Game: Tibet RPG
Publisher: Vajra Enterprises
Series: Tibet RPG
Review Dated: 15th, December 2004
Reviewer’s Rating: 8/10 [ Really good ]
Total Score: 8
Average Score: 8.00
I think the Tibet RPG is one of the surprise titles of the year. It’s perhaps still too early to see whether the Tibet RPG is one of the surprise successes of the year. It’s probably also far to say that Vajra Enterprises isn’t the most widely known publisher in the RPG marketplace either.
Vajra, by the way, is (I think) a Buddhist word. Hmm. We can suppose that Vajra Enterprises are enthusiastic about their Tibet RPG.
The Tibet RPG is good. It’s very good. After reading through the book I feel as if I’m a bit of an expert on Tibet and on Tibetan Buddhism. That’s exactly what the book needed to do. It’s an unusual subject area for a roleplaying game one of the key priorities for the authors was to convince me that I could successfully and faithfully run the game as it was supposed to be run. Faithfulness is important to Vajra, throughout their marketing text you’ll find references to ultra-realism.
Equally important was to convince me that I wanted to roleplay in a Tibetan setting. I like my myths and legend. I like my anthropology and programs on Buddhism on Discovery have always been enthralling. So Demons were defeated by accepting them into the order of things? That’s always fascinated me. Imagine that in a roleplaying setting! Well, with the Tibet RPG that’s exactly what I get.
The Tibet RPG is set in 1959. Nine years ago the Chinese marched into the country. This isn’t a bloody war per say; not with a Buddhist government in large of Tibet. The Dalai Lama is the supreme political authority in Tibet. A deal was struck. The Chinese could stay and help modernise Tibet. By 1959 it’s clear that the communist Chinese want to do a lot more and are attempting an insidious annexing.
The book begins with the overview of Tibet. We learn about the religious myths. We learn which regions of Tibet are most under Chinese influence and which are the most free. We learn about the role of monks.
Dobdob are akin to a monastic police officer. A Larma is the teacher of Buddhist or B õn doctrines and are a person in charge of a monastery. A Geshe is the highest monastic scholastic achievement; akin to a PHD.
This isn’t a boring school lesion though. Vajra hit on the brilliant layout strategy of grey boxing each section of the book with an “in brief” summary. This is extremely handy. Throughout the book but far less common are black boxes with white text which offer up snippets of information and from where my aside on Tibetan terms come from.
There’s a tour through Tibetan history which manages to be detailed and yet quick enough. There’ve been relationships with the neighbouring India. The Mongols once ruled Tibet.
It’s not surprising that the magic and religious chapters which are the most interesting. There’s a cycle which repeats itself. There’s a Buddha of the future. Those bound demons are the dharmapalas; they serve but like to kill to do so – hunting down strayed monks, for example. The Dakini are gorgeous blue angels. Creatures can manifest from the various Buddhist hells. The Hungry Ghosts are perhaps some of the most atmospheric.
This is a rich and educated culture. We can look at the role and ability of medicine. There’s astrology and, of course, a lot of information on divination.
Magic is not comic book. By comic book magic I mean zap pow fireballs and flying spells. Supernatural and magical events in Tibet are fairly common but rarely seen. A string of bad luck, for example, could be bad karma or the meddling of a meddling demon.
Ah now. Karma is interesting. You earn bad karma for killing – period. The example in the RPG spells out how a character will pick up bad karma for killing a demon but might earn slightly more good karma by saving someone from it. That’ll make players think before hitting things. Karma’s a stat too and so, as it sits on the character sheet in bold black and white, will be a constant reminder to players. No, Tibet RPG isn’t particularly combat heavy but it can certainly be action based.
There’s a hefty (but again; not too hefty, thus boring and off-putting) geography section. This combines with a return to looking at the Chinese situation. We’re reminded that not all Chinese are bad. This is a very good point. I’ve Chinese friends. Tibet RPG doesn’t use nationality as a D&D style race.
I’ve mixed feelings about the inclusion of a pre-written adventure and adventure ideas. I don’t tend to like the pre-written stuff however I do concede that a new RPG, especially an original RPG, does benefit from a sample adventure so the author (Brian St.Claire-King) can showcase the mood and style in which he sees the game played. On reflection; there’s not too much pre-written adventure foo in the Tibet RPG and probably just enough to serve up a sampling of atmosphere.
We’re also helped with ample adventure ideas; be they Chinese drama (such as fleeing the country) or mystical dramas. We’ve stats for wild dogs and typical people but there’s no fantasy style bestiary (despite the picture of the yeti). Mythical monsters will be emanations of spirits.
The system is quick and effective. Combat is quick and dangerous.
The character system is dead simple. There are a few core attributes and a set of skills. Skills are bought with character points. How much skills cost depend on the character class you take. Character classes include various types of monks and the likes of farmers, doctors, astrologers and even the Unclean (professional beggers, etc). On top of the character classes there are disciplines. The character class represents what the character is and does and the discipline is what they study, learn and are interested in. You could be a farmer sorcerer for example – and you’ll have to keep this secret because sorcerer is the term for bad magic.
Adding an extra layer of spice to character generation are advantages and disadvantages. I tend to lean towards advantages and disadvantages just because they help give a character a clear handle right from the outset. There will always be disadvantages which I think should just be roleplaying quirks and not “point regeneration devices” though. As this isn’t an entirely fantasy setting (it’s more real than made up, I’d say) there are some differences between male and female characters – but not much, and they’re all pointed out. The Tibetan society doesn’t really discriminate.
Experience points are earned and then spent. Keep a total of how many experience points have been awarded in total and for every 100 you’ve had (spent or unspent) you go up a level. The level itself is just a handy tag by which to summarise the abilities of the character.
If you want a quick NPC there’s a d1000 chart to role up some personality twists.
In fact handy charts make an appearance in the book’s collection of rules appendices. The back of Tibet RPG is useful. There is a host of rule summaries squeezed into just a few pages. In fact there’s no need to go flicking through the main book for a rule clarification at all. In addition there’s an RPG term glossary and a Tibetan word glossary. I found the culture chart compelling; this is an at-a-glance comparison of American and Tibetan cultures. Americans tend to burry their dead. Tibetans will ask an Oracle which sort of burial is appropriate.
In the book there’s a photograph of a sky burial. The Tibet RPG makes heavy use of photographs throughout. Barely two pages go by without an actual photograph of a Tibetan scene being printed in fuzzy black and white. I’m on the fence on this one; sometimes this technique makes an RPG, sometimes it seriously distracts from it but since Tibet RPG is so unusual it’s impossible to have pre-conceived ideas about the art. As I said; there are pictures of a sky burial. It’s probably best to put in a disclaimer and say the Tibet RPG best suits mature readers (I don’t think it’ll appeal to any other). The Tantras are part of the Buddhist teaching and so this includes tantric sex. Whereas Tibet RPG doesn’t dwell on the details, it doesn’t ignore this either.
I think the Tibet RPG is damn good. It’s different. It’s original. It works. The book has to win me over though; the first really quick flick through gave me the impression of a slightly shambolic design. The title “Tibet RPG” doesn’t have a natural charm either. I think if you’re at all interested in the concept then it’s worth going to your local store and peeking at it (or taking the dive and buying online; the fact that Amazon carries it proves, to an extent, that Vajra Enterprises have some commitment). I think if you’re tempted and pause to read a few paragraphs the oddly unique RPG is likely to win you over. The last niggling concern is on the longevity of the game. How long will it be original and appealing for? I guess that’s really dependant on GM and gaming group though.