Building an Elven Samurai in Dungeons and Dragons

Yup, an Elf Samurai.

One of my favorite things about playing Dungeons and Dragons is the freedom to experiment with all kinds of character concepts, and lately I’ve been pondering over a character based on Elnor from the latest Star Trek series, Picard:

Arguably the coolest Romulan around… 😎

Elnor, played by Evan Evagora, is a Romulan warrior who becomes Picard’s bodyguard and a foil to the Tal Shiar. I felt he was a great character in the series. After completing season one, I got to thinking: would it be possible to make such a character in D&D? The closest fit I could think of was:

  • A fighter, samurai sub-class (from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything). Elnor just looks and acts like a Romulan version of a samurai, and that subclass in D&D is mechanically very good.
  • An elf, which seems to be the closest visually to a Romulan. I quickly settled on a Wood Elf as the best choice because Elnor doesn’t use any “magic”, but is awfully nimble with good intuition. Elves in general make solid warriors in D&D even if their stats prioritize Dexterity-based builds.
  • Since I wanted my character to be a samurai, and a reasonably historical one at that, it is only fair he uses a katana-like weapon if at all possible. Archery (kyūdō in Japanese) would be a plus too.

These constraints I put on myself made for some interesting contradictions. Elves in D&D lean strongly toward Dexterity-based characters, which in turn favor light weapons or archery-based attacks.

Further, the primary weapon of a samurai is a katana, which is a larger sword frequently used with two hands, but still usable with one hand only:

According to the Dungeon Master’s Guide, under alternate campaign setting of Wuxia (pg. 41), there is a conversion chart of traditional D&D weapons to East Asian equivalents, and a katana is considered mechanically equivalent to a D&D long sword. This makes sense: a long sword has the “versatile” feature and thus can be used for both one-handed and two-handed attacks, just like a katana. However, a long-sword is a melee weapon, which means Strength, not Dexterity matters.

One other thing I considered is that samurai in the late-medieval Edo Period were required by Shogunate law to have two swords:

Thus, my elf-samurai character would need two swords, not one, if I wanted to be historically accurate. Typically, the second sword was either a smaller wakizashi or kodachi. Easy enough: fighters in D&D start with two martial weapons so I can just add a scimitar (which the DMG equates to a wakizashi), or a short sword which is equivalent to a kodachi in my opinion. For my character idea, I went with the kodachi.

But the biggest problem with this build concept was that if I wanted to use a long sword effectively, the character would have to rely on Strength, not Dexterity, which is harder to build for an elf.

So on D&D Beyond, I made two experimental characters:

The first is a strength-based elf samurai:

The other is a dexterity-based elf samurai:

Both of these builds have issues. The strength-based elf-samurai build is probably closer to a historically accurate samurai, but as Elves get bonuses to dexterity, not strength, his stats would be somewhat spread out.

On the other hand, if I did a more typical D&D build of a dexterity-based elf samurai, it would be mechanically stronger since I could devote my resources to one stat only, but the best weapon I could hope to use effectively would be either a scimitar (somewhat weaker, plus one-handed only) or a rapier (slightly better, but even less historically accurate).

So it basically came down to either a character that is more historically accurate (flavor) or more mechanically effective (combat).

I went back and forth on this for weeks. I would lean one way, or another, but after consulting with some fellow gamers online, I settled on the strength-based build. The deciding factors were:

  • Fighters of all kinds get so many stat bonuses as they grow, that I can shore up both strength and dexterity as I see fit. This means relying less on feats,1 and just making Strength (and maybe Dexterity, too) as high as possible. That would also allow this character to still be solid at archery too if need be.
  • Second, why play a character that’s mechanically good if it’s not fun? The more historically accurate, strength-based build just seemed more fun to me. Plus, under Adventurer’s League rules, you can rebuild a character as many times as you like before they reach the 5th level (a.k.a. tier 2).

Thus, Heian Amakiiro, the wood-elf samurai was born.2

Image courtesy of Cinder (@cinder_val on Twitter), via commission

Character concepts in D&D are fun. I’ve had a few others that I’ve mulled over in the past (such as my nature cleric who was ultimately rebuilt as a Drow female just for cooler backstory), but this one was particularly hard due to the contradiction between rules and historicity. I probably could’ve made my life easier if I had just picked a human samurai, but that would also have been less of a challenge. 😏

Update: I have been having fun with this character quite a bit, especially after I got a hold of some Gauntlets of Ogre Strength, which frees up my build resources to focus on other things than Strength. Further, I took the feat Elven Accuracy at fourth level. Elven Accuracy pairs very nicely with the samurai’s Fighting Spirit feature, and lets Heian Amakiiro shoot his longbow very accurately. Thus, so far Heian has been capable of handling melee combat effectively, but also as an archer. At sixth level I took Sharpshooter as a feat as an extra boost to his archery skills. From here, I can

Update #2: I made minor edits to this blog post for readability, and clarify on kodachi vs. wakizashi weapons. Further, this post, and the character Heian ended up being the inspiration for my Japanesethemed D&D adventures that I’ve been posting on DMS Guild. It wasn’t enough to have a mechanically functional character. I realized that I wanted to give him a decent backstory, and I wasn’t satisfied with the old Wa/Kozakura settings, so I just fleshed out my own version.

1 As feats go, the ones that seem most compelling for this character would be Great Weapon Master (obviously) and maybe Medium Armor Master. Also, Tough might be an option too, just for the hit points or maybe even Athlete just to round things out.

2 Originally I was being lazy and just named him “Melnor” (Elnor with an extra “M” at the beginning) until my daughter teased me for naming all my elf characters basically the same. Constructive criticism is always helpful. 😝 “Heian” make sense given my interest in the Heian Period of Japanese culture, and, surprisingly, listed in the Player’s Handbook under the table for male elf name suggestions. The rest kinda wrote itself.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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