In Netflix’s Stranger Things, children succeeded where adults failed by using the language of Dungeons & Dragons to accept, understand, and fight the monster they called the demogorgon. We’re not dealing with dimension-hopping mushroom beasts in 2020 (yet), but we are facing entrenched moral and social issues that can be just as frightening and dangerous.
Fortunately, tabletop role-playing games have once again created a means to fight back.
Banana Chan and Sen-Foong Lim are the lead designers on a new project called Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall, which recently completed a 30-day Kickstarter campaign by smashing nearly every stretch goal set. Their diverse team of authors and designers raised more than $100,000 to produce and distribute Jiangshi. The game is a unifying and enlightening cultural experience utterly unique to the medium of tabletop gaming.
“Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall is about a Chinese family running a restaurant in 1920’s Chinatown,” said lead designer Banana Chan on a recent episode of the Making a Monster podcast. “In the daytime they’re faced with oppression and the stress of having to run a restaurant and keeping up with their customers; at night, jiangshi come out and attack everyone. Jiangshi are hopping vampires and they don’t feed on blood – they feed on the chi of a person, the life force of a person.”
In the character creation phase, players fill eight slots with items, skills, or memories to define their character. Instead of tracking an arbitrary number like “hit points,” players take damage from the jiangshi’s soul-sucking attacks by gradually covering up those slots, literally erasing their identity. When all slots are covered, that character becomes a jiangshi, a grey, hopping mockery of their former self.
“You could think of it as literally turning more and more into jiangshi or, if you were thinking about it in terms of an allegory it’s like they’re becoming more and more assimilated, or maybe enacting their fears of becoming assimilated into this new world,” Banana says.
That kind of oppression and erasure is visible in Chinatowns all over the U.S. For example, San Francisco’s Chinatown was a 30-square-block neighborhood created by a combination of racist housing policies and the demands of white businessmen and consumers to corral twentieth-century Asian immigrants. It was built not to look like China, but the way westerners thought China should look.
“Ultimately, these places are neither Chinese nor American, historically accurate or fully fanciful,” said producer Roman Mars in a 2018 episode of architecture and design podcast 99% Invisible, “but something in between, unique cultural and architectural hybrids of Chinese American history.”
Jiangshi reflects the way all aspects of immigrants’ cultures are vulnerable to being erased in this way, like a fortune cookie – maybe the least Chinese of all “Chinese food.” The restaurant owned by the player characters in the game can take damage in the same way the characters do, falling into disrepair if its eight “slots” of unique attributes are covered up.
The real genius of this game is helping its players experience that erasure in a visceral way. In Jiangshi, these pressures of oppression and systemic racism are embodied not by static architecture or old zoning ordinances, but by a hopping vampire-zombie.
Jiangshi‘s base game is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but expansions include settings like Los Angeles, written by Ross Cheung; New York by Kienna Shaw; and Vancouver and Toronto by Daniel Kwan. The game also includes an adventure by Yoshi Creelman set in a Japanese internment camp, and a setting by Carl Pierre-Lewis based on a Haitian-American community.
Addressing these issues in a tabletop role-playing game lets players experience these issues in a way no other medium can. “Because it’s set in the 1920s, we do have a little bit of separation, making things like the Chinese Exclusion Act easier for people to digest,” Banana explains. “We added the horror element because that adds another layer of separation where it’s like, okay, I understand that all this stuff is happening, but it still feels like we’re building a story together. It’s sort of like we’re watching a movie. Even though we are still encountering oppression or systemic racism, we still have a safe space to sort of play in and understand more about what’s happening in the world.”
Chinese myth provides a few origin stories for the jiangshi, but Banana has a favorite. “This Daoist priest was trying to carry bodies from point A to point B, trying to drag them along because they had to bury them in a proper burial site,” she recounted, “And they realized that this is a lot of work. So they enchanted a bunch of bodies with some paper talismans, and the bodies started hopping towards the burial site behind the priest. And that was the easy way of getting out of doing this long chore. Unfortunately, some of the paper talismans fell off their heads and that’s how we have the jiangshi.”
Banana Chan and her design team allowed for gamers to express these hopping, mindless vampires as either horrifying or silly, a device often used in Cantonese comedy-horror movies like The Spooky Bunch. “I like to think of that movie sort of like a Bob’s Burgers-meets-vampires,” Banana says. “We tried to make our game feel a little more hopeful so that it’s family-friendly and a little more approachable.”“Even though we are still encountering oppression or systemic racism, we still have a safe space to sort of play in and understand more about what’s happening in the world.”
Tabletop RPGs excel at creating nuanced, complicated relationships with their antagonists. Playing those games can be a powerful way to set aside personal bias and empathize with people different from yourself. That skill may not keep you from turning into a hopping vampire, but it just might prevent you from becoming what that monster represents.
Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall is expected to be released in stores in October of 2020. To learn more about the game, listen to Making a Monster‘s full interview with Banana, and follow the creators on Facebook and Twitter.