Review: Motobushido

I think I picked this up on a whim a while ago because Sophie Lagace mentioned it in a post, and I am a huge car-combat/gearhead nut from as far back as watching Damnation Alley. And I have some fondness for a good samurai story; Blossoms are Falling is still maybe the best implementation of Burning Wheel out there.

So this game! This game is bonkers. 

Motobushido proposes that in some very vague postwar future, you will belong to a gang of motorcycle-riding samurai. Why samurai? I don’t know and the game doesn’t offer an answer. On the surface it seems like an entirely stylistic choice, and it is, but it’s also an excellent bit of additional texture/weirdness atop a fully serviceable motorcycle gang RPG. It could have been just a great Sons of Anarchy RPG, but now it’s Sons of Anarchy where you’re constantly dueling one another with swords and making portentous quotes about the nature of fate.

The tl;dr of what’s to follow is this: quite mechanically involved, borrows from great ideas everywhere, relies on strong GMing to keep it moving.

Character and situation setup are great and very modern: you build your gang member out of three “codes,” split-value stats that rank from 0 to 6 (you divide 6 into two parts, one that rejects the code and one that embraces it — kind of Pendragon-ish, and another game that eludes me…Fading Suns maybe?) and that can remove you from the game if it ever drops below 0 or above 6 (straight outta Mouse Guard’s Nature stat). You choose a birth sign that gives you a bonus (and ties into one of your codes). You choose a Bike, which confers some bonuses and carries its own stats. You work out who serves at what rank in the gang: Leader, 2iC, regular member and recruit (these all have Japanese names that escape me at the moment), all of which confer special bonuses and mechanical tricks. You pick a martial style, defined by your weapon of choice (gun, sword, bow, spear, war fan!, etc.), all of which come with bonuses. It’s tricks upon tricks and I’m certain there are crazy-good synergies to be discovered.

The game sets up a relationship map, of sorts, right out of the gate: everyone takes turns talking about sacrifices they’ve made in service to their three Codes. Those little tidbits also become more little mechanical nuggets for use in some economic way down the road. You also write out maxims that describe your attitude toward your Codes. And little story-starters having to do with your hope, hate, love and doom. And and and.

Something I noticed about Motobushido is that literally every word you write down on your sheet has an economic implication. Interesting. Possibly overwhelming, too. Like…sometimes you just need a little room for the fiction to breathe on its own, you know? Your cloak color in Mouse Guard carries backstory and personality implications, for example – no need to apply stats or turn the cloak into a token. 

Oh right speaking of tokens: there’s an economy called Ki. It’s actual in-game chits you spend to do cool stuff with your bike and fighting style, and you replenish by playing out flashbacks and living up to your birth sign. 

Wheels within wheels within wheels. The gearhead in me adores all the mechanizing but the dramaturge is sort of horrified. Moving on!

First session, you do a scene about some crisis from your motorcycle club’s founding. You don’t play your own characters! Instead, you play one of the templates the game comes with. I like the idea of this but I’m having trouble feeling out how it plays. At some point, informed by this prequel scene, you work out the values, by-laws, taboos and other fictional tidbits of your Pack (i.e. your MC…oh god I just realized I have to spell out motorcycle club because the PbtA-heads will not understand). The Pack also comes with three of its own stats and this is one of my favorite recent-ish RPG things. I am loving games like Motobushido and Mutant: Year Zero where the players share this pool of resources, and as the resources change it informs the fiction. A cooperative economy? I don’t know. Needs a pithy name. Anyhoo, in Motobushido it works out that to do things with your Pack, you’re going to burn down your various economies (Morale, Sustenance, Operations). 

Going forward, play gets pushed around via alllll those mechanisms. As your Pack resources get depleted, you’ll be compelled to refill them. As you play out Duels – and because of the bushido bit in the title of the game, every damned thing is a Duel – you’re also eventually drawing Joker cards. As Jokers appear, the GM (sorry, Sensei) starts fucking with the Pack. When all four Jokers are pulled, awful shit rains down. There’s a kind of sense of injustice and resentfulness that sits under the surface of Sons of Anarchy that’s very nicely replicated here. It’s also deeply at odds with my understanding of the more resigned sense of honor (which can be impinged by taking “stains” for being dishonorable) and nihilism that the bushido side of the game brings. I hope that’s interesting and not just a conflict of themes.

Oh so I mentioned drawing cards and Jokers, yeah? Game runs off card draws. The Sensei has a deck, and the players share a deck. Card-counting is encouraged. Hand size is a big part of measuring raw ability in the game, and there are various tricks the players can use to increase hand size, swap cards, save cards and so on. One of the neatest: you can recruit a Faction – an in-fiction element like a strong NPC or organization – and use that Faction to save cards for later conflicts into which you can draw that Faction. Neat. Very card-specific, I think. But man, those Jokers get drawn and that’s basically an “MC now makes a hard move” type signal.

The game gives the Sensei enough little handles that running it looks easy enough: look for something troublesome in the relationship map, or an unresolved bit of history from the prologue or from someone’s sacrifices, or a really low Pack stat and run with it. The author himself says the game largely exists to rationalize the dueling — everything is a duel, every battle of wills as well as for-real battles of weapons – and that’s possibly very on-the-nose true for whole swaths of roleplaying anyway.

There are a few things that occur to me that I’d probably do ahead of actually playing this game:

* Big one is a fresh character sheet that explicitly lays out not just how you spend your various economies, but what feeds into what. The game has an interlocking level of complexity on par with, and maybe in excess of, Burning Wheel, and some sort of cheat sheet I think will be necessary.

* Tent cards for the bikes. Every bike choice is a big deal and your main bit of identity (even your mask type is undifferentiated within the Pack — your Bike and your weapon are the only ways you will stand out), and having a visual tent card (hog on the outside, stats on the inside) I think would be totally boss.

* Pick or create some interesting stretch of rural community, a la Charming from Sons of Anarchy, so you have a bunch of little towns to headquarter or terrorize in. Probably roughly populate it with obvious NPCs, like local sheriffs, rival gangs, etc.

* Read up on what some good traditional medieval Japanese character types there might be. There are passing references to geishas and tavern owners, there’s an option to have a headquartered Pack ruled by a Daimyo so one assumes there are perhaps other Daimyo out there, and so on. 

All the mechanical tidbits and economies are a dream for Gearhead Paul. The story hooks look solid. The actual backstory and rationale for the weird-ass world of Motobushido are nonexistent, and that makes me a little itchy. For whatever reason I always feel uncomfortable asking my players to come along for the ride when there’s so much disbelief to suspend.

Anyway, going onto the PLAY SOON shelf.

25 thoughts on “Review: Motobushido”

  1. I was both a Kickstarter backer and am credited as a playtester on this one. 

    Add to the list of conventions to war for your attention next year: GameStorm. It’s in Vancouver, WA most years, and the author of this one (who lists the Hagakure as a major influence on its design work) often runs games.

  2. I’ve been strangely blocked before too. It looks like Jack Shear (Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque) blocked me and I’ve never been able to figure out why.

  3. Well…anyway! Motorcycles and samurai! I’m betting I can get a solid 5 sessions out of it. No idea what emergent properties of play might happen beyond that.

  4. Something that jumped out at me right away: the production values are stellar. I’d happily hire their layout artist (Tiara Lynn Agresta​ I believe) for anything having to do with the printed page.

  5. Huzzah! I finally figured out how to unblock someone. Apparently the app won’t let you do it on mobile for some bizarre reason. As for origins, chances are I said something stupid and got called out for it and then got grumpy. Sorry about that!

  6. Oh! I want to expand a certain point your post brought up. Specifically, the concept of Stains. One distinction I try to make in the book is that with this game, Stains are not interchangeable with Honor. While dishonorable actions can cause Stains, the mechanic is more meant to represent “personal stains acquired through behaviour unbecoming of a samurai.” It’s a tricky thing to emphasize in text, and I fear the book may not have done the best job of illustrating that. Ah well.

  7. Interesting. Yeah that seems like a distinction without a difference. I noted the absence of an explicit Honor element but Stains stepped in and provided the negative space needed to fulfill my brain’s expectations.

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