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Gaming in Japan: An Odyssey

by Andy Kitkowski


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Hey everyone! Sorry about the delay in this month's article: From seven day work weeks (plus part time work) to my wife getting sick... well, it's been an interesting month. Since I've received so much feedback on this series, I went ahead and designed a Japanese TRPG Homepage. Finally, I've recently been asked by VIZ media, a large organization that translates Japanese anime and manga into English for release in the US, to write articles about Japanese RPGs to appear in the comic release of the popular Japanese fantasy manga "Bastard!!" - While my articles over there aren't as long, or tied to Japanese society or social issues, as these are I hope people will find them interesting nonetheless.

Right now I'm getting some interviews ready with some Japanese game designers for future issues of this article. For this issue, I decided to take care of some of the questions that people have submitted about Japanese TRPGs and the gaming scene. As always, if you have any questions or comments, please submit them to the PTGPTB staff!

For the sake of these questions, I'm going to break my rule regarding the distinction between "RPG" and "TRPG". Here, RPG will also refer to what we consider RPG; the pen-and-paper kind.

Q: What's the most popular TRPG in Japan?

Sword World, definitely. Sword World is the first Japanese-born TRPG, having been released in the mid-late 1980s. Heavily influenced by Dungeons and Dragons, this game is one based on classes and levels and comes bundled with a lightly detailed vanilla fantasy world. Since it's been around from the beginning, it's got the largest following and most support in terms of published adventures, replays, and gaming circles.

After Sword World, GURPS seems to be the strongest contender. The idea of one universal rules system seems to be appealing to Japanese gamers, and indies RPG conventions are never short of GURPS-based fan supplements (GURPS Tarot, GURPS Gundam, GURPS >Enter Anime Name Here<). Lately, though, White Wolf's World of Darkness games, specifically Vampire the Masquerade, as well as innovative Japanese-born creations like the works of the F.E.A.R Studio, are becoming more and more popular.

Q: How do the Japanese view their own culture in RPGs?

Good question, and not one that's easily answerable. Japanese TRPGs essentially all spring from Dungeons and Dragons, and currently still have a tighter link to fantasy than our RPGs do (though this may change in a few years). Therefore, Japanese culture "as is" rarely appears in most TRPGs. Anytime it does appear, it's always with a twist: Tenra Bansho is traditional Feudal Era Japan Meets Warhammer 40K-style magic and high tech. Tokyo Nova is Cyberpunk Japan, complete with mega-corporations and street gangs. Between these two games (and others that contain an analogue of Japan), we get very different pictures of "Japanese" society than we would with a more "realistic" RPG. Then again, I've yet to see an RPG made here in the states that doesn't have some rules for firearms or potentially fatal combat, one aspect of our culture that doesn't exist day-to-day for the average citizen, but certainly exists in movies and other stories.

So what does it all mean? Well, only a few Japanese TRPGs are set in Japan. Out of those that are set in Japan, most of them do it as a convention of convenience; it's easier to play a game in an urban setting for the Japanese, be it supernatural horror or mecha action, if you use a familiar setting like Tokyo rather than an unfamiliar locale like Los Angeles or Berlin. For those TRPGs that focus on "Japanese Culture", particularly in games like Tenra Bansho and Tokyo Nova, the Japanese view their historical culture with the same amount of awe and "kewlness" that we view medieval European fantasy (swords, magic, divine intervention, Celts!, etc). All other cultural conventions about how the Japanese view their own culture in TRPGs would be better turned into a discussion of the very interesting topic (but one best left for other forums) "How do the Japanese view their own Culture?"

Q: In Japanese RPGs, are there Japanese authors which have a strong influence on their RPGs? For example, J. R. R. Tolkien had a strong influence in the early US RPG movement.

Yeah, there's one author, although he's not Japanese, who has a strong influence in Japanese RPGs: He's J. R. R. Tolkien. Seriously. See, since TRPGs weren't created in Japan, but were in fact born from western fantasy RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons, which were inspired by Tolkien, the path still traces back to Tolkien.

I'm sure that modern Japanere TRPGs, especially with focuses other than western-style fantasy, have been influenced by Japanese authors. However, since most Japanese TRPGs don't contain a "sources/inspiration index" , it's hard to tell, and certainly case-by-case depending on the RPG and author. Hopefully later, when I interview some Japanese game designers, I'll find some traces of influence from Japanese writers.

Q: Are there any hot gamer chicks in Japan?

A resounding "Yes!" Or, at least, a resounding "Um... yeah, pretty much!" Make no mistake, the majority of role-players encountered, like elsewhere, are male. However, from most of the circles I've seen there are roughly one to two women for every group of six or so players. Of course, not all of them are attractive, as in the US, but there are definitely gamer babes.

When I played RPGs in college in Tokyo with my "SF Literature/Video Game/Heavy Drinking" group on the weekends, there was a creature that resembled an egg. Not to be mean or anything, but I couldn't tell if it was a man or a woman for about twenty minutes until the chinless, gibbering thing spoke. It was a she. Gamer troll.

However, that was the only such female gamer I met. Most are either geeky, charming, or downright gorgeous. When I was at the Indies RPG room at the 2000 Comic Market, I noticed that most of the women were either cute or had a cute/geeky multiclass thing going on. Then , I turned around and saw a girl wearing hip-hop style clothing selling an RPG that she made herself. She was gorgeous. I may be biased, but the only ontological truth that I hold dear is that Even Mildly Attractive Women in Hip-Hop Clothes are Sexy, and Asian Women in Hip-Hop Clothes are Downright Deadly. I was about to blurt out something stupid, like "Marry me", but then I remembered that I was already married and instead asked her about her game. "A high school love comedy RPG based on the rules (including Sanity) of Call of Cthulhu? I'll take two, thank you."

Other gaming conventions I've gone to feature mostly the above three archetypes: Cute, Geeky-Cute, and Deadly-Sexy. Interestingly enough, while women may find the experience of gaming with Japanese males a little daunting (there are instances of leering and even stalking incidents), I've noticed that there's not a lot of shameless picking-up or the obvious Velcro-like attaching of geeky males to sexy female gamers like in the States. On one hand, the stalking thing in Japan more than makes up for that small inconvenience. On the other hand, the chauvinist inside tells me that there's a better chance for hornball Japanese-speaking foreign males to strike it rich with some hot gamer toddy in Japan. Alternately, for the foreign women, in between episodes of dodging stalkers and ogling otaku, you have a better opportunity of scoring with some eloquent, perhaps handsome (but probably not very muscular, if you're into that sort of thing), gamer guy.

Q: Are gamers "suspect"?

"Suspect", for all you Americans unversed in str33t t4lk, "suspect" means "shady", "up to no good", etc. What's implicated here is that gamers are up to no good, which is thought by deeply dogmatic religious folks, amateur psychologists ("oh, it's all escapist fantasy") and other people who, of course, have never gamed.

Short answer: No. To religious zealots in Japan (there aren't many, but those that exist are... "woah") anyone doing just about anything (breathing, for example) that isn't in their little sect or cult is "suspect". To the majority of people, though, TRPGs are simply not known. If they were known to the extent that they are in the US, even then they probably wouldn't be "suspect". There are so many hobbies that people fall into in Japan that are cliquish (like martial arts, traditional arts like flower arranging or tea ceremony, or sports) that a gaming circle is just another indistinguishable hobby.

Saying "I'm off to play Dungeons and Dragons" in America usually immediately invokes certain... let's call them "stereotypes" (namely, the giant firey brand of "Ultrageek")... to the listener. In Japan, if you said "I'm off to play Dungeons and Dragons", the listener simply would have no idea what you were talking about, and just assume that it was some kind of Playstation/console RPG like Final Fantasy.

Q: Is the Gundam RPG translatable?

Yes, but you don't want to. All it is is the system of R. Talsorian's Mekton Z (the rule system was licensed out) with Gundam robot stats and background. Any dedicated fan could do the same thing themselves in English.

Actually, it seems that R. Talsorian has hired a translator to translate the Gundam RPG back into English, and they will later release it (probably with more interior art and a more comprehensive guide to the story of the series) later this year in English.

Q: What makes Japanese RPGs special anyways?

A very good question. Since all Japanese TRPGs can trace their roots back to earlier Japanese games, which were inspired by Western RPGs (namely Dungeons and Dragons, Call of Cthulhu and other early games), is there anything significant about Japanese RPGs that makes them noteworthy (after all, about half the RPGs are actually ports from existing English ones)? Is there any Japanese contribution to the RPG world worth taking note?

There are two significant ones that come to mind. The first is a contribution that won't be seen by a non-speaker: Japanese RPGs that are aimed at beginners do a much better job of explaining the game than western RPGs. With Japanese RPGs, it's expected that you either learn how to play RPGs from an existing RPG circle, or you have never heard of RPGs before, picked up one by accident, and are curious as to how to play. A lot of games these days are catered at these latter types, or players who are new to the RPG scene in general.

There are several things that modern Japanese RPG designers do to help the player understand what's happening, including:

  1. Including a replay, or script, of a bit of an example role-playing session. While some games in the US have replays, this is standard for Japanese RPGs and almost all of them contain such a script.
  2. Streamline the rules, especially involving tasks or combat, into easy to understand flowcharts (just like technical flowcharts with Yes and No answer routing): "Roll the dice. Did you roll the highest?" YES equals, "Then you go first. Roll for attack". NO equals, "Then wait until your turn." Frighteningly simple, but since the RPG experience is daunting for the newbie, it's a great idea.
  3. Include comics showing how the rules work. Complete with dialogue, there are several RPGs that show comical characters rolling dice, checking charts, and then their character's actions. This shows the new player how both the rules are used and how they can affect the game environment. Often, multiple examples are used.

Secondly, the greater contribution to RPGs, and one that everyone can take note of, is the interior art. Simply put, most Japanese RPGs these days, especially those of design houses like FEAR, are gorgeous. They have no fewer than 16-20 color panels (that's the size of an average comic book in the US, sans advertisements), and often are riddled with illustrations.

Since manga are such a heavy part of Japanese youth culture, there are so many talented artists that donate their time to illustration for free or at least reduced pay (compared to game in the US). And since manga/anime-style art is "all the same", or at least has several features that most of those artists use across the board, you can use multiple manga artists for one book or game without losing the continuity of the feel of the setting.

For example, back in the days of Planescape, if Tony DiTerlizzi's art were combined with Tom Baxa and Elmore in each book, it would have produced a much more disjointed vision of the setting. In Japanese RPG's, it's not always immediately evident which artist did what, so there's a real preservation of the feel of the books. On the other hand, that feel is almost always "anime-like", and some people in other countries just can't get into that style of art.

Aside from that, there are several other Japanese contributions to the field of RPGs (aside from the games themselves). The main two are RPG Replays (see an earlier article for explanation of replays) and RPG-Themed Manga (that is, comics describing the RPG process and history).

That's it for now, please check back for later issues where I'll take a look at Japanese conventions, the anatomy of a Japanese RPG, and RPG-themed manga. And don't forget to stop by my Japanese TRPG homepage!

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