Saturday, February 10, 2007


I finally caved in and switched over to WordPress (which was very painless and easy). The site is here:

The RSS feed is here:
And LiveJournal thingy is here:

Monday, February 05, 2007

Anime and Roleplaying, Part 2

Continuing from my last post, some more on how to represent anime in RPG form. The Culture Clash section was inspired in part by an exchange with Nagisawa Takumi on I doubt we'll ever agree as to what "anime" means (for reasons you'll see below), but I came out of it with a much better understanding of what I mean by anime, and how it relates to roleplaying games. The second section was inspired in part by reading Daniel Mackay's book The Fantasy Role-Playing Game: A New Performing Art, as was the earlier one on allusion.

Culture Clash

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 Japan for consumption by the Japanese public. In some ways this definition is useful, since it lets us distinguish between Japanese manga, Korean manhwa, Chinese manhua, what Tokyopop calls “OEL manga,” and so on. Still, particularly as invoked on the internet, this conservative definition is more often used as a cudgel to exclude works not made in Japan – regardless of their actual quality – from the anime/manga “club.”

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 Japan. I’ve already discussed the “visual paradigm” stuff; now for melodrama.

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[1] 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.

The Game, The Artifact

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[2], 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 Pinky St. dolls to create physical representations of their characters[3].

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.

[1] It’s worth noting that while Miyazaki’s works are at times called “anime,” he largely rejects otaku sensibilities as much as possible in his works, and his movies are regarded as “safe” and acceptable even by people who normally despise anime and otaku.

[2] Which raises other interesting psychological issues with regard to otaku, though they’re not especially pertinent here.

[3] Someone who’s not me totally needs to design a Pink St. RPG.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Anime and Roleplaying

As I've mentioned before, I think I've accidentally wound up starting on an anime RPG. What follows are some musing on anime RPGs, past, present and future, and some of the ideas that are looking like they'll become the foundations of this new game.

Towards Anime Roleplaying

RPGs have a decidedly odd relationship with anime. For a considerable time, if one went by the “anime” RPGs being released one would’ve had to conclude that “anime” is synonymous with “mecha.” In part this reflects the general style of RPG that was popular at the time, of which Mekton Z and Heavy Gear are probably the most enduring examples. More recently, we’ve had BESM and a handful of others try to tackle anime in the form of a “universal anime RPG.” BESM is a curious game in that it largely avoids trying to influence how the game is played, with the intent that the game is just a framework that provides unobtrusive guidelines to complement whatever you want to roleplay, anime or otherwise.

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 America’s big anime boom – probably had something to do with this, but there is one respect in which it fits anime better than many other RPGs. GURPS and BESM are in many ways rather similar games, especially in their newest iterations, but there is one fundamental difference in their paradigms: GURPS is grounded in simulating reality or at least plausible conjecture, while BESM is about providing the right general look and feel. In this sense BESM is a more “visual” RPG, and in the game it’s more important that a character appear to have the right stats on the character sheet, and succeed in die rolls an appropriate percentage of the time. However, while there are many rules intended to facilitate including just about anything that might be witnessed in an anime, it keeps its hands off of the events of the game, for good or for ill. The anime flavor in the book come through in the form of artwork, examples, and advice, and without these Tri-Stat is an ordinary universal system, one GoO had little difficulty repurposing for superheroes, as a generic universal system, etc.

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.

The Power of Allusion

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 Japan. With the exception of a handful of titles – notably Bubblegum Crisis and Project A-ko – the vast majority of licensed anime RPGs were produced by Guardians of Order, using their Tri-Stat system and its attendant paradigm. These books were of good quality at first, but GoO switched to an “Ultimate Fan Guide” format, which is to say they created episode guides with a small amount of BESM game material in the back. While some fans of the company were glad to not pay for the same rules over and over, and while one could debate their quality, they nonetheless lacked in depth. In Japan the hobby is even smaller, and several anime licenses were somehow snatched up by a publisher that poorly implemented them with the bland “MAGIUS” system. Those games have since gone out of print, and there are no licensed anime RPGs in Japan to speak of.

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.