posted Friday, May 11th 2012 by
News, Reviews & Culture
Two weekends ago I flew across the pond to Chicago to attend Anime Central, the third largest Japanese animation convention in the US. The convention has a surprisingly large tabletop games presence, with a whole corridor of conference rooms booked out for everything from Pathfinder RPG to Magic: the Gathering.
There’s a fair amount of overlap between fans of anime and tabletop RPGs, and nowhere is that overlap more direct than Maid: The Role-Playing Game. Japan has produced its own tabletop roleplaying games since at least as far back as the 1980s, but in 2008, Maid RPG was the first of those to see an official English translation.
It’s cartoonish, unpredictable, and sometimes—if you use the optional rules originally published in an expansion book—downright lewd. Critics have dubbed it “a joke RPG” and even the translator called Maid RPG a “goddamn weird game”.
And after some friends online convinced me to run a game over Google+, I wholeheartedly recommend that every D&D player and RPG designer play this game, at least once. Read on to find out why.
The Beast, the Robot and the Butler that Shouted or Maybe Didn’t Shout Love at the Heart of the World
When Google+ opened in June 2011, I was eager to be one of the first to test its suitability for tabletop roleplaying games. My friends from the anime community were early adopters of Google+ and I asked what they’d like to play. I assumed they’d pick some variant of D&D, but a certain other RPG topped the votes instead.
The Japanese have nineteen different ways to say, “I guess it can’t be helped.”
To understand what the anime community thinks of when they hear “maid”, watch a few episodes of a series like Hayate the Combat Butler. A wealthy master lives in a modern-day mansion with a staff of maids and butlers, who keep up a Victorian-era style of dress and manner of service that doesn’t exist nowadays outside of TV series like Downton Abbey.
The maids must manage assault from two fronts: unbelievable threats to the mansion like giant robot attack, and the impossible whims of the mansion’s spoiled master. Fail on either front, and you’re fired.
This is the core story of Maid RPG.
Why you should play it, at least once
Anime isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but the hidden gem in Maid RPG is its simple, inobtrusive rules system.
It elegantly solves all kinds of problems that D&D players still struggle with. It’s beginner-friendly, but has enough optional complexity to keep players interested. Combat is quick, and rewards players for creativity and interesting character interactions.
The core gameplay, at least in the game as we played it, could be described as Paranoia meets Hayate the Combat Butler. Like Paranoia, the player characters are subject to the demands of a central NPC (the Computer in Paranoia, the Master in Maid RPG), and they compete with each other for his favour.
While nominally the maids are on the same side and must work together to fulfil the Master’s orders, in practice they’re rewarded individually and often arbitrarily, and sabotaging each other’s efforts is absolutely fair play. By the second session, my players were hiding their attributes and powers from each other, secretly poisoning food other characters made for the Master, and setting each other’s rooms on fire. At one point a PC literally decapitated another.
This brings me to one of Maid’s most excellent game mechanics. Instead of being killed and knocked out of the game when you accumulate too much damage, you suffer a “Stress Explosion”, a coping mechanism like “crying”, “alcohol” or “violence” which is randomly determined at character generation. For the duration of the Stress Explosion you cannot perform any action unless it somehow falls into the category of your Stress Explosion.
I utterly love this game mechanic, because instead of forcing you to sit the game out when you’re killed, you’re given the option to keep playing with a temporary setback that actually makes the game more interesting. What if all the bad guys are dead but you’ve still got ten minutes left on your “violence” Stress Explosion? Or how are you going to clean the mansion in time when all you can do for the next five minutes is “stealing”?
The core conflict resolution mechanic also rewards creative solutions. For any action contested by another player, you each roll 1d6 times any attribute that’s relevant to the action—say, Athletics for physical combat, or Skill for cooking. What counts as a “relevant attribute” is widely open to interpretation, and if you can describe to the GM’s liking how your character is winning a fist fight using housekeeping Skill to dump a barrel of laundry on the opponent, you can totally get away with it.
This is one of the great features of Maid RPG’s system: the player is rewarded for clever solutions, for imagination, and for interacting with the game world. There are no combat powers to pick from on your turn, so you’re free to decide your own actions intuitively instead of interacting with a thick layer of rules.
Another interesting game mechanic is the Random Event, where players can spend Favor (a limited XP-like resource) to roll on a random event table. This system has a lot of benefits: bored players can actually make something interesting happen, player characters in trouble can make a last ditch effort to escape, and players in general are given limited license to break free of the GM’s control of the game world.
Finally, as a system it’s approachable by newbies and veterans alike. Newcomers to RPGs will enjoy the lack of difficult choices in character creation (it’s entirely random) and in-game (there are few tactical options). There are no experience levels as such, so a new player can join an established campaign without a major penalty. It’s also very easy to learn: most of the 222-page book is optional rules, and the core rules could be condensed down to 20 pages, with most of that space taken up by the random character creation tables.
Is Maid RPG right for me?
Some people won’t like Maid RPG. They’re not secure enough in their masculinity to roleplay a female character in a frilly dress. They’re put off by the unrealistic anime-style setting, or the sample play-through where somebody steals another maid’s underwear, or the strange optional rules that let maids roll to seduce the Master for bonus XP.
Everyone else, I encourage you to spend $6 and buy the PDF of Maid RPG and run it at least once, even if only as a gag game for a change from Dungeons & Dragons. The lessons it has to teach us about roleplaying with our imagination instead of our rulebooks are invaluable.
If you’re actually one of the anime fans in the target market for this game, you’ll appreciate the mountain of included bonus content originally published in expansion books: rules for butlers (for squeamish insecure players), pages of random event charts (including “Mansion blasts off into space and the setting is now Science Fiction”), special items, alternate costumes, alternate settings, rules for random generation of masters and mansions, and really inventive scenarios.
If that’s not your cup of tea, with a little work the rules could be re-purposed to another genre, perhaps science-fiction or action movies. Just don’t let anyone say you aren’t man enough to roleplay a maid.