Friday, February 16, 2018

Why You Should Buy Chanbara part 1: How It's Different

I'd like to lay out my reasoning for creating Chanbara, explain a bit about the design process, and show what I did differently from other games that I think will make this game worthwhile for you. I hate 'marketing speak' and I tend to be too honest at times which makes me terrible at sales. Still, I think I'm not just blowing my own horn here, and I am proud of this little game of mine, so I'm just going to lay out what I'm proud of and hopefully that will be enough to excite your interest.

Shortly after Flying Swordsmen came out, I thought about making a companion game for a feudal fantasy Japan setting to go with the fantasy Golden Age China setting of FS. At first, I thought I'd just stick to the Flying Swordsmen system, just with a few different class profile options and a different roster of monsters and spells. And I tried that, but it didn't work so well. To be honest, I had limited myself when making Flying Swordsmen since it was a retro-clone of Dragon Fist. But I quickly realized that a pure a la carte special ability system like in FS wouldn't work well in a game with stronger divisions in what samurai, ninja and the various spellcaster types should do in the game.

The next version had twelve classes arranged in a triangle pattern of combat/trickery/magic abilties. There were demi-human classes with evenly divided abilities (tengu was fighter/mage, kappa was fighter/ninja, and kitsune was nina/mage), one class that was pure (samurai was pure warrior, ninja was pure sneak, yamabushi was pure mage) and a class that was primarily X with a bit of Y (sohei was warrior with a bit of magician, kensei was warrior with a bit of sneak, etc.). There were three separate lists of special abilities, and different types of spells, and... It was a mess. And confusing. The early play test was fun, but I spent a lot more time than I wanted trying to explain things.

So the final version I tried to make as simple as possible. I went back to the idea of a base class with profiles from Flying Swordsmen, with three classes: Bushi (warrior), Shinobi (spy) and Mahotsukai (magician). The demi-humans (with the addition of the tanuki) were relegated to an appendix as optional. Instead of an a la carte list of special abilities divided into power levels, every few levels you get a choice of two special abilities for your profile [which leaves room for myself or others to create more options for each profile in the game]. With the divorce of the idea that profiles needed to partly overlap with other class type abilities (it's still there a little bit), I was able to come up with some different ideas that fit the genre. I'll talk about the classes and profiles, and the inspiration behind each archetype, in another post.

Figuring out the character class options was hard. I figured that would be the hardest part of the game. But it wasn't. Flying Swordsmen has a stunt die mechanic (inheritted from Dragon Fist) where the die size is determined by your ability scores, and increases as you level. You can roll one every round of combat and they have several effects. It's fun and chaotic and works well for Wuxia gaming...but for a chanbara-themed game, it's not what I wanted. I tried several different dice mechanics. I tried having each character (and the monsters) have dice for fighting, magic and stealth/trickery, at different die sizes by class specialty. I tried having decreasing dice (if your Might [strength] die is d8, after you use it once it becomes a d6, and so on). It was also a pain to keep track of. Finally, I decided to simplify the dice. Bushi (warriors) get Combat dice. Mahotsukai (magicians) get Magic dice. Shinobi (spies) get Skill dice. Each character gets a pool of these dice to spend each game day, and many of the profile abilities are dependent on using one. It worked really well in play, and is similar to the 5E Battle Master Fighter's Superiority Dice.

And even harder than the bonus dice mechanic was figuring out how to motivate the players to actually play according to genre tropes. Of course, classic D&D works because the motivation is in the XP system. Kill monsters, get XP to level up. Collect treasure, get XP to level up. It took me a while, but I eventually came up with the Allegiance System. All characters will have some allegiances. They can be to the character's family, lord, temple, gang, teacher, trade union, etc. As long as it's an NPC individual or organization, it's fine. Having allegiances ties the characters into the game world. It helps you as a player define your character. As a DM, it helps you flesh out your game world. It allows for conflicting motivations (your lord wants you to eliminate a distant clan member, but your clan of course does not!). But that wasn't enough. I needed a way to tie it to XP, because it's really XP that motivates players.

Eventually, based on some insightful posts on Japanese fantasy by my friend Ted at his blog, I got the idea that I should keep XP for defeating (not necessarily killing) enemies as in D&D, and use a variation of the 'carousing' rules used by many OSR bloggers. Characters in Chanbara only gain XP from treasure if it's donated to a liege. There's also a third way to gain XP, by playing to genre tropes of choosing humane actions over duty. Since many gamers may find the concepts hard to gauge, I recommend in the book that the group nominate players for this kind of XP bonus, and the group vote if it should be awarded or not. It's a bit story-gamish, and fuzzy, but I think the game will play just fine if players don't worry about this third type of XP (or if the DM just hands it out when he/she feels it's justified). Anyway, the idea that you can advance faster by serving your lieges' interests (along with advice to the DM to use liege conflicts to good effect to inspire difficult choices) makes the game stronger. It's definitely better than the 1E OA Honor System, which is pretty much a straight jacket for roleplay, or 3E OA with advancement based only on combat.

So to sum up, I think Chanbara is different from other Asian fantasy games mainly in its use of the Allegiance System tied to XP advancement. Its selection of classes and special abilities, including the special bonus dice system, is also fun and helps set the game apart from other OSR games.


  1. Heads up: the Shinobi's level table is not correct (it's a copy of the Mahoutsukai's)

  2. Just the one column, which I remember fixing already... Thanks for pointing it out. One more revision to go.