Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 10 October 2014

Honour within the Moment

Most games about Japan focus upon that most familiar aspect of its history—the samurai. From FGU’s Bushido and AEG’s Legend of the Five Rings to Avalon Hill’s Samurai and dV Giochi’s Samurai Sword, the focus is upon the role and position of the military nobility that dominated Japan for eight centuries. Although the samurai have a role in the latest RPG to be set in historical Japan, they are not its focus. That RPG is World of Dew: A Blood & Honor Sequel, a Samurai Noir role-playing game in which the samurai and the samurai clans are in decline. It is set during the Tokugawa shogunate—a time of great change despite the order imposed by the new regime. Into their stead come vivacious geisha, ill-mannered gaijin, honourable yet-crooked yakuza, nosy police detectives, great sumo, greedy merchants, unfortunate ronin, and more. Inspired by the great Chambara movies like Seven Samurai  and Laura Joh Rowland’s Sano Ichiro novels, it is their stories—stories of corruption, greed, betrayal, lust, murder, cynicism, love, loss, and more—that will be told in the rain-soaked great cities of Japan in A World of Dew.

Launched via Kickstarter and published by Woerner’s Wunderwerks, as its subtitle suggests, a World of Dew is a sequel to John Wick’s Blood and Honor, the RPG that dealt specifically with tragedy and failure of the great clans during their height. It is a storytelling RPG in which the players take the roles of characters other than the samurai seen in Chambara movies—though it is possible to play samurai in the game. They will not only create their characters, but the city itself, populating it with places, people, and threats, before playing out mysteries and intrigues from one season to the next.

Although set during the Tokugawa shogunate, there is some flexibility as to when a game can be set. Suggestions include the period following the defeat of its clan enemies when Dutch and English Protestants feud against the Spanish and Portuguese Catholics for economic and spiritual influence; during the heights of the Shogunate’s power when Japan was completely closed; and at its nadir, when the West has forced it to open up to its merchants and its innovative technologies, bringing with it social conflict between ancient traditions and radical reform. Although there are no mechanical differences in terms of storytelling between these time periods, they nevertheless determine some of the outré character options available as well as the technology.

Each character is defined by his Giri, his Virtues and Aspects, and an Advantage, plus his Glory, Honour Points, and Ninjo Points. The Giri is his occupation or duty, which can be Artist, Doctor, Gambler, Geisha, Holy Person, Merchant, Police Inspector, Ronin, Servant, Soldier, Sumo Wrestler, or Yakuza, and which grants a character bonus dice, an ability, and a benefit. For example, Yakuza gains bonus dice equal to his Giri Rank when undertaking a criminal action condoned by his gang; the ability to gain Honour Points when protecting his gang and the locals of your district; and the benefit of help from his fellow gang members when given tasks by his oyabun. He has a reputation attached to his Glory Rank, such as “Fair Man” or “Skilled swordsman”.

His core attributes are his six Virtues—Beauty, Courage, Cunning, Prowess, Strength, and Wisdom. One of these is set Rank 4, two are set at Rank 3, two at Rank 2, while the last is a Weakness. He also has three Aspects, though he may have more depending on his age. There are only a few of these and they work as they do in Evil Hat Productions’ FATE Core rules. For example, a character has the Aspect, “Do not stand in the Melon Field” because he believes that face and honour are important. When a player ‘invokes’ it as “Do not stand in the Melon Field… under the Plum Tree”, he gains three dice in a difficult social situation to maintain his face and honour. When it is compelled, he tends towards over analysis and inaction. Lastly, he has an Advantage—it might be that he is a Prodigy at a sword or sumo school or he has gaijin gear or that he holds a Social Position. It is possible to take further Advantages, but at a cost of a Virtue Flaw for each one.

Our sample character is Sagara Kiosho. A former samurai, the dispossession of his clan and the death of his parents left him on the streets. Initially he had a little money, but this did not last long and within a few weeks he was penniless and alone. Worse, the weather turned and a chill turned worse.  The young boy was found and taken in by an Oyabun, Noboru, but by then it was too late—Kiosho was suffering from tuberculosis. He recovered, but has been weakened ever since, some days not having the strength to serve his adopted father. Kiosho tries to bring the honour upheld by the samurai despite the tasks that his adopted father assigns him. He wishes to know the circumstances that brought about the dispossession of his clan and has a dislike of authority of the shogunate. 

Sagara Kiosho
Rank 1 Ronin

VIRTUES
Beauty—Rank 2
Courage—Rank 4
Cunning—Rank 4
Prowess—Rank 3
Strength—Weakness
Wisdom—Rank 2

Glory Rank 1—“A fair man”
Honour Points 2, Ninjo Points 1
Desire: To discover how his clan was dispossessed

ASPECTS—“ Do Not Stand in the Melon Field”, “Luck Exists”, “Entering the Tiger’s Cave”
ADVANTAGE—“Prodigy”, “Blessed”
FLAW—Courage “Fear of Dishonour”
SWORD SCHOOL—Wind (2)

At the end of character creation, the players agree how their characters know each other and then dive into city creation. The GM may research a real city, but he should discuss with players what themes they want to explore, perhaps foreign trade, religious strife, smugglings, and so on. A city also begins with several locations, a stronghold and then a location for each of the player characters’ Giri—a gambling den for a Yakuza, a surgery for a Doctor, a sumo school for a Sumo Wrestler, for example. The players, now armed with five free City Points, work with the GM to add locations, threats, organisations, faces (NPCs), and other elements, each costing a City Point. When adding these elements, a player also assigns three True Things about each. Each of the locations not only forms the landscape for the adventures, but also places where Season actions can be spent. Further, each location provides a bonus. For example, bonus Beauty wagers and Rumours can be gained at the Geisha House.

Dice are rolled whenever a risk is involved and whenever the outcome of the action will influence the plot or characters. The aim of any roll is to gain narrative rights—if the player fails the roll, then either an opposing character gains the rights or the GM does. If appropriate, a player gains six-sided dice from one of his Virtues, an Aspect, his Giri, and even his name. Other dice might come from tags that can be attached to places and the character. The player never has to roll more than ten on the dice, no matter how many dice he has to roll. This is enough to gain him the privilege of narration rights, but if he wants more than that, he can set dice aside as wagers. If he rolls more than ten, then for each of his wagered dice, he can add another detail.
Kiosho has been sent by Oyabun to speak to Sugu, a fellow gang member who Noboru suspects is not paying the full amount of the tribute he is due. Kiosho arrives at Sugu’s hangout to find it on fire! From inside the building Kiosho can hear cries of pain. Being brave and foolish, Kiosho dives into the burning building to rescue whomever is inside… So Kiosho’s player grabs up four dice for his Courage Virtue; a die for his name—though not for family name as that would not impress Sugu; and lastly, he invokes his “Entering the Tiger’s Cave” Aspect for another three dice. That gives him a total of eight dice to roll. Kiosho’s player believes that four are enough and sets aside the other four as wagers. The results of the four dice are 2, 3, 3, and 6 for a result of 14—enough for Kiosho to gain privilege.
For his privilege, Kiosho’s player narrates that he rushes into the burning building and manages to find Sugu. He takes two of the wager dice and narrates the following…
As he hefts Sugu over his shoulder, Kiosho hears the cry of a woman coming from another room…
…and when he goes to the rescue of the woman, he discovers that she is holding a piece of a kimono in her hand. The mon on the kimono matches his own…
Of the other two wager dice, Kiosho’s player converts them into Glory and gains “Brave before fire” as a Rank 1 Reputation.
Combat in a World of Dew uses the same mechanics—the number of dice to be rolled are determined and then any wagers are set aside in secret. Whomever rolls highest gains privilege and his wagers to add narration. The defeated opponent loses half his wagers, but can still use the remainder to add narration. With just one dice roll to determine the outcome, combat itself is very fast. It gets slightly more complex depending on the nature of the fight, whether it is a Strike—a surprise attack in which a player yells “Strike!” to attack first in a brilliantly elegant mechanic, a Duel, or Mass Murder. It also gets increasingly deadly, especially when katanas or firearms are involved. Injuries themselves are ranked from 1 to 5, with Rank 1 injuries healing in a day, Rank 2 injuries taking a week to heal down to Rank 1 injuries, and so on up to Rank 5 injuries that take a whole year to go down to Rank 4! In the meantime, others can tag your injuries for bonus dice! The aid of a doctor in a World of Dew is almost mandatory if a character is to survive, but even then this is not a game in which you should rush into combat unless you are sure of the outcome.
For example, Kiosho has managed to get the girl out of the burning building and then gone back into get Sugu. At this point the GM intercedes with a Story Point and inflicts a Rank 2 injury on Kiosho due to weak Strength Virtue. Kiosho has a nasty burn on his leg, but he does get Sugu and the GM does reward him with an Honour Point. When he gets outside, Kiosho finds Junzō and Norio—Sugu’s lieutenants—ready to remonstrate with him. Norio is holding the girl, but Kioshio is wary of Junzō who looks like he might attack. Before the gangster can draw his sword, Kiosho’s player shouts “Strike!”
As he shouted “Strike!”, Kiosho gets two bonus dice. He also gets a die from his Giri because he is involved in violence; three dice come from his Prowess, a die for his name; another two dice come from his sword school training and as a Rank 1 Ronin he adds +2 to the final roll. This gives him a total of nine dice to roll. Kiosho’s player secretly sets aside five of these dice as wagers.
The GM rolls for Junzō and Norio together. They are relatively lowly Yakuza so only have Prowess 2 each—which the GM combines to give four dice. They also tag Kiosho’s Rank 2 injury for two more dice, which gets him the reward of a Ninjo Point. The GM knows that Kiosho will be a better opponent, but Junzō and Norio are loyal to Sugu and are desperate to stop the ronin. So he only sets aside two dice as wagers.
Kiosho rolls 2, 3, 6, and 6. Together with is Giri bonus, he has a total of 19. Junzō and Norio together roll 2, 3, 5, and 5 for a total of 15. Kiosho has Privilege and three wagers to spend whilst Junzō and Norio, successful in their attack, have to discard half of their wagers, leaving them with only one. Kiosho begins the narration…
…Kiosho unburdens Sugu directly at Junzō who is sent sprawling and suffers a Rank 1 injury.
…Then draws his katana and leaps to attack Norio. (His player expends another two wagers to raise the Rank 1 injury to a Rank 3 injury). Norio suffers a savage slash across the face and falls backwards dropping the girl in the process. (At this point, Kiosho’s player lets the GM spend his only wager).
…Struggling from under his boss’ body, Junzō discovers Sugu’s pistol which had hidden in his kimono. He draws and cocks it, and sitting up, fires it at Kiosho. The ronin is hit in the back with a shot that will kill him. (Firearms are that deadly and inflict a Rank 6 injury! Kiosho will need to expend an Honour Point to lower this to a survivable Rank 5 injury, but not yet. Kiosho’s injuries will not take effect just yet. He still has wagers to spend).
…Kisoho drags himself across to Junzō to land one last blow before he collapses. This and raising the attack to a Rank 2 injury uses up his last two wagers.
Mass Murder is even deadlier because all sides keep their wagers if they roll successfully. World of Dew is arguably one of the deadliest systems available! It is also possible to spend wagers to establish true facts about the game. In contested rolls, both players get to spend wagers—all of them by the winner of the contested roll, but half of his wagers by the defeated player.

At the heart of the game there is an economy involving Honour Points, Ninjo Points, and Story Points. Drawn from a communal pool, Honour Points are spent to gain bonus dice in a risk, to add details to the story, create a Scene Tag that everyone can activate, or to benefit from a Location effect. A character can add to the Honour Point pool by undertaking a risk that is honourable or to the benefit of others. If Honour Points represent a character acting in the interests of society rather than himself, then Ninjo Points represent his desire. They only grant two bonus dice and they can only be used to help the character—not others—and only towards his Desire. Whilst Ninjo Points can be used to add details and create tags just as Honour Points can, only the character who created them can see them. 

Whenever a character spends an Honour Point or a Ninjo Point, it goes into the Story Pool as a Story Point. These can be drawn by the GM to actually to add to, or change, the plot. Further this can actually contravene a truth already established in the game—the only way that this can be done once a truth has been established. Essentially this is a means to add uncertainty to the game, even down to the author suggesting that the GM almost threaten to draw from the Story Pool!

t should be noted that this economy is only one way. Spent Honour Points and Ninjo Points go into the Story Pool, but spent Story Points do not go back into the Honour Pool. The only way to gain more Honour Points is earning them.

The characters’ adventures, or rather stories, take place across Seasons during which the characters have actions that they can undertake in addition to their stories. Usually these are built around the locations developed during the act of creating the city, so might include time spent studying at a swordsmanship school, crafting a beautiful piece of poetry, or rooting out corruption at the Magistrate’s Court. Locations may also generate trouble during a Season and this may lead to new stories.

Another area where a World of Dew differs from the more traditional Japan-set RPG is in its treatment of the outre. Simply, there is none and the game does not provide rules for the inclusion of the supernatural. This is not to say that it could not exist within A World of Dew—and the example of city creation suggests that it could—but the GM would be on his own if he wanted to add it. Magic could also exist in a World of Dew, but the guidelines given draw very much of the beliefs of the characters rather than on a codified set of rules. This applies no matter what the faith—Buddhism, Christianity, or Shintoism.

As a game of Samurai Noir, World of Dew is fundamentally different to the Noir genre as we know it in the West. In traditional Noir, the hero—of which Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe are the perfect imperfect examples—goes out to solve a mystery or problem through pure self-determination and individualism, which is anathema to the Eastern hero. He instead subsumes his self-determination and individualism into the greater good, adhering to his duty rather than his desires in pursuit of a mystery or problem. Thus a World of Dew presents a roleplaying challenge—one of course seen in other Japan-set RPGs—that is further exacerbated by the social upheaval that Japan is undergoing throughout the period described in the game. A social upheaval that seems to favour desire over honour...

The primary way in which a World of Dew enforces its genre is by asking the player to have his character do one radical thing—fail. The player in a World of Dew has a great deal of control over the narrative. He can spend Honour Points to add to the game and he can narrate events and add true facts using his wagers. When he does so, he creates truths—truths that unless the GM spends a Story Point cannot be undone. So it would be easy for the player to simply narrate his success, but that would not be in keeping with the genre. Instead a World of Dew asks the player to ‘fail forward’, that is to drive the plot forward with his character’s failure. Not just ‘yes’, but ‘yes and..’ as well as ‘yes, but…’ It is asking a lot of the players, but in playing the game they should buying into it anyway. This is in addition of course, to the players having their characters conduct themselves honourably in support of the greater good order to gain Honour Points. Not only is this very in-keeping with the Japan-set RPG, it also fuels the Honour-Story Point economy.

Physically, a World of Dew is tidily presented with some beautifully vibrant art. Its main weakness is the lack of an index, but otherwise the book decently written with solid advice for player and GM alike. Some players though, may balk at being penalised with an Honour Point for causing a distraction!

As an RPG design, World of Dew is a very contemporary design, with mechanics that encourage a certain style of play, but still with the need for a narrator or GM. It is a storytelling game that takes its cue from a haiku, A World of Dew, and is about the struggle within a moment, one at a point of change, all caught within the dewdrop. World of Dew is beautifully immersive, drawing in the GM and player alike with the chance to tell stories in a fascinating period of history, one at a point of change.