By Anthony “LibrariaNPC” DeMinico, 15 April 2020
Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) is more than just a trope in anime: it is one of the earliest anime-inspired RPGs in the West. While I was late getting to the party (getting it in the early 2000s), it was one of the games that helped expand my horizons beyond the classic Dungeons and Dragons and show what other options were out there.
While the game fell off the radar over a decade ago due to some issues with Guardians of Order collapsing and the rights being sold to White Wolf, long time fans still stand by their favorite editions or officially licensed anime titles. Now that a new, fourth edition has graced the stage, the current batch of RPG fans yearning for an anime game can experience a more advanced version of the original.
While I missed the Kickstarter and pre-order window, Dyskami and Japanime Games were kind enough to forward a collection of PDFs to me to write a review of this newest edition.
Writer’s Note: Digital copies of the product were provided for the purposes of this review. This does not influence the scoring of this review.
BESM returns to the RPG fray after a decade-long hiatus. With a revamped version of the classic Tri-Stat mechanic, BESM touts a flexible, effects-based gameplay experience that allows for any style of game to be played with a small collection of rules.
==A Bit of History==
BESM started in 1997 with a (rather tiny) first edition, which only grew and expanded as the years went on. We saw two editions under the Guardians of Order banner, which included a couple of other licensed anime titles (including Tenchi Muyo! and Sailor Moon), a d20 edition, and a third edition released by White Wolf.
The original Tri-Stat mechanic that powered this system started as a roll-low game (Stat+Mods, roll beneath it), with the third edition moving to a roll high mechanic. In addition to this shift in roll resolution, we’ve seen a number of other changes; more character options were added, more nods to other franchises were incorporated, and the game became more complex.
With MacKinnon getting back to the game, I was curious what was going to happen.
From a mechanics perspective, the third edition of the game had some drastic changes from the previous editions due to the sudden flip with the math involved, and I couldn’t help but wonder just what else was going to change, as well as what could possibly be the same (as Dyskami is also releasing other Sailor Moon games, but no word on a remake of the Sailor Moon RPG).
From a situational point of view, there’s a number of statements regarding how Guardians of Order collapsed and a number of people boycotting the game due to MacKinnon’s involvement in the new edition. As this is a game review, this is not the place for that discussion, and I shall leave it at that.
==What You Get==
BESM comes in two editions: the standard and “naked” editions.
The standard rulebook weighs in around 354 pages, containing all of the rules for the game, a plethora of artwork (an image every 2-3 pages, on average), and an anime universe filled with aliens, planets, and tropes to explore.
The “naked” edition is a slimmed down version of the game, weighing in around 146 pages. While a solid 200 pages have been cut, this book focuses on providing all of the necessary rules but cuts down on the fluff: minimal art usage (but still plenty to work with), setting information has been removed, and smaller details on tropes have been provided.
For an old hand, it is fun to see BESM back in the fold, doubly so with the classic Tri-Stat system revamped with about a decade’s worth of improvements versus the return of the d20 system from the last incarnation of the game we saw. That alone made it worth investigating.
Additionally, the art is a fun collection of older BESM art and some newer pieces that I don’t recognize from previous editions. The art styles do run the gamut of anime styles, and rotate from fun magical girls to gorgeously rendered medieval fantasy artwork. If you’re an old guard anime otaku, you’ll easily spot references to a number of favorite anime characters and series among the older art pieces.
Speaking of, between the art and examples, we see the gamut from old-school anime to current generation shows. Everything from hot rodders fighting robots to playing a slime is referenced here, so if you’ve watched anime in the last thirty or so years, you’ll find something that looks familiar in concept or in art.
One thing I have to say I am pleased with is how the game fulfills its pitch: BESM delivers a game that actually can run any game in any setting, and not just with anime. Sure, we have rules for the anime tropes like nosebleeds and the sort, but we have a collection of rules to cover everything: mecha, ships, planet breaking weapons, super powers, transformations, and more.
Older editions of BESM were able to cover franchises such as Sailor Moon and Tenchi Muyo! rather effectively, and I’ve seen it used by fans to create settings such as Phantasy Star (a franchise I absolutely want to see more of). This new edition, from what I’ve read and compared, should be able to handle them. Sure, you will need to restat most things (due to the major changes in editions), but most of the options are pretty easy to re-discover (like “Costume Change” from Tenchi Muyo! could be reskinned as “Alternate Form” if it is truly needed), and others are MUCH simpler (due to the change in points and approach; we don’t have to worry so much about tracking “sub-attributes” and the related scale for that).
Unlike other games that provide this level of customization, the core mechanic is still relatively simple. With three stats, and derivations based off of those three, the general concept of the game is easy to grasp. When you then factor in the roll mechanic (a simple 2d6+mods), the price of entry is much easier to work with when compared to other games, as anyone with a “typical” board game will already have the 2d6 minimum, and will more than likely have the 4d6 maximum used for the rolls.
Overall, BESM brings about a drastic number of improvements from previous editions, from easier math (smaller costs for abilities and customizations, for example) to better explained details to a more intuitive roll-high vs the earlier generation’s roll-low mechanics. It’s just…better when compared to previous editions.
The first major concern is going to be a jab at the “Naked” edition here. With a name like BESM and the bubble font used, having the word “Naked” on the cover with three characters stripped down to their undergarments makes for a rather…awkward thing to carry and read in public. I’d rather have seen the return of a “Stingy Gamer Edition” like we saw with BESM d20, but that’s just a personal concern for someone who works around rather strict sexual harassment policies and within a rather conservative community.
For an old hand, there’s also a bit of repetition here. Some examples are almost verbatim from previous editions, and at times, much of the mechanical section felt like a reprint and not a new game. Again, this is something that a new reader would not notice, but someone returning to the game may have this feeling.
While I adore the sheer amount of flexibility provided by the game, BESM suffers one major drawback: it is not new GM friendly, and may be daunting to new players in general. While the core mechanic is simple to grasp, the game will require a massive amount of legwork to be fully playable. While the players have all of the options available to them for their characters (which can lead to decision paralysis), GMs will have to balance building opponents via the same point-buy system, as well as building every bit of gear from the ground up.
Does your hero use a katana? Well, you’re taking Attributes to give it damage qualities, as well as any other perks fitting for it (like a magical katana that launches lightning bolts). Do you want a gas mask? You’ll need the appropriate Attributes to mark it’s immunities/resistances. Then you determine how many points it will cost, divide that in half (because it’s an item), and buy it for your character.
When you factor in that everything has a point cost, it becomes a great deal of desk checking (confirming a player can afford the item via their point balance), balancing (ensuring that all of the points line up and fit for the theme), and building from the ground up (literally point-by-point basis).
Essentially, the very flexibility that makes the game wonderful is it’s Achilles’ Heel: you can do anything you want, but you’re going to be spending the time to build it. While this may not be terrible, it does mean that for a GM that juggles multiple responsibilities (like me with day job, side jobs/projects, and games to run), it may not be the best choice.
While we’ve seen a number of upgrades in this version of BESM, it still carries the same flaws of the older editions: it’s not a complicated system, but it is complex due to all of the work needed to get it to where you need, and you will be doing a great deal of math over the course of the game (from multipliers for levels to the base Damage Multiplier in combat). Sadly, because of these changes, anyone who’s built up a collection will find that most of their material may not translate over well, meaning you’ll be building a number of things from the ground up.
Finally, if you’re worried about price points: like The Witcher RPG and a handful of others, buying the physical copy will not net you a PDF, and the PDF is about half the price of the dead tree edition. While I feel this game is best with a print copy (or three) at a table because of the sheer amount of options available, having a PDF on hand as well is almost vital for quick look-ups. Maybe I’m spoiled by other companies that provide them all, but it is still disheartening to have this.
With plenty of tinkering, comparing, and powering up, Big Eyes, Small Mouth 4th Edition is walking away with 3.5 buns.
As an RPG, BESM brings what it promises: flexible rules that can handle quite literally any setting you can imagine. With a robust collection of references to anime without actually naming anything, as well as resources to assist Western audiences with adapting to an anime world, BESM is an interesting game.
Sadly, like previous editions, BESM still carries the issues of min/maxing, and most importantly, still maintains its status among the RPG community as a “complex” system. The flexibility comes at the cost of having to do a great deal of work to get it to where you need it to be, which makes it difficult to suggest to GMs just getting started.
If you are a fan of anime and want to see a game that can support it, then you can’t go wrong with picking up BESM. If you hate having to do a great deal of prepwork and want an easy game to pick up, then you will want to sidestep this one. While it’s not going to be my game of choice, there’s some useful tools to find here.
Big Eyes, Small Mouth 4th Edition is created by Dyskami Publishing and distributed by Japanime Games. The book is currently available to pre-order from Japanime Games for $99.95 for the deluxe rulebook, $59.95 for the standard rulebook, or $34.95 for the “Naked” Edition. PDFs are available via DriveThruRPG for $29.99 for the standard rulebook or $17.49 for the “Naked” edition. Do note the PDFs and physical items are separate products.