Mun Kao and Zedeck Siew are the two behind the critically acclaimed A Thousand Thousand Islands and the recently funded Reach of the Roach Gods. They were kind enough to answer some questions for me.
Question: 1. First off, I'm curious to know what your formative experiences with rpgs were. From the Brazilian game designers I've spoken to -- especially those working in the OSR-style -- they had a very different experience with gaming -- and especially D&D -- having come into the hobby either bootlegged translated copies or games written by Brazilians that were inspired by what role-playing games they were able to get their hands on. This introduction to the hobby definitely shaped the current Brazilian OSR-scene, and I'm wondering if you had a similar experience.
Zedeck Siew: As a teen on the Internet I found a fan website dedicated to the AD&D Planescape campaign setting -- that was technically my first ever introduction to tabletop roleplaying games as a concept. I found fan websites for Dark Sun; the old World of Darkness games; Unknown Armies. I guess you could call me a lore nerd? But also: growing up as an Anglophone Southeast Asian person, you are primed to pine for life in the West, where Everything Is Better. So I got into these TTRPG things partly because it was a taste of an aspirational life denied me. I never thought I'd ever play. Then I moved to the city, and found a brick-and-mortar hobby shop, and watched people game. Most folks had photocopied rulebooks. I played a Thri-Kreen for the first time.
Later I found Patrick Stuart's blog. He was reading James C Scott's "The Art Of Not Being Governed", mining it for RPG inspiration. That was the first time I saw Southeast Asia taken seriously and artfully as an inspiration for fantasy roleplaying games. Before that every other example was: "How do you stat a keris? Let's rename the Druid as the Bomoh!" or "Islands with ancient temples full of snakemen pirates and swamps swamps swamps!" Reskins, surface level caricatures. Without Patrick's example I don't think I'd have considered writing TTRPGs as a serious thing. I found other OSR blogs, the G+ OSR community.
Q: A Thousand Thousand Islands (ATTI) is firmly rooted in southeast Asia culture and mythology. Have there been any clashes between your vision for the setting and the assumptions of fantasy gaming in general? D&D especially is such a product of European Romanticism by way of the Midwest US. I'm wondering how the process of writing these books challenged your assumptions of gaming, if at all, as well as how you all have been able to incorporate the wide range southeast Asian cultures. I think that, as Americans/westerners, with a fairly homogenized culture, we tend to view "Asia" as being pretty much the same as well, even though that is clearly not the case.
ZS: ATTI didn't begin as a RPG thing -- it became an RPG thing: a happy marriage between our current interests and the kind of things we were discovering in our research. The itinerant adventurer who brings peace via strength of arms and guile of wits is a trope in many regional mythistories; the "founder" of my home state, Negeri Sembilan, was a dude called Raja Melewar -- "Wandering King".
Two major ways our vision for ATTI diverges from *standard modern / American fantasy tropes* (of which standard RPG tropes are a subset), I think, are these:
1) A hero is not an individual; they are a community. Magic power isn't rooted in a magician's force of will, but their ability to maintain diplomatic relationships with local spirits. A warrior who doesn't have the regard of their own sword is a nobody.
2) There is no centre, no central Ur-City, no objective viewpoint, no over-pantheon. Put another way: every place in ATTI is written as if it is the centre. Its creation stories and magics are true; its chiefs and gods rule; its values and standards are the norm. Every community its own mandala, a centre radiating outwards.
(I think it is easier for creators from outside the Western / American centre to be aware of *perspective*; Mun Kao and I are from a region of the world that is, *by its very name*, a periphery. So we are always conscious where a work comes from, the place it is speaking from? So, re: "incorporating the wide range southeast Asian cultures" -- we've always been very candid about the fact that ATTI is a project by Malaysians, exploring and inspired by the wider SEAsian region. Our mandala, radiating outwards.)
Mun Kao: Following up on what Zedeck mentioned on no centre, how we centre. This is something not wholly gaming but relevant. So something Zedeck and I talk a lot about is the idea of centre-ing, on many levels actually, with the most obvious being ATTI as fantasy centred in Southeast Asia (with our own experience as the centre), but the centre-ing also manifests in other ways.
A thing in my own experience of visual design is an impulse to design the whole trope-ish spectrum, with the typical heternormative (usually white-looking) male as the centre. And then you give it sharper ears(elf faction), make him hairier and dirtier(wild men of the north), shorter(dwarves), and all this largely within an Anglo/euro centre.
And that’s basically a form of visual centre-ing. With what we do with ATTI, writing a place, each zine and setting as it’s very centre, being hyper specific and local, I find myself losing that impulse to design that trope-ish spectrum. Kind of like the difference between taking a walk in the city versus driving, walking allows you to see all the small interesting details of the urban landscape. Designing that spectrum is a top down driving with google maps.
With ATTI, I’m slowly walk-drawing, exploring all the small ideas that can only make itself visible by centre-ing on such a level.
Q: Mun Kao, your artwork is so incredibly evocative [Interviewer's Note: if you have a piece or two you'd like me to use in the interview that would be great], especially what I have seen in previews of Reach of the Roach God. Can you talk a bit about your process and training? I'm especially curious to learn about how you approach and are influenced by the different regional cultures.
MK: It’s easy to visualize and imagine western fantasy, there’s a long history of depictions to draw from. Not so much with Southeast Asian fantasy. A large part of what drives my process for illustrating ATTI is really a response to that lack of reference points. So questions like, What is Southeast Asian history? (where fantasy takes inspiration from) What is Southeast Asian fantasy? and what does that fantasy look like? Because there wasn't much of a baseline to work from, these questions and the process that follows is largely exploratory in a way.
Process-wise, I try to read as much as I can on history and get as many visual references as I can, and stew all that along with my own experiences and imaginations. And the illustrations that come out are like mentioned, exploratory for me too, like I’m slowly expanding that visual landscape, pushing and illustrating my way out . It’s a bit like a visual mandala that pushes out maybe.
I try to repeat certain things as much as I can too, so that reinforces that visual landscape and also becomes a baseline(or a ring in the mandala) for myself. For example, I keep drawing rattan weaves despite it being tedious as shit, but because it is a common material and motif in Southeast Asia, I needed to be seared into my head (and others) as part of the visual vocabulary.
Q: Can you recommend some good media (film, music, literature, graphic novels, etc.) that you think do a good job of capturing the aesthetic and feel you're shooting for?
ZS: This will sound arrogant, but: ATTI began as a project to explore different aesthetic shapes and territories, *because* we were frustrated at the poverty of existing media ... So this question is always quite hard! My go-to for communicating the right feel is both out of print and in Bahasa: the now-defunct tabloid magazine Mastika. Zen Cho's "The Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water" is my favourite fantasy-ish novella set in this region's imagination, though it is a little late (being inspired by post-colonial Malaya, where ATTI is squarely pre-colonial).
MK: Two films that I like and like to talk about is the Thai ghost film Nang Nak (1999) and Indonesian fantasy comedy film Wiro Sableng (2018). I liked Nang Nak quite a bit, I liked its setting, the depiction of living by the river is like(which is a common historical feature here), of how the tropical jungle can be dark and scary as shit. But mainly, I thought it captured that matter of fact-ness of living with the supernatural and the fantastical here in Southeast Asia.
I’ve grown to be too scared and wary to watch ghost films now, so maybe other Southeast Asian ghosts films depict this too. Wiro Sableng has one of my favourite Southeast Asian fantasy visual direct and design. It also has a fun-ness that I think I try to capture in ATTI as well.
Q: Finally, I know you all are busy with ARotRG, but I was wondering if you had anything else stewing on the backburner. Feel free to plug side projects, websites, or anything else you'd like to share.
ZS: As the ATTI setting zines go out of print, we're planning a book compendium, comprising twelve gazetteers -- eight existing gazetteers (with previously-unpublished extras) + four brand-new ones! That will be up for crowdfunding in 2023.