Friday, March 19, 2010

You Should Be Reading "King of RPGs"

In his invaluable The Complete Guide to Manga¹, Jason Thompson writes, "Dragons and wizards, sword-wielding heroes with improbably large shoulder pads, terms such as levels and hit-points -- many of the trappings of Japanese fantasy can be traced to RPGs (role-playing games), the popular category of video and tabletop games that originated in America." Thompson follows this statement with a quick rundown of the development of the RPG field in Japanese culture and a discussion of the ascendancy of Video Game RPGs and Collectable Card Games and how tabletop RPGs enjoy a "small cult following in Japan, as in America." According to Thompson, roleplaying games influence on Manga as a whole is largely as a background influence, with few Manga being based specifically on roleplaying titles. There are some key exceptions, including the Record of Lodoss War series, that is based on the Japanese RPG Sword World by Ryo Mizuno and a couple of others, but for the most part RPGs influences the underlying archetypes of Manga fantasy without being a direct inspiration for the field.

Think of it in terms of the anime Dragon Ball Z's "Over 9000!".

Or even in terms of the cult classic martial arts film Kung Fu Cult Master's "if I have 6000 points, he has at least 10,000!.

Both of the above pieces of entertainment contain obvious roleplaying game references, but neither is a representation of a specific roleplaying game or aspect of roleplaying game culture, though R. Talsorian Games did release a roleplaying game based on Dragonball Z in 2000.

What has never really been done in Manga is a book about the people who play roleplaying games -- a kind of Manga equivalent of the Dead Gentleman The Gamers series of movies. Author Jason Thompson and illustrator Victor Hao have changed that with King of Rpgs. This book is Manga that is a send up of every aspect of the gaming hobby in a way that takes the meta-cognitive "tell the story of the adventure the group is roleplaying" storytelling of the Dead Gentleman productions and turns it on its head. King of RPGs isn't a book about how fun the stories gaming groups create during their playing sessions and how funny many of the common experience of the gaming group are. King of RPGs tells the story of gamers and gaming through the lens of a sh┼Źnen Sports Manga. These Manga take the competitive nature of athletics and transform them into wildly over the top stories that combine narrative tropes from Kung Fu films with "poverty to success" storylines. The formula, known as spo-kon is apologetically melodramatic and can be wildly humorous depending on the title. According to Thompson these Manga often feature stories where the hero, "through intense training...struggles to succeed in sports, although it is a long, hard road full of blood, sweat, and self-sacrifice. His coach or his harsh and unforgiving, an archetype known as oni coach. Of course, he has the hero's best interests at heart...or at least the drive to win, no matter what the costs."

Take a second to imagine that description if you will. Imagine one of the players in your gaming group as the "poor struggling player" who through intense training will succeed in being the ultimate game player, although the path will be full of blood, sweat, and self-sacrifice. Imagine that you, the game master for the group, are the oni coach who must push this gamer to become the best he can be and to win at all costs. Imagine wild roleplaying sessions where you bring live snakes, throw dangerous objects at the players, and where the dangers the players face are as real as the ones their characters face. If you can imagine that, you can begin to imagine what Thompson and Hao are doing with King of Rpgs.

From the back of the book:

At the University of California, Escondido, no one would ever guess that freshman Shesh Maccabee is a hard-core gamer -- and in recovery to boot, following a court order, a wireless ban, and months of therapy (all because of one little seven-day Internet cafe episode). His friend Mike -- who personally prefers Japanese-console RPGs -- is tasked with keeping Shesh far away from any computer with access to World of Warfare.
Everything is going according to plan -- until a Ren Faire fangirl introduces them to the campus gaming club, where they meet Theodore, a fanatical tabletop game master whose single goal in life is to run the greatest Mages & Monsters game in the world. And there just happens to be room for two more players. Soon Shesh and Mike are dragged into the dungeon of hard-core gaming -- and cops, baboon men, Sri Lankan cave roaches, and Gothemon card collectors converge in the zaniest adventure that ever involved twenty-sided dice!

In the first volume of the series, Thompson and Hao manage to spoof, parody, and turn into dangerous life-threatening activity, almost all aspects of the gaming hobby. The only thing they leave out are the board gaming community with its fertile Diplomacy and Eurogame fields, but I am sure that those will have their day as well.

Victor Hao's artwork is dynamic and he manages to bring the wild visual storytelling one would expect in a Football or Baseball Manga into a representation of tabletop game playing with remarkable skill. Hao makes playing an RPG look like a visually exciting activity! Trust me, this is quite an accomplishment. Imagine turning the conversation in Plato's Republic into an action movie, not what they are describing the actual conversation. Not easy right. Hao could do it. I know, because he made sitting around a table chatting look fast, furious, and life-threatening! The panel to panel artistic storytelling is excellent. Hao's artwork leads the reader's eye naturally from panel to panel. Hao's Manga caricatures are well drawn throughout the book, though there are some pages/panels where I think he could have added more consistency to the line art. The monster designs are excellent and Hao does a wonderful job differentiating the "fantastic" sequences and hyper-action sequences from the "real world" sequences in a way that visually notifies the reader what emotional queues they should be following.

Thompson's writing on the book is strong. The reader immediately sympathizes with Shesh and his friend Mike, and we come to like their gaming group as well. Theodore Dudek, the young Game Master (read oni coach), of the book is a glorious creation. A creation that Thompson is so fond of that he even created a blog "written" by the character. True to form, Dudek's blog is not only a good "send up" of the Gygaxian personality GM from the 80s, it is also a very good game blog.². Thompson, a gamer who cut his teeth on the classic Erol Otis covered Red Box edition of Basic D&D, has a wide knowledge of the gaming hobby and is able to incorporate references to the tabletop RPG, live-action RPG, CCG, and Video Game genres seamlessly and fluidly into the narrative. He is also a master of taking what seems like a relatively mundane scenario and turning it into a nightmarishly wild experience for the participants. Thompson also pokes a bit of fun at the anti-D&D (and other games) sentiment that rears its head from time to time in the Culture Wars and has a character dedicated to eradicating game playing due to its harm to society. One wonders when/if Thompson and Hao will include a send up of the classic Chick Tract -- Dark Dungeons.

I cannot wait to see what they could do with the above panel.

I highly recommend the King of RPGs Manga for any gamer fan, or really for anyone who wants to read a funny over the top story about college kids. The book is quite fun. My only criticism is that we have to wait almost a year before the second volume is released. It only takes about half-an-hour to read the Manga, and it leaves you wanting more. It doesn't leave you wanting to wait a year! It's like Frito Lay potato chips, you want more than one!

To help tide us over. Thompson and Hao are offering a lot of behind the scenes information on the King of RPGs blog and have posted this hilarious Book Commercial for the Manga based on Sonny Chiba's classic Satsujin ken (aka The Streetfighter).

¹At least it's been invaluable to me as a non-Otaku. The book has served as a wonderful introduction and critical resource of recommendations for me as I explore what Manga I think might be worth investing my time and money in reading. It has become the Manga equivalent of Thomas Weisser's excellent Asian Cult Cinema. Weisser's book turned me from a fan of films like Hardboiled and The Killer into a full blown obsessive fan of films like Bride with White Hair, Swordsman 2, and Chinese Ghost Story. My friend Jay and I made several road trips to the Bay Area in order to buy Tai Seng videos that eventually covered a wide array of genres.Return to Text.

²Though for some reason Thompson doesn't always post comments from Dudek's imaginary nemesis (B N Nemecz) who stops by the site to harangue the lad. Nemecz put a little bit of work into a post responding to Dudek's "First Time DM'ing Tips: Part 1" that has yet to see the light of day. It should also be noted that Thompson's Dudek blog stirred a bit of a controversy on the RPG Bloggers network. Some readers felt that it was a "marketing ploy" and should be excluded from a network of gaming blogs, but other argued that the blog -- in addition to being a viral marketing attempt -- was a very good gaming blog in its own right. While I wouldn't confuse "Dudek's" opinions with Thompson's by assuming they are one and the same, "Dudek" brings up some interesting points for conversation.Return to Text.

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