Dev Notes 16 - Asia, not "Asian-Themed"

I recently completed a successful Kickstarter! I was obviously quite happy about that, but I always believe that learning is necessary regardless of success or failure, so after it was over I posted a survey in the Savage Worlds community asking for feedback from those who had chosen not to back the project. Aside from the expected (but still important) reasons - such as not hearing about it, not liking the rewards, or having backed too many Kickstarters recently - one idea that seemed to show up frequently was that players are automatically turned off by "Asian-themed" settings. I saw this in replies to the forum post as well as in the Facebook and G+ Savage Worlds communities.

When I followed up to find out the reasons why, it became clear to me that there is a very strong association that players of roleplaying games have with the word "Asia," and it has nothing to do with what we are trying to develop. However, this association is so pervasive that many people were unwilling to look closely enough to even consider the possibility that we might be doing something different. For this reason, I am going to be doing a series of Dev Notes explaining how our setting differs from what has come before (and what will likely come after), how we approach the writing and development so as to avoid appropriation or stereotype, and how to help players feel comfortable taking on characters in this setting.

But first, we have to talk about how the gaming industry got to this point.

Sigh

We can probably trace most of our problems to this book right here - the AD&D supplement, Oriental Adventures. However, it is admittedly unfair and inaccurate to say that this book is a cause rather than a symptom of a larger trend. It is after all a product of its time. Having grown up in the 80s, I know how popular our western misconception of the "ninja" was at the time. Nevertheless, this book followed exactly what everyone now believes is the standard set of assumptions for "Asian-themed" RPG settings:

  • Blend historical and cultural elements from a few key regions without any sense of preserving their uniqueness or the integrity of their true origins.
  • Focus on martial arts, because that's what Asia is all about.
  • Make sure all mysticism and religion boils down to some cobbled together version of Zen + Tai Chi, because it's just there to fuel the martial arts.
  • Ultimately, anything we saw in a movie (even one made in the United States) is accurate. Real history is irrelevant.

This sounds harsh, but it's still going on. Some settings (like Feng Shui) are sufficiently self-aware to know that they are intentionally tapping into pop culture rather than history, but too many serious settings continue to employ these orientalist techniques. So let's attack each of the issues individually to show how Steamscapes: Asia does it differently.

 

Blend historical and cultural elements from a few key regions without any sense of preserving their uniqueness or the integrity of their true origins.

One of the first things we tried to make clear as we developed this setting is that "Asia" does not just mean China and Japan. India and its surrounding region features very prominently in our book, Korea is included, and we are also including sections on each of the southeast Asian countries as well as Malaysia. We are examining the entire eastern half of the continent - basically drawing a line straight north from the mouth of Indus River  - so we do not want to leave anything out.

Also, one thing that very few game settings manage to access or even make clear is that each of these countries and regions has a distinct culture and history, and the differences are important. When you throw ninjas in with Shaolin monks, not only are you perpetuating misconceptions about what each of those groups actually looked like historically (more about that in a moment), but you are blending Japanese and Chinese history in a way that assumes that they are interchangeable. This is inherently offensive, and it taps into western assumptions that Asian people are interchangeable. The way to correct this is, quite frankly, to take enough time and space to represent the diversity of Asia as a continent. That is what we are doing.

 

Focus on martial arts, because that's what Asia is all about.

Ironically, martial arts are common to all RPG settings anyway, we just don't realize it. The reason we don't is that we rarely use the phrase "European martial arts," even though we should. Broadsword, rapier, longbow, shortbow - these are all European martial art forms that pervade our understanding of combat in roleplaying games. We even incorporate a variety of classical European unarmed techniques into our play. But suddenly when we start talking about Asian martial arts, they become "exotic?" (As if the average gamer has a stronger connection to traditional European fencing than to Japanese kenjutsu.) To a large extent, we can blame this problem on our movie-based understanding of Asian martial arts. For instance, Hong Kong cinema likes to glorify wushu as much as Lord of the Rings and other fantasy movies glorify western sword forms. That doesn't mean either genre is historically accurate, but that in turn doesn't make the original arts less valid for inclusion in roleplaying. If we want combat in our game, we are including martial arts. Period. After that, it's just a matter of selecting the appropriate ones and representing them in a way that is fun and unique.

To distinguish historical martial arts from cinematic martial arts, we first have to remove any sense of mystical powers. Skill is skill, and that's all that matters. The effects of different techniques may vary, but at the end of the day you are still relying on the strength, control, and prowess of the individual fighter. That's true whether you're a Greek hoplite, an English knight, or a Japanese samurai. Then, we have to show that Asian martial arts are a) very diverse and b) actually similar in effect if not style to martial arts in other parts of the world. This was one of the reasons that the very first style we discussed was eskrima rather than tai chi or ju jutsu. Those will certainly be included in the final book, but along with a diverse list that includes (among many other things) styles from southern Asia like gatka and thang-ta. In addition, we want to show that the concept of "martial arts" is not exotic or unique to Asia, so we plan to include additional European martial arts - built in exactly the same way - in future publications.

 

Make sure all mysticism and religion boils down to some cobbled together version of Zen + Tai Chi, because it's just there to fuel the martial arts.

Religion is extremely important to an understanding of Asian history. From ancient times to modern day, Asia has consistently been the most religiously diverse continent in the world. Despite the occasional dynasty or empire favoring a single religion, no individual faith has ever achieved monolithic dominance. Some have tried, but none have succeeded, and the most stable empires throughout the continent have generally been the more tolerant ones. Indian history alone is a story of Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Islam, and Sikhism, as well as all of their various sects and derivatives. Confucianism, Taoism, and other ideas that we normally think of as "Chinese philosophy" come from a period known as the "Hundred Schools of Thought." It is true that later Chinese practices did mix some traditions, but it was with an awareness of their origins that is usually lacking in translation to the west. Westerners tend to mix these ideas together and take individual traditions and practices piecemeal much the same way we treat the rest of Asian culture - again, as if it is all interchangeable. Our job in Steamscapes: Asia is to clearly delineate the unique history and beliefs of as many religions as possible.

 

Ultimately, anything we saw in a movie (even one made in the United States) is accurate. Real history is irrelevant.

Ninjas were not called ninjas. They did not wear black or use throwing stars. They were called shinobi (or kunoichi for the women), they assassinated people using rifles or poison, and they wore plainclothes so they could pass undetected. Interestingly, these misconceptions predate our 20th century media - they were popularized in Japan even as far back as the early 19th century. This means that we get to teach not only the reality but the reasons for the fiction in our 19th century setting.

Samurai (bushi) did not generally use their swords in battle. The preferred weapon was the bow, often from horseback.

There were indeed five real monks who fled the destruction of the Shaolin temple in Henan and spread a variety of martial arts styles throughout China during the Qing Dynasty. We think. Actually, there's a lot of debate about that one. We don't intend to settle that debate per se, but we will certainly be accessing what was already an active folk history at the time.

The point is that there are plenty of things we have gotten wrong. And while the mistaken versions may be exciting in a sort of cartoonish way, we believe actual history is plenty interesting all by itself, and we intend to show that.

 

I hope that this has helped to clarify some of the issues we are dealing with. In my next Developer Note, I will address questions of appropriation and stereotyping in writing and development. In the meantime, feel free to comment or ask questions wherever you see this article posted!

-Fairman Rogers