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.


  1. Cool topic. I think there is a ton of material to draw on here. I also think with more south east asian movies becoming available at places like netflix you will see more designers drawing on the history. My Gamandria setting isn't strictly south east asia (it covers a range of cultures) but the region, its myths and history were hugely influential.

  2. Nice! Is your Gamandria setting online?

    1. It is part of the game Sertorius (just went up on rpgnow). Here is our webpage for the game and setting (the map is available on the page for free):

    2. I posted a blog entry that gets into a little of the history of the setting (here: You can see some of the Southeast Asian influence in the second piece of art but probably guess from some of the names mentioned in the history.

  3. "The monsoons are an engine of civilization" What an elegant way of putting it! I've been thinking through the climate of Nusantara for a while now and this sentence really neatly encapsulates while opening up possibilities!

  4. Thanks Jha! It's only when I started researching all this that I realized how important the monsoons are to us. :-)

  5. Loving this. I'm currently running a D&D4e game set in a fictionalized version of the Vietnam War, so authentic details of village life are an important backdrop to the insanity and cruelty of war.

    Quick question though: what kind of mythological monsters and magical traditions exist in SE Asia? I'd like something less western for my players to tear into.

  6. Hi Michael! That's not an easy question to answer because of the sheer diversity here! You can find references to SEA mythology online, and if you want monsters with gaming stats check out the Hero Asian Bestiary volumes I & II.

    Quick summary: SEA's mythology is a blend of animistic traditions -- nature spirits, with special place for tree spirits, a strong belief in ghosts, plus overlays of Buddhist, Hindu, and Arabic/Islamic elements.

  7. Thank you for your post, I love SEA too!

    I had a short AW hack campaign set in postcolonial fantasy Cambodia ( and parts of my oldschool Pnakotic ruins campaign ( are heavily influenced by my Yunnanese experiences.

    I've long since wanted to GM a pure SEA campaign but the problem I always encounter is that most of the interested players are not even familiar with the STEREOTYPES of this region. Our expectations don't quite match :/


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