When I first heard about Kuro, it was through the blog, Life and Times of a Philippine Gamer. I heard it was a thrilling game set in Japan which incorporated the unique horror tropes of Japanese cinema into a table top role-playing game. Admittedly, I was tremendously excited to get the game. The idea of running games that had systems to help portray scenes from movies like Ringu and Ju-On was something I desperately wanted to read more of. I was then able to get a glimpse of the book (thank you so much, Armchair Gamer) and admittedly, my excitement sort of drained away. The game evidently was different from what I expected, less about Japanese horror and more about Japan, but still a well-written and though-provoking setting that deserved to be explored.
May 4, 2046. Do not forget this date.
The game is heavy on cyberpunk touches. I guess I should have expected this, given anime such as Ghost in the Shell but again I was expected a game set in modern day Japan. Now don't get me wrong, I have nothing against science fiction, and I will profess a deep love for the cyberpunk genre. But to mix it with horror is quite an interesting challenge. I've played a role-playing game based on the movie Alien before and a large part of the horror in that game was accomplished by referring to elements or tools in the movie (such as the rhythmic sound emitted by the motion detectors in Aliens, and the body horror that the xenomorphs explored.) The game does nicely build on the cyberpunk setting, with Occultech and other significant technological touches that have embraced the existence of the supernatural. The historical narrative at the start of the book gives a very nice touch on the Kamikaze (the Divine Wind) and explains how Japan (or rather, Shin-Edo) closes its borders to the rest of the world and transforms itself into an interesting setting. There is no denying there is a trove of equipment, weapons and other technology present here to have a really fun cyberpunk game.
In Kuro, the supernatural touches were there, and while they were very well-rooted into Japanese culture, they lacked... the expected tool-kit systems needed to use them in the game besides being the new monster for the session (something the book itself tries to warn you not to do). While there were many pages that sought to explore how to approach horror in a game, I felt many of these suggestions were quite generic and could be practically applied to any other game that one runs with horror in mind. Admittedly, I was hoping for something more expansive, or better yet, something more rooted into the heart of the game system. The section on fear in the book could have suggested how the various monsters and ghosts in the game can interweave with science and technology. But I really found myself hard-pressed to think of some horror tropes still being horrific given the genre. An "impossible cellphone camera picture from a dead lover" for example can too easily be dismissed away as a hacker having fun at your expense. Seeing someone who shouldn't be present can easily be assumed to be some kind of cloaking system, holographic illusion or something similar. I just feel that having presented a rich setting where Japan realistically closes its doors, develops its technological advances so high, and has unmistakable brushes with something beyond natural the section on Horror could have been more than just about controlling lights, using silence and music and the like. The section about the different stages of Japanese horror was a step in that direction, but sadly that paragraph ends quickly with barely three pages worth of information. I can't help but feel the game had an opportunity to really shine here, but failed. (For those wondering, them dead scary women with long black hair in many Japanese horror films are called the Yurei in this game.)
Not even the character sheet gives the distinct vibe of a horror game. You have your standard characteristics such as Strength, Reflexes, Charisma and the sort which are generic enough, but then you have Secondary Characteristics like Hits, Serious Wound Threshold, Death Threshold and the like, which for me clearly reflect a game more focused on action than horror. There are archetypes which the game offers for players to use (and suggests seasoned players create their own characters) and none of them seem particularly shaped for the horror side of the game. There's an Occultist, whose write up makes me think more of an anime like 3x3 Eyes rather than One Missed Call. Even the Student seems out-of-place with Surgery as a specialty though there is no mention of his being a medical student in his write-up.
Good ideas from the book include the use of Kaiso, which is sort of like social status or rank in the game, clearly inspired by the social dynamics existing in Japan. Certain things are only available or accessible to those of the right or higher Kaiso rank, which really nicely adds to the feel of the game being set in Japan. The other idea I really liked was the dice system. I've been working on my own role-playing game, Muses, and from what started as a game that used (with permission) the Houses of the Blooded system, slowly developed its own system. I started using a system wherein the very number of the dice roll was vital to whether or not you scored a success. In Kuro, just like in my game (although mine took the Chinese superstition), the number FOUR is prominent because of how the word for the number in Japanese sounds like the word "Death." The presence of an exploding die system also reminded me nicely of the Storyteller system approach. It does contain a sample adventure in the back, which is a good touch to help new game masters get a grasp of how a game can flow.
Overall, the book is definitely worth a purchase. Fans of novels by William Gibson might find the game a nice jumping point for a role-playing game if they opt to ignore the supernatural thrust of the setting, which unlike Shadowrun, can easily be divorced from. I can see the system being used to run a game based on Bladerunner or Katsuhiro Otomo's Akira (and both are mentioned in the page for Inspirations.)
You can purchase Kuro here.
Concept: Nicely done. Not so much my cup of tea, but definitely well thought-out and elegantly written.
Crunch: Typical for a role-playing game, in my opinion. Lighter than most, when compared to games like GURPS, Dungeons and Dragons and classic World of Darkness.
Layout: Professionally done with a well-considered sequence in how the information is given. I was pleasantly surprised to find the colored art for the archetypes.
My favorite part: The history. Very thought-provoking and believable. I love how they represented the new manifestation of Kamikaze, and tied it thematically to how historically events have unfolded in Japan.
What I wish was better: The horror. I really wanted this game to give off a spooky and scary vibe. Instead, it felt more like Scion. Or Warhammer. The scary stuff is scary.. but only for the characters. Not the players.