Monday, June 30, 2014

Oriental Adventures (also) got it wrong (But Al-Qadim got it right)

Though I just posted about how Oriental Adventures did classes right, it also has some failures we can learn from. Chief among these are the broader compatibility and conceptual familiarity (or exoticism).

First, on the compatibility issue. While it is refreshing that OA doesn't need a generic fighter or thief, it isn't entirely clear why everything "western" was excluded. That isn't to say that you couldn't have an eastern adventurer in a western setting or vice versa, but why are there no indigenous thieves? Is the idea of a thief too foreign to the world of Oriental Adventures? And what is the point of the Wu Jen? They're just a magic-user basically with a slightly different flavor. As a part of the broader D&D world, it isn't clear why a few things couldn't have been recycled. Put it another way, why did OA have to be so different? (I realize this may contradict my previous post a little, but there's something to be said for simple design and it is simpler to use what you've already got.)

This brings up the issue of conceptual familiarity or exoticism. While most people probably knew what a Samurai and Ninja were, every other class gets an exotic name as well. Shukenja, Sohei, Bushi, Kensai, Yakuza, Wu Jen... It feels like its starting to get a little much, when Weaponmaster or Magic-User/Wizard/Sorcerer might have helped a little. I think we see a better balance in Al-Qadim (i.e. Arabian Adventures) where we see some of the subclasses (i.e. kits) have transparent names (Desert Rider, Corsair, Elemental Mage, Sorcerer, Mystic, Beggar-Thief, Merchant-Rogue, Barber, Holy Slayer, Mercenary Barbarian, Pragmatist, Ethoist, Moralist) and only a few have Arabian names (Askar, Faris, Hakima, Matrud, Sha'ir, Mamluk, Rawun, Kahin, Sa'luk). Its about half-and-half, and then you can add in their "outlander" kits (Outland Warrior, Outland Priest, and Ajami; ajami is the wizard while outland rogues are sa`louk). While it is considerably more options than OA/Kara-Tur, half of the AA/Al-Qadim are named in a relatively transparent and familiar way. There's no additional work to figure out what a Barber or Desert Rider are, and relatively little to figure out Corsairs or Pragmatists.

Another thing Oriental Adventures got wrong is the races. Gone are the Elves, Dwarves, and Hobbits we know and love. In are spirit folk, animalistic spirit-folk with strange names, and some sort of dwarf-like creature. Al-Qadim took a different approach: the setting is inclusive, racial hatreds are gone, but things are still human-focused. This lets people play elves or dwarves. Or goblins, kobolds, ogres, etc. in the City of Delights boxed set; if Al-Qadim had been released after the Complete Book of Humanoids, that little bit would probably have been included in the main book itself.

Oriental Adventures loses out on the familiar races because of this, and doesn't get much to make up for it. Dark Sun, according to legend, originally would have been bereft of the standard D&D races too. I think Dark Sun is more powerful for including the basic races and turning their archetypes around, plus they still included a few new/crazy things (Half-Giants, Thri-kreen, and later Aarakocra and Pterrans and Dray). In a fantasy Japan or China (or Mongolia or Tibet or India or...), is there no room for the elves and dwarves?

I suspect that Tolkien and later fantasy gives us an idea what elves and dwarves and hobbits and orcs are. And that may be one reason why Gnomes have been a strange addition to D&D: they're not clearly portrayed in some of the canonical fantasy fiction. So a stronger OA would have, perhaps, found a place for Elves and Dwarves in a fantasy Asia. This is what OA got wrong, perhaps. It is too different from normal D&D, both in terms of some of the mechanical aspects which perhaps didn't need to be changed, and some conceptual elements which were excised or exoticized rather than form a natural bridge.

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