Here’s a quick quiz for you? What reached its Kickstarter goal in roughly 3 hours, and in the few days more than quadrupled said goal? The correct answer comes in essay form, but I’ll leave that essay to the experts. Instead, I’ll give the short answer. It’s Ryuutama (http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/diamondsutra/ryuutama-natural-fantasy-role-playing-game) a recently translated Japanese tabletop RPG (JRPG) that’s probably unlike any RPG you’ve ever played, or possibly heard of.
So what is it about Ryuutama that has Kickstarter all-a-flutter? Again, essay answer (see below), but the short is answer Kotodama Heavy Industries, the translation team behind the English release, has already shown they do incredible work with their previously successful project Tenra Bansho Zero.
So that essay I promised you? Well recently I was fortunate enough to have a chance to talk with the team behind Ryuutama–Matt Sanchez and Andy Kitkowski–so it comes in the form of an interview:
David: Matt, Andy thanks for taking the time to talk with me.
Matt: It’s always a pleasure to chat with you, Dave!
David: Just recently, you’ve both started a new Kickstarter for a Japanese pen and paper RPG called Ryuutama. I’m going to assume everyone reading this knows what a pen and paper RPG is, but I’m guessing most people aren’t familiar with Japanese RPGs (JRPG) and how they might be different from American classics like D&D. Can you describe what an American player who hasn’t seen a JRPG might notice when he first sits down to play one?
Matt: Well, other than the obvious difference in language, I think the first thing that one might notice is probably the art. Just as western RPG books are filled with “realistically” styled art, most JRPGs are filled with the manga inspired art you might expect. Lots of JRPG books have slip covers over the cover, too, with a character sheet on the inside for easy copying. Depending on the publisher, a large portion of the book might be a replay, too. (Editor’s note: A replay is a script of an actual game session to give the players a sense of how the game is played.)
Andy: As Matt says, the art is probably the first giveaway. But the other common thing, especially with recent publications, is the size: Many recent book offerings are in “bunko” size format, which is the size of traditional Japanese novels. They are about one thumb-width thick, printed on fine, soft paper, and are about the size of your hand. Much smaller than normal paperback novels in the US. Many are not the “8.5×11” or “A4-Sized” full-color huge books we come to expect in the US.
David: Speaking of differences, the actual JRPG rules are known to have a few differences as well. What sort of things would an American gamer find for the first time in a JRPG manual?
Matt: While it’s not a good idea to generalize, you could say that old school charts show up in a lot of games. There are often very explicit rules for scenario creation and enforcing a three act structure. Most of these games are meant to be played either as a one shot or a series of one shots in a 4-6 hour slot.
Andy: The charts that Matt alludes to are there, and they’re usually there not for determining the impact of bullets or the bounce of grenades, but to randomize your character’s potential backgrounds, connections, feelings towards major NPCs, or backstory elements. They are often on a “Roll or Choose” system, which means you roll on a chart for inspiration: If it sticks, you have a cool new story element for your character. But if it’s totally alien for your character’s concept, you simply pick another. Seems weak since you’re not forced to pick the result, but in practice this system works extremely well.
Beyond that, it’s hard to generalize, as Matt said. One thing they all have in common is that, while they might have conceptually unique settings or rules, they very much stick to a traditional “there is always a GM” playstyle. There aren’t that many experiments with GM-less or distributed authority. Instead, true to Japanese innovation, they stay “thinking inside the box”, but completely change all the concepts within that box: Improving, streamlining, innovating.
David: Now that we have a sense of what a JRPG is lets talk about Ryuutama. I think the first, and most obvious question is, what the crisp does Ryuutama mean?
Matt: It translates to “Dragon Egg”, but it doesn’t quite slip off the tongue as well.
Andy: Indeed. Ryuutama just flows so much better than “Dragon’s Egg”. Even the French edition kept the “Ryuutama” name!
Dave: I see what you’re saying, and I’d say it’s a good sign that it’s getting multiple international releases. Still, with a name like that I am guessing this will have more than a few things in common with D&D?
Matt: Well, in that it is medieval fantasy, of a sort, I suppose. But the focus is on the natural world, on exploration, and on normal townspeople, not murderous bands of ruffians. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. There are dragons, but they’re not really there to fight anyone.
Andy: Yeah, it’s interesting: While there is combat, and things like “total party kills” can happen (and in my case, where I played with the author, we had five 1st level heroes that were almost all killed by two 4th level Giant Bees!), the focus is clearly on travel and meeting people. You get about 1/10th the experience for defeating powerful enemies as you do for overcoming challenging terrains and weather conditions.
David: What kind of gamer would enjoy Ryuutama? And what about the game may appeal to them?
Matt: I think this game would appeal to those who are interested in RPGs but are not drawn to the violent aspect of them. It’s a gateway game for those who are normally sort of leery, too, I think. My wife, for example, has no interest in playing D&D but she played Ryuutama and would like to play again. It has that “feel good/honobono” aspect to it that the Studio Ghibli films do.
Andy: If you want to play a game about helping people with people-problems, and keep a bit of wonder in your heart, and can deal with things in your fantasy world like “Cat-Goblins with Teacups on their Heads” and spells like “Summon a Cubic Meter of Dried Leaves”, then you are the audience for this game.
I mean, it’s essentially a game about all those NPCs you normally come across in a village when you play the Hero of some Japanese console game: The baker, the minstrel, the healer who heals your party, some farmer wandering in a circle, the guy who sells you swords and armor; those are the characters you choose from. You aren’t the heroes and demon-slayers, instead you’re basically Normal Everyday Fantasy People just trying to stay alive on this journey.
David: Cat-Goblins! Incredible. Alright, so someone asked me just yesterday if it was meant to be a solo campaign kind of game? I get the impression it would play very well with just a GM and a single player. Is that correct? What’s the recommended number of players?
Matt: It’s certainly possible, and I think that could be an interesting campaign that could go a lot of ways. But it could get rough. The more people you have in your party, the easier the survival aspects of the game are going to be.
Andy: Yeah, I’ve played it a lot, and indeed the sweet spot is one GM and 3-5 players. More than 6 is likely too much. Games with 1-2 players are absolutely possible, but they will be more intimate, and the GM will have to plan encounters with utmost care: One traveling Magic-Using Healer is not going to be able to face the same challenges (in travel or combat) as a group with Technical and Attack type characters.
David: Rumor has it (at this point confirmed in the Kickstarter description) that it’s not unlike Oregon Trail. Will players suddenly die of terrible diseases? In what ways is it like Oregon Trail? I can imagine these similarities will only help the fan base for the game to grow?
Matt: There are no terrible diseases unless the black Ryuujin unleashes one… (hey that sounds like a good scenario!) but it is just as easy to die from passing over rough terrain as it is in combat. If you are not prepared, you will get lost and you will starve or fall to the elements. Luckily getting prepared is fun and there are some options as to how you can go about shopping. For people who would rather just jump into the traveling aspect, there are “picnic rules,” where the players each receive a predetermined set of items.
David: I like the idea of role playing shopping, but I can see how it might not work for everyone. Still, what I’m hearing does make me think of Oregon Trail.
Andy: Actually, Yes! I actually made up that comparison a while back, calling it “Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail” (ala the Oregon Trail video game; in fact, I’m making sure to add a Grandfather Clock to the starting equipment list in the English Version as a shout-out!). To which people immediately ask, “Can you die of dysentery?”
The answer to that is, “Yep!” You could fail/fumble in a travel roll which reduces your hit points down to 25% of their total. What does that mean? Did you twist your ankle? Did you get heatstroke? Did you drink some bad water? If you think the latter is appropriate, the GM might say, “Okay, you are now infected with a level 6 Sickness”, which makes you weaker at everything, and vulnerable to other damage. You have to rest/heal and maybe the next day you’ll get over that sickness. But yeah, in a way you can “Die of Dysentery” (or at least be critically weakened by it).
Though the actual physical effects of Dysentery, like Giardia or parasite infections, aren’t really “honobono” when you go into their gruesome “bowel-oriented” details, so I’d just leave it at “your stomach hurts”.
David: That’s great, all of the pieces are in play to make it as much like Oregon Trail as you like. Now I have to say there are a lot of JRPGs you could have translated. Why did you choose Ryuutama? (Also why not Shinobigami? Seriously. Like it’s the best game ever.)
Matt: Andy and I were talking about a game we could do while working on Shinobigami (which is our next project) and this game really stuck out to me.
Andy: There was a certain order to things. First Maid, to understand how the translation and publishing process works. I learned a lot from that. Then Tenra Bansho Zero, my dream project of some seven years. Then Ryuutama, and Shinobigami. We basically worked on them in the order in which we approached those companies. Each game, we get a little better at doing this, make better connections, and get closer to the wonderful artists responsible for these works.
I too can’t wait to bring Shinobigami to a wider audience. That will happen once we have Ryuutama to their backers!
David: Ryuutama has a unique mechanic involving a dragon person. Is this sort of thing common in a JRPG? Or is it pretty unique to Ryuutama? Can you describe what a player might expect from the dragon person, and the role he/she plays in the game?
Matt: I haven’t seen any other game, western or Japanese, that has a GM character like the Ryuujin. (Editor’s note: Ryuu = dragon, jin = person) They have their own character sheet and stats, but the stats are different than the PCs. Their abilities are used to affect the story, not perform actions. The Ryuujin is allowed to journey and interact with the party but cannot take center stage like GMPCs (Editor’s note: Game Master Player Characters are fully functioning PCs, often used to fill roles, and have the full agency of a normal PC.) in other games might.
Andy: Also, to add to Matt, it’s brilliant that the GM character also gets XP, but in a totally different way from the characters: They gain XP solely by the GM running sessions/scenarios for players. One scenario is One XP, and most level gains only require 1-3 or so XP.
The more levels the Ryuujin gains, the more effects they can do to help the party members: As a GM, they provide adversity for the party, but as the secretive Ryuujin, always off screen, they are there to help the party succeed with abilities like “turn a PC’s failed roll into a success”. They can only do these abilities a very few times a session though, they can’t pull them out of every jam.
David: Kind of reminds me of the old D&D cartoon with the dungeon master character except a lot cooler. By now it’s safe to say combat is not a huge focus in the game. However, I imagine it will still come up. What will combat look like in a Ryuutama game?
Matt: Combat is simplified and abstracted. There are 4 areas: enemy and friendly sides and within those are front and back areas. Players roll initiative using their stats, and that becomes their defense value as well. One of the cool things about combat is that before it begins, everyone comes up with 5 objects in and around the combat area in the fiction, and they can interact with those objects for bonuses.
Andy: Yeah, when you see the grid, it looks like an old console RPG, clearly inspired by Dragon Quest or the like: Simple, straightforward, and fun. But very much driven by the die rolls: If you get cold dice and no one in your party rolls well at all, it can be a very one-sided fight!
David: Still, it sounds incredible! I’ve played my fair share of maps and minis RPGs, and there is nothing wrong with it, but this sounds like a breath of fresh air to say the least.
Matt: That could be because you always lose at maps and minis games.
David: My reputation precedes me. OK, I got three questions I always ask every time I look at a new RPG. What’s the setting? What does the character sheet look like? What are the core mechanics, and how are they unique from what I’ve seen in the past? This always brings me to my forth question, what dice are used? (Author’s note: More recently I’ve started to ask what are the randomizing elements?)
Matt: The book has rules for coming up with the entire world together as a group. If that isn’t to your taste, the GM can handle it all themselves. But it is assumed that the world is a low magic medieval fantasy.
We have sample character sheets for both PCs and Ryuujin on our site that you can check out.
And to answer your third and fourth questions, stats are not numbers, but dice sizes, similar to Savage Worlds. So, for example, a character might have d8 strength and d4 dexterity. Skill checks are performed by rolling two stats at once, with a fumble occurring at double 1s and a critical occurring if both dice rolled their maximum value or if both dice rolled a 6. Rolling a fumble nets you a Fumble Point, which can be traded in later for a bonus to a roll!
David: This game seems full of inventive, and unique mechanics. That combined with an interesting take on the fantasy world. It hits both of my weak spots. You can definitely be assured I’ll be backing this Kickstarter.