Saturday, May 15, 2021

Mountains of Madness

Continuing with my discussion of Horror in Japanese Pop Culture, we move on to...wait. Did you just hear that? What was that? It sounded like...hmmm...probably just the wind.

Anyway, I'd like to discuss Horror Tabletop Gaming and its gripping hold on the Japanese market. 

While the popularity of Tabletop RPGs has increased considerably in Japan over the last decade and especially in the the past two to three years, it is still a very small industry. It is considerably smaller than the relatively small market it is in the USA. 

Here in the States, Dungeons and Dragons and Pathfinder have the lion's share of players/consumers, with the next closest game(s) pretty far behind. In Japan, Call of Cthulhu is currently the most popular tabletalk (more on that below) RPG. Yes, that Call of Cthulhu; the one created by Sandy Petersen and company and originally published by Chaosium Inc. in 1981. 

The Japanese translated Call of Cthulhu RPG - specifically the game's 3rd Edition - landed in Japan in 1986, at first published by Hobby Japan and later taken over by Kadokawa, one of the largest publishing companies in Japan. It is largely developed for Kadokawa by Arclight, known for putting out TRPG, Card Games, Board Games, and Role & Roll Magazine (a monthly physical magazine dedicated to Role Playing Games and card and my personal favorite such Japanese periodical).

This poster was made for a Call of Cthulhu 'live play'
video which featured Anime Voice Actors playing
the RPG in order to promote the game. 

Call of Cthulhu and the Cthulhu Mythos caught the cultural imagination of the Japanese due largely to the Horror elements that appeal to them throughout the genre - body horror, loss of individuality and sense of self, the 'cosmic' / Science Fiction origins of the often kaiju-sized monsters - these things are all central to Call of Cthulhu.

Additionally, the Basic Role-Playing Game created by Greg Stafford and Lynn Willis and used for Call of Cthulhu turned out to be very well received by the tabletalk gaming fans of Japan. The system's use in emulating the 'real world', from the 1920s to modern times is especially valuable to its customers, who seem to really enjoy gaming in such settings. 

What I find particularly interesting is that today the popularity of CoC is so great that it has spawned (heh) a slew of new material unique to Japan. In addition to a variety of sourcebooks and adventures created by Arclight, a vast array of Doujinshi or fan produced, self-published works are made for Call of Cthulhu, many of which are not directly focused on or connected to the Lovercraftian stories themselves. 

Therein lies the part that fascinates me the most but might surprise traditional fans of the game. The doujinshi I've seen run the gambit from tragic, vampire romance to possessed serial killers to a mini-zombie apocalypse. Additionally, there are a ton of Cthulhu Replays.

As I've discussed before, though perhaps not thoroughly enough, the Japanese TRPG market is all about the Replays. These are recounts of gaming sessions, often accompanied by rules, Player and GM tips, or the like, in the form of Manga. The second cover above (left to right - top row) is for a Replay Manga entitled 'R'lyeh High School, a very Japanese style story about a High School that trains students to fight off Cthulhu.

My friend Ray, whom I game with quite regularly and who happens to be a big fan of Anime and Manga, noted that Japanese Horror tends to blur the lines of its sub-genres. This would explain why the fan made CoC scenarios and comics are so diverse. To the Japanese creators and their audience, nameless, faceless, monstrosities from beyond time and space are part of the Cthulhu Mythos but so are ghosts, mummies, and murderous madmen. It's all Horror and therefore it all works in the Call of Cthulhu game. 

As with any successful endeavor there is bound to be competition and copycats. In the case of CoC, while no other Horror game matches it in popularity, others have made a name for themselves by either being similar but with some sort of twist or wholly unique. 

Next up I will discuss some of those, particularly my favorites: Peekaboo Horror and inSane - two games utilizing the Dice Fiction rules system. 

See you then...

Barking Alien

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Museum of Terror

It looks like May will see a continuation of my discussion of Japanese TRPGs and Anime/Manga themed/inspired RPGs in general. To that end, here's a subject I haven't yet addressed, partially because my experience with it is limited...Horror. 

I am not, by and large, a Horror fan.

Like Fantasy, I have never been especially enamored with the genre, though I do like creepy, spooky themes, ghost-stories, and art that is weird and even a bit disturbing. It is the tropes of the Horror genre I do not particularly care for and the limited (IMHO) nature of Horror narratives as they apply to ongoing tales (such as RPG campaigns) that make me less interested in the traditional structure of Horror as a whole. 

That said, I do love ALIEN, the Thing, the Shining (film), The Exorcist, the Weird America series of books, and other examples of frightful fiction. I have also been told I run a good Horror-esque game. From my Ghostbusters NJ campaign to recent 'episodes' of our ongoing Star Trek: Prosperity game (now in it's sixth year), it seems I have a knack for making things feel effectively unsettling when I want to. 

While looking at the various genres covered by Japanese Anime and Manga for gaming purposes, I realized how widespread and diverse the Horror genre is and how well it is represented in Japanese Pop Culture. It is also, curiously, mixed with other genres quite often in a way that works for me personally.

Instead of simple modern day Slasher film silliness, we get the giant, man-eating zombie/ghoul creatures from Attack on Titan or the supernaturally powered demons of Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba. In both cases however, are these really Horror? They are more Action/Adventure oriented and while there is a Horror element, they aren't exactly what an American Horror fan would consider to be a good example of the genre. 

Meanwhile there are series like The Promised Neverland, Paranoia Agent, Tokyo Ghoul, Ghost Hunt, Corpse Party, and many others that are clearly pure Horror. 

Japanese Horror and American Horror aren't the same. Sure, there are things that scare all of us as we are all Humans but there are distinct differences that give Japanese Horror movies, books, Anime, and Manga their own unique feel. 

What is it that makes Japanese Horror special? Well, to figure this out I enlisted the help of several of my good friends who are more well versed on the subject and here is what they had to say...

From Steven Yap:

"Common ideas revolve around cultural mythology like spirits and animism. Themes of finding your place in society and the dread that its at the bottom of the ladder or that your purpose is horrible and you're trapped there are of particular note. Body horror and the 'uncanny valley' of things that seem almost Human but are not are very common motifs.

Because Japanese society has a very "for the good of the collective" cultural tradition and the overwhelming authority of your seniors is pervasive, social mentality themes of loss of identity or being transformed into something less than Human at the whims of those above you are common. These stories sometimes start with a Midas touch/monkey's paw situation wherein it is the attempt to gain greater means or power that traps you in your predicament."

Steve manages to simultaneously be concise in his observation, while at the same time nailing down what are essentially the broad strokes. It's a great overview.

I find the Japanese take on transformation from normal Human to Monster, be it Demon, Vampire, or Zombie, takes on a slightly different connotation. The horror isn't all from being the Monster, from the Monster itself, but 

From Jason 'Big J' McAlpin:

"I think the subjects of the stories are vastly different. In Japanese horror a lot of the stories deal with the students being the monsters instead of the victims as you have in US horror.

Death Note is about a student that decides who lives and who dies, playing god through the use of an otherworldly notebook. Tomie, the first published work of Horror Manga legend Junji Ito, is about a student who drives everyone who sees her to madness, violence, and body horror. Even Ring, Grunge, and other similar stories all deal with a ghost youth or child. That reflects part of the Japanese culture of their society getting older and the lack of young to take over. It’s also part of their reason for the robotics push but robots are always played in a hopeful light in comparison.

Japan also has the whole Animism concept in their folklore and spiritual beliefs, where everything has a spirit and they play off that mythology a lot. For example, a spirit might go evil because someone destroyed its home or they might take human form and fall in love with someone such as the fox spirits/kitsune. If their lover dies or is unfaithful the spirit will take revenge or cause havoc. Spirited Away deals with a bunch of those kinds of spirits. Princess Mononoke does this as well.

The other thing is they use is demons from their own mythology which brings plenty of unique monsters that they can use in stories. Demons are a catch all term for usually malevolent monstrous entities that come in a variety of forms, shapes, and sizes but they are distinctly different from ghosts or yokai. 

A common Japanese Horror trope is that when an individual becomes obsessed with something they can take on a demonic form. The Ring is a good example of this. The Girl's hatred consumed her and turned her into a terrifying demon that killed with a videotape. The only other mythology I’ve encountered that comes close to this approach is Native American mythology with the Wendigo, which is a person that consumes human flesh and transforms into a monster that grows with each body they eat. Death Note explores this as well with the main character getting a book that lets him kill. He starts out by targeting criminals and eventually starts killing anyone that doesn't agree with him and his plan for world domination. He never takes on a form of a monster but definitely plays on the idea of the individual becoming the monster."

Interesting observations all around I would say and it would seem to track with my research. The real question is, how does one apply these elements to Horror gaming? Well, I am not entirely sure how to answer that immediately but let me tell you who can...Japanese Tabletop RPG designers. 

Horror RPGs hold a much larger portion of the gaming market in Japan, with Call of Cthulhu - yes, that Call of Cthulhu - being one of the top selling and most played RPGs they have. is and isn't the Call of Cthulhu we know. It definitely uses the Chaosium rule mechanics and the various official products are dedicated to the Cthulhu Mythos but the unofficial products - and there are MANY - cover a much wider range of Horror settings and subjects, sharing only the game rules with traditional CoC. 

I'm going off topic. Well, more like across topic I suppose. This post laid down the basics of Anime and Manga Horror, though really Japanese Horror. The next post will more thoroughly discuss Horror TRPGS in Japan.

See you soon,

Barking Alien

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

I May Have Spoken To Soon

I am at nearly 2000 views for May and it is only the 5th of the month. That's insane!

I can't thank you all enough. It means a lot to me that people are interested in the often off-beat RPG ideas and subject matter I discuss here. 

Which brings me to a particularly interesting observation...

I noticed the viewership spike when I began posting links to my blog on Twitter. Even more so when I started discussing Anime/Manga themed and inspired Tabletop Gaming. This leads me to believe that people on Twitter and elsewhere want to here more about the subject. 

I'm one heck of a detective no? A regular Sherlock Holmes. Elementary dear Watson!

Hmm. In keeping with the premise of this post, perhaps I'm more Detective Boy Conan

Anyway, on a vaguely related note, I've been pretty disappointed with my gaming in general this past pandemic year as I've mentioned in the last few months. The one highlight was running the Goblin Slayer TRPG one-shot with friends in Japan. 

Put these two things together and perhaps it was a bit premature to say I would be taking a break from discussing Anime/Manga gaming...

Barking Alien

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

We Do What We Do

Greetings Entities and Gentle Beings! 

I thought I would open this month with something a Long Time Ago coming to a Galaxy Far, Far Away since we have a new entry into that universe with the Disney + cg animated series, The Bad Batch. 

Having watched the pilot episode earlier today (after my nephew called to remind me it was on - he is a huge Star Wars fan), I'd like to give some thoughts I had and address some ideas it brought to mind about gaming in the early days of the new Galactic Empire. 

I've always been curious about what the Star Wars universe was like in the fledgling days of Imperial Empire and even more so after the Clone Wars Animated Series that this new show spins out of. 

What was the transition like? How did the Clonetrooper give way to the Stormtrooper and why? Did some Jedi escape Order 66 only to be eliminated later? How did the Star Wars Galaxy at large handle the change from Republic to Empire?

Overall, I get the feeling this series will address a lot of these questions and I am very much looking forward to that. It is my hope (and my belief based solely on this first episode) that the show will give us Star Wars RPG fans all the world-building elements we'll need to set a campaign during this era.  

 As with practically all the pop culture entertainment I consume, I look upon it with one eye toward analyzing its particulars as they pertain to being used in RPGs. This is especially true for IPs like Star Wars, which I not only love but which I find well portrayed in one of my all time favorite games, West End Games' D6 System.

It's not just the characters, aliens, droids, and other trappings of The Bad Batch that I am looking to stat but I'm also trying to get the feel of the era and the type of stories being told. I want to get the atmosphere and the tone correct and I am looking forward to studying them as much as the plots and events of the series. 

Now as for the pilot episode itself, I liked it a lot. One of the main reasons was that the key characters, Clone Force 99 - The Bad Batch, were far more intriguing here than in The Clone Wars final season arc that introduced them. There I found them very one-note, mere caricatures of action movie archetypes. Here there was a bit more to them but more importantly, the subtle yet distinct feeling there is more still to be learned. 

I'll definitely be tuning in this coming Friday for the second episode and beyond to see where these characters go and how this setting develops.

I will likely revisit The Bad Batch again in the near future as the show progresses. I hope you'll join me. 

Until then...May The Force Be With You.


Barking Alien 

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Leave Room for Dessert

 As I wrap up April and move on into May, I wanted to say thank you once again to everyone who came by this month and made it such a fun time. In addition to getting a record number of views for the blog's 12th anniversary year, I also received far more comments then usual. That really means a lot to me and I hope everyone continues this trend as I move into other territory.

Eat or be eaten in my homebrew 'Delicious in Dungeon' TRPG.
Coming soon...

I have decided that I am going to develop a homebrew 'Delicious in Dungeon' TRPG instead of a more general Anime/Manga Fantasy game. This is going to take some time so meanwhile the blog will move on from Anime and Manga to cover some other subjects. 

Subjects like...

Stay tuned,

Barking Alien