I am both a fan of table-top games and Japanese pop-culture. The first instance where I got really absorbed into the table-top fandom was, oddly enough, at an anime convention. I was enamored with all the new games I previously never knew existed, but one thing DID irk me about that scenario: even though we were at a convention celebrating Japanese pop-culture, none of the games I saw were of Japanese origin!
After that, I dedicated myself to reconciling this discrepancy, and have learned about a great deal of Japanese table-top games. With all that said, allow me to share with you some of the RPGs from Japan I’ve learned about -- specifically, those that have been officially published in English!
Let’s get the weird one out of the way first. MAID is exactly what its name implies: a game about maids in service of their master, creepy connotations optional. In truth, this is a game that’s more about random change and crazy coincidences.
MAID is played primarily through random charts and d6s. At character creation, everything from characters stats, why they’re in the master’s employ, and several other strange quirks (such as being a robot, a demon, or a cross dresser) and even the color of their outfit is determined entirely at random.
This is also an odd instance of an RPG that was designed to be competitive. Whenever a character completes a task set forth by the master, they gain Favor. Favor can be used to raise stats, or cause a random event to occur, though whoever has the most unused Favor at the end of the session is declared winner.
As stated earlier, this game is weird, even when you overlook some of the suggestive themes. On the bright side, even in Japan this game is unusual.
4) Double Cross
Double Cross is a game set in an alternate universe version of our modern world, where a phenomenon known as the “Renegade Virus” has infected nearly everyone. While it normally remains dormant in its host, the 1 in 5 people who are active hosts have tremendous powers.
Some use these powers to their own nefarious ends, and others to foil the plans of those who would do evil with these powers. Unfortunately, all who rely on these powers eventually go mad.
Mechanically, Double Cross is a d10 dicepool game, and the meat of character customization is in deciding how the Renegade Virus manifests in your character. You gain up to three “Syndromes” which determine what powers are available to you, as well as how much you can develop those powers.
What truly makes this game unique is the game’s “Encroachment Rate” system, a representation of how much the Renegade Virus has taken over a character. This rises not only every time a character uses a power, but also whenever they so much as appear in a scene!
Encroachment Rate is lowered at the end of every session, though, based on how many other characters a PC has connections to. This gives the game a unique dynamic where players have to make their entrances into a scene count, either by contributing to the party’s end goal, or by meaningfully interacting with NPCs.
3) Golden Sky Stories
Golden Sky Stories is part of a Japanese style of game referred to as “Honobono,” a word that can translate to “Heartwarming.” The premise of Golden Sky Stories is that the players are “Henge,” shapeshifting animal spirits, in a rural town on the Japanese countryside, helping the villagers with their problems. (Or perhaps cause mischief for them!)
Characters in this game have different powers based on what sort of animal they are, as well as what weaknesses they take for their animal type, such as Fox’s not being able to resist the temptation of fried tofu. This, in addition to the universal ability of all henge to take on human form in addition to their animal one.
Resorting to violence is actively punished in Golden Sky Stories; any time a character does so, it causes all other characters to fear them, severing any sort of connections they have. This is not a good thing, since connections to other characters is how a character gains the energy necessary to use their powers and temporarily raise their stats
Another interesting thing to note about this game is that it doesn’t use dice. This game instead relies on temporarily raising stats to overcome challenges, in either the form of the GM setting a target number, or a bidding war between two characters.
The end result is that despite their wild differences, Golden Sky Stories creates a similar sort of motivation as Double Cross: if you don’t interact with the world, you will accomplish nothing.
Ryuutama is yet another Honobono game, affectionately described by its translators as “Hayao Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail,” though I personally like to describe it as a complete inversion of Dungeons and Dragons: instead of being a game of Wizards and Warriors searching for treasure by slaying monsters, it’s about Merchants and Minstrels seeing the world.
Travel is a major theme in Ryuutama; the player characters are a party of villagers that, as I’ve said earlier, that are traveling the world. Most of this game’s mechanics revolve around traveling; primarily being sure you have enough food and water to survive the journey, as well as getting the right gear to make the trip easier.
The player characters, after gearing up and setting out on their journey, as followed by a dragon-human hybrid known as a Ryuujin who records the exploits of these travellers. This character is specifically meant to be a character of the GM, complete with special abilities of their own.
And for any players who are accustomed to their RPGs being fight simulators, unlike Golden Sky Stories, Ryuutama DOES include a combat sub-system.
1) Tenra Bansho Zero
Even when compared to other Japanese games, Tenra Bansho Zero is simply an all around unique game. In the creator’s words, it’s a “Hyper-Asian” setting; it’s set in a world known as Tenra, an alternate universe version of Warring States Period Japan where magic is real, and technology continued to progress to the point where giant robots and cyborgs were reality.
The wild ride doesn’t stop there, though. Not only do you have ninjas, cyborgs, sorcerer summoners, and warrior monks all fighting on the same battlefields as giant robots and cyborgs, but when creating your character, it’s entirely possible to mix several of these different archetypes. And while wacky character archetypes is great fun, what truly makes Tenra Bansho Zero a magnificent game is it’s Karma system.
The short version of how it works is this: when you make your character, you decide on what’s important to them and write them down as “Fates.” Over the course of play, if you’re acting out these Fates, or just generally being entertaining, anybody else at the table can award you an “Aiki Chit.”
These chits can either be used immediately for special bonuses, or they can be saved for a “Fate Roll” later on. If you save them for a Fate Roll, you can gain Kiai, which like Aiki Chits can be used for temporary bonuses or to raise your character’s abilities. Using Kiai, though, causes your character to gain Karma.
Karma is not good, having over 108 Karma makes your character unplayable as they turn into an obsessive monster known as an Asura. Karma can be removed by either removing or changing your character's Fates at designated times during the game.
Even more succinctly, Tenra Bansho Zero is a game where you CAN have the biggest and toughest character in the game, but it doesn’t mean too much if you’re not willing to do anything interesting with that power.
Japan has a pretty unique take on the table-top RPG genre, as evidenced by what I’ve shown here. It’s a much more theatrical affair, that doesn’t just ask for players to roleplay entertainingly, but sometimes DEMANDS it.
The world of Japanese table-top games is a big one, and while I’ve only scratched the surface here, this is still as good of a place as any to start. And if one of these game’s piqued your curiosity, but you’re a little anxious about teaching yourself a new game, I’ve got you covered for that, too.
Aaron der Schaedel isn’t by any means the most knowledgeable on Japan’s table-top gaming culture. He’s just very vocal about what he does know, which is still a lot. Rumor has it he even does live presentations about these sorts of things at conventions!
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.