Three Things I Like About Tokyo Heroes (so far)

Last week I went to the mall, basically to do some stuff by myself and clear my head. I was especially thinking about getting more of my creative stuff off the ground. One side of that has been harassing my artist friends to get my T-shirt design project seriously under way, but over lunch I pulled out my laptop and wound up rereading the unfinished manuscript of Tokyo Heries, and I realized that I really liked what I saw. Which is why I wound up dropping everything else I was doing (writing/RPG design-wise) for the moment to work on this game.

Sentai is an odd genre, to say the least. “Tokusatsu” — live-action special effects — shows in Japan tend to use cheap effects and cheesy, melodramatic storylines with a gonzo enthusiasm, whether it’s Godzilla stomping Tokyo flat or Kamen Rider saving it from the machinations of the Shocker organization. Although I watched some Godzilla movies when I was a kid, and I find Ryuhei Kitamura’s Versus just too cool for words, the early Power Rangers series had me keeping most of that stuff at arm’s length. Over time my changing tastes, my rampant Japanophilia, and the pure awesomeness that is Dekaranger made me a fan of sentai. It can be goofy at times, but the emphasis is squarely on fun.

The game also covers “fighting” magical girl anime like Sailor Moon and Tokyo Mew Mew. I’ve been intrigued by these for a long time (shut up), and the differences between these and sentai seem to be mainly trivialities like the distribution of power levels and flavor text — stuff that matters for how you play the character, but not at all for how the game works.

I originally came up with the idea for Tokyo Heroes in my hotel room at GenCon SoCal 2004. Sentai seems absolutely perfect for roleplaying, since the notion of a team of heroes working together is so ingrained into the genre. In the U.S. tokusatsu in general is a very small niche fandom, and in Japan it’s mostly something young boys watch, so there’s next to nothing for roleplaying the genre.

(There is a gentleman who mentioned on that he’s working on an RPG called HENSHIN!, which I’m looking forward to almost as much as my own game. So hey, there’s now two on the way).

Anyway, here are some things I’m especially fond of about the game:

Character Creation
The thing about sentai is that between series you can have one team that uses super-science given to the by aliens, and another that uses ninja powers, and a third that drawns on dinosaur totem spirits, and somehow they mostly have the same powers. Even when I included the sentai-influenced magical girl anime series, the basic formula changed only slightly.

The result of this is that in the game characters are defined with relatively few traits, many of which will be the same for all of the PCs. In order for the players to have an appropriate amount of input into what their characters are going to be like, the group has to meet together for character creation and hash out the important details. It also forces the GM to avoid planning too much in advance, something I personally need to work on as a GM anyway.

The group has to settle on what Edges and Keys are common to the team. Edges are special powers, gear, and other benefits. Keys are similar to those in The Shadow of Yesterday, but they play into the teamwork thing (Keys earn Hero Dice, that are used by the whole group).

Group character creation is also important because of Aspects. In sentai, the heroes each wear a different color spandex costume, and these have grown into archetypes that to some degree dictate a character’s personality. In game terms, Aspects carry some guidelines for roleplaying, give the character another Key, and provide a small special ability. Since each team should generally only have one of a given Aspect, and needs both Red and Blue, players can’t come to the table too attached to a character concept either, though with ten Aspects in the game (Red, Blue, Yellow, Green, Pink, Black, White, Gold, Silver, Master), and some of them kind of vague (especially Green and Yellow), players shouldn’t have too much trouble coming up with the character they want.

Another interesting thing here is the concept of Ally Characters (ACs). Sentai shows frequently introduce new heroes after the fact. There’s the archetypal Sixth Ranger of course, and there’s been stuff like Hurricanger and Abaranger, where enemy rangers became good guys, and Dekaranger, where supporting characters have occasionally revealed they can transform too. It’s also a handy way to fill out the roster when you have less than 5 players and really want a full team of 5 heroes. An AC is basically an NPC that is by definition friendly to the PCs. Each player has Karma (experience) points, and one of the things they can invest Karma in is taking control of an AC for a scene. If they do well, they get their Karma back with interest, and if they do poorly they lose some of it.

Team Dynamic
Teamwork is a very important theme in this game, and I’ve tried to make the mechanics reflect that. Hero Dice are one of the more important ways in which it does that; characters’ Keys don’t earn them XP, but Hero Dice, which go into a collective pool available to the whole team. Hero Dice can be used to add to rolls, to restore Stamina points during combat, or to power certain Edges. (Finishing attacks always use Hero Dice, as does stuff like DekaYellow’s esper ability, for example). The idea here is to give everyone the ability to contribute to the group’s success just by playing their character to the hilt.

The way dice are handled is also meant to enable cooperation, and generally keep everyone at the table doing something. Rolls are done with pools of six-siders; normally you want to roll 4 or higher (a Target of 4) to get Successes. If you assist someone, you get a +1 Target modifier (so you have to roll 5 or higher), and if you merely encourage someone it’s +2, but all of your successes are added to theirs. This sort of thing because especially important when the team

Session Structure
My first Japanese RPG, Beast Bind: New Testament, wound up being a big influence on how game sessions are set up in Tokyo Heroes. From what Andy K has said, it seems that in Japan there are a lot more people who learn how to play by reading the books rather than being taught by someone else, and if BBNT is any indication, the way the books are put together strongly reflects this. This particular game outlines how to structure a session, from “pre-session” (getting everyone together and settled in) to “on-session” (the meat of the game) to “post-session” (concluding bookkeeping, cleaning up, etc.), and it even goes so far as to suggest going to a coffee shop of family restaurant to relax and discuss the game. It also makes a point of dividing the on-session portion up into scenes. Although scene breaks aren’t hugely important to the game mechanics, the text does a credible job of explaining how scenes begin and end, and it even has a rule for an “appearance check,” a roll to see if your character appears during a given scene.

All of the above I think helps a lot to capture the feel of sentai. If you cut out the opening, ending, and preview, a typical sentai episode is about 20 minutes long, so each scene needs to do its job and get over with. It also means that a given game session could potentially fit in multiple complete episodes if you’re so inclined. Appearance checks are perhaps a little more practical than in Beast Bind, since they’re more likely to be used for something like whether your character can run fast enough to reach that stereotypical sentai rock quarry in time to participate in the battle and bail his friends out.

Another interesthing thing that came out of this is the idea of including a “preview” at the end of each session. This is for not only the usual post-session stuff, but a chance for the GM to give hints about the nature of the next episode and the players to give input as well. In particular, there’s a mechanic for “spotlight episodes.” Sentai shows frequently have episodes that center around a given hero; the plot is mostly about them, and they get to show off. Players can invest Karma points, and in return their hero earns extra Hero Dice and has a -1 Target modifier to everything they do for that episode. (Newly introduced characters also get a spotlight episode effect for free, and new robots get a scene-long spotlight effect).

Sample Characters
Okay, I lied. Four.

I have way too much fun coming up with characters (this’ll be especially obvious once Battlefield Press gets Open Anime published), so I had a fun time coming up with two teams of sample heroes for the Tokyo Heroes book, one sentai team and one magical girl team. I’m entirely too satisfied with myself for coming up with a a sixth ranger called Dynamic Knight, a grim warrior bent on revenge whose real name is Jax Goldwraith, and an evil magical girl who fights dirty called Magical Girl Destiny. Some of the campaign seeds tie into the Dynarangers setting, and once I do some playtesting and get more revisions done I’ll be writing examples for the game text using these characters. I’m hoping to have actual art done up of these characters for the final game; at the moment I’m getting my artist friends to help work on the magical girl designs.

I’m really looking forward to playing this game. Every time I watch sentai now I can map out what’s going on in game terms in my head. Also, the fact that it’s specifically made to not require too much planning (in fact it discourages it in certain ways) will help keep me from dragging my feet and get around to running it sooner. There’s still some writing to do, but I now have all of the rules in place, and everything left is revising and/or expanding, rather than creating stuff from scratch.

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