Ryuutama: Natural Fantasy Role Play (RPG) Review

Delightfully whimsical, occasionally tedious


RPG System: Ryuutama

Released: 2007

The Initial Conclusion

The Good: A lot of love went into Ryuutama. The artwork is magical, the translation is good, the rulebook is fairly logical in its layout. Additionally, many of the ideas surrounding dragons, abilities, spells and other elements of the game world show a lot of whimsical creativity. I also enjoy the GM as a literal entity in the game world (tied to the world’s creation mythos), with powers and abilities to aid or confound the party, and how the adventures themselves, and the recording of them, are what fuel these Creation entities.

The Neutral: the heavy focus on exploration in the game’s subsystems can be a welcome divergence from some RPGs, but many of these systems lack the potential for enough depth to sustain a protracted campaign.

The Not So Good: There are a number of mechanical systems that will quickly become cumbersome, tedious exercises in even the most adept GM’s or player’s care. Second, there are actually a fair number of rules and subsystems to learn, making this far less “rules-lite” than it purports to be or seems like it will be. Players will have to really be into the aesthetic and whimsical, meandering pace in order to sustain interest long enough to master the system.

Ryuutama’s Audience

In his brief message, the creator himself outlines this as being an easy RPG for casual players to learn, and for experienced players to jump into quickly. So we’ve established the intended audience. As mentioned above, though, the unexpected crunch of the collective rules means that they have a bit of a disconnect right from the start between the system’s intended niche and how it will actually play at the table.

In tone, however, they hit the nail on the head. The book never takes itself too seriously, and is a breezy read that includes several interesting ideas.

The Background

This is explicitly aimed at recreating the look and feel of JRPGs of yesteryear that start off in an idyllic town, set off on The Adventure with a number of more-or-less standard fantasy roles in the party, and encounter obstacles and challenges that range from silly and whimsical to dangerous and evocative. If you’ve played any of the older FF or Suikoden games, or many other in that same genre, you know what this is going for.

Within the game world, there is a Creation Myth involving seasonal dragons – which give rise to many imaginative sub-species of dragon. These dragons all fit into the naturalistic theme of the game world, and are usually tied to a particular geographic type.

The seasonal story dragons (Ryuujin), and thus the world itself, are sustained by stories, which the adventurers take part in. The adventurers offer a record of their adventures to the appropriate Ryuujin depending on what type of story it is (Horror, Heroic, etc.) and/or what season it is. This makes the Ryuujin (played by the GM) an amorphous force watching over the adventurers, who can occasionally show up in physical form and have a vested interest in the party’s endeavors.

Setting in Ryuutama

There isn’t one. No, really. They give you tools for world and town creation, notes on weather, terrain and creatures, and set you off.

I understand the tradeoff here. The book is already hefty enough that a setting guide would have bloated it. Additionally, they really want each adventure to be in its own world, its own version of Ryuutama. There is an emphasis on collaborative creation of the world. This is laudable.

The counterpoint to this is that the aesthetic vibe of this book is one of its main selling points. A fleshed out setting would likely be well received by owners and fans, and deepen the book’s ability to sell its rule system. As it is, despite some cool in-book elements that will populate any Ryuutama setting, I would personally only classify it as a rules and creature manual, not a setting guide.

All that said, the class roles, spells and abilities all suggest a particular kind of world (again, think old-school JRPGs), so there’s likely a shared understanding of what Ryuutama is. This will allow some groups to collaborate effortlessly within that idiom. Others will struggle to escape the pastoral trappings of the idiom and may end up with a lot of quaint but ultimately uninteresting locales. Highly contextual.

Artwork of Ryuutama

The art is spectacular. Even the page borders evoke the seasonal theme around which they structure the book’s contents.

Additionally, everything seems to invoke the idea of “Natural” that is included in the book’s subtitle. Nature is the key to much of the game’s creatures, its origin mythology, spells and abilities. It’s a great thematic tie-in.

My cognitive dissonance in the Setting section above is at least in part because I really want to be drawn further into the world that the artwork suggests.

The Inventory Minigame

Remember managing your inventory in older RPG video games? You’d have to make agonizing decisions about which potions and swords to keep, and would rejoice at a larger bag or pack mule. I have fond memories.

But now think about inventory management in tabletop RPGs. Often forgotten, and usually ignored for the sake of focusing on story elements, I wouldn’t want to spend much (or any?) time worrying about it.

So here’s my question: does an omnipresent inventory minigame sound fun to you?

The answer may depend on where you fall on the above spectrum, but the answer better be yes for Ryuutama. Things get very granular with item weights and carrying capacity, how long healing herbs remain usable (and how to extend that lifespan), and becomes further compounded if you have a merchant in the group who is trying to parlay their skills into monetary gain. Buying in bulk and traveling from town to town is a viable strategy for this, but it will put massive strains on your inventory.

Rules surrounding pack animals add to this, as do the varying types of items. At some point, you’ll be in town mulling over purchasing a new pack animal instead of other upgrades, just so you can keep your Cute Hat or Stinky Shoes that give you a small bonus in a specific weather type. Maybe this is a cool subsystem for some players. To me, it just sounds tedious.

Travel & Exploration

I’d call travel the game within the game, but it’s such a large portion of the game’s systems, that that description wouldn’t be right. It’s likely the majority of most games. So let’s jump in.

Travel itself uses a handful of rolls/checks: Condition, Travel and Direction checks. Additionally, there is a Camping check for each rest. Checks to hunt for food happen concurrently with the Camping check. Minor exceptions exist for each, but all will be present in any session.

Failing on these can result in a host of complications, from halved HP to conditions (injured, sick, etc.) and greatly reduced efficiency in combat. This is also all dependent on weather and terrain conditions, which scale the difficulty of these checks.

I initially forgot about Direction checks, because to me it seems redundant with Travel, but they handle different aspects mechanically. I think me forgetting, though, is indicative of just how many rules go into something that is often abstracted in RPGs, or at least handled narratively instead of through mechanical systems.

I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest that you’ll spend the majority of many sessions fleshing out the decisions and situations leading to, and following from, this travel system. Add in inventory management and you could easily be looking at the lion’s share of many campaigns.

So there’s a particular type of player this is going to appeal to, where The Journey is important. And while some of the checks will become more trivial as players level up, it remains such a central part of the game that they’ll never fully go away.

It again jives wonderfully with the idyllic, pastoral tone the game instills, but I’m not sure it’s going to be able to sustain the imagination of players for long periods of play.

Combat in Ryuutama

Combat is abstracted down to Near and Far areas for allies and enemies, and players collaborate on thinking up logical items that are present that can be used to gain minor advantages in combat. Once the item is used, it cannot be used again. This structure allows every combat to happen on the same battle layout.

This is great. Once you learn the system, which is light on tactics but emphasizes creativity and collaborative brainstorming, combats will be a breeze, while still being potentially challenging enough to engage the players consistently. This is exactly what I expected from the book, a rules-lite version of combat that merges tabletop RPG conventions and the tropes of JRPG video games into something that is easy to set up and run but allows for ample creativity.

Monsters, Spells & Dragons

I separate dragons from other creatures since they serve a different function in the game world, almost as Nature Spirits instead of beasts to encounter.

These sections shine with whimsy. The art is again great, and they tie the spells and creature to nature really well, while also allowing themselves the freedom to create some truly goofy monsters like those that exist in JRPGs (I fondly remember fighting taverns with legs and shoulder cannons, and half a dozen varieties of hybrid egg creatures, for example).

The book would benefit from a larger bestiary, but gives a GM enough to run a game for a while.

Spells are largely tied to seasons, and you choose a season to specialize in when you’re a caster. This makes everything you cast thematic.

You also get all of the seasonal spells of a particular level (low level spells at low PC levels, mid level a bit later, etc.) when you choose a season path. This takes some decision out of spell choice, but always gives you options for a variety of situations. Additionally, many spells are very, very unique, which is fun. The lone possible downside is that the uniqueness of the spells means that there’s more to learn and remember than you might anticipate from the number of spells available.

It’s not quite D&D level of spell crunch, but it will definitely be the most complicated aspect of combats, by a fair margin. Many spells also aid the Travel and Inventory systems mentioned earlier, but adept manipulation of spells within those rules requires some nuance. I can appreciate this and think it will reward careful attention on the part of spellcasters, but it will take some new players a while to get the hang of when and why some non-combat spells have utility, since they alter game elements that usually aren’t the concern of magic spells in other games.

The GM (Ryuujin)

GMs choose one of four Ryuujin types, and can customize their Ryuujin. The four types map to different story types, and the abilities each kind has relate to this story type. So there’s a battle Ryuujin, for example, with abilities related to combat, another that is clearly geared toward social encounters, and a couple others with similar themes.

The customization extends to items and abilities (Artifacts, Benedictions and Reveals) that usually aid players in specific ways, but can occasionally make things harder for them.

This isn’t just license to save the players at any point; the powers have specific uses, and the Ryuujin has a limited pool of Life Points to spend on most of them. Ryuujin level up after a certain number of sessions as GM, and these abilities and powers expand slowly as part of the leveling.

Additionally, the Ryuujin can manifest in the world in tangible ways. This opens some fun possibilities, such as visiting the party as a traveler, a nearby forest animal, or the pack mule they’ve been traveling with the whole time (or whatever else). Shockingly (to me, at least), the Ryuujin can also become a PC eventually, with rules governing this transition. Rather than becoming a GM PC, this allows someone else to take over as GM with a new Ryuujin. It’s a nice touch for those wanting to share GMing duties.

It’s an interesting, unique system, and along with Combat is my favorite part of the book. One of the creator’s other stated intents with Ryuutama was to make GMing fun, and you can see this goal manifested in this section.

Scenarios of Play

It walks you through scenario creation and gives you a couple example scenarios. This is fine, but again runs into a similar problem that I talked about with setting. The book talks about a “Ryuutama-esque” adventures, and gives examples that work well even beyond the example scenarios.

But a lot of these fall into the supremely standard Search, Fetch, Deliver and/or Extermination Quests. I guess if you have new players, this won’t become tedious as quickly, but you’re going to have to stretch your creative muscles quite a bit to find story molds outside those that don’t strain under the rules.

The example scenarios do a good job of showing the creation process, so they’ll be useful for a newer GM. However, they fall into the mold I mention above, and one unsurprisingly shows a full session that includes basically nothing but travel, reinforcing that you’ll have to really embrace those elements of play to enjoy the game.

Similarity to D&D

I thought this game borrowed some elements from 5e, but I was mistaken, given its publishing date. However, there are various conceptual similarities in gameplay here between D&D and Ryuutama, at least to my eye. It’s not a different type of RPG system in the same way that, say, Call of Cthulhu, Dread or Mouse Guard are. The core mechanics will feel similar to a D&D crowd, even if the intended idiom and audience is slightly different.

However, it’s ultimately not a ton lighter on rules than 5e as a whole, but it shifts them around (much heavier on travel, lighter on combat).

If I’m looking for an intro RPG as a stepping stone to D&D, I’d want something lighter than Ryuutama. And if I want an RPG like D&D with about the same amount of rule systems…I’ll just play D&D, even with new players. Even the rural/wilderness aesthetic isn’t impossible to recreate in many other fantasy systems.

So I don’t quite know who the long-term audience is for this game.

The Re-Conclusion

There’s an instinctual excitement I feel when I start to ponder the premise of Ryuutama. This is excellent, because rule systems aren’t what sell the vast majority of players on a game: it’s either the setting, the campaign premise, or the way in which those two things are framed. And the framing here is great.

So I hate saying that where other books whose initial premise excited me continued to draw me in deeper as I read about the game, my excitement for Ryuutama peaked the moment I looked over the cover and initial pages of artwork and description. It never fully lost me, to its credit, but I come away with mixed emotions.

I want to play Ryuutama. But I don’t want to play in just a one-shot of Ryuutama, because I think there’s too much here to appreciate it on such a cursory play.

And I don’t want to play in a campaign, because I think it will become bogged down by its interlocking travel systems and lack of a fully realized setting, and rules systems that will limit the types of stories that can be told. So I’m left with a bit of a problematic game book.

Conversely, I think it would be amazing to GM. Maybe that’s the trick…be the GM, and find some players who buy into the premise enough to collaborate through the imperfections to create something sustainably interesting. Additionally, I think it’s a given that a GM is asked to not just embrace the light-hearted tone, but to add to it with their decisions. In the right hands, this could be truly magical.

So I do think there’s a delightful game here. I just wish they had pared down the inventory and travel systems to less onerous levels, allowing for a truly free-flowing, entry-level game.

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