Archive for January 14th, 2009

Dragon Creation

2009 Jan 14

Inspired by town creation from Dogs in the Vineyard, the nature of monsters in Zelda, the Shinto influences in Miyazaki movies, the colossi from Shadow of the Colossus, and a short game Shreyas once wrote called “In Darkness He Is Waiting.”

The natural world operates in accord with the will of heaven. They are not exactly the same thing, theologically speaking, but mirror each other in a complementary fashion. Therefore, if something is at sixes and sevens (or, as they say in Chinese, a real ‘chaotic seven-eight mess’), if the dragons are acting up and causing disastrous calamities, such troubles necessarily have a mortal origin. The player characters are called upon to combat the symptoms of disasters — floods, fires, famines, eruptions of ghosts and monsters — but appeasing the wrath of the dragons ultimately involves determining how mortals are angering the natural world and/or spirit world.

Consequently, in this campaign setting, dragons are not monsters to be slain (though there will doubtlessly be hosts of other monsters that need stabbing). Dragons are effectively big, moving, dangerous puzzles to be found, explored, endured, and unraveled, if you are lucky. If you’re unlucky, they just eat you.

How to Perturb the Dragons

Here’s a table of mortal behaviors and their consequences in the earthly and spiritual realms. The GM uses this table, plus the NPCs that you’ve collaboratively created, to create disasters or other strange events that the PCs are sent to investigate.

improper hearts weather animals
improper behaviors storms ghosts
improper family relations crop failure monsters
improper village relations destruction dragonborn
improper conduct of a region disasters dragons
improper rule of a kingdom omens suns die

Your characters’ job, as agents of the Mulberry Throne, is ultimately to prevent the Ten Suns from falling from the sky, which means you have to stop problems from developing to that point. Of course, the difficulty is that many problems don’t become evident until the dragons awake and natural disasters begin occurring.

Shang Fantasy Oracle

2009 Jan 14

A first attempt, based on Simon Carryer’s generation method, which also inspired Hard Boiled Cultures (currently #2 on RPGnow!).

NOTE: Edited a bit.

Social Hierarchies

Every character of any importance — PC or NPC — is going to be in some sort of tension with the expected social hierarchies, including the king himself and members of the royal family. While Confucianism and its emphasis on the “five relationships” is still several hundred years off, there is already an emphasis on ritual and propriety when it comes to social relationships. However, the overlapping nature of the various hierarchies makes is easy to adhere to most of them but nearly impossible to adhere to all of them at the same time. For example, if a character is a female shaman, she would be considered to have less authority than a man, but more authority than any non-shaman. Woohoo, social tension! The hierarchical social expectations that characters struggle with include:

• heaven (a.k.a. the natural order of all things) before earthly concerns,
• ancestors before the living,
• old before young,
• men before women,
• royalty before nobles (adopted royalty),
• nobles before the common people,
• masters before their servants;
• creditors before debtors;
• guests before hosts;
• shamans before non-shamans,
• warriors before non-warriors, and
• people before animals and non-people (including crow-people and eunuchs).

Using the Oracle

Draw 3-5 playing cards from a deck with the jokers removed for each PC or major NPC character you want in your game. I suggest starting with twice as many major characters as you have players, creating character concepts through the oracle process before players pick which characters they want to play. Use the cards drawn to brainstorm character concepts in the following fashion:

♥ Hearts: The character embodies this norm.
♠ Spades: The character twists this norm.
♦ Diamonds: The character has been changed by this norm.
♣ Clubs: The character has broken with this norm.

The Oracle Entries

2. Some of our ancestors are crows, consequently, we all share crow-like features and traits. Children are generally born with feathers and, sometimes, beaks, but these generally fall off as they grow to become youth.

3. Those that are too crow-like to function in society are driven away, up into the mountains or towards the sea.

4. Nobles — including all officials and military officers — must be of royal blood or ritually adopted into the royal family.

5. The only non-nobles allowed to touch or share objects handled by the royal family are eunuchs and virgin handmaidens. These special servants, because their sexual nature has been suppressed, grow more crow-like as they age, becoming more irritable and hoarding shiny objects.

6. Divination is the highest shamanic art, both seeing the future and seeing the true connections between heaven, earth, and mortal-kind. The sacred script, the only form of true writing that exists, is restricted to the diviners who serve the royal household and the royal family members who are required to participate in divination.

7. We all honor and seek aid from heaven, the Lord on High, the Consummate God-King (our shared, semi-divine ancestor), his consort the Crow-Mother, their children the Ten Suns, a variety of local agricultural, weather, and reproductive spirits, and our own familial ancestors. The royal family, of course, pays respect to the royal ancestors.

8. The royal family demonstrates heaven’s approval and the righteousness of their rule by predicting and competently handling natural disasters and other calamities that befall the people.

9. There is no slavery in the kingdom, though some obligations take a long time to fulfill.

10. Jade and tortoise shells are sacred materials important to political and spiritual authority. All jade belongs to the royal family. It can be loaned to specific nobles or noble houses, but never to non-nobles. Tortoise shells, if they are to be useful in divination, cannot be touched by non-noble hands.

J. Neighboring kingdoms accept the dominance of the Mulberry Throne and regularly send envoys bearing tribute.

Q. Grave robbers, horse thieves, and those who selfishly betray their lords are plagued by ghosts and despised by heaven and earth.

K. Dragons are the irritable and dangerous lords of the natural world. They do not easily tolerate mortal blundering but — as the embodiments of heaven’s will — cannot be killed, merely appeased. Everyone fears the dragons — and the common people regularly make offerings to them — but no one actively seeks their involvement in mortal affairs.

Some of Our Ancestors Are Crows

2009 Jan 14

Some notes on primordial Chinese sovereigns. All of this is directly from the historical record.

The Shang/Yin people honored the God-King Jun as their primordial ancestor. We know this from oracle bones that mention his name.

Jun descended from heaven to rule the people, marrying Xihe and fathering the 10 Golden Crows — three-legged birds that are, in fact, suns, taking turns traveling across the sky each day. Xihe and the suns live in the land of Fusang (often associated with Japan) in the Eastern Sea. We know this from the Classic of Mountains and Seas, the oldest collections of Chinese myths still in existence.

The Shang kings traced their mortal ancestry back to a chieftain named Yi Lu. We know this from oracle bones in which the sovereigns called upon their ancestors.

Yi Lu’s wife, Jiandi, swallowed a crow’s egg and became pregnant with Xie, whose descendants included the Shang royal line. Again, this part is from the Classic of Mountains and Seas.

Some scholars now believe that the Shang/Yin mythology gradually lost prominence during the rise of the Western Zhou and the diversity of the Warring States period. Instead, later mythologies focus on the Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors narratives not on the mythological rulers that the Shang honored as their ancestors.