Remember the early 80s. Duran Duran was king and VCRs and cable were technological marvels. Role-playing was just taking off and within the next five years there would be a game covering almost every possible genre and movie tie-in. Lost in this explosion was a game by Fantasy Games Unlimited called Bushido. While FGU was better know for Villains & Vigilantes (a game I ran and promptly ditched for Champions), I consider Bushido to be their finest.
This game was produced before Anime and video games had corrupted our view of Japanese culture. Back then all we had to go on was Shogun, Seven Samurai and Toshiro Mifune. You won't find any kung-fu fighting, high flying, fireball throwing, Chinese hybrid super heroes here, just plain ol' "death before dishonor" samurai.
The items I am reviewing are in the boxed set. It consists of a player's book, called Heroes of Nippon, and a GM's book, called Land of Nippon. Each book is softbound and B&W. The player's book is 80 pages while the GM's book is 48. The box also includes a GM's screen with charts printed on cheap card. The screen also had a bland but functional map of feudal Japan. The game was reprinted several years ago as one book without the screen/map. The text is typical early '80s typesetting and is crammed together without much in the way of section headers. There is occasionally small artwork, but it is generally not good.
Except for a little blurb on the inside of the front cover and half a paragraph on rolling dice. This is all the introduction to role-playing you get. After that, you are dumped straight into character creation. Ah, the good 'ol days.
The first thing you do is roll on the Birth Table to see what you are. Your caste ranges from despicable merchant to honorable samurai. Your caste also determines your starting money and you initial honor score, called On. Now you can choose your class from the six available. Two fighter types, on with weapon and one bare handed, a priest (Buddhist or Shinto), a magic user (Shugenja) or a Yakuza (more thug than thief). You can also be a Ninja if you were born in the Ninja caste. Each character has six attributes, Strength, Deftness, Speed, Health, Wit and Will. Each character gets 60 points to allocate to their attributes with the final scores modified by your class.
Once all that is taken care of, you can choose your skills. Each character gets a varying number and type of skills to choose. Some based on their birth caste and some based on their class. Skills are broken down into Bugei (war related), Fine Arts and Practical Arts. Each skill chosen has an initial value which is usually the sum of two or three traits.
The skill system is the real strength of the game. Other than the limits in the initial skill selection, there are no restrictions as to which characters can learn which skills. Bushi (samurai like warriors) can learn magical skill just as Shugenja can learn fighting skills. The character's class simply provides a bonus when using certain skill (see The System below).
Each character has a number of Freely Improvable Skills. These are any skills that the character chooses and can be any skills regardless of class. The character gains a bonus when training with these particular skills as they are considered his specialty. Some weapon skills have secret technique called Okuden. A character can learn these special techniques from a suitably advanced teacher. Each Okuden allows the character to perform certain special things like throw his weapon, do extra damage or attack opponents behind him.
Each character also is rated for On, which is a measure of his personal honor and Ki (Chi) which are points a character can trade in to perform amazing feats.
Characters have a level in their class. To gain a level, a character needs to earn a certain number of experience points, called Budo, and must have a minimum level of On. Because On comes and goes depending on the actions of the character, a character can lose levels during play if he performs some particularly cowardly act or if is caught being disloyal to his lord. Levels go from one to six. In this game, everything, cities, characters, treasure, castles are given a rating from one to six or 'A' to 'F'. Sixth level is extremely powerful but, if you wanted to, you could easily extrapolate out to seventh level or higher.
Most tests are resolved using a D20. Each skill value varies from 1 to 99. To roll the skill, the skill's value is divided by 5, rounding down, to provide a base chance ranging from 0 to 19. This is the number you need to roll.
If the skill is a bonus skill for the character's class, the character can add his level to the base chance. For example, a second level character with a skill of 60 needs a 14 or less to succeed. All the chances are pre-calculated so little math is needed during game time.
This game uses the Effect Number mechanism to determine contest of skill versus skill. The Effect Number is the amount you made the roll by. The Effect Number is also used during the Task Resolution system, which is used to do long and involved tests such as creating a spell or building a Ninja device. The Effect Numbers are accumulated each turn until a target number is reached.
Each combat round, the characters can perform from one to three actions depending on their Speed Attribute. The type of actions that can be performed are based on the character's combat awareness or Zanshin. Zanshin is based on both a character's Attributes and level.
To hit, each character takes his chance to hit and subtract the target's armor class in a manner similar to the D&D 3rd edition. Armor class range from 1 for normal clothes to 10 for a custom fitted suit of samurai armor. Each weapon has an optimal range and if you are inside or outside that range, there is a penalty. Damage is based on the weapon and is applied to the target's Health Attribute. In addition, each weapon has the potential for special effects, such as bash and thrust, and, if you like, there are Critical Success and Critical Failure tables.
Shugenja have a skill in one of the five schools based on the Asian elements, Water, Fire, Wood, Metal and Soil. Each spell is rated for minimum knowledge which is the minimum score the character must have in the magic skill in order to learn that spell. Once learned, the Shugenja has a number of magic point that he can use to cast his spells. Each Shugenja also has cantrips that he can perform regardless of which school the Shugenja is studying. These cantrips are such things as Detect Magic and Create Light.
Gakusho (priests) have different powers depending on whether they are Buddhist or Shinto. Using this power is based on either the characters skill in the "classics" of his religion, on his skill in meditation, or his skill in one of the five Yogas. The rules for Gakusho magic are poorly written and confusing. It is a good thing that nobody want to play them.
I won't go into how everything works, but the following is a list of what I consider to be good useful rules. This game was made during a period when there had to be a rule for everything and thus the game covered material which most modern game gloss over. If your ever need a little more detail or variety in your fantasy campaign, this is a great place for ideas. Here goes:
Rabble: These are the guys you hit and they go down and stay down. In fact, you are encouraged to take to-hit penalties to kill these poor guys with flashy swordplay just for the honor. Yes, Bushido had Rabble long before Feng Shui had "mooks"
War: Bushido has what I consider to be the best rules for fighting battles in an rpg. Not only can you fight with armies but you get detailed rules for what you character does during the battle. Act courageously and your lord may notice and shower you with gifts, act too courageously and you may end up surrounded by the enemy. Act cautiously and you may live, but you also may end up with the honor of committing suicide.
Jobs: Yes, this game lets you earn money by using your skills in mundane jobs. Not particularly exciting, unless your job happens to be Ninja or Yojimbo.
Treasure: This game's treasure chart included such goodies as works of art and trade goods.
Equipment: Every item of equipment is rated rural through city. Its availablility and price are adjusted based on where you are trying to buy it. So eggs really are cheaper in the country.
Karma: When your character dies, you can get points based on his honor and how he died. These points can be used during the creation of your next character.
Status: This is the first game I've seen that tracks you status within your family or clan. Kiss enough ass and you may end up Daimyo. Cool.
Fief: There are rules for gaining and running your own fiefdoms. Including rules for crops and the happiness of your little peasant people. Plus, there are rules on building castles and raising armies.
Teachers: No more magically assigning experience points to raise a skill. In this game, you have to find a suitable teacher. For some of the Okuden, this could be an adventure in itself.
The typesetting is bad. The rules are laid out confusingly and barely marked. There is no real section or chapter headings. The art, while good for 1981, is no where near today's standards. To top it off, the rules are strangely numbered. For example, the rules for loosing Honor due to Cowardice are 1064.2a.
While ugly, the rules for this game are still serviceable. There probably won't be many people setting up new Bushido campaigns but I heartily recommend that all the GM's running L5R campaigns get a hold of and read these rules. There is enough here to give your world a more authentic flavor. I'd even recommend fantasy GM look this stuff over as there are many ideas to add some new elements to an existing fantasy campaign. It's a shame that the plans making a 3rd edition were cancelled by the guy who owns FGU, forcing the authors to work on Shengoku instead.
Style: 2 (Needs Work)