Referee’s Bookshelf: Bushido

One of those games that was originally put out through a small press before Fantasy Games Unlimited acquired it and put out a more widespread new edition, Bushido is one of those RPGs that has a comparatively low profile but whose influence is surprisingly extensive. Bob Charrette and Paul Hume, its authors, would be commissioned to produce the Land of Ninja supplement for 3rd edition Runequest, which effectively amounts to a conversion of the Bushido setting to Basic Roleplaying, and the influence of Bushido‘s honour system and class breakdown can be seen in later products such as Gary Gygax’s Oriental Adventures. According to Designers & Dragons, the Legend of the Five Rings gameworld was first developed after AEG explored the idea of making a new edition of Bushido but decided against paying the extortionate price required to get it out of the FGU IP black hole.

Bushido is based around providing a solid system for fantastic martial arts adventures in a version of historical Japan that draws as much on martial arts cinema and other media as it does on real history. In fact, Charrette and Hume seem acutely aware of their position as outsiders trying to describe a different culture to other outsiders, and consequently they make sure to draw a clear line between their game setting, referred to in the text as Nippon, and the real Japan; when they say “Japan”, they mean the real place, and when they say “Nippon” they mean the setting. (It’s a bit like a European medieval fantasy game calling Britain “Albion”.)

By simultaneously warning the reader to take references to “Nippon” with a pinch of salt and at the same time being extremely careful about how often they actually refer to Japan, Charrette and Hume make sure they do not set themselves up as authorities on someone else’s culture so much as they are developing a vision of a mythic setting that is widely recognisable to fans of martial arts and samurai movies but has enough historical flavour to feel distinctive.

The first iteration of a system which would subsequently adapted for games such as Daredevils and Aftermath, at the heart of it the Bushido system is an interesting mashup of a class-and-level approach and a skill-focused system. Your raw chances at various skills and tasks are derived from your attributes, in a way which is reasonably simple despite the books not doing a great job of communicating how simple it is. (A better designed character sheet including details on how all the attribute-derived raw scores are arrived at would make life much easier, and you wouldn’t need to go very complex to make a spreadsheet version that does all the work for you.)

In this context, class does two big things. Firstly, it gives you a range of stat boosts that improve your capabilities across the board in the class’s core competencies. Secondly, you get to add your level in your class to certain class-appropriate skills. Thus, whilst skill training is available, most characters will end up being increasingly competent in the truly important skills for their class.

The setting-specific flavour comes into the system through four different routes: the first is by the selection of skills available, the second is by the types of class available, and the third is by social class. Whilst warriors of a range of social classes might all be “Bushi” – warriors – in terms of their game mechanical class, only the upper class Bushi are likely to be samurai, whilst lower class Bushi are more likely to be peasant heroes. (As for Ninja, they are regarded as being lower in status even than the Yakuza, who despite their criminality are at least not sneaky assassins who accomplish their goals by trickery…) In keeping with the game’s aims, character classes are inspired by history and mythology alike – unarmed martial artists of the sort seen in movies, magicians and supernaturally empowered priests are all available, and all characters have a range of ki powers based on their class.

The fourth way in which the system reinforces setting flavour is through the accumulation of On, or honour. Something of a precursor of Pendragon‘s Glory system, the accumulation of honour is important to all PCs, since without it you can’t level up (and by my reading you can in fact lose levels with sufficient dishonour), but at the same time honour is highly dependent on your place in life – what is honourable for one type of character may be inappropriate for another.

This in the end encourages behaviour that is not only broadly culturally appropriate but is also appropriate to the sort of stories that inspired Bushido – for instance, rather than party members acting as social equals, everyone has setting and system-based incentives to act appropriately to their social class, so the samurai ought to be leading the party and the ninja should be spending a lot of time disguised as humble servants, disappearing and showing up in their ninja gear as and when circumstances demand it (with perhaps even their own party members not realising the connection).

As far as setting material goes, the authors leave it up to the individual referee what the precise political situation is – whether there is a Shogun, for instance, and if so whether the Shogun has successfully centralised power or whether the balance of power lies with local Daimyo – whilst giving pointers on what the implications of those choices are for gameplay. Useful guidelines are offered for quickly fudging NPC stats, so the referee is saved from having to apply all the calculations the PCs do, and a healthy stock of NPC types and supernatural creatures are statted out. Significantly, a substantial emphasis is placed on social interaction and politics, placing Bushido at the forefront of that late-1970s/early-1980s wave of games like Runequest, Call of Cthulhu, Traveller and FGU’s own Chivalry & Sorcery and Privateers & Gentlemen which put a lot of stock in immersing oneself in a distinctive setting as an end of play in itself and went the distance to place PCs as part of a wider society in that setting (a trend which arguably began with Empire of the Petal Throne and GDW’s En Garde!).

One area where the game deliberately departs from historical accuracy is in its handling of women; whilst noting that Japanese women have featured as heroes and warriors in history and legend, the game also states that they are even more prominent in such roles in 20th Century martial arts and samurai fiction, and as an entertainment for a 20th Century audience Bushido chooses to present a world where women were more equal than they were in the historical periods influencing it. This is a comparatively progressive stance for a game which came out in 1979, an era when system-based penalties to women’s characteristics were not uncommon in RPGs; in contrast, Bushido enforces no such penalties to characteristics, and as far as setting goes gives some guidelines on making things a bit more equal whilst still portraying a society in which strong gender roles are important whilst leaving individual groups free to make things more or less equal as they prefer.

“Cultural appropriation” wasn’t something people talked about a lot in game design in the 1970s, but I think Hume and Charrette manage to hit a good balance between avoiding cultural appropriation whilst still presenting a game which presents a non-Western culture as the normative, default assumption of the game. Appreciating as they do that playing about in a fictional setting based on Japan does not in any way constitute an actual, authentic experience of the real Japan makes an important distinction and goes a long way to help this. And it says a lot that whilst many subsequent games have drawn on samurai fiction, ninja stories, or the martial arts genre, a large number are directly or indirectly influenced by Bushido. Hume and Charrette went on to be two-thirds of the original developer team for the 1st Edition of Shadowrun, so even the street samurai of that game have their roots here.

8 thoughts on “Referee’s Bookshelf: Bushido

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