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Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by Kuyler L. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/24/2020 16:48:03

This is what brought me into the RPG fold. It's an accessible, fun game with broad appeal (my 5 and 8 year old daughters had a blast and my 40 year old friends enjoyed it too). The focus on relatable events (trying to cook, gather herbs, get a good deal on equipment, stay warm during a storm, avoiding injuries while climbing) made it a great introductory RPG. The presentation is generally logical and user friendly and the design, while I wish there was more art, is pleasant in its simplicity. I give this high marks. Despite moving on to DnD 5e, Gurps 4e, Cypher, and other RPGs I still pull this off the shelf from time to time and give it a go. If you are new to RPGs start here. If you are a veteran then discover something very different by trying this out. Ryuutama is a joy to experience.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
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Shinobigami - Modern Ninja Battle RPG
by Hannah S. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 05/04/2020 19:08:36

Shinobigami is a great change of pace from D&D for our group! The translation is fairly clear, and the replay really helps explain how to play the game.

This game has been really fun for our group, with most members being anime fans. The rules are strict about mechanics and how stuff works, but lets you run free with the flavor of your character. For example, you pick from a list of attacks from the book, but you're free to describe that attack however you'd like. It's great to let your imagination shine through in the unique character you make. For most things, the translation is very clear, though our group went back and forth on how the Perfect Defense ohgi is supposed to work due to its wording. But that's the only example I can think of where things weren't clear.

Because the sessions are meant to be self-contained episodes, they may run longer than expected, so I definitely recommend getting everyone set up with an understanding of the rules and their characters created beforehand.

Overall, this is a really fun TTRPG, and I look forward to seeing more!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Shinobigami - Modern Ninja Battle RPG
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Shinobigami - Modern Ninja Battle RPG
by Jeff B. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 03/10/2020 12:39:46

Game is a ton of fun, and a nice change of pace from games my group normally plays (longer campaigns in the DnD/Pathfinder mold). I wish the PDF had bookmarks for easier and quicker navigation, but that's apparently coming in a future update. The starting Replay and footnotes added some helpful context too, and was generally an enjoyable read. This is definitely a game worth checking out if you like ninjas (obviously), but also rules that try to marry a clever skill system (the skill matrix) with narrative focused gameplay. I love how it empowers players, encouraging their creative expression and use of ninpo, but also providing tools for personalizing ohgi. The flashback rule in the climax phase is too much fun, and the secret goals and missions can create some great tension and surprising reveals.

Now, they need to hurry up on that supplement, please! We want more ninja clans and tools to play with.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Shinobigami - Modern Ninja Battle RPG
by Nic B. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/20/2020 13:17:58

Great fast paced and fun game! Though the translation has been a long time coming and is over two years overdue the game is really good. The PDF could use a few updates to include bookmarks in particular, but has everything you need to get playing your own ninja adventures!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Shinobigami - Modern Ninja Battle RPG
by Michael M. D. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 01/09/2020 00:25:37

The game itself is interesting but the PDF version feels a little lacking. The table of contents has a total of four entries for a 200 page book. The PDF has no cover and no bookmarks. Hopefully it gets updated later. I'd probably knock it up a star then but I find bookmarks essential for making good use of RPG pdf's.



Rating:
[3 of 5 Stars!]
Creator Reply:
Thanks for the review! Indeed, both the PDF cover art will be uploaded within the month, as well as a bookmarked PDF file. Please stay tuned for the announcement (I'll send an email to the purchasers through DTRPG once the contents have been updated). The TOC... is unfortunately copied directly from the original Japanese; but we think a bookmarked PDF will help make the book more reference-able. Thanks again!
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
by Witold K. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 12/18/2019 05:31:02

It's an excellent game, where every session you go through the whole story arcs like in your favourite Shonen anime, with very fun character powers, and a very flavourful character advancement rules. However, there is one serious problem - the rulebook is massive, and reading through it all to run a one-session game (the default mode of play for Tenra) feels like a chore.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
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Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by holcy f. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 12/20/2018 23:06:46

I haven't gotten a chance to read deeply into the book yet, but this vendor deserves 5 stars simply for customer service. Responded to an email inquiry within 5 minutes from their main site and sent me a code for here.

Keep up the good work!



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
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Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by Patrick M. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 04/15/2018 18:47:16

Aesthetic- This book looks great, and really fills your mind with the feeling of the subject matter (the honobono/fantasy anime atmosphere). The artwork ranges from adorable sketches to gorgeous, and really inspire.

Theme- The overall theme of the game, that of a series of journies between small fantasy towns by "normal" sorts of fantasy characters is novel in a market full of either high gonzo fantasy or grim and bloody sword and sorcerery. Nature plays a large role in the theme of this game and overall I think it achieves the "Miyazaki's Oregan Trail" nickname it is often given.

Rules- I wouldn't call it "rules light" so much as being in the bottom range of "medium". It's got some crunch to it, though all rolls are always made by combining two skills (or one skill rolled twice together) and so should be easy for anyone to pick up. The gathering, crafting, camping, animal, and other such rules makes the journey itself the main thing a given session should be about. Combat for me is a little too simple, being abstracted with a front and back line (ala Final Fantasy) and 5-10 objects on the battlefield that can be used by anyone to help their fighting rolls. For me combat is the weakest part of the ruleset, it's not very exciting. I think that might be the point, however, as combat is implicitly not the main focus of the rules or the game. (Running this game, however, I plan on using a grid mat to try and achieve a Final Fantasy Tactics feeling).

The journey rules are really interesting and require a good amount of improv for the GM. I wish the book had come with tables, perhaps in appendix form, for some example hazards in each terrain type to help newer GMs out (or GMs that need some inspiration).

The idea of a built in DMPC that helps the party as a sort of helping (or maybe even trickster) spirit is refreshing and fun. The fact that there are options like items to equip your dragon spirit with that change how the rules work is super fun and exciting.

Overall I like the rules and think they support the kind of game Ryuutama tries to be.

Usability- The rulebook is set up well, beginning right off with a short summary of the game and it's rules, followed by character creation, and continuing with detailing out everything. I see no problem with it's formatting or usability.

I am excited to both try this game and to pillage it for ideas to use in other games. I really think the overall way the travel and crafting is done would work well in D&D 5e, for instance. I recommend buying this if you are at all interested in: anime/manga, a less violent sort of game, the fun of the journey itself, nature, or cat goblins.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by Sam H. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 02/21/2017 12:46:17

This is an excellent and charming little game. The art's uniformly great and the rules hang together well. It's a simple game, best suited for beginning players or groups who're interested in something lighter. I usually run much "darker" or at least more serious games and Ryuutama offers a charming alternative. I ran it over the course of two sessions with five players (all of them experienced in RPGs) and I will say that with that the "balance" seems to break down in the travel minigame. With enough characters there are a good number of combos to mitigate most failures. The enemy types provided in the base game also don't provide much of a challenge to that many characters, unless you throw in quite a few of them. This wasn't a huge problem for me--combat's not really the point of the game, nor is grueling travel always desirable. But the occasional dash of peril is still important, even to a gentle game like this. Sticking with three player characters might be the best strategy, until you have a hang of the system and can tailor the challenge level.

Again, I really recommend it despite my minor nitpicks (which aren't even really nitpicks, just areas that the game doesn't intend to cover). Ryuutama facilitates player creativity and buy-in as the GM and players collaboratively build destinations, it puts the focus on developing nice and fun relationships between characters (PCs and NPCs), and it plays very quickly and intuitively.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by A customer [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 07/21/2016 19:49:59

Beautiful and solid book. Paints a great world, gives everything you need to start adventuring. Uses a class system, but it's easy to figure out.

The DM PC is actually a character in the story, and gives the DM mechanics by which to manipulate the story. I thought this was a pretty cool idea, and it fits the setting.

There are two things about this book that I did not like. The first was that while the mechanics are clean and simple, some optional sub-systems would have been nice. The second was that while I loved everything the book game me to work with, I wasn't really sure what I should be doing with it. There's some sample arcs, but they're a bit weak.

Fact is though, I can always find sub systems to add in and re-watch some old anime to steal ideas. My complaints aren't huge, this book is a must have for any whole like a rules lite version of D&D with a strong anime/JRPG bent to it.



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by Thilo G. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 12/22/2015 03:29:12

An Endzeitgeist.com review

This massive RPG clocks in at 245 pages, 1 page front cover, 1 page editorial, 2 pages of ToC, 6 pages of KS-backers, 1 page back cover, leaving us with 234 pages of content, so let's take a look!

I received this book as a gift from one of my patreons for the purpose of a review. This pdf has been prioritized and moved up in my review-queue accordingly as a prioritized review.

The first thing you'll notice when opening this book is that it's extremely newbie-friendly: The concept of RPGs is explained in concise, easy to grasp terms - including an explanation of dice, terms and the like: I embarked on a brief experiment: I handed my printed out copy to my granny and told her to read it. Guess what? She got it. She finally understood what this roleplaying-mumbo-jumbo was all about. Ryuutama is extremely user-friendly and guides the players and GM, step by step, through the process of character generation, with classes being grouped by focus: Attack Type, Technical Type and Magical Type.

You have 4 basic stats: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence and Spirit - at character creation, each of these values can be either 4, 6 or 8: You choose from 6,6,6,6, or 4,6,6,8 or 4,4,8,8. The stat itself also represents the die you roll when testing. All other relevant stats are derived from these simple base attributes: Hp is Str x 2, MP (the resource used to cast spells) is Spirit x2, Carrying Capacity is Str+3 (if you exceed this level, you take the excess as penalty to your checks). Each character is supposed to have mastered a weapon, the use of which and damage is governed by attributes as well: Light Blades, for example have an accuracy of Dex+Int+1 and a damage of Int-1, while Axes use Str+Str-1 for accuracy and Str for damage. Each character also has a personal item, to which s/he has an emotional bond as well as 1000 GP starting budget to get ready for the journey...for in Ryuutama, the focus does not lie on slaying monsters or defeating demonic incursions.

Instead, the basic focus of this roleplaying game is one refreshingly different, one on properly traveling the world, hearkening back to the picturesque ideals and romanticized notions of the apprentice's journey, blended with a sense of wide-eyed wonder and creativity you'd expect in Hayao Miyazaki's works - and this focus also shows in the easy class kits available: From merchants to farmers and nobles, we have roles that go beyond the traditional 4-6 roles often featured in fantasy roleplaying. The respective classes sport unique skills that are derived from the base attributes in much the same way as the weapon damage I described above: I.e., you have dead simple basic math.

As for magic- there is incantation magic, which unlocks in 3 steps and season magic similarly unlocks with the progression through the character levels. The pdf also champions different roles for players and characters to fill - from quartermaster to leader and mapper, the roles make sense and prevent issues in game.

Leveling up is similarly a very simple, streamlined process: There are 10 levels, with every even level providing a stat-increase (i.e. d4 -> d6, d10 -> d12...). At 3rd and 7th level, characters get a terrain/weather specialty, choosing one of the 22 types and gaining +2 to rolls regarding this type. 4th level provides immunity versus one status effect and 5th level provides an extra class's benefits. 6th level provides a second type. At 9th level, you may 1/day take 10 in a given specialized season and 10th level provides basically a GM-centric ability to embark on a truly legendary journey.

Different qualities for objects are covered with easy modifiers - you can e.g. get uncool-looking items at a discounted price or unbreakable orichalcum items, all with mechanical repercussions. Similarly, effects of good (or bad!) food and public facilities like bath-houses, specialty goods and the like are covered in impressive detail. Animals also deserve special mention - you can bring one free animal with you (and don't have to micromanage said creature's upkeep), but only the merchant and farmer class may have more animals - and, interestingly, there are special qualities for animals: Loyal or particularly tough animals, for example, cost more but also grant you interesting benefits, while animals with an attitude problem may be cheaper...but refuse your command in inopportune moments.

From food to perfume to containers, there are a lot of nice items to bring along...including e.g. a grandfather clock! This item-driven approach also extends to healing herbs, of which a vast array is provided, by terrain and level: From moonlight Snowgrass to Barrierwood Stalk, the prevalence and usefulness of these can generate a healthy respect for mother nature.

Spellcasting is dead simple: Choose a spell you know, choose a target in the spell's range, speak the magic words, expend the MP and roll INT+SP - if you roll a double 1, the spell fails, otherwise it works just fine. Spell effects from the same spell do not stack, but those of different spells do. Casters may end a magical effect at any time. Incantation magic is based on study, seasonal magic is based on emotion...and that's about it. One paragraph and we have the foundation of a simple, efficient magic system. It should come as no surprise, then, that the presentation of the spells is similarly simple.

Now I've mentioned skill checks before, but how do they work? Basically, each skill is based on two attributes, like Str+Int or Dex+Sp. You roll the two dice. If you have a double 1, you have a critical fumble, if you roll maximum die-size, you instead get a critical success. If you're thinking that this makes criticals less likely in higher attributes, you'd thankfully be wrong: If you have e.g. a stat of 10 in a related attribute, any roll of 6+6, 6+8 or 6+10 would result in a critical success, making them pretty common occurrences. Skill-checks have a difficulty (like a DC) - if you manage to reach this number, you succeed. Contested checks are similarly simple: Both parties roll, the winner takes it all. Ties are simply rerolled. From hard exercise to drinking or delicate work, sample skills are provided and their difficulty, obviously, is modified by situational modifiers and retries are penalized slightly.

Concentration is interesting - you can pay a fumble point (gained from a fumble) or half your MP for a +1 bonus; both for a +2 bonus before attempting an action...but if your MP are 0, you faint...so in case you only have one MP, better make that shot count! This system is very simple, but one that provides a surprising element of tension in play - kudos! Condition is also important, as are conditions like sickness and injury.

With a focus on journeys over combat, travel speeds and terrain and weather types (and lavishly rendered, gorgeous dragons for each terrain type!) can be found here alongside common topological sights for the respective environments.

Battle is simple: I already covered weapon-rules; initiative is governed by Dex+Int and the battlefield has abstract areas and 5 objects strewn about the battlefield, making the tactical options available more diverse. Item use, defending, feinting - everything combat-related is just as concise and simple as the rules introduced so far. Characters die when their HP reaches negative Condition - so keeping up with food etc. is important indeed! And yes, the system per se champions a low lethality without making it too easy on the PCs and yes, nonlethal damage is covered in accordance with the child-friendly tone of Ryuutama.

The book also sports town-creation rules and even world-generation rules that guide the GM through the process in a rather simple and efficient manner. Speaking of the GM: It is important to note that the GM is more than just a spectator here: The GM has a dragon in human form, a Ryuujin, a kind of GM-PC that belongs to one of 4 different races, effectively the classes of the GM-PC. These characters sport an artefact and may provide Bénédictions for the players, which not only provide significant bonuses, they also act as roleplaying catalysts. Ryuujin are not constant additions to the traveling group, but they may show up when the PCs are in a pinch...or help them in other, unobtrusive (or obtrusive) ways - they are, however, not Elminster: Ryuujin may actually die, so PCs too complacent regarding their help may have to save their guardian dragon! When a Ryuujin goes full-blown dragon-form, that action is referred to as a réveil...but it does cost the Ryuujin's life points, providing an in-game rationale why they can't save the PCs all the time.

The focus on new and inexperienced roleplayers means that this book also goes, step by step, through the process of scenario-creation, simple though that process may be for Ryuutama. It should be noted that sheet-wise, I've scarcely seen a more detailed array of sheets: For scenario-structure, fight scenarios, towns and events, there's a specialty-sheet for just about everything, rendering this even more user-friendly than you'd expect. And yes, we get a simple, nice sample scenario for levels 1 - 2 to kick off the journey.

Now obviously, such an RP also requires adversaries, monsters, if you will: The massive book provides a huge array of them and going through them in detail would bloat this review beyond belief - however, there is a little gripe I can field here: Do not expect artworks for the monsters. While properly described, I still would have loved to see the absolutely lavish artwork to extend to the monster-section...but then again, I'm spoiled by the big, more main stream roleplaying games with infinitely higher budgets.

A significant and concise Q&A-section closes the book - alongside the 18 (!!!) sheets, including e.g ration tracking, combat etc. - stunning!

Conclusion:

Editing and formatting are pure excellence - I noticed not a single hiccup in the whole, massive book! Layout adheres to an easy to read 1-column full-color standard that is sufficiently printer-friendly. Artworks are copious and range from explanatory, chibi-style manga-comic panels that explain actions to stunning b/w-artworks for the Ryuujin. The pdf comes fully bookmarked for your convenience and with the sheets in additional zips.

Atsuhiro Okada's Ryuutama has been translated to English with a level of love that oozes from every page by Matt Sanchez and Andy Kitkowski - going above and beyond the duties of translators, they managed to maintain the intent of the original as far as my pretty lousy Japanese goes. (A Japanese reader kindly sent me an excerpt, showing me clearly the limits of my own rudimentary proficiency in the language... btw. also the reason this review was slightly delayed...) I am thoroughly impressed by the ability to properly capture not only the wording, but the intent of the original.

But you're not interested in these particulars, right? What you want to know is whether this is a good game. The answer to this question, without a doubt, has to be a triumphant, resounding "YES!" Ryuutama is not only breath of fresh air with its wholesome take on fantasy; its level of detail is staggering, its user-friendliness remarkable, particularly considering its status as a translated game. This game is exceedingly simple to understand and works perfectly for any children ages 4+ and up, but it also is a superb game for adults that can still feel the sense of wonder and wild-eyed excitement evoked in the best of Miyazaki's movies. What I love most, though, would be the unobtrusive GM-PC-angle alongside the fact that this game does not cuddle the children: Yes, this is a roleplaying game suitable for just about all ages, one that can easily teach basic math, responsibility, planning...but also one that can teach respect for mother nature...and one that does not shirk away from topics such as PC death. In this way, Ryuutama is not only fair, it is a game that, and this is my firm conviction, will really benefit the development of kids, supporting several virtues we all try to convey as well as the usual basic math competence we want to instill.

The staggering level of detail further enforces this...so when do we get the first full-blown journeys/scenarios for this glorious book? Oh yeah, right - the final verdict: Ryuutama is worth every cent of its fair asking price, is perfect for children and adults and an all-around well-crafted roleplaying game with easy rules and a unique theme - it is an easy 5 stars + seal of approval and receives a nomination for my Top Ten of 2015. If you're looking for a great way to introduce children to roleplaying or are fed up with slaying monsters and the cynicism of our world, embark on a journey with Ryuutama - I guarantee you won't regret it!

Endzeitgeist out.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by Gabriela G. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 09/28/2015 07:20:47

Ryuutama is an excellent game for people those unfamiliar with table top RPGs, it's simple to get and the translators are very active in the community. Story telling is really one of the focus points, and I find it very easy to adjust and change to accommodate my players as they do unexpected things. Everything is pretty streamlined and focused on what's necessary to enhance the experience, or to make the role-playing experience as fair for everyone as possible.

For example all skills are derived from the primary stats of the characters, which saves players from having to keep track of skill points. Then class skills offer something from each class that's pretty unique to each of them without forcing someone to fall into a certain role like offence or spell caster because they can decide that separate from their class. However, if you're a player who likes more of the game play side of things you need to be aware that a lot of the fun is due to role-playing aspect of the game. The technical aspects aren't really the point of Ryuutama, and if you go into the game thinking that it is I can see how it wouldn't be as fun.

The art featured in the book is beautiful and has a hand drawn water coloured aesthetic, and somewhat reminds me of some classic fantasy manga and anime, which makes sense considering the country of origin. Visually the book is great, and has really come along since the initial releases available to those who supported the project as it developed for the English audience. I can't wait to see the supplements and more community content, it was a bit of wait but I feel like it was worth it.

Ryuutama is probably something I would recommend to those looking for character driven stories, or light hearted fun. The group I hosted became more friendly with each other as they played it, and as a whole we're happy to have had the chance to experience Ryuutama.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Ryuutama : Natural Fantasy Roleplay
by Jay S. A. [Featured Reviewer] Date Added: 08/21/2015 10:41:14

Ryuutama brings to life a different kind of game from the tired fantasy tropes that have been the norm in RPGs for years now. With the focus on the romance of traveling and the merry adventures that the adventurers encounter, Ryuutama delivers a refreshingly new experience to the table.

I will admit that I did have early difficulty with the presentation of some of the information, especially early on, with some Traveler Classes and Ryuujin Types thrown at me up front without any context, but it’s a minor quibble. The artwork is gorgeous, and I wish there were more of it somehow.

Combat looks tactical, without being bogged in the ammo-counting, hit-location identifying drudgery that detracts from the experience.

Ryuutama is a Fantasy game, but it occupies its own niche, and does what it chooses to do very, very well. I would definitely recommend this to groups looking for something different, lighthearted and yet capable of being much more.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
by Eric Y. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 02/19/2014 23:26:39

Tenra Bansho is a localized translation of a Japanese science-fantasy RPG. I have to say that I had to think very hard about buying this game for various reasons (I won't get into them here, but I've written about my reasoning at http://kawaiisaa.blogspot.com/2014/02/tenra-bansho-zero.html).

In any event, I did in fact decide to buy the pdf version of the game, and I think it was well worth the price. The two main parts are a b&w rulebook of ~450 pages, and a color worldbook of ~240 pages. I found the part in the Welcome section of the rulebook describing the difference between CRPGs and TTRPGs rather ironic given that at one time if you talked to other gamers about RPGs, they automatically assumed you were talking about TTRPGs.

TBZ is a type of storytelling game, which I frankly have no experience playing. A general overview of the system is given in the Welcome section, and explained things quite satisfactorily.

Character generation uses archetypes and attribute points that are distributed by the character. "Fates" are also selected for the character. These seem to be along the lines of Passions from Chaosium's Pendragon RPG, but seem to be much more important in making sure the character is involved in the progression of the story.

Actions are resolved based on making die rolls tied to a skill/attribute against a challenge rating or the rolls of another character/NPC, with the GM interpreting the outcome of success or failure.

The Character Rulebook section is devoted to the description and various rules specific to the archetypes that players can choose, including Armour (Yoroi) Pilot, Sorceror (Onmyoji), Samurai, Monk, Ninja (Shinobi), Illusionist (Kugutsu) etc., to the more exotic Annelidist, Oni, and Ayakashi. There is a lot of good information in this section which can be mined for inspiration even if you don't plan on using the rules.

The worldbook starts with a lavishly illustrated introduction at the beginning, followed by a short gazetteer and a historical timeline. Various social, cultural, political, and technological subjects are covered in this book, and I'll just leave it at that.

The pdfs are not mapped, which makes navigation more difficult than it needs to be, particularly for the lengthy rulebook. I also didn't care for the A-head font used in the text - the "H" and "K" look almost identical, so half the time I was misreading "skill" as "shill" and "kijin" as "hijin".



Rating:
[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
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Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
by Brian P. [Verified Purchaser] Date Added: 09/07/2013 20:16:05

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.

---Setting---

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.

---System---

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."

---Verdict---

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.



Rating:
[5 of 5 Stars!]
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