Saturday, April 7, 2012

How I Would Approach Oriental Adventures

I was as thrilled as anyone in 1985 when I got my copy of Oriental Adventures. And instantly a group of NPC adventurers from the West showed up in my Greyhawk campaign for a few sessions, then faded away. I put an OA adventuring party in my Castle of the Mad Archmage, just to spice things up, as well. But on the whole the published OA book was kinda... meh. And I think I know why.

First, it's filled with terms that nobody either recognizes nor understands. Quick! Which of these lives in the water: hai nu, hsing-sing, con-tinh, or bisan? No offense intended to anyone, but the names of the monsters are largely gibberish to dumb Americans like me, and I think that went a ways towards making them less approachable and ultimately less used. Yes, there are goblin spiders and gargantuas (Godzilla and King Kong), but they're a distinct minority.

Now, when you come to the character classes, it gets much better, but there are still things left to be desired. You know what a samurai, a ninja, a yakuza, and a ronin are. Wu jen? Yeah, I can internalize one more class name, and I think I've heard that somewhere else before. Shukenja? Is that the cleric analogue or something else? Sohei? Um... is that the cleric analogue or something else? Is a bushi a fighter? Are there even "just fighters" in an OA game?And a kensai is something like a cavalier, right? But isn't that what a samurai is supposed to be? And why are they all Japanese?

This guy was a Wu Jen, right?
There's points one and two: make it accessible to dumb Americans like me. And make it broader than just medieval Japan.

The good news is that this work is largely done, although not in game format. There are two distinct genres of film that could be mined here: chanbara and wuxia. They are, respectively, samurai movies and kung-fu movies, and they have very distinctive tropes that identify them as such. Any setting or set of rules that would attempt to portray an oriental-based fantasy game would need to have those genres firmly in mind, because they define "eastern" fantasy as Conanesque "Swords and Sorcery" and Tolkeinesque "High Fantasy" define Western fantasy.

And that's point three; it shouldn't just be Dungeons and Dragons with new classes and spells. It should be oriented (pun intentional) towards the specific cultural tropes that define chanbara and wuxia. Where swords and sorcery has its standard themes of a morally apathetic universe, barbarian outsider vs. corrupt civilization, and small-scale stakes, and high fantasy has its themes of universal good vs. evil, everyman-evolving-into-hero, and familiar-world-with-a-twist setting, we see chanbara as exploring the theme of duty vs. morality, the code of bushido, and "invented tradition" that goes beyond the historical model. Wuxia is quite distinct from this, featuring the xia code (roughly a Chinese equivalent of chivalry or bushido), personal loss leading to personal growth (usually through intense martial arts training), and a setting that is at its core corrupt, requiring the administration of law and justice to be handled by heroes because such things are beyond the vast corrupt and distant bureaucracy of government.

Actually a fair representation of Wuxia-style film. No joke.

The point being that there's a huge well of well-established mythology (in bonus visual format) there that's at least somewhat accessible to dumb Americans like me. It's obviously not going to be historical, but it's exciting and accessible. Like Excalibur or Conan.

I should point out that Bollywood also provides a similar framework for yet a third genre of Indian-based non-European fantasy; complicated love triangles (often including long-lost relatives), unrepentant villains who are villains for the sake of being villains, and a self-conscious mixture of action, comedy, and Broadway-style dance numbers. Well, maybe that last doesn't have too much application in gaming...