Tabletop Review: Kuro (Cubicle 7 Entertainment)

Publisher: Cubicle 7 Entertainment, Ltd.
Page Count: 208
Price: $19.99 (PDF)
Release Date: 11/23/2012
Where to get it: DriveThruRPG

Kuro is the latest in the line of interesting role-playing games put out by Cubicle 7 Entertainment, one of my favorite game companies. This game’s core thematic ideas have been compared, and rightly so, to the style of Japanese horror found in movies like The Ring or The Grudge. I am going to discuss the theme first, since that is really the meat of this game, and then of course I will discuss the way dice and characters factor in and the way the game plays.

It’s 2046, and things are messed up

In futuristic, dystopian Japan, there are strange and often terrible things happening. Bodies are found in alleyways, there is a blockade preventing people and goods from entering or leaving, and there is a general malaise over the population in the form of fear. When I read the introductory setting information for Kuro, I get that creeping feeling of dread that things have gone horribly wrong, yet no one knows exactly what is happening or what to do about it. While I felt that I had to suspend a bit of disbelief to get through the description of the eco-disaster future of the next 33 years (ice caps melt, oceans rise, energy crises, etc., I thought it sounded a little hysterical), once I got through the exposition I felt like I could enjoy the year 2046 as put forward by the book. The other thing I did not really buy was the description of international politics leading up to the nuclear launch that caused “the Kuro event”. In short, various alliances are formed and broken in Asia that lead to China launching a nuke at Japan which is intercepted by a strange electrical event. It seemed a bit fantastical to have these countries openly forming alliances and bickering about technology and trade agreements, including aggressive military action culminating in nuclear strikes. First, it all seems a bit like staged theatrics with a script for an action film. Second, if the future has androids and nanobots and clones … why are there still nukes and why would anyone launch them? Has the concept of mutually assured destruction disappeared?

Anyway, I found the setting exposition a bit tall, but it is easy to just read over it and accept that things got messed up, something drastic happened and now Japan is plunged into a strange darkness. To top it off, the event occurred during a contested election and the country is currently leaderless, dealing with an interior political crisis that leaves people just as confused by their government as they are with the strangeness around them. Add one dash of a blockade at the Japanese ports and around the perimeter of the country, and you have yourself a claustrophobic hotbed of supernatural horror.

So, what is the strangeness around them? Well, there are hints and overtures throughout the book. Sometimes the book is talking about spirits, ghosts, and the like. Other times, mentions of monsters, beasts and demons from Eastern mythology. Bodies are found having suffered a strange disfiguration, machines come to life and attack, technology is manipulated by the strange energy of the dead, strange noises are heard, and shadows flicker in the corners of eyes. Basically, whatever creepy thing you can think of or any trope from a horror movie is going to fit in here. Possession, haunting, poltergeists, demons, horrible Lovecraftian beasts, electronic interference, madness, all of that can have a home in 2046 Tokyo.

What Do People Do?

The idea for the players in Kuro is to have them be mostly ordinary people; they are used to living a regular life, going to work and living with whatever comforts are affordable or available, hanging out with friends, and in the midst of the Kuro event they are seeking a return to normalcy. While I’m sure it would be perfectly possible to play badass ghost hunters and demon killers, the game really doesn’t seem to encourage that line of thinking. This is more along the lines of supernatural and/or survival horror – think X-Files set in semi-hysterical, futuristic Tokyo. To be honest, I wasn’t quite sure how to imagine the level of alarm in the setting. Is everyone going crazy? Are people more or less living normally but with this oppressive fear kept under wraps? Is there constant evidence of the supernatural but some people dismiss it or ignore it and some embrace it? I think it is a mixture of all three. The book talks about spouters of end-of-the-world prophecies, cults, the wealthy living in isolated buildings that provide for all of their needs, various religious groups, those trying to capitalize monetarily on the tragedy, and the government being very quiet about it all except to reassure the populace that nothing is wrong.

Tokyo, now renamed Shin-Edo in the face of enemies (a tradition), is a divided city in more than just how people feel about the crisis. There are different districts where the disparate groups of people live. The very wealthy might live in one quarter, the influential businessmen and offices in another quarter, the less fortunate here, strip clubs there, etc. The book gives a nice description of each definable section of Shin-Edo, detailing the inhabitants and what typically goes on there. After reading this, the game master should have a good idea of what the different portions of Tokyo are like. The descriptions are not too short, dedicating about a page to each section depending on how much there is of note in the location. Following ward descriptions are a few pages about daily life: what to eat and drink, customs, currency, and the Shinto-Buddhist religion most people subscribe to. Not a lot of information here, but enough for a role-playing game. Anyone familiar with Japanese culture will probably learn little from this section, but those clueless about the nation will need this to help them add authenticity to the atmosphere.

Rollin’ Dice and Making a Tokyo-ite

Well folks, if what I have said has excited you thus far, I hope this doesn’t take anything away for you. As for me, I found the actual game mechanisms here functional but uninspiring. Basically, you take the number of dice (d6s) for the attribute related to what you are doing, add the level of the skill you are using, and then see if that meets or exceeds a target number set by the GM. Anyone familiar with other Cubicle 7 games like Qin and The One Ring will see similarities here. The differences are that there is an “exploding die” possibility, where a roll of “6” is rolled again and added to the total, and then (for a nice touch of flavor) a roll of “4” at any time counts as zero, because the word for “4” is the same as the word for “death”. Otherwise, that is pretty much it. It seems that Neko or whoever is responsible for setting the basic die mechanisms in Cubicle 7 games prefers to use six-sided dice with a twist thrown in somewhere. I can understand and respect that, I just would love to see something really interesting done with dice at some point in my role-playing life. I guess I keep hoping C7, since they seem to be the biggest professional company putting out games on interesting and non-tired subjects, will be the ones to invent those mechanisms.

Character creation is point-buy. You will be able to allocate points between your eight attributes (we’re talking single-digit, low attributes), and then allocate a certain amount of points between skills and skill specializations. One cool thing about skills is that once you specialize enough in a certain area of a skill you are allowed to choose what is called a “Gimikku” for that specialization. These Gimikku allow you to add bonus points to a roll, reroll dice, and other things that make your character very, very good at that one thing. The skill list covers a nice, general area without getting too deep. You still read through and think: “where is any character going to use his Jet Pilot skill?” So, while I personally think they could just eliminate a lot of these skills that probably would never crop up in a game set in futuristic, dark Tokyo, I guess it’s good to have them there just in case. For another example, you character can have the “Energy Technology” skill with a specialization in photovoltaic nanobatteries. Now, seriously, who is going to use this skill in-game? I’m not saying it is impossible, I’m just looking for an example of how a player who is highly specialized in photovoltaic nanobatteries is going to prove useful in the course of a game.

Without going into all the details of what is a fairly basic and standard combat system, I just want to point out something that I think is very cool with melee combat. There are three types of attacks: “Fast”, “Power”, and a normal attack. The normal attack is just your straightforward “to hit” roll, and the opponent can dodge if they have actions left. The “Power” and “Fast” attacks require you to invest a point of Strength or Reflexes respectively, and then provide various tradeoffs to damage and hitting depending on how much you invested. Now that’s interesting! This breathes a bit of tactical life into what is otherwise a pretty typical combat section. Now, if only something like this had been implemented for the heroes in The One Ring along with the tactical positioning…

Monsters and Terrible Things

I’m just going to describe one monster in the bestiary section, the one that gave me the most willies. It is the Tsuchigumo or “earth spider”. Awakened by the Kuro Incident, these large spiders look “like a sea spider, with a massive, whitish shell and a body with six long hooked legs”. Yeah. In addition to that, they like to live underground where they can remain undetected and hide in the dark. This was the worst part: “Incapable of coming out during the day without being noticed and by fear of the sunlight, this creature prefers to possess human beings with its eggs to make them obey without hesitation”. You also have the Kappa, a turtle-like humanoid with a beak and some sort of strange, salt-water brain (it’s hard to explain without just reading it over and over). There are also various demons and spirits here related to Japanese lore. It is by no means an exhaustive bestiary and does not contain much in the way of things a GM can pull out regularly for the characters unless the characters are really strong and the evil forces are really making a go of it.

Towards the end of the book are sections on gamemastering advice and a sample adventure for the group. Both of these are great, and give a lot of excellent information and examples on gameplay. The sample adventure seems really hard, and I don’t see how the characters could really survive it without at least one or two dying off. Basically, the players are trapped in a complex that has been locked down for security, and through the actions of some unwelcome intruders they will be forced even deeper in before the security really gets bad. However, the spirit of the recently-deceased lab director is there to help … but how much? I won’t spoil it for you, but the scenario given in this book is pretty freaky and intense.

Final Thoughts

Kuro nails one thing really well: theme. By making Tokyo (Shin-Edo) the setting and centering the game on it, then adding in all of these concrete and implied elements of Japanese horror, Kuro shines. Tokyo becomes like a pressure cooker, and all of these elements are added to the recipe to make a terrifying sauce for GMs to lovingly spoon over the story, topped with the player characters. Good place for food metaphors? Actually, few things could make me less hungry than the possible fear created by this game, in the hands of the right group. I’m not the biggest fan of fear, and I outright cannot stand senseless violence, but I do enjoy creepiness and supernatural happenings. This game can go full steam with both supernatural creep and gore elements, or it can just choose one of those two and focus on it. Want lots of dead people and violence? Kuro is ready for that. Want lots of creep, whispers, shadows, and that kind of stuff? Kuro is good for that too. Either way, the atmosphere of terrified Tokyo and the people within are ripe for a group to come and experience it. The crew at Cubicle 7 has made another excellent game on an interesting subject, and while I am not crazy about some aspects of the game like the lackluster test resolution and some convoluted rules, the feel is just too good to pass up.