Thursday, February 21, 2013

Game Idea: Cat Dreams, a RPG inspired by Studio Ghibli

As part of this year's Creative Pay It Forward, I promised my friend Jovan an rpg.
This is her request.

"They say if a cat asks you to follow him, you should never hestitate.

They never ask twice."

- Mikko

Neko Yume
Every now and then, for reasons they alone would know, a cat would walk up to a person, stare at him or her until the person noticed, then walk off, stopping after a few feet to check if the person was following.  If the person was curious enough to follow, it is said the cat would lead you down through alleyways, corridors and unfamiliar paths until finally you are brought to a place where you are needed.

Cats, they say, know the secret passages that exist between rooms.  Between cities.  Between worlds.   They are feisty and always watching for reasons we will never truly completely understand.  They can be completely care-free with not a single concern for your own activity, then suddenly demanding of your affections within the same hour.  Many people have offered tips and guides on how to care for cats.

But none of them have ever told you, that if a Cat offers to lead you somewhere.  You should follow.  Because if you don't you would have lost the chance of a lifetime.

Cat Dreams  is a Studio Ghibli-inspired RPG.
This game is created without permission nor attempts to claim ownership of Studio Ghibli's works.  This game is merely a fan-creation that I feel captures the wonder and joy Ghibli movies share and translates it into a playable game that others can enjoy.

In this game, the player portrays a girl or guy who has been chosen by a Cat.  The Cat leads the guy or girl somewhere where he or she is needed.  And the player's choices can determine what events shall transpire, how they will unfold, and how the journey will end.

For this game, no Game Master or Narrator is necessary.  Instead, the player only needs a character sheet (you can just copy the suggested sheet below), a pencil, a six-sided die and a single deck of cards.  The deck of cards will be used to generate the events that unfold as the player takes the journey.  And in the end, will challenge the player to resolve the journey for a happy ending.  What if the player fails?  That will be revealed below.
Unlike most games, in Cat Dreams, you do not have to fill up a detailed character sheet.  Instead, you simply have to come up with a character who has a particular dream.  The character can be of any age, gender, or social class, but definitely must have a particular want which seems impossible or unlikely to ever be achieved.

The best way to think of one is to complete the sentence,  "I want...."  This can be something as fantastical as "I want to be able to fly," or something as dramatic as "I want my dying mother to get better."  What this want is can help shape what kind of game you will be having.  More serious or somber wants will end up creating a game which explores a heavier emotional dream.  Interesting and exciting wants will be the roots of a fun adventurous dream.

Once you are done with that, you are actually ready to play!  But let me explain how the system works so you grasp the nuts and bolts of this game first.  In this game, the dice and the cards are BOTH used to resolve challenges.  Most challenges are resolved using the cards alone.  The dice comes in whenever the character has to "try again."  You see, in Ghibli movies, the lead character rarely really fails unless it is a major dramatically appropriate moment.  This system tries to match that feel.

Hope is the Trait that is important whenever the character tries to do something positive which is not being contested or opposed by someone.  Trying to find a dropped earring, following the trail of a lazy firefly, or climbing a wall are examples of actions that are tested by Hope.

Strength is the Trait that is important whenever the action of the character is being opposed by other characters.  Running from one rooftop to the others is just a Hope action.  But if you're doing this while being chased by soldiers, then it becomes a Strength action.    Trying to talk and convince the living stone wall to let you pass is also a Strength action.  Don't look at this as physical actions.  Look at this more as when the character's strength of conviction and determination are key to succeeding in the task.

Fear is the Trait that tries to make things more difficult for you.  In many ways, Fear stops you because you allow it to.   While there are instances when Failure cannot be avoided, during all Strength tasks, the target you have to beat is based on what you have currently in Fear.   Don't worry, this will get clearer soon.  But know that what you have here in Fear, is what makes your Strength action a challenge.

Note: Given how most Ghibli stories focus on a single protagonist, this game assumes you are playing solo.  If there is enough feed back, I can write up the rules for group play.

The game requires a deck of cards.  The cards should be a standard 52-card deck with the four suits (Hearts, Spades, Clubs and Diamonds) and  no Jokers.  Just remove the Jokers if your deck includes them.    Hope resonates with Hearts cards.   Strength resonates with Spades.  Fear resonates with Clubs.  A card is worth only one point if the drawn card does not resonate with the Action.  It is worth its face value if the drawn card matches.

Whenever you are doing an Action which requires a draw, you will pull out three cards  and lay them face-down in each appropriate area.  You can choose which cards go where, so long as you have not looked at the cards.   These cards now will represent the results of the action.

So assuming you draw the 8th of Hearts in a Hope action, you have 8 for your Hope for that action.
If you drew the 8th of Spades instead for Hope, however, you only have 1 for Hope.

Hope Actions have a difficulty to match to overcome.  Typically Hope actions automatically succeed, but in some instances, the story might require a higher value for Hope.  If this value is not reached, you can Try Again (See below)

Strength Actions must be equal or greater than Fear to succeed.  You can add the value of your Hope if the Strength card happens to be a red card.  If the value is not matched, you can Try Again (see below).

After cards are dealt, and an Action is resolved, all cards are discarded save for the Fear card.  The Fear card is removed from play.

If a face card is drawn instead (Knight, King or Queen), a new NPC enters the scene.  If the Face card is in the Hope, the character is an ally and will help you accomplish a task.   If the Face card is in Strength, it can be an Ally or an Enemy depending on whether or not the suit is red (Ally) or black (Enemy).  An Enemy in Strength means the Enemy helps you, for now (usually a henchman or a usually dangerous character choosing to help you instead).   Face cards do not have a value, but are considered to always succeed unless the story otherwise says so.

If the Face card is in Fear, however, then your story will have an Antagonist.  And every time a Face card with a Spade or Club appears, it will now represents that same enemy.  Antagonists always have a value of 8.

Try Again
If you did not have enough Hope, Strength, or Combined Hope and Strength to beat either the difficulty or Fear (when appropriate), you can Try Again.  When you Try Again, you discard your Hope and Strength card, and draw two new cards.  You then roll the six-sided die and can add it to the new result, but if you choose to do so, you must discard a third card from the deck.

Once the deck is depleted, the story will come to an end.

Running a Story
The Cat has brought you to a place you need to be at.   This is somewhere where you can achieve your "I want..."  At the start, however, that might not seem apparent.  To determine the setting of your story, roll the six-sided die three times, with each roll generating a keyword from the table below.

The First Visit into the Dream
Die result
First Keyword
Second Keyword
Meeting a Lost Princess
Cursed by a Witch
Underwater Ship
Encountering a Kind Spirit
Steampunk City
Challenged by a Stranger
With your younger sibling
Castle In the Sky
Finding a magical artifact

With the beginnings of your story now set, the adventure begins!
Draw a number of cards equal to how many scenes you want your Neko Yume Journey to last.  A standard Journey is ten scenes long.  You can however opt for shorter (I recommend no less than five) or longer scenes (No more than fifteen).  Each card represents a scene in the Journey as defined by the table below.  Use the keywords to piece together an interesting narrative.  Note that at this time, the cards you have drawn have determined key scenes, but are not yet arranged in any order.

Explore, Hope: 1
Play with locals, Hope: 2
Get Lost, Hope: 2
Glimpse of family back in real world.  Shuffle back 2 cards.
Meet Nice Townsfolk, Hope: 1
Argument with locals, Fear challenge.
Try interesting food, Hope: 1
Confront someone everyone else fears.  Fear challenge.
Dead end, Hope: 3
Ate something you shouldn’t have, Hope: 5
Get Lost, Hope: 3
Cursed! Discard next Hope card.
Make new friends.  Shuffle back up to 7 discarded cards.
Good Night’s Rest. Shuffle back up to 7 discarded cards.
Pretends to be from here, Hope: 2
Can’t Sleep.  Discard next Strength card.
Learns more about place, Hope: 1
Good breakfast! If next Fear is Face card, discard and draw again.
See’s glimpse of Antagonist, Hope: 2
Missing home.  Next Fear challenge has one six-sided die bonus.
Friend offers to guide you.  Card not discarded.  Will auto succeed next challenge.
Transformation!  Friend reveals he was an animal you met.  Recover all discarded Hearts.
Authority figure welcomes you.  Reshuffle all cards back to deck.
Transformation!  You have become someone of Authority in the setting!  Recover all discarded Spades.
Deus Ex Machina: Next Fear Challenge auto succeed.
Transformation! The setting has changed.  Roll six-sided dice twice to generate new location.


Twist:  Way home is closed.  Hope: 6
Threat of Discovery!  Fear Challenge.
Thank you.  Someone is grateful for what you’ve done.  Reshuffle back all Diamonds.
Disguise fails! Fear Challenge.
Mistaken Identity: Fear challenge or identity mistaken until last three cards of Journey.
Cursed! Fear Challenge or next Heart Face card is discarded.
I can do this!  Resolve grows.  Reshuffle 4 discarded cards back into deck.
Scary monster chases you!  Fear Challenge or discard five cards.
Twist!  Friend is actually Antagonist in Disguise.  Fear Challenge.
Riddle too tough.  Fear Challenge or discard ten cards.
Safe Journey, Hope: 1
Horribly Lost, Hope: 10 or discard five cards.
Antagonist not really evil.  Explains his side.  Reshuffle up to 7 discarded cards.
Antagonist Forgives you.   Reshuffle up to 7 discarded cards.
Running on unsafe path, Hope: 5
The long wait.  Hope: 4
Console crying companion, Hope: 2
Magical Curse/Spell can be Broken.  Fear Challenge.
Homesickness strikes.  Fear challenge.
Friend badly injured.  Next red Face card discarded.
Friend disappears.  Discard next Strength card and draw again.
Imprisoned by Antagonist.  Fear Challenge or remove 3 random Story Cards.
Authority figure thanks you.  Reshuffle all Hearts and Diamonds into deck.
Antagonist gloats.  Fear Challenge or discard ten cards.
Invitation to go home: Hope 8 or game ends early.
Sacrifice.  You die to prove you care.  Fear Challenge to be revived after or game over.

Build the Neko Yume Journey
Choose one of the drawn cards, set it down as the Start of the Journey (Which is card #1).    Build the story now connecting the  First Visit to the first card, and be sure to suggest connections to the "I want.."  As you shape the story of each card, when you reach a good point in the narrative, accomplish the listed challenge in the table.

Example:  As Mikko follows the cat, the cat leads her through a door and the next thing she knows, she is in a Moving Steampunk City and encounters a Kind Spirit.  "You!" the Spirit tells her, "I was looking for a new Carrier."  The Spirit was made of Steam and could only travel around safely if carried by a Carrier.  Mikko realized this was a chance to explore a whole new world.  An adventure!
Of the cards draw, the player picks 9 of Hearts as the first card.  The Spirit begins to weep, dropping steaming tears all over Mikko's shoulder.  "Oh I hate this.  I wish I could explore the world.  But I never had legs like you servants do."  Mikko tries to console the Spirit, suggesting that steam can float.  She remembers how hot air balloons work and suggests, "Why don't we build you a balloon to float in?"  Mikko now starts the Hope: 2 challenge, drawing three cards and hoping she has enough Hope to pass it.  If not, she can Try Again.

With each challenge, continue the narrative as appropriate.  Some cards require certain penalties or bonuses after a challenge is accomplished.  Keep in mind, at any point in time that you run out of cards in your deck, the story comes to an end.  (See Out of Cards, below)

Build the narrative as you choose each card.  One approach is to NOT read the meaning of the cards first and just choose what the next step of the Journey is, then read the meaning and make it work.  That makes the game a fun narrative challenge as well.

Whenever the cards call for a new character, feel free to invent an appropriate character for the setting.  If you feel stuck, here's a table you can roll in to randomly generate new characters.

Does not Talk
Speaks in Riddles
Animated Object
Eats a Lot
Recognizes Humans
Says only one word
Knows about Journey
Works for Antagonist
Can Fly
Combine two
Can change shape

Out of Cards
If at any time you run out of cards, sadly that means the Story comes to an abrupt end.
Your character suddenly sits up and finds herself in her own bed.  A cat stares at her from the window, then very calmly, and nonchalantly, walks away.

The dream is over.

So there you have it!
All this needs now is a good soundtrack. :-)


  1. Amazing! Concept is so simple, yet it provides (i imagine) very rich gameplay.

  2. Hi! I have some questions!

    Do I play this game as a single player, by myself?
    When I draw three cards, I place them without looking, right? So usually the suits won't match, and I'll get a 1? What happens with strength and fear tie, then? How do I set difficulties for heart?

    The game ends when I run out of cards. How else can it end? You hint at some possible grand resolution but don't indicate when it happens? It is just "whenever it happens" or "when you get to the last scene" or something else entirely?

    I -think- that is all I need to know to play this.

  3. Here are a few answers I came up with when I tried to play it:

    --"When I draw three cards, I place them without looking, right?"
    Draw three cards, but draw one card at a time. For example: the scene demands a Fear challenge. I draw the first card. It's a 9 of Clubs. I decide to place it in Strength and hope I get a good heart card (for Hope) or a low clubs card (for Fear) when I draw my next two cards.

    If you lose a challenge, try again. If you lose again, keep trying. It forces you to discard a lot of cards (which is a bad thing in this game). Just come up with a way to explain how the character fails each time but finally succeeds (the good old "no, but..."/"yes, but...")

    --"The game ends when I run out of cards. How else can it end? You hint at some possible grand resolution but don't indicate when it happens?"
    When you reach the last scene, you have to find a way to wrap things up. Try to keep a Scene card with a positive outcome for the end. If the story is not fully complete, add scenes as necessary or provide an epilogue.

  4. Glass covers the questions pretty well.

    As to single player: I wrote it up for my friend who doesn't really game that often, so I thought it would be something she can play whenever she wanted to.

    But yeah, as Glass mentioned, you play the cards in relation to the challenge. And the game is meant to be narrative-focused in the sense that you interpret the results in a way that works.

    As to the resolution, I guess I should have written it more clear indeed. But for running out of cards, I really felt it was an abrupt, "You wake up. The dream literally ended. You'll never know what could have happened next."

  5. The running out of cards works, and is cool, I'm just not sure about the other ways to end. Getting through all 10 scenes makes sense.

    Can you give up on a challenge and not keep trying? I feel like that should be an option.

    What I'm still not clear about is card play. The rules say "play them without looking at them" but Glass seems to think that we draw, look at it, then place it. To me, that seems like Fear is always going to be quite weak ... but the other way (place three cards without looking at them) is going to be pretty random. Any insight?

    1. You raise a good point on "give up and not keep trying"
      I should consider that.

      I was thinking more draw three cards, then play them one by one to each area, so you only see them when you play them. But you get to choose which areas get a card first, second, then third. Does that make sense? Sorry if I'm not typing/explaining things that well. Sneaking this in between workloads hehee.

    2. That makes total sense, yes! That's still pretty random but maybe slightly less if you do some card counting ^_^

      Do you need to throw down three cards for each scene? Or if the scene has no Strength test can I just use a single card for Heart? (likewise if it has no Heart test can I just use the two cards for Strength and Fear?)

      Personally I'd say "no, three cards every time" because you might get a face card or something.

      Anyway, I'm just jawing at this point, I know what I need to play, I will try to do something tomorrow.

  6. Oh also Andy Hauge on Google Plus is doing a playthrough of the game: you have to be added to the circle for it but it's worth checking out:

  7. Very happy to know that Daniel Luce tried it out and still had fun:

    So yeah, pretty happy that you guys are trying it out and sharing it.

  8. I hope you don't mind, but I'm adapting this for a more generic style of RPG, with multi-player options and discarding the dice. Currently it's a one page set of rules and I'm hoping to test it out with some of my friends after the Easter Break. I might have some ideas for incorporating Tarot cards, but that's for the future.

    1. Go for it! Do mention he this inspired you if you want. I'd love to see it. Lemme know if I can playtest it.

    2. Certainly. I'll send you a copy when it's finished. I'm not doing this commercially, so I'll share a link: Pay it Forward.


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