Tuesday, May 18, 2021

Voices in The Dark

As stated in my previous post, Call of Cthulhu - the American born Tabletop RPG by Chaosium based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft - is the most popular Role Playing Game in Japan.

There are numerous reasons for this (see Mountains of Madness) but chief among them is Japan's love affair with the Horror genre. That fondness has led to the development of numerous other TRPGs, some derivative of the 'Great, Old One' and some that do things very differently. The more recent, 'small press' takes on the subject do some things I find very interesting and would love to discuss and explore further. 

To that end, here are a few of Japan's most notable Horror TRPGs:

From Left to Right, starting with the Top Row and then the Bottom Row we have...

Ghost Hunter The Role Playing Game

Author: Hitoshi Yasuda (founder of Group SNE) and Tsuyoshi Shirakawa.
Studio: Group SNE
Publisher: ASCII. Later Enterbrain and Kadokawa.

Published in 1994, Ghost Hunter is one of the first, if not the first, Horror TRPG produced by a Japanese company for the Japanese game hobby market. It was created by the founder of Group SNE, a creative studio best known for Record of The Lodoss War and all related Forcelia titles (the Sword World TRPG, the Legend of Crystania animated film, and more).

In addition, SNE is responsible for the translation of a number of Western RPGs into Japanese as well as the continuation and expansion of those games in Japan. Currently they hand GURPS, Shadowrun, Tunnels & Trolls, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. 

I don't know a lot about the game beyond its general premise and a little bit about its rather unusual system. Ghost Hunter is set around the 1920s and 30s and focuses on the Player Characters fighting off incursions of supernatural entities into our mortal world.

Various aspects of your character are named for the constellations of the Western Zodiac and the rules system uses traditional playing cards as random number generators [instead of dice]. Truth be told, it might use dice as well. I am not sure as I haven't read through it completely. 

Oh yes, sorry, you can read a fan translation of this game thanks to the incomparable Claydonian, a fellow Japanese TRPG enthusiast who actually speaks and reads the language and lives in Japan. Check him and his awesome works out through his twitter.

Peekaboo Horror - The RPG of Neighborhood Spirits

Author: Toichiro Kawashima and Nagomi Ochiai (the Illustrator and Kawashima's wife)
Studio: Adventure Planning Bureau
Publisher: Shinkigensha Co., Ltd. 

One of my favorite Japanese Tabletop RPGs and the first game to use the Saikoro or 'Dice' Fiction system. In my past posts on Dice Fiction (see tag below) I completely forgot that Peekaboo was a Saikoro Fiction game. 

In this Horror/Comedy game, the players take the roles of Elementary School children (called Innocents) who investigate supernatural mysteries with the help of a Boo or Spooky, a paranormal entity that is linked to the child. Each player plays both an Innocent and a Spooky but you don't play the Spooky attached to your Innocent. The players play each others' spirit companions so as to maximize player to player interaction. 

Some of the most intriguing rules govern what a Boo can and can't do without its Human partner and when each of the characters is active in the story. For example, Spooks can operate at night while the child is sleeping, Innocents can do things during the day when a Spooky is at its weakest, and then there are times the two work together. 

The horror is along the lines of things like Goosebumps crossed with the classic Japanese Anime/Manga GeGeGe no Kitaro. A bit less goofy than the two of these can be believe it or not but definitely imbued with a sense of tongue-in-cheek humor. 

I was able to run this some time ago with students at the tutoring center where I used to teach and it was an absolutely blast. I am really looking forward to running this again sometime in the future, likely influenced by some of the ideas I've had for Ghostbusters; a little creepier and scarier than is standard.

Nechronica - The Long, Long Sequel 

Author: Ryo Kamiya
Studio: Patch Works
Publisher: Tsugihagi Honbo

This one...Whoa Nelly. Those with sensitivity to...well...a lot of things...should probably skip this game and its description. Continue reading at your own risk. 

Ryo Kamiya is quite a talented individual and their talent varies widely as far as subject. They are best known as the creator of both MAID, the first Japanese Tabletop RPG ever translated into English and Golden Sky Stories, translated and published in the USA by Ewen Cluney and Star Line Publishing. 

Nechronica is a very difficult game to describe. It's not that I can't tell you what it's about but rather that in doing so I will paint an inaccurate picture of the game. It reminds me of trying to explain Neon Genesis Evangelion; I could tell you the story is a classic alien invasion by bizarre Kaiju-sized monsters and that the Earth attempts to repel them using Giant Robots. The robots are developed from the body of the first of these aliens to crash on our world. The is both a completely accurate description and not even close to scratching the surface of what Evangelion is about. 

OK, here goes...

In a post-apocalyptic world of damnation and ruin, mysterious Necromancers animate the dead bodies of girls to battle other such minions of other Necromancers. These doll-like Zombies are often cobbled together from multiple people 'Frankenstein'-style and may have mismatched parts. Additionally, when one zombie beats another they may take a part of the defeated and use it to upgrade themselves going forward. Often inorganic matter is incorporated into these bodies as well, from plastic skin armor to machine guns for legs. 

Nechronica is a game about being physically strong but emotionally vulnerable in a world of the dying, the dead, and the undead. This includes your PC and her 'sisters'. The PCs are all Dolls - thinking and feeling undead girls who fight against the Necromancer and his minions, even though it is the Necromancer who created the Dolls in the first place, for simple amusement or decoration for this rotting world.

Sounds fun, no? Ahem...

The mechanics are largely concerned with creating the patchwork zombie characters, body horror, and a combat for engagements between these undead girls. There is also a detailed Madness system which revolves around complex emotional connections between the Player Characters and sometimes their foes, who are more often then not in the very same situation and condition they are.

In order for a Doll to stay stable and sane, it/they must rely on and manage their complicated, often conflicting emotional state and their relationships with their fellow Dolls. Nechronica is a game the cheapness of life but also its beautiful fragility. Likewise, it is darker than the darkest dark but really a game of hope and holding onto positivity in a world of decay and doom. 

I'll be honest, this is both too grim for me and absolutely fascinating. I would love to run it or play it just once to understand it better. It really feeds my desire for the esoteric, high concept genre gaming at its wildest. 

An unofficial fan translation of the game can be found online

inSane - Multi-Genre Horror RPG

Author: Toichiro Kawashima
Studio: Adventure Planning Bureau
Publisher: Shinkigensha Co., Ltd. 

A 'cult hit' in Japan, inSane is not a sales powerhouse but it is much loved by those who play it. Additionally, it seems the game gets a fair amount of fan-made doujinshi love, much like the industry leader that likely inspired it. 

inSane is another Dice Fiction game, this one covering a wide range of Horror subgenres. I mentioned in my prior entry that the Japanese use Call of Cthulhu for a variety of different types of Horror beyond the default mythos. That obviously wasn't the intention of that game's designers but here that was exactly what the creator of inSane had in mind. 

Though the game is set so that Gamemasters and their groups can create their own Horror settings, five pre-made settings have been developed. The default setting in the core rulebook is a really scary modern day Japan. The additional sourcebooks cover America in the Roaring Twenties, Victorian England (titled, 'Dark Victoria' or 'Victoria in The Dark'), Parallel Worlds or 'Loops' (Events repeated but in alternate ways, titled 'Deadloops'), and finally a book based on the SCP Foundation milieu. 

As far as the rules go, the game has a 'Fear Check' mechanic that I find quite cool. Every Player Character has Sanity Points. At the beginning of the game, players choose three Crazy Cards, all placed face down. Bizarre and frightening information and events can drain these points. A character with only one point remaining has a Shock condition. With a zero, no Sanity left, the player turns over one of the Crazy Cards, each of which describes a madness that is inflicted upon the PC once a certain trigger is met.

I really love that last part. Imagine that you get 'Go Catatonic' but only 'If the entity addresses you directly or the situation or entity follows you when you try to escape'.

Kill Death Business - Hell TV Reality Show RPG

Author: Takayoshi Saito
Studio: Adventure Planning Bureau
Publisher: Shinkigensha Co., Ltd. 

This is probably the game I am most fascinated by and intrigued to play. Really run. When I say 'play' what I really mean is run. 

I've discussed this game already in a previous post but basically we're looking at an Action/Adventure, Dark Comedy, Horror about Contestants (the PCs) on a Reality Show/Game Show hybrid that airs in Hell. The Contestants earn points on the show by defeating, capturing, or destroying renegade Demons and other unpleasant folk on the run from the authorities both Above and Below. The points can earn you a transfer to Heaven, a better spot in Hell, or maybe, just maybe, a return trip to the world of the living. 

Imagine combining the Good Place with Guns Akimbo. Mix Helluva Boss and Hazbin Hotel with a kind of reverse Running Man. I love the idea of PCs caught in a demented, infernal entertainment industry version of a very surreal 'Reality Show'. Tons of opportunities for crazy combat sequences, offbeat characters, world-building, and more. 

I am currently in the process of deconstructing and translating the Character Sheet as a means of figuring out how the rules work. Plus, I've been able to find additional rules notes across the 'net.

I'd love to give this a try.
Novice Novice Table Talk Role Playing Game - The Horror

Author: Takashi Konno
Publisher: Arclight Games

Here is another game I don't know a lot about but what I've seen of it is very promising as an introductory game for those new to Tabletop RPGs. 

This game is the second in the Novice Novice series [I believe], with the first being a traditional Western Fantasy game and the other installment being Steampunk. All the games share the same basic mechanics and play style: The players draw cards that give them a pre-generated character template which I think can be customized by other, additional cards. The characters than go on an adventure who has a very tightly structure sequence of phases; this is common in many Japan TRPGs.

In each phase players draw a card to determine the direction the adventure will take or the outcome of various decisions. Meanwhile, they can role a 6 sided die against a score on their Character Card to perform an action within the scene. From what I understand, the cards don't so much tell you what is happening as much as they provide context for the events unfolding. 

Clearly more research on this one is needed. If anyone knows more about this game or any game in the Novice Novice series, please share. 


The Castle in Gray - Haunted Palace Gothic Horror RPG

Author: Karikari Ume
Publisher: Unknown - Available through Conos

An independent, small press game created by a designer with a few other interesting game credits under their belt, The Castle in Gray, aka 'Gray Castle Mystery', is the game I know the least about. As far as I can tell the game is only available through a website called Conos, which is essentially a Japanese version of DriveThruRPG, with both official and unofficial/Doujinshi products being available from the site. Curiously, as with most Japanese book and TRPG products, you can only buy physical copies. There are practically no e-book or PDF versions of anything (though this is slowly changing). 

Why the Japanese don't do more PDFs is rather confusing. As I understand it from friends who know more about copyright laws and the Japanese market than I, the publishing companies of Japan fear that people will buy PDFs and then just make copies and give it to all their friends/players. At the same time, they have no issue with someone making money selling original material based on a product they didn't create, unlike in the US. So strange. 

Anyway, the key thing that makes The Castle in Gray interesting is that the PCs are all drawn to a single location, a mansion or other large, old building, and from that point on they find themselves inexplicably back at the location time and again. The edifice is Haunted and may simply be creepy and spooky or down right Amityville depending on what the players and GM want. 

While at the 'Palace' they will receive word of various ghastly goings on and if they investigate and solve the morbid mysteries they are confronted with the house will ease up on them, allowing them to go home, see their family, and friends, etc. Only by solving the mystery of The Castle in Gray itself will the curse be lifted and the PCs lives return to normal. 

Love that as a campaign concept and goal. 

Well, that's all the time we have for now. I have a real surprise in store for my next post. To see it, you'll need to look to スペース...最後のフロンティア.

See you soon,

Barking Alien


  1. Another fascinating insight in a gaming arena I know next to nothing about.

    I would say, though, that even from its early days, Call of Cthulhu was being used for non-Lovecraftian stories, for instance, check out Chaosium's Blood Brothers anthologies, which featured adventures inspired by classic B-movie tropes.

    1. Intriguing. I'll have to take a look at that. I wonder if it was that particular book that gave the Japanese designers that idea that the game's repertoire could widen or if it was simply a by-product of their view of Horror.

      I am glad you and others are enjoying this as much as I am. I have to admit, I get a pang of Imposter Syndrome each time I post one of these. I have invested a lot of time, effort, and money (over the years) into my pursuit and interest in Japanese TRPGs but alas; I do not speak or read the language to any functional degree, I do not live in Japan, and I am not Japanese.

      I feel a little guilty sometimes, as if I am pretending to be any sort of authority on the subject. Instead, I hope readers realize I am just a fan and an enthusiast. I know more than the average person perhaps but a lot less than a native or resident Japanese gamer. Take everything I post with a grain of salt, do your own research if curious, and please share what you find so we can all benefit from it.