I have to admit: I’m a bit of a podcast junkie. As of right now, I’m subscribed to something like 72 different podcasts, not all of which update regularly. There are podcasts about tarot, podcasts about business, podcasts about pop culture… and podcasts about roleplaying. So when my husband suggested I listen to a roleplaying podcast about the Sailor Moon RPG, I had to tune in.
The podcast I listened to was System Mastery, episode 99, but it turns out there are quite a few other podcast episodes that touch on the Sailor Moon RPG, like The One Shot Podcast, or Sailor Moon in general, like Sailor Business. Know any other great Sailor Moon podcasts I should subscribe to? Let me know in the comments!
Turns out this podcast doesn’t “lovingly” analyze reviews in the context of their time, what they’re about, or who the target audience is. Nope, System Mastery isn’t about an in-depth analysis of roleplaying games or detailing the intricacies of a single roleplaying campaign, it’s about roasting RPGs of all backgrounds and flavors.
What’s wrong with roasting the Sailor Moon RPG?
The System Mastery guys (Jon and Jef) are right that The Sailor Moon Role-Playing Game and Resource Book is more “resource book” and less roleplaying game, but how is that any different from expansive roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons, with multiple books detailing fantasy species, locations, and items? It’s not, but…
Roll initiative and let’s get started.
The Target Audience of the Sailor Moon RPG
First thing’s first: The Sailor Moon Role-Playing Game and Resource Book (henceforth the Sailor Moon RPG) is not meant for roleplayers first. That is, the game’s target audience is not an experienced roleplayer who has a collection of 20-sided dice. It’s targeted toward fans of Sailor Moon who have never played a single roleplaying game.
The System Mastery guys think the prime demographic of the Sailor Moon RPG is 8 to 12-year-olds (which they alternately call “tiny children,” also frustrating) but that it’s written for parents with no experience with the show to run for those 8 to 12-year-old kids. I couldn’t disagree more. When Sailor Moon came out in English in 1995, I was 10 years old. This plunks me right in the middle of the theorized target demographic, but when I found Sailor Moon merchandise in my local comic shop or when I went to Japantown, it wasn’t just other preteens buying whatever Sailor Moon merch we could find: there were older teens, young adults, even people without kids buying into it! The series was truly revolutionary for its broad-based appeal.
The marketing also demonstrates just how broad of an audience the show was intended to have from the get-go; if it was only targeted towards kids, wouldn’t there only be kid-related merchandise, like dolls, stickers, and coloring books? Instead, there were single-chapter comics from Mixx, incredibly-detailed figurines, dishware, side-scrolling fighting video games, detailed trading cards, posters, and so much more. Of course, much of this merchandise was from Japan –where the series originated. If you looked at the English merchandise, a lot of it was childish: dolls with incorrect boots, inexplicable “Moon Cycles,” and CDs of catchy pop tunes that never appeared in the English dub of the Sailor Moon anime. But does that mean that Mark MacKinnon, founder of the “Guardians of Order” that published the Sailor Moon RPG thought the same way that behemoth media companies like DiC and Cloverway did?
The Role of Fans in Sailor Moon‘s Checkered History
The game came out in 1998, during a period when the series had yet to finish its DiC/Cloverway dub run, and unless you knew a fansubber or could get your hands on Japanese RAW episodes, you had no way of knowing what happened in seasons beyond Sailor Moon R. If you were a fan, you relied on imported merchandise and other fans to get your Sailor Moon fix. The Guardians of Order saw a need and tried to fill it.
When I was 13, there were no roleplaying game clubs at my middle school. We had an anime club in high school, but everyone preferred to watch anime or play trading card games rather than try and squeeze any amount of “pretend” into our 50-minute lunches. I bought the book specifically because it was a resource book, and I heard about roleplaying games but didn’t know anything about them. If anything, I was intimidated by them! Again: a need.
Mark MacKinnon even wrote that
“The Sailor Moon license could be the first role-playing game to invite younger females into the industry. It was my hope that Sailor Moon‘s main characters – fourteen-year-old school girls – would appeal to a [demographic] that is greatly under-represented in the gaming industry.”
Jon and Jef make fun of this foreword, saying it shouldn’t have been included in the book, that it reads like something that should have been on Mark MacKinnon’s “wall,” and that his inclusion of MacKinnon’s original idea for the page count vs. what the page count ended up being was weird. On the contrary, it shows that MacKinnon isn’t “mercenary,” but a fan with business savvy, who wants to deliver a fan experience worth paying for.
The System Mastery guys clearly don’t get that, and as a result, are striking at the heart of what many lifelong Sailor Moon fans like myself loved about the book: what it did during a time when anime was just starting to get dubbed and distributed in English-speaking countries, what this particular anime did for young people in a time of great transition, and what it did for those of us who felt singled out when we tried to express our love of anime (“It’s all porn!” or “Aren’t you a little old for cartoons?”), games (“You’re not a real gamer!”), or anything else even remotely “geeky.” The Sailor Moon RPG book invited all fans to participate in the ongoing enjoyment of the series and to even demonstrate their own creativity within the confines of the Sailor Moon world.
Guardians of Order first published the general anime roleplaying game book Big Eyes, Small Mouth (BESM) in 1997, and in many ways it seems like the Sailor Moon RPG and other books published by the Guardians of Order after it were “test versions” for later versions of BESM. That is, the mechanics weren’t particularly strong, and the book focused far more on the world- and character-building than on what many role players call “crunch” (rules). This was a way of introducing existing anime fans to an amazing new concept: roleplaying games. True, roleplaying video games weren’t new to many geeks in the late 90s, but there’s something markedly different about tabletop roleplaying games that you play with your friends and single-player roleplaying video games, where it’s just you, your controller, and a brightly-glowing screen (and in my case, a ream of paper printouts from GameFAQs).
Fans contribute to a series (fandom) in myriad ways: they write fanfiction, they draw fanart, they blog, they comment/like/share content from other sites… and they play roleplaying games. Anime and manga series lend themselves to amazing roleplaying stories, whether they are oneshot adventures or ongoing campaigns. But in the mid-to-late 1990s, the anime-inspired roleplaying games out there primarily focused on the giant robot genre, with a handful of exceptions: the 3rd edition of Teenagers from Outer Space (based on gag anime like Rumiko Takahashi’s Urusei Yatsura! and Ranma ½), and a few other licensed RPGs like Project A-Ko and Bubblegum Crisis.
So you have a new way for young people to stay interested in a series that was “on hold” due to licensing concerns, you have a way to introduce those fans to a whole new array of merchandise in the form of roleplaying books and supplements, and you have a way of using those roleplaying books to teach people about the Japanese language and culture. Win-Win-Win! That the Sailor Moon RPG book was put together by and for fans was evident from the first page, where Mark MacKinnon writes:
“By focusing the production on three equally-important elements — game system, resource/reference, and art — I had hoped that the book would appeal to nearly every Sailor Moon fan, whether they were avid role-players or not.”
He later says that the very first benefit to choosing Sailor Moon as the Guardian of Order’s first attempt at commercial licensing is that it is the “perfect game license,” and as “a fan of the series…writing the game would be quite enjoyable.”
Fan involvement in Sailor Moon’s history is what kept it alive for years beyond the “dub gap” of DiC dropping the show and Toei’s American arm, Cloverway, buying the rights.
Missing the Point of the Sailor Moon RPG’s Resources
Though one of the guests on the System Mastery podcast episode is James D’Amato, a noted roleplayer and Sailor Moon fan, he himself admits he hasn’t “seen all the anime.” How is it that he missed an element from the very first episode, where the gems on Sailor Moon’s buns magically amplify her hearing and allow her to know her best friend is in danger? This element shows up in Sailor Moon’s stats, because we explicitly saw it in the anime. The book freely admits we only saw the ability once, but also that the system intended from the start to utilize “mechanics that mirrored the events of the series nearly perfectly.” That meant even if something was shown in only one episode, it counted. But the book also glosses over things that aren’t touched on in the anime at all, but could be great fodder for a roleplaying campaign, like the government structure of the Negaverse (Dark Kingdom). All of a sudden you could do a Dark Kingdom-centric RPG that takes place immediately after the defeat of Queen Beryl and Metalia, full of political intrigue and machinations… with teenage magical girls interfering with Who’s The Next Big Bad in Charge.
Is it all that bad to guess at some other things, such as what certain buildings in Azabu-Juuban are? Again: to introduce people to Japanese language and culture, you can include some very specific sections (like talking about school life in Japan), while other sections contribute more to the world-building necessary for roleplaying games, and less to general knowledge (like guessing about the function of buildings depicted in a fictionalized version of a neighborhood in 1990s Tokyo). Does it still add something to the book? Yes!
The Little Details Matter: Character Creation and Play in the Sailor Moon RPG
Having played several roleplaying games by now, I will readily admit that one of my favorite parts of roleplaying is character creation. So far, I have created characters in the Star Ocean universe, Star Wars franchise, the Dresden Files, and probably a few others I’m forgetting. One thing they all have in common: they are licensed, commercial properties. I’m playing in someone else’s sandboxes, creating a character that fits with someone else’s world.
In many Japanese anime and manga, character profiles include things like blood type, birthday and zodiac sign, favorite food and least favorite food, and things like that. The System Mastery guys laugh at this, but why? When you’re first learning a foreign language, one of the early things you do is talk about yourself: what’s your name, where were you born, what’s your birthday… things like that. In many Asian countries, blood types is indicative of personality (that’s where we get the whole “Type A” personality phrase), while many Western countries ask “What’s your [zodiac] sign?” Drill it down further to a magical girl anime, and it makes sense to consider things that a pre-teen or teenager might care about: food, hobbies, school subjects, and favorite colors. Hey, she transforms with ribbons and bows and wings and jewels… why not say what her favorite gemstone is, too?
Official Sailor Moon guides go into extensive detail about each of the Inner Senshi: not just their birthdates, birthstones, and blood types, but details about height and weight, the neighborhood where she lives, dreams, bad habits, hobbies… it all helps contribute to a fuller character. Fans familiar with the anime might still find it hard to “get into Sailor Moon’s head,” as evidenced by any number of “Let’s Play” episodes featuring the Sailor Moon RPG where Sailor Moon is suddenly dry and sarcastic, or an exaggerated crybaby/ditz/klutz. Having these extra details can help make her seem more relatable, and easier to play in a roleplaying game with other people.
Another thing I enjoy doing (if you couldn’t tell already) is write. I love to write blog posts, fanfiction, and my own original fiction, and when it comes to inventing characters, I freely admit to creating something akin to “character sheets” like the Sailor Moon RPG has in the back of its book. There might be details in there that never come up in a story I’m writing, but they still help me, the writer, fully realize the character. I know I’m not alone in this, because I often see questionnaires not all that dissimilar from character sheets in writing books, and authors revealing “secrets” about their characters via interviews, showing how detailed their visions of their characters are beyond the plot. I’ve even heard writers complain about characters taking a story in a different or unexpected direction, as if the characters are actually there, writing for themselves! You can’t imagine such fully realized characters without little details; they’re not bad, they’re inspirational.
Speaking of little details, I know Jon and Jef intentionally don’t research anything about licensed worlds or roleplaying games before they dig into it in each episode. But for them to claim that the Sailor Moon RPG book states that Usagi transforms from a 13-year-old to a 16-year-old when she uses her abilities (around the 28:10 mark) is just. plain. wrong. The book doesn’t say that anywhere (I have scoured Sailor Moon’s two-page character sheet, the character creation section, the episode summaries… everything), because neither the anime nor the manga never said that! While it’s true even the most devoted of fans can get facts wrong (through translation error, misunderstanding, or for any number of other reasons), assigning blame to Mark MacKinnon for something that isn’t even in his book doesn’t sit well with me at all, and certainly gives people the wrong idea about what kind of magical girl series Sailor Moon is.
They get so many other details wrong, too: from the circumstances behind Crystal Tokyo’s creation (there was no ice age; the cataclysm at the end of the 21st century was never specified in any version of the series, and it wasn’t half the damn population that opted to rebel, attack innocent humans, and defect to the Black Moon Nemesis) to the ages (and age differences) between the characters. If they’re not getting these details from the book and not getting them from earlier knowledge of the series, then where are they getting it from? Either do research or don’t; don’t half-ass it!
What They Get Right
Jon and Jef are more experienced roleplayers than they are anime fans, least of all magical girl or Sailor Moon fans. That means that when it comes to breaking down what is wrong with the Sailor Moon Role-Playing Game and Resource Book as a roleplaying game, they actually hit on some pretty crucial points: things that cost points but have no benefit, a lack of representation for certain body types or ages, and how the simplicity of the system is also what makes it easy to “break.” For example, the Appearance attribute doesn’t do anything unless you take it at Level 4 or higher (which uses 4 of your Character Points), and you can get items that have no functional purpose unless the Game Master (GM) spontaneously says so.
When it comes down to their likes and dislikes, the guys point out how the RPG reinforces the idea that guys can actually serve in support roles (something pretty uncommon in many media). In other words, Tuxedo Mask is a Bard. Male characters (Knights) have “Emotions” of Influence, instead of Elements of Influence (like how Mercury has Water, Mars has Fire, and so on), which is an unexpected flip on the common perception of men as powerful fighters and women as emotional communicators. Sailor Moon might be the most powerful character in the series (it is her series, after all), but she doesn’t try and talk/heal/save everyone. Every single one of the characters fights, sometimes to the death. Perhaps that’s part of what made the franchise such a huge success?
Would You Play the Sailor Moon RPG?
I have to admit, while the book has always excited me for playing in a Sailor Moon RPG, it’s never motivated me to be the GM. Something about the supposedly-simple system always seemed oddly complex to me, with these checks and balances that seemed to take away from the fun of the show.
My husband introduced me to narrative-focused games like FATE Core and FATE Accelerated, and it was using the latter system that I actually ran my first-ever oneshot Sailor Moon RPG — based off one of the sample adventures in the back of the Sailor Moon RPG book. I didn’t see the point in forcing players to try and work with a system that made you ask “But what if…?” in a constant circle.
Ultimately, I agree with the System Mastery podcasters that the Sailor Moon RPG as printed isn’t very playable or fun without a lot of customizing to account for the game’s deficiencies. As a game set in the Sailor Moon universe, it’s intriguing. It’s a wonderful resource for a lot of information, and I treasure my copy fondly as not just my first-ever roleplaying book, but for getting me through the “dark years” until Sailor Moon S finally got released for English-speaking audiences.