Monday, May 25, 2020

(M: As) Dragons of the East

When are rpg companies going to stop remaking Oriental Adventures?

. . . No, that's a little harsh. Dragons of the East is generally more respectful and carefully researched than that old D&D book. My mind just went there because they share the same fundamental flaw. In all the rest of the Mage: the Ascension books, they've been building a meticulous, if somewhat off-the-wall, urban fantasy setting, and then in this specific book, they more or less say, "fuck it, lets do fantasy Asia," and this new setting barely interacts with the World of Darkness at all.

I came away from the chapter on the Asian Technocracy totally confused. There's an organization, called The Five Elemental Dragons, which is kind of like the Technocracy, in that they prefer to use tools to do magic and they don't approve of the various supernatural factions, but with a couple of minor exceptions, they are a staid and conservative bunch who act out of traditionalism and a weirdly ahistorical pan-Asian nationalism (the branch headquartered in Korea has "a smaller enclave working in Japan to . . . 'restore Imperial Japan to the glory she once held'" . . . yikes).

So what you've got is this situation where the two organizations are similar enough to be largely redundant, but also distinct enough that they don't seamlessly, and there's not really a good explanation for why this needs to be the case. There's an outline of an explanation - local technomancers wanted to covertly resist European colonialism, so they partially acceded to the Technocracy's demands so that they might draw off some of the Union's resources while, in truth, being much less loyal to the Technocracy than they let on.

This is a potentially very useful plot hook, but it really should just be baked into the Technocracy from the start. Guide to the Technocracy introduced all sorts of factions and hidden agendas inside the organization, Project Invictus, Special Projects Division, etc. An anti-colonialist alliance or growing nationalist factions could have been among them. There's no real reason why you'd create parallel organizations, not unless you wanted to be able to totally cut off fantasy Asia from the rest of the World of Darkness.

It's a theme that repeats throughout the book. We've got 130 pages here and the only one of the familiar Traditions to appear on more than one of them is the Akashic Brotherhood. Well, technically, the Dreamspeakers are name-dropped in the Sons of Tengri section but only to indicate that there is no relationship between the two organizations. And the Verbena are trying to recruit the Wu Keng, but it's implied that they are being naive when they assume that the Wu Keng have fallen victim to the same sort of "demon worshipers" slander the Christians leveled towards them (and, incidentally, why this was not retconned to be the case is beyond me).

So technically, the Traditions have not been forgotten, but practically, they play no role in this book. Part of this is likely just a focus on the "new" (scare quotes because much of this book is redundant with the Akashic Brotherhood tradition book and The Book of Crafts), but mostly it's because despite itself, it can't quite get over the feeling that Asia is supposed to be "exotic" and "mysterious."

I mean, there's a sidebar that explicitly calls out Orientalism and everything. The word "problematic" is used. Someone at White Wolf knew there was a potential issue. And yet the introduction contains this doozy of a passage:
The Asian mind was entirely foreign - of course - to the European attitudes of the day. Considering that the "Westerners" who studied Asia could hardly comprehend what Asian society took for granted, how much more mysterious were the elements that hid under the surface where the common man of Asia could not see them?
Two points. First, when you're talking about vampires and shit, they're always mysterious. That's the whole damned point of having a masquerade. "The occult" literally means "mysterious." There's isn't some hidden layer of "occult for the occult" out there, where one group of supernaturals is secret and another is super-secret, such the first group is completely in the dark about them, even though the second group is constantly talking to each other.

Well, okay, obviously there can be such a distinction, and White Wolf makes it here, but it almost seems like they forget that Asia is just a place. You can get on a plane and go there. If you're determined and have the time (and start in Europe or Africa), you can even walk. And while I don't imagine it's easy to show up in a new town and find the one-in-a-million authentic traditional Chinese sorcerer, it's probably not notably more difficult than finding the Druid, the mad scientist, or the worker of Christian miracles.

Which brings me to my second point. Orientalism didn't happen because Asians are uniquely difficult to understand. They've been writing books explaining themselves for nearly 3000 years now. Orientalism happened because Europeans had certain institutional and cultural incentives to not understand Asia.

Which isn't to say that I'm going to sit here and tell you that I know all about Asian philosophy and culture, because damn, we're talking about dozens of nations spread out over thousands of year. It's a project that makes reading all the Mage: the Ascension books look trivial, and I've been half-assing that for almost six months now. What I am saying, though, is that there are a lot of philosophical systems that I don't understand. I tried to read the Roman Catholic Church's official theological justification for forbidding homosexuality and my brain just bounced right off it. I completely lacked the cultural context to even begin to understand it.

And even when you do have the cultural context, attempting to understand an entire culture in simple, concise terms is an act of monumental hubris. Exercise for the reader - explain the USA's attitude towards quarantine procedures.

In other words, everything's mysterious if you know jack shit.

Bringing it back to Dragons of the East - this book is much too small for its ostensible subject matter. But it compounds that sin by then compressing its subjects into one, overarching meta-civilization. The Akashic Brotherhood is as vague here as the Dreamspeakers in the 1e core. They're not Buddhists. They're not martial artists. They're sort of a "miscellaneous Asian" tradition, a big enough tent to include even the Qing Dynasty court wizards who tried to destroy Shaolin (wikipedia is cagey on the historicity of these events, but says it's a huge recurring plot in Chinese fiction . . . which jibes with my limited experience of Hong Kong action movies - to me, the plot reads a lot like the Celestial Chorus trying to join the Verbena to weather the onslaught of secularism because they're both European religions).

Ultimately, this should have just been about China, or perhaps broader East Asia. There's no excuse for including India, though blessedly it's largely forgotten about (and really should have been a supplement of its own . . . were White Wolf the sort of company that could do it justice), and Southeast Asia was completely wasted (the less said about the book's treatment of Vietnam and Cambodia, the better - some of it borders on "ghouls started the Holocaust" territory). Maybe, if the book had been more tightly focused, its characters could have been rooted in specific cultural legends, and the complex political interplay between the nations could have been explored in more depth.

It's funny, but that is another flaw Dragons of the East shares with Oriental Adventures. It applies the same haphazard "what's cool in pop culture" style of worldbuilding that led to the World of Darkness, without realizing that it comes across as extremely insensitive when you do it to another culture. Like, if we take a look at the original lineup of Traditions, setting aside those tied explicitly to non-European cultures (and putting a pin in the eventual retcons that would make the Euthanatos and the Cult of Ecstasy Indian), then what we see is just a mishmash of "people with cool powers" - wizards and witches, mad scientists and priests, necromancers and hippies. It ignores borders, it ignores time periods, it ignores themes. Merlin and Dr Frankenstein hook up with Timothy Leary to blow up computers.

It's cool, sure, but rightly or wrongly (probably rightly) people are going to assume you're ignorant as fuck. And this is where we reach the limits of my knowledge. I noticed some flaws, many of which we've already covered. And I can make certain inferences about sins of omission (like maybe there should be a form of Chinese peasant magic that isn't intensely transphobic), but I can guarantee you that the authors of this book have spent more time reading about Chinese history and culture than I have (I use "Chinese" rather than "Asian" because I'm pretty sure this book is just assuming that China is a universal base that connects all the region's cultures). I'm not sure the payoff was worth it, but the effort is clearly on the page . . .

I think. I'll confess to having this bias where I associate a lot of proper nouns and overuse of non-English words with hard work, and Dragons of the East certainly delivers in that regard. It honestly strikes me as little counter-productive at times. We don't really need to render the Wu Keng's titles in Cantonese (though the romanization was so bad here that it took me about 5 minutes on google to figure out that was even what language it was). They can just call each other "mother" and "auntie" and "girl." Rendering the terms in English would have been more authentic, because to the people using them, they'd be intelligible words. You only really need to use an untranslated word if you want to convey that it was esoteric in its original context. The Wu Lung's word for paradox, "ch'ung tu" might qualify, though I was unable to discover what it originally meant and so it adds basically nothing.

Also, why does this book debunk ninjas (not my smoothest transition, but whatever)? There's a whole sidebar saying that to the best of their research, they could find no reliable historical record of mysterious clans of assassins with mystical powers, to which I say, "no shit." You want to say that the original ninjas were just commoners who slipped into the blind spots of Japan's class system and the sensationalist legends were just the elites being in denial? Sure, but maybe follow up with a cool proletarian conspiracy that sought to oust vampires among the daimyos or something. Don't just shrug and move on.

Because this is the World of fucking Darkness we're talking about here. You have permission to make all of history's most implausible occult conspiracies real. In the real world, there are no magical assassins? Well, there weren't any classically-trained wizards whispering in the ears of Europe's princes either. And I hate to break it to you, but if you look into cases of faith healing, you'll find that it doesn't work, and the few times it seems to can be attributed to coincidence and the placebo effect. Didn't stop you from basing whole Traditions around those guys.

(The above rant was about 50% me wishing there were more East Asian magical Crafts and 50% me just really liking ninjas).

In the end, though, Dragons of the East shares one last ironic flaw with Oriental Adventures - it's actually pretty good. I mean, not necessarily from an "improving intercontinental harmony and understanding" sort of way, but it that "Asia of Darkness" is in some ways a better setting than the World of Darkness.

There's a mildly racist paragraph that sums it up:
Known collectively as shen (ed note: apparently this term is dumb and/or offensive, at least in this context), the supernatural creatures of Asia do not share their gweilo counterparts' unconstrained hostility for one another. The shen have learned over the centuries to exist in some rough approximation of peace. Outsiders might even make the assumption that Asia's various supernatural beings live in some sort of enlightened harmony. Perhaps, in comparison to the West's seemingly endless violent conflicts, this might even be considered true. But, in fact, the Middle Kingdom (ed note: meaning "Asia") is in a state of supernatural cold war.
I'm not even going to try and unpack the weird racial coding going on here ("why can't Europe have the famous amity that exists between China, Korea, and Japan"), but I do want to point out that this is a great pitch for an urban fantasy game. There are all sorts of monsters and creatures with various levels of divinity and profanity, and many of them dislike each other, but they're all loyal to the celestial bureaucracy, so when they do go to war, they have to be discreet about it. It's a gameable setting with plenty of potential for intrigue, action, and romance. It doesn't interact with the "western" world of darkness well at all, but it doesn't really need to. In fact, it would be about 20x better if it weren't for the occasional "white people drink blood like this, but Asians drink blood like this" comparisons and just stood on its own.

Ukss Contribution: This one is both easy and difficult. Easy, because there's only one place my mind goes when I think about cool things from this book - samurai werewolves. Such a neat visual, such a fun fantasy concept.

Now, the hard part. How do I make a wolf-man a samurai? I mean, specifically. I can give them swords. I can give them armor. I can give them a code of honor. But that can just as easily describe werewolf knights (admittedly, a cool concept, if a little beside the point). What makes the Samurai stand out?

And, of course, the answer is "their unique place in the context of Japanese culture." And, on a surface level (admittedly, this is almost 100% where I was operating from), there are certain physical trappings associated with them - styles of dress, weapons, and deportment that evoke comparisons to pop-culture Samurai I've seen in the past.

I have to ask myself, then, if that's a road I want to go down. If I just nab a superficial image, that might well cross the line from "fun little rpg homage" to "full blown cultural appropriation." I've made my peace that the latter is going to happen at least a little bit (I'm at this point fully committed to using the term "Yokai," for example), but I don't want to star deliberately leaning in to it.

And what I really don't want to do is that silly thing that rpgs do where they just lift a historical (esp nonwhite) nation wholesale and say "this is a fantasy land now." Plus, I think if Ukss did have a fantasy Japan, but populated entirely by wolf-people, that might send the wrong message.

It's with no small reluctance that I'm forced to admit this problem is beyond me. I think I'll have to go with my second choice . . . something from just a little bit down the page where they talk about commoner werewolves and describe them as "werewolf bandits and would-be peasant folk heroes." It wraps up by saying "a few have even become diehard supporters of communism."

I might try to sneak in a bit of knight-errant/ronin samurai into their presentation, but I think even without the adornment, they're a worthy second choice.

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