal Handling
Feats can be a great way to round out or augment your character’s abilities. If Feats are something you’re interested in taking, try playing a Variant Human or any race using the Custom Lineage optional rules from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything.
Alert: Gaining a +5 bonus to your initiative rolls would be worth taking this Feat by itself, given how important being high in the order is to an Assassin. However, you also cannot be surprised while conscious, and other creatures don’t get advantage on attacks made against you as a result of being unseen.
Sharpshooter: A fantastic choice if you want to be a ranged Assassin. Also, the advantage you get on a surprise round synergizes perfectly with the Sharpshooter’s ability to take a -5 penalty to hit in exchange for 10 extra damage. You can also hit enemies from range with ease and ignore half and three-quarters cover.
Piercer: Perfect for a Rogue using a rapier or a ranged weapon, especially as you don’t get the multiple attacks per round that other martial classes enjoy. This Feat lets you reroll damage from a piercing attack once per round and use the new result. You also get a nice little +1 bonus to your Strength or Dexterity.
Poisoner: Although you already have proficiency with the Poisoner’s Kit, the fact that this Feat lets you craft poisons in an hour, as opposed to over an extended period of downtime, is a great way to flesh out your Assassin’s toolkit.
You can spend an hour and 50gp worth of materials to create a number of doses of poison equal to your proficiency bonus. You can then coat your weapons with this poison, which remains effective for an hour and forces any enemy to make a DC 14 Constitution saving throw or take 2d8 damage and be briefly poisoned.
Let’s take a look at the unique features that take an Assassin from 1st level to 20th. Note that this guide won’t be covering the class features available to all Rogues like Cunning Action, Expertise, and Sneak Attack in detail.
1st & 2nd Level
Until you choose your roguish archetype at 3rd level, you’re going to be playing a bog standard Rogue. Your hit die is a d8, your saving throws are in Dexterity and Intelligence, you can speak, read and write Thieves’ Cant, and you get a huge pile of skills from which you can pick four in conjunction with those offered up by your background and race.
You also get Expertise (which allows you to double your proficiency bonus either with two skills or one skill and your Thieves’ tools.
And you get Sneak Attack at 1st level, which lets you deal some extra damage once per turn to a target that’s either incapacitated or within 5ft of one of your allies, or if you have advantage on the attack roll.
At 2nd level you gain Cunning Action, which lets you use your bonus action to hide, disengage, or dash, making you more capable of slipping in and out of danger with ease.
When you hit 3rd level, you can select the Assassin roguish archetype. You gain the following…
Bonus Proficiencies: You gain proficiency with the disguise kit and the poisoner’s kit, although you don’t gain the physical kits themselves; you’ll need to source them from somewhere else.
Assassinate: You become a master of striking down foes before they have a chance to act. You gain advantage on attack rolls against a creature that hasn’t taken a turn in combat yet, making a high initiative bonus a critically high priority. Also, if you hit an enemy that is surprised, the hit automatically becomes a critical.
Infiltration Expertise: You gain the ability to fabricate a near-perfect false identity for yourself. You spend a week and 25gp to establish the history, profession, and affiliations of your alias – and you can’t steal someone else’s identity.
Impostor: This is where the identity theft begins in earnest. You gain the ability to “unerringly mimic” the speech, writing, and behavior of another person. You must spend three hours studying the individual you will be impersonating, after which you will have absorbed their mannerisms and behavioral quirks perfectly.
Your ruse is completely unnoticeable to the casual observer, and if a wary creature wants to probe for the truth, you have advantage on any deception check made to conceal your true identity.
Death Strike: You are now a master of the one-hit kill. When you hit an enemy that is surprised with a weapon attack, you force it to make a Constitution saving throw. The DC is 8 + your proficiency bonus + your Dexterity modifier.
If the target fails, you inflict double damage on the target, including from your Sneak Attack, a critical hit, and any other sources of extra hurt. This ability lets you start doling out truly stupid amounts of damage if you get the jump on someone.
Example Assassin Build Progression from 1st to 20th Level
If you want to channel the suave, subtle, sophisticated, and ruthlessly deadly style of famous assassins like James Bond, the Jackal, or John Wick, then follow this list of steps to take your very own killer from 1st to 20th level.
Ability Scores (Standard Array): Strength (8), Dexterity (15), Constitution (12), Intelligence (10), Wisdom (14), Charisma (13).
Ability Score Increase: Dexterity +2 (17), Charisma +1 (14)
Speed: 30 ft.
Darkvision: You have a cat’s keen senses, especially in the dark. You can see in dim light within 60 feet of you as if it were bright light, and in darkness as if it were dim light. You can’t discern color in darkness, only shades of gray.
Feline Agility: Your reflexes and agility allow you to move with a burst of speed. When you move on your tum in combat, you can double your speed until the end of the tum. Once you use this trait, you can’t use it again until you move 0 feet on one of your turns.
Cat’s Claws: Because of your claws, you have a climbing speed of 20 feet. In addition, your claws are natural weapons, which you can use to make unarmed strikes. If you hit with them, you deal slashing damage equal to 1d4 + your Strength modifier, instead of the bludgeoning damage normal for an unarmed strike.
Cat’s Talent: You have proficiency in the Perception and Stealth skills.
Languages: Common, Undercommon (race)
Armor: Light armor
Weapons: Simple weapons, hand crossbows, longswords, rapiers, shortswords
Tools: Thieves’ tools, Playing Cards (gaming set)
Saving Throws: Dexterity, Intelligence
Skills: Perception, Stealth (race), Insight, Persuasion (background), Acrobatics, Deception, Investigation, Sleight of Hand.
Expertise: Deception, Stealth
Hit Dice: 1d8 per rogue level
Hit Points at 1st Level: 8 + your Constitution modifier
Hit Points at Higher Levels: 1d8 (or 5) + your Constitution modifier per rogue level after 1st
- Rapier (1d8 piercing damage, finesse)
- Two daggers (1d4 piercing, finesse, light, range, thrown)
- Leather Armor (light, AC 11 + Dexterity)
- Shortbow (1d6 piercing, ranged, light), 20 arrows
- Burglar’s pack
- Dark common clothes including a hood
- 15 gp
Sneak Attack: 1d6
Roguish Archetype: Assassin
Bonus Proficiencies: Disguise Kit, Toolkit
Sneak Attack: 2d6
Feat: Piercer, +1 Dexterity (18)
Sneak Attack: 3d6
Expertise: Perception, Acrobatics
Sneak Attack: 4d6
Sneak Attack: 5d6
Ability Score Improvement: +2 Dexterity (20)
Sneak Attack: 6d6
Ability Score Improvement: +2 Charisma (16)
Sneak Attack: 7d6
Sneak Attack: 8d6
Ability Score Improvement: +2 Wisdom (16)
Sneak Attack: 9d6
Ability Score Improvement: +2 Charisma (18)
Sneak Attack: 10d6
Stroke of Luck
A Beginner’s Guide To Playing an Assassin
If the Hitman games (or maybe the first level James Bond 007: Nightfire) have taught us anything, it’s that playing an assassin is really fun.
Scouting out your target, infiltrating the perimeter, using your skills of deception or suave charm to gain access to an elegant garden party or high-stakes poker game – all leading up to the moment when your target is alone, defenseless – it’s an incredibly satisfying gameplay experience.
While porting James Bond or Jason Bourne into the world of D&D might seem like a bit of a tonal clash, it’s an idea that gets cooler the more I think about it.
The thought of playing a character that excels at gaining access to restricted areas and taking down their target before they have a chance to act is an undeniably evocative one. If playing 007 in the Forgotten Realms sounds like a good time to you, the Assassin roguish archetype is definitely the way to do it.
It’s a subclass that thrives on using false identities, clever disguises, and barefaced trickery to get close to the bad guys, and a brutally effective set of skills to make sure they never make it out alive.
In fact, when the conditions are right, I’m not sure there’s another class in D&D 5e that is as effective as the Assassin when it comes to dealing single-target damage in one, hyperconcentrated burst.
By the time you hit 20th level, your Sneak Attack ability means that you can add a full 10d6 damage to a weapon attack once per turn (provided you have advantage or the target is standing within 5 feet of one of your allies, etc, etc.).
Combine that with your Assassinate ability (which means you have advantage on any enemy that acts after you in the initiative order, and ensures that any hit against a surprised enemy is automatically a critical, and you can end up rolling 20d6 of sneak attack damage on a crit.
Then, apply your Death Strike ability (which forces any surprised enemy to make a Constitution save or take double damage from you) and things start to get silly.
Assuming you’re level 20 with +5 modifier to Dexterity and carrying a rapier (you’d probably have at least a +1 weapon by this point but we’ll leave that out for now), if you hit a surprised target that fails their saving throw, you’re going to inflict (1d8 + 20d6) x 2 piercing damage you could dish out 128 piercing damage in one hit (the average is about 74).
As a side note, if you multiclass into Grave Domain Cleric and use your Path of the Grave ability, you can double that damage again for the ability to potentially one-shot an Adult Red Dragon. Unlikely, yes, but do you see what I mean?
If the idea of being a one-shot killing machine with a flawless disguise doesn’t appeal to you, there are plenty of other sources of inspiration for an Assassin.
You could draw from the Assassin’s Creed franchise for a member of an ancient order who can do sweet flips; or play a Warforged to channel the lethal T-1000 from Terminator 2: Judgement Day; or Jaqen H’ghar, the enigmatic acolyte of the faceless god from Game of Thrones.
However you spin it if you want to play a nimble, deadly killer with a flair for social situations, the Assassin is the way to go.
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I played my first tabletop RPG (Pathfinder 1e, specifically) in college. I rocked up late to the first session with an unread rulebook and a human bard called Nick Jugger. It was a rocky start but I had a blast and now, the better part of a decade later, I play, write, and write about tabletop RPGs (mostly 5e, but also PBtA, Forged in the Dark and OSR) games for a living, which is wild.