Making a Historically Accurate Ninja in Dungeons and Dragons

A while back, I had written a post about making a elven samurai character in Dungeons and Dragons. The result, Heian Amakiiro, has been a lot of fun to play in Adventurer’s League and was the original inspiration for my “Hamato Islands” series of adventures, starting with A Good Night’s Rest. However, recently I got to thinking: how do you make a ninja, preferably a historically accurate one, in D&D?

It turns out that in 5th-edition Dungeons and Dragons, this question is harder than it looks. Let’s delve into why.

First, even with supplemental rule books like Xanathar’s Guide to Everything, there is no explicit “ninja” class. Most people reasonably assume they are either rogues with Assassin archetypes or monks with Kensei archetypes (from Xanathar’s), and that probably woudl work, but there’s an important wrinkle to all this.

A 19th century depiction of ninja by famous painter Hokusai, courtesy of Wikipedia.

There is a split between “fantasy” ninjas and the ones that actually existed. Fantasy ninjas, like those in the anime series Naruto, or any bad 80’s martial arts movie, are highly secretive, use esoteric magic and lots of crazy martial arts. This is true not just in Western minds, but in Japanese pop culture too. Ninja as an organized group of mercinaries/assassins only existed during a brief period when Japan was in total civil war, but in the subsequent Edo Period (1600-1868), stories about them took on a larger-than-life appeal which has persisted to this day.1

The real ninjas in Japan were something a bit different and hard to pin down. One could easily argue that ninja were really just shady sell-swords. By that time in Japan, the samurai warrior class had largely solidified into a social stratum (though not always), and lower peasant classes were often excluded (or relegated to regimented tasks for foot-soldiers). Ninja helped fill a role that warlords needed by doing lots of dirty work. This included things like assassinations, sabotage and such, but frequently also meant working as body-guards or other things. The reality was was that such dirty work could run a wide gamut of options, and ninjas were there to provide such services.

No, not that bodyguard…
(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

For this reason, I got thinking that if I wanted to make a more historically accurate ninja in D&D, he or she would have to be a fighter/rogue multiclass: some balance of melee combat experience, with roguish abilities like Sneak Attack, stealth and so on. The Assassin archetype from the Player’s Handbook still seems like the most appropriate both thematically and for some of the disguise and infiltration abilities.

I put it to my fellow D&Ders on the local Discord channel and got some good feedback about how this might work. We came to an agreement that starting with a rogue character and moving into Assassin archtype made sense, but then an almost 50-50 split between that and a Fighter (any archetype could work). For a 20th-level character, a few possible scenarios came to mind:

  • Rogue 11 / Fighter 9 – you get Reliable Talent and at least 2 attacks, and maybe an off-hand weapon too. This probably would the more “infiltratey” ninja build.
  • Rogue 9 / Fighter 11 – you get 3 attacks and most of the roguish skills you’d need anyway. This is probably the more “bodyguardish” or militaristic build like the infamous Hattori Hanzō. The Assassin archetype seems to drop off by level 8 anyway, so you may not necessarily be losing much.
  • Rogue 7 / Fighter 11 / Cleric or Monk 2 – this would add more magic elements, or with a kensei monk build some more “martial-artey-ness”. This gets less accurate, since “Shaolin-style monks” as depicted in D&D were more native to China than Japan, but it’s OK to branch out too sometimes.

Anyhow, unlike the elf samurai build I made, the lack of an explicit ninja class makes this intrinsically harder, but the Assassin archetype for a Rogue still makes a good foundation so long as you supplement it with some good melee combat skills too. That makes your ninja more than just a thief and closer to the original “sell-sword” type that existed back in the day.

I’ll post more updates if this build works (or not) as I get a chance to play. I have a tentative elf-rogue character in mind (‘cuz I always play elves) for this, but we’ll see if it gets very far.

1 One could argue the same for the infamous warrior monks or sōhei in Japanese history due in large part to the larger-than-life stories about a monk named Benkei. In reality, most were just hired muscle by large Buddhist temples to protect themselves from other warring Buddhist temples. Their commitment to Buddhism was tenuous at best. As for a D&D class though, sōhei make a pretty decent martial-cleric build though, such as in my Hamato Islands setting.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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