Whenever I’ve brought up RPGs from Japan to people, their minds go to the most obvious sort of imagery: ninja, samurai, those neat looking castles, and maybe Shaolin monks (whom are more closely related to the Chinese). After all, most games in the western market are Fantasy based on Medieval Europe, it’s not too much of a stretch to think Japan would do the same.
That isn’t exactly true, since a quick look through the Japanese Amazon site’s 本 (book) section for the term “TRPG” actually yields Call of Cthulhu as their first result, as well as (at least as of this writing, Summer of 2019) the Konosuba and Goblin Slayer TRPGs. The Japanese roleplayers seem to at least harbor a similar love for feudal Europe as we do, though mystery and horror are also big hits there.
However, with the way Amazon’s algorithms work, only the most popular things at the time will typically float to the top, and so if you want to find something really unusual, you should expect to do some digging and asking around. As it turns out, Tenra Bansho Zero isn’t the only game that provokes ye olde Nippon imagery out there the Japanese have made.
Today, for your reading pleasure, I will tell you about Shinobigami, one of Japan’s RPGs about a modern day ninja war!
1) Who Made This?
Shinobigami was originally published in Japan by Roll and Role Imprint, with the English version being translated by Kotodami Heavy Industries, the same company that brought us Ryuutama and Tenra Bansho Zero. KotoHI announced Shinobigami and successfully funded the publishing effort via Kickstarter in 2015.
The translation effort for Shinobigami took a great deal of time, for much the same reason that Tenra did: there are numerous cultural nuances that the translation team wanted to preserve. An additional obstacle KotoHI had to overcome was some of the updates to the technology surrounding crowdfunding games such as Backerkit, and the incompatibilities these new tools have with Japanese banks.
These constant delays lead to fans of KotoHI starting a call and response in joke whenever somebody would mention Shinobigami. One group would shout “WHEN” and another would reply “SOON.”
2) What’s The Premise?
Shinobigami is a game about the very sort of thing one might expect when they hear the phrase “Japanese roleplaying game”: it’s a game set in the modern day about ninjas, fighting an invisible war against one another.
Though it’s not enough that they’re ninjas in a world of secrets and espionage; the ninjas in Shinobigami are superhuman! They all move at superhuman speeds and perform feats that are otherwise not humanly possible as if those feats were nothing. Plus, every ninja belongs to one of many different clans with their own agendas and traits that make them unique, such as a clan dedicated to serving Japan’s national interest, or another that’s composed entirely of supernatural beings such as vampires and werewolves.
Basically, Shinobigami is a game set in the modern world with all manner of intense ninja action!
3) What Are It’s Mechanics Like?
The game follows a pattern of players taking turns choosing between Drama Scenes and Combat Scenes with other characters. Their objective is to discover what each other’s secrets are, as well as setting themselves up to accomplish their mission. After so many cycles, all players take part in a grand battle known as the Climax Phase where everybody involved in the scenario fights each other. During this battle, you either team up with those you think you can trust, or against everybody else.
What truly makes Shinobigami unique is the Skill Matrix: a table of 60 some odd skills that you have no chance of mastering all of since you’ll typically only have 6. However, anytime a particular roll is called for and you don’t have that skill, you can substitute another skill in place of it at a slight penalty based on how far apart the two skills are on the matrix. Assuming you can explain why that substitution should be allowed, that is. This can lead to bizarre or even hilarious circumstances, such as explaining how Necromancy can be counteracted with Cooking.
4) What’s It Similar To?
In practice, Shinobigami is a game of hidden information: you’re learning secrets and other information, and trying to deduce what the best course of action is based on what you can find out. This makes it much akin to games like “Werewolf” or “Mafia.” Though for the unfortunate players that lack guile, there’s a few added steps between the mob deciding to kill your character and then dying.
Shinobigami uses a game engine known as Saikoro Fiction, best explained as one of Japan’s narrative focused games. The skill matrix is a recurring part of other Sai-Fi titles, such as Beginning Idol and Yankee vs Yog Sothoth. The other hallmark of these games is that the rules are built around supporting a narrative, e.g. any skill can be used in place of any other, as long as you explain why, and are willing to take the appropriate penalty. (These penalties don’t include the absurdity of your explanation, only how far apart they are on the matrix.)
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Yes!! Kotodama Heavy Industries has brought two other games to the English speaking world, and has done them great justice in the translation. This attention to detail made the wait for each of them worthwhile.
Shinobigami is therefore a great example of what RPGs from Japan look like, a fact that the translators took great pains with Shinobigami to ensure. The first half of its rulebook is what the Japanese call a Replay, similar to Actual Plays, but on a written medium instead. The second half of the book contains all the rules needed to play.
Shinobigami also demonstrates that gamism and narrativism can be a false dichotomy. It has rules that are specific and must be followed, yet don’t interfere with building narrative. (In fact, sometimes it promotes narrative!)
Shinobigami is in my list of games that everybody should play at least once.
Aaron der Schaedel sat on this article for half a year, waiting for the release of Shinobigami to be finalized before he passed it along to the editors. This is still a shorter time than he and many others waited for the release of Shinobigami. Apropos of nothing, here’s a link to his Youtube Channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/diamondsutra/shinobigami-modern-ninja-battle-tabletop-rpg-from
I’ve talked before about borrowing plots from video games, citing that both video games and tabletop roleplaying games are similar media. A scenario is set forth to the players, they give direction to a character or other entity they control, and the state of the scenario is updated based on that input. The primary difference between the two often comes down to input methods, and what entity is doing the parsing of these commands.
I digress, though.
Today, I want to discuss with you some of the fantastic settings in the realm of video games. This list is of course by no means exhaustive, but each of these on this list were chosen because of how unusual they are compared to the so called “standard fantasy” that is Dungeons and Dragons.
So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you: 5 Unusual Video Game Settings You Should Play Your Next Game In!
1) Fire Emblem
Fire Emblem has recently become one of Nintendo’s hottest franchises; there’s numerous games in the series, and every one of them boasts a huge cast of characters. Some people love Fire Emblem for these huge casts of characters, as well as the ability to see how certain character’s relationships bud through the course of the story.
This is a story that is told between numerous tactical battles, pitting one army against another, with false steps often leading to characters permanently being lost. Most stories in Fire Emblem showcase different conflicts between neighboring countries, and ultimately climax with a battle between good and evil after the powers of some mythic artifact has been discovered. (Such as the titular Fire Emblem.)
While it’s often lampooned for being formulaic, this is precisely what makes it easy to emulate in a tabletop roleplaying game!
So How Would You Do It?
You can easily recreate something like Fire Emblem using Dungeons and Dragons if you play up the tactical combat element; interesting terrain and fighting to secure important strategic locations. Players would be restricted to playing Humans, since other races like dragons or werewolves are the stuff of legend, and most conflict is between humans.
However, Fire Emblem is known to take place over a massive scale. Casts range upwards of the 20s or even 30s in some games. To make this sort of campaign work, occasionally, the war would need to be fought on more fronts, and players would take control of a different cast of characters aiding a different theatre in the war effort.
2) Sunless Sea / Fallen London
Sunless Sea and Fallen London are part of a gothic horror series of games by Failbetter Games; they both play like choose-your-own-adventure books, though the aforementioned also has extra gameplay elements that make sense with its nautical namesake. They take place out of the city of London, in an alternate timeline where Hell literally broke loose, and London sank beneath the waves.
The Londoners have adapted to their strange new biome, where darkness warps reality, one’s neighbors could literally be devils, maps have become useless, and sunlight, should one happen to find your way back to the surface, is as lethal as it is pleasant. (That is to say, very, on both accounts.)
So How Would You Do It?
Combat in Fallen London is meant to be a dangerous prospect. Sure, you can easily beat up other mortals, but the world is rife with all kinds of creatures that seem familiar, but defy all reason. These otherworldly creatures? They never truly die; if they hit 0 HP or are otherwise defeated, they just fade back to where they came from, and they’ll come back later. When they do return, they’ll be bigger, stronger, and still nursing the grudge from their previous loss.
Furthermore, one of the laws of reality in Fallen London is that light brings order to the world. Because of this, even if you somehow can see in the dark, you want light. Light from torches, oil and gas lamps, or even just starting fires; because the darkness doesn’t just hide monsters, it stains the very fabric of reality.
3) Super Mario
The Mario Brothers are a duo that need no explanation at this point. “Duh-duh duh duh-duh duh duh” is a line almost anybody in the developed world can sing out loud properly. That isn’t to say there isn't any interesting to discuss in the Super Mario lore; as time went on and Nintendo tried new things with the franchise, more characters got added, and they each wound up with their own shticks and spinoff games. Spinoffs such as Luigi’s Mansion and Wario World.
Two such spin offs I want to bring attention to are Paper Mario and Mario and Luigi: Super Star Saga; video game RPGs that are very whimsical with rather expansive worlds, filled with all kinds of unusual creatures and environments. It’s the perfect setting for those “Only boring people play human” types!”
So How Would You Do It?
The Mario RPG video games are very gamey, with the occasional nod to new abilities gained over the course of play being usable to solve puzzles outside of combat. This isn’t a setting that lends itself to ruleslite games, but does have a wide variety of different mechanics through the series, so any sort of home-brewing of a crunchy game will do. (Or you can play this D&D 3.5 adaptation!)
4) Seiken Denetsu / The “Mana” Series
This is one of my favorite video game series of all time. When I hear the phrase “High Fantasy,” this is what comes to mind. A world with magic abound, and all manner of unusual creatures, friendly or otherwise, and clear divides of good and evil optional, depending on the entry in the series.
The timeline of the series is fairly long, starting with a cataclysmic war that didn’t quite destroy the world, but definitely wiped out the existence of magic. However, as the series goes on, magic eventually begins finding its way back into the world, with constant allusions back to that war, such as an empire trying to rebuild the technology that made the war possible, as well as junkyards filled with ancient relics from that war. (Some of which are still alive, and resentful of being left to rot!)
So How Would You Do It?
It’s a bad idea to try and emulate video game mechanics in tabletop form, especially on a one-to-one scale. Computers can handle large numbers and operations much more accurately than your average human. However, since even the Mana games have wildly different mechanics, mechanical accuracy can be forgone.
My choice for trying to recreate the Mana series would be Anima: Beyond Fantasy. Since it has rules for creating fantastic creatures, as well as possessing various rules for all kinds of different supernatural powers. Even though magic is prevalent in the Mana series, there is still plenty of allusions to other forces as well, and the backbone Anima’s magic system relies on the JRPG fantasy staple of the four classical elements, plus light and dark.
The triple digit arithmetic will just have to be something you adapt to. (Think of it as an opportunity to practice mathematics!)
Please don’t try this. (Warning: weird and a little gross)
So How Would You Do It?
No. Seriously. This is a bad idea.
Did you not pay attention to entry 4? Sometimes you have to be willing to make sacrifices because concepts don’t always translate between media. This is why some movies drop scenes that were in the book they’re adapted from.
Other times, you simply shouldn’t try because what makes the game truly unique, simply can’t be recreated.
Or what you’re trying to recreate is just a fever dream.
Aaron der Schaedel actually really likes Hylics, but realizes part of its charm is the surreal world it’s set in. It’s a quality that doesn’t quite come across as well in the spoken or written word, and is probably best left to the realm of other visual arts. Here’s a shameless plug for his YouTube channel.
Picture Reference: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/gaming/fire-emblem-three-houses-rpg-review-strategy-professor-combat-nintendo-switch-a9021831.html
Japan and its tabletop games have long been an area of fascination of mine, and it’s also why I have an ever growing pile of games from Japan I’m as yet unable to read. Among the games in this collection is a game about an out of control dungeon, and the plucky adventurers called Landmakers that can bring some semblance of order to this wild world. This game is called Meikyuu Kingdom!
1) Who Made This?
Meikyuu Kingdom, also sometimes known as Make You Kingdom, is a game published by Adventure Planning Services of Japan. An official English translation was announced in 2013, however no new information has since been released, though rough drafts of a fan translation exist.
2) What’s The Premise And Setting?
Meikyuu Kingdom is, as its name implies, a Kingdom building game, set in a world called the Infinite Dungeon. The players take on the role of the members of the royal court. In addition to working to build the kingdom, each member of the court also has their own personal goal, such as claiming a certain territory as part of the kingdom, or slaying a certain number of monsters.
However, the dungeon is, in fact, infinite, and even familiar places can change abruptly through a process known as Dungeonification. Additionally, your kingdom isn’t the only one in the dungeon, and the others may not always get along with yours.
3) What Are The Mechanics Like?
The dice mechanics of Meikyuu Kingdom are relatively simple: you roll 2d6, add the relevant attribute, and compare it to a target number. This mostly pertains to combat and skills. Meanwhile, the game’s management system is more binary; you either have the items or stats you need, or you don’t.
The game is also divided into two distinct phases: the Kingdom Phase and the Dungeon Phase. The Kingdom Phase is where you make decisions pertaining to the kingdom’s development, as well as preparations to enter the dungeon. By contrast, the Dungeon Phase consists of the sort of classic dungeon crawling challenges fans of fantasy roleplaying games would be more familiar with.
There’s also a somewhat unique mechanic Meikyuu Kingdom introduces called the d66 roll. The d66 roll is used for randomizing options on charts, such as random names or encounters. You roll two d6s as if you were rolling d%, but the lower number is always in the 10s place, and the highest number is always the ones place. With this setup, a result of 6 and 1 would be 16, or a result of 3 and 2 would be 23.
4) What Is It Similar To?
The most apt comparison to Meikyuu Kingdom is Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 2nd Edition, particularly with how the scope of the game changed past level 9, where the focus of the game began including building and maintaining keeps. Additionally, both games have a simple core mechanic, but numerous sub systems with all manner of charts.
However, being a more modern game Meikyuu Kingdom is more refined; the core mechanic is consistent throughout, and the subsystems are related to each other in meaningful ways. Exempli gratia followers are the lifeblood of the kingdom, a staple in many skills, and there are numerous ways to gain them.
Despite these similarities, though, it’s worth mentioning that this is still a Japanese game, and thus much more structured than most games you can expect to find in the English speaking tabletop gaming community.
5) Is It Worth Getting Into?
Yes, but only if you’re interested in a silly, light hearted, kingdom making game. Being from Japan, this game is kind of rigid in terms of what it can be used to accomplish. Much of the listed skills all work towards one of two ends: either building up the kingdom, or crawling through the dungeon.
Another consideration is also that the fan translation doesn’t include any of the official artwork; so for many of the items, monsters, classes and jobs, you’ll be relying on names alone. (Which is a shame, because some of the monsters, such as Mayonaise King, are just plain absurd!)
To support the official release, you’ll need to import the books from Japan. This is great since they had released a new edition in October 2018, but not so great since importing is a risky and expensive prospect.
Aaron der Schaedel has no impulse control, and usually winds up buying any books in Japanese that have cute anime girls on the cover. His legitimate copies of the Meikyuu Kingdom books are no exception. You can try tempting him by showing him other such books via twitter: @Zamubei
Picture Reference: http://randompunk.blogspot.com/2015/04/the-world-of-meikyuu-kingdom-13-daily.html
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games