Sean Hillman and I met to talk about his game, or proto-game, just notes really, Empire of the Dragon Lotus. For me it’s a callback to about … fifteen years ago, into the hothouse of the Forge and Sean’s participation there. I think his original notes on the game from back then are in one of my stacked piles of papers. This isn’t nostalgia; it’s relevant, because I didn’t have to explain even a tiny bit of where I was coming from and what the consulting would be like, and this familiarity allowed us to get straight to the point.
We started simply by playing, or sort-of-playing, and our discussion from there remained grounded in what we’d done and observed.
You’ll see a hard look at a dice pool, from someone who typically quite likes them, especially in light of whether failure has any effect on either a character or an emerging plot.
The question of overall chapter structure: is it fixed? And if so, do outcomes actually accomplish anything?
Finally, I raised the issue of orientalism, which is a much broader concept than “Asian,” although in this case that term applies too. It’s straightforward: to what extent does a depiction arise from the creator’s prejudices and stereotypes? Critically, it’s not just negative portrayal, as the fictional people and situations are often projections of the creator’s own urges or guilty imaginings. Is it even possible for a pop fantasy fan to do “Asian! Fantasy! Adventure!” without orientalist content – is it not, perhaps, intrinsic to any such attempt? So we talked about that too, with any luck, pragmatically.
For a few pages of notes and arguably a system in need of overhaul, it certainly prompted a whole book of discussion topics. I’m interested to see what others think.
5 responses to “The far east! which means what?”
Wow, that looks daunting.
The discussion on orientalism and if art should be gated by ethnicity and culture is fascinating; I'll only say I applaud Sean's courage in wanting to tackle something like this now. I really like the "preassigned box" image. In its simplicity, "You can do it, but you must do it well" seems like a good capstone to the discussion, but I wonder if even that would be enough for some.
I remember an interesting discussion I had with a friend's collegue, a chinese engineer who was visiting here, and at dinner conversation ended up touching wuxia movies, a passion of mine. Well he was of the opinion that they were historycally inaccurate pastiches that bordered on the culturally offensive.
And if we think about it for a second, a lot of our western, anglo-germanic fantasy has… really nothing to do with our actual cultural roots. We have these things with errand knights and chivalric codes, inns and taverns, hoplites and vikings mixed together – why would we even want to be accurate when it comes to other cultures? Of course putting the most egregious cultural stereotypes at the edge of a map is problematic, but is featuring "honorable, skillfull samurais" any worse than featuring "oath-swearing, grail-seeking knight-errants"?
I also have a couple observations on the dice pool problem – I've spent enough sleepless nights agonizing over math in dice pools to immediately spot a few things, but I don't know if it's appropriate for me to butt in and start discussing math in a consulting post. It's just observations on what the dice actually do right now, not suggestions – I don't really have enough information to even begin understanding what Sean wants the dice to do here – but again, I want to know if it's ok to discuss such things first.
I also have a couple
I don't mind at all. I saw a couple flaws myself and its something I am tweaking. Play helped immensely.
This a thousand times. We are so out of touch with our own broad folk history that everything feels like pastiche at times.
I will not be easy, but I have taken the advice Ron offered and I have narrowed things down to a couple of influences that I hope will help me avoid the orientalism trap.
That is a key point, isn’t it
That is a key point, isn't it? Considering objectification to a negative degree – which, broadly, I guess, means dehumanizing, de-empathizing, projecting rather than perceiving – leads us to examine all pop culture, not only those most clearly adapted or adopted from across a border. Knights and cowboys (although few of the heroes of the latter are literally cowboys) have received a lot of critical attention about this, but instead of dissolving, they simply pop up in other forms, some adopted (samurai/ninja) and some not.
[There's a fascinating grey zone, of course – are Kurosawa's films "Japanese" or are they "co-opted Hollywood" in the Japanese film industry? But it's the kind of grey that doesn't go anywhere except to acknowledge that it exists.]
There's a reason I always favor the dank, not-quite-right edges of entertainment industry: Marvel Comics when it was a grotty intruder into newsstand comics, the resurrection of fantasy literature as a function of counter-culture, role-playing (full stop), films that wouldn't have been made by any strategic decision. It's not because a random pick from any of these is necessarily good – but whatever is good, is good in a way you can't find anywhere else.
Post-war Japanese cinema is a
Post-war Japanese cinema is a study all its own. If I were feeling confident, I would create a game based on Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story. I think Kurosawa provides a grey area that we as Western rpg creators can play with considering his own influences. On my to do list is a Rashomon style game where the same events play over from multiple perspectives, with each participant taking a role and a turn to "run" the session.
For the record, the second influence is Romance of the Three Kingdoms (if I have not mentioned that yet).
8 months later
… we've returned to the task. The intervening time is something of a consult of its own, considering the games that Sean has played, the discussions and seminars he's participated in, the game text readings he's done, and the collective impact of the consulting for Night Waves, Compact Agenda, and The Godsend Agenda. Without those, I don't think we could have done this.
The issue at hand is pretty big: why play this game – at all! – and why the combination of "a reasonably doable resolution roll + someone says what happens" is not good enough.
Another component of this dialogue is trust, or better, a working comfort that both of us are there to consider this topic fully, without other priorities. I remember it from academia, or rather, I received a 25-year lesson in the futility of effort in its absence.
I ask Sean some very hard questions, only possible in the context of that unnamed quality. Here's the direct link into the playlist.