(Repost of my review at www.rpggeek.com):
I bought into the TBZ Kickstarter mostly sight-unseen.
I had heard about it for many months online, but looking at the initial teaser materials on www.tenra-rpg.com and Kickstarter itself didn’t leave me with much information. Based on a little artwork and hype, it looked like a game set in fantasy medieval Japan, something like Legend of the Five Rings or maybe Bushido. I’m not a huge –phile for that material so I gave it a pass. Then I heard about Luke Crane’s involvement with the layout, and he talked about the game in very glowing design and gameplay terms.
When the Kickstarter wrapped up, I got the final PDF documents. This review is based entirely on the PDF experience.
Tenra Bansho Zero is comprised of two books. The first is the setting book, the second is the rulebook. Really you could run the whole game off the rulebook, but the setting book is an experience unto itself. If you’re not already steeped in action-anime tropes, the TBZ setting book is a steep zipline into a totally crazy, contrived, and colorful mashup of pretty much every anime thing you’ve ever caught out of the corner of your eye.
TBZ is ostensibly a worldwide medieval super-Japan, set on a planet called Tenra. Most people live a simple existence in villages or farms. There’s some vague talk about centuries of constant warfare. Then, as you read further, you discover that somehow amongst the medieval Japanese trappings you have giant robots, various flavors of magic, sexy doll people (mostly girls), monks, ninjas, monsters and tentacles. Seriously, whether your anime exposure is old ‘80s Robotech episodes or more modern offerings, you’ll quickly find pretty much everything packed into the TBZ setting book.
None of it makes sense. Don’t worry so much about making it make sense. The setting is a stylistic statement and does not care about your need for logic or consistency. There is advanced technology, but only if it’s related to warfare. There’s powerful magic that looks an awful lot like technology. There are spirit beings. There are various other magitechnical hand-waves.
TBZ offers a variety of special power types available to characters, and they can interlock in interesting ways. You can also play a completely non-superpowered, yet highly competent, normal person. I get the feeling that the diversity of special powers grew up over time via supplemental material in the game’s native language, because it has a mishmash feel to it. This edition fits everything together pretty well, but I was left feeling skeptical that it all came out of someone’s head at once: magic-using priests, child-powered mecha and demon-possessed samurai all feel like they fit together fine, and then the magic-using monks, juiced-up superninjas, native warrior race, violent nature spirits and living doll-people feel slightly tacked on. It’s a glorious hot Rifts-y mess.
How it all works
The baseline play structure starts out pretty traditional. Each player controls a character, and there is a Gamemaster with total setting and rules authority. Ye old Rule Zero (if the rules get in the way of the fun, the GM can break the rules) makes an appearance right in the beginning. This is a strong-GM type game.
Players control a single character, which is constructed out of a handful of “archetypes.” It’s sort of a lifepath-type thing, except there’s really no “path” to follow. There are a few restrictions, mostly having to do with incompatible superpowers, but the short version is that you pick 2-4 packages, add up their numbers, and start playing. New players are guided to play one of the 13 pregenerated characters in the book, and this is sound advice. None of the pregens are crazy-complicated, and this is a relief to the GM.
Resolving tasks is straightforward. You have seven stats, ranked from 1 to … high. Really high. That’s how many dice you’re gonna roll. Then you have a bunch of skills, which are a mix of stuff everyone has, stuff you can have, and stuff you can only have if you have the right background. Those are ranked from 1 to 5 pips. That represents the number, or less, on a d6 that counts as a success. Finally, the GM sets difficulty numbers
for tasks that aren’t opposed, otherwise the opposing sides are just adding up successes. The GM specifies what stat to roll with what skill.
A typical sword swing might look like this: Agility 11, Melee ooo. That means 1s, 2s and 3s in that pool of 11 d6es are counted as successes. Easy enough.
The bulk of TBZ’s action rules are tied up in its combat system. The system itself is really easy: every melee is countered with a counterattack, high side wins and delivers hits equal to the difference + the winning side’s weapon modifier. Ranged attacks can’t be counterattacked. Big crowds of mooks are countered with a single attack. Pretty straightforward stuff.
Perhaps the most surprising and interesting twist to the game’s combat stuff is the reverse death spiral: The more heavy damage you take, the more bonus dice your character earns. You can even take a lethal hit for maximum bonus dice! But if your “Vitality” (transient hit points that regenerate after every fight) hits zero when you’ve taken a lethal blow, you’re for-real dead.
TBZ combat is only lethal when you double down on a fight. It’s very hard to die and have it not be on your own terms.
The non-combat elements of the game look similar. Some skills generate specific in-game effects (example: Strategy lets the player roll at the start of every Act and dole out successes as bonuses to other characters), while most are situational to what you’re trying to achieve in the game fiction.
The Karma Economy
The Karma economy is the game’s heartbeat, and it plays a far more prominent role than any character’s specific package of powers or gear.
Your character starts out with a list of two Fates. This is stuff your character cares about! So it might be a goal (transport the princess to safety), or an emotion (in love with the princess), a taboo (never speak to the princess), a secret (I am the princess’ brother), and so on. There’s a lot of variety! But the idea is that a Fate is short and sweet, like literally 3-5 words tops.
As you play your character, other players are acting as the Audience. This is a formal role with formal duties! Specifically, they are handing you chits (Aiki) for addressing your Fates, or for being entertaining, or for saying/doing something touching. Everyone shares a “Setting Sheet” that lists everyone’s Fates so the Audience always knows what your schtick is at any given point in the game.
After you gain Aiki chits, you cash them in during a phase called Intermission. They’re pretty frequent! Imagine earning and spending XPs 2-3 times in an evening. Cashing them in means, mostly, spending them to make Fate rolls. Your Fates are ranked like skills (2-5), and that gives you the value on each die you roll that counts as a success. Every success becomes kiai, which is a super-flexible tool.
Kiai can be used in like 10 different ways, and learning your way around the Kiai economy is the hardest part for many players. The default character sheet does not tell you how you can spend Kiai but a fan-made 2-page sheet at www.tenra-rpg.com does. The short version is that Kiai can be used to buy permanent advancements to your character, addition dice on any given roll, and some cute combat tricks like extra actions and interruptions.
Here’s where it gets interesting: as you spend Kiai, it increases your Karma. If your Karma reaches 108 and you can’t find a way to bring it back down, you’re out of the game! Formally, your character becomes an asura, an NPC shaped and obsessed by his “burdens” (i.e. the Fates that he couldn’t let go of). The most dangerous NPCs in the game are asura. Until then, though, your Karma literally forces you to add and change and remove the things your character cares about.
A good chunk of play time is taken up with Karma management. In a nicely Buddhist twist, the way you reduce your accumulated Karma is by changing and eliminating your Fates. When you decide you’re done caring about something, you put a line through it and your Karma goes down. Or when you decide that what you cared about before needs to be changed, your Karma goes down but only a little. But you can’t delete too many of your Fates, otherwise you can’t earn Aiki, right? So you can decide your character cares about new things, and write new Fates into your character. The net result is a very clear, explicit arc for each character as it vectors through the game.
Pacing the fastest RPG you’ll ever play
TBZ is designed to be played and finished in maybe 5 or 6 total hours. The Platonic ideal is a single 6-hour session, but realistically it might be 2 or 3 sessions of 2-3 hours each.
The game is broken up into Acts, with an Intermission between each Act. Acts are broken up into scenes, and every scene is a thematic shift from the previous scene. Scenes are highlights from the characters’ lives, not unbroken sequences of events. This can feel a little jarring to folks with a lot of traditional RPG experience, where events proceed unbroken from the characters’ point of view.
The TBZ GM is responsible for very firm scene-framing: Here’s who’s in the scene, here’s what the scene is about, now go. The game is full of advice on how to do this, and has some ideas about it that will, again, seem jarring to some players: Split the characters up so “the party” isn’t in every scene every time, for example.
Several scenes comprise an Act. It’s less clear what goes into an Act, but after playing this game a while, my feeling is that an Act should give every player a chance to earn their Aiki chits. It has more to do with the economy than thematic considerations (which really the hard scene-framing takes care of).
One place where the Act structure is interesting is that it allows the GM to move the timeline ahead a ways and perform even harder scene-framing. Every Intermission begins with a “preview,” a description from the GM about what the next Act will be “about.” It’s totally in-bounds for the GM to pull things like “your ship crashes, and after a few weeks of rounding up survivors and building a small community, you begin exploring the island you’ve found yourself on.” The players will just not care that the ship’s gonna crash! It’s a pretty sweet GMing tool.
One of the killer apps of TBZ that allows for the game to be played in such a compressed fashion is the Emotion Matrix. This is a 6x6 grid of reactions the player characters may have to any given major NPC. It’s ye olde D&D reaction table, but in reverse: Roll a pair of d6es, find the result, and that’s your character’s reaction. This is not a “hard” rule and nobody will hold your feet to the fire if you don’t feel like you’ll enjoy being constrained that way! Players can spend their kiai to move the result to a more amenable outcome, and the GM can bribe the player away from a result that’s too easy and comfortable.
In practice, I’ve found players are pretty eager to grab onto what the matrix gives them. More often than not, the table result is a license for scene-chewing. It’s not explicitly stated anywhere, but my players treat the final Emo Matrix result as another Aiki-granting trigger (along with playing to Fates and being entertaining).
The net result of the Emotion Matrix system is that the game’s narrative is dramatically accelerated. You don’t have to play through several scenes and build up to the point where you have an opinion about an NPC’s motives or true nature; bang, right out of the gate, you can believe the NPC is planning on killing you (or that you’re in love with her, or that you think you know him from somewhere else, or…) and start playing. Given the hard scene-framing and scene/act structure, this is not nearly as jarring as it sounds like it could be.
Planning and Game-Mastering TBZ
My initial run through TBZ was hard. I won’t lie about that.
The hardest part for me was that the game starts with a Zero Act. This is a scene for each PC, individually, where we get to see a little sliver of what they’re “about” and how they’re going to tie into your scenario. At the end of each Zero Act scene, the GM dictates to the player one last Fate for their character, called a Destiny. It’s a fate just like all the rest, but it’s a handy reminder to the player as to their character’s place in the upcoming story.
Having an “upcoming story” means the GM is faced with some planning. I’m firmly convinced TBZ can be trivially improvised by an experienced GM, but your first time will not be well-served by improvising. The game expects you to railroad the characters a little, and the hard scene-framing and Act/Intermission/Preview system facilitates that. On the other hand, the characters are all quickly progressing and changing their Fates, so any scenes you may have planned may not work depending on how things turn out. And on the third hand, Emotion Matrix rolls can throw all the characters into the melodrama blender, where suddenly love triangles and bitter hatreds might sprout up unexpected. So there are rails, but they’re only very gently referred to via those Destinies you handed out way at the beginning.
The other thing that can be daunting for first-time TBZ GMs is threat balancing. Given the importance of engaging with the Karma economy, you want to ensure that threats to the PCs are credible enough that Kiai gets spent and Karma goes up, all while giving the players opportunities to get some Aiki and keep the reward cycle cycling. But PCs are, by design, bad asses! I’m still exploring ways to ensure a threat is credible enough to get players to spend their points, and not either irrelevant (to the point where the players aren’t even looking for ways to emote for Aikia) or terrifying (to the point where they’re dumping everything into sheer survival, which very much grinds against the game’s vibe). The game includes some rules on building good detailed (i.e. important) NPCs, but I found the mook (zako in Japanese) rules a bit flimsy as written.
Finally, the players need to be on board with the idea that their game will be complete by the end of perhaps two or three sessions. If players stay focused on having fun with their Fate changes, it’s all good. If they get focused on character advancement, the game can feel truncated.
The game experience
I think the final game product – the experience the game is designed to deliver – is a highly compressed, explicit character arc. It’s kind of a third thing, with bildungsroman characters over in the trad/D&D corner and story-as-end-product in another corner. The game doesn’t really concern itself with character escalation (although the characters do inevitably advance in power throughout the very short game; more on that in a bit), nor does it concern itself with delivering a particularly novelistic or literary type experience. Rather, the game feels in play like a sequence of highlight scenes, with players invested in their dude’s arc but mostly unable to direct the fiction in a meaningful way.
In my opinion, TBZ’s economy is built to incentivize Fate churn, and therefore propel the character through an emotional arc. Yeah, your dude gets more “powerful” but s/he started pretty beefy to begin with. And as Fates change and are ultimately discarded, it’s not always a steady progression. This scene you might have a Fate like “Friend of the Tanaka clan,” and then things happen, and then you change it to “Enemy of the Tanaka Clan,” and then later still “Enemy of Jiro, leader of the Tanaka Clan” and so on and so forth. And then you either decide you’ve resolved your relationship with the Tanaka Clan and scratch it off, or continue to edit and modify elements of that particular Fate.
Anyone who’s played Burning Wheel and similar games will recognize kinship to this idea. But it’s not the same! Both games feature explicit “flags” (i.e. statements from players to GM about what they’re committing to playing toward), but while BW often features a steady progression toward a grand goal, TBZ is really about the crazy soap-opera melodrama of its source material.
When a TBZ game reaches its conclusion, the players are left with an explicit record of the arc through which the character passed: what they cared about, what they discarded, what they invested with importance, shifting loyalties and attitudes. The only other game that comes to mind that treads similar ground is Hero’s Banner.
Tenra Bansho Zero is the most exciting new release for me since Apocalypse World. It works in a play style in which I’m comfortable (trad power structure and explicit flags), while introducing some neat innovations (flag churning, emotion matrix, hard pacing via scenes and acts). It’s delivering a play experience I can’t replicate elsewhere.
Confession: I am a long-standing anime hater. That said, I’m totally into the crazy-wasabi-coleslaw setting of TBZ. It’s a sprawling, melodramatic empowerment fantasy that really gets my players jazzed up. I’m grateful and relieved that I didn’t have to grind through seasons of Samurai Champloo or something.
The game isn’t without its faults. I think the threat-balancing issue to be the biggest one, although with experience I’m sure this will solve itself. There are some minor math issues that I think come from translating the game, combining lots of supplemental material, and then localizing and streamlining the game once more; no show stoppers, but I would expect a (very short) errata sheet at some point. I found the book’s organization to be a little hard to find my way around, but then again I was working from a PDF. Grain of salt and all that.
Probably the most interesting quirk of the game is that it’s massively front-loaded if you’re going to cook up your own characters. Picking archetypes is easy-ish but looking for interesting exploits/synergies seems unavoidable for many players. You can also cook up your own archetypes, and then the game’s setup can get pretty lengthy. I don’t honestly find heavy front-loading to be a problem, other than the fact the whole game will be over in six-or-so hours of game play! TBZ can probably serve as an excellent pick-up game but only if you resort to the pregens.
Anyway. All the thumbs up. Good stuff for trad players looking for something interesting and new, as well as gamers looking for a different way to tell a story.