The other day I realized that I’ve been trying to make Raspberry Heaven off and on since 2007. Magical Burst has been a greater source of frustration, but Raspberry Heaven has regularly left me with no idea how to proceed, to the point where I’ve basically made about four or five games under that name. That journey is finally complete with the release of a new version that comes as a set of 6″x6″ cards, available through DriveThruRPG (and an 8.5″x11″ PDF version too).
I was into Azumanga Daioh when it first came out as an anime in 2002. The manga was one of the very first I read in Japanese, with a Japanese-English dictionary and a kanji dictionary on hand, and I picked up a lot of vocabulary from it. At a time when anime, at least the anime that American fans were watching, was full of the most fantastical sci-fi and fantasy elements, Azumanga Daioh was a refreshingly everyday kind of funny. It seems to have started something of a trend, and I later got into the genre in a big way, with titles like Hidamari Sketch, A Channel, Uraban!, Suzunari, Sketchbook, Ichiroh, S.S. Astro, Yuru Yuri, etc. (Also the creator went on to do the really excellent Yotsuba&!, which in turn inspired Ben Lehman’s game Clover.)
My original kernel of the idea for a game came when I was talking to a publisher who mentioned they were thinking about doing some Fudge-based, anime-inspired mini-RPG things. I brainstormed some ideas in my notebook, among them “Raspberry Heaven,” which would be a slice of life schoolgirl thing inspired by Azumanga Daioh and other similar 4-koma manga. I ran a pretty long campaign using Fudge, and have played it for a few other things. Its main defining trait is that it’s not so much a game as a set of stock parts for building a game. I knew I could whittle Fudge down to something much smaller than my prior space epic, but I wasn’t actually sure how to even go about it, and the Fudge-based version never went beyond the vague concept phase. The title is the name of the ending theme of Azumanga Daioh, by the pretty intensely quirky group Oranges & Lemons. For me the words “Raspberry Heaven” had come to be a metaphor for friendship, “that place that’s sweet and just a little bit tart,” well before I had the notion of a game by that name.
The very first version of Raspberry Heaven that actually became some semblance of a game gave each character a set of Quirks, which would affect how many dice they rolled when trying to accomplish certain things. Developing characters with a set of three “Quirks” seemed to work pretty well (though the one for being a busty beauty, like Miyuki from Lucky Star, was overly popular), but it took me a while to realize that I was dealing with a genre where the whole concept of mechanics dealing with success and failure was a poor fit. But, rolling to see if you succeed at things is so deeply ingrained in RPGs in general that moving away from it can feel like building a castle on a foundation of thin air.
In the second version, I tried to integrate the 4-panel structure into the game mechanics directly. Players would use playing cards (with mechanics based on Uno/Crazy 8s) to get the right to narrate the current phase of the scene. The phases were based on the kishoutenketsu structure (Introduction, Development, Climax, Resolution), much like the four panels of a 4-koma manga strip. Characters still had Quirks, but these would give them a wild card they could use, on the condition that they put some aspect of the relevant Quirk into the scene. (I also used Pinky Street dolls to assemble figures of characters.) I refined the game a bit from the first draft (notably by letting players define which cards corresponded to their Quirks, making it vastly easier to add new ones), but on the whole the core concept of the game wound up being one of those ideas that looks neat on paper but turns out to not really be tenable in play, at least not how I implemented it. The card mechanics were just too intrusive and too disconnected from play. From there the idea languished for a while.
Later on I hit on the idea of making an RPG in the form of a smartphone app, with the use of a single device that players pass around being built into how the game works. (Partly inspired by certain video games, notably Pac-Man Vs.) I’d been talking to some programmers and even a publisher about the feasibility of actually making one, so I sat down to brainstorm a concept for an actual game to design that way, and Raspberry Heaven was one of the first ones that came to mind. From there I started developing the concept further. The rules would be a sort of “happy Fiasco,” and I went as far as to make a “Practice Test” version, a tabletop proof of concept. For this version I put together a cast of six pre-made characters (Rose, Elizabeth, Sue, Jackie, Leah, and Tessa, plus their NPC teacher Miss Rodriguez). I wanted to avoid the need for anything beyond the app, and having set characters would neatly sidestep any need for character sheets and such, plus it would give players a set of characters they could get acquainted with other time.
The Practice Test version also used playing cards, though in a much simpler way than the previous iteration. Each character had a “Special Move,” which was basically a custom random event table, and at the end of each scene the next player would give the previous player a card of whatever suit they felt most defined the scene (a heart if it was heartwarming, a club if it was lazy, etc.), and at the end of the game the player’s accumulated cards would determine the tone of their character’s epilogue. It actually worked pretty well in playtesting, but I think it still had a bit too much of a “blank page” aspect to it. Although I tried to put in plenty of suggestions, it still basically leaves the players to figure out what scenes will be about and almost everything that happens in them. I would like to take another stab at the “RPG app” concept at some point, but Raspberry Heaven has since evolved in other directions.
In recent years there have been a lot of developments in more freeform styles of games. There’s Fiasco of course, but also Norwegian Style games, Scandinavian larps, Jeepform, American freeform, the brilliant Swords Without Master, and so on. There was also the Golden Cobra Challenge, which produced dozens of freeform games. Fiasco showed me that letting people just role-play with the right setup can be a pretty powerful approach, but it seems like for whatever reason Fiasco really doesn’t lend itself to breeding descendant games. Not every RPG is going to inspire a zillion hacks like Apocalypse World, but there are basically no games directly descended from Fiasco, except maybe Jason Morningstar’s own Durance. (Though I’m sure some of that is due to Fiasco naturally channeling creative energies into playsets.) Getting to see a wider variety of freeform games has been a really important for me as an RPG designer, even for designing games that still encompass more traditional rules. Freeform games lack “rules” in the typical RPG sense, but tend to have very clear and efficient techniques for establishing characters and situations that all sorts of games can benefit from. These new techniques are making it surprisingly easy to realize any number of concepts that I’d been totally clueless about how to handle in the past.
Jonathan Walton‘s Restless began as a Golden Cobra Challenge entry, and it’s since evolved from there, including with some playtesting feedback from yours truly. The game comes in the form of a set of large cards (originally the 6″x6″ format that DriveThruCards offers, though he’s also made a version in the 3.5″x5.5″ jumbo card format from The Game Crafter), with a few cards covering the rules, and then a set of 12 “verse” cards. Each verse card walks the players through a guided freeform scene. Although Restless is a sorta-zombie game (the exact nature of the threat is vague and left for the players to define in play) that draws on things like The Road (and thus is very bleak, with characters perishing constantly), I realized that the form that Walton had devised, which condensed a bunch of genre tropes into open-ended yet archetypal scene guides, could work for other genres and settings. Raspberry Heaven was the first that came to mind, but I’m also thinking of reworking both Beyond Otaku Dreams and Moonsick using this general form. (Possibly without the actual cards, or maybe with other components involved, but we’ll see.)
I’ve read entirely too many slice of life 4-panel manga (and watched quite a few of their anime adaptations), and there are definite recurring elements. Different manga artists put their own spin on it with their own characters, but there are a lot of things that they hit pretty consistently. Practically every slice of life manga has a beach episode and a school festival episode for example. Since I decided to stick with the American characters from the Practice Test, the selection of scene cards for this new Raspberry Heaven was a bit different than it would’ve been if I’d stuck more closely to the Japanese manga tropes. Also, where Restless calls for (frequently) sketching out original characters on the fly, this version has a set of six character cards along with the scene cards. The Special Moves went into the new version as well, and the set of 12 possible random events is one of the major components of each character card. I had to refine them a bit to make them fit into the new game, since I needed to make sure that they could add some random fun without disrupting the flow of a scene card. The result is (in my biased opinion) a really fun little game that seems to hit all the right notes and has a really nice and fairly unique form factor.
The new version also features artwork from my friend C. Ellis. It seems appropriate to collaborate with a good friend and someone who I previously worked on a 4-panel comic with. She took my chicken scratches and turned them into some really impressive artwork done in her distinctive manga style, complete with screen tone. The result is something that looks like it came right out of the pages of a manga. Screentone is a little tricky to work with because scaling it wrong can create ugly moire patterns, but all told I’m hoping to see more RPGs with that kind of art. It’s part of the visual language of an incredibly prolific and fascinating medium, and it provides a distinctive look.
Although I’m happy with the results of the decision to make the characters American, it did make certain things a bit tricky because I didn’t have the convenient homogeneity of Japanese manga. Of the characters, Miss Rodriguez is specifically Mexican-American, Rose is Chinese-American, and Sue is black (though per the wishes of the person she’s partly based on, the text calls her “brown-skinned”). I tried to avoid stereotypical portrayals, and drew on people I’ve met in real life, including some close friends, along with trying to hit some manga cliches. I’m not sure I would’ve had the idea to have Sue be the “quiet weirdo” without basing her on a dear friend (and a bit on Tooru from A Channel), but I’m glad I did. The other four characters (Jackie, Leah, Tessa, and Elizabeth) will undoubtedly read as white to most people, though since the game uses monochrome manga art and doesn’t give their last names, when all is said and done you’re free to define that sort of thing in play (along with things like having them be LGBT). Of course, my attempts at being more inclusive are probably always going to be a work in progress, and leaving blank space for people to insert what they want is kinda weak sauce compared to affirmative inclusion, but still.
It took 8 years and running across the right influences, but Raspberry Heaven is finally finished. After nearly 5 years working for the same video game company, I got laid off and entered a period of pretty intense uncertainty that led me to work pretty intensely on making and publishing games. Although it’s been really stressful, one of the good things that’s come of it is it’s led me to realize some game ideas that have been languishing for some time. (Also, I’ve wound up getting a little better acquainted with some of the people I know through tabletop games.) That it led me to finish and publish Raspberry Heaven is pretty wonderful.
After this I’m planning to start seriously working on my “Dangerously Kawaii” RPG trilogy (Assassin’s Kittens, Melancholy Kaiju, and Tsundere Sharks RPG). I have entirely too many ideas for expansions and alternate sets for Raspberry Heaven (a “Holiday Special” expansion, a “Teachers Side” set a la S.S. Astro, a “Japan Side” set with Japanese schoolgirls, and the comedy option, a “Birds Side” set with the heartwarming everyday lives of pigeons in high school), but we’ll see. I’m also kind of hoping that some fans will try making their own decks, since there are any number of things that the form could do, whether unofficial fan sets for specific manga or things that speak to personal experiences that I couldn’t ever hope to write myself.