Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Retrospective: Oriental Adventures

1985 marked the end of the era of Gygaxian Dungeons & Dragons and few products show this more clearly than Oriental Adventures, which, despite Gary's byline on its cover, was largely the product of others whose visions of the game would carry it into the Silver Age and beyond. I first recall having read about OA a couple of years before its release, when Gygax commented that he felt classes like the ninja and samurai -- and even the venerable monk -- didn't really belong in "standard" D&D, being best reserved for a book that better placed such classes in their "proper" cultural context. At the time, that seemed like an appropriate point of view, very much in keeping with the tenor of the Silver Age, which concerned itself with "realism" of all sorts, including the cultural.

Being an unrepentant TSR fan boy in those days, I eagerly awaited the release of Oriental Adventures and snagged it before it was widely released in my area, thanks to a comic store that got its sole copy of the book before it was on bookstore shelves. And I'm not ashamed to say that, at the time, I loved every bit of it, including its martial arts creation system and its non-weapon proficiencies. Just about everything about OA matched up well with my own burgeoning Silver Age sensibilities. I wanted my D&D campaigns to be as realistic as possible and OA seemed to deliver that, for its fantasy was (generally) more well-grounded in Asian history, legend, and folklore than was Western D&D, whose source material was an eclectic mish-mash assembled haphazardly by accretion than through any rational plan. Judging by the success of Oriental Adventures -- it was TSR's biggest seller in 1985, surpassing even Unearthed Arcana -- I wasn't the only one who appreciated the book's approach.

Oriental Adventures is a very clearly a product of late 1e. It replaces very few rules from the earlier volumes of the line, opting instead to expand and embellish existing rules. Likewise, everything within its pages are presented within the context of the larger AD&D rules set: Samurai are a sub-class of Cavalier and Wu Jen are largely Magic-Users with a unique list of spells, little different than Illusionists on the mechanical level. And the Ninja is a complicated mess, a kinda-sorta dual class every bit as complex -- and over-powered -- as the Bard. There are rules for generating a character's family (randomly, of course), as well as calculating the acquisition and loss of personal Honor. The monetary system is flavorful but convoluted and the choice of weapons and armor is even more exhaustive than in standard AD&D. Throw in the aforementioned non-weapon proficiencies and you have nearly the Platonic ideal of a Silver Age rules supplement, marrying cultural depth (though not as much as in Bushido) to the full baroque splendor of late 1e.

I still have a lot of nostalgia about Oriental Adventures -- and nostalgia it is. The mid-80s were suffused with an obsession about Japan and Japanese culture and I got caught up in it like everyone else. Compared to Ninjas and Samurai, boring old Thieves and Cavaliers didn't stand a chance and I was keen to find new ways to play D&D, ways that paid greater heed to history and culture. Or so I thought. In retrospect, I find OA, like most of the products of the Silver Age, well meaning but ultimately wrong-headed and I doubt I will ever again muster much enthusiasm for the kind of earnest, almost evangelical, approach the game took to its real world source material.

I much prefer my fantasy these days to be an unholy goulash of elements borrowed from dozens of sources, Western or otherwise, than fret about "realism" or properly portraying this or that culture in the game. Nowadays, the game takes precedence over any other considerations and source material exists only to inspire me, not to push me toward do anything the "right" way. Granted, this isn't a fault with Oriental Adventures itself, but it's very much a product of a gaming culture that conflated immersion with roleplaying and thus promoted the accumulation of reams of social and cultural details as necessities for "properly" roleplaying. It's not an approach I've favored in some time and I don't miss it at all. These days, if I wanted to include anything deriving from Asia in my fantasy campaigns, I'd present it a lot less reverently than Oriental Adventures did, preferring something more in line with a pulpy "mysterious East" than anything in the real world -- just as I do with anything I borrow from Western history or folklore.

22 comments:

  1. I really enjoyed OA, still do, and would be happy to play in such a campaign again. I certainly don't want rules to get in the way of my gaming, and I don't need to be shoehorned into reading huge piles of fluff in order to play "correctly." But I don't see OA as requiring that. To me, it's got enough stuff that I can use or ignore. The non-weapon proficiencies allow for a modicum of non-combat play that your character can get better at through experience (as I recall, anyway).

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  2. Every decade or so characters in my regular game world travel to the "asian" lands of that world, and that's when I get to whip out my old copy of OA the most. But also during my several year hiatus from gaming during most of the last 10 years, a short lived OA campaign I got to do with three players was a treat.

    Now you got me wanting my next campaign to be OA.

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  3. I really liked Kara Tur. I wish it had been kept around. Maybe WotC will bring it back out once they get around to an oriental book.

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  4. Not sure if you have followed any of the Oriental Adventures discussion at Dragonsfoot and ENWorld with Gygax and Cook, but it seems that the book was 99% Zeb's own writing, in his words, "for good or ill". The story of its writing is very interesting, I think, providing a window into the politics and problems of TSR just prior to Gygax's departure.

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  5. I loved OA. I was among those who felt and still feel that the Monk is an odd duck in the usual collection of classes.

    We played OA quite a bit in the day and it still leaves its mark on most of my game worlds since, which always seem to incorporate some asian influences someplace.

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  6. I never got to play in any OA games but I did get to read through it a few times. For some reason I never enjoyed having to pick up japanese as a second language in order to read the weapons section. Kind of feel the same way about all the crazy polearm names in the regular game. Monster names didn't bother me, though since weird ones are pretty common anyway. Not to say I wouldn't play in such a campaign but it would be hard for me to not say "sword" all the time.

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  7. I loved OA when it first came out, but never did get around to using the rules. How well did it play?

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  8. I read OA in my formative years (borrowed repeatedly from the public library), and although I recall our group of young (12ish) gamers making a set of OA characters, we never did play them. (Perhaps owing to the fact that the book had to go back to the library most of the time and was not always available)

    I have a copy on my shelf now, thanks to Ebay (or perhaps ABE.) I am still endeared by every element of the book except for the martial arts system, though by sheer luck I picked up an old Dragon magazine moldering in the dust bin of my LGS that cleans up the style creation rules.

    Dang, maybe my next campaign will have to be OA... (OA+OSRIC, that is)

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  9. ah, good old OA.

    still have two copies on my shelf. It was my first D&D read, and opened the door to the wider world of RPGs.

    fondly remembered.

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  10. The thing I remember most about OA was that this was the first book I noticed the change from sewn bindings to glued bindings. My copy fell apart in less than a year.

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  11. I'm one of the few people that never got OA myself. A friend had it, I read it (and later it was bequeathed to my collection).

    I guess I never got on board the Japanese-culture bandwagon, and the attempt at portraying a foreign culture looked like just too much work for me. It was a bar set sufficiently high that I never felt I had the capacity to succeed at running something like that.

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  12. Great summary James. Since Mike D. released Ruins and Ronin I've been on an OA kick, buying both his rules, and an OA book (3rd edition as all I could find) plus half a dozen other books on Samurai, etc.

    I'm working on a science fantasy campaign with a heavy Asian streak and a "goulash" of other influences. This stuff just makes my brain happy!

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  13. I've always found OA to be charming and it has a certain je ne sais quoi. It still owns a special place on my shelf and I occasionally peruse it for inspiration.

    I must admit to liking the specific fantasy Japan flavor of Rokugan much more than the generic fantasy Asian theme of Kara Tur though.

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  14. OA never rang my bell. I had delved into Bushido, and preferred that game. (Although I did like the Kara-Tur boxed set.) I was living in Hawaii and Japan, itself, at the time of the 80s "Japanese craze" in the U.S.; oddly, I think that lessened the appeal of playing an Asian-themed fantasy game.

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  15. As a certified martial arts buff and all-around Japanophile, I have to say that if OA is anything, it is most definitely an unholy ghoulash.

    Like Unearthed Arcana, I love, love LOVE the energy and "throw caution to the wind" approach of OA, but the mechanics leave a lot to be desired.

    It does deserve love for coming closer than any AD&D book to making the Monk actually playable though.

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  16. I fondly remember OA, though I don't think my group played it more than once or twice. If one does have the interest in exploring exotic cultures, it doesn't quite scratch that itch like Bushido or Sengoku, but I bet it served as a "gateway drug" for a lot of kids.

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  17. When my brother & I picked this up, we were still in the thrall of the 'anything TSR says in official' mania. Even so, he was shocked that Asian dwarfs got a +2 STR (and that katanas were _not_ mechanically identical to bastard swords, IIRC, but better). For my part I didn't like the super-ninjas either and my half-orc fighter/assassin planned to travel to Kara Tur expressly to kill as many ninja as possible. We actually just moved on to Rolemaster, GURPS, and other systems around that time because of other dissatisfactions with the game.
    A few years later we got back into AD&D, 2nd ed., as it was "the only game in town" were we had moved, but we knew we'd fit in because although the DM allowed katanas (with what we thought of as their game-breaking 2d6 damage!), he also ruled that they were called "poopsticks" in his world and only one player ever used them...

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  18. Oriental Adventures was the beginning of the end of my first (of three) love affairs with D&D. I wanted to love it, for all the reasons James mentions, but I just didn't. D&D was not, by a long shot, a historical game of Western Europe, so why did I need to have all of these rules and concepts regarding East Asia culture and history? D&D wasn't about real world history or culture. I loved D&D for the "unholy goulash" and simply wanted some ninjas, samaurai, and perhaps a few oni for that. This book clearly made an impression on the future of the game, however, which became much more interested in quasi-historical accuracy of the Renn Faire variety. While there's nothing wrong with that, I suppose, it didn't have much to do with exploring dungeons or Moorcockian magic/action, which were the things I wanted from the game at the time (and most of the time, still today, more or less).

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  19. James, I would have loved a few words about how this book compares to Ruins & Ronin.

    I liked OA very much, especially that it felt like a stripped down, one-book version of AD&D. I always wished that the regular AD&D would receive a similar treatment...

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  20. As I'm writing this, I'm waiting for some friends to come over so we can play in an OA game. My problem with the quasi-realism is that I spend a lot of time trying to guess the realism behind the quasi. For instance "Blood of the Yakuza" details a semi-independent port city called Nakamaru that is based on (I think) Edo-period Osaka. There is a lot of detail, but the under-skeleton is kind of flimsy (e.g. population size). In the day of wikipedia, dumbed-down quasi history has limited value.

    But we're still having a lot of fun with it-- I think people appreciate the lack of elves. (I've more-or-less omitted the OA "races.)

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  21. I never ran an actual campaign in OA, but I allowed a couple of players in my high school campaign to run characters made with this book (they were "visitors from the East"). It had no discernible impact on play.

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