If this piece of Rick Marcks art from the game doesn’t interest you in this gem, then walk away now because nothing in the rest of this article will do it.
Motobushido is the motorcycle samurai roleplaying game. Written by Nathanael Phillip Cole, it is described as “a game about really sweet duels between really badass samurai who ride really awesome motorcycles.” according to the back cover blurb.
The back cover blurb does not lie.
In Motobushido you take on the role of a member of a motorcycle pack formed by ex-soldiers at the end of a devastating war. Each character type holds a specific position within the pack with well-defined responsibilities within a rigid hierarchy. Players must balance their character’s responsibilities and duties within the pack with their own needs and desires, and the dynamic tension between pack and individual is one of the big drivers for the game’s plot.
I’m not going to spend a lot of time getting into the mechanics of the game - you can get the text version here for “pay what you want” and it does a much better job of explaining the rules than I could. But a brief overview is in order, if only to understand the rest of the review.
The game is 105 pages, not counting the character sheet. It is divided into three main sections:
- Section I: Motobushi. An overview of the game and how to set it up and play it.
- Section II: Proper Ways to Die. More detailed information on how to create characters and resolve conflicts
- Section II: Sensei. Information on how to run a Motobushido game. Includes a short scenario.
(I recommend springing for the color print edition, primarily because of the previously mentioned Rick Marcks color art which graces the interior and front cover. The B&W interior art is also good, but the color art is the stuff to knock a player’s socks off, and will do more towards selling the game to your play group than any sort of verbal explanation.)
Resolution is done using a deck of cards, and there are two major resolution mechanics. Gambits are a way to resolve issues in which there is some doubt about the outcome, but simple failure may not be a particularly interesting option. Duels are the more complex resolution system, for times when the conflict has high drama value and the stakes matter. Duels are not necessarily violent, and can include poetry contests, persuasion attempts, motorcycle stunt competitions, complex seductions, and, yes, attempts to kill one another with weapons. The mechanic is surprisingly rich for such a simple game, and during a duel players will have to weigh the benefits gained by winning not only with the risks associated with failure, but the possibilities of escalation or of doing something dishonorable during the course of the conflict. Learning when to concede and when to push a duel to its limit is a skill that both players and GMs will have to learn in the course of play.
Instead of Hit Points, measuring their physical resistance to damage, characters have Stains, which represent how much damage/dishonor the character’s spirit can take, Those who behave dishonorably will eventually face karmic retribution rather than death – though don’t mistake this for one of those games where characters can’t die. They surely can.
Motobushido is very much a storytelling game, and is as much about the characters alliances and conflicts with one another as it is about their interactions with the outside world. Expect considerable internal drama and make sure that everyone at the table knows that this is not one of those games where everyone is buddy-buddy and there is no squabbling.
I ran a one-shot of Motobushido at Endgame in Oakland. I advertised for four players, but was actually willing to take five. In preparing for the game I made copies of all the pregen characters (which can be found here) and practiced the Duel system a few times to get familiar with it. (thanks to my wife Sophie for helping with that).
In the interest of saving time, I made the decision to pregenerate the pack’s resources, and skip the First Founding. In retrospect I certainly had sufficient time to run through the First Founding (which establishes information about the nature of the Pack and teaches players the rules) and perhaps I should have, but pregenerating the pack certainly saved us some time that the group put to good use. The set-up for the scenario was a simple one – the pack had suffered a difficult year fighting the War Pigs, a rival pack. Ultimately they were victorious, but at a high cost – the Morale of the pack was high, but their Sustenance (food/money) and Operations (gas/spare parts) Resources were dangerously low. Nevertheless, one of the pack traditions was to travel dangerous mountain roads in winter to visit the shrine to their founder, Kawasaki Sensei, and spend three days praying at the shrine, performing feats of bravery on their bikes, and offering sacrifices to the spirit of their founder.
I had a full table of five players, who eventually selected the following pregen templates
- The Taicho – leader of the Pack (I made it a requirement that someone HAD to play the Taicho. All of the players were sensibly reluctant to put themselves in the bullseye, but one player eventually volunteered and was brilliant!)
- The Shigakka – the Pack historian, keeper of their mon, enforcer of traditions, traditional Pack second in duels, and adviser to the Taicho.
- The Kusawake – scout for the Pack, and something of a loner. Often riding apart from the pack to scout the trail
- The Migi Ude – sword of the Taicho, the enforcer, the person who does the dirty work for the Pack so that the Taicho’s hands are clean.
- The Shinmai – the prospect, not a member of the Pack, who gets all the crappy (as opposed to dirty) jobs that nobody else wants to do
I found that it took about 30 minutes to get organized, get Pack templates selected, and give an idea about the setting and a very rough idea about the system. At that point I took them through Step 6 of character creation – Sacrifices and Deeds. I highly recommend you do this because the past sacrifices and deeds that the players come up with at the table to get each character each of their starting three Deeds will be far more interesting and dynamic, and make for a much better web of relationships than anything you as GM could put down on paper beforehand, and the results of 15 minutes brainstorming will write half of your game – maybe more – for you while you watch with glee and take notes. If you are playing with a group of strangers you should be ready to step in just in case someone steps on a trigger for another player, but in our group it didn’t happen.
Once the character deeds were determined and everyone knew who was playing what, it was time to get into the game. The Taicho planned the ride up to the shrine (and nearby village), the Kusawake scouted the way, and off we went with the throttle wide open.
Everyone grasped the Gambit rules immediately, but it took longer for the players, and myself, to appreciate the subtleties built into Duel rules. While at first they appear to be a simple “high card wins” mechanic there are subtleties built into the system that make it considerably more robust and tactical. It is worth noting that most, if not all characters have abilities that allow them to modify their play of the Duel rules, so duels between characters can look and feel very different depending on which archetypes are competing. There are also rules for Seconds and for group Duels, which add further complexity and depth. As if that wasn’t enough, Duels can escalate, leading to choices about whether to strategically concede and give up little, or push the Duel to a higher level and potentially give up a lot or even get killed.
We had several good duels during our game, but two were particularly notable. The first wasa duel of words between the Shigakka and his former sensei, who lived in the village. The Shigakka was attempting to get information, and the sensei was trying not to give it. There was a lot of back-and-forth card play, with myself and the player exchanging verbal barbs as each card hit the table. Things began to escalate and it was clear that the exchange might soon lead to more trouble than either wanted, until some good card play at the last minute managed to defuse the contest with no winner and stains on anyone’s honor. The second was a motorcycle competition between the Taicho and the Migi Ude before the shrine of their founder to honor him with their skill. This proved to be a protracted conflict because both characters were skilled riders on good bikes, and each had a Second. Card play again went back and forth, though both players were careful not to let the conflict escalate. Both players also made use of their characters special abilities and the contest held the attention of all the players at the table until in the end the Taicho managed to eke out a victory. We all noted that had the Taicho’s player made a few different decisions about card play, he would in fact have lost the duel, and I had to laugh when the Migi Ude used one of his abilities to pass the Stains he received for losing on to the Taicho’s Second (who had provided the card that enabled the Taicho to win).
The big climax of the game came when the War Pigs rode into the area and demanded that the Pack give up the village. In exchange the War Pigs promised to allow visits to the shrine of the founder, but warned that should the Pack not agree to their demands they would destroy the shrine. Things wound up with the Taicho dueling his opposite number from the War Pigs, being mortally wounded, and the Kusawake putting an arrow into the War Pigs Taicho in response. With his dying breath the Taicho commanded that the Shinmai be promoted into the Pack, and later the group found that the Taicho’s bike had appeared as part of the shrine to the founder.
Overall I found the game quite simple and satisfying to run, and the players seemed to have a great time. I found the rules to be well-written both in terms of comprehensibility and of flavor. Everything in this game directs both the players and the Sensei towards running a pack of post-apocalyptic samurai motorcycle bandits, and since this is exactly what the game sets out to do I judge it a great success!
BUMPS IN THE ROAD
Here are a few minor issues that those running Motobushido, particularly as a one-shot at a convention or event, should bear in mind.
1) My game ran 7 hours including a lunch break. In retrospect I think I would have had time to go through the First Founding with the players, but this is something I would recommend cutting if you are running in a four-hour time slot.
2) A handout describing the various options and consequences of Duels would be extremely helpful to teaching the system to new players. There is this handout available, but the outcomes don’t always match the outcomes from the rulebook so some editing is in order. If you want to be particularly impressive, put the outcome results on the other side so players have a better idea of what they are risking when they escalate.
3) The pregenerated characters are not always complete. All of them are missing a description of at least one of their techniques, and a couple are missing more. I solved this problem by making one-page handout covering their various powers and techniques and would recommend this to anyone who is running the game as a one-shot.
(You can find my sheets here – Motobushido)
4) All of the templates are Rank 1. For a one-shot it might be useful and interesting to promote characters to Rank 2, or even have some mixed ranks to indicate the varying experience of the pack. This doesn’t have to be the obvious “Taicho is high rank, everyone else is lower, Shinmai is lowest” hierarchy. You can set up very interesting pack dynamics if, for example, the Taicho is Rank 2 while the Shinmai is Rank 4. Why would this be? Have the pack Taicho been dying so fast that there hasn’t been time to promote or confirm the Shinmai? Adding some additional ranks to the character templates would also make them a bit more interesting and dynamic, as the Rank 1 abilities are mostly pretty minor.
5) Weapon techniques – one of the things that disappointed the players a bit was the lack of techniques specific to each type of weapon. While the templates do all contain differing techniques, the rules made the weapon types feel a little too generic as Rank 1. Expanding weapon techniques would be a useful addition if there was ever a supplement or expansion.
6) I found the character sheet for Motobushido to be high in aesthetic value (it’s very pretty) but poor in the ability to record and access information. Particularly page 2, which spends half it’s content on Rank pyramids but gives the player very little information about their techniques.
TAKING THE RIDE
A few things to think about when you are setting up your Motobushido game.
Understanding what the needs and drives of the various character templates are is important, because they intersect. There is some very good material about this in the rulebook. Characters fill various roles in the pack hierarchy, but they are interdependent. For example, the Migi Ude (enforcer) thrives on doing the dirty deeds of the pack so the Taicho can keep his hands clean and the wrath of the pack can be directed at the Migi Ude instead. Everyone needs to understand and buy into this. It becomes the responsibility of the Taicho to supply dirty deeds for the Migi Ude to do, and the responsibility of other members of the pack to be outraged or angry at the Migi Ude because of them.
You also need to decide whether or not you are going to require someone to be the Taicho. The pack is a hierarchy, and someone will be in charge, no matter what – you can get interesting results by playing a game without a Taicho (either with or without the Taicho NPCed) but someone is going to be at the top of the pack hierarchy regardless. It’s worth noting that in Chanbarra it can be perfectly legitimate to have the clever Shinmai as the de facto leader behind the scenes of a pack of warriors. The reason that it is important to have someone in charge is that certain character types don’t work quite right unless someone is the leader, and you may need to stretch some character definitions a bit if there is no Taicho.
Don’t overplan the scenario. Think of locations for your game as miniature sandboxes (or perhaps off-road areas where your characters can ride their bikes at high speed over difficult terrain). Let them romp about as they like – trouble will find them no matter where they go or what they do.
I set aside some time in the game specifically to let PCs go after one another, settle grudges, etc. and I was explicit about it. This led to some of the more intense drama of the game and made for a lot of fun. Remember that a duel can be any sort of competition, and most of the time the outcome isn’t going to be death unless the players want that, so feel free to let the passions flow and encourage PCs to follow their grudges as well as their honor.
This game is a gem. I am quite surprised that it has not generated more buzz in the gaming community, because the mechanics are simple and yet rich, the concept is brilliant, and the art is fantastic. The text-only version is “Pay what you want” which means that it is within the means of any gamer to own it, and it is a lot of fun to play and a lot of fun to GM. I recommend it as a one-shot or convention event for a group (and I think a campaign would be a lot of fun too, though I haven’t actually run that).
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