Monday, March 4, 2019

Oriental Adventures (1st Edition)

There's no gentle way to say this, so I'm just going to rip the band-aid off real quick - this book is kind of racist. It's not hateful or anything. In fact, it is very positively inclined towards its subject matter. It's just a little jarring, here in 2019, to see the word "oriental" dropped so casually. It gives the whole book a strangely unwelcoming feel to it. Like, they really enjoy making fantasy inspired by the cultures of east Asia, but they wouldn't want it infecting "normal" D&D.

Seriously, they are so serious about keeping the Asian-inspired elements separated that they practically de-canonized the monk!

As you develop your Oriental Advenues campaign, it is recommended that you remove the monk character class from the European-type campaigns. Why? Because what is found herein is superior and in the proper surroundings as well!
That's from the Preface. And just in case the point was lost, it's repeated in the class section as well. What the hell is even going on here? Why is there such a hard boundary between fantasy-Europe and fantasy-Asia? It just doesn't make sense that you can have a setting where you draw from the Hellenistic Mediterranean, pre-Roman Britain, Germanic folklore and the Italian Renaissance, but one element from China and suddenly it's not in its "proper surroundings." Where's the line here? Russia? Persia? It never comes out and says it, but this conception of the setting has very clear ideas about the boundaries of race (and race as understood from a 20th century American context, at that).

It's a shame that the writing is so lacking in self-awareness, though, because I honestly think that the things that stand out as the most egregious cultural appropriation are really just artifacts of how D&D is.

Example: The land of Kara-Tur is really just a jumble of Japanese and Chinese tropes mashed together without concern for anachronism or linguistic or cultural coherence. It feels careless (even though the authors copped to doing it on purpose), but it's less of a mess than the "standard" setting, which is ostensibly based off medieval Europe, but is so mixed up that it doesn't actually resemble any kind of European culture that ever actually existed. The biggest difference is that in "standard" D&D its cultural and artistic influences are so thoroughly digested that, aside from the occasional infringement-skirting detail (*cough* halflings *cough*) it can be hard to trace where the pieces came from in the first place. In Kara-Tur, the mix is only half-digested, and so it's often pretty obvious when things are artlessly jammed together.

Like, did you know that the Fighter is a "more Western character type?" Good luck with figuring that out.

But I think this book's greatest sin is that it is comprehensive enough to serve as a substitute for the Player's Handbook in about 90% of use cases, and were you to use it so, the resulting game would be a naked improvement over the original. You could seriously just reskin the classes to have more "western" sounding names, like "knight" instead of "samurai" or "thief" instead of "yakuza" (although, how hilarious would it be to have a "mafioso" class?) and the balance of class abilities and progression feels so much more fitting to "European" style fantasy adventure than even the originals. Then, when you think of things that got added to this book over the base PHB, like nonweapon proficiencies and psychic duels, it's just a superior starting point all around.

And the reason that ranks as a sin is because it really strips "western"-style D&D of a lot of its excuses. So much in mainline D&D is taken for granted or done out of habit that when you see a game that is empowered to innovate, you can't help but question why the core is so loathe to change.

Samurais should be Fighters. If you were designing a game that was merely inclusive, rather than actively orientalist, then that decision is obvious. But, maybe Fighters should have the ability to draw on an aura of menace gained from surviving battlefield after battlefield, to drive lesser combatants away in mortal terror. Maybe they should get the ability to call on hidden reserves of strength. Maybe they could use a few more nonweapon proficiency slots, to represent their training in the courtly arts and/or the essential skills of the soldier.

It's frustrating to see. Because I can't help but think the reason we're seeing these character classes with interesting abilities and well-thought-out setting and genre niches is because this is a book about the "mysterious and exotic Orient" (blech) and thus it would be overselling its premise if its characters were merely "normal."

So my final verdict here is ambivalence. I think this is a pretty well-made product, and it's probably the first AD&D book that I consistently enjoyed reading. But I just don't see how you can sit down, in 2019, and say to a group of friends, "you know what would be fun? Oriental Adventures?" Hell, I think that if you're Asian, hearing the blurb on the back of the book - "The mysterious and exotic Orient, land of spices and warlords, has at last opened her gates to the West" - gives you an unlimited pass to use the nearest white person's shower for as long as it takes to scrub off the sleaze.

UKSS Contribution: There's actually quite a lot of neat stuff in this book, and I find when it comes to monsters and magic and whatnot, that this book takes setting and narrative concerns more seriously than prior D&D products (you can usually tell at a glance which spells are new vs which are reprints based purely on the length of the description). The problem is that I have a feeling that I'm going to get another bite at the apple with a lot of the more distinctive representatives of Asian mythology.

So I'll just go with something simple that nonetheless made for a delightful image - the Vessel spell. When you cast it, you fold a paper boat and put it in the water, where it grows to full-size and sails itself at you command, before dissolving a couple of hours later. That's the sort of specific, whimsical fantasy conceit that always gets to me.

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