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Saturday, 6 February 2021

1980: Land of the Rising Sun

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. 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.

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Land of the Rising Sun: Role Playing game of myths and legends in the age of Samurai
was published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1980. For the publisher, it predates Bushido, although that was previously published by two other publishers. Designed by Lee Gold, the editor of the long running monthly amateur press association, Alarums and Excursions, Land of the Rising Sun began life as a supplement for Chivalry & Sorcery dedicated to the samurai system of feudal Japan, but ultimately became a roleplaying game of its own. This gives Land of the Rising Sun the distinction of being first roleplaying game to be designed by a woman. It is a Class and Level system, in which samurai and nobles conduct themselves honourably; clerics—Buddhist and Shinto dispense blessings, write scrolls, conduct exorcisms, and more; merchants trade and make themselves richer than the nobility; mages of all types seek to perfect their art and studies; craftsmen make and sell their goods; bureaucrats keep the wheels of government running; and thieves, bandits, and ninja steal, rob, sabotage, and assassinate… This is a roleplaying game set in feudal Japan in which a wide array of character types can be played, including gamblers and geisha, and earn Experience Points for doing so. It presents a rich array of magical traditions, as well as extensive notes on religion and a bestiary of spirits, bakemono, demons, gaki, goblins, kami, and more. However, Land of the Rising Sun: Role Playing game of myths and legends in the age of Samurai does use the Chivalry & Sorcery mechanics, and together with a layout and organisation which is ponderous at best, does make this roleplaying game very much of a challenge to learn and play.

Land of the Rising Sun comes as a boxed set. Inside can be found the rulebook and five reference sheets which cover magic and combat. The rulebook itself, without much preamble, quickly dives into how to create a character. A Player Character in Land of the Rising Sun is first defined by his Species. This can be Japanese Human; Hengeyokai or Shapechanger, such as Fox or Cat; or Bakemono, a monster such as Kappa or Tengu. He has a Horoscope—Well-, Average-, or Poorly Aspected, which will primarily be of import should the character become a mage, followed by gender, height, and frame. The seven stats, Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Appearance, Bardic Voice, Intelligence, and Wisdom, are all rolled on two ten-sided dice for Humans, but can be modified for non-humans. Lastly, Charisma is the average of all of these factors. He has an Alignment, which ranges from Saintly to Depraved. As well as Charisma, derived factors include Body Points (or Hit Points) and Fatigue Points, then Military Ability (talent as a field commander), Command Level (ability to lead troops), and Personal Combat Factor (ability to fight). The latter is modified by a Player Character’s Class and reflects the size of a weapon he can use and how well. Father’s social class and position determines a Player Character’s initial social class, and from this a player can work out how many siblings the Player Character has, birth order, how much money he has, and what gift his family might give him.

Our sample character is Kugojiro, the younger son of a samurai noble who is a justice of the peace in a small town, a reward for loyal service to his daimyo. The plain, homely-looking Kugojiro is ill-favoured by his family, which has not yet found a position for him, his older brother being groomed to take over from his father. Kugojiro wants to be a warrior, but his family will not support him and he is prepared to undertake less than honourable work.

Name: Kugojiro
Species: Human
Horoscope: Well-Aspected
Gender: Male
Height: Medium (5’ 2”) Frame: Heavy (123 lbs.)
Alignment: Worldly (Corruptible)
Profession: Fighter
Level: 1

Father’s Social Class: Noble (Level 18)
Father’s Clan Lord: Clan Head
Position: Department of Justice (Senior Official) Income: 65
Siblings: 3 (Two older sisters, one older brother)
Family Status: Poor Child
Birthplace: Town (Small Town)
Income: – Money: 72 bu/2 Oban

Basic Influence: 21
Social Status: 15

Strength 09
Dexterity 19 Dex Factor: +10%
Constitution 18 Disease Resistance: +5% BP Regen: +1/+2/+3 FP Regen: 3/6/9}
Appearance 04 Homely (-3 Charisma)
Bardic Voice 20 Orphic (+5 Charisma, +1 Military Ability)
Intelligence 13 Language Points: 3/LVL Detect Factor: +5% Research Limit: VI Remember Spells: 65% Read Scrolls: 85% BP: –

Wisdom 11 Average
Charisma 14 Influential

Military Ability: 7
Command Level: 3
Personal Combat Factor: 10.5

Light Weapons
BL: +1 DMG/WDF: 3 Hit: +15% Parry: -15%
Light/Heavy Weapons
BL: – DMG/WDF: 3 Hit: +12% Parry: -8% Shielding: -12% Dodge: -18%
Dex Bonuses: +2% to hit/Level, -2% to parry/Level; Weapon Specialisation 5, one extra Dodge per turn, two free missile shots per turn

Class Bonus: One free active shield/weapon parry

AC: 3

Body Points: 12
Fatigue Points: 3
Carrying Capacity: 198 lbs.

There is no denying that the end result of character generation is detailed, with the random determination of a character’s social status, family, and position within the family, it is possible to begin to get some idea about who the character might. However, both the end result and the process is far from perfect. It takes both a lot of flipping back and forth through the rulebook’s first twenty pages to get to this point as well as a lot of arithmetic—the author is not kidding when she suggests that the reader requires a calculator. Nor does the Player Character feel complete. Does the character have skills apart from a low chance to hit things—or Personal Combat Factor? Or a low chance for casting magic—Personal Magic Factor—for the Mage? Digging deeper—and it takes a lot of digging—the Cleric at least begins play with one miracle, Purify. The various types of Mage have learned some spells. An Artisan or Merchant begins play with the Production, Trading, and Investment skills, and there is a Dex Skill for Thieves, Bandits, and Ninja. No skills for the gambler or entertainer or geisha though.

Nor do the write-ups of the various professions—Fighter, Mage, Cleric, Thief, Bandit, Ninja, Government, Artisan, Peasant, Merchant, and Other (which covers gamblers and entertainers)—help, since they are all about their place in society and how they earn their Experience Points, and certainly not about what they can do. And the sections on martial arts and fine arts and magic and stealth are all about how to learn them and then be able to do anything of note. In many cases, too much attention is paid to how much money a Player Character will earn and essentially Land of the Rising Sun provides a means to create characters who know their place and role in society, know that they can do things and benefit or earn from doing them, but actually have very little idea how they actually do those things. Roleplaying games are all about things that the characters can do and being able to do cool things, and whilst Land of the Rising Sun will let the Player Characters do them, they have to learn them first.

So what of the mechanics? Land of the Rising Sun is a percentile system. Yet like many roleplaying games of its generation, it does not have a universal mechanic, but rather a set of rules for different circumstances. For example, the rules for Influence and Relationships are based upon the Charisma, Social Status, Level, and Honour Points of the Player Characters and NPCs, and covers ways to increase Influence as well as exert it, before discussing various relationships, from alliances between clan lords and different types of obligations to codes of justice and the nature of seppuku. Magic is broken down into not just a few, but eighteen types of mage, including Primitive, Dancer, Shaman, Medium, Herbalist, Divine, Artificer, Enchanter, Illusionist, Summoner, Symbolist, Poet, Calligrapher, and I Ching Master! Further, Symbolists include Origami, Painter, and Carver Symbolists, whilst Artificers Weaponsmiths, Jewelsmiths, and Weaver Mages. And each type of Mage has his own magic and mechanics, whether that is using I Ching rods to forecast the coming day or the Artificer constructing a magical device—which includes magical or Ego swords by the Weaponsmith. All of these different Mages, despite possessing different mechanics, are all nicely done and would be interesting to roleplay, whether that is the Origami Symbolist folding and animating paper to make it fly or run, or a Diviner reading the stars or writing a horoscope. There is a lengthy list of spells too. Clerics, Shintoism, and Buddhism are all treated in informative fashion. The rules over exorcism plus numerous Miracles, many of which the two faiths share.

The Martial Arts section covers everything from Tessen Jutsu or use of fans to Chikujojutsu or fortifications, and all have a number of skill points which need to be invested in them to be mastered. This is at least one hundred skill points, and because only a few points can be learned through training it can take a while to master a skill. Fine Arts, like Appreciating Embroidery and Dyeing and Playing Go, are treated the same way, but Stealth skills are not. They simply use a combination of a Player Character’s Dex Skill, Detect factor, and Level. Again, this section provides more background, this time about banditry, fences, ninja, and the like. And again, the Ninja is slightly different, first learning Ninjitsu, which of course, takes a while, and then being able to learn another raft of skills.

Combat covers morale, loss of fatigue for undertaking actions, parrying, mounted and a lot more, whilst later, separate sections provide rules for aerial, water, and mass combat. At the heart of combat, attackers are rolling on Missile or Melee Matrices—or attack tables—against an Armour Class rating, which goes from zero to ten. This gives a chance for the attack to succeed, primarily modified by the attacker’s Personal Combat Factor, and there are Melee matrices for different types of weapon and natural weapons. The rules do include a pair of examples, quite lengthy ones, and to be honest, they are necessary, because the rules are not only poorly explained, but there are a lot of them, whether that is aimed hits, desperate defence, attacking with chain weapons, and so on.

Oddly, the author suggests the reader purchase a geographical map of Japan rather than provide one, and instead of looking at Japan as whole, it concentrates on the types of buildings to be found in the country. There is certainly no history given and it would be nice to have some more context for the roleplaying game. Penultimately, Land of the Rising Sun includes a lengthy bestiary, which together with the tables for encounters and intentions of those met, provides the Game Master with plenty of threats, NPCs, and mysteries to present to her players and their characters. Lastly, there is a short bibliography, a handful of scenario ideas, and a piece of fiction, which though it might serve as inspiration for an encounter, feels out of place here.

Physically, Land of the Rising Sun is laid out in the classic wargames style with numbered sections. The layout is generally tidy, the writing reasonable, illustrations vary in quality, but the organisation leaves much to be desired. After covering elements such as character creation and influence and the prices of goods, it wanders off into the thirty-page section of magic, which though good, leaves the reader to wonder how a character does anything except magic, before finally arriving at the section on martial skills and fine arts, which of course, leaves the reader bewildered. It is a case of having to learn the rulebook as much as learn the game. And whilst there is an index, it not always of any help.

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Land of the Rising Sun was extensively reviewed at the time of its publication. Eric Goldberg reviewed both of the roleplaying games set in Japan from Fantasy Games Unlimited—both Bushido and Land of the Rising Sun in Ares Nr. 7 (March 1981). He was not wholly positive, but said, “Land of the Rising Sun is an estimable addition to a FRP afficionado’s library. Aside from being well-explained, it is necessary for those who want to fully understand C&S. The care with which Japanese myth has been reproduced is simply amazing.” before concluding that, “It can also be said that the game is impossible to play, and requires too much of the players. Designer Gold achieved her objective, and did it in most impressive fashion. In doing so, however, she may have lost a greater audience.”

Writing in The Space Gamer Number 36 (February 1981), Forrest Johnson praised the roleplaying game, saying, “LOTRS is a very impressive effort. Lee Gold spent a little time in Japan. A lot of time studying the subject. Her game is complete and authentic.” before concluding that, “LOTRS is a beautiful treasure in an unopenable package. Recommended to zealots, and as a source-book to D&D.”

Wes Ives accorded Land of the Rising Sun a lengthy review in Different Worlds Issue 13 (August 1981). He detailed why the roleplaying game was not suitable for the wargamer or the dungeoneer, but for the romantic medievalist, it was, “A decent treatment of all those romantic, alien legends from medieval Japan! The medievalists will justifiably love LRS, even if they don’t have a Japanese FRP campaign to enjoy. After years of reading, in the hobby press (both apa-zines, which can be excused, and prozines, which should know better). treatments of various segments of Japan, held up and analysed in a vacuum, it is a glorious relief to see the strange weapons, the mysterious social classes, and the flabbergasting monsters collected and presented into an integral whole. If your wish is to run a campaign based on medieval Japan, then you will be in the care of someone who lavished as much attention on this set of rules as the Chivalry & Sorcery authors lavished on their treatment of medieval Europe.” He strongly recommended 
Land of the Rising Sun, describing it as, “It is a complete, entertaining game. Even if you don’t start a campaign based on the culture given, this is a good book to read to find out “How It’s Done When It’s Done Right.” LRS has all of the detail of Chivalry & Sorcery, with the added advantage of being a product of the second generation of those rules, so that the rough spots have been somewhat sanded down and refinished. And those of you who want to run a campaign in Old Japan will be in the best of care.”
—oOo—

There is no denying the wealth of detail about Japan ensconced in various sections throughout Land of the Rising Sun, all of them interesting and informative, but the author never pulls back to look at Japan in any great depth, to give context to the game, instead relying upon the reader’s expectations. The sections on magic and religion and the monsters are all good, but Land of the Rising Sun is lacking in so many other ways. Whether that is the frustrating organisation, the underwhelming, but overly complex nature of the Player Characters, the dearth of advice for the Game Master, they all serve to hamper both learning and playing the game. Land of the Rising Sun: Role Playing game of myths and legends in the age of Samurai is an attempt to do a roleplaying set in feudal Japan and do it well and do it comprehensively. Unfortunately, it comes up short of its goals. There are some fantastic elements in the roleplaying game, but it is too complex for what it is trying to do.

4 comments:

  1. I think you mean FGU rather than FFG in the first sentence...
    Glad you managed to get the review out before the new edition!

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  2. Yes, of course. Silly mistake. Of course, this means that you can have your copy back. Thank you for the loan.

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  3. Thanks for this thorough review but it really could do with an opening comment regarding the very problematic meaning of the flag featured on the cover and the title itself.

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  4. Possibly, but I do not feel that on a review of a forty year old game that it needs it necessarily. After all, I do not preface every review connected with H.P. Lovecraft with a note how racist he was. That is a given fact, and likewise the problematic nature of the flag is also known.

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