In the wake of the quarantine times, I’ve found many of my IRL games heavily impacted by the inability to actually meet up. I know it comes off a bit unrelated, yes, but in that time I’ve found myself binging on anime and manga and looking to Japan for entertainment.
Somehow in the last few weeks both Big Eyes Small Mouth (BESM) 4e, an anime-inspired TTRPG made in North America, and Shinobigami, a popular TRPG from Japan recently translated for English-speaking audiences, came out in quick succession. It got me thinking as to what the tabletop communities in Japan were actually like and what sorts of games do they play.
Good lord did it open up a rabbit hole.
I come into this never having actually played a full-on Japanese TRPG, but instead only having heard of them tangentially through others. Note when I say Japanese TRPG, I’m defining it as a game that originated in Japan, developed by Japanese developers, and were then later on translated over here. If you’re looking for these in particular, here: Maid RPG, Golden Sky Stories, Ryuutama, Double Cross, Tenra Bansho Zero, the upcoming Kamigakari: God Hunters, and the recently released Shinobigami. Of these, I only own the recently released Shinobigami (but if you’ve got a copy of Double Cross—Infinity Code hit me up) and I have to say the design differences alone are staggering.
But this article isn’t necessarily about that. Partly because determining broad strokes of “THIS IS JAPANESE DESIGN” after viewing only a single book won’t lead anywhere, partly because this is less about the individual games, but more so exploring the cultural artifacts associated with JTRPGs.
1. ‘Tabletalk’ not ‘Tabletop’
I’m not certain as to why, but pen-and-paper roleplaying games are referred to as tabletalk RPGs, or TRPGs, in Japan. It apparently refers to how folks talk at the table and likely refers to how a lot of early TRPGs were more theater of the mind (Crusher Joe, Enterprise: Role Play Game in Star Trek) compared to the War-Game tableTOP origins of Chainmail/Dungeons & Dragons.
2. Call of Cthulhu is the most popular TRPG in Japan
This one personally surprised me to find out, but you can find album links to various books and supplements here and here. Fair Warning, but the second album link has some graphic Lovecraftian horror imagery as well as cute anime girls. It is to my assumption that both are equally as terrifying.
This seems to originate from a very popular Replay (or a retelling of tabletop events) of Call of Cthulhu back in 2007. It did for Call of Cthulhu in Japan to what Critical role did to D&D 5e here in North America.
3. JTRPGs are typically manga-sized(+have manga)
Shown from this Don’t Stop Thinking’s D&D VS Japan’s Top TRPG (with Andy Kitkowski) video, you can see that while we’re used to seeing these 11×8.5in hardcovers, many JTRPGs measure at 7x5in. This is typically the size most book publishers print books in. It makes it particularly easy to stock while larger books often have difficulty being shelved and stored.
That said, it still needs to store just as much information as any other RPG book, so they tend to fall at 400-500+ pages for the Core books. Later supplements typically fall between 100-200 instead.
Not only are most JTRPGs manga sized, but they typically include ‘Replays’ or accurate records of how an actual session or campaign went. I’ve heard of a few gamebooks using just text but a majority of major games, such as Sword World and Shinobigami, majorly depict it in the manga. This doesn’t even include the introductory manga pages teaching folks how to play.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Dmqxjnflwf0 (5:05)
4. Replays are a major form of TRPG content
As described above, replays are records of what happened in a session or campaign. The well known Record of Lodoss War is an actual replay of a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, and the anime Chaos Dragon was an anime-replay of a campaign ran in Red Dragon (another JTRPG). They can be used not only as a transcript of a game session, but also a learning tool as to how games are actually played. Think of taking those ‘Examples of Play’ sections in your favorite TTRPG and turning that into a whole series of books.
Replays are fairly popular and often mistaken for light novels and other such books. There are replays of both Japanese games but also natively English ones such as D&D and Call of Cthulhu.
Part of what made Call of Cthulhu so popular in Japan was apparently a YouTube video replay of a game.
5. Tabletalk RPGs can be SO MUCH CHEAPER
How much does your printed copy of Dungeons & Dragons, Pathfinder, or Genesys cost? Over $50? What if I told you in Japan, due to the focus on smaller print sized B&W books, many tabletops cost approximately the price of a manga? Pair that with Replay novels at the same price, and you have a market where you can go to a game store and easily pick up the latest edition of that one tabletop you love without making even a dent in your wallet. Many of the majorly popular tabletops in Japan follow this, even though there is a shifting trend towards larger and higher quality books.
Yes, more premium hardcover options still exist and are priced similarly as they are across the world, there’s just a decent number of low-cost tabletops just floating around to pick up on your daily grind.
6. A lack of PDFs
Since Japan has a heavy focus on fairly cheap and accessibly tabletop books, many don’t end up getting processed for being turned into PDFs. With a limited digital marketplace for them (at least in the mid-2010s where I’m deriving my info), this has to lead to many older tabletops of theirs to completely lack PDFs for the games. This problem is only exacerbated by the fact that most major publishers in Japan are downright terrified of digital piracy. This actually makes translating Japanese RPGs more difficult for English speakers, both in an official and unofficial capacity, as the first step to translating a game (likely illegally) is to find a Japanese person willing to photocopy all the pages to you. While there are certainly some publishers out there that have moved towards opening themselves up for digital distribution in recent years, there’s still a good amount of trouble with providing such; those that do often end up selling digital copies at the exact price of the physical ones as well.
7. One-shots reign supreme (cause everyone’s busy)
Japan has a very strong work-centric culture. Because of that, free time is fairly limited and possibly hard to pin down to set, regular times. This has created a culture of one-shot focused gameplay, where players often just bring in their own characters from all over the place to work together. Whereas many North-American gamers (I mostly speak on behalf of NA as I know next to little about Japan, Europe, and other tabletop cultures) tend to focus heavily on party composition and campaign cohesion, you can typically find a Japanese Call of Cthulhu game having a mixed cast of hard-boiled detectives, over-the-top swordsman, and magical girls in the same party.
Many games—Double Cross definitely comes to mind—even have mechanics focused on leveling up players over characters. This allows characters to die more freely, only for their player to bring in new characters the week after.
8. The Big 3 Fantasy Games
Aside from Call of Cthulhu, there are three major fantasy games all vying for 2nd place. While Pathfinder 1e and Dungeons & Dragons 5e are no surprise to anyone—especially considering their ubiquity across the world—Japan also has Sword World RPG, which is currently in 2.5e. All three are constantly in equal competition, which has kept D&D 5e from dominating Japan’s market as it seemingly has all across the world.
9. So, so many powers
From the handful of books I’ve been able to look through, it seems that many JTRPGs like Tenra Bansho Zero, Double Cross, Shinobigami—as well as what I’m told Log Horizon, Konosuba, Arianrhod, and Sword World games are like—there is a heavy focus on open power/ability choices. Almost every talent or power your character has is chosen from a massive list so each and every character feels fresh and uniquely yours. While class-based systems definitely have unique powers to choose between them, the lists behind each are large enough you won’t see an end to the choices. Pair this up with many tabletop systems having a large universal power list or very open multiclass or class-change mechanics, and you have a character that is ultimately only limited by what you choose for them.
10. Authorial construction & Scene-based gameplay
When it comes to tabletop RPGs in the west, there’s often a huge focus on the discussion between sandbox games and constructed campaigns. There’s even a large number of constructed campaigns that frame themselves in large sandboxes where the players are free to do whatever they want (see: 5e’s Curse of Strahd or Storm King’s Thunder). While the discussion definitely exists in Japan,—simply due to western games such as Pathfinder, D&D, and Call of Cthulhu being so prevalent—the truth is that a large number of games have very strong constructed narratives.
Double Cross, Tenra Bansho Zero, and Shinobigami all have a powerful focus on games being covered in “Acts,” “Phases,” or “Scenes,” which highly feature only 1 or 2 players in each scene. There’s even a large number of powers in their various games that only work in specific scenes such as the “Introduction” where each player dramatically reveals their character to the party or the handful of “Main Phases” where plot-driven adventure happens between each character. Those phases, in particular, tend to have at best minor conflicts and confrontations where even taking 1 damage takes you completely out of the scene. Many of these games then also have a “Climax Phase” which is typically a huge fight involving all the players against that adventure’s antagonist in a heavy boss-encounter.
This type of focus on scenes reminds me a lot about television, movies, and (of course) anime. Every encounter seems to act in vehicle to the narrative, yet with all the extra bits cut out. Sessions are incredibly fast-paced and large scale adventures can be explored and played through in as few as 1-2 sessions.
This is as good as a time as any to address that I didn’t see many narrative-focused games (such as, say, Apocalypse World or FATE) have much of a home in Japan. These games tend to heavily focus on placing narrative involvement at the forefront of the game. This narrativist gameplay is woven into character creation from their basic Aspects, to the Moves you get to make in-game. Yet, at the same time, Japan’s TRPGs have little to no focus on any narrative mechanics, often opting for many of the games to entirely focus on combat or what your character can actually do. It’s the perfect world for Powergamers (myself included) but achieves strong narrative cohesion despite none of its mechanics actually supporting a narrative-focused style of game.
All due to the focus on scene-based gameplay.
It makes me wonder if we actually need games that heavily focus on narrative involvement when it seems that all we need to do is simply change how we structure our gameplay.
I can’t help but imagine D&D 4e would actually thrive way more in Japan than it ever did in North America.
I don’t know if it’s due to my love of character freedom and the emphasis on power-based character building, but I really like the feel of Japanese TRPGs. I have to imagine that the cultural artifacts surrounding Japan’s TRPG scene have created a very unique type of gameplay style that can greatly uplift games that focus on limitless character building, all without sacrificing strength in the narrative.
Ever since discovering this style, I’ve actually taken in and applied it to how I run this podcast game I GM for and have found that my games have greatly sped up in pace. We can get through an entire ‘season’ of content within 3 sessions that I could easily see last twice as much for any other gaming group. I honestly believe that picking up games that originated in Japan (such as the recent Shinobigami) and learning to GM/play in that style can greatly benefit anyone looking to step up their game to the next level.
Or maybe I’m just a massive weeb and I’m over-glorifying this. Perhaps my love of anime has finally gotten to my brain and now I’m trapped in a cycle of never-ending pedestaling Japanese-sourced content. Perhaps this is me completely going off the deep end and not caring about the consequences.
I don’t know about the rest, but I’m definitely a weeb.
~Di, signing off