What the hell is “Natural Fantasy”? Atsuhiro Okada’s Ryuutama bills itself as a “natural fantasy” roleplaying game, but it doesn’t really give much of an overt definition of that. So far as I can tell, the general aim of the game is to provide an experience reminiscent of the Dragon Quest or early Final Fantasy games in terms of having a charmingly wholesome atmosphere, a lot of travel, slimes as a low-level adversary in combat, and adorable artwork. There’s also a certain emphasis in the setting background on the idea that the world is a natural, interconnected system which people are just as much a part of as anything else, with various natural terrains being inhabited by dragons of various sorts reflecting those zones and descended from the dragons that created the world.
The dragons are also how one of the game’s quirkier angles creeps in: you see, this is the game where the referee has their own character, who levels up as the referee runs game sessions and the player characters progress. Specifically, this character is a Ryuujin – a sort of dragon spirit whose job it is to create travelogues detailing the journeys of travelling adventurers (said stories acting as delicious food for the dragon your Ryuujin serves).
In the hands of an irresponsible or inexperienced referee, throwing in a personal avatar like the Ryuujin could lead to disaster – but naturally Ryuujin incorporates a reasonable amount of guidance as to how to use your Ryuujin – as a questgiver, as a fellow PC, as an unseen helper, or as an apparently irrelevant observer as the situation fits. Your Ryuujin also has various powers they can use to intervene in the course of the game and jazz up the story, and the particular type of dragon they are associated with has an influence on this and shapes the type of action which predominates in your Ryuutama campaign.
As well as providing a quirky twist to proceedings, the concept really nicely illustrates the “be a fan of the player characters” style of refereeing – and specifically honing in on the right kind of fan for putting that advice into effect. The Ryuujin is essentially that sort of than – the type who on the one hand has a decent affection for the characters, doesn’t want the characters to die pointlessly, and in general doesn’t take an adversarial approach to them, but on the other hand also wants to be entertained by the characters and thrill to their triumphs (and so won’t just deliver everything up on a plate to them).
When I say that the book clearly illustrates this concept, I mean it. The artwork by Ayako Nagamori (with a few bits and pieces here and there by Toyuki Mizusaka) is really exceptionally good, both in terms of creating this endearing and heart-meltingly cute atmosphere and in terms of tying the artwork into concepts in the text it’s illustrating. You’d think this would go without saying, but how many games have you read where there’s been some random illustration of a random warrior dude set next to, oh, I dunno, the stats for turnip harvesting or something?
Other interesting system points in Ryuutama include a procedure for travel which manages to combine on the one hand a healthy appreciation for the nuts and bolts of the process like navigation and food supplies, and on the other hand a realisation that travel in RPGs quickly becomes boring if it doesn’t yield interesting roleplaying and encounters. A set travel procedure was, back in the day, a cornerstone of old editions of Dungeons & Dragons, but aside from The One Ring and a few other games isn’t widely embraced in other fantasy RPGs, but the structure and sense of routine it gives a game of Ryuutama seems appropriate to the genre at hand.
Just as in old-school JRPGs you often ended up travelling about a lot before the lore of the world slowly revealed itself to you, Ryuutama has guidelines for collaborative setting creation which it encourages you to implement midway through a campaign, letting your first few adventures take place free of such constraints. This is pretty clever because it means that if there are any particular emergent themes that have developed in earlier sessions, you can use those to guide your worldbuilding decisions. Other useful setting development procedures include guidelines for constructing towns and scenarios, which makes the game nicely manageable in terms of prep time.
Originally released in Japan in December 2007, Ryuutama got translated into English by Matt Sanchez and Andy Kitkowski with funding through a Kickstarter campaign. I’ve written before about the advantages of producing a translation of an RPG which has already gained some traction in its original language; here we have another advantage, which is that between the experiences raised by the Japanese-speaking Ryuutama play community and the questions raised by backers during the Kickstarter Sanchez and Kitkowski are able to produce a handy extra Q&A section at the end of the main text offering useful clarifications, suggestions, additions and modifications.
In producing the translation, Sanchez and Kitkowski do their best to retain the approach and overall style to the original, to the point where they adopt a few quirks which are apparently distinctive to the Japanese RPG scene; apparently, in Japan people refer to tabletop RPGs as “table talk RPGs”, in light of the fact that the game primarily unfolds through conversation. Perhaps this is in part for essentially weeaboo reasons, Sanchez and Kitkowski’s Kotodama Heavy Industries publishing imprint being dedicated to producing English translations of Japanese RPGs, but when you are dealing with material so drenched in atmosphere as this it probably helps. They’re very keen to compare it to a Miyazaki/Studio Ghibli take on Oregon Trail, which really is an apt way to sum up the innocent sense of wonder and heartwarmingly charming nature of the whole thing. Out of all my Dragonmeet grabs this year, this might well be the one I’m most pleased with.