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Saturday, 28 December 2019

1979: Bushido

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Bushido is significant for being the very first Samurai role-playing game set in Feudal Japan. Designed by Robert N. Charrette and Paul R. Hume—who would go on to design the highly regarded Shadowrun in 1989—and originally published in 1979 by the short-lived Tyr Gamesmakers Ltd., it is best known from the 1981 boxed set published by Fantasy Games Unlimited, so it this version that is being reviewed here. Drawing upon the Japanese film genre of ‘sword fighting’ or samurai cinema known as ‘Chambara’, it is set in a semi-historical heroic, mythic, and fantastic version of Japan, in which Bushi, Budoka, Yakuza, Ninja, Shugenja, and Gakusho seek to serve their liege lords or masters, and do so with honour and loyalty. Notably, as much as there is an emphasis in Bushido on sword-fighting and magic, myth and history—almost like any other roleplaying game—the roleplaying game places a strong emphasis upon the player characters’ honour and social position.

The 1981 boxed set comes with two thick books, a map of Nippon marked with its provinces, a Game Master’s Screen, and a character sheet. The books consist of ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’, which provides rules of play and the players guidebook, and ‘Book II, The Land of Nippon’, a Gamemaster’s Guidebook. Both are black and white books, lightly illustrated, but filled with dense text. ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’ covers characters, skills, the core mechanics, and spells, whilst ‘Book II, The Land of Nippon’ covers NPCs, battles, treasure, places of Nippon, non-adventuring activity, and a scenario.

A character in Bushido is defined by six Attributes—Strength, Deftness, Speed, Health, Wit, and Will; Saving Throws—derived from the Attributes to determine the success of an action using a particular Attribute; Abilities—derived factors such as health and learning; Capabilities and Skills. The Classic Man in Bushido has a value of ten in each of the Attributes, which can actually range between one and forty. A character will also have a Profession and a Level—Bushido being a ‘Class and Level’ roleplaying game, although with just the six Levels of Experience. The six Professions are Bushi—honourable warriors, the classic samurai, Budoka—martial artists, Yakuza—gangsters and folk heroes, Ninja—status-less, dishonourable thieves, spies, and assassins, Shugenja—Taoist-style wizards, and Gakusho—either Buddhist or Shinto priests. Each Profession provides a character with Attribute bonuses and has its own skills as well as Ki powers, each fuelled by a character’s inner spiritual reservoir. Notably, the skills are divided into Bugei or combat skills, Fine Arts, Practical Arts, Ninja skills, and Magical and Mystical skills with a lot of attention paid to each. Lastly, a character has On, a measure of the respect that the character has for himself, gained by winning contests, battles, and duels, being heroic, going on pilgrimage, and so on, but lost for acts of cowardice or dishonesty, rashness, and the like. On is necessary—though not for Ninja—when gaining Levels in a Profession, but if too much On is lost, a character can lose Levels. Lastly, Status represents a character’s standing in society.

Now creating a character in Bushido is not an easy process, primarily because it is not presented in what would be regarded as a logical order. The actual explanation of the process does not come until half way through the eighty pages of ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’. The first forty or so pages of the book are devoted to explaining the stats, skills, Ki powers, and Professions, basically everything to do with the make-up of character, but without a starting point. So it feels backward because essentially, a player has to read so far into the book in order to actually begin the creation, but then go back to the beginning of the book to continue it, plus there is a lot of flipping back and forth as part of the process.

To create a character in Bushido, a player rolls to determine his character’s caste, which determines the Professions open to him, his initial On, and starting funds. If he rolls low he will be of Samurai class, but if he rolls high, he will be of the Eta caste and can only be a Ninja. Otherwise, a player is free to choose whatever Profession he wants for his character, though there are social and other consequences, for example, a Samurai who chooses to become a Yakuza , loses half of his On. The character’s caste will provide some initial skills, whilst his Profession will add more plus Attribute modifiers, starting goods, and Hit Points. A player also needs to distribute sixty points to his character’s Attributes. Numerous factors, including skill values, are then derived from all of this.

Name: Eiichi
Caste: Heimin (Farmer, Low)
Age: 20 On: 5
Profession: Yakuza Level: 1
Status: 10

Strength 10 ST: 4 Enc. Cap: 20 lbs. Dam: 0 Unarmed: 1d3
Deftness 20 ST: 7 BAP: 10
Speed 15 ST: 6 MNA: 1 BMA: 5
Health 15 ST: 6 HPT: 20
Wit 20 ST: 7 FIS: 20 Per: 6
Will 20 ST: 7 Power: 20

Learning Rate: 2 Zanshin: 1

Brawling: 6 Climbing: 10 Leaping: 7 Magic: 40 (8) Swimming: 5

Commerce 40 (9), Fishing 60 (13), Gambling 60 (13), Katakana 70 (14), Massage 40 (9), Popular Dance 55 (12), Sumai 50 (11), Tantojujitsu 55 (12), Yakuza Dialect 70 (14)

Dice, aiguchi (d3), 4 silver

Mechanically, Bushido uses a twenty-sided die for its resolution system. Originally, this would have been in the days of twenty-sided dice with the numbers zero through nine marked on it twice, so players and Game Masters alike would have needed to mark their dice accordingly. To have his character undertake an action, a player rolls against the Saving Throw of an appropriate Attribute, Capability, or Skill. The Saving Throw of any Attribute is approximately a third of its value, the value of a Capability an average of three different Saving Throws, and the Base Chance of Success or BCS of a skill equal to a fifth of its value, skills being rated as percentiles. If the skill is a bonus skill for a Profession, then the character’s Level is also added. Critical successes are possible on a roll of one and failures on a roll of a twenty. The quality of any skill test can be determined how much the result is under the adjusted Base Chance of Success.

Combat uses the same mechanics with a character being able to do between one and three actions depending on his Speed Attribute and taking into account the character’s combat awareness or Zanshin. Combat takes into account various types of attack, including bash, butt stroke, disarm, strike, thrust, and more, but ultimately it involves the player rolling against the weapon or Bugei skill being used, its BCS adjusted by the opponent’s Armour Class, which ranges from zero for ordinary clothing up to ten for master heavy samurai armour. Damage is inflicted directly from a character’s Health with a critical success in combat potentially causing double or triple damage, and a high chance of a special effect which might be the loss of a limb or even death. Conversely, a critical failure might see a character might injure himself. Overall, combat in Bushido is potentially really quite deadly, especially against unarmoured combatants.

Magic in Bushido is used by two different Professions. The Shugenja knows a number of basic spells or powers, like Magic Detection and Astral Senses, but his more powerful spells come one of the five schools based on the elements—Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Soil, plus some common spells. Every spell has a minimum in terms of the knowledge of the school required as well as the Level of the character. The other Profession is the Gakusho or priest, whose powers vary according to whether he is a Buddhist or Shintoist. Instead of the five schools of magic, the Gashuko studies the Five Yoga—each of which corresponds to one of the five elemental schools—and sacred texts, ‘Sutras’ for Buddhists or and ‘Norito’ for Shintoists. Both Shugenja and Gakusho take a degree of commitment upon the part of the player and the Game Master to play. Ninja in Bushido possess the expected mix of stealth and combat skills, but can also manufacture Gimmicks like flash grenades, blowguns, blinding powders, and so on.

Apart from the initial selection determined from a character’s caste and Profession, a player is free to choose the skills he wants for his character, that is, if he can find a school and a teacher which will accept him. Certain Professions provide bonuses to learning certain skills, but there is a certain emphasis on combat skills in Bushido, only exacerbated by the inclusion of Okuden, secret combat skills or manoeuvres such as Piercing Thrust or the Lightning Stroke. All six Professions also have their own Ki powers—focussed and unfocussed—the former requiring concentration, the latter not.  So for the Bushi, that might be Damage Focus, Distant Death for the Budoka, and Lore Master for the Shugenja, but all enable a character to do amazing feats.

To progress, a character needs to earn experience points or Budo and have a minimum level of On. On though, can go down as well as up, so what this means is that as much as it is gained by winning contests, battles, and duels, being heroic, going on pilgrimage, and so on, but is lost for acts of cowardice or dishonesty, rashness, and the like. So characters are encouraged to roleplay the positive aspects of the setting and so will be rewarded for it. Besides this, progression is not just a matter of adventuring, but studying and learning too.

In addition to the mechanics of the roleplaying game, Bushido includes background on Nippon, the structure of its society, customs, religious beliefs, the place of women in society, and details of weaponry—including a good illustration of them all together on the back cover of ‘Book I, The Heroes of Nippon’. ‘Book II, The Land of Nippon’ covers creating NPCs as well as a bestiary of creatures mythic—legendary and supernatural—and mundane, a discussion of events the player characters can get involved in, places in Nippon, jobs they can take in addition to adventuring, and the benefits and duties of being in particular groups, such fiefs, schools, ninja clans, yakuza gangs, and so on. The advanced game covers founding and running these as the player characters gain status. Lastly there is an adventure, ‘An Evening at the Inn of Restful Sleep’, a fairly simple affair in which the player characters are victims of skulduggery when they stay at an inn. It is at least a good reason to introduce the characters and get them working together. Overall, the setting of Nippon manages to be just about fantastic enough without detracting from its not too historical feel and flavour—it is not strictly speaking a completely historical treatment of feudal Japan, but then neither is it wholly fantastic either. Bushido owes this to its Chambara origins as much as it does the authors. 

Physically, Bushido is a densely presented pair of books. The layout is generally tidy, but the editing is wanting. If there is a real issue with Bushido, it is that there is no index for either book, whilst a glossary would have been useful. The roleplaying game could have done with more examples, but above all, it needed better organisation and more clearly separated sections of rules. The result is often a frustrating mess, as players and Game Master alike are forced to search for a rule or other content. There is a solid game here, the organisation is a hindrance to that aim.


Bushido was reviewed extensively at the time of its publication—by all three of its publishers. Steven L. Lortz reviewed it in Different Worlds Issue 3 (June/July, 1979), comparing it to the leading roleplaying games of the day, “RuneQuest and Dungeons & Dragons typify two styles of role-play which are very different in mechanics and philosophy; specific expertise versus general experience levels, character specialization versus character classes, spell points versus Vancian magic, and static versus dynamic hit points. In Bushido, Hume and Charrette have produced a well-knit integration of elements from each of these styles and provided a fairly complete and playable social milieu for the characters to operate within. For these reasons, I highly recommend Bushido to people who are interested in running a fantasy campaign based primarily on the Japanese mythos and to people who are interested in the art of RPG design. However, the Basic Chance of Success mechanism is a reversal of the die rolling conventions of both RuneQuest and Dungeons & Dragons, so some work would be required before a person could adapt from Bushido into a campaign based on either of these two systems.”

In Dragon #34 (February, 1980), D. Okada noted that, “With the exception of M.A.R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne, virtually every game that comes out has a common outlook. Each game is based on a view of life (whether in fantasy or science fiction) that draws its roots from Western culture. This is to be expected. The largest, if not only, market for games is found in the Western world. But now the gamer is offered a new choice.” Which of course is Bushido. He commented though, that, “...[T]he game is not perfect. There are a horrendous amount of typographical errors in the rules. While the game does not always suffer from these errors, there are times when they do hamper understanding of what is supposed to be going on.” before concluding that, “Despite these faults, the game is worth the price to the person interested in developing a more cosmopolitan outlook. After all, while it’s fun to be Conan or Gandalf in D&D, there is also a time to try and be Miyamoto Musashi seeking perfection in the use of the sword, don’t you think?”

Conversely, writing in The Space Gamer Number 29 (July, 1980), Forrest Johnson was distinctly dismissive, stating that, “Students of Japan may be irritated by such things as misspellings, the translation of “on” as face and the omission from the map of the island of Hokkaido. The metaphysics seem more Hindu than Japanese and some of the monsters (trolls, vampires, ogres) are distinctly round-eyed.” before concluding, “Karate fans and samurai fans may dig this one. Serious students will just have to wait for something better.” 

Similarly, in Ares Nr. 7 (March, 1981), Eric Goldberg was critical of the character generation method, saying that, “The mechanics for character generation represent two contradictory theories. The point distribution system is intended to promote equality among the characters. The caste and rank system randomly creates great disparities between them. There is a logical argument for both methods – even in conjunction – but one’s purpose defeats the other’s. Furthermore, restricting one profession (ninja) to those who are of that caste (a 15% chance) limits those unfortunate characters who cannot be a ninja to four professions. (Also, a character who is of the ninja caste is almost forced to be a ninja, unless he feels no qualms about throwing away an advantage.) I am surprised the designers did not extend their point assignment system to that the players could “buy” caste and rank, thus ensuring that everyone would have free choice.” It is notable that this is exactly what the designers did with Shadowrun.

Nevertheless, Eric Goldberg was slightly more positive in his conclusion, saying that “Bushido’s strong points are the inventive game mechanics (for the time), the “feel” of Japanese culture, and the tentative emphasis on playing a role. Most FRP games rely on the players to determine in which direction their characters will go, and often force them into stereotyped roles. Hume and Charette were players turned designers, and remained aware of the difficulties they had met in previously published games.” and “A quest for knowledge about Japanese culture would not begin with Bushido, partly because of the interpolation of mythic beliefs into the background. However, the players of the game do not wish to know all the ins and outs of that country, however interesting they may be. Bushido is a nice enough meld of a surrealistic and D&D-style flavor, and has a game system sturdy enough to support this impression.” 

Reviewing Bushido in White Dwarf Issue No 32 (August, 1982), Mike Polling was wholly more positive, exclaiming that, “If you’re for the ultimate Fantasy Role-Playing Game, look no further. This is it.” before awarding both Bushido and the separate adventure, Valley of the Mists, a score of ten out of ten.

Bushido has also been the subject of a number of retrospectives. In Dragon #134 (June, 1988), it was reviewed again, this time by Jim Bambra and alongside reviews of Land of Ninja, a supplement for RuneQuest III and Oriental Adventures, the supplement for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. In light of the other two supplements being reviewed, he was more guarded in his praise, stating that, “The BUSHIDO game was the first game to open up the mysterious East to roleplayers  –  but at a cost. While admirably capturing the flavor of medieval Japan, the BUSHIDO game is densely written and difficult to grasp. It is a game for dedicated gamers who, in their pursuit of Oriental action, are willing to struggle with rule books that make advanced nuclear theory texts seem like light reading by comparison.” before concluding that, “If you’re looking for a stand-alone system, then check out the BUSHIDO game. But if accessibility and ease of use are your primary requirements, stay well away.”

In ‘The Way of the Warrior, The Way of Bushido’ in The Last Province Issue 1 (October, 1992), Paz Newis said, “Ah, the early eighties when a game system said complete rule system, by jingo, it meant it... However the initial rush of joy is likely to be short lived. Upon opening one of the books the level of undertaking becomes apparent. You want to authentically simulate feudal fantasy Japan? It might be quicker to move there and join their Sealed Knot equivalent.” The reviewer was otherwise positive about the game. Similarly, Bushido was described Arcane issue 6 (May, 1996) as having, “...[C]aptured the spirit of the  Samurais’ [sic] greatest era: feudal Japan.” and that, “Politics and action went hand in hand with Bushido and the game had an innately epic scale.” Editor Steve Faragher’s obvious enthusiasm should be tempered by the fact that he had been part of the Games of Liverpool team which published the scenario, Takishido’s Debt, for Bushido in 1983.


As the first roleplaying game set in feudal Japan, Bushido is groundbreaking, providing a lot of information about the setting, the types of characters which can be played, and what they can do. There is a lot of flavour and detail in Bushido, especially so in the descriptions of the various types of skills—Bugei or combat skills, Fine Arts, Practical Arts, Ninja skills, and Magical and Mystical skills—but also in the explanations of society and customs, and of course, in the On or personal honour rules which encourage roleplaying and immersion in the setting. Yet as much as it set a standard in terms of background for the characters, who they and what they do, Bushido got just about everything wrong in terms of how a roleplaying needs to be presented. The density of the text, the explanation of terms before they are needed, and the dreadfully poor organisation of the rules—exacerbated by a lack of index—made Bushido inaccessible. Instead of needing to be read, Bushido needed to be studied, its textbook-like layout and structure also making the game difficult to teach.

Bushido had the potential to be a good roleplaying game and a great treatment of its genre. Yet from the start, Bushido needed a second edition of the Fantasy Games Unlimited version to rip the organisation of its contents apart and put it back together to make it accessible. It is a shame that this never happened, for it let other Oriental-set roleplaying games shine in its stead.


With thanks to Steven Ward for granting me last minute access to The Last Province #1.

1 comment:

  1. One of the nice elements of Bushido was that the six levels thing is pretty important throughout the rules for defining the level of play and which make defining NPCs very easy (one of the big advantages of a level system in a sandbox game from a gamemaster's perspective). You could generate the level of a place, person, or disaster by a fixed amount (for example the abbot of a large temple is likely to be a 6th level Gakusho, or by a random roll (say 2d3 or 1d6), or by rolling on the Level of Place table which skewed the level according to the likelihood of meeting such a character in a chanbarra/romantic universe, and in doing so it was then relatively easy to generate their abilities on the fly.

    From the player side the contribution of level to the character is not that profound (basically being a slight bonus to some professional skills and hit points), although it naturally gives an indication of the skills you are likely to face in opposition.

    This carries on to a lot of the tools provided specifically for the gamemaster (such as the excellent encounter chart or the battle resolution system).

    [The Tyr version of the game had a lot less background information, used a d12 to determine the Level of Place (rather than d%), and a very dungeony adventure into a ruined temple, but was essentially the same system. It also did not suffer as much from the rather non-intuitive layout of the FGU version.]