Jul 112011


Yeah, that’s right. We’re talking about ninja today. What’s that you say? Why not ninjas? Well, because much like deer, the plural of ninja is ninja (in all seriousness, Japanese generally doesn’t concern itself with singular/plural). Now, anyone who is into the hobby, enjoys anime, or just likes watching action movies is going to run into ninjas at some point or another. The only problem with this is, depending on your source, there are dozens of kinds of ninja. So, let’s take a look to see which ninja will fit the kind of game you want to run.

Ninja in Real Life

Before we look at the fantasy ninja, let’s take a look at the real ones. Now, there isn’t much to go on here – at least not in the time we have – so we’ll take a shortcut here and just go to the dictionary definition. If you want more information, you can always hit up Wikipedia on your own and do some reading there.

That said, dictionary.com defines ninja as such: a member of a feudal Japanese society of mercenary agents, highly trained in martial arts and stealth (ninjutsu), who were hired for covert purposes ranging from espionage to sabotage and assassination.

There is a lot of crossover with shinobi, and most places use the terms interchangeably. Others, however, make distinctions. One of the more common I’ve seen is sort of like the equivalent between a soldier that works for a Private Military Corporation and one that works for a country. As I said though, such distinctions are varied and really depend on where you look.

The Deadly Shadow

Let’s get into the types of ninja. The first and most common type is that of the deadly shadow. This is, essentially, the type of ninja that has a supernatural ability when it comes to stealth. Now, when I say supernatural, I mean super. Batman couldn’t pull off some of the stuff that these types of ninja do. This type plays into the spies and assassins story that follows the ninja term around.

These make great additions to campaigns for taking out big NPCs, and to give PCs a reason to watch their six. The method of operation is simple here. If there is a shadow, it could be hiding a ninja. Then, when the time is right, the ninja pops out and murders the heck out of the target. Sometimes they even do multiple targets. For those playing the D20 games, think a lot of levels of rogue for what you’re doing here.

The Mystical Warrior

The word “ninja” in kanji script

You know what comes in handy when your stealth mission gets botched? The ability to throw fireballs, that’s what. This type of ninja has you covered on that. Not only are they a bad ass fighter or stealth monkey, but they can also call upon ancient shadow, arcane, or ninja magic when things get out of hand. The non-magical abilities are usually more mundane here – aside from, of course, when they are augmented by the magical spells that they sling around.

This type of ninja makes for a good villain or other prominent NPC. Generally, the combination of fighting and magical abilities is hard to stat out, but can work out well enough in a big bad boss where people are expecting the rules to be a bit bent. If you’re trying to make one as a PC, be prepared for a hard haul. After all, you need fighter, rogue, and mage abilities all wrapped into one. You can drop mage if you’re willing – and able – to acquire a whole ton of scrolls, and your GM allows “use magic item” to work for them.

The Super Soldier

The third of the key types of ninja is one of the favorites to use when the ninja is the protagonist. After all, it isn’t always that much fun to have your hero skulk around in the shadows and take everyone out without them even having a chance. However, having them brazingly walk into a room full of goons and taking them all down? That’s bad ass. That is also just what this type of ninja is. When stealth fails (and they are still usually somewhat stealthy), these ninja open up a can of whoop-ass the size of Texas and go at it.

Unsurprisingly, this is also one of the best type of ninja to have as a PC. You’re still multi-classing in D&D type games for fighter abilities and rogue abilities. These also make wonderful enforcers for villains – think Storm Shadow in the early G.I. Joe years – and someone who can be a scary recurring character that shows up to give the PCs a good fight every few plot arcs.

Wonderful Combinations

Most more recent depictions of ninja use a combination of sorts. The movie “Ninja Warrior” seemed to like the “Deadly Shadow” and the “Super Soldier” combination. Meanwhile, the Ninja Gaiden and Shinobi game series seem to go the “Super Soldier” and “Mystical Warrior” paths. I’ve seen a few “Mystical Warrior” and “Deadly Shadow” combos, but at the moment I can’t think of where. Still, don’t be afraid to combo up for a more bad-ass or unique ninja.

Modern Technology

Some places will tell you that a true ninja – and thus, a protagonist ninja – does not rely upon things like modern technology and guns, because all they need is their ninja training and the traditional weapons of the ninja. Others, show a more pragmatic ninja that is perfectly capable with sword and bow, but also not afraid to use guns. In at least one case, this is actually one of the things that makes the character a huge fan favorite (yes, I’m talking about Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe). So, really, don’t be afraid to go either way with your ninja.

So, I guess the only question here is, what kind of ninja are you going to put into your game?

Anthony Laffan

Anthony got pulled inside the interwebs in 1998 with, of all things, a first person shooter called Starsiege Tribes. Since then, he trolled around the net claiming to be Delirium incarnate until a wicked fairy bashed him across the back of the head and showed him the wonders of game design and sociology. Now, despite the pleas for mercy from those nearest him, he continues to try to apply both (game design and sociology) to the world and games around him in the vain hopes of understanding something. Do not confront this man, he is very likely dangerous and will talk your ear off at the slightest hint of interest in anything he likes. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  4 Responses to “Putting Different Ninja into your Role-Playing Game”

  1. I typically don’t use Ninja in RPG games, even in the oriental adventures game. There is in fact only one time I used ‘ninja’.. and really, all they were were a gang of bandits that were planning a revolt against the daimyo.

    In fact, for the most part, Ninja just don’t really exist. Whenever a Ninja appears, it’s usually not a trained assassin, but someone who doesn’t want their identity known, and the traditional black outfit just happens to help them hide at night. If I ever really do use a ninja, the one thing that is for sure is that they won’t look like a ninja until it is too late to do anything about it.

  2. Which is also a perfectly valid way to use the ninja, Kensan. Honestly, there are tons of variants, all of which are spurred on either by folk lore exaggerations, hollywood, writers, RPG fans, or some combination of all of the above.

    Also, fun point. I make a point of showing that the plural of ninja is ninja, then use ninjas on several occasions. Oy!

  3. Remember, for every ninja you don’t see, there’s ten more ninja that you don’t see.

    No reference to the Law of Inverse Ninja?

    Personally, I always like to focus on the Deadly Shadow type, with maybe a side of Mystic Warrior. There are already a thousand ways to do the Super Soldier, so you don’t need to call it a ninja. But, to express someone who gets in and out without leaving a trace, generally through crazy acrobatics or super-intense training, there aren’t a lot of words that do it better than the big N.

  4. Y’know, I knew the post was missing something, Lugh. The Inverse Law of Ninja is exactly that.

    For those that don’t know: the skill level/threat level of any ninja is inversely proportional to how many ninja there are in the scene.

    For example, if your GM puts you against 300 ninja, you will murder a dozen ninja a turn. If your GM puts you up against a single ninja, (or when you get down to that very last ninja in some cases), he will not only murder the entire group, but likely your family through several past and future generations as well.

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