Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai Capsule Review by Lisa Padol on 23/08/01
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
As quirky as the movie that it's based on, Ghost Dog demonstrates that Tri-Stat can handle non-anime genres. An excellent resource book for any GM who plans to use Mafia or other underworld organizations in a campaign.
Product: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai
Author: David Pulver and John R. Phythyon, Jr. with additional writing by Jeff MacKintosh
Company/Publisher: Guardians of Order
Page count: 158 pages, perfect bound
Year published: 2000
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Lisa Padol on 23/08/01
Genre tags: Modern day Espionage Conspiracy
Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai
Written by David Pulver and John R. Phythyon, Jr. with additional writing by Jeff MacKintosh
Guardians of Order
158 pages, perfect bound
Reviewed by Lisa Padol
This was a review copy, although I did not receive it from rpg.net.
When I came to this year's (2001) GenCon, I had only one question about this game. Why a Ghost Dog RPG? David Pulver explained that the studio approached Guardians of Order with the idea. This explains a lot about the idiosyncratic RPG.
Despite my question, Ghost Dog is both a playable game and a pleasure to read. The first chapter of the game does a fine job of placing the film Ghost Dog in its context, complete with a filmography of director Jarmusch and a list of and description of key films in the genres that Ghost Dog draws upon. There is a detailed summary of the film, as well as the obligatory explanation of what roleplaying games are.
The next two chapters describe character creation and game mechanics respectively. The game uses Guardians of Order's Tri-Stat system, a straightforward and reasonably simple points build system. All the major personalities from the film are statted out. Previous Tri-Stat games were limited to the anime genre, but Ghost Dog demonstrates that the system can be used for campaigns based on sources with live actors and a more gritty, low powered setting.
The fourth chapter examines the world of Ghost Dog, largely defined as the world of the Mafia and other criminal organizations. It is full of useful information for any campaign involving such organizations, detailing their hierarchy and daily activities.
There is other material here as well, including an examination of the books that appear in the movie and their thematic significance. The authors mention the idea of radically different points of view causing different people to witness the same events in different ways, as in the movie Rashomon, based on the story "Yabu No Naka" in the book Rashomon and Other Stories which is passed from one character to the next in the movie Ghost Dog. Interestingly, the authors do not mention a key scene in Ghost Dog which exemplifies this principle. I learned that this was because they were given a poor-quality video tape of the movie to work with. I also learned that the animated cartoons watched by two of the characters predict the future, and the two characters know this.
The fifth chapter of the game is full of general advice for GMs. The sixth has two scenarios, both intended for one player and a GM. A bibliography, another filmography, and an index rounds out the book.
The chapter on GM advice is not off limits to players. This is sensible. Players should know what GMs need to take into account, and many players are also GMs.
Naturally, the scenarios are off limits to players. Both are intended to be run by a GM with one player. I am not sure how many people play that way. I prefer running for and playing in groups of 3-5. However, I did appreciate the advice on the differences a GM faces when running for a single player.
The first scenario is written for a player playing Ghost Dog. It details the destruction of his relationship with his girlfriend, who cannot abide the violence of his way of life. It is nicely tragic, but railroads the player too much for my tastes. What if the player decides Ghost Dog will give up his way of life for the woman he loves? The player should have the option to take the character down a different path than the movie or the authors of the game envisioned.
The second scenario is for a PC who is not Ghost Dog, but does work for the Mafia. As the authors point out, the scenario can be run with more than one PC; all the GM needs to change is the strength of the opposition. A certain amount of loyalty is presumed, but it is not too hard to figure out how to deal with unexpected player actions. The clock is ticking as the PC tries to locate missing money, and if the GM is at a loss, the time honored tradition of sending in a few goons with guns will work nicely.
Ghost Dog is an odd RPG, focusing on an odd example of a Mafia movie that is more than just a Mafia movie and that kills off most of the characters stated up in the game. In many ways, the authors limited what the game could have been by focusing so closely on the characters in the movie and the world of the Mafia. This is a valid way to focus the game, but, as was pointed out to me, the movie is not specifically a mob movie, being more a movie about people who are the equivalent of fish out of water. Perhaps the authors could have developed the characters of Pearline's mother or the man building a boat on a rooftop. Perhaps they could have considered dogs that are omens, and cartoons that are prophetic.
Still, a game about odd, quirky individuals doing odd, quirky things like raising pigeons and building boats would be harder to focus and harder to market. And while I do think wistfully about what such a game could have been, Ghost Dog is a useful sourcebook for any modern campaign involving the Mafia or other ordinary organized crime groups. It is also useful to see how the Tri-Stat system handles ordinary, as well as more cinematographic, non-anime characters, and it is a thoughtful study of a unique film.