Thursday, June 30, 2016


My good friend, and Google Hangouts GM Keith Jacobson requested a Campaigns I Have Know entry on my most memorable Japanese mythology/folklore inspired Fantasy game. Funny thing is, one of the fellows in that game just recently posted a 'Remember This?' entry on my wall on Facebook.

Well that's too much of a coincidence to ignore.

I've run a number of games set in a mythical, feudal Japan, but my preeminent one was Shinto No Unmei, or 'The Destiny of Shinto', back in 1988-89. I used Bushido, the Japanese Medieval Fantasy RPG classic by Fantasy Games Unlimited, although modified as noted below.

Campaigns I Have Known
Proudly Presents...


The Mechanical and Creative Influences
for this campaign:
Bushido (FGU)
Land of the Rising Sun (FGU)
The Dagger of Kumi (One of my all time favorite animated films)


System: Bushido* (Fantasy Games Unlimited) - Additional Rules from Land of the Rising Sun (FGU), and House Rules.

*In truth, this campaign used a kitbashed system of my own making that was about 80% Bushido. The remaining 20% was a mixture of simplifying what was in the core rules, adding bits from Land of the Rising Sun (also from FGU), and a few house rules. The overall effect was, as I recall, very detailed while remaining highly functional.

Circa: 1988-1989. There were roughly a dozen sessions, each lasting 8-10 hours. For reasons related to scheduling conflicts, we were never able to complete the climatic, big finish to the campaign.

Sad panda.

Player Base: There were five players, all male, ages 18-20. All the players were present for all the sessions, and unlike a lot of my other games, there were no guest players, or characters.

Characters: I remember most of the characters from this game quite well, which in, and of itself is very interesting. Granted, this game was not as long ago as some of the others I've covered in the recent past, but I think it's more than that. This campaign was just that good.

Katsuhiko Otomo - Gakusho Shinto Priest / Shugenja (Played by Joe V.)

Katsuhiko Otomo was a Shinto Priest, or Gakusho, who initially hid the secret truth that his priesthood was a front for his real vocation - a Shugenja/Mage.

If I remember correctly, Katsuhiko was indeed trained as a Shinto Priest from the time he was a very young man. His ancestors came to him in a terrible dream, wherein they charged him with a quest to find a Ronin Samurai (Yoshi Yamashita) whose destiny would shape the future of Japan. Otomo was gifted/cursed with mystical powers to help him achieve this goal.

Katsuhiko was always the voice of calm, and good sense when the world around the PCs seemed to be spiraling into madness. At the same time, he was the most Human of the player characters in attitude, manner, and deed. He could be scared, get frustrated, and liked good food, drink, and a warm place to sleep when it was available.

Otomo avoided violence whenever possible, but could fight quite well with his Tetsubo (a knobbed bo staff/club), and various mystical powers, and spells.

Moki No Shingun - Neko Hengeyokai Kensai (Played by Eric F.)

Moki No Shingun (Moki of the March - Specifically 'Shingun' refers to a 'military march' or 'the coming of an army') was a strange young man with green eyes, and an oddly, eerily graceful way of moving. When first encountered, he was thought to be a commoner Bushi, a local warrior for hire. 'Moki' had developed a bit of regional renown, as he had defeated several bandit gangs with his enchanted sword, a very old tachi blade.

Like Nakagawa, and Otomo, Moki decided to join Yoshi Yamashita on his journey back home following the death of his uncle the Daimyo. It was implied that Moki may have had another reason for going as well. Something like, "I've been meaning to head that way. I would travel with you if you wouldn't mind the company."

Over time we learn that Moki No Shingun was a man of many secrets, including that fact that he was not really a man at all. Moki was a Hengeyokai, an animal spirit (in this case a cat) who could assume Human form. You could also become a seemingly normal cat, and with some effort and expenditure of Ki, a hybrid form with varying degrees of transformation**.

In addition to supernatural abilities from his status as a cat spirit such as amazing reflexes, balance, night vision, and stealth rivaling Nakagawa's, Moki was a Kensai, or 'Sword Saint'. His enchanted tachi was not enchanted at all. Rather, he spread that rumor to hide the fact that he had a number of Ki powers that could be channeled through his sword (or which needed a sword as a focus).

In one particularly awesome sequence, Moki and Shogu had taken a short cut through a forested area to come out behind an enemy. Yoshi and Katsu had taken the long way around the woods by traveling the main road. When Yoshi and Katsu arrived to enage the villain, they were surprised to have gotten there first.

It was taking an unusually long time for Moki and Shogu to get through the forest, which was peculiar since this was the short cut! Eventually, Moki used the Spirit Sight of his cat eyes to see that a curse had been placed on the forest. As they moved through it their speed bled away. Like a dream where you run, but go no where they were quite literally 'wasting time'.

Evoking the power of his Ki, and placing part of his spirit into his sword, Moki sliced through the curse, seemingly swinging at nothing, but in actuality 'cutting their time in half' (the player's description/explanation). Shogu and Moki then burst from the woods behind the enemy forces to see Yoshi and Katsu approaching from down the road.

Moki was an excellent swordsman, possessed of numerous special abilities as mentioned, and a decent hand-to-hand combatant. With not as proficient with martial arts as the other warriors in the group, he made up for it with remarkable speed, acrobatic skill, and the occasional claw attack.

Moki's full story is never completely revealed unfortunately. My idea, based on clues, suggestions, and other elements of the story was when the enemy forces summoned supernatural aid to assistance them with their plans, the Shinto gods sent Moki to level the playing field as it were.

Shogu Nakagawa - Profession Unknown - Definitely NOT a Ninja
(Played by Nelson M.)

Hailing from a small fishing village on the river, Nakagawa claimed to be the last survivor of a flood that had killed his family. Impressed with the wandering Ronin Yoshi Yamashita (and he with Shogu), the two quickly became allies if not friends (not right away anyway). Nakagawa decided to tag along with Yamashita on his journey to avenge his uncle, the former Daimyo.

Shogu had an interesting skill set that made him at once very useful, and at the same time difficult to categorize by way of profession, and station in the setting's society. At first he seemed to be a beggar from a fishing village that had fallen on tragedy. He could fight  very well unarmed using martial arts, or with a sword like a Bushi (a Warrior, or Soldier). He was quick, stealthy, knowledgeable about the woods, and knew various pyrotechnic tricks that lead some to believe he was a Shugenja.

Eventually, the group determined Nakagawa was an entertainer; an actor or performer of some kind trying to make a living off his skills. One thing was certain of course - since Ninjas were fictitious bogeymen long gone from the world, Shogu was definitely NOT a Ninja (an ongoing, in game line said as a running gag by one player, or another at least once every session).

The truth of course was that Shogu Nakagawa was very much a Ninja. He was the last surviving member of the Dark River Ninja Clan. A mysterious patron had hired the Dark River Ninjas to defend the Daimyo against an attack that was known to be taking place later that evening. The Dark River Clan, the Daimyo, and all his bodyguards, and forces present were killed in the attack.

It is unknown if the patron was honestly sending the Dark River Clan to help the Daimyo, but they were overpowered, or if it was all an ambush set up by the mystery employer.

Nakagawa primary weapon was a Tanto (Japanese samurai short bladed sword, or long knife). He would later use a Ninjato / Tanto combination, oddly mirroring Yamashita's occasional use of the traditional samurai pairing of the Katana and Wakizashi.

Nakagawa used a mixed martial arts style that was part Kung-Fu, part Jujitsu, and part Karate. He perfected the 'Flying Dragon Kick' - a devastating, Ki-enhanced, running leap kick.

Yoshiyuki Yamashita - Ronin Samurai (Played by David C.)

Youngest male of the Yamashita Clan, nephew of the great Daimyo Masao Yamashita. Yoshi was off delivering a message to Yamashita Clan allies when his uncle's fortress-like home was attacked and invaded. Word reached him while he was passing through a small town on his way back.

With his uncle dead and his father having passed on when he was a young boy, Yoshiyuki was now technically Daimyo of the region. Since he was not present when the Daimyo and his fortress fell, those familiar with his clan colors and emblem but who did not recognize his face assumed he was Ronin - a masterless samurai at best and at worst a coward.

For a short while he hid his identity and excepted the Ronin label to avoid the culprits of the attack targeting him before he could get to the bottom of what had transpired. Surviving brigands and assassins on his way back home, Yoshi befriended a wandering priest (Katsuhiko Otomo), a vagrant performer (Shogu Nakagawa), and a peasant bushi (Moki) who all decided to join him on his journey.

Evidence at the site of what could only be described as a massacre seemed to point toward foreign invaders, but the clever Yoshi, with the help of his new friends, soon realized this was a ruse.

Whomever the attackers were that slew his family, his clan-mates, and sent the region into chaos, they were not Buddhists, Chinese, or anything of the sort. They were Japanese, cleverly but cruelly trying to frame foreigners. In addition they had brought with them a supernatural element. They were evil, pure and simple, and they needed to be vanquished.

While skilled with the paired Katana and Wakizashi combo traditionally attributed to samurai, Yoshi more commonly utilized an Odachi, a long or 'great' sword that predated the Katana. This was especially true after he found the enchanted Odachi dubbed 'Ashita' (Japanese for Tomorrow).

Yoshi was also adept at martial arts, focusing on karate, judo, and an early form of aikido. He created his own close quarters fighting style patterned after Chinese Kung-Fu which he dubbed Mongoose style. It primarily consisted of very quick, short punches that started low on the opponent's body and then moved upwards towards the neck, face, and head.

Synopsis: I'm sure you can piece together a good bit of the campaign from the character write-ups, but to consolidate and simplify...

While on a mission to deliver a treaty agreement to his clan's potential new allies, Yoshi Yamashita, youngest adult male of the Yamashita clan, discovers that his uncle Masao, the regional Daimyo, was killed along with most of his family, loyal retainers, and samurai.

Yoshi immediately vows to return home, only to discover rumors have been spread explaining his absence at the battle that destroyed the Yamashita Clan as cowardice.

Travelling in disguise as a Ronin, Yoshi crosses paths with a wandering Shinto Priest named Katsuhiko Otomo, a strange Bushi called Moki No Shingun, and a beggar and performer named Shogu Nakagawa. Together they journey to the fortress home of Yoshi's uncle, which begins an intricate mystery as to who attacked and why.

Without the Daimyo's influence, the area quickly erupted into chaos, with numerous enemies and allies alike attempting to take control of the countryside. Only the Ikeda Clan, old and wise, stayed out of the competition - ready to assist whomever came out on top with the transition form the old order of the day to whatever new status quo resulted. Eventually clues and later hard evidence pointed to the Ikeda clan as the instigators and orchestrators of the entire predicament. Also, it seemed they had a supernatural ally, a Witch who may have been possessed by a Demon, or perhaps been a Demon herself.

With the help of his allies and the pure nature of his heart, Yoshi Yamashita showed his true identity as a man of loyalty, honor, and leadership. He assembled a volunteer army of mercenaries, commoners, and peasants and lead them against the Ikeda clan, and it's allies.

The final battle between Yoshi and the leader of the Ikeda clan, as well Moki and Katsuhiko versus the Demon-Witch, and Shogu of the Dark River Ninjas against the leader of the Fire Mountain Ninjas was, sadly, never run. It is one of my deepest, hell one of my only, gaming regrets.


In addition to the Action/Adventure Cinema nature of this campaign, it was also one of my first to go a little deeper and tackle social, political, cultural, and even religious ideals and issues. While there is definitely a focus on the hero's journey here, The Destiny of Shinto was also about more than that.

A lot of the game had a sub-context that asked, "What happens when a society and culture changes - whether from within or without due to outside influences?"

Are we better off changing and adapting with the times or do we fight for our established traditions and beliefs?

Although set at an indeterminate period in Japan's history, it is definitely a time one can roughly estimate with careful observation. Japan is aware of China in the campaign and the threat of 'foreign invaders' (as well as being the foreign invader) is very real. Buddhism is depicted as encroaching on the old ways of Japan's Shinto culture and religion. It is initially framed as foreign, different, and perhaps dangerous but eventually it is clear it isn't 'evil'. It is simply a different set of beliefs.

The death of Masao Yamashita and the 'old' Yamashita clan must be avenged by Yoshi, who seeks to carry on the memory and traditions of his ancestors. At the same time, Yoshi adapts to the changing times better than his predecessors. He does things his way. He doesn't lose who he is or where he came from, but he doesn't dwell in the past either.

Appendix N: The source material found in Bushido and Land of the Rising Sun was actually some of the best, most accurate material on Medieval/Feudal Era Japan ever produced for RPGs. Lee Gold, who wrote much of Land of the Rising Sun, would later go on to do GURPS Japan, another fantastic resource.

In addition to the games themselves I found information and inspiration in several books on Japanese culture, mythology, folklore, and religion in a number of libraries and Japanese bookstores (only one of which remains in New York City - Kinokuniya Books. Sadly Asahiya Books and Zen Oriental Bookstore are both closed).

Additional resources included Osprey Books, Akira Kurosawa films, and numerous Japanese Anime/Manga, especially The Dagger of Kamui, a huge favorite of mine. It really set the tone for much of the game.

Finally, I had two very special consultants on the campaign. One was a young Japanese woman I was friends with who was born in Yokohama (I believe). She only lived in New York during the school year, then returned to Japan in the Summer. I think her father was a diplomat, or something. The second was a friend of mine who was half-Japanese. He was an aficionado of Samurai era Japan.

Bonus Features:

I wanted to use as much, and as accurate, Japanese naming as I could (which wasn't easy in the days before the internet) but my 'consultants' really helped in that regard. That's true for any of the Japanese words we used, from meaning to pronunciation.

Dave and Nelson had been in a few games together.
Dave and Eric had been in a number of games together.
Eric and Nelson had been in games together.
Joe had been in games with Dave.

This was the first campaign I can recall where all four of them were PCs in the same game at the same time.

I didn't own a copy of Bushido at the time, nor Land of the Rising Sun. I borrowed a friend's copies in order to develop the campaign.

The phrase, "He's NOT a Ninja", in regard to Nelson's character Shogu, began honestly and naturally. The other PCs really didn't think he was playing a Ninja, but couldn't figure out what his profession was. When it became clear he was indeed a Ninja, we established in game that Yoshi had convinced himself of the delusion that his good friend could not possibly be one of those terrible, not to mention mythical, assassins.

Anytime some plays a Ninja or Ninja-like character in any games, of any genre, and part of the conceit is that they are hiding that fact, the phrase "He's NOT a Ninja" is uttered by someone in the group in the exact same way we said it back in 1988-89.

**Moki No Shingun could change himself into a 'Catman', though more often he only changed a part of his body. He was more likely to be a man with cat eyes, clawed fingers, padded feet, or have Anime style cat ears. I only recall once or twice where he did a full, hybrid transformation.

I apologize for the lateness of this post.

Originally done on June 28th, and edited on the 30th, I meant to post it that Thursday due fell asleep. I've not been sleeping well again recently - more so than usual I mean - and it's thrown off my posting plans. Hopefully this was entertaining enough to be worth the wait.


Barking Alien


  1. It's a shame that this campaign never got the ending it deserved, but it looks like it was fun to play anyway. I have played a couple of one-shots set in historic Japan, but I'd love to play something like this.

  2. This sounds like it was an amazing game, with a completely different feel to it than most games! Thank you.

    1. I'm curious Keith, when you say 'a completely different feel to it than most games', what do you mean? What makes it unusual if that's the right word?

  3. Thank you both.

    It saddens me sometimes that these incomplete tales are a by product of how this particular hobby clashes with real life.

    So many great stories with no grand finale.

    A pity.

  4. Many of my group's campaigns have fizzled away to nothing, or have gone on hiatus and never resumed. We've been getting better of late and have managed to finish a number of campaigns on the trot.

  5. It's funny...

    Although it does make me sad when a story has no ending...sort of, and I'll get to that...I don't think that I ever anticipated an ending in the old days. That is to say, we were running a campaign, not writing a book, and as such we didn't really feel like these narratives needed a last page.

    It is only when I had a particular story in mind, or a narrative developed that pointed towards some particular 'endgame' that I would feel I had cheated myself, and the players, if that endgame wasn't realized.

    More often than not (and I think this is still true these days) a campaign was simply a series of days in the lives of a certain group of fictional people. If the time came when the campaign ended, but the characters were still alive and well within the milieu of the game, then I would not feel bad in the least. They didn't die, so their story isn't over. We're just no longer tuning into it. Their world lives on, as do they, out there in the infinite possible realities of quantum mechanics and/or our imaginations.

    1. A lot of the campaigns I played as a teenager were like that. Rambling, open-ended things that we played until we got bored.

      My current group tries to play more narrative-based campaigns, and I think that's probably why it feels more disappointing when we don't finish them.

  6. Awesome campaign!

    I've tried to run Japanese themed/Japan-based campaigns several times but they just never worked out or got started. The whole culture/history piece was always fascinating to my friends but too intimidating.

    Part of that I have come to realize is not setting the correct expectations. If I were to do it today I would probably have them watch a few movies and anime to get the right sense of things. I also think too many games create too complex of rules around honor.

    1. I will agree with everything you said here, and offer a few minor tips...

      As I noted in the post, the time period of this campaign was deliberately vague. It definitely refers to a period of Japanese history, but it doesn't cover a historical event. This is very important when rules historical fantasy fiction (like Ars Magica for example).

      Identify the year, and you immediately lock your campaign into some fixed point in our real world. You are subject to players looking up Japanese history in books, or on a Wiki page. You the GM can now be wrong. Worse, you can say 'but this is an alternate history', and then confuse people as to the nature of the game.

      Don't identify it in a precise way. Stay vague.

      The honor issue is one I've come up against in connection with what I noted above. In other words, if this is a distinct period of real world Japan, THIS is how honor worked. If you stay a little vague, you can get away with how honor worked in folklore, which is to say it reinforced the big concepts, but stayed clear of the minute details.

      Often folklore was used to reinforce the traditions of the culture for children. That's a fine model for modern Westerners to follow. Don't worry about the accuracy of the Code of Bushido EXACTLY as it was for adults in Medieval Japan. Worry about the tone and meaning of it for Japanese children growing up in Medieval Japan.

    2. Great points all around.

      I always avoid providing a specific year and instead point to periods so players have a sense of what the natural state of the world is. Warring states period in Japan is very different from the Tokugawa period. Dark Ages Europe is different from Middle Ages Europe and the Renaissance. Beyond that I always try to avoid the exact date for the reasons you said.

      The folklore analogy is a good one. I hadn't looked at it that way. It also gives a good feel for the moral system of the society as well. If I try this again I'll combine it with some film/TV suggestions to help everyone get the feel.

      Thanks for the advice!