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Reviews - Secrets of Japan
 
by Demian Katz


Secrets of Japan coverSecrets of Japan
Published by Chaosium
Written by Michael Dziesinski
360 pages, b & w perfect bound softback
$34.95

Secrets of Japan is the first in a projected series of Call of Cthulhu supplements designed to allow Cthulhu Mythos role-playing in a Japanese setting where the Japanese people have a mystical origin and forces are converging to bring about the end of the current age of man. This introductory volume, a massive tome featuring 360 pages of smaller-than-average print, is designed for Keepers and provides enough information on the setting and its inhabitants to get a campaign started. Future volumes will add more detailed information for players and expand upon the role of the Dreamlands in Japan.

Personal Background
I'm sure I'm not the only gamer to feel heavily influenced by Japanese culture - having grown up on Godzilla movies and Japanese video games, I find something comforting about the uniquely weird and often incomprehensible creations of the Japanese entertainment industry. While the recent flood of Japanese horror movies like The Ring have done little to impress me, and I'm not as much of an anime fanatic as many, I still make time for every new giant monster movie that comes along, and I keep meaning to pick up some manga to read...

In approaching Secrets of Japan, I hoped that it would provide rules to bring some of my favorite Japanese cultural exports into a Call of Cthulhu context while also educating me on the broader context that influenced these creations. While the work is a bit uneven at times, I was not disappointed - there's a lot crammed in here, and it's more than enough to create a whole new playground for occult investigators to explore.

Production Values
Overall, Secrets of Japan is an impressive piece of work, and not just for its sheer bulk. Copy editing is better than average, in spite of a few major glitches like incomplete sidebars and duplicate sentences, and while some white-on-black text is a bit hard to read, the overall layout strikes a decent balance between clarity and attractiveness. In spite of a few pieces of mundane artwork, most illustrations are attractive and carry an appropriate Japanese flavor. The book isn't perfect, but you won't be embarrassed to have it on your bookshelf.

Organization
Secrets of Japan is broken into five "scrolls." The first, "Atmosphere," describes the everyday details of Japanese life - jobs, geography, etiquette, money, religion. The second scroll, "Secrets," covers Japanese tomes, spells and magic items. Scroll three, "People," provides information on influential groups and important individuals acting within Japan. This includes government agencies (secret and otherwise), criminal groups, secret societies, and significant free agents. The fourth scroll, "The Six Realms," describes the various heavens, hells and other dimensions of Japanese cosmology in a Mythos context. It also contains extensive information on the creatures that inhabit all of these places. The final scroll, "Scenarios and Sinister Seeds," provides several complete adventures along with seeds and ideas for role-playing in historical settings. Appendices provide definitions of important terms, timelines of important events (both real and fictional), information on Asian geography and details on using Tokyo University in a campaign. The book is capped off with a bibliography of further readings, a Japan-specific character sheet and a modest but still useful index.

I found the book's overall organization to be a bit lacking - there's no real primer or overview to give a Keeper a quick introduction to the broad themes of the book, and the work does not appear to have been designed with cover-to-cover reading in mind. References to characters, creatures and places frequently come up long before the explanations of what these characters, creatures and places actually are. On rare occasions, cross-reference page numbers are provided; sometimes, key pieces of information (mostly skills and occupations) are actually cut and pasted into multiple spots in the book. Generally, though, it's necessary to search around quite a bit to pin down all the details. Some of this could have been fixed - a better glossary would have been very valuable, and scroll two's information on tomes and magic probably belongs later in the book. On the other hand, it would be impossible to make this book totally clear on the first reading - there are quite a few different threads woven through Dziesinksi's dark vision of Japan, and it takes time and multiple readings to absorb all of them.

Not Getting Lost in Translation
The book attempts to assist its readers in absorbing its contents by including short fiction in a couple of places. The book opens with "The Yonagumi Monuments," a piece involving underwater ruins off the coast of Japan, and it also features "Light and Shadow," a character study found shortly before the book's halfway mark. These stories are a bit overwritten and heavy on exposition, but that's not necessarily a problem in the world of Lovecraftian writing. They certainly serve their purpose in intriguing the reader, introducing important personalities, and building up the tone of the setting.

One complaint I have about the book (though some might find it an asset more than a liability) is that while it delves into pure fiction to augment its game information, it never steps back from the fiction and clearly states what is actual fact and what has been made up for the purposes of the setting. In the areas of historical events and belief systems (among other things), I would have appreciated better indications of where real life ends and Mythos contrivances begin. Perhaps including such boundaries would have detracted from the fluidity of the setting, but knowing the difference between real Japan and Mythos Japan could help a Keeper do better research in other sources and would increase the educational value of the book (which, for me at least, was actually a selling point).

A Dose of Controversy
Educational value aside, the book's intentional disregard for the boundary between fact and fiction puts it in a good position to offend people, a situation probably not helped by the fact that the author is not himself Japanese. While the book includes a disclaimer indicating that there is no intention to discriminate, and its notes on Japanese culture and thinking do their best to discourage stereotyping and oversimplification, I was somewhat surprised by the fact that it fits real-life religions and belief systems into the Mythos. While the author clearly meant no offense (it's fiction, after all, and what he has done simply supports the overall work), the book crosses a line that many role-playing products try hard to avoid, and some content may make some players uncomfortable. It's probably not quite the equivalent of suggesting that, to use a Christian example, Jesus was an avatar of Nyarlethotep, but it's not too far off.

While I found the book's redefinition of religious ideas a little startling, one shouldn't read too much into that - it's just a small part of the book's web of Mythos associations, which put a Lovecraftian spin on all of Japanese history and culture all the way back to the creation of the Japanese people. Everything you might expect is here, and then some: stats for the radiation-breathing, city-stomping Gazira, the dark secret behind tentacle porn, suggestions for anime-style play, references to Hello Kthulhu toys... Probably the only thing missing that might be expected in an Asian-themed role-playing product is rules for martial arts combat, and they're only excluded because they're planned for inclusion in a future product.

But What's In It For My Campaign?
If you're not already a Japanophile, you may be wondering what good this product will do you. For one thing, Japan has the advantage of being real. Many of the best role-playing settings take familiar, universally understandable concepts and reshape them through a different lens. In real life, Japan has been influenced by (and consequently reshaped) Western culture in interesting ways - there's enough of the familiar to allow a Keeper to run a campaign in Japan without too much study, but there's enough of the bizarre to require a section of the rules describing culture shock.

The book includes a variety of suggestions on how to move Western characters into the Japanese setting, but it also provides alternate character creation rules for Japanese-born characters. Particularly interesting are the broad range of character occupations provided here. These diverge from the Western occupations in the core rules more than you might expect, running from radical ultra nationalists to high school students to taoist alchemists and shinto priests. Also noteworthy is the book's coverage of mental health issues unique to Japanese society. The campaign possibilities are broad and intriguing.

Even if you don't intend to run a campaign set in Japan, there are plenty of elements here that could be exported to an otherwise Western-based campaign - powerful spells, bizarre and well-developed monsters like Tengu and Kappa, a whole universe of new ghostly threats, and dark tomes with long histories are all described here, and most could easily serve as the cores of entire adventures.

Starter Scenarios
Speaking of entire adventures, Secrets of Japan includes several. Unfortunately, the first scenario, "The Hin-no-Maru Slayings," gets things off to a weak start. The adventure deals with some apparently politically-motivated supernatural murders and serves to introduce players to some of the broader mysteries of the campaign setting, but it's woefully underdeveloped, offering various highlights without much detail on how or why the characters can get from one point to another. It's not unreasonable to expect the Keeper to have to do some work to direct an adventure and provide filler, but as this is a starter scenario, a little more hand-holding would have been nice.

The second offering, "Meiro (The Labyrinth)," shows considerably more thorough development, providing enough material for three game sessions and offering advice on playing with Japanese or foreign player characters. Regardless of the players' origins, they find themselves investigating the controversial Kappa-Mon cartoon and collectible card game and becoming involved with Yotsubishi Heavy Industries, an important corporation in the Cthulhu Japan setting. By the end of the adventure, the players will have explored some dangerous locations, faced powerful adversaries, and potentially gained access to their first Mythos tome.

The third full scenario, "The Yonaguni Monuments," provides the gameplay information necessary to adapt the book's opening fiction into a game scenario. This densely-written adventure follows the story quite closely, right up to its ambiguous conclusion - clearly, the intention is for the Keeper to run with the established scenario through an extended campaign. Fortunately, there are plenty of ideas provided for doing just this - the full scenarios are followed by twenty-nine brief (half-page) adventure seeds in a useful "Premise / Task / Consequence / Twists" format.

Conclusion
Secrets of Japan is not an easy book to use - it will take a dedicated Keeper to absorb all of its information and craft a coherent and satisfying campaign from it. However, those able to do this should have memorable games, and those unwilling to do a lot of work may still enjoy the book for some of the new rules and monsters it introduces. While not flawless, it takes an interesting approach to a complex subject and provides a good starting point for what will hopefully be a long-lived branch of the Call of Cthulhu product family.

 

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