The bamboo is strong, resilient, unbreakable.
There’s no denying that medieval Europe dominates the conceptual playspace of Dungeons & Dragons when it comes to fantasy counterpart cultures. And even on that note it draws most of its influence from Medieval Britain, with a multicultural sprinkling of various monsters. Official and fanmade worlds have been delving beyond these constraints, with Oriental Adventures being one of the most notable older works. However, much like the British-centrism of not-Europe, OA’s own focus draws heavily from Japanese pop culture with a smattering of Chinese influences here and there. Beyond this, a lot of Fantasy Asia write-ups tend to be by people with no strong ties or ancestry in the locations they’re deriving influence from, and the adoption of folklore, culture, and other features all too often ends up inaccurate or stereotypical.
Unbreakable is a 3rd party D&D project of adventures written by Asian creators, with emphasis on showcasing content beyond the stock archetypes seen in Western popular culture. It’s but one volume in a larger project of yet-to-be-released books. Each chapter lists a short biography and social media links of said writer, as well as what media and/or folkloric influences they used when said adventure derives inspiration from an existing work. There’s also Content Warnings for material that gaming groups may find objectionable or uncomfortable, and there’s brief talks of Safety Toolkits which are handily linked to in a Google Document. In terms of objectionable content nobody was edgy enough to portray sexual violence thankfully, although there are some darker inferences such as torture in one adventure and another centering around monsters that kill and eat children. But some of the CWs seem to be things that are either common enough in fiction that the types of people who would have trouble engaging with them in an adventure would be ill-pressed to play tabletop gaming in general: for example, the first adventure’s CW is Water & Storms, and the seventh lists Poverty & Shapeshifting under its CWs. But I cannot object too much, especially given that the opposite effect is far too common in most gaming groups.
Other commonalities of the adventures include separation of content into Chapters, pronunciation guides are given for proper names, and NPCs of note are given pronouns next to the first time their name appears. Quite a bit of the adventures have notable nonbinary characters, as seen through the use of they/them pronouns. But beyond these universalities it is very clear that the book has different authors. From writing style to mechanical design, the adventures differ greatly in content. They are also setting-agnostic; while they hint upon elements that point to specific cultural elements, most of the Unbreakable adventures take place in relatively isolated locales and city-states whose specific outlying regions and borders are left to the whims of the Dungeon Master.
Through the Dragon’s Gate
Our first adventure is scaled for 1st to 4th level characters and is a rather straightforward wilderness trek where the PCs visit a gold dragon’s abode to reverse a spate of weather-related disasters. The set-up involves a pair of dragons, Jin-Zhi and her daughter Jin-Hao, who watch over a mountain range with a village at its base. Jin-Zhi had a good relationship with the villagers, who often asked her to use her magic to bless the weather to avert famine and the worst of nature’s wrath. While on a business trip Jin-Hao was placed in charge of the mountain due to some convincing on her part, and in a case of mistaken identity was asked by the local magistrate to perform magic beyond her capabilities. Eager to prove herself, Jin-Hao inadvertently summoned a hailstorm which ruined the village’s crops and stranded the magistrate in the mountains. Jin-Zhi was none too pleased to learn about this turn of events and transformed her own daughter into a golden-scaled carp. The villagers are now angry at Jin-Zhi for “betraying” them and have resorted to overfishing the nearby river to avoid famine.
Enter the PCs, who come upon the village while on their travels and hear about the recent ill news. The initial arrival has some role-playing and skill checks to help the desperate villagers out, whether helping them get more fish or convincing them not to overfish. Jin-Hao is caught by a net, who in magic talking carp form is the immediate adventure hook: pretending to be a water spirit, she offers to help find out the fate of the missing magistrate and parley with the mountain’s dragon “as a fellow spirit.” The local villagers are either too busy attending to domestic duties, too resentful of the dragon, or too ill-equipped to make the dangerous mountain trek themselves.
Jin-Hao is willing to accompany the PCs, but is too prideful to be taken in a container of water and instead opts to swim along the river running down the mountain. The various encounters involve dangers along said river or involve persevering against the watery elements. One such encounter includes helping an ogre hermit find his lost maps (buried in his house’s rubble due to the hailstorm) in exchange for unblocking a dam of rocks, a nest of blood hawks lying in wait near a malfunctioning Boot of Levitation (formerly owned by the magistrate) which acts as a “sitting duck floating in mid-air” trap to those who step over it, and the use of skill checks and possible magic to track down the magistrate via finding his scattered belongings. Sadly Fa-Zhong, said magistrate, suffered injury to his legs from a lightning strike and believes that the dragon will be able to heal his wounds. He can still walk, but not very well. As the party is closer to the mountain’s peak than the village, he and Jin-Hao view this as the more prudent course of action.
The final part of the adventure takes place by a mountain lake, and Jin-Zhi’s lair is at the top of a flat mountain peak with an archway at the top marking the Dragon’s Gate. Carved to look like a pair of golden dragons, it transports those who pass through it into a beautiful grove. Magical protections prevent any form of approach besides manually climbing the cliffside via a damaging invisible force field, and Jin-Hao will warn the party as much.
Jin-Zhi will confront the party as they enter the grove, and Jin-Hao will intervene before any hostile misunderstandings on her mother’s part occur. She’ll explain to her mother and the party the truth of things and asks Jin-Zhi to heal the magistrate. Jin-Zhi proposes that she’ll grant this request and also teach her daughter the magic needed to restore the village’s crops should she be able to best her in combat. Jin-Hao says that this task is beyond her, and instead offers for the party to fight in her stead after all they’ve done in proving themselves along the way. Turns out this was a secret test of character by Jin-Zhi to see if her daughter learned her lesson in humility, and accepts these terms if the party does as well.
The duel with Jin-Zhi is not to the death: she is an Adult Gold Dragon, but attacks nonlethally and only in the form of a weaker animal shape. Said animals range from giant crabs to crocodiles, formidable opponents yet nothing too out of range for a party to handle. Jin-Zhi has a set of unique lair actions which can conjure mist for one round and to change shape into another animal form. She ceases combat after receiving a predetermined amount of damage from the party, which ranges from 40 to 80 depending on the overall numbers and level of said party. If the party’s KOed they will wake up in the lair, but overwise the ending to the adventure is more or less the same: the magistrate Fa-Zhong’s legs are healed, a spell is cast to restore the crops, and Jin-Zhi transforms her daughter back into dragon form and flies everyone down to the village to explain what happened. The villagers are understanding and apologies are given and accepted on both sides. For their troubles, the party is given a golden oyster that can produce a single-use Pearl of Power every 30 days.
Thoughts So Far: I find this to be a passable adventure, if a bit linear for my tastes. Its main weak point is that although suggestions are given for adjusting encounter difficulty, very low-level PCs play very differently than the upper limits of what the adventure suggests. 1st level PCs are very fragile and have a lot less resources to draw upon before requiring rests. I do like the relative sparsity of outright combat and in the case of the ogre a nonviolent alternative which would be good for such a low level. I admit that the final encounter with Jin-Zhi had a lot of tension lost given that the end result is the same whether or not the PCs manage to beat her in a duel. I get that she’s meant to be Lawful Good and is unlikely to let the villagers starve, but maybe something like offering the magical item as a “win condition” or only offering to do one of two miracles (healing Fa-Zhong or restoring the crops) on a loss would put some actual stakes in the fight.
Join us next time as we read Feeding the River, an adventure where the party must put a stop to a powerful pollution spirit despoiling nature and the riverside villages!
Author’s Notes & Acknowledgements said:This adventure is based on the Chinese Proverb, “The Carp has leaped through the Dragon’s Gate.” In Chinese mythology, the Dragon’s Gate is a waterfall. It is said that if a carp is strong enough to swim up the turbulent river and over waterfall, it will transform into a dragon. This proverb is often used to demonstrate that if one exemplifies perseverance, success will eventually be achieved. The theme of this adventure plays on this proverb by also including a caveat - that one’s successes are not only due to personal skill, but also with the help of others.
I would like to thank Jacky Leung (Death by Mage), for inviting me to this project. It has been a great experience working with other Asian Americans and Asian Canadians as we bring our own experiences to this game we all love.
About the Author said: