Dragon World is a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG for fantasy comedy adventures in the vein of classic anime like Slayers and Dragon Half. The game has been in the works for a while now, and we’re now gearing up to launch a Kickstarter some time in the next few months.
I had the idea for Dragon World when I finally got my hands on the Dragon Half manga. (Which BTW is finally getting an English language release from Seven Seas.) In anime there was a weird trend in the early to mid-1990s of making short direct-to-video adaptations of much longer manga, which in turn sometimes wound up being the only versions that made their way to the English-speaking world. Dragon Half started as a 7-volume manga (later re-released in a 3-volume “omnibus” edition, which the English version is based on), which could’ve worked nicely as a full 26-episode TV series. Instead it got a mere two OAV episodes, and plans to do two more episodes got scrapped. The Dragon Half OAVs had a little bit of a cult following in the early anime scene, and I devoured the manga once I got my hands on it. It shows its age and anime-ness with a lot of fanservice (our heroine pretty much only wears a metal bikini), but the zany humor, flagrantly ridiculous take on the fantasy genre, and Ryusuke Mita’s energetic art make it worth your time.
That wasn’t too long after I’d discovered Apocalypse World, and as I made my way through the manga, I kept seeing it in terms of different AW-style moves and their outcomes. This was before the term “Powered by the Apocalypse” came about and while it was still the thing to have those “AW hacks” end with “World,” so “Dragon World” was born. A certain portion of anime and manga, especially from the 90s, used “dragon” in titles to essentially signify “fantasy,” probably a result of Dragon Quest being so massively popular and influential, plus it was a tongue-in-cheek nod to Dungeon World. (And I did talk Jonathan Walton into making a game called “& World.”) From there I watched a ton of Slayers (probably the single most popular comedy fantasy anime), and a bunch of others, giving me a wider palette of ideas to draw on. Dragon World most blatantly shows its influences in the selection of classes, ranging from the likes of the Explosive Mage and Dumb Fighter (which have Lina and Gourry from Slayers at their core) to the Angsty Shadow Warrior (for whom Dororo from Sgt. Frog was an inspiration, but also a bunch of fantasy tropes) to the Shiny Paladin and Ruthless Warlord (who come from silly takes on D&D classes). One of my favorites is the Chosen Visitor, which is a Japanese teenager sent to this fantasy world and given weird powers, echoing shows like Magic Knight Rayearth and El Hazard.
This is the fourth version of Dragon World that I’ve shared with the world, and it’s generally been through a lot of revisions as I did a bunch of playtesting and figured out what did and didn’t work, and thought of new stuff to add. The game started considerably closer to Apocalypse World, but I dropped things like highlighting stats and marking experience. On the other hand (although I refined it a bit), the concept of replacing Harm with “falling down” remained a core part of the game from the start. I changed the selection of classes a little, adding the likes of the Ruthless Warlord and changing the Useless Bard into the Foolhardy Bard (which was how people had been playing the Useless Bard for the most part anyway).
It’s not in the Hack, but the final commercial version is going to have a setting chapter for the land of Easteros. (Not the only Game of Thrones reference in there, but there’s copious anime nonsense regardless.) It was generally an opportunity to put together a bunch of toys and plot hooks, plus some dumb humor (like a pun-laden list of 100 slime names).
In any case, I’m looking forward to finally bringing this game fully to fruition in a nice book with actual artwork, and possibly putting together some supplements and alternate settings. I’m also planning a Creative Commons release, in the hopes that (not unlike with Dungeon World, though presumably in much lower quantities) people will take the opportunity to design and publish their own Dungeon World weirdness.
The other day I went to California Extreme, which is an arcade gaming convention held in Santa Clara, CA. It doesn’t hurt that my brother-in-law is one of the organizers, but it’s a really nifty event that I try to get to every year if I can. The core of it is just a huge room full of free-play arcade machines that people have set up, ranging from analog pinball machines to brand new independent arcade games (like Cosmotrons). Although arcade games are overwhelmingly the core of what CAX is about, it also features a single panel room, which has had some really interesting speakers over the years. I’ve seen panels from Atari veterans and the creator of Crazy Otto (the unauthorized Pac-Man enhancement kit that became the basis of Ms. Pac-Man), and this year, aside from a talk by Al Alcorn (who built the original Pong machine and worked on several other major Atari projects), I saw a panel by UCSC professor Nathan Altice about board game adaptations of video games, something he’s been studying in depth for a little while now.
I actually own a copy of Milton-Bradley’s 1982 Pac-Man board game, which is kind of a strange beast. You set up a maze in the vein of one from Pac-Man, with two ghosts and 2-4 Pac-Man player pieces in different colors. The player pieces are molded plastic and for some reason the plastic is molded to give them rows of pointed teeth. On your turn you roll two dice and assign them to moving your Pac-Man and/or the ghosts, so that instead of an AI enemy, the ghosts are a shared weapon. Your can push your Pac-Man piece down on a marble and if it works properly it picks the marble up. You keep playing until you clear out all of the marbles, and whoever has the most marbles is the winner. The result plays fast but takes a little time to set up, and while there is skill involved, it has a level of randomness that pushes it more into simple kids’ game territory, especially in the eyes of Board Game Geek users. Of course, Milton-Bradley was marketing it towards ages 7-14, and selling in big department stores, so that’s not too surprising.
In the U.S., Milton-Bradley, Parker Brothers, and a few others published several board games based on video games in the 1980s, while in Japan, Bandai put out quite a few, and Namco made three. In the U.S., licensed games based on TV shows had helped revitalize board games in the 1950s, so it was pretty natural for the major board game manufacturers to pick up video game licenses during the video game boom of the 80s. Today there are some sophisticated adaptations of video games from hobby game publishers like Fantasy Flight, but Milton-Bradley was selling to families through department stores, so their games tended to be simple and perhaps more “literal” in their adaptations than a hobby game designer today would create. While the number of components in the Pac-Man board game isn’t especially large compared to some of the games out there, it’s not too hard to imagine a Pac-Man tabletop game that captures some of the feel of moving around a maze, trying to grab all the pellets and avoid the ghosts, without the need for a physical object to represent every single pellet. From Altice’s discussion, Pole Position was one of the more interesting video game-based board games, because it was essentially a bluffing game disguised as a racing game.
From what he said in the panel, Mr. Altice found the major parallels in these games were:
These games often tried to mimic enemy “AI” in various ways, whether through player choice, randomness, or “programming” by way of simple game mechanics.
Boards are an effective way of representing physical space. Single-screen video games (e.g. Donkey Kong, Space Invaders, etc.) translate well to a single board. When faced with scrolling video games, board game designers often used some form of map tiles.
Board game adaptations of video games were often translating a single-player experience into a multiplayer one, and it often proved difficult for the designers.
Manufacturers often marketed these as a way to bring the fun of the arcade home.
A significant portion of the effectiveness of an adaptation comes from aesthetics.
Exposure to a bunch of arcade games, combined with the panel, got me thinking a lot about adaptations and abstractions. Because of the way the human mind works, we live in a sea of symbols as much as a physical world, and game designers frequently take advantage of that. Video games used to use very simple symbols out of necessity due to hardware limitations. Some games would have epic cover art inviting us to imagine a bigger world based on very simple symbols (check out the Missile Command box art below, as opposed to the very simple lines and blocks of the actual game), while games like Pac-Man and Q*bert had their actual on-screen content and what you were meant to imagine looking very similar. They naturally took advantage of the newer symbols that these games created too. The Atari 2600 has limited graphics capabilities compared to the Pac-Man arcade machines, so the Atari 2600 port of Pac-Man famously had kind of mediocre-looking graphics, but anyone who’d played Pac-Man would at least have no doubt that the lines were the dots and the white squares were the power pellets.
Newer video games can show us basically any image they can fit onto a screen, so the use of symbols is more a matter of good UI design, and no longer just the only means available to communicate anything to the player. Board games have to provide a set of physical components, which gives them a very different physicality from video games. Board game components can include actual artwork, and didn’t have to conform to the limitations of early pixel graphics. Of course, they did have to deal with the limitations of mass-market board game manufacturing, which is why there were a lot of punchboards and stickers and not many detailed plastic figures. With current video games the amount of media assets a single game can include is massive, and tabletop adaptations have an even greater need to find the portions of the source material that they can represent effectively. On the other hand, a hobby game can have a higher price point and higher production values, so that you can in fact have a board game with a collection of detailed plastic figures if enough people back the Kickstarter.
Current pop culture is perhaps excessively about adaptations, remakes, sequels, and reboots. Some of these are bringing wholly new notions to different media (American Gods), while others trade on nostalgia and familiar signifiers (Ready Player One). While there’s no denying that Hollywood has gone overboard with the regular stream of remakes and sequels, part of why these things keep coming out is that people pay money for them. If you look at the lists of top-grossing films in recent years, stand-alone movies not directly derived from prior movies in some way are the exception to the rule, making up only one or two of the top ten. While originality is important to the long-term health of any creative medium, people enjoy seeing something familiar brought to them in a new way.
Any time you adapt a work to a new medium, you have to figure out what parts of the original to represent. That’s especially important when the two media involved are radically different. It’s striking when we compare board games to other media, because good board games comprise a set of rules interactions that are fun to engage, and don’t produce a narrative per se. They make invoke story elements in interesting ways (such as how Star Trek Expeditions has a card that creates a setback stemming from Kirk making a pass at the ambassador’s wife) and draw on a narrative for inspiration, but they need to be able to function as a construct of pure rules, even if the final product is making good use of aesthetics to add more flavor than that. The process of teasing out a game from source material can produce wildly different results, which is why Star Trek Expeditions and Star Trek Panic both have a distinct Star Trek feel, even though they’re really different games.
All of this is interesting to me as an RPG guy because RPGs are so dependent on a group of people having a consensus about a fictional world. The relative expense of licensing means that there aren’t so many licensed RPGs out there, but I feel like the medium and the culture around it naturally lend themselves to adaptation. RPGs are recontextualization engines, naturally serving as a framework for taking bits of culture and repurposing them in different ways. D&D is a mashup of pieces from practically everything in fantasy literature and mythology, given a unique spin. When people sit down to play it, they naturally use pieces of culture they’re familiar with, describing their original characters in terms of other characters from pop culture, using elements of Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones to help build a story, and so on.
Even when we step outside of D&D, a lot of the most popular RPGs relate to works in some other media, whether with the directness of the Star Wars or Call of Cthulhu RPGs, or less overtly as in Vampire: The Masquerade or Fiasco. A lot of my own RPG design efforts have been about bringing different elements of anime into the realm of tabletop RPGs. I gave up on the idea of a “universal anime RPG” ages ago, but even the original anime creators can have different takes on the same source material, as shown by the different versions of Ghost in the Shell. I think part of why anime (and other Japanese pop culture stuff) interests me so much as an RPG designer is that despite its popularity, it’s underrepresented in RPGs. If I decide to make a superhero RPG (I do have an idea for one, because of course I do), there are already dozens out there, whereas if I decide to make a magical girl RPG, I can count the number currently available on one hand. Moreover, anime is even more a part of my group’s pop culture stew than stuff like H.P. Lovecraft or Lord of the Rings, and that’s stuff we want to explore and celebrate through RPG play.
There are some great RPGs that don’t owe allegiance to any specific source material (Dogs in the Vineyard comes to mind), and while I think the medium absolutely needs those for its creative health, RPG play all but demands tapping into other media as reference points, and from a design perspective, taking inspiration from other media can often lead us to try new things we might not have thought to do in an RPG before. Anyway, I’m not sure I ever quite reached a thesis with these ramblings, but I think there’s some interesting stuff here.
The other day I finally finished Persona 5 (play time: 99 hours 38 minutes), and since I was still jonesing for some JRPG nonsense I decided to play through Galaxy Fraulein Yuna 3 for the first time in years. That in turn inspired me to start seriously working on Angel Project, the Yuna-inspired RPG I’ve been wanting to do, while some other projects are waiting on other people.
Galaxy Fraulein Yuna is a franchise that spans three games and two OAV series, running from about 1992 to 1998. Designer Mika Akitaka did a series of “MS Girls” illustrations, making cute girl versions of different Gundam robots, and Red Company and Hudson asked him to create a game for the then fairly PC-Engine Super CD-ROM^2. (NEC branded the PC-Engine as the Turbografx-16 in the US.) Akitaka’s concepts evolved into a visual novel with a series of simple one-on-one battles scattered throughout. In the story, Yuna Kagurazaka wins a beauty contest, and then finds out that she is now the Savior of Light, tasked with protecting the galaxy. Over the course of the two PC-Engine games, two OVA series, and the final Saturn/PS1 game, she fights a bunch of enemies who are mostly cute girls, and winds up befriending the majority of them. The English-speakers who know the franchise mainly know it through the anime, and unfortunately the five anime episodes only represent parts three and four out of a five-part story. It has its own distinct aesthetic and sensibility, but it’s a lot like a sillier version of Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha or Symphogear, blending epic battles with lessons in friendship.
I came up with the idea for Angel Project when I was considering doing some alternate settings for Magical Burst (the other two being a Persona-ish thing called “Zero Hour” and a thing with teenagers with special powers in the vein of A Certain Scientific Railgun called “Helix Academy”). Later I ended up designing and publishing Magical Fury (which has been surprisingly popular), and a reworking of the Magical Fury rules felt like the right way to realize Angel Project. Although it has a lot of sci-fi trappings, Galaxy Fraulein Yuna is essentially a magical girl story (Yuna even has a mascot/mentor that grants her powers and advises her, but it’s a little robot thing named Elner), and although Magical Fury is a darker take on it, it’s very much a magical girl RPG. There are a lot of things I’m reworking for Angel Project, a lot of things that need to strike a different tone, but there weren’t too many rules that I had to entirely cut out. The single biggest change was that I replaced Magic/Trauma/Hope with Friendship/Silly/Despair, which should do a lot to change the overall feel and flow.
One kind of unusual and oddly fun thing in the Yuna games is that you travel to various implausibly themed planets, like the Wind Planet and the Beach Planet, so Angel Project has both rules for traveling places and a setting section that outlines places like the Machine Planet, the Fancy Planet, and the Fandom Planet. It also has more clearly defined enemies, in the form of Dark Angels, robots, Shadows (kinda like the Noise from Symphogear), Machine Generals, and so on. It’s generally going to be a bit more fleshed out than Magical Fury, and I’m enjoying doing more with that framework.
While I’m not opposed to doing darker stuff in RPGs, I definitely feel there’s a greater need for more uplifting, positive games. I want Angel Project to be a game that celebrates friendship and redemption, a game where befriending foes is not only a possible outcome, but a common one.
There are a few other Yuna titles, but they’re various remakes, ports, and retellings of the stories of those five entries in the franchise.
I decided to try taking a more incremental approach to what will hopefully be the last leg of the development of Magical Burst, starting with an “alpha” that will have the bare minimum necessary to play and then filling out more and more elements of the game as I go along, hopefully better informed about how the game really works at the table while I do so. For previous drafts I put in a whole lot of work on things that ultimately wound up being wasted as the game changed, so this time around I’m going to get it out there before I get too far, and not worry too much about stuff like formatting.
I have a bunch of games cooking for my Patreon, enough so that some other things are tending to fall by the wayside. One that’s kind of fallen through the cracks is AnimeCon, a freeform game about going to an anime convention. I have a first draft completely done, but I have no idea when I’ll be able to actually give it the playtesting it needs, so I figured I’d go ahead and post it up for free.
In terms of game design, the major inspirations for AnimeCon are Remodel and Amidst Endless Quiet, and the rules it has exist to give a basic structure to what is otherwise freeform role-playing. It has a set of 6 role cards to quickly establish a cast of characters, and you essentially play through a series of scene prompts. It plays with some of the ideas I’ve been working on for Beyond Otaku Dreams, finding the humanity of anime fans at a con, but without the fantastic conceits. It would certainly be possible to rewrite it to deal with other fandoms, but as written it requires a reasonable knowledge of anime fandom.
Needing to step away from Beyond Otaku Dreams, I ended up getting back into Magical Burst. (Also, making some notes for the alternate settings for Golden Sky Stories.) Getting away from Magical Burst (I was last seriously trying to work on it in October of last year) was apparently the right thing to do, because I feel like I’m coming at it with fresh eyes, and making some important changes that feel just plain refreshing.
One thing that’s been on my mind lately, something that I think not very many people would be in a position to notice, is how different designing and translating games are. As a translator I get very intimate with the actual text of the game. While I don’t remember every word of Golden Sky Stories, I’m exceedingly familiar with the contours of the text, with what goes in what sections. In contrast, when I have my game designer hat on I have an image of the rules in my head, and it’s a struggle to update the text to fit that image as it changes over time. Last month I had a bunch of ideas for Magical Burst (while I was at an anime convention as it happened), and coming back to the actual text is weird because the game in my head has changed so much from what’s in the Word doc. It feels weird that I come across references to relationships taking Strain when in my head I have the much more straightforward system of them having levels that can be gained or lost.
The single biggest thing is that I’m significantly reworking certain key aspects of combat. I decided to implement a “Battlefield” system inspired by Nechronica and Meikyuu Kingdom, basically because it’s something I really, really like. I was never quite happy with the combat system in Magical Burst before, and this gives me a place to implement one of my favorite new game mechanics to come along in a while. I had been thinking of trying an Engagement system like in Arianrhod and 13th Age, but I find the Battlefield map approach far more interesting, and easier and more fun to hang mechanics off of. (It’ll also be a bit of a trial run for implementing a similar system in Slime Quest, which is going to be an altogether more involved project.) I’ve talked about it at great length before, but the core concept is that combat takes place on a semi-abstract map with a small number of positions/areas arranged in a line, and stuff like range and movement is in terms of this set of positions. This provides a potentially fun element of tactical combat while vastly reducing the overhead of having map-based combat at the table.
I also decided to make Magical Attribute assignments semi-permanent. I never really liked the concept of swapping them around on the fly, and it was really an attempt to solve a problem (how to go about tying Heart, Fury, and Magic stats to something meaningful) rather than something I like on its own merits. I’m changing it so that you can rearrange them only when you take certain advancement options. This in turn reverberated through a bunch of other elements of the system, so that it was no longer necessary to have the rule that no two Magical Attributes could have the same value, and didn’t make sense to have relationships follow those types. (And the concept of Fury relationships was throwing people off anyway.)
That’s in addition to the other stuff I was talking about previously with specializations (which give characters more special abilities to emphasize Attack, Defense, or Support), and making Magical Effects into Magical Talents, of which there are a lot more available. One of the things I really like about Magical Burst overall is that it puts my diverse RPG inspirations on full display all at once. It’s traditional, hippie, and Japanese all at once, combining elements of games like D&D, Don’t Rest Your Head, Nechronica, Smallville, and Apocalypse World. The tactical combat aspect might seem a weird approach to the game, but it’s making me a lot more excited to play it.
At this point I’m thinking I’d like to make it a goal to finally publish Magical Burst in about a year or so, though of course I don’t expect life to be so straightforward. The part about how I want the tie-in novel to be ready is going to be a big deal, since that thing is still a first draft and needs a ton of work. On the other hand a new draft of the rules shouldn’t be *too* far off, and I intend to keep a free version available regardless.
The main inspiration for this was the fan-made “Magical Burst ReWrite,” which I’m trying to borrow ideas from (there are several that are too good to pass up!) without plagiarizing.
One of the issues with the 3rd and 4th Editions of D&D is that while doing stuff with a grid can be a lot of fun, you have to put a lot of effort into what is normally a single-use set piece to make it that way. A Battlefield map is both totally reusable and relatively easy to customize (just attach special effects to certain positions).
I finished up a first draft of Beyond Otaku Dreams, and just has a rather messy, abortive playtest. Right now I’m kind of lost as to what to do with it, so I’m tossing it on the internet to see what people make of it.
The core game is definitely a branch of the Fiasco family tree. I’m really liking the idea of RPGs whose rules don’t particularly concern themselves with success and failure, because it seems to open up a huge number of types of genres and stories that wouldn’t work nearly as well in a traditional RPG (as evidenced by games like Fiasco, GxB/BxB, Hot Guys Making Out, etc.). I especially like the idea of handling an epic “final battle” that way, though I didn’t get as far as trying those rules out in the playtest. I think the big issue with the game right now is that it leaves a bit too much blank canvas for players to fill it, but I’m not sure how to go about fixing that.
We were a bit tired and hot and in mixed moods, so I don’t know how much was problems with the game and how much was from other stuff.