My Ryuutama group has had one heck of a time trying to get our campaign going. We started a couple of months ago with a red dragon campaign that we quickly realized wasn’t the proper direction for what we wanted from the game. After that, we revisited character and world creation, I designed a new dragon to watch over the heroes, and together we started a new campaign from the very beginning. We managed to get a couple of sessions in, and then the holidays hit – from the end of November to the end of January, our best-laid plans went awry and the game gathered dust while we all handled other matters. We’re finally getting back into the swing of things and for me, that means regularly preparing ideas for what might happen in our upcoming sessions.
The way we decided to play Ryuutama for our current game was the sandbox approach: we’d design a world, plop the characters in the middle of it somewhere, and then just follow them as they explore from place to place. It’s a green dragon game focused on exploration and quests, but never a big overarching one to tie the whole campaign together. We’re aiming for a sort of Skyrim effect – blow into town, do a couple of cool things, and then look for the next village while maybe getting sidetracked by monsters or compelling buildings that the characters find along the way. What makes this tricky to prep for is that instead of having one overarching goal driving the action forward, I instead have to prepare lots of small encounters to populate a big world. To help me do that, I turned to the game’s monster manual, the Dragonica.
I’ve used the Dragonica to guide my prep in every Ryuutama session that I planned so far, looking over the various monster types to learn their backgrounds and abilities in order to plan a session that I believed would be compelling. What I’ve found is that I prefer certain aspects of the Dragonica over others – some tools have been very useful while others seem effectively worthless. Today I thought I would discuss which parts of the Dragonica fall into which category for me, as well as why I do or don’t find them to be valuable.
WHAT’S IN THE DRAGONICA?
Before we jump into the good and the bad, let’s talk about what’s actually incorporated into the Dragonica. The fourth chapter of the Ryuutama book is also referred to as “the Book of Winter” and it serves as the monster manual for the game. It is organized into sections by monster classification, with some familiar types like undead or demon but also unusual types like phantom plant or gobroach. Each section has multiple monsters within it, listed in order from the lowest level to the highest level. Theoretically as you go through the list within each section, the monsters should become more difficult to face in combat.
Mechanically, the monsters are given values for each stat in the game: strength, dexterity, intellect, and spirit. They also have HP and MP values, initiative, armor, damage, accuracy, and condition. These stats are what give the monsters teeth from a mechanical perspective – you expect a stronger monster to have higher accuracy and damage values, as well as higher health. There are different balances, though, with some monsters having high initiative but low health for when you do finally hit them, while others might seem stronger than they initially appear because of a special ability.
Each monster also comes with a descriptive paragraph which gives you an idea of its place within the game’s setting. It might describe where the monster is thought to have originated from, a strange behavior it has, the way people interact with it, legends about accomplishments of the monster – the descriptions vary from creature to creature. While the mechanical descriptions of the monsters can give you a vision for how tough they are, the fictional descriptions tell you how the monster really behaves, which may accentuate or dull the mechanical toughness of the creature. You may have ferocious, scrappy weak monsters or powerful yet passive gentle giants, and everything in between.
THE BAD STUFF: GAME MECHANISMS
Now that we’ve gone over the basic layout of the Dragonica, let’s focus on the content within it. I’ll start with the bad first: mechanically speaking, Ryuutama has some flaws. One of the most obvious flaws is the way in which game balance functions. Or rather, fails to function. The book’s section on balancing encounters has clear guidelines. For a party of four characters, you want one to six monsters of a level that fits the following scale:
- Even in level or lower in level: Minion
- One to two levels higher than the party: Weak
- Three to four levels higher than the party: Scenario Boss
- Five or more levels higher than the party: Super Hard
Take a moment, if you will, to consider the potential flaws here. There is no consideration of the way in which having a larger number of monsters affects balance. One monster three levels higher than the party is a scenario boss, but so is a group of six monsters all three levels higher than the party – these are, in Ryuutama’s estimation, a fight of the same difficulty, even though there is literally less HP to deplete in the first battle, and the players outnumber the enemy instead of the other way around. The descriptions here are also pretty vague. The jump from Weak to Scenario Boss seems like there should be some intermediate monsters in there, right? Here’s the thing, though: even the basis for this whole balancing system, the monster levels, doesn’t really have any mechanical meaning.
In our first Ryuutama “campaign,” I had my players face off against a group of giant ants. Giant ants are level 2 enemies and are therefore considered a weak encounter for a starting party of adventurers. In our most recent session, I had them face a party of koneko-goblins, also level 2. Let’s take a moment to compare these creatures side-by-side:
- Ant HP: 14 – Goblin HP: 8
- Ant Initiative: 6 – Goblin Initiative: 5
- Ant Accuracy: 2D6 – Goblin Accuracy: 2D4
- Ant Damage: D6 – Goblin Damage: D4
- Ant Armor: 1 – Goblin Armor: 0
These enemies are supposed to be equally difficult, yet in every significant feature the giant ant outclasses the koneko-goblin. They are harder to kill and have a higher chance of dealing more damage. When I put my players up against giant ants, they nearly died – only the GM fiat allowed to me by the game’s Ryuujin rules saved the team from total destruction. Conversely, when they fought the goblin party, the goblins literally could not touch them – the entire fight became a joke scene because there was no mechanical threat whatsoever. I encountered this exact same problem when comparing the bosses of each scenario:
- Boss One: Gobroach – Boss Two: Militia
- Gobroach HP: 20 – Militia HP: 16
- Gobroach Initiative: 8 – Militia Initiative: 6
- Gobroach Accuracy: D6 + D8 + 1 – Militia Accuracy: D6 + D8
- Gobroach Damage: D8 + 1 – Militia Damage: D8
- Gobroach Special: Attack twice – Militia Special: None
These two level four enemies should have both felt like boss encounters to my players. Instead, the former wrecked them and pulled off a total party kill (that I softened to a total party knockout until we decided to just change campaigns altogether) while the latter posed them no threat. The encounters in Ryuutama are balanced on the level of monsters rather than the number of them, but when level seems to be a meaningless label subjectively slapped onto monster types, the book really gives you no tools to properly balance encounters in the game. It is this aspect of the Dragonica which is unhelpful – if you want to use it to create compelling combat encounters for your players, you are better off just randomly picking entries from the list as opposed to carefully planning your decisions. You’re just as likely to end up with an encounter that is reasonable for their current ability.
THE GOOD STUFF: FICTIONAL DESCRIPTIONS
While using the Dragonica for my prep has tripped me up on more than one occasion from a mechanical perspective, it has also helped me to create some fun and interesting situations from a storytelling one. The creative descriptions of the monsters and their behaviors are great story hooks for individual sessions, evocative enough to give you a clear vision of the types of quests that could be related to those monster types. Here are a couple of examples from the campaign I’ve been running this time around.
At the end of our first session, the players found themselves inside a forgotten temple hidden beneath a lake. The last moment of the adventure, one character tumbled through the great temple doors and landed face first inside the building. The players had no idea what to expect inside and I didn’t either. I knew I didn’t want the temple to turn into a typical JRPG dungeon – I wanted a vibe that felt more unique. My inspiration was Spirited Away; how could I subvert expectations by having this temple be an opportunity for the characters to socialize rather than fight? Looking through the Dragonica for ideas, I stumbled upon the description of the calacassa, an umbrella used for a long time that awakened when it was thrown away. The concept of a walking umbrella seemed like the perfect pet for some kind of weird monster family living in the temple. Since the umbrella fell into the undead category, I started looking at other undead creatures. The next page had a description for a Lady Saucer, a beautiful pale woman with saucers constantly floating beside her who was really an amalgam of souls executed under false pretenses. A lovely woman with magical plates always surrounding and aiding her certainly seemed like the ideal wife for this undead household. Soon I’d picked a whole family of undead, but rather than having my players fight them, instead they had joke competitions, crafted birthday presents, provided tutoring, and prepared a meal with the family. It was because these descriptions gave me interesting details that I was able to come up with a unique idea for a session.
One of my favorite Ryuutama monsters is the very first one in the book: the Walking Egg. This creature is just a giant egg that walks around and is worth extra experience points if you kill it. They’re fragile but fast, meaning it will take some good accuracy rolls to break the egg – and the experience is only granted if the blow reduced the egg to precisely zero HP. It reminds me of metal slimes in Dragon Quest from a mechanical standpoint and of the baby fairies in Ni no Kuni from an aesthetic one. Now normally only player characters care about experience points, but what if the other creatures of the world knew that breaking a walking egg could give you great power? Weak creatures like koneko-goblins would desire that power to overcome their floppy, spindly natures. I decided to pair these creatures together in a scenario which ultimately had my players fighting to protect the egg from both koneko-goblins and the local milita. When they finally rescued the egg, my players chose not to destroy it for themselves but to instead adopt it as a member of the party. Eggsy, the scarf-wearing egg with a smiley face drawn onto its front shell, is now a permanent pet with the party.
The Dragonica is great for inspiring Ryuutama sessions because the monsters within it feel unique. You’re not dealing with yet another horde of orcs, or fighting your seventh dire bear. The monsters have quirkier origins that lend themselves to goofy narratives, more focused on fun and adventure than providing a meaty combat scenario. Even the ones designed to be tough have descriptions which lead to story threads. The basilisk description, for example, establishes details about a group of human basilisk hunters, right down to their garb and methods of selling off their glistening rewards. Even if I never use a basilisk in my game, having these hunters show up in town could lead to compelling interactions between them and the players in my game.
The Dragonica, like many aspects of the Ryuutama book, has strong points and weak points. The ideas contained within it are inspirational and unique, providing fun ideas for sessions and building a world that is multifaceted and interesting. The monsters within it aren’t just bland sacks of HP to hit with a stick – they have lore and personalities that make them fun to include in a game. Ryuutama won’t help you create balanced encounters; the monster levels seem to be randomly assigned and the book will never account for special abilities or monster numbers when telling you how difficult an encounter may be. But as long as you focus on the joy of roleplaying and the interesting narratives being created at the table, there’s a lot of good to be found within the Dragonica.