Wednesday, 7 November 2018

OSR Attitudes in Current Japanese Pop Fantasy

A quick refresher: D&D is released in America; early computer RPGs are made based on the mechanics and aesthetics of D&D; the first JRPG Dragon Quest is based on those CRPGs; Dragon Quest becomes a household name and the "national game" of Japan; every subsequent fantasy game, comic and show made in Japan takes inspiration from DQ in one way or another, in much the same way that LOTR has commanded the direction of western fantasy media since its release.

To wit: the mechanics, themes and implied setting of D&D, presented in the art style of Akira Toriyama, provide the foundation for the general pop cultural understanding of the entire fantasy genre in Japan.
And right now, I feel as though Japan is having its own kind of OSR: not through TRPGs themselves (although there is certainly a whole lot of innovation going on in that sphere), but through that Japanese "pop fantasy" genre that owes D&D its lifeblood.

Here are three anime/manga series that are, at the time of writing, currently airing or ongoing. Each one, in its own way, harkens back to the origins of the hobby, and embodies the spirit of OSR gaming - simplicity, creativity and challenge.

Want some real D&D-esque media to sink your teeth into, a little more recent than the century-old pulp of Appendix N? Look no further.

Goblin Slayer

(anime currently airing, manga currently ongoing)

What's the big idea? In a world much like your average 5th Edition game (ok - exactly like that, and the author knows it), teams of adventurers go on quests to defeat monsters and earn fame and fortune. One man, however, only takes "low level" missions from the guild - specifically those focused on killing goblins. For him, these are not noble quests, but a constant gory and brutal struggle against an unending tide of vermin.

How is it OSR? While other characters in the Goblin Slayer's world go about their quests like video game characters, relying on their spells and skills, hoping to breeze through a day's goblin-killing like they're min-maxed Pathfinder characters, the titular hero knows the truth. Goblins don't fuck around, and this is not a game.

One hit can kill, and one mistake can mean doom. The Goblin Slayer attacks each mission with a cold, calculated methodology, using every tool on his belt, researching his enemy, even misusing classic D&D spells. He's like your favourite OSR player: boundlessly creative, never taking things at face value, and surviving by his wits over his character sheet.

The Guide's Verdict: Be warned: the grimdark vibe isn't just for show. There are mild scenes of gore, and in particular depictions of sexual violence, that will likely put a fair number of people off. Personally, it felt gratuitous and a bit too much like what TV Tropes calls Author Appeal. If you don't mind that, however, this is a bold and engaging series, with a strong but silent lead who captures the classic D&D player perfectly.

That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime

(anime currently airing, light novel and manga finished)

What's the big idea? So there's a sub-genre in anime that's been done to death recently called isekai, or "other world". Generally, some dude gets sucked into a fantasy world, either similar to or literally a MMORPG, and while in the real world he was a loser, the fantasy setting gives him a path to greatness and a way with the ladies. At its best, this genre is an engaging take on a fairly standard fantasy story - at its worst, a lukewarm rehash of the same old anime tropes, with enough fanservice to cause a nosebleed epidemic.

That Time I Got Reincarnated As A Slime is a comedy pastiche of the genre in which a boring salaryman turns up in a fantasy land, not as their new messiah, but as the low level generic monster any Japanese gamer will be familiar with - the humble slime.

How is it OSR? This fantasy land operates on a Skill system, much like a video game or certain crunchy TRPGs. Rimuru the Slime, with only his basic slimy Skills at his disposal, must make clever and creative use of them if he wants to make his way in this world - and he does so with style.

While the Skills our main character learns seem vital to the plot at first, they quickly take a back seat to Rimuru's own ingenuity, common sense and business management acumen. He treats the world like a real place and its people like real people, and the world rewards him by proving him right.

The Guide's Verdict: A charming lead and playful comedic tone blend well with a supporting cast and setting that show surprising depth - it's much more than just a wacky satire on other shows and games. TTIGRAAS may be a few steps removed from TRPGs, but the way the show eschews video game logic in favour of creative problem solving is pure OSR.

Dungeon Meshi ("Delicious in Dungeon")

(manga currently ongoing, anime... please)

What's the big idea? An old sorcerer sealed a great treasure in an underground labyrinth, which over time has developed its own weird ecosystem of magic and monsters. Adventurers delve into the dungeon to earn their keep, but a disastrously failed attempt leaves one merry band down half their squad, and what's more, both their pockets and stomachs are empty. That is until their slightly eccentric leader decides they can save money, and delve deeper than ever, by cooking and eating the monsters they kill.

How is it OSR? The whole thing is a megadungeon! Literally, we begin with a dungeon and a dragon - the TRPG influences are clear. More than that, the OSR spirit of play is in full force, with each subsequent chapter finding our heroes overcoming some new monster or challenge, often by the skin of their teeth, through lateral thinking and creativity.

Despite moments of comedy, the tone remains realistic - this is a seinen, without any of the usual anime over-the-top showiness, which keeps things feeling grounded. The sense of danger is real, and our adventuring party are people, not heroes. The dungeon itself, strange and intriguing, emanating dread and yet alluringly full of life, is almost its own character, as fully realised and as engaging as the best adventure modules.

The Guide's Verdict: Ryoko Kui's art, inviting and warm while still painstakingly detailed, elevates her nuanced, character-focused writing to the level of an instant classic. Dungeon Meshi is the most engaging comic series I've read in a long time, fantasy or otherwise. My own history with Japanese cuisine might have something to do with how much it speaks to me personally, but even outside the foodie throughline, these are characters I want to spend more time with, and a world I'm itching to explore. Read it.


Alex Chalk said...

Thanks for this post, would love to see the "weeaboo nonsense" tag keep growing.

Would love to hear your thoughts on what a "DQ sensibility" might be and how it might overlap with OSR vibes. One of my ongoing struggles is making the monsters in my game feel more like those in DQ...

D. G. Chapman said...

I briefly touched on DQ monsters here:

I think there are things you can't translate from a video game, like the XP grind, that are pretty fundamental to how monsters function in DQ. Any solution is probably going to be more about attitude and tone than mechanics

Spwack said...

"Imagination is a weapon, those who lack it are the first to do"

Well said, faceless edgy anime protagonist! Goblin Slayer is definitely both OSR and gratuitously anime. Ah well, can't have everything I suppose. Thank you for the recommendation!