This is a story telling campaign set in a fantasy/Sino-Japanese setting. It uses the tools we have developed for a free-form GMless story-telling game, and links will be added to the blog entries as sessions occur.
The action occurs in a city. The location is the Legend of the Five Rings published city of Ryko Owari Toshi.
At the every end of this page are the original notes I made when the idea was to run this as a conventional role-playing game. Rules were to be Revised Original Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, with modifications I thought necessary.
The inspiration for this campaign came from the series of books translated and popularised by Robert van Gulik concerning the apocryphal character of Judge Dee, a Magistrate during the T’ang dynasty.
The mixing of Japanese and Chinese ideas allows a flavour without precisely tagging it. This is a fantasy world, not a historical one. The main cultural influence is Chinese: the cross of Confucian and Taoist sensibilities. The military and specifically warrior family idea is drawn from the Japanese model, and this is unashamedly about capturing the dark romance of the Samurai.
Justice and order are maintained by trained employees of the state rather than by the swords of the martial elite.
Visually, and culturally, I see more of Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers and Hero than I do The Seven Samurai. Peasants are disarmed; structured society.
Link: Japanese historical maps
Old Notes: these ideas have been carried around for years. They no longer form the basis of the current campaign, but I keep them here for reference
This campaign uses a Revised Original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (ROAD&D) set of rules, based on the 2nd edition. As a general statement, the modern core d20 mechanic is the basis of all subsequent modifications and interpretations. The 2nd edition rule supplement that informs the overall design is Oriental Adventures.
Experience and level advancement
There are no experience points (XP) in this game. The reward that characters enjoy from doing stuff is the pleasure of doing them.
Instead of counting points for individual actions in order to accumulate enough to advance a level, the characters must experience profound understanding of their chosen profession at their level of comprehension. This might be called an ‘a-ha’ moment, or what musicians or sportsmen call being ‘in the zone’. This might be subjectively experienced as a slowing down of time, a deep calmness, a harmony of action that transcends mere correct application of form or other, event more esoteric descriptions such as contact with a deity.
We use a roll of a natural 20 when performing the primary class activity to model these moments.
To advance a level, the character must experience as many a-ha moments (rolls of natural 20s) as the desired next level. For example: a level 4 Samurai must roll a total of 5 natural 20s when in combat before he has sufficiently understood his current skills to advance a level.
These rolls do not need to be in the same combat, or even in the same session or adventure. They accumulate through adventuring, and when the required number have occurred, the character is eligible to find a teacher to be instructed through the next series of kata appropriate to their new level. Until they receive this training they continue to operate at their current level.
Yes, it is possible to roll the required number of 20s in a single session. And in this case we would say that the character has a natural talent in their chosen profession. Or it may take a glacial period of time, if at all. For this character we might comment that he is blocking, or hindering his advancement somehow, and should spend a little more time meditating on the problem. The first case is possible in the standard rules. The second is less common, but it reflects reality. Regardless of how much one might what to be a super-swordsman, at the end of the day one might just not be good enough or psychologically suited to it. Treat this as an opportunity for role playing.
Narrative play and criticals
Critical hits on a roll of natural 20 are a way of trying to introduce some colour into an otherwise mechanical process.
Following on from the section on Experience, we use the a-ha moment of the natural 20 to allow a moment of narrative play in order to liven up dice-rolling combat or other, stress filled, class related activities.
When a character rolls a natural 20 when undertaking a task within his primary skill suite (that is: doing expected character class stuff) he may verbally describe the result in dramatic detail. He may embellish. He may imbue the scene with life, in other words. More than just saying, “Natural 20! double damage.”, he may describe the detail of the event and the effect, and elaborate on what this precipitates. Maybe a natural 20 is an opportunity for a Mythic moment. Perhaps this indicates when, at least, the DM must introduce a Mythic moment.
Use your common sense, guys, but this is the chance to make those a-ha moments that contribute to your level advancement truly memorable.
Social and character class
Every person in the 80,000,000 strong Empire is born into a social class. They are, by default, level 1 characters in that inherited class.
Click here for a chart showing the demographics of the Empire and the character classes available for play: Demographics of the Empire
These notes are my interpretation of the great religions for game use. This is not a serious analysis of the real meanings of these ideas.
The official state religion of the Empire is based on the pantheonic model of the Celestial Empire. There is the supreme god, the Celestial Emperor, who runs a court of dozens, if not hundreds of lesser gods, demi-gods and heroes. Gods vary in description and portfolio from district to district, and people may give more attention to one over another depending on their region of birth or perhaps profession. Every citizen of the Empire has a broad undertsanding of the main gods and their portfolios. The gods are real.
Quite apart from the organised religion, people have philosophical preferences to guide their everyday behaviours and inform their rituals. These are as follows:
Throughout history, regions have developed complicated cosmologies of pantheons, spirits, and creation myths. Names and roles of the gods differ from place to place. Most people will have a nodding understanding of these traditional beliefs and it is not unusual for households to have personal shrines for particular dieties that they believe will grant them protection and so on. Ancestor worship is pervasive to this belief system. One day we will be dead, we might reason, and we don’t want to have lived for nothing. Therefore we should remember those that have gone before us, as an example to those that will succeed us.
We can shoe-horn Japanese Shinto in here, in its form of nature reverence, animism and shamanism. (But don’t go claiming that this is a real-world definition.)
As a modern interpretation we would say that these traditional beliefs are based on superstition. Even the most rational person may be inclined to regress to these beliefs when faced with the mysterious.
Better described as a philosophy and better still classified as a system of ethics, Confucianism takes its name from the somewhat Machievelian character: Confucius (Kung Fu Tse). Over the centuries he has been raised to a status of divinity.
In essence, Confucianism is a humanist system, concerned with the harmonious interaction of people. We are thinking, moral, animals and if we are to survive and prosper as a species we need some simple rules so that we do not behave like bestial animals and destroy ourselves.
The code can be boiled down to the principle of respect. Respect between parent and child, between man and woman, between the state and the individual, between friends, and between the powerful and the weak. Respect is realised in the giving. One does not crash about the place demanding ‘respek’. One gathers respect by showing respect to others. The powerful are only as good as they act, in other words. Power is nothing in itself. The brutal and arrogant may kill us, we might reason, but that does not alter the fact they are dicks.
Only professional teachers might claim to be devoted followers of the ‘religion’ of Confucianism, but everyone in the Empire understands and is judged by these universally known codes of behaviour.
Completely opposite in its approach to Confucianism, the Tao is concerned with the fundamental nature of the universe.
Like Confucianism, the Tao owes its origins to an ancient philospher, Lao Tsu, who has subsequently been raised to divinity. Ironically.
The Tao (perhaps easily thought of as The Way) does not offer answers. It is a pure philosphy that defies the easy answers of other (Western) religions. We can boil it down to this: the universe is a marvelous, mysterious, place. And you hold no particular place of importance in it. And you are really too small to understand how it works. So get over yourself and get on with the business of living your life, which can be truly wonderful, if you let it be.
Self reflection and meditation are the hallmarks of Taoists. Taoists cannot easily be classified into behaviour types as the philosphy does not tell you how to behave. It does, however, warn you off taking yourself too seriously.
There is a common saying that every man is a Confucian in public and a Taoist in private.
Only a few hundred years ago an aristocrat did a bit of soul searching and codified a cosmology that has struck a chord with many. It boils down to this: life is suffering. The cause of suffering is desire. Desire is attachment to the material world. This desire causes us to be reborn, again and again, through successive lives, inflicting ourselves with the pain and anguish of love and loss and disease and poverty and so on. The trick to escape this cycle of self-abuse is to let go of desire for things material. Then you are free to ascend to a higher level of universal consciousness. Life is, perhaps, a trial.
Buddhism is seen by the rational Confucianists as a piece of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. To the Taoists it is an interesting little mind-game that does strike a chord, but at the end of the day it has no more authority than anything else.
Outside of lofty philosophical discourse, Buddhism is a popular model. Life, after all, is pretty unpleasant and uncomfortable: filled with physical pain, the anguish of love lost, the torture of losing loved ones to the cold hand of death. Buddhism offers the hope of escaping all of that.
Buddhists are the most likely to take on a ‘monks’ life, retiring away from the petty concerns of daily life. Luckily, there are others in society who do the work of providing them food. However, it is also true that Buddhists can become formidible fighters. There is nothing that says taking up arms to defend a right or defy an evil is any worse than the whole irksome business of being alive in general. Just because they accept the ideal of rejection of the material world, it does not mean that they can instantly turn off their normal human emotions and behaviours and live it.
Writing off someone as being a Buddhist and therefore harmless can be a fatal mistake.