But if you want a Samurai these days, is it easy or hard? In 3rd edition GURPS, samurai weapons got extra bonuses and what was later termed the ethnic badass treatment.
This tendency was mostly removed from Fourth Edition. A katana is a sword. It can be used with the Broadsword or Two-Handed Sword skill. A yumi is a composite bow, seemingly of lower draw weight than (say) English longbows or Mongol composite bows.
Nonetheless, let’s talk D&D, specifically Fifth Edition. Can we do Samurai?
As Expected – He’s a Fighter
A samurai is going to be in the fighter class, pretty much. Obviously if one is using the game to mimic the period of Clavell’s Shogun (because I just got done reading it) of around 1600, he’ll be human.
Choices of Feats and Stat Bonuses
Both the Variant Human (with the extra Feat) and basic human are good choices here. Good Feats would be Dual-Wielder if you love the short-and-long swords, Inspiring Leader, Martial Adept, Mounted Combatant, Polearm Master (especially for female samurai wielding a naginata), Savage Attacker, Sharpshooter (for bowmen). Others are possible, I’m just playing the stereotype game here. Swords, cavalry, archery, and some unarmed martial arts.
It’s hard to get away from the usual order for D&D fighters. For samurai, who were expected to be poised and polite at all times, using CHA as a dump stat is probably unwise. INT is probably the best choice. CHA is key for deception, persuasion, intimidation, and even performance if you’re going to be holding to the tropes from Clavell’s Shogun, where constant maneuvering and surface lies were the rule, not the exception.
DEX will be key for those who are expected to be archers as well as fighters, and of course STR is the key for damage and hit bonuses. A katana or tachi is a longsword in D&D5; a wakizashi is a shortsword. Particularly good ones might be considered magical (certainly they were treated that way!).
So in order, stat preferences are probably STR, DEX, CON, CHA or WIS, INT.
Most would be appropriate. Archery is an obvious choice – samurai were fearsome archers and mounted archers. Defense would be good, especially since samurai armor never really rose to the “full plate” level that appears in the blend of history that is D&D. Chain, scale, and splint are the best choices here for high-protection armors, with low-income samurai probably clad in studded leather.
Dueling will be not be a necessarily apt style for samurai as they would favor a longsword in two hands. Great Weapon fighting will be, because the weapon does not need to be heavy, just (again) focused on two-handed use. Shields did see some use in Japan, and again Clavell casually mentiones Blackthorne’s samurai equipping themselves with one, but without crawling through reams of history books, it’s save to say that the Protection style doesn’t meet the cinematic trope of the samurai, so is less appropriate.
The best martial archetype for the samurai as a powerful Daimyo (noble leader) would be the Battle Master. The various manevuers and superiority dice play very, very well as an approximation of some of the detailed fighting moves one could expect from cinematic depictions of the samurai (this applies equally well to western fighters, of course – but we’re not talking about western fighters, are we?).
Champion would be the next best, and Eldritch Knight with the right choices could be quite interesting.
Samurai are Nobility
The samurai in Tokugawa-era japan were the nobility. They owned the land, they were warrior administrators with very particular quirks and roles. Fortunately, D&D5 has us covered here.
As noted, samurai were nobles unless they were masterless ronin. Even then, they were nobles in disgrace.
Soldier seems like an appealing pathway as well, and for some samurai and ronin that only existed as a daimyo’s personal retainer, perhaps that might be appropriate. But for PCs, I’d think the noble background would be more appropriate.
The way samurai were depicted in Shogun, at least, they were none of them terribly nice guys, especially where dealing with peasants/farmers was concerned. I’d avoid choosing any of the “one with the people” aspects, to the point where your alignment is going to wind up being Lawful Neutral or even Lawful Evil (but always lawful), and rarely “good,” since altruism doesn’t really seem to go a long way here. What is lawful was always the question, “what’s the right thing to do” much less so.
Anyway, Of the eight personality traits listed, ‘eloquent flattery’ might work. The love of the common folk? No way. Regal bearing definitely. Look his best and follow fashions? Perhaps, though “quality swords, poor dress” was also a thing. Not liking unsuitable accommodations fits very well with the importance placed on station and place. The whole thing about samurai is they very much do place themselves over other folk, so that one’s out. Lost favor gone forever? Oh, yeah. And vengeance as motivator also works. So lots of choices htere.
All people regardless of station are to be treated with dignity? Hell no. Responsibility is so true it’s almost mandatory. Power and Family are also good choices. The rest not so much.
Four of the six are excellent choices. Love with a despised rival’s progeny doesn’t really fit the culture of the time. “Love is a Christian concept, Anjin-san!” Likewise the concept of “hero of the people” wasn’t going to fly.
Any of the listed flaws would work. The last one, “I often bring shame to my family” would likely result in either being disowned or invited to commit seppuku, so that one’s a bit on the iffy side.
With the caveats above, the Knight would make an excellent variant samurai, especially for sworn retainers of a mighty daimyo with a limited fief. In fact, the limited things that a samurai was culturally allowed to do means that it might make sense for many samurai to have both Position of Privilege as well as Retainers.
- Studded leather armor
- A longbow and 20 arrows
- Two swords – a longsword and a shortsword. Mandatory.
- A riding horse
- A diplomat’s pack
- 5d4x10 gp
That should cover weapons, calligraphy, mobility, and archery. Plus some extra money for upgrades. Particularly good suits of full battle armor will be splint armor. A case can be made for both breastplate and half-plate, as the wealthier samurai would indeed have as much metal on them as they could afford, and later armors copied the armor of the visiting spanish and portugese. Scale is also particularly appropriate if you’ve ever seen real samurai armor.
So – samurai are easy-peasy in Fifth Edition D&D. The right selection from the elements provided means you don’t even have to adjust it.
An interesting side-note, though. The focus on martial-artsy type moves might suggest a entirely different pathway here: a Variant Human Monk with the first Feat being Weapon Master, allowing much more free choice of weapons to match the samurai’s usual armament, and if you are of the ‘samurai and shields, axes, etc’ don’t mix school, the relatively limited raw proficiencies of the Monk class might be a better fit. Kensei style mystical swordsmen might do well here, though the stat bonuses and (in particular) extra attacks given the Fighter class might still be a better fit. Still more appropriate might be multi-classing with Fighter-17 and Monk-3, where you get some of the more limited and mundane aspects of the Monk, but all the smackdown goodness of the fighter.
And yeah, this write-up is basically “whatever mistakes Clavell made in Shogun are adopted whole cloth.” I’m OK with that for now.