Role-Play This! Shonen Fighting Manga

DBZ

This installment is a little different from the others, since it’s about a genre rather than a particular title, and a lot of it is about me trying to figure out how to go about designing an RPG for that genre. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled column next time.

What Is It?
“Shonen fighting manga” is what I’ll call a genre of manga (and related anime) that focuses on passionate characters engaged in epic conflicts. Most of the really popular titles fall within it (especially from Shonen Jump and its ilk), so as a genre it covers a whole lot of things that lots of people find compelling. These titles are not without their flaws, but they bring some awesome to the table in their own ways.

I could go on for days mentioning dozens of titles, but I’ll just briefly cover a handful:

  • Bleach: A teenager named Ichigou Kurosaki inherits the powers of a Death God, and must protect his town from dangerous dead spirits. But the other Death Gods are now faced with a conflict that could destroy their Soul Society, and Ichigo will find himself at the very heart of it.
  • Dragon Ball Z: This show takes a lot of flak, especially for its pacing (too quick in the manga, painfully slow in the anime), but it’s ultimately the story of a good man trying to fight tyranny while coming to terms with being an alien. It takes place in a fanciful world full of strange technology and stranger mysticism, where a car can fit into a capsule and seven magic balls and raise the dead.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha There are some people who consider this show to be derivative of every major magical girl show ever. This proves that they haven’t watched past the half-way point of the first of its three seasons, or else they’d know that once the Time-Space Administration Bureau becomes involved, everything changes. Nanoha is a kindred spirit to Galaxy Fraulein Yuna, a brave and cheerful girl whose real strength is rooted in her love for others. No other magical girl series I know of has the protagonist sit down for a frank talk with her mother about what she’s been doing in secret, and there definitely isn’t another where she becomes an elite career mage for a dimensional enforcement authority.
  • One Piece: This juggernaut of a franchise takes place in a fanciful world of dread pirates, corrupt governments, and ancient secrets. Luffy, who ate the Gum-Gum Fruit when he was young (making him elastic, but cursed to be unable to swim), wants to become the next Pirate King. He and his crew — all people shaped by childhood tragedy — set out after the One Piece, the legendary treasure. Along the way, Luffy and his friends must put everything on the line to defeat the most vile opponents imaginable and make Luffy’s naive ideals of friendship a reality in a world of unrelenting injustice.
  • Some others that come to mind include Naruto, Tokyo Underground, Shakugan no Shana, Gurren Lagann, Mahou Sensei Negima!, Rurouni Kenshin, and so on.

Nanoha StrikerS

Why’s It Awesome?
Shonen fighting manga may be overblown and cheesy, but when it’s done well it can enthrall millions. Fights can stretch across entirely too many episodes, but they always Mean Something. They’re about some guys putting everything on the line for what they believe in, against all odds. A really good fighting manga story is packed with balls-to-the-wall conflicts and world-shattering revelations.

Gaming It
It took me a while to realize it, but my efforts to design an “anime” RPG over the past few years pretty much boil down to wanting a game that excels at this genre. I haven’t found it yet, and I haven’t figured out how to make it myself. Whatever virtues games like BESM and OVA have, they’re essentially universal (action resolution based) systems with some nifty anime-inspired tweaks, and they don’t address what I think I really need for the shonen fighting manga style. The game I tentatively named “Anime Dreams” contained some important ideas that will likely be vital to my dream game if it ever comes to fruition:

  • The heart of the game is a conflict resolution engine that allows for sacrifices, reversals, escalation, creativity, and at least some immersion.
  • The group collaboratively creates and maintains a “fan guide,” a wiki or somesuch with details on the campaign and its setting, characters, and events.
  • A power scale mechanic (kind of like mass/strength scaling in Fudge), to show overwhelming differences. Half of DBZ is characters trying to raise their power scale enough to stand up to the new bad guy.
  • Series/setting creation as a group activity, with specific rules, and guidelines for adapting existing titles, since lots of people want to play something based on an existing anime series.
  • At least one pre-made setting with quick-start rules and a replay included.

Aside from making it drip with anime/manga flavor as much as possible, I think there are basically two things the game needs to do, and they’re closely related.

1. Make conflicts — whatever form they take — interesting, intense, and consequential.

It may be that I just need to hack the hell out of an existing game with a conflict engine (TSOY, SotC/FATE, DitV, etc.), but I think I need to (1) play more of those games, and (2) really sit down and think about what exactly my dream game needs.

I originally wanted to make it diceless (“A character should only win by luck if he has a ‘Lucky’ trait on his character sheet”), but now I’m not so sure. The real issue is deprotagonization, which is separate from dice vs. diceless. My previous attempts at making it diceless seem to create paperwork without all that much benefit in return. Of course, now that I’ve got a much better grasp on how Yuuyake Koyake works, it occurs to me that a character’s passions and bonds could fuel one or two simple point pools (one for being proactive, one for rebounding maybe?).

From the source material, it’s pretty clear that most character development needs to happen through conflicts. Shonen fighting manga characters improve by leaps and bounds (or just reveal previously hidden tricks) when under duress.

2. Keep the players and their characters actively engaged in the story.

That’s the major challenge of running my current OVA campaign. The game system is good at some things, but it really doesn’t address this at all, and as the GM I have to try to keep an eye on things and make sure there’s stuff going on to involve all of the PCs. It goes without saying that there’s a limit to how much the actual rules can contribute here, but it definitely needs something.

Now, if you want to run a shonen fighting manga type game without either creating a new system or waiting for someone else to, there are some possibilities. Some have suggested using a hack of Dogs in the Vineyard to do Naruto, and for that matter Filip treated us to Gurren Lagann done with InSpectres/UnSpeakables. DitV is on the right track in terms of supporting play where characters tend to engage in individual conflicts (that’s how it usually seems to work in manga after all), and the use of escalation (If Super Saiyan isn’t enough, it’s time to risk it all on Super Saiyan Level 2!) and fallout.

The Shadow of Yesterday has some ideas that point in interesting directions, but there are elements of its paradigm (like how someone Unskilled can beat a Grand Master by pure dumb luck, if not very often) that to me are at odds with shonen fighting manga sensibilities. It and Spirit of the Century both reward characters for being passionate and irrational, but would need some major hacking to handle the power levels of a Super Kamehameha or Starlight Breaker instead of the pulpy action they were intended for.

Otherwise, the alternative is to use a more typical universal system (anime-flavored or otherwise) to try to simulate the particular setting, which (as the anime/manga character page of Surbrook’s Stuff demonstrates) can accomplish more than you might think, though again it leaves the conflict and character drama largely in the hands of the participants. That’s not necessarily a bad place for it to be, but personally I want a game that can do a little more.

Next Time: Oh! Edo Rocket

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11 thoughts on “Role-Play This! Shonen Fighting Manga

  1. A power scale mechanic (kind of like mass/strength scaling in Fudge), to show overwhelming differences. Half of DBZ is characters trying to raise their power scale enough to stand up to the new bad guy

    My first thought is to wonder if maybe HeroWars/Quest could handle this, but then I haven’t actually played that game, so I’m not sure how well the Mastery scaling would fit the feel. AP bidding at least brings to mind the back-and-forth clashing beam wars that tend to show up in this subgenre.

  2. I haven’t checked it out either, mainly because I haven’t felt inclined to pay $40 for a game I almost certainly won’t actually play (even the $25 for the PDF is pushing it), but what I have heard sounds intriguing.

  3. It’s not the game’s responsibility per se; the point is that it is indeed possible for the rules to help with that, if only by giving those involved better and/or more integral tools to use (see Prime Time Adventures).

  4. This sounds like a very well thought out idea. I can understand where you are coming from with attempting to make diceless games, as I have tried in the past, but I find that this can detract from the all important “fun factor”. This is in fact a game, and although dice results might not make the most sense story wise, the fact remain that players just like rolling dice.

  5. Well, I haven’t tried any diceless RPGs to speak of yet (looking forward to giving Yuuyake Koyake a try once I have enough translated), but part of why I’ve been thinking about trying to do a diceless game for ages is I’ve always had friends who’ve felt just plain screwed over by dice. Of course, that’s actually a deprotagonization issue–you can make a game that uses dice without giving them the opportunity to turn PCs into chumps or corpses purely by random chance–but suffice it to say I have encountered people who definitely do not find the die-rolling to be part of the fun factor of RPGs.

  6. So, when you get around to looking at diceless games, you might want to consider looking at the recent (failed) marvel universe RPG. It was designed as a fight game in a number of ways, and while it is probably more mechanistic than you’re looking for here, I think you might find a lot of it could be adapted to your needs.

  7. So, I chewed on this a little more. Now, I think the idea of what you’re shooting for is admirable, I’m not 100% sure the reality of the source material syncs up with the _idea_ of the source material. However, I’m willing to accept that this may be my ignorance speaking – of that list, the only one I have any great familiarity with is Bleach.

    Now, that underlying principal that fighting strength is, on some level, internal to the fighter is a powerful one, and its one I love to see brought to bear in rpgs, which is why I’m fond of rules that make those internal things matter to the conflict (Passions, Aspects, or whatever) but at the same time when they are the _dominant_ thing, then either they become meaningless (since everyone applies everything all the time, and it just become a number comparison) or they produce sometimes nonsensical results where the _only_ thing that matters is what the characters care about (this is a problem I have had with In a Wicked Age, as an example).

    So I suppose my question comes in two parts: First – in these animes, how often is the outcome _genuinely_ uncertain? In my experience there may be questions of stakes, prices, and such, but the expected winner can pretty much be expected to draw strength from within to be able to be overcome (or, alternately if it’s a loss, it’s the loss that then defines the subsequent power-up arc, to fight again). But as I note, my experience is limited, so the fact that I have rarely been surprised does not mean these outcomes are not often surprising.

    Second – and mechanically this may be most telling – how do these anime handle protagonist vs. protagonist fights? And in saying protagonist vs protagonist, I mean when both characters have some narrative legitimacy to win – if it’s one character’s arc, then it’s not necessarily a fair fight. I have usually seen these end in draws, distractions and other cop outs, which is not useful to me, but again: limited experience.

    I prove myself a liar and add a third: How often are the _same_ fights repeated? Excepting the “I will lose to this guy now, got through great trauma to power up, then defeat him later” sequence, I get the sense that part of the point of the vast cast of characters in these Animes is to allow infinite potential combinations to pair off and fight (and in turn raise discussions of “who would win, X or Y?”).

    Anyway, those are the questions that this puts firmly in my mind.

  8. It seems to me that in fighty manga it’s more that characters need their motivations properly lined up in order to use their full potential. Having fighting spirit helps, but without real power to back it up, it doesn’t mean much. In Dragon Ball Z, Goku’s will to fight to protect people is limitless, but it’s his Super Saiyan power that lets him actually accomplish it in the face of the likes of Frieza. On the other hand, Kenshin (from Rurouni Kenshin) is at one point basically paralyzed by the thought of taking a life and becoming a killer again, even if it’s the life of a scumbag who would happily slice open an infant to see if his sword is sharp enough.

    These fights tend to have a natural pro-wrestling like flow where, as you say, the good guy gets defeated and then comes back stronger to win the day. The level of certainty I think varies (there’s Revolutionary Girl Utena, where duels are 100% decided by who “deserves” to win), and the emphasis is less on whether someone can win, but how and at what cost. (SPOILER) It would’ve been strange for Kenshin to lose against Aoi on his way to fight Shishio (the last boss, basically), but the fight put incredible strain on his body, and revealed his Succession Technique to one of Shishio’s henchmen.

    The end of a fight is basically either an epiphany that lets the hero win and become better, or a defeat that sets other things in motion. In Lyrical Nanoha StrikerS, Teana finally beats the two combat cyborgs by taking her tactical planning to the next level, and learning that while she makes a great team with Subaru, she has to stand on her own sometimes. When Kenshin is fighting Cho, he gives in and attacks with Shakku’s final sword, and finds that the craftsman who had made so many swords for killing, at the last wanted peace, and made a reverse-blade sword of the highest quality.

    Fights between true protagonists are very rare, and from what I’ve seen your assessment is correct. s-CRY-ed builds up a rivalry between Kazama and Ryuho through the entire series, and dedicates the entire final episode to a knock-down-drag-out between them, but IIRC it’s basically inconclusive. The rivalry between Goku and Vegeta is a little different, in that Vegeta is always lagging a little behind Goku in power, to the point where the frustration leads him to let himself fall under Babidi’s power, putting the world in danger. Basically, protagonists can have eternal rivalries, but they rarely if ever have closure.

    I don’t think the same fights get repeated too much. If the hero faces the same villain twice, it’s because the first time the villain was so overwhelming that it was completely one-sided. In Bleach, Ichigo’s confrontation with Byakuya was very much like this. One of the central cliches is a continual cycle of lesser bad guys leading up to the main confrontation, whatever form that might take. Before fighting Vegeta the first time, Goku and company had to deal with Nappa, and before that Raditz. Kenshin and his comrades had to deal with the Juupongatana before Shishio.

    And thank you for the comments. This is really helping me figure out what the game would need. :)

  9. I found this while looking for tips to run a Bleach-esque game in BESM. I was going to mention the Marvel Universe RPG, but Rob beat me to it. I think it deserves a close inspection though.

    The answer to making a diceless RPG still a challenge comes in the form of resource management. MURPG uses energy stones that replenish at different rates for each character based on his (highly customizable) stats. At each point of contest, be it a match of wits or brawn, the players take up a number of these stones (maximum of which is limited by a relavent stat and bonus stones from boons) without telling the number to the other players or the GM, who does the same based on the challenge. After both have alloted how much energy they will dedicate to the action, they reveal the stones and the person who dedicated more wins…frequently with a numeric effect like damage occuring relative to the difference. The tradeoff is that based on the characters regeneration rate, that character may not get many of those stones back for the next “panel”, their word for round.

    The hack of the system would be placing an energy pool that has a higher maximum or refresh rate based on what’s at stake for the individual character. With this in place, you could even have a character who is frequently the one lagging behind combat-wise outshine his allies if the stakes are high enough for him, or create abilities (which MURPG offers a robust power generation system) that pull only from that pool, so the character can’t unlock their hidden tallent until there is appropriate thematic reason to do so.

    At any rate, I hope you’re closer to your dream game now than you were in April of 2008. Good luck!

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