A week ago, at the monthly konkon Convention in Oita, Japan, organised by the Evil Spirit club, I joined a Warhammer 2nd Edition game. This post is a brief report of the game and some additional comments about the convention, gaming in Japanese, etc.

I have reported on the convention procedure before, and this time was little different. This time the game was held in a single very large room, again with tatami mats and everyone sitting on the floor, and there was a total of about 20 attendees. One chap was wearing a chain mail shirt, and some people had brought anime figures or soft toy mascots to position at their table. There were 5 games, 2 western (Pathfinder and Warhammer 2nd Edition) and 3 Japanese (I didn’t catch their names). I had to leave immediately after the game so didn’t get to do  a post-game rundown with the GM or do any post-convention dining or karaoke. However, I was exhausted, so probably by then my Japanese wasn’t up to the task.

I chose Warhammer on the somewhat foolish expectation that I could enjoy it as much as Pathfinder, and that it would help me diversify my gaming vocabulary and experience. I’ve previously expressed some dissatisfaction with Warhammer 2nd Edition, but was willing to believe this was largely the fault of the GM, but I think actually it’s true that the problem is at least partly the rule system, which at low levels is about consistently failing, and long-drawn-out battles to nowhere. I don’t see how anyone can think this is fun.

Playing Warhammer in Japanese is much harder than Pathfinder, however, so there were some non-system-related reasons why this session was a lot harder to play than Pathfinder. Particularly, Warhammer has an official Japanese translation, which means that a lot of the words that have been transliterated in the Pathfinder version have their own Japanese forms in Warhammer. Anyone who is familiar with the Warhammer character classes will be aware that names like “Bone-picker,” “Camp Follower” and “Judicial Champion” are not readily accessible to foreign-language learners, and in fact I have a friend living in Oita who studied Japanese at University, is married with children and is to all intents and purposes fluent in Japanese, but for whom the words I was exposed to were completely new. This makes the game a lot harder to follow in play than Pathfinder – at one point I was rescued from a racketeer by a Judicial Champion, which doesn’t make much sense if you aren’t very familiar with a language.

Also I didn’t know the rules backwards, so I had to have them explained to me without proper reference points, which makes the accurate comprehension of language more important. I got this pretty well, but it does make the game a lot harder to play smoothly. Fortunately Warhammer characters don’t have many special abilities, and the skills overlap with Pathfinder skills, so that aspect of the game went pretty smoothly.

The main language problem I faced, however, was that Warhammer seems to be played in Japanese with a very similar feeling to my experience of it in English. There is a lot less combat, and a lot more talking and assessing situations and finding the best solution to problems, than there is in Pathfinder. This is because the PCs are so godawfully terrible at everything that resolving any situation by the use of skills or combat is pointless. It revolves more around old-fashioned “role-playing” (the players present a viable story for what they’re going to do, and the GM pretends that a different story would have resulted in failure, while rewarding the one they chose), and this kind of role-playing naturally leads to long descriptions and explanations from everyone involved. The GM had scripts prepared to describe various situations, and there was a lot of negotiation. The final scene – where we uncovered the golden gun and had to negotiate about its disposal with the woman who helped us find it – was 10 long minutes of this kind of discussion, with a hastily-cobbled-together resolution mechanism by the GM which he had to explain to us. This kind of thing is naturally very hard to grapple in a foreign language. As ever, however, everyone was patient with my limited Japanese and willing to explain things simply, so I understood the majority of what happened, if not its nuance. The GM’s scripts used quite technical and abstract Japanese, like having a combination fantasy novel/rules description read to you at very high speed, with occasional excursions into the slang or regional dialects of the main protagonists, and this is extremely difficult to follow.

I was very interested by the way that the Warhammer system encourages in Japanese exactly the same play style as it does in English. The GM presents quite low-powered, low-fantasy situations which the players attempt to resolve through negotiation or some sort of lateral thinking, rather than through applying their characters’ abilities, and the successful resolution of tasks depends a lot on their knowledge of the world and accurate interpretation of the the GM’s explanations. It discourages any kind of craziness or attempts at doing unusual stuff, because any stuff you do naturally fails if it falls back on a skill check, and can’t be resolved without GM fiat otherwise. And every situation the GM throws at you, because it naturally ends with your failure, inevitably leads to the GM resolving it through some NPC interaction – i.e. GM fiat. So, our first encounter with the “Milk Tea Princess,” in which we try to help her, attracts the ire of the head bully in the mercenary team. Our attempts to negotiate a way out of the situation are rapidly heading into a painful end – we’re obviously not able to intimidate him, we obviously can’t fight him with his followers around, and there’s no reasonable outcome of the situation which won’t end with us being beaten up and the “Milk Tea Princess” sorely treated; so in waltzes a Judicial Champion to send everyone to bed. Similarly the duel with this same racketeer, which appeared to be carefully poised, fell apart near the end and was resolved through another GM Fiat (a follower of the racketeer’s fouling the duel so we won). I don’t think this was bad GMing either – it’s just really hard for a GM to set up a game where the players can make any progress, when everything they do is doomed to failure. How do you progress a story when the protagonists themselves are the main obstacle to progress? This happened in my previous Warhammer game, and I thought it was bad GMing, but last week’s GM was clearly quite good, and it still happened. It’s a flaw of the system.

So once again, my experience of playing in Japanese was very similar to playing in English, to the extent that even the different feeling of two systems I’ve played in English – D&D and Warhammer – was preserved across the language and cultural gap. I think that’s a very interesting observation on the universality of system and its impact on player choices. Also, the GM used a style I’m familiar with in the West – scripts to set out the scene, and extensive use of voice and characterisation to make the characters come to life. I’m beginning to think that there is a limited range of GM styles, and they’re language-independent. It’ll be interesting to see how if these similarities disappear when (if) I start playing Japanese-developed games.

The adventure itself was quite interesting, and I’ll give a separate report on the story later in the week. It’s been holidays here, I have German friends staying, and blogging time has been a little limited, so this comes out a little late.

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