Sunday, July 13, 2014

Working Through the Ketsueki Empire Part 1

This is a campaign setting I'm developing for eventual 'zine publication, if there's interest. We're playtesting it as we go and making adjustments.

Players Guide is up...


Overview of the Ketsueki Empire

Background and Disclaimer
The Ketsueki Empire is heavily based on the late classical period – specifically the late Heian period – of Japanese history. In the late 1100’s, the government and culture of Japan were undergoing a transformation from being primarily ruled by the Emperor and his noble relatives to being ruled by the samurai, and eventually a Shogun. During the late Heian period, the Fujiwara clan (a family related to the Emperor) ruled as regents to the Emperor and controlled most political posts in the country. Two other clans, the Taira and the Minamoto (both also related to the Emperor) were on the rise. In the 1170’s, Taira displaced Fujiwara as regents of the Emperor and became the most powerful clan in the nation – immediately putting them into conflict with the Minamoto clan. This culminated in the Genpei War, which began in 1180, and eventually saw the fall of the Taira and the complete domination of the Minamoto clan. In 1192, Minamoto no Yoritomo established the first shogunate, the daimyo system of control over the provinces, and put the samurai on a path to control of the country in place of the nobles.
Some important facts about Heian period Japan that are different from later periods that are usually the setting for “samurai” rpg games, and most of the genre content out there (movies, comics, etc):
  • Samurai, for the most part, were simply bushi (soldiers) hired to protect the Emperor’s interest, fight barbarians in the north, and support the noble clans that ruled the country.
  • The katana and wakizashi were not widely used. Both were believed to have been created in the late 1100’s, but didn’t see widespread use until the Mongol invasions of the 13th century, as the nature of warfare changed for the samurai from primarily archery based to more hand-to-hand combat. The primary sword of the period was the tachi, a longer and heavier sword worn in the “blade down” configuration in a complex sheathe (samurai primarily fought from horseback at this point).
  • Zen Buddhism, widely adopted by the samurai class in later periods, was largely unknown on the islands. The implications of this run deeply into the culture, as the concepts of Zen affected everything from the samurai approach to warfare, training, and the arts to how peasant artisans conducted their craft.
  • The term and concept of “bushido,” the samurai code, probably didn’t exist. It’s thought that bushido coalesced out of various samurai traditions in the 16th century and was heavily influenced by Zen.
  • The first recorded act of seppuku (ritual suicide) occurred at the beginning of the Genpei War. There may have been ritual suicides before this, but the practice wasn’t widely known.
  • Shinobi/ninja were not widely discussed, were not widely used by the nobles, or simply didn’t exist until later periods. It wasn’t until the 14th century that they appeared as the secret agents/assassins/terrorists that we are familiar with (in the Taiheiki – a fictional war chronicle), but in one legend, the origins of the shinobi clans were rooted in the fall of the Taira at the hands of the Minamoto during the Genpei war.
Disclaimer: I am not a Japanese historian. All of my information comes from the books that I have, and a few websites (Wikipedia and Samurai Archives being the two main ones). I also don’t speak the Japanese language. With both of those givens established, I’m taking what I've read, making some assumptions, leaps of faith and pure personal datastitching to build a world that is firmly fantasy. I have enlisted the aid of +Claytonian JP to assist me with the names (he’s already helped immensely!). There may be Japanese speakers out there that will guffaw at some term, made up name, or misinterpretation of legend, folklore or history. I mean no offense by this – I’m merely trying to build a fantasy world that has the same feel as the fantastical-historical Japanese world. This is especially true of any depictions of religious ideologies.
Also, as a further disclaimer, I’m not trying to teach a history lesson. Hopefully the content based around Imperial Ketsueki will be as fun to play as Sailors on the Starless Sea or Perils of the Sunken City. My DCC games have always been an amalgam of sword and sorcery, science fiction and other pulp literature and movies from the 1950’s to the 2010’s. The Empire of Ketsueki just adds a couple thousand years of legend, folklore and history from the islands of Japan to the mix.
Imperial Ketsueki

The Land
The Ketsueki Islands are a volcanic archipelago situated in the Nalic Ocean, about a thousand miles off the west coast of Nemel, the largest continent upon the world of Tysaan. The islands were formed by several volcanoes and are extremely mountainous and rugged, though lush with highland forests of trees and bamboo. The lowlands are fertile and cultivated with rice and millet by the peasant class. The four main islands have the following qualities:
  • Ketsueki – The largest island, it is populated and controlled mostly by the Ketsueki people. The northeastern reaches still have pockets of barbarian controlled areas, mostly in the mountains. The island is still politically controlled by the Fujiwara, though the Togashi clan has displaced them in key areas around the capital, Kyo.
  • Makido– The second largest island is completely controlled by the Ketsueki people and politically controlled by the Komei clan, rivals of the Togashi. Komei has fostered relations with the Nemelians and their subjects, the Vanar, and many believe that they are being influenced by these foreign forces.
  • Zuhana – The third largest island is the ancestral home of the Togashi clan. The arable land of this island is very limited, though the Togashi have made most of their fortune from gold and silver mines in the eastern mountains, as well as being master shipbuilders. Their trade fleets travel both to the Nemelian Triarchy to the east and the Urgil nations to the west. The Togashi leadership has some relation to an upstart religion referred to as Zharant-Togashi, believed to have originated with the Urgil people from the west, progenitors of the Ketsueki. Much of the northeastern mountains of Zuhana are controlled by barbarian tribes.
  • Aku – The smallest of the main islands, Aku is mountainous, forbidding and completely occupied by barbarians (the Kuregen and Tokar), and said to be the home of demons.
The People
The Ketsueki are a smallish people, dark of hair and fair of skin, but are generally industrious and devoted to the Emperor, the priesthood of the Ten Million Gods, and their lords.
Other than the Ketsueki, other races/peoples may be encountered on the islands:
  • Nemelians – The powerful but waning Triarchy, originating from the continent of Nemel, has recently discovered the Ketsueki islands. As yet, they have not gained a foothold either socially or militarily, mostly due to the distances involved in reaching the island chain. They have, however, made treaties with the Komei clan on Makido Island. Nemelians are slight, olive-skinned humans that tend toward industry, commerce, and conquest. The few Nemelians that live within Imperial Ketsueki are restricted as honored guests.
  • Vanar – Pale skinned and with a range of hair colors, the Vanar are a hearty people that originated in the northern lands of the continent of Nemel, but are now subjects of the Nemelian Triarchy. Once feared as raiders and pirates, Vanar are typically traders, over both land and sea. Where encountered, they are often at the beck and call of their Nemelian masters, though some have managed to enter into service of clans on Zuhana and the northern reaches of Ketsueki island.
  • Urgil – A tall, pale skinned race of human, the Urgil hail from a land far to the east and are believed to be the original settlers of the Ketsueki islands, intermarrying with the natives and forming the Ketsueki Empire. The Urgil have only recently come back to the region, mostly priests of their Zharanthian faith and ambassadors, through alliances with the Togashi clan.
  • Kuregen – “Kregin” is a pejorative originating from the Nemelian language to refer to native peoples – typically of some land that the Triarchy armies had just conquered. The Ketsueki refer to the native barbarians as Kuregen. Though they are identical in appearance to the “civilized” Ketsueki, the tribes have carved out the wild places on various islands and have thus far repelled all attempts by Imperial Ketsueki to subjugate them, their traditions, and culture. Those found in civilized lands often serve as soldiers of the more powerful clans.
  • Tokar – The tokar are a smallish savage humanoid people with dead gray skin and shaggy white hair. Fierce warriors, tokar are generally of sub-human intelligence (though exceptionally intelligent individuals exist) but are rarely hostile, unless provoked. Many clans are allied with various kuregen tribes, though the two peoples play at war and raiding, sometimes against each other and sometimes allied with each other against Ketsueki settlements. Tokar within the borders of Imperial Ketsueki are often persecuted as barbarians, though some warlord clans employ them as scouts and warriors – especially on the borders of kuregen lands
  • Yokai – By all appearances, yokai are human with some strange, animal-like trait. They are direct descendants of the spirits of the land. The yokai walk among and live beside the Ketsueki, though are often the subject of oppression when chaotic spirits wreak havoc on a village or town. Certain yokai are known to take the form of an animal, heritage of their spiritual origins.
  • Kijimuna – About half the size of a human, the Kijimuna are a red-haired race of tricksters, spies and, some say, demons. They originate on several small islands 500 miles south of Ketsueki, called the Kiji Islands. When the Ketsueki conquered the Kiji, the Roka clan adopted the Kijimuna into their ranks and brought them back to Ketsueki.
  • Demi-humans – Elves, dwarves and halflings are almost unknown on the islands, having traveled here with the Vanar or Nemelians. They are often the subject of fascination or ridicule, depending on the village and are almost always subjected to the restrictions of outlanders.
The Caste System
The empire is a feudal society stratified by a caste system, with the Emperor and his family firmly at the top. Below the nobles are the gentry comprising four main familial clans of warlords known as the samurai and many smaller vassal clans. Though they exert the brute force of the Imperial family within the Empire, they are primarily responsible for subjugating kuregen and tokar tribes that still inhabit two of the main islands (Aku and Zuhana) and innumerable smaller islands.
Below the gentry are the peasants, a class of people that include farmers and fishermen at the top, artisans and craftsmen, and then merchants, money handlers  and other “city folk” at the bottom.
At the very bottom are the outcaste, which include the poor/indigent and laborers in “unclean” trades (such as leatherworking, gongfarming, and those that touch the dead). Those considered unclean are generally stuck in their state, though those that are simply poor or in disreputable trades have some social mobility into the peasant class, and on rare occasions, into the gentry.
The Priesthood
The priesthood of Imperial Ketsueki is considered to be outside the caste system, and technically anyone can shave their heads and become priests. There is no one faith; those that commune with the “ten million” gather in sects that have as much to do with political aspirations as spiritual. The noble clans each support one or more sects and oftentimes, these priests join in conflicts against other clans and other sects. As a faith, the priesthood acts as intermediaries between the people of the Ketsueki Empire and the many spirits, ghosts and demons that inhabit the wild lands of the Ketsueki Islands.

Next Up
  • Clans
  • Classes
  • Spells
  • Gods

Monday, July 07, 2014

DCC in Land of the Rising Sun

Since Oriental Adventures, I've been captivated by the idea of role playing in medieval and late classical Japan. In the late 90's/Early 2000's, I ran across a game called Sengoku, which used a ruleset called the Fuzion engine, but beyond that was one of the best gaming resources for flashing blades chanbara samurai action that I've ever seen. For a couple of years, I lovingly built a setting and "adventure path" based on noh no avail. I could find no one that was interested in the genre or learning a new system. In that time, I read everything I could get my hands on regarding the period, as well as before and after.

Anyway, all that to say that the bug has been crawling around my brain with regard to the samurai genre for all that time, and I'm finally launching a DCC game in that genre.

What I have so far are a few draft, ready-to-playtest docs to get us started. I'll have modifications and additions after we play next week.

The campaign is called Incidents of Travel in the Ketsueki Empire. I'm planning to run in-person games at least once a month. If there's interest, I'll run some random G+ games. If there's even more interest, I'd really like to do a 'zine with community input/writing. If you're interested, PM me on G+.

I'll be posting more about this campaign here, including some info on the real world basis and inspiration for the world.

As always, let me know what you think.

Incidents of Travel in the Ketsueki Empire -- Player's Guide