Sunday, October 3, 2010

People Are People But So Can Animals Be
An Alternate Take on Far Eastern Settings in Fantasy RPGs

Most conventional fantasy RPG settings I've played in have a far-eastern component. This is usually this is a hodge-podge of real world Japanese and Chinese concepts, culture, classes and equipment thrown together into a sort of melange and given some fancy name. Oddly enough, these already cluttered settings then try to get even more complicated by presenting a number of uniquely Oriental player character races in addition to the people that exist there. Now, there is nothing wrong with this at all, though it seems odd to me that most campaign settings operate on the basic core races in every part of the world until you get to the Far East.

One idea I had for trying to streamline these lands came to me while reading the wonderful series of articles (seven so far) being done by Joe Kushner over at Appendix N. Joe is going through various volumes of the compiled Usagi Yojimbo comics done by Stan Sakai and, while reviewing the work itself and giving commentary on Stan's work, pointing out some insights on role-playing pulled from the pages. Though his observations on how the contents of these stories relate to good gaming are excellent, what inspired me more was the setting itself. Usagi Yojimbo's world is not Japan and it has no humans in it. Every character in Usagi Yojimbo is an animal of some sort. We have fox ninjas, samurai ronin, rhinos, cats, etc.

Animal spirits or folk are common themes in many eastern cultures and most rules systems allow for these as player races, but they exist on the periphery of human society. I think that a land populated mainly by intelligent, anthropomorphic animals would be quite memorable in a game. A GM could then create a society in which these animals lived in a heterogeneous society where tigers and monkeys existed side by side. If this seemed a bit too touchy-feely and utopian, certain strata could exist within this animal society with some animals being limited, shunned, or outcast. Maybe there were lands which were predominantly one species or another or perhaps some animals held themselves separate from the greater melting pot?

Such a land would seem all the more exotic, in my opinion, offering travelling adventurers a chance to rub elbows with something other than elvish lords, dwarf kings and halfling sheriffs. When an imperial crane advisor presents your party with a summons to the court of the lion emperor how will they respond? When a drunken rhino picks a fight with them or they are beset by monkey bandits they will know they are far from home. You could go so far as to have the various animal martial arts developed by the animals themselves. Monkey style is just Monkey kung-fu. Tigers traditional fight with their own fighting arts.

If you are not familiar with Usagi Yojimbo, then perhaps Kung-fu Panda might make a good bit of source media but all in all it's the same idea but Chinese as opposed to Usagi Yojimbo's faux (or is that fox) Japan.

Maybe I'll give it a try next time I need such a land.



  1. Loved Usagi Yojimbo, haven't read it in years, sounds like I need to rectify that!

  2. Having recently, with my son, rewatched Disney's Robin Hood, where Robin and Marion are foxes, Little John is a bear, Prince John is a lion, etc., I'd say the idea could translate well to the entire world, not just the Orient.


    Don't forget good old Ironclaw and it's Eastern version. Good stuff there.

  4. It certainly can and has been translated to other settings. I eastern settings in this post because I was specifically thinking of how to incorporate such a setting into existing campaign settings.

  5. The problem here is that you attract the furries ;)


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