A ¾ complete project abandoned to the internet
I bought the PDF of this game shortly after its release in March 2020. This review is based on the PDF as it was when I downloaded it on 8th April 2021. It’s roughly a year old and has had several updates since release.
When I first heard that Sanguine had got the rights to do a Usagi Yojimbo RPG I had mixed feelings. On the plus side, Sanguine are the go-to publisher for furry RPGs and despite being quite cumbersome and horribly complex, I actually really liked the original Jadeclaw, so it seemed like a really good fit. I don’t really understand how it’s a second edition when it’s a new rule system by a different publisher but you could argue the same is true of D&D 3rd edition.
On the downside, however, they announced that it would use Powered by the Apocalypse, a game which I’ve bounced off in the past because it felt like it was trying way too hard to be cool and edgy and different for the sake of being different, which is a shame because from what I could see it seemed like quite a neat narrative system. I hoped that, with Usagi as its focus it might drop some of that pretentious nonsense and as a consequence be substantially more palatable, and it does to some degree, to be fair.
So, where to begin? Well, let’s start with the positives. The art is gorgeous, but let’s face it, Stan Sakai’s art is the lion’s share of the reason we’re here, right? The two column layout and black text on a white background is simple and clean and the square shape is quite pleasing, aesthetically.
Powered by the Apocalypse is, as I suspected, quite neat. It’s a simple, narrative system that collaboratively tells stories in broad strokes rather than granular, blow-by-blow detail and that’s definitely my bag.
The downside is that, having read the book from start to finish now, I’m not sure I really understand how to play the game and I don’t think that’s PbtA’s fault. Some of the rules are explained in the Rules chapter at the beginning of the book, some in the Playbook and some in the Master of Ceremonies chapter toward the end but I can’t really connect the disparate elements in my head. I think having the rules gathered together and explained with play examples might have helped connect the dots. This is not, however, a game for people new to roleplaying. I think folk not familiar with the concept will really struggle to understand what the hell is going on.
It’s worth mentioning here that the GM (Master of Ceremonies) doesn’t roll any dice. Outcomes are decided by how well or how poorly the players roll and whilst I really like that, and I guessed as much from the Rules chapter, it’s bafflingly not explicitly stated in the book until page 205 (of 244) where it is a throwaway line in parenthesis in the middle of the second of three adventure plot hooks! This should have been stated in bold in Chapter 1: Rules. It is kind of an important and noteworthy feature of the system.
This particular version of Powered by the Apocalypse does, as I said, eschew much of the pretentious nonsense that has put me off the system before now but still has some irritating ticks. First to annoy me was the ‘Moods’. Moods are different styles of play. 'Casual' is when PCs are just wandering about exploring or chatting to NPCs via the GM, 'Dicey' is when dice are rolled to determine an outcome (skill checks and such) and 'Combat' is, well, combat. You know, like in absolutely every other RPG where ‘moods’ are a sort of intuitive given, but PbtA feels the need to formalise it, therefore making it feel much more complex than it actually is.
We have the Playbooks with a couple of actions that your character has, called ‘Moves’. Moves in any other system are just the actions that your player can take on their turn but PbtA feels the need to also formalise it and give it a fancy name. The biggest offender though, is the name of the GM, the Master of Ceremonies or MC. No need. I’m fine with GM. It feels too much like it’s trying to be different for the sake of being different and I just want to cuff it about the head and tell it to grow up.
PbtA also suffers from one of Fate’s problems in that it expects you to be able to use adjectives as scores. A ‘weak’ hit, a ‘Grand’ strike. All very admirable and narrative but I still need to convert them into numbers to be able to use them which is inefficient and I wish they’d just use the numbers instead.
These bellyaches aside, the various 'Moves' that the PCs have, are quite neat and if you use the optional ‘Upgrade’ system, then characters have the potential to become quite varied and interesting mechanically as well as narratively.
However, I think for me, the biggest negative of all is the incredibly poor quality control on the book. It is absolutely riddled with typos, spelling mistakes, grammatical errors and layout issues. The worst offenders being two paragraphs that end mid-sentence. It seems that the book wasn’t proof read before they hit the publish button, or if it was, it was done very poorly. This could be forgiven if it were caught and fixed almost immediately after publishing but twelve months after release I still count over 70 errors, that Sanguine have apparently never made any attempt to fix despite updating the PDF several times. I’ve catalogued them all in the comments page (if they’ve not been deleted) in the hope that it helps Sanguine correct them. (Reading reviews for several other of their products, however, this seems to be a common complaint with Sanguine!)
My other gripe is that the covers of the book are supplied as JPG files separate to the PDF file. I don’t understand why. A friend suggested it might be because it made it easier to print but you can just choose to not print the covers. Another reason might be that the cover would throw the page numbering out but I’ve seen PDFs that list the cover as page 0 or i so that page 1 is still page 1. The shame of it is that without the front cover, viewed in double-page mode, the pages are out of order with the right hand page on the left and the next page over on the right. The page numbers are then on the inside which looks wrong and each playbook has the wrong accompanying comic strip image alongside it.
This last is admittedly a minor thing but combined with everything else it gives the whole product the feeling of a project three quarters completed and then just abandoned to the internet, which wouldn’t be so bad if people weren’t paying over £14 a time for it. Indeed people are ordering printed hardbacks of the book for over £43 in the above described condition! It’s absolutely shocking.
It’s so frustrating. I wanted to love it but I am, on the whole, very disappointed with Usagi Yojimbo 2nd ed as it could have been something quite special. As it is, I think if I ever run a Usagi Yojimbo game, it’d be less taxing on my nerves to just use the old Gold Rush Games’ Fuzion system rules.
[2 of 5 Stars!]