Being the “Forever DM” of my roleplaying group can be burdensome, perpetually stuck behind the summary screen. My players have always taken a perverse contrarian glee in deliberately ignoring the titbits I’ve laid down for them - the threads, hooks and bits of cheese leading down to roads of glory and adventure with dungeons and treasure and challenge. It’s all stuff that I have painstakingly assembled and artfully arranged for their edification, but it’s usually tossed out of the window within three minutes of the session starting and I’m left frantically scribbling illegible scrawls to catch-up as my merry band of murderhobos decide that it’d be the height of comedy to start throwing stray cats in the faces of market vendors or giving wedgies to the city watch fer teh lulz – and God forbid that you suggest that their violent anarchy might attract negative consequences, lest ye be stricken with the curse that you are “railroading” them and inhibiting their free expression. Yes, sometimes that madcap fast-paced quick-footed carefree rollercoaster improvisation can be exhilarating but equally exhausting when you run out of steam for instant invention – there are also times when you feel that you’re being taken for granted and your own fun is being ignored. Some players seem to think that the “Big Bad Evil Guy” of the campaign is not the lich who is planning to destroy all Creation with a plague of unlife, but it’s the DM himself whose plans are to be thwarted.
My experiences as Dungeon Master are the reason why I’ve always been fascinated by Record of Lodoss War. A story that was famously adapted from the transcripts of roleplaying sessions (or “replays”, which are actually a pretty popular subgenre and regularly printed in Japanese hobby magazines) by Ryo Mizuno and a party of authors who looked beyond the antagonistic contrariness that too many people confuse for “player agency” and were on-board with the ideal of collaborative storytelling, despite the dangers of cross purposes and the fickle favours of the dice gods they assembled an engrossing heroic fantasy adventure on which was built an entire franchise to match its high-epic scale, including multiple sequels, anime series, games both on computer and pen’n’paper, and even a stage play. It’s inspiring the see the grandeur and complexity that they built into their castle in the air. There have been various attempts in new eons to recapture the magic of the ancient ones, but no other anime adaptation of a tabletop RPG campaign has come close – Chaos Dragon gained some brief attention in 2015 but that was only because one of the roleplaying group used to source the story included Gen Urobuchi, who was still enjoying celebrity status from his post-Madoka “Urobutcher” notoriety, and just a few years later Chaos Dragon is already pretty much forgotten.
The lack of a suitable follow-up from others meant that it was something of an occasion when Ryo Mizuno returned to creating a fantasy world with Record of Grancrest War – both a new tabletop roleplaying system that he created and a series of light novels written to accompany the game and add colour to its setting, published over 2013-2018. The light novels have not been translated but Record of Grancrest War is available for us now through its more digestible manga version by Makoto Yotsuba. It must be said before we begin though that Record of Grancrest War is not quite the same as its illustrious forbear – the direction of Record of Grancrest War’s story was not led by the notes from roleplaying sessions (replays in the Grancrest world were published but they were unconnected to the light novels) but written conventionally by Ryo Mizuno himself. That in itself is a point of interest and speculation – does having sole credit give Ryo Mizuno a striking personal vision not diluted or distracted by others talking over him or a bad dice roll spoiling his planned reveals, or will it expose that Ryo was merely a recorder who relied upon others for the true imagination and inspiration?
The world of Record of Grancrest War is one where the time of legend is a fading memory. Once the world was threatened by the madness and evil of Chaos, but mortals resisted Chaos’s frenzied tide with Crests, crystallisations of Chaos that gave their bearers their own formidable magical powers. Crests run in the blood – the only way to acquire a Crest is to inherit magical potential from your parents or have power transfused in a knighthood contract – so they gave rise to a nobility that heroically struggled for generations of fathers and sons to turn back the night. It made the stuff of sagas to be passed down from lord to heir, but Chaos was finally defeated decades ago – the stories are finished and the final footnote is happening today with a marriage between the leaders of the great empires of the Factory Alliance and the Fantasia Union – their union will fuse together a “Grancrest” which will seal away any chance of Chaos reemerging for good and ensure peace for all time.
One of the wedding guests is Siluca Meletes, a top student about to graduate from the Mage Academy and soon make her own contract with a lord. Despite the splendid occasion though Siluca is altogether miserable – she hates the nobility, feeling that while they may have been heroes in the past, modern peace has only made them lazy and dissolute with no use for their Crest magic except to preserve their own dominion and not protect the people. Suddenly though there’s a very good need for the lords’ Crests after all, as the wedding is attacked by demons who were thought extinct.
This single strike wreaks merry hell, decapitating the leading families of the Factory Alliance and Fantasia Union - and it creates its own sort of chaos, as rather than rallying together against the new threat the various lords fill the vacuum with their own squabbling and power-plays that threaten civil war. Into this restless world Siluca still needs to serve, and as she’s not looking forward to contracting with the dirty old lech of a lord that she’s pledged to she instead finds another opportunity and swears herself to a young, idealistic knight Theo who she meets fighting bandits on the road. He only has a minor crest of his own and he’s way down in the ranks but he’s honest and a better vision of what a lord should be. They attack Siluca’s lord’s castle and force him to surrender his crest to Theo, very suddenly turning the boy from a knight to a Crest-bearing lord himself. In a world of increasing struggle, can he win more victories to acquire more Crests and follow Siluca’s guidance to build a better world?
This set-up of Record of Grancrest War – one small little fiefdom ruled by a new, young but enthusiastic and well-meaning lord that finds itself the target of much bigger players in a continental struggle – immediately reminded me of 2016’s Lord Marksman and Vanadis. It might even give you a disturbing thought that Ryo Mizuno has cast a Mimic spell on his story, as the original Lord Marksman and Vanadis light novel series began publication in 2011 and measurably predates Record of Grancrest War. Even before it casts suspicion on Mizuno it’s not even the most flattering comparison to make in the first place as I remember Lord Marksman and Vanadis being pretty underwhelming! Record of Grancrest War doesn’t even have the attempts at strategic field mass-battle that Lord Marksman and Vanadis used as its distinguishing gimmick, and the fights we see in this opening volume of Record of Grancrest War are all entirely standard RPG party-sized light skirmishing. While the combat is forgettable though, the land-management aspect of Theo ruling his new domain does have a more sophistication and nuance to it than I expected (although if I was going to quibble, when Silica brings out a pyramid of noble hierarchy she should know that knights aren’t actually nobility… Debrett’s separates the peerage and the baronetage) – Theo wants to be a kindly and tolerant ruler but Siluca correctly admonishes him that he can’t just abolish all the cruel tyrant’s taxes because some actually were necessary to have a functioning government! When we meet the kingdom of the cats to lend their aid to the fledgling fief we don’t just have your typical cheesecake anime catgirl but an actual honest-to-goodness cat!
This unexpected design is an invitation to talk about the artwork, which is where Record of Grancrest War does successfully distinguish itself. The girls are all quite warmly and pliantly bishoujo in their style, character costumes and background settings alike are detailed, and the magical effects are dramatic, in particular summons a devil-dog that is a tight, taut, hard-inked knot of gristle and sinew that truly comes across as vilely demonic.
Talking about art leads us to talking about fanservice – and even though the cover of this volume shows off Siluca wearing a tight boob tube Record of Grancrest War really doesn’t deserve the “Explicit Content” warning label that’s printed there. This is a habit of Viz and it’s something that’s bothered me in a number of reviews for other Viz manga that I’ve written such as Golden Kamuy and Ikigami: The Ultimate Limit. The content warnings for those manga at least had a certain logic to them – even if they were exaggerations of the mangas’ sexual content, the stickers suited Viz’s mature Vertigo-style “Signature” imprint to make it appear more edgy and adult. Record of Grancrest War however is a general Viz title and yet still has a warning tag, so that tendency is creeping into where it doesn’t belong. Even in our more censorious modern age, where what was once happily “cheeky” is now decried as “exploitation”, a content alert seems extreme for what we see in this volume. There’s no swearing, only one bloody scene with fairly cartoony blood-spray and little actual gore, and no nudity. Towards the end of the book one of Siluca’s old friends shows up: she wears a bikini-armour outfit and is the touchy-feely sort who has no boundaries about fondling other girls in a ‘skinship’ scene, but when she reaches around for a friendly comedy grope she does it under Siluca‘s clothes so it’s still fairly tame by manga standards. Fire Force, a shonen manga which is considered so family-friendly it even features endorsements from “Good Comics for Kids” on its back covers, has multiple showers scenes and far more nudity than you see in Record of Grancrest War! At least, it’s a very long way away from the rapine & pillage of Goblin Slayer, Ubel Blatt or Wolfsmund and it definitely doesn’t deserve an “Explicit Content” tag.
I think Viz are getting a bit over-reliant on pushing these tags to sex-up manga they are worried might otherwise underperform and Record of Grancrest War shows why. Despite its illustrious pedigree the first volume of the Record of Grancrest War manga gives little indication that this is recording anything other than an unremarkable common-or-garden videogame fantasy adventure: it’s competent and keeps pace in time with the metronome so if you are hankering for some undemanding fantasy pulp it’s an inoffensive option with good art, but there are no more hidden treasure chests on this dungeon crawl. Maybe, at the end of the day, it shows the other side of the coin to all my griping about unruly tabletop players with which I began this review – by writing this story himself Ryo Mizuno did have a compliant set of players in one way, but everyone hates a “DMPC” and maybe he did need some other players’ lateral thinking to swing a few wildcard curveballs that would have let him knock it into the stands.