Sunday, January 9, 2022

Game Review: Ryuutama: Natural Fantasy Roleplay

Cover for Ryuutama, by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
: Atsuhiro Okada
Translators: Matt Sanchez and Andy Kitowski.
Publisher: Kotodama Heavy Industries
Engine: Unique two polyhedral dice system
Marketplace: DrivethruRPG, Twenty Sided Store

Ryuutama: Natural Fantasy Role Play has an interesting reputation online. Whenever somebody asks if there's a role-playing game that is not built around combat and treasure hunting, it is one of the first ones that comes up. Is described on TV Tropes as a game that was built as a reaction to Dungeons & Dragons by someone who wanted to create a game with a less dark tone. 

I recently have had trouble getting my son to play RPGs, he has become averse to playing anything where he might lose. He's willing to GM them, and his stories range from the sublime to the bizarre, but are often combat-heavy to the point of being dull. So, I thought that this would be a great time for me to pick up this Japanese TTRPGs and give it a try, as I had a small budget for Christmas gifts for myself.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries 

Ryuutama ("Dragon's Egg") is a role-playing game that isn't going to make a lot of sense if you don't have at least some understanding of the storytelling Japanese milieu. Although, it can be a reasonably shallow understanding. I consider myself lucky and so far as I studied Buddhism at a temple in California for a short period in my life, hosted Japanese foreign exchange students for a few years, lived in a town with a fairly large Japanese immigrant population, studied Shinto mythology, and only after all those things did I get exposed to material like anime and manga. Having a complete otaku for a little brother helps too.

I will start by explaining the premise. In Japanese culture there is a tradition of telling stories about journeys that happen over the course of three or four days. Characters are often watched over by a kindly spirit. Sometimes it's told using stock characters. Other times the journey is set up as a sprawling story here the same original characters have multiple journeys they undergo over the course of a series. At each juncture of the journey, the character finds themselves up against the elements, and encountering strange people with problems that they can help. Often, the travelers are watched in secret by kindly guiding spirits or compassionate chroniclers

In the 20th and 21st centuries, a transformed version Western fantasy genre, in particular, has been used as a vessel for telling this particularly Japanese brand of story. Series such as Sorcerer Hunters, Saiyuki, and Escaflowne are excellent examples.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
Ryuutama attempts to capture the essence of these "heartwarming journeys" in that same way. The setting is a Japanese-influenced Western fantasy story, in which characters undertake short journeys, and where the weather and terrain as well as natural disasters and obstacles can play as big a part as monsters.

The game has very specific tools for planning each journey, with forms to fill out to plan out individual encounters, and entire Journey scenario. It also includes an integrated DMPC character called the Ryuu-Jin ("Dragon-man") who is a shapeshifting spirit that watches over and guides the player characters. A Ryuu-jin can rescue player characters in danger, perform certain blessings, and influences the course of the game mostly in secret. However, using its special abilities to influence the game costs they Ryuu-jin life-points. Too many attempts to manipulate and save the campaign will kill the GM's character and end the campaign.

If I were to try and impose Western categories on the game, I would describe it as being as much a Storygame as an Old School game. It tries very hard to fit the adventures into a particular medium, and gives the GM numerous tools to force the conventions of that genre. The Ryu-jin's benedictions, in particular are a sophisticated tool to do this: at the beginning of the adventure, the GM is expected to explain to the player characters which benedictions are available. These blessings can do things like reward the player characters with bonus experience and bonuses to rolls for acts of kindness, hunting monsters, or appreciating beautiful vistas. Which blessings the GM may offer is based on the color of Dragon the Ryuu-jin cares for and nurtures.

The Engine 

Characters have four main ability scores: Strength, Agility, Intelligence, and Spirit. These are expressed as a die ranging from a d4 to a D12 under normal circumstances, and can be augmented to a d20. All rolls are done by rolling two attributes together and taking a total against a Target number. Except when facing monsters, a target number is set by combining the default difficulty for a given terrain with a modifier for the weather. So, grasslands have a target number of 6, rain adds +1, so traveling across a rainy grassland has a target number of 7 for most rolls. Alpine mountains and fog or snow might go as high as a target number of 10.

Two dice showing ones is a critical failure, for specific roles important to the engine the consequences of a critical failure are described. Otherwise it's recommended that it causes damage to a character's equipment or a status condition like sick or injured to be applied. 

Two dice showing both of their highest numbers is a critical success. Oddly, this means exceptional successes are more common for characters with low stats than competent characters with high ones.

What a character carries and wears makes a big difference. Equipment that prepares your character for the weather and terrain can add bonuses. A character wearing a rain cloak and hobnail boots can ignore the penalties from rain or even get a bonus. Hats, shoes, coats, and cloaks all are kept on the character sheet to offer potential modifiers.

At the beginning of each day during a scenario, characters role a strength plus Spirit roll to determine the characters Condition, their fitness and sense of  well-being for the day. Lack of sleep, unhealthy food, starvation, thirst, etc all create penalties to the role and cumulative penalties to the maximum Condition score a character may have.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries

All status conditions, of which there are eight, are rated on a scale of 1 to 20. Although ratings over 8 are rare. A character only suffers the penalty for a status condition if it's raining is over the characters current condition. So, a character who is feeling great that day, with a condition of seven can ignore the penalties to their ability scores that comes with being sick, so long as the disease they have picked up is rated six or lower. The next day, if their condition drops to five, they will suffer those penalties. Conditions disappear after several days of not affecting the character due to high condition, or if they receive medical attention. First aid can temporarily allows a character to ignore a penalty from a condition.

Resource management is very important in Ryuutama. Characters have a limited number of equipment slots that can be as low as seven or start as high as 14 depending on character generation choices. Even relatively small items will take up a point of encumbrance. Rations, water, clothing appropriate to travel, and survival gear can very quickly fill up everything a character carries. The penalties for being over encumbered are severe. Pack animals, proper storage containers, and supplies like soap, firewood, tents, and animal feed are actually very important to avoiding penalties to the condition roll.

Each day of travel is encapsulated in four rolls, the Condition roll in the morning, a Travel roll to see if they avoid falling into hazards along the way (failure costs characters half their hit points), a Driection roll to determine whether they stay on the correct path and make progress towards their goal, and a Camping roll to see if they set up camp effectively and are rested at the end of the day (which doubles current hit points up to the characters Max.)

These rolls are meant as prompts for describing events of the journey. For example: 

  • A failed travel roll should turn into a description of the accident that costs a character half their hit points. The GM is encouraged to present player characters a problem to solve to get back on the road.
  • A failed direction roll might require you to describe how the characters discover that they are lost, and give them an encounter to help them find their way back to where they strayed off the trail.
  • Any failed camping roll should describe some disaster that interrupts there rest at night, and lead to an encounter to find safety and shelter.

A number of people have described the game as being Oregon Trail meets a Studio Ghibli film. I can certainly attest to the fact that the Oregon Trail element is there.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
Characters also possess a Class and Type. Class is chosen from hunter, farmer, healer, noble, merchant, minstrel, or artisan; each of which grants three skills that allow the character to contribute to the survival of the whole party. A minstrel will have understanding of a customs and history of multiple areas, as a bonus to travel rolls, and can pick up characters spirits by playing music based on their previous experiences together. A farmer makes caring and feeding the pack animals easier. Merchants can acquire suppliers at lower costs, etc.

These abilities tend to include one passive bonus, one ability to improve the party's resource pool, and one ability that allows the character to give another party member a boost. Characters are definitely designed to work better as a team than alone.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
Characters also possess a Type which describes their preferred method of handling obstacles. The Attack Type gains proficiency with an additional weapon beyond the one that character starts with, more hit points, and a bonus to attack rules. The Mechanical Type gains bonuses to skill rolls, can carry more equipment, and have a reroll ability. The Magic Type games access to two incantations, which are Dungeons & Dragons style spells divided into low, mid, and high level, which characters can learn and copy into a spell book. They also have access to magic themed around one of the four seasons, which they can cast even if they do not have a spell book. As the characters advance, they can learn higher level incantations to put into their spellbook, and gain access to higher level effects for their chosen season. Eventually they may learn a second season of magic.

Characters gain experience points for the most difficult terrain and weather combination they encountered during their Journey, with bonus experience gained for role playing in a way that triggers off the benedictions set by the Ryuu-jin, and bonuses for excellent role play, and defeating monsters.

There's a set gold piece treasure reward range for the level of the player characters, and most monsters have listed body parts that can be harvested by artisan or Hunter characters for additional rewards.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
Characters level up when they reach experience thresholds. These will generally cause PCs to reach the maximum level of 10 in about 12 adventures. The Ryuu-jin levels up by chronicling the characters adventures and influencing them in the background after a set number of sessions.  This is designed specifically to put a time limit on the campaign. Once the Ryuu-jin reaches its peak level, that campaign is intended to be brought to a close. A new Ryuu-jin can be assigned, and the old Ryuu-jin can be played as a player character who has been reincarnated as a human with some special abilities, or can act like a patron and impose its powers on another Ryuu-jin's adventures. The idea is that everyone will start with new characters, the previous GM gets a few bonuses, and a new player takes up the role encouraging groups to rotate GMs.

Many of the other elements of the game are clearly influenced by a combination of Dungeons & Dragons, and Japan's top 8- and 16-bit era Fantasy RPG video games. Battlefields are set up with front and back ranks on opposing sides of a battlefield like Final Fantasy 3 and onward. Characters may concentrate to improve roles or cast spells using an MP (mental point) pool in keeping with JRPGSs Hit points and MP increase with level. 

Much like something I enjoyed with Viking Death Squad, Ryuutama uses initiative as armor class, making surprise or characters who are sick or injured particularly important in combat. Monsters have a set initiative, while player characters role dexterity plus intelligence to determine their initiative order and defense for the entire combat at the beginning.

As characters level up they gain access to another class' skills, and another types' abilities. They can use the same class or type twice to gain permanent boosts to existing skills instead. Characters are the surprisingly customizable given the fact that they built out of a choice of seven classes and three types.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries

Ryuu-jin also have a class of sort, the GM selects a Ryuu-jin type from one of four colors. The Midori-Ryuu, ("green dragon"), focuses on stories of adventure and exploration, it's choices of artifacts and benedictions  generally encourage play at its default setting. The Ao-Ryuu, ("azure dragon"), focuses on stories of human relationships, love, kindness, sadness. The Kurenai-Ryuu ("Crimson Dragon") focuses on stories of battle and monster hunting. It's choices of benedictions encourage player characters to engage of Acts of bravery and heroism, and the artifacts allow the characters to begin as armed and trained soldiers. The Kuro-Ryuu ("Black Dragon") encourages tales of drama and despair, and it's benedictions and courage and betrayal and deception. Some of its artifacts can kill player characters outright on occasion, or have them suddenly be stricken with terrible conditions.

Over time, as the Ryuu-jin advances, it gets to take benedictions and artifacts from other types to expand the tone possible in the campaign.

Art by Ayako Nagamorai
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries

What I loved

The Artwork

The artwork in the Ryuutama manual is inspired by fantasy manga art. It reminds me of some of my favorite artwork from manga, anime, and JRPGs. It is a beautiful book to look at and peruse with a lot of ornamentation, tiny marginalia, and artful embellishments. I enjoy the fact that we have comic illustrations of some of the processes rather than just written examples. Overall, reading Ryuutama's rule book is a pleasurable experience. Which I use to pass 3 hours on a plane quite happily.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries

Making Travel Interesting

My own project that is near a completion, Deathtrap Lite, is focused on making the pillars of play that have become neglected over the years, travel, resource management, and traps more interesting.

In the case of Ryuutama I have seen a game that has done that very well, at least the travel and exploration parts. Traps are effectively non-existent. It has a solid step-by-step procedure to make the process of travel interesting and takes into account environmental factors in a way I'd never seen before that was quite innovative. 

There was a lot of parallel evolution with my own design, and in many places where Ryuutama does the job way better than I could have possibly imagined.

The Condition Roll

As a man with a lot of allergies, two small kids, and multiple parasomnia disorders, I can appreciate a system that allows you to understand how well your character feels in the morning. Some days, you're just better equipped to deal with life's curve-balls than others. A mechanic that reflects that is particularly interesting to me.

I also like the fact that characters who live highly active lives and have optimistic attitudes are going to have more energy than characters who are passive and have low personal energy as reflected in not just the spirit and strength stats, but also certain class abilities. For example, Farmers tend to get bonuses to all condition rolls because they have lived a clean country lifestyle that has made them more robust.


Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries

The opening myth expressed at the beginning of the book to establish setting, the role of dragons, seasons, and the elements are all very compelling and beautifully done. They help guide the way you think of the setting in a way I thoroughly appreciated.

Objects During Combat

When combat is initiated, the GM and the players go around the table and describe five fungible objects that might be used to advantage during combat. This encourages the players to think fast and describe the combat as more than just striking with weapons and casting spells. Is a built-in way to encourage players to use their environment.

Genre Emulation

One of the things I really appreciate about Ryuutama is that it does a great job of creating a scenario that emphasizes travel and experiencing new things. There are mechanical incentives for characters to eat exotic and delicious foods, and do so with gusto. There is mechanical incentives for your characters to enjoy a hot bath or a comfortable bed at an inn after a long journey. There are clear mechanical ways of expressing the misery of traveling and extreme weather. And mechanical incentives to make sure characters are sensibly dressed and carrying good travel gear. 

Much of the appeal of the heartwarming Journey story is in seeing the joy the characters take in a good meal, soft bed, and a warm fire together after the difficulty of the journey.

Personally, I do find the idea of a DMPC who gets to dictate what kind of behavior the characters engage in via the system of benedictions a little too controlling. And it requires players to engage in a certain amount of metagaming. But, the result is that I have seen in terms of getting the kind of story you are aiming to get without feeling like a brute force attempt to control player actions or railroading.

The story game elements are, in other words, less ham-fisted than many.

Growth Points

Some Fail State Tables Would Make a Huge Difference

Travel in Ryuutama, which is the core element of the game, is handled in four rolls for each day of an adventure. Throughout the manual is emphasized that the GM should find ways to make sure that travel feels like more than just a series of rolls. It states that a failed role should be considered an opportunity to create a scenario for the player characters to overcome. 

In other words, the dice give you an effect: damaged gear, lost supplies, lost time, half hit points lost, for a ruined night sleep. But it does not give you a cause. The GM is encouraged to describe a cause, and once the gear is damaged and the hit points are lost, turn it into an encounter that the players must think their way around.

What it fails to do is offer guidance to do that. This game is begging for a set of tables that will allow GMs to determine camping and travel mishaps.  If players have lost half their hit points and broken a walking stick while trying to navigate rocky terrain, it would be helpful to have a table describing that many different terrible things that might have caused that, such as a rock slide, shifting footing, falling into an unseen crag, crossing rapids, a run-in with an ornery goat, etc.

Ryuutama has very few random generators, and it would make all the difference in the world if the game had some means of determining a meaningful result for those failed checks.

The developer is well aware that the lack of guidance when it comes to how to express fail Ssates is one of the greatest flaws of the system. It's openly admitted in the text of the game. This would tackle it.

Likewise, some random Journey scenario generators, and random wilderness encounters, especially tables that include a lot more than combat encounters, would greatly enhance the experience.

The Dragon Section

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
In Ryuutama, there is a very small amount of overt setting, and the rest is left to the players too develop as the game progresses.  One of the core assumptions is that dragons are ethereal elemental spirits, rather than physical creatures. And that most dragons are friendly or neutral. 

Accordingly, there is a section with a bestiary of dozens of dragons that is little more than illustrations and handwritten notes with no mechanical elements. It is primarily an excuse for cutesy art and a little bit of world building. However, it is a very long list, with one Dragon for each terrain and weather type described in the book. Overall it is a large chunk of the book that is dedicated purely to cute.

Art by Ayako Nagamori
©2013 Kotodama Heavy Industries
Certainly, it does a great job at cute, and does something to give you an idea of the tone the game is aiming for. However, it doesn't add much else to the game. And takes up room that might have been better spent on random tables. The dragons could have been placed in chapter headings, margins, and pages where there is large amounts of empty space to break up the sections that have large expanses of text.

The Nonviolent Reputation is Hype

Ryuutama is not a nonviolent game. Hunting monsters is, in several places, a suggested activity for characters to engage in during your adventures. 

The demonstration adventure involves clearing out a layer of Nekogoblins.

Many monster listings include listed body parts that can be harvested by an artisan or hunter character for treasure or food. And hunting monsters in season always makes the food count as delicious. Optional character rules for exceptional Cooks who can turn monsters into rations or gourmet meals also exist.

Some monsters have a listed bounty for information about them, or magical boons that can be gained from slaying them.

The combat system is simple, light, and fast-paced. It borrows a lot of its ideas from the Final Fantasy series. It certainly doesn't incentivize min-maxing  tactical builds. Nor does defeating the monsters themselves award very much XP.  But then, neither do older editions of Dungeons & Dragons where the emphasis was treasure hunting. To claim that Ryuutama is less combat focused than Dungeons & Dragons 

The real difference is that the core gameplay loop is built around traveling the wilderness rather than crawling a dungeon, and it is the pitfalls of survival during the journey rather than traps and monsters that provide the most commonly form of danger. Monsters are still often I used as a major obstacle towards goals, and defeating them seems to often be the goal of an adventure.

It certainly easier to play a game of Ryuutama without battle, but the frequent claim that it is designed to be a peaceful game is nonsensical.  And I am absolutely fine with that.


I purchased Ryuutama you have a family friendly adventure game with relatively simple rules and where the threat of death is relatively low.  I got what I paid for.

The game has enough complexity to keep an adult engaged, I wanted one where the threat of failure didn't automatically come from death, I'd rather from getting lost and being forced to turn back. And, unless you choose to play with a crimson Ryuu-Jin, this is also the case.

But the reputation that the fans of the game have created is not entirely accurate either.

Playing it with my family, I can say it is good, light-hearted fun. And easy to keep family friendly. If you are looking for a procedure for travel for your own game, or are interested in a resource management intensive system, this might be a great one to hack 

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