Monday, 26 March 2012

Pseudo-Orientalism Grab-Bag

One of my absolute favourite setting ideas in the OSR blogosphere is one that (to me) got surprisingly little mention on the other blogs - Mu-Pan, from the Land of NOD. This is a pseudo-oriental setting of the absolute highest quality, far better in my view that anything TSR came up with. Take for example this:

6038. Umborodom’s Abbey: There is an ancient fortress-monastery constructed here of red bricks and tall, peaked roofs of copper. The roof is covered with hundreds of tall, copper spires that attract lightning. The monastery is dedicated to Umborodom, whose hound was the thunder. The monastery is inhabited by 16 low-level sohei and their abbess, Deneg, a temperamental woman with blue-gray eyes and a powerful hatred of the Jade Empress, who quells her lovely storms and keeps her “hounds” hungry.

The “hounds” are three lightning elementals that dwell within a golden matrix that serves as the monastery’s idol. The monastery is surrounded by a village of red brick buildings inhabited by about 150 tin miners. The mines are of ancient vintage, but still producing tin and a few tourmalines and topaz each month. Tourmalines are claimed by the sohei and topaz by the empress.

The sohei of the monastery wear blue armor and carry large, steel-shod mallets.


5140. Fey Samurai: A fairy knight in the trappings of a samurai has made camp here. He has been wandering the land searching for an honest man, for it is the kiss of an honest man that will awaken the Silver Maiden who sleeps beneath the mountains.

And this:

4921. Forest of Legs: The forest of trees in this hex gradually turns into a forest of giant, stone legs. The legs are limestone and carved from the “living rock” as some people say. They once held aloft a create limestone cavern that was apparently pulled apart in ancient times. The woodland of stone legs is inhabited by giant blue eagles and silver foxes, and a few of the legs serve as the roosts of hermits, devout wushen who seek enlightenment through the denial of comforts like regular meals and bathing.

It's to die for if pseudo-orientalism is your thing - which it is mine.

It's reminiscent to me of an old favourite of mine: Sword of the Samurai. This was a fantasy gamebook set in "Hachiman", the quasi-Japan of the Fighting Fantasy world - another setting which, like Matt's Mu-Pan, captures the atmosphere of a fae-tinged, delicate, misty, melancholic Eastern "other". Edward Said would not approve, but who gives a fuck what that old bore thinks?

Finally, to round off this rather incoherent and unstructured ramble of a blog entry, I would like to direct new readers to one of my all time favourite pieces of pseudo-orientalism: Borges' The Analytical Language of John Wilkins, in which he fabricates an ancient Chinese encyclopedia which categorises all the animals in the world into:
  1. those that belong to the Emperor
  2. the embalmed
  3. the trained
  4. piglets
  5. sirens
  6. the fabulous
  7. stray dogs
  8. those included in this classification
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad
  10. innumerables
  11. those that are drawn with a very fine camelhair brush
  12. et cetera
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase
  14. those that from a distance look like flies
If you don't find yourself wishing that this encyclopedia really existed, I don't know what's wrong with you.


  1. I don't call him 'the hardest working man in the OSR' for just no reason. John is a one man rpg machine. His work is always professional and how he finds the time to do it all is beyond me.

    Whenever I'm behind on something I'm working on I drop in to his blog and see him cranking it...always motivational.

    I'm very happy whenever I see others discover his 'well of goodness' :)

    A true gentleman of gaming.

    1. He puts the rest of us to shame. Isn't he called Matt though?

  2. John is indeed a class act.

    And Sword of the Samurai? I loved that book "If you throw the sword a Ikiru like a spear, turn to page whatever". Though I will say it bled seamlessly in my mind into Kara-Tur. It all seemed like one big excellent pseudoJapan to me

    1. Yeah, I don't have it on me, but I love that fight where you have to take on three demonic enemies, and one of them is this frog thing... I mustn't have read it since I was 12 but I still remember that.

  3. Replies
    1. We're jealous of your prodigious talents and work ethic. Really.

  4. Oh man, I've been searching for that Borges reference since forever. Made my day!

  5. Way cool - right in my wheelhouse.

  6. I really enjoyed the Mu-Pan work, and I'm consistently amazed by NOD - I should go tell Matt that at his own gaff, really.

    As for Orientalism, it's what DnD is founded on - self-conscious externality and convenient Othering of the enemy for the purpose of exploitative expropriation. If anything I reckon Orientalist DnD is less Said-baiting than the vanilla fako-European version, because it actually places the PCs in the Orient, as locals.

    Possibly related: I find my tastes changing over time - I used to want authentick flavours, it didn't matter of what, really, but I wanted my Japan to be "really Japanese" and my medieval Europe to be "really medieval." Nowadays I've slid some distance from that position toward Xena - I want gonzo mashup more and find authentick a bit of a bore. Where do you find yourself on that scale?

    1. Will write a post on it!

    2. Please do (if you mean you'll write a post on the value of authenticity in gaming worlds, not the 'Othering' at the centre of D&D).

      I used to great stuck on 'realism' - not just historical, even high fantasy worlds had to be realistic. Which, in my case leads to lots of boringly barely distinguishable towns, forests and valleys, little in the way of adventure, and one high necromancer who is so far beyond the PCs' powers he may as well be a god.

      Now I want my gaming worlds to work as GAMING worlds, which comes above historical or fantastical 'realism'. Ruins in every hill, subterreanean complexes under each town, with each 'locale' working like a Star Trek planet - some, unsually fantastical, theme to each place. Why do you want a continent full of pseudo-medieval Antwerps?

  7. An amazing discovery. Thanks for pointing us to it.

  8. " Edward Said would not approve, but who gives a fuck what that old bore thinks?"

    I'm not sure Said really cared about any Orient further East than the Middle East. He was Palestinian, after all.

    I have to give to him, he took the Animal House motto, inverted it to "Knowledge is Bad" and had that taught to millions of students as unquestionablr orthodoxy for decades.

  9. oh sweet , why have not been hovering over this blog like the flesh mine own flesh? Cheers

  10. Wow, I didn't realise that encyclopedia contents was made up. Still great though.

    One of the wonderful things about misunderstandings between cultures is that they create these new fantasy worlds, whole new cultures blooming out of mist-mirages.

    And as what is "foreign" of any civilisation is a function of the civilisation that is looking; (we see what we think we are not) then as far as I'm concerned we can not only legitimately have fun with these exoticised worlds, but it's actually quite interesting and maybe valuable to do so. It's not about "them" really at all, but about us.

    So I like to push past specific cultural touchstones,or shuffle them together, and make weird super-foreign places, as foreign as me and the other players can handle, and then live there!

    I mean assuming your game is not premised primarily on killing stuff, but more working round things and getting what you want, then you've basically made the exact opposite of what people complain about, because your fantasy world allows you to explore ways of being that are fundimentally different from normal life, intentionally "not us".

    It's about immersing yourself in some weird new culture and trying to get to grips with how it might work, and as you play you develop on that culture and flesh it out. And this thing that was weird and exotic starts to become familiar. Amazing!