Asian Culture and Dungeons and Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons has been around since the 1970’s and began as a kind of war-games experiment based on medieval-European warfare. Much of the fantasy lore that Dungeons and Dragons draws upon is either Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien, or other similar Western fantasy sources. So, what happens when you want to run a campaign in another non-Western settings?

TSR Inc., the original owners of Dungeons and Dragons, tried to port their adventures to other cultures in the world, leading to such fantasy realms as Al-Qadim (an Arabian-influenced adventure) and Oriental Adventures, which was a module in 2nd-edition AD&D that provided adventures in “the Orient” namely a realm named Kara-Tur, loosely based on an East-Asian style campaign.

While these adventures probably were a lot of fun (I hadn’t played them when I was a young lad), most people would agree that they haven’t aged well, and the current edition of Dungeons and Dragons (and its current owner, Wizards of the Coast) has been making efforts to modernize non-Western adventures to be more culturally inclusive, and less based on tropes of the “exotic east”. The video above is a panel of Asian-American (and Canadian) writers who provide advice on writing modern Asian-inspired adventures, and it was a great video to watch.

The reason why I mention this is that recently, after publishing my first adventure, my Japanese wife and my kids asked me if I’d consider making a Japanese-inspired adventure. I was pretty hesitant at first, knowing how tricky it would be to write an adventure based on someone else’s culture, but after getting a lot of encouragement from my family, I decided to give it a try.

I was also inspired to try something after making my elf samurai character whom I have been enjoying quite a bit in Adventurer’s League.

For starters, I decided to avoid the usual Japan setting of the Warring States Period which is what most Westerners think of when they imagine medieval Japan. While it’s an exciting time in Japanese history, as far as I am concerned, it’s been done. This century of Japanese history focuses primarily on warfare, and from my experience there is more to Japanese history than samurai and ninjas.

Thus, I decided to focus more on an adventure setting based on the much earlier Heian Period of Japanese history. The Heian Period is a four-century period of Japanese history that in my opinion is the “golden era” of culture and history, and still has an influence in Japan today. The Heian Period is fairly different than the later Warring States Period, and much of what we assume was in medieval Japan didn’t exist that far back, or if it did, it was in a different historical context. One of the defining features of the Heian Period was its strong cultural emphasis on ghosts, spirits, evil influences, geomancy and other superstitions. This provides ample room for fantasy adventures. Further, the aristocracy of the Heian court provides a lot of potential for social interaction, either in a peaceful context but also in a more adventure based context.

But, I’ve also decided to also port classic staples of Dungeons and Dragons , such as Elves, dragons and dwarves, but to reinterpret them into this kind of setting. Much of my work lately is trying to figure how such figures would carve out a semi-realistic niche in a setting like Heian Period Japan, while also creating monster stat blocks for such iconic Japanese monsters as kappa and tengu, among others. Also, I have tried to port certain classes in to Japanese equivalents: Shinto priests as clerics, druids as yamabushi ascetics and such.

Some sketches I made of a town setting for my kids’ adventure.

As a first draft, I play tested a small 2-3 hour adventure I made with my kids, and it went over fairly well, but my teenage half-Japanese daughter pointed out that it didn’t really feel Japanese apart from a bit of window-dressing. She encouraged me to lean more into Japanese culture with more references, monsters, etc. I may have been playing it too cautious and may have to put some more weight into the cultural side of things.

She suggested, for example, some flavor changes such as the default Explorer’s Pack most character get: swap out rations for things like Japanese omusubi (rice balls), dried fish and such. It wouldn’t change things mechanically, but would actually make it feel more Japanese for her. Coming from a child who practically grew up in Japanese culture all her life, that made a lot of sense.

Anyhow, I’ll be going back to the drawing board on this.

Suffice to say, making a rich fantasy setting based on a real life historical culture while avoiding bad tropes is harder than it looks, but it’s also rewarding because my kids really get to delve into something they grew up with but never in a fantasy setting. If done right, becomes the best of both worlds for them!

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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