Saturday, 22 February 2020

Diegetics of 'Ryuutama' Seasonal Dragons

One of the three interesting things that 'Savage World (Deluxe edition)' did when I read it first time, was to provide a page of quick optional rules that tweak the mechanics of SW in different ways. By combining these quick rules it is much easier to emulate a certain genre, such as pulp fiction, where heroes never die, or more gory barbarian tales.
Optional rules are nothing new but it was the first time when I saw them assembled in one place in corebook with clear purposes to give DM optional rules as their own genre/mood construction kit. I think more games and systems should do something similar from the start, instead of having optional rules scattered through the whole rulebook.

The other game where this idea is used even more than in 'Savage World' is 'Ryuutama': the cutesy, feel-good game about traveling through the unknown vibrant world, writing travelogues and, by the ways of its spirit world ecosystem, literally expanding said world by feeding said travelogues to seasonal dragons.

There two diegetic loops that exist in 'Ryuutama', one smaller and one bigger. Smaller loop is that travelogues exist both as PC-written documents in-world and an actual gaming chronicle for players. Despite my earlier fears, players don't actually need to write a lot of text (although they certainly can if they want), but the chronicle of who travelled, and to where, and what happened there is recorded for both PCs and players as a part of the gameplay. Both these documents enhance the life of participants in- and out-of-world: for PCs by literally expanding their world and making it more vibrant through abovementioned growth of seasonal dragons, and for players by levelling the special DM character called 'Ryuujin' (Dragon-person, RJ for short).

The second loop is directly tired to this Ryuujin, who is, in-world, presented as an intermediate link between the seasonal dragons and the travellers, between both the spiritual and the material, a being insubstantial and obscured everywhere except their own places of power and rare occasional moments they can manifest; the observer, the helper and, occasionally, the trickster or the adversary.

In-world Ryuujin are supposed to unnoticeably guide the party and influence the travel, so the resulting in-world travelogue would be a better nutrition for the seasonal dragon the Ryuujin is dedicated to, and that dragon, in turn, will make the world bigger and better. Out-of-world, the Ryuujin is the special DM character, and the number of travelogues finished by any particular group serves as XP for Ryuujin leveling progression.

Looks tasty; artwork from 'Ryuutama' corebook
Unlike other NPCs (which DM can still use just like in any other game), Ryuujin have their own rules of generation, their own powers and their own limitation in the form of Artifacts, Benedictions and Reveil. It is in those Artifacts and Benedictions (less so in Reveil) that the 'Savage World' page of optional rules comes to mind, because each RJ's Artifacts and Benedictions are simultaneously sets of out-of-world rules that affect the game in four different thematic ways, and are actual artifacts and spells the Ryuujin casts and uses within the game world, and which could be, presumably, stolen, lost or otherwise thwarted.

Each Ryuujin is dedicated to one of four seasonal dragons: Green of adventure and exploration, Azure of relationships and human drama, Crimson of battles and competitions, and Black of secrets, betrayals and tragedies – thus the Artifacts and Benedictions each Ryuujin gets reflect that theme both in-world and out-of-world terms. With leveling up, more of those Artifacts and Benedictions become available, and the Ryuujin with more powers changes the longer-going campaign by introducing new rules and influences as it unfolds. In this way DM can calibrate how difficult they can make a longer lasting campaign or where they want to take it, and this makes the campaign less uniform at its length.

Some of the Artifacts and Benedictions (i.e. changes they make) are odd to me, not by what they do but because in 'Ryuutama' they are the part of codified system of what is usually is just assumed to be there. For example, Encyclopedia artifact specifies that 'You are running the game using the rules as written.' which in a usual game would be just something DM says to the players ('I use RAW'), but here this is the part of the limits imposed onto DM through the Ryuujin; simultaneously it is also the actual magical encyclopedia RJ has and which might be stolen or lost. Longspear artifact '[...] determines in the setting that all the PCs are members of an army, and they are traveling in order to fulfill a mission for that army.' which, again, commonly will be something that decided by DM and players just because they'd like to play this way this time, but here is a part of the limited thematic options. Some Artifacts have more mechanical use such as Crystal from Azure Dragon ('All of the PCs can survive damage that reduces them as far as -20 HP.') which makes less deadly the game which is all about relationships and connections, and where losing a character could be more frustrating than in other themes. There are about three Artifacts per theme, but as Ryuujin levels up/the campaign goes on, they can level up into Artifact from a different theme, creating a mash-up of rules and moods.

Some artifacts from the same theme are contradictory by nature
Benedictions (and, to the lesser extend, Reveils) are a 'spell-rules', using for occasion and with more limited, immediate effect; some can be used for free in level-defined but limited number of slots, and others can be 'cast' on fly from RJ's (very limited) lifepoints, with possibility of death from overusing. As such, in neither way Benedictions are cast left and right on a whim, but they warp in-world reality/game mechanics in certain way when they come to play.

Some general ones, such as Misfortune ('Declare that the dice all come up as “1s” on a check.') simply affect dice rolls; more specific ones, such as The Tale of Nostalgia from Green Dragon ('If the PCs roleplay having nostalgia for home, they can ignore all negative effects of mind-based status effects for the rest of the session; this affects up to two PCs at once if they meet the conditions.') usually affect roleplay and gameplay at the same time, giving mechanical benefits for PCs' roleplaying action which encourage a related theme. Even more strange are Ritual Benedictions which come to play only after the seasonal dragon first matures and Ryuujin maxes the level (meaning experienced DM) – such as Ritual of Sleep ('If a player falls asleep in the middle of the session, their PC realizes that they lost their wallet. Their money decreases by their character level times d6 times 100G. [...]) which creates an in-world feedback for the player character for out-of-world player's direct actions, skipping the roleplaying part.

I am not sure if it creates more fun or paranoia at the table
'Ryuutama' is the only game I know with both very traditional game mechanic (HPs, to hit, classes, encumbrance etc) and codification of more narrative elements (together with group-created world, more typical to storygames). As a result, you can discuss anything that Ryuujin does and has both in-world and out-of-world in equal measure.

How to (possibly) use it
Returning to the page from 'Savage World' where all rules are just a kit to assemble as DM wishes, Four Dragons (whom I rename as Exploration, Connections, Challenges and Secrets) all follow strong themes, but the ability to cross-contaminate their Artifacts and Benedictions still opens up all kinds of interesting combinations. Despite 'Ryuutama' setup as heart-warming game, with some tweaking and/or renaming in Artifacts it is quite easy to run a darker game, especially because codewords for Secrets are "Intrigue, Betrayal, Solving mysteries, Assassination, Tragedy, Madness, Decay, Aesthetics, Deduction, Suspense, Madness, Fear, Confusion, Depravity, The Criminal Underworld, Gambling" already – and one of its artifacts, Dagger is "Once per journey, an NPC can die. No roll required." Going from there to run travel through the mind like "Yume Nikki" or post-apocalyptic world like "Lisa the Painful" is very much possible. Human connections could be involuntary, and Ring artifact could be portrayed as a collar or a link of chain: cross Challenges with Connection with Secrets to get something like dark fantasy of 'Berserk'. 

Four Dragons can be thematically tied to Tarot (because pretty much anything with symbolic base of four can be tied to Tarot, I suspect) and, re-skinned this way, with Major Arcana playing the role of Artifacts and Benedictions, genre-mood/rules system can be laid off more flat and accessible like 'Savage World' rules, while also using out-of-world gameplay of card dealing, shuffling and so on; it can be utilized for games set in some kind of chaos, be it an actual Warp, a dream or a wicked mind; it can be interesting to try it as a subsystem for running through unstable planar travels in moorcockian multiverse or in Reflections from 'Chronicles of Amber', for example.  

What about running such sub-system of theme rules in UltraViolet Grasslands, to reflect the strangeness of the travel into more and more unknown areas?

Step-by-step introduction of artifacts tied to RJ level can create twists in campaign on both narrative and gameplay level, but the limitations set onto DM through the RJ character's limitations, and leveling up of RJ along with levelling up of the PCs prevents rampant pile-up of such twists. As many things about 'Ryuutama', I am finding it all quite fascinating and wish I could run it to the length to see how it works in actual play.


  1. That's a really neat analysis of Ryuutama! I wasn't familiar with the game, thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you for reading. This is just a part of 'Ryuutama' which is, I think, packed with more small but interesting ideas.