Do We Still Need "Oriental Adventures"?

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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?

[h=3]A Brief History of Orientalism[/h]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.
[h=3]The "Oriental" Books in D&D[/h]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.
[h=3]Controversy of the Five Rings[/h]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.
[h=3]Fifth Edition and Diversity[/h]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.
 

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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Celebrim

Legend
The same could be said for strong (conservative? orthodox?) Christians.

It is for some of us. For myself though, when I was wrestling with this in sixth grade, I actually decided that a polytheistic pantheon of completely made up deities was by far the spiritually safest path.

These are the options:
a) Have monotheism, either with a being that explicitly represents God or is an analogy for God. The problem with this is that having to represent yourself as God in a story represents a serious moral hazard in and of itself. And indeed, almost any representation of God which is fictional risks blasphemy. Any fiction you create that has God in it risks misleading people about the character of God. Tolkien wrestled with this as a very serious question, and he's a far better author than I am.
b) Have an explicitly non-spiritual, a-religious world. This is hardly any better in terms of moral hazards. Excising spirituality from a setting sets the tone that you don't believe any of that is important or worthy of consideration, and frankly creates a setting where the inhabitants aren't even believably human, since few things are more evident than that humans have a spiritual yearning which they will channel into something of some sort. Even the new atheists are marked more by their attempts to transform of atheism into a spiritually rewarding belief system than their rejection of materiality - witness the language of someone like Sagan explicitly borrowed from the evangelical sermons of his youth, or essays like Darwin's More Stately Mansion.
c) Create a religious system that is believable within the imagined world, but so utterly unlike any belief regarding reality that it cannot be mistaken for anything but vain imaginations with no attempt at analogy with respect to the real world.

My sixth grade self decided 'c' was the least morally hazardous course.

Not all my evangelical friends are happy with that. I think many would prefer 'b', so as to avoid any appearance of even pretending to worship. I'm largely OK with that, and most players - religious or irreligious - tend not to be interested in philosophical or religious questions in their play anyway. As a DM and world builder though that thinks of RP as a literary artform, I don't think I could avoid addressing that. Indeed, my present campaign actually was borne from a series of religious questions I put to myself about my campaign world.

The "walling off" of the game world from reality is something you do have to do, whether you believe that there is more to this world than can be observed or not. It's just a particularly acute problem for religious people, because they tend to be very self-aware of their internal mental life and the meaning it may have. For my part, I use my little imagined world as a sort of mirror, to contrast it with what I believe about this one.

For the ultra-conservative/fundamental branches, the simple existence of magic is probably a non-starter and the entire argument is moot and always will be. Just like reading Harry Potter or Percy Jackson.

For the people who won't risk any contamination of their inner mental life with vanities, there is in fact a strong overlap between people who would resist any fantasy religion of any sort and people who resist anything that smacks of superstition or the occult of any sort. Naturally, these people don't play D&D in the first place, and I'm fine with that decision as long as it in itself doesn't promote superstitious belief (see the Chick tracts).

I can't really speak for how RP is perceived in the Moslem community. I suppose I should ask one of my pious colleagues at lunch at some point. There is a ton of different cultural heritage there, in part because Islam formally recognizes the existence of supernatural beings like genies in a way that Christianity doesn't. This puts even a modern Islamic potentially in a situation much more similar to the writer of Beowulf than a modern Christian of any sort. Interesting topic actually.
 

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Warpiglet

Adventurer
There are two groups of myths, archetypes and tropes from fiction. A and B.

'A' uses a mishmash pseudo historical group of ideas with tons of newer made up stuff in more modern fiction. Its not very exact and glosses over a ton. In the end, it looks a lot like a movie or comic book in "accuracy." (the game was developed with this group in mind).

'B' uses a mishmash pseudo historical group of ideas with tons of newer made up stuff in more modern fiction. Its not very exact and glosses over a ton. In the end, it looks a lot like a movie or comic book in "accuracy."

People get upset about 'B' and not 'A.'

One is not inferior. Either can be the bad ass protagonist. But we really need to worry about inaccuracy with 'B.'

Talk about 'othering!' Oh the irony! Meanwhile, there is probably a game in another part of the world where 'B' is the baseline assumption and a supplement based on 'A' doesn't mean squat to anyone more familiar with it.

Why the angst? D&D was a product of the part of the world in which 'A' was more accessible. So what?!
 

Celebrim

Legend
7) The Barbarian. A nice short way of grouping every "primitive" culture into one pot, while giving them Rage abilities and calling them "Barbarian", which usually has a negative tone. Still pretty much the "other".

It's if anything worse than that. The original 'Barbarian' class was intended to be basically Conan, but it could be if you squinted considered an archetype for any more technologically primate warrior. The worst thing about the class in my opinion was its assumption that 'primitive' automatically implied 'chaotic'. But in the process of moving to 3e, it got worse. It kept the worst thing about the class - primitive still implied chaotic - but outright removed the class as a generic warrior from the wilderness. The class became representative of one thing and one thing only, the Norse Berserker. As a simple proof of that, consider using the 3e Barbarian class to represent one of its traditional roles in 1e or 2e - the horseman of the steppes. Raging is pretty darn useless to a horse archer, and there is nothing about the class that makes it particularly fit in that role.

Barbarian was so tied to its Northern European baggage, that I had to rewrite it to use it in my not particularly Western European homebrew setting. The same is true of 'Druid'. It's not a generic class for any animistic priest. It's a class tied by name and baggage to Northern European animistic priests and the legends and stories (and gameplay mechanics) that have grown up around that conception.

There is nothing wrong with that, as the game was originally Northern European in conception and if that's where you focus your play, I'm fine with the pastiche. But it's pretty darn useless if you are trying to build a world with its own culture divorced from any explicit region of the world, or if you are playing a game that strongly references some non-Northern European culture.
 

Gradine

Final Form (she/they)
This thread has been painful for me to read with the very determined willful ignorance all over the place. But your post was simply beautiful, and has calmed my SJW rage. Thanks for your well-written and well-informed oasis of a post!

Edit: After posting, I noticed the mod post on using terms like "Social Justice Warrior" or SJW . . . I'm using the term (or trying to) in a positive way, and totally wearing that badge. No sarcasm in this post, 100% heartfelt.

You would think that after all this time some of us would have diversified the party a bit. We need some more Social Justice Clerics and Rogues in here.
 

Dire Bare

Legend
You would think that after all this time some of us would have diversified the party a bit. We need some more Social Justice Clerics and Rogues in here.

I usually play social justice elven warrior-wizards, I started out with BECMI D&D after all . . . .
 

Zarithar

Adventurer
These games aren't based on actual history... so there's that. To answer the question though, no I don't think we need a new "Oriental Adventures" as the term is problematic now. It's fine to take elements of the cultures presented therein however and use them in game. Samurai, are already canon in 5e, and many creatures from various Asian mythologies can be found in the Monster Manual. I would like to see a Kara-Tur sourcebook however (as it is part of the Realms). It's fine to have a pseudo-Asian influenced area of the world just as it is fine to have a pseudo-European influenced area of the world. Just remember, this is not actual history.
 

MidwayHaven

First Post
I'm Asian.

"Kara-Tur" was beautiful, and I could see that the writers did a lot of respectful research when describing Kara-Tur's geography. I especially loved the details put into the island kingdoms of Bertan (the Forgotten Realms equivalent of where I live); even if they're described as places where head hunting is commonplace, it didn't really bother me.

I'm part of an indigenous people over here who have had a history of headhunting. The Bertan description of it being populated by savage headhunters is okay with me. In fact, I kinda like it; the fact that it was put in a D&D supplement made it all the more fun. A fictional analog of my people can actually be played as either heroes or villains, and that's perfectly fine with me and the other gamers who share my ethnicity (or at least those who I've interacted with regarding this).

My only suggestion is that if and when D&D comes up with an Asian-themed supplement, maybe it would be best to remove the cliche of the land located in "the East." How about the land being situated in another compass point instead? :)

(And I'd definitely buy a new "Kara-Tur Adventurer's Guide" if it were given a go. It'll fit in well on the shelf with my L5R RPG books.)
 
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Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
You would think that after all this time some of us would have diversified the party a bit. We need some more Social Justice Clerics and Rogues in here.
Not if the plot for the evening's session is "sneak around behind the local tyrant's back", we don't - Social Justice classes (is that a non sequitur?) have this feature: Deliver Anti-Establishment Speech. They draw the cops' attention like a magnet - especially in an oppressive despotic tyranny!
 

Gradine

Final Form (she/they)
Not if the plot for the evening's session is "sneak around behind the local tyrant's back", we don't - Social Justice classes (is that a non sequitur?) have this feature: Deliver Anti-Establishment Speech. They draw the cops' attention like a magnet - especially in an oppressive despotic tyranny!

Didn't you know; that last phrase is redundant. If there's cops around, that automatically makes it an oppressive despotic tyranny!
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
...maybe it would be best to remove the cliche of not-Asia* being from "the East." How about the land being situated in another compass point instead?
Geography says that the best way to indicate "unimaginably far away", is to use either East or West. (There is a limit on how far South / North you can go: the Poles! Somebody will figure out how to calculate the distance to them, eventually - maybe even travel there (or try to) themselves.)

Since both of the remaining options are equally good, shall we flip a coin? :cool:
 

Eltab

Lord of the Hidden Layer
If there's cops around, that automatically makes it an oppressive despotic tyranny!
Right up until the Crime Lord BBEG sends his henchmen after the PCs, and they decide to hang out near the police station (or the favorite donut&coffee shoppe) for protection.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
Geography says that the best way to indicate "unimaginably far away", is to use either East or West. (There is a limit on how far South / North you can go: the Poles! Somebody will figure out how to calculate the distance to them, eventually - maybe even travel there (or try to) themselves.)

Since both of the remaining options are equally good, shall we flip a coin? :cool:
We hear down south say "Over Yonder Then a Fur piece more. "
 

Aaron L

Hero
D&D is such a culturally accurate portrayal of Europe that I am astounded Oriental Adventures was inaccurate!

Seriously, D&D is a hodge-podge of European myths and fantasy (is it England? Germany? France?) that an Asian themed setting should be the same.

The name could change, but please, not by calling it Asian Adventures. No matter what setting you use the material for, I will guarantee you there is no Asia on that planet. Oriental just means Eastern, so Eastern Adventures would be fine.
 

Mercurius

Legend
I actually think "Asian Adventures" would be even more problematic, because it would imply that they're trying to be accurate to actual Asian cultures. We don't have "European Adventures." "Oriental," while not politically correct in some circles, at least clearly indicates that it is a Western/Occidental view on Asia.
 

Igwilly

First Post
Geography says that the best way to indicate "unimaginably far away", is to use either East or West. (There is a limit on how far South / North you can go: the Poles! Somebody will figure out how to calculate the distance to them, eventually - maybe even travel there (or try to) themselves.)

Since both of the remaining options are equally good, shall we flip a coin? :cool:
That wrongly assumes the fantasy Earth is necessarily round. We all know planets in D&D can be any shape they want. Flat disks over a giant turtle? That's almost a common variety...
Also, RPG players don't flip a coin: they roll a d2.
 
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Warpiglet

Adventurer
I actually think "Asian Adventures" would be even more problematic, because it would imply that they're trying to be accurate to actual Asian cultures. We don't have "European Adventures." "Oriental," while not politically correct in some circles, at least clearly indicates that it is a Western/Occidental view on Asia.

I think you are correct. by trying to be extra careful and map this more accurately onto the real world, we actually do something more offensive.

I have an idea: how about to avoid "othering" we just stick to good old fashioned D&D? Knights, dragons, orcs, and western (can I say that?!) flavor.

That would be more inclusive, right? :confused: Oh right, basing a creation on something a creator is more familiar with is really rude. Can't do that either. Maybe we cannot have any made up cultures based on anything in the real world. Then we can all be sure to not offend!

But what still gets my goat is the fact that people are playing barbarians that have a tiny bit of inspiration from people groups I descend from. I am utterly horrified! How would descendants of goths, visigoths, celts and various Germanic tribes feel?! Its almost like Gygax doesn't care about us!;)
 

jbear

First Post
I prefer to avoid politics in this thread.

Likely impossible. The article is ideologically and hence politically charged. Which is my biggest issue with it actually. I was of the understanding that politics/ideological view points were not proper topics for the enworld forum which is exclusively dedicated to RPG related topics. Maybe I misuderstand on the ideological front and that is actually permitted. Could totally be wrong on that front, nevertheless I think it is a very fine line that is being walked.
 

Kobold Boots

Banned
Banned
Likely impossible. The article is ideologically and hence politically charged. Which is my biggest issue with it actually. I was of the understanding that politics/ideological view points were not proper topics for the enworld forum which is exclusively dedicated to RPG related topics. Maybe I misuderstand on the ideological front and that is actually permitted. Could totally be wrong on that front, nevertheless I think it is a very fine line that is being walked.

Two thoughts.

1. If the problem is calling something "Oriental Adventures" then simply present the content in a setting book and name the book after the setting information. Put a strong foreward in the book that states "this is useful information about a variety of cultures within the context of the setting, use it as you see fit for your table.

2. Politics and Religion on the forums. It's a general no no if you're being offensive. It's ok to discuss if the conversation is moving forward in a progressive, fair, and generally respectful way regardless of whether it's of a conservative or liberal bent. Rules are for people who need to be enforced, not the general community at large, though they are community rules.

point 1 is common sense. point 2 is my opinion based on how I've seen things enforced.
 

Shasarak

Banned
Banned
My personal beef with Oriental adventures stems from the mish mash. Hang on, let me explain.

Yes, D&D mashes together all sorts of European cultural concepts. Absolutely. But, it does so in in a very broad way. Fighters aren't Frankish Knights or Jannisaries, they are all of those things. You can take the fighter class and make pretty much whatever you like. You want your character to be inspired by Roman legionnaires? Cool, no problem. Pick the right equipment, take a Fighter class and off you go. Every culture in Europe had "fighters".

But, let's look at OA. We don't get knights, we get Samurai. But, samurai aren't a broad concept that apply to all cultures. They were a very distinct cultural artifact from one specific culture - namely the Japanese. Here's a quote from the 3e OA book:



What? The Chinese and Koreans and all the other cultures don't have anything equivalent to knights? We have to tie the knight class to one specific culture and force that culture on the entire setting? Never minding Sohei or Kensai or Yakuza. Seriously? The Katana is a better sword than anything anyone else can make?

And there's my problem. It's not that it's a mish mash of cultures. That's groovy. But, it's pretty obviously placing certain cultures on the top of the heap. We don't call Paladins, Knights Templar for a very good reason. It's too restricting.

Oriental Adventures might as well be called Japanese Adventures with a bit of all these other cultures tacked on for window dressing.

To me, that's the disrespectful part of OA. Unlike baseline D&D which, really, doesn't try to present any one culture as better than another, OA pretty much ignores anything south of Hong Kong and laser beam focuses on Japan.

My main concern with this desire to roll everything into the one "Fighter" class is because a Samurai is not a Knight is not a Roman Legionary is not a Chinese Warrior. So why would the "Fighter" class be able to emulate any of those except in the very loosest handwaving just call your longsword a katana way possible.

Because the facts are that you just can not give a bunch of dudes some Samurai armour and some Katanas and suddenly have Samurai except in DnD where everyone is a "Fighter".
 


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