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Author Topic: For Ben: The Shang Dynasty Game  (Read 7994 times)
Jonathan Walton
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« on: April 08, 2004, 10:05:21 AM »

Quote from: Ben Lehman
I want an Asian fantasy / history game that isn't reheated D&D and SamuraiNinjaKewl. And, of course, Mr. Walton writes it.


I would have done it anyway, but since you asked...

So, since Ben posted this request, I've been pondering what kind of game to do.  Originally, I thought about trying to make my "Warring States Rock Rebels" concept work, but the setting just wasn't coming together in my head.  It wasn't the anachrony; it was just that I couldn't figure out what rock musicians would DO in ancient China that would be especially interesting to play.  I didn't want it to dissolve into yet another combat-based game (like "Metal Opera" or "Star Children" often become, with or without drift) and I was left without a central purpose.  I'm thinking now that a game that mixed Chinese rock (which is native to Beijing) with Beijing opera would be neat.  Imagine Farewell My Concubine as a rock opera, with all the gender/sexuality issues and Ziggy Stardust elements.  But I'm not quite ready to write that yet.  Maybe next year, when I'm in Nanjing (hopefully).

Instead, I've been spending the past few days hanging out in the massive East Asian collection of my college library, reading about the Shang Dynasty (the first historic royal line in China, though there are mythic ones before that, like the Xia and legendary sage emperors).  They were so cool!  1700 BC, bronze and early iron culture, human sacrifice, ancestor worship, divination, and (most importantly) no kung fu!

Here are a few things I'm dying to incorperate:

-- Xie, the earliest mentioned ancestor of the Shang kings, was concieved when his mother swallowed the egg of a black bird.

-- In Shang times, there were were 10 suns that took turns crossing the sky every day, leading to a 10-day week based on which sun was in the sky on a certain day.  When the Zhou Dynasty took over, they propogated the myth of the archer, Yi, who shot down 9 of the suns (when they all appeared at once in the sky, usually a bad omen), supporting the Zhou's tradition of only one sun.

-- The Shang also associated black birds or ravens with the suns.  According to different sources, the birds either carried the suns across the sky or actually were the suns.  So this means that Xie was probably "fathered" by one of the suns, making the Shang both part-raven and direct descendents of the suns.

-- The 10 suns started each morning from a giant Mulberry tree in the east, where their mother Xihe, bathed them in a sacred pool before sending them off.  At night they nested in the Ruo tree in the west.  In Chinese the character for "east" is clearly a sun sitting in a tree (I can't believe I didn't notice that before) and the character for "west" is a nest.

-- Between the two trees, underneath the earth, are the Yellow Springs, the underworld, which occasionally bubbles up through the soil (water looks yellow when it comes up through the leoss of the Yellow River Yalley) and floods the overworld.  The sacrifices of the Shang ruler are supposed to prevent this, as well as bring rain, both by appealing to the ancestors to bring the Shang people's case before Shang Di (the Lord-on-High, "God").

-- The origins of the Shang ruler's role as chief priest originated with the dynasty's founder, Cheng Tang.  Once, when the people were dying of drought, Tang offered himself on the sacrificial alter, saying that he, as the representative of the people should die, since any anger the ancestors or Shang Di felt was ultimately his responsibility and not that of the people.  Before he went through with it, rain began to fall, showing that his offer was unneccessary but commendable.

So, heavy Sim, probably, with some Narrativist tendencies.  I'd really like to get across this totemic connection between the Shang people and the sun-ravens.  Also, since I'd like the protagonists to be people with a large degree of freedom and mobility, it looks like they'll have to be drawn from the Shang rulers and their families, since farming isn't necessarily the most exciting thing to Explore.  With power comes responsibility, though, and that would allow the game to explore the king's relationship with the ancestors, rain, divination, and Shang Di.

If possible, I'd like for the characters to have a mythic POV, but for the setting to be non-mythic, if you see what I mean.  When the rain falls, like it inevitably does, the characters take this to mean X, but I don't want them to talk to the dragons directly and then watch the dragons fly through the clouds and create rain.  Additionally, I don't want the players to be able to maintain a critical attitude about a mythic POV.  That is, I don't want them to secretly be thinking, "Oh, these poor ignorant people!"  I want the game to illustrate the potential benefits and coolness of maintaining a mythic perspective about the world.  So the setting should remain agnostic about the "truth" of a mythic perspective, but there should be obvious benefits for maintaining one or interpreting in-game events in a mythic fashion.

Right now, I'm pondering the benefits of a traditional PC-based setup or one in which there is a group of important characters that the players take turns manipulating.  Also, I've been really into the idea of "story arcs" in roleplaying, lately.  So you start out thinking that you're going to play 3-5 sessions and tell the story you want to tell.  Then, if you come back to it, you plan another arc.  If you don't, it's no big deal, the story is told.  I'm beginning to think that open-endedness leads to loss of game focus in many situations, because you don't have to address questions that get brough up, since you can always get to them later.

So here's a thought.  What if a story-arc of this game takes place over a 10-day week (each day associated with one sun) and each day will always take an hour to play out.  So you could play 2 three-hour sessions and one 4 hour session and finish the arc.  Or you could divide it up whatever way you want (playing out a day after you've finished whatever other game your group is playing regularly).

So what do the players DO?

Here's what I'm thinking: every story-arc is about addressing some sort of problem or situation.  So, when recruiting people for an arc, you tell them that the situation was "During the reign of King Xiao Jia, there was a great flood that rose from the Yellow Springs and threatened the people."  Then the players would manipulate PCs/protagonists to try to solve this problem (by making sacrifices, by building dams and levis, etc.), but then there would be complicating problems that accompanied the big one, such as "The King is enamoured of the concubine, Gui Xi, and is destracted from making the proper observances.  This, many say, is the reason for the flood."  So now the players would have to decide whether some might suggest disposing of the king or the concubine or simply enticing the king away from her or getting others to perform the kingly rituals, etc.

So, all in all, not horribly compelling at this point, it seems.  I mean, I would be excited to play it, but I already love Chinese history.  My main concern here is: what would convince you to play this game?  I mean, I can come up with wacky, progressive mechanics and systems, but I'd like the setting and aesthetic to have some bite of its own that pulled people in.  I think the 10 suns mythology should be a big part of that, but I'm not exactly sure how to make it work.  Suggestions?
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clehrich
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« Reply #1 on: April 08, 2004, 10:40:22 AM »

Jonathan,

You might take a look at Jean Levi's The Chinese Emperor.  It's about Qinshihuang, which is obviously a bit later, but still the ancient period.  And it's harrowing, in its way, because it really reconstructs the ancient Chinese world in a way that the Shujing never does.  Levi is a serious Sinologist, too, which means that he's gone to great lengths to make everything -- however bizarre, however horrible -- based on strong historical evidence.

Just a thought.
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Chris Lehrich
Rich Forest
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« Reply #2 on: April 09, 2004, 05:30:49 AM »

Jonathon,

Cool, an ancient China game. Here are my thoughts. You said you weren’t sure it was compelling. I think it is compelling. I also think it’s a bit overwhelming at first read-through. So for my own purposes, and perhaps everyone's interest, I'm going to start by quoting pieces that jumped out at me and addressing things as they come to me. (I'll ask for forgiveness in advance for quoting a lot in this response.)

Quote from: Jonathan Walton
1700 BC, bronze and early iron culture, human sacrifice, ancestor worship, divination, and (most importantly) no kung fu!


Ten suns, totemic sun-ravens, the underworld bubbling up from beneath the earth in the form of floods,

Quote from: Jonathan Walton
With power comes responsibility, though, and that would allow the game to explore the king's relationship with the ancestors, rain, divination, and Shang Di.

*SNIP*

So the setting should remain agnostic about the "truth" of a mythic perspective, but there should be obvious benefits for maintaining one or interpreting in-game events in a mythic fashion.


Hm, this is going to be difficult. Maybe impossible. Doesn't mean it isn't worth trying, but it does mean I don't have any helpful contributions for it at the moment. I'll think about it though.

Actually, you seem to have a lot of goals for this game. So many, in fact, that I'm having trouble seeing how they all fit together. That's to be expected I suppose this early on, but it's worth considering which ones you want to prioritize and which you want to use as supporting material. On the same note, I’d add that it's best not too have too many innovative, cool mechanics. Just one or two. I know I’ve seen someone say that here in the past, maybe Clinton, and it stuck with me because my tendency is to want to put every cool, funky mechanic in at once. But there’s got to be something there for the players to grab onto, some familiar structures.

Ok, I like this next part. Actually, here is where I think the game first starts to come together for me, to take shape:
 
Quote from: Jonathan Walton
What if a story-arc of this game takes place over a 10-day week (each day associated with one sun) and each day will always take an hour to play out.

*SNIP*

Here's what I'm thinking: every story-arc is about addressing some sort of problem or situation. So, when recruiting people for an arc, you tell them that the situation was "During the reign of King Xiao Jia, there was a great flood that rose from the Yellow Springs and threatened the people." Then the players would manipulate PCs/protagonists to try to solve this problem (by making sacrifices, by building dams and levis, etc.), but then there would be complicating problems that accompanied the big one, such as "The King is enamored of the concubine, Gui Xi, and is distracted from making the proper observances. This, many say, is the reason for the flood." So now the players would have to decide whether some might suggest disposing of the king or the concubine or simply enticing the king away from her or getting others to perform the kingly rituals, etc.


That is the game, right there, to me. In fact, I think the aesthetics have their pull already. No worries there. I mean, I’m sold on them already. It’s the mechanics that I’m interested in. You’re giving me a beautiful world to enter. Now give me some idea of how I can interact with it. That’s the part, I think, that will grab people. That’s what I’d need to grab me, anyway.

You have a king who is a religious, economic, and military head, an aristocracy in his service in carrying out these resposibilities, and PCs as part of this aristocracy. I can see potential problems from all three directions for the PCs to deal with, both mundane  and mythic. Take religion, for example. You could do mundane religious conflict: a group of aristocrats is challenging the religious power of the king. You could do mythic religious conflict: the floods are rising from the underworld because someone failed to carry out the proper rites.

There are all kinds of itneresting elements of conflict. You have a scattered world, not unified at all, with warfare among city-states as well as warfare against “barbarians.” Disasters from disgruntled ancestors visited upon careless, thoughtless descendents. And human sacrifice. I can’t imagine modern players not engaging with this as a major issue to deal with.

So you have a lot of conflict material. What to do with it, is the question that remains.

With the 10 days thing, I think it would work well to combine that with a very clear, very set play structure, something like say Inspectres does in one way or My Life with Master in another. I imagine something like, day 10—divination for the coming week. Impending disaster? If No—one scene per player to cover the uneventful passing week; If Yes—go to Day 1: Initial Panicked search for a response. Day 2: next stage, etc.

In fact, now that I think about it, you might find an interesting structure in disaster films. You know all those movies where there is a disaster! (volcano, meteor, flood, earthquake, tornado, hurricane, alien invasion, giant monster, shifting of the earth’s magnetic pole) coming to destroy the world! I’d bet money that if you watched a bunch of them and just followed (or maybe did some digging), you’d come up with a pattern of how the disaster approaches, comes to seem unstoppable, and is stopped at the last minute by clever/plucky/heroic solution by the heroes.

Here's my high concept pitch: “Shang Dynasty China meets Disaster Movie!”

I’m not sure if this is appropriate to what you’re thinking, but it could be an interesting take. And how can these kinds of disasters be averted? Well, in modern disaster movies, you’ve got clever, brave heroes, often some bit of miraculous technology, now that I think of it, who meet the problem head on, protecting their loved ones as they do so, and… I don’t know. I’m not a disaster movie expert. But in the Shang one, well, what are your solutions? You’ve got human sacrifice, ancestor worship, and… again, not the Shang expert, but that’s where you come in.

You could also keep the 1 day per session angle, or 1 day per scene, maybe not tied to hour (although the counting down of the hours might add to the sense of impending doom). Alternately, you could span across the empire, say each day includes one scene with members of each social class. You know how in the disaster movie there’s always like the working class type who deals with the disaster in his own way, the scientist who deals with it in his way, the government doing it's thing, etc.: these little slices of life showing different people in different parts of the country/world dealing with the situation.

Again, a lot of this is brainstorming. You may not want to use much of it, and probably some of the ideas are incompatible with others. When I started writing this, I had no idea I’d end up here, in fact.

So that’s one possible angle/focus/emphasis that could be taken with it. I guess my main question overall then is what is your angle? What is the main thing this game is about? Because right now, it’s still a bit overwhelming, but I can see it coming into shape by the end of your post. It has a lot of potential, but I’m just not clear on what the shape is just yet.

Rich
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #3 on: April 09, 2004, 06:52:53 AM »

Chris, I've got the book on inter-library loan, but it could be a week or so before I can actually look at it.  Thanks for the recommendation.

Quote from: Rich Forest
Here's my high concept pitch: “Shang Dynasty China meets Disaster Movie!”


That's really hot, actually, and not something I had really considered.  Fits into my "story arc" concept pretty well too.  It'd be like a Disaster TV Series, where each week the "heroes" would have a new disaster that needed averting.

Actually, as I've been doing more reading into Shang Dynasty divination practices, I think I've hit upon a more compelling premise (at least to me), than what I originally set out.  Check out these excerpts:

Quote from: David N. Keightley
Wu Ding's [the first Shang King who we have oracle bones from] diviners treated charges [questions] on a large variety of topics... As divinatory practice and its underlying assumptions evolved... many of the topics that Wu Ding's diviners address... had vanished from the record. ... [Also] Royal prognostications, which under Wu Ding had forecast both good fortune and bad, and could occasionally be lengthy, were now uniformly auspicious and brief.

Shang divination, in short, had, during the century and a half from the reign of Wu Ding [generally regarded as a good ruler] to that of Di Xin [generally regarded as a terrible ruler], become more systematic, less spontaneous, and less comprehensive; it had also become routinely optimistic.


So, what I'm seeing here is that Shang Kings stopped being "serious" about divination.  Instead of "truly" reading the outcomes, they began to always assume that Di was on their side, even when he/it clearly wasn't.  All the signs and disasters in the world wouldn't get them to change their wicked ways (and Di Xin was pretty wicked, turning righteous officials who objected into human jerky), and so they were eventually brought down in favor of the Zhou.

So, now, I have potential focus characters, the royal diviners, who come from a long line of diviners going back to Wu Ding and before.  They know the way divination is supposed to work, and can read the cracks as well as anyone, but the King refuses to see the disaster that is coming for him.  If you object to the king directly, you're likely to get turned into jerky.  If he catches you escaping to the Lord of the West (who will eventually rise up with the Zhou people and overthrow the Shang), you're probably dead, and so is your entire family.  However, you can see the future, disaster after disaster on the horizon, so you have to do something.

So here you go: divination sounds like a perfect excuse to do some heavy scene framing, since the diviners are supposed to know what's going to happen in a general sense.  Also, an excuse to have a formulaic set up, maybe Rich's "disaster movie" suggestion, where the players instinctively know what's supposed to happen next.

To connect this to the nine-suns-become-one-sun myth, what if the game is called something like Nine Suns Will Fall, and so you have nine major disasters leading up to the end of the Shang Dynasty, with each one represented, mythically, by the fall of one of the suns.  Yi the Archer, though the characters will never meet him and aren't sure that he even exists, is shooting the suns down and making room for the Zhou.  The suns, as representatives of the Shang ancestors, are being destroyed, and the great house with it.  Within this catastrophe, the royal diviners are running around, trying to find ways to safeguard their kingdom, their families, and themselves.

Rich, your suggestion on making divinations for the next week is great, since they actually did that, every week from the beginning of Wu Ding's reign to the end of Di Xi's.  So you divine whether there's a disaster in the next week (whether a sun will fall, basically), and then, if there is, determine the nature of the disaster, probably by rolling a bunch of dice or some other Fortune-based mechanic, maybe with some Drama thrown in for self-determination's sake.  Then you have a week to react to the disaster.  Get this, though: as the suns fall, the Shang's week gets shorter, since there are less suns to travel across the sky.  This means that the last several weeks are going to go by super fast, with multiple disasters happening at the same time, with no time to react.

How's that sound?
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talysman
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« Reply #4 on: April 09, 2004, 01:31:07 PM »

Quote from: Rich Forest
Quote from: Jonathan Walton
So the setting should remain agnostic about the "truth" of a mythic perspective, but there should be obvious benefits for maintaining one or interpreting in-game events in a mythic fashion.


Hm, this is going to be difficult. Maybe impossible.


this is perhaps a minor point in comparison to the major goal of making a disasterous end of a dynasty game, but: how about if the characters never see any mythic or magical events, but social skills add to knowledge skills when dealing with nature and inanimate objects? thus, even though the dragons never talk or fly, talking *to* the dragons adds your persuasiveness to your agricultural knowledge (I'm here assuming that you are a royal/noble or vizier responding to a request from local farmers, not a farmer yourself.)

also, you could track the "feelings" of rain, fire, forest, etc., towards each character and allow that to determine some events.
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John Laviolette
(aka Talysman the Ur-Beatle)
rpg projects: http://www.globalsurrealism.com/rpg
Rich Forest
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« Reply #5 on: April 09, 2004, 08:48:44 PM »

Quote from: Jonathan Walton
So you divine whether there's a disaster in the next week (whether a sun will fall, basically), and then, if there is, determine the nature of the disaster, probably by rolling a bunch of dice or some other Fortune-based mechanic, maybe with some Drama thrown in for self-determination's sake.  Then you have a week to react to the disaster.  Get this, though: as the suns fall, the Shang's week gets shorter, since there are less suns to travel across the sky.  This means that the last several weeks are going to go by super fast, with multiple disasters happening at the same time, with no time to react.

How's that sound?


It sounds way cool. And man, those diviners are heroic. Because they can't win, but they're fighting anyway. I like that playing the game is basically one set of story arcs, and when the 9th sun falls, the dynasties change and a new era begins.

Another thing I like is that the diviners may not succeed every time. Some disasters won't be successfully averted. Sometimes, the players will fail in the mission, and next week they have to fight even harder. It could take years, longer even, in-game, for the 9 suns to fall. And the players will make a difference in that. And really, how many floods, disastrous storms, famines, etc. did the Shang experience? Probably plenty. So we have these heroic diviners, hiding and acting behind the back of the emperor, trying to preserve the empire itself! And if they fail, the emperor loses out--his dynasty comes to an end.

These are just initial reactions. I'll keep musing on things and jump in again when I have more.

Rich
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #6 on: April 10, 2004, 03:40:46 AM »

Damn, this is cool.

I owe you a game design.

Some thoughts:

As I recall, the Shang divination system was the roots of the Chinese written language.  Given the runic power ascribed to characters, this could be a very cool source of "PC powers" if you're into that sort of thing.

I want to play a tortoise herd.  (Apparently, great herds of tortoises were rounded up and brought to the capital for divination.  I just like the image :-} )

I think that, as the suns fall, the King should become more and more corrupt, and the disasters more intense (dice get bigger, perhaps?) until you get horrible bad things that would have been major emergencies constantly happening.  "Okay, we have two barbarian invasions, rioting in the capital, drought in the south, floods in the north, forest fires in the east, and a peasant army marching on the capital.  Let's get organized, people!"

Depending on your perspective, you could do a very cool "secret agent" feel for this game.

yrs--
--Ben
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Ben Lehman
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« Reply #7 on: April 10, 2004, 05:02:51 AM »

er... Tortoise Herder.  As in, a person, in a professional contexts, herds tortoises.  Not a herd of tortoises itself.  I am not suggesting that reptilian hive-minds would be reasonable PCs for this game.  That would, I think, be laser-sharking.

yrs--
--Ben
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clehrich
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« Reply #8 on: April 10, 2004, 09:35:13 AM »

Ah yes, laser-mounted reptilian hive-minds.  What a cool idea!  :>

Jonathan, you might also take a look at Rob Campany's Strange Writing (Albany: SUNY, 1996), which is about the zhiguai xiaoshuo tradition: essentially little stories and jottings about weird stuff, like ghosts, portents, monsters, and so on.  Another great reference is Kenneth J. DeWoskin, Doctors, Diviners, and Magicians of Ancient China: Biographies of “Fang-shih” (New York: Columbia University Press, 1983).  I don't know if you read French, but Ngo Van Xuyet's Divination, magie et politique dans la Chine ancienne (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1976) is one of the best analyses of divination in ancient China yet written.  Most of this stuff really refers to the Qin and the early Han, but then there isn't a lot of primary material from the Shang directly (apart from bones and bronzes).

Setting aside all these references, and recognizing that by going back into the Shang a lot of the later conflicts disappear, by the late Zhou you have basically three main groups discussing divination:

1. Confucians {Rujia}.  For them, ritual constitutes the finest place within which to divine the current status of the world.  This is consistent with their understanding of kingship as the nexus of power and the Mandate of Heaven, and goes some way toward clarifying Confucius's sense of the "rectification" of names and ritual {li}.

2. Proto-Taoists (the Taoists per se haven't quite coalesced by this point).  For them, the study of nature and the world, as well as the internal status of the human person, is the place to locat interpretation and divination of appropriate action.  This is a deliberately anti-political stance: politics must be guided by these exterior concerns, not the other way around as in the Confucian perspective.  Over time, this will move to become anti-authoritarian in lots of ways, but the Laozi (Dao de jing) and the later Zhuangzi are fairly clear about the implications of this perspective for rulership.

3. Fangshi {untranslatable term: direction-master or place-master seems to me the best rendering}.  This position falls right in between.  Emphasizing divination and the study of anomalies (portents, monsters, the foreign, the distant, the weird), the fangshi strive for rectification of rulership in terms of ritual, which then causes the kingdom to be in accord with the Will of Heaven, and from there promulgates right thinking and action among the people.  The dying oracle bone tradition in the Zhou seems to have had a good deal to do with this tradition, which briefly rose to some power in collaboration with Legalism {fajia} with the advent of the Qin in 250-odd BCE.

My sense is that very little is really clearly known about the Shang, and I would encourage a kind of back-dating of some of these concerns.  Clearly Confucius's name isn't going to be used back then, but the perspective later attached to him was probably formulating already among the 100 Evil Ministers and so forth.  The fangshi probably were quite similar to the ancient diviners.  And thus the conflict Keightley identifies would seem quite parallel to that which later arose between these two more explicit later factions under the Warring States.

Anyway, just some ramblings.  Hope it's helpful.
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Chris Lehrich
daMoose_Neo
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« Reply #9 on: April 10, 2004, 06:51:14 PM »

"First Wave"-ish idea here, but I like the players being diviners/having access to that predestined information. Make it more of a challenge- give it to them in a riddle format or so ala the quatrains from Nostrodamas used in First Wave.
As an adventure/mission launching point it gives the players something to work with (as opposed to know there is a flood at the military encampment say "The tears of the fourth sun shall wash over the world, cleansing the it of the false legions of the fallen dynesty", very rough yes :P) Knowing the future is cool, but also making them work a little for it can be fun too ^_^ Part of the riddle might also explain say what would have to be done to rectify the situation with the spirits or the players could just try to save lives/avert as much of the damage as possible.
First Wave-ish as well, but going with Ben's secret agent feel have the players a part of an underground resistance effort. Internal conflicts can exist as well: To they try to reason with the king in a way that would avoid his wrath (ie making it seem as though it was his idea) or replace him outright. The resistance could be split on this issue, providing some issues for the players depending on the camps they choose to side with.
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Nate Petersen / daMoose
Neo Productions Unlimited! Publisher of Final Twilight card game, Imp Game RPG, and more titles to come!
contracycle
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« Reply #10 on: April 11, 2004, 03:15:06 AM »

I like the disaster/diviner framework; this actually poses an intersting question about what sort of intervention one should make based on personal knowledge, and the philosophical complications of action, inaction, and responsibility.

One argument I have read regarding ancestor worship, although I'd have to look up the source, argued that the ancestor worship could be seen as a kind of intervention, attempting to raise an elite within the spirit world that could act on human behalf in the way that the elite among humans could address bigger and more serious problems through their command of resources.

Other possible toys to consider: jade cylinders and disks, although I don't know of any ideas as to what they were really for.  Saw some in the British Museum the other day, they are very strange objects indeed.  Also, to reinforce the bronze technology, the bronze ceremonial vessel sets.  These were clearly prestige items from their burial contexts, so perhaps they could be used as a form of in game economy, especially if there is any attention paid to post mortem prospects.  Conceivably a kinky mechanic structuring a play session around a meal might be interesting.

As to play structure, I like the disaster movie idea.  Again we can eliminate continuous time problems by simply asserting play begins when an oracle bone reveals a disaster; there is no 'null' result from the bones (used in play).  External time could be paced either by characters lives, and intervening time in those lives abstracted, or in terms of the Shang, with possibly new characters introduced to respond to each disaster.

Possibly with the players as the representatives of ancestral experience? It might be quite funky if each player has a current character and a roster of the past characters they played previously as ancestors whose input they can weild, perhaps.  Come to think of it, there's role for the vessel sets; if the current character venerates one of these ancestors, their record can be annotated and possibly new powers become available to assist the current - and subsequent - live characters.  'Character development' would occur more amongst this stable of ancestors than among the current live characters.  Which would be a weird reflection of the admonition to artists that 'If you want to succeed, die.'
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #11 on: April 11, 2004, 11:03:36 AM »

Wow! Great comments, guys.

I don't have time to respond to them all right now, but I was thinking about a concept recently that relates to contracycle's last comment.

I was thinking that each player would individually represent one of the diviners, but that the players, collectively, would represent the will of the ancestors and Di.  So imagine a character sheet for each character and then a group character sheet for the ancestors (though that's kind of a primitive version, since I don't know whether character sheets, as such, will be used).  The actions of the ancestors would be determined through a consensus system of some kind, like a faster running version of Universalis negotiations.  Also, the ancestors would be responsible for rolling to determining the disasters and major events that would happen in a given week, though a mixture of Fortune and Drama, and then individual characters would try to discern this from them.

This way, individual characters such as the king or diviners could make appeals to the ancestors and then the players as a whole could decide how to respond to those appeals.  Basically, it'd be a more interactive and less Fortune-based version of human-god relations in Argonauts.

Moose, I think the "First Wave" stuff, though interesting, is probably out.  Shang divination was mostly a binary process.  You carve "It will rain"  and "It will not rain" on opposite sides of a turtle shell or cow thigh, drill holes in it, and then fracture it with a hot poker.  Then the king looks at the cracks and decrees the reading "auspicious" or "inauspicious."  There's definitely some complexity involved, in reading the lines and such, but it's not a message that needs to be interpreted, at least not in the sense you mean.  Finding a way to simulate the crack reading is going to be fun, though.  I was wondering about getting saltine crackers and poking them with a chopstick until they broke apart, but that may be a little silly for some styles of play.

Chris, I definitely think there should be different ideas about divination and what the proper model of kingship and humanity place in the world.  Projecting later thought back is a good idea, since records of Shang philosophy are limited-to-nonexistent.  Thanks for the sources, too.  You're like a walking bibliography, there.

Rich, Ben, and John, your suggestions are duly noted.  Let me ponder a few things and maybe I'll try to draft a system outline.  In the meantime, further suggestions, especially about divination mechanics, would be much appreciated.
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Shreyas Sampat
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« Reply #12 on: April 11, 2004, 11:11:03 AM »

There's a lot of cool stuff in here.

Here are my thoughts - if this is something like "Godzilla Comes To China", then there's a very clear clock behind the disasters - someone mentioned the king losing the Mandate of Heaven. It's possible that there's a way to stave the falling of a sun by making the king choose the properly righteous way to deal with a problem? (I think this is interesting, but it might not be appropriate here.)

Are the diviners also the agents of destiny who go out and Solve Problems for the king? How much does he know? I have this image of a squad of Chinese man with scrolls tied to their t'ai chi swords and long drooping moustaches...not deeply based in reality, but rather cinematic.

Anyway, I'm going to step out of here and jump back in when mechanics roll around - it looks like you have more than enough great ideas to work with.
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Jonathan Walton
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« Reply #13 on: April 11, 2004, 08:54:56 PM »

This is for those of you who are strongly-visual people, like me.

http://1001.indie-rpgs.com/9swf.jpg

I just need a real artist to cook me up a version of Yi the Archer (the symbol of the Zhou, disaster, the Mandate, etc.), and I'm all set.  SIDENOTE: Anybody know someone who can illustrate Chinese people in a non-Anime style and not make them all look the same?

Mechanics wise, today I had a real strong urge to use the Ma Jiang "wild" die, which is a d6 with North, South, East, West, Center, and "Fa" ("send/utter/discharge/develop") written on the faces.  People without one could just use a d6 and a chart.  Perhaps the die chould determine which quadrant of the kingdom the particular disaster effects.  The directions would be easy, Center would be the capital itself, and "Fa" might mean that the king has issued a disastrous declaration or order (for instance, deciding to revel in gluttony by having the palace staff construct a forest made of roast meat and a lake of wine, where members of the court are to run around naked, chasing women; NOTE: this actually happened, during the reign of Di Xin).  Additionally, maybe the directions could determine the type of disaster in all cases, since barbarian raids inevitably come from the North, floods start in the West and move East, famines in the South?  I'm not sure, but there could definitely be something here.

More thoughts soon, as this thing begins to congeal...
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clehrich
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« Reply #14 on: April 11, 2004, 09:19:53 PM »

On the mechanics issue, I like the majiang die [that's Mah Jongg, incidentally, for those of you who don't recognize the pinyin spelling].

Further, if you think about how oracle bone cracks were done, the best reconstruction I recall said that there were 5 possibilities for a result, which I would emend to 6 (making die-rolling simple, among other things):

For clarity's sake, [Jonathan, you know this, but not everyone does] let me explain that what you did (to put it simply) was to take a clean, dry cow scapula or a turtle plastron, and then you'd shave one side to be very smooth.  This was the divining and inscribing surface on which you'd write (though sometimes you get bones inscribed and so on on both sides).  Then on the other side you gouged out a little oval about the length of a finger's width and about half that width, pretty close to a rounded-off rectangle.  This you gouged sufficiently deeply that if you held the thing up to the light, you could see that the bottom of the gouge was translucent.  Next, you chanted appropriate prayers and whatnot (nobody knows exactly what happens at this stage, unfortunately), and you heated a bronze poker-like tool really hot in a fire.  When the tip was very, very hot, you'd shove it into the gouge for just a couple of seconds, and you'd hear a very loud "CRACK!"  On the smooth side, you'd now have a roughly straight-line crack going the length of the gouge, and then a cross-wise crack running off of it.

Now the possibilities are:
1. Cross-crack upper left
2. Cross-crack upper right
3. Cross-crack lower left
4. Cross-crack lower right
5. Cross-crack both sides, any angle
6. Cross-crack multiple

#6 is very rare, and essentially means the diviner screwed up and left the poker in too long or the surface was improperly prepared.  It seems generally to have been taken as a do-over.

From my reading of Keightley's work, my recollection is that #5 is considered bad, but the rest of them seem to have been based on a complex system of relations not currently understood.

Once you had one solution, though, you'd go and do it again a few times; most bones have quite a number of cracks, with inscriptions explaining what the purpose was, when it was done, for whom, and what the result was.

So here's what I'd suggest:

Do a very distilled yijing system, where you construct trigrams (hexagrams take a long time and are very complicated).  Read 1 and 3 as broken lines, moving or otherwise, and 2 and 4 as solid lines, ditto.  Read 5 as a bad omen, and 6 as a screwup.  If you're going to set up a whole session on one reading, you could construct full hexagrams, read the poem, and then go from there.

If you use the Yijing, you'd have 8 pre-set scenes.
1. The Divination
2-7. The Lines
8. The Hexagram

And then you spend your time dealing with the disasters, portents, omens, politics, and everything else.

Sounds like fun to me, but may be a little bizarre for actual RPG construction.
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Chris Lehrich
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