Saturday, March 31, 2018

Why You Should Buy Chanbara Part 3: About Me

Buy It Here!
Part 3 of why I think you should buy my game.

When I made Flying Swordsmen, I was doing a retro-clone of Chris Pramas' Dragon Fist game. I'm into kung fu and wuxia movies, but it's not my abiding passion. I just thought Dragon Fist was a neat and fun little game that I didn't want to be lost when Green Ronin got the rights from WotC but then it (the updated version Green Ronin wanted to do) got mired down in production hell. So I decided to clone it, even though I am FAR from an expert in the genre, just a guy who enjoys it.

And I think I did pretty well.

With Chanbara, though, I do know exactly what I'm doing with the genre and the game. Many of you probably remember (or your memory will be jogged when I mention it), but I spent 10 years living in Japan teaching English. Before I went there, I took 3 years of Japanese language classes in university. While there, I continued to improve my language abilities, and immersed myself in the culture quite a bit. I almost said "as much as I could" there, but that's not strictly true. I spent plenty of time with other foreigner friends, even after I'd made some good Japanese friends. But I did spend a lot of time with those Japanese friends, and watching Japanese TV/movies, playing Japanese video games, and traveling around the country rather than jaunting off to Thailand on holidays. I've read a fair amount of Japanese history and mythology/legends as well.

Now, there are people in my RPG circles who have spent as much or more time in Japan than I did. There are plenty who speak Japanese better than me (JLPT level 2, but after a decade in Korea I doubt I could pass that if you gave me the test today...I could probably pass level 3 though). I'm not even really into anime, although I've seen many of the 'classics.' I'm not trying to say I'm the best expert on Japan and Japanese legends in the OSR, but I do know what I'm talking about.

And the game's "mythic Japanese" feel is all about my personal interpretation of Japan, and what's important in their history, legends, myths, and modern Japanese takes on their own history, myths and legends. I also think I've got a good grasp on what non-Japanese get wrong about the country, as I've been disabused of many of these misconceptions myself by hard experience.

Here are some of the lessons I've learned that make Chanbara a bit different:
  • There is no mechanics of "honor" like in 1E OA. First of all, like in other countries, some people are obsessed with honor/status/face, but not everyone. It's also something that's subjective, so having objective standards of behavior that gain or lose you points in an RPG is constraining. If you want to be an honorable samurai (or whatever type of character), role play it. 
  • Social relationships are key. Acting in accord with social norms is approved of, although there is also glorification of the rebel/outsider/anti-hero at times. I devised a three-way system of awarding XP that encourages characters to make their social relationships part of the game, but doesn't overly penalize players who don't want to do so. Players who prioritize social relationships will gain levels faster and also other benefits but also responsibilities and drawbacks. Those who don't will level a little slower, but will be a lot richer and have more freedom at the expense of influence. 
  • Japanese monsters can get really weird. It seems like a lot of legends they tell were made simply to creep people out, or to get a laugh. Monsters aren't only there to provide combat challenges. There are also plenty of ways to use the monsters presented for role playing or puzzle challenges. And not every monster is immediately out to attack the players. 
  • Even without getting into anime or sentai shows, many depictions of samurai or ninja (and the less common depictions of magicians like onmyoji or yamabushi) are super-heroic. Granted, most are 'street level' if compared to Marvel or DC superheroes, but the focus is usually on people doing things that couldn't really happen - or at least would be very improbable. And I'm not just talking about Zatoichi the blind swordsman. Just like with Flying Swordsmen, it was important that I make a 'heavy' OSR game with plenty of kewl powrz. Yes, you could play an OA style game with just BX D&D, but it would miss some of the feel of the source material because of it. 
Thanks to the people who have purchased the game so far! I appreciate it, and if you have a review of the game, send me a link - I'd love to read it. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2018

Juul's Theory of Games Element 1: Fixed Rules

In my post the other day, I got some good feedback from people. I'd just like to make a clarification before moving on to the first of Juul's six elements that he considers necessary and sufficient to label something as a game.

This is just a theory that I found interesting. It's 15 years old, and Juul may have gone on to modify or clarify it (I haven't checked). I did find his Masters thesis online, which argued that narrative and game were incompatible, with a note from him that he's changed his stance on the issue since then.

I'm not posting Juul's theory as some sort of definitive matter on the subject of what is and isn't a game. I'm just throwing this out there as a potential framework upon which an actual workable theory of RPGs could be based, since they share all of the listed elements to a greater or lesser degree (yes, even the one I'm discussing today, which was the big point of contention in my previous post). Feel free to disagree with the theory. I may play devil's advocate here defending it, since I'm presenting it, but I don't have any stake in Juul's theory. If it doesn't stand up to criticism, then it's not a very good theory and we can look for something better.

So, once again Juul's six elements and my brief definitions of each:

Juul (2003) argues that a game must meet these qualifications:
1. Fixed Rules [players don't need to debate rules during play]
2. Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes [there are specific goals or end points, and they are not the same in all instances of the game]
3. Valorization of the Outcome [some outcomes are better than others]
4. Player Effort [the player must act to overcome the challenge, not just rely wholly on random chance]
5. Attachment of the Player to the Outcome [players are invested in achieving certain outcomes or avoiding certain other outcomes]
6. Negotiable Consequences [while most games can be and are played with no real world consequences, it's possible to bet on, play professionally, or in some other way attach real-world stakes to instances of play]

OK, here goes nothing!

Fixed Rules
Calvinball: Probably not a game by this standard.
 This was a point of contention in the previous post not so much for what Juul actually says on the point (which I didn't go into detail there, that's what this post is for). It was that this was the one element Juul noted that table top RPGs violate, for which he labels them as a 'borderline' game. Note here his terminology. He's not saying TTRPGs aren't games, he's putting them on the border - hedging his bet. In other words he just made a theory saying games must have these six things, but here are a class of activities that are sorta soft on one of the main elements but are recognized broadly as games. So he notes them as more of an exception that proves (in the sense of tests) the rule along with a few other borderline cases.

Here's what Juul has to say himself:
1. Fixed rules
Games have rules. The rules of games have to be sufficiently well defined that they can either be programmed on a computer or sufficiently well defined that you do not have to argue about them every time you play. In fact, the playing of a non-electronic game is an activity that in itself involves trying to remove any unclearness in the game rules: If there is disagreement about the rules of the game, the game is stopped until the disagreement has been solved. In a commercial game, the developer will (hopefully) have made sure that the rules are unambiguous, but what about non-commercial games? A non-electronic and "folk" (i.e. non-commercial) game tends to drift towards becoming unambiguous, not in the sense that they don't require ingenuity to play, but in the sense that it doesn't require ingenuity to uphold the rules. This explains some of the affinity between games and computers - and the fact that a several thousand year old non-electronic game is easily implementable in a computer program: The drive towards unambiguity in games makes them ripe for implementation in a programming language. To borrow some concepts from computer science, the rules of any given game can be compared to a piece of software that then needs hardware to actually be played. In games, the hardware can be a computer, mechanical contraptions, the laws of physics, or even the human brain. (p. 5-6)
Juul develops his six elements of his definition of 'game' from seven previous definitions, and all seven included some sort of phrasing about rules and/or procedures. The rules should be unambiguous. Over time, rules for games tend to lose any ambiguity they may have once had.

Notice, he doesn't say arguments over the rules can't happen, he says they don't happen "every time you play." And the more established a game is, or the more carefully developed (for commercial games), the fewer ambiguities the rules are likely to have.

He also doesn't say the game can't have a referee. At the end there, he notes the "hardware" needed to implement a game includes the human brain. A referee can judge whether or not a rule has been followed or broken, but does not (ideally) modify the rules during play.

What he is saying is that a game has (or at least should have) rules that are clear and well understood by all players. Any rule that is not well understood by all players will be modified over time to become clear. Because of this, computers make a great medium on which to program and play games. It's the ultimate impartial referee. It also helps explain one appeal of many Euro-style board games, with their clear and simple rules that make them easy to start playing.

Here's his chart of various games, pass-times, and systems-based activities and how they relate to his six elements.
Juul points to two activities that violate the Fixed Rule element: RPGs and freeform play. Now, like I assume most readers of this blog to be, I'm a table top RPG enthusiast. And it may seem grating at first to see our beloved pass-time listed as less of a game than a computer RPG or board game. But at least hear me out as I delve into how I think this definition of 'gameness' may help develop a better theory of RPGs than GNS.

How do (tabletop) RPGs violate the element? Juul says:
Pen and paper Role-playing games are not normal games because with a human game master, their rules are not fixed beyond discussion (p. 8)
With an end note saying:
Rather much of the enjoyment of role-playing games is due to the flexibility of the rules. (p. 13)
This is a sentiment I think most RPG players would agree with. Isn't the flexibility of the rules one of the first thing we praise about table top RPGs when comparing them to computer RPGs?

The important takeaway from this, in my opinion, is the inference that can be made from the chart above and Juul's comment that rules evolve over time to be unambiguous:

These six elements are not binary. It's not a question of "does it have it or not?" but instead it's a question of "how much does it have?" Each element is a cline, and activities can be more or less game-like along each axis. Some of the clines may be steeper (less forgiving of deviance) than others. That will require a bit more analysis of Juul's taxonomy presented in the chart above.

Tabletop RPGs have fixed rules. That's what the rulebooks are. But, by their nature (simulating a fantasy universe) they need that wiggle room of sanctioning the game master/referee to modify, add, subtract or otherwise change the rules to fit unusual situations or the preferences of the game group. Juul doesn't say they are not games, he says that they are not normal games. In other words, the game master allows RPGs to exist down the cline of rules fixedness, but still within the scope of activities considered to be 'games' by this definition.

I included the Calvinball comic above because, if it were a real game, that's an example of something that would be farther down the cline of rules fixedness from RPGs but still above free-form play (although not by much). Calvin and Hobbes do create rules for their game, it's just that the rules are in a constant state of flux. I don't remember seeing a 'calvinball' comic where Calvin and Hobbes argue about the rules. It would seem, like with improv acting/comedy training, that the one fixed rule is that every player has to accept what the other players throw out, although with the ability to further modify the input by creating a new rule later.

True freeform play is as far down the cline as you can get, and Juul labels it as "not a game."

Games have rules. Well-established/well-developed games have fixed rules. Games without fixed rules, or with ambiguous rules, tend to solidify the rules and remove ambiguities over time. 

The interesting coda of this is to look at the evolution of various games over time. OD&D, for example, is full of ambiguities and vague references. Basic D&D helped clarify them. AD&D sought to expand, clarify, and disambiguate for tournament play. AD&D 2E sought to clarify the hodgepodge presentation (and some still ambiguous rules) of 1E. 3E sought to streamline the mechanics with a universal resolution system (no more questions of what die to roll, do I roll over or under, etc.). 4E tried to turn table top gaming into a system like those in computer RPGs. 5E has taken a step back from 4E as that system was hurting what distinguished TTRPGs from other types of games (4E made the play too 'normal' in Juul's terms), but still tried to make the game simple and easy to understand. Pathfinder went in the direction of codifying EVERYTHING to remove ambiguity.

Look at spells. Originally spell descriptions gave a brief description of what it did. As we move forward in time, more and more creative uses of spells get ruled out straight away, or else sanctioned and given specific rules with which to implement them in that manner. Can I cast light in the evil high priest's eyes to blind him? We go from DM ruling on that to specific allowance in the rules. Can I stand on my floating disk to use it as an impromptu elevator? It says follows me at waist level... Again, we go from DM needing to make a ruling in earlier editions to specific statements that the disk does NOT change elevation suddenly (like if you fall) but only slow elevation changes like going up a ramp or flight of stairs in later editions.

The OSR, on the whole, seems to be a reaction to this drift toward disambiguity, trying to preserve what makes RPGs unique and distinct from most other types of games.

I don't have enough experience with multiple editions of other games to make a similar comparison, but it would be an interesting line of research to follow.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Challenges of the Gaming Parent

I haven't blogged much about it, but I'm running a 5E West Marches campaign twice a month, and we're closing in on the one year mark. We just had a game today, but the story I want to talk about begins last session. Of course, before I get to last session, the story needs a bit of background info presented about the game itself.

I've obviously modified the original West Marches concept a bit. I run the game at fixed times for whoever can show up, and advertise the game as open and newbies (to the campaign as well as to RPGs in general) are welcome. I started the game as a way to a) play more D&D, b) play D&D with my son, and c) get my son interacting with other people in English. My son's 10th birthday was yesterday.

From the beginning, Flynn (my son) has mostly been interested in combat. In the early sessions, there usually weren't many players. Flynn was pretty comfortable acting in character, but his characters acted like 9-year-olds. He loves Dragonborn, so for example he can communicate with kobolds...and when the party needed him to do so, he mostly threatened them with sticks up the butt if they didn't obey. Things like that. Most of the adults in the game just accepted it as what happens when you play with kids.

Then word got out that the game was fun. Now, instead of two to four players per session, I have seven to ten. Two other expat fathers also joined the game with their daughters (one is a year older than Flynn, one is three years younger). With a bigger group and other kids to play with, Flynn's attention to the game drifts (as does that of the other kids). No one seems to mind, however, and they're always paying attention during combat, leaving most exploration and character interaction to the adults.

So, last session. As I mentioned, Flynn's character is a Dragonborn. He's a Knowledge Cleric with the Knight background, so he has a Dragonborn squire who follows him around and helps out. The party has been exploring Quasqueton (B1 In Search of the Unknown, stocked for a large party of average level 3). On their way to the dungeon, I rolled a random encounter with lots of vine blights. There was one for each character, as well as the squire, the tamed giant badger (of one of the other kids' Fighter), and the pet dog of the Druid. And since the party was surprised, I ruled that they had walked right into the vine blight patch and were basically in the same "squares" (I'm mostly using theater of the mind combat).

Several characters get entangled. A few use movement abilities to get out of melee. On Flynn's turn, he wants to use his dragon breath attacks (both his fire, and the squire's acid). I roll a few dice to determine how many he can hit without damaging any party members, and get a 1. So he decides to blast party members and vine blights together and get as many blights as he can.

Now, we're playing in a coffee shop, where it's noisy. We've got 10 players (plus a few followers mentioned above). We sit at a long table, and typically when someone near me is taking an action, the people near me are paying attention, and those at the far end are chatting. When someone at the far end is taking an action, those near me are chatting. It's not as bad as the 4E games I was in, but with so many characters a round of combat takes a long time, so table talk is inevitable -- especially with kids at the table.

Titan the Cleric blasts his fire breath. I roll saves for the blights and subtract the damage.
Then I ask the PCs who were in the blast to do the same. This gets the attention of everyone. And when the damage is dished out, Flynn announces that his squire will use his acid breath. One guy at the far end of the table is playing a Paladin. He's not sure what's going on other than that the party is taking damage from Dragonborn breath weapons. He then bluntly tells my son don't do it or his Paladin will kill my son's Cleric...and that he's confident that he can do it. (He is the optimizer of the group, and Paladin smites deal a lot of damage, so he probably wasn't mistaken.)

I'm a bit stunned by this, and not sure what I'd do if a PvP fight did break out. Flynn is confused. Several other adults tell Flynn to do what he thinks his characters should do. He looks at me. I suggest he can do it, but it might be better not to. He decides not to. Crisis averted. The game goes on. Flynn is kind of out of it for the rest of the game except for some combat in the dungeon. But that's fairly normal for him. I don't think anything else about it until we get home.

That's when he breaks down crying, screaming into his pillow, punching the pillow, etc. He felt bullied, and I agree that he was. And I wasn't aware how he was feeling at the moment during the game, even though I felt that the Paladin player's reaction was uncalled for. I ask Flynn a few questions. Without my prompting, he asks me, "If I hadn't used the breath, wouldn't the fight have lasted longer?" and "I'm a Cleric and can heal anyone I hurt." He was thinking tactically and considering the consequences. Smart play.

I called the Pally's player and we had a talk. I explained Flynn's decision as he saw it. The player told me he wasn't sure what was happening, and thought Flynn had just decided to blast the party members as a joke. He apologized numerous times, and even posted publicly in our Facebook group to apologize and that now he understood and thought Flynn did in fact make the right tactical decision. Flynn wasn't really convinced of his sincerity, though.

Two weeks pass. Flynn celebrates his birthday and has a lot of fun. Then last night I asked if he was ready for our D&D game. He said he wanted to sit this one out. My wife and I had talked about the situation and figured he might feel that way, so I said sure. But I did ask him a few more times if he was sure. He said he was.

We had lunch with some of my wife's relatives, then I had to go to the game. I left a bit early. Flynn stayed at the restaurant. When I arrived at the cafe, everyone asked where Flynn was and I said he was sitting this session out. The Pally's player was visibly concerned. Then I get a call from Flynn. He says they just left the restaurant and he wants to come to the game...just to watch. I say sure, everyone will be happy to see you. When he gets there (with my wife and younger son, of course, who were going to the library a few blocks away), he says he still just wants to watch...but maybe he'll play later. By the time we get all the "town business" (asking the alchemist to identify all the bottles of water samples they collected from the Room of Pools), Flynn had decided to play after all.

The Wizard's player is out of the country right now, and he is the mapper, so they decided to give Quasqueton a break this session and follow up some other rumors. One is that they can gain "awesome magical powers" in the Cloud Lands when the clouds turn rainbow colors. Another is that a dragon was sighted in the plains to the southwest, and that a troupe of knights rode through town seeking it while the party was away. After a bit of discussion of those and some other rumors, they decide to try the Cloud Lands north of town first, then circle back south to try and find the dragon.

They head north, and have to cross the Dead Woods to get to the Cloud Lands. They've been through part of the Dead Woods before on the way to Quasqueton. They've also heard another rumor about the home of a wealthy man in these woods. And they stumble across it. The rich man is now a Vampire Spawn, and his former servants are Wights. There's treasure hidden in the attic and more in the basement.

The party finds two of the wights first. They manage to take them out without too much trouble, then find their way to the attic where there is a big chest full of lots of coins (the biggest haul yet for the campaign). As they're bringing the treasure down, the vampire spawn confronts them. After a very brief conversation where they fail to intimidate it (and don't yet know it's vampiric), they decide to attack. The other Cleric (the father of the Fighter with pet badger player) pulls out his holy symbol. Roll Initiative!

The vamp gets to go first, and heads up and claws and grapples with the Human Cleric. They're in a narrow hallway atop the (now collapsed thanks to the Bard) stairs. The Paladin is right behind the Cleric with a non-magical halberd (variant Human with Pole Arm Master and now Sentinel I said, he optimizes) and no more smites. No one else can get into melee. The Fighter is an archer, so she shoots with disadvantage into the melee. Flynn casts Spiritual Weapon. The Fairy Princess (Tiefling Warlock reskinned for the youngest kid) Hexes and Eldritch Blasts. The Bard gives Inspiration and also shoots into melee. The vampire takes a bit of damage (but since there aren't many magic weapons yet, not much) but starts to regenerate.

Everyone's starting to think they bit off more than they can chew when the vampire bits off more than he can chew of the War Cleric. Flynn's turn comes up. He asks me, "Can I attack the ceiling?" I immediately think, smart boy! They're in a ramshackle ruined house and I'd already established the time as around 5:30. The sun's still up. Most of the other players seem to not get what he's doing at first. I tell him to roll an Athletics check. Oh, and I didn't mention that he rolled a 16 Strength at level 1, which being Dragonborn bumped to 18, and at 4th level he put the ASI into Strength, so he's rocking a 20 Strength (as a Knowledge domain Cleric).

He rolls a natural 20.

I announce that he knocks a big hole in the ceiling which floods the hallway with sunlight. Suddenly, the vampire's regeneration stops, he takes massive damage on his turn, and has disadvantage for all rolls. I decide he retreats.

The Pally has the Sentinel feat now (he just hit 4th with the XP from the previous session) which can prevent the vampire from running if he hits with an attack of opportunity, but he misses. The vampire Disengages and moves down to the first floor and towards the kitchen (where the stairs to the basement, coffin and remaining 4 wights, plus a bit more treasure all are). The Rogue had used Acrobatics to get past the melee so was in a position to intercept, and the Archer Fighter and Paladin were able to get down and fire an arrow/take a swing (War Cleric had put Magic Weapon on the Pally's halberd while grappled). Rogue uses Fast Hands to release ball bearings in the hall. The vampire spawn trips and goes prone. Rogue, who has a dagger +1, gets a sneak attack in. Flynn is up next, and his Cleric jumps down and uses his breath weapon to finish off the vampire.

The party then left to the Neanderthal village near Quasqueton where they knew they could rest, and after resting returned and finished off the wights without too much trouble, also getting the vampire spawn's magical loot from the basement.

I'm really proud of my son. Not only did he deal with his emotional issues well, but he showed off his creativity and tactical thinking. All the adults were just looking for something on their character sheets to deal with the vampire spawn. Flynn used his head, and probably prevented one or more character deaths.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Want a Theory of RPGs? Start with theories of games.

The other day I read Zak's (long, be warned) first installment of his break-down of Ron Edwards's GNS Theory. It's pretty good. I've been saying some of the same things myself, but Zak manages to articulate some things that have also bothered me about GNS but I never could quite suss out exactly what they were. I haven't had time to read his second and third posts yet, but I'm looking forward more of this.

Now, independently, more than a month or so ago (well before I broke my arm, so maybe 2 months ago) I had read this academic article trying to define just what exactly a game is by Danish ludologist Jesper Juul called The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness (2003)*. Juul, building on previous theories of games - traditional games, folk games, board games, computer games - to come up with a comprehensive list of elements that can be used to test whether or not something is or is not a game.

Now, I'm not sure if Zak's intention is to build up a workable theoretical model of RPGs to replace GNS, or if he's merely trying to put the final nail in the coffin (good luck to that, GNS is probably here to stay, although it may not be as influential as it once was). But I think looking at Juul's work may be a good place to start if one did wish to create a workable, testable theory of RPGs.

Juul first analyzes key elements of game definitions from seven influential sources, groups together similar elements, and then arranges them into four categories: games as formal systems, relation between the player and the game, relation between the player and the world, and "other" for anything that doesn't fit into those three groups. He then synthesizes the elements into six core features that he feels are necessary and sufficient to label something as a "game" and explains them in detail. These elements are:

1. Fixed Rules [players don't need to debate rules during play]
2. Variable and Quantifiable Outcomes [there are specific goals or end points, and they are not the same in all instances of the game]
3. Valorization of the Outcome [some outcomes are better than others]
4. Player Effort [the player must act to overcome the challenge, not just rely wholly on random chance]
5. Attachment of the Player to the Outcome [players are invested in achieving certain outcomes or avoiding certain other outcomes]
6. Negotiable Consequences [while most games can be and are played with no real world consequences, it's possible to bet on, play professionally, or in some other way attach real-world stakes to instances of play]

Juul then analyzes numerous activities, placing them on a scale of games (have all six elements of his definition), borderline cases of game-like activities (lack one or two elements, but are still heavily game-like), and non-games (may be forms of play, but lack two or more crucial elements of his definition).

He puts table-top RPGs firmly in the borderline cases, because they violate element 1 of the definition. The rules are not fixed as long as a referee/dungeon master is there to adjudicate, make rulings, and interpret the rules and the actions within each instance of play. In all other ways, table top RPGs conform to the definition. Computer RPGs, because they are executed by an impartial computer, are definitely games by Juul's definition.

Interestingly, it's exactly the fact that table top RPGs have fixed rules but they are open to DM adjudication, modification, and selective implementation that gives RPGs their strength as a medium of entertainment. And unlike interactive fiction (which lack variable/quantifiable outcomes and player attachment to outcomes) or freeform play (which lacks fixed rules of any sort), Juul still considers TTRPGs to be 'borderline.'

I'll try to get back to this line of thought soon.For now, though, I'm off to bed.

*Jesper Juul: "The Game, the Player, the World: Looking for a Heart of Gameness". In Level Up: Digital Games Research Conference Proceedings, edited by Marinka Copier and Joost Raessens, 30-45.
Utrecht: Utrecht University, 2003.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Pleased to Announce: Chanbara is for Sale in Print!

That's right, folks! I just toggled Chanbara as live to print! You can get it in hard copy and PDF for only $20 on by following this link!

I'm sure there are still a few typos and other small errors in the document, but I went through it with fresh eyes for the final update, and spotted a lot of little things.

I hope you enjoy playing it as much as I did during my play test phase. And hopefully I'll have some companion content (a module called Ghost Castle Hasegawa, a gazetteer of my homebrew setting, and a book of more monsters called Kaibutsu Hyakkaten are my current plans) out soon (as in, maybe one of them will be ready later this year, fingers crossed!).

For everyone who's been following my development of the game over the past few years, thank you for your patience. I understand completely why so many game developers fail to complete their kickstarters and gofundmes. Game development often has to take a back seat to family matters and earning a paycheck 9-5. But I stuck through it, and many of you stuck through it with me so I want to say thank you. The occasional comment saying how much you're looking forward to the game, or asking how it's coming helped keep me from abandoning the idea somewhere along the way.

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.

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Broken Arm

Just updating folks. I took my son ice skating last Tuesday. Fell and broke my arm. Typing with my left hand on my phone is annoying, but wanted to let folks know.

I need to order the final proof of Chanbara. Tried from my phone but the website won't let me. Hopefully I'll be released tomorrow and get it ordered from home. Then I can finally get Chanbara for sale in print!

Also need to get the next "why should I buy Chanbara" post finished.