Japanese Fantasy RPGs, A Brief History of Disappointment

So I’m aiming to at one point run a medium-length Dungeons and Dragons 3/3.5e game set in a fantasical asian-themed setting using the excellent E6 hack (max character level = 6) by Ryan S. To that end, I picked up the Rokugan sourcebook for about $2 at some sale or other, and recently finally acquired the Oriental Adventures handbook for 3e as well.

I earlier ran a modified Legend of the Five Rings game, removing some aspects of the setting I didn’t like, and adding others in (namely religion, and names that don’t sound dumb). It worked ok, but since it was based on L5R’s d10-pool system, combat had no real tactical crunch: It all comes down to “roll some dice, look for “10s”; if you don’t have at least one 10, you fail (as all the PCs were “from the Crab clan”, they have these outrageous armor bonuses and the like).

So I thought about using D&D 4e: Soon in the PHB3 there will be Samurai and “Oriental” (yeah, I said it because I mean it) classes and rules hacks (“Ki!”) and the like. However, my experiences with 4e have been mixed between “better than OK” to “man, combat is *awesome*, but anything that isn’t combat feels contrived and silly”. I’m still gonna get Dark Sun when it’s released, and it’s idea of Kit-style “bolt-on/template classes” is exactly what I think a “Samurai” or “Ninja” needs to be. But honestly, core 4e supports orientalized-Japan pretty well: Tough warriors, samurai, mountain bushi are Fighters. Glamorous or skilled swordsmen are Rangers (with 2-weapon style, but simply have them fight with one katana simply making 2 attacks with it). Ninjas are Rogues. Taoist Sorcerers (Onmyoji) can be Wizards, Sorcerers or Warlocks depending on how you describe your character. And so on.

Anyway, since I’ve had a lot of luck running and playing 3e with the E6 hack, I figured I’d take a stab at buying the 3e Oriental Adventures/Rokugan material, and hacking it into something that I think could be some awesome Japanese-themed fantasy.

So I was reading through it last night, and man while I still think the core conceits of the Rokugan/L5R setting are pretty cool, there’s still a lot of just plain can’t-get-around-it *stinky* in there. I can’t work with this stuff. A lot of OA is recycled crap from 1st edition that didn’t work then.

Anyway, It started my mind chugging along, though. A hack. Oh yes, a hack. Possibly D&D 3.5e with some modifications, ruleswise. But more importantly, a setting hack: Something that feels a bit historic, a lot fantastic, builds off of core Japan/Chinese myth but evolves it as well.

The main inspirations for this direction were the anime 12 Kingdoms (classical Chinese monsters, basically giant normal animals, made scary; plus, all that culture); the Wii video game I’m playing now called Oboro Muramasa, which incidentally is awesome; and elements that rang true from my last L5R campaign. There’s definitely some Tenra Bansho Zero influence in there (it’s hard to distinguish anymore which parts of my inspiration were lifted from TBZ and which ones weren’t), but I was thinking something that was more fantastical, less extreme…

This is a project which I’ll engage in after TBZ is done from my end, but I’ve come up with a foundation and guidelines:

* Genuine setting material, complete with unique lands and people.

* No “non-human” characters, or at least very few (“spirit folk” would be about it).

* Rules for combat: 3e/4e/burning wheel-style tactics, not L5R style “stand toe to toe, roll a bunch of dice and get high numbers until the other guy falls over”

* Rules for social stuff: Unknown.

* Rules for CULTURE. This was a point of inspiration last night. GUMSHOE/Trail of Cthulhu style culture skills (instead of investigation skills); including things like Calligraphy, tea ceremony, painting, haiku/composition, music/instrument, yuujyou/makura-jutsu/”pillow arts”, buddhist/sutra lore, shinto lore, cooking, war history, craftsmanship, and so on. Every adventure would involve one or more of the above, and when the appropriate culture element came up, the person with that skill on their sheet (every member of the group would have at least one of these in a small amount) would step forward and strut their stuff, getting the clue, talking to the lord (“Oh, your tea ceremony style is unconventional! Please, show me again how you do that…”), and so on. While seeming to require its own system, this hack can easily be grafted into classic 3e/4e.

* Monsters: Monsters are cool and fun to hunt and defeat. Unfortunately, every attempt at western RPGs bringing in Japanese-themed monsters has failed IMO. Either they use stuff that doesn’t make sense (Rakshasa), or they use stuff straight out of the Japanese lore-book: Which might have been scary 300 years ago, but by our modern standards sounds lame or dumb (“a woman with a LONG NECK, OH SHIT!!!” “a WALL SEGMENT that is REALLY REALLY WET!!!” “An umbrella, but it’s one one eye and one leg and it hops around!!!” “A wooden wheel, on fire, with a mouth on it OMG!”). Every game I’ve seen, from D&D to Sengoku to L5R has basically taken these monsters, kept them as-is, and stapled hit points on them. I thought for a time that there was nothing to be done about this, but Awesome Video Games proved that wrong:

- Ookami re-invents classical monsters in a really stylized, cool form.

- Oboro Muramasa does the same, and on top of that it also creates a new type of monster that both pulls from classical mythology but layers modern sensibilities on top of it. THIS was the true visual inspiration that told me “This can be done: It is possible to create new monsters for a Japanese-themed fantasy game, keep them rooted in the classical mythology, but reinvent them so that they are scary and cool and not just archaic and lame-sounding.” For example:

Anyway, just some thoughts that were rolling around in my head. I’ll be digging deeper once TBZ is done. Likely this will turn into an open setting project compatible with any game, with stats for a few.


Checking out the Wii…

So, Mark C  lent me his Wii for a bit, with a big pile o games to check out. Here’s some quick impressions of some games I’ve been playing with:

Fragile: Imagine this: Someone wants to make a Japanese version of Fallout 3 into a heartwarming anime-like experience. As weird as that sounds, that’s exactly what Fragile feels like. It’s creepy as hell, Tokyo is in shattered ruins, but you help ghosts find the afterlife in a heartwarming way (but the lead up to them screams “they died horribly, in terrible sadness and pain”). It’s very weird, and extremely cool thus far.

Zero (aka Fatal Frame) 4: OK, I’m hooked. Unfortunately, they couldn’t design a Wii interface for crap: It uses nothing at all “Wii-like”: The Motion Controller only registers “up and down”. So when you look around or use your camera, you have to use the nunchuk to steer left and right, and the motion controller to do up and down. They really should have just included a PS2 controller, because that’s all it is just split up over the Wii. Story so far is good, and sufficiently creepy.

Silent Hill – Shattered Memories: I like what they’re trying to do, but the run-away scenes involve too much waggling. I’ll probably pick it up on sale on the PS2 (where, to throw a dude off your back, you have to “press one button”).

Oboro Muramasa: Hot damn. HOT DAMN. Why didn’t they make this a cross-platform game? It doesn’t even use the Wii motion stuff at all… I totally would have paid $50 for this on the PS3. Bastards.

Imabikisou: Interesting use of the “audio novel” (basically a long-form choose-your-own-adventure kind of text game, with pictures and some fragments of animation): Lots of text, head kinda hurts. Makes me want to play 428 even more (will probably import for the PS3).

Vacation, Day One

Yep, as expected, did the thing where I shoot awake, mind racing, thinking “OMG I’ve got to do that analysis for work!!” I’ve got to break myself of that for this vacation. Also realizing there’s so much stuff to do, I don’t know where to begin! For those watching from home, I haven’t taken more than one day off in a row since last June or something.

Today will be doing all the local errands that have been stacking up for a month. Will also clean up around the house, clear a workspace, set some goals. I’ll also have to meditate a little on the fact that I am not going to do the thing where I suddenly make mad plans or feel the need to do something drastic and not relax (like, “I’ve got two weeks free, why not visit Nikolai in Milwaukee or Drew in San Francisco for a day or two, I’ve got the frequent filer miles!”) just because I’ve got the time.

I plan to finish writing/editing the game I’m working on in the next few days, but I need a few days of downtime before swapping out one workload for another.

Nope. Today’s gonna start the vacation off small:

Clean up my bookshelf.
Run some errands.
Go to the art museum.
Check out the new Herman Miller chair at the showroom.
Work out a bit.
Come up with some goals re: Continuing Japanese.
Bust open the first section of Popolocrois II.
Finish the movie Gamer.
Maybe spend an hour or two on FFXIII.

I’ve got two weeks, I’m going to teach myself to relax again, and stay open to new challenges.

Tuesday Thoughts

* It’s been 11 years since Heisei 11.1.12, which means I’ve been married for 11 years, going on 12. So far: Awesome. Looking forward to 11 more.
–Incidentally, this is the first year in three years where I didn’t have to cancel/move anniversary plans due to working late putting broken shit back together. So that was a nice touch.

* Jason Thompson’s King of RPGs comes out today. If you are into tabletop RPGs but do not seek this manga out, you are dumb. I saw it about 7 years ago when it was done up comic style, before the anime facelift, and it was some good, light fun. I can’t wait until my copy is delivered.

* Rah Digga went to college for Electrical Engineering in New Jersey. Wow. My dad was always pushing me (lightly pushing, mind you, not like Burning My Sociology Books or anything) to become an engineer like him. Who knows, if I had followed in his footsteps I might now be pursuing a lucrative career in rap.

* Recently listening to: Hearts of Space. All the time. Best internet radio subscription I’ve ever purchased. These soulful, moody tracks are the soundtrack to my workflow.

* Two weeks of vacation start in 3 days, and they can’t come fast enough. I need to remember to take vacations with better frequency to avoid total burnout.

* Alternative writing software: Look into PageFour, Liquid Story Binder (likely the latter, as it has visual organization tools that I like). Scrivener for Windows would be a dream, though.

* My new glasses allow me the power to fire lasers out of my eyes.

* I might tire of Busta Rhymes’ focus on lyrics about money, but I will never, ever tire of his style, his lyrical flow or his phenomenal beats.

* I love reggae, it’s one of my favorite types of music: But only live. The only “reggae albums/studio songs” I can listen to are Bob Marley, period, and hate just about anything else (even the songs I like hearing live). I have no idea why this is.

* Will probably start blogging more about the Japanese I’m learning day to day. For example, all this time I never knew the Sen (銭) in Sentou (銭湯, or “Japanese public bath”), of which tou = “hot water” or “bath” was actually the same “sen” which used to be the standard for money before the Yen (“Oh, it’s THAT /Sen/. I never knew. Huh.”). Like 100 sen = 1 yen or something IIRC. Sen isn’t used any more, I think the last batch was printed around 1944, so they’re kind of an artifact.

* I love my Gunnar Optiks computer glasses (model: Shredder), I just need to find a way to get prescription lenses in these things so I can wear them longer. Unfortunately, it looks like “If you don’t live in California, you’re screwed”. Oh well, will keep trying.

Amazon Prime…

So normally I get most of my friend-feedback and comments on the crosslinked posts to LJ, Facebook, etc and I doubt this will be an exception.

Anyway, for my friends that have Amazon Prime: You guys pretty much talked me into trying it out for a year, considering all the home goods you can get without paying for gas/time to get to the mall, etc.

However, a question: What the hell do you do with all the cardboard boxes? Do you have any room in your recycle bins with all the box that you go through?

Just curious on that point: While Prime may save me some trips to stores and hook me up with awesome prices, the return in “labor of cutting up boxes and feeling white guilt at the mound of recycling matter” seems a tough balance…

Tuesday Thoughts

* Body fat down 2 percent since last month, but body weight unchanged. That means muscle, right? Makes sense, as I’ve been taking it to the next level at the gym and at home. Even bought some stuff, using it too! (swedish ball, a new pullup bar, resistance bands) I’m eyeing a 300lb Olympic bar and weight set (only $150 at Dick’s), but want to get traction on the stuff I have first before Buying More Crap. Still got far to go to get back to post-college weight, though.

* In the past 4 weeks I have purchased 4 floor lamps. All but one of them are completely different. I’m Japan-ifying our dining room even more with shoji paper floor lamps, and the living room with shoji-bulb thingies. Will take pics later.

* Bought pants. I went genuine clothes shopping at the Mall! It’s been, what, 2 years since I did real clothes shopping? In any case, I picked up two slick pairs of pants, one shirt, and realized that 95% of my clothing needs are fulfilled by Sears and JcPenny’s, just as has been the case for the last 20 years. I don’t mind Nordstroms, but price vs the style is a “yech” ratio. Looking into a new suit once I lose some more points.

* I still have Christmas/New Years/Aw fuck it Whenever cards to write and send. I dunno why my mind freezes up at the end of the year like that. I just don’t often know what to say. ” ‘Sup. Christmas, eh? YEAH! Well, see ya next year.”

* Saw Avatar in 3d. Aside from the eyestrain and verdio-headache from sitting near the bottom of the theater at the IMAX, it was awesome.

* Ordered another vat of Muscle Milk (vanilla creme). Since they lowered the fat calories ratio, it’s been my drug of choice. No lactose == friendly stomach.

* Realized I need to read Getting Things Done again, as I totally fell off the rails and am no longer getting much of anything done.

* Tonight I make soup. Wild rice, chicken, maitake mushrooms. Maitake mushrooms make everything delicious. I have no idea why they are not more popular than shiitake or portabello, they go well in everything from pizza to soup to toppings for omelets or meat to… well, anything. Hopefully we’ll see a cycle of more people using them, more appearing in stores, prices going down, etc.

* Exercise of the week: Stability Ball Plank.

* Reading:
Fiction: Still reading Greg Egan’s latest, Crystal Nights.
Nonfiction: Still cutting through Options Made Easy, Making it All Work.
Work: Overview of Flexcache
Manga: Between series now
RPG: Fusou Bukyouden, Weapons of the Gods

* Time to retire www.bladeoftheimmortal.net . Nothing more is going to happen with it, I’m plain tired of the manga at this point, might as well cut it loose and focus on other projects.

* Tenra Bansho Zero: See next item.

* Two weeks of vacation. Approved. Taking off last week of Jan/first week of Feb to do stuff around the house, travel a bit in the area, do some Sharpening the Saw stuff while thinking about what my goals are for this year, and hopefully finish the last of the pre-editing Tenra work.