A Game Per Year: Ghost Dog (2000)

I started to feel that I didn’t know roleplaying games well enough so I came up with the plan to read a roleplaying game corebook for every year they have been published. Selection criteria is whatever I find interesting.

The cover of the Ghost Dog roleplaying game

Ghost Dog is a 1999 movie directed by Jim Jarmusch about a black Mafia-employed hitman who has built his life on the tenets of Hagakure, a book detailing the code of the samurai. I saw it when it came out but I remember liking it a lot for its philosophical cool.

The movie is the subject of one of the more unusual licensed roleplaying games, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai. Unusual because a hipster crime film is not the obvious source of material for a roleplaying game because of its narrow focus.

As a roleplaying game, Ghost Dog is intended for a GM and a single player. You can play Ghost Dog himself or make your own character. The stories take place in the world depicted in the film, urban organized crime in a decaying American city.

Ghost Dog is an unusual game book because it devotes a lot of space to picking apart the movie its based on. The film’s characters, locations, themes, even all the books mentioned in it get their share of attention. The analysis is functional, not highbrow, but it is quite thorough. Questions like the meaning of romanticizing hitmen are dealt with in the introduction.

The game is built on a common Nineties model where the GM is assumed to be skilled in planning and running games. The system revolves situations in the game but doesn’t generate new material. The question of a beginning or unskilled GM is dealt with by giving advice on how to be a good GM.

(The other approach is to make a design with mechanics that generate game content, thus making the question of GM skill less important.)

This approach is essentially based on the skill of the participants. The better they are, the better the game. Ghost Dog is somewhat unusual in that it also has advice for players, suggesting that player skill also plays a part, not just GM ability.

The game features two example adventures, one starring Ghost Dog himself and the other built for a mafia player character. The Ghost Dog adventure is interesting because it seeks to contrast romance and the violent lifestyle of the hitman. Romantic content is relatively rare in published roleplaying games and the approach here is tender and tragic, though not overly so.

The example adventures are well thought out in terms of what works specifically in one-on-one play. They demonstrate that sometimes nuanced scenes are easier to play privately, instead of in the chaos of a bigger group.

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