Underpowered: Samurai (3.5E)

The samurai has been ranked by very smart people as perhaps the least-powerful PC class in D&D 3.5. Apparently it’s on par with the expert, the adept, and other NPC classes. I think it’s common knowledge that non-spellcasting classes are generally less powerful than spellcasting classes, but is the samurai really that bad?

Well, let’s compare it to the fighter. Both have full BAB progression. Both have good Fortitude saves. Both have d10 Hit Dice. Both have two skill points per level, and both have Craft, Intimidate, and Ride as class skills; the fighter also has Handle Animal and the mobility skills (Climb, Jump, and Swim), while the samurai has Concentration, Diplomacy, Knowledge (history), Knowledge (nobility and royalty), and Sense Motive. It’s clear that at its base the samurai is a fighter with a little less of a focus on adventuring and a little more on interaction.

The skills tell another story though. The fighter’s skills are Strength-based (and Handle Animal, which makes sense with Ride), and most fighters are good at Strength. The samurai’s skills are more varied, with one Charisma-based, one Wis based, two Int-based, and Concentration (which the class has no way to use, so I expect it’s only there to help samurai qualify for the kensai prestige class later in the book). This lack of focus makes it harder to really excel at skills, and a samurai will probably have to choose between interaction and knowledge.

But nobody plays fighters for the skill points, do they? The real focus is on the eleven bonus feats. Samurai also happen to have eleven abilities they gain over time. So how do they stack up?

  • Daisho proficiency: A bonus feat that the player doesn’t get to choose. All samurai get Exotic Weapon Proficiency (katana) at L1. In general, getting a bonus feat is not as good as choosing a bonus feat, since it limits character options and power. So this is a bit worse than a fighter.
  • Two swords as one: A bonus feat that the player doesn’t get to choose and it only works in certain situations, but the character gets to ignore prerequisites. That’s usually pretty balanced (and the ranger is based on it), but the restriction here is greater. So the samurai just barely loses out here.
  • Kiai smite: It’s like a paladin’s smite, which is better than a feat. But the samurai’s smite damage is drastically lower at almost every level (Cha mod vs. class level) and the samurai gets it less frequently than a paladin. We’ll call it a wash.
  • Iaijutsu master: Another bonus feat that the player doesn’t get to choose, and it comes with an extra restriction. Worse than a feat.
  • Staredown: +4 to Intimidate, better than a feat (Skill Focus) but the player doesn’t get to choose it. The text also says that the samurai “can demoralize an opponent”, which characters can already do. It’s like a class power that says “you can jump”. We’ll call this even again, but I’m not fully convinced.
  • Improved Initiative: A bonus feat that the player doesn’t get to choose.
  • Mass staredown: This is the first time the samurai gets something unique. This is level 10. So it’s a win, but it shouldn’t have taken this long to let one.
  • Improved two swords as one: It’s like two swords as one, above. But while a ranger gets the equivalent of this ability at L6, the samurai has to wait until L11. So this is a loss.
  • Improved staredown: The ability to reduce demoralization from a standard action to a move action, not unlike what Improved Feint does for feinting. So it’s like getting a feat, but you don’t get to choose it, but it’s also not available as a normal feat. I feel like I’m being too down on the samurai, so I’ll do it a kindness and call this “break-even.”
  • Greater two swords as one: Same as improved two swords as one, right down to getting it five levels after the ranger. Similar loss.
  • Frightful presence: The samurai’s capstone ability, this can grant a long-standing penalty (often as long as the entire fight) to every opponent in the battle. But it’s a penalty that doesn’t stack with the staredown, which is what the samurai has been doing since L6, so it’s not too ridiculous. Even though high-level NPCs and monsters are completely immune to it, we’ll say this is better.

By my reckoning, the samurai gets two abilities better than a fighter’s bonus feats, three that are about as good, and six that are worse. The ones that are better aren’t much better, so it’s looking pretty dim.

But it actually gets worse than that. All of the samurai’s staredown abilities are based on the Intimidate skill, so taking max ranks in it is as good as necessary. Without it, the samurai loses its signature ability, and with it, the samurai gets one fewer of its already-sparse skill points. A non-human samurai with Int 8 essentially gets no skill points at all. And since the paladin’s staredown, kiai smite, and frightful presence are all based on Charisma, a samurai is running low on places to put its low stat rolls.

And a note about the power of staredown. Say you’re a samurai. To make an opponent shaken for one round, your Intimidate check has to beat the opponent’s modified level check (d20 + Hit Dice + Wis mod). Let’s ignore for a second that I don’t like comparing rolls (especially d20 rolls) as a resolution mechanic. If you always fight equivalent-level NPCs, you come out slightly ahead, because your ranks in Intimidate should be three higher than the opponent’s level and your Cha should be about the same as their Wis. But monsters usually have more Hit Dice than a player and this difference increases at higher CRs, so staredown’s usability drops against them as you level. And mindless creatures are immune to it wholesale, as are any creatures immune to mind-affecting abilities or fear.

Which gives us a class that looks like a fighter, but it needs to split its ability scores more, its abilities aren’t as good as bonus feats, and its only unique ability (staredown) rarely works and isn’t synergistic with its other key ability (two-weapon fighting). Yeah, I’d call that worse than a fighter.

I actually like the samurai from Oriental Adventures better. It’s like a fighter, but with good Will saves, four skill points per level, and the ability to enhance their swords. The tradeoff (besides, I guess, shield and heavy armor proficiency) is that their bonus feats must come from a series of lists based on their clan; a crab samurai can get the Power Attack tree as bonus feats but not the Combat Expertise tree, for example. I think that if you like the samurai, that’s not a bad place to go. But it loses a lot in the fun factor. It’s basically the fighter but a little better, and all the flavor is in the feat selection (you know, like a fighter). It also doesn’t have the 3.5 samurai’s key mechanic, the staredown. So I think we can do something in between to make the samurai both powerful and interesting.

First let’s deal with the bonus feats. Instead of giving one hard-coded progression, let’s give the player a choice of progressions. They’re still hard-coded, yes, but we don’t want to take too much away from the fighter by duplicating its abilities. The clans from Oriental Adventures have some good ideas on theming, so let’s steal them wholesale. This replaces the abilities gained at the listed levels:

Clan: Each samurai is part of a clan, an association of samurai with similar training and principles. As the samurai’s fighting style improves, he gains access to new abilities.
At the levels listed in the table below, a samurai gains a bonus feat determined by his clan. If he already has the listed feat, he instead gains any other feat for which he meets the prerequisites.
Clan Crab Crane Dragon Lion Phoenix Scorpion Unicorn
1st Weapon Focus (greatclub)* Weapon Focus (longspear) Exotic Weapon Proficiency (katana) Shield Proficiency Lightning Reflexes Combat Expertise Mounted Combat
2nd Power Attack Dodge Two-Weapon Fighting Weapon Focus (longsword) Alertness Dodge Point Blank Shot
5th Cleave Mobility Quick Draw Iron Will Iron Will Improved Disarm Mounted Archery
8th Improved Sunder Improved Initiative Improved Initiative Leadership Combat Reflexes Prone Attack Zen Archery
11th Improved Toughness Spring Attack Improved Two-Weapon Fighting Improved Shield Bash Great Fortitude Improved Trip Trample
16th Great Cleave Quick Draw Greater Two-Weapon Fighting Hold the Line Blind-Fight Whirlwind Attack Improved Mounted Archery

* – Feel free to use any big scary weapon here; the greatclub is a Core placeholder. I suggest a greataxe that does bludgeoning damage (a greathammer), or a tetsubo if you want to change it to Exotic Weapon Proficiency instead.

All of these feats are either in Core or Complete Warrior. That’s intentional.

Note that the dragon clan duplicates the samurai’s old feat list. The goal isn’t to invalidate the old samurai, just give it more choices and power. If somebody really wants to play the katana-and-wakizashi samurai, they should retain that option. But also note that the feats no longer requires the katana-and-wakizashi combo. There’s no reason a dragon samurai couldn’t dual-wield hammers or picks or axes or even katanas.

Now, the staredown. The big issues I have with this are that it takes forever to get going, it relies on opposed rolls, it grants a penalty many creatures ignore, and the results only last one round. There’s nothing I can do about the opposed rolls because that’s how demoralizing works. But the rest:

Staredown (Ex): At 6th level, a samurai becomes able to strike fear into his foes by his mere presence. He gains a +4 bonus on Intimidate checks. An opponent demoralized by the samurai is shaken for one round plus one round for every five points by which the samurai’s Intimidate check beat his opponent’s modified level check.
Mass Staredown (Ex): At 10th level, the samurai has sufficient presence that he can cow multiple foes. Using an Intimidate check, the samurai can demoralize all opponents within 30 feet as a standard action. Also, the samurai can now demoralize creatures normally immune to mind-affecting effects, though he takes a −10 on his Intimidate check against such creatures.
Improved Staredown (Ex): At 14th level, even a glance from the hard eyes of a samurai is enough to give his foes pause. The samurai can demoralize opponents within 30 feet as a move action, not a standard action. He can demoralize enemies within 60 feet as a standard action. Also, the penalty for demoralizing creatures immune to mind-affecting effects is reduced to −5.

So now staredown is more meaningful at L6 than it is for other characters, something the original samurai lacked, and the penalty’s duration is potentially increased. At L10 creatures are no longer immune to the samurai’s staredown, and at L14 the usability increases further. The samurai’s unique mechanic is actually worth using, and he can try it once or twice in a fight rather than spending the whole combat maintaining his enemies’ penalties.

I also recommend increasing the skill points to 4 per level and adding Climb, Jump, Perform, and Swim to the samurai’s class list. This lets them be as mobile as the fighter and plays to the cultured flavor of samurai while giving him the skill points to spend on it. No longer is an Int 8 samurai locked out of skills altogether (I suppose an Int 4 samurai still is, but that’s the territory of Int 4 so I don’t think I’m too worried about that). I’d love to do something about kiai smite, but it can stay as it is. Don’t want to change everything.

With that, we have a class with more options, more flavor, and more power than the original samurai. I know this isn’t enough to bring it up to the level of a spellcasting class, but that wasn’t the goal. The goal is to make the samurai into a class that people want to play rather than a class that people only view to make fun of the art, and I think that’s what we did.

I’d list the whole class here or provide a link to an HTML version, but I’d rather not duplicate all that Wizards material. You print out this blog post and stick it in your (legitimate, hardcover) copy of Complete Warrior if you’re that worried about having it all in one place.

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7 Responses to Underpowered: Samurai (3.5E)

  1. Dave Fried says:

    Paizo has a completely different take on the samurai. How do you think the two stack up? (I guess you’d have to account for the fact that Pathfinder fighty classes are generally higher-powered than base 3.x ones.)

  2. MssngrDeath says:

    The order and its associated abilities and role-play opportunities are great, and I love the mind-over-matter of the resolve ability. The idea that you absolutely need a mount to be a samurai and it’s one of your core, most powerful abilities, not as much. The samurai is based on the cavalier, and since the high concept of the cavalier is “fighting guy on mount”, that bled over to the samurai. You can ignore it, but you lose a serious amount of tech designed to keep to competitive at high levels, so it’s a non-starter for a lot of players.

    It’s a shame, because the cavalier has a neat threat-based defender mechanic, where he marks an enemy and take a penalty to AC against everybody else. It lends itself to the kind of catches-your-eye-from-across-the-battlefield duel that shows up in fiction but doesn’t get a lot of play in a party-based gaming system.

    I have half a mind to make a cavalier/samurai archetype that eschews the mount for something else. The only Paizo archetype I could find that did that was the musketeer, which is pretty non-samurai. Given the high concept, I guess it makes about as much sense as an urban druid or a savage bard (except they have those).

  3. Dave Fried says:

    Yeah, I got the same impression – it seemed to me that the official “sword saint” variant made a better “samurai” (in the sense usually portrayed in fantasy/historical fiction) than the default package.

    Though just like Western knights, the actual historical samurai were often mounted warriors, and that was a lot of what made them superior to other fighters. In the kind of fiction Pathfinder is based on… not as much.

  4. Fiko says:

    Hi there!

    Your version to the 3.5 Samurai was the best I found from the many “homebrew” on the web. As a DM, I will use it to convert some old AD&D samurai chars from my players (they use the “kit” from “The Complete Fighter’s Handbook” – remember these?) as now we will roll some d20 dices on the 3.5 :)

    However, I would like to make some minor changes to your version. You improved the Stardown ability. I will keep this underpowered like the default. Two reasons: I also don’t like the opposed rolls checks and I want a more “straightfoward” version (I know my players won’t care much for using Intimidate in combat). Instead, I will:

    – Incresase the number of Kiai Smites: from 4 to 6 (on the 1 to 20 level progression)
    – Add na extra “Bonus Clan Feat” at 19th level.
    – Make a minor reordering on what the samurai gets at each new level. This way the class ends up with less “dead levels” than the regular version (for instance, the default samurai gets nothing at 18th and 19th levels)

    These are the only things I though. I kept everything else you proposed: 4 skill points per level, the addition of extra skill to the class pool, etc.

    I really would like to show you this new Progression Table (with the reordered class features) to see what you think about it. Your opinion would be much appreciated. You have mail email, please give me an answer if you can, so I can send you the table. Cheers!

    • MssngrDeath says:

      The samurai does totally have dead levels at a time when other classes are gaining their most powerful abilities. A bonus feat, especially one near the end of a tree, would help that a lot.

      Honestly, if you don’t like staredown, your players don’t like staredown, and staredown isn’t good enough mechanically to keep around, don’t use staredown at all. I was trying to keep it to preserve the samurai’s sole unique ability and leave something for anyone who liked the original. In fact, there’s not a lot of difference between a samurai without staredown and a fighter with smites. At a certain point you have to shrug at a class and say “I know what you’re trying to do, but it’s so far removed from what I want that I’m better off with something else”. (Hi, hexblade! At least the samurai has role-playing opportunities built into the class. What’s your excuse?)

      I have email that is deliberately not provided here. Given what spam I got from something as innocuous as linking to Photobucket, I can’t imagine what would happen if my real email address was linked.

  5. 64 says:

    Sorry for asking a question on an old post. But I also noticed that both Oriental Adventures and Complete Warriors have two slightly different versions of the Kensai prestige class. Which of these do you feel is better, better suited to be prestige into with your homebrew Samurai class, and would their perhaps be an ideal way to mix those two as well?

    • MssngrDeath says:

      The different versions of the kensei (OA)/kensai (CW) differ by base attack bonus, Reflex save, Will save, class skills, skill points per level, prerequisites, and every class feature. So I’d say they differ more than “slightly”.

      The kensei has six prerequisite feats, so it’s easier to get into the kensai from this version of the samurai. In fact, it’s probably easier to get into the kensai from any class.

      There’s as much an ideal way to merge these PrCs as there is to merge any two prestige classes that share little besides a Fort save progression and many of the letters in their name. That is to say, yes for certain definitions of ‘ideal’ and ‘mix’. You’d have to pick and choose which bits you want from each, and one person’s perfect compromise is another person’s travesty. But given how incredibly boring the kensei is, I’d lean more toward the kensai, and I’d probably replace the “free enhancement” with something more like the temporary enhancements the Pathfinder magus gets.

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