RPG Evolution: The Final War

In the 1500s, Japan was roiled with a war that lasted over a century. But there was one man who not only put a stop to the endless warring, but ushered in an era of unprecedented peace – at a very bloody price.


The Sengoku Period​

The Sengoku period, also known as the Warring States period, was a time of massive civil wars and social upheavals that persisted throughout the 15th and 16th centuries. Two complicating factors kept the war boiling: the introduction of the arquebus in 1543 by Europeans; and the ongoing battle to end samurai rule by the Ikkō-ikki, a group of autonomous rebels backed by the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Buddhism.

The emperor was more a figurehead, with his shogun the de facto ruler. Regional feudal lords known as daimyo warred often, climaxing in the Ōnin War of 1467, which collapsed the feudal system of Japan under the Ashikaga shogunate, precipitating a battle between the various samurai warlords and clans for control of Japan.

For player characters, this is an opportunity to establish reputations. It’s a dangerous time, with the merchant class and monks shoring up castle defenses just to stay out of the fracas. There are plenty of opportunities for classes of all types to play a prominent role, particularly clerics, fighters, monks, and rogues.

Three Warlords​

The period culminated with a series of three warlords – Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu– who gradually unified Japan.

At first, it was Nobunaga who was dominant. He led a series of battles, court appointments, and castle constructions to consolidate power and put an end to the constant conflicts. When Nobunga was attacked by one of his generals in a surprise ambush, he committed seppuku. The subsequent power vacuum allowed Hideyoshi a chance to gain a foothold, consolidating power over the remaining daimyos but unable to only rule as Kampaku (Imperial Regent) rather than Sei-i Taishōgun due to his common birth. This was also the time of siege, including the Siege of Odawara, in which Hideyoshi eliminated the Hōjō clan by besieging Odawara Castle. The siege was mostly a battle of resources, with little actual conflicts. After three months, the defenders surrendered. One of Hideyoshi’s top generals, Ieyasu, was given the Hōjō lands, a steppingstone to his later ascension to power. Hideyoshi ruled Japan for 12 years, leaving his five-year-old son, Toyotomi Hideyori, as his successor.

PCs might align themselves with any of the three warlords are different points in their careers. Nobunaga’s influence keeps the other two warlords and their families from open conflict at first, but that tentative peace will not last.

The Battle of Seikgahara​

Hideyoshi’s death left a power vacuum. Ieyasu, at the peak of his influence, had the support of the regency government as well as many eastern warlords. Hideyori clan loyalists and western lords rallied behind Ishida Mitsunari, a samurai and military commander. With both sides making threats and building up their armies, war was inevitable.

It all came to a head at dawn in Sekigahara on October 21, 1600. Morning rain blanketed the area with dense fog, causing Ieyasu’s advance guard to stumble into Mitsunari’s army. Both sides retreated, but now aware of their rival’s presence, prepared for war. When a wind blew away the fog, what commenced was the largest battle of Japanese feudal history. The war was punctuated by sudden betrayals, daimyos refusing to accept commands, and a commander who was too busy eating to comply with orders. Ieyasu’s forces were victorious. Hideyori was forced to abandon claims to power, but he was allowed to keep lordship of Osaka Castle. Three years later, Ieyasu was shogun.

PCs can play essential members of Tokugawa Ieyasu's forces during the pivotal Battle of Sekigahara. Their actions and decisions on the battlefield can influence the outcome of the battle. After victory, they can help consolidate power for the Tokugawa clan, dealing with remnants of the opposition.

The Rise of Ieyasu​

Ieyasu knew he would have to structure his regime to last. Unlike his two predecessors, he took steps to ensure stability and control of his legacy.

The first step was to deal with the arquebuses which undermined the power of sword-wielding samurai. He requestioned a large proportion of Japanese-made arquebuses known as tanegashima and stored them in Edo, the capital.

He also instituted sankin-kōtai, in which daimyos had to live in the capital alternate living for a year in their domain and in Edo. No daimyo could have more than one fortress within his fiefdom, and many castles were demolished—material that was recycled to further fortify Ieyasu’s own castle in Edo.

There was just one loose end: Toyotomi Hideyori. Finding a pretense to attack Osaka Castle, Ieyasu besieged it not once but twice. The second time, nearly all the defenders were killed, including Hideyori, his mother, and his infant son. Only Hideyoshi’s wife Senhime, a granddaughter of Ieyasu, was spared.

PCs might be tasked with enforcing Ieyasu's policies, including the control of firearms, fortification reduction, and the "sankin-kotai" policy. They may also encounter opposition from daimyo resistant to Tokugawa rule. They can also participate in the Siege of Osaka Castle, the final confrontation between Tokugawa Ieyasu and the Toyotomi clan. They must navigate the complex political landscape of the time, which includes loyalty tests, betrayal, and the ultimate battle against Toyotomi Hideyori's forces.

Peace, at a Price​

Ieyasu passed away at age 73 in 1616. In life, he was alternately feared and venerated. A savvy political operative and military commander, Ieyasu was loyal to those who served him but was merciless in destroying those who opposed him. He never forgot a slight, and wasn’t afraid to execute women and children if they were on the wrong side of war. He personally participated in 90 battles.

Unlike the deaths of his predecessors, no great civil war erupted from Ieyasu’s passing. His dynasty would usher in the Great Peace, which would last for centuries (see the above picture to comprehend how long it lasted and just how it compares to other countries). It came at significant cost, including the loss of several freedoms of the people he ruled. For PCs who started their adventures at about the time as when Ieyasu came of age in 1556, it’s an opportunity to retire their characters in an era less tolerant of adventurers.
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca


Did anyone know what an incel was in 2003? I know the word was created in the 1990s, only because I looked it up, but I doubt many people in the audience was familiar with the term at the time.
The term? No, not that I know of. I would have thought that word was coined much later. But incels, weeaboos, etc., certainly existed, long before words to describe them did. They seem like an internet phenomenon but I'm sure they predate the internet too.

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