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

February 24, 2016 Leave a comment Go to 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.

  1. katre50
    February 24, 2016 at 4:32 pm

    This is all pretty interesting and thought-provoking.

    Honestly, if I wanted to run a game in China, I’d send everyone out to read _The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten ox_ and set the game there, because that story does a great job of presenting something that is both a) very very not European, and b) very very distinct.

    Plus I love me some comedic RPGs, so it’s a goldmine there.

    A few years ago, half my local gaming group failed to show up, so on the spur of the moment I decided to dust off the FATE ruleset and run something with about an hour of prep time. “What is it going to be?” I asked myself. The answer immediately came back “Air Pirates!”

    The Air Pirates! campaign has now been running intermitently since then, and most of the reason is probably your point above: as soon as I said “Air Pirates!” to my players we were all on the same page about setting and what existed and what didn’t, and so it’s been very smooth (air) sailing.

  2. June 11, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    In the late 1990s/ early 2000s, Paul Mason was writing a Chinese “culture” game based on the Outlaws of the Water Margin. If I recall correctly, in the design notes that he published in Imazine, having the PCs all be outlaws allowed:

    1. PCs to engage in the kind of mayhem that players like to have their PCs engage in.
    2. PCs to come from literally any 12th century Chinese social background–as long as players could come up with a reason as to why the PCs were outlaws.

    (More info on the original novel, here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_Margin)

    This setting, of course, also gives PCs clear goals: escape capture and overthrow tyrannical local state officials.

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