I recently ran a game of Tenra Bansho Zero during a UK gaming convention (Indiecon 2012). (For context check out this Kagemusha! adventure planning thread.) Here’s an account of what I think worked and what didn’t.
The setting in general was a good mix of fantasy and history with familiar tropes thrown in. I tried to limit the amount of “special” character types that appeared in play (we had Kugutsu, Samurai, Kijin, Ayakashi and Monks; some PC and some NPC) and it seemed to successfully convey the mood of historical/mythical Japan enhanced with some technology.
The emotion matrix started out as a source of laughs (“Your mother casts you out and bids you never to return. Let’s find out how you feel about it!”, cue shocked laughter), but once the players got used to it, it evolved into a great story prompting tool which generated more than one unexpected situation. (“I see my lady on the floor, assasinated, and someone is stealing her soul? I launch myself at the killers!” “Not so fast. In your way stands a samurai wearing a demon mask. How do you feel about him?” Roll, roll. “Ahhh soo. He is your Master, stronger than you in every way. There is a terrible force radiating from him.” “I freeze, unable to make a move.”)
We only had two fights during that game; first, a duel to first blood was resolved with a single opposed roll. The second was a final showdown PvP fight of a Samurai against a Kijin. I only introduced basic combat and Kiai rules, but even so, the players participating seemed to enjoy it a lot; one of them reported this was the most intense roleplaying he did recently.
That doesn’t mean other characters were passive; the kugutsu-kagemusha character used the Butterfly Dream to find out more about other characters and both scenes had incredible flavour. In the first, her player spent a lot of Kiai and she flirted with and read the mind of an Ayakashi, a forest spirit guardian; in the second, she pulled the heir to the throne into a Dream by singing to him a long-forgotten lullaby (we already established that in his childhood, the heir thought her to be his mother as much as his real mother).
Descriptive names were a winner. We had Black Chrysanthemum the Kijin, Ancestor of the Temple and Crimson Morning the Ayakashi-hunter monks, Demon Mask the Samurai, and Hidden in Shadows, possibly the lord of the rival domain. Some of them were GM- and some player-generated. The monks’ names in particular came from the monk name generating system in the book. In general, the lists of place and character names in the book were enormously helpful and were one of the first things I printed for reference. I also printed some art (a Tengu, a Spirit Wolf, a Samurai and a Kongohki) that I used to illustrate NPCs during the session; I think this worked very well and I’m now regretting not getting the physical books.
I liked how the game was structured in scenes rather than as a continuous story. This allowed us to skip transition scenes and floundering dialogue. I’m not sure whether I should attribute this to TBZ system or to the amazing skills of the players. (Yes, you should be jealous of them.) Aiki chits were a great way to physically express support; it helped that some of the players actually went to a Kabuki play and grokked what the game was supposed to emulate.
Not everything worked well. I think we wasted too much time on me explaining some rules that I’d classify as basic, yet they never came into play due to time constraints. We never changed or discarded Fates and we didn’t use up enough Kiai to put people in danger of going over 108 Karma. It didn’t help that every PC had different special abilities. I had about a week and a half to absorb all the rules and prepare the game and although things mostly worked out well, it was also rather stressful (although I think that due to Parkinson’s Law I was much more efficient at prep than I usually am). Some players, who were used to more rules-light systems, expressed frustration at the amount of rules.
Speaking of character special abilities, it seems to me that the default Ayakashi archetype is overpowered. If I read the rules correctly, he could turn incorporeal and fly at the speed of 60 mph – a perfect escape mechanism. This makes him untouchable; there’s nothing I can do to threaten him, although perhaps Buddhist or Taoist Magic could block this (but in that case, why doesn’t the Ayakashi-hunter archetype have them?) As a contrast, the Kagemusha-Kugutsu character concept was a bit weak – she had an Assassin archetype to round her up, which was initially a bit tacked on and the player noticed.
Of course there were also problems due to me running this adventure for the first time. I had to improvise some place names; as I’m not a native English speaker, initially it wasn’t obvious to me that calling an inn the Swift Swallow Inn was a very bad idea…
I found that things didn’t go in the direction I thought they would and I didn’t have enough prepared for the Kijin PC who stayed separated from the rest of the characters. Consequently, I didn’t frame enough scenes with her in them. That resulted in a dearth of Aiki chits for her player, which was worsened by the character having relatively low Empathy so he had less Kiai than other players. (This wouldn’t matter so much except the last fight was a PvP of Kijin vs Samurai).
I also didn’t frame enough scenes with external threats in them, concentrating on character drama instead, so the Destinies didn’t show up all that much. Some characters were threatened more than others. I think there’s much more meat in the setup than what we managed to explore in five hours.
Finally there were some technical problems – we sometimes ran out of tokens for Kiai, handwriting on the character sheets was hard to read (we played at night with a single artificial light source), and we ran over our allotted time slot without me realising and perhaps speeding up the story.
The ugly, er, what I’d do differently next time
I need to prepare cheat sheets with a simplified set of rules for con games (something like “use Aiki for Emotion Matrix, pulling into scenes and fate rolls; Kiai for adding dice, adding successes and Emotion Matrix. Fates are roleplaying guidelines.”, initially skipping Karma and Fate modification completely). There will be a separate cheat sheet with game structure. Then I’ll laminate the cheat sheets. (This time I had cheat sheets prepared, but there were too many rules in one place, it was hard to find what you wanted and we ended up not using them.)
Once I’m settled on the character roster I may also print and laminate premade character sheets and provide the players with marker pens and tissues for erasing markers. At the very least I need character sheets written on a computer. A laminted place map with place names would be definitely handy and I could reuse it with several different adventure setups.
I realised that I needed more tokens for play; I already bought another box. Some of the tokens stagnated in the GM Aiki pool; I later found out that the GM cannot use the Aiki from their pool for anything and that the tokens are strictly an expression of players’ appreciation. If I ever get to play this game with the same group several times, I’d like to implement a rule suggested by Mires on forum.rpg.net: rotate the GM; GM Aiki chits from one game turn into player Kiai at the start of the next game.
In terms of improving the storyline, I’ll try planning and introducing more scenes directly related to outside threats. Without them it seems natural to turn PvP as there are tensions between PCs as written, whereas external threats can provide a reason to unite or at least create factions. They will also advance the storyline (such as it is, as I’m trying not to railroad and let the players influence the world). I also purchased a large childproof sand timer to help me keep an eye on how long the scenes last and generally how much time I have left.
I need better spotlight management as well – perhaps a table of how many times each PC was framed within a scene would help. I didn’t pay enough attention to it initially because players who weren’t framed in the scene often bought into it with Kiai. I need to remember that players who aren’t in the scene can be invited to play the important NPCs – but that means I need come up with some compelling NPCs.
Finally, I can speed up character introduction and recognition by filling in character concepts and giving the characters a choice of descriptive names (as written, they have a surname and two firstnames, one male, one female, as the gender is up to the players).
After the game I feel excited. I always wanted an RPG set in historical Japan with fantasy elements, but the ones I had didn’t really inspire. Tenra Bansho Zero does just that. I’m going to work more on the adventure and on my play materials and then hopefully release them on the internet for other people to use.