Saturday, April 16, 2016

Dungeons & Manga #1 - Knowing D&D Part One

Not having the time to compose the long (winded) discursive thoughts on games I used to, I thought I'd start a new series of posts that would require less time to write for but also provide something interesting for gamers until I can get more time to think and compose. I've turned to my fairly extensive collection of Japanese RPGs, most of which are fantasy games, to present what I call 'Dungeons & Manga', namely manga-style art used in Japanese TRPG books. Whereas English RPGs and D&D in particular took some time before accessing professional artists, Japanese game designers had access to the immense pool of relatively inexpensive manga artists in Japan.

Today, I will be looking at 1987's D&Dがよくわかる本、D&D ga yoku wakaru hon, loosely translated as Knowing D&D Well, or more simply D&D for Beginners. This book is much like a Japanese Judges' Guild resource, and the series it is a part of includes extensively written and illustrated guides on dungeons, monsters, and other RPG accoutrements.

First, the cover (below) presents a whimsical reversal of position of PCs and the dragons they are supposed to be gunning for. It reminds me a bit of the old Dragon magazine comic where adventurers sit around playing an RPG in which they take on the role of office workers. It also shows a high degree of self-deprecating humour, which is still evident in Japanese TRPGs today, but I feel somewhat lacking in self-important western RPGS. Anyway, here it is:

Moving inside, we see that Japanese gamers knew what captured goblins were good for. This is not surprising given the velocity with which unchi rolls downhill in a vertical society...

From the bottom of the dungeon hierarchy we soar to the top. Next stop, dragons!

With the reader's appetite whetted with images of adventure, the tone shifts to tongue-in-cheek comic art to present the classes. There's the fighter:

The top panel is captioned "The fighter is D&D's superstar!!", while the bottom states "However, they are none too smart..." and show the wizard saying "Hey, get back to work!" Unsurprisingly, the next picture is the wizard:

The mage's thought balloon reads "For MU's, choosing the right spell decides your fate." Below that the wizard mumbles "Without magic, I'm just an average human..." and chooses from a golf bag with the words "Fireball", Levitation", "Lightning", "Phantasm" and one other illegible spell name. Next, the cleric:

The cleric thinks "Clerics can't use bladed weapons!" while the elf behind quips "Razors are OK, right?" The bottom caption reads "They have the power to protect the party from undead and injury!" Whereas individualistic westerners might cringe at being in a support position, group-minded Japanese players would instead find supporting the party a worthy and attractive role. In contrast, next up is the thief:

The upper panel reads "The party uses me as a treasure detector..." while the bottom is captioned "The highly dexterous thief also levels up quickly." The thief himself quips "I aim to be guildmaster!", interestingly using the Japanese term 大親分 (o-oyabun, or yakuza chief) to anchor the character in Japanese culture. Moving on to the elf:

The female elf has been a Japanese fantasy trope since Deedlit of Lodoss War, and that archtype is here. The caption on top reads "Elves can fight, use magic, are intelligent, and long lived...". This totally fits the critique of elves as a token instead of individual characters that appeared on Playing D&D with Pornstars, perhaps implying that this simplification is even stronger across cultures. The bottom reads "But their advancement is also incredibly slow." This same simplification is seen with the dwarf:

"Dwarves are small but tough!" reads the caption, evoking Gimli to an almost painfully stereotypical degree. The humouruous bottom quip "Because we eat minerals (just joking)" lightens this image, but unintentionally adds an explanation for dwarvish miserliness and mining that I would add to any mythos I used in game. How about the hafling?

"Haflings are hard to hit" promises the caption, and the character breaks the fourth wall to counsel " You have to be strong, dextrous, and tough if you want to be me!" Here ends the cutesy art and manga style realism returns for the equipment section:

Chainmail, shield, platemail, and leather are all here.

Hand axe, shortsword, battle axe, and two-handed sword as well...

 Mace, crossbow, bow, dagger, and club...

Ending with lance, spear, war hammer,  halberd and sling. What, no katanas? Oh well, now on to character sheets:

For those of you that can read katakana, yes they have named the thief 'Darth Vader' and the wizard 'Ben Kenobi.' If that seems like a jr high D&D camp type of thing to do, remember that they are coming from another culture, and so are not much different from the L4R players who call their PC Musashi or Nobunaga. Similarly, the fighter is Pendragon and the elf is (wait for it)... Legolas. Sigh, there was also a cleric named Rasputin, but my tablet ate the photo, so I shall spare you.

That's it for this installment, tune in next time for the dynamic action scenes accompanying the sample adventure!

If you liked this post or have any suggestions or questions, leave a comment.


  1. This is pretty cool! I love seeing the different versions of D&D and D&D-related products - not just versions translated into other languages (like my French DMG), but tailored entirely to the different sensibilities and conventions of another culture. Can't wait for Part 2!

  2. Interesting post. I really like that the Japanese do their own thing here (and anywhere else, really). Different perspectives on the same topic are always enriching. Sadly, we don't have that kind of thinking in Germany (or any kind of comic culture that would support it, for that matter) and I don't know what it'd look like if we did ... Damn, the more I think about it, the more I have to come to the conclusion that it is indeed a sad affair when a culture can't do what your post illustrated. Anyway, thanks! Great post :)

    1. Japanese culture is all about 習・理・破, shu-ri-ha, or Learn, Understand, then Break. As in martial arts, learn the technique, practice till you understand it, then break it or break out a new development from what you have learned and understood. I'll be posting some modern Japanese RPG art so you can see where this has lead later on.

    2. Cool! I was about to joke that German culture would bring beer and leather trousers, but actually it'd bring Kant, Goethe, Jean Paul, Heinrich Heine, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer (and every other great author and or philosopher before WWII), who actually (arguably) did the same for philosophy, so there's also a culture of learn, understand and break with (I'd guess) somewhat different results (and no effect whatsoever on German rpg art). It might well be because the last German advocate of spiritism had been Meister Eckhart in the Middle Ages, while Martial Arts carried it as Zen-disciplines well into the present ... or something like that. Anyway, it is an interesting topic and I'm looking forward to learn more about it.

    3. I suspect this is why German boardgames are all the rage and innovative, as I am told. Maybe this doesn't transfer over to the performative theater nature of RPGs...

    4. Ha! I couldn't say anything about that :) But Pathfinder is very popular here, so maybe there's something to it ...