Konno Takashi on designing Nobinobi TRPG

edited January 2018 in Story Games
Background: In 2016 illustrator and game designer Konno Takashi [website], independently released a little gem called Nobinobi TRPG ("nobinobi" means relaxed or easy-going, and is also a convenient pun on the transliteration of the English word "novice," signaling the game's suitability for inexperienced roleplayers; TRPG is an abbreviation of "Table-talk RPG" and is probably the most common term in Japan for what we'd call tabletop roleplaying). It's a fantasy-themed, card-driven, zero-prep no-GM (technically, rotating GM) storytelling game that can be played in under an hour. Arclight Games snapped it up and a year later released Nobinobi TRPG: The Horror, a horror-themed version of the same.

It's pretty simple: characters are simple, pre-generated archetypes with two different ability scores and a special power. Players take turn drawing scene cards that have simple prompts to act out and a challenge (usually a dice roll target number or a roleplaying challenge) that they need to complete. They get cards that give them bonuses. Do a few turns of this and then the story hits a climax. Super simple, very sleek. It seemed to have been fairly popular on release, and while I haven't lived in Japan for many years and am not qualified to talk about the current state of tabletop roleplaying there, I suspect that "zero-prep no-GM" is a wide-open niche there, where the "cult of the GM" mentality has long dominated gaming. I have a hard time thinking of other Japanese games that fit that criteria outside of a couple quirky indie releases without nearly as much traction (not that there's anything wrong with that!); I could name more translated foreign releases like Fiasco and Fall of Magic than domestic ones, and most of those also only showed up in the last year or two.

Anyway, the designer just went on a big Twitter spiel about the game's design process, particularly about players' ability to process and track large amounts of information, simplifying language for people without RPG experience, and the importance of attractive package design. I'm sure those topics are old hat to most of the people here but I nonetheless thought it was interesting enough to translate. Particularly since he's an illustrator talking about the importance of graphic design, I'll snag a couple pics to show off the games. For me, it really was an "I don't care if I never play it, I want it on my shelf" purchase, and I occasionally see RPG designers talking about how to capture the sleek aesthetic of boardgame component design for RPGs, something I think this game did particularly well.

(His actual comments start in my next post, with occasional translator notes intermixed to provide clarification where I thought it useful)

Comments

  • Making Things Easy: Player Information Management

    An acknowledgment: My wife came up with the idea of making a simple RPG and I stole it from her wholesale. "Card-driven" and with "simplified ability scores"—we talked about this and that, and that's how Nobinobi TRPG gradually came into being. What I'm trying to say is my wife is awesome. [TL: If you're curious, his wife is Kanna Sora, also an illustrator. Check out her website]

    First I want to talk about that idea of "simplified ability scores." Characters in the game have two ability scores: Strength and Skill. Simple, straightforward, no frills. The fewer numbers a game has, the simpler it is. Seems obvious, so why make a big deal out of it?

    Because the point is to reduce the amount of information that the players have to deal with.

    RPGs have multiple players, and part of the fun comes from knowing what the other players can do. Who has how many HP? Who's strong enough to get past the enemy's defenses? When can they use their spells? What's everyone else good at? What am I good at?

    Obviously you won’t be able to keep track of everything, but one of the greatest joys in roleplaying is learning more about your companions and yourself through your adventures, and using that knowledge to triumph over adversity. This becomes a story in itself (and many stories have been written based on roleplaying games).

    Of course, no matter how much time you spend, it's ultimately a matter of player experience and knowledge. I decided I was going to make a game where the players had to know as little as possible, something that anyone could play as soon as they opened the box.

    In practice, this turned out to be quite extreme.
    "Should I include a gimmick for HP management? Nope, too complicated! No fun getting knocked out during a fight. HP is out!"
    "For stats, what about Strength, Intelligence, Wits... Wait, aren't intelligence and wits pretty much the same thing? That's too confusing, combine them!"
    And so on.

    It was around here when I realized that environmental factors had too high of an "information cost," so I did everything that I could to avoid them. That's why you see barely any cards that grant other PCs special abilities or permanent bonuses. The only thing the player needs to keep track of is her own cards.

    Simple, lightweight rules also serve to quell the issue of the knowledgeable and experienced "advanced player."

    Or to put it bluntly, the design goals were also meant to cover for my own personal failings. I have a complex about trying to manage and control large amounts of information. My desire to create a simple RPG was also a challenge: I wanted to make something so finely honed that it could slice a tomato.
  • Simplifying the Language of the Game

    If you're an experienced roleplayer, you've probably internalized the two terms "Player" and "Player Character." But think about it for a minute and you'll realize it's actually a fairly complex concept, and it's not easy to completely differentiate the two. I tried as hard as I could to only use the term "PC."

    This little device shows up often throughout the game. Simpler language means simpler rules, while the more difficult or easily confused terms you conclude, the thicker the rules get. Both approaches have their good and bad points, but I was dead set on lightening the rules by reducing the amount of terminology.

    For example, the word bamen [TL: Japanese for "scene"]. I was stuck on whether to use it or "scene" [TL: that is to say, a transliteration of the English word]. In the end, I decided to stick with "bamen" wherever I could. "Bamen PC" has more of an impact than "Scene PC," and it just has a better sound to it.

    But there were also times where I decided to borrow from the specialized world of roleplaying jargon. The most prominent example is in using "2D". While this can easily be written as "roll two dice," there were many instances where this caused me to go over the character limit (already a major concern when working with cards). A paragraph's worth of explanation in the rules meant being able to just write "D" on the cards.

    I had to ignore my own wisdom and common sense and look at things from the perspective of someone with virgin eyes. Discard the useless affectations of the "expert." Look back at things even after I'd decided on them. Use as simple Japanese as possible, as long as it didn't hamper the atmosphere. That's what I was after.
  • Package Design Goals

    RPG packaging: it's pretty much always been boring, right? This is something that's continued to irk me for years. As an illustrator I keep running up against it time and again in this industry, and the fact that nothing ever seems to change is a constant source of frustration for me. (Rant incoming)

    I mean, look at video games. Indies, majors, it's all so cool. You can tell just from the design whether what you're getting is good. So why are RPGs just so damn boring? Especially when they cost so much!

    So anyways, I'd wanted to see what it would be like to do all the art and design for myself, to see if I could make an RPG that I didn't think looked "boring." And Nobinobi TRPG gave me that chance.

    I set aside all that hate and anger, and focused my design on one goal.
    "Something that anyone could get their hands on."
    I didn't show off—no drop shadow, no gradients, no embossing—and went for a look that was simple and modern.

    The reference point for the packaging was a box of valentine's chocolates. Chic, delicious, charming, a box filled with goodies that you wouldn't mind spending 3000 yen [TL: about $27 USD] on.

    The use of silver leaf on the lettering to reinforce the "luxury" feel came after a series of consultations with the manufacturer, Tachikita Printing (without whose assistance this game might never have been completed. Thank you again Tachikita).

    The rulebook, the first thing you see upon opening the box, is a luxurious dark brown, like the info sheet in a box of chocolates. "Your Guide to Adventure," it has emblazoned on it, your first taste of the adventures to come.
    I wanted something you could tear into with excitement, and be able to start playing just as quickly.

    I still remember the stories my wife told me about how much fun she had roleplaying with her friends when she was in high school.

    I wanted to design something that those high schoolers would look at and think, now that's nice. I hope they got to see it.

    This was in reference to the indie version. For the mass-market "Nobinobi TRPG: The Horror," TANSAN [TL: graphic designer for the Arclight-released version of said game] took my ideas and refined them into a cool/pop package design. Personally, I think this design was the reason it sold so well. I'm very grateful.

    [Here he was about to start talking about the nitty gritty of the game itself, but says that the parts about making the game accessible are the most important, and that maybe he’ll talk about it more later]

    image
    Nobinobi TRPG laid out for play: note the immensely classy wooden dice with edges so rounded they'd make anal retentive gamers cry about their lack of fairness

    image
    A smattering of Nobinobi TRPG: The Horror game components.
  • Very interesting!

    I might want to edit the post to make it clearer where you're quoting the author - it's not entirely obviously where you switch from your introduction to the actual quote.

    I like that it's labeled "Table talk Role-Playing Game" - that's a cute label.
  • edited January 2018
    As someone who's trying to design a similar kind of game (collaborative, card based, GMless) this is really encouraging! The game looks really pretty also :)

    I have a few questions that I'd love to know the answer to, since they came up while I was crazily scribbling my notes:

    1) Characters have no HP, right? How is damage/consequences handled/accounted for? Can they die or otherwise be removed from a story?

    2) Is there any character evolution or development system? Is this game supposed to be played in "one shot" sessions only?

    Don't know if you can provide the answers for these questions, but that would be awesome, so thanks in advance!

  • 1) Characters have no HP, right? How is damage/consequences handled/accounted for? Can they die or otherwise be removed from a story?
    I should point out that I only own "The Horror" so these answers only apply to it. You can't die or be removed from the story. In addition to scene cards, there are also "Light" and "Darkness" cards. If you succeed, you draw a Light card; if you fail, you draw a Darkness card. Both provide bonuses to rolls or other unique powers that you can use to influence play, but they diverge thematically. So if you fail, you still get (mechanically) rewarded but thematically you end up adding darker elements to the story.

    Some Light cards might be things like "A Guiding Voice" or "Flashlight." Darkness cards, things like "Cursed Bloodline" and "Chainsaw."

    2) Is there any character evolution or development system? Is this game supposed to be played in "one shot" sessions only?
    Yeah, it's a one-shot only game. Though the aforementioned cards might end up fleshing out aspects of your character during play, for example by establishing part of your character's background or a relationship with another character, or awakening some latent talent that you didn't have when the game started.
  • Hmmm, that's interesting, and not too far off from where I'm headed at the moment! I've managed to draft a small system for danger accumulation "between" quests (which can lead to characters "meeting their fate" eventually) but there's no real risk for them when on an adventure. I've been also trying to write something similar to an evolution system (which would just tell how early on in a session certain cards could be played) but made little progress up to this point.
  • I'm really interested in Nobi-Nobi from the game design point of view, checked the website and translating it gave me a few more clues about what's going on with the game. I like the idea of the rotating GM, though at first I thought the GM cards stated different things, introducing small changes in the rules for each GM (that would have been awesome) I also love that the scenes can either be solved through both dice-rolling and plain old roleplaying, with the current GM judging how good or bad it went.

    I'm still wondering about a few things: What do each type of card actually says? I see that light and dark cards both feature new abilities (some useful, some interestingas the creator states) or give bonuses to either skill or might, but some look like plain text (and since the translator doesn't affect images and I can't read japanese, I've got no clue of what they say)

    The scene cards, how precise they are about the scene presented? Is it a suggestion that the current GM has to put in context and can build over it or just a bit of text to read as it is?

    And the Climax cards, I see that they are meant to be read and interpreted by the group, that they may establish a more complex challenge (?), that no GM is required when reading those, but instead there's a conversation to be held among the players about the content? What does this looks like in play?
  • Re: Light and Dark cards, some just give flat bonuses, others give you Skills that are more involved (though usually they're still just bonuses, but only ones that apply in specific circumstances). They also have "flavor text" that give the card some non-mechanical context.

    For example, the "Familiar" card says:
    You're a homunculus meant to serve, summoned by the PC the arrow is pointing at (or simply choose a PC at random). You perform whatever task your master asks, from the trivial to the vital; the two of you are so ingrained with each other that "servant" may be too inadequate a word to describe your relationship.

    Skill: Soulbound (Always Applies)
    This skill applies automatically and its effects stack with other skills. You and your master share senses; both of you apply a +1 modifier to all rolls either of you make.
    Scene cards are similar. "The Dance" for example:
    You wander into a strange celebration underneath the blood moon. The villagers seem incensed as they clap their hands together along with the beat (the rest of the players should start clapping).
    If you can’t perform the ritual dance to the villagers’ satisfaction, you’ll end up falling prey to them!

    Roll: You succeed on a TECH [note: I called this "Skill" earlier, it's one of the two ability scores, the one that isn't STRength or Might or whatever you want to call it] roll of 13 or better. Instead of rolling, you may also perform a dance yourself. The rest of the group decides if you are successful or not.
    At minimum, the text can be read as-is, so you don't need to be particularly imaginative or descriptive when your turn as GM comes up. But there's nothing stopping you from being more in-depth if you want (except time constraints, the other players groaning and rolling their eyes at you, etc...)

    Re: Climax Cards, the "more complex challenges" are usually just harder rolls than normal. Some might allow everyone to try once, or resurrect a challenge from an earlier scene card but powered up, as the actual "mastermind" behind the events of the game. One has you choose one player's Light or Dark card and challenges you to resolve the story with it as a key point. Some have you make one multiple-dice roll against a set number, getting a bonus for each light card, dark card, or NPC card that you collected during the game.

    I haven't seen anything that would prevent you from "communally GMing" the whole game like you do the Climax scene. Since there's not much mechanical differentiation between success and failure, the GM's role of deciding between the two when necessary isn't particularly high-stakes. Characters are generic enough (until you start breathing life into them during play) that you don't even need player-character monogamy, if you didn't want it; the biggest function it plays is probably in ensuring equal screentime for each player.

    To that end, one thing I am actually curious about is how well you could turn it into an adversarial game. While there aren't any rules for intra-PC conflict or anything like that, I don't see how you couldn't try to steer the story in that direction. While some of the scenes have fairly clear-cut goals that their resolution challenges represent, in many cases they aren't conflict-based; dismantle a barricade, tell a ghost story, recall a childhood lullaby. Sometimes a scene's resolution is simply "Roll a die: if the result is odd, something good happens. If it's even, something bad happens." There's a lot of leeway in what the scenes can mean in the greater narrative, and for some setups like a "Saw"-style death game, conflict among the characters is supposed to be a key part of the stories you're trying to emulate.
  • The components to this look awesome!
  • This game looks awesome. Is it available in English? (I might have missed that part)
  • Thanks a lot Yukamichi, that was really informative!. I was also wondering what was the role of the other players during one player's scene. "The Dance" card seem to imply that the whole party travels together and that their characters are all present at the same scene, but the "Familiar" card then seems to suggest that this player will play as familiar for other player. Does that mean that this player gets to play both on any scene, whenever prompted by the player they become familiars of?

    That would be awesome indeed (in any of the cases stated above), both in terms of giving players more than one option, give others something to do when it's not their turn and/or helping simple minions come alive by relying on other players to roleplay these characters. I especially like it that they keep it respectful though, by defining the nature of the bond in those terms.

    I've played something with similar mechanics, so I know it's possible and a lot of fun, but I like more the way it's portrayed in Nobi-Nobi.

    About your PvP idea, recently I've been fighting with the same concept for a design of my own. There are contexts in which tabletop PvP works better than others, most of which include a situation where characters are meant to appear as much civil as they can and calmly stage betrayal, doublecross and exact their revenge in due time, or just endure and wait until the opportunity arises. Like in Paranoia, where you can't kill anyone until you can get an excuse for it or risk being labeled as a traitor yourself. Or in VtM, where vampire society has certain rules to follow and killing another vampire or even a mortal openly has dire consequences. Otherwise it becomes a rollfest race to see who kills the other first.

    However for my own game I choose a different option, which is giving each PCs a trait that makes it harder for them to work together. This produces a different kind of PvP: the PCs are still free to try to work together for a while or even oppose each other directly as the story demands. But working together also asks for the players to negotiate a bit more, roleplay to find a different way to act while holding to their principles, draw a line at certain points or have a bit of bad blood among their PCs in a way that it's still enjoyed by the players. I've reduced the list to these traits:

    -I admire and help people with guts. If somebody gets deceived and tricked it's their own fault.
    -Let's live in peace without getting into extremes. Sometimes somebody has to lose to achieve this, it's the law.
    -I'm ready to help, but my people/friends/family goes first.
    -I'm looking for trustful allies. I reward loyalty and destroy those who betray my trust.
    -What matters the most is knowledge, the rest is secondary.
    -Somebody here is an spy or plotting something.
    -Everything is either back or white, there are no grey areas.
    -If a lie helps anybody I'll lie as much as it's needed.
    -The most powerful is always right, but power can change hands quickly.
    -Whatever it is, I want everyone to know it was me who did it.
    -My faith and the goals of my people are unquestionable.

    Dunno how much gets lost in the translation (I originally wrote this in spanish) but the idea is that while players are free to chose which trait suits best to their characters at the start of the game, but the trait is keep secret until they roleplay it. Then they will have to abide by these and roleplay by them or around them depending on their goals and the situation at hand. It's somewhat subtle but at play these produce really interesting characters and reactions. Also players notice that it's not a player thing but a character thing. This way they can get immersed in the story and compete but they don't keep the bad blood after the game, as there's no bleed (pun not intended).
  • Making Things Easy: Player Information Management

    ...

    RPGs have multiple players, and part of the fun comes from knowing what the other players can do. Who has how many HP? Who's strong enough to get past the enemy's defenses? When can they use their spells? What's everyone else good at? What am I good at?

    Obviously you won’t be able to keep track of everything, but one of the greatest joys in roleplaying is learning more about your companions and yourself through your adventures, and using that knowledge to triumph over adversity. This becomes a story in itself (and many stories have been written based on roleplaying games).
    Simplifying the Language of the Game

    ...

    This little device shows up often throughout the game. Simpler language means simpler rules, while the more difficult or easily confused terms you conclude, the thicker the rules get. Both approaches have their good and bad points, but I was dead set on lightening the rules by reducing the amount of terminology.

    This sounds familiar. Link is to an old Extra Credits episode that goes into complexity v. depth more broadly. Long story short: you want maximum depth, but minimum complexity. So the less information you need, the quicker you get into juicy bits. Of course, you also have to make it deep, but that doesn't necessarily require complexity.

    There's also the knock-on effect of making the rules simpler: streamlining. Or rather, the less time you'll need to parse the rulebook before you start playing. In some (but not all) cases, the simpler rules might also up the pace; less rolls per round, faster resolutions, etc. For instance, say you're trying to convince the monster that you don't taste that good and you'd make a good friend if they gave you the chance. You could scour your sheet for your ten different modifiers, or you could use the one all-encompassing stat. Or, in a very sexy math equation: +1*10 < +10.
  • This is true for all games. Also, the one person explaining the game has more chance of success if the rules are simple. I imagine good sales are determined by the cycle between word of mouth, and a good first session.
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