Tuesday, November 1, 2011

REVIEW: Shogun & Daimyo

Shogun & Daimyo is the second volume of Tadashi Ehara's Gamers Guide to Feudal Japan and the companion to his earlier Daimyo of 1867, with which it shares several qualities. For one, it's large (nearly 350 pages in length) and expensive ($59.95 in print form and $29.95 for the PDF). For another, it's exhaustive in its discussion of "the military dictators of samurai Japan," from the 12th to the 19th centuries. I'm not kidding when I say "exhaustive," since this book details 170 daimyo clans and provides biographies of their most famous members, along with descriptions of their holdings and sometimes even a family tree. Also like Daimyo of 1867, it can be a little off-putting at times. There is so much information packed into the pages of Shogun & Daimyo that it's easy to lose the forest for the trees, so to speak, and have no idea what to do with it.

Fortunately, this is a reference work. It's not intended to be read cover to cover in a single sitting, though, if you're an aficionado of feudal Japan it might be hard not to do so. The book begins with a brief overview of its material, along with guides to pronunciation and the romanization of Japanese characters. There's also a history of feudalism in Japan, from 711 B.C. to 1869. The structure of imperial and military governance is also treated, with attention given to how both changed over the centuries. It's little details like this that make Shogun & Daimyo so interesting, because the past, like the present, wasn't static. Seeing the ways that samurai Japan evolved not only helps to differentiate the various eras of its history but also provides excellent fodder for adventures and even whole campaigns. In the same way, the biographies of all the men who held the title of shogun also hits home the diversity to be found just within Japanese history, something easily overlooked by Westerners whose primary knowledge of the country comes from the cinema.

The bulk of the book, though, is given over to descriptions of 170 daimyo clans not included in Daimyo of 1867. The reason these clans were not included in that volume is that these are
the warlords that were defeated, dispossessed, or otherwise discontinued from the annals of history prior to the end of the samurai era.
Of course, many of these clans are also some of the most famous ones in Japanese history and well-known even in the West -- Ashikaga, Fujiwara, Taira, Takeda -- which ensures that their descriptions are usually very interesting. Each clan write-up includes its mon (family crest), territories, castles, revenue, and notable ancestors. In many cases, there are family trees and historical pieces of art depicting important members of the clan. I did say the book was exhaustive! Fortunately, the book also contains a very useful collection of indexes, both of clans and of individuals, and they cover both volumes of the Gamers Guide to Feudal Japan.

The book concludes with several shorter sections. The first of these discusses chanbara movies, which are historical films that focus a great deal on sword-fighting (which is what the word literally means). Chanbara films make good models for RPG campaigns set in feudal Japan, since they're filled not only with samurai but also with ninja, yakuza, and oppressed peasants in need of heroes to defend them. Ehara divides up his overview of these films by period, suggesting the ones he believes most inspirational for roleplaying purposes, in addition to giving details and a brief summary of each one. It's a very handy primer for anyone unfamiliar with this extensive genre of Japanese film making. Other sections provide ideas for campaigns, gazetteers of several areas, and a system for randomly generating mon for a PC's clan, along with illustrations of 100 of them.

Taken together, Shogun & Daimyo, like its predecessor, is a very impressive volume, all the more so because it's eminently accessible even to readers such as myself who have little real knowledge of Japanese history or culture. Ehara is quick to note in his introduction that this is not a scholarly work and perhaps that is so, but both the breadth and depth of the book left me impressed. Make no mistake, though: while readily accessible to individuals without much prior knowledge of feudal Japan, one must still be very interested in the subject matter to make one's way through its pages. Though clearly written and illuminating at times, it can still rough going, reading somewhat like a textbook, albeit an often engagingly written one. Buy it only if you are either very interested in the subject matter or plan to use it in a RPG campaign, preferably both.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're playing a RPG set in historical or semi-historical Japan (or are just interested in Japanese history)
Don't Buy This If: You're not especially interested in historical Japan or don't play RPGs based on it.


  1. Thanks for the heads up about it's existence.

    I was going to wait for the PDF but the international shipping and handling on the combined set (get the second at half price effectively) is actually quite cheap...

  2. Wow, only one comment? This book looks like a fantastic resource for all sorts of things and I thank you for bringing it to my attention, James.