Thursday, April 02, 2009

Orientalist Adventures

I'm betting on the dude in black.I will readily admit to being the kind of provincial yokel whose ideas about Asia are unduly influenced by martial arts movies, anime, and stuff like that, though perhaps realizing that fact gives me a leg up on some people. Either way, I’ve long operated on the assumption that the 1st edition Oriental Adventures gets at least as much stuff wrong as it gets right, culturally speaking. For example, OA tracks an Honor stat and places importance on family ties when baseline AD&D clearly does not. To somehow attribute honor and familial duty as specifically Asian virtues clearly misses the bus on vast swaths of Western culture. Pendragon and Hackmaster both demonstrate the neat things you can do with some sort of occidental honor system and darn near any campaign can be enhanced with a dash of family soap operatics.

Two big things continue to draw me to the idea of running an Oriental Adventures campaign. The first is the basic awesomeness of desperate ronin, sneaky ninjas, and kung-fu masters. That’s a pretty shallow reason to play OA but keep in mind that “OMG! Dragons!” is pretty much the line of thinking that got me into this crazy hobby. The second reason OA intrigues me to this day is its presentation as a D&D game where nearly all the Gygaxian building blocks have been replaced by analogs but otherwise the system remains intact. You can find a bazillion games that mess with both the building blocks and the system, but precious few that leave unmarred ancient landmarks like classes, Vancian magic and hit points.

(Just for a moment imagine that concept as a template for campaign creation by individual referees: keep all the crazy rules but completely homebrew all the classes, races, spells, monsters and magic items. That would rock in nine flavors of radical. You could probably cobble together one example of such a set-up just with a long afternoon and a stack full of old Dragons.)

Once I realized that OA is little more than plain vanilla AD&D with blue legos in the box instead of red ones, the question of how to do a campaign immediately answered itself. All I would need is a numbered hexmap, some dungeon levels, and a starting base all stocked with stuff from the OA book. Questions about “authenticity” that used to bug me don’t even enter the equation. When we take the meat and gristle of Western literature and turn it into the sausage of gaming very little is gained by stopping the show to discuss whether or not we’re being fair to the inspirational source material. Why should it be any different with Asian-influenced games? Does it really matter whether this 21st century American mangles the Odyssey or Outlaws of the Water Margin to power a game? Probably not. The level of cultural disconnect is pretty large either way.

PS: This post was inspired by Alex Schroeder's "The Kitsunemori Campaign", an mythic Japanese micro-sandbox in Fight On! #4 and Mike D.'s Ruins & Ronin project. Good stuff.

PPS: While working on this post I finally put my finger on something that's been bugging me about the Oriental Adventures hardbound since 1985. Why is their no frickin' character art in the classes and races section? You get a ninja and a samurai on the cover, but then you don't see another character until the yakuza in the equipment chapter. After that you get two or three spellcasters in the magic section. Flipping through the classes is just less fun without the "Holy crap! I need to play this dude!" full body character shots, even if I don't need to be shown what a Shaolin warrior monk looks like. And introducing a new set of races without illos is just plain dumb. To this day I don't really know what the heck a korobokuru is supposed to look like. They're basically described as dwarves but even hairier. I tend to envisage them as Cousin It wielding a naginata.


  1. I loved OA, but here's a thing that's always bugged me about it: what would an asian-style megadungeon look like?

    I can imagine a Palace of Ten-Thousand Knives-type place--like one big place run by some lunatic emperor, but somehow the traditional megadungeon idea (interconnected lost ancient maze-place full of different kinds of foes) doesn't seem to feel as right in the East.

    The traditional idea of a megadungeon rests on a vague idea from European history and folklore--namely, that each civilization is built on the ruins of older, near-forgotten ones.

    The basic impression of Chinese and Japanese history, on the other hand, seems to emphazise a continuous line from the ancient past to the present that seems surprisingly light on "forgotten" eras.

    Also, with the exception of a few colossal buddhas, they didn't do so much carving stuff out of stone and weren't nearly as big on basements. So dungeons seem kinda anathema.

    Am I just being finicky?

  2. clarify: it's not so much historical accuracy i' thinking about, as much as it is just having a certain "feel"

  3. Settembrini7:11 AM

    I hold WotC in high regard for basically giving all that´s needed for "OA 3.5" in the "Complete" series.
    Oh yes, and monsters without illustrations are pointless in several ways.

  4. Settembrini7:13 AM

    @ZakS: Megadungeons have NO precedent in anything but Gary´s and Arneson´s minds.
    If you need help visualizing a nipponified Dungeon, check out Tomb of Iuchiban for Legend of the Five Rings.

  5. Vast networks of limestone caverns containing lost temples and hidden races seem suitably Oriental to me.

  6. Settembrini: Piranesi, Escher, the Maze of Minos, and the Mines of Moorea seem like plausible western precursors to the megadungeon proper, on a certain level, though I see your point.

  7. what would an asian-style megadungeon look like?

    Hell. The Chinese version of Hell. If you look it up on Wikipedia, each of the levels even has a nice evocative name that you can use when planning out your levels.

    But really, there's no reason not to just make a standard D&D-style dungeon with Asian monsters in it. Dungeons carved out of rock by mad magicians and underground caverns hiding lost civilizations are the basic types of things that cross all sorts of boundaries. As long as you aren't worried about being any more "authentic" with Eastern myth than D&D is with Western myth, you can roll with it.

  8. My take on an OA megadungeon would be:

    Equal parts:
    Angkor Wat


    Terracotta Warriors

    Premise: 1000s of years ago, the 1st emperor created his summer house far to the North. Since that time, the empire has declined and the North is now overrun with barbarian hordes and few from the empire venture forth past the great wall. But tales remain of the great pleasure palace and the treasure it once contained....

  9. For real Oriental tombs, look up China's first emperor, Qin Shi Huang Di.

    His tomb had platoons of life-sized terracotta warriors to accompany him during his eternal rest.

    The emperor's burial complex is more than 2,200 years old. The tomb, which extends over 22 square miles (57 square kilometers), is said to have required a labor force of 700,000 to build.

    Now that is a mega-dungeon.

  10. IMHO an asian-themed fantasy campaign leads itself much more to hosting megadungeons than one based on the medieval west.

    Wether you go for the "lost civilization" scenario or the "continuing line" one there's no excuse for not having large underground complexes...take a look at Tekumel for instance; millenar cities built on top of the ruins of more ancient ones who themselves where built on the remnants of an older one which was...well you get the gist of it.

    Asian culture is obsessed with the undergrownd, the Japanese have not one but two hells one of which was said to be rached by just strolling down a cave in a certain province.

    There are several races said to have inhabited the arquipelago "before the humans came".

    Oh yeah, and don't forget earthquakes, the perfect excuse to get an opening to the local megadungeon right on your backyard.

    To this day I don't really know what the heck a korobokuru is supposed to look like. They're basically described as dwarves but even hairier. I tend to envisage them as Cousin It wielding a naginata.


    There a pic of them in the AD&D 2nd Ed Kara-Tur Monstrous Compendium but I think your "Cousin It" version is better. :)

  11. Anonymous11:10 AM

    "Just for a moment imagine that concept as a template for campaign creation by individual referees: keep all the crazy rules but completely homebrew all the classes, races, spells, monsters and magic items. That would rock in nine flavors of radical."

    I agree. Here's a start:

    Classes: Use Paul Crabaugh’s “Customized Classes” in Dragon #109.

    Races: Use James Raggi's Random Monster Generator.

    Monsters: Use James Raggi's Random Monster Generator, as well as Paul Crabaugh's in the first vol. of The Best of the Dragon.

    Magic Items: Use James Raggi's upcoming Random Magic Item Generator. (Come on, James! Let's shoot for a release date of tomorrow!)

    Spells: I've never seen a random spell generator. Jeff, how about you whipping one up this weekend? ;)

    In all seriousness, such a campaign would be awesome. No more "Yet another elven magic-user wasted yet another hill giant with yet another fireball spell and found yet another ring of invisibility amongst the treasure." Everything would be new, just like when we first started playing D&D.

  12. Awww... you're missing all the best and craziest parts of OA. Like that one PC race where you couldn't leave a 100 yard radius circle without dying.

  13. Thanks to OA, it was only about 6 years off from gaming for me until my recent group, instead of almost 10 years without gaming.

    You see, around 1999 my last group gradually broke up. Two decades of on and off D&D, Champions, and Call of Cthulhu seemed to finally be over. I really thought I was in retirment at that point.

    Then I ran into an old player of mine from the early 90's at a party in a hotel in Burbank around 2002. Her and her husband had been wanting to play in an Oriental Adventures game. In all honesty, I never liked the lady much, but seeing as I had another old player still in my life, I went ahead and ran a several game campaign with these three players that was pretty damn enjoyable.

    Then that group broke up. But OA sort of kept me in gaming at least for a little while in the 2000's, and I was a bit less rusty for my current group thanks to that.

  14. Koro-pok-guru

    They're, uh, basically hairy dwarves. I dunno where the naginita thing comes from.

  15. Check out OA1: Swords of the Daimyo by Dave "Zeb" Cook. It describes exactly what you mention. It has a numbered-hex wilderness at 3 miles per hex (I keep meaning to ask Dave if he drew it on a JG map sheet); a gazetteer of the mapped section of Kozakura broken down by hex number straight out of JG; additional details of the region; and three short adventures, complete with new monsters, pregenerated characters, and a ton of maps.

    It really was a top-notch product for its day, and it gave DMs an excellent example of how to set of a campaign using OA (or just plain vanilla AD&D, for that matter).

  16. jeff, melan:

    I sent Melan & the FO! crew a shout ot from my last session. it´s on my blog and it´s in english. Thanks!

  17. I was never much for playing an Oriental Adventures version of D&D, though Al-Qadim made an Arabian Adventures campaign sound very appealing. Mainly, though, it was the aesthetic trappings I was interested in. When it comes down to it there is not a huge amount of difference between east and west, but what differences there are exist in the details, and that requires everybody to be "plugged in" to the same source material.

    The continual search for the "inspiration" or "source material" for D&D should tell us that the game is as much about the fantasies of the imagination as it is about whats in the rule books. D&D in funny hats has little appeal for me, but if I ever were to start an Oriental Adventures campaign (and Mike Davison's Ruins & Ronins sorely tempts me, I would make sure that the participants had the same expectations and were plugged into the same fantasy.

  18. rcarbol: I think you're misinterpreting the Spirit Folk rules. Their life forces are tied to locales such that if you chop down the grove of a Bamboo Spirit Folk the dude dies. But you can leave if you want to.

    cappadocius: Thanks for the link.

    Settembrini: I totally agree with your analysis. I take my issues of FO! to my campaign in case I need to drop in a spell, magic item, monster, or adventure on the spur of a moment.

    Mishler: Thanks for the tip! I will totally check that module out!

  19. If you want an idea how an asian flavored fantasy action adventure might work, I can't recommend "A Bridge of Birds", by Barry Hughart enough. Its even got a couple of dungeon adventures.

    Come to think of it, there is enough discrete cool things in there to fill out a bunch of adventures all by itself. Its very accessable to a western audience.

    Even if you aren't planning to run an campaign, you should read it anyhow. Its a damn fun book and right up the alley of the folks around here.

  20. Does it matter if its historically accurate or appropriate to the original histories and legends of Asia?

    I mean, watch some anime or read some manga. They aren't accurate with their own stuff, and their treatment of outsider history and legends tends to be gonzo as all get out!

    (But that doesn't keep Record of Lodoss War (original OVA miniseries version) from being the best fantasy on some kind of film/celluloid till the LOTR movies showed up.)

    Games like the Soul Calibur series, Samurai Shodown, and the Suikoden RPG series show they don't usually worry too much about their own historical histories and feel too much.

    And even historical based shows like Ruroni Kenshin take it into silly land in many ways. (But its still totally awesome overall.)

    So feel free to go gonzo!

    Though if I were to do a D&D OA campaign, it would just be Legend of the Five Rings' Rokugan setting, circa the Clan War minis game. (Which was a terrible game with amazing fluff. Too bad the CCG has determined the storyline since then. And its a very confusing one that would even make Battletech's convoluted machiavellian storyline look easy to understand!)

  21. Oh man! L5R is the anathema of oriental D&D sandbox gaming. And I've seen enough internecine party conflicts from characters shoe-horned into clans/factions/flavor-of-the-month in V:tM to last me a lifetime.

    The powergaming of the original rules was enough to make one's eyes bleed! Unicorn clan samurai who where untouchable, Dragon tatooed monks who don't need to eat, drink or even breathe anymore.

    Seriously...who would want to play such a game?

  22. ^^ Its called using AD&D to play it. And not letting PCs act like WW characters.

    (I am in a Changeling LARP. WW style angsty self absorbed douchebag characters are a serious reason I will possibly quit. I know that's Vampire, but Changeling has NO reason to be the same way.)

    The different factions SHOULD provide some friction, but not AH HATES YOU AND WILL KILLS YOU. It should be more akin to a heroic thing where peoples from different walks of life and points of view come together to stop a greater evil.

    The vaguely Cthulhoid threat of the Shadowlands.
    Evil Daimyo out to overthrow the Empire.
    Shoguns out to betray people for money.
    The PCs being an example of how to get past their differences to make a better world.

    Hell, the last would make a good sandbox game that is very old school.

    The PCs get sick of all the political nonsense and head out to the frontier to build a settlement where everyone can be treated as equals where your worth as a person matters more than Clan, Caste, or species.

    Dungeons need to be cleared out of monsters. People need to be organized. A town and its defenses need to be built.

    Missions to keep the Clans from dismantling the settlement could happen too, sending covert characters back to the mainland. Trade agreements to be formed. Caravans to supply the settlement need to be protected. Maybe a few Clans would be happy to send their problem children there as to not cause trouble.

    Getting an army built to stave off the Shadowlands or Western armies needs to happen too. Maybe the henchmen and hirelings who proved themselves instrumental in clearing out a cave complex full of vicious Oni will become officers in the army.

    Maybe new replacement PCs come in from these strange Western lands forming the world's first truly cosmopolitan city. (Once the ideals of open mindedness take hold who knows how far it could go? It could become the city where Samurai share the streets with Centaur, Elves, and the odd Drow, everyone looking for a better way of life, or at least a couple platinum pieces!)

    If that isn't sandboxy and interesting I just don't know what is!

  23. If that isn't sandboxy and interesting I just don't know what is!

    Quite! I think you are onto something there. But then again, by that stage you'd definitively not be playing L5R, just whoring (bits) of the setting for a greater goal. :)

  24. Well I do have a saying "No game rules or setting canon survives contact with ME" after all!

    Or to put it in an appropriate terminology for a topic devoted to the orient,

    I am the tentacle monster, and setting canon is the girl in the sailor outfit.

    (And I so wished I did not know what that meant. What the heck is wrong with Japan? And what is wrong with people who decided to let the rest of us know about it?)

    This sort of ripping apart and making it your own not only SHOULD happen in any game you run, but it could even lead to an interesting megadungeon for this setting.

    The Shadowlands basically is a dungeon. Its just one that's an overland one. Different areas and lairs of various monsters and bad guys, not to mention being a blighted place of evil could lead to it being everchanging and trying to expand sort of like the Chaos realms in Warhammer Fantasy and 40K.

    Who is to say a tendril of such evilness isn't gonna try to approach the city and all?

    Also use the hells idea some fine folks mentioned above and you have a dungeon where trees are the walls, and a blighted sky is the ceiling.

    It would also allow for interesting clearouts. You don't need to worry about new monsters taking over sections when clearing it out helps bring it back to "normal" lands.

  25. Whoops; yep, right you are.

  26. When we played in the Kitsunemori campaign my players weren't into pseudo Japanese culture and intrigue that much but they liked weapons, armor, monsters, named, rolling for Prestige, and all that.

  27. Anonymous10:14 PM

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


  28. Speaking of orientalism, this should make you feel a bit better ... or quite possibly worse, but you should see it anyway...

  29. Hi, Jeff,

    I used to do freelance game design work for TSR, and my association with them started out by selling them an OA adventure module. Later I designed Kozakura (medieval Japan) in the Kara-Tur boxed set (Forgotten Realms).

    You bring up a lot of stuff about gaming in an OA setting that I'd like to comment on, but I think probably will do a blog post because then I can get into some things at more length than will fit into your comments area ;). I'll post a link when I've done that.

    On a related note, you and your readers might be interested in an Asian-style fantasy adventure novel I just released as a free ebook. It's called Dragonsword, and the story had its genesis in Oriental Adventures game development I did for TSR (although I must mention it was based upon a Japanese-like culture I'd developed in my own campaign long before the OA rules came out).

    You can check out the book here: The Oriental Adventures roots of it are discussed here.

    I'm glad to see all the comments and so much engagement about OA. I didn't realize so many people were still interested, but that's good to know, given the sort of novels I'm writing.


    Deborah Teramis Christian