Recently Jake Richmond, Ben Lehman, and some other story gamers from the area went to Kumoricon (a local anime con with attendance of a bit under 5,000) to run various anime-themed RPGs. Ben and Jake have both posted about their experiences, and they’re encouraging to say the least. Between them they ran seven different sessions of a wide range of games–the Atarashi Games line, plus Bliss Stage and Maid RPG–and all were a resounding success. At a relatively small con, and with minimal promotion for their anime RPG track, they still had sessions overflowing with enthusiastic players. Not only that, but these folks were in many ways more open-minded than typical tabletop RPG players. No one was turning their noses up at playing anime maids or Japanese schoolgirls, or at having sexual content in Bliss Stage, much less getting turned off by anime/manga style art.
I haven’t been nearly as ambitious as those folks, but I did run sessions of Maid RPG at FanimeCon and Anime Expo last year, and they were likewise met with enthusiasm. At Fanime, even the guys who came off at first as being run of the mill D&D players jumped into playing maids without any hesitation. One gentleman was already a fan with a copy of the book who’d been talking it up on DeviantArt, and a couple more went ahead and ordered the book online before the con was even over. At Anime Expo I got an enthusiastic group, a first-time role-player, and one guy even went so far as to commission Persona to do a sketch of the PCs.
Interactivity at Anime Cons
There are a lot of different things at work here, which I’m trying to unravel a little. There is a very definite overlap between RPG and anime fandoms, but as is often the case, gamers on the whole are very mixed (and in some cases outright hostile) in terms of their opinions of anime. No game can please everyone of course, but while anime art is a turn-off to many gamers, good anime art is a huge draw for anime fans. Most cons have an Artists Alley where artists have tables to sell prints and commissions and such, and they’re generally packed. At conventions especially, anime fans are always looking for things to do. Every anime con has a big schedule of anime showings, but apart from stuff like the AMV contest, Anime Hell, etc. that you can’t get off of BitTorrent, they aren’t the real draw. Things like karaoke contests, maid cafes, panels, workshops, and, yes, tabletop gaming rooms, are what get people interested.
One major issue I’m pondering in all this is how to go about making things happen. Running games is relatively easy, though even where an anime con has a bustling tabletop gaming room, it’s likely to be dominated by CCG tournaments. The folks who ran games at Kumoricon lamented that they could’ve easily sold 10 or 20 copies of each game if they’d had them, but for the larger cons a dealers room booth costs something like $600 to $1,000. For a smaller con it’d be closer to $200, though I’m not entirely sure how the costs would line up with the money made in either case. I do have a contact with a local anime store that goes to what seems like every con ever (“Didn’t I see you last week in California? Why are you in Texas?”), but I’m not sure that having some Maid RPG books getting lost in a sea of plushies and trading figures would be all that effective. On the other hand, it might be possible to persuade a con to let people sell self-published RPG books through Artist’s Alley, which is dramatically cheaper, but not something I would expect to be able to do consistently, depending on each con’s policies and the attitude of whoever’s running their Artist’s Alley.
Expanding to Other Realms
This is also just one example of how RPGs can potentially reach a new (and more targeted) audience. People were also running games at PAX, and I can’t really think of a nerdy subculture that doesn’t have at least some room for tabletop gaming. The only thing that makes anime fandom a bit different is that in terms of published RPGs it’s one of the more underserved, especially considering just how big it is. Companies are having a hard time monetizing the actual anime content–not a few DVD publishers have closed their doors over the past few years–but sales of just about everything else to do with anime are still relatively strong (even if the state of the economy has been a problem for those dealers like everyone else).
Although this goes without saying, I’m talking about small press/indie RPG stuff here too. I would be more than a little surprised to hear that anime RPGs are catching on so much that Wizards of the Coast needs to take notice, but as I’ve said before, if Maid RPG is any indication, by small press standards a good anime-themed RPG can be a resounding success. Maid RPG’s sales have been competitive with the very top tier of indie RPGs, on par with the likes of Vincent Baker and Evil Hat. While it does have its share of adherents from among the indie gaming crowd, I highly doubt it would’ve been so successful without the anime fandom demographic. On the other hand, that makes me a little nervous in that without anything resembling a marketing plan we’ve still had a hell of a time keeping Maid RPG in stock. While turning a profit, however modest, is nice, not being able to consistently get the books to people who want them just bugs me, and I don’t really feel I have the tools to properly gauge the extent to which addressing this new fanbase will elevate demand. Being able to print books in greater volume has benefits for everyone involved of course (cheaper per-unit cost, and at a certain point traditional rather than POD printing becomes more feasible), but the up-front investment from the publisher can still get impractically large. I know Gregor Hutton has said that it was basically a financially fortunate situation that let him print enough copies of 3:16 to meet the unexpectedly high demand.
Regardless, I definitely intend to work more on promoting the RPGs I like through anime conventions. At the very least, I know for sure that the con closest to me (FanimeCon) has an ambitious tabletop gaming department as a decent number of role-players. Admittedly, my skills and personality are better suited to the writing/translating side of things, but wherever one falls in the equation, there could be exciting times ahead.
In any case, in the near future I’m going to be recording a podcast with Jake Richmond to discuss these issues, his experiences at Kumoricon, and more.