Thursday, June 7, 2012

Bushido: RPGs I Like

Classic "old-school" rpg presenting a fantastic samurai Japan.

RPGs mentored me growing up.

I read comic books, watched cartoons, played with action figures, ran around, read books…all that. But RPGs were always my thing. Even when I lacked a steady group I read rules, thought up stories, and sketched characters. These were the mechanics-heavy early days; it took multiple read-throughs to grasp the rules. Alternately you could be taught by someone else. I learned a few games through play (Star Trek, Rolemaster) but learned many more on my own (Stalking the Night Fantastic, Daredevils, GURPS, Top Secret, Monsters! Monsters, Superhero 2044, Ringworld, Stormbringer…).

That taught me to read in a new way. I tore through material hunting down key concepts. I had to figure out new vocabularies and references. RPGs mentored by opening new worlds and suggesting new directions. Going through the swathes of D&D material I learned how to research. Call of Cthulhu pointed me to literary genres and the evocation of mood in writing. Paranoia taught me about comedy and irony. Champions improved my math and algebra. Fringeworthy got me thinking about cultural and historical forces, and the implications of change. I got to play perhaps one in ten (or less) of the RPGs I bought with my allowance, paper route money, or yard sale earnings. But each game could be a learning experience.

Bushido was one of those games. I picked it up in 1982, around my first year of middle school. I don’t know if I knew anything about the samurai or Japanese history. The first Japanese movie I recall seeing was Masahiro Shinoda’s Demon Pond. In high school I finally saw a Kurosawa film, found Lone Wolf and Cub, and read Tomoe Gozen. But by then I’d already created my sense of the samurai world. Bushido constructed an imaginative space and I’ve spent the rest of my life filling that in. It showed me that a foreign culture could have a detailed and hugely different history. And this history included more than just a handful of stereotypical images. Instead other places possess cultural systems with logic and articulated details. The world that Bushido presented seemed more alien than any fantasy game or novel, but it remained consistent. That may be obvious now, but it blew my mind at the time.

Originally Bushido third edition came as a boxed set. That contained the two rulebooks, reference sheets, and a nice multi-panel map of Nippon. Later FGU bundled together everything into a nice perfect-bound edition. That has the advantage of convenience, but at the cost of the map. Like so many of these older games, especially those from FGU, Bushido has text density. There are few illustrations, but all of them work. Going back through the book years later I’m amazed how many of these imprinted on my memory. Each two-column page absorbs nearly all of the white space, running to the small margins. All of the text is given the same weight, with a tiny sans-serif font. With section numbering and titles like “1095.2d First Aid” it looks like a technical manual. But that visual design is consistent throughout and with some training it becomes easy to move through.

The writing is clear and precise, and it has to be. Bushido is filled with new concepts and different names for existing ones. It would be impossible to get everything on a first or even second read. It also suffers from Over Capitalization of Key Terms, but that’s more funny than anything. If there’s any significant failing in the rules it comes from organization. RPGs by and large have gotten better about figuring out what information the reader needs to approach a game system. Core concepts have to be set up and usually that’s followed with a clear sense of character creation. Important ideas can be brought up and then developed later. Modern designers recognize the importance of flow and logical structure. Bushido, like so many of these early systems, hits you with volumes and then sails off into secondary matters at the drop of a hat.

Bushido’s at once highly traditional and strangely progressive. For those who like old school gaming it has multiple die types, activity planning, many figured characteristics, and detailed combat options. Many sub-systems have their own individual logic- rather than following a consistent general rule, they model actions in different ways. I call these asymmetrical systems. Modern games work to simplify cases- reducing games to general rules which can be applied liberally. Bushido has character classes, with significant differences in abilities, hit points, and even means of gaining experience. Character creation involves a random roll for class background which can make a huge difference in initial skills, On (honor), and starting money. Detailed combat modifier and weapon charts, critical hit tables, and highly specific movement and distance rules appear. The advancement system represents the most “old school” factor of the game. On the one hand, players have levels, ranging from one to six. They have to gain experience (from combat actions for warrior types; magic actions for magic-users) and On to advance a level. Levels give an additional die rolled for HP and impact a few figured details and limits. But to actually advance one’s character in a practical way, skills must be raised. Players don’t advance skills at all through use- instead to increase them they must spend time- lots of time- training their skills. Bushido presents several pages of rules purely concerned with this: how many skills a character may improve, the effects of a teacher and their rank, working with scrolls, and so on.

But it also has players assigning points to determine primary attributes and starting skills, a point based system. Bushido concentrates on those skills over class abilities. While other rpgs had a skill focus (notably Traveller), Bushido articulates those- with key sub-systems under many. There’s an important difference based on types of skills: bugei (combat skills), fine arts, and practical arts. Ninja get their own set of skills. Bugei skills can be specialized through Okuden. These separately developed skills allow players to perform “feats” such as disarm, piercing thrust, and lightning strikes. The Okuden foreshadow the school abilities and combat feats of later samurai systems. Bushido also uses a system for lethal vs. subdual damage, allowing even more options. The importance of social status and social actions to play also separates it from many other classic games.

Here’s the thing I notice going back to reread Bushido: it has lots of rules. The volume of mechanics and subsystems makes my head spin. But I know when we played it we ignored much of that, so the game can be tuned to the needs of the players. And I’m amazed at how well and how much the background and setting is integrated into the rules in a practical way. I know about the Buke class and their role in society because choices and play revolve around that. That level of setting and system integration still amazes me.
This 80-page book covers nearly all of the system basics, from skills to character creation to magic to combat. Along the way we get a detailed and rich picture of society in “Samurai Japan,” although the books themselves call it Nippon. This treatment uses history, but it is not historical in a literal sense. Instead we get a vision of a platonic or amalgam setting which is timeless. Elements of the society which might not have existed in parallel have been fit together here- and the samurai are and always will be the samurai. The skills section remains one of my favorite parts of the game- for the way it presents combat skills as unique arts and for the treatment of fine arts as a vital component of a character’s life. Even the mystical abilities like Ki powers and yoga options paint a vivid picture of the world.

Players have a choice of six classes:
  • Bushi: the classic samurai choice
  • Budoka: a martial artist hero
  • Shugenja: traditional magic user utilizing the five elements
  • Gashuko: Priests who can be either Buddhist or Shinto
  • Ninja: may only be chosen by those who roll Eta on their background (86+ on percentiles)
  • Yakuza: Criminals and gangsters
 A mixed group poses special challenges, and at least in our games we focused on like types in play.

Heroes of Nippon bursts with background and concepts. Even little details give an insight into the culture of samurai Japan. For example the list of restrictions facing the Gashuko illuminates the culture while providing mechanical restrictions. The sections covering society and customs remains one of the best distillations of these ideas in any samurai rpg. Outside of individual characters clans and groups offer players an additional realm to explore. On nearly every page of this book I find an interesting factoid which would be great play out at the table. In short, this book is full of material useful for any samurai GM. 

This shorter, 48-page book serves as the Gamemaster’s guide to Bushido and the land of Nippon. Where Book I bounces around from topic to topic, Book II has a more definite shape and breakdown of material. It still doesn’t feel quite like a more modern GM’s section. It lacks a full discussion of campaign structures, adventure design, and advice on running the system. Instead there’s a grab bag of background, adversaries, and new systems.

The book opens with some traditional GM rules: detailed reaction tables for randomizing initial responses and general guidelines for figuring out random encounter frequency and type. Several pages describe how to construct human encounters- with complications and powers for certain professions (doctors, police, pilgrims). That’s followed by the “monsters” section- beasts, legendary beasts, and lastly the longest section presenting legendary beings. This includes Kappa, Bakemono, Tengu and so on. This great material includes behaviors, tactics, and sub-groups. A complimentary section follows discussing supernatural powers and manifestations. Those nine pages present everything from kami to ghosts.

After that the book moves into miscellany: three pages on treasures, one on natural phenomena, and two on events such as hunts and duels. Five pages look at places in Nippon- from cities to Yakuza hideouts, with some suggestions for scenarios using those. Another five pages presents a detailed battle system (something I talked about here). That allows the players to take a role and have dramatic scenes in such wars. Next the book covers diverse topics even more tightly, less than a page: character employment, marriage, travel, religious truths, and more. The book wraps up with more considerations of the group/clan and ideas for advanced campaigning. A short two-page scenario rounds out The Land of Nippon. In the end, it isn’t nearly as dense as Book I but it offers a broader view of the setting. In that sense it may even be more generally useful to GMs.

I expect I've made my bias pretty clear by this point. Bushido stuck with me over the years and showed me how a game could simulate a setting in depth. I suspect some of my early approaches to detail-heavy world building came out of a desire to copy this. In rereading Bushido, I think the game holds up . It is a denser, more rules-heavy system than I would run today. Some of the mechanics bother me- especially the way advancement is handled. Bushido has two audiences who could embrace it. On the one hand those interested in the Old School Renaissance ought to look at this game. It shares some mechanics with Aftermath and Daredevils, but I’d argue it handles those better. If you’re looking for a crunchy and restrained samurai game, this is the one to buy. On the other hand, if you’re running any kind of samurai campaign (L5R, Oriental Adventures, The Blossoms are Falling) you will find Bushido an invaluable resource and font of ideas.

Bushido’s a good game and there was a time when I thought it deserved a new edition, revised and brought up to date. But it feels complete and whole- I can’t imaging changing this game to fit with the times. It is striking to see how many later games adopted the concepts presented here and borrowed the structures. Bushido established approaches that others took up and reworked. Some later games improved those systems, but many just dressed them up.



  1. Great stuff. You've really nailed how the rules (and artwork) get the setting across so well. One of my faves from back in the day. I still have the books, but the box is long since dead.

  2. Love this game and you still buy it cheap at FGU's web site.

  3. Yup- I like that you can still get ahold of many of these classic FGU games in new condition.

    FGU Website