This review is based on the ePub version (i.e., Kindle), which is currently available for $10 at DriveThruRPG. A PDF version with art and print layout will be out later this year.
This is a roleplaying game. It is possibly the roleplaying game. It is genius. It is horrifying. It is a beautiful balance of everything that would drive a story forward. It is diceless. It is filled with meta-game moments. It is quite a task to understand. If you are on a path to better understanding how to grow as a gamemaster (GM) or as a player with a player character(PC) in tabletop RPG’s, I’d tell you to buy it. If you are on Pathfinder this RPG might as well be in ancient Martian.
This game was to play Studio Ghibli films. Perhaps not as adventurous as Princess Mononoke, which would easily fall under a standard RPG system. This system was designed to play Ponyo or Spirited Away. There’s one scene in Ponyo, where the boy takes Ponyo out in a boat to explore the submerged world. It’s such an interesting slice of adventure, but without much purpose. How would you create a game like that where the player is involved?
Chuubo’s started there, but it has grown. I’ve heard from the old guard of the game, having been fans since the Kickstarter, that it actually does miraculous gaming quite well. Want to be able to turn into a kaiju or have the powers of Sephiroth? No problem. Want to play a little boy, like one from Ponyo, that has a machine that lets him ask for wishes? Well, that’s why this game exists.
Whimsical. Anime. Storied. Those are all good words to describe the feeling that the author, Jenna Moran, is trying to convey.
Players as Mechanics
The critical element of Chuubo’s is quests. A conventional RPG has the GM creating an adventure or buying a module. The players are usually the reactors based on that poor bloke in the tavern that needs goblins dead. A good GM will take in to consideration as much PC history and motivation as possible, but the GM us usually the actor. With the exception of some indie games (yes, such as Chuubo’s), this is very conventional.
Chuubo’s broadly swings the actor dial back to the players big time by providing quests, usually of the player’s choosing. With these quests the player starts pushing towards ways to complete that quest within the framework of the world and story that is collaboratively created.
Look at the newest quest card example of “A New Hobby”. It could be any hobby. I’ll say fly-fishing. Immediately, it is apparent what story will be told in some sense. I would talk to an expert. I would hit up a fly-fishing store. Then I might create some hand-tied flies… at a farmer’s market, or the wharf. Whatever the case by my, the player’s, choosing of this quest I am sending my PC and the collaborative story. Now this might seem like a simple story, but imagine where players also have their own quests that would help color the story. Could the PC have a moment of daydreaming about fly-fishing during a kite show put on by another PC?
Going down the quest card, there is a bunch of symbols near quest flavor. These exemplify methods of moving forward on the quest within certain genres. They aren’t limiters, as much as enhancers. The GM chooses (with the group, of course) the genre the game is played in. For example if the genre is “pastoral” players can get XP for doing a Shared Action (“Reach out to them. Try to connect.”). This means a smart player trying to game the system will claim XP on a Shared Action and on the A New Hobby quest by “having a geeky discussion with a fellow hobbyist”.
The Pastoral genre is all about having these Shared Actions. Players constantly are seeking them so that they can gain XP. In the Adventure Fantasy genre players are going to try and (Be in) Trouble – where something really scary is happening and the player is overwhelmed or overmatched. Seek that out, and get XP!
Finally players define their PC’s personality a bit by fishing for Emotion XP. If you want your PC to be a tad neurotic take the “Offering You Comfort” Emotion XP. Every time another player (or the GM, I suppose) offers you/ your PC comfort you get XP! So how are you going to play that PC? Well in a way where they want and seek comfort.
It isn’t hard to foresee what scenes will result from my neurotic fly fisherman in the Pastoral genre. I am going to be lamenting all my failures as a fly fisherman while proclaiming the tragedy of being bitten by the bug. I just can’t quite fly fishing, the perfect art of war against trout!
A PhD in Chuubology
The worst part of it is putting it all together. Instead of doing whatever I feel like for my PC, based on some loose concept I have, I am now trying to chase down XP. It is possibly just as gamist as moving down a dungeon corridor block-by-block with a 10-ft bamboo pole held in front of me for traps. Notecards (or whole sheets of paper) are absolutely critical for bookkeeping what quests, genre actions, and even emotion XP is going on.
I would say this is the worst thing about the ePub. I am constantly flipping all over the place trying to find quests, quest examples, actions, rules, etc. It feels like someone trying to tell me how to bake a cake sometimes with the pouring of batter step before the breaking the eggs step.
In a way Chuubo’s reminds me of an MMO. It reminds me specifically of how it feels after I’ve picked up a couple quests at a quest hub and I am now heading out in to the wilderness. Oh! Look a thing to mine. Now there’s a player in trouble. Now I can farm those 10 ratlings, but I only hit 6 before I have to wait for a respawn. MMO players try to be efficient and think of ways to hit all the quest-like buttons at once, but there is still a story to be told.
I am hoping that Chuubo’s starts something in RPG design that keeps growing. I would love as a GM to be the reactor. Let the players drive forward, and I just react with how the world is. Let the players path out where they want to go while the GM’s job is to marry all those paths in to one grand adventure. Or just about kite flying and fly fishing. Those would be good yarns.