Ryuutama is a bit of an oddity.
If RPGs were cliches, Ryuutama would be that single day where an abusive parent suddenly took their child to Disneyland and behaved like a decent human so they had a great time and a child was left with a lot of uncertainty just how much of a bastard this abusive parent was.
It is also for kids. At least as far as general consensus goes, because amidst games that have badasses kill gods and take their loot/place, 'Ryuutama' is a feel-good game, heartwarming game, the game that has its own word in Japanese, but not really a game concept in English. That kind of game that you can show to your fear-mongreling politician or elderly Victorian aunt and say 'look, it is not all about killing, taking forbidden substances and looting'.
Because while Ryuutama has combat mechanic, in the example adventure monsters run away and beg for forgiveness, and it is strongly presumed you won't slit their throats on spot. It has cat-like goblins with kitten-like goblin children and item quality tag that says 'cute', with cuteness of the item being its only advantage. By default it has no brothels in it, no arenas, no murderhouses and no sadistic wizards. You main adversary is usually a terrain, bad weather and your own inept survival skills.
I don't know of anybody with experience of RPGs and above the age of 10 who didn't find this game boring when they've heard what it is about. The only other person who ever thought that this concept was kind of interesting was my 40-something years old bookkeeper friend, who is into young adult fiction and writing. 'Ryuutama' is a kind of game where usual gaming mindset would negate the whole point of playing this particular game as there are numerous others games what do deadly dungeons, epic paths and just murderhobo roaming much better already.
I'm finding Ryuutama fascinating because:
- it is about the journey, the stuff that is usually skipped with maybe a couple of random encounters between dungeons in other games. Here the journey is a main part, and encounters are dressings.
- there is a pretty good system for navigation; I really like how the difficulty is a combination of Terrain+Weather;
- there are no dungeons as the main unit of adventures; such encounters are more outdoors and/or social, many scenarios are rudimentary, barely lasting a session;
- it has an official DM character that sets up the genre and variant rules of the story;
- every 'class' can do magic if they are so choose;
- it full of crafty little systems that work well to support its main idea and add some complexity;
- it is 'points of light' setting that I'm not finding fully trite; in a way it is a group-created hexcrawl, only without a safe base city to return to - you just go and go, and map the world as you go;
- 'Ryuutama' world is literally expanded by the abovementioned DM characters feeding baby dragons stories of your travels;
- terrain and weather dragons here are not your usual dragons and their pictures are very creative;
- the layout of the book will not win any awards but it supports the very 'nature-oriented' feel of the Ryuutama; in 200+ pages you get Book of Spring (character generation), Book of Summer (rules), Book of Autumn (DM Guide) and Book of Winter (the bestiary). All sections are colour-coded too, although by no means concise and too efficiently organized.
The unique premise of the game is that in a world of Ryuutama all people at some point of their lives experience the intense wanderlust and go on Pilgrimage, a journey with big 'J'. Other travels might occur earlier or later but the Pilgrimage is where the game is taking its place. For some people the wanderlust is just big enough to travel to the next village, and for some it is big enough to aim for horizon, so the scope will vary, but at the end the wanderlust ends and the pilgrim goes on with their life.
I'm finding this concept fascinating on several levels.
1) Its embedded finality of the story on the level of the world itself. The game starts and ends along with the Pilgrimage. While the goal of the travel is up to the players/characters, and interesting events fill the travel itself, the Pilgrimage has the tapping of geas, something that the people of the world do not do entirely on their own volition. You cannot stay in those settlements you find on your way and start solving their problems if your Pilgrimage didn't end yet; and by the same vein, you won't have time to explore any kind of big dungeon even if you'd find such. Brief stop for rest and off you go.
And if you decide that the Pilgrimage ends here so you can go into big dungeon, the story of your travels ends, and the game ends too, with said dungeon being an epilogue.
2) Pilgrims are usual people - in this sense 'Ryuutama' is very humble. Your classes are 'merchant', 'farmer', 'minstrel', 'noble', 'artisan', healer'', 'hunter' and maybe 'sailor' if we ever get an expansion. In other games those would be backgrounds, a tertiary feature, something that just barely defined our place in the world before 'real life' of adventuring with adventuring-focused classes started but here all those vocations are our place in the world. 'Ryuutama' has your usual battle-, specialist- and magic- types in addition to classes but there they are secondary features, as pilgrims are presumed to return to their homes once the Pilgrimage is done - slightly more experienced and wiser, and with better stuff, but return nevertheless. Bilbo's journey in 'Hobbit' would fit 'Ryuutama' mood quite well. Also all NPCs either had or will have their own Pilgrimage too, nobody is a Chosen One.
3) During the Pilgrimage the band of pilgrims is observed from the distance by Ryuujin, a polymorphed maybe-dragon who is one of 1001 'hidden caretakers of the world' fluff-wise and a special DM character system-wise. There are four types of Ryuujins and each type sets the genre and variant rules that support that genre; they level up to get more tools to influence the story as the Pilgrimage goes on. For example, Green Ryuujin is all about exploration, with variant rules that make exploration easier, or harder, or different. The idea that variant rules and genre conventions are actual in-world powers and your DM character is also levels up instead of being omnipotent from the beginning is kind of neat.
4) The setting of Ryuutama is gradually group-created, with a presumption that everybody is on the same page with what they expect from it (so no killer clowns from outer space in medieval fairy tales). By default it is 'points of light' and I found that the Pilgrimage premise gives me the best feel of such setting: separate settlements between long and difficult journeys. Because the journeys aren't skipped such world would probably feel more authentic 'points of light' than regular monster-filled wastelands where you have 3 battles on a way to emulate that danger and 'then they travelled without problem for two months' line for the rest of it.
The world is also not malicious. It has its dangers (mostly weather and terrains, sometimes monsters) but is a feel-good game, so at the best, it is challenging or sorrowful. Kind of like Painted World of Ariandel, only without crazy crow people who want to murder you on every step.
5) the magic supports this notion: even with two magical systems running in parallel, spells are very few and simple. There are some healing and combat oriented spells but there are also spells that make the moon to appear in the sky, detect people in love and flowers to bloom. That is, they don't do anything else, but they are part of the magic of the world nevertheless. I don't ever recall any other game with such impractical spells that serve nothing but creation of maybe beautiful moment.
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But I don't think that I can ever play Ryuutama and this is why.
- It goes against what is usually considered to be fun in RPGs.
Finding a group is impossible in the city where the top of the game is Pathfinder path (this is a tragic story for another time). As I've mentioned I've found just one person who isn't a child and who thought that the game is maybe a good idea, but she doesn't play usual RPGs either. Default Ryuutama is said to be 'Studio Gibli' kind of game and I fully agree. It is friendly, highly idealistic, platonic in sense of sex, cooperative, mostly non-violent game where you supposed to spare monsters, enjoy many days of a grassland and not be a jerk to your teammates. There are no ancient battlefields that eat your souls, no bloody spirits that moan murder, no chaos vortexes, no child abuse, no drug abuse, no sinister conspiracies, no famine, no wars. As a side effect, it doesn't create a big overarching stories with complex villains and powerful curses. Its scenarios are mostly very small and human-based - something you briefly touсh on your way before going farther.
It does its own heartwarming thing very well, but there isn't much depth into it if you aren't fully into these kinds of things. And if you are into soul-eating worlds many more games and settings do it much better, so no reasons to play this one.
- It makes people to write stuff and roleplay journeys
And I don't mean an inventory, although this too - there are supplies to keep a track on, maps to draw, etc. But it makes you to actually write travelogues, or, at least, pages from them, and roleplay travelling nostalgia for XP. Navigation/survival/travel mechanic give a good idea of what actually is going on day to day, but I suspect that very few people are into writing actual character diaries even in more dynamic kind of games.
Myself I'm not even sure I won't find it boring after a session or two. There is just so much pages I can write about friendly cat-goblings and fluffy clouds.
- It is not about powering up, being a badass and saving the loot/girl/world.
Ryuutama is very subdued, comparatively. In a sense it is antipower fantasy. Sure, you have adventures, gain XP and level up but this isn't a focus. You don't do crazy stuff and shoot Godzillas through an eye. You not supposed to be cruel or even indifferent to the world but you are not supposed to gain glory and power from your good deeds either. The highest form of magic is incredibly weak by DnD standarts and very-very limited, so there isn't much for sense of wonder or tools to influence the world, both as PCs or NPCs. While it has a crafting system of sort, it doesn't appeal well to hunter-gatherer parts of human nature either.
* * *
It is what I instinctively want to do with it because I not idealistic enough to believe a world of such cuteness, peace and friendliness - professional deformation, in a sense, that makes me search for cynical, vulgar undertones anywhere I go. Ryuutama does have some undertones even in default book: the Pilgrimage feels like a geas on behalf of hidden and powerful Ryuujins, and there is that strange monster, called 'Egg' of unknown origin, which looks like an cat-to-child-sized egg with human arms and legs. It is supposed to be sentient enough to be able to ride unicorns, but who is 'prized for their delicious insides". I mean, when I've read it, I've just imagined that Apostle who became Behelit in 'Berserker' sold as delicacy on a local friendly market, innards out.
I can run 'BLAME!' on it, with some small work. Endless journey through The City, with Netsphere going crazy/protective as Ryuujin and Silicone Life as adversaries.
Four-genre dragon system is very powerful, actually. Exploration of Green Dragon might mean inner search, so I can run 'fragmented mind' kind of adventure, with 'terrains' being memories. BIue Dragon of Human Heart also mean connections, and connections don't have to be voluntarily - slavery and sacrifice are also connection, in a sense. Red Dragon of Action is about overcoming challenges but also about revenge. I can add the Fifth Dragon, White, of fading, self-destruction and non-existence, whose presence is diminished by other four, and run Dark Souls-like story of world ending with a whimper. Black Dragon of Secrets also responsible for tragedies, assassinations and madness, and there is a vast field to use those.
But again, I feel like grittification will defeat the whole point of 'Ryuutama' existence, as there are already many games and settings that do all of it and better. So for me that game remains a sort of holy relic, that I admire from a blood-soaked distance and maybe even worship a bit for its uniqueness, but don't actually touch.