Andy Kitkowski, who is currently running a Kickstarter for Tenra Bansho Zero, a Japanese RPG that has been translated into English for the first time, was kind enough to take some time out of his schedule to answer some questions for me. It’s a really awesome read, and the game itself sounds really fascinating as well. You should really go check out the campaign if you’re a fan of RPGs to see what he’s put together over there, especially some of the stretch goals, which really look they’ll add a lot to the game (especially the teased Persona RPG hack). I really can’t encourage you enough to at least take a look.
Take a moment to introduce yourself.
I’m Andy Kitkowski. I’m a longtime tabletop gamer and culture enthusiast. I work during the day at a computer company, and at night I read Japanese books, manga, and games.
I run a gaming discussion website, and have run various online RPG projects, but basically I’m just a guy who likes tabletop roleplaying and the Japanese language, and was able to find an outlet for those two hobbies.
It certainly appears that Tenra Bansho Zero is a labor of love. How did you find out about it and devote yourself to its translation?
Well in the last 1990s I lived and worked in Japan, and even then I would check out various Japanese RPGs I thought were cool. I moved back to the US in 2000, but I would go back to Japan every 1-2 years to visit family and friends. On those trips I’d always make a stop by a game store to see what was new. I ended up spotting and picking up Tenra Bansho in 2002.
I pretty much immediately fell in love with the illustrations and the setting. However, it wasn’t until later that I read enough of it to understand the nuances of the setting, much less the depth of the rules.
A couple of years later, after being encouraged by some friends, I contacted the producer of Tenra Bansho, and got the translation rights!
Were you surprised that you were able to get the rights?
Hmmm, at the time I really was. However, at the same time it’s a big honor to have your work translated into Japanese, so for them they were probably as surprised that someone approached them as I was in getting a connection. However, after that the thing that surprised me was how open and welcoming they were: They were more forthcoming and cooperative than most places I have dealt with even in the business world.
How did you come to become interested in Japan and the Japanese language?
It’s a long story, but from my childhood I’ve always had an interest in Japanese culture and language. I’m not interested much in military history and the like, but I’ve always been kind of a language junkie. Also, while anime and manga weren’t the major pulls for me to become interested in Japanes culture, I do have to admit that they helped: Particularly Fist of the North Star, Robotech, and Ninja Scroll.
In college, I finally had some time to study the language, and I was hooked. Although I majored in other subjects, I ended up going to Japan for a semester. I fell in love with the country, and ended up living and working there for a few years after college.
What do you think makes Tenra Bansho Zero special?
Fantasy games set in Japan is nothing new to us: Legend of the Five Rings, Bushido, Oriental Adventures for AD&D and the like. But TBZ is the first game that’s… well… /real/. It’s unique in that it was actually written by Japanese people looking at their own culture and saying, “Let’s start with this as a base, and then make it ‘Extreme’!”
The cultural roots of the game shine through: They re-conceptualized Shinto, created three sects of fantasy Buddhism with some ties to real Japanese historical Buddhism: This is particularly interesting, because no popular fantasy games set in a Japan analogue to date really address either core element of Japanese culture. There are analogues of distinctive cultural elements throughout all parts of the game.
In the end, it wasn’t just a game where a western designer said “Gun-Katana and Mecha!” and used that as a foundation. Instead, it was “Let’s take our nation’s history and culture, and build up from there!” It really shows on all levels!
And that’s just the setting. I could go on and on about the rules, which really make the game a unique thing in itself.
Can you share an interesting play experience from the game?
An acquaintance from a message board came to one of the Tenra Bansho Zero sessions I was running at a convention. He was really skeptical of the game at first, because he’s not that much into anime (and the game doesn’t HAVE to feel like an anime, but the art in the book is definitely more anime-style than realistic) or over-the-top action. He was interested in it because it was unique, but at the same time he didn’t have a lot of background with good anime, so was more on the “make fun of anime tropes while playing” side at the very beginning.
However, by the second act of the game, all that making fun of anime stuff was out the window: He was deep into his character (a shinobi who was looking to outdo his sister in skill and glory), delivering lines and speeches that had us in shock. He really engaged the system, making sure to reward other roleplayers and keep everyone’s energy high. By the last act, he turned his character into a tragic hero; falling in battle against the primary antagonist and re-emerging as a bloodthirsty asura or “dark jedi” type character.
Ever since that session, he’s asked me about twice a year when the game was coming out. He had become one of my most vocal advocates, even though he initially approached the game with so many reservations!
You mentioned in the Kickstarter that the game is meant to tell a complete story in one to two sessions. How does that play out?
The game has two unique systems: It’s got a system of scenes, acts and intermissions which frame the game in the same style as a western or kabuki play. That drives the game to start, climax and end within about a six hour period (depending on players’ familiarity with the rules, number of players, etc).
It also has a system of role-playing rewards which lead to power-ups and epic achievements called the “Karma System”. This system pushes the story forward into a fast narrative arc that pushes for a conclusion within a few acts/hours.
You can continue to play another game if you want, using the same characters or new ones, and tell another tale of Tenra. This is different from a string of adventures in other tabletop RPGs, though: The next story will have totally new character focuses, new antagonists, and tell a whole new story, even if the protagonists are the game.
What other games do you want to bring out in English, if any?
There’s a few on my radar that I’d love to bring over, but we currently have two more confirmed, and one announced: Ryuutama, The Natural Fantasy RPG ( www.j-rpg.com/ryuutama
). The best way to describe it is “Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail”. It’s a lighthearted, feelgood game of travel and friendship set in a western fantasy world.
I’m also curious if you think that doing the translation for Ryuutama is going to be an easier time after you got this one under your belt?
Ryuutama is almost finished as well. And indeed, it was indeed easier to translate. The language in Ryuutama is extremely simple and straightforward, and doesn’t build upon generations of cultural and religious knowledge. Rule-wise as well it’s a much simpler game. But ultimately very deep and fun!
Is there anything else you would like to share?
Just to thank everyone for their wonderful support! I can’t wait to share this game with you!
Where can people find you and Tenra Bansho Zero on the web?
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