Role-Playing in an East Asian Setting

The Celestial Empire is not my only venture into East Asian-flavoured role-playing. I've also GM'd in East Asia with other 'engines', and it's always been extremely satisfactory. I've never really understood this preference of mine for Oriental settings, but an old article I've recently (re)read may have given me the clue.

The 1994 RuneQuest-Con Compendium contains a long transcript of a panel that Greg Stafford presented about heroquesting. For those who do not know Glorantha, Greg Stafford's fantasy world, heroquesting is the ability for a character to interact with his culture's myths in order to gain powers. At a certain time in the seminar, an audience member says the following:

My problem with the mythical heroquest is that very few involve gangs of heroes doing something, except the Argonauts. Heroquests are almost always one guy in a spotlight, and the other people are usually made to follow orders. It's very rare that our 3 or 4 player characters all go off and decide they want to do this one thing.

 To which Greg Stafford answers:

The problem that you state that, of almost all these transformative myths and stories are about individuals... It's very rare, you know, to find a whole group of people doing this thing together.

Well, I guess that's it. I don't want to write anything too clichéd, but I reckon the big difference is, the West emphasises the individual whereas the East emphasises the group. As a result, Western myths and literature feature individual heroes (sometimes with a sidekick) whereas Oriental myths and literature feature groups. In the Journey to the West, you have a group. In the Investiture of the Gods you have several groups. In the Water Margin you have 108 named heroes. In the Romance of the Three Kingdoms you have three sworn brothers. Even in the Dream of the Red Chamber there are almost forty major characters. And I believe this translates well into role-playing: having a party of 4 or 5 characters comes quite naturally about when you are intent on re-enacting the kind of adventures described in Chinese fiction. On the contrary, the kind of parties one sees in 'Western' role-playing games feel quite artificial, unless you're playing the Fellowship of the Ring for the umpteenth time.


  1. I disagree about the Western myths. It's how they're perceived, but not what they are.
    Knights of the Round table, plural. The Iliad has multiple heroes. Jason was mentioned. Herakles gathers groups of heroes. Viking expeditions always have more than one named character. Les Trois Mousquetaires are actually 4 guys. Knights actually went to war with a knight-in-training and mercenaries to keep them from encirclement.
    OTOH, lots of wuxia has a single protagonist.
    So, I agree it's easy to set up groups in East Asian settings. But it's just as easy to do so in Western European settings. One should just do what you're doing, and stay closer to history and old myths and literature.
    Now, if the group wants to emulate Eragon, yes, the problem you mention appears. Of course, if the group wants to emulate Eragon, I'm not interested, but that's another matter.
    And if you want to play Conan, or lonely heroes like Li Flying Dagger? You need a smaller group.

    1. OK, I've answered you on your blog: http://storiescharactersandsystemsinrpgs.blogspot.com/2013/06/how-to-create-party-in-historical-game.html

    2. A group of adventurers can be seen as a "Usual Suspects" kind of gang. Like in the movie, individual experts join forces to make something big (see, for example, Bear Peters' short story in Mage's Blood & Old Bones - A Tunnels & Trolls Shared World Anthology).
      Stealing a famous treasure often implies teaming up, like Conan did when stealing the Heart of the Elephant. In the Conan movies, that pattern is commonplace. In Conan the Barbarian, Conan meets the archer Subotai and the thief Valeria when trying to steal the gem in the Elephant Tower. In Conan the Destroyer, Conan the barbarian goes on his quest with his friends, Malak the thief and the wizard/shaman Akiro. Then, they meet Zula, whom they rescue from villagers...
      Adventurers tend to meet other adventurers everywhere in the world, east or west, in 水滸傳 just like in Robin Hood - where you do have a Ranger, a Cleric and a bunch of thieves.
      Wherever a task is too much for just one man or woman, a group is needed and naturally forms. Friendship (Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser) and love (Conan and Bêlit) are other reasons that explain why an adventurer can choose not to stay alone. Religion can be another reason (think about the crusades, or Joan of Arc, or the knights of the Round Table in search for the Holy Grail). Secret societies can also bring very different people together. Circumstances, need, friendship, and common interest brought Casanova (an adventurer/courtesan) and Bernis (a priest/politician), or Casanova and Father Balbi (a renegade priest/scholar).
      Of course, that implies thinking a bit about the way different characters met and why they met before they formed a group (see, for example, http://tunnels-et-trolls.eu/2013/01/23/comment-creer-un-groupe-de-personnages/).

    3. And I also answered the comment on my blog. Apart from what Grimtooth mentions, there are practical considerations why people would team up.

  2. Chinese Wuxia is filled with loners -- Dugu Qiubai (his name literally means "The Loner Who Seeks Defeat"), Feng Qingyang, Ximen Chuixue, Dong Xie, Zhuo Bufan, Xia Xueyi... the list goes on and on.

    Western adventure fiction has plenty of teams -- from Robin Hood to the Three Musketeers to the A-team to Burn Notice.