I took another look at my copy of Land of Ninja recently, which was the 3rd Edition RuneQuest supplement directed at adapting the system to a “medieval Japan with all the elements of magic and folklore having objective existence” type of setting. My copy is the Games Workshop release, which re-edits the booklets from the Avalon Hill boxed set into a slim hardcover.
In some respects, Games Workshop were really going all-out with their launch of their 3rd Edition RuneQuest line; 1987 would see them mounting a real blitz of releases, which would see them release the core rules (split into RuneQuest and Advanced RuneQuest), the Monsters volume, this, and Griffin Island, all adapted into hardcovers from original Avalon Hill sources. (Monsters incorporated creature from Monster Coliseum but, perhaps well-advisedly, ignored the rather lacklustre arena combat components; Griffin Island was an Avalon Hill repackaging of the classic 2nd Edition release Griffin Mountain with the Gloranthan connections surgically excised, and is considered rather inferior to the original.)
This stands out even in a year when Games Workshop were putting out classic early WFRP material like Shadows Over Bögenhafen, Death On the Reik, and Warhammer City, was actively supporting their own Judge Dredd RPG with the release of its Companion, put out their hardcover version of Paranoia 2nd Edition, and were giving Chaosium more love by putting out their hardcover version of Stormbringer! and their Green and Pleasant Land supplement for Call of Cthulhu (the 3rd edition of which they had put out in hardcover the previous year). By anyone’s measure, that’s an absolutely vintage year for RPG releases from Games Workshop, both in terms of their own homegrown offerings and their licensed products, but even in the context of those impressive offerings, bringing out five RuneQuest hardcovers within a year feels like a big deal, and would have come across as a big deal at the time.
However, 1987 was a banner year for another reason: it was the last year when Games Workshop would bring out any new RPG products under licenses from other publishers; from there on out, it was WFRP all the way, until they farmed out WFRP production to their Flame Publications subsidiary and then gave up making RPGs in-house almost entirely. The Inquisitor game was an RPG-skirmish wargame mashup, and whilst most WFRP 2nd Edition supplements during the Black Industries era were farmed out to Green Ronin for development, the core rules for first edition Dark Heresy and the Inquisitor’s Handbook supplement were developed in-house prior to Black Industries being abruptly shuttered, but these were momentary aberrations; Games Workshop is much more comfortable these days as a licensor of RPGs, rather than a licensee.
Precisely what prompted this, I am not sure. There may well have also been concerns about pushing a different fantasy RPG at the same time as they were pushing WFRP – especially considering all the setting and system ideas WFRP derives from RuneQuest. “Why sell a product which directly competes with ours in that genre, and which makes ours look less original and distinctive?” may, under the circumstances, have been a sensible question to ask.
Then again, it’s also a question which would have been silly to ask if the Games Workshop version of RuneQuest 3rd Edition had sold staggeringly stonkingly well. If it had greatly outperformed WFRP, the question to ask would be “Why are we sinking time and effort into making our own RPG when we make substantially more money repackaging RuneQuest and letting Chaosium/Avalon Hill sweat the design work?” That being the case, one wonders whether poor performance of the 3rd Edition RuneQuest line – clearly the centrepiece of their 1987 licensed offerings – may have factored into the decision. I’m not aware of any sales information that’s in the public sphere that could confirm or refute that, but I could well see the release not doing that well – or, even if it did reasonably well, not doing quite well enough to justify the expense and hassle of putting out five hardbacks in the space of a year.
For one thing, the baseline rules of 3rd Edition RuneQuest had been out through Avalon Hill since 1984, so Games Workshop’s RuneQuest was pretty late to the party – by comparison, their version of 2nd Edition RuneQuest came out in 1980, so it’s not like a quick turnaround wasn’t possible. Whilst in the 1970s and early 1980s Games Workshop were pretty much the major source of US RPGs in the UK – whether through their licensed printings or through import – it feels like by 1987 it would have been possible for most UK gamers who were very excited to get 3rd Edition RuneQuest and be willing to put down good money for it to have got it via mail order, especially considering they’d have seen it advertised in the likes of Dragon magazine all that time.
That’s a factor which might have dinged sales right off the bat, before one even considers the somewhat divided reputation that 3rd Edition RuneQuest has among fans of the game. Gamers will have had 7 years to acquire 2nd Edition RuneQuest via the Games Workshop reprint by this point; how many didn’t feel any need to jump forward to the new edition? That three year gap would have also allowed for plenty of time for word of mouth to circulate, even in the pre-Internet era. (It’s enough to make you wonder whether Chaosium’s splitting of the rules into RuneQuest and Advanced RuneQuest was in part motivated by customers worrying about the 3rd Edition’s reputation for being a bit overcomplex.)
Meanwhile, Griffin Island is considered clearly inferior to Griffin Mountain – and the de-Glorantha-ing of it would have bugged the hell out of Glorantha fans at the time. As for Land of Ninja, in some respects it’s a perfectly competent supplement in terms of providing a big package of useful information, but Games Workshop were obliged to add a preface explaining that the book had been reconfigured from the original Avalon Hill boxed set, and stray references to the individual booklets in that box (or the individual booklets in Avalon Hill’s release of RuneQuest 3rd Edition) might still be encountered in the text.
On the one hand, Land of Ninja was fresh, new, piping hot straight-from-the-oven RuneQuest for the time – the Avalon Hill box came out in 1987 too. However, it’s clear that this didn’t leave enough time for Games Workshop to do a full text edit for their one-volume edition of the book, thus the necessity of that preface. (Or perhaps Games Workshop were expecting that Avalon Hill or Chaosium would do the edit and were surprised when they didn’t.) It just comes across as a little amateurish and rinky-dink – what, you’re going to give these books a big hardcover release and all this fanfare, but you’re not confident in your ability to do a complete edit? It’s a bad look however you cut it.
What of the content itself? Well, Land of Ninja is primarily credited to Chaosium stalwart Sandy Petersen and Bob Charette – the latter of whom was a co-designer of Bushido, which is conceptually extremely similar. One is tempted to imagine that Charette provided the setting expertise, Petersen did the legwork of converting concepts to RuneQuest terms.
It may well be that Land of Ninja was a bid at doing “Bushido by other means”, since Charette and his Bushido co-designer Paul Hume were unable to extricate the rights from the hands of Fantasy Games Unlimited. Thinking of this reminds me that in Arcane magazine’s 1996 poll of the top 50 RPGs, Bushido ended up in 17th place, beating out beloved classics like Fighting Fantasy and Ars Magica and then-recent hits like Conspiracy X and Werewolf: the Apocalypse, Earthdawn, Over the Edge, and Feng Shui.
Beating out that set of names (including a major World of Darkness RPG right at the height of White Wolf’s popularity) would be impressive by any standard, but when one considers that at the time the poll ran Bushido had had no new material come out for 15 years or so (longer than some poll respondents had been alive!) and by my recollection wasn’t exactly brilliantly distributed, that’s pretty astonishing, and is strong evidence of the existence of an enthusiastic Bushido fandom in the UK at least until the mid-1990s.
It seems profoundly unlikely to me that there’d have been a Bushido renaissance in the UK bringing in a new influx of fans somewhere between 1987 and 1996 – FGU simply weren’t actively pushing the game during that period so there’s no event which could have inspired it. That in turn suggests to me that if there were a vestigal Bushido fanbase in the UK strong enough to give the game that spot in the Arcane poll in 1996, then the British Bushido fanbase must have been somewhat stronger in the mid-1980s.
This feels like another factor which may have dinged Land of Ninja‘s sales; if you can already play a game with basically the same setting and themes with one set of core rules sold as a couple of booklets in a box, you might be less inclined to buy two or three hardbacks (depending on whether you wanted Advanced RuneQuest) in order to play essentially the same concept in the RuneQuest system. I think RuneQuest/BRP is a somewhat better system than the Bushido system myself – but that’s with the benefit of several extra decades’ hindsight that customers at the time wouldn’t have had.
As far as the content itself goes, it’s pretty useful – even if the extra rules systems are too much, having RuneQuest stats for various bits of Japanese equipment or folkloric entities is nice. The thing I was most interested in, though, was something Land of Ninja offers which Bushido does not: a list of references used when researching the book. I strongly suspect that there is a big overlap between this reference list and the material utilised in writing Bushido.
One thing which is quite heartening is that there is a decent set of Japanese voices represented in this source material, at least… but there’s a caveat there. There’s a bunch of Japanese movies cited – the obvious Kurosawa classics and a brace more besides. There’s an extensive selection of classic Japanese texts, largely translated by Western translators. There are, however, no novels or nonfiction books written recently by Japanese authors – all the recent fiction is by Westerners (including James Clavell’s Shogun), all the guides to Japanese history and whatnot are written by Westerners.
Thus, whilst it isn’t true to say that Japanese voices are not represented in this reading at all, their representation is oddly patchy. One suspects that this may come down to a scarcity of English-language books by Japanese writers in the categories in question available to Charette and Petersen; these are not short lists, it’s clear that significant effort was put into using a diverse range of sources, given the openness to reading classical Japanese literature and watch Japanese movies I feel like if a recent book from a Japanese writer was available in Bob Charette’s local bookshops or libraries, he would have used them, and I’m disinclined to hold failures of the 1980s English-language publishing world against Charette and Petersen.
Still, it does highlight the potential usefulness of using cultural editors to review a text, as has been the case with the recent rerelease of Land of the Rising Sun for Chivalry & Sorcery. I would feel somewhat more confident about using the cultural source material in that because it’s been at least reviewed by two Japanese people who were able to provide their input to make sure that a honking great mistake didn’t slip through, that isn’t the case here.
That said, if you like the idea of a reasonably crunchy take on fantasy medieval Japan with lots of research underpinning it but aren’t so keen on Chivalry & Sorcery, using Land of Ninja for rules but taking your historical source material primarily from the new Land of the Rising Sun could be a decidedly viable alternative.