Friday, 3 April 2020

The Real World is Weird Enough/Getting the Band Back Together - Ryuutama AP, Pt 1

Last night I sat down virtually with Patrick Stuart, Nate and David W to play Ryuutama.

At one time this was a real-life weekly gaming group - we played campaigns of Apocalypse World, Cyberpunk 2020, D&D/Yoon-Suin, and a heck of a lot of one-shots and story games, many of which I can no longer remember (although Microscope and In a Wicked Age were certainly two of them). We continued to play Pendragon and D&D 5e for some years online, but had not really sat down to game a great deal together since, I would say, 2015 or 2016. It was great to get the band back together.

I was indeed going to use that phrase as the title for the campaign, but I also liked what Patrick said when discussing whether to play Ryuutama straight (as whimsical, charmingly bucolic occidental fantasy akin to the setting of Secret of Mana), or "weird". As he put it, the real world is weird enough. Rightly or wrongly - I won't venture into the debate here - the UK is now effectively a police state and the population is under indefinite curfew. These are not normal times.

That said, things got weird fast - within less than 5 minutes, in fact. But whatever. Here's an AP report:

The World

Ryuutama lets the players create the world together. Yes, it's that sort of game. But I generally enjoy that kind of thing. The world we created is called Xoft (some Vance with your Ryuutama, sir?). It is carried on the back of a giant horned frog swimming in the cosmic ocean, and bears the scars of great floods from when the frog last submerged itself beneath the waves. One of the horns - possibly both - houses a vast city whose people regularly make war against those living on the plains on the frog's back. Recently, a pangolin-shaped meteorite flew across the night sky and, afterwards, giant tadpoles wriggled up from below the earth, as though emerging from the frog's back like a Suriname toad. There is also a problem of dessertification and a 'dinotopia' of semi-intelligent dinosaurs with human companions.

Yeah, not exactly what I think of when somebody says "charming occidental bucolic fantasy", but there's already plenty I know I can get my teeth into.

The Characters

  • Jojotekina Gyoza ("Jojo"), a technical minstrel armed with a flute
  • Kestrel, an attack-type hunter who bears a mysterious scroll that he believes he must deliver to somebody, whose identity he does not know
  • Ogesana Fall, a magic-type noble, and his trusty but ignoble donkey, Bartholemew
  • Virid, the GMPC (Ryuutama has these, but they don't do too much and don't really appear initially), a mysterious green-bearded old man
Ogesana Fall is the leader, partly because he is a noble, and partly because he insisted on it.

What Happened

The PCs began in Hebron Hill, the beginning of their voyage of exploration, which all people on Xoft traditionally do at least once in their lives. The nature of the world is such that each town exists somewhat in isolation due to "reasons", which means nobody really knows anything about other settlements elsewhere on the vast expanse of the frog's back. Voyages of exploration take place to find out, but each such voyage is paradoxically also different from all the others.

It was raining when they set off, and this had the effect almost straight away of weakening Jojo and Kestrel from the sapping effects of the cold and damp.

The PCs decided to get out of the rain. They knew that due north were mountains, north-east were forests, north-west were forests mixed with marshes, south-west were grassy prairies, and south-east were more arid plains. Ogesana Fall, in the mistaken belief that the forests and marshes to the north-east were full of delightful nature spirits while those to the north-west were full of man-eating spiders, suggested north-east. They headed off in that direction, and soon discovered it was dark, gloomy, overgrown, and, basically rather like Mirkwood Forest. They made slow progress.

By mid afternoon they realised that they were approaching a lake. And through the trees, they could make out the threatening shape of a griffon, perched on the shore and gazing at something in the water. The griffon apparently realised they were there, but was unwilling to get into the thickness of the forest where it would be unable to fly. The PCs knew that griffons liked to eat horse flesh, but not humans particularly.

Jojo, remembering that the people of Hebron Hill had a folk tale about a griffon called the Voice of the Sky who they placated with offerings, thought that it might be friendly if given an 'offering' of music. He took out his flute and approached playing a seductive melody which seemed at least to reassure the griffon there was no danger. It crept off along the shoreline, still looking at something in the water.

The PCs decided to investigate. The water was pregnant and dark and pattered with raindrops, but something could definitely be seen lurking below the surface. Thinking it was fish, Kestrel approached with an arrow drawn, ready to try to spear it. But then four humanoid zombie-things burst free from the surface, covered in lake-filth, weeds and sediment, making to pull our brave explorers into the depths.

A very one-sided fight ensued. Ogesana Fall buckled his swash, swinging from willow branches and dancing on top of ants' nests and boulders and thrusting his rapier. Jojo led three of the zombies on a merry chase up the shore, while Kestrel peppered them with arrows. And then the griffon swooped in to finish off the last one, dragging it away to devour.

A job well done. But the PCs realised that in all the excitement Ogesana's donkey, Bartholomew, was missing. He had clearly been spooked by the violence, or else the presence of the griffon, and decided to find somewhere safer. A search instantly took place, Kestrel tracking the donkey's path through the bracken; by late afternoon they finally found him, after having been led very far off their way indeed. He was in a clearing on a small hill rising up above the trees, silhouetted against the skyline - and next to him was a large, imposing windmill built of black stone.

Ogesana summoned the donkey, but as soon as this took place the owner of the windmill appeared. This was a woman in her late 50s, with long grey-blonde hair down to her toes, smoking a pipe that was emitting vast plumes of foul-smelling smoke. From the windmill a flock of chattering starlings at that moment took flight, soaring into the air in a swarming cloud before settling back on the roof, hissing and whistling to each other like many gossiping children. The PCs thought there was a reasonable likelihood this was a witch. They hoped, quote, it was "one of the good ones".

Samantha invited them into the windmill. In it, they found a homely kitchen and pantry with a bed to one side, the only unusual object being a large flat bowl full of impossibly clear water, resting on a plinth. Samantha made them an offer. They could stay the night in complete security and safety, and indeed could return to do so whenever they wished. But in return they would have to agree to whatever request was placed on them in the morning, and fulfil it. Ogesana ventured that they should agree, whereupon Samantha took his word as an oath, binding on the whole group. For good or ill, the PCs settled down for the night.


And we paused there. Because it was our first time with the system the fight took ages, and we didn't have much longer than 90 minutes available. I already wonder about Ryuutama. I like the 'feel' of the art and mood. I am not sure that the system can survive the scrutiny of experienced RPGers, particularly of the 'old school' stripe. The combat system, for instance, is highly abstract and based essentially on the Final Fantasy model, with the PCs and monsters being arranged in "ranks" and taking turns to attack each other. This quickly fell apart the instant anybody began to think outside the box with the scenery and environment - which indeed happened almost instantly. The way the system makes travel 'interesting' is also contingent on placing what are effectively random conditions on the PCs through a fairly boring series of dice rolls which you are then supposed to 'role play' to bring to life. It is not big on PC agency as a factor in determining what happens and how bad it is. And I am not sure that what we achieved ultimately would have been any different had we been using BECMI D&D. With that said, I really enjoyed the session - it was great fun and I'm already looking forward to next Thursday.


  1. Your criticisms are the same as mine after I ran it: "I am not sure that what we achieved ultimately would have been any different had we been using BECMI D&D." Although the setting, procedures, and art can produce a different feel that standard D&D.

    1. I do like the innocent vibe - it felt very much like it could be a game based on The Hobbit. But in practice I am not sure it works.

  2. I had the same experience with Ryuutama. Which is a shame. It sells itself as being one of the only "travel" RPGs around, and gets recommended like CRAZY, but it does this by giving players random handicaps based on random tables, and not really engaging with "choice" which makes games fun.

    1. That's very disappointing to hear. I'd heard good things about it and really love the idea of wedding that Oregon Trail feel to D&D and to hear how divorced it is from player choice is disappointing.

      Any RPGs that give that OSR Oregon Trail feel with more player choice?

    2. Yeah, it feels more like a board game, to me, than an RPG. It's almost like each day you just pull from the Chance or Community Chest deck to find out how your character gets dicked over.

      I have attempted to streamline things and make them a bit more 'old school', in case you're interested. What I do is have the PCs do a 'travel check' and, if they fail, that means there is a random threat that day. I then roll a d6 to determine the nature of the threat, meaning which of the different 'conditions' it applies to (poison, injury, shock, sickness, etc.). I then have a random table for each of those potential conditions. I then treat this like a random encounter which the PCs might be able to avoid or defeat. Not sure if that makes sense to you but it seems like a fast and dirty hack that puts in a bit more player agency.

    3. I hear very good things about "Ultraviolet Grasslands" as an Oregon Trail-inspired experience

  3. That's an enjoyable recap. Curious how the random rolls generated the ongoing encounter. Did you find your initial world set up/brainstorming affected the events of the travels?