Friday, June 7, 2013

Game Inspirations Friday: Shogun

Image courtesy of IMBD
Those who have been following my series on inspirations for my World of Samoth campaign will note that the majority of my early influences were mainly Western European in flavor - Tolkien, of course, but also the World of Greyhawk, a smattering of Dragonlance, the World of Conan, B/X D&D's Known World, etc. Sure, Conan's world actually encompasses lots of areas, including fantasy equivalents of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. But Howard doesn't go into a lot of depth about these different cultures, for the most part.

The first true non-Euro-centric influence for my campaign world that I've talked about was a book called Liavek, which wrote about a few weeks ago. It's a vaguely Middle Eastern themed city and it really helped inspire me to look to develop areas of my campaign world that took their cues from non-European cultures.

However, even before that, another non-European source had a great impact on the type of world I wanted to make, and really opened my eyes to the idea that other cultures aren't just about different skin colors, hair and clothing styles, and weapon choices. It's about the fundamental way that the people interact with the world and the things around them. That source was the TV mini-series Shōgun, based on the book by James Clavell.

This miniseries first aired on ABC in mid-late September 1980, so I would've been just days away from turning 10 years old. This was a couple years before I began playing D&D, and about five or so years before I even began to think about designing my own campaign world, but the series really gripped me and taught me about a part of the world that I really didn't know anything about until that point.

In school, we really only learned about ancient Greece and Rome, and if we were lucky, a bit about ancient Egypt before just moving onto medieval Europe and then fast-forwarding to Colonial America, where we'd spend the rest of the school year. I think that maybe ancient Sumeria and Babylon got about a half-page in our history book. Asia and Africa (outside of Egypt) were nowhere to be found.

So, Shōgun was really my first exposure to the of the Samurai and the Japanese culture. The story uses an interesting device to help the viewer become immersed in the culture, which is view the world of 17th Century Japan through the eyes of a stranded English sailor, John Blackthorne, whose ship has run aground on the main island. They utilized a very clever mechanic by having the actors, almost all of whom were native Japanese non-English speakers, speak in their native tongue, and didn't provide subtitles. The assumption was, if Blackthorne doesn't know what they're saying, then we shouldn't, either.

What's It About?
The story follows the exploits of English pilot John Blackthorne, played by mini-series regular Richard Chamberlain, whose ship, the Erasmus, is wrecked along the coast of Japan. Blackthorne, an English protestant, must deal not only with the extremely foreign culture of the Japanese, but also with his more traditional enemies, the Catholics and the Portuguese (one of whom is played by a young John Rhys Davies), who have a small foothold in Japan during this time.

Blackthorne eventually comes to the attention of a powerful samurai named Lord Toranaga, who is competing with other samurai for the position of Shogun. Blackthorne agrees to help Toranaga, and in return, Toranaga assigns Blackthorne an interpreter, the beautiful Lady Mariko. Toranaga does eventually become samurai, and the series ends with Blackthorne overseeing the building of a new ship (after the Erasmus was burned) to attempt to return home.

How Did It Influence My Role-Playing Games?
Really, up until this point of seeing the miniseries, I had no idea about the culture of feudal Japan, or any part of Asia, for that matter. Shōgun was where I first encountered the ideas of samurai, ninja, beautiful Japanese architecture and castles, Japanese armor and weapons, and even Japanese-style music. All of these had a major impact on the way I started trying to flesh out the Asian equivalents of my campaign world when I began developing the World of Samoth.

Watching Shōgun also got me interested in learning more about Asian cultures in general. It was shortly was the series aired that I remember my local PBS channel starting airing a special on Chinese acrobats, which I'd never heard of before. I was totally entranced by watching them and listening to the music, and of course it was PBS so they aired it somewhere between 5 and 300 times, give or take. I watched it pretty much every time it was on until a certain point that my mom had to tell me to turn it off because I think the music was really bothering her.

A few years later, when I got into D&D, I started reading back issues of Dragon magazine, and came across some very early "NPC-only" classes for the Samurai (I think that was Issue #3) and the Ninja (I can't remember what issue that was, but I want to say #16). Had it not been for Shōgun, I'm relatively sure I wouldn't have known much, if anything, about those two classes.

Cool Bits You Can Steal for Your Games
At first glance, Shōgun might seem dated by today's standards, but actually upon watching it, it holds up pretty well. I certainly believe that it influenced another film with almost the exact same plot, the Tom Cruise vehicle "The Last Samurai", which involves an American soldier who is captured in battle, has to live among the Japanese, learns to respect and admire them, and helps his former captor in battle. With a few minor exceptions, that's pretty much the same basic plot of Shōgun.

From watching Shōgun, you can really get a sense of how to portray the culture of feudal Japan in your games. If you're playing a samurai-type game like Bushido, Sengoku, Legend of the Five Rings, d20's Legends of the Samurai, or even old-school stuff like adventures in Kara-Tur from TSR's Oriental Adventures and Forgotten Realms settings, then you should definitely check out Shōgun. It will really just give you a sense of the culture, philosophy, art, and everything else that helps to make a well-rounded character. I always say that people have trouble trying to play a Dwarf or an Elf in a role-playing game, because we really don't know how a Dwarf or an Elf would act or think about certain things. Similarly, I think most Westerners have trouble trying to portray the philosophy and culture of Eastern type characters, because that way of thinking is really foreign to us. By watching something like Shōgun, which admittedly is a bit of an exaggeration, it does give you a pretty quick way to grab a few character traits to mimic and will go a long way toward making your samurai character different than "just a fighter with a katana."

Also, the character of John Blackthorne is a classic case of a "man out of his element" type of character. He's of the same mold as characters like John Carter and even Thomas Covenant from the Thomas  Covenant series - character who are taken out of their element and need to find a way to adapt, survive, and eventually thrive in a foreign world. It's a classic character archetype, and you could do a lost worse than mimic some of the character traits of Blackthorne to create such a character.

Final Thoughts
I'm really a big fan of doing "true" research, like hitting history books and books of legends and mythology to help flesh out different areas of campaign worlds, and you should really do so. However, sometimes I think we all too often forget that it's okay to incorporate fictional, literary, and even some cheesy TV sources as inspirations in our games. They can provide just as much fodder for your worlds, and can be just as much fun.

I'd love to hear from people who were inspired by Shōgun in creating Asian-themed areas of your campaign worlds, or even just if you liked it, and why.

SHŌGUN (TV Mini-Series)
  • Format: 5-episode TV miniseries (12 hours)
  • Where to Buy: Here's a link to buy the DVD set on
  • Price: $49.99 (but it's on Amazon for $36.93
  • More Information: There are tons of fan sites, but here's the entry on Wikipedia.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)

Drinking: Had a margarita at lunch
Listening: "Your Touch" by the Black Keys

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