by Demian Katz
Secrets of Japan
Published by Chaosium
Written by Michael Dziesinski
360 pages, b & w perfect bound softback
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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 /
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.