Saturday, 24 June 2017

Thoughts on the Unicorn Clan…

…or, Ten Ways to Fix the Horse Clan

For awhile there I was a bit obsessed with mummies; now I’m on a “Legend of the Five Rings” (“L5R”) jag – I hope you can bear with me. This too shall pass.

Most writing does not spring whole and complete from the void. It has sources of inspiration and earlier works which inform and direct it. In the world of genre fiction, this is especially true, and in the world of gaming – most of which takes its lead from genre fiction – it’s even more the case. This is why, when looking at a game like “L5R”, it’s possible to see very clearly what has inspired the author(s).

For those who aren’t fans, “L5R” is a game published by Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG) based in a medieval analogue of Japan – Rokugan – ruled by an Emperor and divided among seven noble houses, or clans, of samurai. Magic exists, as well as monsters and ghosts. Like “Bushido”, the earlier roleplaying game that had similar goals, it appeals to ‘samurai-tragics’ (like me!) everywhere – fans of “Shintaro” and Kurosawa – and offers broad scope for good storytelling. A strong core for both games is that they are based on a fascinating and diverse cultural foundation with well-founded and easily researched principles. The main difference with “L5R” however, is that it started life as a collectible card game and branched out to have a roleplaying and tabletop version as well.

The main creator of “L5R” is John Wick who, like Mark Rein(dot)hagen before him, let his authorship run away with his ego, resulting in some unpleasantness. What he forgot is that nothing of this scope is accomplished without many people driving the wheel, and without writers like Ree Soesbee and Rob Vaux, and a plethora of toiling artists and game designers in the background, things would never have gotten as far as they did. This is not to diminish the vision that Wick brought to the table, or the fact that he managed to bring the whole project to fruition; but all it takes is one dummy-spit to tarnish the gold that is a worthwhile endeavour. Many of Wick’s later contributions to the game are weak in the extreme and left the fans scratching their heads in bemusement – prime among these is the Ninja splat-book which was just wrong-headed and dumb; but Wick’s attachment to it and his ‘I can do no wrong’ perception of himself saw it go to print regardless, amid a chorus of disapproval.

Getting back to my main point, the elements of “L5R” are clearly inspired by works that have gone before and this is seen nowhere more clearly than in the seven Great Clans. Each clan has its own defining traits and specialities, a character which underscores its temperament and general behaviour; this enables players to build player characters (PCs) around a stereotype which provides much of the basic foundations for those personae. The natures of the clans, with a couple of exceptions, are clearly based on well-known fantasy and historical tropes, grafted together with various other elements, to provide a basic template. The Crane Clan, for example, are Tolkien-esque elves, overlain with elements of extreme Japanese courtly manners and philosophy; the Scorpions are Middle-Eastern, “Arabian Nights” fare, with a solid whack of Machiavelli, plus a dose of Michael Moorcock; the Crab Clan are Spartans, with elements of siege mentality borrowing on a selection ranging from the Crusades through to Stalingrad. The Lion Clan takes its cue from Japanese military history. The Dragons and the Phoenix Clan are highly problematic: of all the Clans they are the least based on any outside motif. The Dragons are ‘like the Crabs but with magical weirdness’; the Phoenix are ‘like the Cranes, but with archery and pacifist intentions’. Both of these units feel vaguely formed and unfinished.

Which brings us to the Unicorns. If you’re trying to create this kind of world, it makes sense that you’d include some kind of Mongol analogue to take advantage of the effectiveness of horses in medieval warfare. Looking at what Wick and crew have come up with, I wonder, was there some concern that there would be litigious trouble from Robert Adams’s “Horseclan” series of novels which the Alderac people fought to minimise? There is a solid historical justification for a society of people centred around horses, from the Mongols and the Manchus to the Japanese themselves, and yet the Unicorn Clan has been thrown together (wait for it) from the following: American western films, Anne McCaffery’s Pern novels, “Elfquest” and “My Little Pony”.

Now, I know that Americans are fearful of legal brouhahas, but surely they couldn’t have been so scared that people would confuse their product with a series of science fiction, post-Apocalyptic pot-boilers that they would effectively neuter an aspect of their creation which promised to solidly round out their universe? Apparently they did. (It’s actually kind of worrying that they would assume that the punters would see ‘Medieval Japanese horse-riding analogue’ and immediately think ‘Oh, a Robert Adams rip-off’ rather than ‘Oh cool! Mongols!’; but maybe America is that kind of place.) Anyway, I’ve decided to scrape off the glitter-frosting scunge from the Unicorns and provide something that’s a bit more meaty and rooted in the real world of history, for those who are interested. The following notes are arranged in no particular order, so work with me here.

1: Ditch the name “Unicorn”

Much of the sparkly nonsense that surrounds the Clan comes from this term. I’ve written and illustrated for this game, and played it both as a player and a referee, and I’ve seen repeated efforts to try and dodge the rainbow-coloured silliness that the word “unicorn” provokes by replacing it with “ki-rin”, the name of a mythical Japanese creature which is vaguely horse-like with horns: it doesn’t work. Just bite the bullet and use the word “horse”; it will get you much further. Once you do, I guarantee that you will feel a great weight rise up from your shoulders…

The problem with names isn’t limited to this though. It seems that, having been saddled (heh!) with the unicorn brand, later writers just fell in with the silliness and compounded the problem. One of the major families in the Clan is called the Otaku family: this term is a pejorative one in Japanese – a vague equivalent of “geek” – which translates literally to “junk boy”, and refers to those with a fannish collector’s habits. Then there’s a training school for mounted archery in the Unicorn territory called the “Yomanri” school, a bad (and obvious) pun on the English word “yeomanry”, a Saxon-derived term which refers to a body of landed gentry. Why? Why would they do this? In later editions they swapped “otaku” for “utako” (which is, as far as I know, meaningless), so it’s obvious that these issues were a matter of embarrassment for the designers as well. My advice? Get rid of it all. These guys are Mongols; let them BE Mongols.

2: The Problem with Shinjo

According to the literature of the game, each of the Great Clans descends from one of the many children of Lady Sun and Lord Moon, who created earth for their children and then gave them humanity to play with. Shinjo is the patroness of the Horse Clan and led them from Rokugan out into the world to see what was going on Out There. The canon material has her living alongside the Clan for hundreds of years and taking them across the deserts and out to other empires. In a broad nod to Paul and Wendy Pini’s “Elfquest”, she transforms into a horse and gives birth to horses and humans from whom the Clan families and their horse lineages descend. This is all very well – and we are talking about a magical universe here – but I would prefer that this material becomes less literal and more metaphysical: when the Horses talk about “Shinjo” doing this, or saying that, they mean the “spirit of Shinjo”, not the literal person. When “Shinjo” leads the Horse Clan to victory, it is as often her guiding spirit as it is her corporeal being (meaning, of course, the collective members of the Horse Clan).

If you’re not familiar with “Elfquest”, it’s definitely something you should look into. It ran throughout the 80s and concerned the elfin populace of a distant world, in particular the tribe led by the work’s hero, Cutter. It has grand themes, a pleasing narrative and addresses many real-world issues as it moves towards its ever-darker conclusion. That being said, it is – itself – a hodge-podge of watered-down Amerindian spirituality and myth with a Middle-American sensibility; once you’ve read it, you will see exactly where the bulk of the published “L5R” Unicorn Clan comes from.

3: Horse Magic

As stated, magic is alive and at work in the land of Rokugan. Players get to adopt the roles of either samurai, or shugenja, “L5R’s” magic-users. Some time is spent in the canon material defining what magic is in the universe and how it works; then it goes and breaks the rules. The magic of the Unicorn Clan is “different” from the magic used in Rokugan, derived as it is from the clan’s time away from the Emerald Empire; however, so are the magicks of the Dragon Clan, the Phoenix Clan, John Wick’s Ninjas and Maho, the country’s so-called ‘black magic’. So it’s not really “different” at all, in the larger scheme of things, and since the mechanics are just the same as every other clan, it seems pointless to even mention it. (This loose descriptor, when applied to the Dragon and Phoenix Clans is just another instance of their nebulous, unfinished quality, but that’s a topic for another day.) There is a way to make this work, however, in reimagining the Horse Clan:

Horse shugenja are actually shamans; I imagine that their magic is more like early Taoist mysticism: their worldview is that the cosmos is composed of a structured hierarchy of spirits, all working to keep Reality in place. The Horse shugenja capture, bargain with, trick, and coerce various spirit entities into doing their will. In order to do this, the written word – the creation of talismans, and the drafting of contracts – is fundamental to Horse magic. Essential to Taoism is the notion of the written word embodying the physical concept, and given that the Horse Clan script is quite a bit different from standard Rokugani writing (more below), this ties in very nicely. Horse shugenja are shadowy and reclusive; they are often prone to trances and speak in cryptic conundrums: much of their craft is divinatory and less elemental (although there is a fair whack of that) and their mystical bargains tend to take horrible tolls upon them. Other Rokugani shugenja often sneer at Horse shamans, regarding them as “primitive”; however, as in so many other fields, the Horses catch on quickly and assimilate much that they encounter. This all ties in very nicely with historical shamanic practises from Japan all the way across to Finland: if you want “different” for your Horse people, I’d suggest that this is the way to go.

4: Horse Spirituality

In the world of Rokugan, the prevailing belief is called “Shintaoism” and is a mish-mash of Zen Buddhism, Shintoism and Taoism. In the canon material, it is codified by an ancient holy man named Shinsei (a Buddha analogue) who wrote it all down as the Tao of Shinsei, a holy book for the Rokugani peoples. This is kind of neat, as it captures a bunch of real-world belief systems together to back up the spiritual aspects of the game universe. However, in the game’s timeline, Shinjo led the Horse Clan out of Rokugan before Shinsei became a thing in the Empire, before his works were transcribed, disseminated, commented upon and those commentaries distributed. It makes sense therefore, that the Horse Clan would have widely divergent philosophies when it comes to matters of faith.

In terms of faith and, given their shamanistic leanings (as mentioned above), it makes sense that the Horses would be more animist in their beliefs. That is, they would be strongly turned towards ancestor worship and the belief of spirits throughout the world. Their views on faith would be less ‘intellectual’ with a lot less of the cunning wordplay that exemplifies Shinsei’s writings. In this regard, they might also be suspicious of, and largely uncomfortable with, the written Tao, not completely convinced about it, and the other Clans would think they were vaguely heretical as a result.

The next few points are ideas of my own which I have derived from historical fact and which, I think, make the Horse Clan a far better concept as a result. Use them, or not, as you see fit.

5: The Khanate

The Manchu peoples of Northern China were horse warriors and, like the Mongols, were organised into a khanate; that is, a political body ruled by a Khan. I see no good reason why the Horse Clan shouldn’t operate likewise.

The Manchus elected their Khan from among the noble houses which comprised their populace. These were called “banner houses” and were each ruled by an “orlok”, or “battle master”. The Japanese samurai also drew Imperial candidates from eight noble families, called the “hachiman” in their tongue. For the Manchus, the leaders of each of the houses were determined by their houses’ members and were put forward for selection as Khan whenever a new leader was to be appointed. Sometimes, the decision came down to a display of prowess, but mainly it was decided by a council of elders and orloks, based upon popular vote. This makes sense in regard to the Horse Clan and would probably be a feature. I would add that, whoever got chosen as leader, they would then adopt the family name “Shinjo” as an animistic nod to the Clan’s ancestry. They would then become Shinjo, ruling in her name and possessed of her spirit.

Further, like the Japanese samurai, the hachiman would have its own spirit and become a mystic entity in its own right. As people living in a world of spirits, sometimes the spirit of the people would come into conflict with the will of the Khan; Hachiman, the spirit, was a god of war to the samurai and would occasionally voice disapproval through the people if the decisions of the Khan led to bad results. Thus, there are political, religious-based, checks and balances on the powers of the Horse Khan.

6: Horse Clan Castles

The real, historical, Khans often bemoaned the fact that, having conquered the world, they then settled down, left the nomadic life, and lost their way. Both Genghis and Kublai - Mongol leaders of China's Yuan Dynasty - felt that the decision to adopt a fixed lifestyle took from them and their people their essential nature. If you look at the game map of Rokugan, the lands appointed to the Horse Clan are huge and therefore, there’s really no reason for the Horses to settle down at all. I imagine that they would continue living in their yurts, re-locating to the north in Summer and moving South in Winter, and chasing pasturage for their livestock.

In this reality, why have a Clan stronghold? To my mind, that castle is a front: whenever the Horses hold the Winter Court, for example, or if they have to host a political delegation from some other Clan, they would dust off this place and conduct business there, only to return to their semi-permanent villages afterwards. Let the Scorpions and the Lions waste time trying to work out how to capture a fortress that means nothing to the Horse Clan (apart from the fact that it puts all their enemies in the one spot): the khanate is not a fixed entity and cannot be attacked at set locales like the other Clans.

7: Kagemusha

Given that the Horses would have a faux stronghold in which to conduct business with the rest of Rokugan, why wouldn’t they also have a faux Khan to conduct that business? According to the canon, the Horses are uncomfortable in dealing socially with the rest of Rokugan (apart from the Crabs) and any leader chosen by them would probably be just as uncomfortable also. To that end, why not appoint someone as proxy, with the requisite skills in diplomacy and tact, to stand in for the Khan? 'Makes sense to me.

In my game, only the council of Elders and the orloks of the hachiman knew who the true Khan was; the other members of the Horse Clan didn’t know either, although they all knew it wasn’t that guy.

And while we’re on this subject, why are the Horse Clan tagged with the notion of being gruff and undiplomatic? On the one hand, it’s because the Cranes are supposed to be the diplomatic experts and the Scorpions are the best in courtly manners, so the writers didn’t want to take anything away from them, but think about it: the Horses went out into the world to discover and make contact with every other culture on the planet – how does this make them diplomatic naifs? If anything, it should make them the experts: yes, the Cranes can dazzle when it comes to a Rokugani Winter Court, but I know where my money would be if the barbarians came to call…

8: The Colour Purple

Yet another thing that turns the canon Unicorn Clan into a sugar-coated “My Little Pony” extravaganza, is the decision to weigh them down with the heraldic colours purple and white. This is just adding insult to injury. Purple is a colour linked to indecision and here’s nothing about the Horse Clan that stands up as indecisive. I’ve seen it played down in some games and completely changed in others and this works with varied degrees of success. I’ve thought long and hard about what to do about it and I finally came to a surprising conclusion: embrace it.

Historically, purple was discovered by the Phoenicians in the Mediterranean and became a closely-guarded (and money-spinning) secret. In fact, the word “Phoenician” comes from the Greek “phoinikes” meaning “red people”. The source of the dye was a gland from a species of shellfish called Murex and could produce a range of purplish colours from plum through to lilac (mauve wasn’t discovered until, the 19th Century). In my “L5R” campaign, purple dye was a secret brought back from Barbarian lands, known only to the Horse Clan until, in a fit of generosity some time after their return to Rokugan, they decided to share it with their fellow countrymen. In my game, the Horses were exempt from taxes imposed upon the dye and could not be forced – even by the Emperor – to pay their yearly tribute in the stuff, showing just how valued the stuff is. As an extra bonus, the peasant classes of Rokugan would even be afraid of the colour, giving the Horses an extra edge in battle. So: problem solved, plus added historical complexity to the game world.

But remember: purple. Not mauve!

9: Horse Writing

Another thing to take from the Phoenicians is that they wrote in a trading language that all people trading through Southern Europe, the Levant and North Africa adopted to make the whole process easier. It makes sense that the Horse Clan, on its travels, would also have adopted such a written format to ease their travels throughout the World Beyond Rokugan. This language would have to be able to code for a multitude of different spoken languages – something that Japanese plainly doesn’t do – in order to serve during many delicate confrontations with alien cultures. In fact, our own written language – the Roman Alphabet - derives from the Phoenician trade language, and is all that we have left of their culture, after the Romans took umbrage at them and wiped them from the map.

Looking into history once more, I discovered that there is a writing style that would serve the Horse Clan well. It’s called “hergen” (“letters”) and has three forms – “ginggulere hergen”, the standard script; “gidara hergen”, a semi-cursive form; and “lasihire hergen”, the cursive form (used mainly in military despatches). Historically, it was derived from the Mongolian script and adapted by the Manchu leader Nurhaci to be able to code for his native tongue. The form which he created (called “tongki fuka akÅ« hergen” - "script without dots and circles") was later further refined by a series of diacritic marks to enhance pronunciation and to enable the script to code for other languages such as Chinese and Sanskrit; this form was referred-to as “tongki fuka sindaha hergen” ("script with dots and circles") and further modified by “tulergi hergen”, "foreign, or outer letters", enabling it to code for an even wider range of linguistic possibilities. The script is read from top to bottom and left to right.

In my campaign, the ancestor Iuchi Ogadai, rather than Nurchaci, was the one who codified the writing style and is venerated for this fact. Taken together with their shamanic magic, with all of its overtones of Taoism, an exclusive writing style gives the Horse Clan extra leverage in the Rokugani world. They can write texts which only other Horses can read and they can create magical talismans that work particularly well for their brand of “different” magic. Very few of the other Clan members know about this script: it’s not exactly a secret, but the Horses don’t make a song and dance about it, although they certainly frown upon any non-Horse Rokugani attempting to learn it. In fact, most Horses can read hergen while they can’t understand written Rokugani, giving rise to the other Clans thinking that the Horses are illiterate.

10: Barbarian Weaponry

Along with everything else, the Horses are criticised by the other Rokugani for adopting barbarian weapons and armour in their standard equipment. In many of the illustrations used in the game products, this has given the artists license to draw samurai wielding two-handed Crusader swords and fencing foils along with a whole bunch of other weirdness. Having the Clan kitted out with a patchwork range of miscellaneous hardware simply makes them look foolish, when, in fact, it makes more sense to have them uniformly armed and armoured – just not like the other Clans.

The Mongols were able to overrun the entire civilised world from Japan to Austria and they didn’t do it by picking up whatever came to hand: any notion of a superior fighting force must encompass uniform weapons and gear to co-ordinate training and the Horses need this too.

Above is a picture of Mongol weapons and armour. As can be seen, the style is enough like Japanese armour to fit in, but significantly different enough to excite interest. When the canon books talk about the exotic Horse Clan arms, armour and equipment, this is what they’re talking about. Put the claymore down, mister, and step away…


That’s about all I have to say on the matter at the moment, but I think I’ve painted a pretty solid picture as to how a poorly-conceived element in an otherwise cool game can be brought back into line. Something similar might well be done for the Dragon and Phoenix Clans, if someone has the time and wherewithal to bend a few brain-cells in that direction. Let me know what you think.

The Library of Rokugan - Volume 2

Samurai leaders were mindful that the things which they learned during their careers should be passed on to those who followed them. In many cases, they would write their ideas down on sheets of paper and paste them to the walls of the barracks in which lived the men who served under them (or simply wrote them directly onto the walls, depending upon their temperament). The bushi would then collect these aphorisms together for private contemplation while on campaign, and some would even go so far as to have them printed. Many samurai leaders, who would personally have never sought to be memorialized in this fashion, have become inadvertently famous in this way.
On the other hand there were warriors who deliberately composed their thoughts on warfare and wrote them down in order to become widely-known. These figures often courted a certain notoriety and lived lives which were more infamous than respectable. Despite this, the insights that their writings provide are well thought of and sought out by youthful bushi and veterans alike.
The following are a few of these martial texts which can be used to round out a Rokugani campaign in the “Legend of the Five Rings” (L5R) system. As in my previous list on this topic, all of these books are based on real medieval Japanese texts, which I have assigned to the various clans of the Emerald Empire so that they can be easily incorporated into the gaming. I have used the English translation of the work’s title, or stuck with the Japanese one, randomly in order to differentiate the Real World book from the Rokugani one and to let it blend in more easily to the campaign.

Seven Great Vexations by Shinjo Atabeg
Written by one of the great Khans of the Horse Clan shortly after the arrival of the clan back in the Emerald Empire, this work uniquely expresses the frustrations that the Horses felt while trying to reintegrate with the rest of the Rokugani peoples. A vituperative discourse, the Seven Great Vexations calls the other clans to account, sparing no blushes, and goes on to describe how each clan can be defeated in battle, in single combat, and in the political arena. With this publication, Atabeg drew a line in the sand, demanding that the rest of Rokugan take the Khanate seriously.
Most sensationally, Atabeg targets seven “vexations” and it’s obvious that he doesn’t include the Horse Clan among them. The other six great clans cop a serve and – most indiscreetly – so too does the Imperial Household. Initially, this wasn’t too much of a concern for the Horses – most copies were written in the Horse Clan writing style which is incomprehensible to other Rokugani – but when copies started to be translated, cries of outrage began to be heard.
The Vexations has been outlawed on and off throughout Rokugan’s history, either nationwide, or by individual Clans. However, much as it instructs bullish Horses in the ways of striking out at those who offend them, it also gives useful insights to non-Horse readers about their own concerns regarding the other Clans. It is rumoured that Atabeg’s original manuscript is kept in the library of Kyuden Bayushi…

Heiho Kadensho by Asako Munenori
It’s rare to find a manual on warfare coming from the Phoenix lands; nevertheless, this is one of the most persuasive such works to have emerged in Rokugan. The book consists of three chapters - “The Killing Sword”, “The Life-Giving Sword” and “No Sword”. The first two chapters offer fairly pragmatic and diplomatic advice, while the third contains much that borders on the spiritual, while still being grounded in the reality of battle.
“The Killing Sword” analyzes the role of force in countering violence and disorder, using examples and teaching how force must be applied in a judicious and precise fashion in order to be most effective; in “The Life-Giving Sword”, Munenori counsels looking for non-violent resolutions to conflict and being aware of the repercussions of one’s actions, especially on those who live upon and work the land – the fallout of war, which is to be avoided. It spends much time discussing ways in which good management and diplomacy can forestall even the possibility of conflict before things get that far. “No Sword” talks about tactical advantages which are provided by the landscape and the terrain – higher ground, effective cover and so on. It goes on to discuss the machinations of fate and the roles of the kami in battle, mentioning instances where so small a thing as a loose stone, or a burst of summer rain, can turn the tide of even the largest battle.

Fudochi Shimmyo Roku by Seppun Soho
“Records of the Wondrous Mind of Immovable Wisdom” is an epistolary work, a collection of letters by the Shintao master, Seppun Soho, to his student, Hantei Tajimako, complete with her responses. Deceptively simple, this style of presentation hides deep truths which continually challenge students of the Tao and its martial applications.
The text itself is comparatively short but its wisdom springs directly from the Tao of Shinsei. Specifically, it touches upon the “Heart Sutra”, which discusses the concept of “absolute emptiness”; the “Emerald Sutra”, which teaches that everything has no substance, or self; the “Hell Sutra” which talks of the belief of three kinds of existence, eight-sense consciousness and the different types of “no self”; and the “Indestructible Sutra” which speaks of the practices required to obtain enlightenment, specifically through samadhi (concentration) and prajna (insight).

Heiho Nukigaki Hippu no Sho Gunshi No Maki by Kaiu Jiroko
“You should build watch fires in front of your position, close all the gates and allow no-one to come or go without questioning, this is done to block the enemy’s shinobi.”
The Kaiu family of the Crab Clan are tacticians and engineers, instrumental in maintaining the Carpenter Wall and its defenses. This work is a collection of instructions posted by Kaiu Jiroko to her troops and collated by them for later publication. Of major interest is the fact that this book spends much time outlining methods whereby the ninjas (shinobi) of the enemy may be countered. The style of the work is blunt with occasionally awkward phrasing but, given its source, this is probably to be expected. Kaiu Jiroko disappeared during a raid into the Shadowlands and her final fate remains unknown.
“Concerning kagi and monogiki – guards posted to thwart the enemy’s shinobi are called kagi or monogiki, they are called this because kagu is to ‘feel’ or ‘smell’ the presence and chi of people, whilst monogiki is to listen to the sounds around. These people circulate around your position as a precaution against the enemy’s shinobi.”

Go Rin No Sho by Mirumoto Musashi
[NB: Some Referees may find that the inclusion of this book in the Library of Rokugan might be a little too self-referential. As well, some L5R fans might object to making the game analogue of Miyamoto Musashi a member of the Dragon Clan. In either case, if it threatens trouble to your campaign, it would be just as well to ignore it.]
Dragons have made a specialty of the niten school of swordplay, in which both the katana and the wakizashi are used in combat; however, the supreme exponent of the form was the Dragon samurai Mirumoto Musashi. Musashi excelled in this form of combat and progressed as far beyond its limitations as he could go, eventually using two katanas rather than the long and the short swords together. In his later years, Musashi became so adept that he even refused to use swords at all in combat, preferring bokken, bo-staffs, or even branches torn from trees, rather than actual weapons. Many of his foes saw this as dismissive of their capabilities and the source of great impoliteness; few of them lived to avenge the insult.
Musashi, like many of his Dragon peers, took to a solitary life pushing the boundaries of honour and obligation ("giri"), at times almost becoming ronin. He eventually removed to a hermitage in the northern mountains where – in between sporadic challenges from samurai seeking him out to test his mettle – he compiled a book laying out all that he had learned from his experiments with the sword.

The book is broken up into five sections and each section takes its name from one of the five elements of creation:
The Book of Earth contains much preparatory work about learning martial arts and developing the requisite skills; it discusses these processes metaphorically, likening them to the building of a house;
The Book of Water addresses Musashi’s personal style of niten ichi-ryu (“two heavens, one style”), outlining its principles and exercises (there is some textual confusion as to whether Musashi advocates the use of two katanas, or the use of the katana and the wakizashi simultaneously. An entry advocating the use of two katanas against many opponents implies that he doesn’t intend this form as a basic style, but as a variation addressing a particular circumstance. Some feel that the Book doesn’t exhort the student to use two swords at all, but rather to be able to use a sword in either hand with equal prowess);
The Book of Fire discusses the tempestuous distractions of battle and how to not lose focus while embroiled within it. Much time is spent focusing upon timing in combat;
The Book of Wind is based primarily upon a pun: the Rokugani character for ‘wind’ is identical to that of ‘style’ and so, this book discusses various other styles of combat prevalent throughout Rokugan, highlighting their weaknesses;
The Book of the Void concludes the work and brings it all together as a whole. Musashi talks about the correct attitude of the samurai and outlines his personal theories of consciousness, much of which is derived from the Tao of Shinsei.

Ninja History

A Rokugani Ninja Timeline:
Year 0 - Defeat of Fu Leng
Hantei I orders Bayushi to create an information network throughout Rokugan in order to best be able to respond to hidden information and treachery.
In the reign of Hantei II, the writings of Akodo Shonshi appear and make a huge impression on the bushi class. It teaches that war is the last resort of great powers and that anything else – negotiation, reconciliation, dialogue, infiltration and assassination – is preferable, and necessary, before this final extreme.
Circa. 300 – Crane War & the Yasuki Break
Hantei X orders Bayushi Hajioki to send all of his ninjas to Otosan Uchi to be judged by the Emerald Champion on charges of the use of black magic in their ranks. Only about one fifth of this force complies and they are secretly inducted as Imperial ninjas, under direct control of the Emerald Champion. The public is told that the ninjas were all boiled alive in oil.
In light of this purge, the Kaminari ninjas retire to the “Mountain of the Thunders” from which they get their name and tacitly defy the Bayushi to try and remove them. The Scorpions pretend that they aren’t even there.
In the Dragon lands, Togashi Kukai, an outcast ise zumi, begins teaching the fundamentals of Shingon Taoism from the security of a secret mountain retreat. The Fuma ninja clan quickly grows.
In Lion territory, the Seikitsu ninjas are formed, kusa ninjas who patrol the borders between Scorpion and Lion territories.
Unknown to the Lion leadership, the Inazuma ninjas, a secret ninja organisation formed from military trainers and tacticians, grow in their midst. Subtly shifting policy and affecting the outcomes of various military programs, they grow in power over time, eventually flouting Clan rule.
The Seikitsu ninja are secretly ordered to bring down the Inazuma ninja. In a mighty battle, they storm the Inazuma headquarters and wipe out the renegades. Shortly thereafter, the Seikitsu are ordered to disband and find places as ordinary ashigaru in the Lion ranks. The leader of the Seikitsu is given an hereditary imperial mandate to monitor the use of ninjas by the Great Clans, effectively a promotion to the rank of samurai.
The Fire Magic of the Inazuma ninjas moves south to the Yugure Yama with the Hattori family.
Circa. 500 – The Rise of Iuchiban
By the imperial decree of Hantei XXI, Akodo Jimomen’s play about the fate of Bayushi Aramoro is suppressed.
Circa. 650 – Iuchiban’s Return
The unruly Fuma ninja clan is ousted from the Great Wall of the North in a mighty battle, marked by treacherous infighting between various schisms of the prevailing Shingon belief. After a tense three weeks of skirmish fighting, the battle ends as the Fuma ninjas mysteriously vanish, along with their leader Fuma Kotaro…
Year 716 – Fall of Hiruma Castle & the Battle of the Cresting Wave
Despondent Hiruma scions finding retreat in the Yugure Yama, band together with the hidden Hattori family and form the Yugure ninja clan
Circa. 800 – Return of the Horse Clan
The Hiruma family begins distancing itself from the Yugure ninjas.
Rumours of the Fuma ninjas operating in the north start to circulate…
Yasuki Fujibayashi writes the Bansen Shukai. It is widely circulated through the Clan courts.
Circa. 1000 – The Present (Hantei XXXVIII).

Ninja societies in feudal Japan all have the same features in common: with the acceptance of Sun Tzu’s teachings on The Art of War imported from mainland China, the samurai classes saw the need for a unit of trained agents, able to infiltrate enemy castles unseen, assassinate specific targets within the walls and then exfiltrate without being noticed; however, their strict code of bushido informed them that such tasks were necessarily dishonourable and therefore impossible for them to perform. Thus, they engaged the assistance of people willing to undertake such duties.
The ninja families were a mercenary class, composed from all ranks of society and, at once, depended upon and highly mistrusted. The ninja had access to secrets and were apt to be loyal only to the most generously paying player. Knowing the slight regard in which they were held, the ninja built strongholds in remote mountain fastnesses and dwelt alone far away from the cultural centres. There they practiced their techniques, adopting philosophies and rituals designed as much to mislead and amaze onlookers, as to obtain their goals. The ninja became cloaked in mystery…
It is this notion of a multi-caste organization, withdrawn to mountainous regions and hiring themselves out to warring factions unable to bear the duties of spying and murder, which informs the following information. As an alternative to John Wick’s rather outlandish take on the Rokugani ninja, it works well alongside the L5R Clan structures and the histories presented in the rulebooks, as well as allowing for PCs to take a hand in a balanced ninja campaign.
The following is a brief examination of what ninjas were like in feudal Japan, what they might be like in a Rokugani campaign, and ends with an examination of five likely ninja clans at work in the Emerald Empire. Please note that, apart from dispensing with the notion of “Shadow” as discussed in that sourcebook and mentioned elsewhere in the L5R books, none of this material tries to bend or break any of the canon history as established in the basic rule set or the Clan books (that I know of) and is meant only as an alternative to John Wick’s fanciful notions.
Ninjas1 in the Emerald Empire
During the reign of Hantei II, there appeared the writings of a Lion Clan historian Akodo Shonshi. These writings were known as the Shonshi Nihongi2 and outlined concrete theories on the art of war, derived from observations made during the establishment of Rokugan. In this work, there were repeated injunctions regarding the necessity for forward knowledge of the enemy’s movements, strategies that threw the opposition into confusion, and calls for the swift elimination - by single, silent operatives - of key military leaders in the opponents’ ranks. All of this was regarded as against bushido and left purely as a philosophical exercise, never to be attempted.
By the time of Hantei IV, the theoretical nature of this work began to become a practical reality, as the Bayushi spy network began putting these ideas into practice. At this time, the spy network, which Hantei I had asked the first Bayushi daimyo to create, had moved beyond simply being an effective information-filtering organization, and new skills and areas of expertise outside the warrior codes were being mined and accepted. These infiltration and assassination experts became known as ‘ninja’ and, in time, it became a tacit understanding that no great general moved on any battlefield without their assistance.
Ninja groups were comprised of individuals from many levels in society, from the highborn to the untouchables. In certain areas, strong leaders and gifted individuals exercised an iron control over unruly bands, imposing systems of rigorous discipline designed to break down societal barriers between members. In some areas whole families took charge of the training enclaves and a kind of hereditary rule took over. But ninja, although considered necessary for the proper conduct of war, were never trusted by the Powers That Be: the ninja schools moved into inaccessible terrain - high mountainous regions, usually – and kept their distance from the rest of society.
Occasionally, there were purges against the ninjas, especially during times of peace: it has been said that the ninja actively foment discord throughout Rokugan to ensure that battles, and the winning of them, exist to keep the ninja clans in business - yet another reason why they are so generally mistrusted.
The larger and more established ninja clans run schools in which they teach their mysterious arts. These schools are called “ryu” and their secrets are jealously guarded. Over time treaties between ninja clans have meant that a cross-pollination has occurred and ryu of very similar natures have sprung up in widely-spaced regions of Rokugan: thus, there is a Kaminari Spider Magic School and also a Fuma Spider Magic offshoot; the Hattori Toad Magic ryu has its roots in the Kaminari Chi Magic School. As the oldest ninja clan in Rokugan, the Kaminari Schools are the most widely known in terms of their teachings.
The head of a ninja clan is called the “jonin” and their role is a difficult – although highly lucrative – one. The jonin often has a completely separate identity, in addition to his or her role as ninja master, not known to anyone else. This ensures that the secrets of the ninja clan are kept as securely as possible, and that all transactions with potential clients are completely deniable. Next in line from the jonin are the “chunin” who organise the rest of the clan members, perform recruitment and generally take on the administrative functions of the group. Finally there are the “genin”, the field agents who perform the mysterious raids of the ninjas. There is another sub-group as well, the “kunoichi” – these are specially-trained female assassins who receive full geisha training to enable them to get close enough to their targets to ensure their demise. Again, the Kaminari Ninja are the experts in this type of training.
There are other types of ninja specialist agents as well: the “kusa”, or “grass ninja”, are specially trained to take out the ninja employed by the opposition armies – effectively, ‘anti-ninja’ ninja. These are usually highly experienced genin, well versed in the techniques of their kind and able to spot - and more importantly, counteract - the signs of a ninja incursion. The “rappa” are small units of genin who specialise in whirlwind terror attacks, designed to cause confusion and to lower morale. They do this by imitating the opposition’s war cries and mon whilst attacking encampments under cover of darkness: they set fires and kidnap key figures in their opponent’s hierarchies, causing chaos before vanishing into the dark. The rappa are well versed in swordplay and are often associated with the Fuma forces3.
Most ninja are able to adopt a disguise in order to throw off pursuit; for many, this alter ego is more than a simple mask but rather is a well-defined personality, with roots in a local district. Ninja are trained to blend into communities, to pick up information and to broker deals and escapes – the ninja are experts in local knowledge, mainly since they are often local people!
Tied into this is the ninja practice of Shichi-Ho-Do, “The Seven Ways of Going”. These are disguises used by ninja whenever they travel great distances to perform missions. The “seven ways” are a set of quickly-assumed travel wardrobes which are designed to cause no comment if encountered by a traveller on his route. Some, like the “Ronin”, or the “Yamabushi”, have the advantage of being armed if weapons play is anticipated; others like the “Hokashi” or “Komuso” wield inoffensive-looking paraphernalia that may conceal contraband, weapons or equipment. The “seven ways” are:
Sarugaku (actor or entertainer)
Ronin (masterless samurai)
Shukke (Shintao priest)
Komuso (wandering priest)
Yamabushi (mountain warrior-monk)
Akindo (merchant)
Hokashi (musician)
Oftentimes, a ninja has a set of preferred “ways of going” that tie in directly with their alter-ego(s) and which make the transition from one disguise to another all the more easy.
As part of their mystique, various schools and clans of ninja adopt certain philosophies that lend an unusual or “magical” air to their operations. Located in mountains as they are, the clans have been influenced by wandering ascetics – the yamabushi – whose militant leanings and peculiar theological ideas have inclined them towards the ninja aesthetic. For their part, the ninja jonin embraced these fringe beliefs, seeing in them a way of heightening the mystique of their clans. In time, many of these belief systems have proven more effective than merely a ‘smoke-and-mirrors’ cover. These philosophies became mikkyo, the “secret knowledge” or “true word”, and they were jealously guarded.
An example of this sort of thing is the Shingon cult established in the Dragon lands by an outcast, Ise-zumi monk called Togashi Kukai4. In defiance of the all-embracing philosophies of Shinsei, Kukai taught a home-grown inversion of the belief that practiced secret initiations, incorporated many older local deities pushed out by Shintaoism and excluded all those individuals not brought into the fold by means of its elaborate rituals. This sectarian adherence has become a hallmark of the northern ninja clans. The perversion of the standard worship, it seems, appealed to the ninja mind set and led to the adoption of other bizarre belief systems.
An instance of this is kuji-kiri or “finger magic”, a system which has become a fundamental feature of Shingon worship. This was a series of meditation exercises during which the practitioners twisted their fingers into complex patterns, forming a mudra component to their mantra chanting, thus providing focus. In tandem with some odd and low-grade shugenja training, this philosophy has become the basis for the magical force of the Fuma ninja clan, giving rise to ghost stories about the might of the ninja “finger wizards”. During the rise of the Fuma ninja, with the adoption of little-known deities as patrons, strange magical practices and the barring of non-ninja worship at certain remote temples, there can be little wonder that the authorities chose to look unfavourably upon the ninja organisations and occasionally moved to purge their territories of them.
Even in matters martial, the ninja tend to overstep the bounds considered acceptable by other established practitioners: take for instance, unarmed combat. All samurai are trained in the art of jiujutsu as taught in ryu across the country and centuries of development have weeded out forms of the art considered ‘barbaric’ or ‘unrefined’. The ninja have rediscovered these forms and have breathed new life into them once more, to the incredulity of the mainstream. The koshijutsu or “muscle and organ tearing” techniques were thought long-abandoned until revived by the Kaminari ninja and the Hattori have developed and refined a new, “bone-breaking” style called koppojutsu, which early tracts written by the earliest jiujutsu masters hinted at but never openly discussed. In addition to a wide array of weaponry considered by samurai to be too dishonourable to even touch, these skills have placed the ninja permanently beyond the pale as far as the martial elements of Rokugan are concerned. In a society where the fear of being killed by a lowborn dishonourable ninja gives hardened samurai cold shivers, this is just the kind of edge that the ninja enjoy.
But dark and mysterious as the ninja are, they are often seen in heroic and uplifting roles by the general populace. Plays have been written about them – including the famously proscribed story by Akodo Jimomen, about Bayushi Aramoro – and they have found their way into folklore. A widely published handbook of ninja lore began circulating around the Courts, outlining common elements of ninja strategy useful in war: this was the Bansen Shukai, penned by Yasuki Fujibayashi5, a Yugure ninja, one of the generally more acceptable ninja societies from the Crab lands. It fully describes the siege-breaking tactic of kyojutsu ten-kan-ho6, a trick that certainly won’t be fooling too many Rokugani generals in the near future!

Ninja Texts
Along with the Bansen Shukai (which was discussed in a previous post), there are four main ninja texts that outline the skills and training of the ninja. They are as follows:
Shinobi Hiden (aka. “Ninpiden”) by Hattori Kuemon, and divers hands
This work was compiled by the head of the Yugure ninja clan shortly after it was formed in the mountains bordering the Shadowlands. It contains much concerning the Inazuma Fire School of magic and a lot of lore acquired from the Kaminari ninjas who sheltered the Hattori family after they fled from Lion country. Hattori Kuemon always treated the book as growing part of the ninja community and the text is filled with emendations and refinements; accordingly, the work continued to grow after his death, as later Yugure jonin added their own observations to its contents.
The material contained within is wide-ranging and diverse, including the scouting tactics of the Hiruma, a wide selection of poisons and much information concerning the Shadowlands and especially the Taint produced by that environment. It is rumoured that, within its pages, are several cures for the Shadowlands Taint, but, if this is indeed the case, the Yugure ninja keep their own counsel…
Gunpo Jiyoshu by Ikoma Katsuo
This is a fairly standard and lengthy overview of military tactics, organization, and equipment, what would be called an “Order of Battle” today. The remarkable thing about it is its breadth and the wealth of knowledge which it contains.
Ikoma Katsuo, an otherwise unremarkable bureaucrat within the Shogunate, made it his life’s work to record the military features of all the major and minor Clans, including their standing armies, their samurai banners and their shinobi. Much of the material concerning the latter was gathered from subjects undergoing torture.
Of major interest is the fact that three scrolls concerning ninja tactics and magic were included in the original manuscript, but went missing while the work was being printed after the author’s death. About twenty copies had been written out for the perusal of Lion leaders and these were the only complete copies extant after the book went to print. Many of these have been lost or destroyed so the final number is now a mystery. Rumours surface now and again that the missing three scrolls have been printed elsewhere by interested parties, but no solid proof has been found.
Shoninki by Natori Masatako
This work is a large catalogue of equipment and tactics compiled by an unknown practitioner of the shinobi arts. Everything from the Shichi-Ho-Do to various standard collections of rokkai equipment is listed within, with careful notes outlining the differences from ninja clan to ninja clan. Of particular interest is the fact that the author eschews all discussion of clan mysticism and spirituality and is adamant that all “ninja magic” is the product of illusion, theatrics and misdirection.

The greatest mystery concerning this work is that it was discovered inside a private bedchamber within the Imperial Palace in Otosan Uchi. It would be delicious to assume that it was the Emperor’s rooms wherein it was found but no further information has been allowed to leak. Regardless, the author has never been found, the book’s means of delivery into the Palace has never been determined, and the exact contents have never been widely disseminated. That being said, the book itself is considered to be an aspect of rokkai equipage and having it in one’s possession carries the death penalty…


The Kaminari Ninja

Hantei I turned to his brother Bayushi to organize Rokugan’s first cadre of spies. This network flourished and had tendrils encroaching into every part of the Empire. In terms of structure the network was very loose and there were no formal training centres or philosophies: as time progressed, talented conscripts came to be noticed by the leaders within the Scorpion Clan and they were promoted and allowed to pass on the skills that had made them successful.
Even then, the network was not a concrete organization, but rather a means of disseminating information, loosely controlled by the Bayushi lords. It recruited indiscriminately, individuals from all stations in life – bushi, heimin and hinin – usually with no greater incentive than a handful of koku. Outlaws and bandits were drawn to the security that high connections in the Clan could provide and the whole structure took on a darkly sinister tone.
Then, worrying about the extent of this ‘network of whisperers’, Hantei X ordered Bayushi Hajioki to hand over his spies to the Emerald Champion, to answer charges of the use of black magic in their ranks. The daimyo reluctantly gave an order to comply and roughly one-fifth of his spy network, along with his own brother Bayushi Aramoro, duly showed up at the Capitol: they were all boiled alive in oil. As for the remainder of the spies in Hajioki’s service, they went underground, abandoning their connections with the Scorpions or disappearing into mountain fastnesses were the law would be hard-pressed to extract them. The largest and most well-organised of these groups settled in fortresses atop mountains near Yama Kaminari – “The Mountain of Thunders” – and became known as the Kaminari (“Thunder”) Ninja, selling their services as required, and armed with enough secrets to ensure that the Scorpions have never tried to have them removed…
The Fuma Ninja

The Fuma Clan of ninjas is a blending of the shugenja lore of the Agasha and Isawa magic schools and the martial and spiritual discipline of yamabushi wanderers in the “Great Wall of the North”. Their philosophy is based upon the principles of Wind, Water and Fire and is tied to the worship of Marishiten, a lesser Fortune who presides over martial excellence and who has the useful ability to confer invisibility upon her devotees. Their skills and tactics favour confusion, apparent random behaviour and massed attack – hallmarks of the ninja rappa organisations - obviously to counteract the potentially greater weapons skills of samurai and other branches of ninja lore. Originally a loose conglomerate of warring mercenary monks hiding in the mountains, the Fuma were brought together and organized by a great leader, Fuma Kotaro, and the Fuma became a definite threat to the northern Clans.
With the usual tendency of ninjas to borrow from everything and mix it all up, the Fuma sent disciples to the main Kaminari schools of ninjutsu to bring those elements into their fold and to give them a distinctive “Fuma twist”. Thus, there are Fuma Spider ninjas and manipulators of chi. Their strongest source of inspiration however is their devotion to the Shingon heresy and their application of “finger magic”. As with Dragon shugenja, the theory behind kuji-kiri is not well understood, but it has frightening results when used properly.
The Fuma devotion to Marishiten is a clear indication of Shingon heresy and of the ninjas twisting information to their own needs. The goddess’ folk function is to confer prosperity on those who seek her favour; samurai, however, occasionally invoke her name at sunrise to gain victory or other useful skills on the battlefield. In the exoteric tradition, sometimes monks might call upon Marishiten's ability to “become invisible” but what they are referring to is a sense of ‘spiritual invisibility’. Such invisibility allows them to confront the hungry ghosts that prey on the faithful without harm to themselves, to spiritually feed them and preach lessons of Shintaoist compassion in order to turn them from their evil ways. This “invisibility”, in the hands of the less than insightful and willfully misleading, has become a gift of literal invisibility.
Under the leadership of Fuma Kotaro, the mountain shrines and temples to Marishiten became staging points for the Fuma Clan. Attracting devotees with their promise of invisibility against their enemies and the mikkyo of the ninja, the Fuma grew in numbers and began to inflict their terrifying rappa attacks upon those who opposed them. Added to this the strange magicks of the Dragon and the shugenja lore of the Phoenix, the Fuma are a deadly branch of ninjutsu
…Or they would be if they still existed. After the final imprisonment of Iuchiban in 650, the Rokugani leaders enacted purges against many esoteric movements that were considered heretical and possibly sympathetic to the maho tsukai. A great battle was launched by the Shogun against the Fuma enclaves which staunchly withstood the sieges until, three weeks later, the strongholds fell and the assailants entered to find no trace of the Fuma ninjas at all: the Fuma had vanished like the wind. Only now, at the end of the first millennium of Rokugani history, are vague reports of Fuma ninja sightings being heard again…
The Yugure Ninja

After the fall of Hiruma Castle, many of that family’s bushi re-located: most went into the folds of the Kaiu or Hida families, while others went north, eventually to live among the families of the Horse Clan. Others divested themselves of martial pursuits, seeing themselves as “honourless” and sought insight in the contemplative life of the yamabushi in the Yugure Yama (“Twilight Mountains”) of the Crab territories. Merging there with itinerant bands of lurking outlaws, the Hiruma monks began to consolidate their holdings high atop the mountain peaks.
As the writings of Shonshi spread throughout Rokugan, the Kaiu family saw in these restless ascetics an opportunity to strengthen the might of the Crab armies and to win back the lost Hiruma honour. Sending emissaries deep into the mountains, they convinced the Hiruma monks to lend their cunning and their scouting abilities to the siege-breaking might of the Kaiu. Able to perform acts and missions that, while tacitly approved of by the Shonshi Nihongi, were not allowable under the code of bushido, the Yugure monks would become excellent spies for the Crab armies. Soon the monks received a tribute from the Hida family and were allowed access to the Kaiu schools; the mountaintop fortresses became stronger and now incorporated many ryu, teaching the arcane lore of the Yugure ninjas, including an infamous koppojutsu school.
The Hattori Family
The Hattori family was once a powerful presence in Lion territory. They became part of the Inazuma ninja revolt and were instrumental in conveying information between the secret members of that society. As the revolt grew in power and focus, the Hattori became more and more instrumental to its progress and impact. If the Hattori had had any say in the matter, the Inazuma faction would have remained underground; however, once the presence of the society was revealed, its end became only a matter of time.
The Hattori had a back-up plan: reading the writing on the wall, they slowly began withdrawing from the Lion territories and relocated to the southern part of Rokugan. Moving through the Kaminari training ryu and taking the Inazuma secrets with them, they worked their way to the Shinomen Forest and from there into the Yugure Mountains. Once inside the Crab lands, they stored away their hidden knowledge, became a respectable heimin family and awaited a time when their services would be useful once more. Now that time has come…
The Imperial Ninja

According to the official histories, Hantei X commanded the Scorpion Clan daimyo, Bayushi Hajioki, to turn over all ninja in his command to the Emerald Champion to answer charges of the use of black magic in their ranks. Only about one-fifth of the total number of Bayushi ninja heeded this directive, including the daimyo’s brother Bayushi Aramoro. The official histories all report the fates of these servants: they were all put to death in the traditional manner of thieves and spies - boiled alive in oil. Decades later, a popular play based on this incident written by Akodo Jimomen, raised so much popular sympathy among the lower orders that it was officially banned by Imperial decree.
But there is a discrepancy between official history and the Truth. In actual fact, the ninja who reported to the Capitol were imprisoned alongside a similar number of pirates, bandits and corrupt officials and the two groups were swapped at the last minute. The bewildered ninja were then given a choice: abandon your connections with the Scorpions and their ninja network, become servants of the Emerald Champion, sworn to protect the Emperor – or die in the oil vats. For the most part, these operatives chose to follow a new master and they became the silent guard, keeping deadly watch on the surrounds of Otosan Uchi. Later on, Jimomen’s play became suppressed, not because it betrayed a slight against the Scorpion Clan by the Imperial household, but because it might have provoked some interested parties to look too closely at the fate of Aramoro’s ninja.
As far as ninja collectives go, the Imperial Ninja are more prosaic than other ninja clans in Rokugan. A serious amount of effort goes into keeping the fact that this organisation exists secret and has resulted in these ninja rarely if ever leaving the capital, Otosan Uchi: within the walls of the city they are extremely effective, having designed some of the defenses and established patrols that have stymied more than one attempt on the ruler’s life. An organised series of garrisons called “ninja walls” surrounds the Imperial Presence: effectively a series of invisible barriers.
The Imperial Ninjas have no organised mystical philosophy and maintain themselves in much the same fashion as a modern day elite special force. They are considered a part of the Imperial Army under the control of the Emerald Champion: while they may generate some mystique from the skills and equipment which they display, they do not openly capitalise on this, or seek to increase it with any esoteric mumbo-jumbo. This being said, they definitely have their own schools and specialised training regimens, chief among these the Imperial Sun Magic School. Given their origin and history, anything other than a strict adherence to orthodox Shintaoist teachings would meet with a harsh rebuke!
Wolf Ninja

There have been regular purges of ninja strongholds all throughout Rokugan’s history. Whenever these have occurred, fleeing ninja have been forced to relocate and find new areas in which to work. Since it takes time to “sink in” to a new locale, to learn its people and traditions, many ninja prefer to wait and watch on the outskirts, looking for opportunities to move into new communities. These rootless individuals tend to gravitate together as they wander, finding strength in numbers and keeping their skills and teachings alive. Effectively, they become the ninja equivalent of ronin, masterless ninja, roaming the country and selling their services as they go.
In other scenarios, especially in the northern ninja territories, a schism in the prevailing philosophy of a ninja clan may see some of its members split off and disassociate themselves from their parent organisation. In the Great Wall of the North these wandering bands learn quickly to find bases and consolidate power, or fall prey to the established sects, who do not tolerate for long any defiance of their chosen faith.
For the wolves, there is safety in numbers and often wolf ninja packs end up joining bandit groups to hide from potential pursuit by ninja genin intent on keeping their clan’s secrets intact. Some cunning wolves sell their services as kusa ninja, and derive great satisfaction in ruining the strategies of their former associates. Whatever their situation, the wolves live a desperate life, ostracized from normal society by virtue of being a ninja, and cast out of the outcast life of their fellow ninja as well!
However, ninja miscegenation being what it is, some of these masterless offshoots may in turn become their own societies with their own beliefs and mikkyo lore. For most ninja wolves, time, if they manage to find it, is their greatest asset.
Lost Ninja Clans: the Seikitsu and the Inazuma

With the rise of Bayushi’s ninja and the spread of Shonshi’s teachings, the Lion Clan created their own ninja society: they were the Seikitsu ninja and they patrolled the borders of Scorpion country keeping watch on the Lion’s enemies. While useful in war, these loyal Lion warriors were technically a clan of kusa ninja, intent on repelling the attacks of enemy ninja forces. They settled in the mountains and honed their skills.

However, while the Seikitsu prospered and found their way as a new ninja clan, a strange development took place in the Lion’s samurai ranks. A school of heralds and combat marshals, keen to not let the mistakes of history be repeated, began looking at Shonshi’s writings and putting them into practice. They formed a secret society right within the Lion’s courts and castles – the Inazuma society of ninja. While bushi, these practitioners were usually occupied as sensei in training ryu, or court historians and tacticians: they were privy to information that told them how the Lion planned to attack and where, and they took it upon themselves to ensure that the Lions were victorious at all costs. Initially, their roles were confined to engineering the “accidental” interception of relayed intelligence and sotto voce suggestions at strategy meetings. Eventually though, their activities became more overt and, much to the surprise of the Lion leaders, the new society announced itself as the hidden military might behind Lion victories.
The Inazuma society traditionally used the bo-staff, or combination staff and chain weapons, or the shakujo: a hangover from the days of marshalling combat in training arenas. As well, taking advantage of the Lion’s experimentation with gunpowder, they initiated a new Magic school – the Fire Magic ryu – and all kinds of pyrotechnics became part of their arsenal. They maintained their links with the Lion high command by assuming secret identities when performing as ninja and rarely went by their real names: perversely, they began to wear the outrageous masks of the Bayushi themselves to do their secret raiding.
Eventually, the Lion daimyo and his advisers ordered that the Inazuma ninja be destroyed – the clan could not be run by two different masters. The Inazuma took umbrage and began open warfare with their own clan against which the Seikitsu ninja were arrayed. A terrible, secret battle took place, in the darkness and peppered with many assassinations: there was talk of a master weapon of the Inazuma clan that was destroyed by the Seikitsu and then the Inazuma were gone, destroyed by the Seikitsu ninjas. Shortly thereafter, the Seikitsu were ordered to disband and the Lion have been without homegrown ninja assistance ever since.

However the Fuma ninja also disappeared and returned many years later, so who is to say that the teachings of these ninja societies have not somehow lived on? Coincidentally, the Hattori Fire Magic School only came into existence after the defeat of the Inazuma society of ninja
1: The word “ninja” is a default, consensus term used to describe a Japanese military spy, infiltrator, scout and assassin; however, the term was not contemporary and is not used exclusively even to this day. Some prefer the term shinobi, or shinobi no mono, but the following are also alternatives and synonyms: kanja, suppa, rappa, kamari, onmitsu, oniwaban, monogiki, kagi, yutei and yushi – and this list is by no means exhaustive. Different textual sources usually have a preferred term without necessarily explaining the reasoning behind the choice.
2: “Shonshi” is the Japanese transliteration of the Chinese Sun Tzu; it’s close enough to Shinsei, I feel, to make him the flipside of Wick’s peaceful neo-Buddhist. It also makes sense to me that he be a Lion Clan theorist. The Shonshi Nihongi was the first Japanese book to espouse Sun Tzu’s philosophies – there was never a contemporary translation of The Art of War, but many Japanese books made reference to the original.
3: In fact, the most famous real-world rappa brigades were led by the fearsome Fuma Kotaro, a legendary ninja leader working for daimyo Hojo Ujinao against the forces of his rival, Takeda Katsuyori, in 1580.
4: “Shingon Buddhism” was introduced into Japan by a monk called Kukai in AD 806. It taught a secret mikkyo lore, practised kuji-kiri (for which there were manuals outlining over 300 different finger positions) and retreated, in the face of orthodox Buddhism, to yamabushi and ninja enclaves in the Iga province to avoid persecution. Shingon Buddhism teaches that enlightenment is attainable in the course of one’s lifetime and that the theology of Buddhism is an explicit guide to Nirvana. In this sense it is an “exoteric” school of thought, rather than orthodox Buddhism, which reveals the nature of reality to the supplicant without, in a sense, handing over the instruction manual along with it.
5: Fujibayashi Yasutake’s Bansen Shukai is a real-world ninja tract, one of only very few ever written. Rather than make up a new name for him, I dropped a few letters from his real-world name to make him a Rokugani Crab.
6: Kyojutsu ten-kan-ho. Essentially this plan involves dressing up your ninja in your enemy’s colours, firing upon a guarded section of wall at night during rain or fog and waiting for the dismayed defenders to extinguish their lights. In the resulting dark, ninja scale the walls despatching the defenders while siege engines move in, uncontested, to occupy positions for attack.