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Chop Shop

Bamboopunk: Three Settings

by Eric Brennan
Aug 22,2003


Bamboopunk: Three Settings

This month, it's time for my long awaited "Bamboopunk" column, wherein I take a setting that I have a hankering for, and then talk about how I would run it given the rulesets at my disposal.

The problem with this is, of course, that since I hatched the original Bamboopunk idea, my imagination has wandered a bit, to lands a little further a field. To reiterate the original idea, Bamboopunk as a setting revolved around an alternate reality where both China and the Byzantine Empire reached high technology levels enormously fast due to increased travel across the Silk Road, and so we, as designers, end up with Old West-style steampunk in a Sino-Byzantine world. Sounds fun, right?

I thought so, too. Until I was musing over my collection of Fading Suns books and marveling at how Holistic Design managed to transplant a glorious melding of Dark Ages Europe, Byzantium, and a whole ton of other stuff into a Dune-esque space opera setting. What followed then was what I'm now calling "The Exalted Option," which basically goes like this: Wouldn't [fill in thing here] be so much cooler with kung-fu and Asian social and cinematic elements?" This led me to my second iteration of Bamboopunk, as a space-opera game weaving in elements of traditional China.

Finally, the other day, I was reading the marvelous (and frequently mentioned within these pages) Buffy the Vampire Slayer RPG, and thinking about how cool putting a Slayer (or any other fighting badass) into the same moments that Sima Qian talks about in his history of China. Then my mind naturally (if you can term any of my thought-processes 'natural') spun out towards crafting some kind of conventional, Howard-esque sword & sorcery, only with elements borrowed from traditional China - perhaps it wouldn't be so hard to make Conan the Barbarian into Ko Nan the Xiongnu. (And for those of you speakers of the Chinese tongue, Ko Nan wasn't even an attempt to find a real Chinese word, so if it means "Beef Tongue" or "Skunk's Bottom," my apologies.) Then I thought I'd combine the natural sword & sorcery elements with elements of cyberpunk - people who live on the fringe, monolithic power arrayed against the underclass. Indeed, the element of dehumanization could be played up quite a bit, only utilizing social class and the ready availability of medicine, magic, and power instead of cybernetics or drugs. This then, was another Bamboopunk, to my mind.

So - you can see my predicament. Three thrilling settings, no system to run them in, and - an added problem - I've got this column to finish. The only option I have is to take all three settings, show you readers how to break them down, and then let all of you decide how you'd do this.

That's right, this is an interactive column. After it goes up, I expect people to start actually posting about what games they'd run these settings in.

The Rules Of The Game

The format is simple - first, I list a short precis of the setting. Then, I dissect what elements are key, and any tricks I might have to use when designing it. Finally, in the forums, you readers discuss any setting (or settings) you particularly like, including what systems you'd run it in, and I'll do the same.

The key here is that none of these settings are sacrosanct - you guys (and gals) can feel free to tell me what you'd change - view this as the concluding test in Chop Shop 101, and we'll see what people have learned. This is no holds barred stuff - go wild.

So let's begin:

Setting I: Steam & Silk

"The two empires spread, fuelled by gifts from Emperor to Emperor. Silk, steel, gunpowder, inverted type, heavy armor and cavalry, steam power - ideas flowed from one continent to another. Within a century and a half, Europe spoke Greek and there was a Patriarch in Rome, not a Pope. All of Asia spoke some variety of Chinese, and the servants of the Emperor wandered five continents looking for the secrets of immortality. The Rus and their southeastern neighbors profited from the great highways that united the two empires, bandits and barbarians all. Byzantium had a population of three million, trapped in smoggy urban sprawl and visited frequently by plagues and foul miasmae, while Chang'an was worse - and millions were forced against one another within the clost confines of the cities walls, which were continually expanded.

But all was not hopeless for the underclasses - if one was brave, and smart, and skilled, they could hope to make a name and a fortune for themselves, protecting travel across the Silk Roads or racing in hippodromes, protecting the nobility of the Twin Empires, or stealing from the rich..."

Okay, the guidelines here are easy - a Byzantine Empire and a Chinese Empire mix and match their technologies due to the Silk Road, and we get gunpowder and steam power by the thirteenth century. The actual years when all of this happens are left vague for the GM to figure out for herself - I mean, I wouldn't want those of you who dig a Justinian and Theodora game to deprive yourself of having them meet the Northern Wei or the Sui Dynasty. Those who dig the Komnenoi can have them rub elbows with the Song. Given how screwy the timeline is going to get with guns and the potential for steam engines, you can pretty much make up your own dynasties and empires if you want to. The one thing I'm fascinated by would be the interplay of Chi-powered martial arts with Christianity - I like the idea of a crusade into Muslim lands involving Assassins versus kung-fu wielding monks.

Looking at this one, I dig the idea of using just plain old D&D 3rd edition to set this up, maybe after combining Privateer Press' magnificent Iron Kingdoms stuff, or mixing-and-matching Chris Pramas' old TSR setting Dragon Fist with one of the steampunk books hitting the market right now for D&D. Alternatively, if you like Steve Jackson Games' material, the building blocks are ready made with GURPS China, Martial Arts, Rome, and Steampunk.

Setting II: Mandate of Heaven

It is the reign of the 550th Emperor, Lao Xienxu, and the Immortal Empire is falling apart. Three great alliances of planetary systems vie for power, while Lao's fox-spirit wife Tsiaofei's eunuch minions plumb ancient ruins on forgotten planets for the key to immortality. The Wudan fighters wield monomolecular blades and powerful chi to fight the diamond-armored warriors of the Three Alliances, while the galactic kung-fu underworld feuds and waits, selling its services to the highest bidder. The massive, intergalactic computer network built by the Golden Engineer has fallen into disrepair, with ancient AIs, the relic-races of posthuman alien civilizations, and the idle rich of millennia past all hoarding information and the keys to a rebirth of the Empire in a mockery of the Celestial Bureaucracy.

Only those on the fringes have the power to change the universe, as the old ways and the new come into violent contact. Will you use cybernetics, Daoist alchemy, martial arts, ancient technology, bioware, five-elements nanotechnology, or sorcery to change the universe? Will you make a bid for the throne or are you another vulture squatting on the corpse of the dying Empire?

Okay, the rules here are the rules for any good space opera, which are: 1) Don't over think the setting's history. What's going on now, with the PCs, is the most important thing in the world. 2) If it seems like it should be in the setting, it's in the setting - when trying to explain why it's in the setting, see #1. This is how we get techno-mages next to nanotechnology next to kung fu. 3) It's about good versus evil, no matter what else it's about.

With those rules in mind, go wild. With a game setting this epic, and with this many crazy things going on, I'd definitely choose HERO 5th edition to run it. Feng Shui is the obvious choice for you rules-light lovers out there. Alternatively, you could do a decent job with d20 Modern if you had a lot of time on your hands, and back when Fuzion had a massive amount of web-material, I would've recommended that. The one thing I'd love to see in this kind of setting is Stunts, a la White Wolf's Exalted RPG - it's a marvelous mechanic, and I can just see some Han Solo/Chow Yun Fat hybrid leaping through a door with two blasters blazing, the player running the character describing the whole thing in loving detail...

Setting III: Tomb Of The First Emperor

The Xiongnu were a noble people, an alliance of tribes whose natural aptitude for archery and horsemanship led them to be the scourges of the North. But the mighty Emperor of Qin bribed the weak among the barbarians with brides and treasure, and slew the strong, battering them into submission. You are one of the last of the Xiongnu, and you wander the chaotic China following the death of the First Emperor of Qin, harried by scholars, soldiers, alchemists and sorcerers, some Chinese, and some from Western lands. You have steel on your side, and the undying fury of the Xiongnu. But can you stand up to the power of the undead First Emperor, beginning to reestablish a stranglehold on China from his ancient, protected tomb?

This one's pretty straightforward - sword and sorcery Chinese style, with barbarians full of heart, cruel sorcerers, and an undead tyrant reaching out from beyond the grave. Add some early martial arts, some Confucian wisdom, and some Warring States-era philosophy-spouting knights as sidekicks, and you're good to go. If you need to know how sword & sorcery differs from conventional, D&D fantasy, you need to go out and get Ron Edwards' Sorcerer and Sword, which is the textbook on the subject. Either that, or get a ton of Howard, Ashton Smith, and Wagner and start reading. (Wagner's Kane books have just been re-released in a beautiful pair of collections, so grab that if you can.)

As to how to run this, I'd go with Edwards' Sorcerer and Sword, or I might actually try running the First Emperor of Qin's tomb as a Rune dungeon romp. If nothing else, WW's Exalted has a Heroic Mortals system that would be dead-on perfect for this kind of thing.


So that's it. The long-awaited Bamboopunk column is finally out, waiting for your comments on what you'd do with the settings you like. Depending on the reaction, we might revisit this topic next month with the settings firmed up thanks to your responses - alternatively, given the fickleness of the message boards, I might just look at some other cool rules element to pirate and put into place in your games. Regardless, see you in 30, and thanks for reading my monthly meanderings.

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