Wednesday, November 9, 2022

Retrospective: Swords of the Daimyo

Japanophilia was a significant pop cultural force in North America and Europe during the 1980s. This manifested not simply in the enjoyment of anime featuring giant robots but also in an increased interest in the history and legends of feudal Japan, an interest that no doubt built upon the already existing 1970s obsession with Asian martial arts. That Dungeons & Dragons would eventually embrace these interests would have surprised no one who had been paying attention to the matter. The first treatment of samurai in D&D appeared in issue #3 of Dragon (October 1976), for example, while ninja appeared in issue #16 (July 1978) – and both of these postdated the monk class from Blackmoor (1975). There was thus never any doubt that TSR would eventually publish a book like Oriental Adventures. The only question was why it had taken the company so long to do so. 

Of course, releasing a rulebook devoted to adding classes, spells, magic items, and monsters inspired by Japanese legendry (and, to a much lesser extent, those of other Asian cultures) is one thing. Illustrating how to make good use of them in the context of D&D is another. Oriental Adventures devotes a mere six pages to sketching a fantasy setting – Kara-Tur – inhabited by the bakemono, hengeyokai, shukenja, and other Eastern additions offered by the rules. Despite its title, there are no sample adventures presented in OA, leaving referees and players alike to their own devices to figure out what to do with all the new material it provides.

That's where Swords of the Daimyo comes in. Written by David Cook, author of Oriental Adventures, and published in 1986, it consists of two 32-page booklets intended to provide referees with everything they need to kick off a campaign set in Kara-Tur – or, more specifically, a small portion of it called Kozakura. The island of Kozakura is a clear analog to medieval Japan's Warring States period, when rival warlords openly vied with one another for control of the empire. This makes it a good fit for the default assumptions of D&D, with adventurers wandering about freely. Indeed, I'd go so far as to say that this sort of situation makes even more sense than many D&D settings, where the social order is still largely intact. 

The first of the two integral booklets details three adventures set in Kozakura. The first of these, "Over the Waves We Will Go," is optional and intended only for referees who wish to transport characters from an existing Western-style campaign into the world of Oriental Adventures. As its title suggests, the scenario focuses on a seagoing journey to the lands of Kara-Tur. As adventures go, it's quite unusual, in that it focuses primarily on the ins and outs of a long voyage across the ocean. There's a large – and somewhat impressionistic – map divided into encounter areas the characters must navigate. The referee then uses their position to determine not only how long it takes them to cross the distance to Kozakura, but also what set or random encounters they may have. Equally important is the "mutiny rating" of the crew, a value that goes up or down based on how well the characters do along the way. 

The other two scenarios can be played by either non-native or Kozakuran characters, with the module providing eight sample PCs generated using the Oriental Adventures rules. These characters are surprisingly useful, even if you're not using them directly in play, since they provide little details about both the setting and what "typical" OA characters might be like, especially when compared to those of standard AD&D. Of most immediate interest is that several of them come from families or clans that are immersed in the Kozakuran setting. They're not rootless wanderers without any social ties and that, I think, is key to understanding how an OA campaign might differ from many, if not most, Western campaigns.

The second booklet provides lots of information on the Miyama province of Kozakura, the location of the adventures presented in the first book. The information includes many of the usual things, like history, geography, and politics. Much more interesting – and useful – is a hex-by-hex gazetteer that includes lots of little adventure seeds for the referee to develop as needed. Coupled with the large number of maps, both large and small scale, it's an excellent primer for a neophyte referee looking to get a better sense of just Kozakura is like and the kinds of scenarios that might take place on the island. In many ways, it's the more useful of the two booklets, since it provides the referee with the tools he'll need to keep his campaign going.

When it was released, I was very happy to have a copy of Swords of the Daimyo, since it offered a solid collection of ideas and aids for use with Oriental Adventures. I'd already had some experience with Bushido by this point, but it was good to have access to the additional resources this module provided. Moreoever, Oriental Adventures assumes a more strongly fantastical world than does Bushido, so the guidance Swords of the Daimyo provided in this regard was quite helpful. I made good use of it when I was in college and ran a short-lived but memorable OA campaign with my friends. Looking back on it now, I recognize that, even at this late a date, TSR was still producing some solid material that hadn't wholly bought into the principles of the Hickman Revolution. Whatever its shortcomings, Swords of the Daimyo feels like a throwback to the Golden Age of D&D rather than a product of the mid-Silver Age and that's more than good enough in my book.


  1. I have had both this book and Oriental Adventures since they first came out, and it is only now that I am finally running an OA campaign. I think that is was just too different for my young brain to wrap itself around to run back then. But I'm having a blast with it now!

  2. While I never owned or read this product, I did have OA and was aware of its existence. Oddly enough, the name crossed my mind last night as I was watching an old Zatoichi film. I really like how the Yakuza are handled in those films, and I think they could serve as a great blueprint for how a Thieves Guild could operate in a campaign.

  3. Solid source material. I remember thinking that at the time, it was a shame they couldn't do this level of research for other cultures of the world during a roughly 1400-1600 period, at least not until the historic books came out like Mighty Fortress, and by then, the 'bronze age' of dnd was well and done.

  4. and Al-Qadim and Maztica came out around the same time as the Historical Reference books, several years after the great Oriental Adventures hardcover

  5. While I coveted OA back when it came out, I never made the purchase as my friends and me were too much into MERP at the time.

    I bought it and the first three adventures in pdf on DTRPG. On OA1 my views are much like your own, the adventures booklet is less useful than the gazetteer which is very well done and full of wee hooks if the PC undertake a hex crawl.

    The thing that really occurs to me is that OA and OA1 is that the style of adventure and campaign are quite different. They are much more human-centred, generally require patronage, folksy and scaled to a small party.

    There's also a large learning curve for the setting to get over, and this suggests to me that lots of small localised adventures are required until everyone DM and PC are comfortable with the setting.

  6. As a 70s kid and an 80s teen, I was entranced by samurai/martial arts/kaiju movies as well as the few, but high-quality anime shows and movies available in the US at the time (hard to believe there was a time when those things were really, really hard to find). A local DM ran a legendary and still-enduring Bushido campaign that was great fun, and I have yet to play in a system that had so much of the setting's cultural details baked into the ruleset. An amazing game.

    When OA came out, however, I struggled to integrate it into my regular D&D world. I loved the book, but had been spoiled by Bushido's Japan-specific rules. Just as D&D was a mish-mash of European and Scandinavian cultures and eras, OA was an anachronistic melding of China, Japan, and SE Asia. I found myself wanting to strip out the non-Japanese parts and just recreate Bushido for D&D (but why bother when I could just play Bushido?) Even though I never used it at the table, it was a fun book that really tried to innovate with new systems after Unearthed Arcana began building the bridge between 1e and 2e.

    A few years ago, I sang OA's praises on the reddit 5e forum, after which I was confronted by a loud mob of people calling the book (and me) a racist for encouraging "Orientalism." The outrage only intensified when I tried to explain that Orientalism was discredited in the 70s; that the word "Oriental" simply meant "eastern" (and that D&D could have just as easily been called "Occidental Adventures"); and that David Cook clearly loved the material and wasn't trying to be disrespectful (and included Asian playtesters during the editing process). I was even informed that words like "exotic" and "mystical" are dogwhistles. *sigh*

    I'm both sad and frustrated that this great gaming book gets overshadowed today by false claims (and now trigger warnings in the official WotC pdf of the book), especially since modern D&D is so heavily influenced by anime and an appreciation of Asian media is so widely held, especially among younger people. Hopefully someday, it will get the respect it's due and a new generation of gamers can rediscover its rightful place in AD&D's history.

  7. Loved this book and all the OA products. Along with James Clavell & Eric Van Lustbader novels & Kung-fu films, they led me into Asian studies. I'm currently a professor of Asian history. Hope Gavin Norman eventually does an OSE version of this.