The Arms and Armor of Dungeon Samurai

The titular dungeon of Dungeon Samurai is a terrible place. Filled with endless mobs of bloodthirsty monsters, cunningly concealed traps and invisible gas clouds, it is designed for the singular purpose of destroying men. To survive in the dungeon, the samurai must count on a wide array of specialized equipment.

In November 2018, I had the great good fortune of visiting Japan during my honeymoon. Among the places I visited were the Samurai and Ninja Museum and a shop that sold replica weapons and armour. For the first time, I saw in person the gear real-world samurai would have taken in battle — both in this world and in the dungeon.

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The weapons mounted on the wall represent some of the weapons samurai typically employed in their duties.

The top two weapons are unique to Japan. The one on top is a sodegarami while the one below it is a sasumata. These were arresting tools, employed by samurai police to restrain and capture suspects. The sodegarami was used to entangle the sleeves and clothing of a suspect to facilitate a disarm, while the sasumata was designed to capture the head, limbs and joints and pin a person in place for a safe capture. The prongs on the shafts and heads prevent the suspect from grabbing the weapon and freeing himself. Even today, sasumata can be found in the hands of Japanese police and inside schools — the latter to detain intruders for the police.

In Dungeon Samurai, sasumata take on the role of the iconic ten-foot pole found in Dungeons and Dragons. Their length and prongs allows frontline warriors to sweep for traps and tripwires from a safe distance. In close combat, they are normally thrown at a target to distract them — and to free the other hand for a spear. But they can also be used in their historic role of pinning joints and limbs.

The firearm in the picture is a tanegashima, or matchlock musket. The introduction of reliable matchlocks to Japan changed the face of warfare forever. Musket-armed conscripts with a few months of training were capable of slaughtering samurai who had trained their entire lives for war with a single trigger pull. Japanese daimyo quickly embraced the gun, adopting matchlocks in vast numbers.

Unfortunately for the samurai, matchlocks are suicidal in the dungeon. Ignited by a cord of burning match, a matchlock poses a serious fire hazard in the dungeon. In a labyrinth filled with deadly clouds of flammable gas, simply carrying a live matchlock is a recipe for disaster. This forces the samurai to rely on cold steel and hand weapons… for now.

Below the tanegashima is a yari, or spear. Contrary to popular depictions, spears were the weapon of choice for many militaries prior to the musket age. They were cheap and easy to use, making them ideal for conscripts who received only a bare minimum of training before being sent to war. Their long reach gave them an advantage on the battlefield, and properly-made spearheads could penetrate mail armour. This particular yari is most likely a te-yari, a hand spear, meant for use in close quarters and home defence.

The dungeon is cramped and narrow. There is barely enough room to swing a sword, and there are huge monsters that can crush a man under their bulk. The samurai rely extensively on short spears in combat, keeping the enemy at bay with their longer reach. The yari they use are called jumonji yari, a spear with a pair of side blades. While more complex to use, the side blades offer greater tactical flexibility, including entangling an enemy’s limbs or slashing at his neck or tendons from unexpected angles.

The bows on the racks are specimens of classical Japanese bows. Called yumi, they were historically made of bamboo and hemp. Samurai were called men of the horse and bow, and archery was a traditional samurai martial skill. However, the rise of the tanegashima saw yumi relegated to a secondary role on the battlefield, then quickly superceded altogether.

Close combat in the dungeon is dangerous. Where possible, the humans prefer to engage enemies from a distance. With tanegashima being too dangerous to use, they must rely on bows. But not Japanese yumi; at two metres in length, they are too tall and ungainly for the dungeon, and many of the warriors aren’t archers themselves. Instead, the warriors employ European-style goat’s foot crossbows. Unlike conventional bows, crossbows don’t require long years of practice to obtain proficiency and sheer muscle mass, reducing the training time humans need before they are ready for war.

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Samurai are famous for wearing two swords, one long and one short. Known as a daisho, the long sword was employed outdoors and in open spaces, while the shorter blade was used indoors. Depending on their mission, samurai would choose between three kinds of blades: a katana, or long sword; a wakizashi, which served as a short sword; or a tanto, a small knife.

The dungeon is too cramped to swing a traditional katana. With samurai fighting in tight formations, a careless swing could cut or stab the man next to you. Nonetheless, the samurai need backup weapons in case they can’t use their spears. The katana of Dungeon Samurai are about sixty centimetres long, as long as an o-wakizashi, or long wakizashi. Any longer than that and fratricide becomes a real concern.

When the enemy is in at the grapple, even a katana is too long. This is the realm of the tanto. Tantojutsu is dead simple. Pin the enemy against a wall or throw him to the ground, draw the tanto, and stab him somewhere important. Repeat until he dies or you black out from exhaustion, whichever comes first.

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Notice that the knives on the lower shelf are constructed differently from traditional tanto. These blades have reinforced spines and terminate in sharp points. They are called yoroi doshi, or armor piercers.

On the battlefields of feudal Japan, samurai often encountered armoured foes. A katana is a superb slasher, but it is almost useless in penetrating armour. During yoroi kumiuchi, or armoured combat, a standard samurai tactic is to get in close to the enemy, take him down, then draw his knife to finish him off. Samurai armed with yoroi doshi would be able to punch through the links in mail armour, saving them the trouble of hunting for an unarmoured spot.

The monsters of the dungeon are constantly adapting. While the humans have an edge in weapons and armour, this will not last. Yoroi doshi quickly become invaluable close quarters weapons in the close-quarters nightmare that is warfare in the dungeon.

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Samurai wore armour both for protection on the battlefield and as a symbol of wealth. Rich samurai and daimyo would embellish their armour with silk cords, gold trim and ornate decorations. The horns on the helmet served to allow friendly forces to identify the samurai, and to intimidate the enemy.

In the dungeon, all the embellishments must go. If it doesn’t serve a practical battlefield purpose, it is removed. There are no horns on the helmet; they just get in the way in a close quarters melee. Likewise, the distinctive menpo, or facial armour, had to go. Heat builds up quickly under the mask, and if a samurai were struck in the face, the menpo could potentially break his bones. The armour of the dungeon samurai is plain and dull, mass-produced for maximum utility and minimum fuss. In this sense, it has more to do with the left-hand suit of armour in the first picture in this series than the above two photos.

The dungeon samurai also fight in conditions vastly removed from their historical forebears. Operating deep in the dungeon, they must sustain themselves with what they can carry on their backs. To resupply, they must fight their way back to their forward operating base. In such tight confines performing heavy physical labour for hours on end, dehydration and heatstroke are major considerations.

Weight and bulk is a premium in the dungeon. Consequently, the samurai are issued tatami gusoku, lightweight suits of folding armour composed of metal plates connected with chainmail, sewn to a cloth backing. The mail offers both reasonable protection and ventilation. However, as the samurai venture deeper into the darkness, tatami gusoku won’t be enough to save them.

The tour of the Samurai and Ninja Museum and the visit to the bugei shop were enlightening experiences. I saw firsthand the arms and armour historical samurai would have used, My only regret was that I didn’t have an opportunity to handle live steel. But that can wait for another time.

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The Arms and Armor of Dungeon Samurai
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