A new player wants to join a game I'm running. The campaign is set in Thesk in Faerûn, and the player wants to play a gnome samurai. I'd like to find a way to make this work, but I keep running into problems:

  • Samurai must belong to a lord or else they aren't samurai.
  • Gnomes in Kara-Tur are often bureaucrats and rarely end up as warriors.
  • Nonhuman samurai are rare. A lord might retain a gnomish samurai for the sake of political grandstanding, but such a character would rarely be sent to represent the lord's interests alone.
  • A samurai lord in Kara-Tur would have little reason to send agents to Thesk. The Golden Way runs through that region, but I don't see how to leverage that.
  • How can the samurai keep in contact with his lord? Scrolls of the spell sending would work, but would take a big chunk out of the funds for a low-level character.

I have a few solutions of my own, but they're mostly along the lines of "a wizard did it," unsatisfying, and create new problems:

  • A polymorph any object spell could have turned a human samurai into a gnome samurai, but the lord's resources should be able to remove the effect.
  • A portal could extend the lord's claimed territory into new regions, but such a portal would be a drain on the court's resources.

My group is pretty good at finding unusual solutions, and I feel like this character's backstory could be an endless source of unusual problems if done well, so I don't want to just tell the player to pick something else. The rest of the party is comprised of level 1–3 characters with more mundane backstories.

With these problems—and the problems raised by the solutions to these problems—in mind, how can I fit this new player's gnome samurai into my campaign?

While 3.5 material is acceptable, original Third Edition material is preferred.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Samurai as in the much-maligned class, or samurai as in the title, with any build acceptable? \$\endgroup\$ – Shalvenay Feb 10 '19 at 5:10
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    \$\begingroup\$ Samurai as in the class with the rigid command structure and code of conduct, although he probably actually wanted a fighter he could call a samurai. \$\endgroup\$ – erefewinter Feb 10 '19 at 6:17
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    \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. This question seems very opinion-based, as there's no way to choose a "best" answer; any justification might be just as "correct" as any other. Such idea-generation questions aren't really suited to the StackExchange Q&A format, and might be better on a forum. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Feb 10 '19 at 7:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ As worded this is a very open-ended question (opinion-based), but if you could fashion a very specific proposal that you think works, you could then ask about whether it contradicts (or has discrepancies with) any descriptions in published materials of gnomes, samurai or their relevant organizations in the realm of Faerun. \$\endgroup\$ – Valley Lad Feb 11 '19 at 2:00

With limits, allow exceptional player-characters

Based on the question, it sounds like you're reluctant to have the PC and elements of the PC's background be exceptional. This DM gently recommends allowing PCs and their backgrounds to be exceptional, especially if doing so A) means the PC receives no mechanical benefit, and B) makes the campaign more interesting. Let me address the points the question raises in order:

  • "Samurai must belong to a lord, or they aren't samurai." Beyond a really basic plot hook like the lord simply saying, "I will send emissaries to the far corners of the world for I am powerful and curious yet forced to occupy the throne. You, my favored and amusing gnome samurai, wander in that direction for 10 years then return to me," there are a variety of accidents—magical and mundane—that could strand the PC so that he's guided by his lord's ideals rather than his lord's presence. Sure, neither is 100% bushido, but they're accommodations for a particular PC.

  • "Gnomes in Kara-Tur are often bureaucrats and rarely end up in warrior roles." Certainly, it's rare, but it's fortunate that the PC was born into one of two heretofore unknown small (yeah, small) clans of gnome samurai. (Of course there're two such clans: they're bitter rivals so the DM can create Gnomeo and Juliet scenarios. Feel free to add a secret third clan of outcast gnome ronin and ninja.)

  • "A samurai would rarely be sent to represent the lord's interests alone." Indeed, but maybe this one was. Maybe, like the Texas Rangers, because there was just one issue to handle, oversee, or investigate in Thesk, the lord—who has, not incidentally, vastly overestimated the gnome samurai's abilities—only sent one samurai. Alternatively, the lord sent an entire delegation there—including the gnome samurai—to establish an embassy or further a trade relationship and they're still there. You could go so far as to give Thesk a Kara-Tur enclave in which the embassy sits.

  • "The Golden Way runs through that region, but I don't see how to leverage that." Fortunately, right now, you don't have to. The lord is setting up shop or sending emissaries to where the Way begins in an effort to outdo his rivals, corner a market, control trade, or whatever. To what precise end? Maybe the lord doesn't even know yet, but as the campaign progresses, you'll find a reason then so will the lord.

  • "How can the samurai keep in contact with his lord?" If none of his superiors are present in Thesk, the Golden Way provides an obvious solution. The PC sends daily, weekly, or monthly letters reporting what he thinks is important to his lord and receives replies at the DM's leisure.

  • "A polymorph spell could explain the unusual race, but the resources of a court should be able to remove the effect." You're correct that court resources should be able to dispel a polymorph any object spell that has a permanent duration, for example. However, a reincarnate spell is much harder to reverse, and a unique magical effect is impossible to reverse except under circumstances that only adventure can reveal.

  • "A portal could extend the lord's claimed territory into new regions, but such a portal would be a drain on the court's resources." A one-way portal isn't as expensive, and a one-way 1/day (or 1/week or 1/year) portal while still not inexpensive is affordable, and a captured or discovered portal is nominally free. However, a portal between Shou Lung and Thesk essentially eliminates the Golden Way, a source of profit for many. The campaign implications are tremendous. That's a great plot.

With all that this DM would still have two fears:

  • The player's suggested a goofball PC yet the DM's accidentally taking the suggestion seriously. Confirm that the player's serious about his gnome samurai and inform him that his vision can be realized without going the whole Don Quixote route. See that the player doesn't distance himself from the suggestion once he realizes that this will happen and that the player'll have his gnome samurai… and all the baggage that comes with that.
  • An intricate background is developed for the gnome samurai, but during the first adventure the gnome samurai is killed by an orc with a spear. This DM suggests trying to keep the gnome samurai's background light on details until the PC's of a high enough level to matter. (This DM likes level 6.) Until that point—like at levels 1 through 5—, in a traditional campaign death by bad die rolls can totally just happen, and it's usually economically unsound—for the remaining PCs and the players on a meta level—to devote at those levels resources toward bringing back the dead; players usually just make new PCs.

Keep in mind, though, that, above all, the DM needs to enjoy the campaign that the players are helping create with their unique PCs. A campaign really does need to satisfy the DM, too. The DM must enjoy managing that shared narrative, and if a PC's background requires so much accommodation that the narrative won't be enjoyable for you to manage, be firm and tell the player that his PC just doesn't fit and to pitch another idea.

Note: The Oriental Adventures samurai is an acceptable character class in campaigns in which the fighter is an acceptable character class, but the 3.5 revision of the samurai class is almost universally considered so terrible as to be nearly unplayable… in most cases about equal to or a little worse than the NPC class expert. (Also see this question). Unless other PCs are a similar power level as the samurai, this DM recommends that a player interested in a PC samurai have his PC follow a samurai-like code and fight in a samurai-like fashion but pick a class that's more versatile and interesting than either the OA or 3.5 samurai, like, for example, crusader or warblade.


Historically accurate samurai are much different than what the American and Hollywood stereotype would have you believe.

Samurai was a conferred title and a set of commitments represented by a binding oath of loyalty, not a set of training, martial arts, tools, weapons, or skills. It could be granted and revoked. One of the most common distinctions of the title was that it was the equivalent of a license to carry weapons in public and a license to use weapons legally and lethally upon social classes lower than oneself with few to no legal repercussions.

What this means in D&D terms is that both versions of the samurai class are completely inaccurate and worthless, insofar as representing what a samurai actually was.

The question then becomes is the player desirous of playing one of those classes for some reason, or is the desire to play a samurai concept?

If it is the former, then HeyICanChan's answer has you well covered, but if it is the latter, then I have a few additional comments in addition to the excellent ones already given.

Real historically verified samurai cover a vast range of behaviors and archetypes. There are samurai who are famous for sneaking into a castle and burning the place down, or assassinating key figures. There are samurai who are famous for their horseback riding skills and those who lacked. There are those who were famous for archery skills, others for swordsmanship, and yet others famous for marksmanship (yes, guns).

There were some that were politically and socially strong, yet weak in martial prowess. There were those who were experts at torture, those that performed acts of rape and murder, who plundered and pillaged enough to make a pirate blush, and those who sought to better the lives of their peasants and were just (even by Western views). Some were artisans, and others were known for cunning or wisdom.

There are documented cases of a samurai testing a new blade upon a nearby peasant, and if it didn't cleanly cut the person in two, attacking the blade smith or refusing to pay. There are even a few stories of some who would actually swallow stones in the hope of breaking the samurai's blade.

What then is a samurai?

The key component of "being a samurai" was the oath of loyalty. This oath was an oath of absolute loyalty to a lord, to a degree that most Westerners would find uncomfortable. This oath basically placed the lord at the level of a God, and the samurai swore to obey each and every command, up to and including any morally or ethically repugnant whim the lord may take into their head, not excepting the death of loved ones or of self. Hesitation in executing any command was often interpreted as disloyalty.

In fact, this was one of the main conflicts between the versions of Christianity that arrived in early Japan and the lords of those eras - loyalty to a God was supplanting loyalty to the lords, so they saw it as a threat, and massacred thousands in an attempt to genocide any and all Christians in Japan. This was not entirely one sided as the specific sects that were trying to convert the Japanese used many morally and ethically dubious methods that were frankly against Christian teachings.

Yet it was not entirely black and white. There were ways for a samurai to remove his oath from a lord in publicly acknowledged ways, though death was often the result, unless the samurai could escape, or the lord let them go for some reason.

In fact the were many occasions where spies who were deliberately sent into the camps of enemy lords, pretended loyalty until the opportune moment. The histories also have records of great betrayals or loyalty upheld in the face of overwhelming odds.

Japan's famous ninja were all originally samurai, some of whom declined seppuku after losing a battle (often interpreted as failing to complete a lord's order which might result in the lord ordering the death of the entire family as well as the samurai). Even to this day, among the three families that claim direct descent from the ninja clans, it is indicated that among the traditional martial arts taught by ninja, a number were originally specific to samurai.

Having given this very brief and incomplete overview of samurai in history, the conclusion I would like to emphasize is that almost any base class or prestige could be used to represent the skillset of a samurai, as they were very flexible and diverse in reality.

The key factor would be the binding oath, which should ideally be role played, rather than merely represented by rules mechanics.

No mention of samurai can be made without mentioning honor. The codes of honor common to the Asian regions are foriegn to western ways of thinking and distinctly do not align with traditional concepts of chivalry.

For example, there's the very important matter of face, which is challenging for those not raised with the concept, and a source of many conflicts and misunderstandings between East and West. Face is a combination of reputation, status, honor, manners and courtesy both outgoing and incoming, and a few other more difficult concepts.

Also, an important point of note are the Ronin, wanderers without a lord. Some were because the lord had died, some because they had betrayed their lord for reasons possibly just or possibly selfish, while others had yet to find a master and were searching for a lord worthy of their loyalty. Some were considered without honor, while others were glorified due to their honorable choices.

As such, it is important to develop the characters personal code of honor and rules of face. It doesn't have to be true to the traditional Asian interpretation of honor and face. Something the player will have fun with and perhaps feel challenged with is good enough. This code determines what the character is and isn't willing to do, and what sort of lord they are looking for.

Thus, the pre-lord Ronin version of a samurai concept might fit best for your player's character: a masterless samurai searching for a lord worthy of his or her blade and skills. This could also explain why he or she is so far off the beaten path.

Disclaimer: I have lived in Japan, speak Japanese, have studied Japanese history with an emphasis on samurai and ninja, and I've even become a student of ninjutsu under two authorized teachers. So while I will not claim to be an authority figure or source I do have a better idea than most of what I'm talking about. ^^

  • \$\begingroup\$ Man, I love this answer as it addresses both RP core concepts, and some of the myths that need closer scrutiny. +1. I think that face also includes "manners and courtesy" of a particular style; I learned about this in my teens when our family moved to Taiwan. (1970's). It was quite the cultural eye opener. I'd recommend including "manners" or "courtesy" in that bit but that's up to you. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 10 '19 at 16:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thank you. I have tried to give an accurate view based on my studies and understanding, such as it is. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Feb 10 '19 at 17:02
  • \$\begingroup\$ Oh, yes, absolutely! I was trying to keep my comments on face short, because that's an ocean of a discussion that's way beyond scope of the question. But I fully agree, definitely deserves a mention. \$\endgroup\$ – nijineko Feb 10 '19 at 20:38
  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks, and you are so right, an ocean of discussion. Well said. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 10 '19 at 21:24

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