Tenra Bansho Zero
Why you should care about Tenra Banso Zero: the RPG one man spent seven years translating
Andy Kitkowski remembers the day he discovered Tenra Bansho Zero, the Japanese table top role-playing game that has devoured almost a decade of his life.
“I picked up a few Japanese RPGs, but Tenra Bansho Zero was the one that particularly caught my eye: More than any other game I saw in all my time in Japan, this game had tons of wonderful art, including this brilliant idea to start the book with a visual 20-some page summary of the setting, not just in words but in pictures,” he said. “I’m a very visual learner, and this made so much sense to me that I was left dumbstruck.”
He knew that the game should come to the United States, and set out to make that happen. Here’s the story of how that happened, why the system is so special, and details about how much time it takes to translate Japanese well.
Why this system is worth your time
“The setting was so uniquely Japanese, culturally. This wasn’t another Western take on Japanese culture (samurai, ninja, geisha, oh my!) where things like Buddhism, Shintoism or other ‘confusing’ things got left out accidentally or intentionally,” Kitkowski explained. “It was someone taking a look at their own culture, and basically running it through a Michael Bay filter: Making it ‘extreme.’ Hulk-like samurai, Buddhist martial monks, dolls carved from spiritual trees, Taoist sorcerers, Shinto NSA-style agents, child mecha pilots… I’d never seen this sort of thing in gaming before, so I had to have it.”
There are also some interesting systems at play. I had a chance to flip through the book at PAX Prime and, from the way I understand it, the NPC attitudes weren’t determined by the DM, but dice rolls. So when you meet someone, you roll your dice and look up their attitude on a grid. You might have rolled a number that means the NPC “is in awe of you,” and the scene plays out with that in mind. Or you could have rolled that the NPC “will stop at nothing to see you dead.” This keeps everyone on their feet, and can dramatically change the feel of a scene.
“Tenra Bansho Zero has at its core rules that simulate and encourage the drama that would happen on a stage: An opening Act where characters are gradually introduced, Intermissions where character changes are logged, strict Scenes where action takes place. Furthermore, everyone is rewarded when they role-play well or push themselves,” Kitkowski told the Penny Arcade Report. “You say an awesome line or come out of your shell a little and try hard? You get a physical token which you later cash in for in-game rewards and character power-ups. The most powerful characters in the game are not the ones with the most guns and swords and muscles, they’re the ones where their controlling players try their best to role-play. That Japanese spirit of ‘trying one’s best’ really comes out in this game.”
This is a very Japanese game, system, and setting, so an interest in the culture and a desire for the dramatic are necessary to dig into the game, but that’s all you need to get started. “If you meet those requirements, you’ll find in Tenra Bansho Zero a game which pushes you to role-play more, and to encourage your friends to do the same. You’ll have fun with the crazy extreme elements of the setting, but will keep the drama focused not on the guns and swords but the people who wield them: The most powerful samurai is the one who is crying on the inside the most,” he explained.
Kitkowski lived in Japan for most of the 90s and, after moving back to the states in 2000, still visits frequently to keep up with role-playing games and new releases in the Eastern market. Even with that level of familiarity and the rights to translate and release the game in the United States, the process was long, and tricky.
Software tools help, but it’s still a very human process. “Unfortunately, there is no auto-translation engine in existence that will convert even a simple sentence in Japanese to English,” he told the Penny Arcade Report.
“It’s not that translators are that smart; it’s just that things like the Japanese language’s grammar is so different from English, from missing and implied subjects, to sentence order, to idioms and words the cosmetically mean similar things but have huge variance in nuance; all that leads to an effect where J-E and E-J translators will never be replaced by computers.” This is especially true with creative works where nuance, idioms, clever spellings, and poetic expressions are often used.
“There were times where it took a day or even a few days to translate one paragraph, because of the work involved in understanding the underlying meanings,’ he said. “Sometimes I had to go to historic or religious texts to uncover the deeper meanings, which then influenced the translation.”
It’s much more art than science. “There’s an entire story about how I ended up taking the mecha of the game, or ‘yoroi,’ and changing them to the Queen’s English spelling of ‘armour’ in the game. ‘Goh’ became Sin, then Karma. The word kiai went from Power to Focus and ultimately back to Kiai. Little adjustments like that, to make the final product as perfect, honest and understandable as possible, which is a delicate balance, is what localization is about,” he explained. The translation was then tested and edited by several other people.
Without a day job, he estimated the project would have taken a few months of 10-hour days. His original estimate was two years for a full translation. It ended up taking seven years of translation to finish both source books.
The game’s release is being funded via Kickstarter, with an initial goal of $9,000. The total money raised is now up to $83,652 as of this writing. The goal was to print 2,000 copies of the book, which would allow the source books to be sold at a reasonable price, including a .pdf version of the rules. The work was finished when the Kickstarter launched, so the money goes directly to printing.
So what’s going to happen with the rest of the money raised above the $9,000? Kitkowski said that all the money will be given back to the backers via elaborate, physical goods. It was designed that way, the profits, if any, will come from sales of the books in comic and gaming stores. “Even that $2800 tier to come with me to Japan, after the dust settles and the bills are paid, I’ll be making about as much off of that tier as the sale of 1-2 core books,” he said. “Someone might look at it and say, ‘Look at all the money he made!’ At this point, though? I’m a hundredaire.”
It was more important to give people something special for their money than to see the profits up front, he described this project as his “white whale,” something he’s been working on for almost a decade. The money has allowed the print run to increase to 4,000 copies. “The real profit for the project won’t be made until the game books are printed, and they start selling at game and book stores,” he explained. “This is a long burn project, not something where I’ll see money right away.”
There is still time to pick up your own copy if you’re interested in trying this out. It certainly has our attention.