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Anime Conventions for RPGs

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PostPosted: Thu Sep 08, 2011 6:26 pm    Post subject: Anime Conventions for RPGs Reply with quote Add User to Ignore List


If you're reading this, you are probably someone who has watched at least a few anime and played in at least a few RPG sessions. This is an examination of how well one might integrate parts of Anime storytelling into tabletop RPGs and of which parts of anime storytelling might be problematic in a tabletop RPG. If you are the sort of person who doesn't want anything anime in your RPGs, this isn't for you, just stop reading now.

Before I begin, some definitions and disclaimers:

First off, Anime is a very broad term - it's a whole medium not just a style or genre. The term describes a wide variety of Movies and TV shows - but the salient fact is that they are usually episodic and serialized narratives. They tend towards various types of escapist adolescent power fantasies. As TV shows, they are a passive spectator pastime distributed to a wide audience- sometimes in the multimillions.

As you likely know, "roleplaying game" is an equally broad term - it's also a whole medium and not just a style or genre. The term describes a wide variety of activities that are a blend of improv acting and tactical miniatures wargaming. They are similar to anime in that they usually tend towards being escapist adolescent power fantasies. Yet they are an active form of entertainment requiring participation, and each RPG session only involves a very narrow audience - often as few as 3 or four players and rarely as many as 10.

So obviously in trying to incorporate anime elements into your RPGs, you are going to want to lean more towards the soap opera / improv acting side of the hobby. On inferior message boards, someone would say ROLEplaying, not ROLLplaying. But that crap does not fly here - that attitude that style is somehow separate from mechanics is a large part of why we have no really worthy anime RPGs and have to settle for roleplaying games that purport to be anime influenced, yet are full of mechanics that do nothing to encourage genre and style appropriate player and GM behaviour. (I'm looking at you BESM, Mekton and parts of Fuzion). As a nerd, those games piss me the hell off, so much so that (like a true nerd) I'm ranting on the internet about it right now.

Equally obviously, in trying to incorporate anime elements into your RPGs, you are going to want to consider the fundamental differences between the two media.

So with the boring deconstruction and disclaimers out of the way, let's get to some stuff I've noticed while watching things like Slayers, Guren Lagan, Katanagitari, and especially Fairy Tail:

Anime Conventions which are easy to implement in your games:

>Characters have taglines, nicknames and honorifics.
This is really easy to do, but requires that players get on the same page about it. During, or just after chargen, each of the PCs should end up with a name, at least one friendly nickname and one or more titles. PCs, NPCs and antagonists should use all of them as dramatically appropriate. People trying to hire the PCs will use the most formal honorific, old rivals will use the most childish nickname, and routed/surrendering enemies will have a moment of realization "so this is why the call him/her <<title here>>".

>Player character abilities are awesome to behold.
This is a flavor and NPC reaction thing, not always a strictly accurate description of an ability's combat effectiveness. Both onlookers and enemies will ohh and ahh when watching the PCs in combat REGARDLESS of how effective the PC abilities and tactics actually are. This is also really really easy for a GM to do. Just pick one of each PC's abilities or tactics and have someone remark on how amazing it is each fight. You might want to think about ad-hoccing some mechanics to give bonuses to impressiveness when characters demonstrate their abilities.

> Failure is an option. Getting knocked out means a character gets more spotlight time, not less.
This is a bit trickier, but it's really a key to a lot of anime flavour. In most RPGs, having your character get knocked out means that you will not be doing much of anything for at least the fight, if not the session. Maybe you get to play a someone else's sidekick, maybe you make the next beer run, or maybe you just go home. This sort of thing is okay for a spectator sport tournament, but it's really just bad design for any sort of small-group social game.
But something very different happens in a lot of anime. When a hero gets knocked out, they get to experience a flashback. This flashback is usually used either to establish backstory about their motivation for fighting against long odds or have them realize some hidden wisdom that will provide the key to defeating the villain.
You can and probably should do something similar in RPGs. You can either keep unconscious characters on the initiative track and play though flashback montages in the turn order where other PCs are hacking orcs and casting spells or you can go so far as to actually suspend the entire combat once one of the PCs goes down and switch entirely into the flashback (although that can invert the spotlight problem as you have to get creative to keep everyone whose character was not knocked out involved)

A word of caution here: this can only be implemented in systems where KAYOED is not the same as DEAD. 4th ed D&D, Champions and Feng Shui are great here. 1st-3.x Edition D&D, Rifts, Rolemaster and other systems where the distinction is very thin are not suited to this sort of thing without houseruling.

>Leveling up happens mid-battle, not between battles.
In anime, the heroes tend to be kids/teens unsure of themselves and fighting against older and seemingly more powerful opponents. Yet in a lot of anime, the heroes win in each every single episode, so how can the heroes always be underdogs and yet always win? Easy, Stan the Man figgered out this loophole in the Comics Code - the heroes just have to win in the end, but before that, they can totally lose, so long as they get back up for another round. When Stan started doing it is was just about persistence and building new gadgets, but in a bunch of anime, there tends to be the aforementioned flashback which solidifies a hero's motivation or helps the hero reach enlightenment an important understanding. And after such a flashback, the hero has a much easier time fighting the previously really difficult villain. In RPG terms, this means that PCs tend to level up (or otherwise receive mechanical power boosts) in the middle of difficult fights.

Now in games where characters level up by getting a couple +1s and a preselected ability, this is pretty trivial to implement - but in systems and for characters with complicated leveling-up math and choices (1st-3rd ed D&D spellcasters, Rolemaster, etc) is going to be a bit tricky and will require some way for the player(s) of the character(s) doing such leveling to have enough time to perform the required math and make the complicated choices without disrupting the flow and feel of the battle. The best options here are probably to: have players all pre-advance their next level; have battles carry over from one session to the next (good for cliffhangers, bad for having to leave a table with minis set up for a week) or to take a mid-session intermission for leveling (works if you break for food and such anyways, otherwise can be somewhat disruptive)

> Knowing something about your enemy's abilities provides a definite advantage.

A lot of anime draws on fictionalized martial arts, and so in a lot of anime, if you know about an enemy's style / magic / ninja tricks / etc you can predict and counter their movements / abilities / attacks. This is pretty easy to write houserule mechanics for, you can simply allow successful Knowledge-type skill rolls to give defensive bonuses or in systems like Champions you can build enemy powers which have reduced accuracy or effectiveness against characters familiar with the power / technique / move's weakness.

>"Now I'll show you my true power" / "Then I won't hold back anymore"

In a lot of anime, there are characters who are so badass that they have to go through most of the plot with only half their potential badassery. Only when the stakes are truly high and they can't win at halfway are they allowed to take the gloves off and go all out.
Implementing this in an RPG can be done a couple of different ways.

This can be done by a single player with a high degree of system mastery deciding to sandbag heavily most of the time just to emulate this trope - the good thing about this is that it doesn't require anyone else in the group to need to play along. The bad thing about this is that it does require a player to be playing a character who is both more powerful than other characters in the group and not using their abilities to the full potential - and well that's potentially unbalanced in terms of both PC spotlight and team monster winning because Mole was busy being a damned thespian.

Another option is to have PCs who have additional abilities and higher numbers which can only be accessed very rarely or under very limited circumstances. A lot of systems have mechanics which can be used for this sort of thing with just cosmetic reflavoring or a minor tweak here and there. Champions big point power limitations can be used to construct "once or twice a season" type powers, 4e's nova comboing multiple Dailies with daily items lets characters massively overperform their level once per day with a multi-round setup, things like SR4's Edge and group Edge mechanics can be used to generate scenes where the last PC standing takes on the enemy who put everyone else down and wins (since he has no reason to conserve any edge anymore)

And yet a third option ties into the next convention. But at least in the abstract, you could run a game where each session, a different character in turn had access to greater-than-normal abilities, because that character is the center of that session's adventure. There are a number of pitfalls with this approach, which I will get to in just a minute, but it's not completely unworkable.

Harder to implement stuff:

> Each PC gets a spotlight episode, in turn

This is a hugely common anime trope, and on the surface it looks really really good for RPGs too. The first session (or adventure) is establishing how the characters meet and what their overarching goal of the season / campaign is. The next 3-6 sessions (or adventures) are establishing the backgrounds and deeper motivations of all the characters, with each of these sessions centering on a different character . Then after that things get serious with the midseason boss, followed by a recap episode, a possible background episode for the defeated midboss to get Sesshimaru'ed and then things start moving towards completion of the overall season plot.

But then there's Murphy's law - in that whenever you as MC plan a session to spotlight a character, that character's player will inevitably have real-life commitments which preclude them from making that game session. You can plan around this a bit by having multiple character spotlight sessions ready to go and choosing the one that applies to whoever can actually make the game.

Furthermore the issue of player characters having free will and the possibilities of random results can generate sessions where the character who was intended to be the center character of the adventure is sidelined for much of it, so this rarely works as cleanly as it does in non-interactive fiction. You have to be able to roll with it when the assassin who killed Ken's sensei shows up to settle the score and instead of the mini-duel & taunt then chase then escape deathtrap then final confrontation between student and assassin atop notable landmark that you had planned you instead get the story where the assassin one-hit KO's Ken only to then be run down by Barbie's pink convertable.

> There is no distinction between a "roleplaying scene" and a "combat scene"

This is a big one, in anime big-deal dramatic reveals frequently happen amidst high-stakes combats and battles are won or lost due to an individual character's personality or code of honor.
This is also surprisingly hard to handle in most games, due to a number of factors. First, there is the mechanical complexity of the rules surrounding combat, which means that combat demands such attention that few players are able to focus on characterization and method acting while they have to worry about positioning, conditional to-hit bonuses and move selection. Second, there is the implicit assumption in many games that losing a combat isn't an option for the PCs. As I mentioned previously, many RPG systems have a very thin line between KO and death, and some systems have other quirks that make them relatively high-lethality (rolemaster crit charts). I think that even the most committed-to-the-dramatic thespian player would rather have any character they have become attached to act out-of-character to survive and then angst about it later than spend the rest of the session playing a corpse. If that's what they really wanted to do they could join a community theater and ask for a role as one of the victims in Arsenic in Old Lace instead of rolling dice in an attic. Third, even in games where losing is a viable option, having a character who chooses not to take an obvious advantage because of their psychology is going to anger the other PCs and often the players behind those PCs. Some few groups have enough maturity, trust and wanting-the-same thing-from-a-game that they can milk such things for enjoyable character drama, but those groups are the exception, it's far more common that PCs who place "acting in character" over "gaining advantages for the group" will be ostracized for being a diva instead of a team player.

So for this to work, you need a system where the combat rules are simple enough that players can multitask while using them, you need a system where lethality is low and losing fights is a viable and sometimes interesting choice, and you need a group that's willing to tolerate individuals performing actions for characterization reasons over tactical group advantage. Good luck getting all of those to converge.

>The tone of the material changes within a single scene.

Western narratives tend to segregate emotional tone by scene, in anime, it's pretty frequnet for a scene to jump between two or three wildly different emotional tones. Not only does drama happen mid combat in anime, but comedy happens mid tragedy and tragedy strikes amidst zany scenes. Romantic confessions are interrupted by lethal assassinations, and assassinations are interrupted by confessions of love by the would-be assassin.
In theory, this could be done in TTRPGs and it doesn't really need much houseruling. However in practice it runs into a few problems. Firstly, layer characters have free will, so you cannot accurately predict or control their actions to evoke a particular emotional state. Secondly the complexity of most games' combat rules again means that participants in the game have trouble multitasking combat with anything else or in rapidly shifting mental gears back and forth between combat and emotional response mode. Even if players can handle that, then the turn based nature of RPG narratives can comes into conflict with the character-and-situation based nature of non-interactive fiction and scenes where a character bids a lengthy farewell to a wounded comrade or engages in rehashing a petty rivalry with an ally mid fight easily end up wasting precious turns of combat time for a PC. Thirdly, as Mel Brooks observed, "Comedy is hard" timing and unexpected repetition get harder in an improvisational setting, and even hard when they have to be multitasked with iniative tracking and managing a group of antagonists.
So shifting tones inside scenes in TTRPGs works better with simpler combat rules or in noncombat scenes, but it's still gonna be difficult.

> Combat is most frequently one-on-one.

This is a big one, and at first blush seems anathema to the troupe/team nature of the PCs in many roleplaying campaigns, but in a number of animes it's a big deal, so it's worth thinking about how rare team-on-team fights are in anime and how comon they are in RPGs. Sure sometimes many-on-one fights and one-on-many fights are used to highlight a certain character's badassitude and show grim odds, but the salient point is that many-on-many fights just don't happen in a lot of anime series. When a fight starts out many-on-many it breaks up into smaller one-on-one fights. Characters will even have lines like "I'll handle this, you go save the villagers" "I'll leave him to you then", "This is something I must do myself", "I'll be your opponent" to justify the one-on-one fight.
This is actually really hard to implement in most RPGs, as due to their tactical miniatures wargaming roots, most RPGs assume that the PCs are a combat unit working towards the same objectives on the same map in each scenario. Thusly, for combats either a character is in the fight and on the initiative chart or they are not and get to go fetch beer. However this is not the only possible set of assumptions. You could set things up in a Tag-Team style where only one member of Team Hero is fighting Team Villain at any one time, but when someone gets into trouble, they swap out for the next member. The issue here is that when players' characters are not in the fight, the players are merely waiting to be tagged in - they are not truly participating. You could spice this up by going a bit more like an arcade-style Fighting Game, where again only one of the heroes is actively fighting at any given moment, but his buddies are there not merely to step in when he loses, but also to offer encouragement and advice and marvel when the hero wins with a cool combo. This requires a lot of tweaks to do in any system I have ever heard of, as characters now need not merely combat abilities, but adding interesting encouragement and advice abilities that can influence combat when they are not participating directly. The other option is to run fights as a Three-Ring Circus, where multiple sub-fights are happening simultaneously. Instead of a 4 on 4 fight on a single map, you have 4 different 1 on 1 fights occurring on 4 different smaller maps. This is fairly easy provided you have the table space, but it does have a few issues. First, the interactive nature of games makes it very likely that the 1 on 1 fights are going to take differing amounts of time to resolve - and then you have to choose between the unpleasant option of having players who are just waiting for other characters to finish fights and not participating again, or the equally distasteful option of letting the PCs who finish fights quickly join the remaining fights - thereby potentially upstaging the other PCs. The second issue with splitting things into 1-on-1 fights is that by reducing the number of variables in each fight, you will see more lopsided fights on both sides and there will be less chance for teamwork to compensate for mismatches.

Probably the best overall option is to implement a form of Three-Ring-Circus that then collapses to Arcade-Fighting-Game. Each PC fights a single enemy, and then the PCs who win early get to either fight the villains who win early or to use encouragement and advice abilities to help the PCs in the remaining fights and compensate for any mismatches favoring Team Monster.

>Players who can only be there infrequently get to play more powerful characters.

Racer X, the White Ranger and Tuxedo Mask are all important allies to the main characters in the series, and whenever they show up, they usually save the heroes from a powerful enemy or fiendish trap which the heroes could not handle without help. This lets the heroes get in over their heads, fail, take on foes they can't yet handle and otherwise actually be underdogs without outright losing, so it's a useful dramatic tool.

This sort of thing seems like it would be easy to implement in RPGs, but it's full of pitfalls. The most commonly seen pitfall is making the powerfully ally an NPC. Having the PCs saved by an NPC ruins the illusions of danger and even purpose in an RPG. We've all seen the deus-ex-machina uber NPC and we've all wondered why the hell our player character was even on the adventure that this NPC can solve so easily.
The powerful ally can and probably should be another PC, but the trope requires it to be someone who is not there all the time, and that leads to multiple conflicts with player scheduling as well as the established conventions of character advancement in RPGs - where either attendance is rewarded via session experience points or everyone is kept at similar levels/point totals.

Another possible way to implement this would be to have a shared "sixth member" PC amongst the group. When things got grim, a player whose character was already defeated could take over the role of the mysterious ally and come along to save the others.
Johnson - Hanks 2020

Last edited by Josh_Kablack on Sun Sep 11, 2011 2:20 am; edited 2 times in total
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PostPosted: Thu Sep 08, 2011 8:25 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote Add User to Ignore List

I'd stress that not only is most combat in anime one on one I'd go further and say that virtually all the consequential combat is one on one since as you pointed out anime often likes to dwell on the relationship between the characters even while Fist King and Kung Fu Jesus are beating the piss out of each other. That means that having "one hit and done" rules for unnamed combatants like in Feng Shui isn't necessarily a terrible idea as long as your rules are fast and you avoid the pitfall of acting like the minions are supposed to be credible threats to the PCs like D&D4E did. Mooks and swarms have a place in the games in that they can be used as plot devices to menace sidekicks or threaten villages or whatever but I'd strongly warn against treating the ability to sweep mooks off the table en masse as ever being a real niche on a team.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 09, 2011 2:57 am    Post subject: Reply with quote Add User to Ignore List

I'd suggest the mysterious ally problem be resolved by giving the group as a whole a certain, limited ability to call upon a powerful, mysterious ally who will bail them out of whatever situation they're in. So, for example, say the Sailor Scouts collectively have an ability called Summon Tuxedo Mask which starts with (-Note: originally I said three, but the more I think about it the more I'm not confident that any solid number should be given without thinking through the implications) charges and gains an additional charge once every few sessions, likely at least three so that the party doesn't become as dependent upon Tuxedo Mask as the actual Sailor Scouts were.

Also, possibly some rules about how Tuxedo Mask can use certain abilities only if he has X number of charges left (and possibly these abilities consume charges), so he's more powerful the less often you use him, and he grows weaker and weaker the more often he has to clean up your messes, which can eventually end with him being used up entirely and killed, permanently depowered, or otherwise left incapable of helping the party in the future, thus raising the stakes on the campaign.

In this situation, though, you're probably going to want to give your campaign a definite end point, as opposed to the "random, serialized stories until we get bored" format campaigns sometimes run on. And you might not want to have Tuxedo Mask regenerate charges at all, so that there's a sense of not wanting to use him up unless you don't have any other options.

EDIT: Also, yes, putties are not a credible threat to the Power Rangers and they should never be treated as anything more than a speed bump, distraction, the guys who take the town hostage while someone competent distracts the heroes, or something along those lines.

EDIT 2: Though it does occur to me that the putties were replaced with more better putties in every single season of Power Rangers up until they stopped using the same plotline, so having the mooks present at least enough of a threat that the heroes will notice when they're upgraded into more better mooks would be genre appropriate, even if having the mooks act as a credible threat to the heroes like orcs to a fantasy warrior isn't.

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PostPosted: Fri Sep 09, 2011 6:27 am    Post subject: Reply with quote Add User to Ignore List

Have you heard of Shinobigami? It's a japanese TRPG based around manga pacing.
There are mechanics based for the things you discuss such as figuring out the properties of attacks and so on.

You've made a solid guide, could also be used as a writing guide.
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PostPosted: Mon Apr 20, 2015 5:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote Add User to Ignore List

I dispute the extreme necessity of 1v1 only, final destination. One of the better fights in Fairy Tail that I've seen so far was the one where the two ice guys had to work together to beat the speedster.
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PostPosted: Sat Apr 25, 2015 6:44 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote Add User to Ignore List

I said one on one was "most frequent", and Fairy Tail will damn sure bear me out on that one. Yeah, there are plenty of cases where Natsu, Grey, Erza, Lucy and Wendy all have to work together against the boss of the arc, like Master Hades, or the Edolas king's Dragon Mech; and there are plenty of cases where "rivals" like Lucy and Juvia have to achieve a unison raid to beat Vidaldus; and there are even a notable number of cases of foes like the Vanish Brothers and the Jiggle Butt Gang, where bad guys work in groups to oppose a single PC. Those are many on one, or one on many fights, and they happen; albeit less frequently than 1 on 1 fights in that series.

But what happens only like 1% of Fairy Tail episodes is many on many combat that doesn't split into 1-on-1 subfights each taking the better part of an episode. Seriously, I can think of three examples in 200+ episodes I've seen. The first is where Fairy Tail and there allies take on Oracion Seis in a 12-on-6 battle and the good guys get their asses handed to them -- because the game system for Fairy Tail doesn't work that way. The second is a forgettable establishing intro where the main PCs are routing an unnamed bandit group at the start of an episode before the main plot of the episode comes along and the third was Natsu and Gajeel vs Sting and Rogue in the Grand Magic Games, where Natsu removes his own ally Gajeel from the fight halfway through - in what seems insanity to the audience, but is actually clever powergaming on the part of Natsu's player, since he knows what the system supports.

Conversely, pretty much every iteration of D&D ever and 90+% of RPGs derived from it have a primary rules focus on many-on-many combats. A group of 3-6 PCs is supposed to take on a patrol / camp / tribe / army of kobolds / orcs / ogres / giants this week and then fight the endboss spellcaster / dragon / demon (prince) / god and their minions in the final battle.

These are actually radically different paradigms, which bear thinking about if you want to adapt an anime feel into your tabletop games.
Johnson - Hanks 2020
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