Weekly Design Blog #26: A Dilemma I Face as a Designer for SpM is...

Hello All,

When I sat to write this blog-post, I was going to title it something like “the Designer’s Dilemma” but then I Googled that term, just to see what there was and let’s say it’s well used but not agreed upon. Even the addition of “the Game Designer’s Dilemma” doesn’t help because there are plenty of uses of that phrase too! None of those are accurate… so let me set aside hyperbole and just say “a dilemma I face as a designer for Steampunk Musha is…”

… How True to ‘The Real’ Should I Make This?

Now, Steampunk Musha isn’t a “historical” game, it’s not meant to be “Feudal Japan the RPG” or even to be “Far East Asian RPG” – it is, first and foremost, a FANTASY RPG that draws upon Asian history. Since it’s in the current pop culture zeitgeist, I’ll point toward Game of Thrones and how it’s clearly taking ideas from European history (at least for Westros in general) but it’s a far and proper cry with any clear parallels, and whenever I’ve read articles trying to claim its historical basis, the analogy falls apart under scrutiny.

But that’s not just what I’m talking about, it’s a LARGER problem for tabletop RPGs. A good example is how mishandled “armor” is in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game (and the game it’s based on, really). Take “studded leather” (which has a lovely takedown by Matt Easton of Schola Gladiatoria) which is just flatly ‘wrong.’ With studded leather, it’s likely a misunderstanding of what things like a coat or jack of plates might have been, but an even bigger problem for a pseudo-historical fantasy setting is choosing what even types of armor to represent, or how to represent different types of the same kind!

Look at that image above. To the untrained eye, only aware of say the classic RPG designations of armor types, you have what? There are a few things you could call the 650 Roman armor, perhaps “banded mail” and then by 850 you have what looks like chainmail at least in the shirt, to the Norman and on to the 1250 (400 years worth of armor development!) when its finally called Chain Mail, then what? Half-plate in the Transitional Mail and Plate before the Full Plate Armors of 1440, which branches off to Gothic (is that pure ascetics?) and continues on to Maximilian, and then various other full plates till you get “Three Quarter Suit” (so is that half-plate?) and Half Armor etc.

Mind you, I know in the original designers’ days it was much harder than today when I can do extensive research online using sites of both scholars and fans (example links here), with sources like Wikipedia adding access to detailed discussions of the related terms, as well as not just written texts but things like YouTube channels dedicated to armor and Historical European Martial Arts. So excuses can be made, because they just couldn’t be expected to have the kind of access I can if I try – but I don’t get that excuse!

Inspiration from The Last Samurai

So, when trying to really “get into” the setting and to try to discuss it in a shorthand that people will understand quickly, I often ask if they have seen the film The Last Samurai (2003) starring Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe? It tells a fictionalized version of a tale ‘that really did kind of happen maybe sorta but not really like that.

From the Wikipedia article:


 The Last Samurai is a 2003 American epic historical war filmdirected and co-produced by Edward Zwick, who also co-wrote the screenplay with John Logan. The film stars Tom Cruise, who also co-produced, as well as Ken Watanabe, Shin Koyamada, Tony Goldwyn, Hiroyuki Sanada, Timothy Spall, and Billy Connolly.

Tom Cruise portrays a formerly retired officer of the United States7th Cavalry Regiment, whose personal and emotional conflicts bring him into contact with samurai warriors in the wake of theMeiji Restoration in 19th Century Japan. The film's plot was inspired by the 1877 Satsuma Rebellion led by Saigō Takamori, and the westernization of Japan by foreign powers, though in the film the United States is portrayed as the primary force behind the push for westernization. To a lesser extent it is also influenced by the stories of Jules Brunet, a French army captain who fought alongside Enomoto Takeaki in the earlier Boshin War andFrederick Townsend Ward, an American mercenary who helpedWesternize the Chinese army by forming the Ever Victorious Army.

The Last Samurai was well received upon its release, with a worldwide box office total of $456 million.[2] It was nominated for several awards, including four Academy Awards, three Golden Globe Awards, and two National Board of Review Awards.

While far from a “perfect film” it was popular, well done, and favorably received by both American and Japanese audiences. It blends together a number of real-world tales, both directly from the relevant time period (the Meiji Period) and from related times and place (see that bit about the Chinese army and Frederick Townsend Ward) to craft a movie-going experience that is at the same time familiar but not. It evokes strong themes, showing powerful cross-cultural similarities between the East and the West. It is also the kind of tale that would very much happen possibly on Rosuto-Shima, and the East vs. West and Technology/Progress vs. Traditional Values story is certainly the exact kind of setting Steampunk Musha is going to be.

If you don’t know the film, try to get a copy. I was able to pick up a copy for just $0.99 at a local used DVD shop, and it came with a nice “bonus disc” of Making of and the History Channel special etc. History vs. Hollywood.

Inspired by History

And so to the SpM Design Team, I have numerous notes and documents and links, like the following tiny exerts (tiny because I reveal a few too many planned secrets in said document) from my Historical and Real World Influences for Steampunk Musha documents..


Prior to the Warring States period on Rosuto-Shima, a supposedly long existing line of unbroken Imperial Rule called the Han Dynasty lasted — clearly this is all related to Chinese Han Dynasty and its long rule with an emperor at its head.

This long time of imperial rule was broken up by a turbulent era of war between everyone, similar to the Japanese Sengoku Period from 1467-1603 (China also had a “Warring States Period,” circa 221 BC and earlier, pre-Imperial China – unrelated to Japan’s). During Sengoku Period, the only foreign influence was Nanban Trade (“Southern barbarian trade”) which allowed a trickle of outside influence, and a few key concepts and ideas to infiltrate Japan, but largely they remained or became ever more closed off from the outside world. Rare exceptions DO exist on Rosuto-Shima where foreigners are able to become part of Rosuto-Shima – these people parallel William Adams, the real-life English sailor that John Blackthorne in James Clavell’s Shogun book is based on.

Exert of an idea from this time period

Famous senryū[edit]

The contrasting personalities of the three leaders who contributed the most to Japan's final unification—Nobunaga, Hideyoshi, and Ieyasu—are encapsulated in a series of three well-known senryū that are still taught to Japanese schoolchildren:

Nakanunara, koroshiteshimae, hototogisu. (If the cuckoo does not sing, kill it.) 「鳴かぬなら殺してしまえホトトギス」

Nakanunara, nakasetemiyou, hototogisu. (If the cuckoo does not sing, coax it.) 「鳴かぬなら鳴かせてみようホトトギス」

Nakanunara, nakumadematou, hototogisu. (If the cuckoo does not sing, wait for it.) 「鳴かぬなら鳴くまでまとうホトトギス」

Nobunaga, known for his ruthlessness, is the subject of the first; Hideyoshi, known for his resourcefulness, is the subject of the second; and Ieyasu, known for his perseverance, is the subject of the third verse.

An interesting addendum to this whole discussion, I posted that picture above on Facebook and it lead to a rather long and interesting discussion of the film itself, and I hope you might go and check it out, add your 2 cp and see what we can make of it all!

I think I’ll likely do a few more blogs on other key, influential books, movies, shows, and any other medium that is helping to design Steampunk Musha. And we are always looking for more interesting sources to pull from – and just to enjoy! Everyone working on this project is a “fan” of Asia, steampunk, and roleplaying games, so we can likely gush affectionately over films like Hero or anything by Kurasawa, argue about the crossover of Westerns and Japanese historical dramas like Seven Samurai/The Magnificent Seven, look at other kookie mixers of Japanese and Western culture like the movie Red Sun, and talk about video games like Samurai Western or Red Steel 2! We can even chuckle and shake our heads at things like Shanghai Noon.

Lucus Palosaari, Editor & Project Manager at Fat Goblin Games (Like us on Facebook!

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