Running with Magical Girls

This particular offline question was pretty simple; basically “What are the basic elements of running a “Magical Girls” game like Sailor Moon, Cardcaptor Sakura, Shugo Chara, Daybreak Illusion, or Tokyo Mew Mew?”

“Magical Girls” shows are fairly popular – but when it comes to role-playing games you probably don’t want to go for the “cute Bewitched for kids” or for the “explore being grown up without actually having to be grown up” styles; the first doesn’t work well with groups – or with sensible players who put some thought into what they’re doing – and most groups don’t need to “explore being grown up”. An awful lot of players ARE grown up.

That mostly leaves the Magical Girl Warriors genre. A team of young and inexperienced heroes with various special powers against the forces of darkness? That’s pretty standard RPG fare anyway.

The basic thing about Magical Girls is that the shows are made for young women, and appealing to other demographics is a bonus. Maintaining a certain level of innocence is required, or your “magical girls” story will drift into another genre. And while there’s nothing wrong with that, if you started a magical girls game in the first place then presumably you wanted to run a magical girls game.

So you can’t break that innocence. Nothing too horrible is going to happen where the characters can see or find out about it, even by implication. You won’t have little kids dying of slow, painful, cancers while hooked up to a bunch of machines, or have the magical girls dealing with civil wars and national famines, or have lots of innocent bystanders bleeding out from horrible injuries. Any permanent on-screen casualties (the characters may temporarily die for dramatic effect all they please) will tend to be clean, fairly quick, dramatic, and far between even if there is loads of property damage.

In a RPG, where the players think about consequences, unless you isolate all battles in other dimensions, or deep space, or some such like Shao-lin Showdown (implicitly lowering tension, eliminating hostage-taking and similar tactics, and breaking away from the notion of “defending the area”), this means that all the commonly-used offensive powers are going to be weak enough to avoid too many awkward questions about where the misses go and why the battles haven’t killed hundreds of people.

Yes, you can throw in attacks that do not harm the innocent to avoid the “friendly fire” and “misses” problem, but such attacks are incredibly convenient tactically and the players will almost certainly start finding an excuse to zap everyone they meet, since it’s now a quick and easy way to identify the villains – who presumably won’t be using such attacks anyway, since it would mean that they couldn’t harm the heroes. This doesn’t really work.

That means that all the defensive powers are going to have to be weak so that the weak offensive stuff still works. You can get away with “battles for laughs” for a while (it works for Bugs Bunny), but you’ll soon lose any sense that there’s an actual threat if no one can actually be harmed.

It’s kind of hard to keep the players from knowing about what actual military-level firepower can do though – or from comparing it to what their characters powers do if you admit it’s existence. So serious firepower has to be kept out of things. There may be cops with pistols, but you are not going to see military snipers, assault rifles, and anti-tank weapons, much less air strikes and tactical nuclear weapons. Otherwise you’re headed for Fleet Girls or Strike Witches territory. Similarly, secret ID’s are in order to avoid having overly-serious adults getting involved and taking over the series or game.

In the shows, occasional magical girls possess vast cosmic powers of renewal, destruction, time control, or similar. Of course, these are mostly informed (rather than demonstrated) powers or only get used during the climactic scenes of particularly epic plots. Do NOT give powers like this to role-playing gamers. They will want to use them, or to threaten to use them, at every possible opportunity – usually destroying the game in short order.

A magical girl setting is fairly normal (often only one city) and the girls spend a lot of time on normal problems – both of which serve to keep them easily relatable to their target audience. No matter how grave the characters responsibilities they will not actually focus on them. In the face of planetary threats that want to destroy civilization, the characters will fuss over boys, agonize over schoolwork, try to get good grades, go to slumber parties, and gossip – rather than train, study tactics, and get some serious military equipment and advice. Do you remember Buffy The Vampire Slayer versus the Judge? Or blowing up Sunnydale High School to stop the Mayor-Demon? That’s not going to happen in your basic Magical Girls setting.

Yet the opponents need to be a fair match for the characters (or even more powerful, so the characters can be plucky heroes), or the show will descend into a farce. But if a group of reasonably powerful opponents takes the conflict seriously – laying ambushes, bringing in enough firepower and other resources, learning counters for known tactics, making sure that enemies that go down will not be getting back up, focusing their attacks, and exploiting obvious openings, against a group that does NOT match those tactics… the group that does will roll over the group that does not like a steamroller over cardboard cutouts.

So magical girls opponents have to be incompetent. If the girls are not going to focus, the villains can’t either. In fact, the bad guys are likely to be so incompetent at being bad guys that some of them will fall in love with some of the girls – and never mind that this is roughly equivalent to watching James Bond betray England because he was unable to resist the seductive wiles of a barely-adolescent girl scout with a box of thin mints. Friendship and love triumphs uber alles!

Making this part work is dependent on the players going along with it. Talk it over first. If half the characters take their new guardian-of-the-world responsibilities seriously while the other half go for the slice-of-life stuff the game will wind up splitting right down the middle – and probably won’t survive.

But if everyone is incompetent, and any plans are going to be a bit silly… how do they all even FIND each other?

You bring in the wild coincidences and plot contrivances. There may be an excuse for this – a mentor who keeps providing last minute directions (while doing nothing effective in the way of training or providing discipline), some weird force that draws the heroes and villains together, precognitive dreams, or some such – but it will never be properly explained, since then it could be properly exploited – and a large chunk of the audience (and virtually all gamers) would be really annoyed with the stupidity if it was NOT.

As for the ordinary people in the setting… The girls in the target audience normally have reasonably well-meaning guardians, and usually have fairly decent friends, and relatives (girls who don’t usually don’t get to spend a lot of time watching magical girls shows or buying the stuff advertised on them). So most of the magical girls will have those things too so as to keep them easy to relate to. Yet no competent, well-meaning, guardian would allow children to go and risk their necks squaring off with a bunch of villains that are quite dangerous to kids even if any SWAT team could handle them.

Yet if things get left to the SWAT team you have either no show (or at least not a magical girls show) or no game.

That means that those guardians have to be quite oblivious. Any social workers, police, teachers, or similar individuals have to be oblivious as well. No matter how paper-thin the disguises, flimsy the excuses, or imbecilic the diversions… adults will, at the very most, think that the magical girls might be up to something mildly naughty. (“But I can’t come and help fight Dremloch the Devourer! I’ve been grounded!”).

But it’s awfully jarring to have those same guardians offering sensible advice about normal life problems – like the target audience’s parents often will – while being utterly blind about everything else that’s going on. A Magical Girl show needs a mentor figure who can be an adult, and who knows what is going on, but who cannot reveal things to other adults or exert any real authority over the main characters.

To fill this role we have the cute critter companion – a well-meaning, adult, and reasonably sensible mentor who can readily be excused (for lack of hands, powers, and resources) from regularly taking a direct role in things, who has a fairly decent excuse for not bringing in other adults (there are no others/would be taken to a lab/would not be taken seriously/can’t communicate with those who lack magical powers/etcetera), and who lacks any method beyond “I told you so!” and nagging to make the magical girls listen. (The Magical Girls will also often have cute pets/annoying younger siblings who mostly get into trouble, but those aren’t usually mentors).

Speaking of relationships… Magical Girls are often princesses or nobles from some tragically lost realm to appeal to small-child fantasies (or are at least especially chosen). There’s usually a mysterious boyfriend who appears and disappears about and who has just enough power to help out a bit occasionally (although things will never go far enough to risk spoiling that innocence). They look sexier than girls their ages should – and often have regularly repeated transformation scenes with implied nudity – since that helps bring in a male audience, usually justified as being due to their marvelous health and their use of some trinket to transform themselves (and to allow for “trapped in their normal identity” plotlines). There’s usually a coming-of-age subtext, but that can only go so far before you, once again, leave the genre behind for adult superheroes (or for Hentai, but those games tend to be either very specialized or very short lived, and usually both).

That sort of thing goes on and on, but it’s distinctly secondary to the soap opera and the personal interactions.

So whatever you do… if you really want to run a Magical Girls game don’t get cynical. If you get grimmer and edgier, don’t expect the players to do anything but throw in a few minutes of moan-and-agonize characterization before switching to D&D/Warhammer 40K mode, optimizing their tactics, and massacring every opponent in sight.

It’s worth noting that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is a twist on the genre – everyone in the setting is magical to some degree and pony society seems to treat fairly small kids as independent and responsible adults so there’s little need for secrecy – but a lot of the general conventions still apply.

2 Responses

  1. I really like the Magical Girl Genre. I just recently watched Ikusei Keikaku and I loved it :3

    On that note… You mentioned Hentai D&D games… Those are a thing? I mean, sure, Book of Erotic Fantasy is a thing, but… ThatÄs a thing? How would one even differentiate between a normal “R 18+” game and a specifically hentai one?

    I mean, you DID make an anime-template, but still…

    • Well, it’s usually more of a “GM with weird ideas and players who shortly give up”, but if the game normally involves sexually-contagious (even if usually temporary) superpowers, recharging your magic through tantric rituals, magical rays fired from sexual organs, “unbirthing”, huge heaps of fetishes, and so on… it’s probably Hentai, as opposed to “incredibly healthy, wealthy, and powerful people indulge themselves. Now the Federation-Apocalypse game has had a few such episodes – two revolving around Marty discovering that he had a tentacle-demon son and one involving a rescue mission going after an ill-conceived attempt to explore the hentai dimensions – but they were once-offs and played for humor (made possible by the support staff being Thralls).

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