I first encountered mention of Bushido during the late 1970s, in an unsympathetic review in some gaming magazine. This and similar reviews led, at least in my experience, to a widespread perception that the game was impossibly detailed, demanding, and finicky, in both setting and mechanics. However, if I’d managed ever actually to see a copy, which I didn’t, I’d have known differently. It’s considerably less complex than most games of its time and vastly more sensible, engaging, and full of potential situations across the whole spectrum of violence, social context, heroism, and the supernatural. Apparently, however, it has lived in enthusiastic play since its last publication in 1981, yes, 40+ years ago, despite all hobby rhetoric about “support” and dead games, much like Marvel Super Heroes (1984).
At last, I get to play it, with great thanks to Erik for organizing the game and GMing. I’m currently in anti-GMing mode, not due to alleged demands of “work” and “time,” but because I think it’s a good idea to put that role aside for a while, more often than I do. Granted, over the past four years of Adept Play (almost to the day as of this writing, actually), I’ve played a lot of player-characters without GMing, but I still want to separate my self-perceived identity from that term … and I want to showcase doing so in order to influence others to do the same.
Sometimes this happens: to find supernaturally appropriate, character-specific artwork for a game online as pure happenstance, in this case at the Karl Lindberg Art Blog. As you’ll see if you visit there, all three are found among a single page of sketches, and two of them are even next to one another already. Evidence of time travel? From left to right in this depiction, they are Mitsu, a low-ranking buke/samurai, professsion Bushi, played by Greg; Mataji, a low-ranking buke/ronin (which is really low actually), also Bushi, played by me; and Ryokuro, a very dubious eta class person whose actual profession is best left unmentioned, played by David. I’ve attached Mataji’s sheet below, and I’ll add the others when I receive them from the other players.
At the game’s Wikipedia entry, some contributor claims the game features “modestly superhuman” player-characters, to which I may say, my ass. At the start of play, i.e., level 1, characters are not inept, but they have a long way to go before any hope of slicing foes apart with combinations, leaping onto horseback, or dominating demons with a Yoga. A beginning Shugenza can make pretty lights … maybe. You really earn your reputation in this game.
Not that I did so well at that during our first session; although technically Mataji was reasonably effective in combat, I was awfully confused about the rules based on reading the PDF on-screen and borked my Basic Phase vs. my Primary Phase. All of us were getting used to the sequence, though, and this session led Greg and Erik to post useful summaries (see attached). Also, fortunately this happened (photo) before session 2 and thereafter I managed not to be a unique problem anyway. The book may not correspond to modern notions of hand-holding organization, but everything you need is in there and nothing is badly phrased or confusing. If you use it for and during real play, its format and internal logic are completely suitable.
I’d like to talk about system stuff later in the process of play, but as a brief set-up, I strongly recommend learning it as a prime example of constraint and choice during the action of combat and similar confrontations. Reading it isn’t enough; it reads like it’s dry and metronomic, but that’s not how it plays.
Finally, and with apologies for the spoiler, I suppose we have to address why my character Mataji commits sepukku at the end of the second session. It’s a good example of something I’d have never planned or wanted in the abstract, i.e., before play or in the absence of the immediate events. I’m going to miss playing this guy.
So what happened? Despite a good initial showing against a supernatural creature, he then failed his defense roll against its fear-gaze, and then failed the recovery roll, thus ultimately careening around in the forest in panic until he collapsed in exhaustion. Now, according to the rules, if one loses a ton of On, they actually lose a whole level, and committing sepukku is a way to keep that from happening (you are, of course, dead, but you are also not dishonored). Running from a fight certainly qualifies. However, as stated in the monster’s description, doing so in response to its gaze is not so dishonorable and Mataji would lose merely 1 On. So that’s the system context at first glance: he didn’t have to do it.
My own thinking went back and forth once the final effect was determined, and you can even see me cogitating as the other characters fought the monsters. My first consideration was his social rank: although his social class is buke, ronin is the lowest sort of buke, and he’s rated at 1 (as rolled originally), i.e., the lowest sort of ronin, barely distinguishable from a ruffian such as the guys they fought in session 1. After those events, including seeing Mitsu bravely stand against two foes, I “felt” him to be very serious about rising in the world as a real samurai one day. That’s why he didn’t converse with those of lower rank during the start of session 2 and why he raced into action so fast against these foes, face to face. It wasn’t just the running-off – it was also failing to protect the kid whom the monsters were torturing. To a higher-ranked buke (samurai, or even perhaps a ronin of social rank 2 or 3), this event might be written off, it was a magical monster after all, but not to him, already at rock bottom. He saw no permissible margin of error.
Voluntary seppuku is definitely part of the game; the relevant rules section lists lots of circumstances in which character might do it without having lost On. It includes the appropriate concept of Funshi, or a protest/hate against powerlessness. But did I really have to? I knew one thing: this was the end of his ambitions as a Bushi. Something would have to change. If not sepukku, then perhaps changing profession, which I examined in the text as well. In his case, the rules focused basically into becoming Yakuza – a thug, a gambler, and (effectively) mafia goon. I considered this, especially what sort of person he might become, and all I could anticipate or understand was that he’d go all the way, doubling down into becoming a really bad guy. Playable? Yes, but not in the sense of “a heart of gold” – in any moral sense he’d a broken man, to the extent of villainy. Which I can and often play quite well, incidentally, so on another day I might have chosen this option.
The second consideration, however, is my perspective as a player at the moment: I currently feel like playing “just a guy” more than the dramatic center of attention. The events of play seemed to have landed me there due to rolled outcomes, and all I could see from playing him further was Mister Tragic Himself Now On Stage. So that’s what tipped me into Funshi sepukku: Drama Queen For a Day rather than Drama Queen Forever.