The first time I read Dungeon World, I knew it was something special. From the sense of humor embedded in the text to the principles and agenda set forth for the game master, I felt as if the game had been designed specifically for my tastes. The mechanisms seemed to address every problem I’d ever had with an RPG before. Once I got the game to my table, those feelings grew as every dice roll sent our adventures in new and exciting directions. It took mere sessions for Dungeon World to become my favorite tabletop game, and it has tightly held that spot for years. For me the mythical “love at first sight” narrative had come true – I found my tabletop soulmate and knew it after only a glance.
In comparison, my experience with Ryuutama has been more like an awkward first date. I liked what I saw – the charming artwork and the unique mechanisms inspired and designed by another culture drew me to the game. Yet when the dice came out and the time came to engage the rules, nothing felt right. Rules I’d been excited to use didn’t seem to work the way I thought they were supposed to. The overall direction of our campaign, one that my players and I all felt excited about, didn’t keep us engaged the way we anticipated. We didn’t even get to finish our first session in one sitting, dragging this date out into not one but two evenings of failed connection.
First impressions can make or break a relationship – with a person or with a tabletop roleplaying game. But sometimes when you give yourself a chance to push past those initial impressions, you find that beyond the awkward introductions there is value that can be found. It is after reflection that you’re able to see how some of the discomfort came from your own expectations, perhaps unfair ones. When you stop and take a moment to accept a game on its own terms, you can discover the parts of it that are special and unique that make it shine. Today, I want to talk about my Ryuutama journey from the excitement phase through the awkward first date to the moment when I realized that the game was an opportunity for me to become a better game master.
I first learned about Ryuutama through a simple Google search for a list of non-D&D RPGs to try out. It was during a time when I wanted to experiment more with the sorts of games I played at the table because I’d experienced only a handful. Ryuutama immediately struck me as the sort of game I’d enjoy playing, not because I knew anything about the rules but because of the various touchstones cited. A common praise for the game comes from a review which labeled it as “Miyazaki’s Oregon Trail,” and while at the time I had little knowledge of anime (I’ve watched a few in the years since), Miyazaki’s works made up some of my favorite movies. Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle are still movies I love to revisit from time to time, so the idea that a game could help me tell those kinds of stories excited me.
Another thing that helped fuel my excitement at the time was that I was playing through Ni no Kuni on the Playstation 3. I talk about Nintendo a lot here on Adventure Rules but Ni no Kuni is one of my favorite standalone titles of all time (although I suppose it has a sequel now). The storytelling in the game is excellent and I particularly love the sympathetic villains with their complex motivations. I also enjoy the innocence of the main character Oliver, someone who makes mistakes but ultimately has pure motivations, free of the angst that plagues the typical JRPG protagonist. Discovering a game that could theoretical run a Ni no Kuni -style tabletop campaign right in the midst of playing the game enhanced my hype for Ryuutama significantly.
The final moments of the excitement phase would not come until later. When I first discovered Ryuutama the idea of watching an actual play of a tabletop was foreign to me – I didn’t know about groups like Rollplay, Roll20 Presents, or Critical Role. Later down the line when I discovered these channels, I searched them for Ryuutama games to watch so I could finally see this RPG in action. It turns out Roll20 Presents had a very short lived Ryuutama actual play that I could watch to help me get an idea of how the game’s early beats work. I got to see character creation, learn about the different classes, see the travel and combat rules in action, and just a hint of how the GM character functions in the game. Because the campaign ended abruptly and with no discussion of how the players and GM felt about the mechanisms after engaging them, I got an overall positive impression and my excitement for Ryuutama peaked.
Fast forward to the present – or rather, a month or so ago. Two friends and I decided to start up our own online RPG sessions to compliment the once-monthly sessions we were playing with our larger group. We wanted specifically to play games that the larger group wouldn’t play, didn’t have time to play, or struggled to play properly because of the distance between sessions. We chose Ryuutama first for a couple of reasons: it’s new to all three of us, wouldn’t be a game that everyone in our large group games would enjoy, and it has unique mechanisms we were excited to explore. That last part was mostly my reasoning, as I wanted to try out the rules for the GM character, called the ryuujin.
We got together to discuss our desires and expectations for the game. I read through the book first and then discussed with my players the style of game that Ryuutama offers and what our options were starting out. Ryuutama has four distinct styles based on the ryuujin chosen by the game master. Each ryuujin follows a group of travelers to tell the story of their journey, and the color of the ryuujin determines the stories they wish to tell. Green dragons tell stories of long journeys and quests; blue dragons tell story of friendship and human connection; red dragons tell stories of glory in battle; and black dragons tell stories of betrayal and despair. My players were most interested in exploring the game’s combat, so they asked for me to play a crimson dragon. Despite my initial concerns about Ryuutama’s design when it comes to a red dragon game, I agreed and prepped a session all about combat.
When we came together for our first session I still felt excited and I was somewhat confident in the session I’d prepared. That excitement turned to concern as we actually started playing the game. Their first encounter – a battle with three monsters considered to be “weak” level according to the book – put one character on the edge of death and the other on a tiny sliver of health. To spare them from dying entirely, I actually had the third monster get scared and run away after only two were defeated. This ended our session that night. The players wanted to respec their characters to undo some decisions that made them less effective in combat now that they had a better understanding of the rules, and their dice rolls had been terrible. Perhaps another night the dice would serve them better, so we got together another time to finish the session.
This time, I faced them with only two monsters at the weak level so they could try out their new stats and weapons. This battle went a little more smoothly but once again it seemed that the dice worked against them. Once again, a player fell in battle and left the other alone. This time, I broke out one of my character’s benedictions, reviving the defeated character and bringing the other back up to full health so they effectively got a second chance at the battle. This made it easy for them to resolve the fight. At the end of the session, after doing some traveling, they faced off against an opponent whose difficulty should have been “scenario boss.” At first, it seemed as though the battle would be over in mere moments in their favor, as they nailed blow and blow and were dealing great damage. As the battle dragged on, their dice rolls took a turn for the worse and soon both characters were unconscious, with me having no benedictions left to bring them back. Rather than killing them, I had the villain take them prisoner, and we ended the session there.
When we debriefed after this session, the three of us agreed that this wasn’t working out the way we expected. Combat felt too rigid and too swingy. The players couldn’t act out the creative actions they conceived during battles because the only moves available to them are generic “attack, defend, use item” type of moves. Dice rolls felt wild – with very few modifiers to push rolls in the right direction, success or failure felt like a coin flip. This led to combat seeming to either go overwhelmingly in the player’s favor – or overwhelmingly against them. Combat was complicated even more by the poor balancing; since we only had two players in the party, the rules for making balanced encounters didn’t seem to apply, as “weak” enemies were easily defeating them.
What’s interesting about all of this is while we could consider these aspects of the game to be “problems,” in reality the session played out exactly as a crimson dragon campaign is supposed to go. Keywords for these types of games include battle, war, and heroes, sure, but there’s also challenge, struggle, and reversal of fortune. A crimson dragon game is intended to feel like the characters are in over their heads, like the tide can turn for them or against them at any moment, and benedictions help them to dramatically come back from the brink of certain death and pull victory out of defeat. These are intentional design choices that work together to make the game feel like a specific type of fiction. We, the players, simply didn’t want to experience that kind of story.
After that session, we regrouped. We discussed what we were enjoying and what we weren’t, and decided to reboot the campaign with new characters and a new ryuujin. Instead of focusing on combat, we would do a green dragon game, where the story is focused more on journeys and travel. We took time to do world creation and designed a sandbox setting for the players to explore, and as a green dragon I chose the sextant as my artifact – effectively declaring that I would hack the game if any of the rules prevented us from being able to have a good time. With all of these changes in place, we tried another session.
Once we changed directions, I started thinking more about what I could do as a game master to help move our Ryuutama game in the right direction. When I considered my skillset, I realized I didn’t have much experience running tabletop games that are focused on travel as a main part of the story. I was approaching the way I ran each session as if it was any other game, when in reality I should have been relying on touchstones from other media I’d engaged with to help me tell stories about journeys. Instead of changing the game, I needed to change my GM style.
At the end of our first session, the players landed face-first in what appeared to be a dungeon. We cut off at that point, leaving a cliffhanger for me to resolve at the beginning of the next game. Instead of designing a traditional deathtrap dungeon, I thought to myself: what would this place be like in a Ghibli film? I imagined this “dungeon” as the home to a monster family, complete with skeleton servants and a weird haunted umbrella for a pet. I decided that the family would not be initially hostile but would instead invite the players to be their guests and give them a bunch of silly tasks to participate in. Rather than having a session focused around puzzles and combat, the players instead made a birthday present for a mummy girl, defeated a dulahan in a joke competition, and tutored a bored vampire teen. My players enjoyed the session and for me as the GM, the game felt a lot more like the visions in my head when I originally imagined what Ryuutama would be like.
As I prepare for session three, the players are once again going to be hitting the road. The next session will be focused on traveling, so I started thinking about what shows I’ve watched in the past that are focused on a long journey. One that came to mind is Avatar: The Last Airbender, a show in which the entire first season is a journey from the south pole to the north pole. Everything that happens along the way – from pirate attacks to storms to ending the feud between two rival tribes – is an interruption to that one journey. Some are planned by the characters, others are machinations by their enemies, and still others are accidents (good examples of situations that the ryuujin could bring about in a Ryuutama game). The old adage “it’s about the journey, not the destination” is quite applicable to Ryuutama. Instead of thinking about what will happen when the players get to where they are going, I need to think about all of the things that could possibly stop them or slow them down from getting there. And not necessarily in negative ways every time, but always in ways which are compelling.
My first impressions of Ryuutama were rough, but in the end I don’t think that’s the fault of the game or the designer. Ryuutama did exactly what it was designed to do – that experience simply wasn’t what my players and I were looking for at the time. That experience led us to change directions in a way which has given me opportunities to grow as a game master. I’m learning to look at travel differently in my roleplaying games, and also to recognize how the difference between a game with bad design and a game which simply isn’t accomplishing the kind of experience I want to have at the time. I’ve learned more about how to look at other stories as a way to inspire my creativity and how to analyze works critically to develop myself as a creator. So maybe my first date with Ryuutama was a bit awkward – but once I gave the game a second chance, it turns out that the one holding us back was me. Now that I’ve moved past my expectations and just allowed this relationship to be what it is, I’m enjoying my time with the game more.