Anime and Roleplaying, Part 1

As I’ve mentioned before, I think I’ve accidentally wound up starting on an anime RPG. What follows are some musing on anime RPGs, past, present and future, and some of the ideas that are looking like they’ll become the foundations of this new game.

Towards Anime Roleplaying

RPGs have a decidedly odd relationship with anime. For a considerable time, if one went by the “anime” RPGs being released one would’ve had to conclude that “anime” is synonymous with “mecha.” In part this reflects the general style of RPG that was popular at the time, of which Mekton Z and Heavy Gear are probably the most enduring examples. More recently, we’ve had BESM and a handful of others try to tackle anime in the form of a “universal anime RPG.” BESM is a curious game in that it largely avoids trying to influence how the game is played, with the intent that the game is just a framework that provides unobtrusive guidelines to complement whatever you want to roleplay, anime or otherwise.

Others, like OVA and RandomAnime, tried to codify some of the clichés of anime into their rules, to varying degrees. There has been a long-running tradition on RPG message boards of denying anime any hint of uniqueness that could be coded into the rules of an RPG. I think this argument has certain flaws, and ultimately for whatever reason anime seems to be judged by some impossibly high, ephemeral standard when it comes to what an RPG can achieve with regard to genre emulation. This tendency towards overly harsh critical evaluations of “anime-ness” – either by calling it insufficient or denouncing the existence of such a thing in the first place – seems ridiculous when contrasted to the reactions to RPGs that strive for any given genre from most any other media. If there can be a super hero RPG that can go anywhere from Cartoon Network Teen Titans to Dark Knight Returns (or simply from Batman to Superman) without missing a beat (Truth & Justice is probably up to it), there can certainly be an anime RPG that can go from Sgt. Frog to Rurouni Kenshin.

BESM is by far the anime RPG that has enjoyed the greatest success, despite the fact that Guardians of Order is now out of business. Its timing – hitting the market right around the time of America’s big anime boom – probably had something to do with this, but there is one respect in which it fits anime better than many other RPGs. GURPS and BESM are in many ways rather similar games, especially in their newest iterations, but there is one fundamental difference in their paradigms: GURPS is grounded in simulating reality or at least plausible conjecture, while BESM is about providing the right general look and feel. In this sense BESM is a more “visual” RPG, and in the game it’s more important that a character appear to have the right stats on the character sheet, and succeed in die rolls an appropriate percentage of the time. However, while there are many rules intended to facilitate including just about anything that might be witnessed in an anime, it keeps its hands off of the events of the game, for good or for ill. The anime flavor in the book come through in the form of artwork, examples, and advice, and without these Tri-Stat is an ordinary universal system, one GoO had little difficulty repurposing for superheroes, as a generic universal system, etc.

One interesting example of the above taken to an extreme is in the Tenchi Muyo! RPG; the vast majority of the characters in the OAVs are give full game stats, and in the case of the main characters there are bios of at least two full pages as well. However, certain characters like Misaki and Serio have nothing more than a couple paragraphs of description. This might seem odd—and were the game approached in a manner more in line with R. Talsorian’s Bubblegum Crisis RPG the designers would almost certainly have devised stats of some sort—but within BESM’s paradigm that simply isn’t necessary. Misaki and Serio are both Juraian nobles and presumably very powerful, but the role they played in the anime is purely social. If played using the Tri-Stat system the way the creator intended, the game mechanics would never once have come into play regarding these characters.

One of the my aims is to take the visual roleplaying paradigm further, in the service of anime-inspired roleplaying. The types of anime I’m most interested in emulating don’t have all that much of a logical internal structure, and don’t particularly engage in the kind of world-building favored by speculative fiction writers. In genre fiction the characters often seem to exist simply as a foreground to a fantastical background; anime favors the opposite extreme, tending to be highly character-centric. Details about the setting only come into play because they are pertinent to the plot at the time, and pretty much anything of any real importance happens on-camera, during a scene. An anime RPG needs to suggest rather than simulate, with things defined in broad, “planar” terms that can be detailed and refined when the need arises.

The Power of Allusion

One of the key features of both otaku culture and American gamer culture is a referential nature. In both cases there is a geek culture with a cultural canon of product art that must be internalized for full admission. In the case of roleplaying games, this leads to allusion being not only a key cultural factor, but a mechanism for enabling the game. Professional creators try to avoid being too referential, or at least keep their references suitably high-brow, but doujinshi artists and gamers by and large embrace intertextualism. While it can be taken to excess (how many Monty Python and Simpsons quotes does a game session need?), gamers ultimately benefit from it. We can take bits and pieces of the media we enjoy, and use them as a source of inspiration and leverage to better express ourselves within a gaming group.

Roleplaying games’ relationship with direct adaptations from other media has been an odd one, and doubly so with regard to anime, even in Japan. With the exception of a handful of titles – notably Bubblegum Crisis and Project A-ko – the vast majority of licensed anime RPGs were produced by Guardians of Order, using their Tri-Stat system and its attendant paradigm. These books were of good quality at first, but GoO switched to an “Ultimate Fan Guide” format, which is to say they created episode guides with a small amount of BESM game material in the back. While some fans of the company were glad to not pay for the same rules over and over, and while one could debate their quality, they nonetheless lacked in depth. In Japan the hobby is even smaller, and several anime licenses were somehow snatched up by a publisher that poorly implemented them with the bland “MAGIUS” system. Those games have since gone out of print, and there are no licensed anime RPGs in Japan to speak of.

Much of roleplaying is done with settings created specifically for that purpose, even though cultural allusions form one of the basic building blocks of the medium. However, this is a stark contrast to online free-form roleplaying, which is dominated by games taking place in settings taken directly from existing media. There are also a good number of tabletop RPG players who are looking to take their favorite anime and create a roleplaying game experience based on it. Michael Hopcroft is an ideal example; on countless RPG message boards he pops up with threads about how he wants to adapt a given anime (Azumanga Daioh, Read Or Die, and Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan, to name a few) to a particular published RPG system.

It’s easy to dismiss this style of gaming as essentially “roleplaying fanfiction,” but allusion is fundamental to how the hobby is played in general, and there are evidently a considerable number of players who want exactly that experience. An RPG based on anime should recognize and embrace allusion and adaptation as being fundamental to the experience the participants are trying to create.

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