Things I Learned From Japanese TRPGs

I’ll get into stuff for my anime RPG project hardcore soon, but first:

I’ve always been interested in how things are reinterpreted for different cultures, and in studying to become a translator I’ve wound up exploring many of the cultural differences that can be seen in Japan. RPGs in particular seem to develop substantially different subcultures in different countries, particularly when there’s a strong language barrier. Japan is relatively isolated in terms of language, and also has a sort of culture of reading and publication. From what I’ve heard there are many countries, especially those with many English-speakers (such as Finland) where American RPGs dominate the market, if sometimes in very different patterns from here depending on what it released and catches on. While a Japanese version of D&D are available, the Western games that have caught on there are ones like GURPS that were more thoroughly localized. Group SNE’s GURPS has crazy manga art, and they’ve produced some original settings and such.

As far as I can tell, the titan of the (very small) RPG industry in Japan is a company called Far East Amusement Research, or F.E.A.R. I now own three of their games: Beast Bind: New Testament, Arianrhod, and Alshard ff. These games are for the most part aimed squarely at otaku. They have lavish manga-style art, and crazy, exciting settings meant to appeal to fans of anime and video games. They vary a bit, but F.E.A.R.’s in particular tend to have fairly simple rules. Characters are created by putting together a 2-3 different templates (classes, races, or in the case of Beast Bind, “Bloods”) which determine attributes and provide a selection of special abilities to choose from. Assign 3-5 extra attribute points, calculate a couple of secondary values, and you’re pretty much done. Character creation is very quick, and results in characters painted in broad strokes, with lots of cool powers. To speed things up even more, these games also have “quickstart” character creation, where you take a mostly completed template, add a couple points, give them a name, and you’re pretty much done. DeadLands, and most of the various Unisystem games have done this, but not quite as effectively.

What makes these games interesting is how they’re presented. I talked about this a bit before (back when I first got Beast Bind: New Testament), but Japanese TRPGs are often written with the assumption that many people will be picking up the books (thanks in part to their shiny, attractive covers) and trying to play them without having ever met someone else who plays RPGs before. This is a major contrast to the American RPG hobby subculture, where it’s largely assumed that people should learn RPGs from other people who play them.

Replays – transcripts of game sessions – are the most readily noticeable consequence of this. Not all, but most TRPG books have at least one replay included, even the 32-page Maid RPG core rulebook. They’re also to be found on the internet, and doujinshi circles and even publishers put them out as small books. In the absence of a “mentor,” these can provide an effective example of how a game flows. Still, they also appear to have become a form of entertainment in themselves, enjoyed by people in the hobby both as reading material and something to create. The Ru/Li/Lu/Ra rulebook has a photograph of a game in progress in the introduction – something I’ve never seen in any RPG from any country before – and among the nerdy Japanese guys, drinks, poker chips, rulebooks, character sheets, dice, and so on, there’s a tape recorder. This penchant for recording also manifests in several RPGs having “session sheets.” These are forms included for the game, similar to character sheets, used to note down things like experience points for each character.

There is also a much greater emphasis on “scenarios.” The American RPG scene used to thrive on published adventure modules, but now even D&D seems to have relatively few of these, and many RPGs have no support of this kind available at all. Japanese RPGs seem to take scenarios very seriously, and while there are some rulebooks that don’t have any replays in them, I’ve yet to see one that didn’t have at least two scenarios in the back. Most games have a relatively tight premise, which no doubt makes it easier to write and use scenarios, but it’s also that these games are not aimed at long-term play, at least not in the American sense of a D&D campaign that goes on for multiple years. Alshard ff actually lists “Campaign Play” as an option in a sidebar, rather than as part of the list of gameplay formats (one-shots, pick-up play., casual play, etc.) in the main text. Some games don’t seem to even be particularly concerned with having continuing characters in the first place. The majority of the scenarios for Maid RPG are set up in completely different worlds from each other, and demand creating new characters.

Another thing that the F.E.A.R. games in particular do is make a very concerted effort to convey in the text how a game session should flow, from the GM devising (or selecting) a scenario, to the game itself, to cleaning up after, to suggesting going to a café or some such afterwards to talk about the game. Along the way, the rulebooks often have simple diagrams/flowcharts to help explain the games’ workings. While some of these are for things like clarifying the combat rules, there’s also some that cover the basic flow of the game. In page 120 of Alshard ff there’s two diagrams representing gamers sitting around a table. One shows the GM at the far end of the table with arrows going from the players to the center of the table, and larger arrow going from the center to the GM; it has a big X next to it, indicating this is wrong. The other shows the GM seated in the middle, with a double ended arrow between each player and the GM; this one has a circle, showing that it’s correct. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it in an American RPG. Also, the first diagram calls to mind what I’ve heard about old-school D&D players having a “party caller” who announces what the PCs are doing most of the time.

There isn’t an “indie scene” in RPGs in Japan the way there is in the U.S. (and other countries where people are into the same websites), but in some ways the categories have to be drawn differently in the first place. Japan has a massive doujinshi scene, where fans produce various works, some original but many derived from anime, manga, games, etc., and sell them at conventions. For example, I’ve seen a website for a circle that had produced doujins like “GURPS Cardcaptor Sakura” and “GURPS Galaxy Angel.” The scale on which these are sold is no doubt comparable to some indie games, but the “creator ownership” aspect isn’t a concern, and would be rather tenuous for something based off of a popular anime in the first place.

There are however some smaller TRPG publishers out there, though it’s hard to say whether they represent Japan’s equivalent of indie or the mid-tier publishing that’s become scarce to absent in the American RPG industry. I lucked out in that Sunset Games was willing to let me use Paypal to order Maid RPG and Yuuyake Koyake, two very unique games, both by Sakaya Kamiya. Neither is quite like any RPG I’ve seen, Japanese or otherwise.

Maid RPG takes the otaku maid fetish and uses it as the basis for what amounts of an anime version of Toon. Like Toon – only more so – it embraces randomness as a path to comedy. Characters are almost completely random, and tend to have odd traits glommed into them for no good reason. Hence when we played the other day my character was a pure lolita catgirl with blonde hair, an eyepatch, and a revolver, whose family broke up and who was enslaved by the master. In my opinion the single most brilliant thing about this game is that players can spend points to trigger random events.

Yuuyake Koyake (which means “Sunset”) has “Heartwarming Role-Playing” as its subtitle. It’s a diceless game about henge – animals with minor magical powers that take on human form. They live on the edge of a town in rural Japan, and the game is about them generally being friends and helping out the people of the town. Forming connections to people is a vital part of the game, and necessary for characters to get the points they need to use special powers or boost their attributes enough to accomplish especially hard tasks. It also has the single best use of controlled writing voice I’ve ever seen in an RPG rulebook; the entire time it feels like your grandma is reading it to you.

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3 thoughts on “Things I Learned From Japanese TRPGs

  1. This is a really fascinating post.

    There’s this whole realm of gaming outside the scope of the American scene… I must know more!

    What is the GURPS scene like in Japan? The system sounds antithetical to the trends you describe here… but it wouldn’t have to be if it was supported with the right sort of supplements….

    Is there a Traveller fanbase in Japan? I know Imperium was translated into their language… but do they have nostalgic grognards arguing about the Traveller canon like we do?

    What games in English are most like the Japanese games you describe?

    How can I get these Japanese games???

  2. I really want to know more about other countries besides the U.S. and Japan too, but there’s the problem of the language barrier. There’s a good article about the scene in Finland in the first issue of Push, for example. Jonathan Walton has said that the gamers in China mostly play from pirated PDFs of American games, and according to Guy Shalev in Israel people are mostly into freeform.

    I can’t really tell you a whole lot about GURPS in Japan. While Japanese RPGs themselves have incredible production values, their websites are largely terrible, and provide hardly any information, and Group SNE’s is worse than most. FEAR’s is badly laid out, but at least I can find information on it. Godzilla Gaming Podcast did an interview with Andy K, who knows a lot more about this stuff than I do. From what he’s said the Shin Megami Tensei RPG also sounds like it’s a bit too involved to be just for short-term play.

    Sunset Games was actually nice enough to let me order stuff by Paypal from them directly (hence I got Maid RPG and its two sourcebooks and Yuuyake Koyake), and the other stuff I got through Amazon Japan, which does international shipping. There’s one called Meikyuu Kingdom that I really want to get a hold of, but I haven’t been able to find it. Whenever I finally get around to going to Japan again, I’ll probably wind up going to Yellow Submarine (the major hobby shop for this stuff there) and spending WAAAY too much money.

    Japan’s main RPG website hub thingy is TRPG.net, and it does in fact have a Traveller page, albeit one that hasn’t had any activity since 2004.

    Another thing to keep in mind about RPGs in Japan is that they didn’t really reach the country until around the mid-80s, so I suspect there wasn’t the same generational gap that there was here between wargamers who picked up D&D and roleplayers who were never into wargames. On the other hand I suspect that some of the stuff I’ve identified here is at least partly the direction Japanese RPGs have been going in the past 5 years or so.

    And, in case you haven’t heard, Andy K is planning to bring out Tenra Bansho (a really crazy, and somewhat dark science fantasy samurai kind of thing) in English later this year.

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