Thursday, July 18, 2013

Direct To Video

For many years here in the West, a film or program that went 'Direct to Video' was viewed as something of low budget and poor quality. Very often these were 'B Movies', insufficient in technical or artistic expertise to consider being released in theatres.

In Japan, Original Video Animation, or OVAs as they are commonly known, are made for video (originally VHS but now DVD and Blu-Ray) productions that are akin to a long episode or a short film. Often, each release is part of a series and forms a complete story arc at the end.

The benefit of OVA productions is that, while they do not have the budget of a feature film, they often have the budget of a 12 to 24 episode TV show, spent on a smaller number of slightly longer episodes. The end result is that OVAs are usually of high quality, quite the opposite of the stigma of their American counterparts.

A number of very popular animated series got their start as OVAs. Another benefit of the OVA for the Japanese animation companies is that they can create a short series, say, 6 half hour or 3 forty-five minute episodes, and see how the customers respond. If the series is popular it may prompt the company to make another, longer series, a film (less common) or a TV series (quite common).

Among the most popular and famous OVAs are Bubblegum Crisis, Mobile Suit Gundam: 0083 Stardust Memory, Tenchi Muyo, Record of The Lodoss War (a must for any Dungeons and Dragons fan but more on that in another post) and the amazing Otaku No Video.

What does this brief lesson about the Japanese animation industry have to do with gaming? Well, I could actually go in a dozen different directions with it but the truth of the matter is I am continuing my discussion of Anime/Manga themed RPGs created in the West. So, without further ado...

The Original Edition (front cover) mounted on the back cover of the upcoming New Edition (proposed front cover).
(Thanks to a little photoshopping by me).

OVA, originally subtitled 'Original Versatile Anime' Role Playing Game (a pun of sorts on the definition of OVA I gave above), was published in 2006 and written by a fellow named Clay Gardner, a nice chap who I have heard speak on a number of podcasts.

While Big Eyes, Small Mouth grabbed the Anime/Manga gamers attention and held it tightly for sometime, I always felt this game was actually closer to being what BESM wanted to be. It was simple, flexible and while there was a little crunch, it was easy crunch. Compare biting down on a mouthful of Jolly Ranchers to a mouthful of Life Cereal. Both are crunchy, but the experience is very different. OVA is like Life (how's that for a sales pitch)*.

Character creation is fairly easy and freeform, with a good deal of what you can and can't choose dependant upon the setting your group has decided to use for your game. Like BESM, OVA is a not-quite-generic generic system and can be used for anything and everything you might come across while perusing the Anime shelf at your local DVD rental shop for on Netflix. Basically, a conversation with your GM is probably the single most important part of forming your character.

During character creation, the idea is to end up with a Zero sum of bonuses and penalties after determining the type of character you want to play that fits in with the campaign. This is sometimes called 'Zeroing' (at least I remember hearing that term for this and similar systems). When deciding what special abilities and weaknesses a...let's say...'Jungle Cat Clan Ninja' has, you might have an advantage ability like Agile +1, Arrogant, a -1 drawback/weakness, Fear of Fire at -2 and Quick +2. The end result of the pluses and minuses is zero.

The basic mechanic of the game is also relatively simple. You start with a basic roll of 2d6, higher numbers are better. Abilities add dice, weaknesses subtract dice. The end result is a dice pool. When multiple dice come up with the same number (doubles, triples, whatever) they are added together. The exception to this rule are 1s, which are not added together.

So for example, let's say Jungle Cat Clan Ninja Nekuko throws her 'Cat Claw Strike' at a member of the rival Dark Cloud Sky Ninja Clan. Nekuko's player rolls 2d6, adds her Quick +2 for two extra dice and another die for her special attack (she has Cat Claw Strike +1 on her sheet). The pool consists of a total of 5 dice. If she rolls 2,3,4,5 and 5, then the player got a 10 (5+5). That roll is then matched against a difficulty or another player (or NPC's) roll. Highest roll wins.

I owned the original edition of this game and, although I don't believe I ever ran or played it, I do remember creating a character or two. The Kickstarter for a new edition ended on June 17th, having surpassed its goal and reaching all nine of its stretch goals! Wow. Pretty impressive.

The new edition might be a tad crunchier in combat than I recall or I may not be remembering all the rules from the original 100% perfectly. I may have to give the new edition a look see.

Barking Alien

*Back in the mid-90s there was a commercial on Japanese television for a video game console which consistently had my friends and I laughing our heads off. I wish I could remember the name of the product.

It would usually begin with a normal Japanese male doing something like fishing on a boat, playing baseball or jogging in the park. Then he would either pull out or suddenly be handed (by an unknown, unseen person located somewhere off camera) a controller and look up to see a TV screen with the game playing on it, regardless of where he was (so it would appear in the boat, on the ground of the baseball field or on a bench in the park).

Some hazard or  minor tragedy would befall this young man's onscreen avatar, the game character, and than the camera would show it having actually happened to him. The best was the fishing one IMHO, in which the fish pulls him off the boat and into the water. The fellow then climbs back into the boat and shouts the game's catchphrase while holding a cartridge:

"It's Like Life!"

How in the name of Mt. Fuji is it 'like life'? Never in my life have I been yanked off a boat while fishing, hit by a pitch to the point of being knocked unconscious or jogged right into a lamppost. It's like a cartoon my friends. No, "It's Like Life!"

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