Monday 16 March 2009

Setting Fetishism and the Kofun-era

An interesting post by edsan yesterday about setting fetishism and the social contract of explaining what the terms of a game are going to be before it begins. I'm the kind of person who traditionally leans towards the setting-fetishist point of the scale - you've probably worked this out already if you've been reading my blog for any length of time - but I recognise that essentially it's all a matter of horses-for-courses. I'm a player in edsan's Empire of the Petal Throne campaign, but I have basically no knowledge or experience of Tekumel. If you're going to run an EPT campaign with utter rubes like me, then setting fetishism just ain't going to work. You have to play fast and loose. Setting fetishism is a great thing if the players have both the knowledge and the willingness to invest heavily in the game world; if they lack either of those things you'll have a disappointing and rather crap game. (Similarly, playing fast and loose with a setting when players have the knowledge and willingness to invest is a recipe for unfulfilment and general wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

edsan points out that a good thing about Mike D's Ruins & Ronin project is that it doesn't allow itself to get hung up on details about feudal Japan. It's a fantastical vision of feudal Japan in the same way that D&D is a fantastical vision of feudal Europe. In the same way that D&D didn't worry itself unduly with accurately representing the life of a peasant in 11th-Century Avignon, so there's no reason for a 'Japanese' fantasy game to accurately represent life in 15th-Century Kanazawa.

I both agree and disagree with this. D&D might not be very realistic in its depiction of medieval society, but Harn is. (And during the 2e era, TSR made several forays into historical realism which I found particularly enjoyable.) Similarly, Ruins & Ronin might throw out socio-cultural detail in the name of pulpy fun, but The Blossoms Are Falling proved that basing an entire game on socio-cultural detail can be just as entertaining. It's a matter of those horses and their courses, again. Self-evidently, so long as players are clear as to the aim of the game, it shouldn't matter. As with the social-contract expectation that players should know whether they're turning up to play Tekumel canon or EPT-for-dummies, potential buyers/downloaders of a game should know what it is they're getting into. (This was always my problem with Legend of the Five Rings. If it was supposed to accurately represent Japanese society it was an embarrassing failure, but if it was supposed to be a fantasy game which just happened to take some of its influences from Japan, then I could forgive it. But which it was was never made clear.)

Anyway, in the comments to edsan's post, vraymond (who also happens to have written about this sort of thing recently) mentions running a game set in Kofun era Japan. I've thought about this too. (I wrote about it briefly here.) During that period, roughly between 250 and 538 AD, Japan was a disunited region of chiefdoms and tribes who built huge mound-like tombs (rather like iron age Britain).
However, not much else is known. The societies present in the archipelago were all pre-literate, so almost all of our scant knowledge comes from sources in China and Korea, who were more technologically advanced, and who began to make regular journeys to Japan during the period.

My idea for a Kofun-era game was that it would take place in a sort of quasi-historical version of East Asia where mythological beings, magic and so forth are real. The players would be Chinese or Korean diplomats, missionaries, traders and/or adventurers, who make the journey across the Yellow Sea and find a strange, mist-shrouded, forested set of islands full of barbarians, ghosts, dragons and ogres. These strangers in a strange land would then have to make of it what they could. (Rather like how in traditional EPT games, the players are always foreign newcomers trying to survive in Tsolyanu.) I think the advantage to this sort of game is that it allows a DM to come up with essentially whatever he wants - he can throw in any bastard mixture of Japanese mythological tropes - without having snobs (like me) complaining that "it wouldn't have been like that". And yet at the same time, if he's the setting fetishist type, he can spend weeks or months of his life developing an intricately detailed game world, and it won't matter that they players don't know much about it because, by definition, they're foreigners. There's no potential for conflict between players who "know about" Kofun-era Japan and those who don't, because everybody including the DM is in the same position of more-or-less complete ignorance. And at the same time there's plenty of scope for Japan-inspired fantastical weirdness.

I'm working on my mollusc-world/Yoon-suin setting at the moment, but maybe after that I'll think about making a Kofun-era based something-or-other.


  1. Well, I'm an ecletic gamer myself. I am running a S&S EPT game true, but my tabletop campaign is the Great Pendragon Campaign.

    That's as setting fetishistic as you can get. The whole thing is an 80-year metaplot!
    Plus who the hell is not even remotely familiar with King Arthur?

    From a GM prespective my preference is leaning more and more towards the rules-light and fuzzy setting kind of game I'm betting Ruins & Ronin will turn out to be.

    While I will certainly run something as the GPC there's no way I would waste the time making an equivalent from scratch. There was a time when I toyed with deeper seeting-building but that was before I found most campaigns (at least in my experience) don't last enough for the players to perceive beyond the local pond and the shapeless countours of its unknown vistas. So why bother with detail until (if) they actualy get there?

  2. Love it!

    Like Edsan says, we're all at least remotely familiar with King Arthur and the Hobbit, but for those of us not up on feudal Japan, what would your bibliography be?

  3. Unless you are asking for real scholarly works I would recommend watching a couple of 50-60's chanbara movies, plus "Shogun" (the book or the series), the "Lone Wolf and Cub" manga and of course, Usagi Yojimbo, mainly the earlier stuff where he meets more supernatural creatures. That would get you in the right mind-frame for a R&R game I think.

    For the Kofun era I would reccomend an awesome manga I read in French once if I could rememebr the name of the bloody thing.

    It dealt with the queen-ruled kingdm of Yamato, the machinations of the kingdoms from what will one day become China and the rise to power of the legendary first Japanese Emperor.

    It was pretty high-powered, ninjutsu, old-school, tradionatlly-drawn stuff but the visual and political backdrop gave me a nice picture of an era of Japan I didn't even knew it existed before.

  4. crazyred: I'm not in the least into manga so I can't tell you much about that, but in terms of straight history George Samson's three volume History of Japan can't be beat. It was written in the 60s so it might not reflect the most recent scholarship, but it's very easy to read and written for the lay reader, not history students or academics. It goes right the way from prehistory up to the Meiji Reformation in 1867.

    I also recommend the Genji Monogatari and the Heike Monogatari (Tale of Genji and Tale of Heike). The Tale of Genji was written in the 11th century and is often called 'the world's first novel'. It's the story of an imperial prince who is forced to begin life as a commoner and work his way up the ranks. Full of sex and death.

    The Tale of Heike is the story of the Genpei war, when two great clans - the Taira and Minamoto - struggled for control of Japan during the 12th century.

    Both of these are available in English, certainly to buy in a book shop but also maybe for free on the net.

  5. Good show Noisms, I'll have to check those out someday.

    I actually know a bit of the Heike Monogatari, namely the bit about the fabled sea battle of
    Dan-no-Ura. Courtesy, once more, of Mr. Stan Sakai and his Usaji Yojimbo comic.

    Yeah, yeah call me a fanboy. :)

    The song of Dan-no-Ura played with a Biwa (you can find renditions at is also some very nifty stuff. It can bring tears to your eyes even if you can't understand what the singer is saying