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Seii o motte, bitoku ga arimasu

Now we've entered the "adventure" for our Bushido game. I think you'll see a definite influence of Circle of Hands on all the players' concept of what a fantasy adventure even is, and how characters relate to the society and to local communities. I think this perspective is very well-suited to this game in terms of the core book's presentation. How well it's suited to the hobby expectations of a fantasy adventure is another question.

But today I want to talk about numbers. I do not care for the designers' concept of probability. I think they confused combining percentages with making things more effective, when it actually racks them down.

For example, Trance itself doesn't have any listed effect. To use it to do anything, I have to make its BSC roll using the average of Trance and Meditation, and then make a Yoga roll. I spent all those weeks training to bring up Meditation, so my averaged BSC for the first roll is a pretty good 12 (rolling 12 or less on d20). But my Yoga is 4. That means 60% x 20% = 12%. You can read the rules up, down, or sideways, and the only possible reading is that Trance doesn't do anything but knock down the Yoga's chance in action.

It's not just the magic but also most of the social activities. My highest skill is Rhetoric, but I have to make its roll first and then succeed at something else in order to say anything important, i.e., the rhetoric itself is about how I say it, so missing the second roll means my character fails.

Finally, bear in mind that all the above values are calculated without opposition, any of which knocks the final percent down by 5% per point.

This double-roll method contrasts markedly with anything to do with combat, which I consider to be beautifully tuned and fun to do - even when one's chances drop quite low for one or another reason. In our brief Discord conversation about this, David and Greg both observed that any successful combat roll does something, even if you miss the chance for a secondary effect.

So let's look at how people mess up math like this all the time, especially for activities in a game for which most of the design attention concerned slicing each other up. In fairness, in the late 1970s, the notion of rolling an individual character's interactions and influences upon one another was very much in development and I suspect a lot of this design is evidence of desperation devices from very few instances of play.

  1. The Nirvana Fallacy means the failure to distinguish between a high probability and certainty. I see it in role-playing quite a lot: if someone perceives their character to have a "high" percentage to do something, perhaps because they strategized for a bonus or were clever in building the character, they they think it's right and fair and expected for them to succeed in doing it. Strangely they think the dice agree with them and "went wrong" if they fail the roll.
  2. Although everyone agrees in the abstract that combined percentages are multiplied, i.e., result in a probability lower than any of the contributing values, it's evidently very easy to reverse this in one's mind when you're doing a specific thing. [For example, let's take early RuneQuest, and say you have a 50% chance to hit. But the opponent only has a 25% to parry, so he's a crap defender, right? Your attack is higher than his parry, so it should be easier to hit him, right? No. The chance to hit him is 0.75 x 0.50, which is 0.375, or 37.5%. If you think this was obvious, watch people at the table some time.]
  3. A lot of games - and you can see this in Bushido with the magic and information-gathering - include the principle that if a given action does X, and X's effect is really big or really cool, then it should have a lower chance to succeed than other actions, as a "balance" of some kind. The usual default is non-magical guy hits with a non-magical attack, so my magical guy's offbeat magical attack needs to be less reliable or less repeatable in a very significant way. The result of this design is emphatically not any sort of parity; it only makes the more exotic or more social character far less competent.

On a more positive note, the personalities among our three characters (Gin, Mitsu, Rokuro) have come together in a very strong, very enjoyable psychological network. I like it when any of us says something, because the other two provide subtle or unsubtle responses which bring the growing alliance and liking among them into fuller view.

The video link goes straight into the YouTube playlist for the whole game, and the first post and comments regarding the previous three sessions is here: Keizoku chikara nari.

Actual Play


The 1982 scenario pack and the 1985 adventure I am adapting exmplify the problems with early adventure design.

The NPCs courses of action, as written, do not relate to their needs/desires/personalities. For both the big scenario pack and the little encounter at Spider Castle/Shinten Village. T

Correction: they make no sense in psychological terms. They do, however, make sense if the NPCs are mere functions whose purpose is to impose prescribed situations and challenges on the players.

So I am playing the strange samurai and Ashitari Kobe as persons making their own decisions at every moment. And I forsee a number of possible directions in which these persons could turn, all of them having nothing to do the pre-scripted series of events  that are supposed to happen.

I wish the designers had done more with the Effect Numbers that are generated by successful and unsuccesful rolls.

In Bushido, skills succede or fail based on a d20 roll. If you roll your chance of success or less, you succede. Degrees of success can be determined by subtracting the results of your roll from that chance of success.

I am a Poet. I have poetry 9. I roll an 8. I have succeded. the Effect number of that success is 1. That Effect Number could serve as 1 Task Point added to other Task Points being banked up to create a poem. There can be negative Effect Numbers too. I have poetry 9. I roll a 17. The Effect Number of that failure is -8. In most Tasks this wouldn't mean a loss from the total number of Task Points accumulated. But there are some exceptions. Negative Effect Numbers really hurt you when you are involved in some dispute being arbitrated by an individual or the court of public opinion.

Perhaps the game should have been more generous about criteria for success and then have used Effect Numbers to guage the scope of that success. For example, if you dedicate 1 hour to going into a Trance, you go into a trance, with positive Effect Numbers indicating how deep you go, and negative Effect Numbers counting as distractions from any activity you undertake in that trance.

Another hack I imagined was using your Levels to increase the chance of success. Say you are trying to accumulate Task points over a 3 week period to create a work of art in your spare time. A 3rd Level character would roll 3 dice and pick the result that generated the most task points, and multiply that by the number of Task Turns spent on the artwork. That would be the 30 rolls I had to make to get a character to complete a painting. THIRTY.

But we are playing the game as written. No fudging.

There was some talk of how you could run a Bushido campaign by focusing on training, advancement, politicking -- the quotidian stuff, with excursions into the wild punctuating the struggles of every day life.

There are examples in Japanese storytelling that could be applied to a Bushido game tied closely to everyday life. A young oil-merchant on the make doesn't sound like an epic hero. But the The Woman-Killer and the Hell of Oil manages to make that quotidian setting a pretext for wrestling battles, samurai pushed into rage by peasant insolence, magical ascetic healers, and a murder scene that goes askew as the participants start to slip on blood and spilt oil.

PuppetsAnd it's a puppet play (by Chikamatsu Monzaemon)

He's got plays about couriers getting in dutch because they were late delivering remittances. And characters taking extreme measures to get enough money to buy the contracts of the courtesans they have fallen for. A samurai reduced to tending horses who recovers his station. A squad of enforcers for the Shogun running down a palanquin containing 2 fleeing lovers, wrapping chains around it. A decent merchant falling in with smugglers and pirates, leading to sword fights in teahouses.

I am thinking of how to make the non-fantastical parts of the setting into opportunities for drama and action.

1992 film of the story

A fairly dry summary. of the play is here. It doesn't do justice to the liveliness of the street scenes or the complexity and intensity of the action sequences.

Last post was about using the tensions present in the conflicts of everyday life as a spring to action and drama. 

But our most recent Bushido adventure was “gonzo””,” to quote a player. I adapted an adventure more suited to rollicking swords and sorcery rather than the kind of game that has been evolving.

The adventure starts with a cryptic message from a ghostly apparition. “You must fight 3 opponents” That set up a red herring: the party is scheduled to meet a Tengu (a bird man) who challenges one of the party to a playful duel to the first hit. Thus, the players are led to anticipate 2 more battles with fantastic foes. The 3 foes are actually 3 samurai coming back from a raid. 

I can see this as a Fafhard & Mouser moment or maybe Butch Cassidy & Sundance Kid moment:two mishap-prone adventurers slap their heads at having misinterpreted the oracle. And then action insues. 

It just didn’t fit the mood that the players have established so far. So I played the oracle for who she was: a sorceress astral projecting herself and using her illusion magic to get someone, anyone to free her and her retinue from a caste occupied by those “who will not be killed.” 

My sorceress had a need and stretched her abilities to do it. That fit into the Bushido ethos that is developing at our table.

The players are busy trying to cleanse the village of its malign magic. I had the Tengu as a curious observer of the players’ struggles but could not, for the life of me, figure out why this creature, as mercurial as it is, would decide to get tricksy with a troupe of people trying frantically to save a village.

Bushido gives GMs the freedom to set the dial on the fantastical. I am developing a setting where there is a mostly-mundane Nippon down in the valleys, goblins and creatures in the mountains, and strange places of power that reveal themselves to those determined to find them.

So the mini-scenario we are working on is a middle space between the city of Takayana and the lair of the witchy bandit queen. Which is REALLY gonzo. 


Ron Edwards's picture

Here's the link to the session. The game experience bears a lot of reflection at about this point, or perhaps maybe after we discover the upcoming fates of these people.

Ron had mentioned the influence of Circle of Hands on our collective concept of what a fantasy adventure even is. I can't claim any special credit for that because I haven't (fully) read or played Circle of Hands but it has been an interesting learning experience.

To guess where these influences show up, I think it has something to do with how we interact with the different communities and how many of our decisions pass through the filter of the culture of the game world (including how we are each fulfilling our different social and professional roles). I think this has the effect of us treating the NPCs as something other than resources or obstacles, in opposition to the tendency in many typical fantasy adventures. We're related to them positionally. We've also chosen to care about their problems as actual problems rather than hurdles we have to jump to acquire treasure and experience. I appreciate these influences (assuming I have correctly identified them) and it increases my interest in playing Circle of Hands. 

One of the other effects of this is that we're very grounded in the world's reality. When Erik introduces supernatural elements, I think he is careful not to break that grounding. Some examples follow.

Some goblins walk around in daylight under a perfect human guise, but at night time, they act out their true intentions while people are sleeping. Their true nature was shocking and terrible when in full blossom, but they convinced us they were human first. They weren't planning to get caught out as goblin child snatchers.

When we encounter a ghost (really just a sorceress asking for help), we first encounter mist, and then only the characters who enter the mist are able to report what they saw, leaving the others to disbelieve or disregard what happened.

For things to reach the point of being gonzo, we had to make a great effort to establish the "normal". It's not "all gonzo, all of the time". It is judicious. At the moment when we fully felt the confluence of spooky elements in the village and castle, it spoke volumes about how much these places had fallen out of harmony with nature. Yet the path to restoring balance was culturally grounded. Crimes were committed, rites were not observed, kami were not propitiated, etc. These are reversible with time and effort. The villagers know what to do when we leave, we've kickstarted the process for them -- cleaned up the corruption and reconnected them with their local kami. It is out of our hands and we can move on in good conscience.


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