In the last couple of months I have seen comments linking anime and role playing games. It is not a bad link, really, given the overlap between ‘watchers of anime’ and ‘players of RPGs’ and the influence anime and RPGs have on each other. However, it is incomplete because ‘anime’ is about as specific as ‘television’.
In fact, I know someone who can get rather ragey about the subject.
In order to accurately depict a link between anime and RPGs it is necessary to specify the kind of anime and the RPG. It seems that most often when people refer to anime in relation to RPGs they are thinking of shounen anime, a genre largely dedicated to action and awesomeness and badassness (all of which often is a good match for RPGs). This is a very incomplete picture, though.
Sure, shounen is perhaps the most often seen in North America and the most stereotypical, but it is far from the only kind. DragonBall (and all its spinoffs) and Bleach are not the be all and end all of anime, and many series have rather lower power levels.
- Azumanga Daioh is probably close to the bottom of the power curve, clearly Basic tier. The major characters are, by and large, completely normal schoolgirls. Chiyo-chan is freakishly smart (and similarly cute), but everyone else is well within normal range. The characters are distinctive, but it’s a slice of life anime and nothing really impressive, from an RPG perspective, happens.
- My Neighbor Totoro is tricky to place. The girls are flat out normal girls (Basic tier), their father is a university professor and their mother is in the hospital. However, they see things that are fantastic and well out of the normal experiences for people in our world. I’d call it a Basic tier show with some fantastic elements.
- Grave of the Fireflies is probably Basic tier with some Expert tier characters (certainly not the main ones). What a depressing movie (and paired with Totoro as a double feature at the cinema release, what were they thinking?), but it is anime and far from OMGWTFBBQ powerful.
- Kaleido Star is a small step up, perhaps lower Expert tier. The characters tend to be well-trained performers (acrobats, for the most part), some of the best in the world, but their lives don’t include a lot of ‘adventure-worthy’ events. Even at that, a major character ends up sidelined and retires from performing because of a shoulder injury – she completes her last show and takes on a secondary role in the troupe.
- Ghost in the Shell, the original movie and the Stand Alone Complex continuity. The technology is more advanced than what we have, but for the most part the major characters are likely in the Expert tier of Echelon. There are a few exceptions (Major Kusanagi for certain, probably Aramaki, maybe Batou) that may be in the Heroic tier, simply better than everyone around them. I say ‘probably Aramaki’ because while he doesn’t exhibit the sheer badassness that Kusanagi does, he is probably as good at what he does as she is at what she does – it just isn’t as cool-looking so the show doesn’t much focus on it.
- Crying Freeman is probably around the upper Expert tier as well. The major characters can be remarkably capable at what they do, but they don’t exhibit the sort of superhuman ability I would expect of higher-tier characters.
- Lupin III, almost all the series and movies, might be lower Heroic. He and his friends tend to be a little over the top (mostly played for laughs) but it is largely exaggeration of reality more than outright fantasy.
- Record of Lodoss War ranges from Expert into Heroic (depending on the character, mostly). Parn maybe tops out at third or fourth level, while some of the older generation of heroes (and villains) are might be lower Heroic. The greatest villains might even touch on Master tier (Wagnard basically teleports at one point) but this could well be plot-specific activity rather than general ability.
- Darker than Black looks like it is probably around the Heroic tier, possibly into Master tier. The really big power events are exactly that – special events brought about by specific circumstances rather than personal power.
Obviously this doesn’t cover all of the anime I’ve watched, but it is evident to me that “anime-like RPG” is a tricky thing to define. Echelon can probably accommodate many kinds of anime, but the power range in Echelon, like that of D&D, is extremely broad. At the higher tiers (or levels in D&D) the possible power is insanely high compared to much of anime.
To compare anime to RPGs, or RPGs to anime, really needs specifics to be meaningful. Conversely, to design an ‘anime RPG’ it is important to identify what kind of anime is being modeled by the game. If I think ‘Ghost in the Shell‘ and one of my players thinks ‘Bleach‘ we will have a nasty disconnect.
You seem to place a great emphasis on personal skills and capabilities of major characters, but not all anime, and not all anime-inspired or anime-friendly RPGs, are like that. There are both other kinds of power and more generally things that matter in the game, and power-insensitive settings in which the decisive factor is not “can I do that?” but choices, willpower, nervous breakdowns etc.
– FLCL’s main topic is the sexual life of a preadolescent kid. His supernatural powers are more worrying than useful, and narratively they are mostly a way to involve him with an awful lot of over the top characters and occurrences.
– Characters in Mekton have skills and attributes that can range widely, but they are mostly a way to turn character concepts into numbers: in a typical campaign actual power comes from mecha, usually very evenly matched and easily replaced, skill gaps between PCs and enemies are only one of many tactical challenges (NPC skills can even be accounted for in mecha point values), and the combat system doesn’t break down at high or low power levels.
– Nobody in Neon Genesis Evangelion, the EVA pilots in particular, is exceptionally powerful or weak; some characters are obviously competent and/or very intelligent (in many cases intelligent enough to be unstable), but the main topic is the difference between leaders or heroes who have the guts to make difficult and cruel decisions in a war and losers who don’t accept their responsibilities and their role, each at their respective level.
– Primetime Adventures isn’t particularly concerned with characters succeeding or failing, but rather with the meta-level challenge of making them interesting. Power “tiers” are what genre and player consensus dictate, and they can evolve over time.