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What Games With Asian Settings Get Wrong — and Why They’re Important Anyway

Orientalism is prevalent in western art. Games are no exception.

I’m not the kind of person who gets sappy over poetry. But there’s this handful of lines from Ezra Pound that always make me feel like there’s a fist beneath my breastplate, pressing into the wet pink walls of my chest. They go like this:

A day when the historians left blanks in their writings
I mean, for things they didn’t know,
But that time seems to be passing.

These four lines come from Canto XIII, from a poem cycle usually called the China Cantos. They offer the famously Sinophile poet’s fractured, free versey take on imperial Chinese history, from the mythical, deep-BC sage-emperors to a century into the final dynasty. There are blanks in the narrative — presumably for the things they didn’t know: both Pound and his source, the Jesuit scholar Joseph-Anna-Marie de Moyriac de Mailla, whose name was as long as the 12-volume history he wrote from the mission field in Beijing.

The poem’s speaker, who remembers historians leaving blanks? That was Confucius.

I don’t know why this bit of poetry always gets me, but the fact that they do feels overdetermined. The lines act on me like the mechanical dip of a switch, that makes the circuitry in my nerves and muscles dance just right. It’s this automatic sparking of feeling, like an electric current — so easy it feels cheap.

I’m a historian of China, a PhD candidate trying to ink over with citations and cleverness all the blanks of what I still don’t know. And I’m a Sinophile, like Pound. Maybe more reasonably, since I was born in China — though I’ve spent far less of my life there than De Mailla, who read better classical Chinese, I’m sure.

I’ve got this sense of unease that I’m really just an Orientalist of the old school, given to flights of irresponsible lyricism over the Middle Kingdom. Despite my blood and all my historical training, I can’t help but be moved when white, Anglophone poets write about Confucius. We all have our guilty pleasures, I guess.

Dungeons & Dragons & Poets

My favorite cheat sheet for the western canon was this webcomic called Dungeons & Dragons & Philosophers: Simone de Beauvoir running a game for Foucault, Derrida, Kant, and her real-life partner Jean-Paul Sartre. I started reading it because, in undergrad, a lot of my friends were people who all met in a Great Books program, without me. When I was trying to get my Mandarin up to speed, they were mainlining canonical texts — the white people kind, from Plato to Foucault. Acting on FOMO, I assigned myself some extra reading: a little bit of Aristotle — in Chinese translation, so it felt virtuous. For most of the major critical theorists, I stooped to Wikipedia. But there was nothing better than D&D&P.

In a hypothetical spin-off called Dungeons & Dragons & Poets, I can picture Pound playing Oriental Adventures. It’d be the first edition, released in 1985, and he’d march his, say, chaotic evil wu jen — a lawlessly eccentric spellcaster— across the exoticizing fever dream of Kara-Tur. But I think he’d feel more at home with Yoon-Suin: The Purple Land, the blurb for which promises “ancient mysteries, opium smoke, great luxury and opulent cruelty.” Pound wouldn’t play through a campaign in Yoon-Suin— he’d be the one to run it, railroading his players through the smoke-wreathed landscape the way his China Cantos marched us through millennia of Chinese history.

That’s the thing about these OA-style sourcebooks: they trade in generalities, in dense, spidery webs of silken stereotype. If given the chance to page through one, my grad school professors would wrinkle their mouths in contempt, then lean forward and start pontificating about the distorted shape of East Asia in the western cultural imaginary.

It’s true that these games are ahistorical, to the point of hilarity: they flatten out Chinese and Japanese elements, 13th-century and 17th-century circumstances, into a single, tea-stained image of an exotic East. And it’s true that the leitmotifs of family and honor play out with all the subtlety of a hundred-strong trombone corps. Tellingly, tabletop gaming is virtually the only space where North Americans Toss out words like “Oriental” with a total lack of irony.

Tellingly, tabletop gaming is virtually the only space where North Americans toss out words like “Oriental” with a total lack of irony.
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Despite these flaws, there’s still something seductive about these games. They feel like translations that read well even when you know they got it wrong, and I’m drawn to them like I’m drawn to Pound’s Confucius. The defense lies in the fantasy. The OA aesthetic — like the Legend of the Five Rings aesthetic or the Bushido aesthetic, they’re all one aesthetic, really — is grounded not in history but film, Hong Kong action flicks and Akira Kurosawa. As they interpret Asian-made movies at one remove, it becomes clear they were never about a real Asia but an imagined Orient. It’s a Kara-Tur-like country that exists only in the minds of Asian auteurs and fantasists, and white poets and missionaries, shimmering in the cultural record like a opium-smoke mirage.

“A More Cosmopolitan Outlook”

The danger comes in when someone takes the fantasy for reality. It seems like a ridiculous mistake, like doggedly citing poetry as history. But a reviewer promised that 1979’s Bushido — set in a mythical, Kurosawa-inspired Nippon — would be “worth the price for the person interested in developing a more cosmopolitan outlook”. As if playing a gangster or priest in fake Japan would help someone understand the nuances of life in real Japan. Strikingly, the reviewer who made this claim was himself of Japanese descent, surnamed Okada. As a China Cantos fan surnamed Tang, I can’t help but relate.

I don’t want to condemn Asian campaign settings as bad historiography — for the simple reason that they’re not historiography. I don’t even want to dismiss them as mere guilty pleasure, as if playing them will gnaw away at your capacity for critical thought, the way endless cheeseburgers gum up overtaxed arteries. Like all departures from the Tolkienesque sword and sorcery, OA-style games diversify the tabletop, opening up other ways of contextualizing heroism and adventure, risk and right.

Actually, I’m tempted to read the tabletop’s transformation of themes and tropes from Asian media as a good sign. It’s an indication that the texts I study — and in some ways embody — are as durable and capacious as the western canon. After all, Hamlet, Satan, and the Lady of Shalott are constantly being stirred into new narratives, some transcendent and some bizarre.

We’re fortunate that, in the decades since OA 1e first appeared, game designers have started turning out Asian-inspired settings animated by nuance. Instead of building up a catch-all East Asia — an Orient — new-generation games home in on particular regions and eras with distinct textures, using them as scaffolding to build fully realized settings.

Tabletop storytellers — whether they’re game designers or GMs — often “care more about good writing than actual writers”.
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The French-made Qin: The Warring States, for instance, focuses on the contentious lead-up to imperial unification, while Wandering Heroes of the Ogre Gates centers on the Southern Song, a shrinking empire teetering on the edge of collapse. Qin unification happened in 221 BCE. while the fall of the Song wasn’t till 1279 CE. It makes sense that these two worlds would be markedly different in texture and affect.

7th Sea: Khitai, meanwhile, revisits the premise of a mythic pan-Asian setting — but pitches it as an internally heterogeneous region animated by historical flux. Hearts of Wulin, a Kickstarter-backed wuxia game I’m personally excited about, seems — in its elegant approach to both romance and combat — to draw heavily on the late imperial fiction that informed my love of premodern China in the first place. Its creators include Agatha Cheng, of Asians Represent fame, as both co-author and cultural consultant.

There’s also Filipino-American designer James Mendez Hodes’ Kurosawa-inflected samurai fantasy Thousand Arrows, now live on Kickstarter, which promises to subvert “stereotypes and misconceptions about Asians which appear most commonly in gaming culture whenever a samurai or monk shows up”. Hodes’ Asian-American identity alone doesn’t promise that his work will be more rigorously researched, more attentive to detail, than the L5Rs of yore. What does is his graduate training in Eastern classics and his experience as a sensitivity reader for materials featuring Asian and African cultures.

Of course, you don’t need a master’s degree to play — or run — a game in an Asian setting “respectfully,” an ask this GM took to the gaming sages of Reddit. What you do need is the empathy and imagination to craft a compelling story, and the research to flesh it out with the details that make it ring true.

Isn’t that the fun part anyway?



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What Games With Asian Settings Get Wrong — and Why They’re Important Anyway

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