Anime and Roleplaying, Part 2

Continuing from my last post, some more on how to represent anime in RPG form. The Culture Clash section was inspired in part by an exchange with Nagisawa Takumi on RPG.net. I doubt we’ll ever agree as to what “anime” means (for reasons you’ll see below), but I came out of it with a much better understanding of what I mean by anime, and how it relates to roleplaying games. The second section was inspired in part by reading Daniel Mackay’s book The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, as was the earlier one on allusion.

Culture Clash

Trying to emulate anime (and manga) in another medium inevitably runs into the question of how to define anime. It’s been my experience that particularly online, the biggest arguments regarding RPGs concern or are caused by words with fuzzy definitions, particularly ones created by the fandom (“splatbook”). Arguments over the words “anime” and “manga” stem primarily from the notion that a work can only wear that label if they’re made by one or more Japanese people in Japan for consumption by the Japanese public. In some ways this definition is useful, since it lets us distinguish between Japanese manga, Korean manhwa, Chinese manhua, what Tokyopop calls “OEL manga,” and so on. Still, particularly as invoked on the internet, this conservative definition is more often used as a cudgel to exclude works not made in Japan – regardless of their actual quality – from the anime/manga “club.”

When it comes to roleplaying games, the problem with defining anime in terms of culture is that it largely goes outside the scope of what an RPG can hope to cover, particularly mechanically. While Sgt. Frog takes place in Japan and has episodes concerning Japanese holidays like Tanabata and Children’s Day and things like hot springs and sumo, the important underlying elements of Japanese culture – things like honne and tatemae – tend to get lost in the haze of color and sound. Moreover, by that definition a tabletop RPG designed and/or played by non-Japanese would be categorically excluded from “anime” status. That makes such a definition counterproductive if not useless for the purposes of roleplaying games.

While it seems there will always be fans who grumble about “non-authentic” anime and manga, the better titles – Avatar: The Last Airbender, Oban Star-Racers, Dramacon, etc. – capture other essential features of mainstream anime and manga, most notably the kinetic, planar aesthetic and character-centric melodrama. Indeed, this latest generation of creators understands the underlying structure of Japanese-style storytelling much better than their predecessors. Adam Warren and Fred Perry, though exceedingly talented, are nonetheless essentially creating American comics with manga-inspired artwork. It’s with this definition of “anime” – perhaps different from what is more widely accepted, but also much more useful for designing a roleplaying game – that I wish to move forward.

In terms of how successfully the game emulates the source material, I am only concerned with how well it does mainstream anime. I am absolutely certain that the game I create will be useful for games not based in anime, and I do not consider this a problem. The fact that Mutants & Masterminds can conceivably be used for fantasy, for example, does not inherently make it less of a superhero RPG. It’s in the nature of RPGs that it’s virtually impossible to design a game so focused that it can’t be repurposed in some way. The things I consider to be defining traits of anime are indeed present in other media, particularly in Japan. I’ve already discussed the “visual paradigm” stuff; now for melodrama.

Melodrama is a common trait in popular Japanese entertainment, whether it’s Kabuki and woodblock prints, puroresu and tokusatsu, or anime and TV dramas. The stark, austere atmosphere of Noh theater, tea ceremony, and the greats of Japanese literature are a sharp contrast to the blatantly emotional, melodramatic mainstream of Japanese narrative. Understanding and embracing this style of narrative is key to the game I want to create. It’s not going to be a game to use for Akira or Ghost in the Shell, much less Princess Mononoke[1] or Grave of the Fireflies. When people react to the word “anime” – positively, negatively, or just with a resounding “WTF?” – these titles are not what most readily come to mind, and they would be better served by other games. I want to make a game for shows like Naruto and Keroro Gunsou, with colorful characters that raise their voices a lot.

I wouldn’t call it a flaw that BESM and OVA don’t particularly attempt to include melodrama on a mechanical level. They grew out of different lineages of RPGs; Mark MacKinnon is an avid Amber fan, and Clay Gardner did a great deal of online freeform roleplaying, neither of which lends itself to letting the game mechanics have an particular hold on the roleplaying/performance aspect of the game. For better or for worse I’ve been heavily influenced by the indie scene, especially through Story Games. The game that’s begun coming together very clearly shows this lineage, and distinguishes itself from other anime RPGs primarily in this manner. If it didn’t, I would probably be wasting my time.

The Game, The Artifact

One of the unique qualities of roleplaying games is that there’s a very odd relationship between the media that go into it and the end product that comes out. The actual narrative that results is not to be found in the rulebook or even in a recording of the game session. The game is just that, and the participants are taking the largely non-narrative sequence of events from the game and organizing them into a narrative in their heads. Interactive entertainment naturally has narrative as an emergent property, and human beings naturally arrange events into narrative form. From this view, the narrative that comes out of an RPG is ephemeral, and does not normally take the form of a physical artifact.

This is an important consideration because most geeky subcultures – including roleplayers and otaku – have a strong fixation on what might be called “secondary artifacts.” A gamer doesn’t particularly need a stack of sourcebooks, a box of hand-painted miniatures (or not-so-miniatures), and tubes of matching sparkly dice to play D&D, any more than an otaku needs figures of Rei and Asuka dressed as nurses to sit down and watch Evangelion. But whether it’s the Colossal Red Dragon or the 12” figure of Rei Ayanami in bandages[2], people enjoy having these artifacts around their living spaces, and probably enjoy the task of accumulating them – from stores, at conventions, and through the internet – even more.

Roleplaying games typically take place in an original world created specifically for that purpose, so the capacity for secondary artifacts is limited. Very popular titles like Dungeons & Dragons and to a lesser extent White Wolf’s World of Darkness games can pull it off to some degree because they have the economic might to do so. A handful of Japanese tabletop games have managed to produce some merchandise, though chances are they’re appealing as much or more to fans of the merchandise in general. The Queen’s Blade (probably NSFW) series is basically a fanservicey manga take on Flying Buffalo’s Lost Worlds combat book game, but the number of detailed plastic figures of the characters sold is probably substantially greater than that of the actual game books.

Games based off of existing properties are, in effect, secondary artifacts in and of themselves. For a Firely/Serentiy fan the TV show and movie are the primary objects, and MWP’s Serenity RPG is an unnecessary but pleasant way to heighten one’s enjoyment of the property. Such games, whether officially licensed or put together by fans, can potentially integrate themselves into an overall fandom of the property, which can in turn allow the participants’ accumulated merchandise to become a tool for the game. I own a set of miniature Azumanga Daioh plush toys, and some time I want to run a one-shot where each player has one of these to represent their character. This, by the way, is another reason why I want to make a game that specifically embraces players using adaptations of their favorite anime series.

Without the luxury of having or being secondary artifacts, the only artifact a less commercially successful RPG can offer directly is the game book itself. Where early RPGs typically came in boxes and had several booklets and possibly cards, dice, etc. the cost of creating these and retailers’ unwillingness to handle them has made books the norm. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the presence of secondary artifact, but it means they have to either be created by the participants or in some way repurposed from somewhere else. In the latter case, if I wanted to I could run an original game where the player characters were some kind of trendy girls, and have the players play with Pinky St. dolls to create physical representations of their characters[3].

One of the important concepts in the game I’m planning is what I call the “Fan Guide,” inspired partly by The Dictionary of Mu, and partly by the above theoretical underpinnings. The idea is to have the group collectively create a guidebook to their shared imaginary world, similar in form to the art books and series guides produced for real anime series. My aim is both to tap into the players’ desire for artifacts – just think of when the campaign has been going on for a while and you have this shiny binder with a treasure trove of info – and the practical matter of archiving the contents of the game. RPGs thrive on the enthusiasm of the participants, and hopefully this can be a useful and effective way to invigorate and channel that enthusiasm.


[1] It’s worth noting that while Miyazaki’s works are at times called “anime,” he largely rejects otaku sensibilities as much as possible in his works, and his movies are regarded as “safe” and acceptable even by people who normally despise anime and otaku.

[2] Which raises other interesting psychological issues with regard to otaku, though they’re not especially pertinent here.

[3] Someone who’s not me totally needs to design a Pinky St. RPG.

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2 thoughts on “Anime and Roleplaying, Part 2

  1. I’ll undoubtedly be posting up more about this stuff soon. I have this smallish notebook I carry with me to write down stuff while I’m away from my computer, and I’ve wound up filling up 40 pages in barely 2 weeks. If it comes to fruition the design notes are definitely going on the website and not in the physical book, considering they’re nearly 10 typed pages now. ^_^;

    And I am seriously thinking about switching to WordPress now. Probably within the next week or so. I also got three Japanese RPGs (and an RPG-related magazine) in the mail yesterday, so I’ll be posting about them as soon as I get a chance to actually read more (reading prose in Japanese takes me longer, plus I’ve got a bunch of manga to distract me now).

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