Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Is it OK to be arbitrary?

Working on Chanbara again today, and I'm almost done with the revisions to the actual game-play parts.  I decided to do this part first this time, to better build the classes and special abilities.  Last time, I did the classes first and then tried to match game play rules to the classes.  It's going much faster this time, partly because I only need to rewrite or tweak sections of the previous version, rather than construct it whole cloth.

And I'm now at the part about rewards.  The game will allow standard D&D style play, where you go fight monsters and bring back loot.  It's a good way to run a fun game, so Chanbara supports it.  But since this is a Japanese fantasy game of samurai and ninja, I want the game to do more than that.

I mentioned a while back that I was re-inspired to do more than just D&D in funny hats with this by some posts by Tedankhamen.  I want to reward players for behaving in genre appropriate ways, but without needing to go into pages and pages of blather about Confucian societies, Bushido, etc.  Because really, I'm not an expert on that stuff, so it would be blather.  Maybe better blather than someone who's only experienced Japan through anime, but blather nonetheless.

Giri, or duty/obligation, was easy.  I'd figured that one out before Ted penned his pieces.  PCs have allegiances to their feudal lord, high abbot, jonin ninja, sensei, family, comrades in arms, peasant association, etc.  The norms of a Confucian culture expect one to respect these bonds.  In game terms, the simple way to do that is to award gold for XP, but ONLY for gold donated to one of the (NPC) groups a character is allied with.  Of course, story awards can also be given for performing some duty or quest, but the fastest advancement comes from giving up your hard earned loot to advance the goals of the group in which you are a member.

Ninjou, or humane/compassionate acts, is harder.  As a GM, you can't railroad your players into behaving that way.  At least, not if you want the campaign to go anywhere.  So there needs to be some system to recognize and reward such acts.  But again, assuming the average person who buys Chanbara* and plays it won't have a strong grasp on Japanese culture and genre traditions, it's going to be hard for them to figure out what constitutes an act of "ninjou" and what doesn't.  And how to reward it?

At first, I thought about an Action Point or Story Point mechanic as a reward.  But I don't think having meta-game mulligans will add anything to play.  So that leaves us with XP awards and in-game rewards.  In-game rewards should of course be possible, but then they are also possible for acts in line with Giri as well as acts that aren't in line with either giri or ninjou.  So there's no point in trying to codify them.  The XP rewards, though, are trickier.

In adventures I write and publish, I could always include examples of how an encounter could be resolved to earn a "ninjou" reward.  But that doesn't really help the GM making his or her own adventures a lot.  I could do a bunch of research and blather on for pages and pages in a (probably vain) attempt to get the reader to understand a foreign cultural concept - but I won't.

Instead, what I'm thinking of now is something like this.  Acts of "ninjou" will have a set reward level, something like 5% or 10% of the XP needed to reach the next level.  I'll give a brief example of the idea of what acts of ninjou are like (similar to Ted's post linked above).  During play, any player may elect ANOTHER player's actions as deserving of a "ninjou" award.  Arbitrarily.  All other players and the GM must agree that the action was in-line with their understanding of the concept.  If they agree, the player earns the bonus XP for their character.  Again, arbitrary.  And while it means that some groups will misunderstand the concept and award things that a Japanese person might feel doesn't qualify, I think it won't matter.  It will be as rare or as common as the group wants, and will hopefully get players thinking of ways to RP their character so as to earn the award.

And groups that just want to loot ruins full of bakemono and rokuro-kubi can ignore it and have fun hacking and slashing through their adventures with nothing lost from the game-play.

Best of both worlds, I think.

*yes, I'm going to have it for sale, which means a PDF and a PoD version since so many people asked me for print versions of Flying Swordsmen.


  1. Really looking forward to this and the revised Flying Swordsmen (will the latter be a PoD as well)?

  2. I was afraid when I wrote those posts and talked with you that I might be too picky about what is Japanese. Glad to see you've taken it and made it your own. Look forward to see how it comes out in the end!

  3. Just a thought while reading this, not sure if it would apply. What if certain actions always reward special xp, like slaying demons (or oni or whatever) or actions which specifically benefit the society. I do like the idea of voting and nominating other players for in line behaviour.

  4. Tim - Hopefully. If Chanbara does well, I'll send an email Daxiong's way and see what he'd charge me to either license the current cover image for commercial use, or possibly commission an original cover piece! That's been the big sticking point with Flying Swordsmen not already being in PoD.

    Ted - yeah, your thoughts helped spur my own, but I didn't feel like I needed to stick to it 100%. Hopefully my compromise version will allow those with the interest to play with more of a "true to conventions" manner, and those who don't know or care will still enjoy the game.

    Pierce - Thanks for the vote of confidence on the voting thing. It's one thing my brief experience with White Wolf games (Trinity) and story games made me appreciate.

    Monster slaying already gives XP, just like in D&D, so I don't think specific monsters need double rewards. Also, GMs will be encouraged to give story awards when the party meets its goals (whether NPC/GM given or created by the players), so I think your second idea about actions that benefit society is already covered.