In the April episode of The Shrieker I mentioned Golden Sky Stories, which I'm going to elaborate on here. Originally published in Japan in 2006 as Yuuyake Koyake by Ryo Kamiya, the game was translated and brought to the US in 2013 by Ewen Cluney. That year, to promote the game and to celebrate Tabletop Day, the US publisher, Star Line Publishing released a 23 page simplified free demo, which will be the focus of this review. The demo version is a complete, playable game, with a couple mechanics streamlined and a few character build options withheld.
Golden Sky Stories is radically different from any other game I've played but that's not because of it's country of origin. I am in no way an expert in Japanese games but some quick research indicates that their most popular RPGs tend to play like a mixture of D&D and JRPG video games. Golden Sky Stories does not bear much resemblance to either of those. Golden Sky Stories is powered by an unusual set of mechanics and emulates a genre of story that I've never seen an RPG tackle before.
Most RPGs thrive on high octane adventure, tales of powerful heroes facing perilous danger to thwart great evil. Not Golden Sky Stories. This game takes place in a rural Japanese village where minor animal spirits (controlled by the players) help the citizens sort through their everyday problems. Strictly slice of life stuff. The characters might help an elderly lady reconnect with her grandchildren, visiting from the big city. They might advise a local forest god who has fallen in love with a rice farmer. No dragons to slay, no treasure to collect. It's from this cute genre that Golden Sky Stories derives it's tagline, "Heart-warming Role-playing". This kind of game won't appeal to every gamer, obviously, but it could be refreshing after an intense adventure in another game or it could be the perfect game for someone who is turned off by an RPG's usual violence. My players found Golden Sky Stories to be a nice change of pace.
Combat isn't the only RPG staple that is missing from Golden Sky Stories. It's also missing the dice. Instead of dice this game bases all it's mechanics on a slightly complicated token economy. Players earn one currency (Dreams) by making their characters do cute/clever/in-character things. Dreams can be spent to increase a character's Friendship score which determines how much of two other currencies (Wonder and Feelings) the character earns at the start of each scene. Feels are spent to succeed at ability checks and Wonder is spent to activate supernatural powers. Friendship is the biggest change between the free demo and the complete game. In the full game, instead of a Friendship score you track the details of your character's relationship to every other character in the game, including the kind of relationship, the strength of your connection to other characters, and the strength of their connection to you. For it's simplicity and the easier bookkeeping, I kinda prefer just using a Friendship score. Another difference is that the full game has a system for storing relationships between games, which builds up the character over time, where as the demo version just has you reset your Friendship to 4.
Normally, at this point in the review, I like to write up a short play example that demonstrates the mechanics I just summarized. I don't think I can really do that for this game. The ebb and flow of the Dream/Friendship/Wonder/Feeling economy really takes place over a whole game and I can't really do it justice here. If you need help understanding how everything connects, as I did, try downloading the demo and diagramming how things affect other things in a flowchart as you read through it. That's what worked for me.
The demo also has more limited character options. There are four types of animal spirits available (Fox, Cat, Dog, and Bird) which is two shy of the full game (lacking Rabbit and Raccoon Dog). This isn't really a big deal, there's still enough diversity to go around the table, though Raccoon Dog seems to be a popular choice when the full game is played. Characters also get a few less powers to play with in the demo version (3 as opposed to a maximum of 5 in the full game) but that could be a feature, speeding up character gen a bit.
I adore Golden Sky Stories for the unique genre niche it fills. The demo is wonderful game available for free, which should make it easy for any gamer to give it a try, broadening their gaming experience with very little investment. The included pages on setting, GMing advice, and prepared scenario could even make the demo an ok choice for potential players who have never played an RPG before, though their experience with this game might not translate to more typical games readily. All in all I give it a solid 4 warm hearts out of 5.
If your group tries it and likes it, you can grab the full game for more character options and improved long term play. And if your REALLY like it, there have been expansions released for playing as fairy-folk in the English countryside (Faerie Skies) and a D&Dish setting (Fantasy Friends). If you want greater insight before trying the demo, Six Feats Under recorded an actual play of the full game with translator Ewen Cluney using some content from the Colors of the Sky expansion. There's also a pretty cool song that a fan made about the game.