Wednesday, July 7, 2010

REVIEW: Daimyo of 1867

Although very few historical RPGs have ever garnered a large audience for themselves, many gamers are keenly interested in history. One of the reasons historical RPGs tend not to become wildly popular is that "the past is a foreign country," an epigram all the more true when you're literally talking about the past of another land. Some players already find it intimidating enough to roleplay a character living in a past age of their own culture. Imagine how they feel when they're trying to portray a character from a different culture entirely. And of course many referees feel similarly intimidated -- perhaps even moreso, as they must portray not merely a single character but many and indeed present an entire historical culture in a way that's both "authentic" and accessible to the players.

Feudal Japan is probably one of the most consistently popular historical cultures to serve as the basis for roleplaying games. It has, to Western eyes, a powerful "cool factor" because of its samurai (and ninja), which are similar enough to European knights to be intelligible, yet different enough to appeal to the taste for the exotic and alien. But this cool factor, while important, isn't in my experience enough to support more than a few adventures. If you want to sustain a campaign, the referee needs more. He needs to draw upon the breadth and depth of feudal Japanese society, culture, and myth and that's a tall order for most of us. That's why, despite my love for Bushido, I don't really feel up to running a campaign with it.

Enter Daimyo of 1867, a "gamers guide to feudal Japan" written by Japanese-born game writer Tadashi Ehara, perhaps best known for acting as the publisher and editor of Chaosium's Different Worlds magazine throughout the 1980s. Drawing on his extensive knowledge of and research into feudal Japanese history, Ehara has produced a 336-page softcover book that catalogs each and every one of the 277 daimyo clans in existence in 1867. Each clan includes a picture of its mon or crest, the name of its fiefdom, its revenue, its social rank, ancestry, and more. In many cases, there are photographs of clan castles along with maps of the same. Some entries also include representations of famous personages associated with the clan, as well as brief biographies, histories, and information on connections between the various clans. Just as useful is an extensive collection of resources detailing the geography, history, population, religions, government, and monetary system of feudal Japan.

Of course, any book calling itself a "gamers guide" has to include game-related material and Daimyo of 1867 has about 25 pages devoted to generic gaming notes. These include campaign scenario outlines set in different eras of history and discussion of topics of particular interest to gamers, such as ninja, ronin, vengeance, and the like. In each case, Ehara makes clear what history has to say on these topics but doesn't lose sight of the fact that, in a game, it's often acceptable, even necessary, to alter details slightly to make things fun. In doing so, he manages to simultaneously inform and inspire and I found myself frequently imagining ways to use the information he imparted to create adventures and characters for Bushido. I can't imagine others won't be similarly inspired.

Daimyo of 1867 ends with a "daimyo name generator" to aid in the creation of plausible Japanese names. The generator includes the kanji for the names, along with their meanings. Extensive indexes, glossaries, rosters, and bibliographies round at the conclusion of the book. Taken together, it's an impressive package, one that is scholarly but accessible. The information the book presents is not only engagingly written, but it's also well arranged, meaning that you can easily find your way around the book to locate the details you're seeking. That's a pretty impressive feat, especially in a book intended for use with roleplaying games, which are notorious in their poor organization.

Daimyo of 1867 is excellent but it isn't flawless. First, there's its price: $59.99. That's quite a lot more than most gamers expect to pay for any gaming product, especially one as niche as this one. On the other hand, if one is running a game set in or inspired by feudal Japan, it's money well spent. Second, though the book includes a plethora of details about earlier periods, its main focus is on the latter days of Japanese feudalism. As its title suggests, its baseline is the 19th century, as the ways of the samurai were dying and the flashing swords and clan wars so beloved of gamers were (mostly) a thing of the past. Still, there's enough information on earlier eras here, along with plenty of bibliographic pointers, that it can serve "double duty" as a sourcebook for earlier, more violent times.

Despite these caveats, I daresay that Daimyo of 1867 is the only book about historical Japan that you'll need to run a great campaign, one that is both reflective of Japanese culture as it actually was but also intelligible to non-scholars. That's as strong a recommendation as I can make when it comes to historical RPG source material and I hope that the virtues of Daimyo of 1867 are widely recognized.

Presentation: 8 out of 10
Creativity: 7 out of 10
Utility: 6 out of 10

Buy This If: You're playing a RPG set in historical or semi-historical Japan (or a setting inspired by it).
Don't Buy This If: You're not especially interested in historical Japan or don't play RPGs based on it.


  1. This is certainly cool, and reminds me of the extremely well-researched and put-together SENGOKU game. Although the system was a bit clunky, the setting material for Muromachi Japan was awesome.

    The difficulty in running a game set in such a different culture that lasts a long time is the ability to keep the players interested and invested. A standard dungeon-crawl isn't quite enough--you need to find ways to immerse the players in the world. It turns many of the standard issues with running a long-term campaign and magnifies them. This is also where something like those Osprey Military History books can come in super-handy.

  2. You had me at 277 daimyo clans.

    Sweet, sweet Japanese reference material....

  3. I've always seen 'historical' based campaigns avoided, not because it is hard to get into, but because it is easy to screw up. D&D is easy, because it is total fantasy, in a vaguely medieval European setting. So any inaccuracies can be chalked up to 'it's not history'. On the other hand its so easy to make historical mistakes, and if one of your players happens to know more history then you, well, it won't go well.

  4. Thanks again for another great review!

    - Anthony

  5. GURPS Japan is actually an amazingly comprehensive, well-written and -organized guide to running RPGs in feudal Japan. Honestly, I suspect anyone looking to run any kind of game in this setting would be better off buying the GURPS product.

  6. GURPS Japan is indeed awesome. Its author is also awesome.

    Re: historical mistakes, that's what a GM's ingenuity is for. You could always insist that people report mistakes to you in writing, or chalk it up to obscure village customs, or whatever other retcon mechanisms you care to deploy.