It's finally happened. I'm completely out of my depth. I built my personal brand on telling people which old roleplaying books are racist and I've finally exhausted my 101-level Cultural Sensitivity knowledge right when I'm set to read a book with the potential to be hugely problematic, but also really cool.
Don't get me wrong. There were a couple of moments when I was like, "whoa there, Complete Ninja's Handbook, that's totally not cool." Like, even I know that you can't say, "Western culture promotes self-advancement and individuality over conformity, so the introduction of [class and family loyalties] will strongly reinforce to the players that this is a very different setting." I'm pretty sure that even in 1995, that was over the line.
But full disclosure: Once upon a time, I loved this book. I was exactly in its target audience of nerdy, action-movie-loving 13-year-olds who nonetheless fancied themselves interested in the historical details of foreign cultures. Seriously, my copy of this book is kind of gross, with the page-edges stained yellow-grey with skin oils and the occasional 25-year-old food stain from when I re-read this book for the dozenth time through hastily-eaten dinners. So the urge to be gentle in my criticism is nearly overpowering.
There's a part of me that wonders if maybe I'm not out of my depth after all, but rather that I'm simply reluctant to admit that this book is mired in Orientalism and is nearly unsalvageable. I know that there's a temptation to imagine that my teenaged self, who loved this book so unreservedly, was not a racist little shit, but actually saw genuine virtues in this text. But I'm not going to play that game. I'll just admit right up front - I'm a middle-aged white guy who still thinks ninjas are kind of cool.
And I don't mean to frame this as a deep, dark confession. It's both good and proper to enjoy the products of a wide variety of cultures. It makes the world a richer place for everyone. But let's not kid ourselves. The Complete Ninja's Handbook is nearly textbook cultural appropriation - a book about Japan, written by a white guy, for a white audience. That doesn't make it automatically evil or anything, but it does mean that we (well, I) need to be cautious, and not forget the colonialist and imperialist context behind this book as an artifact.
(Yes, I am aware of the irony of me, the whitest guy you're ever going to meet, inexpertly using this academic language developed by PoC for the sake of his own vanity project, and how me talking about cultural appropriation could be construed - with some justice - as a form of cultural appropriation. And I don't know what to tell you. I'm out of my depth. If any of my readers know of a Japanese critique of this book, let me know and I'll link to it. In the meantime, I'm just going to muddle through).
So with my biases out in the open and the general knowledge that it's possible I'm going easy on this book in a subconscious attempt to absolve my own past self, I have to say, it's not that bad. An improvement over 1e's Oriental Adventures, at the very least. The book is about a Japanese-inspired character type, and the setting is clearly fantasy-Japan, rather than some ultra-generic "Orient." There's still references to "oriental blades" and "oriental cultures," and, god-forbid, "oriental people," and it's still pretty embarrassing, but at least it feels here like they're trying to avoid saying "Japanese" all the time. That's almost forgivable, given how rare other real-world adjectives, like "Celtic" or "Roman" are in D&D's fantasy worlds.
Still, it's very aware of race in kind of an offputting way. You know that thing I said about the original OA? Where with just a bit of reskinning, the book would work amazingly as an alternate core for European-inspired fantasy? Well, The Complete Ninja's Handbook doesn't make me work for it this time. There's a whole section about changing the class's name to "Spy" . . . and altering it in no other ways, because Ninjas are just spies. They do espionage things in Japan. You'd think maybe the "Spirit Warrior" kit, which lets you play more cinematic magical ninjas would at least change, but no, they're "often used as a mission specialist, seldom as a mission leader."
Which is good. Really. Except that the book then immediately forgets this until the last 2-3 pages. At one point, it says they "would seem very much out of place if they arose in a fantasy campaign that resembled Viking Sweden or Moorish Spain."
And look, I'll grant the Viking thing, but was there nothing going on in Spain during the Moorish rule that might call for characters with skills in intrigue and stealth warfare? There's no medieval Muslim archetype at all that springs to mind as fitting in with the ninja class? When the book was talking about spies only coming from societies "considered culturally advanced and sophisticated compared to the cultural average of the world," somehow Moorish Spain didn't ring a bell?
Really, though, the book's "in order to make a Ninja, you must first invent Japan" approach is a case of too much of a good thing. Remember, this is a system where the thief class is composed of literal thieves (though, regrettably, thieves by the rules make better ninjas than ninjas do - they've got more skill points and though their weapon selection is limited, that doesn't matter because they have access to the best weapon in the game) and the druid class is composed of a literal ecclesiastical body of nature worshipers. So despite what The Complete Ninja's Handbook says, you can't just have ninjas who are simply characters with a diverse range of weapon and infiltration skills. They have to actually have the trappings of fictional ninjas.
Thus, fantasy Japan.
And fantasy Japan is actually pretty cool. It's just, when the book puts this much effort into fantasy Japan, you really start to notice how half-assed base AD&D gets with fantasy Europe. Like, did you know that fantasy Japan has a class system? Not the fun rpg-class system, but like a hereditary hierarchy where your birth determines your job. Could you imagine a version of fantasy Europe where some people are awarded privilege and authority due to a mere accident of birth? But, of course, no one would believe it, because unlike fantasy Japan, submission to authority is not a cultural value - all those books and treatises in medieval Japan extolling the warrior class to forgo ambition and practice absolute obedience, they existed because the aristocrats who commissioned them saw how obedient and fearless their subordinates already were and decided to memorialize that in print.
Oh, sorry, I got sidetracked by sarcasm there. The point I'm meandering towards it that The Complete Ninja's Handbook presents a pretty fun setting, but its latent Orientalism misses the biggest trick of all - that "familiar" European-inspired fantasy should be just as exotic and weird, because medieval Europe was like another goddamned planet compared to modern society. This book treats ninjas strapping themselves to giant kites so they can glide over castle walls as a serious proposition, and I love it for that, but it makes me wonder why the only obviously-fabricated tall tales and boasts to get this sort of treatment are the ones originating in Asia. I want, more than ever, a setting where that silly "End Him Rightly" move gets built up as a majorly effective combat technique, where Historical European Martial Arts get listed alongside Akido and Karate, and the level 3 tech for the Broadsword is "pommel throw."
But we don't live in the sort of world. Not now, and certainly not in 1995. In the end, The Complete Ninja's Handbook provides some interesting ideas, but fails to develop them in a fruitful way thanks to the oft-observed mental forcefield 90s writers had around anything Asian. Ninjas put all sorts of hidden modifications and gadgets on their equipment? Cool. But why is that not something all rogues can do? Why do ninjas have to be in fantasy Japan, but The Complete Druid's Handbook is able to conceptualize spelljamming space druids? Espionage specialists with implausibly effective techniques is quintessentially Japanese, but somehow the priests of the Celtic religion aren't characteristically Celtic? Why can't we have spelljamming space ninjas?
(Aside from the obvious - because it would have overloaded the poor, fragile heart of my 13-year-old self and I'd have died from awesomeness-induced hyperventilation).
What's the takeaway, then? To the degree that you can ignore the Orientalism, this book is actually pretty interesting? The ninja is kind of a disappointing class, redeemed only by the genre tropes they bring with them? That I know only the first thing about racism and I'm really overtaxing my limited knowledge base by inelegantly applying it to every situation?
In conclusion, fantasy Japan is a land of contrasts.
UKSS Contributions - I really want to pick giant, human-sized kites, but Ukss already has giant mantises and biplanes, so that's not really going to add anything.
I think I'm going to have to go abstract again and say "the concept of specialized defense contracting." They won't necessarily be ninja clans, per se, but there will be groups in Ukss where you can hire privately owned special forces and espionage units. And because this never works without a specific example, I will personify this in the form of the "Serpent Ninjas," though I'll probably call it something more modern like "The Serpent Company" or "Serpentis Corporation."