More on Beyond Otaku Dreams

I have a ton of different things I need to work on, including getting more done with the Golden Sky Stories Kickstarter (though at this point a lot of that is waiting for people to get back to me), making progress on Magical Burst, and I’ll stop there because I could easily do a whole post just on neglected projects. One that’s been on my mind a lot lately, that keeps popping up in my thoughts even when I don’t intend it to, is Beyond Otaku Dreams. I talked a bit about the idea in a previous post, but recent experiences have helped me solidify the concept a bit more, and really zero in on the heart of what I want it to be about.

For a long time I’ve wanted to make something about anime fans who see into another reality, a “dream layer” superimposed on the world, where they interact with beloved characters and fight spectacular battles while the rest of the world assumes they must be insane. I had a lot of ideas for a novel, and later for an RPG, but neither ever quite came together. Then last year I went to FanimeCon, and I saw the most amazing scene. The Jesus freaks with signs were protesting the terrible circumstance of people having fun, and a bunch of fans were counter-protesting and generally jeering the shouty Christian guys. One guy was playing Final Fantasy music on a saxophone. And while all that was going on, there was an ambulance, and they were loading a girl in full costume, in a powder blue wig, on a stretcher. My FanimeCon 2012 story was mainly about how I bought some stuff in the dealers room, hung out with my friends Jono and Sushu, and wound up playing Jenga with some random people in the gaming area. Someone else’s story was about how a friend who’d worked very hard on a costume had left the con in an ambulance. It reminded me of all the things I’ve seen at cons over the years, covering every hue in the spectrum of human emotions. I’ve seen raucous joy, but also deep anguish, paralyzing shame, perfect religious serenity, and a million other things. Anime fandom has its good and bad points, but it is above all very human. I realized that my game needed to be about that above all else.

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More recently I went to Anime Conji, a small anime con in San Diego. It was kind of a shock to be so suddenly and thoroughly immersed in the anime con culture, and it reminded me of the sheer intensity of the experience. I can’t speak with authority on how anime fans behave in real life (I remember how my friends and I were in high school…), but it always feels like people are letting out things they have to keep in most of the time. There’s also a sort of ritualistic aspect of anime cons, and people create new patterns of group behavior that you don’t really see anywhere else. One really striking example is that if someone is wearing a costume, it’s apparently perfectly acceptable to just sort of yell the name of the character at them. Chatting with my friend Guy Shalev about the ritual nature of anime fandom made me realize how important, how immediate the convention experience could be. I realized that I should frame my game around characters going to a convention. The sheer intensity, the amplitude of hope, the collision of reality and delusion, make it the perfect setting for stories about both the humanity of anime fans and about the line between dreams and reality getting blurry.

(The other thing at Anime Conji was that I saw a panel put on by Chocolate Covered Cosplay about taking your fandom passions and making a living off of them. It would not have occurred to me that cosplay could also lead to a career in modeling–cosplay isn’t something I’ve ever been seriously involved with–but they’re apparently way ahead of me when it comes to being anime fans boldly realizing their potential.)

Narratives about and discussions of anime fandom tend to be either highly idealized or treat fans as human garbage. There are academic articles that go on about how amazing and post-modern otaku are, and blog posts griping about how obnoxious they are. Beyond Otaku Dreams is in part me planting a flag in the neglected middle ground, the place where anime fans are human beings with both problems and potential. It’s become a rather personal work (insofar as an RPG can be personal), based much more on my own experiences than references to works of fiction. I have a hard time thinking of many RPGs that quite have that kind of origin (maybe some Jeepform or Norwegian Style games?). I don’t think that makes it better, but it definitely makes it that much more something I want to bring to fruition. It also means that there’s almost zero inspirational material to look at (Akibaranger and Dramacon are probably the closest), which is liberating in a way.

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The game that’s just starting to form in my head has some bits of Don’t Rest Your Head, Fiasco, and Polaris (plus a tiny bit of Maid RPG and a few other things). It’s definitely leaning towards the GM-less shared storytelling activity side of things. Like Fiasco it’ll be aimed more at one-shots, but since the characters will tend to survive and become better people, it’ll lend itself to doing “sequel” sessions where you revisit them at the con the following year (or maybe have them going to an even bigger con, or even an event in Japan), learning what new challenges they’re facing. It’s not going to be a game with a lot of numbers–I’m thinking the main thing will be a dynamic of Hope, Trauma, and Delusion[1]–and the more important part of character creation will be a series of DRYH-like questions, including things like “What is your obsession?” and “What do you hate about yourself?” The game would play out in a series of acts and scenes. Acts get random events from tables to shake things up, and scenes will involve stuff based on a character’s answers to the questions. Over the course of the game the situation with dreams intruding into waking hours explodes and climaxes, and then each character gets an epilogue partly based on their numerical scores. Or something like that.

One thing I’ve decided about the end product is that I want the visuals in the book to be mostly or entirely actual photos of cosplayers and convention stuff (kinda like what I put in this post but, you know, all-around better). I love artwork, and I love working with artists, but a lot of the most important parts of this game are about reality, and I want to reflect that visually. I know there are some stock photos I can use–there are a good number of cosplay photos available that way–but it’ll be interesting figuring out how to do the rest, to capture the feel of Artists Alley and a the masquerade and such. The decision to use photos may in turn lead me to have the book be in color (and maybe formatted more like a convention program guide?[2]), though of course that’s getting way ahead of things.

Update (4/30/2013): A conversation with a friend about the game led to kind of an interesting idea. One of the challenges with Beyond Otaku Dreams is helping create something of an anime convention feel even when the players are potentially in a plain, quiet room at someone’s house. Some of the things you can do go a bit outside the scope of the RPG. The Ambiance app provides sound loops for things like a convention hall or manga cafe for example, there’s stuff like having props around (I want to make convention badges, and I’d love to play with someone in full costume), and of course you could just play the game at an anime con. My main idea for helping with that on the game design end is a step just before character creation called “the buzz,” where the group puts together a list of anime titles[3] that everyone in the play group is reasonably familiar with, with the option to put in some made-up ones (say if you just had a memorable game of Channel A?). I think part of the appeal of going to an anime con is entering a special space where your arcane knowledge temporarily becomes shared knowledge, but in my experience even good friends don’t necessarily have quite the same canon of anime series, so I think establishing a baseline for the game will go a long way towards helping players emphasize what they do share. The Buzz should then influence (but not dictate) some elements of characters; if you want your character to be obsessed with a specific anime character, it’ll potentially be more effective to go for one from a series listed in the Buzz. The Buzz will probably also include some elements of the convention itself, like notable guests or events. It would be pretty natural to have a character obsessed with the new anime series Kaiser Bunny Legend[4] and then have the creator of KBL as a guest at the con who plays a role in the story as an NPC.


[1]Specifically “delusion” as a translation of the Japanese word mousou (妄想) as used by otaku, referring to a kind of deliberate, flagrant rejection of reality in favor of self-indulgent fantasies.

[2]Except it would show up on time instead of halfway through the thing. :rimshot:

[3]And other works that fit into the general zeitgeist; putting Idol Master or Homestuck into this list would be fine.

[4]Which is straight from a Channel A playtest, though some day I want to write that story. A group of doujin artists find themselves in a colorful world of magic where imagination has power, so as creative types they find they have all sorts of magical powers. One guy finds his mascot character, a fanservice bunny girl, comes to life. She in turn accidentally takes up the Kaiser Gauntlet, and thus must become the hero who saves the world. With that as a backdrop, the story is really about their relationship and how it changes as she gradually transforms from a fairly shallow character into a complex human being. But anyway.

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