This is a photo of my copy of Gary Gygax’s Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Oriental Adventures rule book, which was published and bought in 1985.

My copy of OA

There is no way to fully express the totality of excitement shared by my friends and I around this title at the time it was published. In pre-Internet days, role playing supplements like this were a lifeline to kids stuck in places designed to be boring.

Right now, in 2020, it is not difficult to understand that some of the foundational texts of youth have been criticized for colonialism, racism or at least cultural appropriation. To state the obvious, the original authors of Dungeons and Dragons, E. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, were a pair of middle-aged, middle class, mid-century white dudes from Wisconsin. In other words, two people marinated in the weird white supremacist, cold war culture of twentieth century America (a stew in which I too was basted). To their credit, each was drawn to medieval wargaming as a tacit rejection of their culture in which they found themselves. Unfortunately, it was difficult to completely isolate oneself from the myriad of subtle racist messaging that saturated all popular media of the time, as I later learned.

I grew up (and currently live) in the venerable Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Although considered by outsiders to be a bastion of enlightened liberalism, such perception does not long survive contact with the ground truth of living here. While it is not the hotbed of racism to rival certain infamous Southern states, it is far from devoid of it. As a kid, overt racism was actively and decidedly squashed. Yes, you could like the General Lee but saying that you wanted to bring back slavery was at least going to get you disinvited to cocktails at the boat house. Still, when I watched TV shows or the nightly news, invariably the villains would be people of color, even if this was not explicitly pointed out. There was vocal endorsement for the civil rights movement of the 60s and even lionizing of Dr. King, but the car doors still were pointed locked when we drove through Harlem in NYC. We had what might be termed proximity xenophobia. This is a fear of people with whom you did not grow up. The dread appears to increase with the distance of the origin of such strangers from your home. Which is to say that even white folks from other parts of the country were cautiously handled. I perceived this mode of thinking to be a wide-spread default of central Massachusetts culture, but I can present no scientifically-vetted data to support this assertion.

Xenophobia is often the mother of racism, but they are not the same. Racism comes with a whole passel of intellectual gymnastics needed to justify the belief that one group of people should actively oppress another due to some imagined genetic or divinely created inequality. These justifications are encoded into laws and business practices, creating systemic misery for the target group. I recommend the company of neither, but forced to choose, I prefer the xenophobes. It is easier to educate a xenophobe than a racist, since “curing” racism entails pulling down disingenuous arguments about “race” and getting the frightened white person to accept the existence of their privilege (also see white frigility, which is another condition under which I labor).

An additional feature of my xenophobia relevant to rearing was my mother’s fascination with all things Asian (best read here as Chinese and Japanese art and furniture). She was born in 1935 in the Bay State and had a less than halcyon childhood. No doubt that the exotic artifacts from Pacific Rim that would later fill first her home and, after she passed, mine made a strong impression on her. These might as well have been dropped from outer space, as she had no practical access to people from that region and little time for research in a library (although she worked in both my elementary school’s library and that of my other primary school, Cape Cod Academy).

My parents both actively tried to fight against the cultural programming that each had received from the 1940s, in which xenophobia was considered obviously patriotic. Terrible ideas from one’s childhood often sink into pre-conscious thinking where they are hidden from notice and are difficult to uproot later.

This pattern so dependably reproduces that with some schadenfreude, I will enjoy watching the more strident younger voices of today who righteously call out on social media the micro-aggressions of their elders today find themselves targeted by similar opprobrium in 10 - 15 years time [and laugh at the predictable reactionary calls to stop this new “cancel culture” from same].

To hijack a line from the CRPG Fallout: Culture War, culture war never changes.

The fascination with (even fetishization of) Asian culture by Western people is called Orientalism. In the US specifically, there is a bizarre mirror sympathy that romanticizes a fantasy version of antebellum black slave culture called Black Americana, which takes the form of monstrous kitchen and lawn decorations (links intentionally omitted). From Orientalism by Edward Said:

“Orientalism depends for its strategy on a flexible (Western) positional superiority, which puts the Westerner in a whole series of possible relationships with the Orient without ever losing him the relative upper hand.”


These forms of Othering often go unchecked since their devotees express no desire to destroy or harm the objects of their ideation. Yet these fantasies strip the humanity away from their target cultures, leaving one dimensional “magical creatures” in their place. This is a fetish of a dominate culture over politically and economically weaker ones in a given nation. If told that a significant portion of the young Chinese population romanticized a cartoonish version of American cowboys or even the dreadfully dull Puritans, I would not be surprised.

Enter the ninja.

The 1980s were a triumph of Japanese culture in the U.S. Having dug out of the atomic ruins of WWII, Japan had built a formidable economy based on durable goods, like automobiles, and consumer electronics. Wealth flooded into the land of the Rising Sun allowing for a resurgence in culture and arts. The amazing movies by Japanese auteurs like Arika Kurosawa influenced Western movie directors. By the 80s, Japan looked like the land of the future. While the 60s and 70s brought the delight of primarily Chinese martial arts films to the West, the 80s saw Western marketers package the concept of ninjas and samurais for the white adolescent market (of which I was one).

Make no mistake. Ninjas were the bomb.

Dressed in silken black garments, armed with the straight bladed ninjato, throwing stars, and climbing claws called shukos, these stealthy medieval assassins fit perfectly with Cold War culture of high stakes espionage. Popularized in movies, TV, comic books, and all possible media, the feats and abilities of ninja were stories that grew in the telling. Could they blend into shadows? Of course! Could they stop their heart beats? Naturally!

The flip side of this narrative coin were the samurai: noble, aristocratic warriors following the Bushido codes of honor. Wielding master-crafted katana swords and donning brightly colored armor, the Samurai of 80s conceit where natural opponents of ninjas. Guided by their strict moral code, they operated alone without magical powers or totems, forever on watch against the anarchic, semi-magical, evil ninja.

Or something like that.

Of course, the real history of ninjas and samurai is far messier. Samurai were very much like feudal knights in Europe, requiring sponsorship from a powerful Daimyo, or land owner. Daimyos frequently strove for political power against one another, relying on the martial skills of their samurai to win the day. Later samurai began to wield political power themselves. Into this highly fraught feudal system arose a need for saboteurs, spies, and assassins. The ninja catered to all these roles of irregular warfare. The heyday of ninjas was the 16th - 17th century. However over the centuries, samurai became seen as bloated aristocratic parasites. While this story fits well into a Marxist analysis of medieval class struggles, but that’s not what you can sell to kids.

In 1985, TSR published an AD&D rulebook that adapted the historical figures of ninjas and samurai into a fantasy setting informed by primarily Japanese mythology. This rulebook, as you probably gathered, was called Oriental Adventures and it sold well. TSR was in financial trouble when this supplement was published. This one title helped pull them out of that crisis.

Written in large part by Gygax, the book is a high watermark for RPG supplements. To those ignorant of medieval Pacific Rim history, OA presents an fascinating world of magic, honor, and adventure. In pre-commercial Internet days, OA opened a new world to young Western minds, including my own. To quote from the preface of OA:

“Of course, schools of fighting are covered. So are the differences in weapons between China, Japan, and so on. Culture is also stressed. Honor, dignity, training in social graces and ceremonies are as important to the adventures in this milieu as are experience points and magical treasure. Think about that for a moment.”

Oriental Adventures, preface

It’s hard to know the intentions of the authors, but in this passage, Gygax demonstrates that the Pacific Rim is not a monoculture. While not being a historical-sociological text book, the ruleset attempts to present a blended culture that would be significantly alien to many of its readers.

OA is a work of fiction that explicitly calls itself fantasy and it no way implores the reader to believe that what it is describing represents any real human beings alive or dead. However, in the absence of readily available factual content or access to flesh and blood Japanese, Chinese, or Korean people, these fantasies can and did inform Western views and trade on Western stereotypes. Recall that OA appears in a culture that is already white supremacist generally and within the subset of people already enthralled with Orientalism.

Can it really be controversial to call OA an work of Orientalism? Surely, it is the very definition of it.

“In art history, literature and cultural studies, Orientalism is the imitation or depiction of aspects in the Eastern world. These depictions are usually done by writers, designers, and artists from the West.”


OA is the work of someone in love with an idea of feudal Japan who was not overly concerned with the danger of stereotyping. To address the elephant in the room, the word “oriental” (meaning Eastern) has become a lot more of a taboo word than it was when in 1980. However, language adapts to culture. By the nineties, I was rightly called out of use of this word with respect to people. However, I recall no incidents of condemnation using this word during the 70s or 80s. In this case, the word is too broad and frankly too dismissive to have any real use anyway. When (if?) you read the Edwardian Yellow Peril thriller The Mystery of Dr. Fu Manchu the modern reader may find it odd / repulsive / illogical that cultures as different as those of India, China, and the Philipeans are all lumped together. Take some hope from your reaction that the long arc of history is bending toward social justice.

Perhaps Fu Manchu and OA are not so different after all. Published 60 years apart from each other, both sought to exploit the culture of real people for the benefit of an imperialist market. But that 60 year difference also brought huge changes in technology that made it far easier to learn about the history of real Pacific Rim cultures. When Sax Rohmer was writing about “chinamen,” he had precious few reliable literary or real world references to use, cosseted as he was smog-blighted London. He could have easily shifted subject of his stories to aliens from Venus and been decades ahead of the X-Files. Dr. Fu Manchu is one of the world’s most fascinating villains who works only in the matrix of profound xenophobia and cultural ignorance. From that perspective, OA is far more humanizing and respectful of the culture it presents. That, obviously, is a low hurdle to clear.

What is good about OA is the way it communicates a sense of wonder and a sense of the exotic. Imaginations need these things. The easiest way authors create verisimilitude in their fantasies is to borrow from real history, which is a trick TSR used far too much and far too casually. The challenge for fantasy writers going forward is to be inspired by the profound diversity of human cultures, but also to synthesize the source material to create worlds that more than just thinly-rethemed analogs. A good example of this hard work can be see in M. A. R. Baker’s Empire of the Petal Throne.

At the end of the day, I cannot muster full-throated opprobrium towards OA. The work is filled with love, not malice. However, the queasy feeling induced by the title alone prevents me from giving this work a pass (and the clear orientalism within is problematic). The core conflict that galls me is that all kids from all ethnicities should be allowed to have heroic fantasies, whether the setting for those adventures is European, Asiatic, African, or American. The are so few heroes in real life. Role playing can promote empathy for our fellow Earthlings and a deeper understanding cultures. Of course, it can also induce false ideations that are dehumanizing.

I have to come down in the side supporting of limitless fantasy. An active, engaged mind is better for society than the opposite. And if occasionally this produces some well-intentioned othering, that is a small price to pay (and a consequence that I trust is straight-forward to fix with education).

If somehow OA were responsible for producing iconography like that Black Americana, I would be profoundly angry at the work. Is the absence of such real-world manifestations of ignorance and oppression all that saves this publication for me?