Do We Still Need "Oriental Adventures"?
  • Do We Still Need "Oriental Adventures"?


    Orientalism -- a wide-ranging term originally used to encompass depictions of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and East Asian cultures -- has gradually come to represent a more negative term. Should Dungeons & Dragons, known for two well-received books titled "Oriental Adventures," have another edition dedicated to "Eastern" cultures?


    A Brief History of Orientalism

    For a time, orientalism was a term used by art historians and literary scholars to group "Eastern" cultures together. That changed in 1978 with Edward Said's Orientalism, which argued that treatment of these cultures conflated peoples, times, and places into a narrative of incident and adventure in an exotic land.

    It's easy to see why this approach might appeal to role-playing games. Orientalism is one lens to view a non-European culture within the game's context. We previously discussed how "othering" can create a mishmash of cultures, and it can apply to orientalism as well. The challenge is in how to portray a culture with nuance, and often one large region isn't enough to do the topic justice. The concept even applies to the idea of the "East" and the "Orient," which turns all of the Asian regions into one mono-culture. Wikipedia explains the term in that context:

    The imperial conquest of "non–white" countries was intellectually justified with the fetishization of the Eastern world, which was effected with cultural generalizations that divided the peoples of the world into the artificial, binary-relationship of "The Eastern World and The Western World", the dichotomy which identified, designated, and subordinated the peoples of the Orient as the Other—as the non–European Self.

    Game designers -- who were often admitted fans of Asian cultures -- sought to introduce a new kind of fantasy into traditional Western tropes. Viewed through a modern lens, their approach would likely be different today.

    The "Oriental" Books in D&D

    The original Oriental Adventures was published in 1985 by co-creator of D&D Gary Gygax, David "Zeb" Cook and François Marcela-Froideval. It introduced the ninja, kensai, wu-jen, and shukenja as well as new takes on the barbarian and monk. It was also the first supplement to introduce non-weapn proficiencies, the precursor to D&D's skill system. The book was well-received, and was envisioned by Gygax as an opportunity to reinvigorate the line -- ambitions which collapsed when he left the company. The book's hardcover had the following text printed on the back:

    …The mysterious and exotic Orient, land of spices and warlords, has at last opened her gates to the West.

    Aaron Trammell provides a detailed analysis of how problematic this one line of text is. The sum of his argument:

    Although Gary Gygax envisioned a campaign setting that brought a multicultural dimension to Dungeons & Dragons, the reality is that by lumping together Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Mongolian, Philippine, and “Southeast Asian” lore he and co-authors David “Zeb” Cook and Francois Marcela-Froideval actually developed a campaign setting that reinforced western culture’s already racist understanding of the “Orient.”

    The next edition would shift the setting from Kara-Tur (which was later sent in the Forgotten Realms) to Rokugan from the Legend of the Five Rings role-playing game.

    Controversy of the Five Rings

    James Wyatt wrote the revised Oriental Adventures for Third Edition D&D, published by Wizards of the Coast in 2001. It was updated to 3.5 in Dragon Magazine #318.

    Legend of the Five Rings, a franchise that extends to card games, is itself not immune to controversy. Quintin Smith got enough comments on his review of the Legend of the Five Rings card game that he included an appendix that looked critically at chanting phrases "banzai!" at conventions and some of the game's art:

    Now, I have no idea if this is right or wrong, but I do know that chanting in Japanese at an event exclusively attended by white men and women made me feel a tiny bit weird. My usual headcheck for this is “How would I feel if I brought a Japanese-English friend to the event?” and my answer is “Even more weird.” Personally, I found the game’s cover art to be a little more questionable. I think it’s fantastic to have a fantasy world that draws on Asian conventions instead of Western ones. But in a game that almost exclusively depicts Asian men and women, don’t then put white people on the cover! It’s such a lovely piece of art. I just wish she looked a little bit less like a cosplayer.

    Perhaps in response to this criticism, Fantasy Flight Games removed the "banzai" chant as a bullet point from its web site. The page also features several pictures of past tournament winners, which provides some context as to who was shouting the chant.

    Fifth Edition and Diversity

    By the time the Fifth Edition of D&D was published, the game's approach to diverse peoples had changed. Indigo Boock on GeekGirlCon explains how:

    Diversity is strength. The strongest adventuring party is the most diverse adventuring party. Try thinking about it in terms of classes—you have your healers, fighters, and magic users. Same goes for diversity. Different outlooks on life create more mobility and openness for different situations. Jeremy also explained that it was crucial that the art also reflected diversity, as did Art Director Kate Erwin. With this, they tried to make sure that there was a 50/50 split of people who identify as male and people who identify as female in the illustrations.

    Trammell points out how these changes are reflected in the art of the core rule books:

    First, there are illustrations: an East Asian warlock, a female samurai, an Arabian princess, an Arab warrior, and a Moor in battle, to name a few. Then, there are mechanics: the Monk persists as a class replete with a spiritual connection to another world via the “ki” mechanic. Scimitars and blowguns are commonly available as weapons, and elephants are available for purchase as mounts for only 200 gold. Although all of these mechanics are presented with an earnest multiculturalist ethic of appreciation, this ethic often surreptitiously produces a problematic and fictitious exotic, Oriental figure. At this point, given the embrace of multiculturalism by the franchise, it seems that the system is designed to embrace the construction of Orientalist fictional worlds where the Orient and Occident mix, mingle, and wage war.

    A good first step is to understand the nuances of a region by exploring more than one culture there. Sean "S.M." Hill's "The Journey to..." series is a great place to start, particularly "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

    D&D has come a long way, but it still has some work to do if it plans to reflect the diversity of its modern player base and their cultures...which is why it seems unlikely we'll get another Oriental Adventures title.

    Mike "Talien" Tresca is a freelance game columnist, author, communicator, and a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to http://amazon.com. You can follow him at Patreon.
    Comments 262 Comments
    1. BMaC -
      Thank you for bringing in Ed Said! Btw, Tomb of Annihilation's Chult setting is textbook Orientalism.
    1. jbear's Avatar
      jbear -
      Although all of these mechanics are presented with an earnest multiculturalist ethic of appreciation, this ethic often surreptitiously produces a problematic and fictitious exotic, Oriental figure.
      Yeah! I'm so sick of those gamers making ficticious, exotic figures for their ficticious exotic imaginary worlds without a properly culturally nuanced and propery politically correct vetted culturally appropriate character check! I met this gamer once who made a ninja character based on this movie they'd seen 'Flying Dragon Leaping Tiger' and they hadn't even done any proper research or anything! They said they did it because they thought ninjas were epic! So racist! And that Tomb of Annihilation with its text book Orientalism should basically be thrown onto a politically incorrect bonfire and burned! Jungles are so racist too!
    1. Antal Molnár's Avatar
      Antal Molnár -
      I am waiting for a campaign setting for D&D 5e that reflects the mood of the 1001 nights much better than Al-Qadim did. For example I would like to see the Tales of the Caliphate Nights for D&D 5e.

      http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/...ights--True-20
    1. Christopher Olson's Avatar
      Christopher Olson -
      I like them and I find hem neat, so yes keep printing them
    1. Cergorach's Avatar
      Cergorach -
      What I don't understand is the assumption that RPG want or need culturally accurate representation. You think that Forgotten Realms was anything close to 'Western' culture during the middle ages? Not enough disease, murder, rape, plunder, religious bigotry, racism, sexism, classism, etc. Guess what, that's not politically correct either!

      Not only that, but there are quite a few different perspectives in Asian culture that are quite alien to most Western perspectives and vice versa. Current Asian cultures often don't resemble the cultures from a 1000+ years ago. Hell, if I look at my own country, a 1000 years ago it was mostly uninhabitable due to almost half of it being under water and current culture or even 200 years ago, doesn't translate to Frank, Frissian and Saxon culture from a 1000 years ago...

      Not only that, but the average European has a very basic (and inaccurate) view of the long term history of their country or continent. The same is true for large swaths of Asia, so if their own people have a very basic view of their long term history and culture, why should we tiptoe around it? Don't we have anything better to do?

      It's the same thing as with Science, we get the basics on how atoms work, effectively the children's book version of it. Anyone who has studied the subject in depth can get a little defensive about the subject when trying to explain the nuances to someone who's only had the basics in highschool. Not only are quite a few of our science books in middle/highschool quite basic, they are often also wrong, but still quite workable. Our history books also only write what the current school system tags as 'correct' they don't mention any ambiguities in assumptions or major strife about a certain subject in the historical communities...

      So why the heck do you (or anyone else) want an accurate representation of all Asian culture in a Fantasy RPG?

      IF you really want to be extra sure that no one takes your oriental fantasy setting as real, add a preface that explains that you've used elements of Asian cultures to create a fantasy world that is not representative of reality... As I don't ever remember reading that for a Western based campaign setting, I seriously wonder why you should even bother...

      Settings like Kara-tur, Al-Quadim and Maztica were never about accuracy, but about creating an atmosphere of stories we read, watched or heard. Something 'exotic', yet familiar. Taking 'exotic' to extremes creates 'alien' and that is not something everyone is comfortable with. And this is not a study, it's a form of entertainment.

      We, ourselves often consume entertainment that isn't historically accurate, probably the most notorious is "King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table". There are a few movies that tried to approach the time period a little bit more accurately, but those were often horribly received in the grand scheme of things. People want knights in shining armor, grand castles, huge battles, etc. Or tales like Robin Hood, Ivanhoe, etc.

      Does 5E need another Oriental Adventures, no/yes. No, because I think WotC has released way too little FR content to make another setting at this time. Yes, because there is till a demand for it.

      If you want to expose your players to a more accurate representation of a culture, that's your decision and ultimately your players. But also decide if you want to expose them to current culture or ancient culture, there often is a great difference between the two...

      I've tried to run a D&D campaign in Scotland/Northern England around the year 1000 AD, the PCs came from another world. Fantastical and mythological creatures roamed the land, invisible to the common man. An elf was a lithe human in their eyes and a dwarf a stout smaller man, Orcs were brigands, Dragons a natural disaster, etc. Even if the 'Veil' was lifted, quite often normal humans went insane, explaining stories of mythological creatures. It was an interesting experiment displaying Scottisch/English culture around the year 1000 AD, but quite short lived, it gives you very little creative outlets as a DM and players wind up finding it bland and depressing after a while...
    1. Antal Molnár's Avatar
      Antal Molnár -
      I am European and I have an Arabic wife. So I have real exepreince that Al-Quadim didn't' reflect the arabic culture neither in accuracy nor in atmosphere. Al-Quadim atmosphere is the same when a tpyical american tourist eat somthing in a hotel that think arabic cuisine. Honestly it is not arabic, because arabic people think you would die if you would eat harissa. So in a hotel they change all food the way they think not dangerous for you. An other example.

      If you do not have an arabic relative or friend you will never see the true arabic atmosphere. You will only the the sugarcandy version of arabia that a tourist want to see.

      Aniway what do you think how many of the writers or Al-Qudim was a guest of a family in an arabic country ever? My guess is none of them. :-)
    1. LuisCarlos17f's Avatar
      LuisCarlos17f -
      Disney's Aladin never wanted to show the real Middle East, and thast isn't wrong. If we are going to complain, then I also can say that Umberto Eco's "the Name of the Rose" wasn't the real Christian Middle Age. And the Spagethin Wester movies filmed in Europe weren't the real Northeamerican Far West.

      We have to try avoid injust stereotypes and some matters (for example the conflicts in the past among Japan, China and Korea), but we also should remember those exotic settings can be doors to try know more about those adventures. Let's remember lots of western otakus have started to learn Japanese languange because the loved manga comics.

      A 5th Ed of Oriental Adventures would be right, but I admit my own version of "oriental classes"(samurai, ninja, sohei..) with martial maneuvers like the ones from "Tome of Battle: book of nine swords" and "Path of War" by Dreamscarred Press.

      Is possible a "1001 night" for D&D? Yes, in the same way Disney's Aladdin cartoon. (I loved that teleserie).
    1. Antal Molnár's Avatar
      Antal Molnár -
      No. Even the weapons are not accurate. Koumya, jambiya are not pearcing, but slashing weapons. And this is only on example. :-( Wlat Disney Aladin has as same "arabic" atmosphere a Pochantas. I told exactly that I hate americanised sugarcane arabic "atmosphere".

      But Tales of the Caliphate Nights very good setting.
    1. Cergorach's Avatar
      Cergorach -
      Quote Originally Posted by Antal Molnár View Post
      I am European and I have an Arabic wife. So I have real exepreince that Al-Quadim didn't' reflect the arabic culture neither in accuracy nor in atmosphere. Al-Quadim atmosphere is the same when a tpyical american tourist eat somthing in a hotel that think arabic cuisine. Honestly it is not arabic, because arabic people think you would die if you would eat harissa. So in a hotel they change all food the way they think not dangerous for you. An other example.

      If you do not have an arabic relative or friend you will never see the true arabic atmosphere. You will only the the sugarcandy version of arabia that a tourist want to see.

      Aniway what do you think how many of the writers or Al-Qudim was a guest of a family in an arabic country ever? My guess is none of them. :-)
      There is an Armanian/Turkish dish:
      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harissa_(dish)

      Al-Quadim was never about real Arabic culture, it's about the stories we were told/shown/read in the west. Just like real space travel is a long dangerous exercise that is inconvenient to most sci-fi stories, so reality is changed to fit the stories and the audience. Do you think that most Westerners have much understanding of Arabic culture or any willingness to actually try to understand it? NO! They want the tales of Sinbad, Genies, harems, etc. Again, they want the fantasy Arabia, the Arabia that has much in common with reality as FR has with reality.

      As we've said SOooo many times before, if people can't differentiate between fantasy and reality, they have no business playing RPGs! And it doesn't matter that it's a fantasy Europe, Arabia, or Asia...

      Orientalism in history books, is an issue, it's sloppy.
    1. kenmarable's Avatar
      kenmarable -
      In my opinion, Cergorach is right that we don't really want/need accurate cultural representation. What I think people are usually far more interested in but mislabel as "accuracy" is respectful cultural representation. For one thing, when you are obviously inspired by real life cultures like in the OA books (or Tomb of Annihilation), but throw those cultures into a blender with a bunch of other junk and pour that slurry into a book - that's certainly not the best way to do it.

      Related to that is something that is often more subtle (although sometimes it's outright blatant like again with ToA and that line from Gary), is that these books are often written specifically from the outside about this other exotic place. So, with the Forgotten Realms for example, there’s this feeling of the “real” FR being over here, and then these other cultures are over there – Maztica, Kara Tur, Chult, Zakhara, etc. Your core D&D characters can go over there to visit these exotic, different people. Why do these cultures have to be over there, and not just integrated with the world as a whole? (Especially since all of these fantasy D&D worlds are equally foreign to most of us 21st century folk. Ninjas are no more exotic than wizards to our current lives.)

      So as much as I loved the earlier OA, I think going forward we really, really do not need a new OA. However, as WotC has already been doing a bit, we really, really need that content mixed in with everything else. There’s no reason core D&D needs to be focused on pseudo-European fantasy realms and then make all of the pseudo-other-people fantasy realms into add-ons. It’s all fantasy and unrealistic and fun! So, for example, preferably no Al-Qadim and no Oriental Adventures, but instead these areas should be treated like core Forgotten Realms.
    1. Antal Molnár's Avatar
      Antal Molnár -
      I understand your point. BUT I will never will accept is as an excuse.

      1. It is a max 10 minute research in google that a jambiya is a slashing weapon, not a piercing weapan. In and old school libry it is 30 minutes extra while you drive there.
      2. Why can be Tales of the Caliphate Nights or GURPS Arabian Nights or Mythic Constantinople (Christian/Islamic setting) correct?

      Sorry, in harissa not a dish, but a hot chili pepper paste in Arabiya. ;-)

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harissa
    1. kenmarable's Avatar
      kenmarable -
      Quote Originally Posted by Cergorach View Post
      Al-Quadim was never about real Arabic culture, it's about the stories we were told/shown/read in the west.
      I think this hits one of the nails that I was rambling about on the head. Sure, that may have been ok when I was a kid, but this is the 21st century where the world is far more interconnected and these games have matured with that to be no longer aimed at just a very narrow and specific demographic (and even that demographic has matured to have broader interests). Now they can be inspired by the stories people in the Middle East tell themselves, and people in Japan tell themselves, and so on. Rather than Western (and often specifically American) stories about them, many are far more interested in learning about the stories various people told about their own past.

      Yeah, it's all make believe and far from accurate, but relying only on classic American tropes about other cultures at this point is, at the very least, lazy writing.
    1. Antal Molnár's Avatar
      Antal Molnár -
      The problem is that Al-Qadim's authors as same superficial about 1001 nights (not about islamic world) as Cergorach in searching harissa. :-) A good example for this superficiality. :-)

      "More than a fifth of respondents said Agrabah — the fictional city from “Aladdin” — is a real part of the Arab world. An even higher proportion — 38 percent — would be happy with a US travel ban on citizens of Agrabah should they be proven a threat." :-)

      Source: http://www.arabnews.com/node/1093246/middle-east
    1. GreyLord's Avatar
      GreyLord -
      Perhaps instead of the older usage, create a game called Japanese Adventures (which is what a Lot of Oriental Adventures was about anyways). If you want more Japanese heritage in it, ask for an actual individual from Japan, perhaps a professor of Japanese History to help influence and help write it.

      I love the period and RPGs based in it, so obviously I'd love to have something like that. I'd say Japanese Adventures would probably be the most popular in the west currently, but after that you could create other focused RPGs such as something on China Adventures or the Middle Kingdom Adventures (or some other such things).

      Same as with the Japanese adventures, get a Chinese Professor of Chinese History to help write it and focus it correctly.

      PS: I actually created the 5e Old School and Oriental Adventures on DMs guild. Little known trivia fact, one of the individuals that helped me put it together is a HUGE fan of AD&D Oriental Adventures...that individual is actually also Japanese. He absolutely loves OA as one of his favorite AD&D additions.

      He didn't care for the 3e version though, and doesn't play the legend of five rings games...not sure if that's because it's not something he's interested in or any other reason.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      The Journey to series has been a great project (and its not done! I promise). I have learned a great deal and hopefully others have been interested, The idea is for it to fire imaginations. They have not been perfect, but I do my best. And I think that we are headed in a better direction as a whole, the hobby and industry and society, than we have but we obviously still have a long way to go.

      Cool article. I personally feel like it is time for a game or setting that visits other cultures in a more authentic way.
    1. Cergorach's Avatar
      Cergorach -
      Quote Originally Posted by Antal Molnár View Post
      I understand your point. BUT I will never will accept is as an excuse.

      1. It is a max 10 minute research in google that a jambiya is a slashing weapon, not a piercing weapan. In and old school libry it is 30 minutes extra while you drive there.
      2. Why can be Tales of the Caliphate Nights or GURPS Arabian Nights or Mythic Constantinople (Christian/Islamic setting) correct?

      Sorry, in harissa not a dish, but a hot chili pepper paste in Arabiya. ;-)

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harissa
      Whoopie, a mistake on a weapon in a D&D book! That's not unique to the jambiya... ;-) Anyone who's wielded a knife before or done something with knifes in self defense classes knows that even a normal knife isn't just a piercing weapon, but often a slashing weapon as well. When you look at the jambiya, you know that the off balance point is going to be a pain to pierce with, it can happen, but not it's primary function. Honestly, no biggy imho. Lazy, sure, but not a biggy.

      As for Tales of the Caliphate Nights or GURPS Arabian Nights or Mythic Constantinople... A Christian/Islamic setting has no place in Faerun for one. Second, Gurps often does very good historic fantasy settings, Al-Quadim is NOT a historic fantasy setting, it's a purely fantasy setting with some cultural references... The same goes for the other two.

      Why don't I hear outrage that Dwarves and Medusae are tossed together in the same setting like some kind of melting pot!?!? Because one comes from Nordic mythology and the other comes from Greek mythology, completely different cultures... We accept this, we don't make any negative associations with the different cultures from where we pull the fantasy content.

      What people seem to forget is that we are different, often the difference with our neighbors can already be large. What about cultures on the other side of the world? The Japanese and Chinese also give their own meaning to western cultures in fantasy (or even reality). Look at westerners in Chinese, Taiwanese or Japanese TV, movies, comics or Anime. And if you watch a lot of Anime, you'll not only notice that there's a huge difference in pacing and story in Chinese and Japanese anime, even if it's dubbed in another language. The same is true for UK vs. Nordic. vs. French storytelling. And when the Dutch are represented in Anime/movie, they are exaggerated in what we are/were. I don't find that offensive, I find that comical.

      Now, what I do find offensive is that when you ask an average American where the Netherlands is located, they don't know. When asked where Amsterdam is, some think of New York others only know it as the modern babylon where drugs and prostitution are legal...
    1. RotGrub's Avatar
      RotGrub -
      There is already a game for this on the app store, it's called the WP 5000.

      You take a picture of yourself and then, merely by analyzing the color of your skin, it tells you how guilty you are for all problems, across all times and places. You can configure it to monitor your social media accounts, and have it automatically reduce your guilt level each time you virtue signal. And if that isn't enough, there is a chance you can win general absolution for an entire week by writing a blog/ article.

      My hope is that they eventually find a way to read and modify our thoughts automatically. Our brains could then be updated with new word definitions (as prescribed by the PC magisterium) in real time.
    1. Deset Gled's Avatar
      Deset Gled -
      Feel free to change the name if you must, but the OA setting is fine. It's a representation of a style of fantasy, not a representation of reality. I don't get upset when the Caribbean pirate cosplayers shout "huzzah" to the unicorns at the renaissance faire, either.

      I would be more concerned if someone could show serious, systematic examples of the OA books being used to promote racist behavior. If the biggest controversy you can find is that someone was offended by white people shouting "banzai", I'm going to have to consider that the people complaining might be more prejudiced.
    1. Deset Gled's Avatar
      Deset Gled -
      I couldn't help but notice that after my last post, the thread right below this thread was this one:

      http://www.enworld.org/forum/showthr...edieval-Europe

      Literally, taking the exact map of Medieval Europe and overlaying it with D+D fantasy. Working in the Dwarf kingdoms alongside real monarchies, deciding how magic relates to the Christian church, and explaining how North America is actually Elven territory. This is just one way that we deal with "Western" culture. Everyone has fun, no one is offended, and there's an understanding of what it means to indulge in fantasy. There's nothing wrong with treating "Eastern" culture the same way. The amount of actual history in any fantasy setting can vary, but as long as that history is treated respectfully there's no reason to pretend it's so sacred that it can't be played with a little.
    1. zeldafan42's Avatar
      zeldafan42 -
      I’m going to second what kenmarable said. It’s not about accuracy, it’s about being respectful. It’s about not treating non-European cultures as “exotic wonders” to gape at and repeating the same old offensive tropes.

      So the real problem with an “Oriental Adventures” book isn’t that it’s inaccurate. The problem is that it from the start, it mashes together several distinct cultures together as one and very much only focuses on the broad strokes details. The problem is that the term oriental is rooted in a racist and imperialist way of seeing the world.

      So what we need isn’t an Oriental Adventures book. If you want samurai and ninja that’s fine, but put them in a product with other material from Japan and only Japan. Or you mix everything together. Just like how the monk is a core class and the samurai is in Xanathar’s, you treat the non-European material as a normal part of the setting blended in with the European stuff. You don’t present your setting as “Here’s the normal European inspired fantasy and over there is the exotic and special other cultures.”
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