Success and Failure

There are going to be at least two broad types of activity in the game. The first is single actions. A persona wants to remember a fact, identify a picture, persuade someone to do something, or open a stuck door. These will be resolved with a single roll. The second type of activity is creating something. That might be a Shinto ritual, a painting, or a relationship with someone. Since these are a central feature of the game, they will not be resolved by a single roll.

Single actions are clearly simpler, and will form the basis for creation, so I want to look at their mechanic first. The obvious suggestion for the foundation is to compare the total of the kept dice to a difficulty. If the total equals or exceeds the difficulty, the action succeeds. Otherwise, it fails. There doesn’t seem to be a good reason to reject the obvious possibility, so this is what I will use.

Now, success is straightforward. The persona achieves whatever she was trying to do. This moves the game forward and keeps everyone involved, so there are no problems. Failure, however, is a bit trickier. If we simply say that the persona fails to do something, that stops the game. Even failure should move the game forward, albeit not in the way that the players hoped. That is, failure should change the situation.

In combat, this is not a problem. If the persona hits her opponent, she moves closer to winning the fight. If she misses, she gives her opponent another chance to kill her. Both success and failure move the story forward. Outside combat, however, it gets a bit harder. It is not immediately obvious how failing to remember a fact changes the situation. Before she tried to remember the fact, she didn’t know the fact. After she tried to remember the fact, she didn’t know the fact. The entire process took a fraction of a second inside her head. Why would the situation change?

This may be the good game-design reason for the emphasis on combat in so many existing roleplaying games.

One way to make failure matter is to make success essential to proceed with the adventure. That, however, is a really bad idea, because the whole point of rolling dice for an action is to allow the possibility of failure. It is bad for the game if the story comes screeching to a halt, so deliberately designing stories with that possibility is a bad choice. Quite a few recent games, such as Robin Laws’s GUMSHOE system, are designed to avoid this problem.

Another common approach is to impose a limit. This might be a time limit, or a limited number of rolls. Combat is really an example of this, as the persona is trying to kill her opponent before her opponent kills her. Obviously, this works, but only when there are multiple opportunities to act. If the limit on the number of rolls is one, then failing on that one roll just brings things to a halt. Even with a limit, failure on all the roles can still pose a problem. Total Party Kill is the end of the game, so most games these days are designed to avoid that.

The ideal solution would be a way in which failure changes the situation, but does not end the game. The precise form of this solution depends on the situation of the roll, but we can give some general guidance. I will look at this in detail from the next post, but the three options are as follows: create an advantage or disadvantage; change the context of future of actions; or create an option.

Core Mechanic

Having set the scene in general terms, I’d like to start getting into the details of how I want the game to work. The core mechanic I plan to use for Kannagara is as follows.

For every significant action, the player rolls a number of six-sided dice. She keeps some of them, and adds the values shown to get a total. This total is the mechanical result of the action.

So, for example, the player might roll seven dice, and get 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. She might then keep the highest four dice (6 ,6, 5, 4), for a total of 21. Alternatively, she might keep the lowest four dice (4, 3, 2, 1), for a total of 10.

Personae have numerical characteristics, just as in most roleplaying games. In many cases, one of these characteristics is the number of dice to roll, while another is the number of dice to keep.

If the number of dice to roll is higher than the number to keep, this is straightforward. Roll the indicated number of dice, and keep the highest dice for the total. So, if the two characteristics are 7 to roll and 4 to keep, the player rolls seven dice and keeps the highest four; the 21 total in the example.

If the number of dice to roll is lower than the number to keep, the number of dice actually rolled changes. Add twice the difference between the two numbers to the lower number, and roll that number of dice. In this case, the player keeps the lowest dice for the total. So, if the two characteristics are 1 to roll and 4 to keep, the player rolls seven dice, and keeps the lowest four. She keeps four because the characteristic determining the number of dice to keep is 4, and that doesn’t change. She rolls seven because 4–1 is 3, and one plus twice three is seven.

In this system, the number of dice you keep determines how well you can do. The number of dice you roll determines how likely you are to be at the top or bottom end of that range. In the example, the player has exactly the same range of possible results in both cases: any number between 4 and 24, inclusive. However, when she rolls seven and keeps the best four, she is much more likely to get a result at the top end of that range, while rolling seven and keeping the worst four puts her much nearer the bottom.

The numbers of dice are not always set by characteristics. In fact, it might be more common for one to be set by other features of a situation. However, the core mechanic does not change; one number determines the number of dice to roll, and the other determines the number of dice to keep.

The plan is to use this mechanic for everything that includes a chance of failure, or where it is necessary to determine the degree of success. That might be a single action, but it might also be part of a larger action. Larger actions that are a common part of the game, such as creating things, will have a common structure, so that these rolls are always put together in the same way. This consistency should make it much easier to learn the game.

So far, however, I have said nothing about what happens after the player rolls the dice. That will be the topic of the following posts.

Shinto, The Traditional Religion of Japan

Shinto is the traditional religion of Japan.

As is normal with real-world situations, every single word (even “is”, “the”, and “of”) in that sentence is controversial, and potentially misleading, but it is still the best place to start.

I believe that Shinto is best thought of as a religion, but that word tends to create an inaccurate image. Shinto does not have a founder. It also does not really have sacred texts; the oldest collections of Shinto legends are eighth century, and almost nobody within Shinto believes that they are literally true, or should be analysed as a guide to daily life. They are still extremely important to Shinto, but their role is completely different from the role of the Bible or Qur’an. Further, Shinto is not, on the whole, very concerned with what happens to you after you die, nor with what its practitioners believe about the world. It also has little to say on ethics. You cannot really convert to Shinto, because it is not clear what that would involve. You can practise Shinto and Buddhism at the same time, and most Japanese do. In short, it is very little like a religion, if Christianity and Islam are your paradigm examples of religions. Indeed, nineteenth century Christian missionaries to Japan denied that Shinto was a religion, and convinced the Japanese government. This came back to bite them when the government made Shinto compulsory while upholding freedom of religion; if Shinto is not a religion, there is no contradiction here.

“Traditional” might also be misleading. Shinto does not claim a founder, so its age is not clear; there is plenty of room for disagreement over when religious practices in Japan can first be called “Shinto”. The earliest date that I have seen seriously defended is 10,000BCE, while the most recent is 1871. I don’t think either of those dates is at all plausible. Personally, I think Shinto began around the fifth century CE, in Japan’s Kofun period, and some fourth century practices can reasonably be called proto-Shinto. Thus, Shinto has around 1,500 years of history, which means that it originates in Japanese prehistory, albeit barely. Islam is younger, Christianity is older, and Hinduism is much older.

Shinto has also changed a great deal over the last 1,500 years. I call the practices “Shinto” for that whole period because there are enough continuities to make it helpful to use one name, but there have also been a lot of changes. Shinto begins at around the time when Buddhism came to Japan, so most of Shinto’s development has been in reaction to and as part of Buddhism. We find people building temples to help Shinto kami achieve nirvana very early, and for a thousand years most people believed that the kami were manifestations of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, or vice versa. The influences of Daoism and Confucianism are also obvious, and some kami come from Hinduism. Even the rituals at Jingu in Ise, commonly regarded as the most sacred location in Shinto, have changed almost beyond recognition in the last few hundred years. Shinto is a living tradition, and, in my opinion, all the better for it.

“Traditional religion of Japan” is misleading, then, if it makes you think of a religion like Christianity that arose from purely Japanese sources and has persisted unchanged since the beginning of time. On the other hand, Shinto is a set of religious practices that have been handed down in Japan, created by the people from materials both local and imported without reference to an authoritative source. Thus, Shinto really is, in my opinion, the traditional religion of Japan.

Why me?

This post is basically about boasting. As I’m British, this doesn’t come easily to me, but since I am British, people might well wonder why I should be writing a roleplaying game about Shinto.

Let’s handle the roleplaying game part first. I have been writing professionally for roleplaying games for twenty years, and I have written all or part of dozens of published roleplaying books, for Dungeons & Dragons, the World of Darkness, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Ars Magica, among others. I have also been the Line Editor for Ars Magica for more than ten years, and I designed and wrote fifth edition, which won the Origins Award for best RPG and the Gold ENnie for Best Rules back in 2005. I should be able to do this.

So, why a game about Shinto set in Japan?

First, I live in Japan, and have done for nearly ten years. My wife is Japanese, my daughter has dual citizenship, and I speak, read, and type the language fluently. (I can’t write it, because I forget how to write the ideograms. But then, so do most Japanese people.) One reason for setting the game in contemporary Japan is simply that this is the society I know, the society I live in day-to-day. I haven’t lived in the UK long-term for almost ten years, so I’m not sure that I could convincingly set something there. That’s also why the default setting for the game will be the greater Tokyo area, as that’s where I live within Japan.

Second, I am a practitioner of Shinto. I’ve been studying it for years now, almost as long as I’ve been in Japan, and so I know a lot about it. I know considerably more than almost all of my Japanese friends, for example, and the exceptions are mostly Shinto priests. I also participate in Shinto rituals a lot; I had one performed to mark the launch of this project, for example. Shinto is much more about practice than belief, so the question of whether I believe in Shinto is a lot harder to answer. I don’t believe that the legends in the eighth century texts are literally true, but then neither does anybody else. I do believe that Shinto rituals are worth performing, but I’m agnostic on whether there is anything supernatural behind that. I do not believe that the metaphysics of Kannagara the game are true of the real world, even approximately. The supernatural elements are adapted, for gaming purposes, from Shinto legend and Japanese folklore, and I believe that, if there are supernatural elements in the real world, people have not understood them. After all, we failed to understand the sun, moon, and stars for millennia, and everyone can see them, and agree on what they see. In the case of spirits and the like, where the experience is much less shared, it seems extremely unlikely that people will have hit upon a true interpretation.

As a practitioner of Shinto, I do get irritated by its portrayal in just about any other roleplaying game. Shadowrun Fourth Edition decided to illustrate it with a picture of a BDSM prostitute, for example, and Scion had some very strange ideas about which kami were important. That includes Japanese games; I don’t particularly care for its portrayal in Tenra Bansho Zero, either. Still, I know very well the conditions under which roleplaying games are researched and produced, so I wouldn’t go so far as to say I get offended or angry. Nevertheless, my intent in this game is to produce a portrayal of Shinto that is faithful to the spirit of the religion, albeit with a rather more literal interpretation of the legends than I think is justified in reality.

I think I have the background necessary to do a good job of this game. The proof of the pudding, of course, is in the eating.

What Does It Mean?

In the last post, I explained “kami” and “jinja”, and I will return to “matsuri” in more detail later. However, there are two other Japanese words that should be explained. Specifically, what are “Mimusubi” and “Kannagara”?

“Mimusubi” is taken from the name of two of the first kami to arise in the creation myth found in the Kojiki, the oldest surviving record of Japanese legends. According to this text, the first three kami to appear were Amenominakanushi, Takamimusubi, and Kamumusubi. Amenominakanushi promptly disappears from the legends, but the two Musubi kami play important roles later on. Takamimusubi is very important among the kami of the heavens, and Kamumusubi is very important among the kami of the earth.

“Musubi” originally means the power of creation, development, and growth. The relevance of this to the theme of Kannagara should be obvious. It can be pronounced “musuhi”, but if you use the “musubi” pronunciation, it also means “bond”, as in a knot or a relationship. Thus, “musubi” refers directly to three of the four main themes of Kannagara. “Mi” is a Japanese prefix indicating respect, but it can also be written with the character for “kami”, and thus mean “sacred”. “Mimusubi” represents the sacred power of creation, growth, and bonds.

However, “mi” can also mean “three”. (Wordplay of this sort is extremely common in Japanese.) That is why the logo for Mimusubi is three knotted pieces of paper. The knotted pieces of paper represent letters, particularly poetic letters, as such letters were traditionally tied in that way before being sent. Thus, there is quite a specific reference to literary creation. These poetic letters were often exchanged between lovers, so there is a reference to relationships as well, and the Japanese name for this knotted paper element is “musubi”.

“Kannagara” is a word over which there is much debate, because it appears in old documents, where it is not clearly defined, and then is not used much for about a thousand years. In the phrase “Kannagara no Michi”, it forms one of the names of Shinto. “Michi” means “way”, as does the “to” in “Shinto”; it’s the same Japanese character as is used for “do” in “kendo”, the way of the sword, and so on. The “shin” character in “Shinto” means “kami”, and “kannagara” is two characters, one of which is the character for “kami”. One theory is that “kannagara” just means the same as “kami”. Another is that it means acting like kami, or as kami command. Another is that it means becoming kami.

All of these interpretations are very appropriate to the themes of the game, which makes it a good title. At the very least, it’s a good working title, and it’s important to have one of those, because they often end up being the final title.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of Shinto terms do not have good translations into English, so I plan to use the Japanese. I’ll even use the Japanese for a few words that do have good translations, because one English word in the middle of Japanese ones looks odd. I’ll discuss these Japanese words as they come up in the design.

Shinto, Jinja, and Kami

Shinto is a central element in the setting of Kannagara, but it is not well-known outside Japan. I aim to have the game itself introduce the necessary ideas in play, but for this development blog, I fear that short info dumps are unavoidable.

Shinto is the practice of performing matsuri for kami, primarily at jinja. There are no good English translations for “Shinto”, “matsuri”, “kami”, or “jinja”, so I will use the Japanese words, and explain them. There are roughly equivalent words, but if I start by using those, the explanation begins by trying to clear up the misunderstandings that the words create. It’s easier to just use the Japanese.

The most important single concept is that of “kami”. The best place to start is with a translation of the definition of “kami” offered by Motoori Norinaga, an extremely influential Shinto scholar of the eighteenth century. This is the definition that most Shinto priests would offer today if asked for one, and the definition taken as the starting point in most discussions of kami.

What do we call “kami”? The many spirits revered at jinja, starting with those we see in ancient texts, are kami. Further, — even if we do not speak of human beings — birds and beasts, trees and grasses, seas and mountains, anything, indeed, that possesses power and authority beyond the norm, every thing that inspires awe: all these are kami. (When we talk of things going beyond the norm, this is not limited to those worthy of respect, those unusually good, or those that raise society up. Things that are exceptionally evil or unnatural are also kami.)

Kami are not necessarily immaterial or immortal. The chief priest of a major shrine can write, even today (in an article published at the end of April this year) “the spirit that resided in the pool, or rather, the pool itself, was the kami”. Mount Fuji is the kami of many shrines, and in that sense my answer to the question “do you really believe that kami exist?” is “yes, I can see one from my balcony on a clear day”.

The normal concept of a kami, however, is of an undying invisible spirit that is conscious and able to respond to matsuri. Mount Fuji just as a volcano would not be a kami in this sense, and, in Kannagara, all kami are conscious beings. They are not necessarily invisible spirits, but most are. They do, however, all meet Norinaga’s definition. They are not necessarily good, or friendly, and there are limits to their power, but they all inspire awe.

The relationship between kami and people was summarised in the first article of a set of fundamental laws for Japan issued in the thirteenth century.

The kami increase their authority through the respect of the people, and the people increase their prosperity through the blessings of the kami.

That is, the kami depend on people just as much as people depend on kami. Kami are greater than most people, but they do not have absolute power, and they need to have people respecting them, primarily through the performance of matsuri. This is also something that will form part of Kannagara.

A jinja is a place where kami and people can meet, and the people perform matsuri for the kami. It is a sacred space, and, these days, normally has several buildings, but buildings are not strictly necessary. At most jinja, the kami is believed to be present at all times, in a particular location and often a particular object, which is normally hidden from view. Sometimes, the kami is believed to be present in a mountain or similar natural phenomenon, however, and those are not hidden. A jinja almost always includes a woodland or forest, and a jinja without even a single tree is very unusual.

Matsuri are very important to the game, and will get their own post a little later. The people associated with a jinja can create and perform matsuri to increase the power and authority of the kami of the jinja, convince an unhelpful kami to be more benevolent, and even become kami themselves. These are central activities in Kannagara.

Mechanical Philosophy

Kannagara is a tabletop roleplaying game, and therefore it has mechanics. Since I’ve already talked about the guiding ideas behind the game itself, I’d like to talk briefly about my approach to the mechanics.

Anyone who is familiar with my work on Ars Magica will know that I lean towards mechanical systems that are quite detailed and simulationist. That is something that will be reflected in Kannagara’s mechanics, partly as a matter of personal preference, but also for more fundamental reasons. Here, I’ll focus on the more fundamental reasons.

First, I believe that the mechanics of a game should be part of the expression of the game. If two games are supposed to have very different moods and deal with different subjects, then they really should have different mechanics. I am not, as you might guess, a big believer in generic systems. In my experience, they tend to do one genre well, and others poorly, at least until different mechanics are written to extend them to a new area. The other side of this is that, if something is important to the game, it should have mechanics. Broadly speaking, something should only be left to the creativity of the players if it is colour that does not really matter to the way the game works. (This is only true broadly speaking, and I am pretty sure that there will be exceptions in Kannagara.)

Second, I believe that restricting the choices available to players is a very important part of making a good game. This is particularly true when you are introducing a setting that is not familiar to them. The rules should present a limited set of sensible choices (three to six is the number often cited) at each point, so that players have some control over the course of the story, but aren’t drowning in options. This means that there should be a defined list of skills and such, not “write down some phrases that define your character”.

Put these two together, and you are looking at a very crunchy system. That means that you want a consistent, and simple, basic mechanic, which can be applied in lots of different situations to capture the different aspects of the game. “Roll one twenty-sided die and add something, trying to beat a target number” is a good example of a basic mechanic. That one is actually a bit too simple for what I want to do, but I do want to use the same basic mechanic at all points. (The basic mechanic will get its own post, a little later.)

I said above that restricting choice is important. This is true, but players who are familiar with the system should be able to create exactly the character they want, and do whatever they want, within the constraints of the game. (In Kannagara, the rules will not support creating a skilled fighter, because that is not what the game is about.) Pathfinder does this by starting with eight or so basic classes, but then having archetypes and prestige classes, and choices of feats and skills, which allow you to create almost anything you want. I don’t think that the way Pathfinder does it is ideal, because the player really needs to know exactly what she wants to do right at the beginning, but it’s good; the flexibility of the system is impressive. The problem with really needing to make the choice at the beginning is that the player does face dozens of options at that point.

However, allowing players to create whatever character they want is not necessarily inconsistent with restricting choice, because the restriction only applies to each choice point. If you have five options at each choice point, then twenty choice points give you 95 billion final options. It does take some effort to make sure that the available paths cover all the desirable outcomes, but that’s one of the things that game design (and playtesting) is about.

My aim, then, is to have mechanics based on a consistent core mechanic, which provide systems for all the important activities in the system (growth, relationships, creation, and discovery). At any point, both in character creation and in play, a player should face a limited number of options, but a player should be able to reach any end point that makes sense in the game by making a series of choices that seem sensible at the time.

What Is Kannagara?

Kannagara is a table-top, pen & paper roleplaying game in which players portray people associated with a Shinto sacred space, who create and perform its rituals. They build relationships with the mundane and supernatural inhabitants of the area so that the sacred space, people, and spirits flourish, mysteries are solved, and wonders are both uncovered and created.

Four elements are central to the game.

The first is personal growth. Characters get better over time, overcome their problems, and become something better than they were. This applies both to the characters controlled by the people playing the game, the personae, and to all other characters. Personae do this with each other’s help, while characters do it with the help of personae. Personae are, of course, the active driving force in the game world. Characters follow their own agendas, and do not just wait for personae to act, but major changes require the involvement of personae.

The second is building relationships. Personae try to build good relationships with characters, and with each other.

The third is discovery. Personae uncover lost truths and solve mysteries. Sometimes these are wholly mundane, such as finding out why someone seems so hostile to them, but often they are supernatural. The personae know nothing about the supernatural when the game starts out, but that situation does not last long.

The final activity is creation. A central form of creation is the creation of rituals for the sacred space, the jinja. These rituals help to build relationships with characters, and can help them to grow. In the case of kami, the supernatural spirits associated with the jinja or the surrounding area, this is quite direct, but for human characters it is generally an indirect effect.

These elements are all interdependent. Personae grow by building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths, and after growing they are better at building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths. Of course, they can also build relationships by growing and encouraging growth, creating things, and discovering truths, and so on.

Finally, the party is held together because they are all closely associated with the same sacred space, the same jinja. The success of the jinja is one way to measure the overall success of the players in the game.

There are also two important absences from the game.

First, the game is not about combat, at all. There will be no fighting, and no rules for fighting. There will, of course, be conflicts, because you need conflicts for drama, but those conflicts will not be solved by violence.

Second, Kannagara is a game of wonder, not horror. It is set in a world like the modern day, with a largely hidden and secret supernatural element, but that supernatural element is not horrifying, it is wondrous. If the game turned out to be an accurate depiction of our world, that would be a good thing. (Also, extremely surprising.)

Welcome to Kannagara

Welcome to Kannagara.

Kannagara will be a modern fantasy roleplaying game set in contemporary Japan, drawing heavily on Shinto folklore, legends, and practices. I say “will be” because it is not yet written; I will talk about the design on this blog, and hope that the readers of the blog will make comments about the design while it is in progress, so that there is some dialogue. At some point in the future, there’s likely to be Kickstarter or something similar. Consider yourselves forewarned: this is a commercial project, and eventually I will ask for money.

So, what is Kannagara?

The players portray people associated with a Shinto sacred space, who create and perform its rituals. They build relationships with the mundane and supernatural inhabitants of the area so that the sacred space, people, and spirits flourish, mysteries are solved, and wonders are both uncovered and created.

That’s the current version of the elevator pitch, but I hope to refine it as we go along. If you would like to read a really long introduction to the general setting, Kannagara is almost Tamao: The Roleplaying Game. However, Tamao was rather darker than I intend Kannagara to be, and had less of an emphasis on creation. In this post, I want to pick up and amplify a few of the important elements of my vision for Kannagara.

First, the game is not about combat, at all. There will be no fighting, and no rules for fighting. There will, of course, be conflicts, because you need conflicts for drama, but those conflicts will not be solved by violence, or, indeed, any other illegal action. (Well, I can imagine that trespassing might be involved in some plots.) There are plenty of roleplaying games that do combat very well, but it isn’t something I am particularly interested in.

Second, Kannagara is a game of wonder, not horror. It is set in a world like the modern day, with a largely hidden and secret supernatural element, but that supernatural element is not horrifying, it is wondrous. I do anticipate that maintaining that will be as hard as maintaining a sense of horror, and I don’t expect to succeed all the time, but it is the goal. In particular, I want to avoid horrific elements. If the game turned out to be an accurate depiction of our world, that would be a good thing. (Also, extremely surprising.)

So, that tells you something that the player characters don’t do, and a bit about the mood. What do they do? The game revolves around four central activities.

The first is personal growth. Characters get better over time, overcome their problems, and become something better than they were. This applies to player characters (whom I will call “personae”, following the lead of James Wallis in Alas Vegas), and non-player characters (whom I will just call “characters”). Personae do this with each other’s help, while characters do it with the help of personae. Personae are, of course, the active driving force in the game world. Characters follow their own agendas, and do not just wait for personae to act, but major changes require the involvement of personae.

The second is building relationships. Personae try to build good relationships with characters, and with each other.

The third is discovery. Personae uncover lost truths and solve mysteries. Sometimes these are wholly mundane, such as finding out why someone seems so hostile to them, but often they are supernatural. The personae know nothing about the supernatural when the game starts out, but that situation does not last long.

The final activity is creation. A central form of creation is the creation of rituals for the sacred space, the jinja. These rituals help to build relationships with characters, and can help them to grow. In the case of kami, the supernatural spirits associated with the jinja or the surrounding area, this is quite direct, but for human characters it is generally an indirect effect.

These elements are all interdependent. Personae grow by building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths, and after growing they are better at building relationships, creating things, and discovering truths. Of course, they can also build relationships by growing and encouraging growth, creating things, and discovering truths, and so on.

Finally, the party is held together because they are all closely associated with the same sacred space, the same jinja. The success of the jinja is one way to measure the overall success of the players in the game.

I am writing this game because it is a game that I really want to play. As mentioned above, I’d also like it to be a commercial project, so I rather hope that other people will also want to play it. The only way to discover that, however, is to make the game, and see.

I hope you will stay around to watch.

Mimusubi

I have a new project, and it has its own website: Mimusubi. It’s a role-playing game about creating things. Those of you with good memories may remember some work on this topic here a couple of years ago. I’ll be discussing the design on the Mimusubi website, and plan to release it commercially in some form. If you’re interested, please go and take a look.

Yes, adding Mimusubi to the Japanese blog probably does mean that this blog will be neglected even more than it has been recently. Insofar as that is possible.