Thursday, December 23, 2010

Japanese Old School RPGs

Over at Compromise and Conceit, there's a really fascinating post about some old school English-language RPGs translated into Japanese, including Traveller, whose cover art you can see on the left here. For years I've been hearing about the Japanese editions of Traveller, but I've never actually seen any copies of them. Back in 1991, I attended Origins in Baltimore, my first and old time at that convention. I was heavily involved in Traveller fandom at that point and my first forays into professional writing were for the venerable SF RPG.

Thanks to my contacts, I managed to get invited to dinner with Marc Miller, Chuck Gannon, and the Japanese translators of Traveller. The translators were really fascinating to talk to and they talked a bit about how Western sci-fi was viewed in Japan. What I also learned was that the Japanese translators were free to draw on any Traveller materials they wishes for their translations, including those of GDW licensees, like Judges Guild, FASA, and Digest Group. So, the Japanese products weren't all word-for-word reproductions of the English originals. Sometimes, they consisted of material cobbled together from several sources.

I've long hoped to grab a copy of Traveller in Japanese, if only for the art, which I understand is quite different than its American counterpart. Unfortunately, there doesn't appear to be an easy means to do this. Ah well.


  1. I've heard great things about the Japanese art in Traveller, but I've never seen an example of it. It looks top notch.

    WRT obtaining copies, you may need to coble together some ex-service types, jump-1 over to Japan, and raid a Sternmetal warehouse!

  2. I always like reading about Japanese "replay" games. To my understanding, Traveller was their first (even before D&D, which never really took-off like Sword World, which was cobbled together from a number of US systems - D&D, MERPG, RQ, and such). The only art I have seen of these games are a few peaces from the D&D game (which looks like Record of Lodoss War), and their classic Battletech/Mechwarrior game (which looks less gritty then the US books).

    I like the cover and the info. Keep-up the good work!

  3. >>The translators were really fascinating to talk to and they talked a bit about how Western sci-fi was viewed in Japan.


  4. Thirded

    And a great cover!- reminds me of something out of the 30s...

    Intrepid explorer Annabelle (Annie) Fitzsimmons disembarking from a Ford Tin Goose*, Springfield '03 in hand, as the hired-hands unload supplies onto the pack mules fora lengthy trek into the wilds of the Amazon.

    * Though that "ship" reminds me more of a B-24 Liberator.

    Yeah good art- totally got my geek brain gears turning!

  5. Fourthed!

    As everyone else, the prospect of some insight on the Japanese's view of Western SF is extremely interest to me. Not that I'd like their views better; I find Japanese SF too neurothic. But quite interesting, indeed.

  6. I don't remember a great deal about the conversation, but what stuck with me were a couple of things:

    1. The translators found the lack of robots in Traveller peculiar but in a good way. They suggested that Japanese sci-fi tended to assume a high degree of automation and the lack of such in the game (and, by extension, a lot of Western SF) gave it an "exotic" feel.

    2. The translators also said that many Japanese viewed science fiction as "kiddie lit." That's why they appreciated "serious" treatments of SF like Traveller.

    I got the impression, too, that there's a sizable community in Japan that simply loves Western SF because it's Western and therefore different from native varieties of the genre. That was no surprise to me, since there are lots of Westerners who feel the same about Japan.

    The translators also commented on the role of "the Frontier" as being a powerful one in Western SF, something that's not as deeply ingrained in Japanese sci-fi.

  7. I like the cover. I like the idea that they had their own ideas about what the ships looked like. That was one my dislikes about Traveller, no variety of ship designs. All of the traders used the same design in the official rules. All scouts used the same wedge design.

  8. Somewhere in the dim past I got to see some of the Japanese Traveller art. And annoyingly enough, I don't rememeber it, just that I saw it.

  9. Welcome to my world! ;)

    The Japanese editions of Traveller are awesome in that the artwork throughout is simply amazing. As far as I remember, all of the original material was illustrated/painted by the brilliant Japanese artist Naoyuki Satoh, who was also commissioned to do many of the Japanese translations of American Science Fiction Novels such as The Stars My Destination, Dune and Starship Troopers.

    Here is his website:

    I have the anniversary edition of the Japanese Traveller game consisting of three or four LBBs in a box (same size and look as the books).

    What's more, a number of gaming magazines in Japanese still support original Traveller.

    I forget the name of the fellow who did the Runequest covers but he is likewise amazing. Very Brian Froud in some ways. Beautiful stuff.

  10. Oh one more thing...

    The Japanese did put out a Robot book which was Book 8: Robots and 101 Robots combined. I believe it was called The Robot Manual and featured an incrediblely cool cover.

    It was basically a woman who looked suspiciously like Ripley from the first Alien film (from the end scenes - basically in a tank top and panties) sitting in a room full of different robot designs. I think she is even sitting on one.

  11. I always sort of hoped that Sword World would get an English translation, official or otherwise.

  12. Thanks for the link, James. Regarding the Japanese interpretation of sci-fi, they definitely don't have a concept of "Frontier" as we do. Aside from a very brief and unfortunate period of recent history that didn't work out for them, they don't have a history of imperialism or colonialism, and they have no serious historical experience of exploration. In place of an "age of exploration" they have an "age of isolation" and no long naval history, even though their navy now seems integral to their identity. So the main themes of traveller - exploration, imperium, colonies, etc - don't have a strong place in japanese literary tradition.

    The sci-fi I've seen here seems to be largely near- to medium-future inward-looking dystopias or post-apocalyptic stories, often cyberpunk without the punk. Maybe this is more consistent with their cultural history.

    For those of you visiting my site, I'm interested in investigating Japanese old school ism, and I'd appreciate any ideas you have as to how such an investigation should proceed... there's more information and links at the post there.

  13. Having lived in Japan a decade now, the wonderful thing about them is that they do nothing "half way." This includes their hobbies. The result is that Japanese RPGs and translations are almost always lavish productions, and while they often look to the West for ideas, there is a real sense here that we are somehow ashamed of our hobbies and afraid to fully commit to them.