Archive for January, 2014


Tenra Bansho Zero – The Oni Draining Shiki

January 27, 2014

Ayakashi Shiki Wei Yu

A massive Shiki created by the Shinto Priesthood  – that has the power to literally drain sha from Oni for miles around and channel it into the sky (to a massive Shinto satellite in high orbit, which has a 108,000 Soul Mirror Reactor to contain the portion of Dii-Go they’ve captured to power their orbital weapon…).

It appears as 3 parts – a massive 20 meter tall sword, which is dropped by Shinto airship into the ground, a floating mirror above the top of the handle, and an extremely long chain from the handle to a possessed oni with massive horns- Wei Yu.   A sword, a mirror, a jewel (heartgem).

Combat Stat: 14 Unarmed 4, Melee 3, Ranged 3, Evade 3

Vitality 30, Soul (unlimited)

Sha Beam:  Damage +10, ROF: special

The mirror collects sha energy, fires a massive beam that can hit pretty much everyone in a 180 degree radius by sweeping across the landscape.

Giant Sha Blade: Damage +10

Weakness: Sha/Resonance Attacks

Takes double damage from Sha or Resonance based attacks – as an open channel/collector for Sha, it’s not good at defending against it.

Unique Cheap Dice Trick: Sha Drain

Why go through this much effort to make this thing?  The Shinto wanted to drain the Oni, specifically, of their Sha while keeping the rest of their machinery and shiki untouched.  By using a possessed Oni who once had powerful Resonance, they can create a terrible means of tapping into the Oni web of Resonance and do a targeted “draining”.

This works identical to the Ayakashi Fear Rank 5 Ability, except it affects only Oni.  It is a Spirit 7/Willpower 2 equivalent.

Visible streams of Sha energy pull forth from across the land, blasting directly out of each and every Oni’s chest within range.  The energy collects at the mirror which faces skyward and fires up the energy to a Shinto satellite far above.  Oni who are drained feel agonizing pain and are unable to move.  The very young or weak are affected and in pain simply by the thing’s presence within miles of them even before it uses it’s power.

Design Thoughts

The best stuff in TBZ is the setting edges where something is insinuated or hinted at.  The fact that it is rumored that some Ayakashi are just Shiki that have gone out of control gave me the idea of looking at Ayakashi powers for some kind of super-Shiki created by the Shinto.  Mechanically, it’s powerful but doesn’t have a lot of complexity going on, which is fine because it’s basically a First Act threat – it’s powerful enough to be scary but it’s just an opener.

It’s biggest threat is the Sha Drain, and even that has relatively low numbers – it shouldn’t incapacitate any of the PCs for more than a turn or two, just enough to scare them, and more importantly, it’s the threat of knowing all your oni friends and family back at the village are laying on the ground clutching themselves in agonizing pain as their own hearts are being used to rip forth Sha and the remaining half of Dii-Go.

Initially I DID try to build it using Ayakashi point system, but then I stopped, scrapped that and just went with simple numbers – it was a lot less work, and worked just fine.  The players poured in Kiai to kill it after it pulled out the Sha Drain, which was fine – it’s not designed to last as much as point out to the players that the Shinto Priesthood means business.


Tenra Bansho Zero – Sample Antagonists

January 18, 2014

A couple of the villains I created and used in the TBZ game I ran a few days ago.  Stats, theme, and notes on why I built them that way.  A quick set of actual examples of what I used in play following what I wrote on GMing TBZ.

Yojima, the One Armed Swordsman

Master rival swordsman, paradoxically on the brink of enlightenment and very far away from it – able to see the future in a battle.

Body 6, Agility 6, Senses 6, Knowledge 7, Spirit 12, Status 6, Empathy 6

Melee 4, Evasion 4, Art of War: Empty Mind Style 4

Vitality 30, Soul 38

Masterwork Katana +5 damage

Unique Cheap Dice Trick: Maitreya’s Sword

Yojima locks eyes with you, and you start to see his muscles micro-tense in response to any movement you consider doing – he is countering your actions before you even make them.  You can see almost every future movement ending with you dying upon his blade, and the ones in which you survive, your life is ruined by the wound he leaves you with.  The glowing figure of Maitreya, the future Buddha, appears behind him, guiding his sword arm.  One of Maitreya’s hands strokes Yojima’s hair and it turns white – he’s aged a little bit from seeing all these futures…

Yojima takes the opponent’s Karma, divides by 4, and can use that many dice as a an equivalent to a Kiai dice pool for this battle.

Design thoughts:

One player had as his character’s backstory and Fate that a one-armed swordsman defeated him and thereby he was driven to samuraization to get more power to defeat him.  I basically wanted the antagonist to be the thematic opposite of the PC.   The PC was pretty much live-for-the-moment, undisciplined, a little self destructive… now that he’s a Samurai, he’s a little less human, too.   So the antagonist is obssessed with the future, self preservation, and has none of the usual TBZ upgrades/magic – he’s just someone close to true mastery of the blade.

(Ironically, attempting to control the future is about the height of karmic attachment…)

Mechanically, all this really does is give Yojima a pool of dice like the PCs have a pool of dice, but it DOES allow him to go toe to toe for a few rounds – which is exactly what happened.

By the end of a story arc, most players will have higher Karma, since they’ll have been raising Fates along the way.   Higher Karma = Higher Fate = More Kiai for the Player.  (and, likewise, lower Karma, Lower Fate, etc.).   Keying his pool of dice off of a PC’s Karma lets them feel and either regret having Karma (thematically appropriate!) or enjoy having less Karma.

Overall, this is a combo of being inspired by the Vagabond manga + Final Fantasy’s Tonberry whose damage keys off of how many enemies you’ve killed in the game.

In play, this worked pretty damn well!  Also fun – nothing came up that specifically made Yojima evil or a bad guy.  So it’s kinda cool and tragic that this guy who literally got so awesome he’s seeing future timelines got killed anyway.

Divine Shinto Weapon: Kilaka the Container of Evil

Freaky Kongohki containing 3 souls – all former Armour pilots, and an Ayakashi object – the Karma Clock.

Body 13, Agility 16, Senses 11, Knowledge 5, Spirit 9, Status 7, Empathy 8

Unarmed 4, Melee 3, Evade 3

Vitality 33, Soul 20

Armour-sized Wakazashi +8

Freaky description:

12 foot tall Kongohki, looks like one of those creepy ball-and-socket dolls – has massively oversized hands allowing it to wield the Armour sized short sword.   It has an expressionless mask-face, with 2 other masks above it, like it was a person with a mask flipped up.  Then the masks start flipping down, each in turn, one of wrath, one of joy and they flip faster and faster until it looks like an animated flip book – each mask has the voice of a different girl.


Unique Cheap Dice Trick: Karma Clock Abilities

Every round, have a player roll 1D6 to see which ability is in effect:

1-2 “The Blade is my shield” (defense only)

Kilaka spins the massive sword about, then jumps on it using her magnetic feet to run along the giant blade being able to use it as a shield.

For this round alone attacks made against Kilaka are capped at Skill 2 and Kiai cannot raise the skill equivalent.

3-4 “Machine Sight Defense”

Kilaka analyzes your fighting style when you push yourself beyond your limits.  Each point of Kiai you spend gives her 1 Vitality in defense against you.

5-6 “Mind Gash, the Disharmony of the Untuned Gear”

One of Kilaka’s souls is torn between her desire to live and her desire to die and no longer be trapped as an inhuman… thing.  The Karma Clock within their body spins out of control and any Kiai the players spend is doubled in effect!

Reduced Abilities

Kilaka did not get to use the Kongohki Overdrive or the multiple actions during play.  This was more because time was short and having the GM drive most of the turns would have been less interesting, and the Overdrive would have been way too much.   If Kilaka was going up against a full party, I’d use all of those, though.

Design Thoughts

For contrast to Yojima, I wanted a completely freaky antagonist, one of those “Final Fantasy WTF” kind of boss types.  Kilaka was perfect because it played up on a few different things for the PC it was aimed to go against – the player was playing an Oni, so here I’m presenting the height of human abominations.  The character was also attached as sort of a step-brother to a young Armour pilot, so seeing this possible, sickening end for her was like an extra “Oh god no” bit.

I knew I wanted 3 faces to go with the 3 souls, and doing a quick search online for which of the many 3-faced Buddhist beings I wanted to go with, I found ritual daggers known as Kilaka which were used to “contain evil”.  PERFECT NAME.

Mechanically, the random roll powers is like the classic sort of “Changing powers boss” in most JRPGs, or the videogame boss who you have to time WHEN to go all out as they periodically open up their chest plate or otherwise give you their weak spot.   There’s not a lot of tactics in TBZ, so this was a pretty easy thing to run with.

In play, the Oni player just used his Sha-claws which cannot be blocked to counteract the Blade defense, so I ruled he could do full skill and he tore Kilaka apart.  He actually understood it was completely tragic and horrific this thing existed to begin with so he narrated a pretty fitting end where it’s body and the Armour of his “adopted sister” were strewn out on the battlefield, hands reached out towards each other, with the Karma clock left between them…”tick tick.”


GMing Tenra Bansho Zero

January 16, 2014

Setting Up to Play

TBZ set up is not hard, though there are some things you do want to make sure of at the beginning.

– Players should have seen at least a little action anime/manga.

– Players need to know a basic level of info about the world – at least enough to reasonably interact in the game you plan on running.  The mixture of tech, magic, and feudal Japan is worth noting.  Unless you have a lot of time to prep ahead (a couple of weeks) and players who are hardcore into reading stuff, just ‘handing them the book’ is a poor way to go.

– Create a general situation that the players can latch onto.  If it’s their first time playing, I’d definitely go with pregenerated characters.  Otherwise, include advice about what kinds of characters fit, and what expectations fit with those characters – should they be allied to one side or another, how combat fit should they be, etc.  Good Fate suggestions, and so on.

Good Fates!  Good Fates will bring trouble to the character.  Players should know that pursuing trouble is the best way to have fun with this game – be earnest with your characters, have them be driven to their goals, and have their Fates bring them into trouble along the way.  Having conflicting Fates is also a good, fun option.  If any of the Fates seem bland, or you can’t think of an immediate problem to throw in their face about it, ask some more questions, see if you can redefine or narrow it down so it has more edge to it.

Follow the Flags, Improvise

Your role as the GM is to help the players get into situations where they can pursue/engage their Fates in fun, dramatic fashions.   The players will likely favor 1 or 2 of their Fates – go with it.  (You can bring in the other Fates later.)

Don’t hold back, don’t make players have to “work” or wait to get to their Fates.  This isn’t the same as making it easy to resolve right away – it just means the problems and opportunities around a Fate need to hit every scene.  This isn’t a videogame where the players have to grind to earn the right to a story cut scene – the story is the point of the game.

If you’re ever at a loss as to where to go next, just look at what Fates they have, figure out which would be the most fun, expected dramatic one to deal with next (or, a situation that hits multiple Fates, across several players) and what NPCs might have goals/actions that would cross with that.

Schrodinger’s NPCs

Tenra Bansho Zero is kinda weird in how you deal with NPCs.  You may have an idea of their personality, then, a couple of Emotion Matrix rolls later, they’re completely different than what you expected!

I think it makes the most sense to simply design your NPCs around a few ideas – their general capabilities/goals and leave the personality open for the Emotion Matrix rolls.  Let the Matrix give you the basic outline, then fill in the nuance and complexity as you go.

If you’re too locked into a personality, you’ll have a hard time adjusting during play.

Cut Away, Cut Often

Think anime first!  You can totally cut away from boring stuff.  You can simply declare, “The scene begins after you’ve defeated the army of nameless soldiers, when you see the General approach…”  Would it be worth a whole scene in anime?  Or just a few seconds showing someone’s badassery?

Would it be a cut scene “3 months later…”?  You can do all of this and simply avoid pointless scenes.  Remember, the point is whether the scene is going to hit any Fates or not.  If not, then it’s probably worth a sentence or two of description at most, if it’s even needed at all.

Worthy Challenges and Cheap Dice Tricks

(ETA- a couple of NPCs I used in my game, following the advice below)

Here is the trickiest part of TBZ.  There’s a fat book of rules, detailing tons of character powers, weapons, etc.  As the GM, the first thing you think to do is go through the book, and custom build NPCs using those rules, right?

Don’t do that.

First off, the Players always have an advantage because they have lots of Kiai (at least, they should if you’ve been playing right).  The Players will have more dice available, so using the same sort of power sets isn’t really going to do much and will involve you spending time looking through, choosing powers, when it’s not going to matter.

Second, most of those powers are “cheap dice tricks”.  Swap one attribute for another when you roll.  Double successes for whichever side wins.  Add some damage.  Take a little more damage.   Etc.

There’s not a lot of tactical depth to TBZ.  The tactics are mostly, “when should I?” questions – “When should I spend my Kiai?”  “When should I use this power?”  “When should I take the hit as wounds vs. Vitality?” and most of these are not very hard questions.

So, instead of going through the work building NPCs in detail, when you’re probably going to fire and forget them…, here’s what you do:

Assign Attributes/Skills as you will

You know 4-6 is PC attribute scores, and 7-10 is good scores, and 10+ is pretty awesome, right?  Odds are pretty good if the NPC is getting into a fight, you’re going to want at least an attribute of 8-16 for their primary fighting attribute.  (Most likely Body or Agility, but maybe something else if they’ve got a funky War Art).

Skills should be 3-4 for most NPCs that are worthy challenges.  Save the Skill 5 for some epic stuff.

You don’t need to stat everything out!  Remember, you can simply decide in the heat of the moment for attributes/skills you haven’t assigned yet.  This will take barely a few minutes of prep when you do it this way, and if for some reason you need it in play (“Uh, yeah, I guess this is an Etiquette roll, I guess he’s got a 3 for it.”) it’s just a few seconds to figure out.

Steal 1-2 Powers as appropriate

Do open the book to the appropriate section for the character type or War Arts.  You’re not going to do deep math here, just look at what KINDS of powers are appropriate for that type.  If one or two really seem to fit, take them.  Or, just as useful, get the gist of what they do, and make your own version or simpler.

I tend to follow the powers in the book more with the mechanical stuff, like weapons or abilities.  Magic, Ayakashi powers, etc?  Feel free to wander further from the book.

Cheap Dice Tricks

So, here’s where you get a unique and fun NPC challenge – give them a unique, cheap dice trick.   Do this for special enemies, things you want to be… pretty badass in some way.

This should be tied tightly with a great description – are they combining kijin that turn into a cyborg – voltron?  Is it a swordsman who has a Buddhist deity appear behind them when they fight?  Is it a monster that wails with the souls (and faces) of the children it’s consumed?

A cheap dice trick is a cheap dice trick.  But like everything in the TBZ system, if you tie it to a good description, it’s not so cheap anymore.

The things you can play with: Damage, Vitality, Successes, Dice rolled, Kiai, Karma, Fates, Soul Points, Skill levels.  The fun of these is that they pull things out of the normal expected flow of play, which means the players have something new to toy with.  The best are conditional or one-off, not staying on the whole battle, but rather forming a changing condition of the conflict.

1. If X, then Y

“If you use Melee, this enemy gets +5 Dice against you”

“For each ‘1’ you roll on your attack dice, the enemy gets an extra die to attack you next round”

“If this enemy’s Vitality drops below half, +5 dice to all of it’s rolls”

2. Discouragement moves

Discouragement makes a player NOT want to do something.  Generally, this is only fun if it’s either for a short time (1 round) or if it is something that can be negated with the appropriate action.

“You must spend double Kiai this turn to get same effects, that is 2 Kiai = 1 bonus die”

“The first 10 points of damage from any attack, the enemy ignores until you destroy the power crystal…”

3. Danger Clocks

Things that make things worse as the conflict goes on.  Encourages players to go all out and finish things quickly.

“The starship will break up in re-entry.  Starting this round, everyone takes 1 point of damage, next round it’ll be 2, round after that 3, etc.  until you get to an escape pod.”

“The Asura is getting MORE powerful.  It has to be stopped.  Every two rounds it gains an additional +1 die.”

4. Randomizer

Take 2-3 cheap dice tricks, make the players roll a die to see which one is in effect this round.  You can have a dice trick that works against the NPC as well…

“Oh, you rolled a 6!  This round he flings his head back in agony – the power coursing through him is too much.  He loses his action.  You better do something before he gets his senses back…”


Unbreaking the Wheel

January 15, 2014

Years ago, on my previous gaming blog, I wrote about “The Broken Wheel” – the fact that a lot of ingrained aspects of rpg culture were killing the hobby.  

There’s this interesting thread up right now, polling people as to whether they’re satisfied with having enough time, money, and space to roleplay.  The same issues I pointed out back then, are still in play, but the alternative, functional options have become much more known and you can see something like 1/3rd of the poll votes are satisfied all around…

“Viable Game” & Supplement Treadmill Publishing

There used to be the attitude that anything that doesn’t have constant supplements coming out was a “dead game”.  

On the consumer side, it was the attitude of the collector rather than the player, per se.  On the publisher side it was the idea of “developing a line” (AKA, let’s keep getting money from this).  The flaw in that was every supplement sells LESS than the core unit, and, with enough supplements, you’ve now made it harder for the complete newbie to find out where to start at.

Now, these days, you can publish a one-off game with no supplements and it’s not dismissed as “not a REAL game”.  Although the Forge forum designers pushed this, the mainstream explosion of acceptance is more around the Old School Renaissance folks and generally seeing more discussion of older games on forums.   As long as there’s people playing it, the game isn’t really dead, and often folks are finding out that there’s a big fan base and ongoing players for these games too.

On the player side, it means you don’t need to buy a lot of books, or keep up on the newest stuff to find a game group – it’s easier to simply find a few games you like and settle down because it’s also easier to find players.   On the publisher side you can make a viable business choice of doing a single game and letting it be an evergreen product without having to pour lots of work into constantly making more for less (and rebooting your system with a new edition every 3-4 years).  All of this impacts it costing less to play overall.

Logistical Hurdles to Play

Socially, the internet changed everything here:

– You can find people to play with near you, easier

– You can play with people who are far away, online

– You can find advice on how to run any given game, easily

– You can share the PDF of the rules with everyone playing – so everyone can read it and doesn’t have to buy their own copy or sit down with the 1-2 sets of the books you have

It’s really easy to play these days.  

Design-wise, more and more games are built around:

– Starting play with 30 minutes or less set up

– Playing 2-4 hours, instead of 6-8 hour sessions

Clear, functional rules so you can get to what this game is supposed to be about

– Playing one shots, playing short campaigns (3-6 sessions), not playing for 10 years, every week on end

All of this impacts time and space requirements, making it a lot easier.

Functional Social Groupings

“Play games you want, with people you like”

When I first began advocating that, there was a non-trivial number of people who immediately lashed out, “You’re saying I should get rid of all my friends!!!”

Aside from what that says about people’s choices in friends… the raw point of satisfaction only comes from actually playing games you like with people you like.  My “Fun Now Manifesto” pointed out that gaming is a fun activity, not a marriage.  It’s not a lifetime expected commitment, should not require intense emotional things to be worked out… but when you read about some of the stuff folks put up with or endure you’d think it was…

Now, you can go on many forums and see someone talk about something that’s just out of hand and many people will say, “Stop playing with that person.”  “Leave the group.” “It seems like they want to play something else, maybe you shouldn’t be playing this game together.” etc.

When you do play games you like, with people you like, you get more satisfaction from your gaming overall.  That time issue also stops being a problem because you’re not getting “20 minutes of fun from 4 hours of play” as the D&D guys put it.  I’ve run one shots where folks have said, “Wow, we’ve had more fun stuff happen than a whole campaign, and this was just 2 hours.”  

Everyone’s playing the game they want to play, no one is having to struggle with each other, or rules designed to do something else, and the GM isn’t trying to “hold things back” – you go, go, go, and suddenly the time requirement is about the same as a boardgame night.


Player Choice and Narrative

January 14, 2014

PRACTICE 2013: Designing Narrative Choice from NYU Game Center on Vimeo.

23 minutes in, Telltale games talks about how they designed around The Walking Dead game.

What’s interesting is although they’re talking about a videogame, the issues in terms of design and what it means for players carries over a lot for tabletop rpgs.  The two points which they hit on which I think are very relevant are:

1. Choice is how players give feedback to the game

…and in designing a videogame, you need to figure out how to make the game do something with that.  They point out that a lot of narrative tree games usually give you the false choice/all roads lead to Rome approach – you can choose options but they all lead you back to doing the same required thing in the end, which makes them very much fluff choices as opposed to meaningful ones.

This obviously ties over to the problems of Illusionist play since it uses the same tactic as a core part of play, except with more variance in dialogue.

2. Narrative Tree design is a lot of work

For them, they have to develop a giant narrative tree, since the game is just a program that responds to what you do, and they spent a lot of time with a team of writers, flow charts and putting it all together to create a good story.  (and, given that the videogame is short, people do play through it repeatedly).

Compare this to the tabletop game where you have one person trying to design a narrative tree, not just for one player, but several and the fact that unlike a videogame with a clear interface, the players are not generally under the assumption they only have a limited palette of options and on top of all that – will not play through the same situation again.

By comparison, sitting there with your friends and geeking out, “Wouldn’t it be cool if?”  “What if?” kind of story building is actually pretty easy.   Unlike the videogame, you are a living person who can react and improvise on the spot to meet the players’ actions.  All these simple logistical/play reasons, on top of the social problems, are why I think Illusionism is a dead end for tabletop rpgs.