Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Strength of a Dulohan


More after-action reports are starting to come in from the Minneapolis playtest group, among them some comments that got me to thinking.

I had a brainwave thanks to feedback from Bob Cook, who said, “I do wish that dulohan was a little less abstract, as the idea of having an entourage was cool, but the implementation was a little nebulous in the sense that the number for your dulohan represented a mix of number of followers and the skill of those followers rather than one or the other.  It didn't hinder play, exactly, that this number was a little vague in what it represented, and once we understood how to spend the points, it was no big deal, but conceptually it would be simpler to comprehend if its definition was a little clearer.”

He’s right, this criticism has been made of other games before that used abstracted resource pools to represent followers or mooks. I wouldn’t want to go in a direction that makes you need to pull out a calculator for fight scenes, but benchmark numbers would be really nice too. So thanks Bob, now I have it! :-)

Your Dulohan consists of mature, proven Orang Dakila warriors – Bagani – plus their respective followings of freemen, youths, and possibly some fighting slaves (usually poor debtors who’d rather fight than toil for their manumission price). The proportion is roughly 1 Bagani per point of Dulohan, plus 3-10 or so followers of much lower quality per Bagani. Thus a typical Datu with a Dulohan of 10 will have about ~100 men in all, enough to crew a karakoa warship.


Dulohan strength scales with rank. Starting heroes get only a few men with each Bagni in their following, but ruling datus and higher-ranked royalty get more. So for example this PC, an impoverished lesser datu has 6 Dulohan; he has 6 Bagani in his train, and a total of about 18 spear carriers + 6 Bagani = 24 men.

So what does it mean when you lose 1 Dulohan? It means one of your Bagani was killed or seriously injured, distracting and disheartening his followers, who’ll concentrate on saving their skins and maybe getting the body of their master out of the fight. Or, you may have lost an equivalent number of lesser fighters, some of them killed or injured, the rest demoralized enough that their fighting ability is seriously impaired.

Think this’ll work?

Friday, April 11, 2014


Grindylow by Tyler Chase

I’ve just finished China Mieville’s The Scar, and my brain is still reeling. Mieville’s worldbuilding is as comprehensive and imaginative as Herbert in Dune, with a fine Lovecraftian/Karl Edward Wagner-ish touch of horror to go with it!

One of the things that stuck most in my head was the race of the grindylow, sorcerous aquatic beings of great mystery and apparently great power living in The Gengris. Described as ‘gray-green in color, with big dark eyes, foot-long teeth, and humanoid torsos mated to eel-like tails,’ the grindylow seem to exist in multiple dimensions at once, or don’t exist fully in Bas-Lag’s dimension. They float in air, they’re never seen too clearly, they appear and disappear at will. Just from the description alone, I’m really digging this creature; I like it when critters are based on deep-sea life, which I’ve always found really creepy. But there’s more.

[Spoilers follow below]

The Scar Cover by Jason Chalker

The creepiest thing about the grindylow in the book is their sheer eldritch power. They track a human spy all the way from The Gengris to Armada, to the very lip of the dimensional rift called The Scar. They mortally wound the colossal creature drawing the floating city of Armada, the avanc, to get the city to stop. Worst of all, they consider a chillingly powerful artifact stolen and used by the human spy, Silas Fennec, a mere toy.

That’s artist Jason Chalker’s rendition of the artifact above, closely following its description in the book. An obscene, horrifying statue of some deep sea god of evil, which Fennec kisses on the mouth every time he wants to use its magic. And it kisses back, too. Ick. With it Fennec is able to go invisible, walk through walls, breathe water, fly, and hawk lethal acidic spit. It seems there’s no limit to what the artifact can do beyond Fennec’s imagination and will. In the best Lovecraftian tradition, the power’s not without price – there are clues Fennec’s being changed by it into some slimy marine creature.

In the final confrontation with the grindylow, the book’s main protagonist Bellis Coldwine tries to return the artifact to them, but they contemptuously destroy it as a trifle not even worth their time. It’s something else they were after the whole time – and I really have to hand it to Mieville, that surprise was very well-played. To build up the power of this item so horrifically in the reader’s mind, then suddenly dismiss it as a toy, is an incredibly chilling way of showing rather than telling us just what the scale of the grindylows’ power is.


Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Hari Ragat: the Inspirations

I just realized there’s a chapter or appendix I need to add to the Hari Ragat text: a short summary of the Philippine epics that were my sources of inspiration. They can help GM’s come up with adventure ideas, and players to come up with character concepts. Here are some of my notes on this addition:

Biag ni Lam-ang
This epic from the Ilocos region tells the exploits of Lam-ang, a hero of extraordinary birth who grows to manhood in a very short time. When he is born his father is missing, and this sparks Lam-ang’s first quest. He discovers his father was slain and his head taken by the Igorots, so he goes on a one-man war against them. He then goes a-courting, and wins the famous beauty Ines Kannoyan with rich gifts of gold, duels his rival the giant Sumarang for her hand, then marries her. Later Ines asks for a rare fish, which the hero dives for but he is eaten by the monstrous Berkaken fish. Lam-ang’s enchanted animal companions tell Ines Kannoyan how to bring her husband back from the dead, and the epic ends with Lam-ang resurrected by the crowing of his magical rooster.

Hudhud ni Aliguyon
The Hudhud (lay) ni Aliguyon tells of the Ifugao hero of that name. After a wondrously short childhood, Aliguyon performs various heroic exploits, then gets challenged to a fight by Pumbakhayon, the champion of another tribe. They fight for a whole year – reminiscent of the combat between Roland and Oliver in the Song of Roland – and the heroes’ skill is such that they just end up catching and throwing the same spear back at each other. Finally the two realize the other is an honorable man, and peace between the two tribes is sealed by each hero marrying the others’ sister.

The Ibalon is a Bicolano epic chronicling the exploits of the Herculean warriors Handiong and Baltog as they clear the land of Ibalon from the monsters haunting it, until it becomes safe for its inhabitants. Baltog slays the gigantic boar Tandayag bare-handed, Handiong defeats the one-eyed giants of Ponon, they exterminate the flying, fish-like Tiburon*, and defeat the giant Sarimaw. The serpent-bodied witch-goddess Oriol was converted to the side of humanity by Handiong, and she ended up helping him win his other victories.

*I wonder what the original word was in Bicolano, as Tiburon is Spanish for shark. Some of these epics are only imperfectly translated to Pilipino or English, preserving anachronisms like this one.

The Hinilawod is an epic from Panay that tells of the brother heroes Labaw Donggon, Humadapnon, and Dumalapdap, sons of the goddess Alunsina, as they quest for famous, sometimes divine brides. In various episodes the heroes end up fighting the hundred-armed giant Sikay Padalogdog, the god of the underworld Saragnayan, an eight-headed serpent, and the giant bat-monster Uyutang.

Darangen: Indarapatra at Sulayman
The Darangen is a cycle of epics from the Maguindanao and Maranao peoples chronicling the exploits of different heroes. I’ve blogged about the monsters of this epic before, but let me sum it up again: Indarapatra is Raja of Mantapuli, and when he hears of the monsters besetting Maguindanao he sends his brave younger brother Sulayman to slay them. He plants an enchanted tree by his house which is linked to Sulayman’s life. Sulayman slays the first two monsters but is crushed to death by the third; Indarapatra sees the tree wilt before his very eyes, and goes to avenge his brother. On the way he receives a gift from the spirits that lets him bring Sulayman back to life, and the Indarapatra goes on to slay the remaining monsters. The brothers then see to resettling and ordering the land of Maguindanao.

Darangen: Maradia Lawana
This is the Maranao version of the Ramayana. Maradia (Maharajah) Lawana is the epic’s version of Ravana the Rakshasa, and like him has multiple heads and magic. He can only be slain by a weapon sharpened on a magic stone, which the hero Raja Mangandiri and his brother Laksamana steal from him, and Maradia Lawana is doomed.

Darangen: Bantugan
This is a Maranao epic chronicling the exploits of the hero Bantugan, prince of Bambaran. Bantugan like Rama gets exiled from the kingdom, in this case because his brother the Rajah Agaanon Dalinan is jealous of him; it seems Bantugan is better than his brother at everything, and the king can’t stand it.

Bantugan goes through a series of adventures, winning divine brides, gets killed by the enchantress Maginar, and is resurrected through the efforts of his magical talking parrot, his brothers Princes Madali and Mabaning, and returns to Bambaran just in time to save it from the warlord Miskoyaw. In the battle against Miskoyaw Bantugan summons his spirit servants, the tonongs, to give him the power to win; he flies against Miskoyaw’s warships on his enchanted shield, and when he boards Miskoyaw’s ship and is thrown off by the strong champion he is saved by a crocodile who throws him right back into the fight so he can finish it!

This Ulaging (lay) from the Ilianon Manobos of Bukidnon tells the tale of the hero Agyu. The story begins when a Moro datu angrily rejects the Ilianons’ tribute of wax brought him by Kuyasu, because it’s too little. The Moro datu injures Kuyasu by throwing a heavy lump of wax at him, and Kuyasu spears him to death. The Moros then attack the Ilianons, and Agyu leads his people away to a new home. They are attacked again there, and even Agyu’s prowess cannot save them, but his young son Tanagyaw enters the battle and saves the day. Agyu then makes Tanagyaw king of the neighboring land of Sunglawon, which Tanagyaw settles.

Tuwaang is an epic hero of the Bagobos, known as much for his manly bearing and charm as for his prowess. In the episode the Maiden of Monawon, Tuwaang is invited to attend the wedding feast of the Maiden but discovers he deserves the bride more than the groom does. Again and again the bride shows preference for Tuwaang, first by giving him betel chew first among all the other guests, then by sitting beside him during the feast.

Despite Tuwaang’s even helping him meet the bride price, the groom challenges Tuwaang out of jealousy. He slays Tuwaang, sending his soul to the underworld, but the god of the underworld instead reveals the secret of the groom’s weakness and sends Tuwaang back to the land of the living. They fight again, and Tuwaang slays the groom, then marries the Maiden of Monawon.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

On Southeast Asian Settings, Part II

Good morning Gamer-dom! Back from a weekend of kayaking and snorkeling in Samal Island, feeling refreshed and ready to write! In my previous post I talked about building a foundation for Southeast Asian settings, and touched on the land empires of Lowland Southeast Asia. This time, we’re going into Maritime Southeast Asia, a vast little corner of the world, of which I call a beautiful little corner home. This is the setting of my Hari Ragat RPG, but again it’s so vast a milieu I can only capture part of it.

We’re also going to touch on the importance of the Bamboo Network, the interlinked overseas Chinese communities ubiquitous to these isles.

Martime Southeast Asia (in dark green)

Maritime Southeast Asia
Maritime Southeast Asia consists of the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagoes, Borneo, and the Malay Peninsula. It’s characterized of course by islands, some of them quite large – Borneo, Sumatra, Sulawesi and Java are among the world’s largest islands (3rd, 6th, 11th and 13th respectively, and Luzon and Mindanao rank 15th and 19th) – all quite close to each other save for the Philippine group which is farther north and east than the rest. None of the islands however are so far from each other that contact between them is difficult, given appropriate technology.

Bigiw outrigger canoes of the Sama people

The Malayo-Polynesian* peoples’ answer to this environment was the outrigger canoe, a slim, light craft stabilized by single or double pontoons on outriggers. Fitted with sails, this design could go just about anywhere, and so its sailors have taken it from the central islands as far east as Easter Island and west as far as Madagascar. It’s not an unsinkable design, of course; but because it can land almost anywhere, it can run for shelter from a typhoon almost anywhere – an ability deeper-drafted vessels don’t have**. Scaled-up versions became the vessels for exploration, colonization of the islands, and war.

The cultural and historical center of the region is the triangle around the Straits of Malacca, consisting of the Malay Peninsula, Java and Sumatra. This region is doubly blessed, first in the size of its land, and second in being grouped around the vital straits. Outside contact always enriches civilization, and as long as we use the sea as  a highway this will always be one of the world’s great crossroads. Because the islands offered enough area for cultivating rice on a large scale, the peoples here  also had the population and incentive to organize large states. Not surprisingly, the area has a very long history of Indianized kingdoms, some of them like Srivijaya and Madjapahit growing into inter-island empires, while the Chams would sail from Borneo to conquer the southern half of Vietnam and found the kingdom of Champa there.

Another factor driving growth and development here was the fact that this Malaccan Triangle was a geopolitical pressure cooker. The kingdoms of South India and Indochina, even the Caliphates and later the Ottoman sultans, and of course the Chinese Empire, all had immense vested interests here. The Malaccan Triangle ports were the valve through which Southeast Asian, Chinese and Indian/Arab products flowed, and its narrow passage makes a great hunting ground for corsairs and privateers. The powers in the area tried to control raiders, but they also raided each other as they could. The history of Srivijaya is a good example of how the central Maritime Southeast Asian kingdoms developed.


The empire of Srivijaya had its beginnings on the Musi River valley, near Palembang on Sumatra. Maharaja Jayanasa went on a campaign of conquest around 684 AD to unite Sumatra and parts of the Indonesian archipelago under his reign; his successors would subjugate the Indianized kingdoms of Langkasuka***, Pan Pan (Pattani) and Tambralinga on the Malay Peninsula.

Srivijayan Empire

When the Cham kingdom rose to become a major commercial rival, the Srivijayan maharaja Dharmasetu launched a raiding campaign against Indochina, and Srivijaya seems to have controlled the Indochinese coast until the rise of Jayavarman II of the Khmers, around 800 AD. The dynasty later converted to Buddhism, and Maharaja Samaratungga oversaw the construction of Borobudur on Java around 825 AD. (The building of Borobudur could be seen as a Srivijayan attempt to overawe the Hindu dynasties of Java.) Parts of the Philippines may even have been under Srivijayan influence or were its vassals, and the name of the Visayan islands have been linked to Srivijaya.

Borobudur seen from the North-West (from Wikimedia Commons)

Following a pattern that would be seen across Maritime Southeast Asia, Srivijaya was a thalassocracy: it controlled coastal centers, but not the interiors, and its control even of the coastal powers could be quite loose. Srivijaya had a rivalry with some inland Javanese powers, like the Medang Kingdom, and it could not suppress the rise of mainland Indochinese powers that had inland bases, like the Khmers. In 990 AD, the Javanese raja Dharmawangsa invaded Sumatra, and was repelled only in 1006. Interestingly, around the same time the Srivijayan maharajas were wealthy and influential enough to sponsor the building of a Buddhist temple in the city of Nagapattinam, in Tamil Nadu, South India.

As Srivijaya began to lose its grip on its empire, it came into conflict with the Chola Empire of South India. King Rajendra Chola launched several seaborne raids on Srivijayan territories in 1025 AD, even capturing Kedah and holding it for a while. This is the only known instance of an Indian military expedition into Southeast Asia; all previous contact had previously been peaceful and carried out by traders, scholars and the religious, particularly the Buddhists.

The attack still mystifies historians because of this break with the pattern. It may have been that the Cholas wanted to break Srivijayan control of trade through the Malaccan Corridor, but if that was so then it was a rather half-hearted effort – the Cholas stopped just when they were winning. Or it may have been caused by the Khmer king Survyavarman I’s request for help against Tambralinga, then a Srivijayan satellite. It may even have been a simple raid for plunder and glory.

I’ve a personal speculation to add though. The Cholas were a strongly Hindu dynasty, very closely allied to their Brahmins. And it’s interesting that their targets for conquest were the Buddhist kingdoms of Sri Lanka and Srivijaya. Was there an aspect of a Hindu crusade vs. the Buddhists to the invasion? Did the Cholas take the Srivijaya sponsorship of Buddhist temples in South India as a challenge to their prestige? Or was it because Southeast Asia made a ‘softer’ target than the newly-established Muslim kingdoms in North and Central India?

Whatever the motive, Srivijaya was seriously weakened by the Chola raids. It did not fall immediately because of them, but its control particularly over its rival island of Java slipped even further. Eventually Srivijaya was eclipsed by the Java-based empire of Madjapahit in the late 13th century, while its mainland satellites were eventually conquered by the Thais****.

The Mandala System
There was an inherent weakness in the way Southeast Asian states formed, particularly in Maritime Southeast Asia where control is complicated by the sea. Though we speak of Srivijaya and Majapahit as ‘empires,’ they were never centrally organized the same way as Rome or China. Instead, they formed what historians now call Mandalas, after the circular meditation patterns used in Buddhism.


Mandalas are defined not by territories with fixed boundaries, the way modern states are around the world, but instead as networks of vassalages and alliances grouped around centers of power. Any one ruler may effectively be a tributary or vassal to one or more patron powers, but still rule so autonomously it could be hard to tell whether he was part of an empire or not. The central powers did not take over administration in their vassals’ territories.

However well-adapted this system was to the terrain, it had a serious lack of stability. If the center of power weakened, vassals could very quickly transfer their allegiance to other centers of power. This instability was further accentuated by the Malay tradition of direct personal, lifetime fealty; a Malay datu may swear allegiance to a raja, but that oath is seen as directly to the person of that raja, not to his dynasty or state. Compare this to the idea of a baron of England, who ideally swears loyalty to the Kingdom of England through the person of the current monarch. The Malay datu, unlike the English baron, does not view his raja’s heir as automatically entitled to inheriting his allegiance. The political landscape in Maritime Southeast Asia thus has a tendency to keep shifting, unless it can be pinned down with stronger institutions. 

The Khmer Empire is good example of a mandala’s rise and fall: It began as a tributary of Srivijaya, broke away under Jayavarman II, and by the time of Jayavarman VII was dominating the Chams, Thais, Laos, and the coastal Malay kingdoms; but when it declined, it was reduced to paying tribute to both the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya and to the Vietnamese.

Srivijaya’s dominance from the 7th to 13th centuries thus stands out as an even greater accomplishment in view of this system. Their generals and ambassadors must’ve been really good at their jobs! Another key must’ve been an effectively enforced trade monopoly. As long as Srivijaya could dominate the Straits and encourage the Chinese and Indian traders to visit only its central ports, it could control the alliance system by its monopoly on the flow of prestige trade goods like porcelain, and more practical imports like iron.  What makes chinaware politically important? The Malay ceremonial gift economy. Porcelain was the ticket to prestige, a main component of the bride price in royal weddings, a gift used to seal alliances and treaties, and so on.

Eventually Srivijaya lost control of that monopoly to Madjapahit, then lost control of its populace to Islam, and so faded from history.

The Influence of Islam
Islam spread rather late in Maritime Southeast Asia, only starting to become popular in the 12th century when the King of Kedah, Phra Ong Mahawangsa converted and Kedah became the first Muslim sultanate in Southeast Asia. After that Islam still spread quite slowly, but the rate of conversion accelerated in the 16th century, simultaneously with the arrival of the Portuguese and Spanish.

The Grand Mosque of Cotabato City at dusk

This was partly because of the shock of the Portuguese conquest of the Sultanate of Malacca, which dispersed Malaccan princes and datus across the region; for example Sharif Kabungsuwan, founder of the Maguindanao Sultanate in Mindanao, was a Malaccan noble who sailed from Johor to seek his fortunes in the east, where the Portuguese hadn’t penetrated yet. At the same time, sultanates elsewhere on the Malay Peninsula and the Indonesian and southern Philippine archipelagoes, like Sulu, were rising in power, and their allies and vassals went on campaigns of conquest that lasted til the 1800s. Islam is now the most wide-spread religion in Maritime Southeast Asia.

I think now that part of the attraction to convert during the early colonial era was that becoming Muslim put one under the protection of the powerful sultans, some of whom successfully resisted Western colonization attempts until the late 19th century. In the Philippines, the Spanish totally crushed local culture, just as they did to the Aztecs, everywhere but in the remotest highlands and in the central territories of the Maguindanao and Sulu sultanates. It’s very interesting to note that the Indianized culture of the old Malay kingdoms is now preserved in the Philippines only in the Muslim regions where they were not plastered over by the Spanish friars. For example the only known Philippine version of the Ramayana – which has versions across all Southeast Asia – is the Maradia Lawana of the Maranaos.

Davao City where I live today was one of those late Muslim conquests, as Datu Bago, a vassal of the Maguindanao Sultanate, settled the Davao River basin and campaigned against the Bagobos and Mandayas, and later resisted Spanish encroachment until he was defeated around 1840. His legacy remains in the form of the Kagans, a people related to the Mandayas who converted to Islam, and the Sama people who colonized Samal Island.

Perhaps another reason why Islam eventually superseded the state-backed Hindu and Buddhist temples was sheer economics. A state temple economy requires huge drafts of resources from its subjects, in the form of taxes in rice and goods, and also in the form of corvee – mandatory labor. Khmer records indicate the lavishness of royal donations to the monastic communities, and eventually such demands would create friction with the populace. The state temples and monasteries were built and maintained by corvee labor – and nobody ever likes a draft. Islam, and interestingly Christianity, offered a way out from these onerous obligations.

A dancer from Cotabato City performs a Maguindanao dance; note the similarities to Balinese, Khmer and Thai dances

Islam in Southeast Asia developed a distinct local flavor, incorporating many elements of the old folk beliefs in nature spirits and ancestor worship, even as rulers preserved memories of the Indianized cultures of yore through literature and dance. Only recently has air travel become cheap enough that more Southeast Asian Muslims have been able to go on Hajj to Mecca, bringing back with them a more Arab, orthodox attitude to Islam. This could shift the old cultures away from their pre-Islamic traditions, which would be a great loss.

The Big Dragon Over There: China
Though China never tried to directly expand into Maritime Southeast Asia save once under the Yuan Dynasty, it has always been the big political foil that could never be ignored. Chinese friendship and patronage was always  a factor in the balance of power; all the Southeast Asian rulers who pretended to greater than mere local importance courted it for its many benefits. For one thing, China had always been one of the biggest markets for Southeast Asian goods, and in turn produced porcelain, a very important item in Maritime Southeast Asia’s ceremonial gift economy.

Newly discovered 'mother ship' balangay from Butuan

Take the kingdom of Butuan in Mindanao for example. The first Chinese records of it indicate it as one of Champa’s sources of trade goods, and its rajahs sent gifts to the Emperor via the Champan envoy to the Song Dynasty capital around 989 AD. Raja Sri Bata Shaja sent an embassy of his own under a certain Likansieh – I wonder whether this is a Sinicized Malay name, or  the Raja deputized a Chinese merchant – and eventually got the Song Emperor to grant Butuan a trade footing on par with Champa. Thenceforth, Butuan would trade directly with China rather than going through Champa. The Butuanon rulers apparently pursued a sort of ‘advertising blitz’ to the Song vs. Champa, sending more embassies to Kaifeng than Champa did between 980 and 1030 AD. New evidence of Butuan’s heavy trade activity has been found in the new ‘mother’ balangay found buried outside the city. Scholars now conjecture this could’ve functioned as a mother ship carrying supplies and cargo, accompanied by smaller balangay for long voyages.

Zheng He reviews his fleet

The Sultanate of Malacca is another good example of how Southeast Asian states used their relationships with China. Malacca came into being as a tiny Malay state near the tip of the Malay Peninsula, at a time when the Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya were gobbling up the northern half of the peninsula already. Sultan Iskandar Shah personally headed an embassy to the Ming Emperor, going to Beijing with the great eunuch admiral Zheng He, and gained recognition for Malacca as a protected tributary. The Ming then told the Thais, ‘Hands off Malacca!’ All other Malay kingdoms on the Peninsula were swallowed by the rising Thai empire of Ayutthaya.  After the Portuguese captured Malacca in 1511, they had difficulties treating with the Ming Emperors because of this action against a Ming tributary.

Chinese war junk of the type used in Kublai Khan's Japan and Java invasions

China’s one major military expedition into Maritime Southeast Asia***** occurred under the rule of Kublai Khan in 1293 AD, and led to the foundation of Madjapahit. The target of the Mongol-Chinese invasion force was the Javan kingdom of Singhasari, because its King Kertanagara had dared to brand the Mongol envoy’s face with a hot iron as a gesture of defiance. Before the expedition could sail, however, Kertanagara was murdered and the throne usurped by Jayakatwang. Prince Raden Wijaya, son of the murdered Kertanagara, offered to help the Mongols, then turned against them after Jayakatwang’s defeat. Wijaya drove the Mongol forces from Java with ferocious guerilla warfare, in jungle terrain where the Mongols could not use their cavalry, and so the invasion force retreated. Wijaya then went on to found the Empire of Madjapahit.

The Bamboo Network
China never possessed any part of Maritime Southeast Asia. However, there are immense numbers of Chinese in the Malay Peninsula and the islands, and also across Indochina, who form the Bamboo Network. This is because of the steady seep of immigrants from South China, a seep arising from private ambitions rather than a state initiative. In fact, many of the immigrants originally arrived seeking greater freedom from their government.

The pattern in China has always been for the Northern Chinese to lean on their southern cousins. South China is the commercial and agricultural heart of China, but its imperial dynasties were always from the North. This was specially bad during the Ming Dynasty, when very high taxes, along with strict trade and sailing regulations meant to enforce state monopolies, and piracy plagued the coastal provinces like Fujian. As a result, many left to settle in Southeast Asia. The majority of Chinese in Southeast Asia originated in Fujian, and speak Hokkien (Fukien),  or Teochew as their native tongue, not Mandarin Chinese.

Door of the Cheng Hoon Teng, the oldest Chinese temple in Malacca

Chinese clannishness and acumen became a powerful force in commerce. Tightly-knit but geographically widespread family networks were able to corner many local markets, and families with special skills would bring their crafts to new centers of production. Chinese ceramicists were producing porcelain in Thailand during the early Ming Dynasty, apparently having emigrated around 1371 when Emperor Hongwu banned private overseas trade. Malacca has a huge and influential Chinese community, the originators of Peranakan culture. My own ancestor, a certain Kim Suy from Fujian, came to Manila in the 1700s to make the infamous balut. (Surprise! This most notorious of Filipino foods is Chinese!)

Chinese influence is also particularly heavy in the island of Luzon, which is the closest major Southeast Asian landmass to China; Taiwan is visible from the Batanes Islands on a clear day, and the Chinese mainland is visible from the top of Mount Pulag, tallest mountain of the Cordilleras. Tagalog, the language of the old Kingdom of Maynila, is larded with Chinese loan-words, and uses Fukienese-derived honorifics for senior kin. The kingdoms of Luzon – Manila, Tondo, the legendary Tawalisi of Princess Urduja and Kaboloan in what is now Pangasinan, Zabag and Wak-wak in Pampanga were all listed as trade partners in Chinese annals. In the Visayas, wealthy Chinese intermarried with the Spanish planters of Iloilo and Bacolod, creating a still-powerful group of mestizo landowners.

Chinese migration to Southeast Asia accelerated in the colonial era, partly because of the sharp increase in opportunities as the Western powers developed markets and industries, and because Westerners, specially the British, trusted them more than the locals. The Chinese had never cared who the local masters were, as long as they could live as they wished; while the locals of course resented the colonialists. This bias of the colonials created tension between the Chinese immigrants and locals, who before had always lived together amicably. This tension was specially bad in the British colony of Peninsular Malaya, where it would fuel the Malayan Communist insurgency and the secession of Singapore.

These immigrant Chinese communities have been renewing ties with their kin on the Chinese mainland and Taiwan, specially with Mainland China’s transition to a market economy, so they are now the most powerful force in the economies of Southeast Asia. Even in the smallest towns, the shopkeepers are still very likely to be Chinese, and could have cousins who supply them with goods or capital from Singapore or Hong Kong or the mainland. They rely for a lot of their dealings on the support of local authorities, both official and ‘unofficial’ – a willingness to slide around the law has always been one of the sometimes amusing, sometimes infuriating traits of this community.  The Bamboo Network is a good example of how an immigrant, ethnically distinct minority can dominate part of a setting without directly ruling it.

Whew! I think I just broke the record for the longest post ever on this blog! Next up, Highland Southeast Asia and some Southeast Asian tales that might help inspire adventures!

*The Malayo-Polynesians comprise a diverse family of peoples that had a common origin apparently in Southern China-Taiwan-northern Philippines; from there they spread south, west and east, the easternmost and westernmost branches going so far they lost contact with the homeland and became the modern Polynesians and Malagasy.

**The Sindbad the Sailor stories from the Arabian Nights can be read as romanticized versions of Arab voyages to Southeast Asia, and Sindbad gets shipwrecked in just about every one of the stories. The medieval Arabs considered Southeast Asian waters very dangerous.

***Yes, this is the setting of the Thai film The Queens of Langkasuka. The kingdom would become independent again after Srivijaya’s decline.

****The Queens of Langkasuka was originally titled The Queens of Pattani. The title was changed for political reasons, as the province of Pattani, center of the old Pattani Kingdom, was a center of Muslim Malay separatism.

*****Not counting the expeditions of Zheng He, which were primarily diplomatic in purpose.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Building Southeast Asian Settings, Part I

I've always wanted to see more of Southeast Asia in role playing games and fiction, not just because I'm Southeast Asian myself, but also because of the fantastic color and diversity you can find in this region. I'd like to see more game designers publish more Southeast Asian-inspired material like Kenneth Hite's Qelong, but at the same time I'm left wondering why more haven't done so already.


It doesn't seem to be for lack of demand per se -- I keep seeing posts on RPG forums and blogs about looking for such settings, and Bryan Thao Worra, a Lao writer and gamer based in the USA, has also been pursuing this line of thought. The Hari Ragat project covers only part of the full potential of the region, being concentrated on Island Southeast Asia. Thus this projected series of blog posts, aimed at helping GMs understand Southeast Asia and find the roleplaying hooks and story ideas in it, particularly in that part of history I'm most interested in, the pre-colonial eras.

This first post is about the environment, and how it shapes the flavor of Southeast Asian civilization, with occasional comparisons to Medieval Western Europe which is the 'baseline' setting for most fantasy.

Monsoon System

Climate and the Monsoons
Southeast Asia lies entirely in the tropics, and its climate is regulated by the monsoon system. This cycle of winds alternately brings cold dry air from Siberia and hot, moisture-laden air from the southwestern Indian Ocean, and it has a very big role in shaping our history and culture. It's one reason why the Southeast Asian landscape is both amazingly rich and amenable to human life, and at the same time very hostile.

On the one hand, there's the humid heat prevalent during our summers, followed by driving rain and violent typhoons. On the other hand, it's nice and warm year round, and we're incredibly rich in water, which means lush jungles, a long growing season, and big rivers that can support large-scale irrigated farming. That much rain however means we also have to deal with big floods quite often, a factor that influences lifestyle and architecture.

Lastly, the monsoons are an engine of civilization. You can think of the monsoon winds as a wheel or circular conveyor belt that very conveniently reverses direction after half a year. You may be wondering, 'so how the heck does this affect my game?' Well think on this: the monsoon winds allowed Indian, Persian, and later Arab traders to bring our spices all the way to the Roman Empire.

Silk and Spice Routes

The monsoons brought traders from the west, first the Arabs, Persians, and Indians, and then the Portuguese, and the Chinese and Japanese from the northeast. They also encouraged these visiting traders to stay a while, because the winds would bring you here, then you'd have to wait until they turn around so you can go back. That's what makes the Southeast Asian port cities such lively melting pots. The monsoon system made the Indian Ocean our Mediterranean -- even though it's much bigger, the predictable cycle of winds made getting around equally easy. And melting pots make for great adventuring bases and locations.

Southeast Asia is defined on maps as that part of Asia and nearby islands lying between China, India, and New Guinea, but in terms of people and landscape the borders get a bit blurry. States, tribes and languages straddle the modern borders, which after all are just imaginary lines on a map. You can think of Southeast Asia as beginning where it gets wetter than India and people stop speaking Sanksrit-based languages coming from the west, and where it's warmer than China and you no longer hear Chinese much if you're coming from the north.

When making maps of Southeast Asian-inspired settings, think of the kingdoms and civilizations there like blobs of ink rather than discrete shapes, the peoples and cultures naturally mixing and shading into each other at the edges. For example, the modern country of Thailand has Thais, a people originally from southern China, in the central area, Malays in the south, Khmers in the northeast, and a whole lot of different tribes scattered through its northern highlands. India and Bangladesh have pockets of a Southeast Asian people, the Assamese, within their borders, and there was once an Assamese kingdom. And though Taiwan is now considered Chinese, its aboriginal people are not Chinese but Austronesian, speaking a language that's more closely related to the various Filipino languages than to Chinese.

But Southeast Asia is also not one unit. While I've seen some settings that are loosely based on Indochina, like Qelong, there's hardly anything based on the Philippines, Indonesia or Malaysia save the token aswang or penanggalan here and there, nor have I seen anything based on the Hmong or Miao peoples.

You can think of Southeast Asia as divided into Lowland Southeast Asia, which corresponds more or less to the river valleys of modern Indochina on the map: Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and the eastern outlier Vietnam; Maritime Southeast Asia, which corresponds on the map to the lower Malay Peninsula, and the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagoes including Borneo; and finally, following the Zomia theory, I'll also put in Highland Southeast Asia, under which I'll include the Zomia mountain chains of northern Indochina and also the Cordilleras of Luzon and the mountains of inner Mindanao, and also the real 'odd man out' thanks to history, Taiwan. These geographic zones aren't exactly contiguous and homogenous, though, with parts of them sort of intruding into parts of the others.

Mainland Southeast Asia

Maritime Southeast Asia


Lowland Southeast Asia
Lowland Southeast Asia is the Southeast Asia most likely to spring to the Western eye when you mention the term; it's the Southeast Asia of the big Hindu-Buddhist temples, lazy wide rivers and floating markets, green rice fields as far as the eye can see and elephants and tigers in the jungles. This includes Indochina, but you could also include inner Java and Bali in this zone, despite the fact that they're islands, because they've more in common with this than with the rest of Maritime Southeast Asia specially in terms of how their civilizations developed.

Lowland Southeast Asia is characterized by the wide, pretty flat valleys of large river systems such as the Mekong, Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy, which allows wet rice cultivation on a very large scale. With large, relatively concentrated populations, Lowland Southeast Asian peoples could produce a lot of trade goods, sustain large urban centers, and so can build large, powerful states. The river systems became highways for communication and trade, which also helped maintain larger states. These parts of Southeast Asia were also very easily accessible from India, with an overland route through Burma and long coastlines easily reached by Indian ships. The eastern parts are also easily accessible from China, in fact the Chinese and Mongols both tried to invade Vietnam multiple times.

Now, to understand why Indian and Chinese influence is so strong in Lowland Southeast Asia, we're going to have to talk about rice. The Malay peoples outside the main centers of the peninsula, Java, and Sumatra also had extensive contacts with Indian and Chinese traders, but why aren't there more cities and huge temple complexes there? The answer is in rice, and how rice paddies lead to kingdoms.

Again, I'm going to point out the extreme friendliness of Southeast Asia to human life; it's very easy to grow food here. If I were a farmer, it wouldn't take me too much effort to support myself and my direct family on not too much land (once I'd cleared it of jungle of course). And I don't even have to grow rice if that's all the people I'm feeding; I can get enough from yams and other crops, for far less work than it takes to maintain a rice paddy. By contrast with Lowland Southeast Asia, Maritime Southeast Asians practiced paddy farming on a much smaller scale until recently (with the exceptions of Java, Sumatra and Bali).

So why are the farmers of Lowland Southeast Asia tending vast tracts of paddy fields if they don't have to? Because somebody makes them do it. Because somebody can get the people together and make them clear and dig the paddy fields, dig the canals that bring water into them and drain excess water away, build flood control systems, granaries to store the harvest, et cetera et cetera. The ideal lands for growing ‘wet’ rice are naturally swampy, and must be drained with massive labor before they can be tilled. Nowadays, the force that makes the farmers maintain their paddies is money. Back then,  it was the the threat of coercion and the promise of protection.

Slavery became rife; there was a lot of usable land, but people were still scarce enough that if you wanted to expand your rice lands, you had to get your neighbors to work for you instead by force. The kingdoms in Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam often raided each other for captives for just this purpose. But the best method would be to make the farmers want to tend their paddies for you, and that's where the influence of India would come in.

India and China both offered important, useful models for building states and social hierarchies, models that could be used to concentrate and organize populations and have them support royal states. In western Southeast Asia, the model was provided by the Indian caste system, reinforced by Hinduism, and the Hinduism-derived idea of the Devaraja, the god-king with divine right to rule. Southeast Asian rulers began styling themselves as Rajah or Maharajah or Devaraja, adopting names that linked them to Hindu gods specially Shiva and Vishnu. Later, Buddhism became more popular, and kings specially in Siam began considering themselves Dharmaraja, 'kings of the Law' or 'kings of the righteous way.' Kings started adopting Indian methods of warfare and military organization too, using war elephants, cavalry, and possibly chariots*.

The Mahabharata and the Ramayana were taken as gospels, eventually cut and reshaped to be closer to local tradition; both were used to justify royal tradition and privileges. To further cement their rule, Hinduism and later Buddhism were made state religions, and it became an act of religious obligation to build and maintain the great temple complexes like Angkor in Cambodia, Borobudur and Prambanan in Java, and the Pura Besakih in Bali.

Like the temple-cities of the Aztecs and Mayas, these great state temples became the centers of communities organized to serve them and their rulers. The temples also served as vehicles for teaching religious lore, their carvings serving as 'picture books' of stone; pilgrims would be led around the temples in a clockwise pattern, and as they did the mythological stories could be told to them. Later kings would include histories on their temple carvings, commemorating victories, coronations and the like. Indian scripts became the basis for writing Burmese, Thai, Javanese, Khmer, Cham, even Tagalog and some other Philippine languages. This Indianized civilization would extend from Burma in the west to southern Vietnam in the east, and to Java and Sumatra in the south.

Scholars now believe that Indianization was a voluntary and selective adoption, not a colonization or conquest from the Indian subcontinent**. Local rulers adopted aspects of Hinduism or Buddhism as useful supports to their reigns – again, that aspect of being able to concentrate and organize people – it was not imposed upon them from outside the way the Philippines would be converted to Catholicism.

The original animist and ancestor-worshipping religions prevalent throughout Southeast Asia did not have mythological support for dynasties, while Hinduism offered the concepts of the Devaraja and the sanctioned imperial drive of the Mahabharata. Hindu culture was thus a useful tool for the ruling elite.

In the end, only the elites remained Hindu, while most of the population remained more animist; when the elites lost power or converted to other religions, the temple cities would be abandoned. Buddhism would prove more popular and longer-lasting, but still required strong states to support its core, the monastic community of the sangha. Thus Buddhism would last in countries like Thailand, but disappeared from Java when its rulers converted to Islam.

Vietnam would follow a different track, however, thanks to its proximity to China. Vietnamese kingdoms based on paddy rice agriculture were already rising during the Bronze Age, but then Northern Vietnam was invaded by the Han Dynasty's forces. It would become part of the Imperial Chinese system, with a few short breaks from rebellion, for some 1,000 years. In the meantime, South Vietnam would be colonized by the Chams, a Maritime Southeast Asian people who became Indianized and went into a Hindu state-temple-city building phase also, creating an empire that would rival that of the Javanese and the Khmers. Eventually the sinicized Northern Vietnamese threw off Chinese rule and conquered the Indianized states of South Vietnam, leaving all of modern Vietnam with a culture that is far more Chinese than any other part of Southeast Asia. Vietnam ended up organized on the Imperial Chinese model, with an Emperor and a mandarin bureaucracy supported by Confucian principles instead of the state-temple-centered structures of western Southeast Asia.

Coming next post: Maritime Southeast Asia and the Bamboo and Curry Networks!

*Chariotry was associated with the Vedic heroes of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, but were likely too impractical to use for long in muddy, mountainous Southeast Asia.

**Historians like George Coedes and R.C. Majumdar would argue that Indianization was a result of Indian colonization for trade if not conquest, while the theories of Paul Mus and Van Leur argued for voluntary borrowing, and only at the elite levels of society.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

If It’s Too Big to be Natural …

In Hari Ragat, one of my design guidelines for creating creatures is that if it’s too big to be natural it’s supernatural;  that is, it’s likely to have some special abilities beyond being a super-sized version of whatever animal it’s based on.


Today I got inspired by this kuday crab I shot in Kingfisher Park, Coron, and by Bagobo mythology to create this monster, using the guideline I mentioned:

Tambanokawa, or Elder Cave Crab

This Elder Crab inhabits a sea cave on any island of your choice and is the size of an elephant. It is thousands of years old, which has given it not only time to grow in size but also in spiritual power. It will defend its territory from intruding boats, will happily take divers and fishermen for breakfast, and sometimes comes up to land to hunt. Now it has discovered your village.

When Tambanokawa hunt on land they summon a heavy rain to cover their approach; this keeps their gills wet, drives prey to cover where they're easier to find and corner, and gives them advantage in combat. In combat they use their two differently-sized claws in deadly combination: the large claw is often used to hammer prey down first, the faster small claw is then used to seize the prey, the large claw grabs and holds fast making escape impossible, then finally the small claw starts tearing off chunks of flesh to put in the crab's mouth.

If it can grab an opponent thus, it starts to feed while its vicitim is still alive, even if it has to continue fighting while eating.  Assume the Tambanokawa hits with its big claw on an even, and with its small claw on an odd roll.

If it loses both eyestalks in battle it retreats immediately back into the sea. Any eyestalks, claws or legs it loses in battle will regenerate within a year while it hides in its cave, and then it comes back. It can only regenerate however in its own cave.

Tambanokawa 6/24, Impenetrable Carapace, Monstrous Scale Right Claw, Summoner of Monsoon Rains, Retreats if Blinded, Regenerates Lost Eyestalks and Limbs After a Year, Renown Value 30

Monday, March 24, 2014

Hari Ragat: Mancalon Island

This map locates Mancalon Island, the location for the upcoming playtest adventure.

mancalon bigmap - click to enlarge

And the waters off Hiyasan, the Place of Pearls, is something like this:

Sanipaan Shoal, a marine reserve off Samal Island

It is early in the month of Da’on Habagat, the hottest, sunniest month of the year, and the pearling season is at its peak … who knows who might come visiting?

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