Thursday, July 8, 2021

So you've been transported to Another World

 

from Superboy and the Legion of Superheroes
I've been wanting to run an Isekai Game for a long time now.  Here are some notes about how I would do it.

Isekai: A Brief History Lesson

In case you're unaware, Isekai is a term from Japanese that means "Another world".  You say it "Ee-sey-kai".  Isekai usually begins with a main character in our world, often a relatable loser with a good heart but little prospects dying or otherwise being transported to another universe.  There the character has to rebuild their life from scratch and usually ends up becoming an important person in that world, often as a hero.  This is a genre that has dominated much of Japanese animation, manga and other genres for several years now, though it's much older than when it arrived in Japan.  One could argue that Princess of Mars and The Legion of Superheroes comic, both of which feature a hero from their own world transported to another planet or 1000 years into the future respectively are early examples of the Isekai genre. 

Now there are plenty of genres with the Isekai genre, mostly focusing on derivative storylines, lack of interesting worlds, giving the protagonist too much power and robbing the story of any sense of tension and a general lack of creativity.  But this isn't a literary criticism blog, so we're going to skip right over that part and get right to the stuff that people like.

Generally there are two kinds of Isekai Stories, which I will be classifying as Human or Monster.

In Human Isekai stories, the main character is a human who was usually transported to this world and has to find a new place for himself in this world.  Sometimes they seek to go back home, but in more recent ones they have no intention of ever returning to their old lives and set out to build something new here, either because they can't return, or they don't want to.  Sometimes the main character is also summoned by people on purpose to this world, usually in some sort of chosen one scenario where the main character is expected to become a Hero to save the world.

In Monster Isekai stories, the main character is a human who usually dies and is reincarnated as a monster.  This character then seeks to adapt to their new world and find a new place for themselves.  Monster stories tend towards the more gritty side, with the main character being given more room to be morally flexible, though this isn't always the case.

Example Isekai Stories that are Good:
- I'm a Spider, So What? - Only the Manga, the Anime is atrocious
- Jobless Reincarnation - Only the recent Anime
- Konosuba (S1,S2)
- John Carter - It's a decent movie, though probably not as good as the original "Princess of Mars", but I haven't read that one
- Planet of the Apes - This might not technically count as an Isekai
- Overlord (S1,S2,S3?) - I can't vouch for Season 3, but Season 2 has lizardman romance, so that's cool
- ReZero: Starting Life in Another World from Zero (S1, S2)
- Samurai Jack (S1-S5)
- Stranded in Fantasy 

art of Jobless Reincarnation, artist unknown

The Merits of Isekai:

You explore the world with the characters.  This is the biggest one, and one of the most damning inditements of the genre.  Isekai stories allow you to introduce a relatively clueless main character to a world full of wonders and terrors, and so often we end up with generic fantasy settings with elves, vampires and etc.

Self-Insert Potential, Wish fulfillment and Relatability.  The idea of Isekai is like the idea of a Zombie apocalypse.  If I was in that situation, what would I do?  Rather then shying away from that, if you run an Isekai game, you should lean into that trend.  Many Isekai do this by going very overboard, giving their main characters inordinate amounts of power, harems of attractive people to fawn over and flirt with and general advantages that allow the mostly clueless protagonist to demolish any threat in front of them.  And while I do not recommend that approach, this is still a valid approach that if capitalized on should make your game much more fun. 

Video Game Worlds.  Most Isekai have worlds that run, to at least some extent, on the logic of video games.  This to me is not a detriment, but a positive.  The XP bar slowly filling up is one of the things that almost all RPGS have for a reason.  Plus, real life would be so much cooler if we were being constantly rewarded and could see how our small, daily labors were contributing toward some higher goal.  If I could see a bar indicating how writing these articles was slowly improving my "Writing" skill I'd write every spare chance I could, just to watch that bar slowly fill up.  Plus, if your audience is used to more traditional fantasy, it might make for an interesting change of pace. 

How to Run a Human Isekai Game:

The players are either dropped into this world or reincarnated into it.  I would prefer the former, but it's your game.  Assuming the former option however, the players should end up in a world that's unlike their own.  I'd recommend the stranger the better, but not so strange that the players need everything explained to them. 

Now in most Isekai stories, the characters usually start with some inherent ability or abilities that they bring with them into this new world.  Sometimes this only gives them an advantage, while other times the character begins as the most powerful being in that world and all fights from that point on are basically just exercises in futility and the author's ability to convince us otherwise.  I don't think that's a very good idea for an RPG, but it's your game.

Some Ideas for a Human Isekai Game:

1.  The players are dropped into a world where humans are a rare or extinct species.  Wherever they go, they are strange and unique.

2.  The world the players are dropped into used to be inhabited by humans, who are virtually extinct.  The world is inhabited by various half-, quarter- and eight-humans, as well as the creations of those same humans, such as their intelligent golems and other artificial lifeforms.  However, only pure-blood humans are able to manipulate the ancient machinery and technology littering the landscape of this land, and only by unlocking the secrets of their race can the players save this world from total destruction.

3.  The players arrive in a strange world and are greeted by a man who declares himself to be the rebel leader against a tyrannical God-King, and that you are the chosen heroes destined to overthrow that God-King.  But first, you'll have to survive long enough to fight him.

Insert as many of the following twists for taste:
- The Rebellion might not be as justified as they first claim and the God-King might not be as tyrannical and malicious as their propaganda claims
- The Rebellion and the Royalists are not the only sides, the players have just landed in the midst of a vast civil war but minus any of the proper context.  They may become important people to woo or influence as they grow stronger, because of their "chosen hero" status.
- The players are "Chosen Heroes" but this title was actually just invented by the rebel leader and it doesn't mean anything.
- The title of "Chosen Heroes" means EVERYTHING, but the prophecy that predicts their arrival also says they meet a tragic and horrible end.  Is this inevitable or will the players be able to change the future?
- The players have accidentally or as foretold upstaged a group of native heroes called the Nobles, who were toiling in near-futility, preparing the way for you.  The Nobles might not be happy at the fact that they did most of the work and now you've come as a deus ex machina to steal the credit and the glory. 
- You're not the first group of "chosen heroes" this God-King has killed.

4.  The players arrive in a world defined by a massive battle between the forces of Good and Evil, or in this case, Creation and Anti-Creation.  The forces of Anti-Creation are guaranteed to inevitably win and destroy this world.  The job of the players is not to fight the forces of Anti-Creation, but complete a grand working that will ensure something positive, such as the perpetuation of existence or the rebirth of the world.  The forces of Creation are essentially just fighting a rearguard action to buy time.

Mechnical Notes:

Human Isekai games could be run simply as normally D&D games, with no extra mechanical flourishes.  Simply start the players as level 0 characters and work your way up from there. 

Beyond that, flavor to taste.  You could do the thing they love to Japanese entertainment where adventurers can become superhumanly strong through training, so instead of progressing from Goblins to Orcs to Ogres, the players progress from fighting Orcs to Giant Snakes the size of cars to Giants that could give King Kong a run for his money.

Alternatively, you could make the game super gritty and deal with the effects of dropping a much of soft modern people used to running water and electricity into a world much less developed than ours, but also one that has blood-thirsty monsters and every time you leave town you get jumped by giant Spider-Crabs.     

by Kobayakawa Haruyoshi

How to run a Monster Isekai Game:

I'll be starting on the assumption that the players died and were reborn into another world as monsters. 

Most of the "Monster Isekai stories" that seem to be very popular usually involve the main character slowly evolving and getting stronger as he or she does.        

For example, in I'm a Spider, so What?, we see our main character start out as a dog-sized spider with mild poison and the ability to spin webs.  She starts out by hunting giant frogs and snakes, but gains experience from each kill, literally and metaphorically.  From there we get to watch her rise from bottom of the food chain to the top of the heap, as she goes from fighting giant wasps to monkeys to giant lava snakes to Dragons.

As such, I would design a Monster Isekai game like that.  The players would start as weak monsters and slowly grow in strength and power, occasionally evolving into more powerful forms.  I might also incorporate some "Kingdom building" elements, so that over the course of the campaign the players can gather followers and territory until they emerge onto the scene as monster kings, or at least tribal chieftains.

Mechanical Notes:

Here's how I would do it. 

Monsters start with fixed stats and HP, as well as a certain number of starting abilities.  More on that later.  These do not get stronger or increase level-by-level, but only increase when the character evolves.  The only way for a character to get stronger in between evolutions is to learn skills. 

Skills are abilities that can be learned diagetically, such as Martial Maneuvers, gaining Sorcerous powers, or other things.  There are also more mundane skills such as Smithing and Hunting.   

Skills work like so: If you do not know a skill, you can still attempt it, but you add your relevant ability modifier.  For example: Stealth is based on DEX, so you add your DEX modifier.  If you are proficient in a skill, you know that skill, and you may add 1 other relevant modifier, such as Charisma (CHA) or Cognition (COG). 

Ex:

Bob is not proficient/doesn't have the Stealth skill, so he rolls 1d20 and adds his DEX modifier of +1: 1d20(11) + DEX mod(1) = 12.

Alice is proficient/does have the Stealth skill, so she rolls 1d20 then adds her DEX and COG modifier of (+1) each: 1d20(4) + DEX mod(1) + COG mod(1) = 6

As for Evolution, monsters level up every couple of levels and can choose at various junctions what type of monster they would become.

Here's the Goblin evolution Tree, for instance.

I would have players evolve at level 3, level 5 and level 7, but space it out depending on the number of evolutionary steps possible.

artist unknown

Other Ideas I couldn't find a place for:

1.  The players have died.  But because God is merciful or they were Catholic, they ended up in Purgatory.  They are informed by their Angelic parole officer that should they defeat a number of evil ghosts and demons, preferrably the ones causing Heaven so much grief at the moment, they will be purified and able to redeem a one-way ticket to the Pearly Gates.  Should they fail to do so or become corrupted, they will be left to lanquish down here until the Last Judgement, where this will be a very bad place to be.  The Angel mentions something vague about a lake of fire and leaves it at that. 

2.  The players were people in comas and found their consciousnesses uploaded to the Human Mainframe.  It is apparently thousands of year after they initially went into their comas.  Can they find their way to their bodies and rejoin humanity?  Or will they be doomed to deletion or to wander cyberspace forever as ghosts in the machine?  Maybe they aren't even human now, or ever were; couldn't they just be self-aware programs that think they're humans?

3.  The players are transported to a new world, but they discover this world is a computer simulation.  Can they escape from the Matrix rip-off?  Additionally, if they learn how, they will be able to manipulate the simulation's programming to allow them to do things that they otherwise would be unable to. 

4.  The players are modern-day people who are transported to a different world.  Secretly, this world is actually Earth, but post some catastrophic event that alters things to the extent that the players would not immediately recognize their planet.  Think "Planet of the Apes".

5.  The players are heroes who were flung into the future and because of that, the evil they were tasked to destroy has been allowed to fester and pollute their whole world.  They need to find a way to defeat the evil when it has grown much stronger than it ever was when they were alive, or they need to find a way back to the past before it was allowed grow as strong as it did.  If you don't have any ideas on what to do, just rip off "Samurai Jack". 

6.  The players are demons, or they were evil humans who were reincarnated as demons in Hell.  Right now they are just Imps being bullied by everyone above them.  Will they accept their fate or claw, backstab and assassinate their way to the top of the infernal heap?  

artist unknown

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