Category Archives: role-play this

Role-Play This! A Certain Scientific Railgun

I haven’t done a “Role-Play This!” thing in forever, but I got inspired all of a sudden.

What Is It?
A Certain Magical Index is a series of light novels that has been adapted into an anime series. It takes place in the Academy City, a cutting edge city of mostly students, constructed to instruct people in the use of special powers. Index presents a dichotomy between the world of science (which includes special powers) and the hidden world of magic, which actually exist in a delicate balance of power.

One of the most popular characters from Index is Misaka Mikoto, a Level 5 power-user (which is as high as the power scale goes) with an exceptional talent for generating and manipulating electricity. She can do a tremendous variety of things with her power, but her signature move is to create magnetic fields to propel a coin at supersonic speeds, hence her being nicknamed “the Railgun.” A Certain Scientific Railgun is a spinoff series that stars Mikoto and delves deeper into the lives of Academy City students.

Why’s It Awesome?
Railgun is unusual among anime in that it both develops an interesting setting and tells a good story. It takes place in a near-future setting that presents “super powers” as a phenomenon that science (mostly) understands, and uses that in lots of interesting ways, both in terms of cool sci-fi stuff and how it affects the characters. The Academy City has both the Anti-Skills (a paramilitary force for dealing with dangerous power-users) and Judgment (a group of students that assist with law enforcement as well as everyday problems), not to mention plenty of people who resent the prestige that high-level power-users seemingly have handed to them on a silver platter. There are also hidden conspiracies, strange technologies that affect power-users, and memorably insane villains.

In Railgun especially this is all conveyed with a bunch of fun, likable characters. Mikoto is joined by her roommate/stalker Kuroko, who also has a scarily effective teleportation power, and Ruiko and Kazari, who remind us that not everyone in Academy City has spectacular special powers, however much they might wish for them.

Gaming It
The setting of the Academy City seems all but made for role-playing. It has a population of 2.3 million, of which 80% are students hoping to develop their special powers, so it’s not the slightest bit implausible to introduce new characters with their own powers.

My #1 pick for an existing RPG to use would be Smallville. With its relationship mechanics and orientation towards melodrama, it needs little or no changes to work for the Index/Railgun setting. It even allows for powered and non-powered PCs to exist side-by-side, so characters like Ruiko (who has no powers at all) and Kazari (whose power is inconsequential) are easy to put alongside Mikoto and Kuroko. About the only things I would change would be more flavor, specifically that while characters might have more than one power in game terms, for the purposes of the story they should have only one (“Dual Skills” are only a hypothetical thing in the setting) and that characters without powers in game terms can have a small, mostly useless power for flavor if they really want (again, like Kazari).

For a more traditional approach, most any superheroes RPG worth its salt should be able to represent the kinds of powers seen in Railgun just fine. (And frankly I’m kind of surprised that the anime characters page of Surbrook’s Stuff doesn’t have any Hero System writeups for Index/Railgun characters.) Hero System, Mutants & Masterminds, Truth & Justice, and so on should work without too much effort.

Role-Play This! My Life as a Teenage Robot

I haven’t done a “Role-Play This!” post in ages–about a year!–and I found this one nearly finished while going through my draft posts. I may have to do some more. Anyway, here goes:

jenny_intro

What Is It?
My Life as a Teenage Robot is a cartoon that aired on Nickelodeon from 2003 to 2007.

Nora Wakeman, retired pulp heroine and scientific genius, built a robot to protect the town of Tremorton and the world from threats. That is XJ-9, also known as Jenny. She is at once a powerful superheroine and an ordinary, likable teenager, and while she’s equipped to save the world in more ways than you can count, fitting in at school isn’t exactly easy for her.

Why’s It Awesome?
My Life as a Teenage Robot is one of those kids’ cartoons that’s not only for kids. It has this wonderful art deco style, and while it’s light and silly overall, you might be surprised at how sophisticated it can be. The writers have a knack for establishing a villain and then finding an awesome way to completely turn your expectations on their head. It’s hard to give an example of this without spoilers, but even the machine world of Cluster Prime doesn’t turn out to be what you’d assume.

The humor of it really won me over too. There’s an episode where it turns out Tuck (one of Jenny’s close human friends) is afraid to go on a ferris wheel not because he’s afraid of heights, but because he has a fear of wheels. The same episode has a mob of townspeople coming after Jenny, and one of them takes a bite out of his “torch,” which turns out to be cotton candy.

Despite Nickelodeon’s abject failure to make the series available on DVD, it has a strong cult following, as evidenced by how The Teenage Roblog site still posts up new fanart pretty regularly.

Gaming It
If I ever get around to finishing Adventures of the Space Patrol, I’m totally going to make a “Teenaged Robot Superheroine” archetype. Statting up characters like Jenny and her mother in a traditional RPG would require a system with some wiggle room. Tri-Stat or even Risus would let you be vague enough to represent Jenny’s seemingly endless array of weapons and gadgets, and someone who knows the Hero System well enough could probably figure something out with multipowers. Other characters like Dr. Wakeman, Vexus, and Sheldon likewise call for a flexible and cinematic approach.

A game that really captures the feel and storytelling style of the cartoon would have to be a little weirder than that. I’m thinking more of a free-wheeling story game that encourages all the players to inject random gags and contribute to the flow of the story. There is a definite sense that in a given episode there’s a sort of agreed-upon moral or conclusion, and everything works towards that, albeit often in the silliest way the writers can devise.

Role-Play This! Fullmetal Alchemist

Fullmetal Alchemist

What Is It?
It’s been a while since I did one of these, but I started borrowing the manga from the library and got inspired. Anyway. Fullmetal Alchemist is a manga by Hiromu Arakawa, adapted into an anime series by Bones. The two versions diverge at a certain point because the manga was only up to volume 7 or so at the time, and the studio basically crafted a second half for the story.

It’s about two brothers, Edward and Alphonse Elric. They learned alchemy at an early age, and when their mother passed away they did the forbidden and attempted human transmutation to bring her back. They bore a terrible price for it: Edward lost his leg, and Alphonse’s body was completely absorbed. Edward sacrificed his right arm to bind Alphonse’s soul to a suit of auto-mail armor. Determined to get their original bodies back, Edward went through painful surgery to get auto-mail prosthetic limbs, and the two brothers set out to find the Philosopher’s Stone.

Why’s It Awesome?
FMA is good for traditional role-playing in that it has more world-building than your typical anime. We get to see the nation of Amestris and its military embroiled in conflicts, and (in the manga) contact with the distant nation of Xing. It’s sort of a steampunk setting too. Amestris is based on Europe during the industrial revolution, and it has trains, guns, prosthetic limbs, and so on.

However, the series’ approach to alchemy is probably the most unique thing about it. Edward is very clear that alchemy is a science. It has specific laws and principles, and represents a natural phenomenon, if a very powerful one that few people understand. The most important thing is that no one can violate the Law of Equivalent Exchange, and the Elric brothers’ biggest mistake in trying to bring back their mother was that they underestimated the value of a soul. Basic alchemy involves drawing a circle and thereby transmuting matter, but Amestris’ State Alchemists invariably have some kind of tricks to let them use some form of alchemy on the fly. Roy Mustang wears special gloves that heighten the amount of oxygen in the air and create sparks, earning him the moniker of Flame Alchemist. Armstrong (one of the most awesome characters in the series) creates massive spiked gauntlets for himself out of whatever material is handy. And Edward, called the Fullmetal Alchemist for his artificial limbs, can create a transmutation circle simply by putting his palms together. I’m not going to get too much into human transmutation, mainly because for the anime it would involve spoilers, and for the manga the issue hasn’t been settled yet as far as I know. Suffice to say that’s where it becomes apparent that the alchemists’ understanding is incomplete.

In addition to all the cool toys, FMA tells a story with deep themes. The Elric brothers are burdened by their sins, yet still hopeful they can restore their original bodies. However, they are confronted with the question of what price must be paid for the Philosopher’s Stone, and by whom. Likewise, Edward’s decision to become a State Alchemist gives him access to research materials to get him much closer to his goal, but the possibility of being ordered to do something he finds immoral always looms over his head. This is not a forgiving series; characters die, because of ambition, greed, or stupid, random chance.

Gaming It
The Elric brothers’ issues are fairly specific, and unlike a lot of anime this is a setting that invites further exploration in a relatively traditional mode. It would take a little work to put together a suitable system for FMA-style alchemy, but I could see it working well in Fudge, GURPS, BESM, Spirit of the Century, Savage Worlds, etc. The rest of the “stuff” involved would be the prosthetic limbs and making sure there was an appropriate selection of guns and such. You could put together a campaign with the PCs being state alchemists, Amestrian soldiers (Ep. 37 of the anime is all about Roy and his subordinates), Ishbalans trying to survive, human chimeras on the run, maybe even homonculi.

Going into wacky indie game territory means having a good idea what you want to do with the setting. For example, In A Wicked Age would be perfect with a well-made FMA oracle, and a game about military investigators or Ishbalan priests looking for signs of wickedness and alchemy could make for an interesting Dogs in the Vineyard variant. Primetime Adventures is a possibility too (the Elric brothers have one heck of an Issue).

Role-Play This! Paul Robertson Animations

What Is It?
Paul Robertson is an Australian artist and animator who favors pixel-based art in a distinctive manga- and video game-inspired style. In addition to a host of random pictures and animated gifs, he’s completed a number of animated short films, most recently the 15-minute epic “Kings of Power Four Billion %.” These show of his amazing talents and awesomely twisted sensibilities.

Above is the trailer for KOP4B%. Below are links to all of the full videos I could find. He’s apparently working on a compilation DVD, which I want entirely too much.

(And incidentally, PersonaSama also does some great stuff, God Slayer being my favorite so far).

Mechafetus Visublog

Why’s It Awesome?
When me and my friends first saw Pirate Baby’s Cabana Battle Street Fight 2006, we quickly concluded that any video game company that didn’t want to hire the creator as an art director must be goddamn stupid. Robertson works wholly with video game style sprites, but he very deliberately subverts the medium. Pirate Baby has two heroes climbing the levels of a building fighting zombies to rescue a kidnapped girl, and along the way they face things like a giant octopus clutching four nude zombie women that vomit horrible insects as a means of attack. The heroes retaliate with super attacks featuring the ghosts of dead mosquitoes, the soldiers from Predator, and Christopher Walken. Kings of Power takes this to the next level, where the final attack requires the rebirth of the New Ultimate Jesus, and then the little girl from space… I don’t want to spoil it, actually. But there’s definitely nothing quite like it.

Gaming It
The other day Filip started this thread on Story Games, asking how to role-play Devil Eyes, right in between when I had decided to do the next column about Robertson’s stuff and when I got started writing. Anyway, the way I see it, there are three ways to structure one’s fundamental approach to this:

1. Traditional RPG
Run it as a traditional RPG. The GM has to be a very strange person, capable of hurling an endless stream of strangeness at the players.

2. Collaborative RPG
The idea here is that the game serves as a structure for the entire group to throw out the most insane things they can think of. The most obvious model for this is Jared Sorenson’s octaNe, which wholly hands over narration to the players at times. (Though I’d be tempted to add “Guro” as a Style…)

On a similar note, in the aforementioned thread Johnstone suggested what to me sounds like an RPG version of 1000 Blank White Cards, where each player draws weird things on cards, which become the basis of the game. There are two artists in my gaming group, and one of them likes to draw something basic, and then pass it around the room for people to add whatever details they want. To make that approach really work I’d want to corner all of the artists I know (four in all) and coerce them into playing.

3. Meme-Rich RPG
One RPG I’ve got on the back burner is Moonsick. It’s consciously based on Superflat aesthetics, with little girls going down to a radioactive Earth and becoming horribly mutated (and sometimes mutilated) while “onii-sama” (big brother) watches. The game uses cards to establish scenes and introduce mutations, and thus introducing pre-defined memes into the fiction is at the heart of what the game’s rules do. This is the approach that’s perhaps most in sync with how a video game works, and with something like cards you can have the visual elements readily accessible to the participants (which is a big part of why I went that route with Moonsick).

In any of the above methods, there needs to be a rule for doing a final super attack where you take a bunch of the cards/pictures/elements you used before and combine them into one spectacular, climactic orgy of violence.

Role-Play This! Oh! Edo Rocket

Oh! Edo Rocket RPG
What Is It?
In the past, anime series were mostly either original or based on manga. More recently, there have been more titles based on light novels (Haruhi Suzumiya being the most notable). Oh! Edo Rocket is based on, of all things, a stage play.

In it, the average people of Edo are being oppressed by the government’s prohibition on luxury items, but fireworks maker Seikichi Tamaya intends to keep honing his skills. The magistrate’s special agents chase after “sky beasts”–strange alien visitors–but it is a difficult task to say the least. Then, Seikichi is visited by a strange girl who wants him to make fireworks that can reach the moon.

Why’s It Awesome?
First of all, Oh! Edo Rocket has a very unique style. The character designs are strange, but very, very iconic. The backgrounds look like woodblock prints or calligraphy paintings. The background music is mostly big band jazz. The story moves at a hectic pace, and the absurdity of it all is counterbalanced by the brutal reality of society (such as how the local policeman beats Seikichi, who in turn can only prostrate himself and apologize), and the string of murders plaguing Edo.

The show also makes a very conscious and calculated effort to break certain rules. The characters relentlessly break the fourth wall, and anachronism is likewise constant. Not only is Seikichi trying to put Japanese fireworks into orbit, but televisions, vacuum cleaners, and so on pop up in iconic places, though the characters are quick to object that “This is supposed to be a period drama!”

Gaming It
Oh! Edo Rocket is a fast-paced action-adventure kind of story with lots of twists and turns, and many characters with dark secrets. To cover that angle, I would lean towards something awesomely cinematic, like Spirit of the Century, or character drama oriented like Prime Time Adventures, though the right group could do it just fine with something like BESM. A particularly whacked-out new Oracle might turn In A Wicked Age into the right tool for the job too (the show’s “Men In Black” have some interesting and Unique Particular Strengths).

Breaking the fourth wall in an RPG is a strange proposition, considering the fourth wall implies an audience. The characters of Oh! Edo Rocket make enough references to animation cels and such that it’s hard to imagine capturing the show’s charm without some equivalent. Granted, the characters can seldom use that to their advantage per se, so it could be a pure role-playing thing that the characters occasionally get to talking about their character sheets or dice rolls. Video games do that kind of thing all the time (“Van, what’s an inn?” “It’s a place where you restore HP and MP..”), albeit usually for a specific purpose. Create and useful foruth wall breakage–being aware of other scenes, peeking at someone’s character sheet, etc.–could fall under some kind of drama point mechanic too.

Next Time: Paul Robertson’s Animations

Role-Play This! Shonen Fighting Manga

DBZ

This installment is a little different from the others, since it’s about a genre rather than a particular title, and a lot of it is about me trying to figure out how to go about designing an RPG for that genre. We’ll return to our regularly scheduled column next time.

What Is It?
“Shonen fighting manga” is what I’ll call a genre of manga (and related anime) that focuses on passionate characters engaged in epic conflicts. Most of the really popular titles fall within it (especially from Shonen Jump and its ilk), so as a genre it covers a whole lot of things that lots of people find compelling. These titles are not without their flaws, but they bring some awesome to the table in their own ways.

I could go on for days mentioning dozens of titles, but I’ll just briefly cover a handful:

  • Bleach: A teenager named Ichigou Kurosaki inherits the powers of a Death God, and must protect his town from dangerous dead spirits. But the other Death Gods are now faced with a conflict that could destroy their Soul Society, and Ichigo will find himself at the very heart of it.
  • Dragon Ball Z: This show takes a lot of flak, especially for its pacing (too quick in the manga, painfully slow in the anime), but it’s ultimately the story of a good man trying to fight tyranny while coming to terms with being an alien. It takes place in a fanciful world full of strange technology and stranger mysticism, where a car can fit into a capsule and seven magic balls and raise the dead.
  • Magical Girl Lyrical Nanoha There are some people who consider this show to be derivative of every major magical girl show ever. This proves that they haven’t watched past the half-way point of the first of its three seasons, or else they’d know that once the Time-Space Administration Bureau becomes involved, everything changes. Nanoha is a kindred spirit to Galaxy Fraulein Yuna, a brave and cheerful girl whose real strength is rooted in her love for others. No other magical girl series I know of has the protagonist sit down for a frank talk with her mother about what she’s been doing in secret, and there definitely isn’t another where she becomes an elite career mage for a dimensional enforcement authority.
  • One Piece: This juggernaut of a franchise takes place in a fanciful world of dread pirates, corrupt governments, and ancient secrets. Luffy, who ate the Gum-Gum Fruit when he was young (making him elastic, but cursed to be unable to swim), wants to become the next Pirate King. He and his crew — all people shaped by childhood tragedy — set out after the One Piece, the legendary treasure. Along the way, Luffy and his friends must put everything on the line to defeat the most vile opponents imaginable and make Luffy’s naive ideals of friendship a reality in a world of unrelenting injustice.
  • Some others that come to mind include Naruto, Tokyo Underground, Shakugan no Shana, Gurren Lagann, Mahou Sensei Negima!, Rurouni Kenshin, and so on.

Nanoha StrikerS

Why’s It Awesome?
Shonen fighting manga may be overblown and cheesy, but when it’s done well it can enthrall millions. Fights can stretch across entirely too many episodes, but they always Mean Something. They’re about some guys putting everything on the line for what they believe in, against all odds. A really good fighting manga story is packed with balls-to-the-wall conflicts and world-shattering revelations.

Gaming It
It took me a while to realize it, but my efforts to design an “anime” RPG over the past few years pretty much boil down to wanting a game that excels at this genre. I haven’t found it yet, and I haven’t figured out how to make it myself. Whatever virtues games like BESM and OVA have, they’re essentially universal (action resolution based) systems with some nifty anime-inspired tweaks, and they don’t address what I think I really need for the shonen fighting manga style. The game I tentatively named “Anime Dreams” contained some important ideas that will likely be vital to my dream game if it ever comes to fruition:

  • The heart of the game is a conflict resolution engine that allows for sacrifices, reversals, escalation, creativity, and at least some immersion.
  • The group collaboratively creates and maintains a “fan guide,” a wiki or somesuch with details on the campaign and its setting, characters, and events.
  • A power scale mechanic (kind of like mass/strength scaling in Fudge), to show overwhelming differences. Half of DBZ is characters trying to raise their power scale enough to stand up to the new bad guy.
  • Series/setting creation as a group activity, with specific rules, and guidelines for adapting existing titles, since lots of people want to play something based on an existing anime series.
  • At least one pre-made setting with quick-start rules and a replay included.

Aside from making it drip with anime/manga flavor as much as possible, I think there are basically two things the game needs to do, and they’re closely related.

1. Make conflicts — whatever form they take — interesting, intense, and consequential.

It may be that I just need to hack the hell out of an existing game with a conflict engine (TSOY, SotC/FATE, DitV, etc.), but I think I need to (1) play more of those games, and (2) really sit down and think about what exactly my dream game needs.

I originally wanted to make it diceless (“A character should only win by luck if he has a ‘Lucky’ trait on his character sheet”), but now I’m not so sure. The real issue is deprotagonization, which is separate from dice vs. diceless. My previous attempts at making it diceless seem to create paperwork without all that much benefit in return. Of course, now that I’ve got a much better grasp on how Yuuyake Koyake works, it occurs to me that a character’s passions and bonds could fuel one or two simple point pools (one for being proactive, one for rebounding maybe?).

From the source material, it’s pretty clear that most character development needs to happen through conflicts. Shonen fighting manga characters improve by leaps and bounds (or just reveal previously hidden tricks) when under duress.

2. Keep the players and their characters actively engaged in the story.

That’s the major challenge of running my current OVA campaign. The game system is good at some things, but it really doesn’t address this at all, and as the GM I have to try to keep an eye on things and make sure there’s stuff going on to involve all of the PCs. It goes without saying that there’s a limit to how much the actual rules can contribute here, but it definitely needs something.

Now, if you want to run a shonen fighting manga type game without either creating a new system or waiting for someone else to, there are some possibilities. Some have suggested using a hack of Dogs in the Vineyard to do Naruto, and for that matter Filip treated us to Gurren Lagann done with InSpectres/UnSpeakables. DitV is on the right track in terms of supporting play where characters tend to engage in individual conflicts (that’s how it usually seems to work in manga after all), and the use of escalation (If Super Saiyan isn’t enough, it’s time to risk it all on Super Saiyan Level 2!) and fallout.

The Shadow of Yesterday has some ideas that point in interesting directions, but there are elements of its paradigm (like how someone Unskilled can beat a Grand Master by pure dumb luck, if not very often) that to me are at odds with shonen fighting manga sensibilities. It and Spirit of the Century both reward characters for being passionate and irrational, but would need some major hacking to handle the power levels of a Super Kamehameha or Starlight Breaker instead of the pulpy action they were intended for.

Otherwise, the alternative is to use a more typical universal system (anime-flavored or otherwise) to try to simulate the particular setting, which (as the anime/manga character page of Surbrook’s Stuff demonstrates) can accomplish more than you might think, though again it leaves the conflict and character drama largely in the hands of the participants. That’s not necessarily a bad place for it to be, but personally I want a game that can do a little more.

Next Time: Oh! Edo Rocket

Role-Play This! Metal Wolf Chaos

mwc-rpg.jpg

What Is It?
It’s a truism in video games that the Xbox did very, very poorly in Japan, and the Xbox 360 only somewhat better. Despite that, for the very few people who owned Xboxes in Japan, there were in fact some rather interesting exclusive games that never made it to other markets. One of these was Metal Wolf Chaos. I’ll be perfectly honest, having seen a video of the game I wanted it, but could only get it by torrenting the disc image and playing it on a friend’s modded Xbox. It’s too bad it never was released in the U.S., because I and most of my friends would definitely have bought copies of it. It’s not impossible to get a legit copy, but it’s not cheap either.

The basic premise of the game is the kind of thing only a certain kind of Japanese game designer would come up with. The Vice President of the U.S.A. stages a coup, turning our great country into a military dictatorship overnight. With much of the military siding with the VP’s tyrannical regime, the President himself must don a power suit and blast his way to restoring liberty and freedom. Along the way you get to visit (and more often than not blow up) major American landmarks, upgrade your weapons, and see cut scenes with awesomely cheesy English/Engrish dialogue (“Suck my missile punch!”), until you finally get to have an epic confrontation on a space station.

Why’s It Awesome?
The President is in a presidential mecha, blasting the crap out of America’s enemies. The White House become an armored, mechanical monstrosity: The Fight House. It’s Independence Day plus Full Metal Panic, minus any and all shame. If you want a taste, check this out:

Gaming It
Most any reasonably customizable mecha game — Mekton Z, Exosuit A-OK, etc. — could handle the mayhem of MWC, though you could easily use a more generic system that can do mecha (BESM, OVA, etc.). Another option would be to go for a more descriptive system that concentrates on cinematic action, like Wushu. (And for a blast from the past, I might just dust off my copy of the old Project A-ko RPG…)

As an RPG scenario, MWC’s setup would probably need to be tweaked for more than one protagonist. The way I would handle this is to have the players campaign and vote (naturally) for who gets to be the President, and assign other cabinet positions from there.

MWC is not a thematically deep game by any means, but what depth of story it does have comes mainly from the President’s ties to others–a VP he’d thought he could trust, former comrades from the military, etc.–being tested by the present circumstances. A little bit of this can help keep the story from becoming nothing more than an excuse to blow stuff up, and a lot could make it either more of a serious drama, or crank the melodrama up to 11. In the latter case, my as-yet unrealized dream of a fighting shonen manga game would be idea if it existed, and the former case it starts to sound like a weird Dogs in the Vineyard hack might be the order of the day.

Up Next: Fighting Shonen Manga