Kyoto, 1582. The serenity of the Temple of Honno-ji belies the chaos outside, where countless soldiers stand, besieging the compound. An older man, balding with sparse hair at the back of his head and a thin mustache, Oda Nobunaga kneels in the center of the room. He has put aside his outer garments and holds a bare knife in his hand. Next to him stands a teenaged page with a drawn sword. “Ran,” the older man says to the page. “Don’t let them in.” Then he takes a last look at the assembled servants and retainers who are here to watch this final act. Against a wall, an extremely tall man stands, watching his lord’s death. A brief smile flickers between the two as they remember the day they met a year ago, when Lord Oda demanded this man scrub his face with soap before him to wash off what he thought was dark paint. Yasuke is thousands of miles from his native land, and for the last year he has loyally served the Oda clan. For this service he has been treated with honors never before bestowed upon a foreigner. Now as he watches his lord die, he makes plans. He will live, and escape, and find his lord’s heir, and continue the fight.
Yasuke in History
Some time around 1581, an African man called Yasuke was given a sword by Oda Nobunaga, elevating him to the samurai class in feudal Japan. This alone is enough to draw the interest of anyone with an imagination. My own curiosity is even more piqued by the difficulty of tracing his exact path to this strange moment. Yasuke has been the subject of carefully researched biography, anime, manga, children’s books, and will soon be the subject of a film starring Chadwick Boseman. Our sources for Yasuke are limited to a few letters from the Jesuit missionaries who brought him to Japan, and the Shincho Koki, a chronicle of Oda Nobunaga’s deeds written by one of his retainers.
A Foreign Samurai
Yasuke was brought to Japan by the Jesuit priest Alessandro Valignano in 1579. His exact position is never stated clearly, but it seems most likely that he was a slave acting as a valet to Valignano. Japanese sources refer to him as a ‘page.’
His origins remain a mystery. The only clue we have is the name Yasuke, which some historians have linked to names from Mozambique and Ethiopia, presuming it to be a Japanese cognate of his given name. This seems likely, but it does not give us much help in determining Yasuke’s birthplace, nor do we know his age when he arrived in Japan. So the period of life prior to 1579 will have to remain a mystery to be filled in by imagination and guesswork.
While Valignaro was visiting the Oda court, Nobunaga took an interest in the extremely tall (Japanese sources say 6’2”) and dark skinned servant. Nobunaga apparently believed the Jesuit priest had painted his servant, and would not believe that this was Yasuke’s actual skin until he’d had him strip to the waist and scrub his skin to prove it. Sometime after, though the date is not clear, Yasuke left the service of Valignano and entered that of Nobunaga, who gave him a sword and made him his spear-bearer. We know that he was given his own residence and often dined with Oda. One fascinating thing we can infer from this is that Yasuke must have managed to learn Japanese in the few years he had been in the country, an impressive feat considering how unlike any language he already spoke it would have been. It is likely that Yasuke fought in the Battle of Tenmokuzan, the last stand of the Takeda Clan and the victory which brought Nobunaga to the height of his power.
Sadly, Yasuke’s service to Nobunaga was short-lived. He was present with Nobunaga was betrayed by his vassal Akechi Mitsuhide and at Nobunaga’s suicide. However, he himself was not captured or killed. Instead, Yasuke fled to Nobunaga’s heir, Oda Nobutada, and fought on against the usurper. Sometime after 1582, Yasuke was captured by Akechi. Japanese sources say that he was not killed, but rather taken to the Christian church the Jesuits had been allowed to build in Kyoto. Presumably this would be a form of house arrest. From this point, Yasuke vanishes from the historical record. This is somewhat strange considering that Oda loyalists defeated Akechi shortly thereafter. That Yasuke does not reappear in service to Nobunaga’s successor has led some historians to suggest that he was actually killed by Akechi’s forces, but we will never truly know.
Yasuke on the Tabletop
Yasuke’s story definitely works best as inspiration for a player character and is a great solution if you have a player who wants to play a character who would have no real business being geographically present in your campaign. It can also be a great way to introduce a character mid campaign.
As an NPC, Yasuke could serve a couple of useful purposes. If your player characters are from a distant land or are visiting a culture they have no knowledge of – a Fey court perhaps, or the stronghold of a Goblinoid Empire – a character like Yasuke could serve to bridge the cultural and linguistic barriers or serve as a means to provide the players with useful lore that an ‘insider’ NPC would have no reason to offer them.
It is somewhat harder to theme a campaign around him, unless you’re playing one-on-one (in which case he’s a fantastic inspiration). But it would be possible to put all of the PCs in Yasuke’s position, a group of outsiders serving a lord in a distant realm. Any campaign based on his life is going to be high on court intrigue and have a somewhat Song of Ice and Fire feel to it.
“But I don’t want slavery in my game…”
This is a fair concern for some tables. Yasuke’s likely background as a slave requires some delicacy to handle it maturely, and some GMs or player groups won’t want to play in a world where slavery is accepted. After all, we tend to play in fantasy worlds and we might want to escape into a world somewhat less troubled than our own (or at least troubled my monsters we can more easily slay). In that case it’s not hard to adjust Yasuke’s backstory a little. Medieval concepts like Serfdom and Indentured Servitude were forms of bonded service in which the Master/Lord did not actually own the servant, but was owed their service for a number of years. This was common in feudal societies, or sometimes as a means to repay a debt. Another option would be to have the Yasuke character simply be a hired bodyguard, far and away the simplest solution to this issue if you are uncomfortable with it.
If we’re building something based on the historical Yasuke, background is our first stumbling block.There is neither a slave nor servant background in any published material. So the better option is to work on the ‘outsider’ status of the character for the background. Outlander and Far Traveler make the most sense for this, and of the two Far Traveler is probably the more narratively appropriate choice (even if it was my pick for Harald in our last article). “All Eyes On You” is such a perfect feature for Yasuke since his distinctive appearance draws much comment in Japanese sources of the time.
There is really no reason to pick one species over another. The most straightforward way to pick this is to look for a species that is not found in the main region where your game is taking place, and see if your GM is ok with you playing that. If we wanted to narrow it down, sources usually comment on Yasuke’s height and strength. So any species that would tend to be taller would work – Dragonborn, Minotaurs, Goliaths – as would any species that grants a Strength bonus. Since they are rare in nearly every setting, a Gith would also work well for our purposes. Because the Gith have very distinct lore, I’m not going to use them for my build. I used Dragonborn in our last article so I will forego that as well. Ultimately my pick is the Goliath. Playing a goliath means you’re probably going to be the tallest one in any room, which is Yasuke’s most commented on trait in Japanese sources.
The most obvious choice here is to build a fighter and use the Samurai archetype. Personally I really like this archetype in both flavor and mechanics, and I rarely have an opportunity to build one, so I’m going to pick this. The Fighting Spirit ability to bolster oneself in combat has a great flavor for a dedicated warrior and the Elegant Courtier ability would reflect his time in close proximity to a great lord of his adopted land.
There are other good choices though. A Paladin with the Oath of the Crown is a good choice representing Yasuke’s dedication to the Oda family. A monk with the Way of the Kensei would also strongly fit the samurai theme and monks get some very fun toys, so in my opinion it’s usually worth playing one.
A thing to note as you consider classes is that, while Yasuke is described as strong, his stature could easily be represented with proficiency in the Athletics skill, freeing you up to make your version of Yasuke a dexterity-based fighter, a charismatic Paladin, or any other combination.
So, although you could broaden the options a great deal with this inspiration, my build for Yasuke is going to be a Goliath fighter with the Samurai background. I would do my best to bump Intelligence and perhaps take feats like Linguist to represent what was obviously a gift of his. I would want Athletics, Intimidation, Insight, and Persuasion as skill proficiencies, and might also pick up the Blademaster feat for its flavor to represent the excellence in swordsmanship emphasized by Samurai training.
Yasuke in Eberron
This is a more tricky placement than Harald. I’m going to propose two options, one dealing with his background as a slave, and the other choosing a different interpretation.
If we assume the character’s background is as a slave, then there are only a few options for where to place him. On the continent of Khorvaire, only Darguun openly practices slavery. However we could also plausibly propose slavery among the holdings of a warlord in Droaam, a tribe in the Demon Waste, or among the remnants of the Giants of Xen’drik. The most versatile option is Darguun in my opinion, so that will be my starting point. Yasuke will be a goliath from a tribe living in the Seawall mountains. Captured during the Last War, he became a slave to one of the Marguul clans.
The next step is to decide into what culture to insert him. This really depends on your game, and if you present his tribe as isolated, then it will not be hard to present him as a fish out of water. Ideally, we want this culture to have a strong martial tradition.
The best option among the predominantly Human nations is Karrnath. In this scenario we would have a Darguul embassy present in Karrnath, and one of the Karrn Warlords is impressed with the size and strength of Yasuke. Yasuke’s owner presents him as a gift. Under the laws of Karrnath, Yasuke would then be a free man, but could stay on as a retainer to the warlord, perhaps being sent out on missions that lead him to become an adventurer. Or perhaps his new lord is betrayed like Nobunaga and he is out on a quest for vengeance.
For a more exotic feel, we could present an embassy visiting Darguun from the island nation of Aerenal. Of the nations outside Khorvaire, Aerenal is the best combination of isolated but accessible. Yasuke could be purchased and then freed by a member of the elvish Embassy and travel to Aerenal with them. This is not as easy an option to make him an adventurer, but with creativity could work.
The most exotic option would be the Feyspires. Shae Joridal is a Fey Spire besieged by the goblins of Darguun. Perhaps in your Eberron a truce has been worked out, resulting in Yasuke becoming a gift to the Archfey Lord or Lady of the Spire. This would be an especially fitting way to have a version of Yasuke that is a Feypact Warlock.
If you want to use Yasuke without using slavery, it’s quite an easy fix. We simply change him into the hired bodyguard of a lord of any of the Five Nations and see him transfer (as part of negotiations) into the service of a new lord from Darguun, Aerenal, or even distant Sarlona. For an additional level of intrigue, perhaps the lord who takes such an interest in Yasuke is actually a disguised Dragon from Argonessen affiliated with the Chamber. The lord believes Yasuke to be essential to some element of the Draconic Prophecy, and takes him into his service to ensure the prophecy falls out the way he desires!
Any of these can make a great backstory to bring the Outsider Samurai to your gaming table!