A blog post I came across recently got me thinking about the reception Maid RPG has gotten, the ways in which different sorts of people have reacted to it. I want to stress that I’m not mad about what Mike wrote there, but I definitely do disagree with him on some major points.
I got into anime in the late 90s, when it was just starting to become available in the US in a not-totally-bastardized form. Back then there were relatively few people around who knew much about it, and even us hardcore anime fans were struggling to get all the scraps we could. Now you can get simultaneous releases on CrunchyRoll, and you can get anime and manga stuff at every Hot Topic and Barnes & Noble. That means there are now three or so different generations of Western anime fans, and for the younger generation there’s much less of a sense of separation between anime and other media. That’s vitally important, because that artificial separation made it harder for everyone concerned to properly evaluate it. The distinctly Japanese aspects of anime are still important, but even more basic things like narrative and visual design are equally important. Moreover, there’s enough diversity within anime (and the many related media) that lumping them all together is decidedly counterproductive. That flawed view is part of what led to the problems with Big Eyes Small Mouth, and generally stunted anime-inspired RPGs in the West for a while. (Basically, we should’ve been paying more attention to what Mike Pondsmith was doing with games like Mekton and Teenagers From Outer Space.)
One somewhat reductive way to look at Maid RPG is as a big wad of tropes that you access through random tables. That means that you have to understand a bunch of anime tropes in order for it to really produce a coherent experience. This becomes a big deal for an RPG because there’s a significant and vocal contingent that doesn’t get anime tropes. That’s not a bad thing in itself–no one even has time for every kind of media–but I think tabletop RPG folks can sometimes have an inaccurate picture of the cultural landscape. It’s in the basic nature of the medium that participating in an RPG requires having a certain amount of shared cultural background. RPGs variously create that background in the text and lean on established tropes the audience is already aware of. The selection of tropes you have to know to properly enjoy D&D is largely invisible to people who’re sufficiently involved in gaming, but they’re actually highly specific and more than a little quirky, a result of Gygax’s eclecticism and 40 years of contributions and refinements from a rotating cast of TSR and WotC staff and freelancers. Even a lot of people who are hardcore into D&D aren’t aware that works like Three Hearts and Three Lions, Moorcock’s Elric stores, Jack Vance’s Dying Earth stories, and so on were major influences on the game, even more so than Lord of the Rings. Similarly, the works of H.P. Lovecraft are well-known and even overused in tabletop gaming, but relatively obscure if you’re not hardcore into either horror literature or tabletop.
Maid RPG is a weird game, with some skeevy content and grounded in anime tropes (with some truly obscure stuff even in our localized English version), but it’s absolutely found its audience, and we really don’t have to go out of our way to sell it at anime conventions. It’s sold thousands of copies around the world, and it outsells Golden Sky Stories disturbingly often. A surprisingly large portion of its fanbase it women too, and I want to serve that audience better in anything I do with the game in the future. It was in many ways not a rational choice to publish it, but by the standards of independent tabletop RPGs it’s a runaway success. I put it up for sale on DriveThruRPG relatively recently, after the game had been out for several years, and if you look at its listing now, you’ll see that it’s a Platinum Bestseller, in the top 0.51% of products on the site, which puts it in some heady company. I’ve never really promoted Maid RPG on DTRPG apart from a few social media posts pointing out that it’s there and a few more gawking at how high it’s gotten in the rankings. It’s also a cornerstone of a good relationship with Indie Press Revolution, which regularly takes it to sell at conventions. Moreover, it’s just a really good game, and cultural issues aside, the simple fact that it’s a blast to play was the major thing behind my desire to publish an English version. It also was an intensely educational project for me and Andy, and the English versions of Golden Sky Stories, Tenra Bansho Zero, and Ryuutama are all vastly better for that experience.
When Mike says “But there’s no saving MAID in the Western market,” I have to disagree. It was never going to get much traction with the old guard of RPG players (including indie RPG folks), many of whom don’t get or even are actively hostile to anime, but people who enjoy and understand anime enough to appreciate Maid RPG are a lot more common than any of us expected. It’s been my experience that gamers who aren’t into anime tend to greatly underestimate how much reach it’s gained, even though the kids who grew up watching Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z, and Pokemon are adults now. Maybe there are people who heard about Maid RPG and jumped to conclusions about Japanese TRPGs as a whole, but I suspect anyone who didn’t get Maid RPG would also be lost with Alshard or Shinibigami or any number of others.
Way back at my first ever job at a shitty electronics store, Tamagotchis were all the rage and some guy asked if we had any of “those tama-hoochie-goochie things,” a phrase he repeated even after I told him they were called “Tamagotchis.” I feel like some people have a similar resistance to even trying to understand anime, and while there’s nothing wrong with having preferences that don’t include anime, it’s weird to project that onto everyone else, especially in an era when you can watch anime on Netflix and Hulu and buy manga at every major bookseller. Anime has won over to such an extent that there’s a younger generation of fans for whom it blurs into other similar media, hence there’s been so much Homestuck, Steven Universe, and Undertale cosplay and fan art at anime conventions. There’s newer stuff that I don’t even get myself (like how I don’t really get the appeal of LP videos or YouTube celebrities in general), but I remember what it was like to be young and excited about something new.
In general I think it’s useful for game designers to stop and ask themselves what assumptions a game is carrying, what bits of culture players need to make it really work as intended. D&D is one of those things that’s become a cultural touchstone in itself, but the rest of us aren’t so lucky. You’re never going to have a play group whose particular pop culture gumbo is going to exactly match yours, but if you make a game grounded in something you’re genuinely enthusiastic about, it’ll show through to the people who share that enthusiasm. Certainly the bigger RPG publishers have stumbled a bit when trying to appeal to anime fans (GURPS Mecha and White Wolf’s Year of the Lotus books come to mind), whereas games like Breakfast Cult can appeal to that audience without missing a beat. The audience for anime-inspired RPGs may never approach that of D&D, but for better or for worse that’s likely more to do with the commercial limitations of tabletop RPGs than of the ones with anime stuff in them.