February 17th, 2010

Sake Guy

Japanese Fantasy RPGs, A Brief History of Disappointment

Originally published at KIT KOW SKI. You can comment here or there.

So I’m aiming to at one point run a medium-length Dungeons and Dragons 3/3.5e game set in a fantasical asian-themed setting using the excellent E6 hack (max character level = 6) by Ryan S. To that end, I picked up the Rokugan sourcebook for about $2 at some sale or other, and recently finally acquired the Oriental Adventures handbook for 3e as well.

I earlier ran a modified Legend of the Five Rings game, removing some aspects of the setting I didn’t like, and adding others in (namely religion, and names that don’t sound dumb). It worked ok, but since it was based on L5R’s d10-pool system, combat had no real tactical crunch: It all comes down to “roll some dice, look for “10s”; if you don’t have at least one 10, you fail (as all the PCs were “from the Crab clan”, they have these outrageous armor bonuses and the like).

So I thought about using D&D 4e: Soon in the PHB3 there will be Samurai and “Oriental” (yeah, I said it because I mean it) classes and rules hacks (“Ki!”) and the like. However, my experiences with 4e have been mixed between “better than OK” to “man, combat is *awesome*, but anything that isn’t combat feels contrived and silly”. I’m still gonna get Dark Sun when it’s released, and it’s idea of Kit-style “bolt-on/template classes” is exactly what I think a “Samurai” or “Ninja” needs to be. But honestly, core 4e supports orientalized-Japan pretty well: Tough warriors, samurai, mountain bushi are Fighters. Glamorous or skilled swordsmen are Rangers (with 2-weapon style, but simply have them fight with one katana simply making 2 attacks with it). Ninjas are Rogues. Taoist Sorcerers (Onmyoji) can be Wizards, Sorcerers or Warlocks depending on how you describe your character. And so on.

Anyway, since I’ve had a lot of luck running and playing 3e with the E6 hack, I figured I’d take a stab at buying the 3e Oriental Adventures/Rokugan material, and hacking it into something that I think could be some awesome Japanese-themed fantasy.

So I was reading through it last night, and man while I still think the core conceits of the Rokugan/L5R setting are pretty cool, there’s still a lot of just plain can’t-get-around-it *stinky* in there. I can’t work with this stuff. A lot of OA is recycled crap from 1st edition that didn’t work then.

Anyway, It started my mind chugging along, though. A hack. Oh yes, a hack. Possibly D&D 3.5e with some modifications, ruleswise. But more importantly, a setting hack: Something that feels a bit historic, a lot fantastic, builds off of core Japan/Chinese myth but evolves it as well.

The main inspirations for this direction were the anime 12 Kingdoms (classical Chinese monsters, basically giant normal animals, made scary; plus, all that culture); the Wii video game I’m playing now called Oboro Muramasa, which incidentally is awesome; and elements that rang true from my last L5R campaign. There’s definitely some Tenra Bansho Zero influence in there (it’s hard to distinguish anymore which parts of my inspiration were lifted from TBZ and which ones weren’t), but I was thinking something that was more fantastical, less extreme…

This is a project which I’ll engage in after TBZ is done from my end, but I’ve come up with a foundation and guidelines:

* Genuine setting material, complete with unique lands and people.

* No “non-human” characters, or at least very few (“spirit folk” would be about it).

* Rules for combat: 3e/4e/burning wheel-style tactics, not L5R style “stand toe to toe, roll a bunch of dice and get high numbers until the other guy falls over”

* Rules for social stuff: Unknown.

* Rules for CULTURE. This was a point of inspiration last night. GUMSHOE/Trail of Cthulhu style culture skills (instead of investigation skills); including things like Calligraphy, tea ceremony, painting, haiku/composition, music/instrument, yuujyou/makura-jutsu/”pillow arts”, buddhist/sutra lore, shinto lore, cooking, war history, craftsmanship, and so on. Every adventure would involve one or more of the above, and when the appropriate culture element came up, the person with that skill on their sheet (every member of the group would have at least one of these in a small amount) would step forward and strut their stuff, getting the clue, talking to the lord (“Oh, your tea ceremony style is unconventional! Please, show me again how you do that…”), and so on. While seeming to require its own system, this hack can easily be grafted into classic 3e/4e.

* Monsters: Monsters are cool and fun to hunt and defeat. Unfortunately, every attempt at western RPGs bringing in Japanese-themed monsters has failed IMO. Either they use stuff that doesn’t make sense (Rakshasa), or they use stuff straight out of the Japanese lore-book: Which might have been scary 300 years ago, but by our modern standards sounds lame or dumb (“a woman with a LONG NECK, OH SHIT!!!” “a WALL SEGMENT that is REALLY REALLY WET!!!” “An umbrella, but it’s one one eye and one leg and it hops around!!!” “A wooden wheel, on fire, with a mouth on it OMG!”). Every game I’ve seen, from D&D to Sengoku to L5R has basically taken these monsters, kept them as-is, and stapled hit points on them. I thought for a time that there was nothing to be done about this, but Awesome Video Games proved that wrong:

- Ookami re-invents classical monsters in a really stylized, cool form.

- Oboro Muramasa does the same, and on top of that it also creates a new type of monster that both pulls from classical mythology but layers modern sensibilities on top of it. THIS was the true visual inspiration that told me “This can be done: It is possible to create new monsters for a Japanese-themed fantasy game, keep them rooted in the classical mythology, but reinvent them so that they are scary and cool and not just archaic and lame-sounding.” For example:

Anyway, just some thoughts that were rolling around in my head. I’ll be digging deeper once TBZ is done. Likely this will turn into an open setting project compatible with any game, with stats for a few.