Thousand Arrows and Sensitivity, Part II: Dragon King's Gambit

I hope you enjoyed Part I of my series on Thousand Arrows, sensitivity, and respect. Here, Part II addresses issues specific to our 900-backer stretch goal, “Dragon King’s Gambit.” In this campaign, a sea monster attack in December 1592 forces the Imjin War’s Chinese, Korean, and Japanese combatants to work together against a common enemy. It draws on historical, literary, and religious sources: I wouldn’t call it fantasy, but it features folkloric and legendary entities important to East Asian religious practice.

While we’re unlikely to unlock DKG, its subject matter has generated some concern above and beyond the core game. My previous post on best practices for historical gaming governs my take on the Imjin War. But I want to go a little further and break down some of the reasons why folks might worry more about DKG than about core Thousand Arrows, as well as why I think DKG is important nonetheless.

I’ll start with a story about DKG and racism, which occurred at Gen Con 2016.

The Most Racist Thing That’s Happened to Me Recently

I was running DKG for four white players. Towards the end of the session, one player’s white friend came to the table and sat with him.

FRIEND
What’s going on?

PLAYER
We’re the Koreans, and we’re fighting the Japanese. Right now we’re trying to get some monsters to attack our enemies for us.

FRIEND
Ha! I guess telling them “attack the squinty-eyed ones” won’t work, huh?

ME
None of that! X Card!

Said friend probably had no idea what the X Card meant, but my response was an immediate reflex. I wasn’t happy with what I said next, though.

ME
Where did you even come from?

FRIEND
I’ve been here all along.

Normally, when I point out that a friend said something racist, I follow up with some humorous, unrelated comment so the friend can settle down and save face easily. That’s what I did here, but this random interloper was not my friend. I feel like I shouldn’t have afforded him that courtesy.

At least I erred on the side of mercy? I don’t know. It feels wrong somehow.

At any rate, I felt responsible. I set up a fictional situation where Asians were fighting other Asians and a passing white man took the opportunity to say something evil with an Asian right there at the table running the game; and he probably didn’t even know what the Imjin War was about.

Historical Overview

In 1592 CE, the elderly Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi had just unified Japan. Barred from becoming shōgun by his low birth, he instead turned his ambitions toward the Chinese throne; but to get there he had to go through China’s vassal, Korea. Korea’s elites obsessed over internecine intrigue and Confucian achievement, letting their army and fortifications languish, expecting their high-tech navy to repel Japan’s inferior ships. Thanks to mismanagement, it did not; and Japan landed a massive invasion force. Unlike Korean soldiers, the Japanese were drilled, experienced, armored, and armed with the East Asian battlefield’s dominant weapon: the matchlock arquebus. Korea sent for help from the Great Míng Empire … except the Chinese were busy fighting Mongols and rebels. By the time Chinese reinforcements reached the northern Korean border, Japan had conquered all Korea south of Pyeongyang.

In real history, Japan’s invasion stalled out shortly afterward, faced with the Míng army’s overwhelming numbers. Japanese and Chinese diplomats negotiated a tense, confusing cease-fire, but Japan renewed the offensive in 1597, leading to a year of bitter fighting with successes and failures on both sides. In 1598, after Hideyoshi died, the last Japanese troops retreated from Korea. But the characters of DKG don’t know that. In winter 1592, it looks like Chinese reinforcements will never arrive and the Japanese army will roll right over Pyeongyang, into Manchuria, and for all anyone knows on to Běijīng from there. But that’s when an army of sea monsters under the command of Áo Guǎng, the Azure Dragon King of the East Sea, attacks unexpectedly. Japan, China, and Korea have no choice but to join forces and fight alongside hated and mistrusted foes against a threat too great for any of them to face alone.

What’s at Stake?

The Imjin War setting adds new subtleties of representation and respect to Thousand Arrows, each of which may potentially help real people, harm them, or both.

International Representation

DKG introduces Ryūkyūan, Korean, Chinese, Manchurian, and Mongolian characters. I always prefer to err on the side of more risk for more representation; but my Gen Con experience demonstrated how the wartime context opens the door to simulated race-based aggression. While Galileo Games intends to hire cultural consultants from as many represented regions as possible, DKG’s text and rules must moderate both the content and the intensity of the players’ experience of in-character prejudice.

DKG models personal growth from stereotype through understanding to empathy with modifications to the attachment system, inspired by Cold City’s international trust mechanism (itself inspired by The Mountain Witch). Instead of bonds to every single other PC, impractical in a 15-player campaign, characters bond to each nation. A low bond rating to a nation—my own or someone else’s—means suspicion and stereotype rule my attitude towards it. At a high rating, my understanding matures and I have an easier time helping or interfering with its people and endeavors. A new attachment move, which triggers when someone tells me who a nation’s people are or how that nation works, will look familiar to Masks: a New Generation players. A guide to which regional stereotypes are and aren’t period-appropriate accompanies these mechanisms. Explicitly discussing stereotypes has several positive effects, which I’ll detail in a future post on when, how, and why to role-play in-character prejudice.

These systems generate a table atmosphere where players feel confident out-of-character about in-character behavior, where potentially upsetting content rarely comes as a surprise. They never need rely entirely on consensus or safety mechanisms, which can be stressful to apply (although necessary).

Class

Because the knight caste kept better records and enjoyed more agency during the Warring States Period, Thousand Arrows typically focuses on hereditary elites’ activities and experiences. The game depicts nobles oppressing the lower classes, but its premise does not necessarily doubt or deconstruct entrenched classism. If you read that post about historical gaming, classism ranks somewhere in the first or second grade of adjudicated evil: either something that’s going to go on that no one will question, or something reasonable for a character to do although it may sow conflict between characters. However, the Imjin War spotlights Korean peasants, serfs, and slaves, who both bore the brunt of three nations’ exploitation and did most of Korea’s fighting.

Whenever we scrutinize fictional depictions of real-world power gradients, we should always ask, “Does this work center oppressed people’s experience? Does this work show them as protagonists as well as victims?” DKG lets us answer “yes” more readily than standard Thousand Arrows, especially since noble privilege was to blame for both sides’ failures. Korean “righteous armies” of low-born irregulars picked up the slack while aristocratic complacency, inexperience, and mismanagement hamstrung the formal Joseon military and sidelined Admiral I Sunsin, the upper-class prodigy who was Korea’s actual best hope for victory, for petty reasons. Knights’ thoughtless overconfidence and hyperactive ambition repeatedly drove the Japanese invasion into untenable positions from which even their superior drill, panoply, and experience could not extract them. Finally, despite a staggering numerical advantage, the Míng throne’s slow and painful decline, internal struggles, and agreement to a pernicious cease-fire that overwhelmingly favored Japan kept the Chinese army from honoring its obligation to protect its vassal state in a timely enough manner to avert devastation.

Both “Dragon King’s Gambit” and the other Thousand Arrows stretch goal, “Street Samurai versus Code Ninja,” take aim at the game’s own class-related shortcomings. Whether as part of this Kickstarter or a future one, I hope you get to play them.

International Tensions

You may have noticed conflict in the headlines concerning territorial disputes, or revisionist attitudes toward historical atrocities (cw: atrocities), among modern Asian powers, and sometimes the United States as well. These conflicts arise from a long history of war, piracy, trade, and cultural exchange, which prominently features the Imjin War and dates back to legendary prehistory. The simplest summary thereof would triple this article’s length, so I’ll leave it to you to research if you’re interested. Suffice to say that any discussion of the Imjin War is inherently political in a way that is very much alive for Asians. Are the PCs real-world historical figures? (For the most part, yes, because I don’t think fictional characters are demonstrably more or less likely to commit war crimes.) Will players who assume commanding roles act out historical atrocities? Aren’t their actions and choices political statements?

As far as political statements go, the highest stakes related to DKG surround the Japan Conference, an ultranationalist society with ties to current Prime Minister Abe Shinzō’s conservative regime. Even if Thousand Arrows is delayed for many years, the Japanese government at its time of publication will probably still be conservative and nationalist. No one in any Asian government is likely to care about an obscure American tabletop role-playing game, but you never know (link in Russian). However, this game is written in English. As I write, 571 of the game’s 581 Kickstarter backers hail from the West—most of those from Anglophone nations, including 452 North Americans. Six are based in Japan (hi Andy!), four in the Philippines (hi Tobie!). If Thousand Arrows grows enough in popularity to warrant translations into East Asian languages, we may reevaluate; but as it stands, from a player-facing perspective, Asian-American issues are more critical to Thousand Arrows than Asian issues. How can a game set in Joseon Korea speak to Asian America?

The questions above informed my decision to interrupt the Japanese invasion with a sea monster attack in December 1592, after the first siege of Jinju but before the siege of Pyeongyang. We should talk about the dragon in the room.

Wait Why Is There a Dragon

For a few reasons.

  1. Fighting badass sea monsters is slightly less emotionally harrowing than shooting other human beings all the time.

  2. Granting players command at an early juncture offers them the opportunity to make better choices than their historical antecedents. To get them started, DKG flat-out prohibits war crimes.

  3. If that somehow isn’t enough, marauding kaijū too deadly for any army to face alone incentivize players to cooperate even with hated and mistrusted foes. Putting your nation first might help you in the short term, but jacks up the likelihood that giant evil crabs will eat your countrymen and everyone else. All sides need the sympathy of Korean commoners whose folkways and traditions offer invaluable insight into the opposing force.

  4. Speaking of which: Real people in this place and time believed in gods, spirits, superpowers, and supernatural creatures as readily as modern people believe in Jesus Christ. (Several DKG characters also believe in Jesus Christ, though.) They had a complex set of beliefs around their religion and folklore which laid the groundwork for religious and magical practices that still go on today. DKG’s religious and legendary aspects validate non-Western religious traditions. If I included the historical elements but not the folkloric elements of these people’s real lives, I would uphold a colonialist perspective that affirms the parts of marginalized people’s lives that don’t challenge Western worldviews, but rejects those which do.

  5. The dragon king’s attack encourages disparate demographics to work together despite their differences and history: a very thinly veiled metaphor for what Asian-American activists have to do to fight white supremacy. We have all these differences, all this baggage we inherit from our parents about who’s our friend and who’s our enemy because of where they were born and what their ancestors did, and we’ll get to that eventually, maybe; but first we have to close ranks and face the same direction because we all look the same to the damn dragon bearing down on us right now.

In short, if some fools show up to DKG hoping to act out xenophobic fantasies? I’m gonna make them work for it, and I have some very personal reasons why.

 A statue of Admiral I Sunsin in a park atop Busan Tower looks out across the city by day. Photo by Jeff Harr,  CC BY-SA 3.0 .

A statue of Admiral I Sunsin in a park atop Busan Tower looks out across the city by day. Photo by Jeff Harr, CC BY-SA 3.0.

Personal Background

I am Filipino American.

Imperial Japan invaded the Philippines in 1942 and occupied the country until 1945. When I was a child, my mother told me stories of my family running and hiding in different places so the Japanese wouldn’t capture, imprison, torture, and execute them. When I visited the Philippines at age ten while my great-grandmother was dying, my mother walked me through one of the Japanese prisons, which is now a tourist site. In the Second World War’s aftermath, Manila posted my great-grandfather, a diplomat, to Japan. Of all the places where he served as a diplomat, Japan was his favorite.

The United States invaded the Philippines in 1899. Rudyard Kipling wrote the poem “The White Man’s Burden” to commemorate the occasion. At the time, the Philippines had just thrown off the Spanish yoke to become Asia’s only democratic republic. Despite their often catastrophically ineffective war doctrine, the United States conquered the Philippines through superior technology and sheer brutality, although they didn’t consolidate their hold on the country until they started building infrastructure. The Philippines remained an American commonwealth until World War II ended and Japan surrendered. Upon Philippine independence, Americans were hailed as liberators, even though the United States’ imperial shadow still falls over the Philippines and will for a long time. The American subjugation of the Philippines enabled many Filipinxs to immigrate to the United States. Had this conquest not occurred, my family might still have settled in New York; but we would more likely have wound up in Tōkyō.

The Imjin War took place between 1592 and 1598 CE. Imperial Regent Toyotomi Hideyoshi meant for the invasion of Korea to set up a grander conquest that would include all of Asia, explicitly including the Philippines. He even sent a letter to the Philippines demanding tribute, but it wasn’t addressed to a Filipino. During the last half of Japan’s Warring States Period, Spain was busy conquering the Philippines. By the end of the Imjin War, Spain ruled the Philippines. In 1600, two Spanish brothers—a soldier and a priest—arrived in the Philippines as conquistadores, their families diverging as they intermixed with locals and then rejoining many years after that. Their surname was Méndez. They were my ancestors.

Colonialism is complicated. It’s also in my blood, both literally and figuratively. A series of tragedies involving the Philippines, Spain, the United States, and Japan caused me to exist. Looking back at these historical events, it seems clear to me that it was wrong and harmful for Spain, the US, and Japan to invade the Philippines. But had any of these things not happened, I would not exist.

Working on a game about Asia, but (mostly) not about the Philippines, is nice for me because I get to engage with Asian identity and write about an Asian subject without everyone’s scrutiny  on me personally and specifically. A lot of Asians don’t want to make games or characters who reflect their specific real-world identities because, well, now that thing is out there in the world and people are lining up at stores to pay money to look at and read about and play as you. I am really, really in favor of Asians making games about different kinds of Asians (and playing different kinds of Asians on screen, and writing books about different kinds of Asians, etc.) because it lets us look at our own identity from an oblique angle. We support each other and validate each other’s viewpoints, but we aren’t locked into only making games about our own existence. Thus, we can actually function in the larger industry as more than tokens or representatives of our own specific cultures.

I once thought Thousand Arrows wasn’t about me. I’m not so sure anymore. Writing “Dragon King’s Gambit” makes me feel like a time traveler, returning to the past with dangerous ideas and dire warnings from the future, calling players to actions which, if they succeed, will disrupt the timeline and erase my existence. Would it be worth it? Would history be better off? If DKG funds, maybe you’ll get to decide.