Tuesday, 30 June 2020

Review of Ryuutama: Just Four Damn Dice Rolls After Another

I have been running a campaign of Ryuutama for the last couple of months. I want to make clear at the outset that the campaign itself is a very enjoyable one, and that it is ongoing - although I've been terrible at updating the AP reports here on the blog, and life as always foils the ambition of weekly play. I always look forward to the sessions.

With all of that said, though, I'm not very impressed with the system itself.

Ryuutama suffers partly from being over-hyped; it seems that for a while whenever I saw anybody on the internet enquiring about games focusing on overland travel, this would without fail be the recommendation. This is undoubtedly partly the result of what I am increasingly thinking of as Japanflation, the phenomenon that things from Japan are evaluated unjustifiably highly simply because they are Japanese. (This is something that I first really noticed with respect to whisky; it affects RPGs as well, it seems.) But I think it is also likely just a function of the fact that there are so few games out there that seek to do what Ryuutama purportedly does, which is to make the game mostly about the joys of travel and the process of the journey.

The issue is that ultimately Ryuutama in its RAW form feels more like a board game than an RPG, and when you stop playing it in its RAW form, it ceases to be interesting or unique.

What do I mean when I say that it is more like a board game than an RPG? The answer is that the core of the system - the journey rules - are really just a series of dice rolls that the players make to determine how far they can travel, whether they get lost, how healthy they are, and whether they sleep well. It is in this respect just a somewhat more complicated version of Snakes and Ladders; while the PCs can do various things to improve their chances of success, such as buying special equipment and casting spells, once they have done this a journey is in essence simply four dice rolls that have to be performed each day. And the rules are quite explicit about this (although the author does have the sense to feel embarrassed about it):

One of the most important things to remember about Journey Checks is that they should not feel like a series of simple, silent die rolls, to be made over and over again on the journey between points A and B. Every success should prompt an in-character reaction. Every failure should set up an interesting challenge or role-play scene in the game. The GM should embellish the description of what happens, or perhaps leave it to the players to tell the group how they managed to succeed, or what occurred when they failed. While, yes, they are a series of static, rules-based die rolls, Journey Checks should immediately prompt role-playing and potentially create new twists in the story. Don’t let them become a rote chore that silences the players and just produces numeric results. [Emphasis added.]

This is weak sauce indeed: just roll the dice four times, over and over again, and then do a bit of role-playing in between or make up a challenge simply isn't good RPG design. What really surprised me was the discovery that there is no systematic method for generating events or encounters at all - they are all supposed to be either pre-scripted or spontaneously invented (with no advice or method for beginner GMs on how to go about doing this). I ultimately came to the conclusion that the best approach was to use these four 'journey check' rolls to feed into random event tables: if the journey check shows that the PCs get lost, or one of them has poor condition. then this results in a further roll on the relevant random table and you can then find out why they're lost and what happens, etc. But I had to come up with that idea entirely through my own initiative - there is no suggestion of it in the rules themselves. You could quite easily play Ryuutama as just a more or less endless series of dice rolls punctuated by arrivals at towns with pre-scripted scenarios and little role-played vignettes to break up the monotony. And, horrifyingly, I think that is actually how it is envisaged to be played by its creator.

The board-gamey feel also extends to combat, which admittedly is more like Battleships or Othello than Snakes and Ladders, although the true inspiration is clearly the Final Fantasy combat system. PCs and monsters arrange themselves in two ranks facing each other. They can shift back and forth between ranks. And they can attack enemies and defend themselves and do a few 'special moves'. And, er, that's about it. No real fluidity, no creativity, no movement. As soon as anybody tries to do anything interesting or intelligent, the system collapses and the GM just has to make something up. This is forgivable in OD&D, which was the first ever RPG and which had a 'punk' aesthetic and a highly flexible set of rules, and which concedes the power to make on the spot adjudications and house rules to individual DMs as a design choice. It is much less forgivable in a game which purports to be genuinely systematic.

Faced with the repetitiveness and rigidity of the rules, the GM ends up resorting to what he knows best, and stops really playing Ryuutama and running a red-headed bastard child of D&D masquerading as Ryuutama instead. We use the Ryuutama skills and stats and perform the journey checks, but in the end there isn't a great deal of difference between rolling STR+DEX to hit rather than THAC0, or rolling a journey check versus rolling to check if there is a random encounter. If anything, D&D's rules for travelling, such as they are, are more fully formed in that at least they give you a method for determining who the PCs meet while travelling and how they respond to them. Ryuutama doesn't have a single random encounter table or even tell a beginner GM what one is, nor any method for determining chance encounters or events on the road beyond 'just make things up as and when you feel like it, or pre-plot events', which I think in a game about overland travel is pretty unforgivable.

Ultimately, what I was hoping for was that Ryuutama would be a game that made interacting with the landscape itself interesting. It does not even come close to doing this. It might be just about possible to fiddle about with it until it did, but it would probably be simpler to start from scratch. I'm disappointed in it - although in its defence I do like the art and the occidentalist atmosphere that the images evoke.

1 1/2 Becs des corbins

12 comments:

  1. Hmmm, I see it as a lose-lose dilemma. Currently I am struggling with a couple of campaigns where I am a player. In one you have the whole set watches, roll perception, nothing ( or occasionally something) happens. Half an hour of gaming wasted to no purpose ... Give me those four simple dice rolls. In the other the battle preparations are obviously informed by the players wargaming / army reserve backgrounds and are not clearly associated with the skills, background or culture of the characters.
    Where is the middle ground. I predict that if you go back to D&D style detail you will soon be again longing for the simplicity of four dice rolls.

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    1. I think for me the issue is not the fact that it's a simple set of four dice rolls. It's that the process of rolling them is boring and provides you with no real information: this is how far you get, this is how healthy you are, this is if you get lost, and this is how well you sleep. Rince and repeat. I want to know what happens on the way.

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  2. Yeah you get this problem in general with "scene resolution" mechanics. A lot of player cleverness just gets abstracted away. They can be a good springing off point for roleplay but they often end up basically telling the player "you can make any choice you want, but it doesn't matter."

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  3. I don't think there's anything that's impossible to model in an RPG, but some things are harder than others. The stuff that breaks down into a series of stepped, conscious choices, like combat (ish) feels natural in an RPG. A continuous, semi-conscious experience like a journey is much harder to model with the standard RPG toolset. I have no ideas.

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  4. The One Ring is a bit like this. The designers recognise the importance of travelling in Tolkien's books so have put a bunch of systems in place to capture that, but they all feel a bit disassociated and the end result is players making a series of systematic dice rolls. It is a nice, well-designed system, but it does feel board gamey.

    To be fair, TOR does have more going on in other parts of the game, but that big chunk feels odd and out of place.

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    1. I will have to read TOR more thoroughly one day.

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  5. Many of these essential problems are also present in The One Ring RPG, but there are suggested events for travel events as a result of failed Travel rolls. The GM is shown that they should be adding and expanding this list, because they're going to run out of the given examples quickly. TOR even has the "row" concept going on, though that's less to emulate the JRPG style and more to put the vulnerable people in the middle of the marching order.

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    1. This is the thing. What I have come up with is a system of random event tables which get activated, as it were, depending on the results of the rolls. It kind of works. But it isn't any thanks to Ryuutama that it exists!

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  6. yeah, I've had problems with finding a system that actually makes a journey feel like a journey, especially when the PCs are following a road or river and not doing a traditional hexcrawl exploration. It's disappointing that yet another system fails to live up to the hype. I've thought about trying to adapt the journey rules from the One Ring, but I have yet to play it, so I don't know if they actually accomplish what I want.

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    1. I will have a think about it one day. It may have something to do with the "reaction dice rolls which create the world" idea I had ages ago.

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