The Journey To...Romance Of The Three Kingdoms
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  • The Journey To...Romance Of The Three Kingdoms



    Role playing games are rooted in human myth and the continuation of oral tradition, up to and including the war games that are RPGs' direct ancestors. Although the stories that primarily drive play are derived from north and northwest Europe (Moorcock, Tolkien, various versions of Norse mythology), there is a vast and often neglected collection of human mythology and history available for play. The idea of this series is to talk about the history and mythology of other cultures and how players and game masters can incorporate this bounty into their own characters and stories. Today we journey to ancient China and the last days of the Han dynasty.

    The Three Kingdoms is a period of Chinese history that has been covered by film, video game, and board games but seems underrepresented in RPGs. A real historical period between the fall of the Han dynasty and the beginning of the Jing, the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is a novel that has immortalized this period. The historical romance is attributed to Luo Guanzhong. Guanzhong takes historical events and transforms them into legend to tell a tale of war, politics, ambition, and betrayal. The fates of the nations of Wei, Shu, and Wu are entwined in an ever shifting world of alliances and personal politics.

    With such a dense source material to work from, a game master won't lack for conflict and details to choose from. It is however, the focus on the personalities that makes the novel as well as the period a perfect sell for a campaign. Role playing games are about larger than life characters and few works of literature express this better than Romance. These are not mere mythological analogues, but actual people who lived, loved, and died during a tumultuous period in the history of one of Earth's greatest nations.

    How can you use this? Romance of the Three Kingdoms is not a dungeon crawl setting. Where it can shine however, is as a campaign focused on politics and power, with high stakes decisions affecting the lives of millions. Every character will not be carrying a sword, which makes a game focused on the politics behind the battles extremely rewarding. A tale of families and politics on par with the War of the Roses / A Song of Ice and Fire is available for the ambitious game master willing to tackle the source material in depth. Of course there is plenty of fodder for individual heroes interacting with legendary figures like Liu Bei and / or the more metaphysical myths of Chinese lore. Indeed, combining Journey to the West with Romance of the Three Kingdoms would make for an outstanding play experience.


    China has a long history and a wonderful mythology that goes beyond what we have talked about here. I recommend taking a look for yourself and breaking free from gaming tradition for a while to walk among legends who actually lived. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms is well worth the experience.
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    Comments 27 Comments
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      I've done this.

      The problems are, IMO, threefold.

      1: Ignorance and to some degree casual racism against China (in the USA at least). The cultural gulf between "The West" and China is too great for many people to have in the past attempted to overcome, or are willing to overcome now. There is also a general lack of material readily available.

      2: ADD. Many players simply do not have the attention, desire, or willpower to participate in a "politics and power" game. Anyone can hack-and-slash their way to victory.

      3: Prep time. The lack of readily available material extends to ready-made elements in the RPG market. Putting together a campaign, creating NPCs, building monsters fitting to the themes of East Asian mythology (as opposed to the mythology of Hinduism, ancient Persia, or others in the area) takes real work. Work that requires the DM to go to unusual lengths for IME, little reward.

      ---

      Look, I'm a political scientist by trade, I eat, drink and breath the stuff when I'm not doing my day job. And by and large, that applies to Western politics (with a few forays into Sino-Russo international relations). I can't even get my players interested in a politics and power game running on Western political tropes and I'd like to take a step off the deep end and run a politics-and-power Drow campaign (it's in the works whether they like it or not!). But even that is just western political tropes flipped on their head and taken to the extreme.
    1. Mishihari Lord's Avatar
      Mishihari Lord -
      This is a very cool idea. I would enjoy an ancient China based game.

      There's a challenge, though. Because we're at a tabletop, we fill in our RPG experience with our imagination and things we've learned about comparable settings. Since American and European players are much more familiar with western myths and history than eastern, we don't have as much in our heads to fill in the blank spots, leaving a much less rich roleplaying experience. I think this needs to be overcome somehow to make an ancient Chinese setting popular.

      Random question: what is that weapon in the first image called? It looks like a naginata, but those are Japanese and (I believe) mostly used on foot.

      Even more random comment: I have fond memories of playing the Genesis game Romance of the Three Kingdoms as a kid. The best moment was sending Lu Bu on a diplomacy mission proposing a joint attack on another warlord's territory. When the alliance was turned down, he shouted "You're next!" which made me giggle. Diplomacy is not his strength.
    1. ScaleyBob's Avatar
      ScaleyBob -
      It's a wonderful period to set a campaign in.The PCs could easily just be bandits, or dislocated Peasants, and just be caught up in the world changing events going on. Although it could be a politics game, it could also be quite easily a hack and slash game as well. Incorporating aspects of 'Journey to the West' or any of the more cinematic versions of the Monkey King legends could easily give you any amount of excuses for monster fights or dungeon bashes.

      I always thought Legend of the Five Rings was reasonably influenced by this period.

      As for game versions - there was a Magic the Gathering set released themed around it - Portal, The Three Kingdoms. It had very limited release, in the Pacific/Asia region, and is about the hardest set to come by nowadays.

      Found a list of the Cards:

      http://gatherer.wizards.com/Pages/Se...Kingdoms%22%5D
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      I played in a game based on this material for a long time in the '90s. My friend who ran it had been very taken by a trip to China he took as a teenager and had very carefully read the source material. This was the mostly pre-internet days so he'd gone to a good bit of effort to track it down. It had other aspects thrown in so it wasn't a "pure" Romance of the Three Kingdoms or pseudo-China for that matter, but Lui Bei, Cao Cao, and the rest were all there and formed the core of the campaign. Sometimes it was politics, sometimes it was good old fashioned adventuring. We just used 2E D&D (with a bunch of house rules).
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by shidaku View Post
      I've done this.

      1: Ignorance and to some degree casual racism against China (in the USA at least). The cultural gulf between "The West" and China is too great for many people to have in the past attempted to overcome, or are willing to overcome now. There is also a general lack of material readily available.
      Yes, this is an issue, though with any RPG it's going to be a good bit of pastiche no two ways about it. So you can embrace it and realize that an RPG is likely to have a certain amount of chop-sockey to it no matter how you play it, and that's not wrong.


      2: ADD. Many players simply do not have the attention, desire, or willpower to participate in a "politics and power" game. Anyone can hack-and-slash their way to victory.
      This is definitely group-specific, and having the right group of players who want the deeper immersion experience is what you need to run such a game. If your group is more of the beer-n-pretzels types, this isn't the kind of game to run for them. Still, in my experience, even very motivated players like a good beat down from time to time.


      3: Prep time. The lack of readily available material extends to ready-made elements in the RPG market. Putting together a campaign, creating NPCs, building monsters fitting to the themes of East Asian mythology (as opposed to the mythology of Hinduism, ancient Persia, or others in the area) takes real work. Work that requires the DM to go to unusual lengths for IME, little reward.
      True, though it's way better than it was these days. Also I think it's important to recognize just how much of Chinese mythology is influenced by other cultures (and vice versa), so it's OK to do some borrowing and/or repurposing. For example, Buddhist art is highly influenced by Greek art via Alexander's conquests, which in turn is highly influenced by Egyptian. The Silk Road with cross-Eurasian contact played a huge role throughout most of history (and is likely reasserting itself).

      I trimmed out your comment below about drow politics being just Western politics flipped around, but I really wonder how different Eastern politics really are? I am sure once one gets down to the micro level there are important details, but the implications of human ambition are fairly universal in any larger scale societies. In some respects I think modern Western politics is the anomaly and that older clan-based systems are more "natural." There were plenty of those throughout Western history and I think you can better understand many monarch's behaviors and motivations in that nature, furthering the ambitions of the House of Bourbon vs. the House of Habsburg, and so on. These feel odd to us now but were important as late as World War I, and we may be the WEIRD ones.

      There have been some useful games you can mine for source, though: Weapons of the Gods, Rokugan, etc., plus many movies, Jade Empire, etc. Of course they're all games or movies and not "authentic". It's not like Romance of the Three Kingdoms or Journey to the West are either. I wouldn't worry about getting the details exactly right because... it's an RPG.
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Perhaps an under appreciated aspect to such a game is how these power and politics would be a living world in the background for even a regular D&D style game. They can get a drift that the world moves on with or without them.

      Perhaps they'll start caring more about the politics as their sponsors fall out of favor, or are even replaced by the time they come back from a dungeon.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Von Ether View Post
      Perhaps an under appreciated aspect to such a game is how these power and politics would be a living world in the background for even a regular D&D style game. They can get a drift that the world moves on with or without them. Perhaps they'll start caring more about the politics as their sponsors fall out of favor, or are even replaced by the time they come back from a dungeon.
      That's a good way to do it for players who mostly don't like politics. They don't have to participate in it constantly, but it has consequences that can show up. Killing a patron is a good one.
    1. Bedrockgames's Avatar
      Bedrockgames -
      Journey to the West is highly gameable in my experience.

      Water Margin is also a good source of inspiration. And Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio is a great resource (I've gotten more adventures out of that than any other book on my shelf).
    1. Herosmith14's Avatar
      Herosmith14 -
      I do not know much about the mythology of Eastern Asia, though a politics and power campaign sounds like a fun idea. Adventuring and combat could be a means of collecting favors or blackmail and catching the eyes of sponsors or important political figures.
    1. MNblockhead's Avatar
      MNblockhead -
      Having spent a good third of my life living in East and SouthEast Asia, and being a fan of world mythologies, I often draw upon my experiences and reading when world building. My tips for doing this in your games include:


      1. Stick with short stories. Rather than creating sweeping story arcs, it is much easier to work in elements of Chinese ghost stories, stories of scholars travelling to/from the national exams being tricked/waylayed by fox spirits, and the stories of dragons and their interactions with scholars and other mortals (scholars as protagonists is very common in Chinese literature because (1) they were the ones writing the stories and (2) the long history of national exams in such a large country had led to centuries worth of road-trip stories).

      2. Unless you really like to do the research to run a historically accurate game, don't sweat the details. You are creating your own fantasy cultures and histories. Just pick up cool details from here and there and work them into your setting as you see fit. Reading/researching other cultures histories and myths can be great inspiration. Don't get weighed down by the overwhelming amount of content.

      3. Know your players. I don't think you need to be overly sensitive about cultural appropriation or being disrespectful of other cultures—you are playing a fantasy game of swords and sorcery. But do know your players. If you want to use the Hindi pantheon in your game, for example, keep in mind that this could be considered highly offensive to devout Hindus. Generally it is better to make up your own pantheon. I find it interesting that WoTC still includes the Norse mythology, given that there are still small groups of people who still worship these gods in real life, but I do use them in my game. If I had players who were practicing believers in Asatru or Odinism, I might change that.
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      This makes me remember a old arcade, "warriors of fate".
    1. Deuce Traveler -
      Koei made the awesome "Legend of Cao Cao" which was a great strategy RPG. If you follow the neutral or evil path, you follow Cao Cao's rise to power as it happens in the historical novel. But if you choose the good path, then Cao Cao allies with Lieu Bei to fight against a demonic invasion. Both paths are pretty fun, and there are plenty of character classes and magical gear for RPG fans. I always thought the Keoi Legends games would translate well to pen and paper.

      http://kongming.net/legend_of_cao_cao/
    1. rabindranath72's Avatar
      rabindranath72 -
      I have been hitching to run some Mythic China scenarios for years. Ruleswise, I have yet to find a game I like. Dragon Fist looked like a good game, but I never gave it a proper time at the table (only the occasional one-shot.)
    1. neobolts's Avatar
      neobolts -
      Quote Originally Posted by Mishihari Lord View Post

      Random question: what is that weapon in the first image called? It looks like a naginata, but those are Japanese and (I believe) mostly used on foot.
      That is a guandao. It is named for the Three Kingdoms character wielding it in the picture, Guan Yu.
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guandao
    1. neobolts's Avatar
      neobolts -
      Ok, wading in.

      Romance of the Three Kingdoms (R3K) is my favorite novel and probably the most influential work on the worlds and sessions I DM.

      WHY R3K IS A GREAT SETTING
      The political and military movements of R3K are fascinating. There are tons of tactical board games (often like the complex WWII board game sims popular in the West), primarily in the Chinese market (https://boardgamegeek.com/geeksearch...Kingdoms&B1=Go). And while the military/diplomacy aspect makes for a great Birthright/Kingmaker type adventure, where the novel excels is in the characterization of the heroes and the epic duels that they fight. This aspect makes R3K feel more akin to the Trials of Hercules or the Arthurian Legend. A third great aspect of the series is the brilliant minds that execute fun and inventive military strategies. The master strategists come from both military and Taoist spiritual backgrounds and are eccentric and memorable.

      HOW TO LEARN MORE ABOUT THE SETTING
      There are a couple of different "canons" in R3K, for lack of a better word. This grew out of the legends that arose from a long oral tradition about the period. The most popular account by far is the novelization (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanc...Three_Kingdoms), which feels right at home with modern Wuxia films. Others are fans of the historical version of events (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Kingdoms). If you go down the rabbit hole, there are many folk tales that go beyond the novels, and even other at-times contradictory written works, such as The Tale of Hua Guan Suo (http://threekingdoms.wikia.com/wiki/...f_Hua_Guan_Suo ).

      If you are interested in the setting at all, there are a couple of great entry points:
      - First there is the novel itself, a free English version is here: threekingdoms.com (just scroll down past the seemingly abandoned pitch for a web-based R3K game).
      - There are a number of TV series/films based on the novel/history. Three Kingdoms 2010 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_Kingdoms_(TV_series)) is a great series, but the subtitles on the official release are..ummm..."special"...at times. Instead, for a quick introduction, I would recommend the subtitled film Red Cliff (https://www.netflix.com/title/70130851). Another possibility is the out-of-print dubbed anime film Great Conquest (http://articles.latimes.com/1993-09-...great-conquest). I would avoid the weird Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Three_..._of_the_Dragon) as well as the slow moving 1990s TV series.
      -There have been a large number of video games as well. The two most famous are Koei Tecmo's Romance of the Three Kingdoms (a complex and nearly impenetrable strategy series) and Dynasty Warriors (a 3d brawler driven by tactical objectives).

      WHAT ELSE IS THERE?
      Others have mentioned Journey to the West (the legend of the Monkey King) as another great Chinese source for campaign inspiration. I would add to that Outlaws of the Marsh (aka Water Margin; a Robin Hood like tale where 108 destined heroes set up a swamp hideout and work to free the Emperor from corrupt ministers) and the tale of Supreme Ancestor Liu Bang (a story of warring factions that ended with the founding of the Han dynasty).
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Bedrockgames View Post
      Journey to the West is highly gameable in my experience.
      Ninja Theory actually did a video game version called Enslaved https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enslav...ey_to_the_West" target="_blank">http://
      1. Jay Verkuilen -
        Quote Originally Posted by neobolts View Post
        That is a guandao. It is named for the Three Kingdoms character wielding it in the picture, Guan Yu.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guandao
        I don't know if that directly influenced the naginata, but there is a clear influence of Chinese and Mongol sabers on the development of the katana, so it wouldn't surprise me.
      1. neobolts's Avatar
        neobolts -
        Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
        I don't know if that directly influenced the naginata, but there is a clear influence of Chinese and Mongol sabers on the development of the katana, so it wouldn't surprise me.
        "Dao" is literally a single edged sword (a cutlass-like peasant sword). The primitive versions of a guandao are little more than a peasant sword on a stick for mounted combat. I'm not sure if one culture influenced the other, but I'd wager as soon as any civilization domesticated horses, lashing swords to poles wasn't far behind.
      1. Xethreau's Avatar
        Xethreau -
        Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
        I don't know if that directly influenced the naginata, but there is a clear influence of Chinese and Mongol sabers on the development of the katana, so it wouldn't surprise me.
        The Chinese had a semi-colonial-like influence on Japan; when Japan uses Chinese-style writing, they call it "kanji" and it is very intelectual and formal to use. Even though Japan is very proud of their destinctive identity, their Chinese influence is plain as day.
      1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
        Jay Verkuilen -
        Quote Originally Posted by neobolts View Post
        "Dao" is literally a single edged sword (a cutlass-like peasant sword). The primitive versions of a guandao are little more than a peasant sword on a stick for mounted combat. I'm not sure if one culture influenced the other, but I'd wager as soon as any civilization domesticated horses, lashing swords to poles wasn't far behind.
        Evidently Japanese military technology was highly influenced by the Mongol invasions but yep, once you have horses you're going to see swords on sticks, as opposed to daggers on sticks (aka spears).

        As to Chinese influence on the Japanese, the answer is "lots", as indeed they influenced the Vietnamese, Okinawans, and Koreans, though often with a certain amount of strident "but we're not Chinese!" as part of it. The Japanese even use Chinese characters in part of their writing.
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