Nipponese Bladesmithing

Date : 6 Aug 1998

A summary of the contents

1. Background : Myth versus reality
2. Nipponese Blades : Some history & metallurgy stuff for knife-nuts
3. The Blades in Game Terms
4. Nipponese Swordsmiths : Notes on a bladesmith career
5. Adventure Ideas : Ideas using some of the stuff presented
6. Sources : Reference material

In my own campaign, I modelled Nippon after Japan of the pre-Shogunate era at the time of almost constant civil war with an estimated 25% of its population under arms. The wars, inter-clan struggles, and general chaos would make a more interesting gaming environment compared the the sedate, restrictive nature of society under the Shogun's rule.

1. Background: Myth vs Reality

There exists a certain 'mystique' surrounding Japanese blades and plenty of accumulated bladelore which would be probably be dismissed immediately if were about any other blades. While properly-made Japanese blades have some unusual properties, some of the more outlandish stories are probably untrue.

Japanese blades were designed primarily to defeat light armour and in this they perform exceptionally, due mostly to their superior contruction. Their hardened edges will cut through softer materials with ease and their flexible spines cushioned the shock of blows, preventing breakage.

Fighting edge-to-edge was another matter entirely and no steel (including modern alloys) will stand up to such abuse,no matter how well made. From historical accounts, swords often broke in blade-to-blade fighting, despite their carefully-crafted blades. The antique swords that have survived to current times did so probably because they were never used in battle, instead serving as treasured (if unblooded) heirlooms of Samurai houses.

However, since WFRP is hardly historical, I didn't try to enforce this reality here. The material presented here assumes that good swords can indeed last forever (or until the GM says so). If weapon-breakage rules are enforced, I would probably add a positive modifier to reflect the superb construction of these blades. A lesser known fact is that not all Japanese blades were made equal. There were great smiths and there were hacks (just like in any craft). Just because they were forging blades in Japan did not automatically make them wonderful swordsmiths.

2. Nipponese Blades

Early Nipponese blades were of iron, hammered into rough blades. These blades were typically broad, straight, and heavy. While usable and harder than blades of bronze, the soft iron bent easily and failed to hold an edge for long.

Over the centuries, Cathayan smiths migrated to the Nipponese islands, bringing with them the knowledge of steel and steel-making. An alloy of iron and carbon, steel proved to be a better material than iron mainly because it could be made hard, soft, or somewhere in between.

The process of refining raw iron ore into steel was hot, heavy work. The raw ore would be smelted in a coal furnace, then broken up into small pieces. Selecting the best pieces, the smith and his apprentices would fuse the pieces together to form a rough bar. When several such bars where completed, they would be stacked together, folded and welded with more hammerwork. This 'thousand-fold' technique produced laminated steel (hard core, soft outer skin) with great flexibity and toughness and provided better raw material for further heat treatment.

Besides steelmaking, Cathayan smiths also brought with them the secret of water-quenching. Quenching a hot piece of steel quickly in water caused changes in the grain structure of the steel, resulting in increased hardness. Increased hardness however, was not the prefect answer. Blades of very hard steel could hold a razor edge well but were brittle and easily broken by a sharp blow. Softer, unhardened steel blades were flexible enough to spring with a blow, but the soft edges were not able to cut through light armour or hold an edge for long.

Nipponese smiths achieved the best of both extremes by pioneering the technique of differential hardening which allowed a very hard cutting edge (yakiba) and a soft, springy back (mune) on the same blade. This was done by coating the blade with layers of clay before heating and quenching. By varying the thickness of the clay coating, they were able to control the cooling rate of the hot steel on different sections of the blade.

The clay was thinnest on the edge, graduating to its thickest on the back of the blade. This allowed the water to cool the steel at the edge rapidly, producing maximum hardness. The back or spine, insulated with a thick layer of clay cooled slower, making the steel soft and flexible.

The heat treatment and the pattern of the thin layer of clay on the edge produced a wavy line that ran all the way along the edge of the blade. This temper line (hamon) is a unique characteristic of Nipponese blades crafted using this method and is a fairly accurate indication of a superior blade.

With these techniques, Nipponese bladesmiths forged the legendary blades of the Samurai which could cut superbly and yet was light and flexible enough to resist breaking. The almost constant state of civil war preceeding the rise of the Shogunate no doubt provided much practical experience for the evolution and development of swords and other weapons.

The earlier heavy, straight broad blades evolved into narrower blades with a distinctive slow, graceful curve. It was discovered early that curved blades cut better than straight blades on a slice stroke. The curved blade accentuated the eliptical slice motion, causing the edge to drag through a cut resulting in a deeper cut. By the time of Shogunate, the Nipponese blades had achieved functional perfection in construction and design.

This period also saw the introduction of the legendary paired swords of the samurai, the dai-sho (big-small) which consisted of a matching longsword (katana) and a shorter sword (wakizashi). In combat the longer katana served as the primary close-range weapon, typically wielded in two hands in the Nipponese kenjutsu style. The wakizashi was kept as a backup. One particular school of swordsmanship (Nitto Ichiryu - 'Two Swords as One' School) advocated wielding a sword in each hand, the katana to slice and thrust and the wakizashi to parry and block.

The dai-sho were worn only by samurai and served as a badge of rank of his warrior status in Nipponese society and were often valuable heirlooms. They were usually worn through a sash-belt (obi), edge up and tied with silk cords. The samurai treated their blades with reverence. To touch the sword of a samurai without permission was a terrible insult to the bearer. A samurai so insulted would be within his rights to take the head of the transgressor.

All swords made by swordsmiths of any appreciable ability were tested in some way. Common methods included cutting tests (tameshigari) on a variety of materials, notably bamboo, packed rice-stalks, or less frequently, dead corpses (animals or people). In some cases, blades were tested on live condemmed prisoners as well. Typically, an expert swordsman would make the cut and the sword later examined by witnesses to confirm the quality of the blade. Blades have been recorded as slicing through a pile of seven corpses with one cut.

3. The Blades in Game Terms

The bladed weapons carried by Nipponese warriors are almost unknown outside of the Nipponese islands and would probably make interesting (and expensive) items for wealthy collectors. Apart from the dai-sho, not all blades were forged to exacting standards. Weapons intended for use by simple foot soldiers (Ashigaru) are only of average quality (treat as standard weapons of the same type).

Blades crafted using the clay-tempering method (typically restricted to Tanto, Tachi, Katana, Wakizashi, and in rare cases Naginata) are granted a bonus of +1 Dmg to reflect the quality of the edge. These blades are assumed to fetch a price at least 5 times the standard price for an average weapon of the same type.

In addition, if some of the Nipponese bladelore is assumed to be true, blades forged by renowned master bladesmiths would have special abilities of their own (see Bladesmiths). Depending on the bladesmith, these incomparable blades would fetch a price at least 10 times the standard cost, even assuming the owner would want to part with such a treasure.

Some of the more common Nipponese bladed weapons:
(+1 Dmg if clay-tempered)

Aikuchi: A small hiltless dagger-sized knife often carried by women. Treat as a dagger.

Bisento: A huge bladed polearm weapon used in battlefield combat, probably derived from the Cathayan Kwan-to. It took a very strong man to wield it effectively but its weight made it nearly impossible to block attacks from this weapon.

Chisa-Katana: A variation of the katana, with a shorter (20 to 24 inches), more strongly curved blade. Typically used by guards in places where space prevented effective use of the standard katana. Treat as a katana in all respects.

Dai-katana: A slightly longer version of the katana with a blade of about 36 inches. Standard katanas had blades of about 28 to 30 inches. Treat as a katana.

Gunsen: A war-fan forged with iron or steel ribs. In some versions, the edges of the fan were sharpened. Treat as an improvised weapon due to its unwieldiness as a weapon.

Kama: The common sickle, typically carried by peasant farmers. Can be used as a weapon in an emergency. It was also discovered that these simple weapons were very effective at disarming drunken samurai and were carried by town guards as well.

Katana: A longsword usually paired with a wakizashi. The paired weapons are called dai-sho (big-small)

Kogara: A small knife cleverly made to fit into a special sheath inside the scabbard of a larger blade. Treat as dagger.

Kusari-gama: A kama attached to a length of chain with a weighted ball at the other end. Evolved from the common kama, this is a specialist weapon of great utility although it was a handful to master. Can be used as a kama or as a flail.

Naginata: A halberd-sized weapon with a narrow, curved blade. Use the statistics for halberd.

Ninjato: A straight longsword about the same size as a katana. Generally associated with ninja and is typically of lower quality. Its scabbard can double as a breathing tube for underwater use.

O-Tachi: Also called No-dachi, a large sword intended exclusively for two handed use on the battlefield. Can be as long as 4-5 feet. Treat as a two handed sword.

Shuriken: Generic name for small bladed or pointed weapons intended to be thrown. Typically used by Ninja as nuisance weapons to delay or blind an attacker.

Tachi: An older version of the katana with a slightly deeper curve and a different method of carry (behind the hip).

Tanto: A large knife shorter than the wakizashi. An older style often paired with the Tachi.

Yari: A spear of average quality. Standard weapon of the majority of non-samurai soldiers (Ashigaru).

4. Nipponese Swordsmiths

With the almost religious reverence of the sword, Swordsmiths are among the most respected artisans in Nipponese society. The great smiths of Nippon are considered 'national treasures', and their perfect, handmade blades are prized by emperors and samurai alike.

Each bladesmith would have a select team of apprentices, frequently from the bladesmith's own family who assisted in the forging and crafting of his blades. Upon the death of the bladesmith, his eldest apprentice takes over his forge. Given the respect the the Nipponese have for traditions, it is not uncommon for a family to produce several generations of bladesmiths.

With the time and labour it took to produce a quality blade, plus the religious overtones in the methods used, it was thought that the swords inherited the characteristics of their makers. Two of the most renowned (although for different reasons) swordsmiths in Nipponese history are Masamune and Muramasa.

Masamune is generally considered the greatest of all Nipponese swordsmiths, and was regarded as having great nobility of character. His perfect blades were said to reflect his nobility and were highly prized as heirlooms of samurai clans. Muramasa, a brilliant but mentally unstable smith made superb blades famed for their awesome cutting ability but had an uncanny tendency to bring their owners into violent conflict with others.

One old story told relates how leaves floating on a stream avoided the blade of a Masamune sword thrust into the stream. Then, a Muramasa sword was used instead and every leaf that touched the blade was cut cleanly in two.

It was common for swordsmiths to sign their work, typically inscribed onto the tang (the part that forms the handle) and professional engravers would tour the various smithies to sign the blades. Some of the most renowned smiths (including Masamune and Muramasa) scorned this practice as they considered that anyone worthy of their blades should recognize the maker by the quality of their work alone. In addition to the smiths's name, the name of sword tester who performed the test-cutting (tameshigari) was often also inscribed on the blade.

Game Effects:

Blades forged by Masamune confer a +10 Ld bonus and grants the bearer immunity to psychological effects (Fear, Terror, etc). In addition, all allies within 10 yards gain a +10 bonus to tests vs. psychological effects.

Blades forged by Muramasa all cut exceptionally well - all armour points except magical pluses are ignored. Muramasa blades are also unbreakable. However, his blades are considered unlucky. A devious GM will no doubt spring many interesting surprises for PCs brave enough to carry a Muramasa.

These effects are in addition to the +1 damage for Nipponese blades of quality. Swords by both master bladesmiths are treated as enchanted and have full effect on creatures only harmed by such weapons.

Basic career

Each bladesmith has several apprentices which do most of the heavy or dirty work around the forge - building and tending the fire, making coke from coal, and smelting iron ore. Bladesmiths jealously guard their knowledge and apprentices are typically from the smith's own family or clan. For an outsider to be accepted by an accomplished bladesmith would be a signal honour indeed.

Apprentices learn the basic skills and techniques of blademaking from their mentor. They learn how to build and tend a good fire, how to recognize the various forms of iron ore, smelt ores to make steel, the forging temperatures and how to judge them, and above all, how to manipulate steel efficiently with a hammer. Apprentices can forge servicable weapons - nothing spectacular, but they work.

WS BS S T W I A Dex Ld Int Cl WP Fel
- - +1 - +1 - - +10 - +10 +10 - -

50% Metallurgy
50% Very Strong

Heavy apron

Career Entries : Any, but see above.
Career Exits : Swordsmith (Nipponese)

Advanced Career

There is only one way to become a swordsmith - by completing the Swordsmith's Apprentice Career, taking all the advances. Being a swordsmith earns the respect of Nipponese of any rank and station. It is not unusual for renowned smiths to be invited to the palace by the Emperor to receive honours.

Swordsmiths have wide knowledge and skill in the forging and crafting of swords and other bladed weapons. Swordsmiths turn out top-quality work, producing weapons of great edge-holding, flexibility, and balance (+1 Dmg). They can also produce unusual weapons like gunsen (war-fans). Swordsmiths can also recognize the work of famous makers simply by their marks or unique characteristics.

WS BS S T W I A Dex Ld Int Cl WP Fel
- - +1 +1 +2 - - +20 - +10 +10 +10 -

Smithing - Nipponese Blades*
50% Very Strong

Forge and forging tools
D6 Apprentices
D3 Swords in various stages of crafting

Career Entries: Swordsmith's apprentice
Career Exits: Master swordsmith (Nipponese)

* New skill variant unique to Nippon which confers knowledge and skill in methods and techniques used to create Nipponese blades of quality (+1 Dmg)

Advanced Career

There is only one way to become a master swordsmith - by completing the Swordsmith Career, taking all the advances. Master swordsmiths are rare creatures indeed, their accumulated knowledge and methods the stuff of Nipponese legends.

Besides weapons of quality (+1 Dmg), master swordsmiths may also engage in long-term projects to create weapons of unsurpassed ability. All such blades forged by a master swordsmith will have unique abilities that mark them for what they are (Some examples are listed below).

WS BS S T W I A Dex Ld Int Cl WP Fel
- - +1 +1 +2 - - +30 - +20 +10 +20 -

Smithing - Nipponese Blades*
50% Very Strong

Forge and forging tools
D6 Apprentices
D3 Swords in various stages of crafting

* Master Swordsmiths may create weapons of quality (+1 Dmg) and master-crafted weapons with additional unique abilities. Some possibilities include:

5. Adventure Ideas

5.1 The Missing Smith

A renowned master smith has mysteriously disappeared from his forge. The daimyo in charge of the district has ordered his samurai retainer (one of the PCs) to investigate before the news spreads and the daimyo be shamed for losing a 'national treasure'.

Possible plots:

5.2 The Broken Sword

A broken sword would be a devastating blow to any Samurai ("the sword is the soul of a samurai"), and the owner (and his clan) would probably be in disgrace regardless of how the event occured (e.g. Godzilla stepped on a priceless Masamune katana).

Possible Plots:

Note : This is not so much a 'smith' scenario - just a pet idea that was inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Throne of Blood, starring the incomparable Toshiro Mifune.

The spirit of a disgraced samurai (who committed seppukku - ritual suicide - in shame after failing to defend his lord when his famed Muramasa blade broke in battle) haunts the broken sword. The teenage son of the samurai approaches the PCs and tells them the story and begs them to help his father rest in peace, reminding them of past favours done by his father (duty is a strong motivation for Nipponese characters).

Note: In my own campaign, the PCs solved the main plot, and were given the broken Muramasa blade as a gift from the grateful family of the disgraced samurai. One action-oriented ending would be for all the PCs to dream the same dream the next night - that they are participants in the last great battle which the disgraced samurai took part. This can be played out with WFB or the combat can be abstracted, just convey to the PCs the smell of blood, the screams of the dying, and the clashing of steel, etc. (see Braveheart) The wounds should seem real and the PCs should feel that their lives are in danger.

At some point during the battle, the PCS are nearby when a group of enemy horsemen break through the line, charging straight at the daimyo and his personal guard (hatamoto), including the disgraced samurai. The PCs can intervene and help or they can stand by and watch. Regardless of their response, the hatamoto and the enemy engage each other fiercely, with no quarter given.

At some point during the battle, the enemy leader strikes out at the daimyo with a huge tetsubo (iron-shod staff, treat as two-handed mace) at which the disgraced samurai lunges, interposing his fragile-seeming Muramasa between his daimyo and the enemy weapon. There is an awesome crack and tetsubo is split (If the PCs have been told this story, they will know that this was where the real sword was broken). Taking advantage of the stunned enemy, the samurai slices off his head cleanly.

If the PCs were watching, the samurai and the remaining hatamoto finish off the rest of the enemy. The samurai then turns and bows to the PCs. The PCs wake up at this point.

If the PCs fought valiantly alongside the disgraced samurai, once the enemy are defeated, he will bow and present the PC who most impressed him with his Muramasa. The PCS wake up at this point. The lucky PC who was given the katana will wake up holding the Muramasa, with a perfect, whole blade once more.

6. Sources

Tanto : Japanese Knives and Knife Fighting
by Russell Maynard
A very complete book which details the various Japanese blades, their
construction and use.

Blade Magazine Aug 97 : The Japanese Sword - Fact vs Myth
by Steve Schwarzer
An contemporary master bladesmith shares his opinions on the Japanese blade.

The Craft of the Japanese Sword
by Leon & Hiroko Kapp and Yoshindo Yoshihara
A modern Japanese bladesmith explains his craft. Yoshihara is regarded by many to be the best living Japanese swordsmith. Possibly the best single book on the subject.

The Way of the Samurai
by Richard Storry and Werner Forman
A historical study of the Samurai era, but contains some information on Japanese swords.

Don Fogg Custom Knives
Some thoughts and methods from an modern American bladesmith who specializes in Japanese-style blades. Nice pictures too.

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