The “golden age of piracy”

May 12, 2017 Leave a comment

I guess most people watching Black Sails probably follow it for the boobs, blood and scowling. There’s plenty of each – Rackham’s charmingly incompetent, Silver’s charmingly hapless, Flint manages to get progressively less charming – slowly at first, then all at once. As character-driven drama it’s pretty much par for this “golden age of TV” – you can see that by turns it wants to be Game of Thrones or Boardwalk Empire but it’s just a bit too self-conscious about its basic trashiness.

But I’m sitting there thinking “I can’t take it any more, I need to know what year it is!” And so I finally look it up. And of course it’s 1715 – the obvious choice, to within 5 years either way. The moment we all know pirates from, due largely to Captain Charles Johnson’s popular trawl of the Newgate broadsheets* and, less directly but more fundamentally, to Henry Everie, Aurangzeb and the East India Company. You can read all about it in Robert Ritchie’s Captain Kidd and the War against the Pirates, which is very good at tying all the various kinds of extortion together.

It’s the time when most of our favourite characters come together (Blackbeard, Roberts, Low, England, Rackham and his titillating 3-way with Anne Bonney and Mary Read – and we know them all because of Johnson). It’s also the elegiac last gasp for “golden age” piracy, so we can place a reassuring capstone on it. Interesting times.

And I was vaguely disappointed because I was hoping somebody would’ve thought of setting things outside this critical decade – at some point when buccaneers were first abandoning their shoreline barbecues and getting up in Johnny Spaniard’s fries. Because goddammit Flint might want to copy Henry Avery and settle one big score, but his long game is pure Captain Morgan… or more exactly a royalist alternative American Revolution. And I was assisted in this misapprehension by Flint’s ship,
which could easily date from 1660, looking exactly like a warship of the Second Anglo-Dutch War:

(Flint’s Walrus, left, Isings’s war council before the 4 days’ battle, 1666, right.
BTW you can click on the pictures for full size. I finally figured out where wordpress hid that in their new interface).

And this misapprehension is actually quite lovely, because it is entirely plausible to have an elderly trader/warship kicking around the colonial service and getting swiped by some pirate – even 60 years later, as the show’s timeline demands, bravo!

But then it’s been refitted with a wheel instead of a whipstaff, and that’s frankly a bit too up-to-date in 1715. I’ll let it go – wheels are familiar to the audience and the steering gear of wheels even makes an important plot point… fine.

But. The Ranger.

I don’t want to say The Ranger is quite out of period… I’d have to do some more research, but she looks an awful lot like a second-half-of-the-18th-century English East Indiaman or warship. Look how flush that deck is, the low sterncastle, the rounded counter. If she’s not simply anachronistic she must’ve come off the stocks at Deptford 6 months ago and somehow wound up in Charles Vane’s possession. Maybe he posed as a Royal Navy post-captain and heisted her right out of the Medway. That’s a series I’d like to watch (albeit with a different actor for Vane).

What am I looking at? Well, flatness of the deck for one thing (we know that pirates often cut off all the fore and sterncastles to make a big fighting surface, but this is clearly a factory-done job). And restraint in ornamentation. And again, the Walrus is lovely:

Look at the carved woodwork on that transom – pure 17th century flair – and it even looks like someone’s nicked all the gold leaf off it, which is perfect. But the Ranger is just painted beading, like Nelson’s Victory (1765) or the Belvidera (1809):

…of course this is nit-picking, especially since all the ships are wildly over-sized for our pirate brethren, whose historical models preferred small, nimble sloops for which it’s easy to find spare parts.
It’s funny to see businesswoman Eleanor Guthrie talking to the captains seriously about their running costs when they’re all sailing around in ships that strain colonial governments’ budgets – the squadron in Nassau bay could probably give the Royal Navy at Kingston a serious worrying.

Anyway as of episode 8 it’s a lot of tense, swashbuckling fun. Even if it’s weird that the pirates are so bad at sailing in moderately bad weather.


*Funnily enough in 1724, the year of Johnson’s publication, the biggest draw at Tyburn execution grounds was not a pirate but serial escape artist Jack Shepherd, who deserves his own place in your game.

Bonus links: Digital Domain did a bunch of the fx for Black Sails. The way they construct scenes is fascinating.
The inestimable Dirk Puehl retells Long Ben Every’s capture of the Ganj-i-Sawai here.
The Spanish Galleon that later becomes the Revenge is probably based on the Nuestra Senhora de la Concepcion y de las Animas (1690).
Cindy Villar‘s Pirates and Privateers pages are pretty great.

It is characteristic of the show that somebody makes a passing joke about a missing character that he’s probably gone to Port Royal to meet up with Avery – both are missing in 1715, Avery is presumed either to have disappeared into a respectable life god knows where or to have been killed by some murderhobo or to have been bilked out of his fortune by Devomnshire merchants (which would be typical of Devonshire merchants but there’s the problem of where the money would’ve gone from there). Port Royal sank into the sea like Sodom, Atlantis or Irem of the Pillars in the earthquake of 1692. And nobody comments or explains the joke.

Countercolonial Heistcrawl: some maps

August 2, 2016 Leave a comment

Over the past year or so I’ve concluded that the best way to make progress on CCH is to start a campaign, and for that I need some campaign materials – factions, equipment/units, characters… and maps.
…..for player-facing maps I like period productions a lot, with all their elisions and doubts:


Here’s the whole spice islands region, a couple of thousand miles across.

If you’re playing non-Europeans there are excellent reasons for not using these European charts. Still I think the style gain from using something more culturally appropriate…
is probably exceeded in usefulness by the gain in clarity of using something more recognisably map-like, with some pretensions to uniform scale.

…all that said, charts on a suitable scale for tactical encounters are really a recent development, and CCH’s landscape isn’t supposed to map precisely onto Earth’s (after all, I want players to contribute their own islands without fear of having Indonesians or Malaysians complaining that they’re misrepresenting their people), so I’m moving away from just using Google Maps co-ordinates.

Blah blah blah here’s an area map for the game, lifted and lightly toasted from some geographically-appropriate islandy bits – obviously, ignore text and (most) roads marked on it. Hexes are 6 (nautical) miles across, so this map is about 150 nm wide:

The game starts at 2 tiny islands that are rather dimly-outlined on this map – here, zoomed in and highlighted:
Here’s a tactical-scale map of those islands  – hexes are 100 yards (20 hexes to a nautical mile), per the last post’s ship combat rules:

Water depth in this last map is keyed to the draught of different ships – a big East Indiaman can sail safely in the darkest part, the lighter part would be deep enough for a size 3 cargo vessel, the lightest blue is for size 2, 1 and reed galleys only, and white is exposed beach sand.
No prize for identifying the islands I swiped for either of these – in fact, if you research them it’ll probably mislead you.

Counter-colonial Heistcrawl Rules v 0.1

July 28, 2016 1 comment

To people waiting for TikinD part 2, sorry, you’ll have to wait a bit longer.
To people who’ve been waiting for CCH for like a decade, well…. this is very far from complete but it’s the best way I know to share the current state and crowdsource feedback on it. I would like to start running CCH in the fall this year (hahahaha), so this is trying to get that moving. If you’d like to play over hangouts, please comment here or on G+

The basic concept: it’s 1610. You are ordinary inhabitants of a more-or-less historical Southeast Asian archipelago that looks and smells a lot like the Spice Islands.

The Portuguese have been around for a century and everyone hates them, but they’re more or less stalled. Now the Dutch have shown up and they’re like the Portuguese on steroids. They’ve already attacked 2 islands and demanded tribute, so what are you going to do?
The obvious answer is: UNITE THE PEOPLE! GET ALL FLASH GORDON ON IT AND THROW OUT MING. This might be that game. It’s not so easily done, though – there’s already the Portuguese and Spanish (ugh), there are English people sniffing around (smell like Dutch but pretend to be nicer?), there’s Chinese mafias and expansionist Mappilas from India and warring sultans and roving bands of slavers and the Japanese are acting weirdly secretive and expansionist at the same time. And there are even actual Ming loyalists (Chinese Ming, like the porcelain), who say they need to take China back from someone or other. And something’s got the old spirits all riled up.

Oh yeah, spirits.
They’re everywhere but it’s easy to think they don’t exist. The Dutch don’t seem to believe in them, although some people say they’re working for some big dark spirit. Sometimes you can catch them in contracts, or in jars, but that’s dangerous work. Think Princess Mononoke and Spirited Away and Yokai and… sure, Pokemon I guess.

Mechanically it’s some sword-waggling, piratical RPGing on a more-or-less DnD mould and some Civilisation-type domain gaming – if Civ were based on actor-network theory and not Toynbee/Gordon Childe technological determinism. When people join together to do actions they do them better, so even on the rowboat where you start, you should be thinking about yourselves as a unit, not a party of individuals.

Wait, what? Combining together

Essentially, you’re like slightly lower-powered Risus characters – you have 3d in your professional skill, 2d in a second skill and 1d in a hobby and you roll off against your opponent and the winner wins the round, and then they erode the enemy’s ability to resist by 1d, demonstrating to them that they have entered a death spiral and should make alternative plans. Fine.

BUT unlike Risus if a friend comes to help you, then together you can add 1d to the skill of whoever is taking the lead. If a total of 5 people band together then they can roll one roll at +2d. 10 people makes +3d, and so it goes, 20, 50, 100, 200 etc etc.
To usefully add to a skill, at least half the people combining must have at least 1d in it or something related. (I thought about going with strict doubling ie powers of 2 but I figured (a) people might be more familiar with the old coinage 1-2-5-10 scheme and (b) if anyone was really fussy about the numbers and power steps that might be a sign that this isn’t the game for them.)

Sure, there are some things this won’t work for (proverbially, making broth. More obviously, sneaking), but for building ships or castles, or for fighting, or for persuading local rulers/godlings of your sincerity, it works great.

And if you can add boats or cannons or pikes or walls to your efforts, then you can get bonus dice from that too (*full, flawless, intuitive system/schema TBD).

So, obviously, splitting apart

…is the key to the whole exercise. Add to your network, weaken the enemy’s. And that’s why it’s a heistcrawl: mostly you’re 2-5 randos out in the weeds trying to make trouble for the world’s greatest and most ruthless exponents of capitalism. So you fetch up outside a coastal fort full of wine-soaked Portuguese dons, bristling with cannons, and…
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 11.48.14
what? Frontal attack? Hardly. The trick might be to sneak in, poison the well (penalty to numbers, fighting ability), plant contradictory orders (dividing officers and forces), kidnap the priest’s girlfriend (sabotaging a morale specialist), wet the powder and spike the guns. Then gather all the drunks and ruffians you can find and charge the fort yelling as hard as you can, watch the Portuguese flail around, get cursed by their magic man, fail to fire anything and eventually run off into the jungle where you can pick them off 1 and 2d at a time.


So it’s not quite Risus. You get 3 skills/tropes – one at 3d, one at 2d, one at 1d. They should be of the breadth of sailing, gunnery, melee, riding, shipbuilding, animalcraft, plantcraft, spirit sense – not as narrow as “sword” nor as broad as “thief.”

Also choose a profession. This is what you appeal to when you say “but I should be able to do this because I’m a _” and it gives you 1D or a default roll off your attributes when successfully invoked. Example professions include: pirate, smuggler, concubine, procurer, medium, monk, bodyguard/mafia hood, magistrate, spirit medium, cunning man, builder, fisherman, whaler, scout, merchant, legal opiner, scholar, “viking” slaver, diver, navigator

Also roll 6 DnD type stats, but only record the bonuses/penalties (+1 for 13-15, +2 for 16-17, +3 for 18). These are straight numeric mods (eg 3d for archer +1 for dex bonus) except if there’s a pure exercise of attribute (eg bend bars/lift gates for str), in which case you can roll it as dice like a skill. Wis is perception of spirits, Cha doubles as magic power.

Default status

is freeman/basic sailor/soldier/merchant’s agent/farmer.
majapahitmarineun8    rasinah

If you’re secretly a ship captain/priest/village judge/longhouse master/princess that’s fine, write your story. But you start the game without the benefit of that higher status because you’re far from home and nobody cares.


Also you don’t get a Risus-type thematically-appropriate comedy backpack of tools. Life is hard and people with a lot of loot tend to get stabbed in the Moluccas.

Level of Destitution (d6)
  1. shipwrecked. You have sodden clothing and personal effects up to earrings, hair ornaments. Also roll 1d6+8 on Table B. Save vs. INT or you’re also suffering from amnesia
    2. where’d you get that? roll 1d6+14 on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
    3. one good friend. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus roll d8 twice on Table A and 1d12 on Table B
    4. practically minded. You have the basic tool of your trade** plus d12 twice on Table A and 1d6 on Table B
    5. expert scavenger. You have a machete plus 3d20 on Table A
    6. Temporarily distressed person of substance: roll 3d20 on table A, 2d12 on table B

** a kris or a marlinspike or a feely map or spirit-wrangling flywhisk or grapnel/multitool or glassware or whatever.

Table A

1. crowbar
2. dagger
3. shield
4. food, drink and backpack
5. lamp and flasks of oil (3)
6. melee weapon
7. armour: leather or improvised equivalent
8. bow or crossbow with 10 arrows/bolts
9. small raft (size 1)
10. mirror
11. rope (50′)
12. grappling hook/anchor
13. pouch with 20 silver dirhams
14. musical instrument
15. hammer, chisel, pick + 8 iron spikes
16. writing box and seal
17. arquebus + 10 shots
18. small barrel of gunpowder.
19. Barrel of arrack
20. 3 caskets grape shot, with powder

Table B

1. lucky medallion (re-roll 1 failed saving throw)
2. potion of healing
3. lockable iron-bound chest
4. guard animal (dog, lynx, monkey or similar)
5. riding or pack animal (camel, pony, goat)
6. size 2 boat
7. armor: scale or exotic
8. loyal family retainer ( a standard grog with a couple of charming quirks).
9. map
10. book – holy text or instruction manual
11. holy symbol or badge of office
12. spirit in a jar
13. slip of paper with a spirit contract – eat and then specify what you need
14. bird in a cage that repeats spirit chatter

Mustering-out Hooks

You may draw once or twice from the Barrel of Many Things

Things in the world that have something to do with you:
  1. a ship
  2. a fort, bay or haven
  3. a contact – smuggler, informant, fence, carpenter, smith, spirit go-between
  4. a weapon – cannon, bomb, spirit, blackmail, poison, disease
  5. a debt – blood, goods, mafia, spirit
  6. a diminished god from a foreign land
  7. a massive cache of gunpowder
  8. several gallons of the interloper’s “holy water”
  9. a sibling rival – kite pilot, long-distance swimmer, pirate, magistrate/king/official
  10. the washed-up corpse of something massive
  11. a spring that bubbles with blood or a cistern filled with teeth
  12. Hungry Grandmother’s bottle of secrets
  13. a funeral barge, surrounded by silence
  14. a Dark Child
  15. a commander of the invaders, disgustingly ill, on a mission
  16. one of the enemy’s ships, on the edge of mutiny
  17. one of the enemy’s Holy Books, foolishly translated into a tongue we understand
  18. the ashen remains of an ancient Obsidian Queen’s funeral pyre
  19. a relic of a foreign saint
  20. one of the teeth of Brother Shark
Your relation to it:
  1. It’s rightfully yours but currently captive
  2. It’s marked on this map
  3. It’s known to be abandoned, there for taking,
  4. It’s lost in a useful way
  5. It’s in danger from something esoteric
  6. It’s been swiped by an enemy
  1. you are blessed/cursed in some way
  2. you are bonded/owed in some way
  3. you have a mysterious ally/enemy
  4. your memories/skills/loyalties/reputation/status/soul have been stolen/augmented/crippled/replaced
  5. your tribe’s priest/captive spirits need you and only you
  6. you are a captive spirit


If you achieve some goal or do something remarkable that really changes the world around you in a session (lay demon to rest, steal large ship, rout fort, corner the market in candles made from Europeans) add 1 skill point. To increase a skill, beat its current value in points (4 points allows you to increase a 3d skill to 4d).

Ship combat

I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to get here.

We play on hex maps because we are geeks an they suit our tastes.

1 hex = 100 yards. 20 hexes = 1 nautical mile

1 round = 1 minute.

You cannot sail into the hexside from which the wind is blowing.

You can row in any direction.

Ship size

Ship size refers to a combination of factors – for sailing ships it maps closely to the crew requirements, which also model the number of dice of skill required to control the ship.

If a ship has double the crew required, all rolls are at +1 (not +1 die, just +1). Once you have twice as many crew as the ship requires, the remainder are simply passengers (or, more likely, a second or third Watch, allowing the ship to operate while some crew members are asleep).

Ships will founder if their cargo capacity is exceeded. 1 crewman or passenger may be carried per ton of cargo capacity left open for them.

If the crew is too small for the ship’s requirements, the ship resists sailing – roll its size in dice against the commander’s skill (with mods). Most ships have their own spirit – if this can be persuaded it may add to the commander’s dice pool or simply allow command.

A ship of Size 1 = 1 crew required; raft, rowboat: carries 1 ton or less of cargo in addition to the crewman.
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.12.28.png
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.01.26.png

Size 2 = 2 crew required. Typically 15-40’ sailing boat. Typically carries 1-10 tons of cargo/passengers. Cutter, workboat, pinnace
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.10.19.png

Size 3 = 5 crew required. Typically carries 10-60 tons. Prahu, large Sampan, small Junk/Jong, Dutch sailing barge, small dhow, small galley
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.10.27.png

Size 4 = 10 crew required of which 1 mate in addition to captain. Typically carries 60-150 tons. Duyfken, fluyt, Chinese ocean-going junk, large dhow, war galley like in the Battle of Lepanto, average war coracora
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.11.03Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.11.56Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.11.32

Size 5 = 20 crew of which 4 are mates/petty officers. Carries 150-500 tons. Golden Hind, large fluyt, large junk, largest booms, flagship coracora
cch_caracoaScreen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.02.52.png
cch_mayflower cutaway size 5.jpegcch_size5.jpeg

Size 6 = 50 crew, at least 9 of which are mates/officers. 500-2000 tons. East Indiaman, largest junks, largest naus/carracks
cch_batavia_sailingcch_batavia_closebig.jpegScreen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.28.44.pngScreen Shot 2016-07-28 at 12.10.42

Size 7 = 100+ crew of which 19 officers. 2000-10000 tons or more. Zheng He’s treasure ships, legendary Srivijaya jongs.
Screen Shot 2016-07-28 at 11.55.39

Light and Heavy Construction

The baseline construction for ships here is Indian wooden planks, sewn together, cross-braced with decks at size 4+.

Ships may be made lighter – from hides stretched over bamboo frames (for size 1 or 2 only) or from reeds (theoretically any size). This gives them -1D for resisting gun fire, but may give +1 hex movement.

They may also be made heavier – from timbers fastened together with wood or metal nails, with heavy internal bracing. All junks/jongs and European vessels of size 4+ are made this way. This gives +1D to resist gun fire but -1 hex/round speed.

Rowed ships

Rowed ships need 1 step more crew than sailed ships for the same size of ship, so while a size 4 sailing ship requires 10 crew, a size 4 rowed ship requires 20.

If the ship is purpose-built for many rowers (making it a galley) then the number of rowers may be increased by 1 step, increasing speed by 1 hex/round. You cannot increase speed by more than 1 hex/round this way.

Rowed ships can charge for 1 round per die the commander has in leadership. Charging increases speed by 50% (round up).


An English galleas is really made for sailing but may be rowed in extremis. It is heavily built, so -1 hex speed. It is not a galley, so cannot be usefully overmanned with rowers. So if it is adequately manned (10 crew for a size 3 galleas) it may do 1 hex every 2 rounds under oars. If charging it can manage 1 hex/round. For performance under sail see below.

A Timawa coracora is a lightly built (reed) galley and the Viking/slaver Timawa commonly double-crew them. Such a double-crewed coracora can do 3 hexes/round. The Spanish were alarmed to find them capable of burst of 15 knots – that is, they can do 5 hexes/round when charging.

Weather and ship size and range

Weather is rated 0-6

If your skill + help from the crew exceeds the weather, you don’t have to roll. If they’re equal/weather is bigger, you roll – its rating is how many dice it rolls. If you lose a roll-off, you take damage to hull strength.

Crew help only counts if it’s from officers – you should have 1 officer per 10 crew. All officers must have at least 3d (professional level) in an applicable skill (sailing or leadership). So if for example you have 3d in captaining and a size 4 ship (10 crew, including 1 officer/first mate) then conveniently you get 4d skill to go with your size 4 ship.

0 = becalmed. Ranges can extend to full, only rowers can move.

1 = breeze suitable for dinghies, no penalties for anyone moving, cannons etc limited to 5 hexes effective range. All sailing craft do 1 hex/round (modified for build, as noted above).

2 = windy. 2 hexes/round.

3 = topgallant breeze/choppy. Size 3+ do 3 hexes/round, size 1 or 2 and galleys do 2 hexes in their desired direction and drift downwind 1 hex

4 = gale. Size 3+ can do 2 and drift 1 downwind. Size 1 or 2 and galleys do 2, drift 2.

5 = storm. All ships do 1, drift 3

6 = hurricane. Drift 5.

So e.g: the Duyfken, a size 4 Dutch jacht, sees a storm on the horizon (weather 5). The captain is professional (3d in captaining) and has 1 mate (out of 10 crew, all as it should be), so they get 4d to roll against the 5d storm. They would be well advised to run for a harbour.

Astute readers will have noticed that large Dutch ships with competent captains and well-ordered crews only have to roll against the worst hurricanes/typhoons. This seems to be historically accurate. Notably, when Dutch ships were lost accounts tended to blame either division in the crew (reducing dice by 1) or a bad officer standing in for the captain or, rarely, pre-existing damage that would’ve given the ship a reduced effective hull size/strength. The latter condition is much more common in English accounts from the 18th century.


If you’re rowing, then turning 1 hex side costs half a hex of movement, rounded up – ie turning 1 or 2 sides costs 1 hex worth of movement. Turning 180 degrees (3 hex sides) costs 2 hexes worth of movement. While turning you do not move forward.

If you’re sailing, it costs half a hex of movement to turn 1 hex side, rounded down. So you can turn 1 hex side for free each round. If you want to turn more than 1 hex side then it costs 1 hex for each 2 sides you turn. Turning 180 degrees (3 sides) costs 1 hex of movement (1.5 rounded down).
Exception:  crossing the wind with the bow (tacking) always costs 1 extra hex of movement for a sailing vessel, so it costs 2 hexes total to tack across the wind – 1 for the 2 hexside turn, 1 extra for crossing the wind. It is therefore equally costly to tack as it is to “wear” ship (turn downwind and then up the other side, crossing the wind while facing away from it or  jibing, to use modern British parlance).


Small arms (arquebuses, bows, spears) only damage ships of size 1.
Swivels only damage ships of size 1 or 2. They might as well always fire grape shot.
Cannons damage everything.


Spear = same hex
Bowshot = 1 hex
Arquebus/snaphance/swivel = 2 hexes
Cannon = 5 hexes
Cannons firing grape shot = 4 hexes
Culverin (long range, small-bore cannon) = 15 hexes

All ranged weapons can shoot at double range for -1d effectiveness. Roll gunner/archer skill of leader, modified by how many weapons are shooting in a volley (2, 5, 10 etc).

Weather limits range of shipboard weapons – becalmed (weather level 0) allows guns to shoot their full range, level 1 limits all weapons’ range to 5 hexes. Every level increase decreases total maximum range by 1 – so at weather 3 cannons have range 3, arquebuses still have range 2, archers still have range 1.


Cannons are carried on 2 even broadsides and optionally a few facing front and back. If there is just one big gun, it faces forward or back.

Damage is by weight of shot and rolled vs hull strength (for round or chain shot) or crew size (for grape shot) – 1lb = 1d, 2lbs = 2d, 5lbs = 3d etc.

The Batavia (size 6) carries 50lbs (6d) of cannons on each side + 10lbs forward and back.

If a ship carries more dice of cannons than its size it is overloaded and at -1d against weather.

Culverins are special long range cannons (15 hexes). They are never larger than 8lbs each. Really truly they shoot half the poundage of balls we count them as, but it doesn’t matter because the guns and powder charges and damage are all doubled so just count them like other guns but long range.

Hazards of cannons

Most cannons are bronze (“brass”). These can fire 1d6+2 times in a battle before they heat up and risk exploding (cannoneer’s skill sets the limit – roll vs 2d difficulty)

Iron cannons are strangely unpopular and poorly controlled, but can potentially be much better than brass (people with money will realize this quite soon).

Any time a crap iron cannon is fired, if it gets all sixes or 4+ sixes on the roll it explodes.

Good iron cannons can shoot indefinitely without risking exploding.

There are also “wood” and “leather” cannons. These might be like crap iron guns or like brass guns or something worse. They definitely don’t sound good and they didn’t catch on once lots of foundries were established, so.

Any cannon can come loose, especially if damaged in combat/storms. A loose cannon goes flying about the deck when fired, forcing its crew to save vs. a messy and sudden death.

Tiki&D 1: Gary’s Hawaiian shirts

June 8, 2016 19 comments


I’ve been wrestling with how to write this post for a while. It’s tempting to write a book… instead I think I’ll try to keep this brief and useful for gaming.

History teaches you that context is important – the culture behind events not only shapes them, it also gives them meaning. Culture is practice (what people do every day) and imagination: what people think the world and society around them is like. How they imagine it used to be and/or how they’d like it to be.


I grew up in Cornwall – far from the matrix that spawned DnD, while being confusingly close to the imagined source of its medievalish elements. Because I grew up there I couldn’t see it in the Romantic terms Gygax & co seemed to see.


Tolkien was my guide to Romantic medievalism (and we all know the arguments about whether that’s a primary source for DnD or not), not Ivanhoe or Vance’s Lyonesse or Anderson’s Three Hearts. I had almost no exposure to the titles in Appendix N – I actually had to special order Barsoom books, once AD&D had told me about them, because they weren’t on local shop shelves. A big part of my involvement with the OSR over the past few years has been trying to understand where Gygax was coming from with his peculiar gloss on medieval England.

As for the rest of the specifically American imaginary landscape that DnD borrowed from, I’d get little glancing references from time to time but they didn’t mean any coherent thing. Elvis movies, Westerns… When He-Man or Xena turned up, they were completely sui generis. Carcosa took me totally by surprise.

So when Natalie Bennett prompted me to look at the cultural complex of Tiki it sent me off down an archaeological rabbit hole that’s still extending in front of me, with side tunnels into the invention of tourism and Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” and just what European ex-pats were doing in Samoa in the 1880s.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 15.49.47.png

But two things seem really clear:

  1. DnD and Tiki are horns on the same goat.
  2. Tiki informed the attitude of a lot of early DnD.

Tiki shows a bunch of similarities with DnD – from the spats between the two great progenitors of Tiki, Donn Beach and Trader Vic, to the difficulty in reconstructing its early forms. Both Tiki and DnD have risen and fallen as cultural movements. Both are enjoying current revivals significantly nurtured by guys called Jeff. Sometimes the influence is direct – according to Chirine Ba Kal:

Prof. M. A. R. Barker was out on the West Coast at USC Berkley at the beginnings of
the Tiki craze, and… some of his artwork from that time is stylistically very similar
to some of the menus from the local Tiki watering holes. …every year, to celebrate
the Tsolyani New Tear’s holiday, I decorate my game room with my extensive
collection of Tiki artifacts and items.

Most of all, both offer a temporary escape into a carefully crafted fantasy world from the routines of modern life for a table-full of people at a time, provided they aren’t too self-conscious about putting aside their regular uniforms. When Gary and Dave started doing this with dice at the end of the 60s it had already been running in specially-created imaginative environments for the previous 30 years.

kahikisc10_jpg085e49f9b903afd56ba3223d446f72e3Kahiki210735191814_b4aa3c9803_bThe starting points and equipment might be different, but both immediately devolve into hours of chatting and dreaming for a group of friends who don’t want to rehash the concerns of their week. For what is the DM but an attentive barman?

I said I’d try to keep this useful. OK, here’s the thing:

Tiki is not just (or even principally) a set of rum cocktails or a style of interior design:
Tiki is an attitude – a way of engaging with the world – that I think is important for understanding early DnD. And that attitude is seriously unserious – it takes elements that it knows are ridiculous and accepts them as authentic; true-in-the-moment. It holds consequences lightly and laughs at its own pratfalls. It’s touristic in the sense that tourists are always playing a role – the interested outsider, there but not fully committed; the lost ingenue; the troublemaker. It never forgets that this temporary tropical island paradise has walls – that outside lies the Minnesota winter (or Hollywood’s greasy pole or Houston’s endless parking lot), so it never has to worry about what its fantasies look like from the inhabitants’ side. Those “inhabitants” are helping to create the imaginary.

Tiki is a shared joke (that you can take as seriously as you want). I think this might be what John Wick has always missed with Tomb of Horrors. There’s a kind of Bob Hope “you’ll like this one” wink in that module: as a player you’re supposed to go “d’oh I can’t believe I fell for that.” But you’re not going to if your DM isn’t laughing with you but at you. The deadliest dungeon ever made is like the deadliest cocktail (and there’s a very gamer-like machismo around drinks like the Zombie and the Suffering Bastard… which belies their decidedly un-macho umbrellas and fruit presentation) – you’re a fool if you order it… so of course you do and that makes you the fool of the evening as you drink it. Some further performance may be necessary.

Tiki is deliberately bad taste. I don’t really mean post-modern, but rather it’s generating its own aethetic and it is deliberately not going to be too picky about what sources go into that aesthetic. If classicism is a conservative impulse that tries to reproduce good taste by reinforcing a set of rules, Tiki is a liberal one that embraces novelty, plays up the exotic, and knows it’s titillating.  It is an important part of the attitude not to frown and say “I don’t think that fits here” but rather to strike a referential pose and roll with it for a while.
…so does anything go? Well, no… but that’s part of being a good barman – if the customer hates the drink you mixed, it goes in the fire and you make them a new one. Everyone has to be ready for that possibility. Nobody should go into a traumatized funk if a move doesn’t work.

Corollary – Tiki has a freewheeling attitude to appropriation – of other cultures, others’ artwork, anything that passes by. This was more charming in DnD before the publishers got all protective of their own IP and started canonizing it as PI. But if you’re running Tiki DnD, you’re going to be dealing with issues of appropriation if only because Tiki himself has been rudely stolen from Polynesia.

If actual offended Polynesians come and try to stop your game – and if they won’t be bought off with an offer of drinks – then I’d say your best defense is the opposite of what you usually hear, about being culturally sensitive or paying attention to the “original meaning” of whatever you’ve nicked. Instead, pile on so much of your own creativity that the appropriated parts are transformed into something new. That’s what artists do.

Thinking about it, the slow evaporation of the Tiki mood from DnD just might be what defines the edge between James Malichewski’s Golden and Silver ages. When DnD got its visual style defined as heavy metal it acquired metal’s earnestness – the wargamer tourists of the 70s gave way to a new player base of DnD natives who took it all very seriously and wanted to know just how heavy that axe was. Kitsch, whimsy, a lack intensity – these became signs of poor commitment.

With thanks and apologies to Trey Causey, Scott Martin, Steve Sigety and Chirine Ba Kal, all of whom have been quoted out of context and may want to disavow this whole thing.

Things to do in a shipwreck

May 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Because +Handy Haversack asked, here are some circumstances of shipwreck and typical responses from the age of sail, swiped from the corpus of shipwreck stories, mostly Dutch and English but a few Arabic in that piecemeal Orientalist mode that it’s so hard to escape. I’ve deliberately kept these historical rather than fantastical because I assume you can add all the uncheckable fantasy elements you need. And this is not supposed to be exhaustive – in particular it doesn’t tackle the Small Boat Journey that so often rounds out a shipwreck tale. I might get to those sometime soon…

What to do if the ship is sinking:
The Dutch East India Company had a clear protocol for what to do in a shipwreck:
1. obey the officers.
2. try to save the ship.
But then, their rules were written by the money men, safe on shore. Abandoning the ship could be punishable by death if they caught up with you. If you were the captain a wreck would probably end your career.
“Women and Children First” and the trope of noble self-sacrifice really only started in the 19th century long after the wreck of the Meduse and might have been apocryphal/literary until the Titanic. The idea of the captain sacrificing himself to save the rest of the crew and female passengers goes back to the wreck of the Halsewell (1786) but it was a remarkable act, not common expectation.
Muslim seafarers (before the 19th c) would throw stuff off a ship in peril to lighten it (most peril coming from storms/high waves). Once the cargo and guns and spare spars were gone, you could draw lots for the people. Non-Muslims and slaves might offer a buffer-zone before you got to such dire straits, though.
Ideas of fairness in general become really important during wrecks – indeed, are defined by them. Crews tend to mutiny (especially if not free laborers) and personal leadership becomes important. In the 19th century, contracts are canceled at the moment of wrecking, so the steward staff are all immediately fired, which might help to explain the breakdown of social order a bit, but probably not all that much.

What I have observed from British, Dutch and Portuguese accounts, is that people respond to the things they can see and deal with right now. You can distract the crew from fighting a fire by shouting that the merchant is getting away in the boat – suddenly everyone will deal with the boat and nobody will be fighting the fire. Chaos is everywhere: a small group of determined leaders can make the difference between saving the ship and losing it, or rescuing the crew, or just swiping a boat and escaping.

A point about lifeboats: before the age of passenger ships (1860+) these were mostly unknown (except _maybe_ in Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet). Whether the ship carried 30 or 1300 people, it would probably have 2 or 3 boats, each capable of carrying maybe 20 people, for running mail/small stores/shore missions. Life rings were also only adopted in the 19th c. Usually “man overboard” meant “man lost” especially if the ship were a slaver or warship or on the usual slaver routes, because sharks would follow those ships. Even non-slaver ships would sometimes fish up sharks on quiet days, to haul them on deck, torture them for being evil, and then throw them back… to be eaten by sharks.

So what happens in a wreck and what do you do about it?

Causes of Wreck:
     rocky lee shore: total loss of ship almost certain 😦 But land nearby 🙂 But so are the smashy waves that will grind your ship (and loose people) up on the rocks 😦 Your best bet is a sturdy surf boat, nervy steering and good luck. Rapid loss of ship leaves little time for grabbing stuff before leaving, maybe half the cargo will wash ashore in some sort of recognizable condition. Ashore there might be wrecker villagers, eager to knife any survivors/witnesses to their looting. Or cannibal savages, or in Muslim lands a proper legal system and trusted friend-of-merchants where the salvage might be stored awaiting a proper claimant.
Style moves: using masts/spars to form a bridge to safe land/cliff. Throwing small party members to boats that are far enough offshore to avoid the smashy waves.

     sand bar/reef out at sea in worst case can be like rocky lee shore, in best case, ship might float off again at high tide with minor damage. After initial shock (possible falling spars) wrecks tend to progress slower. If there’s a safe shore nearby, order can be maintained and many boat journeys made to rescue crew and even cargo. If there’s only a small group of dry islands, “rescue” may be worse than wreck: mutiny is likely.
Longer wrecking events have a typical pattern:
1. shock, officers on deck, injuries from falling rigging, assessment of damage. Warships and East Indiamen might store barrels of grenades on the mast heads to use against boarders, so those can spice things up.
2. crew either orderly but impatient (require strong officers) or despairing and mutinous (will break into, in order: liquor stores, munitions, ships’ hand weapons). Despair tends to increase, so this is probably a morale roll every hour, quicker if the ship starts to break up.
3. some people get off in boats, everyone else resents them, suspects they’ve run away. Small acts of looting, especially if there’s alcohol, chests of money
4. crew actually removed to safety, attempts to save cargo. This is very hard to achieve: people are exhausted. Generally it’s easier to get them to dive for treasure days later than to go back into the ship for those silk bales right then and there.
5. new situation ashore. Usually only the captain and 1st officer know where you are. Hexcrawl to guess which direction you should go for help.

     storm/high seas ships generally have a max height of waves they can deal with. Exceed it and the water gets in and the boat goes down. You can increase this maximum by lightening the ship (see previous comment). You should also keep just one small sail up to help you steer into the waves so they don’t hit you on the side, maybe throw out a sea anchor, otherwise ride it out. This shakes the rigging and cannons loose, makes a mess of the deck, and can eventually shake the timbers of the ship apart – they start by leaking (stuff rags in) and can wind up splitting right off their nails/stitching/keel-posts. Then it’s Sindbad time: cling to a lump of wood and drift. Storms produce the most floating wreckage, some of which can be used for rafts/new boats. Then it’s small boat journey time (prob another chapter in this ridiculous comment set).
Reasons for storm-wrecks:
1. navigator impious/cursed. This is terrible – the navigator’s the only guy who can get you to safety. Solution: repent or jettison.
2. merchant impious/cursed. Jettison – may be grabbed by some other sign of his metaphysically dangerous condition (whale, Rama, conch-woman)
3. test of faith: hang on, stay together, no arguing, obey the captain/chaplain.
4. supernatural disapproval of your mission/cargo/destination/sect (especially popular with Portuguese). Solution: mutiny (risky, see below)
5. mutiny. God doesn’t like it when you disobey orders. Dutch stories tend to go “we were OK until the mutiny, then we hit the rocks. Then almost all of us died but the last 20 rallied behind the captain and he got them out of the storm.”
6. bad luck. Maybe you had women aboard or someone put the books upside down or the model ship back to front. Solution: none, just deal with the new situation.

fire or structural failure these are both negligence issues, and tend to begin slowly and build. Fire in the hold is a nightmare: there’s nowhere to go, lots of nooks and crannies for it to hide in, and the hold will act as a smoke-trap, but not enough to stifle the fire. Solutions: throw water into hold in buckets (smokey! Unlikely to reach source of flames) or dive off ship and drill holes in bottom to drown flames deep in the hold (always popular! Success depends on how low down the fire is, managing to plug the holes afterwards). Flammable things typically kept in holds: barrels, grain in open bins, cloths, spare spars, sails, oil and pitch for maintenance, rope, strong liquor (explosive!), coal for cooking or maintaining colonies, gunpowder magazine. This last one sank the Nieuw Hoorn – when fire first broke out (when the under-steward dropped his candle in an open barrel of liquor) the crew made a bucket chain and doused it…. or so they thought for several hours. But it turned out burning alcohol had dribbled down the inside of the ship and got into the coal, making for a long, persistent, chokingly smokey blaze. The crew tried the bucket chain and drilling holes, but the fire kept burning. Eventually a good number of them mutinied, tried to escape in the boat, were discovered by the master who tried to ram them… and then the ship blew up. The master survived, unconscious in a section of the stern that floated through the night, to be rescued by the deserters.

Structural failure is just bad building or maintenance… or sabotage. In notorious cases 18th century British warships sank because their keels had rotted through. Big ships sink slowly – it can be possible to pump them out enough to go across the Atlantic… and so therefore it’s possible for desperate naval or company money-men to keep ships that are basically sinking in service, as long as they don’t have to face down the pumping crews. If a keel rots badly enough, the masts can come loose from it. This kind of slow wreck can take days to unfold and for a while it’s unclear if you’re actually sinking or if the leak might get better.  Alas, ships full of water sail slower.


Undigested thoughts

April 15, 2016 Leave a comment

Putting this out there even though it’s incomplete because the discussion may be more fruitful than me trying to figure it all out myself:

Benjamin Baugh has been asking about puzzle monsters – enemies which are undefeatable by conventional means… the heroes must improvise, investigate, or otherwise figure out clever ways around the monster’s invulnerabilities or dominant powers, where all their usual go-to stuff won’t work.

Call of Cthulhu obviously abounds with these, but the solutions tend to be obvious once you’ve found the ancient scroll – you follow the recipe, the thing happens, ruin is staved off. It’s like a special kung fu move.

In RPGs I hardly ever see that classic gambit from fiction, the spiked dose – attacking the vampire by poisoning its victim, or the corrupt politician by feeding them traceable money.  Luke activates the spiked dose in Vader – that treacherous poison of humanity and empathy that has lain dormant so long that the Emperor has forgotten it.

CoC seems to be crying out for this approach, or Carcosa with its unspeakable rituals (summon and poison Yog Sothoth), and it’s a perfect opportunity for dramatic self-sacrifice, which is popular in some circles. Has anyone seen it applied? Can anyone cite other actually inventive solutions to puzzle monsters, which are not just reading the instructions?

(Doctor Who is good at these, but a lot of his are not easily portable to your game of choice)

Ben also cites the hoary “we have to work together” Gatchaman/Sailor Moon/Power Rangers trope as a kind of puzzle solution to a monster.

I’ve never seen this one subverted, and that strikes me as odd, especially given how obviously it feeds into the ideology of the obedient salariman or even Communist propaganda. “Join me and together we will rule the world” is an obvious example of the poisoned team, but it tends to be presented as a one-on-one thing, Sith to Jedi (Satan to Saviour), and maintaining your individual identity and agency (soul) is the key to understanding why it’s a bad idea. What if there are multiple teams, each potentially made supreme by your membership? How would you choose which one to join? Are there games (or fiction) where a choice between teams is an actual dilemma, not a foregone conclusion/message? Are you going to saw off your feet to fit in that cockpit seat or find a divine gesellschaft better suited to your height?


Are there times you wouldn’t want to do this? When you should, in fact, keep your team-mates away to stop it happening? How about just this once we don’t all catch on fire and, like, try to talk things out or anything else, really?

Why I’m not writing a Chinese game; or, Let’s Eat Thai!

February 24, 2016 2 comments

Some Aphorisms:

1. the best kinds of information in RPGs are the ones that get revealed at the table, as a consequence of things the players did. If you have to impart lots of information before the players can start playing, you’re probably not having the best time with your game.

After information the players generate or earn, the next best thing is information the DM imparts directly, which the players can use to form actions. The bad thing about this information is, it holds the players up in a not-playing state while the DM has to impart it. The good thing is that it’s authoritatively part of the game because it comes from the DM. Even if it’s false information – lies told by NPCs etc, its falseness is a deliberate part of the game.

The worst kinds of information for a game are assumptions the players carry around in their heads, which may or may not be part of the game under way at all. When this information doesn’t match the game (or the ideas in the DM’s head) you get the unintended kinds of misunderstandings – bad assumptions, dissatisfied expectations.

The more a game’s setting (or any other element) encourages common understanding of the moving parts of the game (the stuff on which or through which the players can act), the more it helps the game to happen. The more it imports divergent understandings/assumptions/expectations, the more it gets in the way of a fun game.

2. in order to be worth bothering with, a setting should have some effect on the players’ actions – what actions are available/plausible and what they mean.

Star Trek is pretty much The Odyssey in Space. So why is it not _just_ The Odyssey? I’d say principally because the crew of the Enterprise are not Ancient Greek adventurers. They’re not acquisitive or warlike, they are there simply to understand what’s around them. And for the audience to buy that _and buy into the exploration themselves_ alongside the crew, the whole thing has to be in space, in the future.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –
So Patrick Stuart asked why there is no OSR game that tackles China, and I took that personally, like Richard, why have you still not written a China supplement especially when you write but don’t publish stuff about fantasy Turkestan and Southeast Asia why ignore the elephant in the East?
And I have 4 real problems with writing a China supplement:

1. No table full of players really agrees on what they want out of China. Everyone has their own assumptions and expectations, so half the work would be brush clearing.

Consider the sorts of settings that get successful games/supplements made around them:
A. entirely made up, or crudely hacked off Tolkien’s oeuvre. There’s heavy lifting here, but every word the author writes is gospel. It’s all the second sort of information, above.
B. Ancient Egypt – true, that’s a long history but for most audiences it’s just fine if it’s treated as a single moment, half funny hats and gods, half Arabian Nights. You can totally set just one adventure here and everyone will think you’ve done it justice.
C. Mythic Europe again – usually really just England and even more usually directly sourced from Robin of Sherwood and/or Excalibur. Like Ancient Egypt, it’s treated as a single moment, free of historical development, and everyone already knows what it smells like so you can get on with your plot.

The point is, each of these settings is already pretty familiar to players. Each can be presented in a few scenes, sufficiently to give the players an idea of what sorts of characters to make up, and each can be selectively ignored or highlighted at the DM’s discretion in order to support the demands of the current adventure. None of them imports a lot of player assumptions.

But China is big enough and diverse enough – and “our” (Westerners with a yen for pop or pulp fiction) understandings of it are divergent enough to be trouble. Not trouble you can’t fix at the table, but if you’re writing a supplement that “covers China” then you have the job of encompassing at least some of that diversity.

2. And with 4000+ years of history and a quarter of the world’s population, in a lot of ways that’s not very different from writing a supplement to cover Earth.

GURPS China is a superb illustration of how hard it is to “cover China” – it offers an excellent potted history that points toward dozens of adventures, and it has a few monsters and notes on culture and it even tries to pretend that there’s a Chinese mood or moment that persists through all that history but… it doesn’t give you the tools to write or run Chinese adventures as anything other than GURPS with droopy sleeves. It’s a wonderful sourcebook, but it totally fails as an adventure-writing kit.

3. Unlike the Ancient Egypt or Star Trek, it doesn’t really have a genre of action attached to it.

OK. Knights ‘n’ Dragons is a genre of action. If you say you’re going to play Knights ‘n’ Dragons everyone knows not only that they’re going to play a knight and meet a dragon, they also know pretty much how to play through that scene. There’s an established language of actions they might take, and if they choose not to take those actions then they’re already subverting the genre in a way everyone gets. (KnD is NOT Europe, BTW, although culturally European audiences will tend to set it there. KnD is much more limited and focused).
Pirates is a genre of action, and you can set it in Ancient Greece or Southeast Asia or Space and everyone will still know how to proceed. Vikings is usually a subgenre of Pirates in which there might be history and cultural diversity but they don’t matter because FIRE AND THE SWORD.

Pseudo-medieval Europe’s genres of action are different from Ancient Rome or Modern Europe’s. Arabia(n nights) really has one and only one genre of action as far as Western audiences are concerned.
But China?

an RPG setting needs to offer a situation:
– a place, tools, moving parts, usable details
– a menu of meaningful or appropriate actions – a language of interactions with the setting. Bakhtin called these “Chronotopes.” The dungeon, wilderness, city adventure, court: each has its own idiom of actions and challenges associated with it.

Gary called his situations scenarios – a term borrowed from theater to mean plot summary, scene list.
But really I’d prefer chronotope or environment, meaning the stage setting; the background that suggests/supports the actions that will play out on top of it.

the most readily usable chronotopes or environments for games are ones that already have few stories laced through them – the Grimm woods, the Greek mountains, Arabian caves and palaces. The stories provide the language of action, the settings inflect that action in particular directions.

So what does China give us? What do you do there?
– dark doings in the Imperial Palace
– magistrates and bandits
– explore beyond the boundaries
…but in what way are these things particularly Chinese? How does it change each of these elements when they are placed in China and not anywhere else? Arguably the wandering martial artist or reclusive scholar who just wants to write poetry but must solve all the world’s problems is a Chinese archetype [ETA:] and +Dennis Laffey‘s Flying Swordsmen does a superb job of answering “what do I do?” for generic wandering martial artists, but it works partly because he deracinates them from any Chinese context, making them portable to other settings. That is, they remain excellent characters with their own genres of action or even solutions to bring to adventuring problems, but they’re really not an adventure – they’re not like the knight who requires his dragon and from whom one can infer a whole world of values.

Disney’s Mulan is a pretty good story about gender chauvinism, and it’s based on an actual Chinese story so it makes great sense to set it in China, right? But what difference does Chineseness make to Disney’s Mulan? I’d say it pretty much just excuses the audience from thinking too much about the feminism by making it all somebody else’s problem – some other person with weird, inscrutable hang-ups about honor and stuff. If you were running a Mulan-like game, what would make it imperative that it be set in China?

4. It’s hard to find a basic core or essence that makes China distinct from other settings. This is partly because it’s a real place with real complexity, and partly because of the ways Chinese culture has been presented to Western readers/viewers.

First, it’s not that easy to say where China ends. Chinese culture is everywhere in Southeast Asia and Japan, like ethnic Chinese migrants are everywhere. And migrants make their own cultures.
Is Big Trouble in Little China distinctively Chinese? Well then, so is about half of Thai, Burmese, Indonesian and Vietnamese culture. If you’re writing a China supplement, where do you draw the line?
If we’re being inclusive, on the other hand, should we insist that Japan is distinctively not Chinese? Why?

…..well, the answer is nationalism. Burma, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia et al have spent a great deal of effort to distinguish themselves from China, through national education programs, careful management of their images abroad, and the promotion of sites inside the country that stand as symbols of their distinctive national essences. In short, all those other places claim Chinese culture AND their own distinctive culture as national features.

In the 1910s and ’20s, surrounded by high-tide colonialism, Thai King Rama VI (who was himself ethnically Chinese) pushed visible symbols of the Siamese nation hard and specifically set out to distinguish Siam from China. He also approved of Hitler and wrote a little screed about the pernicious nature of the Chinese, whom he called “the Jews of the Orient.”

Among other things, he determined to find a distinctively Thai national cuisine – and he landed on a certain set of dishes drawn from Bangkok street vendors to stand for Thai food. Lemongrass, lime leaves, coconut, and chili were rarely used in combination in any of the Chinese regional cuisines, so he promoted these as specifically Thai ingredients, alongside the native ginger varietal Krachai. He sponsored cookbooks to spread the new national food and had it served at world fairs. When he was deposed in the coup of 1933 it was by an even more nationalistic government, which in 1938 held a competition to choose the new national dish – Pad Thai won (although it’s a lot more Chinese-looking than all those curries that require Rama VI’s fork-and-spoon).

Subsequent governments have continued the effort to present a particular kind of Thailand, both at home and abroad. Thai restaurants around the world can apply for government help in decorating their dining rooms and training their cooks. Result: a highly recognisable, homogenous set of flavours that serve as a base for local experimentation. You know when you’re in a Thai restaurant. You know it’ll have certain dishes (definitely Pad Thai), and you can usually count on a certain level of quality.

Chinese menus, on the other hand, tend to be much more regionalized. The celebrated (and completely made up) General Tso hardly ever shows up in Europe. If you order Lo Mein or Lemon Chicken in an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant you never quite know what will arrive. Different tables, different Chinas. This is partly because there hasn’t been a big international push on nationalizing Chinese cuisine, and partly because during that period when everyone else was getting the fever of nationalism, China had a little revolution and Greap Leap Forward to deal with. Presenting Chinese distinction was regarded as less important than rice quotas.

Japan, BTW, was easily the most “modernized,” industrialized, “Westernized” and well-connected country in Asia in 1890. The Japanese Emperor wrote that his subjects were white (unlike the “yellow” Chinese and Koreans) and even got in on the act of colonizing China in 1931, right alongside the European powers. And yet in the 1980s the popular view of Japan in the West was still of a nation that had been “closed in on itself” for hundreds of years and was responding to American modernity like a drug. News voiceovers would intone: “under this modern veneer lurks a deeply traditional culture,” while pictures of Shinto priests and the Castle of the Swans floated by. It was a national (and colonial) story, dominated by Samurai and Ninja and Sushi, useful to the current moment of postwar economic miracle – that curious moment when America was a little afraid of miniature Japan. Strip away those nationalist tropes and you’re left with a place that looks a lot like it could be China’s affluent corner.

And these nationalist stories and flavours (aside from their effects in real life) are useful for a harassed DM trying to create something recognizable at the table. Precisely because they’re brightly coloured and incomplete. They provide enough of a hook to get play going, and then they leave the stage clear for the story you want to tell, rather than leaving a load of divergent ideas lying around in corners to trip the players up.

So if I were going to write a Chinese game, what would I do?

1. I wouldn’t bite off the whole thing. I’d choose a specific moment with its own concerns and make the game just about that. Maybe I’d make a few of those in a series.
2. I’d look for situations where there is a clear answer to the question what do you do here?

The Mongols. Limited to Kublai Qan’s reign and maybe his predecessor and successor, the Mongols are just what I’d be looking for: brightly coloured, with their own modes of action and challenges, and without a ton of incidental detail in the public consciousness to get in the way.
The Warring States and its aftermath. This is Chinese Nationalism 101; the formation of the nation and its discontents. You can play soldiers drafted into the national army or people from Not-China. Either way you have to confront the newly emerging state as a thing separate from yourself and find your place inside or outside it.
the late Ming – internecine squabbling fit for an Italian court, rising barbarians all over, a distant emperor… like Game of Thrones on the brink of disaster. Who can unite the disparate Chinese, now that the national story is in such tatters? Also/alternatively Restore the Ming, where you sail with the pirate and revolutionary Coxinga and navigate Manchu, European and Mughal concerns and try to build your new empire on smuggling.

In each of these cases the home culture of the PCs is compressed into a few repeatable tropes. The action of the game involves confronting some kind of Chinese cultural other, so it can be built on learning about it, rather than one based on performing it on day one.

Maybe your game group is totally ready to take on the role of Chinese explorers, confronting their own Others? In that case there’s a great alternative, Journey to the West. I actually think it’s not such a great candidate for Western newcomers to Chinese culture because you play Chinese people confronting the zone of adventures – outside the safety of the Empire. Fundamentally it’s a lot like The Odyssey – a picaresque series of self-contained monster encounters. But where we Westerners can pick up the Odyssey and explore it as Greeks or Vikings or Knights, we find it a lot harder to explore it as Chinese wandering bandits who are recognizably Chinese. The only current game I know of that covers this one is James Desborough’s Irrepressible, which is self-consciously campy and post-colonial and kind of extremely interesting in its own right, being based on a 1980s English dub of a Japanese TV retelling of an English translation of Wu Cheng’en‘s original stories. With voiced by Andrew Sachs, a.k.a. Manuel from Fawlty Towers. I love it in its own way, but it’s not a game I would have designed, and it’s definitely not a good introduction to China.