A History of TRPGs in Japan – Part 8 – Stranger Aeons (2013-Present)

Iosue

Legend
So if we go back to the primordial beginnings of TRPGs in Japan, if one looked around a local toy store or hobby shop in Tokyo, and that shop carried imported board games, one might have found an RPG box set or two. The box set would have been in English, so if you felt comfortable with English, you might buy it. And if you then opened it, read the contents, and figured out how to play, and were still interested, you might then try to gather a few people, explain the rules to them, and try to play. The only ones likely to try this were the university gaming clubs. These clubs would later form the backbone of the RPG community and market in Japan. But initially, there was no community, no TRPG market. Such forays into tabletop role-playing were one-offs, isolated examples. There was no infrastructure to bring these nascent role-players together.

Hitoshi Yasuda was at this time a freelance translator and critic of science fiction. By critic, I mean that he had a column or two in the domestic science fiction magazines where he would introduce newly translated science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories. By 1978, he made enough with his translations and writing to quit his day job at a large trading firm, and do it full-time. Naturally, he kept up with the foreign science fiction press as well. Starting in 1977, he started to see in these magazines advertisements for some strange looking games. Dungeons & Dragons. Runequest. Traveller. Intrigued by these, he ordered two of them in late 1979: Dungeons & Dragons (the Holmes Basic Set), and Traveller.

But when they finally arrived early in 1980, he didn’t “get” them. He opened the D&D box to find...two books and dice chits. This was obviously not the board game he expected. Trying to read through the rules did not provide much more help. While at Kyoto University, he’d started the Kyoto University SF Research Society, an informal club for reading and sharing science fiction. Although he had graduated in 1973, his juniors had continued the club, and it was still going on in 1980. Yasuda maintained contact with the group, and its members would occasionally come to his house to talk science fiction, or play some board or wargames. One night in April 1980, some members came to his house. They saw his Dungeons & Dragons box and asked about it.

“Hey, you guys read English, right?”

“Yeah?”

“Take a look at this. I’ll tell you what I think, and you guys tell me what you think.”

They worked through making up characters, and Yasuda tried to take them through the Keep on the Borderlands. It went predictably off the rails.

The party approached the Keep as evening fell. The module states that men-at-arms guarding the gate “shout at you to give your names and state your business.” One player quick drew his bow. “Who the hell are you?” Yasuda skimmed the module. As near as he could tell, fighting with the guards would bring more guards to the fray. Total Party Kill.

“Americans sure play strange games...”

Yasuda was ready to throw in the towel, but one of his juniors, Yohei Sawaki, who was especially good at English, asked to borrow the game so he and the others could discuss it more. By pouring through the rules, discussing them, and finding corroboration in English genre magazines, Yasuda, Sawaki, and the others cracked it in about 6 months, and started playing. They weren’t entirely sure they’d gotten it right, but what they were doing seemed fun. It wasn’t until Sawaki went to GenCon ’81 and got to play there that they finally had confirmation that they’d gotten it right.

For Yasuda, it was a revelation. Through the 70s, he was a known figure in science fiction fan circles, a noted writer, critic, and translator of science fiction. And then once 1980 hit, he seemingly abandoned science fiction to focus entirely on games. Specifically role-playing games.

Yasuda himself became the connective tissue for those isolated groups foraying into RPGs. Being rather well-known in science fiction circles afforded him connections among university and post-university groups and clubs of various interest (science fiction, gaming, writing, etc.) And he had a platform of sorts, and a rather considerable one considering this was the pre-internet early 1980s. He did panels at science fiction conventions. He had columns in genre magazines. His voice had some weight, and he began lending it to role-playing games. Not to mention GMing for many young men who would eventually lead the industry.

And in 1981, yet another vector appeared. One of his old compatriots from the Kyoto University SF Research Society plopped him in front of the Apple II, and said, “Is this that ‘RPG’ you keep talking about?” And what he saw was Ultima, just newly released. He was tapped by SF Adventure Magazine to write a column about playing it. As Yasuda described it, “I arrived at 3 PM, had some tea, they showed me the game, and I started to play. The next thing I knew, they were saying, “Mr. Yasuda, it’s time for dinner.” Four hours had passed. Yasuda made sure that when he wrote articles introducing these computer games, he first explained that they had come from pen-and-paper RPGs.

Science fiction and fantasy fans, boardgamers, and now computer gamers were now coming together to play RPGs. This was not a break into the mainstream. It was subculture among other subcultures. All the available materials were still in English. But it was becoming a community, and almost...a market. In late 1981, Hobby Japan, which made plastic models, toys, and board and war games, made a special agreement with Avalon Hill to start a new magazine devoted to war games, called Tactics. But role-playing games were becoming so well-known, that they devoted their May 1982 issue to RPGs. The hobby and game companies began to take notice. The time seemed right for a Japanese translations of these games. What was more, the time was ripe for Japan’s first domestic RPG.

Next: Part 2 - From Bloom to Boom
 
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Reynard

Legend
So if we go back to the primordial beginnings of TRPGs in Japan, if one looked around a local toy store or hobby shop in Tokyo, and that shop carried imported board games, one might have found an RPG box set or two. The box set would have been in English, so if you felt comfortable with English, you might buy it. And if you then opened it, read the contents, and figured out how to play, and were still interested, you might then try to gather a few people, explain the rules to them, and try to play. The only ones likely to try this were the university gaming clubs. These clubs would later form the backbone of the RPG community and market in Japan. But initially, there was no community, no TRPG market. Such forays into tabletop role-playing were one-offs, isolated examples. There was no infrastructure to bring these nascent role-players together.

Hitoshi Yasuda was at this time a freelance translator and critic of science fiction. By critic, I mean that he had a column or two in the domestic science fiction magazines where he would introduce newly translated science fiction and fantasy novels and short stories. By 1978, he made enough with his translations and writing to quit his day job at a large trading firm, and do it full-time. Naturally, he kept up with the foreign science fiction press as well. Starting in 1977, he started to see in these magazines advertisements for some strange looking games. Dungeons & Dragons. Runequest. Traveller. Intrigued by these, he ordered two of them in late 1979: Dungeons & Dragons (the Holmes Basic Set), and Traveller.

But when they finally arrived early in 1980, he didn’t “get” them. He opened the D&D box to find...two books and dice chits. This was obviously not the board game he expected. Trying to read through the rules did not provide much more help. While at Kyoto University, he’d started the Kyoto University SF Research Society, an informal club for reading and sharing science fiction. Although he had graduated in 1973, his juniors had continued the club, and it was still going on in 1980. Yasuda maintained contact with the group, and its members would occasionally come to his house to talk science fiction, or play some board or wargames. One night in April 1980, some members came to his house. They saw his Dungeons & Dragons box and asked about it.

“Hey, you guys read English, right?”

“Yeah?”

“Take a look at this. I’ll tell you what I think, and you guys tell me what you think.”

They worked through making up characters, and Yasuda tried to take them through the Keep on the Borderlands. It went predictably off the rails.

The party approached the Keep as evening fell. The module states that men-at-arms guarding the gate “shout at you to give your names and state your business.” One player quick drew his bow. “Who the hell are you?” Yasuda skimmed the module. As near as he could tell, fighting with the guards would bring more guards to the fray. Total Party Kill.

“Americans sure play strange games...”

Yasuda was ready to throw in the towel, but one of his juniors, Yohei Sawaki, who was especially good at English, asked to borrow the game so he and the others could discuss it more. By pouring through the rules, discussing them, and finding corroboration in English genre magazines, Yasuda, Sawaki, and the others cracked it in about 6 months, and started playing. They weren’t entirely sure they’d gotten it right, but what they were doing seemed fun. It wasn’t until Sawaki went to GenCon ’81 and got to play there that they finally had confirmation that they’d gotten it right.

For Yasuda, it was a revelation. Through the 70s, he was a known figure in science fiction fan circles, a noted writer, critic, and translator of science fiction. And then once 1980 hit, he seemingly abandoned science fiction to focus entirely on games. Specifically role-playing games.

Yasuda himself became the connective tissue for those isolated groups foraying into RPGs. Being rather well-known in science fiction circles afforded him connections among university and post-university groups and clubs of various interest (science fiction, gaming, writing, etc.) And he had a platform of sorts, and a rather considerable one considering this was the pre-internet early 1980s. He did panels at science fiction conventions. He had columns in genre magazines. His voice had some weight, and he began lending it to role-playing games. Not to mention GMing for many young men who would eventually lead the industry.

And in 1981, yet another vector appeared. One of his old compatriots from the Kyoto University SF Research Society plopped him in front of the Apple II, and said, “Is this that ‘RPG’ you keep talking about?” And what he saw was Ultima, just newly released. He was tapped by SF Adventure Magazine to write a column about playing it. As Yasuda described it, “I arrived at 3 PM, had some tea, they showed me the game, and I started to play. The next thing I knew, they were saying, “Mr. Yasuda, it’s time for dinner.” Four hours had passed. Yasuda made sure that when he wrote articles introducing these computer games, he first explained that they had come from pen-and-paper RPGs.

Science fiction and fantasy fans, boardgamers, and now computer gamers were now coming together to play RPGs. This was not a break into the mainstream. It was subculture among other subcultures. All the available materials were still in English. But it was becoming a community, and almost...a market. In late 1981, Hobby Japan, which made plastic models, toys, and board and war games, made a special agreement with Avalon Hill to start a new magazine devoted to war games, called Tactics. But role-playing games were becoming so well-known, that they devoted their May 1982 issue to RPGs. The hobby and game companies began to take notice. The time seemed right for a Japanese translations of these games. What was more, the time was ripe for Japan’s first domestic RPG.

Next: Part 2 - From Bloom to Boom
Very cool history! Thank you for posting this. I look forward to more.
 



Iosue

Legend
One day in January, 1983, Hitoshi Yasuda’s phone rang. It was, to his surprise, Koichi Sato, president of Hobby Japan. “Yasuda-san,” he said, “we’d like you to translate Traveller.” It was a dream come true for Yasuda, the perfect combination of his two loves, science fiction and RPGs, and his work.

Traveller would become the first overseas RPG to be officially translated and published in Japan, but Hobby Japan was beaten to the punch by a rival. Tsukuda Hobby would be the first to publish a Japanese RPG. To design the game, they tapped Yutaka Tama. How Tama got this job is an intriguing mystery to me, because when the RPG was published, Tama was still a 4th year university student. Was he working part-time? Did he already have the game designed and they just bought it? I’ve searched around on the net and in the two books I’m using as sources for these articles, but I have not been able to find anything. Perhaps it was just a matter of him looking for work, as Japanese 4th year university students do, and instead of waiting until April of the following year when he had graduated, they put him to work immediately.

Tama is fascinating figure in Japanese TRPG history. He was a member of Keio Head Quarter Simulation Game Club, a gaming club at Keio University, along with Naoto Kadokura, who we’ll hear about later. He and Yasuda knew each other from science fiction conventions, and not surprising for a gaming club, the members of Keio HQ got into RPGs early on. Yasuda tells a story of going to the largest science fiction convention in 1982, and finding a copy of SPI’s Universe science fiction RPG. He holding his latest prize in his hands when he ran into Tama. “Oh, Universe!” Tama said. “Of course you’d get it, Yasuda-san. Are you going to be running it?” Yasuda could only shrug and say, “Yeah, I’ll run it for you.”

At age 20, Tama contracted a severe connective tissue disease that he would fight the rest of his life. In 1986, Yasuda would tap him to be editor-in-chief of the Japanese version of Warlock magazine. He did not have much hope that Tama would accept, since he had a very nice job at a major Japanese company. To his surprise, Tama accepted, saying, “I don’t know for how much longer I’ll live. So, I’ll do the things I love.” He would go on to write books and articles about game design and a novel based on Wizardry, and translated Gary Gygax’s Role Playing Mastery and Master of the Game. He died at age 35 in 1997.

The game he designed, the first Japanese RPG? That was Enterprise Role Play Game. Tsukuda Hobby had the license to make Japanese games based on Star Trek, and so the first Japanese RPG was a licensed Star Trek RPG. They then followed this up with another licensed property, the Japanese fantasy novel series Crusher Joe. It used the same essential system as Enterprise, reskinned for the different property. I’ll talk a little more about the system below, but the games themselves were one-offs. Whether because of the terms of the license, or merely because Tsukuda Hobby treated them like slightly different boardgames, they were released as boxed sets, and never supported after that. Enterprise at least had rules for creating your own character, but in Crusher Joe you could only play the novel’s characters.

Traveller was released by Hobby Japan in 1984, notable in itself. But also coming that year was Roads to Lord, the first original Japanese RPG, and the first one to actually get continually supported. It was designed by Tama’s fellow Keio HQ member Naoto Kadokura. And let me tell you, looking at Enterprise and Roads to Lord, you can tell what fantasy RPG they liked to play at Keio HQ: RuneQuest. Both games are d100 systems, with PC characteristics providing percentage bonuses. In Roads to Lord, you even roll randomly to determine your race and social status, similar to RuneQuest. Interestingly, both games come with two d20s (numbered 0-9 twice) and two d6s. I’m not sure why d20s were used in lieu of d10s, but perhaps they were easier to get a hold of at the time.

Both games used reaction tables to hardwire social interaction in their design. Enterprise used an alignment-based table. Alignments went Logical Good, Logical Bad, Neutral, Emotional Good, and Emotional Bad. When encountering an NPC, you could enter into Negotiation and make them an ally by correctly choosing which of three attitudes of Negotiation to take: Act superior, Act equal, or Dissemble. Depending on your alignment and that of the NPC, only one of those actions gave a relatively high chance of success. For example, for a Logical Good character Negotiating with an Emotional Bad NPC, choosing to Dissemble gave you the best chance of success.

Roads to Lord likewise had an important Communication table. This was essentially a reaction table, and could be affected by your Charisma. As a result, Charisma was the very opposite of a dump stat! Throughout all its various editions since then, characters’ looks and charm, and communication with NPCs have been a touchstone for the game.

As befitting a company that sold boardgames, the box sets were quite high quality. Enterprise came with character cards featuring glossy photos of the Star Trek original series cast. Roads to Lord came with 100 spell cards, hex battle maps, plenty of enemy counters, and four lead minis.

In the latter half of 1984, some of the university students Yasuda had introduced to RPGs approached him with a request. They were going to start a new gaming group, and they wanted him to be an “adviser.” (In other words, they wanted him to join, but the age disparity simply could not be ignored in Japan.) Among those who approached him was Ryo Mizuno. Mizuno had tremendous organizational skills, and soon the group was packed with members, including many women. This group was called Syntax Error, after the BASIC error message.

Yasuda continued to ponder how he could get more people into RPGs. Two things gave him inspiration. One was the “Fighting Fantasy” series of interactive novels by (Games Workshop) Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone, and for which Yasuda was asked to translate the 10th book, House of Hell. You had your game rulebooks, and you had fantasy novels, but here, Yasuda thought, you had a link between those. Something that combined game rules with an entertaining narrative. The other source of inspiration was a member of Syntax Error who so enjoyed the game sessions, she started tape recording them and writing out what happened in the sessions.

What Yasuda keyed into with those recorded sessions was that by including the Game Master’s thoughts as the game progressed, you could create an interesting narrative that would also be the perfect example of what the game is like and how to run/play it. He first tried this in the November 1984 issue of Tactics magazine, in order to promote the newly released translation of Traveller. Yohei Sawaki, the Referee for the session, wrote the recap based off the recording, and Yasuda revised his manuscript. Thus was born the replay.

Following Traveller and Roads to Lord in 1984, 1985 saw a publishing company called Shinwa land the D&D license, and promptly begin distribution of Japanese versions of BECMI. In the debut issue of gaming magazine Simulator in June, game designer and writer Tomoyuki Fujinami built on Yasuda’s idea by writing a Roads to Lord replay that was meant to be read entirely for the entertainment, eschewing rules commentary or explanation, and including illustrations, as well as distinct text for different characters. This would have a profound influence on the replays that followed.

At the tale end of 1985, Yasuda was swamped with work, translating game books and writing articles to promote them. And then he was contacted by Kadokawa Shoten, a major publishing house, to discuss some possible jobs. Yasuda was not in the mood to take on any new work at the moment, but he agreed to meet. When he went out to greet the delegation from Kadokawa, he was surprised to see the Managing Director (and son of the founder) Tsuguhiko Kadokawa. Whatever it was, Yasuda thought, Kadokawa is serious!

Their opening salvo broke all of Yasuda’s will to resist.

“We have obtained the translation rights to Dragonlance.”

Yasuda did not realize at the time, but this was a definitive moment in the history of Japanese TRPGs. Currently, Kadokawa dominates the RPG market. Are you a Japanese fan of Call of Cthulhu? The Japanese translation is published by Kadokawa. Or perhaps you like Sword World, Japan’s most popular domestic RPG? Published by Fujimi Shobo, an imprint of Kadokawa. Maybe your game is Double Cross, a perennial favorite. Also published by Fujimi Shobo, and thus, Kadokawa. The new Elden Ring RPG? Kadokawa. And this is where it all started.

In addition to the translation work, two of the men were from Kadokawa’s computer game magazine, Comptiq. They wanted something to help them compete against their rival magazine, Login. They wanted Yasuda to write an ongoing series of articles. Yasuda thought for a moment.

“Could I do an RPG replay?”

“Absolutely.”

Next: Part 3 – GroupSNE Rides the Bubble
 
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d10s barely existed in the early 1980's. I played D&D for YEARS before we ever saw a single d10. ALL d20's in those days were numbered 0-9 twice, though I have a few from later in that era where half the numbers had a little + associated with them, indicating they could be read as the 10's digits of a d20. Dice in those days were rarely pre-inked, so the standard technique was to rub different colored crayon wax into each set of numbers (grease pencil being a common alternative). d10s, along with d20 marked 1-20, became more common later on, and nowadays you don't see the old style d20 much. Only us old guys have them!
 

Iosue

Legend
This next part will focus more on GroupSNE, partly because it is probably the most influential organization on TRPGs in Japan, but also because two of my sources for this are by Hitoshi Yasuda, so I have the most information about them. I looked for some sources by or about the other groups, but they’re a little harder to come by.

A little historical/cultural context should be mentioned here. 1985-1986 marks the beginning of the Japanese bubble economy. The causes of the bubble are little too esoteric to describe here, but suffice it to say that in the late 1980s, an enormous amount of money was being pumped into the economy which resulted in profligate spending, at both the corporate and the individual level. And there should be no doubt that this had a commensurate effect on the RPG market. The RPG market in Japan has never been of significant size, not even reaching the heights of the post-Egbert fad in the States, let alone the tremendous growth seen in the hobby today. Nevertheless, 1986-1995 saw skyrocketing RPG development, at probably a rate greater than the market could handle. Hobby and publishing companies had money to burn, and the burgeoning TRPG market was one place where they happily burned it.

With Dungeons & Dragons the newest RPG to appear in the Japanese market, Syntax Error decided to go with that for the Comptiq replay. Ryo Mizuno was chosen by Yasuda to be the DM because he knew Mizuno to be gifted writer, and expected him to be a novelist someday. (In general, replays are written by the GM, so as to provide the GM’s thought process.) Comptiq began serializing the replay, “Record of Lodoss War,” in September of 1986, with the first part lasting until April 1987. Though written by Mizuno, it was credited to Hitoshi Yasuda (whose name had some cachet) and Group SNE. (It must be noted here that Group SNE was at this time still merely the Syntax Error gaming group.) It was extremely well-received, so a second replay, set in the same world but with different PCs, began in June 1987.

Also at the tail end of 1986, a publishing company called Shakaishiso saw an opportunity to turbo charge their “Gamebook Magazine” (a magazine about gamebooks, e.g., Fighting Fantasy, Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, etc.) by obtaining the Japanese license for the UK’s Warlock magazine. Again, Hitoshi Yasuda was tapped to oversee the project, and as mentioned before, he brought on Yutaka Tama as editor-in-chief.

But just as the inaugural issue of the Japanese Warlock went to press in December, 1986, they were struck by the shocking news that the Games Workshop Warlock magazine was being discontinued. What to do? A January 1987 issue was put out in the meantime, as Yasuda, Tama, and Shakaishiso debated whether to try continuing the magazine or discontinuing it. Then someone had an idea: the Corgi Books paperback of Tunnels & Trolls 5th Edition had just been released in the UK in 1986. Could the translation rights be gotten? Yasuda knew that T&T was well-suited for solo play, and also had many solo adventures already published. This would thus A) be palatable to the magazine’s gamebooks fans, and B) be the perfect bridge to bring them over to RPGs. A February issue was canceled while negotiations were underway. Finally, the deal went through. Shakaishiso got the translation rights. A March issue was put out, and then starting with a special RPG-focused issue in April, the magazine slowly shifted from being a Fighting Fantasy and other gamebooks magazine, to being a gamebooks/RPG magazine.

As Yasuda’s workload increased, he relied more and more on the members of Syntax Error to do translations, write articles and replays, and other work. He tasked the translation of T&T to young Miyuki Kiyomatsu. Eventually, Mizuno, who was just a year out of college, came to Yasuda and said, “Yasuda-san, I really want to help you with your work, but my parents won’t accept my becoming a freelance writer. I’d like you to set up a company.” And so in October of 1987, Group SNE Co., Ltd. was established. The original staff was 7 people: Yasuda (age 37), Hiroshi Yamamoto (age 30), Yohei Sawaki (age 24), Mizuno (age 23), Kiyomatsu, Nao Kitagawa (both age 22), and Hiroshi Takayama (age 21). Yasuda’s concept for Group SNE was less corporation, and more pirate ship. The young members were not his employees, they were content creators. The creators all held a share in the company, and so all received a portion of the profits. In addition to shares of the profits, the creators also received royalties on the things they authored. In those bubbly days, that meant they were taking home a lot of money. Hiroshi Yamamoto even told Yasuda, “You must not be worldly-wise, to give your writers so much money.”

Group SNE’s first product as a company was the Japanese translation of Tunnels & Trolls, 5th Edition in December of 1987. It’s launch had been prepared with many articles throughout the year in Warlock. And then here Group SNE and Shakaishiso did something new and unexpected. Shakaishiso published Fighting Fantasy books in Japan’s established and popular bunko format: an A6 (4.1"×5.8") paperback. The readers of Warlock were used to the bunko format. The original source material was a paperback. Thus, Tunnels & Trolls was published in Japan in the bunko format.

This was a first, and Yasuda wrote that he received a surprising amount of blowback from this. RPGs were box sets! Every RPG, foreign and domestic, that had been released in Japan from 1983 to 1987 had been box sets. Yasuda and Shakaishiso were upsetting the apple cart. But the T&T paperback ended up being a big hit. In addition to the groundwork laid in the issues of Warlock, the paperback format drew in many gamebook fans. And it allowed RPGs to get out of the hobby and toy shops and into bookstores. As a company, Group SNE just hit the ground running. (Sidenote: Group SNE continues to support T&T to this day, and even introduced its own "advanced" variation called Hyper Tunnels & Trolls.)

Rewinding a bit, earlier in 1987, Kadokawa’s imprint, Fujimi Shobo, saw the success of the Comptiq replay, and decided they wanted to create an RPG-focused magazine, called Dragon, planning for launch in January 1988. They approached Group SNE and asked them to create an original RPG that could be used to help promote the new magazine. Although a little leery of Fujimi Shobo, which was then primarily known for trashy romance novels, Groupe SNE was not particularly averse to the idea itself. Many of its members wanted a shot at creating something that scratched the itch Dungeons & Dragons did, but that was wholly and uniquely Japanese, as well.

Ryo Mizuno and Miyuki Kiyomatsu were raring to go, but first there was much to be done with the Record of Lodoss War story. Given the popularity of the first Comptiq replay, and the positive response to the second replay, Group SNE and Kadokawa decided to turn the first replay into a novel. Naturally, Ryo Mizuno was assigned to write it, and Record of Lodoss War: The Grey Witch was published in April of 1988. While Dragonlance followed the Lord of the Rings trilogy of thick books model, Mizuno and Group SNE decided to go for a slighter, more readable format aimed at a youth and young adult market. Bunko-sized, it came in at 295 pages. (For comparison, the first volume of the Dragonlance Chronicles was split into two bunko, at 459 and 323 pages respectively.) The Grey Witch was a huge bestseller. It would go on to a long-running series of novels, computer games, and anime. In fact, it is credited with essentially creating the “light novel” genre of books still popular today.

With the second Lodoss replay nearing completion, Group SNE wanted to compile the serialized replays into single volumes. But they ran into a snag. While Shinwa, the Japanese publisher of D&D, was happy with articles that promoted the game, they would not work with Kadokawa/Group SNE as far as book publishing rights. But Lodoss was printing money for both companies just then, so it was decided to abandon D&D for something they could control. The RPG requested by Fujimi Shobo was still in development, and wouldn’t necessarily mimic D&D so well. So Group SNE whipped a quick set of rules (more or less D&D through RuneQuest) that covered all the bases for continuity, replayed the first campaign with those, and published that replay as a single paperback volume. They followed suit with the second campaign as well. When it came time to start the third replay series in Comptiq, they simply continued play with those rules. With Lodoss a huge moneymaker at the time, even these rules were eventually published in October of 1989 in a trilogy of books called Record of Lodoss War Companion.

But prior to that came Sword World RPG, the original RPG requested by Fujimi Shobo. Yasuda and Group SNE didn’t want it tied wholly to Record of Lodoss War, so they could have more creative freedom. But on the other hand, Lodoss was too successful to ignore completely. So Sword World RPG was set in Forcelia, the same world as the island of Lodoss, but on Alecrast, a different continent. Although the RPG itself would not be developed in time to coincide with the launch of Fujimi Shobo’s Dragon magazine, as with T&T the groundwork for the RPG would be laid with an ongoing series of articles describing the lore and geography of the new continent.

Officially, the now famous author Ryo Mizuno was listed as the author (along with Group SNE), but the system was designed by Miyuki Kiyomatsu. In design, Sword World RPG took influence from Traveller with its ability score generation (2d6 on top of a base attribute that varied by race) and task resolution (2d6+bonuses to match or beat a target number). Races were basically D&D. In lieu of hard-siloed “classes”, they went with “skill packages” that foregrounded what was essentially multi-classing, a kind of middle ground between D&D-style hard classes and the skill system of Basic Roleplaying. Magic used a spell point system. Combat was just opposed roles based on specific skills, but a new innovation was the Power Rating Table for damage (and healing). Weapons and spells were given a power rating, and so determining the result of an attack or spell meant rolling 2d6 and cross-checking the appropriate Power Rating to determine the degree of effect.

Having seen the success of T&T in the bunko form, Sword World was planned from the outset to use the same size. The already popular setting, the fairly straightforward gameplay using only 2d6, an aesthetic very similar to Nintendo's Dragon Quest, and the bunko form factor, all contributed to monster success for Sword World RPG, giving Group SNE three straight years of success from 1987-1989. Most importantly, Sword World RPG and the Lodoss light novels made inroads to junior and senior high school students. A 1993 survey of most read books by high school students had Record of Lodoss War top the boys list for all three grades. For its part, Sword World RPG would be the dominant Japanese RPG for the next 20 years.

Next: Part 4 – Other Developments in the Late 1980s
 
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Iosue

Legend
Group SNE went gangbusters in the late 1980s, but there were many other developments, as well.

First, in 1986, Hobby Japan released a Japanese translation of Call of Cthulhu. But at this time, fantasy role-playing was the taste of the day, and the release went relatively unnoticed. Cthulhu would begin a long slumber at the bottom of the RPG sea...

The dawn of RPGs in Japan was led by one company, Tsukuda Hobby, but soon Hobby Japan joined the fray, and by the end of the decade had become more prolific. While Hobby Japan focused on translating overseas RPGs (Traveller in 1984, James Bond 007 in 1985, CoC in 1986, RuneQuest and MERP in 1987), Tsukuda Hobby focused more on original domestic releases. The only other major publisher was Shinwa, with the D&D line. But with Shakaishiso's Tunnels & Trolls demonstrating that publishers could get in on the RPG action without the expense of box sets, other publishers soon entered the market. The biggest was Kadokawa, initially through its Fujimi Shobo imprint. But another company dipping its toe was Shinkigensha, a very young company (est. 1982), initially focused on computer-related publications. In 1988 it started its “Truth in Fantasy” series, which would explain the origins and antecedents of monsters and magic that often appeared in fantasy role-playing. In 1989, they published an “introduction to fantasy role-playing” book, with a simple original system in the final chapter. Shinkigensha’s contribution in the 1980s were these kinds of explanatory books that tapped into the market. But they would go on to become a major player publishing their own RPGs in the 1990s and 2000s.

One feature of Japanese fandom culture of the time was its strong creative component. This is particularly seen today in the West thanks to the Internet bringing fans together and providing a platform for sharing one’s creations, be that fan fiction, illustrations, or what have you. But in 1980s Japan, even without the Internet, “otaku” groups would not just consume their favored media, but also actively create and disseminate it. Gamers didn’t simply play games, they would design their own. And as seen by Group SNE, Yutaka Tama, and Naoto Kadokura, when the publishing companies wanted people to translate or design their games, they turned to these groups for their human resources.

Masayuki Onuki was yet another example. Another fourth-year university student in a gaming group, he was tapped by Shinwa to do the Dungeons & Dragons translation. He gathered his like-minded and like-talented friends and formed a creator group called ORG. They handled the entirety of the D&D line and the official Japanese D&D magazine. Onuki and ORG were also apart of “Double Moon Legends”, a large play-by-post RPG adventure in Marukatsu Famicon Magazine that brought many Nintendo players to RPGs.

Onuki also spearheaded creation of WARPS (Wild Adventure Role-Playing System). WARPS was a “generic” system, with a name obviously inspired by GURPS (not yet released in Japan, but known among the cognoscenti). However, while GURPS was intended for play across a wide cross-section of genres, WARPS was a little different. It was intended to be plugged into anime/manga intellectual properties for a quick and easy RPG. It debuted in the Lupin III: The Castle of Cagliostro RPG in 1987, tying in with the popular anime movie of the same name. Tsukuda Hobby later released stand-alone rules in 1988.

For the design of WARPS, Onuki tapped Yukiko Kojima, making it the first RPG in Japan written and designed by a woman. The style of play was intended to be broad, heroic, and comedic. To that end, Onuki once said that most of the game rules didn’t really matter, except for these three:

1. Hero Points – These could be spent for Hero Effects, creating dramatic changes in the narrative. For example, by using the Hero Effect, “Actually, I Was There,” a character could appear in the current scene, no matter where he or she was the previous scene. “Actually, I Knew That” allowed characters to simply have needed information rather than have to find it. The Hero Effects were ranked so that as a character went up in level, they got access to more powerful Hero Effects.
2. Suppression Check – At any time in the game, the GM could call for a Suppression Check. If failed, whatever had been said or described by the player OOC was ruled to have been said or done by the character in the game.
3. Decision Check – Any time the GM felt that a particular action was out-of-character for a PC, he or she could call for a Decision Check, and if failed, the character could not take that action.

The goal of these rules was to emulate the zany, comedic aspects of the anime that WARPS was being used for.

Onuki established ORG as a stock company in 1991. Sadly, he died from ischemic heart disease merely two years later, at the age of 29. His wife took over management of the company, and remains in that role today.

Two more notable creator groups formed in 1987, and then incorporated in 1988. One was Yuentai (Role-Play Unit), which formed from various freelance translators and game designers that had been hired by Hobby Japan or Tsukuda Hobby. One prominent member of Yuentai was Naoto Kadokura, designer of Roads to Lord. When Roads to Lord was revised in 1989 with Beyond Roads to Lord, it was handled by Kadokura and Yuentai.

The other group was Adventure Planning Service, headed by Koji Kondo. Kondo was a regular contributer to Warlock magazine. In 1989, Adventure Planning Service and Fujimi Shobo began publishing the “Five Dragon Inn” series of “Fantasy RPG Quiz” books. In these books, the reader is cast in the role of a new adventurer visiting the Five Dragon Inn. A recurring cast of veteran adventurer characters would regale the reader with stories of their exploits, and at certain points asking the character, “What would you do in that situation?” After the reader chose an answer, they could read the veteran’s analysis of that choice. The Five Dragon Inn was set in the world of Yukiria. Kondo envisioned Yukiria as a vast shared world, and almost all content put out by Adventure Planning Service took place in it.

There was one more, pivotal development in Japanese RPGs at this time. In 1986, the first Dragon Quest game was released for the Famicon (NES). American Nintendo players would know it better as Dragon Warrior. It was heavily influenced by D&D and of course its computer descendants. It did...okay. But then a sequel was released in 1987. And Dragon Quest 2 was a certified hit, selling 5,000 copies a day, and 2.5 million overall. But then Dragon Quest 3, released in 1988...that was a cultural phenomenon. People lined up and camped out in front of stores the night before its release. Stores couldn’t keep it in stock. It sold over a million more units than its predecessor. Also released in December 1988 was the first Final Fantasy game. While this first game in the series was not as big a hit as Dragon Quest, or indeed even the later Final Fantasy games, it nonetheless contributed to providing cultural context to fantasy role-playing. These games were rising tides that lifted all TRPG boats.

Finally, a somewhat amusing episode. Some may be familiar with the BASTARD! anime currently on Netflix, or with the superior straight-to-video miniseries made in the early 1990s. But it was originally a manga, serialized in Weekly Shonen Jump starting in 1987. BASTARD! was extremely indebted to fantasy role-playing for its setting and aesthetic. It may very well be the first manga to take place in fantasy role-playing type world. Well, in the May 1988 issue, there was this panel:
1633177917416-0SYasvVWJt.png


And if you can read Japanese, you may notice that the creature is referred to as “Bihorudaa”. Yes, that’s a beholder, one of TSR’s prized trademarked monsters, in both name and image. There were some angry phone calls from Shinwa (who, through Onuki, later blamed it on TSR’s and America’s overzealous protection of copyright and trademarks), and when the issue of the manga was released in a bound collection that November, the panel now looked like this:
1633178165859-UlTjH9XiKl.png


And the beholder’s name has been changed to Suzuki Dogezaemon. The joke here is that dogeza is the Japanese term for apologizing on your hands and knees. Roughly, it’s as if the character’s name had been changed to “Johnny McApology.” My age 40 and above brethren will well remember those days when it was said that TSR stood for “They Sue Regularly.”

Ironically, the original Final Fantasy game got away with having both a beholder and a death beholder, called by those very names, in their game. However, the graphics were altered, and the monsters given the names EYE and PHANTOM for the American release. On later Japanese remakes of the game, the names “beholder” and “death beholder” are kept, but the new graphics are used.

Next Part – The ‘90s Boom!
 
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Thanks again for these. My Japanese comprehension is pretty non-existent so this is marvelous. I was interested in Sword World for its aesthetic, and bought a couple of the books second hand. Of course could not really understand any of it (I can read hiragana and katakana but not really understand it, forget about kanji), so just had to appreciate it for the art. Loved Yutaka Izubuchi's association with RoLW, though I actually didn't really take notice of that work until after his mecha work and RahXephon.
 

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