Usagi Yojimbo Roleplaying Game
Author: Greg Stolze
Company/Publisher: Gold Rush Games
Page count: 96
Playtest Review by Tun Kai Poh on 04/06/98. Genre tags: none
The Usagi Yojimbo Roleplaying Game is, as the title implies, based on Stan Sakai's brilliant anthropomorphic comic book Usagi Yojimbo (which, in turn, is based loosely on the life of legendary samurai Miyamoto Musashi, as well as various samurai films Sakai watched as a kid). At the turn of the 17th century, Japan is under the Shogun's Peace, and many unemployed ronin wander the country in search of work or enlightenment. One of these wanderers is Miyamoto Usagi, a ronin who freelances as a bodyguard (yojimbo) and happens to be a rabbit. Sakai creates a historically accurate world with elements of comedy, pathos and more humanity than many other comic books, both "furry" and "non-furry," which is what attracted me to the comic and the RPG (plus, I was born in the Year of the Rabbit!).
I'm pleased to say that Greg Stolze's adaptation of the comic book to RPG form is, apart from a couple of small problems, a success. He manages to capture the feel of the comic's universe quite well in a few introductory pages (and later, the GM section), with the help of a good layout and plenty of Stan Sakai illustrations. Only half my playtest group had read the comic before playing, but they managed to get into the spirit of things pretty quickly.
For the Usagi RPG, the Fuzion system is streamlined almost to nonexistence, with only 4 primary stats (Physical, Mental, Combat, Movement). Characters are generated from 11 possible Species and 9 Jobs, and my players had a blast mixing and matching them in character generation. Each Species gets certain bonuses to starting stats or skills, and a special ability; the Rabbit has Spectacular Leap, the Bull has Ferocious Charge, and the Cat has Nine Lives, the latter of which might be a little bit too powerful, but there are optional rules to roll for how many of those lives are left. The Bat and Serpent Species pose a unique challenge to players, as it might be a little tricky to play a character without hands! As for the Jobs, this "little" game outdoes many larger, more complex samurai RPGs by having 6 variants of the Samurai/ronin profession, including Retainer, Bodyguard, Shugyosha and Courtier. There are also Ninja, Monk and Gambler professions for the lower social classes. ! Each Job also has stat and skill bonuses, along with its own special ability. All the abilities are well-balanced, although I still have some doubts about the Monk's Wisdom ability, which allows the Monk's player to have access to out-of-character knowledge...
A dozen characters from the comic books, including Usagi, Tomoe, Gen and Zato-Ino, are provided as sample characters, each with two versions of their stats and skills, one reflecting their ability levels portrayed in the comics, another showing how they would look as starting characters. The latter serves as a good set of guidelines for how to make a character.
Skill use is easy enough: stat plus skill plus 3d6, versus a difficulty number from 14 to 26. There are just about enough skills for a low-resolution world befitting Usagi's, but the stat base is too simplified for my tastes: Physical is the basis for both Feats of Strength and Acrobatics. Hence, a huge, muscular Rhino could be more agile than a puny Fox!
Combat rules are simple, cinematic and potentially lethal. Each character picks one of three possible tactics before the exchange of blows: a Total Attack can do a lot of damage, and tends to overcome a Cautious Attack; a Cautious Attack involves some parrying and feinting, and tends to overcome a Total Defense; a Total Defense is just what the name implies, and always beats a Total Attack. All in all, a well-balanced paper-scissors-rock system. Certain special abilities modify this system, but in the end it's always a simple opposed skill roll. Since katanas and other weapons of choice tend to inflict large amounts of damage, it's possible for a duel to end in seconds, with the loser dead or unconscious from a single blow. It should be noted, however, that some blunt weapons stats inflict too little damage, especially compared to the rules for barehanded damage.
Dead or unconscious? Good question. One place the game stumbles is in its contradictory presentation of the Stun rules. Stun damage is defined as one thing in the character generation section, and another in the combat rules. Similarly, Initiative is based on Mental in one part of the rules, but other sections claim that it's based on Combat or Movement instead. Experienced GMs won't have much of a problem figuring out which version they want to use, but these editing problems will confound initiates, which is a pity, since the game would otherwise make an excellent entry-level RPG.
Two sample adventures are provided: one is a simple supernatural mystery (there is no "magic system" for player characters in Usagi, because the supernatural is meant to remain mysterious, like in the Pendragon RPG), the other is a complex mini-campaign revolving around a missing princess. Both are constructed a little on the linear side, and I found that the NPCs tended to be combat monsters, very nearly overpowering the player characters in the climax of the first adventure. Nonetheless, my players had a lot of fun with the game.
What lifts the Usagi Yojimbo RPG above other comics-based licences is the outstandingly complete appendices in the back: a timeline that provides synopses of every Usagi story up to the year 1605 (or issue #14 of the 3rd series); a character index that includes capsule descriptions of everyone from Aburage the oil merchant to Zato-Ino the Blind Swordspig; a glossary of Japanese words used in the comic series; and a reprint of a hard-to-find 8-page Usagi story, "Hebi." Teeny tiny 5-point font keeps the page count down and the appendices compact, which is the way all RPG appendices ought to be. And the index ain't bad.
The most striking thing I noticed about the Usagi Yojimbo RPG is the influence of Robin Laws' transcendent (and sadly defunct) Feng Shui RPG. The Usagi game has many design elements that look to be inspired by Feng Shui, including the unique special abilities of each Species and Job, paralleled by Feng Shui's Schticks, the streamlining of combat while emphasizing cinematic descriptions of stunts and fighting moves, and rules that allow heroes to mow down many weaker thugs and bandits in a single action. This is hardly surprising, since Greg Stolze also wrote for Feng Shui. I'm pleased to see that Feng Shui's design sensibilities have made an impact in the way RPGs are written today, and I'm even more pleased to see the way that Stolze has built upon that foundation. As a game and as a sourcebook, The Usagi Yojimbo roleplaying game gets a "thumbs up."
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)