Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Five or So Questions on Thousand Arrows

Hello all! Today I have James Mendez Hodes back to talk about Thousand Arrows, which is currently on Kickstarter! James has written on his own blog quite a bit about Thousand Arrows, but I wanted to ask a few questions here, too. Check out his responses below!


An illustration of a Japanese man having sake and sushi.
Art by Rachel Quinlan.
Tell me a little about Thousand Arrows. What excites you about it?

Thousand Arrows is a tabletop role-playing game of samurai drama and action during the Japanese Warring States Period (1467-1603 CE). It’s powered by the Apocalypse and inspired by both real-world history and chanbara media like Kurosawa films. I’m excited about this game because it highlights an era in Japanese history which is rarely in focus in the West. Most samurai media that makes its way to the English-speaking world focuses on lone wolves and duelists in the Edo period, the centuries of peace which followed the Warring States Period. Instead, Thousand Arrows gives players the roles of military, religious, and political leaders: samurai generals, Buddhist monks, desperate rebel farmers, and even spirits and sorcerers in which the sixteenth-century Japanese believed. Their decisions decide the actions of vast armies, religious sects, and feudal states. This game has personal narratives and romance and duels, but it’s equally about rewriting history in your character’s own image.

I know you research a lot. Could you tell me about the research you did for this project, including any direct consultation you did? What were the challenging topics to approach here?

I’ve put deeper and broader research into Thousand Arrows than I have into any other project of any kind.
  • As usual, I read a lot of Japanese primary sources, history books, and religious texts. If you’ve heard about my research processes for Scion 2nd Edition or 7th Sea, you know what I’m talking about. Brennan and I also watched a lot of Kurosawa Akira’s period films, as well as their modern derivatives like Samurai Fiction.
  • In 2013 I graduated from St John’s College in Santa Fé, New Mexico with a master’s degree in Eastern classics. I learned classical Chinese and read and wrote about a literary tradition that traveled from India through China and into Japan. My undergraduate work focused mostly on African topics, but I had always wanted to study Asian history and religion in more rigorous detail. Reading the Tale of the Heike, the Tale of Genji, and the Pillow Book established the narrative and behavioral conventions underlying the game’s moves. Reading the Buddhist canon inspired Thousand Arrows’s tragic tone and attachment mechanisms. I think an accurate, respectful portrayal of Asia and Asians, whether fantastical or historical, requires understanding where continuities do and don’t exist between different Asian cultures. It makes the difference between cultural exchange and cultural conflation.
  • In 2006 I took up a Japanese martial art called Bujinkan budō taijutsu, which teaches traditional Japanese battlefield and espionage techniques. The Bujinkan's oral and written history begins in the tenth century CE and, like most martial arts’ histories, combines historical fact with fanciful myth—both of which influence Thousand Arrows’s historical fiction. Thousand Arrows weapon masters’ special moves come from my own experience with medieval and early modern Japanese arms and armor. The Kuki Spirit and Cloud-Hidden fighting styles, available respectively to characters from the Kuki Clan and the Iga Provincial League, come from the Bujinkan’s curriculum. But rather than presenting specific techniques and movements which would confuse and bore unfamiliar players, Thousand Arrows models fighting styles in terms of the narrative situations in which they offer special advantages. For example, since the Kuki Clan controlled the Kumano Navy, Kuki Spirit stylists get an advantage when fighting on the rocking deck of a ship, making them effective marines and pirates. Thick forest covered the Iga region during the Warring States Period, so Cloud-Hidden stylists from Iga gain a preternatural ability to leap and swing through a forest canopy, making them excellent rangers and scouts.
An illustration of a samurai in front of a burning pagoda, looking intense
Cover art by Yoshi Yoshitani.
What are actions like in game, in regards to how they feel and what you can do?

Thousand Arrows characters start the game as feudal Japan's movers and shakers. Even the actions they take on an interpersonal scale affect the fate of entire religions, states, and armies. This is wartime, and every character has a section of between a dozen and a hundred well-trained soldiers who follow their orders. Characters without personal skill at martial arts or generalship are crucial to the war effort as intelligencers, diplomats, chaplains, and saboteurs. 

The action also focuses on interpersonal drama via the attachment system: as you get more invested in a value that drives you or a relationship with another PC, you get better at helping or hindering their actions on or off the battlefield, as well as more vulnerable to losing control of your behavior and giving in to impulses related to that attachment. In keeping with Japanese historical narratives, Thousand Arrows’s social atmosphere is highly emotional and volatile. A few characters, like courtiers, may be polished, calculating, and restrained; but most samurai express themselves through passionate outbursts of torrid emotion, extemporaneous poetry, or sudden and uncontrollable weeping.

What is the character creation process like, to create these complex characters?

Two playbooks make up each Thousand Arrows character: an allegiance (what team you play for) and a role (your position on that team). Allegiances include various samurai clans (the Hōjō, Kuki, Oda, Shimazu, Takeda, Uesugi, and Yagyū), revolutionary leagues (the Single-Minded League and the Iga Provincial League), and belief systems (the Nichiren School of Buddhism, Confucian academy, and Catholic Church); or, if you want to play Thousand Arrows on hard mode, you could be a knight-errant (also known as a rōnin) and not really have an allegiance. Roles include the courtier, retainer, knight, secret agent, foot soldier, warrior monk, shaman, and farmer. PCs in the same game frequently share allegiances, but roles are unique. Both allegiance and role modify your stats and give options for your starting special moves, equipment, and followers. 

I’ve found that the process takes about as long as most other Apocalypse Engine games: longer than Monsterhearts, a little longer than Apocalypse World itself, a little shorter than The Sprawl or Masks. I think it’s worth it to help players make characters they feel are their own: a Takeda courtier, a Catholic courtier, and a knight-errant courtier feel very, very different to play. That said, the game comes with eight pre-generated characters in case you prefer to hit the ground running at a one-shot or convention.
What are some of the exciting stretch goals we'll see from Thousand Arrows

We’ve already unlocked Jenn Martin's Fox, a sneaky, sexy, and duplicitous nature spirit who can disguise themself as a human. The Fox is a more traditional playbook, counting as both allegiance and role, and is a good option for players who want to engage with Japan’s wilderness or supernatural landscape. The Corsair, Merchant, and Artisan roles are also coming up. But there are two stretch goals which are larger in scope, and which I’m most excited about.

One is “Dragon King’s Gambit,” a campaign set in winter 1592 CE during the contentious and tragic Japanese invasion of Joseon Korea, then a vassal state of Míng China. During this campaign, the Azure Dragon King of the East Sea attacks with an army of sea monsters, forcing Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, and Korean combatants to work together against a common enemy. DKG is playable either as a standard campaign, or as a convention game: we’ve run it successfully with three sessions, three tables, three GMs, and fifteen players (five each loyal to the Joseon, the Míng, and the Imperial Regent of Japan).

Another is "Street Samurai versus Code Ninja," which takes Thousand Arrows to a dystopian future where samurai have traded their warhorses and lamellar in for hoverbikes and power armor, where ninja stalk the shadows of the Internet as well as those in the real world. This setting deconstructs the orientalist and Japanophilic tropes which dominate cyberpunk fiction and gaming from the 1980s and 1990s by modeling the cities of the future on early modern Japanese conventions instead of just appropriating Japanese terms to describe Western concepts and anxieties about a looming Asian economic threat. SSvsCN includes futuristic versions of the standard roles: the Social Engineer, Salaryman, Street Samurai, Code Ninja, Ganger, Cybermonk, Technoshaman, and Gold Farmer. It also features new allegiances to represent major immigrant groups in Japan, such as China, Korea, Brazil, and the Philippines.

I really like the way our stretch goals expand what Thousand Arrows is about and to whom it can appeal, with higher-fantasy and futuristic play. I want this game to bring together players who are usually interested in different things and grant them common ground they didn’t expect to have.

An illustration of a person in a white and red kimono, holding a fox mask
Art of the Fox by Rachel Quinlan.

Awesome, thanks so much for the interview, James! I hope you all enjoyed the interview and that you'll check out Thousand Arrows on Kickstarter today!

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