Ryuutama by Isola Illyon Edizioni is a natural fantasy role-playing game about travel, but what's it like to play it for real? Here are some impressions!

Three years ago Ryuutama arrived in Italy thanks to the translation of Illyon Island Editions. It caused quite a stir at the time, since Ryuutama it was published in its Japanese edition in 2007, only to be translated into English in 2014. The game reached the final of the prize Role-playing Game of the Year 2020 (later won by Not The End), but then substantially no more was talked about. We point out that the Japanese version of the game is freely downloadable at this link.
Today I want to talk about Ryuutama, since in the past few months I got to play it, so I would like to tell you my impressions. First of all, I will briefly tell you on what occasion I have played Ryuutama, to then go through more extensively the characteristics that struck me positively and negatively.

Very briefly, Ryuutama is an RPG on the journey, set in a world where each person goes on a ritual journey. This journey, and the writing of a travelogue, is fundamental for the world itself, as the world sustains itself on the energy of Dragons of Seasons, and the Dragons of Seasons feed on stories. In this way, travelers travel for themselves, for the sake of traveling, but also to render a service to the world itself.

The cover of Ryuutama
The cover of Ryuutama

How and what adventures were played

Before I tell you my impressions, I want to briefly tell you how I played Ryuutama.
It is in fact essential to specify that I have played Ryuutama in two one-shot, in which I was a master. This thing is crucial to know, since Ryuutama it's not a one-shot game, but it's obviously meant for a medium to long campaign. You will understand, therefore, that I have not been able to see Ryuutama in action on the period in which it should perform best and for which it was designed.
In this article, therefore, I'll talk about the elements and mechanics that caught my attention in the context of a one-shot. Keep in mind, therefore, that in a medium-long campaign you could have different impressions.

Description of the two one-shots

That said, the two one-shots I've tested in Ryuutama both took place with a party of four players and female players, for a duration of approx three hours each. Both were made within playful events open to the public, therefore with parties of people not always used to playing together.

Being a one-shot, I presented the players with a party of four pre-made characters level 1 (noble, merchant, farmer and healer) and I skipped the joint creation of the world. Instead, I presented them with a route from their native village to a seaside temple. Each character was of different ages (ranging from 21 to 60 years old) and had set out on a journey for different reasons (to prove that he deserved the hand of a lover, to do something beautiful for himself, to prove that he was able to do it alone, honor the memory of a deceased).
The group went through three different zones (prairie, wasteland and forest) and each faced a fight (Napalma one, Neko-Goblin the other).

Both game groups accompanied an elderly blind wanderer on their journey, on his way to the temple to visit the tomb of his son, who died on the return journey. At the end of the course, and therefore at the end of the session, the elder turns out to be a Ryuujin, who had tested the group and therefore decided to become their protector.

An internal image of the Ryuutama manual
An internal image of the Ryuutama manual

Positive elements of Ryuutama

Let's first see what are the elements that I found most interesting in this role-playing game.
I will not dedicate a separate section to it, but I want to say that I found the idea of ​​the setting and in general the aesthetics of the manual a lot bella ed evocative. It brings a lot into the mood of the game. I also really enjoyed the proposed classes and the magic system.
The combat system can end up being quite chaotic, but trying it out I found it agile and intuitive. The idea of ​​doing is also excellent world building all together during the zero session: surely, it helps a lot to create a world that players want to explore, and in which it will be interesting for them to travel.

Roles in the party and “guardian angel” masters: how Ryuutama regulates unwritten habits

The good thing about Ryuutama is that it transforms some conventions typical of traditional role-playing games into rules.
In fact, in many adventurer parties, the characters end up taking on roles. There are those who end up having the last word on the decisions to be made, those who take care of keeping track of the equipment, those who take care of guiding others during the journey and those who keep the "campaign diary", noting facts and important names. Well, in Ryuutama these roles are given explicitly within the group, complete with a dedicated card.

Likewise, often in traditional role-playing games, those who hold the role of the master will tend to try to help the characters achieve their goals, trying to balance any bad luck given by the dice. Well, in Ryuutama there is a character, the Ryuujin, who explicitly watches over the group, helping him where he can.

Personally, I believe this trend to make these traditional role-playing habits transparent and regulated is a very interesting idea. I think it can help fairer and value all that workload that players sometimes take on outside of the game. In addition, I believe it helps to manage the power that the master has over the game, encouraging a positive, and not oppositional, approach towards the party.

Ryuutama's combat board
Ryuutama's combat board
The journey is the goal and the challenge of the game

Another thing I really enjoyed Ryuutama is how much a game about travel really is. The party is a group of travelers (and not adventurers), who are on a ritual journey. Their goal is precisely to complete this journey and write the chronicle, so as to give it to the Dragons of the Seasons and continue the cycle of creation of the world.
But travel is not just an element of color: is supported by a very precise and very influential set of rules in the game. Each day of travel requires a series of specific shots.

The first is the Proof of Condition: how are you in the morning? Did you sleep well or badly? Because if you slept badly and woke up with a broken back, you will understand that today you will not be well. The Condition Test determines a character's Condition score; if a character reaches negative Health points equal to the Condition score, she dies. So yes: every day your death threshold changes. And if you wake up very badly, then with a Condition score of 2, it could be your last day of travel.
The second is the a Movement test: how tired do you get during the trip? Failing this roll means lose half your Health Points. So yes, in Ryuutama travel is serious business, which can seriously hurt.


The third is the Orientation test: will you be able to find the right path and not get lost? This shot may seem harmless compared to the others, but don't be fooled. In fact, if you are traveling to a wild land and have little water or little food, you don't want to get lost. Why yes, in Ryuutama rations are serious business and their rapid decline is cause for concern.
The fourth is the Camp trial: how far will you be able to camp in peace? This not only means avoiding possible nocturnal dangers, but also determines how many HP you will recover during the night.

Now, imagine you have a group to which a day of travel goes very badly: they wake up badly and therefore with Condition 2, they struggle and arrive in the evening with half of the HP, they get lost and therefore do not approach the goal, and camp badly, therefore they do not recover HP. You can understand, that even so, without even having met a single enemy, the journey can be a major challenge even on its own.
In this sense, the journey is not skippable and it is not an outline of the game: the journey is the game.

The Ryuujin
The Ryuujin

Elements meh of Ryuutama

As I said, travel is the center of the game: in Ryuutama you travel. Who plays at Ryuutama he must be willing to play a journey, otherwise he might as well play another game.
However, the Ryuutama is keen to specify that the journey does not have to be a mechanical and repetitive thing: the journey must generate stories.
This is great and I think it's perfectly possible to create beautiful travel stories in Ryuutama.
The problem, in my opinion, is that the manual does not help to do this.

A game based on travel, but what stories arise from the journey?

Personally, I did not find the whole part of the manual dedicated to the creation of a game sequence of any help, that is (in simple terms) of an adventure. And the introductory sequences presented by the manual are, always in my opinion, insipid and not very helpful.
How do you make the journey itself an interesting thing to play, if the sequences presented mostly take place at the point of arrival, ie in a village? Why is the second sequence basically a D&D adventure, in which the characters have to go after some Neko-Goblin bandits who have attacked a village?

Now Ryuutama is a game that dedicates an important slice of its rules to travel, which also has very important mechanical consequences. In the manual itself it says, on page 106, not to make the travel shots in a monotonous and repetitive way, but letting successes and failures naturally develop ideas for adventure.
Well, I am absolutely in favor of letting the adventure flow from the course of the journey and its dice rolls. But at this point even those who are masters should have tools to help them improvise an adventure resulting from the journey. And the manual of RyuutamaUnfortunately, it is completely devoid of them, offering instead ideas for adventure that seem to come out of other role-playing games.
This is a major flaw, in my opinion.

Ryuutama's stock sheet
Ryuutama's stock sheet
Lots of mandatory shots

Also, as I said before, the manual recommends not making travel shots become a monotonous routine, done silently and sadly.
This is absolutely right, also because otherwise the matter would become very boring.
However, whoever plays the Ryuutama you should prepare for the fact that these shots can be made interesting and with cute narrative consequences as much as you want, but they must still be done. Every. Single. Day. Travel. If you have four players, each travel day will have 10 mandatory rolls (4 for the Condition Test + 4 for the Movement Test + 1 for the Orientation Test + 1 for the Camp Test), maximum 12 if another character helps. who is in charge of the Orientation Test and Camp.

And since these shots have very important mechanical consequences, they cannot and should not be avoided. As long as he is traveling, he is under the sword of Damocles of these 10 trials. This is because the journey is a serious matter, not a leisurely stroll in the park, where you return home when you are tired.
However, this means that in Ryuutama these 10 mandatory tests are one thing it necessarily becomes a bit repetitive, after a few days. Keep in mind that in a one-shot I made a four day trip complete, so with each of the four tests repeated four times, for a total of 48 dice rolls. And every single day brings with it not only the mandatory dice rolls, but also the ration and water count, which must be recovered through hunting and foraging, should they run out.

Action example in Ryuutama
Action example in Ryuutama

Some conclusive words

In short, Ryuutama it is not a light, narrative role-playing game. On the contrary, it is a game strongly mechanical and with one significant management component.
This is not a criticism or a necessarily negative component: there are those who can appreciate it. In the first one-shot, the people playing with me didn't really like it. In the second one-shot, however, I had a party that he really enjoyed. Like everything, it's a matter of taste, but I think it is right that whoever approaches a Ryuutama know what he is going to play: a title with innovative ideas, a beautiful setting and focused on travel, but also absolutely traditional and with stringent and omnipresent mechanics.

In general, I am amused to play Ryuutama and I am very happy to have been able to try it. I think it is a game capable of giving life to beautiful stories, in the hands of players who appreciate its mechanics and who literally want to play a journey for the sake of the journey itself and to "see what happens". This, in my opinion, is the mood with which this title should be played.

Surely, it is not a game to "play JRPGs": it is not The Last Story and, honestly, I believe the dynamics it focuses on Ryuutama are very different from those brought into play by The Last Story. But, here, those used to traditional role-playing games might find it interesting to vary by trying Ryuutama. Personally it is a game that I recommend to try, as long as you know what you are going to play: if you like the management part and want to play a journey, this is definitely the game for you.