Each week, I’ll pester one (or two) of my creative colleagues with five questions about his or her work and, if I’m feeling wicked, deeply personal issues. Most of these folks are friends, a few are secret enemies, and one has been blackmailing me for years.
The worse problem for a writer is not to have enough work, but sometimes you have the opposite one: more potential projects than time to write them all. That’s where I found myself this summer, when James Dawsey was looking for contributors to a fiction anthology for Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade. Declining was extra painful since I’d love to write off all my recent kung fu movie purchases.
Since all fans of wuxia are brothers, to paraphrase a favorite film title, I wanted to know more about the project, designed by Jack Norris and currently wrapping up a Kickstarter campaign. James and Jack tag-teamed my questions to prove that, together, their kung fu is strong.
1. The big thing we have in common is a love of kung fu, martial arts, wuxia, and Asian fantasy movies. Some folks refer to them all as “kung fu movies,” and others feel it’s important to differentiate among the genres. What’s your take on the subject?
James: Jack is more of a connoisseur of the films than I am. Without being as nuanced in my understanding of the different subgenres, I tend to blend them when I represent them in my games. I think Jack was pretty keen on supporting that kind of play with Tianxia, while at the same time underlining the differences between the genres and maybe educating people like me a little bit about the differences between, say, a kung fu action film and a wuxia film.
Jack: I actually break down my own definitions of wuxia and kung fu action in the book when I discuss that Tianxia is a mash-up of both, with maybe a bit more wuxia than kung fu. A film scholar might need to distinguish in ways a GM doesn’t, and a game designer probably falls somewhere in the middle of those two extremes: you need to recognize some people will care about these things greatly, and other won’t even know much less care about the differences. Trying to design and write for both? Well, that can be challenging at times, but a lot of fun.
2. All too often, great fantasies set in Asia, or anywhere outside of a European-style setting, get overlooked by a large portion of the North American audience. How will you overcome that bias with Tianxia?
James: I think the main reason people overlook something is simply because they haven’t had a spotlight thrown on it in a way that excites them. There are only a few games that focus on wuxia and kung fu fantasy, and often game designers are trying to work kung fu aesthetics into a subset of an existing world. I think what makes Tianxia special is that the world is defined by kung fu and how those who are masters at kung fu, the Jianghu, live outside of the mundane world. That’s something that most fantasy fans can immediately understand and get excited by, and the rest is just educating them on how to recreate the aesthetics and the types of drama that you’d find in a wuxia film or novel. We also took the opportunity with creating our own setting to bring in some modern conceits, such as our stance on gender equality, and weave that seamlessly into Tianxia in a way that wouldn’t have worked in a “historically accurate” setting.
Jack: I think pop culture has done some of the heavily lifting for us in recent years, but this is a good point. Fantasy fiction is a bit more behind than movies, which means there’s a whole category of media where it’s hard to say, “Hey, why not Asian fantasy?” The same challengers would arise if we did Middle Eastern, African, or other settings.
I think there are some definite ideas about what Asian fantasy is and isn’t and what it can be used for or should be used for. I tried to play to those strength while also occasionally pointing out you don’t need to always do these things. For example, I point out how you might run an old fashioned “hex crawl” game with Tianxia and discuss dynastic, troupe, and other play options. So if the only dynastic game you’ve played is Pendragon (which I love and is a personal favorite) we’re pointing out you can do that here. Or if your idea of troupe play is Ars Magica, we’ll show how you can do it Tianxia style.
3. Your Kickstarter has already been a great success. What are some of the stretch goals that should entice people to join in during these last few days?
James: One of my favorites is the fiction anthology, because it will give us the opportunity to work with some amazing authors and do something Vigilance Press hasn’t done before. Another exciting one is the Tianxia: Spirits, Beast & Spells supplemental book, which will be written by Ryan Macklin. He’s someone I’ve wanted to work with for a while.
There are the other stretch goals closer at hand, like the Tianxia: War, Iron & Stone supplement, which will have mass combat rules from Mike Olson in addition to new setting material from Jack Norris, and the Tianxia: Strife, Fire & Smoke supplemental book which will include a new martial art sub-style, the Leopard sub-style. We’re also very close to unlocking the Tianxia Arcana for the Deck of Fate, a set of cards that will work with Evil Hat Productions’ own Deck of Fate product. I was thrilled when Fred Hicks agreed to let us license the design on the cards so we could seamlessly integrate some Tianxia-themed cards into their deck without recreating the whole thing from scratch.
Jack: The one I’m pulling for the most I’ll admit is the anthology for one really simple reason: how many wuxia stories can you go buy in English? The answer isn’t none, but its “damned few.” Heck, Jin Yong (also known as Louis Cha) is one of the bestselling fantasy writers in the world whose work has been adapted to comics, TV, and movies. He’s a huge literary force whose wuxia stories really should be considered alongside Tolkien, Martin, and other giants as some of the great fantasy of the last century.
4. The “research” for Tianxia must have been a lot of fun. Which five movies would you most recommend for players seeking inspiration for their characters?
James: We have a whole list of films in the Tianxia book that we point people to for inspiration. I know Jack took particular care in making that list to pick films that would be relatively easy to find on Netflix or on DVD. Off the top of my head, I’d point people to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Jet Li’s Hero, and The House of Flying Daggers. I tend to gravitate to the big war movies, too, so I’d also point people to Red Cliff (the international version) by John Woo.
Jack: Oh man, it’s hard to recommend a top five without swelling the numbers to ten or twenty. But okay, off the top of my head:
Bride with White Hair: I love it, it’s a favorite, and I think it’s just a beautiful film. It also has really powerful character inspirations.
Last Hurrah for Chivalry: John Woo’s only real “kung fu” film if we don’t count Red Cliff. You can find fairly easily, and in my opinion it’s the best of that period in his filmmaking. It’s just a solid action film by a young director who would one day become one of the best in the biz.
The Duel: starring two personal favorite actors of mine, Ekin Chen and Andy Lau, this movie is filled with really interesting characters. It can be a bit silly at times and then suddenly switch to deadly serious, but honestly I think that’s part of its charm and hardly an uncommon thing in wuxia or kung fu films.
Hero: I keep going back and forth on whether I like Emperor and the Assassin or this better as the story of Jing Ke and the Qin Emperor, but this one is definitely more of an action kung fu film with a larger variety of characters to use for inspiration.
Storm Riders: I know this hasn’t aged as well as some due to the reliance on special effects, and it’s a very truncated version of the excellent comic series, but I really love how well they managed to capture the feel of the Storm Warriors comic series. And Sonny Chiba is just a great scenery-chewing bad guy. It’s like how Duel to the Death is cheesy, silly, and has an alarmingly bad soundtrack but I still love it.
5. Who’s your favorite kung fu star? There’s no pressure, but just keep in mind that I have an opinion and will surely judge you.
James: Michelle Yeoh can play comical characters or characters with great gravitas. She’s been in several of my favorite genre films (including the aforementioned Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). And she’s probably been in one of my favorite “off-topic” Chinese action flicks, the wuxia/superhero genre mash-up Fei Ying (aka Silver Hawk), which might not be the best movie ever made, but for a superhero fan like myself, it really made me smile.
Jack: Oh, man, again that’s tough. I love the greats (Lee, Li, Chan, Yeoh, and so on and have a soft spot for Brigette Lin, Ekin Chen, Wen Jiang, Vincent Zhou, the late Leslie Cheung, and some others. Even Anthony Wong and Chow Yun Fat, who mostly did non-kung fu stuff, had some great roles. But if I have to pick just one with the genres involved firmly in mind? Andy Lau. He’s one of those “can do anything” actors who I’ve seen play so many different roles and he’s always entertaining and compelling, and I’ve always enjoyed his forays into wuxia and kung fu.