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Friday, 5 August 2022

Don't call them rappas


There’s new news about Tetsubo coming soon. That’s the Japanese-styled RPG that began as a Warhammer supplement and then began turning into a much more authentic game of its own during lockdown. I have been adapting it to work with Paul Mason’s Outlaws RPG. Also, he has lived in Japan for over thirty years so is ideally qualified to advise me on both the rules and the culture.

I began by asking Paul about kusa, a group of medieval Japanese saboteurs-cum-mischief-makers that I read about in a martial arts magazine. The kusa were a sort of precursor to ninja, but I also wanted Tetsubo to dispense with the notion of ninja as feudal-era special ops that was popularized after World War 2. And the best way to go back to the roots of the profession (if indeed it has any that we can isolate from all the modern myths) would be to ditch the name “ninja” in favour of something more historically accurate.


Paul responded: Wikipedia has kusa as another term for ninja, but unfortunately no context behind it, whether it's period-based or regional. My source for terms was the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum. It lists shinobi, ukami, kanja/rappa, onmitsu and ninja as the terms used by period (the last is listed for Taisho: ie the 20th century). Regional terms include some of those period based terms as well as suppa, ukami, dakko, kikimonoyaku, and kurohabaki. Interesting that it includes none of the Wiki ones apart from rappa and shinobi.

So in Tetsubo, kusa became the apprentice level of the kanja (not ninja) profession. I then asked Paul about how to represent defilement.

Paul: The term you need is kegare (穢). It would translate as impurity or uncleanness. When you go to a shrine and wash your hands at the little shack for that purpose, it's a ritual washing to rid you of kegare. This obsession with cleanliness (see also Japanese bath houses, and taking off your shoes when you enter a house) is somewhat relevant in the present pandemic. I've even heard it given as a reason why the Japanese never had an industrial revolution -- better hygiene meant longer lifespan than Brits meant there were not enough surplus agricultural workers, a necessity for industry.

Dave: Funnily enough, I’d previously thought of using kegare for bad joss [a rules concept in Outlaws] and immediately rejected it for the fairly daft reason that Tetsubo already has defilement defined as occurring in specific circumstances (proximity to a dead body, fluffing etiquette when addressing a kami, etc).

Paul: That's exactly what bad joss is supposed to deal with!

Dave: The mental process here is interesting because it illustrates why it’s taking me longer to edit Tetsubo now than it probably took to write it in the first place. I’ll think of a way to implement something (kuji-no-in, say) using Outlaws rules. But then I see there are a couple of other ways to do it, and whichever I choose has knock-on effects, so I enter a mental holding pattern where no decision is taken as I move on to another part of the rules. All of which is pretty stupid given that the people who want Tetsubo will mostly be Warhammer players and the people who want Outlaws really want Outlaws, not Tetsubo – so I’m agonizing over choices that might only matter to the handful of people who buy the book and play it as written.

Paul: I can't help thinking that trying to imagine the kind of people who want to play the game is a bad move. Surely you can only say to yourself: what is this game to me? And design it accordingly. In the case of Tetsubo, the answer is clearly: "not Kwaidan". So just go ahead and do interesting things that wouldn't work in Kwaidan.


Kwaidan was/is to be a roleplaying game set in Heian Japan, considerably more culturally authentic and closer to my heart than Tetsubo, which everybody seems to associate with Kurosawa's early "noodle Easterns".  

Dave: At least I’ve managed to break that holding pattern regarding kegare. You are of course quite right – that’s exactly what I needed to substitute for bad joss. And instead of getting hung up on how to square the abstract acquisition of kegare when acquiring motivation with specific in-game circumstances that cause or remove defilement, all I need to do is put numbers to the latter. +5 kegare for touching a dead body, -[degree of success] for a purification CEREMONY roll, etc.

I’m still undecided about how to handle magic. In a perfect world I wouldn’t bother having it as a separate discipline and simply have it bleed into everything else – but that’s Kwaidan, not Tetsubo. I was listening to the Appendix N Book Club podcast in which somebody said we’d had forty-five years of role-playing, and still nobody has figured out a way to make magic magical.

Paul: That's wrong. Plenty of people have figured out how to make magic magical. It's just that however you do it, once you write down rules someone will find a way to suck the magic out of it. My philosophy is that role-playing magic rules are there for people who don't want magic to be magical. For the rest of us, if you are going to allow players to use magic, it's all about trust.

Dave: I really like the Outlaws magic system and it does feel that sorcerers in Outlaws are very different from the usual RPG artilleryman types. But Outlaws magic has a very strong Chinese flavour (not that I know what a Japanese flavour of magic ought to be like) and it’s a mark of its strength that it doesn’t easily lend itself to conversion to a different setting. You could use the core Outlaws abilities system for anything from Tekumel to Ancient Greece – and Arabian Nights and Camelot, as we’ve said before – because people still have to haggle, fight, sneak, impress, treat wounds, sing, make works of art, etc. But the obstacle to any generic system is magic. That’s where GURPS falters: what would “generic magic” even look like?

Paul: Yet another reason why I don't believe in GURPS. But ironically, if you're doing a Japanese magic system, the closest you're going to find is in a Chinese one. Throw away all that stuff about “shugenja” from Bushido. The image of a sorcerer in Japan is the onmyoshi. And the onmyoshi is a hell of lot closer to an Outlaws sorcerer than he is to a sorcerer in any other game. 

Dave: Given that any magic rules must fit the setting, do I retain the leadenly dull spells inherited from Warhammer, rejigged to give them Outlaws stats? That feels like a lazy option, and when I went through a list of the Tetsubo spells crossing off all the boring ones I was left with barely a dozen – and thus glaring gaps in what sorcerers could do. Pretty much the only thing I like from the original Tetsubo rules is that ninja (now kanja) were a type of sorcerer, but then when I read their spells, hobbled as they are by inheriting the magic system of Warhammer, that concept soon dissolves into the mucky residue medieval alchemists were left with in their vain attempts to turn lead into gold. 

What I should do is spend a couple of weeks with Joly’s Legend in Japanese Art really soaking up the depiction of sorcerers in myth, then rebuild from there. It would be enjoyable, too, but at that point I’d really have to wonder why I was investing that effort into Tetsubo when it’d be better spent on Kwaidan. Just this morning I was flipping through the book and M. Joly chastised me with the information that shugendo is not “wizardry”, but a syncretic mystical sect -- in the real-world sense of mystical, that is. And Royall Tyler’s book Japanese Tales mentions that one folkloric power of wizards is “causing the penis to disappear” – again, that’s more one for Kwaidan, I think.

Paul: Spell-lists are one of those soul-sucking things that I don't miss in role-playing games. I switched to C&S because I liked the way it encouraged the idea that sorcerers were almost 'above' spells. One of my players got so into the mindset that his character spent all his time enchanting materials, and he infuriated (and intimidated, as his character became quite powerful) the other players by showing little interest in their schemes, but simply trying to manipulate them to obtain the rare materials he wanted. I think unless magic has that distance, that otherness, it is simply technology: blasters in Traveller.

Dave: That’s what I thought about most of the magical battles in the Harry Potter films. The wands were just phasers. In Chinese Ghost Story or Game of Thrones, on the rare occasions when you get to see magic it does feel magical.

And as for maboroshi – I don’t even know where that came from. Presumably a class of illusionist in Warhammer, and Jamie and I reached for “phantasm” as a plausible equivalent in Japanese? (Or did it come from Lafcadio Hearn? If so hardly authentic, but Hearn I’d accept as valid in the way that Pre-Raphaelite reimaginings of Arthurian myth are valid.) Do I rebuild the class using Outlaws magic, or abandon it and move the original Tetsubo spells for maboroshi (if any are worth keeping) across to whatever I end up calling sorcerers. (My pocket dictionary suggests maho-tsukai or kijutsu-shi, but I suspect they may be thinking of a stage conjurer.)

Paul: Maboroshi means illusion, not illusionist. Annoyingly, Illusionist would be Maboroshishi, which is too silly to use. And Maboroshiya, the alternative, sounds like a shop (remember Mr Benn?). Maho-tsukai is a literal translation of “magic-user”, which was a term I hated in D&D from the very earliest days. I mean, you could use it, and the Japanese term is probably marginally better, in that it is slightly possible that someone might say it, whereas one reason I shacked up with C&S so early was that I could never imagine any story in which someone said, “He is a mighty magic-user!”

Kijutsushi sounds more interesting. The scroll you asked me to research, after all, was from a series called kijutsu no kagami, ie “the mirror of kijutsu”. Strictly speaking, it means “magic tricks”, but it might have more to it, and the scroll suggests that it does.


So this is how the sorcerous professions of Tetsubo ended up:

The generic term for the spellcasters of Yamato is mahutsukai. There are four broad classes:
    • Onmyoshi specialize in astrology, divination, protection against spirits, and the study and manipulation of the five elements, with particular emphasis on geomancy and the correct directions and locations to avoid bad luck. By preference they channel magical energy from iyashirochi (ley lines or ‘dragon veins’, natural sources of ki in the landscape) or from the spirit world. 
    • Genka are a more select and secretive school of mages who practice spells connected with death, illusion and destructive energy. They have a reputation for drawing magical energy from servants, acolytes or even from unwilling captives. 
    • Taoist mages are mystic hermits who develop control over reality and natural forces by means of asceticism and meditation. They prefer to draw their magical force from within themselves, often while meditating under waterfalls, and store it in a focus (often a mirror or gourd) until needed. 
    • Kanja are the eerie ‘wizards of the night’ whose study of magic revolves around their activities as assassins, saboteurs and spies. They power their spells with whatever source of occult energy is most conveniently to hand.
But that’s not the whole story. A sorcerer might change his or her school, acquiring spells and practices from several classes. Bukyo priests have access to magic not studied by any of the mahutsukai and that uses spiritual power. Shinto priests obtain boons from kami that serve the same function as spells. And anyone might acquire knowledge of spells from a supernatural being like a tengu or from a book, whether or not they have any formal training in magic.

In any case, ordinary people are unversed in the types of magic and use the various terms for mahutsukai classes as if they were interchangeable. In a state of ignorance, personal prejudice will often serve to supply a definition. Thus a spellcaster who has associated with the speaker's own lord may be described as an onmyoshi, one suspected of working for an enemy lord may be called a genka or kanja, and one known to have come from Huaxia or who refuses employment may be labelled a Taoist. Sorcerers themselves do little to clear up this state of confusion, as each sorcerer knows that his or her power will be greater against a foe who is not quite sure what to expect.

Thursday, 21 July 2022

After the war is over


I acquired a few imaginary friends in lockdown. Regularly accompanying me on long rural walks are Melvyn Bragg, Tim Harford, Sam Harris, Ralph Lovegrove, Michael Shermer, Tom Holland, and many others, some of whom also happen to be friends in non-imaginary space. One of the biggest highlights of the month is a stroll with Michael Cule and Roger Bell-West, who always seem to be stepping through into my head from the garden of an ivy-clad Buckinghamshire cottage where bees drone in the flowerbeds and there’s the distant thwack and thump of tennis balls. (Don’t disillusion me, chaps.)

Lately a new feature has been added to Improvised Radio Theatre. In “A Gameable Age” Mike and Roger take a deep dive into a historical period that’s ripe for roleplaying. As a culture gamer that sort of thing is right up my street, or winding country lane rather. And it was particularly interesting that they launched this segment with discussions of the English Civil War and the Restoration, because a few years ago I had a notion to set a Legend campaign in a setting not unadjacent to that period.

My idea was to have the characters in Ellesland, but a version of Ellesland resembling our 17th century. Twenty years earlier, in their youth, they had been involved in a bitter civil war that still left scars on society. The players were separately asked which side they had supported, the revolutionaries or the crown. After an interregnum the king had been restored and now we were in a period of reconciliation – in theory.

The point of the game being to play tricks with memory, I envisaged the civil war years as more like the early medieval world of traditional Legend as seen in Dragon Warriors. If a character turned their mind to how twenty years had wrought such changes in society and technology (no sign of pistols or muskets back in the civil war, for example) they’d find the details hazy. Something more earth-shattering than victory or defeat had happened – because, after all, the loss of your twenty-year-old self is an apocalypse. That’s how I intended to characterize the Doomsday of the year 1000 that is supposed to bring an end to Legend.


I realize now that this is a case of parallel development with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, which I have variously praised, cavilled about, and neutrally assessed. In a world where magic is real and Parliament is now the seat of sovereignty, an Act of Oblivion has the force of physical law. Such supernaturally induced amnesia allows the characters to forget old vendettas and live in peace. (Hmm, in hindsight, instead of using the idea for a roleplaying campaign, maybe I should’ve written it up as a novel.) If you want to read about it in detail you’ll need to sign up for my Patreon page, but this post gives you the gist of it.


Having got back to thinking about that campaign idea after all these years, I now wonder why I glossed over the Interregnum – surely an interesting period of uncertainty and change. My only excuse is that Mike and Roger skipped it too, but I see that Melvyn Bragg has taken up that particular baton in a recent In Our Time which deals with the kings-&-dates stuff, and for the social history that interests me here's Anna Keay. Between them, my imaginary friends are fully as accommodating as Treesong’s paladins in Jack Vance’s The Book of Dreams.

Friday, 8 July 2022

A divine wind

If you haven't followed the Tetsubo saga, it starts here and until recently ended here. The tishatsu version: Jamie and I wrote a Japanese-flavoured supplement for the Warhammer. That's way back in the early '90s. It was never used, the rights reverted to us, and parts of it appeared in Robert Rees's fanzine Carnel.

The rest is told in the links to those two earlier posts, and during lockdown I made a start on adapting it to fit with Paul Mason's Outlaws RPG. If not for the Vulcanverse books it would be finished and on sale by now. Oh, and Jewelspider. And some bits of paid work too. Stuff got in the way, in short, but I'm hoping to get it done sometime in 2023. So, only about thirty years late.

A couple more links. This week I'm interviewed on the Awesome Lies blog about Tetsubo's past and future. My thanks to Gideon of Awesome Lies for the opportunity, and if there are any questions he missed -- well, you know where the comments are. I also enjoyed this article on putting Warhammery concepts of Chaos into a Japanese setting (despite the author's conclusion that "Tetsubo shows that slavishly copying Japanese culture and folklore into Warhammer doesn't really make for a satisfying result") though if and when Tetsubo does get an official release it won't any longer be trying to fit into the Warhammer universe.

Friday, 1 July 2022

Lovecraft country

If you are thinking of running a Cthulhu roleplaying campaign in authentic New England surroundings, this site by John Ott has to be your first port of call. He's developed the Miskatonic railway line and in particular the city of Arkham as an amazing set of scale models. Show these pictures to your players to create a suitably eldritch mood.


For other things nameless and redolent of the outer darkness, try:
Or even this write-up of our 1890s campaign, which (I am told) was loosely based on "The Night of the Jackals", a scenario in later editions of Cthulhu By Gaslight.

Friday, 24 June 2022

Games that gloomviles play

If that picture rings a bell, you may have an eye like an A.I. but you'll also appreciate that gloomviles from an early Golden Dragon gamebook have found their way into the latest issue of Dragon Warriors magazine Casket of Fays. This issue has a sandbox campaign (my kind of game, that) set on the moors, magic items, creatures, adventure seeds, and a feature on the games that characters (not players) enjoy in the lands of Legend.

And while you're on DriveThruRPG don't fail to pick up Paul Partington's latest Dragon Warriors gamebook Scourge of the Shadows. It's a 480-section adventure set in Ereworn and, like Casket, it's absolutely free.

Also, though it's not related to Dragon Warriors or Fabled Lands, don't forget to check out the Kickstarter for the third Legendary Kingdoms book, Over the Bloo-- no, I mean Pirates of the Splintered Isles. Open world gamebook adventure, except with a party of characters instead of a single PC. You can get a sense of what it's like from the playthrough here:

Friday, 17 June 2022

A supernova imagination


You can probably see why I was immediately drawn to the work of Dublin-based artist Rory Björkman. There's a bit of a Mirabilis vibe in some of his pictures. But he has more strings to his bow that that, and I was mesmerized by this article about his art. (Full disclosure: it's by my wife.)
"Rory sees a lot of potential in games. 'I think they’re an underused platform. They could be used to a much greater extent for telling stories instead of shoot-up adventures. Games could tell great stories but you don’t see much of that.’"
He's talking about videogames, of course, but I think that any one of Rory's images could inspire an entire roleplaying scenario. If you try one out, come back and let us know how it went.

Friday, 10 June 2022

No new thing under the sun

I knew gamebooks dated back much further than Choose Your Own Adventure and Steve Jackson's Melee and Wizard solo games. I used to play educational logic "gamebooks" back in the early 1960s. But it turns out that "Alan George"'s Treasure Hunt not only anticipated all that by a further two decades (it was published in 1940) but also sort of pioneered the graphic novel gamebook genre that I thought Russ Nicholson and I had invented in the early '80s.

Much more up to date is a new(ish) open-world gamebook called Traquelero: A Quest for Happiness, by Othniel Poole. It seems pretty hard to get hold of, which is a shame as the concept sounds fascinating. No dice, no stats, just a character journey to explore. Effectively a walking sim in gamebook form? I'd like to try it and find out.