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.
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).