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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.


  1. This was fun to read. It seems that you both disagree with how game design was taught to me, which was that you target the demographic for the game and then write to it. The very idea that you don't think about the people who are going to give the game a try, and instead just go your own way, was anathema! Anyway, somewhere I have some Outlaws material saved (damned if I know where), but I'd definitely have it on my desk with all the other China and Japan RPG material I'm reading through if I had a hard copy. And while I'm interested in Tetsubo, it would be as Dave fears, an adjunct to 1e WFRP. So I guess I'm not your demographic. :-(

    1. It's like writing fiction. You can either research your market and then give them what they want, or you can write what you want and hope that there will be readers who get it. The latter is far riskier -- all the greatest innovations in fiction and in game design are created that way, but for every big hit there are a hundreds of failures.

      I am not claiming that Tetsubo is going to be either a great innovation or a big hit, by the way, but when you're not being paid to work on something I figure you're entitled to do it your own way.

      But even that raises an interesting question. When I have been employed to design games or write fiction, it's still important to give the target audience what they need, not simply what they ask for. I'm sure you were taught that too, though publishers don't always seem to understand it. They will say, "X% of the focus group requested such-&-such a feature," and I'd have to say, "They don't know what they want yet. It's up to us to figure out what will appeal to them."

      Given that most of the people who might buy Tetsubo will be WFRP fans, the best answer might be for me to stop treating it as a passion project (I have enough of those to fritter away my time on!) and hand it over to a team who will steer it towards that market. Watch this space ;-)

    2. I attempted to write both a novel and a role-playing game in the way associated with me above; it's instructive that neither has been published!

      But then much comes down to how much you need it to be published. In my case, I had the luxury of not depending on either of these projects for my daily bread. And revelling in this luxury, I decided that there was no point in just producing a 'product' for a 'market' -- plenty of other people were doing that. I was more interested in producing the book that I believed in. And to be honest, given the amount I've spent on Chinese stuff over the years, even if I published Outlaws next week and it was a big hit, I'd still probably never make a profit from it.

      Back in the day I thought the growing interest in China might make the game marketable. Nowadays I can't help feeling that it suffers a similar problem to any putative game based on Russian expansionism (as well as having the problem of 'cultural appropriation' to wrestle with: not something that can be dealt with in a racist way, by simply employing someone with a Chinese name!).

      Given the last paragraph of your comment, Dave, I have to register some alarm at the idea of the Outlaws system becoming the intellectual property of a team of Warhammer enthusiasts!

    3. Never fear, Paul. If Jamie and I hand Tetsubo over to a publisher I'm sure they would strip out the Outlaws mechanics. Or, if not, they'd have to negotiate a deal with you, but I assume their goal will be the Warhammer fans who want ninja, not kanja, and who want them to be sneaky rogues in black pyjamas. Still, I would count that as glass-half-full as I could then press on with the real passion project (Kwaidan) with Outlaws rules.

      Talking of cultural appropriation and related twittery, I just heard an interview with George Takei in which he said CBBC had hired him to play Elder Panda. Of course they'd cast an American with Japanese parents as a Chinese animal character!

    4. Didn't you know that Chinese animals were ethnically Japanese-American? And British animals are ethnically French-Patagonian.

      Actually I think there is something to the idea of cultural appropriation, but there is also a lot of related twittery. It's absurd to suggest that you can't do any creative work in a culture other than your own (so, for example, the BBC can't make a show called The Musketeers). And every culture interacts with and absorbs influences from others (there is a power dynamic here, but the influences nevertheless go both ways).

      For me, the red line is when what's happening is neither influence nor an attempt to represent another culture for a home audience, but steps into the realm of exploitation. This is when the culture being appropriated is also actively disrespected. To give an example, original Bushido was full of all kinds of nonsense about Japan, but all the same it was evident that they had plenty of respect (or even love) for the culture. On the other hand, D&D's Oriental Adventures supplement was, as the name rather suggests, pure orientalism: the presentation of 'exotica' with no interest in, or respect for, its context. One might suggest that a publisher who wanted a Japanese game that didn't simulate Japan 'right down to the Japanese people' was guilty of the same thing.

      The pajama-ninja approach could be defended in the 80s in the same way I've defended Bushido. But I think nowadays there's little excuse for it: wilful ignorance becomes more of a crime the easier it is to go out and correct.

      In which case, I'd say the thing to do with a Warhammer Tetsubo is to move it away from Japan. Make it as much about Japan as Warhammer is about medieval Germany, which is to say there's a patina of flavour, but no serious attempt at representing the culture. In this, at least it is honest. The problem is that you actually are interested in Japanese culture and its creative possibilities, and that presents something of an obstacle.

    5. I agree with you about not just using cultures as a grab-bag of vague notions to layer onto a D&D setting. Not that I'm worried it will offend Japanese of the 16th century or whatever (they're all dead) but because it's an offence to the intelligence of the players today.

      The BBC's approach is typical these days. They aren't interested in diversity in a cultural sense, they think diversity is all about genes. That's the thinking that would put a Canadian with Chinese grandparents in charge of the Tetsubo redesign. It's more racist than the cultural appropriation they purport to care about.

      A digression on this: back at the time of the first Gulf War, a Greenpeace spokesperson said that Europeans should not criticize Saddam because to do so was racist. (I assume she meant Europeans who aren't of Iraqi origin btw.) But failing to treat dictators like him or Kim Jong-Un the same as we'd regard, say, Hitler -- *that's* racist. Or at least it was before the world went potty.

      This discussion is particularly useful because it makes me realize that I don't know what Tetsubo enthusiasts (all ten of them) do want from the game, but it probably isn't the same kind of fantasy Japan I was interested in writing about. Kwaidan is not only dearer to my heart but has the advantage of coming with no expectations -- Warhammer players will never even hear about it. So there I can do what I want.