Friday, May 31, 2013

Sword World RPG for OFRGAD

Sword World RPG for OFRGAD

As I noted in an earlier post about the Dragon Half RPG, the tropes of D&D would be reflected and recontextualized in many ways in different countries. The first major Japanese re-creation of fantasy roleplaying was the Sword World RPG by Group SNE, originally published in 1989. Sword World set the pattern for fantasy RPGs in Japan, offering not only core rulebooks (basic, advanced, & monsters) in the pocketsize format so familiar to Japanese gamers, but also the replay (basically the transcript of a gaming session) and novelizations. It also saw a fullsize book, a revised edition, and currently Sword World 2.0 graces the shelves of any new bookstore in Japan, while second hand bookstores shelves groan under the weight of rulebooks, replays, and adventures for the older edition.

 The original edition I am holding is a 440 page pocketsized tome devoid of art except a psychedelic snake-wrapped swordhilt on the cover and a minimalist setting map.
Although later editions such as the monster manual had some art by the incredible Yoshitaka Amano, and the fullsize edition was gorgeously illustrated, the book I have looks like a trigonometry text. There are 19 chapters in the book: Welcome, Characters, Skills, Combat, Armed Combat, Magic, Adventurer Skills Other Than Battle or Magic, Character Growth, Character Making, FAQ, Combat Notes for GMs, Magic Notes, Skill Notes, Monsters, Treasure, Awarding XP, Advanced Combat Options, Magic Options, Monster Skill Options, ending with Designer Notes and a Chart Book. The poor organization and focus on combat really betrays the early fan origins of Sword World, and it is a wonder that Group SNE is still in business and has made some fine rpgs like Lodoss and Paradise Fleet since Sword World.

Sword World reads like a trigonometry text as well, and that is not a good thing. There are tables of effects for combat rolls and more tables of trivial modifications for attributes. The example of filling in a character sheet looks like a flowchart for taxes. All in all, not fun, which is a shame because the Dragon Half RPG which is derived from Sword World reads, looks, and probably runs ten times better and is a hundred times more enjoyable. The system is 2d6 plus mods, check a spreadsheet for result. Ho hum.

The setting is the New Kingdoms of Fosseria in the Age of the Sword. You may notice the island at the bottom of the map is called The Cursed Island, and would later become the setting for The Lodoss War RPG.

As a RPG history buff, Sword World is an interesting relic to have on my shelf, but I doubt it would last beyond a session of play with all the more intuitive and fun games out there. It does, however, really showcase the difference in RPGing culture expectations in Japan, and comparison with recent games like Sword World 2.0 and Araianrod show that Japanese FRPGs may have gotten prettier as books, but not any smoother as systems.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Dragon Half RPG Review

OK, it has been a week-and-a-half from hell, but work and studies have calmed down a tad so it is time to post away some stress.

This time I’d like to review the Dragon Half RPG, my contribution to Mesmerized by Sirens’ “Obscure RPG Appreciation” initiative.


When D&D first hit it was a global phenomenon, translated into tons of languages and sold worldwide. Its core concepts were also translated into other tongues and worldviews as local reimaginings of the game, sometimes losing and sometimes gaining elements as it mutated. Britain gave us “Dragon Warriors”, Germany created “Dark Eye”, while France offered “Epees et Sorcellerie,” all versions of D&D as seen through the lens of their creators’ own culture.

Further afield, Japan fostered many indigenous FRPGs, from the early wave of D&D clones like “Sword World” and “Lodoss War”, to more recent creative reimaginings like “Ryutama”. Living in Kyoto, over the years I have made a small collection of these Japanese children of D&D, and today I’d like to present one of my favorites, the 1991 Dragon Half RPG.


For those few who don’t know the name, Dragon Half started out as a manga then successful anime telling the story of Mink, a young girl whose mother was a dragon and father a lecherous dragon slaying knight. Mink is a spunky young girl with dragon strength, wings and a tail, who drags her friends along on a quest to see dragonslayer/rock singer Dick Saucer.

As you can tell from the description, Dragon Half has its tongue firmly in its cheek, overturning D&D tropes or simply following them to their absurd end. The art, although evocative and highly polished, is also highly sexualized, alternating gratuitous crotch shots and nudity with cutesy bobble-head style characters, understandable as the author Ryusuke Mita cut his artistic teeth in the lucrative world of pornographic manga, like so many animators in Japan. Still, the story is great, the humour is funny, and the laviscous art plays into both the fantasy and fandom aspects of the genre.


The RPG is in the pocket size format so popular in Japan, and while lacking the hefty tome feel of western rpgs, this small size belies a large 556 page punch. The writing is clear, the pages uncluttered and legible (if you read Japanese), and the art is top notch, as it is all taken from the manga. Contents include Ch. 0 Starting, Ch. 1 Character Making, Ch. 2 Skill Rolls, Ch. 3 Battle & Character Death, Ch. 4 Magic, Ch. 5 Character Advancement, Ch. 6 Special Rules & Addendum, Ch. 7 Equipment, Ch. 8 GM Section, Ch. 9 Making & Repairing Constructs, Ch. 10 Miscellaneous Damage, Ch. 11 Special Options & Rules, Ch. 12 Magic Items, Ch. 13 Monsters! The book has designer’s notes and useful charts at the end, and a character sheet stapled inside the front cover.


The rules are a simplified form of the Sword World RPG, Japan’s 1989 answer to D&D. Since the pages of damage charts and monster statblocks of Sword World make my head throb like a high school algebra test, I find Dragon Half’s pared down mechanics much more enticing. Basically, you roll 2d6 plus mods against a difficulty determined by the GM. In combat, there is the extra complication of a MSHAG-like table of damage results ranging from ‘Unharmed’ to ‘Destroyed’ and everything in between.

Having run a few simulated combats the system seems well balanced and eminently playable. Magic seems a bit underdone, with a very limited range of spells, which can be remedied by cribbing from Sword World if so desired. Skills are basically occupations like Princess, Thief, or Bard, and the descriptions are Risus-like in their brevity. In fact, a knowledge of Risus mechanics might be a serious asset for anyone interested in playing Dragon Half, as the Risus mechanics of ‘pumping’ skills and resolution could come in handy.

Just as skills are underdeveloped, the most glaring problem with the rules is the weakness of the Gag Level rules. Dragon Half characters become stronger as they advance in Hero Levels, which are basically synonymous with D&D levels. There is a parallel system of Gag Levels, however, which include unexpected great effects for failure and a ‘Gag Skill’ that you can fail spectacularly in, but without any real incentive or explanation of why a player would want to. Once again, the infusion of Risus rules to allow characters to ‘milk’ skills for success and pay this off in gag failures would seem a good patch for this lack of definition.

However, there are a lot of great, humorous touches in the game – all PCs are ‘halfs’, basically with one human parent and one of another species. I rolled a (boring) half-elf preparing for this article, but could just as easily gotten a half-vampire or half-mermaid if the dice had rolled a different way. All monster statblocks include an ‘Edibility’ rating, as a preoccupation with food is a staple both of the source material and Japanese culture (see the movie Tampopo).


There were three supplements as far as I know (BGG has the cover of “Labyrinth of Laughter” mislabeled as the gamebook on the BGG website), and all were filled with great art, funny descriptions, and ludicrous adventure. It would take a great GM and players who were fine with gonzo-style D&D parody gaming to get the most out of these, with a familiarity with the source material a must. If you like gonzo-D&D that is a mix of Paranoia and Adventure Time, then the Dragon Half RPG just might be your thing.

Better start practicing kanji…

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Obscure RPGs? I'm in!

Mesmerized by Sirens is trying to start an Obscure RPG Day, for rare fantasy games published up to 1989.
I coincidentally happen to be working on a review of Dragon Half RPG, as well as an adventure for Stormbringer 1e. Although Stormbringer is an early iteration of BRP as well as a game derived from pretty popular IP, I think 1e is obscure enough to let me slide in. Dragon Half is certainly obscure, and although it was published around 1991, the Sword World system of which it is a simplified version is old enough to qualify.

Either way, I support Catacomb Librarian's efforts and hope to get both these posts up before the deadline at the end of the month.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

How the Best Houserules Work

Of all the hundreds (thousands?) of houserule posts I have read from the OSR, one stands out in my mind as undoubtedly the best I have ever read and used in play. Trollsmith’s “Shields Shall Be Splintered” is a masterpiece of house ruling. The simple option of allowing a player to sacrifice his character’s shield (or weapon, armor, and even limbs if extended far enough) is the type of minor modification that immeasurably improves the gaming experience.

Why do I think so? I can give five reasons that “Shields” is so excellent, each of which help define the “Less is more” aesthetic that makes “Shields”, and by extension the best products of the OSR, such an improvement over the rules-bloat and unnecessary calculus of industry editions of Ye Ole Game:.

1) The best houserules are easy to implement. “Shields” requires no extra calculations, charts or tables. Every time I see an OSR post about an “easy” houserule that includes 3 pages of tables or formulas, my teeth hurt. This is not to say that a good houserule can’t be a table or involve calculations (“Tao of D&D” provided great materials for figuring out agriculture and building structures, similarly Hill Cantons has great world-building and reaction tables), but they must not be jarring to whatever practice is underway. In the blur of combat a splintered shield fits perfectly, just as a table of geographical features would fit when world-building and calculations of acreage productivity when heavily into a domain game. Context is everything, and a houserule that fits the context is a good one.

2) The best houserules make the game feel the way you want it to. “Shields” give the feeling of the fantasy literature from which D&D takes its cue, and having a broken shield, weapon or bone adds much more dramatic possibilities than a mere whittling down of Hit Points. A player whose character is left unarmed or even maimed may feel more of an inclination to surrender, sue for peace, bribe or run away from a fight, instead of gambling on rolling a few criticals before his hit points run out and going down fighting pointlessly as is often seen in hack-n-slash games.

3) The best houserules give more choice to either players, DM, or both. “Shields” gives choice in two ways. First, the entire gaming group can decide how far to extend the rule – can only shields be splintered, or does the option cover swords and armor as well? How about an arm or a leg? Second, the individual player whose hit points has been whittled down dangerously must decide in the heat of combat what to sacrifice and when. In both cases, both agency and investment/immersion in the game benefit from the houserule.

4) The best houserules use what is already there or give it more meaning. The game has rules for taking damage, and it has rules for the benefit of shields. “Shields” simply links the two systems mechanically, which heretofore had only been related thematically. Consequently, both theme (fluff) and mechanics (crunch) are deepened by its addition.

5) The best houserules blend seamlessly into the existing game, campaign or setting. Doing an Arthurian campaign where shields and swords need to be broken occasionally? Use “Shields” and you’ll be pleased with the dramatic surprises it offers, especially since no time is needed to look up the rules’ effects. Doing a Jason & the Argonauts campaign where characters are always outnumbered 3-to-1 and a broken shield would be a death sentence? Leave “Shields” out of your final ruleset.

What houserule, OSR or otherwise, do you think adds the most to your games? Does it fit the five conditions above, or is it better for some other reason entirely? Drop us a line in the comments section.

PS: You wouldn't believe the weird stuff I saw when Goo-oogling "shattered broken pierced shields" for this post...