Yesterday I played my first ever role-playing game in Japanese, at the Oita Evil Spirit club Konkon convention. This convention is held every month in a public hall in Oita, which is near my town, and runs from 10am to 6:30pm. As far as I know not many English-speaking Westerners get to experience Japanese role-playing, so I’m posting a report of how the convention ran and what happened.

First I should mention that my Japanese is not that great, so this was a big challenge for me – maintaining conversation in Japanese for 8 hours on any conversational topic is difficult for me, and something as bizarre and abstract as role-playing is another level of challenge entirely. However, the kind chap at Oita Evil Spirt club (Mr. Shiga) who I contacted was good enough to alert me to the possibility of a Pathfinder game being played. Not only does Pathfinder have a Japanese translation on a wiki (which I previously mentioned I was going to start reading), the translation is in many respects a transliteration, so for example all the character names, races and spells are straight transliterations – Protection From Evil is called Purotekshon furomu ewiru, rather than aku no mamori, for example, so it’s a lot easier to come to terms with the language. Also, the online wiki enabled me to prepare some of the language, which was marginally useful. It’s really helpful in Japanese to know the words before you enter a conversation, because it’s not like French or German where you can guess the meaning of words you don’t know. You just can’t do that, in general, in Japanese.

So I came armed with some information of use, and got the organiser’s permission to bail early if my Japanese proved inadequate. So how did it run?

Firstly, there were 14 people, 2 of them women, all of them nerds, and we played in two Japanese style rooms – which have tatami mat floors, no furnishings of any kind, a closet full of cushions, an enclosed verandah with windows looking out on a courtyard, and an alcove for decorations. One enters the room through an antechamber where one takes off one’s shoes, so everyone sits on the floor. There were floor-tables to sit around, and we all started sprawled on the floor. People knew each other, but no-one knew me so we went through the usual range of questions (“Where are you from?” “What are you doing in Beppu?” “Have you played in Japanese before?”) The staff had been warned I was coming, and everyone was (as ever in Japan) very welcoming. The first thing I noticed is that everyone’s Japanese is really really weird, being a combination of the worst possible set of problems an amateur Japanese speaker can face: a) men’s speech; b) regional weirdness; c) nerdy complexity. For example, when one chap asked me how I came to Oita from Beppu, his question was (literally) “by what movement method did you honour us with your presence?” (For those unfamiliar with the strangenesses of Japanese honourable speech, the weird part here is “movement method.”)

There was a half-hour long opening speech, in which the games being run were written on a whiteboard, and the GMs did a brief presentation of the key points of the game, and players got to ask questions (which strangely consisted mostly of “what sort of dice do you use?”) The games being run were:

  • A Japanese-made superhero game whose name I forget (but don’t understand anyway)
  • Warhammer, the older versions of which have a Japanese translation, and which really seems to appeal to Japanese gamers – they introduce it as “a dark fantasy made in England and set in a European world” and everyone seems to like this.
  • Shadowrun! The old version I played as a kid has a Japanese translation!
  • Pathfinder, being run by the staff member who I originally contacted, the honourable Mr. Shiga

Are you satisfied yet?!

The photo to the left shows the next amusing stage of the process – the prepared “anket,”or questionnaire, which comes in 3 pieces. The right-hand side was where you wrote your name and your first and second preference for gaming group (I chose pathfinder, then shadowrun). The middle part is the name of the convention, a QR code so you can access the website on your mobile phone, and the timetable for the day; the left-hand part (pictured, on top of an English version of the pathfinder rules[1]) is a client satisfaction survey for afterwards, which we kept till the end of the day.

These opening speeches, by the way, were conducted in the formal way that one expects of a Japanese circle (a group with a shared interest). So the leader-figures (the “staff”) open the speech with a brief thank you and “please be good to me,” everyone bows and repeats this formula, and then the speech proceeds. It also finishes with a standard phrase like “let’s all enjoy a wonderful time together,” and the language in the middle is very formal, even though the people in the circle know each other well – so stock respect language like “honourable and exalted players,” and “those of you who have seen fit to notice this humble fact,” and other convoluted Japanese honorifics. This manner is not peculiar to nerds or role-playing, so you’ll also see it at soccer circles, kickboxing groups, etc.

So with the formalisms out of the way, the staff took the right-hand portion of our anket and put us into game groups according to our first and second preferences, and we then divided into two rooms, with one group (playing the Japanese-made game) in a different tatami room, and my group and the Shadowrun group in one room. There weren’t enough players with an interest in warhammer, so that was dropped. Poor warhammer!

We then prepared the room for playing, which meant unloading some low tables from the storage space, scattering mats, setting up maps and miniatures and snacks, etc. My group then spent several hours preparing characters for play. It was the first time Shiga had run a pathfinder game, and he wanted to go through character creation with us, which involved discussing character choices. I said I wanted to play something with limited skills, so I didn’t have to learn lots of complex words and language and didn’t have to interact too much with monsters, so everyone agreed I should be the fighter. Unfortunately, this was a bigger challenge than if I had played a skill-focused character like a rogue, because in Pathfinder the fighter basically gets a feat every level, and the feats are not straight transliterations of English, so I had to suddenly understand a whole bunch of new Japanese words and characters. Intimidation, for example, is called iatsu, not a transliteration, and the feat “dazzling display” is called “intimidating performance” (iatsu enbu). Weapon focus, weapon specialisation, cleave, etc. are all given Japanese names, and – just to piss me off more – the rules for cleave are different in pathfinder so I found myself having a rules discussion with the GM within minutes of starting the game. meep. Fortunately we had the English-language text, so if I could check anything I didn’t understand (in fact I did understand this).

So this meant I had to learn a bunch of new words and characters on the spot and write them on my character sheet. This also extended to equipment but not to armour and weapons – a throwing axe is called “suroingu akusu,” a transliteration, and a shortsword is not translated to whatever the Japanese equivalent would be (wakazashi?) Weird, the decisions people make when importing words.

Anyway, so I made a Dwarf fighter, and the photos below show my character sheet and the miniatures for our party – Kerupu the rogue and machiruba the cleric, with kama the sorcerer.

Familiar, yet so different...

gwaaaaaagh! desu.

I finished my character before the others, having no spells to choose, and having chosen very simple equipment, and then I did the next classically Japanese thing – I went out with two other players to buy a bento (lunchbox) and some coffee from starbucks, and came back to eat grilled salmon and rice with my coffee. Bento, coffee, and role-playing – shiawase! (Perfect happiness).

By the time I’d eaten we were ready to start. Below is a picture of my group, from left to right: The honourable and exalted Mr. Shiga, our Gamesmaster; the Honourable and exalted Ms. Furudera, our Cleric; and the Honourable and Exalted Mr. Ichinose, our Rogue; your own ignoble and humble correspondent is behind the camera, which, incidentally, I humbly abase myself for using so poorly – these photos were all taken from my phone.

Three Honourable Nerds

Exactly the same, except for the snacks...

The next photo shows our game table during play, and as can be seen it’s exactly like a western table, but for the snacks, which are, going counter-clockwise: Prawn rice crackers; a packet of wet tissues (these were to the wipe the mat, not to eat, obviously, they’re in the small green packet); semi-spicy potato rings; a convenience-store salad, with chopsticks; and an onigiri (rice ball wrapped in seaweed). At the rear is a milk tea.

So, the game began, and went just exactly like a western game. Some scene-setting, then straight into the adventure (which I’ll report separately). I understood maybe 50% of the language, which was sufficient to get the essential facts and to miss some faint nuance. Sometimes I needed to check things and get my facts straight, because some of the things you hear at a gaming table are really out of left field – for example, the bit about the Frost Giants making a giant icy slippery dip kind of took me by surprise, and I had to get that repeated from a few different angles before I figured it out. I quickly learnt the words I needed to know for skills and the like – intimidation, diplomacy, stealth, attack, etc. The thing about language use is that if it’s not concretely about what is in front of you, it’s really difficult to understand sentences that aren’t really familiar (this is why phone conversations are harder than the equivalent conversation when someone is in front of you). Most of role-playing is in the abstract, not about what you’re pointing at, so new words have to be judged in context, not by the physical object they refer to, so if you don’t understand a certain amount of the language, you don’t get the whole. A lot of this session revolved around the verb “to slide,” which fortunately I knew[2], and as a consequence I was able to pick up other things. Also somehow without ever reading it I had absorbed the word for Giant, so “giant slippery dip” was guessable and I could fill in other blanks. I now know several more useless words than I did before (like “intimidation” and “opportunity attack.”) Given that I understood the context for many of the words (being familiar with the skill system), I wasn’t all at sea with strange new words, and was able to understand the flow of the action and even make suggestions (the fake hill giant footprints were my idea). There was some nuance with freeing the baby white dragon that I didn’t get, but I didn’t lose so much in translation that I couldn’t enjoy it. Also, I killed a giant.

Incidentally, while this was going on the group behind us was playing shadowrun, which involved lots of transliterated phrases as well, like “Former Company Man” and “Street Samurai.” I grew all nostalgic!

At 18:00 our adventure finished successfully, with no-one dead (though Kerupu the rogue came dangerously close). At a fixed time the group regathered, and there was a closing speech. This was more casual than the opening, and involved each DM reporting on their game, how they found it, problems with the system, etc. Players also gave their opinions. Finally, I was asked to report on how role-playing in Japan compared to role-playing in the west, and I was forced to tell them the same thing I tell you, dear reader: It’s exactly the same, but the snacks are different, and you sit on the floor. They also asked me if I would be interested in trying a Japanese-made rather than foreign-made game, to which I said a tentative yes. This made them all very happy, but first I have to get more used to their language and manners, because I looked at the Japanese games and they are radically different. Every single character class is unreadable for me – even the ninja has a weird name – and games seem based entirely on powers, like D&D4e[3] or Exalted, and I have to learn the names of these powers, which are all mystical or weird. Also, one game involves a complex resource-management rule which I couldn’t easily understand. I might try buying one of the books for a read (and more on these later too, I think), but first I need to diversify my vocabulary and get used to the complexities of nerd conversation.

A few final observations about the social milieu. The players seem to be from a lower salary or social class than western gamers, with less IT professionals, and they have quite strict working schedules – mostly 1 day off a week, and only 1 weekend a month where they get 2 days off on the weekend. This means a lot of them only meet or game once a month[4], so on the day that they meet they really go into it with passion. Usually after gaming they go for dinner and then to a games arcade or karaoke, and they were making jokes about how intense and nerdy they must seem to outsiders. They’re also all pretty close, I think, and have a comfortable little friendship group going on. Finally, there seemed to be a higher ratio of women gamers than in the West, and they were very well accepted (there are more, too, who couldn’t come). Also, everyone was thin (of course), and there were no beards, no weird t-shirts with gaudy prints of dragons and big-breasted chicks, no self-important know-it-alls[5], and the usual level of system-discussion and out-of-game movie/cultural discussion as one would expect to see in the West.

So, all in all, the day was a success for the gaming group and for me personally. I have managed to enter a Japanese gaming group and survive a day of gaming, and I may have made some new friends. I’ve also widened my experience of Japanese snacks. If my Japanese continues to improve and I stick at it, I could also have a regular and enjoyable gaming group. Next step, world domination!

fn1: The pathfinder rules are massive! But very pretty, and I think aside from a few power ups, better than D&D

fn2: I knew this verb from statistics, because I studied semi-parametric smoothing, which uses the same character as “to slide” or “to be slippery.”

fn3: One player, Furudera san, told me that she has tried 4e but she thinks that for people who are used to 3.5e, it’s impossible to like. Even the edition wars are universal…

fn4: which had Shige-san, another player, making some hilarious jokes comparing himself to Porco Rosso – a pig’s gotta fly, a guy’s gotta DM.

fn5: there are many forms of social dickhead in Japan, of course, but for some reason the arrogant know-it-all is really rare in any setting.

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