When anime fandom got started in the US, it began as an outgrowth of other fandoms. Comic fans got interested in it through series like Lone Wolf and Cub (with a then still sane Frank Miller giving the series his full endorsement), and with publishers like Viz and Dark Horse capitalizing on the newly popular “Indy comics” scene, which Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird had brought to popularity through a little comic called Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Science fiction fans were captivated by the small number of anime films (like Akira), and occasional TV series (like Robotech and Harmony Gold's forgotten amalgamation of Captain Harlock and Queen Milennia) that made it to this side of the Pacific.
While these two groups are very different in may respects, one of the places where they had some overlap was in an enthusiasm for tabletop role-playing games, like Dungeons & Dragons, and later games like Steve Jackson Games' Generic Universal Role-Playing System (or GURPS for short), Game Designers Workshop's (GDW) Traveller, and many other games. Finally, as anime achieved some popularity and more series started being brought over in the late 80s and early 90s, much as Star Trek, Star Wars, and Conan had received official tabletop RPGs before them, several publishers stepped up to the plate and produced officially licensed tabletop RPGs, adapting some of the more successful series of the time.
I'll be dividing this guide up by publisher. While most publishers show a certain degree of evolution in their game design based in trends in the Role-playing game industry – most of these changes are reflective of the industry as a whole, instead of just what other anime licensed RPGs are doing. Also, I'm not including RPGs that are “inspired” by anime. There are enough of those for another guide on their own.
Anyway, enough preface. Get out your dice and roll for initiative. We're going to check out some games.
Palladium Books - Robotech
Palladium Books (also known as Palladium Games) is one of the second wave of role-playing game publishers. The company was formed in the 80s and had success with their first 3 role-playing games – the Science-Fiction epic “The Mechanoid Invasion”, “The Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game”, and “Heroes Unlimited” a superhero RPG. These games were successful enough to lead to two licensed RPGs based on hot properties at the time. One was the then cult comic Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles . The other was a Saturday morning cartoon combining 3 anime series into one - Robotech
The Robotech RPG is, in short, the RPG that laid the groundwork for their later long-running RPG Rifts. The game, like their other games worked though an modification of the system used by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D). While AD&D was a class-and-attribute based system, where the skill of your characters was based on their attributes and how high their level was in their class), Robotech used a class-and-skill based system. In that system, the character's success was based on their ranking in individual skills, which could be influenced by their attributes, but was affected more by how much the character had trained in those skills and what their class was. Consequently, a character with the Veritech Pilot class would always be a better pilot than a character with the Musician class. However, a Musician would be able to more easily trigger Culture Shock amongst Zentradi then a pilot would.
The game, frankly, has significant flaws. The corebook contained no background information on the setting, so players would need to be intimately familiar with the TV series (and since this was before the internet, there wouldn't have been a way to look up this information online). Additionally, the Palladium system was notorious for being particularly arcane (in addition to being poorly formatted – up until recently they refused to use digital layout software). Aside from their Toughness (determined by their stats) characters would also have SDC (which would effect how much damage they could take from weapons). Plus, the mecha dealt damage to each other on the MDC scale, which had a bit of a formula to convert to SDC. The skill system was also more than a little confusing – with some skills being effected by attributes while others weren't, or the skills were effected by a combination of attributes and so on.
The organization of their games didn't help – rules for character classes were placed before rules for attributes, or races, or skills, or even the character generation rules themselves in the book. This issue has been fixed - somewhat - in the latest edition of the rules, with the character generation rules being before the rules for classes, attributes and skills, but after a list of setting information and write-ups of all the enemy mechs.
Combat in the game was a little odd too. In the series, combat is pretty quick (it has to be with the running time), and generally, if you shot an enemy, it'd blow up. Fighters would also be able to carry a famously absurd amount of missiles, and could launch hundreds of them at a time (the infamous Itano Circus or Macross Missile Massacre). In the Robotech RPG, combat is long, drawn out, and missile supplies are particularly limited.
All that said, the game was particularly successful – receiving numerous sourcebooks covering some (but not all) of the lapses of the first book – particularly with the setting. Sourcebooks would later be published for The Sentinels and the Macross II OVA. The game fell out of print for a while until recently, when the game was revived for the Robotech: The Shadow Chronicles film. The game received a new (and finally revised) edition, along with new sourcebooks for earlier eras (the Masters and Macross sagas).
R. Talsorian Games – Bubblegum Crisis, Armored Trooper Votoms, Dragonball Z, Gundam Senki
R.Talsorian Games (RTG for short) started up in 1985, and made a bit of a name for themselves for being one of the first publishers to use desktop publishing software to layout their books. This seems minor, but when you're at a gaming table and have to quickly look something up, the increased readability and formatting options that desktop publishing software gives you can make quite a difference.
They were also one of the first publishers to put out heavily anime-inspired properties that were still original IPs, with the miniatures wargame Mekton, which would later branch out into a Tabletop RPG, using their Interlock system – later used in their Cyberpunk RPG, and their other anime-inspired RPG, Teenagers from Outer Space .
The Fuzion system is probably the one system here that is freely, and legally, available, and just about all the core rules can be found online here . The idea behind the system was to create a role-playing system that could, theoretically, use material from other Interlock system games (like Mekton and Cyberpunk), as well as material from the Hero System (like Champions).
The game operates on an attribute+skill system, where the character's abilities are determined by their base attributes and how well they're trained in certain skills. Characters in the game have 10 base stats, plus a series of Derived stats that are based on the base stats (or a combination of several), plus a little math. The process is a little complex and can be intimidating to the newcomer.
Their skill rankings are based on their training in those skills plus their ranks in related attributes. Thus, as opposed to the Palladium system, attributes are just as meaningful (and perhaps more meaningful at lower levels) as skill points.
Once you get past character generation, the majority of the game mechanics come down to a basic check of your Skill Ranking (Attribute + Skill Levels) added to a die roll, against a target number, or a NPC's roll for opposed checks (like in combat). If you want a more heroic or “cinematic” experience, you roll 3d6, and if you want a grittier experience, you roll a 10-sided die (d10). Things get slightly more complex than the standard skill checks for combat – with the rules including information on everything from targeted limb damage to handling grenades – which is all well and good once you've learned the rules, but can also bog things down some in combat, and which can also add to all the bookkeeping everyone in the game has to do.
The Fuzion system also introduced a new concept for coming up with back-stories for characters – the life-path system. This gave the player an option to create a detailed background for their character that the Game Master (GM) could mine for plot hooks, whether it's an old flame who went to fight for the enemy, or a family disgrace, or a rival whose now your superior officer. The player could choose options in the life-path himself, or roll for them randomly.
Three licensed games were released in the US using the Fuzion and Interlock systems, and one was released in Japan and was licensed for US release, but currently sits in limbo.
The first was Bubblegum Crisis, one of the first games outside of Teenagers from Outerspace to use the Fuzion system. I'm going to go a little more in-depth here then with the Palladium Books material, simply because each franchise doesn't have as many books
The rulebook itself is a more than a little different than most other tabletop RPGs, even licensed ones, in that before reader has had a chance to get to the table of contents, or even an introduction explaining the concept of RPGs to new readers, the book gives a fairly detailed episode guide for the series, explaining the premise, and giving a synopsis for the first seven episodes of the series.
All the hard crunch of the rules, plus the episode guide, take up the first 3 of the book. From there the book gets into what is called “fluff” by role-playing fans – stuff that doesn't necessarily relate to the mechanics of running the game, but instead makes the game more enjoyable to play – in this case a complete time-line for the setting and everything you need to flesh-out the universe for your campaign, even if you haven't seen all the OVAs and read all the volumes of the manga.
This in turn makes provides the book with a little more utility for people who don't like the Fuzion system and want to run a campaign using a different game's rules (whether with Guardians of Order's Tri-Stat system, or something else). It also makes the book useful for fans of the series who aren't interested in role-playing or can't find a group – the book contains lots of stills from the series, as well as reference drawings of the characters and the various vehicles and suits of power armor.
Two sourcebooks were released for the game, expanding the setting somewhat. Before and After covered the events of AD Police and Bubblegum Crash, and Bubblegum Crisis EX , a rules expansion. Before And After includes a full episode guide for the AD Police and Bubblegum Crash OVAs, along with rules for cybernetics (which only occur in AD Police), and explanation for laws on cybernetics for later in the setting. The book also has useful information on campaign tone – where Bubblegum Crisis itself is the powered action of Power Rangers or Kamen Rider in the world of Blade Runner, Neo-Tokyo in the AD Police era is very much a Gotham without a Batman – grim, dark, and nihilistic. The book also has a collection of adventure hooks for each era, and an adventure path that bridges all three series (AD Police, Crisis, and Crash), along with formal conversion rules for mechs created using the Mekton Zeta + system, and for characters from Hero System and other Interlock sourcebooks.
EX adds a lot more crunch for vehicles and new hard-suits, along with a load of new boomers to fight, taken from the manga, as well as other concepts for boomers that weren't necessarily used in the series. The book also included a re-write of the Knight Sabers to put them on the same tone for AD Police , and any campaigns in that universe, along with suggestions on including Boomer characters into campaigns, and handling space in the campaign as well (particularly since, at this time, Tokyo 2040 hadn't aired, and to my knowledge the Knight Sabers hadn't gone into space before). Most significantly, it contained rules for designing your own hard-suits, something that had been lacking from the corebook.
Finally, EX introduces RTG's own side-story setting - Bubblegum Crossfire . The premise behind the setting is that Dr. Stingray sent data units containing the information that allowed Sylvia to build the hard-suits to other groups as well. Consequently, other groups similar to the Knight Sabers have sprung up across the world – these are the PCs. The setting includes write-ups for several cites to be used as campaign bases, Neo-LA, San Francisco, Night City (from RTG's Cyberpunk game), and Portland, along with brief blurbs for Cologne, Baltimore, Neo-Gotham (as in Batman), and Sydney.
Armored Trooper VOTOMS
For the Armored Trooper VOTOMS RPG, things are organized slightly differently. The book is organized as a detailed episode guide with character write-ups and stats first, a rule-book second. It opens with a complete run-down of the entire universe, and character profiles of all the major characters, as well as gear and equipment, followed by an episode-by-episode breakdown of each arc of the series. These sections are particularly notable due to the small relationship charts we get for each episode, showing how characters relate to other factions and each other.
The rules section itself is streamlined. The life-path system is gone and everything else is generally streamlined. There aren't even mecha design rules in the game (with the player instead being left to use the conversion notes from the Bubblegum Crisis Before and After sourecebook).
Much as VOTOMS streamlined the rules by removing unnecessary verbage, Dragonball took things down even further. Most of the attributes and skills have been cut entirely, leaving the game with just 4 attributes and a handful of skills, all combat related. Everything is very heavily streamlined towards the cinematic. While earlier games put a lot more focus on range and positioning, this takes a lot of the focus off of that. The rules for move creation essentially go down to flushing out, mechanically, what your power does, and then letting you describe it however the hell you want.
However, from a mechanical standpoint, the game added one significant wrinkle that made things more clunky. In addition to adding your attribute level and any necessary skill ranking to checks, you also added your power level. Consequently, characters who had lower power levels were so out-matched by characters who had power-levels even slightly higher than them that they could never catch up.
The core book covered the Saiyan saga, and two subsequent sourcebooks covered the Android saga (plus all the Garlic Jr. and Trunks stuff) and Freiza saga (thus introducing space travel, the ability to go Super Saiyan, and Androids.) Future sourcebooks were planned for the other films, the Cell Games, and the Buu arc but were canceled after the license expired. According to a writer for several of the books, Christian Conkle, Toei took an extraordinarily long time to provide any approval for the books in the series. By the time RTG's license had expired, Toei had still not gotten back to them with approval for the sourcebooks for the Cell Games.
There is one other game to mention with RTG, and that is one that we didn't get in the US. In Japan, T.O.Y International Inc. obtained a license from Bandai to produce a Mobile Suit Gundam RPG, which they titled Gundam Senki. For the game's system, they decided to get a license to use an existing system that would fit well for running a real-robot styled mecha series – RTG's Mekton Zeta. The game was released in Japan in the year 2000 and was licensed by RTG for a US release later. Ultimately, the license expired with the translation half-finished.