Shinobi Characters in L5R (and similar archetypes in other RPGs)

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    Hello, Court Games Forums!

    A short while ago I mentioned on the Discord that I had some thoughts/opinions about Shinobi Characters in the RPG, and the way they fit into a playgroup.

    Generally speaking, this is my absolute favorite archetype of character. I play some kind of shinobi/rogue/assassin/thief in any setting I can, and it has been that way for over a decade (which I know, ages me to a mere baby among many of the far-more-seasoned rpg players among us) But along this journey to play my favorite types of characters in any setting I can, I’ve seen many a pitfall within my own ideas, and those of other players at my tables when I’ve taken the helm of GM.


    Shinobi in L5R

    Lets start with specifics, since this is the game mode we’re mostly here to discuss. Shinobi occupy a fairly bizarre place in the setting of Rokugan. They are alarmingly apparent in the Core Rule Book (The whole of the scorpion clan characters have access to Ninjutsu, and half of them are classified as Shinobi) Yet, truly in the setting – Shinobi exist as a murky, nearly mythological status. Every single Clan employs them, as does the Imperial Family, but as many forms of communication are veiled games in Rokugan, denial of the existence of Shinobi is just one of the many rules for high society.


    So, how do we play a character that isn’t supposed to exist?

    There are many reasons why setting up a game of L5R is difficult, and probably the most discussed one is “how do I get all of these characters from different Clans together, united under one goal?” and boy howdy – that’s a tough one nearly every time. A common “fix” for this is that – player group allowing – you have everyone playing a singular clan. In its own way, this is also one of the best fixes for Shinobi. This is a bit of a round about solution, but for a “break” in a campaign, I highly recommend having a side adventure of an all Shinobi cast, even for just a one shot or a month of sessions. In almost any campaign setting there is an opportunity for something plot relevant to be happening behind the scenes and in the shadows, and I feel that most play groups would get a huge kick out of hearing about their Shinobi expeditions in whispers during their primary campaign. The opportunities for this is also vastly increased with the release of Courts of Stone, as it adds in Shinobi options for most of the clans.

    Bonus reading: if your tables likes this idea, consider exploring the game mechanics of Blades in the Dark, by John Harper – a mashup of L5R and this ruleset could make for a very fun side campaign if you want a reoccurring band of shinobi mucking up your players primary campaign.


    Now, barring that scenario, as it by no means fits every play group in their interests – Let’s say YOU just want to play a shinobi as one of your primary characters in the campaign, and not as a side plot tool. To beginning finding out the best <sup>Read – least intrusive </sup>ways of making this fit, lets discuss some common shortfalls that happen in character creation that can lead to a less-than-stellar gaming experience for you, and the other players at your table:


    How Not to be a Bore

    Lets face it, there is a lot of edgelord options for these types of characters, and while 15 years ago I certainly played QUITE A FEW OF THEM, they’re such a terrible drag for you as a player, and they offer next to nothing to the dynamic of the team. let’s start with a few very common ones:

    You Are Not Your Job

    woah, this got real, fast. Anyway – This one is less direct in L5R but it’s so important I wanted to begin this list with it. When you are creating a backstory and personality for your roguish character, remember this: we the players KNOW what you are. That doesn’t mean you can’t have secrets, or that it’s common knowledge that your character is a contract killer. But we at the table know your character sheet says ASSASSIN at the top. We don’t need your whole character identity to revolve around how good at killing someone you are. The idea that you probably have the tools and abilities to sneak up on someone and take them out silently under the cloak of night is a given, spend 10x as much time on literally any other aspect of your character, or you will be a bore to the table.

    This is even easier in L5R where most shinobi schools have a secondary classification. The Shosuro Infiltrator is a Courtier, the Soshi Illusionist is a Shugenja, and so on for the schools in Courts of Stone, barring the Mercenary Ninja school, which is its own can of worms, and blatantly feels like the writers just needed a school with Ninjutsu in the curriculum, but I digress. DIVE into this secondary classification for your school, make THIS your character.

    The best mask is no mask at all


    You Are Not the Enemy

    This one varies a bit table to table, but I feel like it carries a bit more weight in L5R. If your characters are welcome guests at court, and you’re having a quick aside about how you plan to engage in the intricacies of  the upcoming social conflicts, but your shinobi decided they wanted to go off and poison their mark in the middle of the night instead without their party knowing – you’ve ruined the fun.

    This is a more specific example than what happens every time, but I’ve seen too many times that there’s a social setting that isn’t going as smoothly as your players were hoping, and they’re getting out matched a bit in one way or another, so the brash, callous thief decides “Okay it’s time to stab this guy in front of everyone because I’ll get sneak attack damage and I’ll roll big numbers” While the rest of the players facepalm.

    – Never judge a man by instinct, only by his past.


    You Are Not Alone

    In Rokugan, your Honor is tied to many, many things. And an interesting interaction is in the things you choose not to see or hear. Shoji screens are thin, and secrets are hard to keep. I’m a firm believer that if you play a Shinobi character, your party should be aware, and be okay with it. Or you’re going to have some trouble later. There are plenty of times when you might want to express your shinobi skill set to progress in a particular engagement or quest, and your party should look the other way, because sometimes that’s what Samurai do. I don’t seem to remember that time you got sloshed in the sake house and started a brawl, so you don’t recall the time I impersonated a figure of station to get us clearance through a checkpoint.

    – Do not fear your enemies. Only a friend can betray you.


    The GM Is Playing With You

    Well, hopefully. If you’ve upheld your end of the bargain and you’re not playing a one-dimensional faceless nobody with a dark past – Your GM should have plenty for you to do. Not just solo missions, mind you. Where you’re skulking around at night trying to do accomplish your goals while the rest of your honorable samurai snooze the night away. Any shinobi plan can and should include the rest of the party, and its always a fun challenge to make it out in a way where your compatriots are just following their duty, and you’re the one getting your hands dirty.

    – A man divided by duty has not a single leg to stand on.


    I think many players rolls their eyes at the idea of a shinobi being a part of an L5R campaign, much more so than when someone says they’re playing a rogue in dnd, but the same pitfalls honestly face them both, and they can both succeed in spectacular ways. The most important thing to remember is that whole these characters are presented as stand alone figures with a peculiar skill set, all of roleplaying is a group effort, and you must want everyone to succeed.

    – There is no such thing as a lone assassin.

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