Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Retrospective: Bushido

When gamers talk about "medieval" or "feudal" Japan, they're usually referring to the Sengoku or "Warring States" period of the mid-fifteenth through the beginning of the seventeenth centuries. This was a period of decentralization and destabilization, as power shifted away from the shogunate to local daimyos, bringing with it lots of military conflict and political intrigue. This makes it well nigh perfect for the kinds of mayhem characters in RPGs create, which probably explains the appeal of the era -- well, that and the ninjas.

The difficulty with Sengoku era Japan is that it takes place not only in the past but also in a foreign country. Most gamers haven't the foggiest notion about Japanese culture beyond what's been popularized (typically inaccurately) through comics, movies, and TV shows. To create a RPG set in the era that hits all the right notes is thus a difficult task. Many gamers want their historical games to be "authentic," but don't necessarily want them to be "realistic." That is, they're not content with games that get socio-cultural details wrong, even as they're not so keen for those details to get in the way of creating the cool character of their dreams.

It's a tough line to walk and, in my experience, very few RPGs of this sort ever succeed completely. One of the rare exceptions is 1981's Bushido. Published by Fantasy Games Unlimited and written Paul Hume and Bob Charette (who'd go on to lasting fame with their game Shadowrun), Bushido opted for a what might be better called a "mythic" approach to the Sengoku period. That is, the game's setting, Nippon, is historical Japan -- the place names and geography are the same -- but it's not strictly historical, since it's filled with ahistorical NPCs, events, and, in some cases, supernatural beings. It's a bit like the Ars Magica approach to medieval Europe, albeit subtler, since Nippon is much more "realistic" overall than AM's Mythic Europe. Consequently, Nippon somehow doesn't come across as nearly as intimidating as it might if it were presented simply as historical Japan, thereby making it a far better RPG setting in the process.

As a game, Bushido is very interesting. Its rules are complex, although not as complex as one might expect from an FGU product. Much detail is given to combat, which is both expected for an RPG of the era and for one set in medieval Japan. Of course, Bushido has rules for far more than combat, including skills, ki powers, and magic. As one would expect, the game also treats questions such as honor and status within Nipponese society, as well as how one acquires and loses them. It's here, I think, that Bushido really shines, at least if my experiences with the game are any indication. Players quickly acclimate themselves to the rhythms and values of Nipponese life once they see that many of the usual RPG problem-solving tactics will get them killed or, worse, ostracized. There's something truly glorious in observing this transformation in one's players and it's a testament to good game design that such a transformation is even possible, let alone likely.

I have a lot of fond memories of Bushido, which always struck me as more "serious" than any of its competitors, including TSR's late entry Oriental Adventures. I often call Bushido the "Japanese Pendragon" and I think it's apt: both games treat their subject matter with respect, adopting an approach that's neither too historical nor too fantastical, a middle road that encourages good roleplaying in a culture whose values are often at odds with those of contemporary Western society. That's an impressive achievement in any era. That it was achieved more than 25 years ago is all the more remarkable.

Plus, you've got to love any game whose random encounter table includes almost as many different types of "rude peasants" as the Dungeon Masters Guide does harlots.

29 comments:

  1. One of the greatest games of all time.

    This game loomed large in my mind when I was writing Legends of the Samurai.

    Good retrospective.

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  2. Great game, but I never could figure out the magic system

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  3. Still have mine. The box is longsince dead, but still have the books and excellent fold out hex map of Nippon.

    Not over keen on the system. These days I prefer something more rules light, although I took that level of complexity in my stride as a kid, but the setting material is great.

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  4. Actually the FGU version is the second edition of the game. The first edition was by Phoenix Games [I believe; I'd have to find my copy to be sure], and it was interesting to see the evolution between the two.

    Mechanics-wise I think that Bushido really shined with combining the idea of level (there were 6 of them) with separate skill ratings. For PCs, level influenced class skills; for NPC levels made it easy to allocate skills on the fly. This made it as easy as D&D to generate a chance-met opponent or monster (or even a chance-met temple, monastery, castle, school or village [yes, it has a "wandering" Place table]).

    Additionally they had wonderful tables for player participation in mass battles, and lots of ideas for how to establish a domain (or school or other high level venture).

    I stole a lot of these ideas (especially the Level ideas) for my fantasy campaign (heavily modified D&D), as well as running a Bushido campaign for many years. They work really really well for sandbox campaigns, making it simple to determine things on the fly.

    It still heavily influences my approach to designing campaigns (rather than stand alone games).

    Death to Ninja Clan F!

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  5. The experience system always bothered me and I'll admit that as a teenager I couldn't get over it.

    If I'm remembering correctly the PC that deals the killing blow to a monster gets all of the experience for it, regardless of whether or not they did any previous damage. That let to my group exclaiming "Budo hog!" to the player who would sit back and just try and kill the severely wounded monsters.

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  6. Thanks for posting this. Bushido is the game I most regret never getting to play. I've often been tempted (quixotically) to write a Bushido for the Bugis, which I think could be wonderful, but would have an audience of perhaps 3.
    ...equally quixotically, I'd love to play in a Warring States Japan game that was doggedly, resolutely earthbound, stripped of all the usual mythology that clings to Japanese history, with grumbling, disobedient Samurai, seasonal deficiency diseases and hand-to-hand combat that is not amazingly more effective than what you find in Europe at the time.

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  7. Still have my boxed set too, though they box has seen better days. I still love to read through this one from time to time. Especially the random encounters.

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  8. My boxed set is still in great shape, thank goodness. I have a great and enduring respect for the Charette/Hume series of games from FGU that all used a similar (what I came to think of as the Charette/Hume-house) system: Daredevils, Aftermath, and Bushido.

    I have played both Bushido and Aftermath (not Daredevils) and I find the rules are actually very likeable in play. I have great memories of both games, and I wouldn't completely discount the possibility of me running a game with the Charette/Hume system sometime in the future (most probably I'd start with rules as presented in Daredevils and go from there).

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  9. Having lived in Japan the better part of the decade, and having spent a great deal of that time studying kendo, my appreciation of Bushido has only grown. It is very difficult to get western thinkers into the Japanese mindset, particularly of that period. In many ways it runs against everything many gamers look for in an RPG. Bushido walked the line between being an RPG and being a feudal Japanese RPG quite well.

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  10. I never actually played this game. but I still have and treasure my copy (which is actually the pre-FGU Phoenix Games version -- the digest-sized books sit on my shelf proudly between the )D&D and Classic Traveller stuff). Oriental Adventures to me always came off as a vastly inferior rip-off of Bushido.

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  11. Bushido is a game I've long regretted not picking up - I've heard so many good things about it from a number of people whose opinion I respect.

    Another good take on medieval Japan (focusing on the 15th century, IIRC) is the "Land of the Ninja" boxed set for RQ3. In fact, I should reread that....

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  12. Did you know that Land of Ninja was written by the same guys who wrote Bushido? It's basically a conversion of the Bushido setting to RQ mechanics.

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  13. No, I'd forgotten that. That explains the quality, however.

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  14. The thing I hated most about legend of the Five Rings was the setting. I couldn't figure out why they created this Japanese-flavoured-but-not-Japan world when they could have done what Pendragon did and instead presented, as you say, a "mythic" version of a real setting. Today, I have learned that Bushido (a game that came and went before I played my first rpg, which was Shadowrun, perhaps fittingly) did exactly that.

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  15. To all who've mentioned it: I did not in fact know that there was a pre-FGU version of the game. Thanks for the info! I only ever owned the FGU version and simply presumed it was the first -- more fool I!

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  16. Also, Bushido is still available from FGU's website. I believe it still sells for its original cover price or close to it. I'm not sure if it comes in a box or is just the books, but it's out there for those who want a copy.

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  17. I didn't even know FGU still had a web site. Thanks for the info!

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  18. I remember it took me a year to figure how some of the system worked. But once I did the players and I had a good time.

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  19. A little google-sho: http://www.fantasygamesunlimited.net/shop/?shop=1&cat=3

    I have this packed away... somehwere. Never played it tho.

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  20. Perhaps coincidentally, RPGNow is selling the PDF version for under $7 right now:

    http://www.rpgnow.com/product_info.php?products_id=582&it=1

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  21. Very cool, I'll have to check this out!

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  22. Man, after I read this last night, I dug out my books and read through them again. I've got the two-volume, digest-sized Phoenix printing, as well as the later FGU printing which combined both of the black books into one.

    They're both endlessly fascinating to me---I remember walking something like a four-mile round trip to the mall one summer when I was 13 in order to buy the rules at Games by James. The core of everything I've learned about Japanese culture stems from that game.

    There are fairly significant differences between the two editions. The FGU version is much, much more polished, of course. But the Phoenix version has a coolness all its own: type-written, with "Troll Lords" as one of the monsters, and a freakin' DUNGEON for a sample adventure---a violated Buddhist shrine! FGU sure changed that one...

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  23. Bushido was actually first published by Tyr Games.

    One of these days I might give Bushido a try, I know back in the day, lots of folks enjoyed the game. I have always struggled though with the idea of trying to play a non-Western culture.

    Frank

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  24. I have Bushido, but prefer Land Of The Ninja. AD&D Oriental Aventure was fine, but I created my own fantasy land as a continent off the coast of Greyhawk, Land of The Shadow Assassins. Oriental charater classes get lost in the storm and get washed up in the game world. A couple of Ninja clans have used their mystical powers to establish bases in Greyjawk, and have yet to be discovered.

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  25. I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.
    Alena
    http://onlinemariogames.net

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  26. A perfect gem in the FGU treasures chest! The system is a prequel to the Aftermath! one and is a bit lighter. A bit only. However it’s worth every cent of the effort put into it: while the learning curve is steep at first, once you own the rules the game is really rewarding as it captures the perfect Chanbara feeling that every player has in mind when talking about medieval Japan, as no other game does.

    The character generation can be tedious unless you use an automated charsheet to instantly calculate the various scores requested for a PC. With such a tool it’s easy and you can enjoy the game within minutes.

    Regarding the differences between Phoenix and FGU versions (I do not own the 1st Tyr edition), I would say that 90% of the basic core rules are present in the Phoenix edition. What it lacks is the Yakuza class, the detailed background, some tables and so on. Moreover the rules are much more detailed in the FGU edition, sometimes with no real need. What is astonishing when reading both editions is the “re-organization” attempt in the FGU edition: the editing of the rules to look like a wargame rules booklet (Point 1 and then point 1.1, then 1.11 and so on) and the mad eighties equivalent of a cut and paste mania that breaks the coherence of the rules and render them so hard to learn. Too bad.

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  27. Curiously, I stumbled across this post getting Fight On! #10 ready - we have our first Bushido article in the issue.

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  28. Bushido is more a hodgepodge of pieces from different eras of Japanese history and myth than a Sengoku era game. The map that comes with the game and many elements like the yakuza class are from the Tokugawa era. Other elements come from earlier periods, and there are no guns and only minimal advice on how to integrate supernatural creatures into the setting.

    Bushido has a fond place in my heart. I've played many campaigns with different groups, and I've used it and the similar mechanics from Daredevils and Aftermath - what I call the BCS system - for a variety of other games, including some of my own long gestating game systems. The rigor and consistency of the Bushido mechanics are rarely found in other games.

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  29. Update:
    Bushido is still available from FGU, though no longer in its original boxed format. It is now a single perfect-bound book that reproduces the contents of the original two saddle-stapled books that came in the FGU box set.
    (The fold-out map and the fold-out sheet of tables have not been reproduced.)

    Ordering from FGU was easy, and delivery prompt. Very happy to have my own copy of the Bushido ruleset without having to pay the collectable price-tag.
    Thanks to all here who pointed-out its availability.

    cheers!

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