Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Arthur and the Samurai



I've been starting to jot notes about the future Oriental Adventures setting.  I mentioned previously I wanted to mash up elements of Arthurian myth with samurai cinema.  I'm thinking the setting will be during the 'Warring States' period, when powerful families and clans vie to unite the country.  That seems to be a time that would allow mid-level adventurers to follow the 'adventurer, conqueror, king' path to gain and expand their own holdings, and it should be straightforward to get ideas from history and other RPGs.  Meanwhile, a commenter on one of the other posts (eldersprig) suggested an island as the ideal place for adventures, and I'm warming to the idea.  The main islands are rife with "mundane" politics, warfare, and strife, and the mist-shrouded island(s) off the shore is where the walls between the real world and the spirit world are thin, and monsters and ghosts roam the night.

So why would I incorporate Arthurian myth with the samurai?  Some of the central themes in Arthur, such as the ownership of Excalibur and the image of the questing knight, port very well into a samurai age constantly on the verge of civil war.  "Shogun as military dictator" sounds pejorative, but let's say the previous position was ordained, and the grant of the sword of legend symbolized the acquiescence of the heavenly world.  The death of the last shogun and the long years of civil war that have followed place the land in chaotic, violent conditions similar to pre-Arthurian England. Sentimentalists continue the quest for the legendary sword that was lost, believing that whatever shugo or daimyo proves their worth by finding the sword, will be able to unite the country.  Pragmatists continue to field their armies and maneuver politically to gain power directly.

Doomed love triangles, ala Lancelot and Guinevere or Tristan and Isolde, port equally well.  It's not a major change to flip the axes of virtue and sin from the chivalric tales to reflect reputation and shame and oaths of loyalty challenged by love.  A character like the Fisher King also ports well, the story highlighting the problem of proper behavior versus wisdom in a hidebound society.  Figures like the Cornwall sisters (Morgan Le Fay and Morgause), powerful faeries and enchantresses, have their roles replaced by powerful but fickle spirit beings in this setting, tricksters that lead questing warriors astray.  Avalon and Faerie are replaced by the spirit world and the resident Kami.

I'm starting to like the sound of an island for other reasons; it lends itself to a 'West Marches' style campaign, where the deeper one travels on the island (or the higher one climbs the island's slopes) the more dangerous the encounters.  The strong demarcation between the mundane world and the Otherworld of the island, is aesthetically pleasing.  There appear to be many games and history books that have covered feudal Japan, making the job of adapting it for campaign use (hopefully) straightforward.  I've started reading Turnbull's Warriors of Medieval Japan, and FGU's game Bushido, to start building a knowledge base.


Here's another question for readers familiar with genres of Japanese fantasy and horror:  What are good inspirations for depictions of the mist-shrouded island and the Spirit World?  I plead near total ignorance; my exposure to Japanese Kami comes from Miyazaki films like Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke or Howell's Moving Castle, and their blends of trippy spirits and general weirdness; from The Last Airbender (the cool animated show, not the awful M Night movie), with its frequent interludes where the avatar encounters the spirit world, and deals with horrible beasties like Koh the Face-Stealer.  Any suggestions on film, shows, anime, games, comics, etc, that would help populate the island with spirit creatures or provide inspiration for the Otherworld would be appreciated - thanks!  I'm hoping to track down a good book on folklore, weird tales like Kaidan, and learning more about J-horror themes.

Although I don't see how I can go wrong if I cover it with mist-shrouded shrines, ruined Japanese castles, gigantic trees, rival samurai questing for the last shogun's sword, and the occasional creepy humongous talking centipede.

33 comments:

  1. Inu-Yasha is exactly what you want. It's supernatural action-adventure with a strong horror element set in the Warring States (Sengoku) era featuring a mad plethora of demons, kami, monsters, and spirits. It's also on Netflix. (And has a great kodo-drum-driven soundtrack if you use background music during games.). There will probably be commentators who roll their eyes at the suggestion of Inu-Yasha, but it is completely perfect for your needs.

    The Ninja Scroll film and series are set in the Tokugawa era and feature more superhuman/mutant antagonists than actual monsters, but they and Basilisk might help if you want freaky ninjas.

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    1. Yes, unfortunately as an anime (both in terms of style and plot), it's not very good. And the depiction of the spirit world is relatively uninspired (like... there are demons and stuff; that's pretty much the extent of it).

      That being said, the idea of the magic thing that is split up into shards and scattered over the world, each piece needing to be collected seems made for a hexcrawl.

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    2. I respectfully disagree with that assessment of the quality of the work. While Inu-Yasha runs over-long and somewhat loses it's way, that's the nature of incredibly popular series in Japan.

      Frankly, the cornucopia of monsters present in Inu-Yasha is far more useful for Beedo's purposes than the interesting but distinctly Tibetan-inspired cosmology of Moribito, and Mushi-shi is... dull. At least he can watch Inu-Yasha with the kiddos and expect them to stay interested.

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    3. Perhaps; obviously tastes play into this. However, the question was:

      What are good inspirations for depictions of the mist-shrouded island and the Spirit World?

      Inuyasha monsters are not an answer to that question.

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    4. Also, while it is true that the character of Balsa comes from a Tibet-like land, the cosmology of Moribito is not particularly Tibetan, and fits Shinto/kami mythology. I have also read Moribito described as Korean in some ways, but I don't think Beedo is too much of a stickler for cultural fidelity (and the real historical syncretism behind all of these cultures makes the idea of essence kind of meaningless anyways if you poke at all beyond the surface; Buddhism, just for one example, is, after all, Indian in origin).

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    5. I'm appreciating all these suggestions. I tried watching Inu-Yasha a few years ago (when it was first recommended) but my oldest at the time was 6 or 7, and it seemed a bit older and risque for him at the time, so we stuck with Avatar on Nick; I'm glad to give it another view, or watch them solo here and there. How does the series compare to the movies? It looks like the movies are on streaming, but the series is on disc (and possibly not available on netflix right now...)

      I've been putting together a simple precis for the campaign, and will get that posted tomorrow - you guys have had great ideas, it might help narrow the focus.

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    6. The series got yanked? Rats. It might be because Viz is finally releasing discs of the dubbed versions of the series finale. I wonder if it's still streaming on Viz' website?

      The movies will probably make very little sense to people who don't know the characters, but they've got some interesting visuals. Swords of an Honorable Ruler is my favorite, but Fire on the Mystic Island might be best for your needs

      The funny thing is that all of the risque stuff was in the early part of the series (the first 20 episodes or so).

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    7. Yeah, it's still available at www.vizanime.com. Not as convenient as Netflix, but at least it's free and unpirated.
      Kekkaishi is another show with magic and monstera streaming there, but in a modern setting. I've only seen half of it, but I remember it being surprisingly effective for something so seemingly cliched.

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    8. I'll have to see if they have an app; I stream on the iPad and it looks like they need flash. hanks for he heads up though!

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  2. http://pinktentacle.com/tag/yokai/ might help.

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  3. OK, now I've finally read the actual post I see you already had Miyazaki in there... Sorry about that.

    the higher one climbs the island's slopes the more dangerous the encounters
    YES. Civilisation can't climb hills. And mountains-and-water is the definition of wilderness landscape in Chinese and Japanese garden design - the proper background for solitary scholars, those who have withdrawn from the dirty political world to hone their senses.

    I'd play it.

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  4. I fully agree with Richard about the plains vs mountains dichotomy in Asian civilisation (one could also add forests).

    There is a pretty good, if not linguistically perfect, web-site about Asian horror here: http://www.angelfire.com/sk3/asianhorror/encyc.html

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  5. Regarding the sword: Shintoism does include a sword in the three things that make up the Japanese imperial regalia, and even now the sword is considered important to the emperor.

    http://www.jref.com/japan/culture/sanshu_no_jingi.shtml

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  6. For "love triangles" The Tale of Genji is a must-read. One of the primary classics of Japan, and also by some measures the world's first novel.

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  7. Already mentioned on G+, but I'll leave a note here for posterity as well: the anime Moribito has a fantastic depiction of the spirit world (the dichotomy is called Sagu/Nayug in the setting).

    http://myanimelist.net/anime/1827/Seirei_no_Moribito

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  8. Sorry for the barrage of comments, but here's one more anime to consider: Mushishi. It's all about second sight/investigating kami, and it has a very pleasant, almost dreamlike pace. I'll warn you that I've only seen the first 5 or so episodes, so I don't know how satisfying the series as a whole is.

    Here's a summary:

    Their existence and appearance are unknown to many and only a limited number of humans are aware of them. Ginko is a "Mushi-shi" who travels around to investigate and find out more about the "Mushi". In the process, he also lends a helping hand to people who face problems with supernatural occurances which may be related to the "Mushi".

    -- http://www.animenewsnetwork.com/encyclopedia/anime.php?id=5923

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PdhR5XZNXbs#t=16m40s

    (Skip to 16:40 if my direct link doesn't work.)

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  9. This isn't what you really asked for, and maybe its a bit too much on the nose or you've already mentioned it... but for both the historical aspects of the game and scenario ideas I'd recommend reading or re-reading that old manga classic Lone Wolf and Cub in addition to your non-fiction research. Dark Horse reprinted them a few years back, but save yourself the cost and read them online for free here if you don't or can't get your hand son them:

    http://www.mangareader.net/lone-wolf-and-cub

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    1. That is fantastic - I didn't even know it was out there. Thanks tons for the heads up. I never read Lone Wolf and Cub but have the films on the wish list.

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    2. You're welcome. Good luck with the campaign, it sounds like a blast. I've always wanted to run or play a re-imagined Oriental Adventures and you sound like you're on the right track. I'd love to read more as you go.

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    3. You should also check out Usagi Yojimbo which has great stories and supernatural stuff too!

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  10. As far as the Shogun being a military dictator, remember that the earliest title given for Arthur by Gildas is "dux bellorum" (leader of war), so not too far off. Who's going to stand in for the Saxons in your take?

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    1. Here's the way I see it... Uther was the last shogun,the guy that had the sword, whose greed or bad choices lost himself his head, and the sword, and put the whole country into decades or more of civil war. Arthur is that "once and future shogun", maybe just a boy or young man now, who may or may not be a direct descendant, certainly doesn't know he's any kind of chosen one. The events of the campaign would determine if the sword is found, the heir identified, and whether the rival daimyos accept or reject the idea of a boy-king, or a regent, or interim shogun. Maybe it's only the movie Excalibur, where Wart is ill equipped to be the king at first, but I remember how he gains the support of some of the old guard and is able to cement a power base. It could work out like that. There's even a reincarnation Buddhist angle to be developed around identifying a descendant.

      Of course, assuming the players are the ones to find the sword, I could just as easily see them keeping the sword, knifing the heir, and declaring themselves supreme rulers, but quite often they surprise me with their selflessness. That's why you toss all those elements into the salad, shake it up good, and see what happens.

      Not exactly Arthurian canon, but the bones of the story are there.

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  11. Kauai island, Hawaii would be an excellent geographical inspiration for an enchanted island.

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  12. That's funny, I was just about to start asking folks that know feudal Japan to recommend a location for Spirit Island and what would be the nearest port... for instance, should it be Hokkaido, or one of the islands further north? I'll post a campaign overview in the next day that would help.

    In the meantime - I'll check out Kauai.

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    1. Hokkaido was practically unknown to the Japanese in this period. The native Ainu could be easily reinterpreted as Spirit Folk, korobokuru, or something nastier.

      I know Warren Ellis put Monster Island near Sakhalin in "Planetary..."

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    2. For that matter, Shikoku -- despite being one of the main islands -- has a weird and magical history.

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    3. (It's where Kusanagi -- the lost sword Brendan mentioned -- was lost when the child-emperor Antoku died with the Taira clan.)

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    4. Which you can read about in the Tale of the Heike; highly recommended. As if you didn't already have enough to read. This is the best English translation:

      http://www.amazon.com/The-Tale-Heike-Helen-McCullough/dp/0804718032

      :-)

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  13. Spirited Away is actually a fairly good introduction to Shinto concepts. See this article for a discussion.

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  14. Another vote for Usagi Yojimbo. It is perhaps the best comic on feudal Japan. There is even a story about Grasscutter, which is a sword not unlike Excalibur.

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    1. Usagi Yojimbo is not "the best comic on feudal Japan" -- it's one of the best comics ever, period :)

      The Grasscutter story arc could easily be transformed into a campaign for feudal Japan PCs.

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  15. After looking into it, I'm super intrigued by Usagi Yojimbo - I'll pick up the first few collections. Getting me to check out a new comic that's in my zone of interest is an easy sell!

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