My transition from “basic” Dungeons & Dragons to the “advanced” ruleset was as piecemeal as it was protracted. The hardcover AD&D sourcebooks were expensive and my funds were limited, which meant I had to content myself with whatever deeply discounted bits of inventory could be found in the dwindling remnant of the local Toys ‘R’ Us store’s once-extensive RPG section.
Though it didn’t have much left to choose from, it did have a ten-dollar copy of one of the most ballyhooed and talked about AD&D supplements of the mid-Eighties…
…the infamous Oriental Adventures.
It was an easy sale because I was a teenage boy in a time when fascination with Mysterious East had a fever pitch in geek circles. It was the age of robot toys and ninjas and homemade throwing stars and anime (both bootlegged or chopped for Western syndication and still called “Japanimation” in most quarters). Forget that old-school hippie Lord of the Rings bullshit — this was katana-flashing role-playing for my generation.
The sourcebook was a product of those heady and frequently oblivious times, and it shows it on so many levels. Even a fairly clueless white boy like me could grasp — then and now — that much of its contents were decidedly problematic.
The title itself is cringeworthy, a tone-deaf attempt to evoke mythic Asia without specifically referencing that geographical region. Instead, they opted to use a term more commonly associated with coded racism of my grandparents’ generation or a line of frozen entrees.
“Oriental Adventures — an exotic new taste experience from the Budget Gourmet!” Just toss in some atonal flute music and a clip of some Yuppies attacking an anemic plate of pseudo-stir fry with chopsticks, and you’d capture the appropriative mercenary soul of the era.
The decision to run with “oriental” as a catch-all descriptor for the setting had a knock-on effect that went past the title, leading to all sorts of unintentional moments of weapons-grade cultural insensitivity.
Apart from the contributions of some “short notice” (read: “can you skim this to make sure there’s nothing too objectionable”) Japanese playtesters, Oriental Adventures was the work of Western fanboys operating under the regrettably familiar notion of “reductive reverence.” It’s a cherry-picked take which plays toward audience preconceptions of complex cultural subjects, which gives the entire project an uncomfortably exploitative sheen.
Granted, the teenage fanboys who purchased the Oriental Adventures sourcebook weren’t looking for a nuanced dissertation on foreign cultures. They just wanted a canonically approved — by Saint Gygax himself — set of rules which would allow them to use samurai, ninjas, and martial arts in their AD&D campaigns.
Beneath the problematic window dressing, Oriental Adventures served up a number of interesting new wrinkles and mechanics to the AD&D core rules. It marked the debut of non-combat proficiencies, which remedied AD&D’s lack of proper skill system. The martial arts rules expanded the possibilities for unarmed combat scenarios while the “honor” rules offered a way of tracking character reputation outside the traditional alignment chart. The new player races and character classes were interesting, innovative and more than just “exotic” re-skins of AD&D traditional set of archetypes.
There was a lot of ground-breaking stuff going in Oriental Adventures, but it was consistently undermined by the fact that all these innovations remained inexorably tied to the haphazard mess that was first edition AD&D. Any dreams of flying guillotines or lightning swords of death faded fast, as combat continued to be a plodding mess of dice rolls and table checks at odds with the inspirational concept.
Want to slice through an entire legion of bandits as a blind swordsman? Tough luck, senpai. Want to deliver lethal death as ninja assassin? Sorry, but you have to dual-class to join their ranks.
This disconnect between the fluidity of the source material and the rigidity of the ruleset has been an ongoing problem I’ve had with role-playing game systems. It has been most acutely felt in the realm of superhero RPGs, but Oriental Adventures was where I first began to consider the issue. I suppose if I’d stuck with the hobby, I’d have gravitated towards more informal “storytelling” game systems, but I cashed out well before that option came into vogue.
Oriental Adventures was a constant study hall companion for a number of months during my freshman year of high school. There isn’t a page in my battered copy of the sourcebook that doesn’t sport a grease stain or some penciled notes in the margins. Yet for all that rapt fascination, its contents never figured into any of the campaigns I participated in during that era. Apart from an aborted run where I was going to play a Wu Jen mystic, the only time it came into play is when a ranger in my regular group wanted to dual-wield a pair of katanas.
It did teach me what the difference was between a sai and a jitte, though, which was pretty invaluable information for a white suburban teenager in 1986.