Jon Peterson at Playing at the World has posted Bruce Sterling’s homebrew samurai class from 1978. It’s quite good, actually. The restrictions of the Samurai Code will force the player character to commit seppuku if he’s wounded and retreats without returning a wound to his opponent. The class’s special abilities are doled out in a similar schedule as a magic-user’s spells, anticipating to some extent the feat trees of later editions. And Sterling was as much concerned with addressing game design issues as he is in capturing the flavor of Far East warriors. For example, the immunity to Sleep spells available at level one notably addresses the most prominent “I win button” available to low level parties. Similarly, the bonuses to resisting Charm spells available starting at the third level provides some protection at the second most common “instant win” ability of classic D&D.
Though samurai characters are relatively uncommon in Appendix N fiction, Sterling was far from being the only person at the time to put them in gaming terms:
By the time Bruce Sterling incorporated Samurai into his campaign, around 1977, there were thus already precedents to draw upon, but Summers tells us that Sterling’s are “by far the best” rules available at the time. Efforts didn’t stop there: in fact, that year an entire Japanese-themed role-playing game entered the market: Tyr’s Bushido (later reprinted by Fantasy Games Unlimited). No less an authority than Dave Arneson was approached by the Chaosium to write a game called Samurai in 1978, though sadly the project never came to fruition. TSR revisited the Samurai class in The Dragon #49 (as an overpowered non-player character only) and then most famously in Oriental Adventures (1985)
Meanwhile, over at Gaming Ballistic, Douglas Cole has a post on working up samurai characters in the latest edition of D&D. Judging by his write-up, the system is enough of a tool-kit that it can be done pretty well out of the box. Doug notes that in his take on it, he fully embraces whatever mistakes James Clavell might have made in Shogun. While that sort of thing is liable to irk historians and nit-pickers, I think playing to peoples’ false impressions is actually a good idea in tabletop role-playing. (Keeping things moving and helping players connect with the actual gameplay is the key thing there, after all….)
Probably the most striking thing about the AD&D Samurai from Oriental Adventures when compared to both of these adaptions is that a lot of effort was spent working how many bushi, samurai, and specialists will enter the character’s service as he attains the higher levels. The daimyo that the player character serves takes an active part in the game as well, offering samurai positions as “jito” and “shugo” when they achieve levels seven and eight respectively. When the AD&D line was adapted to a far east setting, the domain rules were treated as an integral part of the class descriptions.