Violet Evergarden—Time Heals All Sorrow

Violet, despite being a young girl, is a veteran of war whose proficiency in combat is the stuff of legends. Her personal sacrifice is quickly made clear as she is revealed to possess a pair of mechanical arms. Having only known war, adjusting to these prosthetics only further complicates her transition to a normal life. As she struggles to do so, and find the meaning of her beloved Major’s last words to her, Violet sees a path to understanding via the vocation of Auto Memory Doll—a job where one strives to put down their clients’ feelings in carefully crafted letters. Even her clumsy, mechanical hands can use a typewriter, though understanding the nature of the human heart is a battle all its own.

Violet Evergarden is a love letter to a mid-twentieth-century Europe that never was, with sumptuously rendered backdrops of bustling streets and pastoral countryside, and animation that pours love for frilly dresses that bob with every curtsy, intricately braided hair occasionally frazzled from emotional outpourings, and even flowers delicately swaying in the breeze that serve as namesakes for many of the show’s characters. But more than that, Evergarden is a love letter to the love letter. The show exalts the power of the written word and its ability to convey what often cannot be said, to conjure the concrete from the ephemeral and deliver it to the person to which those words will hopefully belong.

Through its earnest striving to paint a picture of these emotions, though, the show often tries to tell us what to feel instead of making us feel it ourselves. Characters are a constant source of waterworks, but often their trials and tribulations are given too little time to mature, their triumphs and tragedies relegated to less than careful exposition, making the tears themselves bear the weight of the story’s emotional gravitas.

But it is an understandable caveat of the show’s episodic nature. As Violet travels from town to town, it may be a little much to expect an entire arc of emotional storytelling, from character introduction to climax to denouement, in a completely nuanced way. Nonetheless, each episode is like a mystery where Violet brings her intuition to bear, to discover the true heart of those that commission her services. And this journey, truncated as it may be, is satisfying to follow along.

The show may be at its best, though, when we can peer more into Violet herself. While much of the time she exhibits a personality as flat as the dolls that her occupation’s name alludes to, the stark contrast amplifies her struggle to understand what it means to live a normal life. Her mechanical arms serve as a flashy, overt metaphor for her own emotional development—as she adjusts to their clumsy, unsubtle nature, so too does she shed the shell of her guarded personality…at least a little.

Yet, we never learn how Violet’s mechanical arms work in a world otherwise devoid of such technological marvels, any more than we learn about Violet’s own origins or the source of her amazing combat ability. But these details are incidental to her journey. Sometimes all you need is a typewriter and the right words—all these exactingly fashioned, carefully wrought, painstakingly perfected words to understand what it means when we say,

“I love you.”

Violet Evergarden and OVA

While it mostly serves as a vehicle for Violet’s own emotional development, the vocation of Auto Memory Doll is nonetheless central to the world of Violet Evergarden. It is a job that contains within it many facets and surpasses that of a simple transcriptionist. At their best, Auto Memory Dolls are part detective, part therapist, striving to complete their clients hopes and aspirations through their letters.

Discovering One’s True Heart

The actual process of typing the letter is not a lengthy endeavor. An accomplished Auto Memory Doll can get the job done in a single visit with the client. In OVA, you could easily represent this with a single roll of the dice (perhaps using a new Unique Ability, Auto Memory Doll, to represent the character’s skill), if you even roll dice at all.

But other times, getting to the bottom of what the client wants to say requires more effort. The Auto Memory Doll must study the client and pick up on the subtle clues to their true feelings, feelings the client themselves may not be fully aware of. Some of these clues can be gathered through a Perceptive roll, others may require Charismatic, and still others require Intuitive and actual investigation.

Each time the Auto Memory Doll discovers a clue to the client’s true heart, they collect a special Auto Memory Doll die. When they determine they have learned enough, or simply time has run out, these can be added to the Letter Writing roll.

Writing the Letter

When it comes time to write the letter, the Auto Memory Doll rolls all dice that apply. At its simplest, this can be covered by Unique Ability: Auto Memory Doll, but it can also be split up into different sub-facets, like Grammar, Empathy, and Poetry. On the other hand, you can simply use the Abilities already in OVA that apply.

In addition, include all Auto Memory Doll dice earned during the course of the game session. The result represents the quality and accuracy of the letter, and it is compared to a Client Difficulty based on numerous factors. Lower DNs represent open-hearted clients with easy-to-please recipients, while high DNs represent clients whose feelings are especially arcane or concealed or recipients that are especially unreceptive.

Darling in the FranXX—Please Don’t Fear Me

I’m not sure what I expected from Darling in the FranXX. With its very typical-looking male lead and the impossible-to-ignore Zero Two, maybe I just expected another wish-fulfillment fantasy that’s so popular in anime. Guy becomes the hero, gets the girl, and then “for as long as we both shall live.”

But as I delved into the first episode, what I got was a bleak future where children, known only by their code numbers, are raised to pilot giant mecha, the show’s titular “FranXX,” to protect humanity from the threat of mysterious creatures known as klaxosaurs. Hiro is one of these children, despondent over the fact that he cannot properly pair with a female pilot—a requirement to make the FranXX function. Without the ability to do the one thing he was raised to do, Hiro struggles to cope. That is until he encounters the enigmatic Zero Two, a fierce FranXX pilot that skirts the boundary of humanity as she greets people by licking them for their taste and otherwise obliterates what one would consider proper manners. Rumors say that no pilot can survive more than three sorties with her, and Hiro sees this firsthand as Zero Two battles a massive klaxosaur without a partner.

Her FranXX is nimble and bestial as we watch her fight. The klaxosaur is alien and frightening, immediately casting an ominous shadow as we stare death in the face. But Zero Two cannot defeat it alone. Despite his past failures, despite Zero Two’s fearsome reputation, Hiro volunteers to pilot with her. Sealing this pact with a kiss, Zero Two pilots with her “darling,” and we see the true form of the FranXX as it transforms…into a shapely, saucer-eyed battle bot.

Okay, okay, so far we’ve pretty much set up the exact plot line I expected, but as Darling continues on, it passes through phases of high school comedy, monster-of-the-week spectacular, fanservice vehicle, post-apocalyptic drama, sci-fi conspiracy epic, and well beyond. Just like the visual clash of the monstrous leonine FranXX and its girlish true form, the show is surprising and mercurial. At times, it’s as if Darling in the FranXX is never quite sure what show it wants to be. But yet, as we follow along with the adventures of Squad 13, all of these permutations, nigh haphazard as they are, fit perfectly with the show’s central theme. Darling is an exploration of what it means to grow up and all of the baggage of uncertainty that entails. Faced with a world that has largely left emotion and individuality behind, the kids are put at an even further disadvantage as they explore not just what it means to become an adult, but what it means to be human. (Even the rather…provocative…poses the pilots take in their FranXX is more than just cheap fanservice, but an overt metaphor for the relationships humanity has left behind.)

“What it means to be human” is a topic I put forth as a central tenet of anime in the “Telling Anime Stories” section of OVA, so it’s not exactly surprising to see it here. Yet Darling goes further than that. What does it mean to be an adult, when you’ve been told nothing about your future? What does it mean to love, when you don’t even know what a kiss is? What does it mean to be alive, when all you’ve been told how to do is fight…and die? Our heroes grapple with this and more as they strive to make a place for themselves in, and even save, this world. They have to define what they mean to each other, and what it means to mean something to each other, as they wrestle with love and unrequited love and what future they can hope for themselves beyond the culling of Klaxosaurs.

These questions are difficult enough for the show’s young protagonists, but take on new nuances when applied to Zero Two. Being born from Klaxosaur blood, she is immediately “othered” despite her unparalleled ability to fight the Klaxosaurs themselves. Like Squad 13, she is valued for this prowess alone, but carries the extra burden of being a quote-unquote monster. As she strives along a course that she believes will bring her closer to being human, the real question becomes less “What does it mean to be human?” and more “what makes it so easy to define a thing we don’t understand as monstrous?”

And as the characters become more confident, discover not the “right” answer to these questions but the answer they have discovered for themselves, Darling in the FranXX too matures into a show quite unlike its beginnings. This rapid evolution in the last third or so of the series was understandably divisive among fans, and you’ll see a great many discourses on how the show plummets once it reaches its endgame. But in the end, FranXX becoming something you didn’t expect—finding for itself its own definition of what it should be—is as good a metaphor for adulthood as anything. And even as the show rushes forth to this conclusion, abandoning the shackles of its youth with such speed that it stumbles over countless hurdles of exposition and casts aside almost entirely the world-building it has spent so much time developing on its way to the stars…

I found myself enjoying it until the very end despite its flaws. Or maybe because of them. Anime is funny that way.

Darling in the FranXX and OVA

One of the most central concepts one has to cover when trying to run Darling in the Franxx is the unique way the FranXX themselves are piloted. Though the particulars of why aren’t explored until later in the series, it’s a given fact that special children known as parasites, one male (the stamen) and one female (the pistil), are required for the FranXX to even function at all. There are exceptions, with the parasites of the Nines unit able to switch roles at will regardless of sex, but this is nonetheless the typical piloting situation.


Once two Parasites have suited up and assumed their positions within their FranXX, they must sync up and receive their Paracapacity score. This number represents the compatibility the pair achieve and ultimately affects how effectively they can pilot the FranXX.

By default, each Parasite rolls two dice, but this can be modified by several factors listed below

  • -1 — Emotionally Upset
  • -1 — Rift with Partner
  • -1 — Incompatibility with Partner
  • -1 — Injury/Fatigue
  • +1 — Natural Compatibility
  • +1 — Amicable Relationship with Partner
  • +2 — In Love with Partner
  • +2 — Klaxosaur Blood

While often both parasites will receive the same bonuses and Penalties, it is also possible for them to have completely opposite ones depending on their emotional state and (potentially unrequited) feelings for each other.

Once you’ve determined the appropriate number of dice, both Players roll. But instead of finding results individually, they combine their dice together before calculating the highest die and multiples.

  • 5 or Less — Failed Paracapacity. FranXX does not start.
  • 6–8 — Low Paracapacity. –1 Piloting Effectiveness.
  • 10–12 — Acceptable Paracapacity. No Bonuses or Penalties
  • Greater than 12 — Exceptional Paracapacity. +1 Piloting Effectiveness

Piloting the FranXX

While ostensibly it is the stamen that pilots the FranXX, true effectiveness in battle requires open communication and compatibility between both FranXX pilots. Much like determining the Paracapacity score, both Players roll their Pilot dice when taking actions with the FranXX and determine their results as a combination of their dice. Either Player can choose the FranXX’s action for the turn, but in the case of disagreement, the stamen’s preference always takes precedence.

Stampede Mode

Well, almost always takes precedence. It is possible for the pistil to take control of the FranXX by entering Stampede Mode. The stamen no longer makes rolls, and the FranXX itself takes on a wilder, more bestial appearance. For each round spent this way, the pistil receives a loss of 20 Endurance. Obviously, this will impact the pistil’s health very quickly. Stampede Mode can also be entered when the stamen has become incapacitated or is otherwise unable or unwilling to pilot.

Zero Two, and perhaps any pilot with Klaxosaur blood, can pilot in Stampede Mode indefinitely without this Endurance drain. However, without the stamen’s Pilot dice, the FranXX is still demonstratively less effective.


When the FranXX is damaged, it will also be felt by the pistil who will receive similar injuries. This happens on a 1 for 1 basis, despite the difference in scale. Consequently, if the pistil takes enough damage to lose consciousness, the connection to the FranXX will be severed, regardless of how much Health or Endurance the FranXX itself may have left. While the stamen is spared this transference, they are also unable to individually pilot the FranXX in any way, unlike the pistil.

And that’s it for Darling in the Franxx! How did you feel about the show’s opinion-inducing finale? Who’s clearly the best girl” (or “best guy” for that matter?) Feel free to tell me in the comments below!

Your Lie in April—The Scenery I Shared With You

Even though I rarely have time to watch as much anime as I’d like, I’m usually pretty abreast of the noteworthy shows of each season, their names quietly chronicled in an ever expanding list of things I’ll watch “someday.” But somehow, Your Lie in April completely eluded me. It’s not that I hadn’t heard the title—it’s kind of catchy that way—but the particulars escaped me. It wasn’t until my sister brought it to my attention that I realized how much I needed to see this show. Pensive piano prodigy who has lost the ability to “hear” his music after the death of his demanding mother-slash-instructor is dragged from his bland grey world into a dazzling symphony of color by a vibrant, vivacious violinist? Sign me up! As Kousei (the aforementioned prodigy) grows closer to Kaori (the violinist), he learns to leave behind the perfect-yet-emotionless playing of his contest-winning childhood to embrace playing music for the love of music itself. As the opening credits say, “I met the girl under full-bloomed cherry blooms, and my fate has begun to change.”

YLIA-UnderTheCherryBlossoms Fittingly, Your Lie in April is possibly the prettiest anime I’ve ever watched. Almost every frame is, well, frame-able, with enough cherry blossoms dancing by to fill one of the show’s many musical venues to capacity. It’s somewhat telling that the narrative skips through summer in quick tempo in order to portray similar feats of ambiance and beauty with the falling leaves of autumn. It would be easy to say that Your Lie is too pretty for its own good, shoveling in the sakura until nothing really stands out. But that’s where the show’s most surprising, and most brilliant, juxtaposition comes in. Despite weaving a tale traversing the depths of human feeling, the show breaks up the heaviness with full-on bouts of comedy. Characters super-deform, light on fire, human torpedo each other, and otherwise elicit the kind of silliness that, at first, seems out of place. But it’s this constant reminder of levity that keeps the show from becoming a mirthless slog.

YLIA-Bikes Calling Your Lie in April a realistic exploration of the human condition is a stretch. As they struggle with love and loss, most of its fourteen-year-old cast spout poetic treatises and wax nostalgia like middle-aged wordsmiths, but that’s okay. Lie is like the music it so throughly admires throughout the show. It is an idealized form of expression, carefully crafted to elicit the strongest emotional response. Whereas Erased celebrated the every day with its loving vignettes, Your Lie in April exalts it, creating a tapestry of the slice-of-life at its absolute most heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

YLIA-PianoMoonlight And the music! Your Lie is a tour-de-force of classical greats, and love and care is given to portraying and animating the instruments that produce it. There’s some 3D wizardry at work here, which normally rubs me the wrong way, but I think the complicated workings of playing such intricate piano pieces couldn’t be served any other way. Like everything else, every performance is rife with tension as the show’s characters struggle to command the music to their will. These are not mere pieces for a passive audience, but a powerful energy that can traverse time and space—to send a message that the performers desperately hope will reach and be understood. Even the audience listens with dramatic intensity, noting every sway of the performer’s will and even commenting with the musical equivalent of “His power level is over NINE-THOUUUSANND!”

It’s utterly preposterous, of course, but somehow—like the rest of Your Lie in April—it is in its way the most honest. This melodramatic, over-the-top rendition of the humble musical performance conveys, just a small fragment, of the actual feelings that music can imbue. The show’s own score, while more limited in variety than the many classical composers it features, manages to stir up the heartstrings regardless of how many times you hear the main dramatic theme.

YLIA-PracticingTogether And despite the show’s many dips into melancholy, I appreciate that Your Lie is always up front and honest about it. The show’s main “twist”—if you can really call it that—is telegraphed so early and often that its reveal doesn’t feel like an ambush. The show’s drive for emotion never feels contrived or unfair. In fact, I think the real lie in Your Lie in April is the one you tell yourself. Until the show’s tear-jerking finale, I found myself hoping against hope that, perhaps, another resolution was possible.

In the end, every piece of music has its end, its finale, its coda. And Your Lie in April finishes exactly where it had to all along.


Your Lie in April and OVA

Given how much vim and vigor is generously applied to Your Lie in April’s many performances, it’s actually really appropriate to represent the rise and fall of a given performer’s playing, confidence, and will with a few custom rules.

YLIA-KeyboardCat When a performer—whether that’s a pianist, a singer, or even a stand-up comedian—gets on the stage, they are immediate faced by their audience. Sometimes, the entire audience matters. Other times, it is only a choice few, be it trying to capture the heart of a loved one or impressing the hard-nosed judge. Whatever the case, the audience is given a DN based on how hard they are to impress. A fun night out at karaoke is prone to require a paltry 4 or 6, while world competitions may require 12—and beyond!

But performances are rarely the matter of a single roll. A good performance requires consistency and stamina. The Game Master will determine the number of successful rolls required to make a performance successful, and also the maximum number of rolls that can be made. The number of rolls is not necessarily the length of the performance itself, but a measure of the dramatic weight the performance carries. A night like many other nights in a concert tour may be handled by relatively few rolls, while one song in the ultimate final performance of a tournament may require many. Likewise, too many missteps, false starts, and errors will bring the performance to a crashing halt, even if there were great successes along the way. In between each roll, Players should take the time to role play their experience, whether they are the performer or the audience.


Digging Deep

A performer’s skill will take them a long way—but sometimes it is not enough. No amount of practice or aptitude can stave away the threat of one bad roll too many. By spending Endurance, Players can earn Drama Dice to improve their results. Sweat drips off their brow, the score bends to their will, and for that moment the very soul of their playing is channeled through their instrument and into the audience. In fact, performers can do this even if they succeeded already. After all, wouldn’t an Amazing Success be that much more…amazing?

But this emotion is not always appropriate. There are competitions where playing to the composer’s intent, by every note and measure, is required. In these cases, spending Drama Dice may disqualify the performer on technical merit alone. But audience choice—well, that’s another matter entirely, isn’t it?



Alas, performers don’t exist in a vacuum. As intently as they might focus on their performance, the outside world can threaten to break in and disrupt all they have struggled to achieve. Doubts, fears, past traumas and current stress all can meddle with the ability to perform. When such Demons rear their ugly heads, they make a roll. Minor worries might be represented as two dice, while persistent dreads can roll five dice or more. If the Demon roll ever beats the character’s own performance roll, it cancels it out, even if it would have been a success! Of course, characters may still dig deep to overcome them.

YLIA-Demons Speaking of music, readers, do you have a favorite anime with that subject as its focus? How about your favorite anime soundtrack? Tell me about it in the comments! Also, if you’d like to support this blog, consider purchasing Your Lie in April merchandise like comics, Blu-ray boxsets, and figures from this link!

Dimension W—To Live and Die in the Past

Dimension W revolves around the titular fourth dimension beyond X, Y, and Z, a mysterious realm from which society has learned to extract limitless clean energy through the use of coils. However, there are those that make use of untraceable counterfeit coils to carry out their nefarious goals, and it’s up to collectors to find and subdue these criminals—and, naturally, collect their coils. Kyouma Mabuchi is such a collector, but one at odds with the modernized world around him. He eschews the convenience of coils almost entirely, making use of humble skewer-like weapons and driving a gasoline powered car he restored himself. Even his clothing is a throwback, being much more in line with traditional Japanese attire than anything kin to the contemporary.

It’s a quirk that immediately endeared me to Dimension W as it’s the sort of eccentricity that resonates with me. Despite using computers nearly all my life, I’ve always felt kinship to the physical, to old dusty tomes and tabletop games that were created before I was born. Even with the digital world, I find myself gravitating to the “retro” classics of yesteryear with their pixels, beeps, and boops. There’s just something inherently romantic about obselescence, and it’s a theme that Dimension W visits numerous times in its narrative.

DimensionW-Duo But Kyouma is only one half of the equation, and in short order he’s paired with Mira, a mysteriously advanced, and of course coil-powered, android that represents everything Kyouma has done his best to leave behind. It’s no secret that I love the gynoid archetype—Miho, after all, was the first character I created for OVA—and Mira is a particularly likable example. The strained relationship between the duo gives some meat to the usual robot-girl-wants-to-be-accepted-as-human plotline, and the combination of these opposites just made me fall in love with the show.

In fact, I really wish there was more of it. In the first few episodes you see glimpses of a sort of slice-of-life story that could have been. Whether it’s Mira fixing up her Airstream trailer with second-hand furniture or Kyouma tinkering with his cars, there was real room to show off the development of their relationship. Alas, by episode 4, the show’s plot is picking up speed, and by midway through the series devotes almost every minute juggling its mysteries and secrets, carefully pacing its reveals so you never quite have the entire picture, whether its the specters of Kyouma’s past, the ominous existence of the original Numbers coils, or the true nature of Dimension W itself. In fact, there are so many secrets, and Dimension W is such a malleable plot device, that you never really get true satisfaction from many of the plot developments.

DimensionW-GasStation But the pseudo-science of Dimension W isn’t what the story is about really (despite how many long expository segments are devoted to it). It’s about loss and the acceptance of loss, and about the dangers of unchecked desire, all displayed through gorgeously animated action sequences and an eclectic cast of quirky characters. Whether it’s Loser, the prolific criminal who seemingly never succeeds at stealing but has become sort of a public hero and phenomenon for it, or the delightfully bizarre competing collectors featured during the story’s final arc, or just Kyouma’s clever use of his skewer-and-cable weapons, Dimension W is just a lot of fun to look at.

And Mira is really, really cute.


But still, I remember the creator’s Chikyu Misaki, a short but amazing work that deftly balanced the everyday with its over-the-top conspiracies, mysteries, and action, and I wish Dimension W was as evenly distributed. But I guess 12 episodes is not a lot of time to do both. I’d be curious if the original manga gives the pair more room to breathe and a more fleshed out, gradual path to the catharsis of their relationship—perhaps a bit more of that feeling that is repeatedly promised in the show’s closing credits.


Dimension W and OVA

The entire collector premise is a great set up for a game of OVA. The collection missions serve as a clear episodic goal for each adventure, and coils serve as the perfect excuse for almost any Ability or special power. By the same token, very little in Dimension W really requires any special rules or elaboration of the concepts presented in the main rulebook. But taking a look at Kyouma, he’s a really fascinating build because his signature weapons really never do much, if any, damage. It’s a collection of tricks to bring opponents to his level where he can pummel them with abandon.

Kyouma Mabuchi

Abilities: Agile +1, Art of Invisibility +1, Attack +2, Combat Expert +3, Evasive +3, Intimidating +1, Iron-Willed +2, Knowledge (Classic Vehicle Maintenance, Operation, and Repair) +3, Perceptive +1, Quick +1, Strong +2, Tough +2, Unique Ability +2 (Skewers Allow Increased Mobility akin to Flight), Vehicle (Toyota 2000GT) +3

Weaknesses: Amnesia –1 (Memories from the Easter Island Incident), Emotionless –1, Hatred –2 (Coils), Infamous –1 (Beast of Grendel), Love Interest –1 (Lost Love), Loner –2, Quirk –1 (Old-Fashioned Dress), Short-Tempered –2, Servitude –1 (Mary), Stubborn –1


  • Martial Arts — ROLL: 6, DX: 5
  • Skewer Technique: Impale — ROLL: 6, DX: 3 (Armor Piercing, Ranged; Weapon)
  • Skewer Technique: Impede — ROLL: 6, DX: 2 (Impairing, Ranged; Ineffective, Weapon)
  • Skewer Technique: Trip — ROLL: 6, DX: 2 (Stunning, Ranged; Ineffective, Weapon)
  • Skewer Technique: Entangle — ROLL: 6, DX: 1/2 (Paralyzing x2, Ranged; Ineffective x3, Weapon)

And of course, we can’t ignore everyone’s favorite green-haired bot girl:


Abilities: Agile +2, Cute! +2, Dexterous +2, Evasive +1, Heightened Sense (Sight) +3, Life Support +3, Perceptive +1, Quick +3, Strong +3, Unique Ability +2 (Coil-Interfacing Tail)

Weaknesses: Bizarre Appearance –1 (Robot Features), Guardian –2 (Kyouma), Kind-Hearted -1, Naive –1, Obsession –2 (Follow her father’s wishes to follow the coils), Secret –1 (Identity as a highly advanced robot), Sensitivity –1 (Being referred to as a robot)


What about you readers? Do you have a favorite unlikely duo from anime? Or is there a particular android that sets your circuits abuzz? Tell me about it in the comments! Also, if you’d like to support this blog, consider purchasing Dimension W merchandise like comics and figures or anything else from this link!

Sword Art Online — Levels Are Just Numbers

Ever since I watched .hack//SIGN over a decade ago, I have been in love with the idea of setting stories in the context of MMORPGs. I think it’s the coexistence of two worlds, of the real and the digital one, that immediately gives layers to every character, a bit of mystery and secrecy of the person behind the computer screen. Too, the way the “rules” of the online world are tangible and exact things, how they’re presented as a sort of setting-building that makes no apologies or excuses. Or maybe it’s just because it legitimizes a passion for video games in a tale of rousing adventure.

But there’s never really been much like .hack since, leaving the entire concept a lonely and untapped genre. It’s especially conspicuous when you consider that MMO games are exponentially more relevant than they were in the early 2000s. So when I first heard about Sword Art Online, I was determined to watch it. The hook alone is pretty arresting, with thousands of so-called VRMMO players not just trapped within the game, but faced with the stark reality that dying in the virtual world also means death in the real one! Still, I had a few reservations. On the surface, SAO had the makings of yet another teenage male wish-fulfillment story, the kind where a normal geeky guy’s skill at video games makes him a hero and nets him the girl. I was prepared for that being pretty much all I got out of the show, but I was pleasantly surprised.

Dual Wield That’s because SAO is dedicated making the game world more than just window dressing. While its collection of rules and concepts are not always objectively sound if presented in a “real” MMORPG, Sword Art Online weaves its unique brand of video game logic through every layer of the narrative. Whether it’s the ebb and flow of its gorgeously animated, adrenaline-pumping battles and PvP duels, the fulfillment of quest lines and their requisite rare drops, or an entire episode devoted to a murder mystery wherein the culprit seemingly breaks the laws of SAO’s reality, the show never lets you forget that the world of Aincrad is part of a game. Even the protagonist, Kirito, has much of his golden-boy power and plot invulnerability explained by his previous experience as a beta tester. It’s great fun, and this exploration of the game itself is a piece of the puzzle .hack//SIGN glossed over in its version of the stuck in a video game tale.

But for all its mechanics and RPG trappings, the first arc of SAO is as much about relationships as it is the crossing of swords. While it is a love story, describing it as just another teenage romance sells it short. It’s about forging friendships and family, coping with death and loss, and finding a way to exist in the violent digital world that has become reality for the thousands of players trapped in Aincrad.

(12) And Asuna, the show’s requisite waifu for Kirito, far exceeds such a label. That’s because Asuna is more than a damsel backdrop for Kirito to show off his mettle. If anything, Asuna carries the show. While Kirito has his beta test experience and a few convenient plot abilities to fall back on, Asuna’s aptitude at the game was tempered in the game itself. She is on the front-lines despite not knowing the road ahead, and it is through her own conviction and power that the day is saved at critical moments throughout the show’s first story arc.

But it’s for all these reasons SAO’s second story arc “Fairy Dance” seems to fall short. The game that was so intrinsically tied to the narrative has become more of an afterthought, relegated to the weak PvP structure of Alfheim Online and a few beats dedicated to the new flying mechanics. Asuna, for all her agency in the first arc, has become little more than a princess to rescue. And with Kirito logging into a new MMO where the “you die in the game, you die in real life” hook is gone, most of the dramatic tension evaporates.

Overfly That’s not to say the second arc is bad. It’s perfectly watchable, and despite fan outrage that I largely chalk up to “She’s not Asuna,” Sugaha/Leafa is cute and likeable. It just doesn’t deliver on the promise exhibited in the earlier episodes, instead falling hook, line, and sinker into the mire of expectations it so expertly cast off before.

Sword Art Online and OVA

It’s easy to look at a show like SAO and want to apply a traditional level-based system to it and recreate the countless mechanical minutia that make up the VRMMO—but such granularity is rarely warranted. The mechanics are more of a narrative device than anything any character concretely follows. For example, Kirito’s passive regen ability is mentioned for exactly one sequence and never acknowledged again. Representing that Ability, if you really wanted to, can be treated as Armored, Barrier, or one of many other Abilities, since its only effect was to prevent receiving damage from his would-be PKers.


Unsurprisingly, level too can be treated with much broader strokes. Instead of incrementing a multi-digit number one-by-one, characters instead receive a much more abstract Level Bonus, ranging from +0 (for the newbie rif-raff) to +5 (for the top tier, maxed out heroes of the story.) This Bonus applies to every action the character does. However in contested rolls, characters’ Level Bonuses will cancel each other out. Should a Level Bonus +3 character attempt to attack a Level Bonus +2 character, the effective bonus is only +1. And so on.



One of the more unique mechanics presented in Sword Art Online is the “Switch” technique that all characters have access to. Despite being the core strategy for winning a handful of seemingly unwinnable battles, it is never really fully explained (and seems to behave entirely differently in the video games based on the anime.) Yet, it inspired me to at least give my impression of how it would work in OVA.

In addition to the usual complications in OVA, campaigns based on Sword Art Online feature another: the Flinch complication. As the name would suggest, the state is short and fleeting, not lasting until the opponent’s next turn but existing only in the brief moment in time it is inflicted. The exact effect differs depending on the opponent. Some enemies with seeming impenetrable armor will briefly reveal weaknesses, losing their Armored bonus. Others will let down their guard, eliminating their Defense Roll. Whatever the circumstances, there is revealed a brief window of opportunity.

(341) This Flinch complication is inflicted in one of two ways: One is by dealing any other combat complication, which will also inflict the Flinched status. The other is reserved for enemies with large, heavy-hitting weapons or attacks. If they should ever attack a character but deal no damage, they are immediately put into the Flinched state.

To take advantage of the Flinched complication, characters mustSwitch with an ally. By giving up their next action, the ally character may act immediately, garnering what benefits are to be had from their briefly Flinching opponent. Once two characters switch, neither character may do so again until their next active turn. But in this way, even the toughest enemies may fall!


So, readers, if you were to find yourself unable to log out of an online game, which one would you want it to be? Or for a more realistic question, what online video game do you really wish there were a tabletop RPG version of?

Puella Magi Madoka Magica—My Very Best Friend

More than many series, Puella Magi Madoka Magica thrives on its world-shattering reveals, twists, and surprises, all of which come heavy and often. If you haven’t watched, but you’re thinking about it and somehow have avoided spoilers of its numerous plot doozies, here’s what you need to know: Madoka is an attempt to capture the darker realities of what being a magical girl entails—the risks, pressures, and responsibilities of having that power at such an inexperienced, impressionable age. That, and it is a show with so many helpings of moé—that amorphous Japanese ideal of cute—that anyone without at least a marginal taste for it will likely choke to death.

Though it’s not a journey without faults, among them a terribly slow start and some thin characterization here and there, Madoka succeeds where it counts, providing a deeply touching, often grim story many have wanted from the genre for a long time. And even if its deconstruction of magical girl tropes doesn’t tug at your heart strings as much as it did mine, the ethereal visuals backed by Yuki Kajiura’s extraordinary, choral-infused soundtrack are worth experiencing by themselves.

Sayaka While I am loath to do any major spoiling in my overview here, I think it is a testament to the show that for all its turnarounds and revelations, it holds up to repeat viewings and—dare I say—is possibly better for it. Motivations that seemed arcane before are clear, and countless details unnoticeable the first time around are scattered throughout the narrative. And for all its slow pacing for the early part of the show, Madoka sets up what will be its biggest strength: The show really isn’t about Madoka at all. When you discover the heart of the matter, every frame becomes a cherished part of the whole.

Put short, watch it. Even if its themes don’t resonate with you, I would be hard-pressed to believe that something, somewhere doesn’t grab you and refuse to let go.

Madoka Magica and OVA

To discuss representing the concepts of Madoka Magica in OVA without giving much of its plot away is impossible, so read onward at your own risk. Here there be spoiling dragons.


Making the Contract

To become a magical girl, a young girl must make a contract with Kyubey. In exchange for committing their lives in the service of fighting witches, they are granted a single wish. The nature of this wish has a direct effect on the powers of a magical girl. As we see in the show, wishing for the healing of her friend grants Sayaka the power of quick-healing. Homura wanting to go back in time has given her mastery over time itself, and so on. You should consider the wish and its potential carefully when making your character.

Besides the powers that are a consequence of the wish, magical girls tend to all have a basic set of Abilities, though at differing degrees depending on their potential:

  • Attack (Weapon of Choice)
  • Dimensional Pocket
  • Magic, Arcane

Magical Girls also possess telepathy, allowing them to communicate freely with each other, Kyubey, and even normal humans without actually speaking. This is not the same as Psychic, since they cannot actually read thoughts that aren’t deliberated exchanged, nor is there any possibility to influence the thoughts of others.


The Soul Gem

After becoming a magical girl, a character’s soul is removed from her body and encapsulated in a glowing egg called the soul gem. This is to protect the soul against the rigors of battle and to divide the character’s consciousness from the body in order to withstand the great pain fighting witches and their ilk can bring—something a conventionally mortal soul could not endure. Because of its small size and magical properties, the soul gem is relatively safe from harm, and while it remains intact, the magical girl cannot die.

However, Soul Gems can be broken. Should a character receive an attack of Damage equal to their maximum Health total, the gem is shattered and the character dies. It is also possible to target a magical girl’s soul gem directly, but few are aware of its secret (including witches) to take advantage of this.

Death Because a magical girl’s soul lies within her gem, and the human body has become merely a shell for action, should the distance between the body and the gem grow too far, the ability to control the body is lost and it becomes effectively dead. As long as they are reunited, the magical girl can continue on as before, but if they are not…



In addition to Health and Endurance, every Magical Girl has a special third total called Despair. However, instead of starting at a number and being reduced, Despair begins at zero and counts up. As the title suggests, Despair represents a magical girl’s inevitable decline to becoming a witch, but it is also the source of one of a magical girl’s greatest strengths: the ability to go beyond the limitations of Health and Endurance. At any time, characters may choose to add to Despair instead of reducing Health or Endurance. This effectively makes it possible to avoid the penalty from zeroing out one total or the other, and it also allows a magical girl to keep on fighting well beyond what would be possible otherwise. It is even possible for a magical girl to persevere without remaining Health and Endurance at all, as long as they are willing to increase their Despair. If both Health and Endurance are reduced to zero, apply a –2 penalty to all actions.

As Despair increases, the taint of a magical girl’s soul gem becomes more pronounced until it becomes entirely black, at which point it shatters and becomes a grief seed—the core of any witch. Once Despair has reached 40, magical girls must make a roll against succumbing to the overwhelming grief every time they choose to add to the Despair total. The difficulty number is equal to the tens digit of Despair. So a magical girl who has reached a Despair of 65 would roll against a difficulty of 6. 120 would be a DN of 12. And so on. Players may add Iron-Willed and other appropriate Abilities when making this roll. Likewise, Weak-Willed will prove a detriment. Once this roll is failed, the magical girl is doomed to become a witch. While exchanging dialog with other player characters or performing a few more minor actions is possible, when the plot permits, the character is lost to the world and turns to darkness.


Despair and Grief In addition to willingly increasing it, a character’s Despair may increase due to circumstances.

  • 5 Distressing (A close battle, a heated argument.)
  • 10 Depressing (Breaking up with a friend, realizing a core truth of being a magical girl.)
  • 20 Devastating (The death of a friend or loved one.)

Despair and Time Even if a character should avoid making use of despair, the simple state of being a magical girl will taint the soul gem with time. At the beginning of every adventure after the first (presumably the one where the character made their contract) add 5 to the Despair total.


Reducing Despair There is only one way to shed Despair and return light to one’s soul gem, and that is by defeating witches and making use of their Grief Seed. The efficacy of this seed depends on the strength of the Witch—which in turn depends on the amount of Despair that the Witch had before it was transformed from magical girl. Using a grief seed removes an amount of Despair equal to half the total of the fallen magical girl it derives from.

Of course, these rules derive from the world as presented in the majority of the TV series. If you wish to set a game in the aftermath of the final episode, or even during the movie Rebellion, you will need to make some adjustments.


Erased—A Town Where Only I Am Missing

It’ll come as no surprise that I love anime. I wrote the (RPG) book on it, after all, and my twitter feed full of anime-style artwork is verification enough. But at the same time, so much anime I watch feels like it has qualifiers, excuses that need to be made to fully and heart-feltly recommend. “This show is great if you don’t mind the fanservice,” or “You have to check your brain at the door, but it’s an amazing ride.” That’s not to diss these things, as sometimes you just want brainless fanservice action romps, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But every once in a while, an anime like Erased comes along, and it really reminds me what a great show can be. A show that is good without any buts. A show that’s just good, really.

In Erased, Satoru is an aspiring manga artist and part-time pizza delivery man, seeming to rather listlessly make his way through life. But soon we discover that Satoru is far more than ordinary, as he possesses the strange ability he dubs “Revival.” When something horrible is about to occur, his body involuntarily jumps to moments before in time, giving him a second chance to notice what is awry and do his best to set it right.

Erased It’s an intriguing premise on its own, but when the death of someone close to Satoru results in him being framed for the crime, Revival kicks into overdrive and send him all the way back to 1988—to his childhood days where he and his classmates experience the abduction and death of fellow students. As an adult-minded Satoru relives his youth, he realizes that these murders may be the source of his misfortune in the present, perhaps the origin of everything, and he sets out to change the future.

If this power, this mystery, were the only things Erased had going for it, it would still be a great show. But every frame is brimming with tiny details. Cameras lovingly pan over home-cooked meals, shoes slipping off to reveal hole-y toed socks, and moths fluttering about electric lights. It’s easy to refer to these things, these vignettes into the everyday, as pleasing but unnecessary, but such words couldn’t be a bigger disservice. It’s these minutia that really bring home Satoru’s reliving of his past. As an adult, these things that are so fleeting and inconsequential to a child are so much more to his adult self, and Erased does well to give them this nostalgic gravitas.

Erased-Dinner This especially true since Satoru’s success in changing the future has as much to do with changing his relationships in the past as it does his detective work. His efforts to keep Kayo, the serial killer’s first victim, from being vulnerable and alone develop into much more, as they each discover the truth in each other and the insecurities he didn’t fully understand as a child. It’s not just Kayo, either, as Satoru reaches out and makes deeper, more profound connections with his core circle of friends, eventually enlisting them on his quest to thwart the dismal future.

Erased-PalmOfTheHand The show deftly juggles the murder mystery and everyday life, Satoru’s past and present, and spans of calm and drama in a way that neither ever outlives its welcome. It’s a mixture that thrives on each other, and the show’s pacing perfectly sets up the conclusion in a way that imminently satisfying. That’s not to say the show is without faults. One of the main antagonist’s characterization is embarrassingly thin; even the serial killer that serves as the catalyst for the entire story isn’t much better. But that’s okay, because the story isn’t really about them. It isn’t really even about the murder mystery. It’s about people treating each other with kindness, learning to see past the failings of ourselves and others, past the barriers we erect around us. And connect.

Because we don’t have to be alone.


Erased and OVA

Erased isn’t the sort of over-the-top high-octane show that lends itself to a bunch of new rules. The show is a framework to display, trite though it might sound, the power of friendship, and the best way to do that is load up your characters with Weaknesses that lend themselves to isolation and Abilities that they can use to help pull each other out of their self-imposed cages (or the cages imposed by others). Of course, there is one facet of Erased that begs to have a few rules applied to it, and that is Satoru’s “Revival.” Though later on it’s used almost solely as a plot device to send Satoru to his past, as presented in the early episodes, it’s the sort of Ability that could really find use in all kinds of adventurous campaigns.

Erased-Revival Revival—Time does not flow smoothly for you. When great misfortune, harm, or other danger happens around you, your life’s clock rewinds a few precious seconds, giving you a second chance to notice what has gone wrong. This awareness is not automatic, as you only know that you have jumped back into the past, not the exact reason for it. The greater your level in Revival, the more time your character rewinds backward, giving you longer to assess the situation and act upon it. Add your Revival Dice to any actions you manage to take during the span of time that you repeat. If you can’t discover the reason for the Revival (with Abilities like Perceptive or Sixth Sense) or act on them in time, the Revival and its Bonus dice end.

So that’s it for Erased! I plan to keep doing this for anime I watch, so let me know if you have a favorite you’d like to appear on the blog in the comments!

Ruling the Rules

Those of you who happen to have a copy of OVA’s first edition might remember its afterword, wherein I described my early adventures in RPG design and an epiphany concerning how to make OVA not only better, but different from any RPG that had come before: by dropping hard-coded stats from the game.

But it wasn’t the first RPG to do that. Not quite anyway. I’d later discover that characters being made up of customizable traits instead of a preset array of attributes had been done by Ross’s RISUS and before that by Tweet’s Over the Edge. They’re not quite the same of course—OVA goes so far as to define a vast collection of its Abilities and Weaknesses (making up the longest chapter in the book), while both of the aforementioned titles are far more freeform affairs.

But even so, it was a big step for quote-unquote anime RPGs, and considering how grounded I was in the RPGs of the 80s and 90s, it was still a big step for me. When I approached the new revised edition of my game I wanted to do my best to keep my eyes open for similar evolutions in its design.

Something that was important to me in the original OVA was not to punish players for being “cool.” My favorite example of this is the protagonist of Cowboy Bebop, Spike Spiegel. Again and again throughout the series, Spike is shown to be a skilled martial artist and marksman. This is a build that simply doesn’t work in many RPGs because it requires putting points into two usually separate skills, hand-to-hand and guns. What little versatility is offered by training in both is quickly overshadowed by the limited resource of build points—a character can only be half as good in two areas as they could be in one.

SpikeSpiegel But Spike isn’t just sort of good at both, he’s great. And if you couldn’t create Spike with ease in OVA, then that’s as much of a litmus test as anything. With that in mind, I condensed every combat skill into an Ability called, well, Combat Skill. With one attribute, your character was adept at attacking, whatever form that takes. Sure, it flies in the face of most RPG design that routinely compartmentalize such things, but it just made things so much easier. You could still just do one thing, of course, but if you ever wanted to branch out, you weren’t punished for it.

But the original OVA still didn’t eliminate the issue. While your ability to hit your opponent was sufficiently simplified, there were still several Abilities to cover actually doing damage. Martial Arts increased damage barehanded, Weapon gave you a weapon, and Power Move let you create a suite of special attacks that dealt even more damage but burned Endurance. It’s a system that worked, but you were still faced with paying more points to build Spike. You had to buy Martial Arts and Weapon—and arguably Power Move to boot.

So I made the single most drastic change between the editions of OVA, I condensed all the damage-increasing Abilities into one called Attack, just as I had with Combat Skill years before. While this did solve the Spike Spiegel issue deftly, probably the biggest boon from this was that it rolled the idea behind Power Move into an Ability that allowed every character to create a suite of attack moves. Whereas before it was limited to flashy energy blasts and the like, now every strike could be its own separate technique. Samurais could swap between offensive styles, ninjas could throw in a sweep kick in their repertoire, and, yes, Spike could mix up gunplay and really swanky fisticuffs. It’s a system that just works for recreating the cinematic style of combat. Moreover, because all Attack represented was your capacity to dish out damage, characters could literally describe these attacks as anything they want at any time. Want to smash a chair over an opponent’s head or stomp a loose plank into their groin? Use your Attack level without worrying about calculating the actual damage of these impromptu weapons. Characters do this all the time in action anime, but it’s typically very hard to recreate in an RPG. No longer!

ova-attack While this was easily the most gratifying change to OVA, there’s a vast variety of additions and improvements that I’m also fond of. The original game’s “knockback” was split into three separate combat complications, giving more tactical options to the otherwise streamlined rules. Looking at these, I realized that I could take the same concept and apply them outside of combat, and Succeeding with Complications was born. While I won’t be foolhardy enough to claim this is an entirely new idea (Fate, if nothing else, pushes the “fail forward” concept hard), I’m really please with how neatly it fits into OVA and brings combat and out-of-combat closer together thematically.

Scale was another useful addition, making it really simple to represent vast differences in ability. Need to have a mecha and a battleship go toe-to-toe? You can do that. How about a plucky Pokémon trainer and a tank? Sure, why not. The bout between mere martial artist and a Super-Saiyan martial artist? Faster than you can say, “ His power level is over NINE-THOUSAAAAND!” It’s all represented by a +5 bonus, and it just makes what can be really difficult in other RPGs quick and fun.

Besides that, I focused on consistency, consistency, consistency. Whenever a rule didn’t have a compelling reason to behave differently than other rules, I changed it so that it no longer did. Not only does this make concepts easier to remember, it creates a reliable foundation for hacking the system to do new things. (This happens a lot over at the Wise Turtle Forums.)

And that’s it for three-part my retrospective of OVA! How about you, readers? Do you have a particular favorite addition to the revised game? Or perhaps you remember a houserule for another RPG that you thought was really novel? Let me know in the comments!


Art and Soul

Being a game about anime, art was always an important facet of OVA to me. When I made the original book, I did my best to overcome my inexperience and lack of budget to fill it with illustrations that appealed to the Japanese conventions I admired. I enlisted the help of numerous artists, among them friends, acquaintances, and complete strangers in the quest to illustrate my first RPG. And when there was no one else, I even took to illustrating a few pictures myself.

But I wanted more than just random pieces of art featuring equally random saucer-eyed teenagers, presented to the reader without context. I wanted to create a cast of characters, an entourage of affable faces that exhibited the tropes and themes that resonated with anime fans and could be recognized from page to page. They were like friends, helpful guides that would make that one special power or rules concept something tangible. You can see it in action and know how it works because, hey, that character uses it!

To this end, the first character I created for OVA was everyone’s favorite mechanical maiden with a human heart, Miho. She distilled everything I felt encompassed anime in one place, from her wild-colored hair, to the contrast of her robotic nature and human emotions, to—yes—a certain lack of aptitude in the culinary arts. Unsurprisingly, Miho is also the focus of some of the oldest art I have for the book. While her concept has always been more or less the same, you can see in Kelly Hamilton’s initial design sketches that she was once much more robotic than her final design! MihoSketches The military-inspired uniform makes its first appearance here and was used for her final design. This iconic ensemble would go on to be featured (more or less) in the revised game, despite the fact that most other character designs changed completely.

But with all the different artists, the original OVA was a bit scattered in terms of style. The second time around, I wanted OVA to have a cohesive look, to feel like a single anime series as it were. So I decided to have all the work done by one artist: Niko Geyer. If you’ve played a certain other anime role-playing game, you may recognize his work, but we’ve been friends for decades (even did a webcomic once upon a time). While many illustrations are brand new, quite a few favorites were remade.

ova-artcomparison Oh, and if you’re wondering about my illustrations mentioned earlier, here’s a final comparison featuring everyone’s favorite copper, Jiro.

ova-artcomparison2 Slight improvement, right?

So who is you favorite character from OVA? What about your favorite piece of art from the revised book? Feel free to click on this post and leave a comment below!

There and Back Again

It’s been eleven years since I released OVA. More than a decade. It’s a span of time that simultaneously feels endlessly long and impossibly short. It’s a time in which things have changed. RPG PDFs, once a niche undertaking that only some took advantage of, are now the type of product almost every serious RPG maker releases. These same PDFs exist not on just computers, but on incredible machines touted about in pockets and backpacks, portable digital libraries that were the stuff of science fiction when OVA first came out. These same devices connect us more than ever before, with more ways to share, reshare, and discover. We consume media differently, with the very anime OVA is inspired by available at the click of a button and ready to watch any time, anywhere.

I’m different too. A little older of course, but hopefully a little wiser and a little more adept at making these curious games called RPGs. It’s this accumulation of knowledge that helped make the new revised edition of OVA possible. I’ve learned a lot in these years, and I put every bit of it into the game. So the passing of yet another anniversary seemed as good an excuse as any to visit the differences between the book I made then and the one available now. So here is my three-part look at OVA, old and new! First up, let’s look at the graphic design.

When I created the original OVA, I was not a graphic designer. I always had an interest in it; countless hours spent collecting fonts, designing character sheets, and a few too many greeting cards created in Print Shop Deluxe were testament enough to that. But it wasn’t something I was really cognizant of being a thing. Yet I knew there was more to making a book than typing into Microsoft Word a coherent series of thoughts and hoping for the best. I taught myself about layouts and dpis, of leading and bleed, and the Byzantine puzzles that made up Quark, and somehow made it happen.

Since then, I’ve abandoned Quark for InDesign, and at least partially mastered its own idiosyncrasies. I have been a part of dozens of books, board games, and other projects. Put succinctly, I got better. What did that mean for the new version of OVA? Let’s take a look by comparing a spread from both versions.

OVA-OldSpread OVA-NewSpread I chose this set of pages because it’s one of the few spreads that remained effectively identical between the versions with text and art placement. I think it demonstrates the difference a bit of experience makes pretty well! There are a lot of things I could point out, but here are some of the biggest points of advice I can share.

Give the Layout Room to Breathe

If you look in the original book, the text is butted up to the edge of pretty much everything. The text in the note boxes practically touch the black outline of its container. Even outside of these constraints, you’ll see text struggle against large areas of artwork, almost dwarfed entirely by the sheer proximity. Economy is taught as a virtue, but for the sake of a pleasant reading experience, don’t be afraid to give the text a little room to breathe. If you plan for your book to appear in print, that means giving it some birth in the center margin as well, just so it’s not lost in the spine of your book.

It’s also okay for some areas of the page to just be blank. In the old design, almost every square inch of the page has some graphical element. Again, the idea that “more is better and nothing is bad” is a phallacy you should take out of your design vocabulary right away. Compare to the new header and footer, blank except for a dotted line. (Trivia: InDesign refers to this particular dot size/pattern as “Japanese Dots.” Pretty apropos, right?)

Treat the Text with Respect

Just like arranging the elements of a page is more than just slapping words together, rendering the text itself is something that deserves your consideration. Taking the time to learn a bit about good typography is a subtle but indispensable tool in your arsenal if you plan to typeset your own books. There are lots of great books on the subject (including Robert Bringhurst’s classic, and software independent, Elements of Typographic Style), but here’s a quick and dirty list of some of the most important things I’ve learned over the years. Just do me a favor and don’t point out how many of these mistakes appear in the old book!

  • Excise bad typographical habits. We’ve all heard things like “double-space after periods.” …Don’t do it. It’s a throwback to the days of the typewriter and has no place in your manuscript. Likewise, replace trios of periods with proper ellipsis characters (. . . vs. …), and learn the difference between the various dashes. A hyphen is not a catch-all, and using “- -”   in place of the appropriate dash is sloppy. And for those of you who use measurements in your games, the feet and inch marks are primes (″), not quotes (”).
  • Oh, you don’t want to google about dashes? To quickly summarize, a hyphen is the shortest (-), and the mark you’re most used to making. Its only use is compound words and breaking words at the end of lines in justified text. The en dash is debatably the width of an n (–), and should be used to indicate ranges of figures (2–4 oatmeal cookies). It also works as a minus sign before negative numbers (–2), thought technically there’s a dedicated symbol for that purpose if you want to get really nitpicky. Finally, the em dash is the longest (—). Use it for abrupt changes of thought—is anyone still reading this?—and for attributions. You can also use an en dash for changes of thought, but it needs spaces around – whereas the em dash does not.
  • Make sure your lines are not too long or too short. The optimal number of characters is around 60-70 per line (including spaces), but you can swing as low as 40 and as high as 85 or so. The “Word Document” effect, where you just throw text full-width on letter-sized pages is both terribly unprofessional and just plain trying to read. Also consider increasing the leading (gap between lines) for longer lines to improve readability.
  • Don’t indent the first paragraph of a section. It’s unnecessary and tends to look choppy after headings, which RPGs love to use a lot of.
  • Don’t just use a series of carriage returns to separate lines. If you have a list of items in a row, consider bullet points or increased leading between the lines. Full line skips feels gappy at best and lazy at worst.
  • Use proper italics. Good typefaces will have dedicated fonts to represent emphasis, with it usually taking a cursive-like appearance. It is not just the upright font slanted, which is a butchery that should be stopped.
  • Don’t be afraid to mix serif (typefaces with little “feet” like Times New Roman) and sans serif (typefaces sans these feet like Helvetica/Arial). Used in a consistent manner, it can help give different types of text (like OVA’s note and example boxes) their own character and further individualize them from the surrounding text. While I stuck with serif for the body of OVA, it’s perfectly possible to set a book entirely in a sans serif typeface. Just print out a page and make sure it feels comfortable to read at length.
  • If you use InDesign, turn on Optical Alignment in the Story panel. This allows punctuation and other small marks to hang outside the margin and give a much more pleasing edge to your paragraphs when justified. You can thank me later.
  • Last but not least, customize your justification and hyphenation settings. Most of the settings out of the box just aren’t that great. I’ve included a screenshot of some of my preferred settings below. There are lots of great articles on what these numbers mean, but this should help you a bit.


Learn From the Best

While absorbing tips and guidelines is well and good, one of the main ways to improve your book layouts is by reading. Look at your favorite, most beautiful books. Study them. See what they did right. Don’t be afraid to look outside of RPGs for inspiration. Video game advertisements, cookbooks, and even that 99 cent app you downloaded yesterday can all feature valuable lessons in design. Just always keep your eyes open. OVA took a page from the manga that inspired it, adopting the A5 form factor over the more traditional 6″×9″.

That’s it for now. Come back next time for when I look at the evolution of OVA’s art and its characters.