Words by David C. Obenour
Terror can come from many places.
Some terrors thrive at night. Jiangshi, also known as the ghoulish undead hopping vampires, come out from under the cover of darkness to terrify the living – indiscriminately feeding off of those too weak or wary to protect themselves.
Other terrors seek no such cover. Other terrors are rooted in their discrimination.
Set in the western United States around the 1920s, Jiangshi is a roleplaying game that casts players as a family of Chinese immigrants (and other asian nationalities for other offered scenarios). The game divides its action into day and night. During the day, the family must work together across their generations to run a restaurant set in a nation openly and systemically hostile to their very existence. However at night while the one terror sleeps, another awakens to again set siege to your family.
Off Shelf: In your introduction for Jiangshi, you both mention having felt frustrated through being culturally misrepresented in gaming. What do you see as some of the most common miscasts prevalent today?
Sen-Foong Lim: The most common issues I see that I’d love to eradicate are very similar to the ones we see across media: that all Asians are somehow magical martial artists that do everything for honor. And don’t even get me started on the fetishization of Asian women…
Banana Chan: It was a lot more prevalent about 3-5 years ago. Back then, without naming any specific properties, I saw a lot of caricatures of Asian characters portrayed in games. In board games, you see a lot of problematic depictions in art – and sometimes still do – while in TTRPGs, the writing is there to promote Orientalism, see Edward Said for further reading. Exoticising cultures and people to create two-dimensional characters obsessed with things like “honor” – but like, honoring what and why? [laughs] – was something that actually deterred me from a lot of games, especially anything fantasy-themed for a while.
Now, I think because a lot of writers and designers are taking the lead to create new projects – e.g. Sina Una, Unbreakable, the latest Avatar RPG – because we’re kind of sick of everything I just mentioned above but we love roleplaying and playing games, so we’re making things our own.
OS: Following that, in your work on Jiangshi, what were some of the things that you knew you wanted to get right for your game?
BC: Making sure that the characters are three-dimensional and relatable and different from one another was something I wanted to get right for sure. I really like settings where regular people are thrown into irregular situations.
SL: The portrayal of intercultural relationships between family members, all of whom grew up in drastically different times and places, is a common thread I see woven into the stories of so many of my friends who are immigrants, Chinese or otherwise. To me, that was the experience that I wanted to convey the most. I wanted to somehow capture how I couldn’t speak with my grandparents when they lived with me, but we still managed to communicate. I wanted to really show the difference in hopes and dreams of the various generations and how immigration and assimilation changes those when you’re a stranger in a strange land.
OS: Jiangshi is a remarkable game with its ambition of storytelling, so I wanted to ask three rather big questions. First, as a work of historical fantasy, what real world history do you hope players will come to better understand from having played Jiangshi?
SL: I really hope players can see how the laws of the past shape the current state of the world. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the head tax, anti-miscegenation laws… they were all put in place to stop an influx of Chinese people into North America and putting down roots. I hope that players who are immigrants themselves see themselves in the game and the various interactions they have while engaging with the fiction and, through playing the game, have some better understanding of their own familial stories. I hope they go talk to their parents and grandparents after they play – then, later, that they go talk to their own children if they have any.
OS: Second, as an exploration of nationalism, xenophobia, and racism, how do you hope players will better understand the experiences of the oppressed and the oppressor?
SL: I hope that players might come for the hopping vampires but end up staying to explore putting themselves in the place of a family who is just trying to survive despite all of the systemic constructs intended to hold them down. I often say that overt racism is really easy to spot and oppose; it’s the subtle “but that’s just how it’s done around here” type of situations that are more difficult to root out. I hope that players come away from the table with a newfound respect for the immigrant experience – to pick up and move halfway around the world in search of a better life for your children and their children is something that should be lauded and yet most immigrants are derided in the countries they move to.
OS: Lastly, equal attention was given to building understanding of working in the service industry. Outside of role playing in Jiangshi, how do you hope that knowledge will resonate?
SL: I hope that players, especially those without ties to the service industry, gain an understanding of the labour that goes into running a restaurant. We designed the restaurant as a focal point – it’s pretty much an NPC with a life of it’s own. It sustains the players as long as the players can take care of it. So I hope that players without practical experience see just how much love and passion restaurateurs put into their businesses and I hope that anyone who’s worked in a restaurant feels seen and valued.
OS: Just as big, though maybe even more broad, with a game so researched on so many angles – was there anything about yourself you discovered while working on the game?
SL: I used to turn my nose up at American/Canadian Chinese food. Sweet and sour chicken balls were not something my mother would ever serve! Because we researched so much about the history of Chinese restaurants in North America, I now have a greater respect for all of the “inauthentic” Chinese food that I didn’t grow up eating. What I once saw as a kind of cop-out, I see as a real effort to fit in – to make do with what was available – but still mark the food as indelibly “Chinese”. American/Canadian Chinese food tells a story of survival and resilience as well as one of integration and not necessarily assimilation.
OS: Setting lines and veils of player comfort is very important but is any level of player discomfort good in a game like this? How does good discomfort differ in how it looks from bad?
SL: I see “good discomfort” as a level of stress that the player has adequate skill to deal with, no matter what the outcome is. In a game like Jiangshi, which gets its message across through discomfort, in many ways, we need some level of stress, conflict, or controversy to accentuate the issue we are trying to engage with. This is why content warnings and calibration tools can help ensure that what ever discomfort people feel during the game will be more likely to be on the good side of the equation. Going in knowing what people find discomforting and knowing how to much discomfort people can handle on any give day is key to being a good moderator.
OS: At the very beginning, the book emphasizes the importance of on-camera representation for playing Jiangshi. What makes this different from an unrecorded game?
BC: I believe that playing on a livestream is different than playing in private. In private, you have the space to make mistakes and talk about them at the table. You can also explore themes in your own time and discuss topics that come up. You’re not performing for an audience. When you’re playing on a livestream, you are playing with an audience in mind. Because of this, you have to keep in mind how you represent to others on a broader scale, as you would with actors in a movie.
OS: Family is also a large part of Jiangshi – have any of your relatives read through the books or played a game? Did they share their experiences?
SL: Sadly, I don’t share many of my game-related successes – or failures – with my family. It really wasn’t in my parents hope or dreams that I would become a game designer or writer. Even though I am, by all accounts, successful, it’s very difficult for me to talk to my parents about anything they do not immediately agree with. And so, to keep the peace, I do not include them in this aspect of my life.
OS: More broadly, having released the game, has there been any reception – either from players or press – that has surprised or otherwise resonated with you?
SL: One of the things that really stuck with me is that there have been several diaspora from China over the years and we just focused on the immigration to North America as that is what both Banana and I are a part of. It was very interesting when a Chinese British backer asked if the game might encourage racist behavior by non-Chinese players. What I learned was that, while Chinese people have been in Britain since the late 1700s – my mom was there during the 60s – the major diaspora came in the 1980s, a full century after the major immigration events to North America by the Chinese. So, while we may have been a little more removed from racist events, our British customers had more recent experiences that prompted them to voice their concerns.