Friday, June 8, 2012

When the Last Sword is Drawn: Samurai RPG Thoughts

This week I wrote on samurai. I don't know exactly why- I suspect some of it came from Hida Mann's heretical suggestion that the newest edition of L5R is superior to L5R 1e. Then there were some awesome session reports for Blood & Honor on RPG Geek. I saw some other posts in the blogosphere on the topic (this from Monsters and Manuals)...all of which really got me jonesing for a samurai game. So I went with samurai week-
Samurai RPGs: Kami & Katanas (Part One) 

Samurai RPGs: Kami & Katanas (Part Two)  
SamuraiBibliography: Useful Books for GMs
Bushido: RPGs I Like
Ge Koku Jo

I think it worth considering from time to time what you actually like about a genre. Running fantasy, sci-fi, or horror campaigns you can lose sight of what drew you there in the first place. In this I’m not necessarily talking about the actual history, but the what I love from the conventions- as depicted in films, books, and games.

Code of Conduct: Samurai games offer a set of behavior codes players can accept. It is difficult to legislate morality in an rpg. Often systems to handle this come off as punishing and adversarial. Various World of Darkness games require the player to take tests or suffer penalties to their specific “morality” track. These abstract and sketchy systems lead to communication rifts between player and GM. The results may seem arbitrary. Samurai games on the other hand, have a clearer and more unifying sense of the codes of behavior and conduct. Great stories can come from the dilemmas posed by the gap between desires and those codes.

Colorful: I remember when I saw Ran and the colors blew me away. I know a decent amount of that’s ahistorical, but I love the idea of forces with brightly painted uniforms and vivid banners. The colors and patterns on kimonos and other outfits fascinate me. I used to own all of the Dixon Men-at-Arms series covering the Samurai. If I had to paint only one genre of miniatures for the rest of my life, it would be samurai.

No Armor: Perhaps a little ironic given the point above, but I like the relative scarcity of armor in the genre. War is the time for armor, but most fights, duels and small scale conflicts arm opponents with a sword and the clothing on their back. That makes the fights deadly and encourages a creativity to the conflict.

Echoes of the Musketeer: Samurai games often seem to me to be more serious versions of a swashbuckling campaign. Unarmored or lightly armored swordsmen of skill dueling and leaping around. Social status and class serve as an important factor in both. Duty, loyalty, and right action can be supported or challenged, depending on the nature of the authority. There’s less direct humor and slapstick perhaps in the Samurai campaign.

Distance: At the same time, the setting remains foreign enough that play is fairly open. GMs can and should strive for verisimilitude over simulation. A musketeer games carries a degree of “western” baggage.

Aesthetics: I love that non-fighting skills have a significant place in the setting. An appreciation for beauty, a sense of craftsmanship, a simplicity of approach- these are lovely hallmarks. They help make this more than this a flashing swords genre. Certainly Western historical genres have some of this (romantic poetry for example), but the samurai genre embraces it.

I liked Bushido and Oriental Adventures, but never really felt press to run them. The samurai games we did play and run were short and filled with fantasy. L5R changed my mind- it gave me a cool and consistent world that I wanted to run right away. I loved the relatively compact realm and cohesive story. Rather than spinning out wider, L5R made strategic choices about what it included.

Ahistorical: L5R breaks away from the yoke of history. Yes, Oriental Adventures had Kara-Tur but that never felt fully fleshed out. Instead it felt patchwork to me, especially when it got ported to the Forgotten Realms. It also smashed things together in equal measure. Legend of the Five Rings draws influence from other Asian cultures for the various clans, but it never loses sight of being a samurai campaign. Many players feel uncomfortable with historical games. Some don’t like ‘constraints’ of history or worry about getting things wrong (or even offending). L5Rsays you don’t need to worry about that. You don’t have to sweat the small stuff.

Gender Roles: Though it can be inconsistent about this at times, L5R generally allows full and equal play opportunities for female characters. There are matriarchal clans and the rules provide numerous examples of strong female characters the equal of men. Often they’re even in reasonable armor. That gender equity’s built in, rather than requiring hand-waving by the GM. That’s the kind of approach I’ve always tried to take with my other campaigns, so L5R works for me.

The Clans: The Great Clans of L5R provide easy to pitch concepts. I can describe any clan in a sentence or two and players will remember that. Add to that the visual distinctions and you have a winning combo. Once players know the clans, you get to work one more level down and explain the families among those clans. It isn’t long before players remember and can respond NPCs instinctively.

Articulated Codes: I love that the clans share the Bushido code, but perceive it differently. Each clan has some virtues they value and some they regard as less essential. That’s a brilliant device.

Magic: I don’t love the lumping together of the various distinct faiths of Japan into the “Shintao” of L5R, but most of the time it works. In particular it allows Shugenja a role and purpose beyond simply being casters. Making them generally ritual and spiritual advisors gives them an added gravity and weight.

Diplomacy: More than most games, especially fantasy games, L5R finally made social classes compelling and dangerous. Diplomats and ambassadors may more restrictive fields of battle, but they can do more damage than a simple sword strike. That’s the way it should be and L5R raises the bar for these kinds of player options.

Kurosawa spoiled samurai cinema for me. It isn’t that he set the bar too high with his staging, craftsmanship, and artistry. Rather that he used the samurai film to tell humanist stories, “a preoccupation with the human elements of a movie.” In this he managed to create depth, sympathy, and emotion in a genre not associated with it. That made watching other cheaper samurai films- Shogun’s Ninja, Lone Wolf & Cub, Hanzo the Razor, Death Shadows- more difficult because of the focus on the brutality and violence. The message in so many of these films seems to be about a moral wasteland, the inevitability of violence, and the annihilation of the self. I try to watch everything I can, but films which revel in the gruesome I play only slight attention to. There are many great samurai films. Here are ten I’d pick as a good set to watch in prep for running a samurai campaign:
  • Kuroneko: A good combination of ghost story and samurai action. 
  • Samurai Rebellion: Introduces some of the complexities of the social politics while also offering insight into the daily lives of conventional samurai. 
  • Onmyoji: The supernatural, conspiracies, and as close to an actual shugenja as we’re ever going to see on the screen. The sequels pretty fun as well. 
  • The Seven Samurai: Has to go on the list for a look at a grounp getting slowly picked off. 
  • Yojimbo/Sanjuro: Great characters and intriguing plots. Worth watching for how you’d model some of these complications at the table. 
  • Taboo: A striking film and not to everyone’s taste. Importantly it offers insight into the social dynamics of the samurai caste. 
  • 13 Assassins: Worth watching for considering how to set up and stage combats. 
  • Dora-Heita: A goofy and fun story chronicling the arrival of a drunken magistrate to clean up a town. Given how many L5R games use magistrates as a basis, worth watching. 
  • Dororo: Just ok, but has some interesting bits and fun fights. On the list because of the fantasy elements. 
  • Red Beard: Not a samurai film, but my favorite Kurosawa movie. Insight into the characters and culture. Great for informing NPC creation. 
Also, if you’re looking for samurai soundtracks to use while running a game I recommend the following. Some have more Chinese or Asian themes, but work in the context. Genji: Dawn of the Samurai (Tomoatsu Kikushi & Seiichi Negi); Jade Empire (Jack Wall); The Hunted (Kodo); Guild Wars: Nightfall (Jeremy Soule); Otogi 2: Immortal Warriors (DoRe); Onimusha 2 (Taro Iwashiro); Okami (Masami Ueda & Hiroshi Yamaguchi); Nobunaga’s Ambition Online (Kenji Kawai); Kengo 3 (Takayuki Nakamura); Jubei Ninpucho: Ninja Scroll (Kaoru Wada); and Heavenly Sword (Nitin Sawhney). You may have to edit out some of the more goofy bits from the video game soundtracks.

Man I don’t like ronin. That’s weird given the romanticized version of them given in so many films and stories. Usually they’re the last inheritors of the spirit of bushido, the practical character who can see past rules, or the lovable buffoon. They reject the existing structures and establishments. The problem I have with them is that they throw away so much interesting material. They avoid real dilemmas of choice and duty, instead substituting more physical conflicts over survival and murder. Players by and large suspect and reject authority- they tend to resent orders and obligations. A samurai campaign suggests virtues, duties, clan loyalties, and service to your lord. It restricts and makes the choices more difficult and more meaningful.

Ronin look like every other standard fantasy PC. That makes them more boring. An all-ronin game, unless the players agree they serve a higher goal- just feels like an outlaw game, and maybe the group should be playing Wild West. Worse can be the single ronin among a group of samurai; you’ve built in some real acrimony there. The GM may have to handwave pretty hard to keep fights from breaking out. As John Wick suggests in Blood & Honor, being a ronin ought to be awful: with no one to support you, no respect, no acknowledgement. But what GM’s actually going to subject a player to that consistently? In my experience ronin leaning players want to have their rice cake and eat it too.


  1. ... My problem with the love of the Samurai, and this will be the only complaint that I give, is that it is often played in a way that is against what I grew up loving. It is my goal in life to play a mystery/detective style game akin to what I saw when I was a child with Toyama no Kinsan (Hence, my really mangled name). It is a level of play that I will not experience outside of a rare Bushido game, and that is because it is rare for a game to center itself around non-samurai.

    Love a lot of the games you mentioned, though, and I love your reasonings. It just only half feeds my needs. :)

  2. Wow- I'd never heard of that character and series; very cool. I can sympathize. I run games I want to play- but I rarely get to play in games that do the kinds of themes and approaches I really want. I think that's probably true for most GMs- there's a game in your head that you'll almost never actually see at the table.

  3. I really liked the three movies by YĆ“ji Yamada: Twilight Samurai (2002), Hidden Blade (2004) and Love and Honor (2006). The three are structurally very similar and all feature just one major fight as far as I remember so I'd suggest leaving a few weeks between the three movies if you're going to watch them all.

  4. I've seen the first two of the Yamada movies you mention; they're really quite good. I will have to track down and watch the last one. I think it is in my Netflix queue.