It should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the games that I like to play that I have a taste for the esoteric and that which is decidedly new. (It will come as a surprise, however, that I’m managing to upload a post. Suffice to say that the last couple of months have been oddly harrowing, and the less said about the search for a place to live … the better. For the moment, let no news be, well, no news.)
Lately, I’ve been putting more focus on the “Foreign Games Translated Into English” range of the spectrum. I’ve already put words to games like Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero, as well as Shadows of Esteren. Lately, I’ve been looking over games like Double Cross, Kuro, and Anima: Beyond Fantasy, reveling in the inherent strangeness that accompanies their particular design philosophies and trying to make sense of the directions that they wander into.
I’ve come to feel like there’s a well-trod canon that most American RPG’s fall back into. My friend, the Admiral, spends a fair amount of time referencing the vaunted Appendix N from the old Dungeon Master’s Guide, a hoary list of sources and inspirational material that helped craft the core of Dungeons and Dragons from its outset. It’s an interesting selection to peruse in depth, but as I’m going through these new games, I’m left to wonder if it has become a sort of limitation on the hobby. Time was, all such things were new and fascinating, and the suggested reading in a game like Vampire: the Masquerade would yield up something that could form a future obsession. These days, it becomes a recitation of the expected, pulling from a shopworn selection of works that everyone else has been using.
It’s sort of like opening an RPG manual and finding that the artwork has been inspired by Japanese Anime or that the setting owes its ideas to Tolkien. It’s all been done, it all rings the same way. Back in the day, it was pretty cool to have a game dip briefly into Lovecraftian Cosmic Horror; now, a game without a Cthulhu cameo seems weird.
This is what’s captivating my interest with these new games. All of the things that have become mainstays in American RPG Design are either absent or lacking in emphasis, leaving a raft of curious and unexpected elements to come to the fore.
The easiest example is Ryuutama. Here’s a game that looks like it should either be geared toward elementary students or 8-bit video game enthusiasts. The artwork is simple and centered in Japanese cultural expectations, and the game is supposed to invite a sense of pastoral, homey good feelings. (They actually market the game with the Japanese term, “hono-bono,” even as they make reference to Ghibli films.) There isn’t any attempt to sell it as appealing to an American audience (there is a conspicuous lack of Frazetta styled barbarian warriors or supple warrior women), and the game is fine with that. But at the same time, it isn’t exactly a kid’s game. There’s a level of meta-narrative that rarely shows up in Western games, where the GM has to build and track the experience points of his own PC, which is integrated into his role in crafting the game while still managing to remain separate. (As a note, West End’s Tales From The Crypt RPG was similarly meta-narrative focused, but there aren’t many people that are familiar with or own that particular title. And even fewer that have run it.)
A game like Ryuutama is never going to compete with Pathfinder. That’s not its intent. Ryuutama is a game for a specific niche audience, and the translators are bringing it over to the States as a labor of love more than anything else. (Kotodama also brought over Tenra Bansho Zero, which occupies a completely different end of the Japanese Games spectrum.) And in doing so, it has a completely different footprint than any other game on the market. It’s doing things that Pathfinder or Edge of the Empire or any of the old White Wolf games would never be able to do, simply because they’re coming from an American point of view and sensibilities, with the intention to cater to the same qualities in their audience.
There’s also the inspiration that comes with these games, since they manage to step outside of the normal range of experience. In reading them, I find myself venturing into new territory with my ideas, as different realms of possibility present themselves.
I’ve been skimming through Makkura, the adventure supplement for the utterly brilliant Kuro RPG from Septieme Cercle. Kuro is one of those games that I feel was built specifically with me in mind. (This is a common sort of relevance that I am faced with from French game publishers; Shadows of Esteren kindled a similar feeling, what with its Ravenloft, Lovecraft and Game of Thrones source.)
At its base, Kuro is a cyberpunk noir horror game, set solely in a dystopic Japan. After living there for a time, I feel like I could run wild with this setting, so long as I had a group that was willing to listen to me drone on about the smell of burning rice husks and the peculiar clutter of a Japanese office. In reading through one of the modules, I found myself immersed in the alien reality of its world, adding my own details as I went along. One scene involved a cryptic message from an old acquaintance as the characters stood on the subway platform. Already, I could see myself building the scene narration, talking about the sudden overpressure as the train approached, the alarm bells ringing overhead and the unseen energy of the crowd as they tensed in anticipation.
That’s just speaking to my own experiential base, though. I’ve set games in locales that my players were unfamiliar with, just to offer some sort of variant perspective and make use of things I have seen. I’ve done the same thing in a number of bog-standard American games.
The idea that I’m trying to lay hold of is that there are cultural artifacts laying beneath the surface of foreign games, and these fragments of perspective offer new directions to propel your games into. Double Cross puts forth a superhero genre game, even as it suggests homicidal teenagers and secretive cabals with world-changing agendas. Ryuutama codifies a sense of innocence and pastoral wholesomeness into its very rules. This isn’t a game that you could run George Martin-esque gritty fantasy in, since the system doesn’t lend itself to such. And Kuro imparts a grimy sense of isolation that I recognize from having walked the same streets as the game designers.
Games like Pathfinder and Edge of the Empire speak to us as Americans. The designers think like we do, which leaves us to absorb the ruleset without having to grapple with anything new underlying the game itself. They are comfortable and familiar, which makes the adaptation to the gaming table a quick and painless process. Sure, there may be new rules or intricacies that need to be figured out, but that’s a minor sort of implication, overall.
Conversely, I sit and consider my properly gorgeous collection of Shadows of Esteren, which requires that I realign my thinking to that of the designers, and a more foreign group of guys I have never met. They look at our gaming and fantasy culture, distill down the important parts to their games, and offer back a concoction that doesn’t initially make sense. I love my books and all, but it’s going to take me some time and careful research to figure out how I’m going to run a game worthy of the source material. It’s that alien to me.
And naturally, I look forward to this immensely.
Two closing points that I haven’t had the time or energy to fit into the main body of this post:
1.) I would never have considered trying to run a game like Ryuutama with any seriousness, even though I love the strange fantasy that it suggests. It simply isn’t something that I could have made work on my own. (As a point of note, I was direly fascinated with Legend of Mana (Seiken Densetsu, originally) back in the day, since it was wildly colorful and imaginative. But I’m far too horror-oriented in my RPG’s to have gotten much farther than daydreaming about it and moving on.) This is a good portion of why I have become vaguely obsessed with Ryuutama since I first heard about it. There’s enough material in it to suggest all manner of fun distraction. It isn’t a terribly serious game, what with tea-cup neko-goblins and all, but that’s a good portion of the joy of it all.
2.) Right now, I’m eagerly awaiting delivery of a set of books for Anima: Beyond Fantasy. I had held off picking it up for a long time, since it looked like little more than a variant of Exalted, which dropped it down the scale a ways. It didn’t help that FFG was taking a shotgun approach to its marketing, what with a miniatures game and a card game to tie into it. (Sort of like they did with Star Wars. Much as I love the RPG, I’m not putting out any money for boardgames or TCG nonsense.) Then I happened upon a copy of the rules and gave it a proper examination. It looked deliriously complex, which fascinated me, and further research showed that it’s an English translation of a Spanish game that’s trying to emulate Japanese anime and video games.
3.) I want to take a moment to clarify why I tend to dismiss games that I think are trying to emulate Exalted. It isn’t because I hate Exalted and its imitators, but more because I love 2nd Edition Exalted. I got a peek at the 3rd Edition rules the other day. Whuf. Their stated goal of simplifying combat made it orders of magnitude worse. Good lord… I didn’t think it was possible to screw the pooch this badly.