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