The rise and fall of D&D in Japan

Photo of Masaki Yanagida

Masaki Yanagida

Contributor to TokyoDev
A skeletal DM holds a glistening pair of d20s for an eclectic party
Image: 吉井徹

In 1985, Dungeons & Dragons (hereafter referred to as D&D) exploded onto the scene in Japan, achieving massive popularity. The Japanese version of the Basic Rule Set (known as the “red box”) sold an impressive 100,000 copies in its first year. The following year, the gaming magazine “Comptiq” published a series of articles titled D&D Magazine Live: Record of Lodoss War Replay, which presented a full D&D session in a narrative form. Inspired by these articles, the novelized series “Record of Lodoss War” went on to sell over 10 million copies.

Despite this auspicious beginning, D&D’s fortunes in Japan quickly declined. Today, it occupies a small niche within the Japanese tabletop role-playing game (commonly styled “TRPG” in Japan, “TTRPG” in the west) community. For example, the English version of “Player’s Handbook 5th Edition” released in 2014 has sold over 1.5 million copies, but the Japanese one has sold fewer than 10,000 copies.

This article chronicles the rise and fall of D&D in Japan and explores the lasting impact this iconic game has had on Japanese popular culture.

D&D arrives in Japan

In the first half of the 1980s, while D&D was virtually unknown in Japan, derivatives of it such as computer role-playing games and gamebooks started to make inroads into Japanese popular culture.

On the computer gaming front, PC games such as Wizardry and Ultima were imported in the early 1980s. Then, in 1984, domestically produced PC role-playing games such as Hydlide, Dragon Slayer, and The Black Onyx were released, along with arcade games like The Tower of Druaga.

1984 also saw the release of the first gamebook in Japan, a translation of the Fighting Fantasy book “The Warlock of Firetop Mountain”. The book was a great success, likely selling over 1,000,000 copies by 1987. This success sparked a gamebook boom.

The combination of the success of computer RPGs and gamebooks meant that around 1985, D&D-style adventures and fantasy worlds had become popular in Japan and that there was a greater desire for more sword and sorcery adventures. Additionally, through introductory articles and similar materials, players became aware that these games were backed by a great system called D&D.

This is when the Basic Rule Set arrived in Japan.

The arrival of the Basic Rule Set

In June 1985, Shinwa Co., Ltd. released a Japanese translation of “Dungeons & Dragons Set 1: Basic Rules”, edited by Frank Mentzer. The Basic Rule Set, being a boxed product, was distributed all over Japan in toy stores and hobby shops, which at the time also sold things like models and airsoft guns.

While D&D wasn’t the first TTRPG released in Japan (Traveller had been translated for the Japanese market the previous year), it was a commercial success. According to Hitoshi Yasuda, 100,000 copies of the Basic Rule Set were sold in the first year after its release, and according to Kosaku Kawamoto, 200,000 copies had been sold by 1991.

D&D’s boom era

In September 1986, “Comptiq’’ began serializing actual play sessions in D&D Magazine Live: Record of Lodoss War Replay; this format was called “TRPG Replay” and it played an essential role in the Japanese TTRPG scene for almost 30 years.

The best way to show people how to play and enjoy TTRPGs is to show them actual interesting gaming sessions. A recent example of this is how live streams such as “Critical Role” and “Dimension 20” have brought droves of new gamers to D&D. TTRPG replays were a great way of doing this in an era when video streaming was not feasible.

D&D Magazine Live: Record of Lodoss War Replay reached tens of thousands of readers every month and D&D’s popularity was exploding in Japan. By 1989, Sinwa Co. had released three boxed sets and more than 25 modules and accessories.

D&D rules and adventures were provided by Sinwa Co. through toy stores, while translated novels in the D&D world and introductions to the game were provided by Fujimi Shobo and Kadokawa Shoten through bookstores, creating an environment that fostered interest in both the world of D&D and also playing games in that world.

Other imported TTRPGs were also being translated into Japanese, and Japanese authors were also producing TTRPGs, but it was due to serialized actual play articles and the supply of related products in bookstores that this era was probably the height of D&D’s popularity in Japan.

Group SNE’s departure from D&D

Kadokawa Shoten planned to publish D&D Magazine Live: Record of Lodoss War Replay in “Comptiq” and sell it as a paperback. However, there was an issue. TSR, the publisher of D&D, allowed the publication of serialized actual play sessions, but prohibited those sessions from being compiled and sold as a paperback under the D&D brand without their approval.

In an interview, Hitoshi Yasuda, the representative of Group SNE, said, “We made Record of Lodoss War because we wanted to promote D&D, but TSR did not allow us to make Record of Lodoss War a part of D&D [to promote and develop it].” According to “‘Record of Lodoss War’ and Its Era”, the situation was further complicated because D&D in Japan was handled by two companies: the game itself was sold by Shinwa Co., Ltd., whereas peripheral materials such as replays and novels were handled by Kadokawa Shoten.

Group SNE wasn’t the only one in the Japanese market who faced issues with TSR. “A Book that Makes D&D Easy to Understand”, which aimed to teach the Japanese audience about D&D races, classes, weapons, armor, and equipment, as well as describing actual play in the form of TTRPG replays. While this book was eventually released in 1987, translations of it had to be sent to TSR for review, and it took two years of working with TSR for them to be satisfied with it.

Eventually “Record of Lodoss War” was published as a novel based on the sessions, without any use of the D&D brand, and was a massive success. When Group SNE made a sequel to D&D Magazine Live: Record of Lodoss War Replay, they switched from using the D&D system to using their own original Record of Lodoss War RPG system.

The original series did make it to paperback eventually; however, it was in the form of a novel under the name “Record of Lodoss War.” This and later sequels went on to become a huge hit, eventually reaching over 10 million copies in circulation. It would also be viewed as a pioneering work in the Japanese light novel genre, intended for readers in their late teens to 20s and characterized by the use of anime-like illustrations and an easy-to-read conversational style.

The Rise of Paperback and Domestic TRPGs

In 1987, Tunnels & Trolls by Flying Buffalo was translated by Group SNE and published by Shakai Shisousha, which sold 200,000 copies. Then in 1989, Sword World RPG, an original TTRPG designed by Group SNE, was published by Fujimi Shobo, and sold 500,000 copies, well surpassing the sales of D&D itself in Japan. The success of these TTRPGs can be attributed to them being distributed as more accessible paperback books that were sold in bookstores all around the country, as opposed to the D&D boxed sets that were only sold in niche hobby shops that were much rarer.

Publishers’ experiences with gamebooks gave them confidence to do large print runs of paperback rulebooks while keeping the unit price down, which led to a dramatic cost difference when compared to D&D. D&D’s Basic Rule Set was 4800 yen, but Tunnels & Trolls was 680 yen and Sword World RPG was only 640 yen.

Sword World RPG, which created an extensive domestic product line and was supported by local magazines, began to dominate the domestic scene as the flagship of Japanese TTRPGs.

Failed Transition to AD&D 2nd Edition

After completing the translation of the main D&D products, Shinwa Co., Ltd. translated and published the three core rulebooks and some peripherals for “Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 2nd Edition” in 1991. Due to the small print run, the large amount of text to be translated, and a hardcover format, the prices were even higher than the previous edition: 6,800 yen for the Player’s Handbook, 5,800 yen for the Dungeon Master’s Guide, and 6,800 yen for the Monster Compendium.

As a result, the conversion of existing D&D users was minimal, and only a handful of enthusiasts made purchases. Thus, the transition to AD&D 2nd Edition failed, and Shinwa Co., Ltd.’s development of D&D in Japan came to an end.

Resurgence at MediaWorks

In 1994, MediaWorks brought Group SNE back to D&D with a translation of “Dungeons & Dragons Rules Cyclopedia.” For the first and only time in D&D’s history in Japan, this translation involved extensive edits. Instead of being a large hardcover book, it was divided into paperbacks, the layout was changed, and the illustrations were replaced with original manga-like ones. The translation first published the rules for levels 1-9 in three books: “Players,” “Dungeon Masters,” and “Monsters,” along with translations of several campaigns.

Potentially this could have been a chance for D&D to reclaim the throne of TTRPGs in Japan, however Wizards of the Coast’s (WotC) acquisition of TSR in 1997 prevented the publication of future volumes of the Rules Cyclopedia, and interest in the product died off.

D&D 3rd Edition, Hobby Japan Era

In 2000, “Dungeons & Dragons 3rd Edition” was released by WotC and became a huge hit, and in 2002, Hobby Japan translated and published it.

Over the next 20 years, Hobby Japan translated and published hundreds of D&D products for the various editions, including 3rd Edition (over 100 products), 3.5 Edition (63 products), 4th Edition (42 products), and 5th Edition (16 products). Unlike the Rules Cyclopedia, these products were translated and published in the same format as the original products.

None of these products ever saw large-scale success. The person in charge of Hobby Japan said that the “Player’s Handbook” sold under 8000 copies for the 3rd Edition, over 6000 copies for the 3.5 Edition, just under 5000 copies for the 4th Edition, and just under 9000 copies for the 5th Edition.

Compared to the paperback TTRPGs published in Japan over the same period, these numbers are small. However, Hobby Japan continued to translate and sell these D&D products due to high-priced products (5000-6000 yen) that reliably sold about 3000 copies each time to a solid fanbase.

In June 2022, Hobby Japan’s involvement with D&D came to an end, after WotC decided to take direct control of localized versions of D&D.

WotC Era

On July 1, 2022, WotC’s official Japanese D&D website opened, and WotC announced the release of the D&D Starter Set, the Dungeons & Dragons Essentials Kit, and the Core Rules for Beginners. They also launched an unprecedented large-scale advertising campaign, including an original Japanese promotional video, official videos created for the Japanese market explaining how to play D&D, and videos of Japanese influencers playing the Starter Set. Some of these videos received hundreds of thousands of views.

In April 2023, they launched the “D&D Learn-to-Play Program” for beginners at stores affiliated with the Wizards Play Network (WPN). This program sent a game kit and novelty items to interested stores and ran demonstration games in the store for 15-30 minutes. This event was to take place in 43 locations across Japan. Since the launch though, the number of WPN-affiliated stores in Japan hosting D&D events have dwindled and can be counted on one hand.

2023 also saw the release of the Japanese release of the movie “Dungeons & Dragons: Honor Among Thieves” and PC game Baldur’s Gate 3. Though both experienced a great deal of success in the Japanese market, no marketing tied them back to the core game itself, which seems like a wasted opportunity.

WotC seems to be trying to actively engage with the community in Japan by creating tags for fan content and player recruitment on social media and featuring them on their official account. From these tags, you can find actual play session streams by vtubers and streamers, character illustrations, original adventures, anime-style gameplay videos, and more. Some users even sell Japanese adventure scenarios and supplements on the DM’s Guild.

I hope that through working with the community, D&D in Japan will reach a new level.

D&D’s legacy on Japan pop culture

In Japan, while knowledge of D&D has once again been relegated to a small group of enthusiasts, the impact of the game on Japan’s pop culture has been enormous.

Many of Japan’s best known fantasy properties can directly trace their lineage to the game. Final Fantasy’s original bestiary was almost entirely lifted from D&D. Popular light novels like Overlord, Goblin Slayer, and The Faraway Paladin are inspired by ideas from D&D. This connection is so strong, that even though the author of the manga Delicious in Dungeon wasn’t aware of D&D when she started penning the series, it feels as though it could be directly inspired by someone’s home campaign.

This influence means that even if the average Japanese person isn’t familiar with the name “D&D,” they will be familiar with many of the tropes pioneered by the game.

More about the author

Photo of Masaki Yanagida

Masaki Yanagida

Contributor to TokyoDev

Meet Masaki Yanagida, a Dungeon Master who, by a strange twist of fate, shares his birth year with D&D. Since 2003, he’s been knee-deep in the world of Dungeons & Dragons, translating its intricate lore. But that’s not all! He’s also been penning articles about other TTRPGs, painting miniatures, and having a blast playing sessions.

Back in sixth grade, he crafted his first character—Saki, a black-haired elf with a scar on her forehead. But alas, after the third session, he was promoted to a full-time Dungeon Master. Poor Saki has been stuck at level 1 ever since!

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