Ninjas are awesome disguised individuals who kind of seem like the anti-samurai, though contrary to popular belief, many ninja were in fact samurai (remember, samurai were not just a type of a warrior, they were a social class). Like rogues, but with more style. Worth noting though that the term was never used historically, the historical term is shinobi-no-mono, roughly translating as "the one who hides".
During Sengoku Jidai, Japans age of warring states, they served as spies, saboteurs and guerrillas. Some worked for particular noble families, such as the Fuma, who served the Hōjō Clan as guerrilla warfare specialists (though they were known as rappa, battle-disrupters, with the term ninja being applied to them somewhat after the fact) while others were basically covert-organizations-for-hire, like the Iga and Kōga, with them really being the only proper shinobi-no-mono. They used disguise, deceit, and general trickiness to steal secrets and treasures, sabotage the enemy and misdirect them, though contrary to popular belief, assassination was pretty far down their list of priorities.
A few of their tricks are somewhat well documented; for example, they would disguise a log in clothes and a hat identical to their own, just barely hide it, and, when pursued, run past it. When their pursuers saw something that looked like the guy they were chasing hiding, they made the obvious assumption and attacked, thereby delaying the pursing party. If you wonder where Naruto's obsession with logs came from, well, now you know. Another common trick was simple: Ninja were usually peasants and looked it, but knew gardening or some other skill that would allow them to get a job in the castle of some lord. The feudal system of Japan was such that the feudal lords (particularly the higher ups) tended to view peasants as interchangeable, thus giving the ninja an "invisibility" that had more to do with psychology than sneaking about.
Over time, they became feared. The primitive and superstitious people began to believe that ninjas were more than just dangerous spies and masters of disguise. They attributed magical powers to them, like the ability to shapeshift, conjure fire, turn invisible, control animals, and even mate with the spirits to give birth to monstrous half-human creatures. Because having the world simultaneously so terrified of you that it would pay a premium for your services and so hilariously wrong about the nature of your methods that actually countering you was hard was incredible for business, the secretive clans weren't exactly in a hurry to go debunking these folktales.
Ninja usually dressed like whoever they were disguised as at the time, since everyone stares at the guy in black pajamas. The iconic image of the head-scarf and robe clad "ninja" is actually an outgrowth of a clever bit of Japanese stagecraft.
In traditional Japanese theater there is no "backdrop" set, just a black felt curtain and stagehands manage the other sets and props while covered head-to-toe in black clothing. You may think this is distracting, but after a while, the audience is just trained to ignore them, the way you ignore that a stage is just a set and the actors only carrying props when you watch a play.
One incredibly clever playwright took note of the fact that the audience was trained to ignore these hands, and came up with a brilliant idea. When the script called for a ninja to assassinate a character, one of the stagehands would suddenly mock-stab them, leading to many double-takes and shat bricks on the audience's part. As with all good ideas, it was quickly appropriated by billions of talentless hacks who used it all the time, until the idea of the black-stage-gear-clad ninja was embedded deep into the public consciousness, simply because people always take their cues on what's real or unreal from fiction.
The move from decentralized warring states period to a centralized military dicatorship, however, dealt a heavy blow to the ninja's business, since, after all, a peaceful isolationist nation had much less need for their abilities, and the end of the shogunate and the modernization of Japan in the nineteenth century broke them for good, since their methods had grown dated with the passing years. The Boshin War and the subsequent decade of rebellions destroyed the samurai, and the practice of ninjutsu with them in favor of western style government agents. Still, they remain in the public imagination, and in the hearts and minds of all fans of Japanese culture and history, weeaboo and non-weeaboo alike.
As a result, like the samurai, any traditional game with an ancient-Japan-proxy (read: all of them (or at least, all of them that grow to sufficient complexity)) has got ninja in it somewhere. Let's take a look.
Ninja made its D&D debut in the Oriental Adventures book, as a "secret" sort-of-multiclass rather than an independent class in its own right. The idea is that since ninjas aren't supposed to exist, they each have another class as an undercover identity. Any bushi, sohei, wu jen, or yakuza you meet might be a ninja in secret: they get most of the traditional thieving skills (except picking pockets or hearing noises), disguises, thief-acrobat tightrope-walking and pole-vaulting, slow falling they stole from the monks, some escape-artistry, backstabbing and assassination, and finally some rudimentary ki abilities. Most of the time they can only use these abilities when nobody's looking: if their true identity is ever discovered, they're almost guaranteed to get killed by their own clan in retaliation. All Oriental Adventures characters take Honor pretty seriously.
They're introduced into the 2nd edition through the Complete Ninja's Handbook, which suddenly flips the above policy around: all ninjas are single-class only, no multi- or dual-classing allowed. They also lose most of the really cool shit detailed above, being mostly just your regular sort of thieves with a bit better sneaking and more weapon options. At least they can detect noises and pick pockets now (though they're still worse at them than thieves). On the bright side, there's kits: Stealer-In is the basic package, Shadow Warrior is better at fighting but worse at thievery (and imposes onto you a racist accent and compulsion for dick jokes), Intruder is the sneaky spy that's never off-duty, Consort is the seductive charmer, Pathfinder all alone and aloof in the wilds, Lone Wolf even lonelier and usually hunted down by either his old clan or whatever enemy wiped them all out, and Spirit Warrior does magic. The other classes also get some quasi-ninja kits of their own.
Dungeons and Dragons 3rd Edition made the ninja a shitty rogue. Intended as a rogue/monk mix, but unlike Pathfinder they get much fewer skills than the rogue, no armor, and can't do rogue backstabbery unless invisible. They also can't use their weeaboo powers for shit because all of them draw from a super tiny ki pool and last only one round. The only one they get early enough to be worthwhile is invisibility which they need to (and can't) spam like crazy because, as said before, they get a shittier version of Sneak Attack that only works when invisible. So basically, they're rogues that can't skillmonkey OR backstab as well as rogues and get pretty much nothing in return.
Eberron has no Japan analog, or at least not one that hasn't been conquered by the Quori. Here Ninja are instead a creation of Elves with the Mark of Shadow. Note that Samurai, by contrast, are a Dwarf tradition.
In Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition, rather than make an entirely separate ninja class, they decided to simply roll it into the monk class as one of the "Ways" that a monk can choose to follow upon reaching level 3. The ninja option is the Way of Shadow, which allows the monk to use ki to cast certain spells (darkness, darkvision, pass without trace, silence, minor illusion), teleport from shadow to shadow, become invisible in darkness, and get a bonus attack against an enemy that was hit by someone else in that same round.
Pathfinder also made the ninja as a rogue/monk, and their vast variety of skills means that they outdo both classes by miles (except as skill-monkeys or number of attacks per round). They trade in the rogue's unique skillmonkey powers, like disarming magical traps, for "ninja tricks," which, like the monk's special powers, use up a ki pool. Also, they are perfectly capable of outdamaging the fuck out of rogues, given the nasty things they can do with projectiles and poison, on top of their sharing the rogue's backstabbery. They also get passive bonuses to their stealth tests the longer they've been in stealth, leading to hilarious shenanigans.
They also make a scrumptious dip class for monks and vice-versa, since their mixed martial arts passive abilities let their class levels stack for abilities, and the monk's flurry of blows explicitly works for all those ninja projectiles. Combine with the "ninja trick" that lets them double the number of projectiles they throw for a ki point, then combine that with poison... you get the idea. Hope the DM didn't let you get ahold of drow venom. In other words, Pathfinder ninjas are awesome. They are still screwed over by the many sneak attack nerfs introduced in Pathfinder, but at least they look cool.
Sadly when the Rogue was updated/fixed into the Unchained Rogue, the Ninja class was not updated along with it. It should be possible to stack Ninja onto Unchained Rogue, but it's officially an invalid combination because of how unchained rogue and alternate classes work.
|The Classes of Pathfinder 1st Edition|
|Core Classes:||Barbarian - Bard - Cleric - Druid - Fighter - Monk |
Paladin - Ranger - Rogue - Sorcerer - Wizard
|Alchemist - Antipaladin - Cavalier |
Inquisitor - Oracle - Summoner - Witch
|Arcanist - Bloodrager - Brawler - Hunter - Investigator |
Shaman - Skald - Slayer - Swashbuckler - Warpriest
|Kineticist - Medium - Mesmerist |
Occultist - Psychic - Spiritualist
|Ultimate X:||Gunslinger - Magus - Ninja - Samurai - Shifter - Vigilante|
Legend of the Five Rings
Legend of the Five Rings is mostly about samurai shenanigans, but ninjas both exist and are potential sources of PCs . Only two of the Clans in Rokugan have ninja on the payroll (well, technically, only the Spider have ninja, the Scorpion are very insistent that they have shinobi -- the two are written the same, but differ in how you pronounce the characters). Ninja are theoretically regarded as somewhat mythical: actively talking about ninja like they exist in a court setting will lose you honor and result in lots of scorn and ridicule from the stuffed-shirt courtiers. In practice, most samurai do know they're real, so don't hesitate to tell people you trust in more-private and less-open settings when there's an assassin on the move.
Scorpion shinobi are, hilariously, probably the most level-headed and moral people in their crazy clan of manipulative assholes and anti-heroes. They actually start out running the Gauntlet, a series of tests that involve dressing like a "traditional" black-pajamas ninja and essentially running interference, attracting lots of attention while the actual ninja that's probably been posing as a manservant or courtesan for months does the necessary sabotage/wetwork/spycraft/etc. Those who survive get to learn to be REAL operatives.
The ninja of the corrupted Spider Clan are... less theoretically-benign. They're ordinary people who have traded away bits and pieces of themselves to the Shadow Dragon, a manifestation of the Lying Darkness whose malign power seeks to consume the world. They're probably better at outright assassination than Scorpion shinobi, since their powers are practically supernatural instead of just realistically good, but they often have very little personality or initiative of their own. It makes them good at not being noticed, or at pretending to be other people, but when the mask slips, they won't have the skills to talk their way out. Scorpion ninja can be good at lots of things, but most Spider ninja know only how to kill and steal.
In 4th Edition, the "Ninja" school tag was used for one advanced school in the Crane: the Daidoji Harriers. The Harriers were an extension of the Daidoji Scouts, though strictly speaking ANY member of the Daidoji family could become a Harrier (including even shugenja since it only has the Ninja tag). The Harriers were primarily saboteurs, and were infamous for their use of gunpowder ("gaijin peppler"); their use of the forbidden substance led to them becoming so secretive that even the rest of their clan didn't even know they were acting on their behalf. However, they were disbanded when the Dragon Clan proved to the Crane champion that the Harriers existed and were using the forbidden powder (which had prompted an otherwise-unexplained Dragon attack on the Crane). In addition, there is a possibly-apocryphal tale of a vassal family of saboteurs in the Phoenix Clan, the Sesai; they get an alternate path with the Ninja tag, but they were never part of the core plot and were added in during the d20/2nd Edition era in Way of the Ninja. As such, they may or may not be part of your game world.
While the ninjas of this setting only reside in Nippon (aka Warhammer Japan), the eastern continent GW does not giving a shit about and is therefore underdeveloped with little information about them nor is there any miniatures. Luckily, a bunch of Skaven from the clan Eshin was able to learn their ninjitsu arts after travel to the far east and became a bunch of backstabbing, shuriken throwing, cloak wearing, back flipping rats that decimate their enemy with sheer cunning and surprise tactics. Then there's also the occasional Man-Eater Ogre who does the same thing and pick up some of their tricks.
There are also other units from other faction/race where they utilize the cunning and stealthy tactics of a ninja without copy Nippon.
For the Dark Elves, there's Shades, who can move quietly in concealment while carry armor piercing crossbow to devastate their enemies in a surprise attack.
For the High Elves, there's Shadow Warriors, the descendants of the Nagarythe elves during the great sundering who are skilled in guerrilla warfare and concealment tactics. Alith Anar the king of Nagarythe is the leader of these badasses and he took the guerrilla warfare to a whole new level with his op war gear: The Moonbow that turned his every shot into a bolt thrower, Shadow Crown that can stop the fucking time for just a few seconds whenever he said Nagarythe, and finally Stone of Midnight a jewel that alith anar stole from Morathi that allows him to conceal himself in shadow.
For the Wood Elves, most of them are already experts of this kind of fighting style since they always conceal themselves with the forest, but there are the Waywatchers, who are skilled in concealment, shooting arrows and setting up booby traps. Then there are Wardancers, the warriors of their trickster god Loec, who fights with either twin blades or double sides double sided spear while performing war dance, lethal movements that devastates their enemies with absolute cunning while avoiding enemy strikes.
For the Lizardmens, there are these specialized poison darts Skink called Chameleon Skinks that has the looks and the ability of a real life chameleon, conceal themselves to perform guerrilla warefare while protecting them from enemy range fires.
For the Greenskins, there's night goblins. Due to years of consuming mushrooms and other potions, they have natural camouflage that conceal them in dark area. They are also pretty dangerous due to the consumption of fungus beer, where they could fight in absolute fanatical states. There are also these Nasty Skulkers who specialized in surprise tactics and is able to pierce enemy armor due to the two sharp razor blades they wield.
For the Dwarves, there are rangers who specialized in concealment, booby traps, sabotages and guerrilla warefare. Like all dwarves, they are slow and good in melee combat, but is still much faster in comparison due to wearing lacks of armor. They are also shunned by other Dwarves for being a bunch of weirdos fighting in cowardly tactics.
Myths and facts
Few things have as many myths associated with them which people believe as facts as the ninja (examples that come close are the Templars and Vikings), to the point that the image people associate with the term ninja in fact has almost nothing to do with the real ninja. In fact, even Japan has ninja-museums all over the country and basically all of them are based around the pop-culture image of a ninja. Gotta find some way to pay the bills I guess (which is oddly appropriate actually, as one of the actual tasks of a ninja was deception). Anyway, weebs prepare to have your lives ruined, for here are some of the myths people believe about the ninja.
- Specially trained ninja were not something found all over Japan. They came primarily from Iga Province and a region named Kōga and while there were some groups who used ninja-esque methods, such as the Fuma who served the Hōjō Clan, the term ninja has generally been applied to them after the fact.
- The term ninja was not used historically. The historical term is shinobi-no-mono, roughly translating as "the one who hides". The term ninja wasn't used until the 20th century.
- Though there were certainly acts of espionage much earlier, specially trained ninja came to existence around the 15th century, during the Sengoku Jidai, Japan's age of warring states.
- Ninja did not wear black uniforms and they certainly didn't wear masks. They wore regular civilian clothing or the same armor everyone else did. They wouldn't wear something that would make them identifiable as a ninja.
- Ninja did not use a straight sword named ninjatō, which is a fictional weapon made up by some woo hack. The Ninjatō is a product of 20th century pop-culture and was not used historically. They used katana, yumi, yari, etc, same weapons as everyone else did, with the possible exception of weapons that could be passed off as common tools, as with the Kunai, below. As with clothing, they wouldn't use a weapon that would make them identifiable as a ninja.
- The Shuriken is not a ninja weapon. Throwing knives in general were used by samurai and ashigaru (peasant foot-soldiers) alike and more used for distraction than straight up killing.
- The Kunai is not actually a ninja weapon. In fact, it is not actually a weapon at all. Like many "weapons" from around the world, it is a farming implement that could be turned into a weapon in a pinch. The reason it is so associated with ninjas is that anyone could be seen carrying one of those without eliciting suspicion. Side note: While the Kunai could be modified into a weapon, it almost certainly wouldn't be a throwing weapon, as the design is not well-suited for that purpose; it could be used as the blade of a rope-dart, but rope-darts are not throwing weapons, but rather a kind of whip.
- This should be fairly obvious but ninja did not do some trick where they would catch the blade of a sword with their bare hands. Any attempt to do so would prove to be quite hazardous to ones health. (It's possible that they used a piece of metal or stone concealed inside a glove, but that would likely be more a showy trick or desperation move than something commonly useful.)
- Ninja and samurai were not sworn enemies. Most samurai likely did not even know that there is such a thing as a ninja, as ninja were not all that common. As a matter of fact, many ninja were actually samurai as well.
- Being a ninja and being a samurai are not mutually exclusive. In fact, the one whom is generally regarded as the most famous ninja of all time, Hattori Hanzō, was a samurai, as were many other ninja.
- Ninja were not assassins, at least not primarily. Assassination was pretty far down their list of priorities, they were covert agents whose skills tended primarily toward espionage and sabotage.
- Ninja were not solely about covert operations. They would engage in regular battle as well, though they would prefer to do it through guerrilla warfare whenever possible.
- It is highly likely that kunoichi, female ninja, did not even exist. If they did, they would have been spies and part of what's now known as "honey-traps", not any kind of fighter.
- Ninja were not hired because they were needed for jobs considered dishonorable for a samurai. To a samurai, nothing is more honorable than bringing victory to their master. If they have to do it through covert methods, so be it. Ninja were hired because they had the required expertise in covert operations the average 'regular' samurai lacked.
- While many like to think of ninja as a major part of Japanese history, like the samurai are; the reality is that if you removed ninja from Japanese history not much would change.
Ninja weapons and gear
As stated above Ninja inherited their gear from Samurai and shared the same equipment. We'll try not to make it a cut and paste of the Samurai gear but since there are a lot of crossover. You should look at the Samurai page if you want a more in depth description. This section details how the Ninja used them instead.
- Trick Katana: Since many Ninja were Samurai, so of course they would have owned Katanas. They fought quite dirty with them too. Such as filling the scabbard with red pepper, dirt, dust and iron filings. Blinding their opponent so the Shinobi could land a quick killing blow or make a fast retreat.
- Other swords: Since Katana were mainly used by Samurai and could be used to identify them if they were lost or spotted by other Samurai. Ninja would likely have used other swords as well. Such as Wakizashi(short swords) and older Chokutō or Kodachi style swords. Since the latter were for either restorations of the latter or recreations of family heirlooms. Most Japanese Swordsmiths would not ask any questions if they were hired to make these ancient blades. As long as they were getting paid.
- Note on Ninjatō: As stated above the Ninjatō did not exist. Instead they would have been based on pre-Katana straight swords or even shikomizue aka cane swords. Hollywood producers most likely confused these weapons as their own distinct swords.
- Yumi: Japanese bows and arrows. Ninja had access to these too. Larger bows could fire arrows that can penetrate the armor of most Samurai. Arrows were dipped in poison to increase the chance of killing their targets. Fire Arrows were created using Iron Filings, saltpeter, sulphur and ash. Some even had hand grenades attached to them for use in sieges.
- Firearms: You should already know were we are going with this. Country to popular fiction, Ninja had firearms and used them as often as they could. The most common being Tanegashima. In fact, Shinobi were aware of gunpowder and bombs hundreds of years before 1543. Guns would often be used for assassinations and ambushes or to backup retreating Shinobi to kill any would be pursuers. Since the tech of the day made it impossible to track firearms. Thus accusing Samurai of being spies or working with them would be very difficult to prove.
- Shuriken: While inferior to guns. Shuriken like arrows were coated in poison and even excrement. Ninja would create traps with them, technically they were early makeshift landmines.
- Armor: Ninja used two different types. Full Samurai armour and lighter armor for infiltrators and saboteurs. A Ninja in full plate would have likely used them for hit and run attacks and false flag operations. Creating distractions that would allow spies to sneak into enemy strongholds or to protect themselves from arrows and bullets during combat.
- Improvised weapons: Since Samurai and the peasants they recruited to their cause were also farmers. Shinobi used farming tools as well. These included weaponized kama, kunai, kusarigama, sai and tonfas. Even the legendary nunchaku were originally tools used for agri-work before they were adapted into weapons. Since they looked little different than the real thing and could be used in the same fashion. This made them the perfect weapons to hide in plain sight. Many lords would hire a peasant to tend their fields not knowing that they actually worked for one of their rivals. This sort of thing tends to happen when you make your employees buy their own tools instead of purchasing and storing them yourself.
Pop Culture Ninjas
Explaining the pop culture popularity of Ninjas is difficult. Wikipedia has a whole long article on the topic that you should see here.
Importantly, Ninja really exploded in popularity in the US around the 1980s, with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles only being the last step in that explosion; notable earlier causes/examples were Frank Miller's Daredevil run, the novel and later miniseries Shogun, and the movie "American Ninja".
But let's ignore that; we're really only here to mention a few notable oddities of Ninja discourse from the 1980s.
- The Godfrey Ho Ninja movies. We'll quote a description of them here:
""First, if you do not know them already, allow me to introduce you to Tomas Tang and Godfrey Ho, who bought any number of low-budget Hong Kong films that never would have seen the light of day in the West, spliced in some Ninja footage (sometimes combining three or four movies!) to create something that could conceivably have the word NINJA on the video box, and unload them in the product-hungry video market of the 80s. The more perceptive among you will reckon this might produce a movie that may not be very good. I applaud your insight, and admire your understatement: this produces movies that are abominable.""
- – The Bad Movie Report
- There was a video game named Ninja Golf for that Atari 7800. It's just a golf game where the walk between shots features a ninja fighting generic monsters, nothing that special, other than the whole "Ninja + Golf" concept.
- That being said, a certain element of class or cultural warfare might be read into some actual historic accounts: Ninja favored a "whatever works" style, which contrasted against the more "dignified" and "honorable" Samurai ideals commonly called "Bushido"--but by the same token, many Samurai were not very honorable as measured under this version of Bushido.