Category Archives: anime

Guardians of Order

Although it goes without saying, mixing RPG chocolate and anime peanut butter has been a major passion of mine since forever. The first RPG I ever played was Palladium’s Robotech game, before I even knew what anime (or “Japanimation”) was, and when I did get into anime proper in high school I was relentlessly trying to find ways to combine them. I’ve largely been dissatisfied with the anime-inspired RPGs that are available, and my career as a designer (and translator) of RPGs has largely been a succession of attempts to rectify the situation in different ways. As a consequence, it kind of goes without saying that I have strong opinions on Guardians of Order. A random forum post inspired me to write at length about the company and my experiences with them and their products. As I clean out my house preparing to move, I keep running into stuff from my past that many people seem to have forgotten about, that is slipping into obscurity. (For example, the DVDs of the original Tenchi Muyo! OAVs are really hard to find.) I don’t think Guardians of Order has been forgotten, at least not yet, but as someone closely following the scene at the time there are a lot of little things I remember that might help form a clearer overall picture. This is going to be kind of long and a little rambly. Kind of ranty too.

My first encounter with GoO was in the late 90s when I stumbled across the original gray Big Eyes Small Mouth book at a local game store. That store is now long gone, and the mall where it was has since remodeled and generally become very trendy. The book had the original GoO logo, the one with what looked kind of like Akane from Ranma ½ on a unicorn or something, that later went through a few iterations before the final griffin/shield/maple leaf logo. (MacKinnon is proudly Canadian, which matters to the story a lot more than it probably should.) Since most of my experience with RPGs up until then had been with Palladium, Toon, White Wolf, and to a lesser extent GURPS, my prior gaming experience hadn’t prepared me for this style game. What I know now that I wish I’d known then is that BESM is the creation of a hardcore Amber Diceless fan, and Mark C. MacKinnon essentially meant the rules to be a guideline and a set of tools you could fall back on when your freeform role-play left questions unanswered. From the direction that the game went from that gray book, it’s eminently clear that MacKinnon didn’t really realize that that was what made his game worthwhile, and so he failed to articulate it to anyone. I certainly didn’t know what to do with a game where the cyborg attribute’s description simply said it would give you a small/moderate/large “advantage” (not a game term, just something vaguely advantageous). Even so, BESM became the standard in anime-inspired role-playing games, and GoO began producing supplements and licensed games. For their original works they made good use of art from talented fan artists (with a few missteps), and by and large their books were very pretty. I complain a lot about anime-inspired artwork in RPGs, but for the most part the folks at GoO got it in a way that very few RPG publishers ever have.
Continue reading Guardians of Order

Channel A: Progress Made

I now have a few playtests of Channel A under my belt, and I’ve made a few refinements. The biggest and quickest of these was letting the Producer draw a hand of 5 Premise Cards and pick two. After that, I’ve got a lot of things where I have a ton of options and it’s hard to discern which is the best.

One rather interesting thing I found out recently was the story of The Big Idea, a game originally from Cheapass Games that Funforge later re-released. Not unlike Channel A, a major part of the game is putting cards with words together to make something, in the case of TBI a silly invention. I’d played the Cheapass Games version with my brother-in-law (the one who has a wall of board games), and I hadn’t known that the newer version, along with non-cheapass production values, simplified the rules considerably. The game originally had an “investment” phase where players put currency towards different inventions, rolled dice, and got dividends if the investment/die roll worked out. The new version cuts out the investment phase entirely, making it into even more of a party game. (Is there a term specifically for card/board games that revolve around using the components to springboard into saying stuff?) It has an extra set of scoring cards, so that each player has blank cards and a medal card to hand out, face down, and that’s the extent of the evaluation/scoring mechanism.

The article also mentions that Apples to Apples was more complex before its publication, and I think that’s a good lesson to take working on this game. It’s easy and tempting to add more complexity to Channel A, say a thing where you see how your series fares on TV, but I’m increasingly sure that what I need to do is refine the core of the gameplay I already have. Aside from expanding and refining the decks,[1] the big thing I’m considering is whether to stick with the Producer setup or make what I currently have as the “Anime by Committee” variant rule (which coincidentally is closer to The Big Idea) into the default. I made a set of Voting Cards to try out the TBI method, though on paper it strikes me as a little cumbersome. I’ve updated the rules with that and some other ideas, and there’s a PDF below. I have entirely too many ideas for new Title Cards and Premise Cards, but I’ll get into that stuff later.

Voting Cards PDF
Channel A Rules (Alpha 2)
Bonus Title Cards

Update: I made a Channel A page and posted up another revised set.

My friend Suichi made a rather interesting observation about me as a designer, which is that where he thinks in terms of numbers and hard mechanics, I tend to think more in terms of the human interactions and how they shape the game. It’s why I came up with a game like Channel A where he never would have. I think I play RPGs for the interaction and in-the-moment creativity as given a springboard by the rules, which goes a long way towards explaining why the card games I really like, and the one I’m designing, are basically just vehicles for that.

…Though if you get all the expansions you can call it “11 Wonders.”

Last week I got together with some friends for what turned out to be an afternoon of board gaming. We played Cards Against Humanity, playtested Channel A, and then played 7 Wonders. It was really, really strange playing a Euro board game on the heels of CAH and CA, since we went from “Make an anime about vampires racing!” to “So I need to spend 2 Gold to buy lumber from Aaron.” It was very much the polar opposite, a thoroughly mechanistic if incredibly well-designed game, and in the Ewen/Suichi dichotomy definitely more of a Suichi type game.

[1]There’s also the possibility of later reskinning the game to have it be for video games or American cartoons, though I don’t know of anything with titles quite as over the top as anime.

Channel A: Alpha Prototype

To say that I’ve been inspired lately would be an understatement. The day after I posted up my Cards Against Humanity expansions, I thought about what I would do in the way of a friendlier original card game in the same general “using cards to make jokes” kind of style. The premise that resulted is a game I’m tentatively calling “Channel A” where you assemble cards to make titles of anime series.

One player is the Producer, and he or she plays two Premise Cards, with things like “School Romance” and “Giant Robots Fighting.” The other players each have 10 Title Cards, which have bits of anime titles like Perfect, EX, Penguin, Galaxy, etc. Each player tries to assemble an anime title from the cards and give a brief pitch for a series with that title that fits the Producer’s premise. The Producer picks a winner for that round, and then you rotate Producers and keep going.

It’s admittedly a bit derivative–it came from this fury of inspiration from CAH and there’s some of The Big Idea in there too–but I’m okay with that for my first attempt at card game design ever. I don’t know if I’ll make a habit out of it, but I’m definitely jazzed about this particular game.

For the initial prototype print and play version I used 2″x2″ cards like CAH, mostly because printing 20 cards per page makes life easier. Yesterday I roped some friends into a playtest with just the Title Cards (on account of I hadn’t finished the Premise Cards), and it was a lot of fun. I’m also tempted to start recording sessions to preserve some of the nifty ideas it produces.

Channel A (Alpha Prototype) PDF Download

Update: Some more on the game, including revised rules, in this blog post.

Update Again: I made a Channel A page and posted up another revised set.

If you want to make a deck, get the PDF printed on heavy cardstock and carefully cut out the cards. You can get a clear plastic box to keep them in at places like The Container Store or Tap Plastics. I’m looking for feedback both on how it plays and on elements to include in the cards (and the cards’ contents are just the sort of thing where I expect plenty of people to have opinions on what I’ve left out).

Dragon World Hack (v0.1)

Dragon World is my Apocalypse World hack for stuff inspired by 90s comedy fantasy anime, and to a lesser extent the silly parts of a typical D&D campaign. I was most directly inspired by Dragon Half and Slayers, but quite a bit of other stuff crept in. This is a very silly game, and the MC (or rather the “Dragon Master”) section is in part a distillation of what I learned from running Toon and Maid RPG.

I decided to put a rough version of it up on the site for people to enjoy and hopefully play a bit. This is the “hack” version, which lacks explanations of some of the basic rules, such that you’ll need a copy of Apocalypse World (or at least to be well-versed in the basics of AW) in order to play. It’s had a little bit of playtesting, such that I refined the basic moves and the Pure Sacrifice, Dumb Fighter, and Conniving Thief character types a bit, but there’s also a lot of stuff I finished up in one big rush over the weekend.

Download Dragon World Hack v0.1 (PDF)
Dragon World Hack Playbooks and Basic Move Reference Sheet

Other Ideas
I’m pretty happy with the selection of character types here, but I literally have about 30 ideas for others, plus I’ve found that the game very frequently inspires people to suggest new ones as well. If I publish a proper book, there’s a very good chance I’ll end up doing some kind of compendium of character types as a supplement. I’m also going to be working more on a few other possible things for the rules, and a section with setting and NPC ideas.

“Story moves” are kind of a neat little thing I came up with the other day but haven’t implemented yet. I’ve been reading through the Discworld novels from the beginning (which is why stuff like Failed Wizard, Oblivious Tourist, and Octogenarian Barbarian crept into my list of possible character types), and in the first two books there’s the thing about how Rincewind has one of the eight great spells from the Octavo stuck in his head and all the trouble it causes. A story move is a thing like that, represented as a special move that at turns helps and hinders the character, and also has an end condition of some kind, after which you lose the move and get a free advance.

Steven Savage suggested adding a wealth system, which would basically be a special stat shared by the group that would fluctuate depending on when they bought major stuff or found treasure, and there would be treasure with associated custom moves to make their lives more interesting. It could fit in nicely with Temptations and make room for some kind of merchant character type, but I’m still thinking about it.

Kyawaii RPG Omake: Monday Afternoon Blues Audio Edition

This is something I’ve been wanting to do for a while and finally got around to putting together. This is an mp3 you can use to play Monday Afternoon Blues, a role-playing poem I did a while back inspired by Stoke-Birmingham 0-0 (only with an anime convention spin because me and my friends know nothing about soccer). This new version consists of an audio introduction, 15 minutes of ambient airport sounds (thanks to Freesound.org), and an announcement that’s your cue to end the game. I’ve also included a set of character cards you can print out to make it a little easier to keep track of who’s who.

Monday Afternoon Blues Audio Edition (mp3)
Character Cards (PDF)

This file uses the AtlantaAirportAmbient.mp3 by jm Creative Commons audio sample.

A Further Update on Magical Burst

I think I’ve finally reached a point where I have a good roadmap for where to go from here with Magical Burst. Future iterations are going to be much more about refining what’s already there instead of ripping stuff out or bolting new things on.

After talking to a group of guys who’ve been playing MB on IRC a ton, I’ve realized that I’m not quite as dissatisfied with the combat system as I thought. It definitely needs refinement–youma are still much too easy to kill for example, and lots of people find specific crunchy bits unclear–but the foundation seems pretty sound. One thing I am going to add is an (optional) thing for narrating details much like in Wushu, as part of the general action resolution rules. I realized it could fit nicely into the existing game, and is easy to skip if that’s what you’d prefer.

I think moves and normal attributes just need general rejiggering. Some attributes are under-utilized, or very easy to under-utilize depending on how you play your character, and some moves (especially Sorcery) just need to be fixed up. I’ve just barely started working on this part, so while it’ll follow the same general concept, I can’t say how it’ll go exactly.

Feedback from playtesters has led me to reevaluate how Fallout will work. The IRC group strongly prefers for the GM to tailor fallout to the circumstances, which is totally the kind of awesome thing you think of while playing the game. I had originally intended for Fallout to purposely be senseless and random, but I think explicitly stating that fallout can be more deterministic and tailored will help encourage better play. With Changes in particular there’s the problem that it’s too easy for a random Change to be something a character can brush off.

The whole thing about Changes dovetails into the matter of what for lack of an established term I’ll call “character safety.” Magical Burst isn’t a very lethal game, but Changes can “damage” your character concept. I wonder if the fact that some people have expressed concern over that sort of thing is a difference in subcultures, but regardless it’s something to at least address in the text. I suspect that relatively few indie RPG types would be too concerned about character safety, whereas from what I’ve heard of the freeform RP scene it’s of paramount importance to some people. I think this is another thing to address textually rather than mechanically, both because it’s a social contract issue and because it’s trivially easy to (for example) re-roll a random Change that a player finds particularly problematic.

I’m also working on reorganizing and rewriting the text to better reflect the intended style of play and hopefully to be more accessible. I think the thing I was groping towards with Secrets was along the lines of the Bangs in Sorcerer, stuff that forces the PCs to react. Secrets, the presence of a youma, and Fallout are all ultimately aimed at pushing the story around. Madoka Magica basically runs on a succession of shocks as the characters learn what’s really going on and struggle to cope with its implications. That’s something I’ve done informally as a GM before, and I think that a big part of why the playtest I ran was kind of flat was that I didn’t particularly try to make the shocks happen.

You may have seen the picture of a Magical Burst character named Sumire by a very talented Taiwanese artist who goes by Len. His Pixiv gallery has tons of impressive artwork of his RPG characters (going by his artwork he seems to play a lot of GURPS and a fair amount of D&D), and he’s part of the group that’s doing a Chinese translation of the game. Torbadomy got in touch with me the other day, and it’s worked out that Len is going to be lending his considerable talents to producing artwork for Magical Burst.

Magical burst – Sumire by Len on pixiv

I derive far more amusement from meduca meguca than I really should, and I’m planning to write up something called “meguca borsht,” though I realized it’ll be surprisingly hard to do on purpose. I think it’ll look something like D02: Know No Limit though.

Another Magical Burst Update

I’m still just amazed at how far Magical Burst has gone already as an unfinished free PDF. I think some of that is that there’s a very solid niche of anime fans who want RPGs of stuff that the RPG industry just doesn’t understand or cover. It’s not hard to find forum threads where people are trying to start up a magical girl game, but pre-Cel*Style it feels like with a couple exceptions the RPG industry’s forays into anime have basically been BESM and mecha stuff. I think it really lends credence to my contention that anime inspiration is vastly under-utilized in tabletop RPGs, and too many of the efforts that have been made have been tone deaf about anime as seen by people who actually care about and understand it. I don’t know how the numbers really line up, but if there can be a Leverage RPG, there sure as hell can be a Madoka Magica RPG.

Although I do want to make a pretty book out of Magical Burst (and try to capture some of the amazing artistic style of Madoka Magica’s witches and such), I’ve decided I’m also going to take a cue from Christian Griffen’s Anima Prime and keep having a free version of the game available. If I’m going to be spending money getting lots of art and such done I will need to make some amount of money from the whole thing, but I’m realizing that getting the game into people’s hands is the more important thing. In that respect this is a really successful game already, and it’s given me a lot to think about with regard to how I pursue RPG design in the future. I tossed up a rough draft with parts that make me wince (though I like to think it has some good ideas in it regardless), and it’s getting tons of actual play, with people invariably pitching it as a Madoka game. Also, with people already doing things like adapting the rules for Persona[1] I most definitely want to encourage hacking.

I’m reminded of something I once said at a panel, which is that the guy who’s always hiding his game and making people sign NDAs and getting copyright paperwork done and stuff doesn’t usually produce anything worthwhile, while the guy who’s running around showing his game to people and thereby making it better is much more likely to have a great game in the end. Now that I think about it, that’s something I need to try to live up to more. Certainly Magical Burst wouldn’t be anywhere near as far along without all the feedback I’ve gotten.

The other day Ryan Macklin put up a blog post titled “Action Sequences are Conversations,” which I think points at the heart of where I’ve been dissatisfied with the combat system in Magical Burst. In dealing with fight scenes in RPGs in general I’ve often felt trapped between the extremes of a tactical sub-game (which is what I have in place right now) and noodly stuff that takes a lot of GM and player finesse to actually work well. I do enjoy throwing down with some D&D4e[2], but I feel that tactical combat just isn’t the right fit for a game like Magical Burst where the point is to build up to a certain melodramatic mood. Ryan Macklin’s post is about having action sequences be a conversation with rules that serve to moderate that conversation, and I think that’s the mental model I was missing while trying to grope towards what I want out of battles in Magical Burst. I want the conversation to be the primary thing, and for this game I don’t want a fight breaking out to yank you out of the normal flow of conversation. I think that’s what I wanted to do all along, but I didn’t know how to articulate it, much less design it. I don’t know how these ideas will really shake out, especially since when I try to figure stuff out in my head every time I move one part of the rules a bunch of others start to shift and look precarious. The fourth draft may end up looking pretty different, but then I’m realizing that that’s just how I design games.

Today I’m starting re-watching Madoka Magica to try to get a better feel for how the action flows. Reading Macklin’s ideas for Gun n Fuck I knew specific ideas inspired by Jason Statham movies weren’t what I needed. I want something that gets people narrating stuff like Mami going to town with her magical flintlock rifles or Kyouko’s spear splintering the concrete. Over on Google+ Ben Wright pointed out that the flow of action in Hong Kong movies bears very little resemblance to the turn-taking that’s all but universal in RPGs. I don’t know if I have the design chops to make that notion a part of Magical Burst, but I think it rings true in how fights typically work in anime too. Engaging an opponent means more than just taking a potshot at them, and characters don’t always get a chance to act, especially if they’re fighting an overwhelming opponent. I’m not yet sure what this is all going to look like, but I think fights in Madoka Magica have a rather small number of exchanges to them, and are present exactly as much as needed to drive the story.

Also on my to-do list is to formulate better advice and play procedures to help give the game the kind of mood and style it calls for. In large part that means the GM needs to come up with different story elements to use to mess with the PCs, and put them in at the right pace, in a manner very much like Kickers and Bangs.

So, that’s where I’m at right now. I’m getting really excited about this game all over again, and I’m about ready to dive back into intensive design work.

[1]Persona seems to be another one of those properties where a solid tabletop RPG is something of a holy grail for a whole lot of people, with or without the serial numbers filed off. (And now I move “Finally play Persona 3” up a bit on my to-do list…)

[2]And it’s the kind of thing I aspire to create myself with Slime Story/Quest. I could probably write a whole other blog post on why I like 4e’s combat despite not liking most board games or war games, but in short I think that both the “no winners and losers” thing and putting the “game” part into the context of an ongoing story are vitally important to me.