Tenra Bansho Birthday Bash
For my birthday earlier this month, I had some friends over to play Tenra Bansho Zero, a hyper-Asian tabletop RPG that was released in North America last year after a very successful Kickstarter. This would be my first time playing it as well as my first time as a Game Master. I’ve been interested for some time in taking part in a tabletop game like Dungeons and Dragons, but I could never organize a group, and I wanted to take part as a player, not a GM. However, as I read up on Tenra Bansho, it sounded like a game I could put together despite having no experience. The GM would need to know the rules, of course, but the story could be left in the players’ hands. Let me explain: the story is told as if the players are performing in a play. The GM (or player if he wants to create his own) provides a character with motivations as a guide for how to act, and the players progress the story by interacting with each other and NPCs. Unlike D&D, this game focuses on role-playing over combat. If you role play well, you can make your character stronger. There’s not really any leveling up, experience points, or looting systems. If your acting impresses the GM or other players, you receive Aiki chits that can be exchanged for a variety of bonuses.
But enough about the system. If you want to learn more about it, check out the Tenra Bansho website. Let’s talk about the planning and playing experience. As I said before, this would be my first time as a GM, and I wanted to keep it simple for the players since none of them would have played this before. I started deciding on what character classes to use in the story. I picked out six from the sample characters at the back of the book: a samurai, a monk, a kugutsu, an annelidist, a shinobi, and a kijin. I figured these would showcase the variety of people in Tenra, but looking back, it may have involved too many combat-specific rules. In any case, I discarded this idea in order to use a pre-made scenario: Lotus Blossom’s Bridal Party written by Andrew Hwang. This scenario provided guidelines for what would happen in each act, suggestions for each character’s Zero Act, and possible replacements using the stock characters from the book. It wasn’t written as a step-by-step guide; it was more like “Here are some topics the characters can discuss or activities they could perform.” What actually happened in the story was up to me and the players, which is what Tenra Bansho is all about. You can download a PDF version of it here.
So, after writing out a Zero Act scene for each character (there were six and I didn’t know which player would use which character), downloading character sheets and handouts, and making some notes on combat rules specific to each character and some general rulebook page referrals for myself, I had quite a few pages to print. Unfortunately, after printing about half, we ran out of paper. To add to my problems, I was unable to find the poker chips I had planned on using as Aiki. Luckily, my mom had a big bag of buttons that I could use as a replacement. After a last minute print job, we were ready to begin our play. Would you believe only half of the players showed up on time? I had originally written notes for six to eight people. Six playable characters and two audience members that would have the option to play as some NPCs. With only three players, I had to make a couple quick edits to make sure all of the plot points were still covered. Nothing drastic. I guess that’s just one of the things a GM has to be ready for.
I read the intro, talked about a couple general rules, and had the players introduce themselves. The basic premise of the story was that a war was being fought between two clans, and the players were responsible for leading a peace mission to unite them. We used Lotus Blossom (a kugutsu with a prominent nose), General Kaneyori (now a 100 year old woman), and the samurai Nobutaki Akizuki (now a warrior in an orange gi named Yamcha). The war we were trying to end was between the Manchester (United) and Barcelona clans. As you can probably tell, I allowed quite a bit of leeway in naming and character background.
So the Zero Acts and the First Act went fairly smoothly, with a lot of interaction between the players, while I provided what exposition I could. I tried to portray Lord Manchester as an old man who had given up his war-hungry attitude after the loss of his son. Interacting with the characters, however, transformed him from a dignified leader into a scatterbrained creep. The players tried to discuss the mission’s plan in detail with him, but I wasn’t prepared for all of the questions posed. My ad-libbing led to the group questioning his motivations and whether or not this was truly a peace mission. Furthermore, whenever I paused to gather my thoughts, I explained it in-game as the Lord being distracted by Lotus Blossom’s beauty. There were some memorable scenes, including a confrontation between the young samurai and the old general, and an evening scene where the samurai tried to sneak into Lotus’s room to convince her to lead her own life. Yamcha was turning out to be the main hero of the story, especially since I had the main villain, Flying Razor, kill his mother in front of him.
By the end of Act One, a few more people arrived, just in time to board the airship that would (supposedly) take the party to their final destination. Unfortunately, it took some time to catch them all up on the rules and the plot, so we were only able to complete Act Two before the party was over. In the Second Act, combat was introduced, and the players were able to put their skills to use. The party was separated when the airship was attacked: the General and Chie, the ninja, were discussing strategy with the ship’s captain; the samurai and gunlancer were chatting in their room; and Lotus was being guarded in her room by the annelidist. When combat started, all but Lotus and her guard rushed to the deck where they all took part in the fight. It went fairly easily for the party, given that the main villain leading the raid succumbed to one of Chie’s illusions. Since it was getting late, I attempted to end the story here with Flying Razor’s defeat at the hands of Yamcha (who used a large amount of Kiai to power up his stats). However, the players voted to continue the scenario the way I had originally planned it, so I had Flying Razor destroy the ship and retreat.
Despite a few hiccups, the game went well and was enjoyed by all. We will continue this scenario soon, and I’ll be sure to post the results of the adventure here.