Guardians of Order

Although it goes without saying, mixing RPG chocolate and anime peanut butter has been a major passion of mine since forever. The first RPG I ever played was Palladium’s Robotech game, before I even knew what anime (or “Japanimation”) was, and when I did get into anime proper in high school I was relentlessly trying to find ways to combine them. I’ve largely been dissatisfied with the anime-inspired RPGs that are available, and my career as a designer (and translator) of RPGs has largely been a succession of attempts to rectify the situation in different ways. As a consequence, it kind of goes without saying that I have strong opinions on Guardians of Order. A random forum post inspired me to write at length about the company and my experiences with them and their products. As I clean out my house preparing to move, I keep running into stuff from my past that many people seem to have forgotten about, that is slipping into obscurity. (For example, the DVDs of the original Tenchi Muyo! OAVs are really hard to find.) I don’t think Guardians of Order has been forgotten, at least not yet, but as someone closely following the scene at the time there are a lot of little things I remember that might help form a clearer overall picture. This is going to be kind of long and a little rambly. Kind of ranty too.

My first encounter with GoO was in the late 90s when I stumbled across the original gray Big Eyes Small Mouth book at a local game store. That store is now long gone, and the mall where it was has since remodeled and generally become very trendy. The book had the original GoO logo, the one with what looked kind of like Akane from Ranma ½ on a unicorn or something, that later went through a few iterations before the final griffin/shield/maple leaf logo. (MacKinnon is proudly Canadian, which matters to the story a lot more than it probably should.) Since most of my experience with RPGs up until then had been with Palladium, Toon, White Wolf, and to a lesser extent GURPS, my prior gaming experience hadn’t prepared me for this style game. What I know now that I wish I’d known then is that BESM is the creation of a hardcore Amber Diceless fan, and Mark C. MacKinnon essentially meant the rules to be a guideline and a set of tools you could fall back on when your freeform role-play left questions unanswered. From the direction that the game went from that gray book, it’s eminently clear that MacKinnon didn’t really realize that that was what made his game worthwhile, and so he failed to articulate it to anyone. I certainly didn’t know what to do with a game where the cyborg attribute’s description simply said it would give you a small/moderate/large “advantage” (not a game term, just something vaguely advantageous). Even so, BESM became the standard in anime-inspired role-playing games, and GoO began producing supplements and licensed games. For their original works they made good use of art from talented fan artists (with a few missteps), and by and large their books were very pretty. I complain a lot about anime-inspired artwork in RPGs, but for the most part the folks at GoO got it in a way that very few RPG publishers ever have.

MacKinnon quickly brought David Pulver onto the GoO team too. While everyone concerned was happy with this arrangement, the idea of having the author of GURPS Vehicles (the only RPG book I know of that involved using cube roots) work on a game like BESM was a little weird. That said, Pulver was definitely a superior game designer to MacKinnon. One ideal example of this was in the roll-under vs. roll-over thing. Up through 2nd Edition, BESM’s core mechanic was that you would roll 2d6 and try to get under your stat, and for a contested action both sides roll and a victory only happens when one side succeeds and the other fails. One consequence of this was that if two characters with high stats go head to head in combat, they tended to clash over and over without actually doing damage. Fans called this the “RuneQuest problem,” and according to Pulver it wasn’t until he grabbed MacKinnon and forced him to play through such a combat that he saw the light. As a consequence, 3rd Edition switched to roll-over, some 9 years after the original BESM came out. There was also a general tendency to make rules needlessly confusing by listing bonuses as minuses to the die roll rather than bonuses to the stat, with the rationalization that it was to avoid creating the illusion of characters being more or less competent. That didn’t take quite as long to go away, since the concept of a “Check Value” (being the stat plus relevant modifiers) appeared in Tri-Stat dX (2003).

Their first licensed game was the Sailor Moon RPG & Resource Book. This was easily one of the company’s best products, even though it was before they hired Jeff Mackintosh to provide professional quality graphic design. (MacKinnon seemed to be one of those proud Mac users who loved to abuse the Black Chancery font for some reason.) The book provided an excellent overview of the source material, and the BESM/Tri-Stat rules fit that source material quite well. It was exactly the kind of title where, for example, melding all physical attributes into a general “Body” stat made sense, unlike many other genres of anime. I don’t know what other efforts there might have been before, but I suspect it was a major milestone in terms of tabletop RPGs aimed at girls. I distinctly remember one poster proudly recounting how his 12-year-old daughter and her friends were happily playing the Sailor Moon RPG without any help.

The Dominion Tank Police RPG on the other hand was an odd choice. They licensed the first OAV series and that alone, which made for a very limited range of material to draw upon. I think that became a recurring motif in their licensed games, and in general they tended to provide you with the tools to make clumsy imitations of a series rather than anything to get at its core. The DTP RPG also added the skill system that would become core in BESM 2nd Edition. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but in hindsight was a strange step to take, particularly with the implementation they chose. BESM is perfectly playable with no skills at all, but once again the game’s text totally failed to articulate how one might do that. With fans clamoring for skills basically because they couldn’t really see how an RPG was supposed to work without them, GoO gave them a skill system. However, it was a bit strange and clunky. The skill system had the intriguing idea of genre-based skill costs, so that for any given setting you would have a table of costs that made skills more expensive as they became more relevant to the game. (So for example cooking would be very cheap in most settings, but pretty valuable in a romantic comedy game.) There were a couple of major issues with the system though. The big one was that it was a massive move away from the simplicity that had been BESM’s main strength, and easily doubled or tripled the amount of time it took to make a character. You would have to handle a second pool of points and a second set of character traits, with the added bonus that the point costs of the traits was in a single column of a separate table. It also was problematic for what little shreds of game balance the rules had, and among other things there were combat skills that were effectively redundant with certain Attributes.

The skill system was easily the most egregious case of complication in BESM 2nd Edition, though the selection of Attributes and Defects was much larger and more rigid too, with very few attributes that gave generic unspecified “advantages.” It talked a lot about customization and making up new attributes, but the selection of pre-made traits had ballooned in size and now involved a huge range of fiddly bits. It also included things like the Magic attribute, which let you take many other attributes under it with the minor penalty of an energy cost, and the Weapon/Special Attack attribute, which made it relatively easy to take a power that could blow up a planet. (For a very brutal critique of BESM, see Something Awful user WhiteMageofDOOM’s writeup.) The entire “nested attributes” concept (which showed up earlier in the Sailor Moon RPG and in the BESM 1e mecha supplement) was another thing that was outwardly appealing but just not very good game design when all was said and done. The text had more background on anime and Japan, but really didn’t do any better when it came to explaining the essence of how to use the game. Late in BESM 2e’s life I wrote a “netbook” (remember those?) that I called “BESM EX.” It was a bit of everything for BESM, but the part I’m most proud of is a section explaining what I saw as the major principles of how to play the game, the stuff that I felt had been missing from the text since day one. It was because of said project that I ended up owning Hong Kong Action Theater, Tri-Stat dX, and BESM d20. I’d had some additional stuff in mind to add, but I was moving on to other things.

Looking back on GoO’s product lines, it’s hard to see any real pattern or strategy. The company’s core competency and fanbase was in anime, but they also put out games relating to superheroes and Hong Kong cinema, a universal system, an adaptation of A Game of Thrones, and of all things a licensed RPG based on the movie Ghost Dog. (Also, a couple of card games and Sailor Moon Button Men.) Moreover, apart from arrangements to distribute Nobilis and Amber, GoO was very much a “house system” kind of company, and shoehorned absolutely everything–including Hong Kong Action Theater!, which they bought from its original publisher–into Tri-Stat. Their first several licensed titles were full RPGs, including gorgeous full-color books for Tenchi Muyo! and El Hazard. Then they switched to the “Ultimate Fan Guide” format, which consisted of thinner books with a non-RPG guide to the series that had BESM stats in the back. These tended to have less depth, and the selection of titles was weird and a little random. Hellsing and Trigun at least made sense in terms of their ability to sell, but the only explanation I can come up with for the Dual: Parallel Trouble Adventure UFG is that they must have had some kind of package deal with Pioneer. They also did such guides for titles like Utena and Serial Experiments Lain, for which a proper RPG adaptation definitely wouldn’t have looked even remotely like Tri-Stat. (I remember one poster was strongly of the opinion that an Utena RPG wouldn’t actually have a combat system because the duels were so thoroughly about character stuff.)

For a little while after GoO’s demise, MacKinnon came back to the RPGnet forums. One of the stranger things he said is that he doesn’t believe in game balance. I could understand if he’d said he didn’t believe game balance was necessary for an RPG, but the idea that it’s nonexistent and impossible is ludicrous on the face of it. Looking through BESM now, it’s not hard to see how the game is the product of someone who doesn’t actually believe in game balance, as it’s trivially easy to make ridiculously imbalanced characters, sometimes even by accident. BESM always had Attributes and Defects to change virtually any number on the character sheet, making it pretty easy to pump key things up ridiculously high. GoO’s “Role-Playing Game Manifesto,” although very well-suited to Tri-Stat’s intended playstyle, nonetheless seemed to balk at the idea of the game designer taking any responsibility for making the rules balanced by saying, “Min/Maxing and munchkinism aren’t problems with the game; they’re problems with the player.” Given some of the things that are possible in the BESM rules as written (which subsequent editions and variants were often struggling to address), I feel safe to say that the rules do bear some responsibility. While not every game should be as rigid as, say, My Life With Master, the idea that the rules are just a suggestion seems to in some lead to writing only suggestions. My own attitude on this is best summed up by my statement about house rules: “Houseruling should always be possible and should never be necessary.

Guardians of Order was also around at the time of the d20 boom, and their main contribution to such was BESM d20. This was a just plain bizarre concept, as it grafted BESM’s Attributes and Defects onto the barest skeleton of the d20 rules, with MacKinnon’s disdain for game balance on full display. This also enabled them to make “d20” versions of their licensed products with minimal effort. (The Slayers d20 book is a notable exception, as it essentially takes D&D and adds Slayers style magic and such.) It also had a set of classes, which basically amounted to templates with levels. On the whole it effectively created a “Hex-Stat” variant of Tri-Stat, and I don’t think anyone who gave a damn about game balance would use BESM d20 material in a D&D game. I do think there were a couple of good points about BESM d20, though they’re kind of damning with faint praise. One was that GoO also produced an “Anime d20 SRD,” so that all of the rules were available for free. The other was that the book, especially the deluxe hardcover version, was just beautiful, representing a high point in GoO’s prowess with visuals.

The Third Edition of BESM is a strange beast. It’s a thick, full-sized, bright-red hardcover in full color, and it’s bursting with great art, though it reuses practically every color piece GoO has ever commissioned. 3e switched to the roll-over mechanic as I said, but it also hugely inflated character point values, such that powerful PCs could be made on up to a thousand points. It also introduced a multiverse setting, which I’m sure will remind not a few people of GURPS 4th Edition, and had a lengthy section with templates for various archetypes. On the whole, BESM 3e took the tendency to miss the point of what made BESM work to its utmost, and fully transformed it into a wannabe GURPS. The company also had ambitious plans for a lighter version (“Vanilla BESM”), more Game of Thrones products, and even an Evangelion RPG. (You can probably guess how I feel about the idea of a Tri-Stat Evangelion game.) In the summer of 2006 GoO went out of business.

The downfall of Guardians of Order apparently came from a downturn in the American economy. MacKinnon had been taking advantage of the difference in the American and Canadian exchange rates, and when the US dollar’s value fell too far, it was evidently enough for GoO to stop being profitable, as the company’s assets were worth significantly less compared to most of their customers and distributors. I don’t know enough about business to comment on that practice with any authority, but I think if someone proposed making taking advantage of exchange rates a major part of a business to me I’d need some convincing. Anyway, this is where the story gets a bit dicey, as the GoO site had been taking preorders for BESM 3rd Edition, so that MacKinnon was sitting on money from some of his most loyal customers. Then he virtually disappeared, and almost no one was able to contact him for a while, even some people who knew him personally and had his phone number. Several publishers showed interest in picking up BESM 3e, and White Wolf’s ArtHaus imprint put out a single print run. They still have PDFs of the GoO product line (minus licensed stuff) up for sale, but White Wolf has never made any statement one way or the other about BESM having any kind of future. MacKinnon has supposedly gone back into the real estate business (and hasn’t updated the BESM blog he started since 2007), but the BESM 3e preorders were apparently only fulfilled because White Wolf took care of them at their own expense, and there are still questions about what happened to stock of Nobilis and Amber that GoO was handling.

As far as I can tell, BESM/Tri-Stat related fan activity has largely ceased too. While BESM d20’s Anime d20 SRD means it wouldn’t be too hard to make something of a BESM retroclone under the OGL, as far as I know no one’s made the attempt. I had at one point considered doing it myself, but as BESM was never quite what I’d wanted in the first place, I never had the enthusiasm to do it. Any time I run into someone looking for something along the lines of BESM I point them to Clay Gardner’s game OVA: Open Versatile Anime. To me it is everything BESM’s little gray book wanted to be but never quite managed, and it feels more complete in a little 128-page book than the entire BESM product line. Although more traditional of course, it has the “complete game engine” feel of the likes of Risus and Primetime Adventures. And I’m not just saying that because I’m friends with Clay. (Feel free to bug him about when the revised version is coming out though.)

For me the positive part of all of this is that there’s no one overriding “anime” RPG system anymore. For a while any time you mentioned anything even remotely anime-style people would jump to suggest it. It still blows my mind that one RPGnet poster wanted to know what made Maid RPG different from a BESM campaign with maids. (Answer: Just about everything.) There are people working on new anime-inspired RPGs are creating all kinds of amazing things, including things I never would have thought of myself. Right now you can get a game based on Yotsuba&! and a boys love dating game, and they’re both great at what they do. I think for me Guardians of Order will ultimately be the anime version of Palladium Books. I don’t agree with where they went in a lot of ways, but they gave me some good times, and when all is said and done I don’t really bear them any ill will.

5 thoughts on “Guardians of Order

  1. “the DVDs of the original Tenchi Muyo! OAVs are really hard to find” – You won’t have to wait too much longer. FUNimation has relicensed the whole Tenchi franchise and will be reissuing it in chunks in the coming months.

  2. Dude. BESM. So many memories… it was my primary gaming system for a long time. I have owned each iteration of besm 1, 2 and now 3rd edition. Guardians of order were such good business people and customer service always came first. They even replaced my sister’s copy of sailor moon for free. It was a shame what happened to GOO.

    Infernal games(?) made random anime. That game was kinda neat too but i did not get a lot of time to use it.

    I loved OVA. Great game system and am really hoping 2nd edition does not become vaporware.

  3. Hmmm…. Thinking back on all this…yeah, I suppose I have to agree. I enjoyed the books, but I thought the overpowered things I came up with were just due to my min/maxer tendencies.

    Still, it was fun.

    Oh, yes. I feel I should note that, Uresia, the Fantasy Setting that BESM had, has recently been republished by the original author in a revised, expanded, and systemless format. It can be found at the following link, should anyone be interested:

  4. In the time I spent reading through and reviewing many of the BESM books, I did encounter one pattern to how they act: they’ll experiment with new mechanics in a licensed source book, and then make it generic.

    The magic system introduced in Slayers d20 was eventually made “generic” as their “d20 Advanced Magic” book; it converted all of the spells from the D&D 3rd Edition SRD into the same sort of magic system found in Slayers d20.

    And this also goes back as far as their little grey book, too: the Sailor Moon RPG experimented with a more expanded magic system that wasn’t present in the first edition, but made the cut for the second.

    I didn’t know that MacKinnon was opposed to game balance; but as you said, it makes a lot of his design choices make a LOT more sense…

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