Is a Samurai Just a Fighter in Funny Armor?

This past weekend I posted about how I might approach an “oriental adventures” rules supplement, essentially saying that, where the OA book published by TSR was jargon-heavy and skewed more historical (and was heavily weighted towards Japan), I would skew mine more towards Samurai and Kung-Fu movies, and would try to make it more accessible to an English-speaking audience with a limited knowledge of historical Japan and China (and that I would balance it more between the two cultures).

The post generated a lot of good discussion and links, but regular GG commenter (and player in my campaign) Hamlet made the following observation (quoted here in part; go to the original to see the whole thing):

“…all you really need is a pamphlet covering the basics. A glossary of
terms, a few pages describing culture and honor and the like, which can
be done for Japanese, Chinese, Indian, assorted “other” cultures of the

“…for the most part, you have everything you need to run a campaign of
samurai and ninja already in the core books. The PHB only needs a very
light reskinning, which can be done in a matter of a few pages, to fit
the bill. Fighters are now called Samurai or Bushi or whatever. Ninja
would probably be thieves or multi-classed if demi-humans”

I found this a very interesting approach, and wanted to highlight it as a counterpoint to my original post. Is a new class beyond fighter (or cavalier) really needed to play a samurai, busei, or kensai? Or can you do it with just a new list of armor and weapons? What’s a wu jen other than a mage with a different list of spells? Do ninjas need to be a class of their own, or, as Hamlet posits, can you just use the existing 1E thief (or perhaps assassin) class, wear a mask and hood, take a proficiency in shuriken, and be done with it? And do you really need an honor mechanic?

Any thoughts?

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Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

23 thoughts on “Is a Samurai Just a Fighter in Funny Armor?

  1. I tend towards Hamlet's viewpoint. You might do some minor mechanical tweaking for emulating characteristics of certain classes (giving wu jen access to a different spell selection, possibly swapping out some thief skills for others traditionally associated with ninja), but otherwise…a dude with a sword is a dude with a sword the world over.

    I would shy away from an honor mechanic and just focus on a social code of honor (with appropriate social penalties).

  2. This is, effectively, what Pathfinder has done. In Ultimate Combat they simply offered a few pages creating a variant cavalier (samurai) and variant rogue (ninja) with some tweaks but essentially built as the same frame. They added a list of "eastern" weapons and just quietly moved on.

    In the setting book they addressed ideas about honor (again in just a page or two).

    I tend to also be a fan of reskinning and minor tweaks over complete rewriting/recreating.

  3. For a China-inspired campaign, I definitely think this is the way to go. In some ways, China was more like your run-of-the-mill “European” medieval fantasy setting than any place in Europe ever was. Just with different names for everything.

    Japan, though, I’m less convinced. Fighter for Samurai…sure. Thief for ninja…maybe. But in general I think the Japanese elements deserve a bit more tweaking.

    (For Indian, I dunno.)

  4. Just to add a bit: I've always felt that one of the largest failing points of 3rd edition (and now that we get down to it, 2nd edition) was this concept that seemed to get ingrained in us that one couldn't be something without specific rules to support it. Can't be a samurai or a knight without a knight or samurai class on hand. It led to an almost literal explosion of "base classes" in the WOTC world to a degree that I would not hesitate to say is insane.

    Slight variations on a theme (i.e., man/woman with a sword) do not really neccessitate a new mechanical class. The Necromancer really is an example of this (not to mention Illusionist and etc. from the core rules). A wizard with a varied spell list.

    HOWEVER. I'm always open to the point where you say that you can't really emulate a certain thing with the current rules and you really do need special rules to do it. I just don't get to that point as quickly as some others do and I think, in th end, most of us could do just as well with some basic guidelines and the old axion of "imagine the hell out of it."

    All that said, you know for a fact that if you create an Oriental Adventures style supplement without some kind of mechanic for honor and you will have a number of folks screaming about how it's "unplayable" and on and on.

  5. For the most part, I think it's a workable way to go. Bushi = fighter, yakuza = thief, ninja = assassin, samurai = cavalier, etc. Sohei and kensai would be a bit more problematic, IMO, but adapting 2e's kit approach could go a long way here. (Frankly, most of the kits I saw in 2e underwhelmed me so it's the approach more than any specific kit itself that I refer to.)

    As for Chinese-based classes, I have much less familiarity with them so couldn't say. But a fighter is a fighter, to paraphrase Allandaros. One of the great things about 1e was its abstractness. Not just for combat, but classes, too. Clerics could be priests of any god, fighters could be mercenaries, knights, men-at-arms, etc., thieves could be cat-burglars, highway men, or what have you. It really took something special to break out and be a legitimate subclass. I'm not sure that OA included all that many examples of such.

  6. I agree with Hamlet, et al. as well. As an official "0e" Grognard, I think we're constantly trying to over-complicate things. I guess there are those that love the proliferation of degrees of separation. (Now THAT sounds like a song!) I've always preferred the simpler "tweak it as you need it" approach of 3LBB D&D. Let the players define their characters, not the stacks of rulebooks. Good grief, I want to slash orcs, not fingers with paper cuts! Yes, it's a crummy business plan to release 3 paper booklets for $10.00 that "do it all," but doggone it after 37 years it still works and adults and kids are playing it with delight around our tables.

  7. If I was ever to run a game set in the East I would use just three basic classes – they are broad enough to simulate western types like cleric, knight and barbarian as well as shukenja, samurai and ninja etc.

    So yes, I'd prefer Hamlet's viewpoint.

  8. Personally, I think that the AD&D supplement for Al-Qadim covers alternate settings admirably. I used it myself to design a pseudo-egyptian setting.

    The use of the AD&D kit to overwrite certain class features (and the requirement of all in-culture characters to pick a kit) really seems to function marvelously.

  9. I'm another who goes for the "a fighter is a fighter is a fighter" line. Bushi have been glamorized in the West because they're exotic, and in truth, they were just another military caste, though maybe a bit cleaner and more stylish than some.

    I would go for some sort of formalized honour mechanic though, but not because it couldn't be handled via roleplaying — I'd go for it because I liked the outcomes when we used it in Bushido a million years ago.

  10. I'm going to have to disagree. I don't much like the OA version, but I can't agree that Samurai should be just another Fighter. To me at least Samurai invokes much more then just a guy with a sword and armor. Samurai were politicians, and philosophers.

    If i were to spit ball a Samurai class I'd start with the fighter add a min Int and Cha (I'm thinking 12,) add a couple of bonus skill proficiencies (required to be in the arts) maybe even add a class feature that gave a bonus to building a domain. I'm also not to keen on dropping honor, so I'd probably add a simplified code of conduct that resulted in XP penalties if they weren't followed (I would keep it as a class feature of the Samurai rather then saddle every class in a setting with it.)

  11. I basically agree with Hamlet too. I remember the 2e 'katana' that did 2d6 just cause it was the 80s and katanas were kewl…when they're already ni the PHB — it's called a freaking bastard sword!

    A ninja is clearly an assassin, etc.

  12. BlUsKrEEm:But what's stopping you from creating any other fighter using the ADD rules that's also a philosopher and an artist and a politician? Is that any different than any other feudal lord from other cultures? Or do we just like to tell ourselves it's different because it's strange, exotic, and appealing?

  13. Hamlet: That's the key question, isn't it? Merely to play "Malebranche's Mouthpiece", as it were, I might ask the same question of the druid class. Couldn't you just throw a few more spells into the cleric list and make a nature-oriented priest with a fancy hierarchy? Or is the assassin really necessary?

    Is there any sort of ability that is unique to the samurai (or ninja, or whatever) that requires a mechanic that emulates something which cannot otherwise be achieved beyond mere roleplaying?

    Just to take the samurai class as presented in the original OA, he can focus his ki, has various bonuses to damage and surprise, and gets immunity to fear. That's in addition to things like mandatory proficiencies, followers, relations with his lord, etc. that could absolutely be done via role-play.

    As presented in The Dragon #3, the samurai gets some damage bonuses, and the ability to get critical hits when he rolls well enough. He also knows judo.

    The samurai in Dragon #49 is yet still different; he gets some unarmed attacks, access to some samurai-specific weapons, gets a "slaying hand" attack at level 10, and can get psionics (!) at higher level.

    Are those bonuses, unarmed attacks, and ki abilities absolutely necessary to the class. or could you have a samurai without them? I don't pretend to be expert enough to have an answer. I'm just playing the Malebranche's Mouthpiece…

  14. I would have thought a samurai was much more of a Fighter than even a European knight (since I think the samurai traditionally used bows). And they were certainly much more Fighter-like than any lightly-armoured 'barbarian' types.

    Monks and assassins are, obviously, meant to be fantasy-Asian rather than fantasy-European.

    The big problem I see is that martial arts films create the expectation that combat will be varied and interesting, whereas people expect two European knights bashing each other to be like a series of rolls to hit.

  15. I think part of the problem is we idolize samurai without really knowing how good medieval knights were, partly because the fighting arts of Europe were mostly abandoned after the invention/mass availability of firearms. Some people also seem to think that every samurai/bushi who ever lived was a clone of Miyamoto Musashi, when the truth is far more likely that the average samurai was no more skilled than the average knight, for whatever definition of "skilled" we might use.

    Ditto for the ninja. It's simply not that hard to disappear into the shadows at night, wearing black, prior to the invention the electric light.

    Of course, if you want to use legends as the basis of your character class, go ahead, but then you also have to take into account western legends and how they've shaped the game. All in all, I think it's a wash.

  16. Joe: As to the Druid, Assassin, Ranger, and Paladin classes (sticking to AD&D 1e here), I'm actually on record more than once saying that they're entirely unneccessary. You don't need them. At all.

    However, they're an instance, IMO, of that acceptable compromise territory between "Why don't you just play a fighter who is . . .?" and "I need a unique base class with all new special abilities in order to emulate . . .".

    And hell, maybe the Samurai, Bushi, Ninja, Wujen, et al are as well. I don't particularly think so, but others can certainly say otherwise and I'm not going to rag on it. It's my estimation, though, that there's nothing unique enough in the makeup of each of those archetypes that it does not fit under the broader archetype of "fighter" or "mage" or whatnot. It's only if you think the fighter archetype refers specifically and exclusively to a Western version of it that you run into trouble.

    And maybe, at the end of the day, in terms of Adventures Dark and Deep, they really are neccessary. After all, you already have variations on themes that are fairly slight (cavaliers and paladins, thiefs and jesters and montebanks and acrobats, etc.) so maybe, going by the setup you already have a Samurai class is entirely appropriate.

    I tend not to think so, myself, but then I draw that line between rules and "you should be doing this part yourself you lazy players!" a little closer in. To me, a samurai is a fighter from a particular cultural background (realistic or idealized as you please) specialized in a bastard sword also carrying a short sword, long bow, spear, etc., and wearing an exotic form of armor (lammelar). I don't need, for me, rules about honor, loyalty to a lord, duty, philosophy, or poetry. I can handle all that myself.

  17. Of course you don't NEED a new class but many people like them. And as I've said before, OD&D suggests that the classes are generic so you can say your fighter is a samurai and your magic user is a necromancer but then rather than having a non-specific class that does some magic and some fighting, Dave and Gary confused everyone by having a medieval European Catholic priest. It was just downhill from there to thieves, monks, paladins, rangers and so on.

  18. When I played 1e, my group tended to have the “everything needs its own class” attitude. (And I remember the moment when I was reading my 1e PHB and realizing that a handful of classes—less than in that book—could cover a lot of ground.) With 3e I always felt like the proliferation of classes was more just because people wanted to experiment with different mechanics. In the context of 3e is where I most often say, “Don’t take the class’s name too seriously.” It’s just a bundle of mechanics.

  19. I agree that you can create a samurai using the Fighter class and just ROLE-PLAY him as a practitioner of the Bushido code – same for other classes with a minimum of fuss. And if I wanted to put an OA character in a D&D game, that would be fine.

    HOWEVER, I'm a big believer in mechanics that help emulate the genre I want to play. Wuxia and chambara are not the same genre as Sword & Sorcery. They have different themes and tropes.

    So if I want to play an OA game – i.e. not an S&S game set in the Orient – I want Chi to be a tangible and usable force. I want warriors who float on air. I want training montages that fly by but last a year or more.

    I want more than a culture to role-play, I want mechanics that encourage me to role-play that culture and more importantly, that make this a distinctive role-playing experience.

    All this can be done more or less well with generic systems (like GURPS for example), but AD&D is NOT generic, and has features meant to simulate Sword & Sorcery (or indeed, its own D&D genre which has become its own thing). The fact that OA features demi-human character races for example, is straight out of D&D and has very little to do with the Chinese and Japanese stories it might have emulated.

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