Tenra Bansho Zero is billed as "Hyper-Asian fantasy," and I think that's a pretty good short summary. Here's the elevator pitch: retro-future science fantasy Sengoku-era Japan-a-like on an alien planet. It actually reminds me a bit of Shadowrun, except instead of being based on Tolkienian fantasy, it's based on Japanese history and folktales.
Well...actually, maybe it's more like Roger Zelazny's Lord of Light. There are some hints that the whole setting runs on Clarketech and has been deliberately sculpted to create a facsimile of ancient Japan, after all.
The setting/system division that I usually do is more apt here, because there are two books that are part of Tenra Bansho Zero--the World Book and the Rules Book. The first is 240 pages and the second is over 400, so this review will be quite long as well. You have been warned.
The world book begins with a ~30 page intro on the various character types. There's yoroi (鎧, "armor"), suits of mecha that can only be piloted by those without sin, who interface with their armor using what's called a meikyou (明鏡, "clear mirror"...but ), or soul mirror. Because the pilots can't be weighed down by karma or tainted by sin, they're often pre-teens who are cloistered from an early age. There are the samurai, warriors who implant soulstones in their bodies that allow them to call on supernatural powers. The annelidists (虫使い, "Insect-users"), a bizarre cult who have a symbiotic relationship with alien worms. The ommyouji, Buddhist sorcerers who manipulate the Sha and bring life to familiar spirits. Kongouki (金剛機, "Indestructible machine"), smaller mecha that are implanted with the spirits of the sinful dead to act autonomously. Ninjas, of course. Buddhist monks. Kijin (機人, something like "cyborgs"), who have parts of their bodies replaced with metal in order to gain an edge in combat. Kugutsu (傀儡, "puppet," though in archaic slang, "prostitute"), lifelike wooden mannequins who have a human mind and, perhaps, a human soul. Ayakashi (妖, "unearthly, strange"), the word for spirits, demons, and gods, both those of out Japanese mythology and those that used to be human. Finally, there are the oni, or the "Lu-Tirae" in their own language, the original inhabitants of the planet before humanity colonized it, who are treated about as well as the historical Japanese treated the Ainu. They're shamanistic noble savages who can tap into the Resonance--the spirit of Tenra. Also, oni hearts are needed to power yoroi engines, which is not widely known.
There are, of course, the usual array of peasants, conscripted warriors, townspeople, and other inhabitants of the world who are less interesting to play in the context of an RPG.
After the character types, the book goes into multi-page timeline, and then gives a basic explanation of the setting background. Four hundred years ago, for no obvious reason the Shinto Priesthood, who are the power behind all the rulers of the various provinces--not kingdoms: the rulers are "regents" because they theoretically hold their power at the sufferance of the priesthood--said that resolving disputes through war was fine, and it's been all downhill ever since unless you're an arms manufacturer...like the priesthood! Hmm...
Some time after that, there was an event called the "Fall of Jinrai" that led to the modern way the setting is laid out. The Bridge of Heaven fell onto Jinrai, the headquarters of the Shinto priesthood, reshaping the land and causing tidal waves, earthquakes, etc. When everything settled, the priesthood split into the Northern Court, which shed several of its original customs and gave meikyou technology to the masses, who promptly started to mass-produce yoroi, and the Southern Court, who keep an iron grip on their power. The split means that each regent is empowered by one of the courts and their authority isn't recognized by the other court, further fueling the constant war. That's the broad overview.
There's a ton of social, cultural, and political information as well, but it's basically all that of the Sengoku era, so if you understand Japanese history or just want to get to ninjas fighting samurai while giant robots duel in the background, you can skim through much of the setting info. There's a sidebar to that effect, too, which is nice. It's always good when the author points out when something isn't strictly necessary to know in play. However, if you really want to portray how much it sucked to be a pre-modern Japanese peasant, there's plenty of information for you to do it accurately!
There's also a bunch of information on military engagements, recruitment, and command structure, since this is a Grim Retro-Future In Which There Is Only War. This is helpful because while the rest of the setting is like Sengoku Japan, wars are fought much more like World War I, with trenches, early tanks, machine guns, and endless waves of troops dying over a few acres of land. Well, World War I with mecha and cyborgs.
The rest of the book is an in-depth look into the fluff behind the various character types, but since it's another 100 pages and this section is already long and I haven't even gotten to the rules book yet, I'm not going to get into most of it here.
Well, except the annelidists, because crazy worm people. While reading this part, I was actually struck by a comparison between the annelidists and the historical burakumin. Both live on the outskirts of society, both are looked down on and considered weird and unclean, and both perform vital social functions--tanners, butchers, and gravediggers for the burakumin, and doctors and apothecaries for annelidists. The different, of course, is that the annelidists have alien worms living in their bodies, and the reason they deal in dead animals isn't because it's part of their work, but because they need breeding grounds and food for their symbiotes. Ew.
There's also a neat section about the oni rebellion. One country, Kikoku, used to have an attitude toward the oni that could best be described as "homicidal," until an oni monk named Makuu Rindo couldn't bear it anymore. He managed to bring all the oni together and unite them and start a rebellion, which wildly succeeded when the oni performed a ritual that shut down all Sha- and onmyoujutsu-based technology across Tenra. Oddly, the Shinto Priesthood intervened directly and sent one of their airships to put down the rebellion, but it backfired terribly when the rebels captured the airship. Kikoku is now a living example that one can defy the priesthood and win, which obviously makes a lot of people extremely nervous.
It ends with a few sample organizations in the world of Tenra, to act as friend, foe, or story hook.
One of the things I really like are the hints of science fantasy spread through the text. It all but comes out and says the Bridge of Heaven was a space elevator, there's a note that the priesthood's roads have guardian statues watching over them that are actually relays for the "meikyou network" that let the priesthood shut down or subvert any yoroi they want. Or the ancient ban on flight previously enforced by the priesthood and still enforced by the Southern Court, whose violators find their aircraft or flying yoroi mysteriously destroyed. Or the one expedition into Tenra's orbit, which recorded a "ship" floating in the blackness before contact was lost. Even onmyoujutsu originally comes from the Shinto Priesthood, so it might be Clarketech--the existence of onmyouji who use machines to create their prayer strips supports that.
Another thing I noticed is that there's a constant tension between power, humanity, and the price to move from one to the other. Samurai, kijin, and annelidists all explicitly are called out for giving up their humanity in exchange for power, and yoroi riders have to be raised apart from human experience to use their mecha. This plays into the karma economy that drives the game engine.
All in all, the whole thing fairly drips with plot hooks and story ideas. A brief skim should provide plenty of fodder for gaming, even if you don't know anything about the game's setting assumptions.
After the standard "What is this 'role-playing' of which you speak?" section, it jumps right into character creation, which is done by choosing and combining archetypes--the above-mentioned samurai, ninja, oni, etc.--though there are rule for making characters from scratch for those who want them. The attributes are pretty standard, though as befitting the pre-modern Japanese setting, there's an attribute for your influence and social standing called "Station" that's on part with Agility or Knowledge. Archetypes also all add Karma to the character, and if the value goes over 108 (the number of Buddhist sins), then that character succumbs to their sins. and becomes an asura.
To that end, during the game, players award each other Aiki points for doing cool things, keeping the story moving, and so on. Players can turn those Aiki points into Kiai points (same kanji, just reversed, and both martial arts concepts), which they can spend to aid their rolls, increase their skills, buy more actions in combat, enter scenes that they aren't currently in, and so on. But every Kiai point spent becomes a point of Karma, putting you closer to going over 108 and your inevitable fall from grace.
Characters also have Fates, which at creation are determined by your archetypes, a Destiny, which is a Fate given by the GM that ties into the game's story, and skills, which are linked to attributes. These are just suggested pairings, though, and the skills section gives examples of using each skill with several attributes. Finally, there are Vitality (HP), Soul (MP), and a Wound track for actual disfiguring or dangerous injuries.
For actions, players roll a number of d6s equal to their attribute and try to score a number equal to or less than their skill. Every die that does so is a success, and getting successes equal to the difficulty passes the roll--usually one is fine, but more if circumstances demand it. Simple and avoids huge dice pools that a stat+skill system can run into.
This is where the manga examples start. One awesome thing that TBZ had in Japanese that was translated over was that the examples of play were done as manga episodes instead of text ones. It's way more entertaining to see the characters sit around the table and talk about the rules than it is to just read it again with people's names thrown in. And in the first example, the GM looks appropriately gleeful as the PC fails their jump across the river and falls in.
The Karma chapter deals with the Fate/Aiki/Kiai/Karma interaction mentioned above. Each player should know what the other players wrote for their Fates, because Aiki are awarded pretty much solely at player/GM discretion, for playing to their Fates and just general good roleplaying. Since Aiki drive the whole game economy, it's important that the flow be maintained for each scene. Furthermore, Aiki can be turned more Kiai by rolling your Fates than by a direct exchange, so stronger Fates provide more Kiai, encouraging more ties to the story. But spent Kiai add Karma, so how to avoid that? Simple--much like Buddhism, reduce your Karma by reducing your attachments. You can delete ("sublimate") Fates or reduce their values to reduce your Karma, but then you'll want new Fates so you can get more Kiai, but that gives you more Karma.
It does mention that players might try to game the system, but that can create stories too. The example is of a samurai who spent a ton of Kiai during the game's final battle, winning the fight but putting him at 168 Karma. However! He had enough Fates that after sublimating a few and marking others down, he was exactly at 108 Karma and safe, but with basically no Fates left. So, the GM asked him why he suddenly stopped caring about everything, and after a moment's thought, the samurai's player said that he had taken a blow to the head during the fight and had amnesia, leading to a scene in a later game where the samurai showed up again working for the antagonist, and the PCs had to beat him without killing him and remind him of his past. Awesome!
Speaking of combat, the combat system! It's mostly just opposed skill rolls, with the catch that every melee combat can go either way. There's an attacker and defender, but whoever rolls more successes does damage to the other one, adds their weapon damage value, and the target distributes the damage. This is where it gets interesting: the target can choose where the damage goes, either into Vitality (cuts, bruises, scrapes, etc.) or into the Wound track (serious injuries). Vitality heals quickly and Wounds require treatment, but Wounds provide a dice bonus to all actions, so it's the player's choice whether they want to go for that bonus and be out of commission later, or just stick it in Vitality and hope they can win.
Furthermore, one part of the Wound track needs special consideration: the Dead Box. It's solely the player's choice to put damage there, but if they do, three things happen. First, all other damage from that attack disappears. Second, they gain a +3 bonus to all actions. Third, if they run out of Vitality, they die. This is the only way a player can die, since normally running out of Vitality just knocks you unconscious or otherwise puts you out of the fight. The book specifically mentions surviving an unprotected orbital drop to indicate the importance of the Dead Box, though it does mention that justifying this in the story might be pretty hard. This lets the player indicate the importance of a fight to the GM and also emulates the trope of the protagonist getting beat up, then standing up and proffering a beatdown, or the JRPG boss who seems to die only to burst into flames and grow wings while Latin chanting suddenly starts up.
The chapter on planning and running a game is mostly about Tenra Bansho Zero's structure. See, TBZ is explicitly designed to resemble a kabuki play, with its acts and scenes and intermissions and its self-contained nature as well. The default way of playing a TBZ game is to make characters, spend 6-8 hours telling their story, then finish it up and put them aside, and make new characters and a new story for the next game, with perhaps some appearances of the old characters if that's what the plot demands. The way the Aiki-Kiai-Karma flow works and the Destiny mechanic dictates that there be some kind of story at the beginning of the game, even if it's just a vague idea in the GM's head. The game isn't really designed to support the old-school, "You're people in Sengoku neo-Japan, what do you do?"-style wandering sandboxes. It isn't even really designed for campaigns, though there are some notes for how to use it that way if you want.
Something else that deserves a mention is the Emotion Matrix. It's a 6x6 grid with different emotions or feelings on it, like "A warning!" or "like a brother/sister" or "strange interest" or "unstable emotions." It's designed to be used when new characters, including PCs, meet for the first time. I initially recoiled at this, since it seemed to stray too much into turning the game into a visual novel (theatre novel?), but the explanation specifically mentioned that Emotion Matrix rolls are just designed as an aid to roleplaying. Much like the benefit of random character generation is that it's way easier to turn some rolls on a table into a character than having an entire book filled with attributes and skills and feats/advantages and powers shoved into your hands, the benefit of an Emotion Matrix roll is that it provides a stepping off-point. The GM can bribe the player with Aiki to move a few spots, or the player can spend Kiai to move themselves, so rolling "Killing Intent" for the princess the plot revolves around protecting can be dealt with. Unless the PC is a actually a ninja sent by the neighboring kingdom, and that's why they're so homicidal...
The next 150 pages of the book involves the various subsystems of the different character types. I won't cover everything because this is long enough already, but there's plenty of character customization available no matter what kind of PC you have. Following that is a gazetteer of Torigoe, one of Tenra's domains, and its neighbors, though it takes pains to point out that it's not canon in any way and is mostly here for people who've never heard the words Sengoku Jidai before. Then there's the appendices, including literary references, building characters from archetypes, and a list of 222 things to do in Tenra, with such gems as "In a ninja village: kill everyone" and "At a temple: help firefighters put out the temple, as someone set it on fire."
If you're used to thinking in terms of the trad/indie RPG divide, Tenra Bansho Zero is hard to pin down. The crunchy combat mechanics, tons of fiddly bits, and long lists of powers seem like an odd fit with the character-driven plot and the focus on short-term play. It's not really like anything I've ever seen--it's probably closest to Burning Wheel, though even that is an imperfect comparison.
If that doesn't bother you, you'll find plenty to like in TBZ. The short-duration focus and character creation through archetypes makes it easy to set up and finish a game, and it's easy to use the parts of the book you want and ignore the others without causing any damage to the setting or screwing up the system. It even suggests an "All [X] except one [Y]" group setup as a way to easily set up a conflict. Three samurai and one Shinto priest? Three Buddhist monks and one annelidist? Just looking at those, I can get some ideas already.
Summary: it's fantastic. If you get it, you won't be disappointed.
[5 of 5 Stars!]