When I first got into the tabletop hobby, I played on a weekly basis. This was easy to accomplish at the time because I was a college student. I had easy access to a close group of friends who were all interested in geeky things and already lived within walking distance of each other. There were no classes on weekends, so even those of us who had jobs or extracurriculars had an easy time finding one evening where we could all meet up and play. Once a wave of us graduated, it became more and more difficult to play on a regular basis.
We worked around this as best as we could using the Roll20 virtual tabletop. This is a service which provides a space for friends to play that handles the character sheets, dice rolls, maps, and the video/voice chat for the game all in one space. Now the degree to which it does this well depends on how much you’re willing to shell out – a lot of the free resources aren’t ideal for many roleplaying games, but if all you need is an accountability system for dice rolls then the service works well enough. The issue for our group turned out to be that many players simply don’t like the online tabletop experience. My wife, for example, is casually interested in roleplaying games but only as a form of social activity – when you remove the in-person social element and the game becomes a greater focus, she loses her drive to play. Many of our players felt this way, so for a long time Roll20 was a resource we simply stayed away from.
Recently, though, one of my friends reached out to me wanting to discuss the possibility of getting an online game going again. We talked about it and decided that we were interested enough in playing that even if we could only get a very small group together, we wanted to have new tabletop experiences and were willing to use Roll20 in order to have them more often. The game we decided to start with was Ryuutama, a Japanese roleplaying game with detailed mechanisms for travel and a unique approach to the way the game master works. The GM has a character in the game called a ryuujin that both helps and hinders the players in order to tell their story. The color of the ryuujin defines the nature of the game, with green dragons telling stories of adventure, blue dragons stories of human connection, red dragons stories of battle, and black dragons stories of intrigue. While a green dragon campaign is the game’s recommended starting point, my players decided that they were more interested in stories of war, and so asked me to play a crimson dragon.
The Crimson Dragon, or Kurenai-Ryuu, follows travelers whose stories deal with war, monsters, deathtraps, and dungeons, as well as heroes who overcome ridiculous challenges through intense training and personal growth. If this sounds like every game of Dungeons and Dragons you’ve ever played, you’re not far off. This type of Ryuutama campaign is more in line with traditional western roleplaying games rather than the honobono genre that the green and blue dragons capture (honobono means heartwarming). It makes sense that my western players would be more drawn to this kind of game, but I have one concern as the game master – I’m not entirely sure that Ryuutama is actually designed to run this type of game well.
The rules and systems of a roleplaying game are typically designed with a clear purpose in mind. If they aren’t, the game feels directionless, and often a game designed to do everything ultimately accomplishes nothing. I wouldn’t say that Ryuutama suffers from that particular problem; the rules it has are very suited to two of the four dragon styles that are available to the GM. The issue I can anticipate running in to is when you try to run a game using the black or crimson dragons. Portraying war, betrayal, dungeons, and death in a game designed to portray flowers, festivals, the open road, and love seems counter-intuitive, and there are a few mechanisms specifically which make me uneasy about trying to run such a campaign as my first ever Ryuutama experience.
My first concern lies with the combat system itself. Ryuutama is a turn-based roleplaying game that in many ways resembles the JRPGs of the NES and SNES eras of video games. Characters have HP and MP, the battlefield has front and back rows, and the actions a character can take during combat are moves such as attacking, defending, casting a spell, or using an item. This is a simple combat mechanism that may not be complex enough for entire sessions built around significant combat encounters. While a magic type character at least has a selection of spells to choose from, attack type characters will likely spend every round just making an attack roll. They don’t have special moves or mechanisms to make them perform better in combat or to differentiate between classes.
The lack of specific fighting techniques is easier to see when contrasted against the detail in the travel rules. Every day of traveling has lots of rules to engage with: establishing your condition, handling the terrain, moving in the right direction, making camp – a single day’s journey is broken down into many smaller components to make the journey more mechanically complex and interesting. This is normally the opposite in western games – combat rules will have pages upon pages describing how fighting works while travel is effectively a wave of the hand. There’s nothing wrong with this; it simply tells us what Ryuutama really cares about. The journey is a significant part of the game, and you can tell because the rules go into plenty of detail about it. When I don’t see that same level of depth for combat, I can’t help but wonder if the combat systems are robust enough to build a whole campaign around them.
The other aspect of combat which causes me to worry that it doesn’t receive enough focus in the rules is the poor table on balancing encounters. Ryuutama has four rankings for encounter difficulty: minion, weak, scenario boss, and super hard. Now this could just be a quirk of translation, but to me there’s a big gap between weak and scenario boss. Even more telling than that, though, is the fact that the number of monsters contributes nothing to the scale – it’s based only on their level. So a group of six monsters on equal level with the party is apparently still weaker than a single monster one level above the party. Fighting four monsters of scenario boss difficulty is supposedly mechanically similar to fighting only two. The balancing advice in the rulebook feels like an afterthought, which again suggests that combat in general is on the backburner in a Ryuutama game.
The final detail which tells me that combat isn’t significant in Ryuutama is the way experience points are gained. There are three sources of experience in the game: travel, combat, and benedictions (special moves used by the GM-character). Both travel and combat experience are earned based on the highest target number the party had to face during the session, but there’s a significant difference in the reward. The easiest travel checks in the game still grant 100 EXP at end of session – to get that same amount from combat, the party would have to defeat a level 10 monster (an impossible encounter for even an experienced adventuring party). Combat experience is intended to be supplemental to travel experience, so once again we have the rules of the game telling us that combat is a secondary part of the Ryuutama experience.
All of the rules of Ryuutama prioritize journeys over combat. Combat exists in this setting but it’s not a focus of the game. This suggests that a campaign for a crimson dragon is shifting the focus of the game from a topic which the rules are well-designed to handle to one which was intended to be secondary. These were warning signs for me starting out, and I questioned whether it was ideal to play this game with any dragon type other than green or blue. However, I think looking at the game this way ignores that there are some design elements which are there to mitigate the problems I’ve described. We have focused up to this point solely on the player rules – so let’s talk about the GM rules and how they help to make a crimson dragon campaign more viable.
Each of the GM’s ryuujin options has a selection of artifacts and special benedictions. Artifacts are objects wielded by the ryuujin which alter the rules of the game – or, in the case of the green dragon’s encyclopedia, makes a statement that the rules of the game shall not be changed. Two of the crimson dragon’s three artifacts directly influence the combat rules of Ryuutama. The first artifact is the greatsword, which doubles the number of objects on the battlefield. Objects are the spice of combat scenes – when player work them into their description of their actions, they get a bonus. Doubling the available number gives players an incentive to roleplay creatively and add more vivid descriptions to their combat scenes. This also potentially speeds up combat, as players can get +1 bonuses more often, increasing the likelihood that their attacks will land.
The second artifact, the longbow, goes in the opposite direction with combat. Normally, a character’s initiative value is also what we would call in Dungeons and Dragons their armor class – it defines how difficult you are to hit. The person going first in combat is also going to be the hardest person to successfully hit with an attack. The longbow changes the rules so that characters must roll dice to dodge attacks. A separate dodge roll each time an attack happens would lengthen the game’s combat and make it more random and deadly – it removes some of the strategic power of combat moves like resetting initiative and feinting to lower enemy initiative, which increases the difficulty. The greatsword and the longbow each take a different approach to changing combat in Ryuutama – either making it quick and flashy, or random and drawn-out. This helps the GM to customize the game’s combat to suit the type of story she wishes to tell through her crimson dragon.
In addition to artifacts, each color of ryuujin has access to unique benedictions that reinforce the type of story that dragon conveys. Benedictions are special effects that the GM can achieve by spending their ryuujin’s life points. It’s an interesting feature in that it attaches mechanisms to actions that a western GM might normally take “for free,” such as fudging a roll or skipping ahead in time. There are common benedictions that any dragon can use such as granting instant crits, instant fumbles, or powering up enemies, but there are also special benedictions based on the color of the ryuujin the GM is playing. The crimson dragon benedictions are The Tale of the Hero, The Tale of the Challenge, and The Tale of Revival.
Each benediction uses the ryuujin’s life points to create a scenario that one might see in a typical action story. The Tale of the Hero, for example, is used when a player character sustains a mortal wound in order to restore the entire party back to full health, allowing them to gain a second wind and overcome the opponent after suffering what should have surely been a deathblow. The Tale of Revival is similar, giving a player character a strength bonus after they’ve been brought back from near-death. Both of these benedictions work together to capture the kinds of epic turnarounds that often happen in fantasy fiction. It allows the GM to hit the players with harder encounters because the party effectively gets two lives to the villain’s one.
The Tale of the Challenge is another key benediction in the crimson dragon’s arsenal. It gives a strength bonus to a player character who roleplays their relationship with a rival or adversary. This ability encourages the players to form the kinds of relationships that help a red dragon campaign succeed – friendly rivals and sworn enemies should abound in this type of game. And this brings us at last to my final point about running a crimson dragon campaign: it’s all in how you run it.
A crimson dragon campaign may be one about the glory of battle, but that doesn’t mean an exclusive focus on combat is the correct way to run the game. The choice in ryuujin has some influence on gameplay, but more important is its impact on roleplay and storytelling. A two day journey through the woods to purchase rice balls to sell in another town doesn’t fit the crimson dragon setting, but that same journey ending in a battle against a monster plaguing the nearby town is quite on-brand. A trek up the mountains may be an intense training exercise, a “wasteland” may actually be the interior of a deserted fortress; change the context of the checks in a green dragon campaign and suddenly your players won’t be able to imagine it as anything but a crimson dragon game.
For me, it’s helpful to examine every keyword in the ryuujin’s description to see which ones speak to me. Words like “deathtrap” and “dungeon exploration” don’t feel much like Ryuutama to me, and I don’t think the rules would support them very well. “Monster hunting,” though, works quite well in this setting. “Intense Training” gives me a reason for the characters to go on their journeys (remember how travel gives the most experience points?) and “Reversal of Fortune” shows me that my benedictions are important tools to work into the story, and I need to plan the difficulty of combat encounters in such a way that opportunities to use those benedictions present themselves. The game may not have detailed combat mechanisms and may not consider combat to be a primary focus, but it does provide tools for creating a game that feels like Ryuutama while also telling a story about warriors and battle.
Ultimately, all of this is still theoretical for me: at the time of this writing, I haven’t been able to begin my campaign yet. I am doing my best to wrap my head around the system, but nothing will teach me faster than actual play. Once I’ve got a session or two under my belt, I’ll have a better grasp of how Ryuutama’s rules support the kind of game my characters want to play…or how they don’t. In the meantime, if you have experience playing Ryuutama and have any advice you can share, feel free to let me know in the comments below. I hope that if you too are thinking of running a crimson dragon game of Ryuutama, seeing my thoughts outlined here helped you grasp how that might come about.