First, a public apology. A few years ago, Andy Kitkowski, publisher of Tenra Bansho Zero and co-publisher of MAID RPG, sent us a review copy of MAID and was very flattering in a note he attached to it. We’ve felt for a while that we let him down by not getting a review up. Not to put Allan on the spot, but Allan looked MAID over and couldn’t figure out how to approach it. [My players were just plain confused by it, honestly, and wouldn’t try it. – A] I have a feeling that a lot of you reading this are right there with him. We asked all our other reviewers if they wanted to take it on, and they all recoiled.
Now, I know the deal with MAID, because I happen to know this particular deal with anime culture and Japanese pop culture in general. Said deal is that a lot of stuff from Japan looks to us like it’s being presented sincerely, and is thus creepy and crazy, when it’s understood in Japan as being satirical. The original MAID game falls into that category, as does most of the maid-themed anime that inspired it. You can certainly still argue that attempted satire of sexist tropes just spreads sexism, particularly when the culture as a whole – ours in this case – doesn’t get the joke. I myself feel more or less this way, in fact, but the comparatively low-titillation presentation style of MAID does a lot to redeem it for me.
The failure of cultural translation was utterly predictable with MAID – enough so that its publication, the first of an original Japanese RPG into English to make it to print, was neither a great business move nor a good strategy for opening American minds to Japanese RPGs. That said, if you’re one of the many American nerds who understand anime tropes deeply, a game with MAID‘s themes can be hilarious, and MAID delivers. The execution is dead on. The players play the many stereotypical French-style maids of an aloof male master – you could run it as My Life With Master, only funny (comedy and horror are close cousins). The game runs beautifully and is a pretty amazing source of random tables (tragedy tables! Mental complexes! The mind-shreddingly massive Costume Table 2!).
But there’s no saving MAID in the Western market. You could possibly reskin the system and sell the conversion, but that’s not the same. And you could run and sell it at anime cons, but not outside anime culture. (I am not suggesting that any of this is news to Andy.)
A while ago, an RPG we’ve honored in the past did a sort of splashy relaunch; I mean, it debuted in an Asian-culture-themed round of Allen Varney’s indefatigable Bundle of Holding, right around Christmas, which is not bad. It’s called Tokyo Brain Pop, and it’s about Japanese schoolgirls amongst whom one or more has horrifying psychic powers. Its mechanics focus on social dynamics amongst teens and fighting evil demons in equal measure. It’s pretty great.
And if it sounds familiar, it should: it’s Panty Explosion, which OgreCave has honored in our Christmas gift guides in the past. It was renamed in response to long-building public resistance to the name, including its publisher getting blocked at one point from tabling at GeekGirlCon. Now, to my ear, the title Panty Explosion was always pretty transparently an ironic shot across the bow of anime tropes as they play in the US. But there was no saving it in the Western market either. Too many people, for reasons either respectable or reflexive, are just gonna do this.
Let’s talk about “branding,” and what it really means.