Narrow Results

Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition $12.00
Average Rating:4.9 / 5
Ratings Reviews Total
48 4
2 3
0 0
0 0
0 0
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
Click to view
You must be logged in to rate this
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.

[4 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

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".

[4 of 5 Stars!]
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.


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 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!]
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
by Joseph M. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 05/01/2013 12:12:19

Man. All that effort paid off. I've been following Andy K for years on and to finally see the book. Awesome.

I'll keep it simple:

Good -

Great Setting Nice Narrative Mechanics Good play and character reward system that embraces bad things having a payoff down the road. NICE combat! Interesting Dice mechanics.

Bad -

Relationship tracking mechanic feel stacked on. But eh, it's painless. So so cutomization of the setting expectations. You can layer templates, point buy, but the core setting is static. So after a while the PC start to feel that way.

The Bad isn't THAT bad though, a good crew can overcome these bugs. Really.

It's a fun fast game that needs more attention.

And you can't beat the price for the PDF bundle.

[4 of 5 Stars!]
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
by Judd G. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 04/20/2013 12:46:41

A game filled with a grand mix of Japanese culture and action-adventure, TBZ plays like a kabuki play filled with high-tech war as the backdrop. The game-play is based on a simple resolution mechanic with an abundance of strategic play options. There is room here for tons of role-play that dove-tails expertly with strategic play in combat (or any conflict).

Characters have access to some very interesting and engaging abilities and powers to give them a niche (even if they all play the same template). Players, meanwhile, have access to mechanical strategies to help them engage in the story as a way of fueling their successes in their exploits. Balance what matters to your character with how well you play to those desires, and you gain the ability to push the envelope when you need to.

The setting is a toolbox for building exciting situations of which the PC group become the very center. Games play fast and have a act and scene structure that emulates a Kabuki play while also channeling the characters' development during the story. Fast-paced and energetic play results from rules focused on that end. I recommend this game highly!

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
by Paul B. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 02/28/2013 11:37:20

(Repost of my review at

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 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.

The setting

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 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.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Tenra Bansho Zero: Heaven and Earth Edition
by Thiago R. [Verified Purchaser]
Date Added: 02/27/2013 00:09:22

7 years in the making and it shows. One of the most thoughtful products I have ever acquired. Beautiful art, cultural notes everywhere, an alternate plain text version for ease of use, great respect shown towards the customer and the original authors. This is an amazing game. Buy it. Now.

[5 of 5 Stars!]
Displaying 1 to 7 (of 7 reviews) Result Pages:  1 
0 items
 Gift Certificates