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Friday, 24 April 2020

The shinpu hits the fan


Back in the 20th century, the grimdark fantasy tradition had its beginnings in Michael Moorcock's Von Bek novels (The Warhound and the World's Pain, etc) which surely inspired Games Workshop's Warhammer RPG. In the early '90s, Jamie and I signed with GW to write a pseudo-Japanese supplement for Warhammer, which made sense given that the Sengoku period makes the Thirty Years' War look like a tussle between two drunks outside a kebab shop. But enough of me and Jamie...

Tetsubo had been commissioned by Paul Cockburn. Unfortunately he left GW the same week we delivered the manuscript. The new people in charge of roleplaying games there didn't have much enthusiasm for an Oriental take on the game -- and possibly not for roleplaying in general, as soon after that I think GW passed the Warhammer licence on elsewhere.

So that left Tetsubo in limbo -- or rather in Yomi -- until 2018, when Daniel Fox of Grim & Perilous Studios asked to adapt it as a supplement to his Warhammer heartbreaker, Zweihänder. The good news was the renewed spark of interest drove me to dig out the Tetsubo manuscript and scan it all, most of the book never having even been saved to disk and only existing in a faded dot-matrix-printed box of papers. The bad news: after a burst of activity it sank back into the land of mists, and after a year the contract lapsed.


Daniel Fox got back in touch last month to talk about renewing the contract, but his thinking had moved on. He wanted to bring in elements of 1960s chambara movies. That wasn't in itself a problem. Jamie and I are Kurosawa fans, even though we harbour no illusions about his movies being in any way authentically Japanese. But Daniel wanted to square the circle by meshing that with a real Sengoku vibe, and he had the problem that the book as written was more of a fit with the Bakumatsu -- because, of course, GW had wanted players to be able to bring their Old World characters in.

And then there was the question of who would tackle the redesign and conversion to the new system. Daniel proposed hiring Graeme Davis, who would have been ideal, but he was too busy to take it on. Now, at this point I should probably address the notion of "cultural appropriation", whose proponents (I think; I don't actually know any) might say the game could only be done properly if it had a Japanese designer. But would "a Japanese designer" have to mean somebody born and raised in Japan? Or could it be a Japanese citizen (wherever he or she was born) with a deep knowledge of medieval Japanese culture? Or simply somebody who happens to be ethnically Japanese -- Kazuo Ishiguro, for instance, who went to school down the road from me in Surrey? You might have guessed by now that I don't subscribe to the woke obsession with ethnicity, an obsession which is supposedly progressive but in fact quite the opposite; we are all human, nobody owns culture or history, and there's no reason why the world's leading authority on, say, Classical Greece shouldn't be Maori.

But those are all just distractions. The bottom line is, a year on, Jamie and I could see that Tetsubo just wasn't going to happen. At least, it will only happen if we do it ourselves.

Currently we're mulling over whether this is worth doing as a Kickstarter. We'd need to rebuild it around a different game system, of course, and our first thought was Powered By The Apocalypse, which we enjoyed for its simplicity when we played our Sagas of the Icelanders campaign, but the appeal of Tetsubo will surely be to traditional roleplayers whereas PbtA would take it in a whole other narrativist direction. So not that.

One option is to use a variant of my Tirikelu RPG, but I'm not sure that would make best use of the skills and career paths in the Tetsubo book. I intend using Tirikelu for my Abraxas RPG (a good fit, hopefully, being science fantasy) and also Tirikelu isn't GURPS; we can't just tack it onto everything. Jamie suggested using a variant of my currently-in-development Jewelspider rules, on the principle that OSR players and Warhammer fans might have at least a nodding acquaintance with Dragon Warriors.

But then we had a brainwave. Paul Mason is an Anglo-Japanese academic who has lived in Japan for over twenty-five years. He's not only an authority on Japanese culture and history, he's also an editor, author and RPG designer with his own (as yet unpublished) game Outlaws, based on the stories of Liang Shan Po. What if we used the Outlaws system for Tetsubo? Not only would the gaming world get a taste of a brilliant and authentic Eastern-influenced RPG, but we'd get an extremely erudite Japanese scholar on board to consult on the final manuscript.

We asked Paul, he said yes, and that's the plan right now -- unless somebody throws an even better suggestion into the comments below.

33 comments:

  1. My suggestion would be Mythras (formerly known as Runequest 6)... probably the best iteration of the Rubequest/BRP system these days.

    I'm looking forward to whatever form it takes but my main interest will be grafting the setting to WFRP's.

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    1. It would have been better if I could have stuck with the WFRP rules, as WFRP players are the only people who are going to be interested in Tetsubo and I wouldn't have had to do much work getting it ready for publication. Unfortunately I don't have the WFRP rights, nor to Mythras either. Paul Mason is willing to let me use the Outlaws system for free, so he wins the Kewpie Fusion doll.

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    2. A Kewpie Fusion doll that has pride of place on my tokonoma (look it up!), I should add.

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    3. As ever, each answer unpeels new questions -- for yesterday in the Tetsubo rules I mentioned a character's kamidana, and now I wonder if that should have been tokonoma...?

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    4. Dave, if you do want to discuss a Mythras adaptation, I'm absolutely certain we could work something out. Whatever path you go down though, I'll be looking forward to seeing what come sout.

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    5. I'm kicking myself that I didn't mention it to you sooner, Lawrence. Now I've spent the last month converting it to Outlaws, I'm not sure I could stand to unravel all that and start again. But my next RPG project is Sparta, and for that I had planned to use Basic Role-Playing -- so if that sounds like something you'd be interested in, let me know. (Of course, what I really, really want to do is Mythras Tekumel...)

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    6. I'd love to see Mythras Tekumel. It's one of my favorite settings.

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    7. I'd pretty much drop everything else to write that. We need to get everyone we know to write The Design Mechanism guys and tell them to chase the licence.

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    8. Any ideas of how feasible that would be Lawrence?

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  2. https://www.chaosium.com/brp-system-reference-document/

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    1. Thanks! As an old RQ buff, I'll definitely look into that.

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  3. I am very excited to hear that TETSUBO will be moving forward. Outlaws is one of my cherished favorites and it's lovely to hear that the game could be powered by its game engine. I will be the first in line to buy a copy of the new game.

    Cheers~

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    1. Thanks, Daniel, and if I can get Tetsubo finished (gotta thank this lockdown for the time I can spend on it, at least) I'll be sure to reserve you a copy. After all, it would still be sitting in a box in my attic if you hadn't reached out to us!

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    2. I’m starting to think a Kickstarter to bring out the contents of your attic might be in order...it sounds like a veritable Aladdin’s Cave (oops can’t appropriate that) um Pandora’s Box (nope can’t use that either) errr Jolly Swagman’s Tuckerbag??? full of amazing and historic gaming treasures. Perhaps it can be the new Project Gutenberg to get this goodness digitised? :-)

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    3. That might be an even better idea than you think, Nigel. I'm pretty sure my wife would back the Kickstarter just to get shot of my boxes that are cluttering up valuable (as she sees it) attic space for extra shoes and clothing.

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  4. Only came across your blog by accident, following a link regarding your 'Temple of the Doomed Prince' scenario, as Tracking down the actual issue would require delving into the Aladdin's cave of crap I call my loft.

    Strangely, the reason I was doing so was because I was cataloguing all the resources I had for Oriental Adventures, as lockdown has given me the opportunity to finally complete the stalled "AD&D 2nd edition" project I've been promising myself for years and thought it could be tweaked to fit.

    Coincidence? Hmmm...

    Interesting post and I agree with your comments regarding cultural appropriation. Should I not attempt a sourcebook to play 2e in a fantasy analogue of India, based on previous articles written by non-Indians, because I'm not from this culture? Current woke culture seems to suggest I shouldn't, but as it's a work of fiction/fantasy and therefore *inspired* by, rather than an attempt to rewrite history, I think I should be okay. Same goes for your prposed game - it's not like you're planning on depicting those wily orientals as the yellow peril, is it?

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    1. Give it a few years and they'll be wanting to ban Zelazny's Lord of Light and Clavell's Shogun. Not that Shogun is remotely accurate or even that good, but I don't think any book should ever be banned. By the cultural appropriation argument, Kazuo Ishiguro shouldn't have written The Buried Giant (except that he's a Surrey lad, as I mentioned) and Arthur Koestler shouldn't have been allowed to write The Gladiators. The whole notion is completely barmy as well as being racist.

      I'd forgotten all about Oriental Adventures, though at one point Jamie and I looked for inspiration in that, Bushido, Land of Ninja, and the Japanese C&S book. I hope Tetsubo measures up to the comparison.

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  5. I would love to see your Oriental game come to fruition. I play 1st ed AD&D, the Basic Role-playing family, and 1st ed WFRP, so anything similar to those rules might actually get onto my table. I liked the look of Outlaws, so if using that system might get Outlaws onto the market as well, I'm all for that. On the gripping hand, I know Lee Gold, whose Land of the Rising Sun and Lands of Adventure might be familiar to you. I play in one of her current campaigns, and while I don't know who owns what anymore, I think she uses a hybrid system of her own these days that you might be interested in discussing with her. If you'd like, I can put you in touch with her -- let me know.

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    1. I'm very familiar with Lands of the Rising Sun -- and very envious that you get to play in Lee Gold's campaign. I think having made a start using the Outlaws rules, I'd only switch to another system now if it would boost Tetsubo's exposure. (賈尼's suggestion above of using Basic Role-Playing is tempting for that reason.) But thanks anyway.

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    2. *Land* of the Rising Sun, I mean. I Freudian-slipped over to the world of Fabled Lands there!

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  6. Reading Lord Utyama-no-Sugensiki Aiken swear a thousand terrors on his enemies of the heathen lands, watching those kabuki-inspired Warlocks emerge from the mist in Mungoda Gold or laughing at the airs Chonmaru adopts when correcting someone on similar-sounding Nascerine words.


    I could go on about Jamie's Ikiru, Onikaru, Singing Death, Avenger, Kwon et.al. I But the result is the same: I experienced these things because they sprang from your mind and it matters not at all where your inspiration can be tracked to. To me they're original and my fancies are certainly guilty of appropriating what I have read, so to me it is all subjective. By title alone I'd argue that Tetsubo should be honoured by following Warhammer's rules, but my tastes run toward hearing more about The Utter East of Bloodsword's/Chronicles of the Magi's version of Legend -- especially if it contains more about Warrior-Magicians like Aiken.

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    1. Thank you for putting it so eloquently, Andrew. Even Chonmaru couldn't quibble with such elegant sentiments. And now you're making me think I should perhaps be using Dragon Warriors rules for Tetsubo, and keeping my Japanese take on Outlaws for Kwaidan, the Heian Period book that I've been mulling over for years.

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  7. Japanese Jewelspider ? Sounds good to me, Dave - but sign me up for a copy no matter what rules you use.

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    1. I did consider that, John, but decided that trying to write Tetsubo using Jewelspider rules while still writing & refining Jewelspider itself would get very confusing. And there's no doubt that if you're looking for an authentically Oriental system, Outlaws is it. Paul has been setting me straight on a bunch of Japanese terms (ninja and shugenja among them) for which he has better alternatives. It's getting there -- slowly.

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  8. Bushido is still available from FGU.

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    1. I should hope so too. These days, there's no real reason for any game to go out of print.

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  9. Why not Dungeons and Dragons, 5th edition? It has the popularity going for it, and Wizards of the Coast might be interested in having a historical-ish setting for East Asia given their general lack of East Asian content, no?

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    1. I haven't played D&D since the '70s. I don't even know which edition that was, but it may be a bit late to start on it now!

      Seriously, though, my impression from podcasts & videos (like this one https://youtu.be/KluTTSrSdrg ) is that D&D is pretty tactical, whereas my interest is in roleplaying in a society/culture. Outlaws will do that job very well -- but if I'm misrepresenting D&D there, I'm happy to be set straight.

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    2. D&D can certainly involve and represent lots of cultural situations! 5th edition is easily the most approachable ruleset D&D has ever had as well, and its popularity has skyrocketed in recent years due to play series like Critical Role (the DM in fact did an episode with US talk show host Steven Colbert for Red Nose Day, and there are similar play sessions coming up with Game of Thrones actors). While many of the rules in D&D relate to combat, there are plenty of situations where good campaign writing can bring up interesting societal scenarios to be resolved with specific speech and so on. I also agree with Baron Greystone below that all roleplaying systems are tactics/resource management-rule heavy, but that doesn't bar an interesting social encounter. For Fabled Lands, after all, its rules arguably relate more to tactics and resource management than social encounters as well, but that doesn't mean it lacks great social encounters! Here's an example of a D and D play session involving a series of interesting social encounters: https://youtu.be/gI5nFEZk690?t=989 (time setting is for a setting involving a confrontation with a tenant and a landlord in a magic-filled New York City).

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    3. I'm still baffled by the very idea of roleplaying as a spectator sport. But, as I said to a friend recently, I'd have said the same about sex and look what a lot of money that makes on the internet.

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  10. The 70s era was mostly what is called "OD&D" nowadays, the little booklets. There was also a re-write in a beginner's boxed set written by Holmes that went from levels one to three. And then 1st edition was released one book at a time, those are the hardcovers you may remember.

    The D&D rules are about tactics and resource management. Role-play and culture is only there if you choose to add it. Different groups play differently.

    But of course, you could say that about any RPG. I've played in plenty of other games, and role-play and culture are sometimes there, sometimes not. Even if the rules system tries to incorporate it, players can participate in those aspects or not.

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    1. Empire of the Petal Throne is effectively OD&D, so yes, I take your point. But to play Tekumel well you have to strip out a lot - alignment, personal magic - and add social status rules, so in the end I think it's easier to junk EPT (as we did) and start again. Not that Tirikelu isn't pretty tactical, come to think, but at least the fights are over quick!

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