Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Samurai Library: Useful Books for GMs

I declared it samurai week for myself, so here's a reading list of books I've found useful for doing samurai games. I've avoided film and vgs because I'll cover that elsewhere. Feel free to suggest more.

Usagi Yojimbo
Stan Sakai: 26 collected volumes; 144 issues
This series is a pleasure to read. Stan Sakai puts a huge amount of research and creativity into every story. The various anthologies offer an easy way to pick up these issues, but individual floppies include Sakai’s comments on characters, situations, and background. The longer story arcs (like Grasscutter) show complex plots which GMs could adapt. It also offers insight into daily life and particular crafts (such as the issue which involved kite-making). Despite the “ronin” centered stories, it remains useful for all kinds of samurai games.

Lone Wolf and Cub
Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima: Twenty-eight volumes
Strangely the comic that doesn’t feature talking rabbits is the less realistic one. Lone Wolf never stops going to 11. Despite a focus ninjas and ninja-like assassins, it remains compelling. L5R’s Kolat seem closer to the assassins in this series than to conventional ninjas. LW&C has visuals, enemies, and situations which ought to inspire. Take a look at some of the crazy combat situations and complications they throw in. Think about how you might model those in a game. The series does slow down from time to time to present a look at life in this period, but that’s fairly rare. Better in manga form than any of the movies or TV shows.

Satsuma Gishiden
Hiroshi Hirata: Three volumes
This epic can be a mess at times. I slows down into some seriously long info dump sequences. But in some ways that makes it perfect for a samurai GM. I’d call this a combination military & action manga.

Ooku: the Inner Chambers
Fumi Yoshinaga: Six volumes (more coming)
I don’t know how to describe this, except that its nothing like the comics mentioned above. Instead of swords and blood, it focuses on court and manners. It is a manga deeply involved with politics- conventional and gender. It presents an alternate historical Japan where a plague has been killing off the males of the country. Those losses have required changes in the structure and society, not least of which is the existence of a female shogun. The manga revolves around life in the court and the tensions and infighting gripping those who serve it.

The Tomoe Gozen Trilogy (Tomoe Gozen; The Golden Naginata; Thousand Shrine Warrior)
Jessica Amanda Salmonsen
These books do a brilliant job of mixing samurai culture, magic, and myth. This is a world where anything can happen. It draws on the legendary character of Tomoe Gozen a little but moves well past that. The books present a clash between the Shinto and Buddhist conceptions of hell and magic worth reading. Gender politics take up some space in the book, but mostly it concerns itself with a powerful heroine facing obstacles mundane and mystical.

Sano Ichiro Mysteries
Laura Joh Rowland: fifteen volumes
I’m kind of a snob when it comes to mystery fiction. More that I have a few genres I really like and most others don’t grab me. I really like historical mysteries for periods I’m interested in (like Ancient Rome). A good detective story takes you through the background and setting in depth. It offers a tour because it has to play fair with you. The Sano Ichiro mysteries take place in late 17th century Japan. And man they can be a slog to get through. I’ve read about a half-dozen of these and I don’t think I’ve ever walked away thinking: “That was a good read.” But that being said- the novels are full of plots, characters, and details worth stealing. The “Magistrate” campaign is a classic form for L5R and other samurai games. You can easily rework many of these stories for your party (assuming they haven’t read them). They helped me develop a couple of nice plot arcs for my Ryoko Owari game. Think of these like junk food and filler, but take notes while you’re reading. Another historical Japan mystery series is I.J. Parker’s Sugawara Akitada books. I’ll have to confess that I couldn’t even get through the first one. They may get better, but I haven’t yet gotten my second wind.

The Scorpion: Clan War First Scroll
Stephen D. Sullivan
I don’t like game fiction, and I got burnt in the early days by gaming novels so I’ve avoided them. However I like the L5R setting so I gave these a try. This first volume works if you’re an L5R fan. It actually manages to hit the role that the Scorpion have to serve within Rokugan. It takes a couple of liberties, but they work in the story. I enjoyed it and felt like the series has real potential. Then I read a couple more and they were really bad. In particular the second volume, The Unicorn, is absolutely terrible. But this first one is good, so that counts for something, right?

Everyday Life in Traditional Japan
Charles J. Dunn
This is a fun little book available in a couple of different printings. If you’re hunting for a good book to add details to your samurai game, start here. Dunn covers each of the different classes in depth and then spends some time looking at life in traditional Edo. Really great resource to help a GM paint a picture. You’ll probably recognize a lot of the ideas from here reworked in various games.

Giving Up the Gun: Japan's Reversion to the Sword, 1543-1879
Noel Perrin
It may seem like an off choice given that most samurai games move black-powder to the sidelines. But Perrin’s book examines the culture and control which allowed them to turn their back on a technological innovation. The author examines the stated reasons and advances a few theories about the how and why of it. The book gives insight into the power of symbols and the means by which the powerful maintain order in a society like this.

A History of Japan, 1334-1615
George Sansom
There are a number of good and solid histories of Japan. This one’s pretty classic. He gives a solid academic overview of this vital period in Japanese history. There’s more focus on events and higher level concerns (politics, wars, foreign relations) than cultural issues and details. Still it gives a good sense of the shifting nature of the samurai class and how they exerted control.

The World of the Shining Prince
Ivan Morris
This is a great cultural history, dealing with 10th-11th century Court life. It use The Tale of Genji as its centerpoint, commenting on details from it and illuminating that world. Fun and readable. You know it is a great book when you see passages from it plagiarized wholesale in various samurai rpg products.

Religion in Japanese History

Joseph Kitagawa
A little dry and academic, but covering a topic worth learning about. The first half of the book covers “religion” in the samurai period. It focuses on high level issues (doctrine, control, social movements) over what the faith looked like on the ground. Still if you’re considering having such faiths play a role in your campaign, it presents a good starting overview.

The Samurai Film: Expanded and Revised Edition
Alain Silver
This gives a great history and overview of the genre, pointing out films you may want to track down. Silver has chapters focusing on the work of Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Gosha. Other chapters examine particular genre elements and how samurai have impacted non-Japanese cinema. He also provides a decent filmography. Well-illustrated, I recommend it as a primer if you’re going to start devouring these films.

Lafcadio Hearn and Stephen Turnbull: I won’t go into this, but you’ll probably find lots by these authors- much of it highly useful. Turnbull in particular is an industry. That’s both good and bad. His stuff always has lots of great material in it, but if you read enough of him you’ll end up going over the same research several times.



  1. Great list! I'd also add the manga Samurai Executioner by the same creative team responsible for Lone Wolf & Cub and Lian Hearn's Tales of the Otori novels (though they are set in a slightly fictionalized world).

    1. I haven't read any of the later Koike & Co. manga. I know Lady Snowblood is another one by them, but I'm not sure if it is a later period piece. I'm curious about the Otori novels- my impression was that they were more about a ninja-like group than focused on samurai.

  2. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate Samurai week. I don't really read a lot of manga, so most of that is lost to me, although I do really enjoy Usagi Yojimbo, probably because it's an American comic instead of a Japanese manga. I read all of the L5R books, but I was new to the setting at the time. I have also read most of the Sano Ichiro mysteries, and I don't really like mysteries much. I have heard some nit-picking about some minor historical inaccuracies in her books, but they gave me a "feel" for a feudal Japanese city, so I found them helpful. The Tomoe Gozen trilogy looks like something I'll have to look into, especially considering most of my players are women; and the entire list of non-fiction is mostly stuff I haven't read. So this has been quite a helpful week, thank you!

    1. I think you'll find the Tomoe Gozen books really useful. You can often find cheap used copies of those on Amazon.

    2. I just went to Amazon and ordered the Tomoe Gozen trilogy.

  3. Coming next week on Kindle: THE SWORD MASTER, a novel tracing the adventures of Hachiro, a street urchin who becomes a famous swordsman during the 12th c. Heike Wars. (By I.J.Parker, author of the award-winning Akitada series).

    1. Hmm...OK I might have to check that out. Perhaps that will spur me to go back and given the Akitada series a second chance.

  4. Have you seen this book...if so is it any good? :)

    1. I am aware of the book- it is "Daimyo of 1867" for anyone that doesn't want to have to repair the link's line break. Even the Samurai experts at Samurai Archives say that it is good as history, so it is probably a good gaming resource too. The author also wrote a companion piece called "Shogun & Daimyo- Military Dictators of Samurai Japan"

      I see my link has a line break too.

    2. I know that RPGNow has that available as a pdf as well.

  5. I would stay away from Stephen Turnbull! His works are on the whole are largely inaccurate. One of his few great works is revenge of the 47 ronin where he presents the true accounts of the event.

    Leading historians in the field are Karl Friday, Thomas Conlan, Constantin Vaporis, Mikael Adolphson, Luke S. Roberts and Mary Elizabeth Berry to name but a few.

  6. I wasn't aware that Turnbull had a reputation for inaccuracy. That's unfortunate, especially as I really enjoyed his Dixon Men at Arms books. I'll have to look up some of the other historians you mention.

  7. I redirect you here
    The guys on samurai-archives are far far more in the know than I and if you do a search for Steven Turnbull on the forum you will start to gain more insightful knowledge on Turnbull's works.

    The really aggravating thing about Steven Turnbull is that he can produce really gook works but for the most part the titles under his belt perpetuate all the misconceptions and inaccuracies that have come before in samurai history and culture and that they are all rehashed versions of what he has already written. He also fails to cite other authors that ALOT of his works are based on and doesn't tend to addresses faults that he has admitted to personally in his future works.

    As for all Osprey books they are good places to begin but once you start to dive into serious acdemeic research on said subjects you start to find a lot of gaps and faults (especially in Turnbull's case).