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James Wyatt
(Bio)

This month, the designer of the new Oriental Adventures discusses the origins of the hopping vampire, the influence of Legend of the Five Rings, and the future of Kara-Tur.

Wizards of the Coast: D&D has come a long way in the sixteen years since the original Oriental Adventures was released. What sort of research did you do for inspiration while revisiting that book?

James Wyatt: A lot of my work on this book involved figuring out what to bring over from earlier sources -- like Legend of the Five Rings (L5R), the first Oriental Adventures, and Dragon Fist, in approximately that order. When I started, L5R was going to play a much larger role in the book. Rob Heinsoo, Duane Maxwell, and I were the new story team for the L5R card game, and the three of us (plus Owen Stephens, a Star Wars designer with a strong background playing L5R) did a lot of brainstorming together about how to make the D&D rules reflect the character types of L5R. I certainly never lacked for inspiration on this book, largely because so many people did such awesome work before me in shaping these worlds of Asian-themed fantasy.

Wizards: Why incorporate Rokugan, the world of Legend of the Five Rings?

James: Rokugan is a well-developed world with a strong fan following and is quite possibly the single most successful attempt to create a fantasy world with an Asian flavor. We're supporting the world with novels and with the new Oriental Adventures, while AEG continues to support the card game and future roleplaying products.

Wizards: So, where is Kara-Tur headed?

James: I know there are Kara-Tur fans out there asking what's going to happen to their favorite campaign. The easy answer is, right now, nothing. The beauty is that the new Oriental Adventures really gives you everything you need to use your old Kara-Tur material with D&D. If you're a Kara-Tur fan, you have the setting material -- the boxed set, the modules -- and in the new Oriental Adventures, you'll find third edition D&D versions of the races, classes, spells, and monsters referenced in that setting material.

Wizards: What went into melding Legend of the Five Rings with D&D? Was the process extremely complicated or difficult?

James: It was actually not especially difficult. The L5R world has certain features in place that make it fit pretty well with the D&D rules: schools for samurai that map very nicely to prestige classes, progress through those schools that mirror the way characters advance in D&D, and a spell system that works a lot like D&D sorcerers. Creating the shugenja class was probably the biggest challenge, as it's a spellcasting class that has to be all things to all people: in Rokugan, they're just about the only spellcasters, so they have to be able to serve as cleric/healer types as well as wizard/blast-'em types. The various elemental specializations make that possible -- a water shugenja looks a lot different from a fire shugenja.

The Shadowlands Taint was also an interesting mechanic to tinker with. It ended up working very much the same in D&D as it does in the Legend of the Five Rings roleplaying game, with a few exceptions. The result is a mechanic that works sort of like an ability score, sort of like a disease, and sort of like alignment, all rolled into one.

There are certain mechanics in the L5R system that I didn't make any attempt to transport to D&D. I didn't believe that D&D needed a system to track honor points, for example, even though the first Oriental Adventures included the same kind of mechanic. I think honor needs to work exactly like alignment -- not telling you what your character can or can't do (L5R sometimes makes you roll honor checks to be able to act the way you want to), but putting a label to how you intend to play your character. In Legend of the Five Rings, ancestor advantages come with built-in disadvantages, which is foreign to the D&D design philosophy, so in Oriental Adventures ancestors are feats. Their only cost is the feat slot.

Iaijutsu duels, and combat in general, are pretty deadly in L5R. That's not so much true in D&D. We considered but eventually discarded a more lethal version of the iaijutsu duel; they're still pretty dangerous, though. Still, a central principle of my design was that I was writing a D&D sourcebook, not a d20 game. That meant it had to play like D&D, and I couldn't (and didn't want to) do things like introduce a variant mechanic for hit points that would make combat more lethal. That would have been true to L5R and to certain strands in the tradition of fantasy (whether based on Asia or not), but it would not have been true to D&D.

Wizards: How long did it take to get the book from concept to final draft? Did you write it complete sections one after another, or did you find yourself skipping back and forth between sections as you worked?

James: I spent eight months (July 2000 through February 2001) working on the book, from the start to when I handed it over to the editors. Originally, Rob Heinsoo was going to write half the book, and he (along with Duane and Owen) did a lot of early idea-bouncing with me. I shared a cube with Rob for the first 6 months I was working on it, and he was an invaluable sounding board. (My one regret about the book is that those three guys didn't get a special mention in the credits!) Anyway, things changed and I ended up doing all the writing, which threw our schedule out of whack a little bit. Three wonderful editors--Tom Kristensen, Michele Carter, {and Gwen Kestrel -- put in another six months' worth of work on it, starting in January (with the pieces I had finished by then) and going through May. I then worked a lot with Kim Mohan, the managing editor, as he got the final manuscript ready for typesetting, and then worked on it a lot more when the first galleys came back from typesetting. It went off to the printer almost exactly a year after I started work on it.

I definitely bounced around as I wrote. In fact, I was a little panicked to realize that the editors had to start work before I was finished with the book, because that meant I had to finish sections and hand them over to editing two months before the whole book was done. However, I shared a cube with Tom while he was working on his section, so if I needed him to make a change in a section I'd already turned over, that was pretty easy to communicate to him!

Wizards: Which section ended up being the most difficult to develop?

James: Well, I've already talked about the shugenja. Beyond that, I'd have to say the chapter on the Empire of Rokugan was the hardest for me. In the original plan, Rob -- who had a lot more background knowledge about Rokugan than I did -- was going to write all that stuff, and I put it off until last. I think the result is pretty darned good -- pretty comprehensive for the 26 pages it got -- but it was a bear to write.

Wizards: What's the highlight of the guide -- that is, what do you hope players will find the most exciting, beneficial, or unusual?

James: Oh, wow. I think -- and my limited experience with showing this book around confirms -- that people are going to just go totally ga-ga over this book. A big part of that is the art and graphic design: The book is visually stunning, and it makes an incredible first impression. I trust that once they start actually reading my text, the cool factor just gets better. This book is so chock full of crunchy goodness: new classes, races, prestige classes, spells, feats, magic items, monsters (more monsters than I wrote for Monsters of Faerûn!), equipment . . . all stuff you can use in any game. Want to play a dwarf samurai with the Hida defender prestige class? Go for it. Want your elf wizard to cast cobra's breath? No problem. It's D&D -- that may be the best thing about the book. And it's a pretty solid implementation of the new D&D rules.

Wizards: In that case, let's run through each of the different sections. First, what's stands out for you as the most interesting addition to the races section?

James: The vanara has a lot of fans around the office. Of course, we also have a Monkey Club here at Wizards. That's what vanaras are: monkey-like humanoids, complete with semi-prehensile tails, based on the followers of Hanuman in the Indian epic The Ramayana (and, in particular, its Thai retellings, where Hanuman plays a larger role). That's my personal favorite race, I guess, and one of the places where I got to add something completely new to the book. Experience shows that people will also get a big kick out of the hengeyokai, shapeshifting animals.

Wizards: And what do you think is the most exciting prestige class?

James: Now, here you're asking me to name my favorite child. (That's why I only have one child. . . .) I think prestige class design is one of my favorite aspects of designing for D&D, and there are some cool ones in here. If I have to name a favorite, I pick the blade dancer, inspired by Swordsman Yen from A Chinese Ghost Story. I think people will love the tattooed monk, though.

Wizards: Which new skills and weapons add the most flavor?

James: I'm quite proud of the way I implemented many of the chain weapons. There's almost a new weapon type: weapons that can be used either as reach weapons or as double weapons. In other words, you can either hold one end of the chain and swing it out to hit people some distance away, or you can hold the chain in the middle and whack away with both ends. I think that's a really elegant use of existing mechanics, and introduces a fun new style of weapon.

Wizards: Obviously, martial arts are now added to combat. What's different about this sort of combat?

James: I'm pretty happy to say, not much. Martial arts work almost entirely through the game mechanic of feats. There's a nifty system that gives you a completely free benefit once you've learned a certain number of the feats that make up a martial arts style, and I have a hunch you'll see that mechanic used in new and different ways down the line. (In a way, it's similar to how the wu jen gets a benefit from learning all the spells of a certain element that he can cast at any given level.) But overall, combat works the same way: Roll to hit, roll your damage. That's why the combat chapter is so short (four pages).

Wizards: Oriental Adventures contains many new spells. Of them, which is your favorite?

James: I have several. Snake darts for coolness -- that's the one where your snake tattoos fly off your arms and impale your enemies. Master of the rolling river as a clever use of the existing rules: You call up this wave of water that slams into people, dealing damage and subjecting them to a bull rush attack. And spirit needle, because it's all mine: I extended the concept of needle spells introduced in Dragon Fist and created a new one based, again, on Chinese Ghost Story. Most of the spells in the book are derived from Legend of the Five Rings, the original Oriental Adventures, and Dragon Fist.

Wizards: What's especially exciting about the new magical items?

James: Some pretty cool armor and weapon special abilities. I like the sword of passage, which opens a portal to the spirit world by cutting through the barrier between the planes. Talismans are a new type of magic item, similar to potions but not limited to personal effects. I love the sacred ofuda, which is that long scroll you can stick to the forehead of a hopping vampire to immobilize it.

Wizards: And what about those "hopping vampires"-- where do they come from?

James: Hopping vampires are drawn from Chinese mythology, as expressed particularly in the classic movie, Mr. Vampire. The movie's a farce, really, but the vampires are cool. My playtesters made me keep the mechanic of how you can prevent yourself from turning into a hopping vampire after one has bitten you by dancing on sticky rice.

Wizards: Tell us about dragons.

James: Oriental Adventures includes the old Chinese-inspired dragons (originally introduced in the 1st edition AD&D Fiend Folio, expanded in the 1st edition AD&D Oriental Adventures, and reproduced in the 2nd edition AD&D Kara-Tur Monstrous Compendium). There are seven varieties, plus the yu lung, which is the immature form of all the other varieties. This was something I fixed; previous versions said that yu lungs metamorphosed into other dragons, but also included hatchling statistics for all the other varieties. Now, all dragons are yu lungs from the wyrmling stage through the young stage, and all the other varieties start at juvenile.

These are emphatically not the dragons of Rokugan, however. There's a sidebar in the Rokugan chapter that discusses dragons in that setting, which are probably at least demideities in D&D terms. When Deities and Demigods comes out next spring, it will be theoretically possible to stat these dragons out, but for now we've left them as ambiguous but hugely powerful creatures. That includes Togashi Hoshi, champion of the Dragon clan.

Wizards: Which cultures (Chinese, Japanese, etc.) dominate the Oriental Adventures book? How did you merge them successfully?

James: Both the original Oriental Adventures and Legend of the Five Rings are pretty heavily skewed toward Japanese influences. Dragon Fist was based entirely on the Chinese fantasy tradition of martial-arts movies, and I tried to give that some extra play in the new version of Oriental Adventures. (In a year when Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon won four Academy Awards, it would have been foolish to ignore that strand of the tradition!) At the same time, I was trying to incorporate some of my own background and experience studying and traveling to South and Southeast Asia.

Some people may take umbrage at this, but the way I merged them was to ignore the whole fact that my material was based on different cultures. My goal was not a historical RPG or even a game to let you play Chinese or Japanese campaigns. Just like the Player's Handbook doesn't try to distinguish between the Celtic roots of the druid and the Frankish roots of the paladin, Oriental Adventures doesn't make much distinction between the Chinese wu jen and the Japanese shugenja. That said, I did include some material that presents alternate names for character classes and weapons in various Asian languages. You'll see an extended example of that in the web enhancement for this book, which is an alternate campaign setting based on a more Indian culture.

Wizards: Where would you advise players using Oriental Adventures to look for additional inspiration?

James: To a large extent, what you get out of playing Oriental Adventures is going to depend on what you bring to it. If you're interested in a campaign that reflects all the Hong Kong martial-arts movies you've seen, you can use Oriental Adventures to create that campaign. If you want to play a campaign that looks more like the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, you can use Oriental Adventures to make that too. If you don't have any kind of background with this sort of material, there are a zillion places to go for inspiration, and what you choose will certainly have a big impact on what you end up playing!

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