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Saturday 17 June 2017

RPGPundit Reviews: Kaigaku

This is a review of the OSR RPG "Kaigaku", written by Jacob Ross, published by Thunderegg games. As usual, this is a review of the print edition, which comes in the form of a slim but fairly dense 60 page softcover. It has a full-color cover, featuring a scene of a trio of Japenese-ish characters in the midst of a positive rain of petals, in front of a Japanese-ish building. The art style is OK, though not spectacular. The interior is full-color, and high-quality, with a dozen or so illustrations (mostly of characters) some of which are better than the cover, frankly. Plus, a shitty map (more on that later).

Kaigaku is described by the author as a game of "fantastic samurai adventures". It's based on the Black Hack, which in case you haven't heard is a modification of the standard OSR rules that has, for some reason, become ridiculously popular these days. At least, in the sense that after the original Black Hack book came out, a ton of people released a ton of other books called the "x hack", which was the original game modified to fit any variety of genres.

The Black Hack system  has several features I strongly dislike. More than that, distrust. Because they are the kind of things Forge assholes came up with. First: the GM isn't allowed to roll dice. Everything is rolled by the players, mainly in the form of roll-under ability-score checks. So to attack, a PC has to roll equal or lower than his strength (for a melee attack, Dex for a ranged attack). But if he's being attacked, the GM doesn't roll for the attacker, instead the PC just makes a Dexterity roll-under check to evade.

You see the problem with this kind of thing? It says, in game, that the player characters are the center of the universe; and out-of-game, that the players are the centers of the universe. It essentially prevents the GM from being able to alter the rules, because he has no authority to control the dice at all. He's reduced to being a kind of monopoly-banker. But the NPCs don't matter either. Yes, there's a slight penalty given for evasion if the NPC attacking you is higher level than you are, but regardless it is still based on your dexterity, not anything of his. There's no way, on account of that, to model an NPC who is a highly-skilled samurai (except to just pile on the levels).

Everything about the Black-Hack system is anti-emulative. It makes the very clear statement that the PCs are playing in some kind of abstract world, and not a real world.  For example, the NPCs are all vague and blobby, statistically speaking, as if they exist only in reaction to the PCs.

To give another example: armor in the Black Hack reduces damage, which of course makes sense (maybe even more sense than Armor upping your defense!), but then in turn, every time you take a hit with armor, the armor value goes down one point. Ok, so maybe that can represent the wear-and-tear effect of combat, the armor is being actually damaged as hits are suffered, right?  Only then, if the PC has a "good night's sleep", his armor magically fixes itself! Suddenly it's back to full quality.

Ammunition in the Black Hack is based on a die roll to see if you run out. You start out with d20 "usage die", and every time you use an arrow or a bullet or whatever, you roll the die in question. If you get a 1 or 2, the die gets downgraded (a d20 becomes a d12, then a d10, d8, d6, and finally d4).  So resource management, one of the key tenets of the D&D old-school game, is just utterly abandoned. Worse still, it means your PC exists in a universe where for some reason he can never actually know how many arrows he has left in his quiver.

So yes, there's a lot I find very shitty about the Black Hack system: it is anti-emulative, it's anti-GM, and it engages in needless abstractions.
Is there anything good about it? Well, basing all rolls off ability scores is not in and of itself a bad move. There's also good stuff it borrowed from elsewhere: for example, 5e's Advantage and Disadvantage mechanics.
There's also an interesting mechanic in the form of "intensifying", where you can do a check at a penalty (in increments of -2 to the ability score), in exchange for how if you make the check the amount you intensified by gets added to some kind of effect. The most common example is that you can try to intensify your attack roll to get a bonus to damage.

Now, aside from those couple of details, most of what's "good" about the system ends up being stuff that I'm fairly sure is specific modifications done by the designer for this game in particular.  For example, he has rules on honor and dishonor (with special things each does): characters who are Honorable can invoke their honor (under specific conditions) to make a roll with Advantage. On the other hand, any dishonorable act is rolled by them with Disadvantage.  A character can choose to start out already Dishonorable, in which case he can't call on his honor but he'll never suffer disadvantage for dishonorable actions.
The mass combat rules are pretty good. The Samurai-dueling rules are quite good. The rules for crafting items are good, particularly in that they aren't stupidly complicated! Even the 'social combat' rules for courtiers are not awful, and I usually detest social combat rules. I'm not quite sure I'd end up using them or anything, but they're not terrible.

In terms of character creation, you roll as standard for the ability scores, and there's an option to have three skills (that aren't really listed or anything, you just have to invent them). You choose one of four classes: Ascetic (kung fu monk, basically), Bushi (warrior), Ninja, and Courtier. Each class has its own special features, starting gear, weapon and armor proficiencies, hit points, damage (in this system, damage is by class, not by weapon type, though certain weapons can modify your basic damage), and also the way you roll to level up (in this system, every time you go up in level, there's a chance that your ability scores will go up).

After this, you pick a clan (of course, if I was running this, I'd probably not let PCs pick their clan, I'd want to choose it for them), and your "Ryu" or school of training. There are a number of different schools, for different classes, and that are sponsored by different clans. It's possible to attend a school different from the one your clan sponsors, however. Each school has its own special abilities, that are gained at every even-numbered level.

It's funny, as much as I dislike the base system, all the stuff that the designer did that was specific to the setting is really good.  But what about the setting?

Kaigaku is not set in history, instead it's set in a fantasy world "inspired mainly by feudal Japan, but with elements of Korea and China mixed in". In general, the setting has that kind of strictness, ritual-based-culture, and honor system that's stereotypically Japanese. In the setting, there is an Emperor, whose seat is divided between two branches of the imperial family (northern and southern), with each taking turns in the Imperial throne. However, the implication of the setting is that the emperor holds relatively little power; instead, the various clans have a great deal of power and control over their respective territories.  In addition to the clans, you also have a number of outsider groups: there's the northern barbarians who must be kept at bay, the aborigines of the setting (equivalent to Japan's Ainu people), and two different groups of Gaijin (equivalent to the Spaniards and the English), who have introduced firearms (and foreign religion) into the setting.

There's also magic, of a sort, in the form of the "kiseki", magical stones of power that can be added to objects to grant special abilities. Ascetics can also channel the power of kiseki directly, implanting them into their bodies. Non-ascetics can do this as well, but if they do so they're pretty much doomed to go insane.

The book details the 8 major clans of the setting. There's also a number of minor clans, two of which were detailed in the book. Each clan gets a description of what its general deal is, who its notable members are (and what they want), how they relate to the other major clans and the gaijin, where they're based, and of course the Ryu schools that clan sponsors. There's also suggestions for the type of adventures that can feature this clan.

The material on the clans is some of the best work of the book. It's easy to read, interesting, and exciting (in the sense that in spite of the issues I have with the system, it made me think I'd want to play this setting sometime).

There's also a chapter (supposedly for GM's eyes only) that details the secrets of the major players in the setting. This is also very good.

Then we get to the most unforgivable part of the book: the map.
Holy shit is this map godawful. I mean, seriously, you're writing for a branch of the hobby that loves their maps, there's even people who would likely make a map for you for free if you asked nicely, and instead we get a dull near-featureless piece of crap.  I wish I could show you this map so you'd know what I mean, but I wasn't able to find one on a google search (if I was the author, I wouldn't want this map shown anywhere either).  It's basically just a peninsula with a mountain range, no other features; no forests, hills, cities, rivers, roads, or anything. You just get the clan names superimposed in areas of the map that we presume are their core regions, but nothing else.

This game setting, and the otherwise very high production values of this book deserved so, so much more than the map it got.

There's also a character sheet in the back of the book, which is fine, except that it's facing the map so you have to look at that godawful thing to see the character sheet.

What can we conclude about Kaigaku?  Well, I find the system flawed, but the setting really is awesome.  If you like the Black Hack, I guess you have it made with this product.  Otherwise, you could probably run it, with a little modification, using a more traditional OSR system. The setting is really cool, and would be well worth playing.

Such a shame about the shitty map, though.


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1 comment:

  1. "It's based on the Black Hack, which in case you haven't heard is a modification of the standard OSR rules that has, for some reason, become ridiculously popular these days."

    I don't get it other. It's only 20 pages but still comes across as rushed and half-assed.

    The Usage Die is even worse than Dungeon World's "x uses" for adventuring gear (maybe you packed five torches, or five coils of rope: who knows?!), and chainmail is good for 2-3 goblin stabs before you have to sleep and have it magically repair itself.