Friday, December 29, 2023

Japanese TTRPGs for Beginners

Deedlit is one of the original 
Record of Lodoss War PCs, &
an icon in Japanese pop culture
 About a year ago, I did a deep dive into the history of Japanese tabletop role-playing games ("table talk games") out of curiosity.  I shared what I knew, and what I learned, on a Twitter conversation, but my attempt to turn it into a post for W2tDT fell by the wayside when I fell ill. I am finally putting down what I know for those interested.

TTRPGs are a hobby that has had a small, dedicated fan base since the 1980s that has been intimately paired with their video gaming culture.  The two have had feedback loop that has given them something of a unique flavor.

Comptiq, Group S.N.E., and Forcelia

In the early 1980s Comptiq (a portmanteau of "computer-boutique") was Japan's up-and-coming PC magazine. While they started off with a focus on hardware and applications,  their audience quickly steered them more towards computer entertainment.

P.C. video games at the time included a lot of attempts to simulate D&D and Traveller. Series like Wizardry and Elite. A small portion of the PC gaming community took an interest in the pen-and-paper antecedents to popular gaming series, and became the first market for Japanese translations of Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons and Traveler. A fair chunk of Comptiq's reader base took at least an academic interest in TTRPGs, and Comptiq became a hub for discussing them. With the pace of life being what it was in Japan in the 1980s, however, finding a group and he time to play was a pretty big ask. 

Record of Lodoss War

In 1986, one of Comptiq's PC gaming correspondents, Hitoshi Yashuda, persuaded Comptiq to help him put together a gaming group and publish a series of articles about the experience of learning and playing B/X D&D.

Yashuda's eight-part series detailed some new and some experienced players starting off in a fresh, home-brewed setting, the Island of Lodoss, where an aggressive nation that worships the Gods of Chaos, Mormo, is slowly conquering the petty kingdoms across the Island. A Lawful kingdom, Valis, is the last bastion of Law before Mormo's momentum will become unstoppable. The series was entitled Record of Lodoss War.

The series was a mix of personal journaling, explanation of the game's mechanics, a written record of the players playing the game (complete with the GM's colorful muttering and one of the player's out-of-control metagaming.) It has some very relatable moments, like the GM discovering, to his dismay, that one of the players has the same book of riddles at home he was using for adventure planning. 

In the latest issue of The Glatisant, Ben Milton linked a fan translation of the original articles here. It is a fun read.

The response to Record of Lodoss War was huge, with fans of the series writing in with questions, fan art (especially of the one female PC, Deedlit), and demands for more. Comptiq ran several more series by Yashuda covering the campaign as the PCs get entangled with The Wise, a group of neutrally aligned magic-users manipulating the wars on Lodoss to ensure a Gygaxian balance between Law and Chaos, as well as their attempts to prevent a Demon Lord from being freed to wreak havoc on the Island as it had done centuries earlier.

The gaming group and some of the Comptiq staff saw an opportunity to turn the runaway success of Record of Lodoss War into a commercial enterprise, and formed a company called Group S.N.E. headed by Hitoshi Yashuda. (The name is a reference to the BASIC programming language.) They wet their toes in the Japanese gaming market by publishing a TTRPG based on the Wizardry video game series, which was D&D inspired, but mechanically different (my brother worked on Wizardry VIII). Which they advertised heavily to both Wizardry and Lodoss War fans through Comptiq

When Wizardry proved that Japanese TTRPGs  had a potential market, they quickly positioned themselves as a leader in it by releasing a fantasy role-playing game that was a hybrid of B/X D&D, RuneQuest, and Middle Earth Fantasy Role-playing.  This game, Sword World, was set in the same fantasy world they had created, Forcelia. A simplified version of Sword World designed mostly for fans of the original Comptiq series (complete with D&D-to-Sword World conversions of older material) entitled Record of Lodoss War Companion. I have a copy of a fan translation of the latter, but for the life of me, I cannot remember where I got it.

Cultural Impact

Meanwhile, the Record of Lodoss War cultural phenomenon exploded: there were novelizations (mostly by Record of Lodoss War player Ryo Mizuno,) Manga, and an anime series released in the early 90s that retold the story with more character development and lore added in. I certainly remember my local fansub (and Marijuana) dealer having a wait list to get copies of the Record of Lodoss War anime out to fans. You can only produce things do fast with two VCRs and some home electronics out of the Anarchist's Cookbook, I guess...

By the mid-90s Group S.N.E. produced several more play journals (called "replays") for Comptiq which expanded the Forcelia setting, and also evolved into several more series of Manga and anime, including Lodoss, Legend of Crystania, Crystania: Chaos Ring, Gestalt, Isle of G, and Rune Soldier. Forcelia remains one of the most detailed and media-rich gaming settings in the world, rivaling The Forgotten Realms, Talisanta, and The Sixth World for complexity.

The original Record of Lodoss War articles also helped inspire game developer Hironobu Sakaguchi to create a D&D-inspired computer RPG: Final Fantasy (so named because it was going to be his Final attempt at getting into the video game market before quitting and getting a job in accounting... and it was a Fantasy game.) The success of Final Fantasy  ultimately led to sequels that radically changed both the Fantasy genre overall and especially how role-players structured campaigns in both Japan and the West. I would go so far as argue that Storygames in part evolved from the influence of Final Fantasy in gaming culture.

Replays on blogs and in magazines in the format of Record of Lodoss War have remained a popular form of entertainment in Japan. There are many fans who do not have the time or opportunity to play TTRPGs, but enjoy vicarious play through reports. These provided a template for the TTRPG actual play and podcast media that have recently become popular in the West.

For purposes of this article, I am going to focus mainly on the ones that have had a major impact on gaming culture in Japan or seen success outside of Japan. I will miss quite a few. There is a pretty exhaustive list of titles on Reddit that give you a pretty clear picture of the scope of the hobby over there.

Forcelia's Evolution and Raxia

The Forcelia setting continued to evolve as Group S.N.E continued to play and turn their campaigns into a multimedia empire. By accounts of the group's interior gaming culture, they have injected a lot of Free Kriegspiel Revolution principles into their own gaming, being less interested in "playing the Game" (focusing on mechanics) and more interested in "playing the World" (making logical choices based on established facts about the setting.) The third Forcelia game The Crystania Companion, has been described to me as a much lighter and narrative focused iteration of Sword World.

In 2008 Group S.N.E released a second edition of Sword World, Sword World 2.0 set in a different world called Raxia, with an update in 2018 released as Sword World 2.5. Raxia has had numerous actual plays, novelizations, light novels, and a Nintendo game set in it. It had not reached quite the level of influence as Forcelia

Major Localization House

Group S.N.E has become a media empire that has produced a mountain of Forcelia media, but also branched out into translating Western TTRPGs for a Japanese audience, including the Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia, Shadowrun 2e, Advanced Fighting Fantasy, Mechwarrior,  GURPS, Tunnels & Trolls, Earthdawn, and Warhammer Fantasy RPG.

They developed a significant number of their own GURPS resources and settings om contract with Steve Jackson Games.

They have also produced a number of licensed TTRPGs such as a Dark Souls RPG.

Other Group S.N.E Games

I can't speak to other Group S.N.E games, but they have a range of titles listed on their home page, and more mentioned on their Wikipedia page. The only one I have see  in person is Ouka Housin RPG, which is set in mythic China. They tend to favor light, d6-based systems.

Group S.N.E remains the largest publishing house of TTRPGs in Japan, and as of this date Hitoshi Yashuda remains its C.E.O.

Takuda Hobbies / F.E.A.R.

Takuda Hobbies was an imprint for an independent design group who later published under the corporation Far East Aumsement Research co., or F.E.A.R.. Their first game, Blue Forest Story drew heavily on the cultures and mythologies of Thailand, Polynesia, and Indonesia to create a unique fantasy world. While Group S.N.E was primarily interested in  sharing an authentic experience of Western TTRPGs,  F.E.A.R. was more interested in putting a uniquely pan-Asisn twist on their games.

F.E.A.R.'s early games showed a lot of influence from the works of William Gibson and Bruce Stirling. F.E.A.R.'s 1991 Gear Antique was one of the first Steampunk games, and showed far more influence from Traveller and Warhammer Fantasy RPG than Dungeons & Dragons. While it was set in an alternate history Europe,  it included many flourishes of Art and Aesthetics from Japanese culture. 

The most seminal games of F.E.A.R.'s early work was Tokyo NOVA, a game that set out to turn cyberpunk on its head the same way Manga artist / writer Shirow Masamune did: by taking a genre that was driven by thd fear that Japan's culture and tech industry would turn them into a nation of global élites, and instead turned it into a story about the dehumanizing aspects of Japanese corporate culture, and the fear that becoming a global economic power would crush the Japanese soul.

Tokyo NOVA is a playing card based system that has been expanded over various editions to be able to handle gritty crime stories and urban fantasy. It saw a fair amount of international attention, at least if you were nerdy and living on the West Coast.

The engine was also used to create a Weird West game called Terra the Gun Slinger, which has a playful way of looking at the connection between post-1976s Western Fiction and 1950s Samurai films. Characters can play bounty hunters, gunslingers, "steam mages", automata, saloon girls, or lawmen facing off against Demonic entities call The Dark. It was definitely part of F.E.A.R.'s push to create something unique rather than emulate Western titles.

The early days of F.E.A.R. were characterized with innovation and adding a unique spin to games that put them in a very different category than Group S.N.E. and their goal of creating an authentic Western TTRPG experience. 

The SRS and Movement to Licensed Products

In the early 2000s, F.E.A.R. developed an engine called the SRS - Standard Role-playing System. They used this engine to produce dozens of role-playing games with variations on Fantasy and Science Fiction. Many of which are built on popular fantasy Manga and anime. These days, if a setting has a lot of fans who might be interested in a Companiom TTRPG , there's a good chance F.E.A.R. produces a TTRPG of it.

To fully understand the story of the SRS, and F.E.A.R.'s most important works, however,  it first is important to understand a time period for the Japanese TTRPG scene called The Age of Winter.

The Age of Winter

The emergence collectible card games like Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon TCG had a cooling effect on the TTRPG market in North America,  but it was absolutely glacial in Japan. By 1993, most magazines devoted to RPGs pivoted to covering card games, 3rd generation console games, and waifu culture. TTRPGs plummeted in from the public discourse.

F.E.A.R., the Springtime, and Star Line

The TTRPG scene in Japan was frequently declared dead in the early days of the Internet, aside from a few groups that mostly played Western imports from Group S.N.E. In 1999, F.E.A.R. released the first in a series of games using what would evolve into their SRS system Blade of the Arcana, inspired by the dark take on the 100 Years War expressed in the Final Fantasy Tactics series. Followed quickly by Double Cross! (dark superhero anime inspired), Night Wizard! (a stylish dark urban fantasy), Alshard (a Final Fantasy inspired game), and Arianhrod (inspired by .hack and Ragnarock Online.)

These new TTRPGs rode high on the popular trends in 3rd generation console RPGs, dark urban fantasy, and the latest trends in anime to create new interest in TTRPGs. These new TTRPGs sold well  and brought replays back to magazines. Night Wizard!'s dark, quirky setting in particular led to the production of incredibly popular novels, Manga, and anime, bringing it on par with three popularity of Record of Lodoss War.

F.E.A.R. managed to make role-playing games part of the way fantasy Fandom celebrate their favorite series. Most successful fantasy anime series now have a companion TTRPG, with the majority created by F.E.A.R. 

Looking for a Japanese Formula 

One of the curious tensions that evolved out of the explosion of F.E.A.R. games based on anime and console RPGs like Final Fantasy was a feeling that these TTRPGs were often derivative of Dungeons & Dragons and American scifi and action films more than from something uniquely Japanese... and that they relied far too heavily on violence. This mirrored much of the early experimental phase of F.E.A.R. when they were trying to create something more definitively Japanese. 

Star Line publishing, the brainchild of Ryo Kamiya, was one bid to create games that were non-violent and connected to Japanese aesthetics. His first offering, Maid RPG (2004) was designed to try to capture the complex dance of Japanese romance media (much like the dating simulator style of game.)

Maid was a hit in Japan, but attained a level of ignominy in the West where it was taken for a weird game of sexual kink, and often parodied on sites like 1d4chan in the same space as FATAL. It served as a good jumping-off place for a movement to create a sort of "decolonized" TTRPG that felt more specific to the culture from which it came.

Star Line was more successful with  Ryo Kamiya's game Golden Sky Stories, which us a fine example of parallel evolution to the storygame movement that had emerged. In golden stories, players take the role of hengeyokai, shape-shifting spirits who are kind-hearted, and use their magical abilities and wits to help people in distress with everyday problems. It is meant to generate heartwarming non-violent scenarios.

I can't quite think of a Western touchstone to use as an example except perhaps the original Care Bears.

This style of story is essentially meant to be a cozy experience with friends, more than the high-tension experience that Dungeons & Dragons was intended to be.

TTRPG-Inspired Fiction

The resurgence of interest in TTRPGs and return of Replays in Japanese pop culture has also led to several popular media franchises that draw inspiration from older TTRPGs in a very postmodern, metacognitive way.

Goblin Slayer (2016), for example, is set in a world that is very clearly meant to be a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and makes sly references to old AD&D game mechanics, 5e vs. OSR culture, and an offbeat sub-plot that is a tip of the hat to Record of Lodoss War.  Likewise, we see series like Is It Wrong to Pick Up  Girls You Met in a Dungeon? Chaos Dragon, The Wrong Way to Use Healing Magic, etc., that are self-referential send-ups of role-playing games and their tropes. (Evil Overlord and Sword Art Online do the same for MMORPGs)

Many of these in turn spawn their own TTRPGs. A role-playing game based on Goblin Slayer is possibly as far down the postmodern rabbit-hole it is possible to go.

Kotodama Heavy Industries and Global Markets

Online marketplaces have made it much easier for TTRPGs to make it outside of Japan. One success story in particular is Kotodama Heavy Industries.  Kotodama Heavy Industries definitely leans into the search for the distinctly Japanese TTRPG. Their first major offering, Ryuutama, is designed to evoke a distinctly Japanese style of fantasy they call "Natural Fantasy."

In Natural Fantasy, the heroes are on a journey of discovery in a beautiful and vivid world full of strange vistas. Along the way they make allies with natural spirits and forces of nature that help them overcome the obstacles in their path. As the journey continues they discover some force that corrupts the land or the cycle of life and death, and set out to heal it. Some good examples in popular media might be the Studio Ghibli films Spirited Away, Nausicaa, and My Neighbor Totoro, the video games Secret of Mana and Legend of Mana, or most of the early Pokémon series.

Ryuutama has battle mechanics inspired heavily by Final Fantasy, but usually against cutesy cartoon monsters as incidental to a goal that is usually related to travel. Combat is not even remotely a focus: wonderment is the goal of the game. The GM in Ryuutama also plays a benevolent chronicler spirit that can use its life force to aid the PCs, creating a benevolent setting that feels in some ways the philosophical antipode to D&D

Kotodama has followed Ryuutama with Tenra Bansho Zero (which I have been dipping into for quite sometime). TBZ's author, Junichi Inoue, describes it as a hyper-Asian TTRPG, in that it is built heavily on Shintoism, Samurai stories, and Battlemechs in what best be described as a hyperactive Japonified RIFTS. Player Characters are warriors, sorcerers, courtesans, or assassins on a war-torn colonized planet where the Shinto Priesthood that rules over the continent keep the various neo-feudal states locked in a high-tech forever war to satisfy their own internal schism.

Tenra Bansho Zero is a work of art, often literally,  with much of the setting book written in Manga form, and thd game dripping with references to Noh and Kubuki Theatre. It mashes as many of the tropes of scu-fi and fantasy, Anime, Manga, Samurai Film, Japanese Theatre, and folklore as it can manage into a single game.

Both Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero are Mithral Bestsellers on DTRPG, and both were lovingly localized by fans, making it much easier for Kotodama Heavy Industries to reach a global audience 8n a way that previous Japanese titles never could. And I expect has made competing in the fairly tight Japanese market less important. 

I have a suspicion that the very nature of these two games as being distinctly Japanese in tone and design (in radically different ways) has actually helped their success internationally where the Japanese market itself is full of products geared at specific pop culture Fandom, but I don't have the numbers to back that up.

The third title in their set, Shinobigami: Modern Ninja Battle RPG is a dark and game about a hidden war between ninja clans in the streets of modern urban japan, and has reached Gold Bestseller status pretty quickly. 


  1. Angry Video Game Nerd recently did a review of SNES Final Fantasy III (VI in Japan). He absolutely loved this groundbreaking game.

    Here in the USA we have the illustrated magazine Knights of the Dinner Table (published by KenzerCo.). It's been telling the tales of a group of RPG players since the mid 1990's. It recently passed issue 300. It has a spin-off RPG of its own: Hackmaster.

    1. I was a big fan of FFVI. I've started it about 8 times, but given that it is about a 60-hour commitment, I've only finished it twice. It is, to me, the peak of the series... although FF Tactics is a close second.

      You know, I grabbed a copy of Hackmaster for review, and remembered it's origin, but I don't think I got past the tenth strip of KotDT, or the 5th page of Hackmaster. Are you a fan? I would be happy to take another look.

      I used to be really into welcomics, but my favorites always seem to die off within a year or so of me starting to read them, or jump the shark completely.

    2. I love KoDT. It's more or less a comedic soap opera of dysfunctional RPG fandom. There are some epic story lines, like the Bag Wars saga, which showed the true nature and power of a grand bag of holding, that have been compiled into their own books. It also has the War of the Swords that split the party and brought in dozens of players from several tables, and even the game designer himself. It showed how intelligent swords should really be played.

      I read KoDT instead of actually playing, most of the time. Friends live an hour or more away, and have time commitments. The kids are finally out of the house, but we're not young any more.

      Hackmaster (the current version, not the D&D parody version) is too heavy for my current tastes, although I do admire what they've done with it. Combat rounds are seconds, weapon speed and casting time matters, and different classes roll different sized dice for delays between actions (initiative).