Rolling The Dice: The Very Best RPG Animeby Theron Martin,
Although the foundation of computer and console-based fantasy RPGs has always lain in tabletop fantasy RPGs (hereafter abbreviated TTRPGs), even from their earliest years some of them markedly strayed from their origins in terms of mechanics; features like distinct classes and races with distinct attributes might have remained, but the game mechanics themselves were always significantly simplified from the complexities TTRPGs are known for. Over the last three decades computer/console RPGs and the MMORPGs which have spawned from them have developed their own distinct flavor and style points, and anime has gradually followed that trend, to the point that in recent years most fantasy RPG-influenced anime take inspiration specifically from them.
Not all fantasy titles have gone that route, however. Even these days ones still pop up which partly or wholly reproduce the more specific flavor and feel of TTRPGs instead. As someone who has played tabletop RPGs almost continuously since the early '80s, I have always had an eye out for such titles, and the strongest such examples - the ones that most closely replicate the TTRPG experience - are what I will be looking at here.
The Early Days
Fantasy RPGs weren't any strangers to animation in the 1980s, with the 1983-85 American cartoon Dungeons and Dragons being the most prominent such title of that era. In Japan, it could be argued that the venerable Record of Lodoss War OAV series from 1990-91 is the first anime title which truly and fully captures the spirit and feel of TTRPGs. Now, Lodoss War literally adapts a novel series that was itself based on an actual Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but there's more to it than that. It may not revel in the actual use of game mechanics seen in recent titles like Death March to The Parallel World Rhapsody or The Rising of The Shield Hero, but it does showcase the classic breakdown of races, classes, and their individual characteristics that prevailed in the early days of Dungeons and Dragons and provide foes, plot scenarios, and battles that are ripped straight from the pages of stereotypical D&D adventures. I have only seen only one anime title outside of this franchise that even comes close to achieving the strong “dice rolling behind the screen” sensation that this series engenders; I'll get back to that one towards the end. This impression also extends to the 1996 OVA spin-off Legend of Crystania: The Chaos Ring and the 1997 TV series extension/reimagining Record of Lodoss War: Chronicles of the Heroic Knight.
Out at around the same time as Record of Lodoss War was the one-shot OVA Wizardry, which was based on the first in a like-named series of highly-influential early computer RPGs. Though a computer game adaptation, it still retains the full feel of TTRPGs, albeit with ninjas and samurai joining the otherwise-Western-styled fantasy elements. 1992 brought the six-episode OVA series Bastard!!, whose mangaka lists Dungeons and Dragons as a primary influence. That definitely shows in the raucous, heavy metal-themed story elements and execution about an ultra-powerful wizard with a nasty attitude and a few heady quirks. While maybe not the tightest and purest of tabletop RPG-influenced titles, it's nonetheless a highly fun series that's long been a personal favorite. At least some of a TTRPG feel also pervades the 1992 movie The Weathering Continent, about a trio of adventurers on a wasted continent who encounter an elaborate necropolis.
The mid-to-late '90s saw a slew of other anime OVAs, movies, and TV series which have clear roots in TTRPGs but looser grasps of TTRPG style; some of the most prominent titles among these include The Slayers and Sorcerer Hunters franchises. Others which stand out from this time period for strong TTRPG connections include the four-episode 1995 OVA series Ruin Explorers and the (incomplete) two-episode 1997 OVA Gestalt.
The end of the heyday of OVAs also greatly curtailed the run of TTRPG-influenced titles, with most game-influenced ones in this decade either being based on virtual novels or following the trends of computer/console RPGs away from their hard-core TTRPG roots. Series like 2001's Tales of Eternia still show significant TTRPG influence despite being connected to console games, but 2001's Final Fantasy: Unlimited, 2002's .hack//SIGN, and 2003's Ragnarök: The Animation much less so. In fact, titles that are heavily TTRPG-influenced all but disappear from the anime scene for most of the decade, with the few examples being more tenuous ones. Though its display of true TTRPG elements is limited, I still consider 2007's Claymore to have a distinct TTRPG connection. Despite being based on a PS3 game, 2009's Tears to Tiara also captures that TTRPG adventure feel in many places.
But the 2000s title which may best represent TTRPG flavor is also one of the decade's raunchiest titles: 2009's Queen's Blade: The Exiled Virgin. Of course, this one has a major advantage in that it's based on a series of visual combat books (i.e., Choose Your Own Adventure stories) which use TTRPG-like mechanics, but the mix of swords and sorcery and the sense of leveling up is all there alongside the pervasive and copious fan service elements.
Thanks in part to light novels becoming more prevalent as fantasy series sources, the first half of the current decade is a wasteland for TTRPG-connected series, as virtually all titles with game connections – including the rising category of series in which the setting actually is a game – follow computer/console mechanical structures. A handful of titles which have come out in the last four years buck that trend, however. The first, and perhaps most surprising, of that lot is a hybrid case: 2015's Is It Wrong to Try to Pick Up Girls in a Dungeon? While elements like floor bosses and monsters leaving behind drop items are clearly derived from MMORPGs, the franchise's overall mechanics actually much more closely resemble those of a TTRPG. In particular, the way that experience points are applied on periodic status updates conducted by the adventurer's patron deity, rather than happening continually and automatically, apes the end-of-session paperwork that TTRPG gamers cherish. The more limited but also more meaningful leveling system is also more similar to a TTRPG. I have also found few other anime titles to rival it when it comes to truly capturing the spirit of heroic high fantasy adventure that is embodied in TTRPGs.
Though it doesn't have any embedded game mechanics, the Chain Chronicle animation from 2014 and 2017 also more closely resembles the spirit of classic TTRPG adventures than anything else. The same might also be said about the 2015 shorts Bikini Warriors (though more in a parody sense) and, in perhaps a bit of a stretch, 2017's Made in Abyss, which absolutely gets the sense of exploration inherent in TTRPGs correct. 2016's Grimgar, Ashes and Illusions doesn't use stats-based game mechanics but borrows just about everything else from TTRPGs, including distinct class systems and training to gain new powers/skills/spells. It also captures well the sense of risk inherent in low-level TTRPG play. On the flip side, 2016's KonoSuba – God’s blessing on this wonderful world!! embodies the more light-hearted aspects of TTRPG adventuring (I've participated in TTRPG adventures which get every bit as silly and raunchy as that series shows) and does use a form of stats-based system. Of course, there's also 2015's Chaos Dragon, which actually was based on TTRPG sessions, but the less said about that one, the better. On a bonus note, 2017's A Sister's All You Need includes an actual TTRPG session as a feature element of one of its episode, though the show itself doesn't otherwise have such connections.
That, finally, brings us to 2018's Goblin Slayer, the title that I was referring to earlier in the article which could match Record of Lodoss War for “dice rolling behind the screen” ambiance. In fact, this one even goes the extra mile by actually including the sound of dice rolling as a sound effect at the end of each episode and by implanting dice rolling into its world creation story. The way magic works, the nature of spells and quests, the specific number of spells castable per day, the basic class classifications, even the fact that certain weapon types aren't as effective in certain situations – all of it is a throwback to old-school Dungeons and Dragons play. The series isn't subtle about wholesale borrowing famous creatures from its clear inspiration, either. What's more, Priestess's initial outing is almost painfully reminiscent of that story every long-time TTRPG gamer has about a party of fledgling adventurers getting wiped out due to poor planning, inattentiveness to important details, and/or underestimating the strength and capabilities of their foes. Its rape elements are unlikely to be found in any published or sanctioned TTRPG event or supplement, and unfortunately that's been a barrier to some of my fellow gamers getting into the series, but if you can tolerate that aspect then it's the current series that's the next best thing to being in an actual Dungeons and Dragons game session.
What other titles, from any era, do you feel also mimic the style and content of TTRPGs enough to be worth a comparison? Let us know in forums!
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