18 April 2013

Tenra Bansho Zero: First Impressions

I think I first encountered Tenra Bansho Zero sometime last year on some news website or other. It was a (then) upcoming translation of a Japanese tabletop RPG. Being an old fan of anime/manga and Japanese video games this naturally piqued my interest. I knew Japan had its own tabletop gaming industry, but games from the country very rarely make it to the west. The PDF version of the game has been available for a while now, while the print version is scheduled to be released soon.

I was tentatively interested for a while. I would have liked to know more about the game, but couldn't do so without buying the game. And, alas, I'm not made of money. Eventually, however, I had to give in to temptation and, grudgingly, bought the PDF earlier this week. (Grudgingly because I very much dislike paying money for intangible things. But, sadly, the print version is currently entirely out of my reach, in part because international shipping expenses for the books are, to put it bluntly, intolerable.)

The $14 for the PDF is, however, a fairly reasonable price, I suppose, considering the game's scope. Included is a 456 page rulebook and 240 page setting book (over 250mb put together). The books look decent, though perhaps not the most impressive I've seen. The setting book is in colour and has a fair amount of quality illustration, while the rulebook is black and white with rather less in way of illustration. Of course I cannot compare it to the Japanese original, but the translation seems to be of fairly decent quality.

It's all... a little overwhelming, to be honest. I'm not sure where to start. Well, the setting, I suppose. The game is set in a fantasy world called Tenra, which mixes up feudal Japan, magic and technology. Mecha and cyborgs exist side by side with magically empowered samurai, ninjas, Buddhist magicians, Oni and the like. The world is left intentionally vague, with the setting book mostly devoted to the different character types and only very briefly discussing things like geography. It should appeal to fans of fantasy anime, though. The setting manages to mix up many tropes of the genre, yet retains a somewhat fresh and original feel. The rules are largely built around this setting. I imagine you could theoretically adapt the system to other worlds (like, say, a more historical feudal Japan, if you exclude the technological stuff), but personally I see little need for this.

And as for the rules... As you can imagine from the size of the rulebook, there's something of a learning curve. At the core of the system is a fairly simple dice pool based skill system, with a simple list of attributes and skills. However, there are several different types of supernatural and technological abilities, with differing game mechanics, which makes for a lot of material to digest.

But what really places Tenra Bansho Zero apart from most games I've played, and will undoubtedly require a little getting used to, are some of the rules relating to player interaction and the game's pacing. Basically, the GM doesn't hand out experience points. Rather, players reward each other with 'aiki chits' for cool (and in-character) lines and actions. These chits are used to buy 'kiai points', which in turn can be used to boost actions (or improve stats). Each character also has a selection of 'fates', which describe their motivations, often involving other player characters in some way.

A lot of emphasis is also placed on the structure of adventures, dividing them into acts and scenes, with 'intermissions' where technical stuff involving aiki/kiai/fates happens. Speaking of adventures, the game is actually intended primarily for individual one-shot scenarios rather than long campaigns (though nothing's stopping you from running lengthier games either, of course). The book often makes use of theatrical comparisons, likening a scenario to a 'play', in terms of scope and structure.

All in all, it's pretty fascinating, though of course it is very difficult to judge how well some of the more exotic concepts will work in practise. And, naturally, with all the games I'm currently playing there might not be a window for testing it any time soon... Of  course, particularly since I've paid actual money for it, it would be cool to try it some day. The PDF format may be a slight hurdle, though. I'm not the best at memorizing stuff, and I'm used to being able to browse rulebooks during game sessions. And with the size of this book, printing everything necessary wouldn't exactly be... practical. I've said it before, and I'll say it again, I do much prefer my RPG books as, well, books... But I'll have to settle for what I can get.

While I've written about various RPG systems and settings before, this may be, to the best of my memory, the first time I've actually 'reviewed' a tabletop game. I expect I may write similar posts about future game acquisitions... Till next time!

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