Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Japan's Bizarre Adventures - PART I

 Let's start by addressing the 3600 ft., 18,000,000 ton, transforming city/starship/robot in the room; What is an Anime/Manga themed Role-Playing Game?

Simply put, it's a tabletop RPG game - be it a single adventure, a system, or a campaign - that has features inspired by Japanese Manga (Sequential Art - Comic Books) and/or Anime (Animated Cartoons on TV or in Film format).

This can range from the types of characters, technology, monsters, and such that appear in these mediums to stories made in the style of Japanese pop culture fiction. These stories often feature genre conventions and tropes quite different from those typically seen in the majority of similar productions in the West. 

So far so good, yes? Even if the above explanation is a tad academic, it's good to begin with a straightforward and concise understanding of what we're going to be talking about. The thing is, the information above is probably not anything you don't already know. The key question isn't 'What is an Anime/Manga game?' but 'How do you make a game feel Anime/Manga inspired or themed?'.

One of the first things to come to terms with is that Anime and Manga aren't really genres. They are a means of depicting a genre with stylistic elements specific to those mediums. Mobile Suit Gundam (the original anyway) is a Science Fiction War Story. Ranma 1/2 and Urusei Yatsura are Fantasy/Sci-Fi Romantic Action-Comedies. Record of the Lodoss War and Goblin Slayer are Western Fantasy. All of these are Anime/Manga however and share some elements tied to those particular means of telling stories. 

Japanese cultural components appear in many Anime and Manga stories and they can be both confusing to the Western viewer but also really helpful in enforcing the feel and atmosphere of the medium. At the same time, I am not going to go into all those details here. This post is directed at the broad strokes. At the same time, I am going to give alternatives to many of the assumed cliches.

The Heroes Are Young

The protagonists of most Anime/Manga stories are often pre-teens to teenagers, even if their age would - in the minds of most Westerners - make their role in the story seem illogical. For example, Ash Catchem (Satoshi in Japan) of Pokemon fame is only 10 years old when he begins a cross-country journey all by himself to catch Pokemon and become a championship trainer. The pilots of the EVA units in Neon Genesis Evangelion are all 14. 

The main reason for this is the same one that introduced teen sidekicks to Comic Book Superheroes in the West - the audience is generally comprised of kids who are in the age groups of the main characters and want to see themselves in the heroes and their universes. Simply put, a series with 12-15 year old protagonists is likely aimed at 12-15 years olds. 

Of course this is not always the case and indeed wasn't the case at all in the 'Silver Age' of Anime and Manga. Captain Harlock, The Dirty Pair, Lupin the III, and many other classic characters are very much young adults to full on grown-ups. Likewise, the base audience for Evangelion tracked much older, as many of the themes in that series would not be familiar to high school age children. 

When running an Anime/Manga game based on the current style of the medium, assume your PCs will be between 8-14 unless the setting calls for them to be older. It's not unlike Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood in that regard. 

The Setting Dictates the Specifics

Related to and expanding the aforementioned particulars of age, there is often but not always a setting reason why the characters are kids. Perhaps children has an imagination and psychic resonance we lose as we group up. Maybe they are the only one's presently conscious when a giant alien monster attacks and the experimental mecha tuned themselves to the teens when they give into them; unfortunately for everyone involved they won't work for anyone else now. Why are the kids in My Hero Academia so young? Why are the Harry Potter characters so young? Dude, it's a story about people in middle and high school!

Also of note regarding the mandates of setting is the autonomy of the PCs and whether or not they are treated like normal young people of their age. The characters of My Hero Academia are in high school, have to attend classes and school events, and can't use their powers to fight crime yet unless it is approved by senior, pro-heroes. On the other hand, Ash, Misty, and Brock (Satoshi, Kasumi, and Takeshi) can wander the Sinnoh Region, a land roughly the size of the Japanese island of Hokkaido (which it is patterned after) completely unsupervised, going where ever they want and doing whatever they wish.*

GMs should consider what their campaign world deems 'normal' and convey that to the players. Again, and I can't stress this enough, not what Our Real World deems normal but what is standard practice for the setting. 

It's Not About The Giant Robot

Unless of course it is...but more on that later. 

The main thing to remember about Japanese pop culture entertainment is that mixed into the Giant Robot battles, Magical Girls fighting an ancient darkness, and Demon Slaying Samurai is that it is all the backdrop for the real story; Anime and Manga tell tales of friendship, romance, determination, duty, the futility of war, environmental themes, and other emotional and philosophical concepts closed connected to not only Japanese culture but the Human condition.

There is a reason Japanese Anime and Manga, a thing wholly and strongly tied to a particular place and people, has become beloved by fans the world over. Almost regardless of who you are and where you're from you are bound to understand the ideals being fought for by the heroes of this medium. We all love, we all get jealous that he like her more than us, we all want to fight injustice and protect those we care about, and we all love cute creatures that can zap our enemies with lightning bolts. OK, for some that last one is stronger than it is for others. 

The point is, your Anime/Manga campaign has Giant Robots or it has four and a half foot tall, teenage elf girls with six foot long swords. It isn't about those things. It's about people. It's about the characters, their belief, desires, goals and their situations. The rest of the tropes are there to make it 'look' cool in your head. 

More to come...

Barking Alien


  1. This is a pretty good intro, but not all anime is aimed at youngsters. Westerners are (perhaps) more familiar with the youthful stuff, because that is what gets translated (or dubbed) and marketed to American kids. After all, “cartoons are just for kids,” right?

    Not having a major market in the west for “adult” manga/anime (note: I’m not saying ‘no market,’ but it’s small) means less money for converting stuff with more mature themes. Thus, we see lots of Robotech or Sailor Moon type stuff (edited or not), and less Ghost in the Shell (which has themes and protagonists that are NOT youngsters).

    But that’s my main quibble with the post...I would not want to play an anime-based game featuring kids/adolescents (even though I may enjoy watching the genre). And I say that as an R.Talsorian fan.
    ; )

    1. Not all American sitcoms are aimed at adults. There's iCarly, Hanna Montana, etc. Most are though. The default format of the sitcom is a prime time television show featuring good-looking, young adults.

      As I noted above, it isn't always the case that the main characters are young but it tends to the trend for the more popular, ongoing series. As pointed out, in the late 70's and early 80's this wasn't necessarily the case. The Dirty Pair, the pilots of Mobile Suit Gundam and later Zeta Gundam, and the trio of female art thieves in Cat's Eye were young but absolutely adults. Go a little further back and you see Captain Harlock and the crew of the Space Battleship Yamato (Starblazers in the USA), who are clearly a bit older.

      Not wanting to play kids is certainly not a deal breaker but it does limit your ability to emulate some of the more popular series - Anohana, My Hero Academia, The Promised Neverland - and classics like Pokemon, early Dragonball and practically all of the Studio Ghibli films (save Porco Rosso I think).

      It would be the same as running or playing Tales from the Loop (or any 'Stranger Things' type of game), Harry Potter/Hogwarts, a 'Teen Titans' Superhero game or something along these lines. The focus of these is one the kids. All I am saying is that in Japan this idea is bigger than it is in the states and elsewhere.

      Curiously, Fullmetal Alchemist is a world of adult characters with the exception of the two primary protagonist who are quite young.

    2. "Not wanting to play kids is certainly not a deal breaker but it does limit your ability to emulate some of the more popular series..."

      This probably explains my lack of interest in playing anime-influenced games, like Mekton or BESM.

      In high school I tried to interest my gaming group in playing Teenagers from Outer Space. Their collective response was something like "Why the hell would we want to play teenagers when we're already in high school?" Since leaving high school I can say I've had no interest in TfOS.

      Likewise, I'm not terribly interested in Tales from the Loop, Hogwarts, or Teen Titans. I like the Stranger Things series...for a number of reasons...but I'm not interested in playing a teenage anything.

      That being said, I'd be interested in RUNNING some sort of Nancy Drew/Scooby-Doo mash-up using something like Bubblegumshoe, Kids on Bikes (which I own), or a Call of Cthulhu rework. In fact, I have some ideas for that last one on the ol' design board, but it's back-burnered at the moment.

    3. It's probably not surprising that you and I have very different interests and experiences.

      When I was in high school - The High School of Art and Design - everyone was into Anime or 'Japanimation' as it was known back then. Most had just discovered it with the airing of Robo...ugh...the R-Word in the US, while some of us were already watching it in either straight Japanese or subtitled and knew it was actually Macross.

      As today, we wanted our games to nail the key elements of the genre/setting we were emulating. If we wanted our campaign to resemble Urusei Yatsura/Lum (the main inspiration for Teenagers from Outer Space) then, like the characters in that series, we would have high school age PCs. If we were running a Sci-Fi Mecha War Story like Mobile Suit Gundam or Armored Trooper Votoms we would make characters age appropriate for joining the military; just as it is on those shows.

      I am currently in a Hogwarts/Wizarding World campaign now in its fourth or fifth year of real time with characters who are in their fifth year at Hogwarts. At the same time, I was recently in a Star Trek Adventures game where we were adults because that's appropriate to the bridge crew of a Starfleet vessel.

      The only thing I don't want to be is a D&D character, of any age, going through yet another indistinguishable dungeon crawl.'s a field trip for our School for Dungeon Adventurers. Oh! And we can summon small, cute versions of D&D monsters to attack the monsters in the dungeon! Now that I could get behind.

      "Rust Monster - I choose you!" lol

    4. Huh...that’s interesting. I went to a trad (well, Jesuit) high school and was first introduced to “R” and the concept of manga/anime there (although I had watched “Star Blazers” as an early elementary school kid, I never grasped it was a “thing”). It was the new gamers I met who were interested in that stuff, and they played a lot of Palladium’s Robotech, but they seemed to have no interest in “genre imitation.” Instead, they just wanted to be robot pilots fighting aliens (and I already had BattleTech).

      But while I studied the Japanese language for three years, and even spent several weeks in Japan, I never really acquired a deep love for the anime. I enjoyed and appreciated it, and gained a broader knowledge and understanding of it, but (these days) I simply see it as another way of telling stories.

      Which is cool, but that’s not my reason for playing RPGs these days (“telling stories”). I’m not sure if it ever really was, though I’ve enjoyed games like Fiasco in the past. These days, for me, it’s all about “experiential play,” and I guess I have no interest in experiencing my life as an anime character.
      ; )

    5. Given that your own blog largely covers the most well-established, tried and true game there is, I'm curious then...what are you considering 'experimental'?

  2. Great post! I've never been much into Anime/Manga and it is fun to learn the tropes and the reasons behind them. I often (though I haven't seen enough examples to be considered an "often") find they have great concepts and somewhat inconsistent worldbuilding and tone. For example:
    - Going from slapstick comedy to melodrama and back in the same scene.
    - Having a pig head is perfectly normal, but having a monkey tail is weird.
    - Naming your mascot "Mascot" is common practice. Every cat out there is "Cat".
    - Suicidal/homicidal competitiveness is healthy for teens and shows good character.

    That said, I'm watching (and enjoying!) My Hero Academia at the same time I'm reading Mutants and Masterminds' Hero High, so I definitively like the "teen heroes" concept.

    1. Much of this ties back to cultural differences and the norms of one country or people compared to another. What we might see as inconsistent in tone likely occurs because we are viewing it from our perspective - this part is serious and then all of a sudden there is over-the-top slapstick comedy. Meanwhile a Japanese viewer is seeing one thing, a Japanese style approach to storytelling. There is nothing weird about it to them because that's just the way their tales are told.

      Regarding My Hero Academia and the 'Hero High' idea, watch for an upcoming 'Campaigns I Have Known' that I am particularly proud of.

      Thanks for coming by Miguel!