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Ryuutama – A Look at the ‘Natural Fantasy’ RPG

Being capable of certain levels of self-reflection, I will admit that there are some definite flaws that I carry as a game master.  I’ve spent way too much time as a literary and horror-driven GM that I’m sort of bad at light-hearted and one-off games.  I’m really, really good at epic games, I’m really good at horror… and the farther you get away from those sorts of genres and tropes, the more likely I am to to suffer.  Depending on the game, I can probably find a hook to be able to make things function, but I’m not going to lie; I stick to the hard stuff like horror because I’m good at it.  I’m not nearly so good at other genres.  While I like the idea of something like Blue Rose, the Mercedes Lackey angle of it all would leave me high and dry.

With that in mind, I want to talk about a game that I absolutely love.  It’s also a game that I am extremely poorly suited to actually try running, since it’s so bright and cheery.

I missed the Kickstarter for Ryuutama.  Had I known about it at the time, I would have given them copious amounts of money, just on principle.  The baseline is that it’s a Japanese RPG that has been translated into English by the guys at Kotodama Heavy Industries, who were responsible for putting together the English translation of Tenra Bansho Zero.  TBZ is currently on my list of ‘beloved games that I have not read all the way through, but I badly want to run it regardless’.  It’s a shorter list than you might imagine, and it’s probably telling that Ryuutama is right next to TBZ on that list as well.

They term Ryuutama as a ‘natural fantasy’ RPG, given that it focuses itself on the more pastoral aspects of a standard Japanese fantasy world.  The characters are the mundane inhabitants of this world, and their inclusion in the broad aspects of the game derives from their defining interest in exploring and traveling.  The artwork is bright and cheery, and the translators throw around the Japanese word, ‘honobono,’ which relates to the heartwarming and more family friendly aspects of the game.  There are inevitable references to Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator responsible for movies like ‘My Neighbor Totoro’ and ‘Howl’s Moving Castle’, amongst others.  The game is supposed to invoke this same sense of community and bright-eyed wonder in the way it unfolds.

Like I say, I’m probably pretty ill-suited to run this game.  But I really want to.

Different write-ups of the game and its various elements go into more interesting details, recalling elements of all manner of Japanese computer games.  The combat system is player out using a separate sheet of paper to map out the action, harkening back to the combats in different Final Fantasy games.  The artwork itself immediately brings to mind some of the watercolors that games like Legend of Mana evoked.  Items within the RPG are keyworded with specific qualities, so you might end up with a ‘gross’ tent or an ‘icky’ shield, since you’re starting out with poor quality equipment.  As the game progresses, better equipment will have better keywords, just like the computer games have conditioned us to recognize.

One rundown talks about how the players and the GM work together collaboratively to design the world from the ground up, taking into account input from all corners so that there are plot hooks for each character in every sort of locale.  Having seen how this sort of system can work in other games, I can see how it would seriously benefit a game like Ryuutama, allowing a closer connection to the play group.

The one thing that I’m struck by with this game is that the systems of the game go back to reinforce the basic precepts of the game itself.  I look at different games in my library, and I’m always amazed at how wildly different such games can be due to the way the game shifts its focus.  One Ring and Decipher’s Lord of the Rings are nothing alike, even though they work to illuminate the very same world.  Decipher’s Lord of the Rings takes a much more traditional approach to the material, where One Ring chooses to make the story concern itself with the travel, much like the original novels.

For example, several of the mechanical write-ups talk about how the travel system in Ryuutama talk about how it has some basic resource management aspects.  If a group of characters set out on a journey without proper preparation, they will run into trouble.  Likewise, if they run into trouble on the way, usually through mischance or poor rolls of the dice, things can quickly go bad for the group.

In the same breath, however, these hardships can cause them to pull together as a group to get through.  To bring this idea home, there’s a rule that, when one character throws a ‘fumble’ on the dice, every character gets a ‘fumble point’ that they can use later on.  This point can be used to enhance another roll in the future, thereby insuring some sort of future success.  Because the character screwed up badly, he and his friends will now have the chance later on to succeed where they might not have.  They’ve learned from their mistake, and as a group, they’ve found new resolve to persevere.  It’s a really neat idea, and so very Japanese at its heart.

The GM himself has a separate character sheet that represents the Dragon guardian spirit that watches over the group of characters as they travel through the world, and as the characters grow in power and experience, so does their resident Dragon.  The Dragon can aid the characters in small ways throughout the game, opting to stay hidden in the background to allow the story to unfold around the small heroes that are the accepted stars of this particular story.  On a mechanical level, it’s a fascinating way of codifying GM Grace to keep characters alive and moving forward, and on a narrative level, it gives each game its narrative focus, as the character of the Dragon determines much about the world itself by its presence.  The color and character of the Dragon shapes the story and the very world itself.  (The name itself, Ryuutama, translates as ‘Dragon Egg’ from Japanese, reinforcing the inherent importance of such a character.)

The game itself isn’t due to be released until fall of this year, and even though the Kickstarter is already completed, there’s still apparently enough time to get in on the pre-order through the Kotohi website.

This is probably not a game that will appeal to a great, wide audience.  I accept that.  And to be honest, even I am not the most likely candidate for buying it, given my lack of experience with games like Harvest Moon or Animal Crossing or the like.  But there’s something that appeals to me, probably due to my time in Asia, and I’m fascinated by trying to wrap my head around such deeply Japanese concepts that this game seems to embody.  And what the hell…  the guys at Kotodama are doing a wonderful job of bringing games like this to American audiences.  I’ll make a point of buying their stuff as long as they keep producing it.

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