[Tenra Bansho Zero] Game at GenCon 2007

edited August 2007 in Actual Play
(crosspost from blog land)

I got the chance to sit down with Andy K and some other folks to play Tenra Bansho Zero at Games on Demand at GenCon 2007. The verdict: crazy-ass, over-the-top, anime-style weirdness with a really kickass game system driving the whole thing.

Andy had pregens for us to choose from, which was not only a good choice for a one-shot at a con, but also somewhat reflects the actual character creation system. In the full game, you choose two to four archetypes and mash them together to get all of your stats and skills (then customize a bit). I've always been a fan of that chargen method, and I think it suits the setting and style of the game well.

I got to play a Kongohki (金剛機), which is Tenra's version of Robocop. A Shinto priest captures a soul from the netherworld, scrubs off its identity, and then sticks the soul in a magic mirror inside a robotic body. ("Kongoh" is the Japanese word for Vajra, and is used here to mean 'unbreakable substance'.) The best part of being a Kongohki (aside from doing cool robot stuff) is the flashback mechanic. Whenever you get 5 aiki chips (which are kind of like Fan Mail from PTA) your Kongohki has a flashback scene of its former life. We decided my soul was that of the wife of the Samurai PC, who had died in a fire long ago. After the first flashback, I started using the pet-name for the Samurai (Katsu-chan) but otherwise acted as if I remembered nothing. This created a very bizarre and fun love triangle with me, the Samurai, and the creepy insect-nanotech girl.

The game has a lightweight and speedy resolution system, mostly focused on task-based stuff and combat. Combat is very easy to handle, supports crazy over-the-top stunts and cool moves, and resolves quickly, even in the big boss showdown we had. The real meat of the system, though, is in the economy of aiki chips, Fate points, and karma. The interplay of these creates a very cool cycle of player rewards (fan mail), PC goals and spiritual attributes (Fates, which are mini Keys/Muses), and an endgame/doom/level system (Karma).

There's a lot there, so I won't go into detail. As an example, though, one use of Karma is to "balance" the various PC types in terms of raw power. Characters with massive abilities and powers start off with a lot of Karma. When you spend Fate to do super-moves (like rolling 20 bonus dice) it adds to your Karma score. If your Karma goes over 108, you risk losing your character to evil (power corrupts!). So, the real heavy hitters have to be careful about how they spend Fate and can't really cut-loose until they're ready to meet their destiny. The "weaker" character types start with less Karma, though, so they can spend Fate like mad and explode into crazy Final Fantasy style Limit Break awesome when needed. And since all of this is tied back into the Fan Mail system and PC goals/relationships, it neatly sidesteps any "mother-may-I" troubles that some mechanics like this fall into.

In play, the game reminded me most of Nine Worlds. The PCs were super-powerful badasses (even the weaker ones) who were driven by their goals, emotions, relationships, and destinies, which fed mechanically into the reward system and also drove the scene framing and story arc of the session.

I'm really looking forward to the completed English version of this game. The setting is wahoo-anime crazy pants, which isn't usually my style, but the system was so engaging and crisp, I'm excited to play again.


  • If you played in this game, speak up! I forgot to record your names in my notebook.
  • The setting is wahoo-anime crazy pants, which isn't usually my style, but the system was so engaging and crisp, I'm excited to play again.

    Also not my usual style, but your writeup has me very intrigued. Now I'm eagerly awaiting more :)
  • Hey man, thanks for the AP report. I suck at teh AP.

    A few notes:
    1) For some reason, I felt half dead during that session. I was ill-prepared and ill-rested (no coffee, either), and it seems that all my explanations, which have a specific order and tone to them (since there's so much in the "Karma->Aiki->Focus" wheel that rests upon knowing other parts of the wheel, kinda like cracking into Aristotle, it's hard to find a place to begin), were done out of order. More than once I was like, "Shit, I forgot to explain X. I have to do it now, which means I also have to explain Y. And we really should have done Z first, my bad." So the fact that it was interesting at all I think is a testament to all y'alls enthusiasm and aggressiveness.

    2) I realize that the perfect size for a 4-hour game? 2, perhaps 3 players (not including the GM). With a 4-player game, you basically either have to cut things short, or you have to present the players with tickets to the Railroad Express ("Oh, lookie! I'm giving your character the GM fate of 'Mission: Find and Protect the Princess', TOO. Huh. So... what does your character want to do?").

    3) Your playtest session was really valuable to me, as I write and compile all sorts of "should have been in the core rulebook" play advice (both for players and GMs) for the English version. The main one I found (that was always on the tip of my tongue, but I could never pull it out right) is that the GM should actively split the party up: "Next scene, You and You are There. You two are alone. Go." Do that, and if other players want to be in, they can spend Focus to do so, or players can spend Aiki to pull in another player. It works much better than hoping the players will naturally walk off together and deal with their issues.

  • This might be a little scattered, but the game had so many awesome components, I want to touch upon my favorite ones.

    I was the Samurai, and what helped create the bizarre love triangle John mentions was the Reaction Chart. Now, when Andy first mentioned this, I had AD&D flashbacks of a Hostile-Neutral-Friendly NPC reactions, but Tenra's much more interesting and complex. And you roll them when you meet other PCs. Although there's Hostile and Friendly too, you are expected to go into detail on what the words on the result means. Why would you be hostile or friendly or whatever? My reaction to the Kongohki was "acquaintance", which fed into my "Misfortune" fate or having something lost, and brought up that I could see something familiar in the way the "robot" did things that reminded me of my wife. For the insect nano-tech girl, I got "like a sibling," and I decided to tweak that to "daughter." He saw her as a model for what his daughter might be like, were she still alive (which made my character older than I had been thinking, but luckily in anime there's not much difference between late-20's and mid-40's). This made for an awkward Leon: The Professional relationship, since the chart had her seeing me as a romantic crush. It was excellent and they fed into each other really well.

    We also had chances to give each other fates. These could have been related to our characters, but some where also reinforcing and adding hooks to someone's ongoing story. You are within full rights to refuse any applied Fate as well. I should note that there is a limit, depending on your Karma, to how many Fates you can have, and the values they can be, so there's a disincentive to give each other frivolous Fates for a mechanical advantage. More on Fates later.

    Another component I really like is how health is figured. You have both health points and health levels. That seems like too much, but they play together beautifully. When you lose your health points, you go unconscious and are out of the fight. As you lose health levels, you are taking a beating, and start to get bonuses to your rolls. The nice way these work together is you, the player, get to choose where the damage goes. You can immediately jump to crippling blows and deadly wounds for the bonuses, at the cost of longer healing times later, or stick with the lighter stuff. My favorite part is this. You only die if you fill in the "Dead" box and then lose all your health points. For that attack, the Dead box will absorb all levels of damage, no matter if it was 5 or 50. Since you choose what goes where, you can only die if you choose to "set that stake" as it were, and check off the box. Then everyone knows its a life or death battle. In the middle of my big climactic fight, the insect-host girl, my daughter by proxy, took a terrible blow on my behalf, using the Dead box, and asked to narrate it as a mortal blow (expiring after the fight with some last words, of course). Wow.

    We were pressed for time at the end, so I was the lucky one who got to use the Focus to the fullest. My mission for the scenario was to kill the bodyguard of the mysic automaton that John's character and another player's character, a "badass bastard" Samurai, needed to find. I had built a sizable pool of Focus through the course of the game, and spent very little. So when the final battle occured, it was really rewarding to spend these points and get large dice pools, and other modifications to turn things towards my favor, knowing that it everything had built up to this point. It felt a bit like Exalted, but instead of unleashing charms at any point, these big rolls don't really happen that much until the climax and are filled with much more purpose.

    But I did go over the Karma limit, which meant that my character has changed. I killed Ten Blades, the bodyguard, so obviously, he could be wiped off my list of Fates. But I still needed to shed more points. My only other Fate was the one regarding my Misfortune. I'm no longer driven by the grief of my lost wife and daughter. Is it because I've lost too much and have closed my heart? Is it because I've reconnected with their memories in the flesh (so to speak)? That's something for me to figure out were there a follow up session. Since you get to choose which Fates you build up during the game, you can direct which ones you hope to resolve at the end of the story.

    This is some incredible stuff. Like John, I too await the finished English translation so I can snatch this up.
  • Oh man... I can't believe I forgot about the damage system! It's very cool, as Alvin explained. There's just something so right about marking off "heavy wound" and then taking three bonus dice for your future actions.

    It was fun gaming with you, Alvin. You do a great tragic Samurai.
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