Created by F.E.A.R. (FarEast Amusement Research) and translated by Andy Kitkowski, Tenra Bansho Zero (TBZ) is the first Japanese pencil and paper roleplaying game I’ve ever played. It is unlike any of the Western games on my shelf, which is both good and bad. Instead of Tolkien and Neuromancer, TBZ draws on Kabuki theater and anime for its inspiration. It’s got ninjas, giant robots, ninjas inside giant robots, and symbiotic bugs that give you powers in exchange for feasting on your flesh. Does it work for the Western audience?* Let’s find out!
The Core Dice Mechanic Is Solid
Before we get into the weird stuff, let’s look at the basic rules, which are better grounded than most RPGs I’ve seen. When attempting a task, you roll a number of d6 based on an attribute like Body, Agility, Senses, etc. Each die needs to roll equal to or under the skill rating to be considered a success, and more successes are required for more difficult tasks. As a fan of dice pool systems, this earns my affection.
The skill list is reasonably condensed, and each one is listed on the character sheet. You won’t make a character and then find a skill you wanted hidden deep in the rule book. Because the skills are broadly defined, there aren’t obvious redundancies. You won’t ever stare at two different skills, wondering which one is most applicable for a given situation. My only complaint is that “Pillow Arts”* is one of the skills all characters start with at rank one. That gets awkward when a number of character archetypes are young children.
The core mechanics are a strong foundation for the craziness that is to come. That’s already better than a lot of the systems I’ve reviewed.
Everything Is a One-Shot
Instead of long campaigns, TBZ assumes every session you run will be a one-off. At most, a long story might overflow into two or three sessions. Every story is meant to be self-contained with the beginning, middle, and end all played out in the same three- to six-hour period. That’s an unusual concept for such a long rule book, especially considering how often the game tells me to take inspiration from anime,* but it has advantages.
In a one-shot, you’re free to escalate the drama as high as you like. GMs need not worry about how next week’s session will top the 70-foot tall teddy bear monster that runs on children’s hope. You can pull out all the stops, as the game clearly intends. One-shots also offer an outlet for GMs who can’t focus on just one idea. This week fighting an evil overlord sounds fun, but next week the PCs will be evil overlords themselves!
One-shots get even more attractive if your group doesn’t have a regular schedule. Maybe you’re all so busy with work or school that you can’t commit to a weekly, or even bi-weekly, game. With TBZ, you meet whenever there’s time with whoever is available. No need to lock yourself into a long campaign with no end point.
One-shots have plenty of downsides too. They’re more work per session than a standard campaign, because you can’t reuse any of the story assets. In longer games, you can use the same villain for weeks. With multiple one-shots, you need a different villain each time. You also need to make new characters every time, which is a lot of work for the players. It’s also time-consuming, and TBZ’s estimate that each story can be finished in six hours maximum is highly optimistic.
The final obstacle is the difficulty of getting into character. When you play the same character for several weeks in a row, you get a feel for who they are. In a good game, their actions become second nature to you. With one-shots, there’s no time for that. You have to hit the ground running. I suspect the people who designed TBZ are very good at slipping on a new PC each week, but my group had difficulty with it. It’s especially problematic because the game’s reward system is so heavily based on roleplaying. Even at our most generous, we couldn’t hand out enough roleplaying rewards to meet the game’s minimum recommendation.
Character Creation Is Ridiculously In-Depth
TBZ has three levels of character creation. The first is to simply play one of the pre-made characters listed in the book, making a few minor tweaks if something doesn’t quite fit. This is a good idea for new players because the game’s math is complicated enough that jumping into full character creation without some experience isn’t recommended. The pre-made characters are fairly well built, though there are some glaring issues. For example: Some of them have both Unarmed Combat and Melee Weapons, even though the chances of any character being disarmed are remote.
The biggest issue with these characters is that some are clearly more powerful than others. The Armour Rider has a suit of super-powered armor, and the Samurai transforms into an unstoppable behemoth. Meanwhile, the Annelidist has a weak poison bite and some moderate damage claws. One of those things is not like the others.
When you graduate from pre-made characters, you can make a character by choosing among dozens of archetypes. No need to confine yourself to just one, either! You can combine Mercenary with Former Armour Rider to create a washed-up old soldier whose powered armor was destroyed and now must work for whatever they can get. Once you add in the half-dozen or so different races, including multiple options for sapient robots, TBZ has thousands of combinations available. Then you have to choose what gear you want, what special ninja powers, etc.
The final stage is to build a character completely from scratch. You’re given a bunch of points with a huge suite of options and told to go nuts. Someone who knows the system can get a ton of depth out of these rules, creating cyborg ninjas with scorpions for arms or something equally imaginative. It’s unlikely my group will ever play the game enough to get much use out this method, but it’s there for those who want it. Of course, this mode also takes a lot of time, meaning you’d better have that character ready to go before game day, or you’ll never get to play.
Combat Is Over-the-Top, Trope-Filled Madness
If you thought character creation was intense, just wait until the swords/throwing stars/dragon-rocket cannons come out. It’s the opposite of gritty realism systems like Legend of the Five Rings or Burning Wheel champion. Being wounded gives you bonus dice, because everyone knows heroes and villains fight better when they’ve been bloodied.* Clashing blades and dramatic quips are everywhere, so look out!
The basic rules aren’t hard to grasp. Every attack is an opposed roll, with the winner dealing out the hurt. That means if someone attacks you, but you win the roll, you automatically counterattack. This doesn’t apply if your opponent is shooting bullets at you,* but it does allow for the classic scene where the main character is attacked by multiple opponents, only to take them all down in a flurry of blows. Since everyone’s always counterattacking, initiative isn’t a big deal.
Fights are usually short. Even our boss fight only lasted four rounds. While they don’t involve a lot of player choice in the base mechanics, that changes once you build more complicated characters. Shinobi and spirit summoners have a limited amount of Soul* available and must prioritize which of their abilities are most useful. Many Annelidist abilities cost health, as the character feeds tiny parts of themselves to their symbiotic insects in exchange for power.
But most of that is still straightforward. The madness doesn’t truly start until PCs spend Kiai points. These are the game’s meta currency, awarded for good roleplaying, and they are powerful. A well-built character might roll 12 dice or so for their primary attack. Towards the end of a session, Kiai can easily boost rolls to 20 or 30 dice, not to mention buying extra attacks and a host of other options. Unlike other dice pool systems, TBZ has no maximum dice rule. If you have 30 dice, you roll all 30 of them.
In game, these huge dice rolls become dramatic confrontations between hero and villain, when lightning flashes and the earth shakes to the clash of their blades. It’s very dramatic, and it rarely lasts long enough to get boring.
Storytelling Requires High-Stakes Accounting
By far the weirdest part of TBZ is its karma system. Nearly everything beneficial gives a character karma. Extra abilities at character creation, karma. Spending Kiai to take down the bad guy, karma. The list goes on. Karma represents your character’s attachment to the physical world, the force that holds them back from reaching enlightenment. If your character’s karma ever goes over 108,* they become an evil NPC, completely obsessed with their own concerns.
Fortunately, TBZ offers ways to manage your karma. Each character has a number of Fates that represent important emotions, goals, or connections. One Fate might be “Vow not to Kill,” while another could read “Sworn Enemy: Empress Morihito.” Roleplaying one’s Fates is the main way characters get awarded Kiai. During intermissions, which happen several times a session, players can weaken or eliminate their Fates to reduce karma.*
This gets complicated fast. There’s no randomness involved in gaining karma, so you always know if you’re about to go over 108. You also know how much karma your Fates can absorb. When you gain 20 karma from doing a super-cool mega-sword strike, you can plan to burn off your Sworn Enemy Fate to pay for it. However, you’ve got to make sure you do the math exactly right. If you mess up and have more than 108 fate after an intermission, the karma auditors come and take your character away. Those are some high stakes.
If that wasn’t complicated enough, you’ve also got to manage your Fates. Each intermission, they can increase in power, but only if they don’t go over a limit set by your current karma. Then there are the rules for buying new Fates and the rules for determining how much Kiai you get; it’s a lot of math. While it’s not unmanageable, it does get clunky, and more story-driven players will get bored fast.
Speaking of story, eliminating a Fate to pay off karma leads to some weird results in game. If you burned “Sworn Enemy: Empress Morihito” during an intermission, it means you no longer have the Empress as a sworn enemy. You have got to justify that somehow, which can punch a hole in the narrative that’s difficult to repair: “Empress, I used to hate you, but ever since I hit that one guy really hard, I’m just not feeling it.”
The Rules Are Vulnerable to Powergaming
TBZ pays a price for the extreme depth of its combat and character generation rules. With a system this complex, unbalanced combinations are unavoidable. The movement rules are particularly abusable. Almost everything in TBZ is abstracted and works according to narrative rules, but movement is measured in a concrete number of meters per round. It’s easy to outrange all your opponents with a set of jet wings and a really long range gun. The only counter is something with an even longer range gun or something that can fly faster.
Movement rules aside, someone with experience can create a really powerful character. If everyone’s on the same footing, that isn’t too big an issue. The GM just has to increase the villain’s strength. It’s more serious when players have different levels of experience. If you sit a long-time veteran next to a complete neophyte, the veteran’s character will make the new player wonder why they bothered to get out of bed this morning.
It’s a difficult problem to address, because being creative with the character generation rules is half the fun. The best option I’ve found is to award more Kiai to new players. That way, even though their characters are less powerful, they’ll have more bonus dice to throw around. It’s not a perfect solution, but it should get you through until everyone has the experience to create their own overpowered death monsters.
TBZ isn’t perfect, but it’s fun. It’s great for groups with irregular schedules. It lets you indulge in all the over-the-top, high-action tropes that won’t fit in more traditional games. At worst, its one-shot nature means even a failed game won’t take too much of your time. Buy a copy to occasionally play on board game nights.
Treat your friends to an evening of dark ritual murder. In a fictional game scenario, of course. Uncover your lost memories and save the day in our stand-alone game, The Voyage.