I am going to get you excited. Yes, some of my previous articles have elicited some emotion of state of mind comparable to excitement, but today I am going to blow your mind the same way my mind was blown recently.
I have been doing Ed The Bard now for a little while (since the halcyon days of January 2016). It was back in March when I was pumping out an article a day that I was approached by ENnie Award-Winning designer Mike Myler. I knew of Mike's extensive body of work and tried my best not to geek out like a giddy little girl. So, once my giddy girl-like geekery had subsided, Mike showed me something. It was a fabulous, gritty little campaign setting called Mists of Akuma for Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.
What is Mists of Akuma?
MoA is an eastern-style campaign setting, beset by an insidious mist that houses demonic entities and changes men, darkening their hearts and transforming them into cold-blooded killers. Oni warlords savage the land while ninja skulk in the shadows, eliminating targets with unparalleled precision and ruthless efficiency. Brave samurai stand against the horrors of the mist, augmented by the newest technology, but never knowing if it will be enough to stop the tide of darkness that washes over the land of Soburin.
It is a dark, brutal, and hopeless land, which is not what most would expect when they hear eastern-style campaign setting. While many eastern settings try to capture the beauty and majesty of Edo period Japan, Mists of Akuma takes a hard left into Silent Hill.
The best way I can describe the feel of this game is as if Akira Kirosawa and Quintin Tarantino had a dark, edgy little baby that loaded itself up with steam-powered augmentations, vowed to become a mystical ninja, and assassinated people while shrouded by an evil fog. It is equal parts Legend of the Five Rings, Steam Boy, Afro Samurai, Sin City, Warhammer, and Ravenloft. That might not make a whole lot of sense when you hear it, but when you see it on the page it coalesces into a beautiful symmetry of grit so thick, I felt like needed a shower after reading it.
And that's a good thing.
There are countless eastern-style settings and supplements out there, and each offers roughly the same things, but Mists of Akuma manages to do the impossible and put a unique spin on everything. For instance, there are two new attributes!
Sure, you can play a hero in the darkened lands of Soburin, but this is not a game with an abundance of heroics. This is a game for folks that aren't very nice. The anti-hero, the badass, or the straight-up villain will find themselves right at home in this world where the perpetually corrupting influence of the mist darkens one's soul. And unlike other games that punish you for all the dark deeds you can perform, Haitoku (meaning "fall from virtue") actual rewards your embrace of the dark side with access to certain feats and powers unavailable to more virtuous and honorable characters. Star Wars RPGs, take note. This is how the Dark Side is supposed to work.
It's not completely bleak, however. There is still something there for the woefully outnumbered who would rather battle against the darkness than join it. Where our nefarious friends find solace in the shadows with Haitoku, the pillars of light in a dark world will find themselves embracing Dignity. But, if you still feel the need to walk that fine line between a badass good guy and a hardcore bad guy, don't sweat it. Mists of Akuma has no problem with you doing both. After all, you can be a cold blooded murderer but still maintain a code of ethics and duty in you wonton slaughter. In a morally ambiguous world like Soburin, the balance of light and darkness is in a constant state of flux, and with the mists seeping into the hearts of men, there are very few pillars of purity left... and the ones that are probably won't last very long.
Despite all of it's differences, there is a lot of the familiar nestled in Mists of Akuma. The Samurai, with much of the same feel and flavor that it had with in the old OA supplements. The Wu-Jen in all of its elemental power and glory makes a welcome return, and even some of the good o'le stand-by races, like the Tanuki and the Tengu, find a home
But there is so much more!
The book is loaded with new monsters, like the Imperial Dragons, the plethora of Oni, and the Tsukumogami. And classes get a lot of love with the addition of the Bushibot Martial Archetype, Circle of Blight and Circle of Shifting for our druid friends, the Clockwork Adept and mage Arcane Traditions, the badass College of the Gun for the bard with a need to draw some iron, the Detective, Herbalist, and freakin' Ninja archetypes for the canny rogue, the Priest and the long-awaited (at least by me) Martial Artist Monastic Tradition for the hard-hitting Monk whose wishing to channel their inner Bruce Lee, the Samurai Sacred Oath for the righteous Paladin, the Tsukumogami Hunter Ranger Archetype, and the Shinobibot Archetype (which should be as badass as it sounds).
There is a lot to love, but don't take my word for it. I talked with Mike himself about Mists of Akuma, his thoughts on the setting and the major influences that helped mold the mist-shrouded lands of Soburin. My biggest take-away from this interview is the man just doesn't know his source material, he has a passion for it. That is the kind of setting you want to play in, my friends.
Where did you get the idea for the shadow, gritty land of Soburin?
I started wondering to myself, "what if Matthew Commodore C. Perry sailed into Edo harbor in 1854 in his steel-plated gunships only to find that Japan really was a magical place with real power" (historically he brought a very rude and abrupt end to the long period of isolation that marks the Tokugawa Era, ushering in the Meiji Restoration).
Obviously, the answer to that is that he would need to fly in on electropunk planes because Japan could have fended him off. Everything tumbled forward from there. With proper mages and mystically empowered samurai, there'd be a strong inclination to militarize (re-militarize even, since there's only a short span of time after the Ichizoku Wars in Mists of Akuma where peace had been achieved) for their own foreign purposes to deploy this new resource elsewhere. Speaking of resources, what a great and untapped place this would be for metal, precious ore, and the like!
Nobody likes being invaded and drafted though so there's a lot of hatred to be had. And if this is really going to be Eastern, then Americ---I mean, Ceramia--would need to be gotten rid of for the setting to carry the themes I want it to embody. Since the tech-envelope was already getting pushed forward with the aircraft of Ceramia, it made sense that weapons of mass destruction wouldn't be far behind and there it was -- Soburin, far removed from the world, gets insulated from the apocalyptic hell unleashed elsewhere.
After that things just fell into place -- of course the foreign invaders would subjugate and try to control all of the nonhumans in Soburin, and being on a dying world, the struggle to survive demands harsh choices, bitter betrayals, and Pyrrhic victories. Especially so because of the appearance of the corrupting mists that descends onto the land without rhyme or reason, making people terrified of each other and what lay in wait for their futures.
What do you think were some of the major influences of the setting?
Oh golly, there's a lot. When people want the one-sentence answer to this it's "Think Eberron + Rokugan + Warhammer 40,000 or Afro Samurai + Sin City + Ravenloft and you're headed in the right direction." (I am a Warhammer 40k junkie and got to work on the last book from Black Crusade and it was a dream come true.)
A longer explanation involves my fascination with eastern cultures, something that's been going on since childhood. I've been a Taoist (though I think the "Church of Taoism" is a joke -- just read the Tao te Ching, I promise that is its only intent, not some ridiculous organization around it) for almost two decades now and have been consuming Asian folklore, mythology, and history for quite a while. I was also obviously a huge fan of the Oriental Adventures book from 3.0 (regardless of its antiquated name) and that's always stuck with me. Ravenloft spoke volumes to me too, as did the Forgotten Realms, so I've mined my favorite themes from there for Mists of Akuma. There's even a little bit of Shadowrun love with the bengoshi (think of a Johnson that works for the government and you're with me).
Mists of Akuma is also all largely informed by what I've already made as well. The (totally awesome) Veranthea Codex for the Pathfinder RPG is my home setting (it covers the gamut of renaissance steampunk, high fantasy wuxia, dieselpunk monsters, a psychic horror western underground, and soon a sci-fi maritime charade with the Into the Veil supplement), and my last project (Hypercorps 2099) squeezed my brain for truly awesome cyberpunk superhero goodness for both Pathfinder and D&D 5E. In addition to just generally polishing my designs and writing, they each taught me an enormous amount about the business of publishing a campaign setting and really helped me figure out what I want when I sit down to make things happen.
This time, I didn't want to do a translation like with Hypercorps 2099 however, I wanted to build for D&D 5E from the ground up, utilizing the vagaries of the mechanics and the general feel of the system to get the maximum impact of my theme for Mists of Akuma: f#$%ing cool. Everything in this book is going to bleed cool because that's the theme; Veranthea Codex was all about being radical (which it totally is) and Hypercorps 2099 is about a sense of hyper (from the gameplay to the content), and while each of those is cool in its own way, that's a byproduct of their focus. Here the focus is to make the reader calmly set the book onto their lap after reading a littel bit and swear because god damn that was f***ing cool. I am 100% positive we are blowing that objective right out of the water
Why mix science and technology with samurai and shinobi?
The answer goes back to the theme of the book (see the last paragraph) but there's a little more to it. First off, I have absolutely no expectation that WotC is going to abandon the OA property. Secondly, if you look up "5E Oriental Adventures" on google you will find a lot of material (and a lot of it is good -- Tribality in particular). Thirdly, I really want to make art orders that involve augmetic-armed samurai and shinobi peering from the darkness with electrolens eyes; of all the amazing illustrations done for my books so far, the best is definitely on its way with Mists of Akuma. More than anything else, though, the reason for mixing science, technology, samurai, and shinobi has to do with the theme: it's f***ng cool!
How long have you been designing games?
Speaking generally I've been designing games for me and mine since I was a teenager. Professionally I've been designing games for 3 years now, working with magnates like Fantasy Flight Games, Paizo, and EN Publishing, as well as a veritable host of dozens of smaller companies. I'm also a fiction writer with hardcover accreditation though if that's your thing, and I pulled in an ENnie award for blogging back in 2013.
Game design isn't what I'd become accustomed to for work (I've spent three years of my life waiting tables for the best Chinese restaurants in Pittsburgh -- I'm allergic to milk and that only rarely comes up in that cuisine -- and twice as many as a laborer and foreman) but it's extremely rewarding, even if I only sleep for a few hours each night and can count how many days off I get each year using one hand (you gotta love what you do!).
What sets Mists of Akuma apart from other eastern-themed games?
Quite a bit!
First of all, it's cooler! Seriously though we're creating a campaign setting with a distinctly noir feel that you're not going to find in an eastern fantasy capacity anywhere else. My editor (a great guy named Michael McCarthy) is consistently reminding me to keep the scope of the content within the bounds of cities and to focus on the details of life as opposed to what I'm predicated to do (which is national conflict or global repercussions).
Then there's the concept of Dignity and Haitoku. If you sit down to play in Rokugan, you're probably using the Honor system from the Dungeon Master's Guide and that's great -- we applaud you, distinguished scholars and warriors. Good for you. If you come over to Mists of Akuma, nobody actually gives a s#(% about how honorable you really are, they care about how honorable people think you are. So a lord with a really high Dignity score is not necessarily a person you can trust or someone worthy of esteem, they might just be really good at covering their duplicity!
Roughly translated, Haitoku means "fall from virtue" and is a great way to understand what's really going on in Mists of Akuma: in order to survive or possibly even thrive, players have to sacrifice their own sense of self and become corrupted, warped by the same despicable power that roils in the deadly mists falling into the realm. Every game should test their resolve -- will they rise above themselves, acting with the accord, or give in to the lust for power and victory offered by the tenuous darkness that is encroaching on their world?
There's more -- each prefecture is unique and specializes in its own facet of magic, martial arts, or science, and there are 27 races and subraces that have their own roles and history in Soburin, over a dozen class options, new character backgrounds, eastern armaments and steampunk gadgets -- but if I had to pick a quiz team for this answer, it'd be "f***ing cool, Dignity, and Haitoku'.
When can people expect to get a copy of Mists of Akuma in their hands?
One of the things I've learned from doing Veranthea Codex and Hypercorps 2099 is that I want to remove agency from the process; that's another way of saying that I want to do more of the work myself. Virtually all of the promotional PDF material is the Mike Myler show (designed, edited, developed, graphically art-ed, and laid out by me) and while I've got collaborators for soundboarding, having that much control making these allows me to really enforce the vision I've got in my head.
It also removes time spent messaging, directing, and generally communicating with various artists, writers, other another industry folk. Mind you, Mists of Akuma will not be a one man show! The core design team includes Michael McCarthy, Jason Sonia, Savannah Broadway, and Luis Loza, and there's a small corps of artists making custom illustrations as well (and that's not counting what stretch goals we might unlock, which include adventure support and more from folks like James Introcaso and the DM of my youth, a brilliant fellow named Chris Rippee).
My target for finishing the PDF for Mists of Akuma is September 1st, 2016, with printed copies available before October sets in. That's an ambitious date but after unexpectedly taking over many duties on Hypercorps 2099 (and doing an amazing job, I reckon) I'm totally confident a rapid turnaround is within my grasp.
The Mists of Akuma kickstarter launches tonight (4/29/16) at 7:30pm! Go support it, embrace it, and get loads of cool stuff in the process!
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And if you would like to brush up on some of Mike's other work, head on over to the Open Gaming Store. Just tell them Ed The Bard sent you.
Feel free to stare into the mist, but don't be surprised if it stares back,
+Ed The Bard
Feel free to stare into the mist, but don't be surprised if it stares back,
+Ed The Bard
Like what you've read? Follow me on...
And coming soon to...