Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Why You Should Buy Chanbara Part 2: Class and Profile Inspirations

There are only three character classes in Chanbara: Bushi (warrior), Mahotsukai (magician) and Shinobi (spy). Each class has its own advancement chart providing new levels at certain amounts of XP. Bushi advance the fastest. This is a derivation from standard D&D/OSR, where Fighters are the middle of the road advancement class. I did it on purpose, to encourage more fighters. Chanbara movies and TV (like most fantasies) focus on warriors for the most part.

Sounds boring, right? Well, if you haven't been keeping up with the development (or my previous post), each class gets three or four subclasses to choose from called Profiles. I'll give a taste of each profile here, and a few notes about what inspired me to include each. Also, for the record, early on I had each class idea as its own distinct class, but there was a lot of overlap. So I decided to stick to my Flying Swordsmen roots with only 3 general classes and profiles for specialization. Also, unlike in Flying Swordsmen, I don't offer an option to go without a profile, but I'm sure any halfway decent GM could work something out for that.

Bushi (Warrior) is obviously like the Fighter. Instead of magic and lots of cool special abilities, they’re good at combat. The name “bushi” is actually a synonym for samurai. The Chinese characters mean “martial gentleman” (more or less) while the character for samurai means “servant.” It should be no surprise that the aristocratic warriors of historical Japan preferred to call themselves bushi, while others preferred to call them samurai. The Bushi gets four profiles.

1. Abarenbo (rowdy) are usually lower class tough guys. They might be yakuza, they might be ashigaru footsoldier deserters, they might just be the village bully. I give an option for them to be of the Buke (aristocrat) status if they're rikishi (sumo wrestlers). They get powers that make them tougher and stronger, for the most part. They're kind of like the Bushi class of the original OA, but not quite.

The name Abarenbo I got from a TV show, Abarenbo Shogun (where the shogun goes around Edo disguised as a low ranking samurai to help solve problems and get in lots of fights). The profile itself is inspired by Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro's character) in Seven Samurai, the character Rikimaru in the movie Red Shadow: Akakage (played by former rikishi Mainoumi Shuhei; not to be confused with the Rikimaru of the Tenchu video games), and the stock 'big strong (and probably dumb)' member of the 5-man team shows.

2. Kensei (weapon master) were a no brainer. They were in OA (misspelled as kensai), and they're such a trope of the genre. They don't need to master the sword, their main weapon could be anything, but the inspiration usually comes from sword-masters like the historical Miyamoto Musashi. Zatoichi the blind swordsman, and Kyuzo (Miyaguchi Seiji's character) in Seven Samurai are also examples.

As usual, kensei get really good with one specific weapon, and their powers mostly don't work with other weapons.

3. Samurai (warrior-aristocrats) are again a no brainer. This is designed to be the 'default' option of the Bushi class, and can cover both samurai serving a lord and ronin who are on their own. They get a mix of offensive and defensive abilities as they progress. Obviously some of the inspiration for their abilities comes from previous games, like both OA supplements.

4. Sohei (warrior-monk) have also been part of previous OA supplements, and the big question for me during development was whether to have them be more warrior with some magic, or magician with some fighting skill. In the end, I went with mainly warrior/supplemental magician. In fact, gaining spellcasting is an option for the class. Their martial abilities are fairly offensive, but their magic is mostly defensive.

The historical Benkei is probably the number one source of inspiration for the sohei class, but also the actual warrior monks of Mt. Hiei (and the Shi comics I read back in the 90's inspired by those historical monks) and the Ikko-Ikki sects of religious fanatics who fielded armies during Japan's Warring States period.

Mahotsukai literally means “magic user” so it's an appropriate name for the spell casting class in the game. It has that nice old school resonance. In Japanese, “mahotsukai” is used for fictional wizards and magicians like The Wizard of Oz. The mahotsukai gets three profiles.

I didn’t want to replicate the old school cleric/MU dichotomy exactly, so the three profiles have some unusual or at least different features. Each is pulled from history and/or source media. Like many cultures, the Japanese connect magic and religion so all three have a religious connotation, but none are quite like the D&D Cleric class. All have spell use as their primary function, but none is a magical scholar like the D&D MU.

1. Onmyoji (exorcist) are historical. The name means Yin-Yang Master and they got their ideas from Chinese esoteric Taoism. They were astrologers and astronomers, in charge of creating calendars for the emperor. They also used Feng Shui geomancy to protect the emperor from evil spirits. Abe-no-Seimei is the most famous onmyoji, and there are lots of legends and stories about him. The Onmyoji movies I reference are about him.

In the game, onmyoji are exorcists and demon hunters. They are better at combat, at least against spirit creatures, than the soryo and yamabushi. In that way they are like the Cleric, but their spell list is a bit more combat-oriented like the MU.

2. Soryo(priest) simply means priest, and for this profile I tried to keep it generic enough that it could cover Buddhist-types as well as Shinto-types, or even foreign religious missionaries (if playing a pseudo-historical game). They are the worst combatants (so in a way like the MU), but their spells are for healing, protection, and interaction, so somewhere between the traditional Cleric and the Bard. Soryo are the “face” class of Chanbara. I didn't have any historical or fictional characters in mind with this profile, it's more of an archetype.

3. Yamabushi (mountain ascetic) are historical, and also known as shugenja (misspelled shukenja in 1E OA). In OA (1E) they are like clerics with martial arts. 3E OA has them based on the L5R setting of Rokugan, where they are court sorcerers. My take goes to the original yamabushi of Japan. They (the real ones – and yes, they still exist) believe that living in seclusion on mountain tops, exposed to the elements, grants magic powers.

In Chanbara, this means they have elemental affinities and magic. Legends connect them to tengu, tanuki, and other yokai creatures. They are the quirky hermit magicians of the setting. This makes them more like the traditional D&D MU in abilities but they are part of a religious group. They are the most “anime” of the three profiles.

Shinobi (spy) – I spent a LOT of time considering whether to call the class shinobi or ninja. They mean the same thing, after all. In the end I went with shinobi because it's the more historical term and it's possible to run a Shinobi class character as something other than the modern concept of the ninja. Especially but not exclusively with the Taijutsuka (martial artist) profile.

And I went with spy for the English translation because that's what they were – spies, saboteurs and guerrilla fighters. Of course, in a game drawing inspiration from cinema, other games and comics as well as history and legend, there are options for REAL ULTIMATE POWER (remember that dumb old website?) badass martial artists, assassins, and flying through the air wailing on guitars decapitate you for looking types. Well, maybe not that last one. Shinobi have four profiles.

1. Kagemusha (shadow warrior) are the profile for magical shinobi. I borrowed the name from the Kurosawa film, which has nothing to do with ninja, and instead is about the death of Takeda Shingen, where he ordered his men to impersonate him after he died to win the battle they were engaged in. Inspiration for the profile comes from the character Dogen in the movies Castle of Owls/Owl’s Castle, pretty much everyone in the anime Ninja Scroll, and what little I know of shows like Naruto. The OA ninja abilities to walk on water or walk through walls are here, and they (like the Sohei profile for Bushi) have the option to cast some spells.

2. Ninja (secret agent) is the next profile, and rely on gear to supplement their espionage abilities, and have a few special abilities to have the right tool for the job even if the player didn’t plan for that contingency. The Tenchu games for Playstation 1 and 2 were big inspirations for this profile, as were the Iga ninja protagonists of Owl’s Castle. Classic Batman Cartoons where he always has just the right tool on his utility belt may have been an unconscious inspiration as well.

3. Taijutsuka (martial artist) are obviously martial artist ninja, and are a lot like the monk in D&D. They are more combat and acrobatics oriented, although they can still sneak around. The legendary Saru-tobi Sasuke (Flying Monkey Sasuke) is one inspiration for this profile. Yes, the athletics competition TV show is named for the legendary ninja. The main characters in the movie Red Shadow: Akakage would probably be Taijutsuka profile, if not Ninja profile. In my play test game, Dean used the Shinobi/Taijutsuka to play a wandering monk rather than a ninja, and it worked well.

4. Finally, the Uragata (infiltrator) is closest to the historical shinobi/ninja. They are masters of disguise and deception. Rather than sneak around in black pajamas, they will pretend to be workers, entertainers, clergy, or soldiers to hide in plain sight and spy on enemies. I got inspiration from the movie Owl’s Castle for these shinobi, as well as historical accounts.


  1. Fascinating - and inspirational - reading. Can't wait for the book to see print.

  2. This is a lot of Japanese language and culture. Is Chanbara fantasy Japan? I thought it was supposed to be more generic "Eastern" fantasy.

    Also, I thought you lived in Korea. Why no Korean equivalents?

  3. This is the Japanese fantasy game. Flying Swordsmen was the Chinese fantasy game. A Korean game may come later.

    1. @ Dennis:

      Ahhh...I get it now.
      : )

  4. I've got a vague idea of a game like Pugmire or Redwall, where all the characters are anthropomorphic animals each representing a different social class, since Goryeo/Joseon Korea was very socially stratified. But I can't figure out how that would fit on a basically D&D chassis, or if it should be a different type of game.