Shinobi: Shadows of Nihon
Shinobi: Shadows of Nihon Capsule Review by Jeb Boyt on 27/07/01
Style: 3 (Average)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
The definitive ninja sourcebook.
Product: Shinobi: Shadows of Nihon
Author: Darren-Jon Ashmore, Mark T. Arsenault, and Keiko Maeda
Company/Publisher: Gold Rush Games
Cost: $20 U.S.
Page count: 127
Year published: 2001
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Jeb Boyt on 27/07/01
Genre tags: Fantasy Espionage Asian/Far East
When I first started playing Bushido in the early ‘80s, ninja were just beginning to creep into American popular culture. Bushido provided extensive rules for ninja player characters, but it didn’t include much information on ninja in Japanese society or on how to integrate ninja into a campaign. As time went on, ninja could be seen in chanbara movies like Zatoichi Meets Yojimbo as well as action films like American Ninja and then later in anime, but I kept looking and waiting for a gaming sourcebook on ninjas that would be the definitive guide for using ninjas in Japanese fantasy RPGs. Well, Gold Rush Games has finally produced the definitive ninja gaming sourcebook.
Shinobi: Shadows of Nihon describes the myths and history of the ninja - or shinobi, the more historic term - their training, operations, equipment, and how to integrate shinobi into a campaign. The first chapter, Shinobi (12 p.), deals with the origins of the shinobi, their development, their “heyday” during the Sengoku period (1542-1600 C.E.), and their “decline” during the Tokugawa period. In keeping with their mysteries, disinformation, and myth, Shinobi describes four different origins for the shinobi. The shinobi are described as descending from the tengu, as Chinese military officers and Buddhist monks that fled to Japan following the fall of the T’ang Dynasty in China around 900 C.E., as rememnants of the Taira, and as the descendants of Togakure Daisuke a 12th Century ronin and ally of shugenja. Characteristically, Shinobi suggests that each of these origin myths probably contains a bit of the truth. The first chapter also includes a discussion of shinobi philosophy, religion, the special role of female shinobi, and how the shinobi view the other castes.
The second chapter discusses shinobi clans and families (5 p.), including the shinobi families’ place in society, clan organization, and family organization. This chapter also includes a description of shinobi upbringing and training. The third chapter deals with the specifics of shinobi training (26 p.), mainly their skills, talents, perks, ki powers, and magic. The chapter begins with a discussion of skills included in Sengoku and how the shinobi employ the skills. Two new skills are provided: escape and puppeteering. Nine new talents are provided to reflect the shinobi’s near mystical ability to hide, move silently, and enter any building. In Sengoku, talents are akin to advantages or feats. Special rules are also provided for shinobi-mikkyo, shinobi tantric magic based on energy, mind, elements, directions, seasons, and colors.
The fourth chapter (14 p.) discusses shinobi clans in general and describes in detail the two principal clans: the Iga and the Koga, including several shinobi of note in each clan. A chart and map of Japan identify other shinobi clans, their approximate size, their main base, and their political affiliation.
The fifth chapter (9 p.) discusses shinobi operations such as espionage, misinformation, and reconnaissance, how the shinobi prepare for a mission, execute the mission (including getting in and dealing with capture), and after the mission. There is also a brief discussion of shinobi bases.
The sixth chapter (25 p.) describes shinobi equipment and gimmicks such as disguises, weapons, tools, poisons, and the history of the shinobi’s distinctive garb. Most of the equipment will be familiar to players of other Japanese FRPG, but each description also includes a discussion of the specific ways that the shinobi uses the equipment. There are also discussions of special equipment used only by shinobi such as explosives, burglary tools, water equipment, and a collapsible rake that can be used as a weapon but whose primary purpose is to remove the trace of footprints across sand and gravel.
The seventh chapter (6 p.) discusses how to use shinobi in campaigns. Advice is given on how to run shinobi NPCs and PCs including all shinobi groups and mixing shinobi with other characters. There is also a discussion of potential patrons for a shinobi clan. Four campaign archetypes are included to provide a GM with storylines for shinobi as well as advice for plotting and running a lengthy campaign. The discussion of how to include a shinobi in a group of other PCs was one of the few disappointing parts of the sourcebook. The discussion covers less than a column of text, where several pages could have been used to discuss some of the merits and pitfalls of such a campaign, including how the shinobi are seen by other professions and why other professions may work, either knowingly or unknowingly, with shinobi.
Shinobi concludes with a glossary (7 p.), lists of references and inspiration (2 p.) (including the Iga Shinobi Museum of Mie Prefecture), an index (14 p.), four sample characters, and a shinobi-specific character sheet. The first page of the character sheet is essentially the same as the basic Sengoku character sheet, but the second page includes space for useful information such as character background and history, character reputation, shinobi magic, and notable people that the shinobi has encountered as well as the tools, explosives, poisons, and disguises available to the shinobi.
Shinobi is apparently a very thoroughly researched sourcebook. Darren-Jon Ashmore is a researcher in Japanese Studies who is working on the fact and fiction of shinobi folk legends, and Keiko Maeda is from Mie Prefecture, home of the Iga shinobi. Overall, Shinobi is primarily a sourcebook of background information that could easily be used with any game system. Shinobi includes fewer game mechanics than the average GURPS supplement. Shinobi is laid-out in an easy to read two-column format, and the art is consistently good, without the amateur art that spoiled the original edition of Sengoku. Shinobi could, however, have benefited from better proofreading. There are odd word choices, and there are numerous instances of omitted articles, objects, and modifiers.
One odd aspect of Shinobi is that it reads as if it is geared more to running a shinobi campaign during the Tokugawa period rather than the Sengoku period. This bias appears largely to result from the fact that most of the historical and cultural references to the shinobi are from the Tokugawa era. Shinobi would have benefited from a more specific discussion of running shinobi in a Sengoku period campaign.