Monday, March 6, 2017

Ki, Qi, and the Force     

I should start this post by stating that I am not of Asian descent.  And my formal studies about Asia are limited to the realm of philosophy.  So while I could talk about Buddhism and Confucianism without mixing the two up, that's about the extent of my expertise.  What should I do if I want to create a campaign setting that is a fantasy version of Asia?  Well, if I am a game designer, and I'm writing material for publication, I need expertise that I don't have.  Ideally, I should hire someone to help me out!  At the very least, I should pay someone as a consultant to look over my material before I publish it.

But suppose I'm thinking about this from a gamemaster perspective, not a game designer perspective.  As a gamemaster, I don't have a budget for creating my game.  And I may not know anyone with expertise in Asian history.  Here are four ways I could approach creating a Setting Component that might incorporate Ki Energy abilities.

Inspiration Without Context

In my setting, I want to have fighters who have mystical abilities based on some sort of life energy force.  My warriors will be ascetic in nature: they will meditate, they will dispense mysterious wisdom, and they will generally be above "worldly" desires.  They will have strange powers that derive from their connection and understanding of this energy.  And they will also be super-cool martial arts style fighters.  What I will end up with is something like Star Wars.

Star Wars was clearly influenced by the same concepts that the D&D monk was.  The difference is that Star Wars has removed almost all trace of Asian culture from those concepts.  I'd be using the same tropes, the wizened master, the ronin, etc., but I'd be using them through a Western lens.  To me, this is the least compelling of the approaches to creating Setting Components.  At its best, it is bland.  At its worst, it is white-washing.  In Star Wars, for example, having a character with the name Qui-Gon Jinn who is portrayed as a white dude is not just lazy, it's appropriative.  Creating a setting by picking the bits of Asian culture we like, while ignoring the context is much the same thing.  (This is not, btw, to say that I don't like Star Wars.  I actually like it a lot!  But I am aware of the problematic bits.)

Game Design by TV Tropes

TV Tropes has a handy page on ki manipulation that covers all the bases as far as how that trope is used in popular Western culture.  If you make a Setting Component based off of the information here, pretty much everyone will recognize instantly what you are going for.  This is largely the approach that Pathfinder has taken with respect to its game world design.  In its attempt to make a game world that is approachable by a mainstream, Western audience, it makes liberal use of tropes and stereotypes.  It is very clearly, and painfully, written for white people.  And if you use TV Tropes to write your game world, that is the result you will get.

In some ways, this approach is actually worse than the one above.  Because while the above method attempts to erase the culture that it is borrowing from, using tropes will have the result of leaning in to negative stereotypes.  It's also all been done before.  Your generic fantasy Asia will essentially be every other generic fantasy Asia.  So while this approach is probably the easiest one to implement, I would have to recommend against it.  Again, I play a lot of settings that use this approach (Golarion, the Forgotten Realms, etc.).  I can enjoy those settings, but at the same time realize that they are problematic, and try to improve on them in my own games.

Borrowing Wholesale

Suppose I have come to the conclusion that I need some expertise.  I decide that I will find someone else's fantasy Asia, and use that to build my campaign world.  To be sure that I have good source material, and not something that just duplicates the approaches above, I'll look for an Asian writer or creator.  This approach can have mixed success.

To give an example, let's use the most well-known source of Ki energy in popular culture:  Dragon Ball.  TV Tropes refers to it as a "trope codifier."  It contains all you need to create a template of Ki energy in all its forms.  It is popular enough to be recognized by your audience, but specific enough to have more flavor than a "vanilla" setting.  It's created by folks in Japan, based on manga by Akira Toriyama, one of the most well respected manga artists around.  So your fantasy Asia should be pretty authentic and respectful, yeah?  Well, sadly no.

Asia is not a single culture and there is a huge difference between Japan and China.  Stereotypes of China in Japan are just as prevalent, if not more so, as they are in the U.S.  The Dragon Ball series was, in its first incarnation, loosely based on Journey to the West, a classic Chinese novel.  So it is not any more likely to be a great example of a fantasy Asia as anything created by Western writers.  [standard disclaimer, yes, Dragon Ball is cool, despite being problematic, see above :)]

Doing the Research as an Amateur

This is the most difficult, the most time consuming, the most likely to fail spectacularly, and ultimately, the most rewarding of the four approaches.  No, I'm not an expert.  But part of why I play roleplaying games is to learn something.  D&D has taught me a lot of things, and learning about new cultures is fun!  So maybe the best approach is to sit down and try to learn about another culture myself, taking inspiration directly from the source, and then using that to create my fantasy world.  I'm not about to try to learn Chinese, so I'll have to rely on translations.  And I don't know a lot of Chinese history, so maybe I'll miss a lot of the context.  But I could certainly do a lot worse than to sit down with my own annotated translation of something like Journey to the West, and see how it inspires me!

Inevitably, I will make mistakes.  My own exposure to tropes and negative stereotypes is bound to trip me up.  And if someone points out mistakes to me, I'll be happy to correct them!  But my games will end up being a lot richer and more complex the more time I put into them.

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