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Design notes and general musings from "Distant Star Games," which is really just Ewen Cluney (aka Neko Ewen). Stuff about whatever games I'm working on, games I'm reading or playing, and RPG-related stuff I'm thinking about.
Trying to emulate anime (and manga) in another medium inevitably runs into the question of how to define anime. It’s been my experience that particularly online, the biggest arguments regarding RPGs concern or are caused by words with fuzzy definitions, particularly ones created by the fandom (“splatbook”). Arguments over the words “anime” and “manga” stem primarily from the notion that a work can only wear that label if they’re made by one or more Japanese people in
When it comes to roleplaying games, the problem with defining anime in terms of culture is that it largely goes outside the scope of what an RPG can hope to cover, particularly mechanically. While Sgt. Frog takes place in Japan and has episodes concerning Japanese holidays like Tanabata and Children’s Day and things like hot springs and sumo, the important underlying elements of Japanese culture – things like honne and tatemae – tend to get lost in the haze of color and sound. Moreover, by that definition a tabletop RPG designed and/or played by non-Japanese would be categorically excluded from “anime” status. That makes such a definition counterproductive if not useless for the purposes of roleplaying games.
While it seems there will always be fans who grumble about “non-authentic” anime and manga, the better titles – Avatar: The Last Airbender, Oban Star-Racers, Dramacon, etc. – capture other essential features of mainstream anime and manga, most notably the kinetic, planar aesthetic and character-centric melodrama. Indeed, this latest generation of creators understands the underlying structure of Japanese-style storytelling much better than their predecessors. Adam Warren and Fred Perry, though exceedingly talented, are nonetheless essentially creating American comics with manga-inspired artwork. It’s with this definition of “anime” – perhaps different from what is more widely accepted, but also much more useful for designing a roleplaying game – that I wish to move forward.
In terms of how successfully the game emulates the source material, I am only concerned with how well it does mainstream anime. I am absolutely certain that the game I create will be useful for games not based in anime, and I do not consider this a problem. The fact that Mutants & Masterminds can conceivably be used for fantasy, for example, does not inherently make it less of a superhero RPG. It’s in the nature of RPGs that it’s virtually impossible to design a game so focused that it can’t be repurposed in some way. The things I consider to be defining traits of anime are indeed present in other media, particularly in
Melodrama is a common trait in popular Japanese entertainment, whether it’s Kabuki and woodblock prints, puroresu and tokusatsu, or anime and TV dramas. The stark, austere atmosphere of Noh theater, tea ceremony, and the greats of Japanese literature are a sharp contrast to the blatantly emotional, melodramatic mainstream of Japanese narrative. Understanding and embracing this style of narrative is key to the game I want to create. It’s not going to be a game to use for Akira or Ghost in the Shell, much less Princess Mononoke or Grave of the Fireflies. When people react to the word “anime” – positively, negatively, or just with a resounding “WTF?” – these titles are not what most readily come to mind, and they would be better served by other games. I want to make a game for shows like Naruto and Keroro Gunsou, with colorful characters that raise their voices a lot.
I wouldn’t call it a flaw that BESM and OVA don’t particularly attempt to include melodrama on a mechanical level. They grew out of different lineages of RPGs; Mark MacKinnon is an avid Amber fan, and Clay Gardner did a great deal of online freeform roleplaying, neither of which lends itself to letting the game mechanics have an particular hold on the roleplaying/performance aspect of the game. For better or for worse I’ve been heavily influenced by the indie scene, especially through Story Games. The game that’s begun coming together very clearly shows this lineage, and distinguishes itself from other anime RPGs primarily in this manner. If it didn’t, I would probably be wasting my time.
One of the unique qualities of roleplaying games is that there’s a very odd relationship between the media that go into it and the end product that comes out. The actual narrative that results is not to be found in the rulebook or even in a recording of the game session. The game is just that, and the participants are taking the largely non-narrative sequence of events from the game and organizing them into a narrative in their heads. Interactive entertainment naturally has narrative as an emergent property, and human beings naturally arrange events into narrative form. From this view, the narrative that comes out of an RPG is ephemeral, and does not normally take the form of a physical artifact.
This is an important consideration because most geeky subcultures – including roleplayers and otaku – have a strong fixation on what might be called “secondary artifacts.” A gamer doesn’t particularly need a stack of sourcebooks, a box of hand-painted miniatures (or not-so-miniatures), and tubes of matching sparkly dice to play D&D, any more than an otaku needs figures of Rei and Asuka dressed as nurses to sit down and watch Evangelion. But whether it’s the Colossal Red Dragon or the 12” figure of Rei Ayanami in bandages, people enjoy having these artifacts around their living spaces, and probably enjoy the task of accumulating them – from stores, at conventions, and through the internet – even more.
Roleplaying games typically take place in an original world created specifically for that purpose, so the capacity for secondary artifacts is limited. Very popular titles like Dungeons & Dragons and to a lesser extent White Wolf’s World of Darkness games can pull it off to some degree because they have the economic might to do so. A handful of Japanese tabletop games have managed to produce some merchandise, though chances are they’re appealing as much or more to fans of the merchandise in general. The Queen’s Blade (probably NSFW) series is basically a fanservicey manga take on Flying Buffalo’s Lost Worlds combat book game, but the number of detailed plastic figures of the characters sold is probably substantially greater than that of the actual game books.
Games based off of existing properties are, in effect, secondary artifacts in and of themselves. For a Firely/Serentiy fan the TV show and movie are the primary objects, and MWP’s Serenity RPG is an unnecessary but pleasant way to heighten one’s enjoyment of the property. Such games, whether officially licensed or put together by fans, can potentially integrate themselves into an overall fandom of the property, which can in turn allow the participants’ accumulated merchandise to become a tool for the game. I own a set of miniature Azumanga Daioh plush toys, and some time I want to run a one-shot where each player has one of these to represent their character. This, by the way, is another reason why I want to make a game that specifically embraces players using adaptations of their favorite anime series.
Without the luxury of having or being secondary artifacts, the only artifact a less commercially successful RPG can offer directly is the game book itself. Where early RPGs typically came in boxes and had several booklets and possibly cards, dice, etc. the cost of creating these and retailers’ unwillingness to handle them has made books the norm. This doesn’t necessarily preclude the presence of secondary artifact, but it means they have to either be created by the participants or in some way repurposed from somewhere else. In the latter case, if I wanted to I could run an original game where the player characters were some kind of trendy girls, and have the players play with
One of the important concepts in the game I’m planning is what I call the “Fan Guide,” inspired partly by The Dictionary of Mu, and partly by the above theoretical underpinnings. The idea is to have the group collectively create a guidebook to their shared imaginary world, similar in form to the art books and series guides produced for real anime series. My aim is both to tap into the players’ desire for artifacts – just think of when the campaign has been going on for a while and you have this shiny binder with a treasure trove of info – and the practical matter of archiving the contents of the game. RPGs thrive on the enthusiasm of the participants, and hopefully this can be a useful and effective way to invigorate and channel that enthusiasm.
 It’s worth noting that while
 Which raises other interesting psychological issues with regard to otaku, though they’re not especially pertinent here.
 Someone who’s not me totally needs to design a Pink St. RPG.
Others, like OVA and RandomAnime, tried to codify some of the clichés of anime into their rules, to varying degrees. There has been a long-running tradition on RPG message boards of denying anime any hint of uniqueness that could be coded into the rules of an RPG. I think this argument has certain flaws, and ultimately for whatever reason anime seems to be judged by some impossibly high, ephemeral standard when it comes to what an RPG can achieve with regard to genre emulation. This tendency towards overly harsh critical evaluations of “anime-ness” – either by calling it insufficient or denouncing the existence of such a thing in the first place – seems ridiculous when contrasted to the reactions to RPGs that strive for any given genre from most any other media. If there can be a super hero RPG that can go anywhere from Cartoon Network Teen Titans to Dark Knight Returns (or simply from Batman to Superman) without missing a beat (Truth & Justice is probably up to it), there can certainly be an anime RPG that can go from Sgt. Frog to Rurouni Kenshin.
BESM is by far the anime RPG that has enjoyed the greatest success, despite the fact that Guardians of Order is now out of business. Its timing – hitting the market right around the time of
One interesting example of the above taken to an extreme is in the Tenchi Muyo! RPG; the vast majority of the characters in the OAVs are give full game stats, and in the case of the main characters there are bios of at least two full pages as well. However, certain characters like Misaki and Serio have nothing more than a couple paragraphs of description. This might seem odd—and were the game approached in a manner more in line with R. Talsorian’s Bubblegum Crisis RPG the designers would almost certainly have devised stats of some sort—but within BESM’s paradigm that simply isn’t necessary. Misaki and Serio are both Juraian nobles and presumably very powerful, but the role they played in the anime is purely social. If played using the Tri-Stat system the way the creator intended, the game mechanics would never once have come into play regarding these characters.
One of the my aims is to take the visual roleplaying paradigm further, in the service of anime-inspired roleplaying. The types of anime I’m most interested in emulating don’t have all that much of a logical internal structure, and don’t particularly engage in the kind of world-building favored by speculative fiction writers. In genre fiction the characters often seem to exist simply as a foreground to a fantastical background; anime favors the opposite extreme, tending to be highly character-centric. Details about the setting only come into play because they are pertinent to the plot at the time, and pretty much anything of any real importance happens on-camera, during a scene. An anime RPG needs to suggest rather than simulate, with things defined in broad, “planar” terms that can be detailed and refined when the need arises.
One of the key features of both otaku culture and American gamer culture is a referential nature. In both cases there is a geek culture with a cultural canon of product art that must be internalized for full admission. In the case of roleplaying games, this leads to allusion being not only a key cultural factor, but a mechanism for enabling the game. Professional creators try to avoid being too referential, or at least keep their references suitably high-brow, but doujinshi artists and gamers by and large embrace intertextualism. While it can be taken to excess (how many Monty Python and Simpsons quotes does a game session need?), gamers ultimately benefit from it. We can take bits and pieces of the media we enjoy, and use them as a source of inspiration and leverage to better express ourselves within a gaming group.
Roleplaying games’ relationship with direct adaptations from other media has been an odd one, and doubly so with regard to anime, even in
Much of roleplaying is done with settings created specifically for that purpose, even though cultural allusions form one of the basic building blocks of the medium. However, this is a stark contrast to online free-form roleplaying, which is dominated by games taking place in settings taken directly from existing media. There are also a good number of tabletop RPG players who are looking to take their favorite anime and create a roleplaying game experience based on it. Michael Hopcroft is an ideal example; on countless RPG message boards he pops up with threads about how he wants to adapt a given anime (Azumanga Daioh, Read Or Die, and Bokusatsu Tenshi Dokuro-chan, to name a few) to a particular published RPG system.
It’s easy to dismiss this style of gaming as essentially “roleplaying fanfiction,” but allusion is fundamental to how the hobby is played in general, and there are evidently a considerable number of players who want exactly that experience. An RPG based on anime should recognize and embrace allusion and adaptation as being fundamental to the experience the participants are trying to create.