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The Meeple Guild: New RPG looks to build better stories

Game from Canadian creator
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Cover page for NewEdo.

YORKTON - There are certain games that just drip theme and if it happens to be a theme you already have an interest in, you are hooked like a hungry pike on a Len Thompson lure in early spring. 

So happening upon NewEdo: A Neon Samurai a new role playing game on Kickstarter recently had this gamer delving into things a bit farther in a hurry. 

When I found out it was from a designer based in St. Catharines, ON., I fired off an email, as I always appreciate Canadian game efforts. 

Russ Rowlands was good enough to answer a few questions via email, but first a bit about the game from its Kickstarter page just to wet your appetite. 

It noted NewEdo is ‘a tabletop roleplaying game designed for players who love the character-creation process, set in a neon-samurai world . . . 

“NewEdo is game designed for character customization and player agency, set in a neon-drenched world that nevertheless holds tightly to its past. NewEdo is built on a game system called C.L.E.M. - "crunchy-lite, easily managed" - popular with players and storytellers alike. And it uses lots of dice.” 

I will admit CLEM is a new acronym to me, but darn I admit too that I like the sentiment. 

I must also note I have always liked medieval Japan as a setting, so samurai and ninjas catch my attention, which this game has, albeit kicking the classic characters into a future world setting that initially had me thinking about the RPG Shadowrun. 

Again from the Kickstarter; “NewEdo is a tabletop RPG about change, and players will create characters who will push an agenda that is intended to form the future of the setting. The capital city of the Empire, NewEdo is a place where a thousand years of tradition have come into conflict with the rapid pace of modern life. Samurai stroll the streets while tattooed bikers stir up trouble on tricked-out motorcycles. In one district, traditional wooden homes crowd narrow lanes that wind up and down hills, but only a short subway ride away 100-story skyscrapers pierce clouds awash in the city's neon glow. NewEdo honors its past while looking to the future, and the characters you play will help define how that future is shaped.” 

So the game sounds like a rather intriguing mix of old and futuristic, giving both the designer and the players a rather broad base to draw from in terms of game play. 

Designer tastes

So, when emailing Rowlands, I was at first curious about his own tastes in RPGs? 

“I love tabletop RPGs, but calling out a favourite would depend on the table, the time, and my mood -- probably the Vampire / World of Darkness series, if we had to go by an hours-played measure,” replied the self-noted jack-of-all-trades who does “commercial finance consulting to pay the rent.” 

Now as a long time role player I can say on more than one occasion we have talked about how we should create our own game, but past game mastering a few nights just winging things in my own twisted way, it has never gone farther. 

The next question was obvious, what was the idea which led to the game's creation?  

“This is a long story,” began Rowlands. “I had quit a very solid job on Bay Street to go sailing around the world on strangers' boats. I quickly found that there is a lot of free time on a sailboat as you cruise across the Pacific, for example, so I started writing fiction. The stories were inspired by the places I saw and the people I met, and these were some wild places and people. My book had sirens and valkyrie and mermaids and time-traveling robots and wizards - it was science-fantasy pulp, pure adventures.   

“I had never written anything longer than short stories, and rather than try to force myself into a proper novel structure -- which I had no idea about -- I just created an overarching plot, then let my travels inform how that plot developed. It was terrible of course, but highly imaginative and a lot of fun.  

“I would send samples home to a few close friends and family, whenever I found an internet connection. The feedback was that it was in fact terrible but fun, and that it would make a great game. That input gave me a bit of a eureka moment, as I realized that structuring my fictional world in the parameters of a tabletop RPG would give me a framework for the fiction. So I started working on the framework of an RPG to fit my wide-open world into.  

“Soon after that, I serendipitously washed ashore in Tokyo, a total accident of fate that ignited another eureka moment - Japan would be a great initial place to set a sandbox RPG. Whether or not readers have been to Tokyo, everyone can picture Tokyo -- regardless of the accuracy of that mental image -- Japan in general, and Tokyo specifically, lights up our imaginations with a huge variety of personalities, places and lore. The neon-lit streets of a make-believe version of Tokyo would make the perfect home for the wild stories and grand personas of my imagined adventures.   

“So I settled in to stay a while, and learn more.” 

Design goals

There are of course hundreds of RPGs already in print. What was Rowlands hoping to achieve with the game? 

“I had four design goals in mind with NewEdo; to offer lots of character customization and satisfying depth, but in a system that wasn't too complicated for new players or storytellers; 

“To reward creative decision-making in-game, with systems/mechanics that encourage unique problem solving;  

“To set the game in a world where player/character decisions actually affect the future of the setting, accomplished by placing it at a series of inflection points, none of which are based on tropey 'good versus evil' conflicts, and;  

“To make a game that offers multiple, iterative rewards, where characters can evolve and improve every game session, even within game sessions.” 

With some very specific game objectives in mind Rowlands had his work cut out for himself, and the process took literally years, taking about six years to complete the game, including the lore, systems, and playtesting. 

There were of course challenges, including finding balance with the various aspects of the game. 

“I wanted to build a world where players could design diverse characters and kinda mix-and-match their abilities to suit that player's preferences, while still ensuring that characters remain unique and fun,” said Rowlands. “The number of combinations of potential character options in a system like this quickly approaches infinity, which is a big number.   

“I had to try to balance the various building blocks of characters such that they would satisfy players looking to build their unique concept, but without leaving anyone too over-or under-powered.” 

In general, everybody loves unique characters/races to play, and Rowlands detailed a bit about what players can expect here. 

“The physiological form that your characters can take in NewEdo is called their Lineage,” he said. “The Lineages are mostly based on creatures from Japanese mythology and lore.  Some will be more familiar to players, like the Kitsune and Bakeneko -- fox- and cat-like beings, respectively, -- but there is a huge variety of options, including humans, demons, and the mischievous Tanuki.   

“During the Kickstarter campaign, I ran a stretch goal to add one of two new Lineages to the game, to be decided by backers by a vote; we crushed that goal, so backers have been casting their vote for the Usagi (rabbitfolk) or the Saru (monkey people). The results of that poll aren't in yet, but both sides have fierce proponents. As a thank-you to the amazing backers who supported NewEdo through this campaign, I'm going to make sure both Lineages go in the book, but shh, that's a secret.” 

NewEdo is a classless game system, and characters aren't tied to any one playstyle by the choices made at character creation.   

“The game does have a series of Paths that loosely describe both a motivational roleplaying aspect of your character, and gives them a school of learning that might come in handy, but which doesn't pigeon-hole the character,” continued Rowlands. “Paths generally describe what you want to get done, rather than how you do so; it's a different take on character building that has been very well received in testing.   

“And finally, any Lineage can play as any Path, so there are no combination restrictions.” 

Overall, NewEdo is set in a major metropolis that's meant to be a fictionalized combination of Tokyo and Kyoto - an economic and cultural hub, in the middle of the 21st century.   

“On a superficial level this 'neon samurai' setting creates some similarities with cyberpunk-style games, but NewEdo is not a cyberpunk game,” said Rowlands. “The core theme of NewEdo is change, and the game's stories are intended to revolve around the inflection points between ideas; the past and future, tradition and technology, isolation and globalization, etc. This is the primary differentiator from other neon-urban games out there, particularly ones with a cyberpunk vibe - NewEdo is not angsty or rebellious by default. Character actions will push the setting towards a desirable -- to those players -- future.   

The world of NewEdo

In NewEdo's alternate world, belief defines reality.   

“Humans believed in their myths for so long that those myths became real -- the Lineages -- and then became part of everyday life,” explained Rowlands. “Magic exists, created by the belief of society in the kami - spirits - of the world. The influence of technology has been somewhat limited by the population's faith in 'the old ways', traditions that built the Empire and helped it stay strong. Thus you may find a traditional samurai wearing his daisho wandering NewEdo's neon-lit streets, no more out of place than a gang of tattooed monkey bikers or a demon slinging your drinks at the bar. The powers of the world understand this belief paradigm, and foster their own agendas in an effort to craft the future via the faith of the population.   

“Will NewEdo's traditions be upheld, or swept aside in the name of progress?   

“Will the economic might of corporations allow them to overbear the rigid and entrenched political establishment?   

“Will technology continue its ubiquitous creep into everyday life, pushing convenience and efficiency at the expense of privacy?   

“Can, or should, civilization continue to keep the wild and unknown outside, in the dark of the world?   

“These are the stories of NewEdo; ones that set a course for a different tomorrow based on a dozen inflection points at the core of the setting.  

The art of the game is intended to reflect these inflection points, that the city is on the cusp of change. Imagery reflects dusk or dawn, rather than night or day.”
But, as the designer what is the best element of the game? 

“That's an expansive question -- I think the absolute 'best' part about NewEdo is how adaptable the setting is without needing a thousand sourcebooks,” said Rowlands. “Many game fans will enjoy some aspect of the lore, whether that's samurai and ninjas, robots and cybertech, monsters, motorcycle chases, mysticism, honor, etc. - and all of those can be integrated into NewEdo's stories fluidly, and even combined to satisfy a diverse audience. With its contrasting past versus future concepts, you can build an adventure around a wide-ranging table of characters and still make it both gratifying and on-theme. NewEdo doesn't try to satisfy everyone, and it isn't a universal system - it has a theme and a strong setting, and those may not be to everyone's tastes; but for those players to which it does appeal, it offers far more depth and breadth of play than many superficially comparable games.” 

And, NewEdo offers a positive theme - that of change, for whatever the players see as 'better' - rather than one of angst or rebellion in a world gone to %*^^.   

“Cyberpunk games by definition need something for punks to rail against - typically an evil corporate establishment that treats individuals like dinner napkins,” said Rowlands. “Rebellion is undeniably fun, but not every game with a neon setting needs to be shoe-horned into a bleak dystopian future.   

“Characters in NewEdo don't have to carve self-respect out of the corpses of faceless enemies; they may start with their heads held high. Changing the world still requires characters to make hard choices and overcome long odds, but the setting is one of opportunistic wonder, rather than one of dehumanizing drudgery.” 

And finally, what is the most unique mechanic within the rules? 

“The most unique technical aspects of NewEdo are its systems that foster and reward creative gameplay, notably the Fate Card and Legend mechanics,” said Rowlands. “The Fate Card is effectively a lottery for fun stuff to happen each turn, and it fills up differently for every character, based not only on how that character was built, but also what decisions were made during play - no two Fate Cards will ever be the same.   

“The Legend system is the game's meta-currency, used for all sorts of powers, but also as a core measure of your character's potency. Your character gains legend as they perform actions that bolster their own personal story, and that legend can then be used to fuel even greater powers, a loop that reinforces the game world’s "belief defines reality" paradigm.” 

This is a game dripping with theme and fresh ideas and is an RPG I am eagerly wanting to play with the gang. 

Check it out more closely at