Gamebook store

Wednesday 5 January 2011

Death is a feather, duty is a mountain

This is something Jamie and I wrote for a series of kids' books called Legendary Sourcepacks. The idea was to present other times and cultures using techniques borrowed from role-playing games. So, for example, you could generate a Roman character and the book would present you with life choices - join the army, go into politics, train as a lawyer, and so on. And you'd get to read the background stuff to guide those choices, and at the end you'd have created a typical life history for a character from another time and place. Because the choices would be accompanied by tables, whether you rolled dice or just picked, you'd get to see the real statistics of that culture. The chance of being born an aristocrat or a peasant, and how that defined your options.
Nothing came of the idea, but we did do a lot of research for the late-medieval Japan book, and that wasn't wasted because we later got to use it in Tetsubo, a Japanese(ish) supplement to Warhammer Fantasy Role-Playing. The story of the Forty-Seven Ronin took place in 1701-03 and this is how (with a good helping of poetic licence) we wrote it up for the Legendary Sourcepack. Had Tetsubo seen the light of day, I think this would have been adapted as a scenario. And btw, if you want the Tetsubo PDF (a whopping 200 pages) it's sitting right there for the taking.

The Forty-Seven Ronin
Honor is more important to the archetypal samurai than anything else. Certainly more important than his life. This is illustrated very well by a true story - the story of the Forty-Seven Ronin.

Lord Asano was the daimyo of a very important province, but he was a country lord who had lived a life of hunting, battles and carousing with his men. He did not have much idea of courtly graces, and so when he was called to the Shogun's palace in Edo he was assigned an etiquette tutor, a man called Kotsuke-no-Suke.

This Kotsuke was a pompous overweening man who hated the thought that Asano, with his unrefined warrior's ways, was his superior. Matters were not helped by the meager sums that Asano offered as payment for the tutoring. He thought they were all that a minor samurai like Kotsuke could want, but Kotsuke was used to living in luxury on the bribes he received as an official of the Shogun's court. He only found Asano's gifts insulting. He took to needling Asano whenever he could, pointing out in a sly way all of the daimyo's unrefined habits and vulgar tastes.

Asano had been ordered by the Shogun, who was his supreme lord, to acquire the decorum expected of an Edo noble. He tried his best to ignore Kotsuke’s taunts, but as a proud warrior he could not tolerate the continual affront to his dignity. Finally he lost his temper and, drawing his wakizashi he lunged at Kotsuke. It was only a glancing blow and Kotsuke fled in panic clutching his wounded arm.

Retribution came swiftly. By drawing his shortsword to attack an official of the Shogun, Asano had committed a heinous crime. Privately the Shogun sympathized with Asano. He would not have expected a good samurai to behave any other way, but the law was still the law. He ordered Asano to perform seppuku.
SeppukuSeppuku (less politely: hara-kiri, ie “belly-slitting”) is ritual suicide practiced by the samurai. A samurai does not commit seppuku, he performs seppuku. In the culture of Nihon such ritual suicide, rather than being a crime, is a laudable and highly honorable act. There are several reasons why a samurai might resort to seppuku:

1. To atone for having done something shameful.
2. To atone for failing in one's duty.
3. To preserve honor - for instance to avoid capture by the enemy when surrounded on a battlefield.
4. To protest at the conduct of one's lord. This form of seppuku, also called kanshi, is
performed if the lord has treated the samurai unfairly or is pursuing a policy with which he disagrees.
5. To resolve a dilemma between honor and duty. One example would be if the samurai was ordered by his lord not to take revenge against a hated foe; duty obliges him to obey the lord, honor requires him to kill the foe. Seppuku as a way to show helpless rage at a foe is known as funshi, and it has the additional advantage of shaming the foe in question. In the Forty-Seven Ronin story, Asano could have used funshi to disgrace Kotsuke.
6. As a form of self-execution after committing a capital crime. A samurai can be ordered to perform seppuku (as Asano was after his unlawful attack on Kotsuke). In effect this is the same as capital punishment except that the samurai has the right to take his own life. This right was only denied in the case of particularly heinous crimes such as treason.
Asano could have fled back to his own province, but it was unthinkable for him to defy the Shogun, to whom he had taken an oath of fealty. In any case, he knew that no one could oppose the Shogun's rule and to do so could bring dire consequences for his whole family. He selected his chief retainer, Oishi, to be his second. As Oishi stood by with drawn sword, Asano knelt down and collected himself for the end. His wakizashi was beside him and his garments were loosened so that he was naked to the waist. After a few moments he took up the wakizashi and plunged it into his stomach, drawing it across and then upwards to make a V-shaped cut leading to his sternum. Then he leaned forward and, so that he would not disgrace his final moments by unseemly cries or death-throes, Oishi ended his master's agony by cutting off his head with a single blow.

Afterwards Oishi called the samurai of Asano's clan together. "Our master has been brought to his end by the machinations of that unworthy wretch Kotsuke," he said. "Is it appropriate that a great lord should die while a dog like that should strut about and gloat? I do not think so! We are samurai. Our own lives are of absolutely no consequence and our sole purpose is to serve our lord. Now that he is dead we should serve him no less loyally than when he was alive. I intend to avenge our master's death, and I ask those of you who are prepared to join with me to come forward now. The rest of you may seek service with another lord or become ronin as you wish. However, I charge you by the oath you swore to our lord not to divulge to any other person this intention of ours to take revenge."

Forty-six of the samurai agreed to help Oishi. However, while they were making their plans they received word that Kotsuke' s father-in-law, also a powerful daimyo, had sent a number of samurai to guard him against any attempts at revenge. Oishi soon saw that their enemy was too well-protected for them to have any immediate chance of killing him. He told the others
to disperse for a year. Each man was to carry on a trade or live the aimless life of a ronin, so as to give Kotsuke the impression they had given up any thought of taking revenge on him.

Ronin are masterless samurai. They may have been discharged from service, but more often they are samurai whose lard has had his lands confiscated by the Shogun or who has died without leaving an heir, resulting in the extinction of the clan. Generally ronin are viewed with contempt, but some achieve great fame and glory. Miyamoto Musashi, the greatest swordsman in Nihon's history, was such a one. At best a ronin can be a kind of knight-errant; at worst he is no more than a bandit.
Oishi himself went to Kyoto, where he took to drinking and carousing. He divorced his wife and bought himself a concubine. His son, Chikara, was often seen roistering about the town with his father, and people were disgusted at the spectacle of two former samurai of good lineage behaving in such a way.

When these reports reached Kotsuke's ears they convinced him that he had no reason to fear. He began to relax his guard, not suspecting that some of the Asano clan samurai had already infiltrated his townhouse under the guise of gardeners and servants. They were sending Oishi the information he needed to prepare an attack plan: the layout of the townhouse, the height of the walls, the strength and dependability of the guards, the times of the various watches throughout the night.

At the end of the year, the forty-seven loyal retainers kept their rendezvous in Yedo. It was the very middle of winter and the whole city lay silent and still under a blanket of crisp snow. They wore robes of white and black: a jagged pattern that blended well with the thick shadows cast by moonlight on the snow.

1: The Forty-Seven Ronin arrive in the street outside Kotsuke's house and split
into two groups. Chikara takes twenty-three men and heads around to the back gate.

2: Four men steal into the courtyard using rope ladders and surprise the guards in the Porters' Lodge, who surrender without a fight.

3: Having discovered that the keys are kept in the main building, the ronin smash down the front gate and rush in to secure the courtyard. Simultaneously Chikara breaks into the garden.

4: Oishi posts ten men with bows on the roof of the building with orders to shoot any messengers running for help. He sends letters to the neighboring houses explaining the situation so that no samurai are sent out to interfere.

5: Oishi gives the signal for the ronin to enter the house. They are met in the hall by ten of Kotsuke's retainers and a fight ensues.

6: Chikara breaks into the house and moves through to rendezvous with his father's group.

7: Having overpowered the ten retainers without loss, Oishi and Chikara meet here in the living room. The ronin are united. More of Kotsuke's retainers arrive and a general melee breaks out.

8: Apprised of the situation, Kotsuke goes to the concealed courtyard behind his private chambers to hide.

9: The commander of the retainers, seeing that the fight is going in the ronin's
favour, sends a runner to bring help from Uyesugi, Kotsuke's father-in-law. The man is picked off by the archers stationed on the roof before he is halfway across the garden.

10: Kotsuke's three best retainers, Kobayashi, Waku and Shimidzu, emerge from the private chambers and beat the ronin back. Infuriated by the delay, Oishi sends in Chikara for a personal duel with Waku. Chikara is driven back into the garden but manages to overcome Waku in the end. The other ronin charge forward and overpower Kobayashi and Shimidzu.

11: With the house now secured, the ronin find no sign of Kotsuke in his personal chamber. They commence a search of the house from top to bottom, but to no avail.

12: Finally the ronin find a gap in the wall behind the tokonoma alcove. Yazama Jintaro enters the hidden courtyard and finds Kotsuke quailing there. He is dragged into the house and invited to perform seppuku, but refuses even now to acknowledge his guilt. Eventually Oishi executes him by stabbing him through the heart with his shortsword. His head is cut off and the ronin leave to go to Sengakuji temple.
The aftermath

The details of the ronin's attack are given on the map of Kotsuke's house. After capturing their enemy they invited him to perform seppuku, but he lacked the courage to do so. Eventually the ronin stabbed him to death and took his head to Sengakuji temple. They were widely lauded as heroes, and the Shogun himself was said to express his admiration of their loyalty, but everyone knew that their fate was sealed. Vendettas were illegal, and within a month the ronin received the judgment they had expected.

Oishi gathered them together and addressed them for the last time. "We have avenged our lord's death," he said. "This was the whole reason for our remaining in this world. Now that we have done as duty and loyalty demands, our continued existence has no purpose. We have heard the Shogun's decree; we will now join our lord."

The ronin performed seppuku together, and their graves can still be seen to this day by any visitor to Sengakuji temple. Kotsuke’s son came to collect his father’s head, and the receipt he gave the priests of Sengakuji still exists. It reads:

MEMORANDUM to the priests deputed from the Temple Sengakuji: His Reverence
Sekishi and His Reverence Ichidon.
The above articles are acknowledged to have been received.
Sayada Magobei and Saito Kunai

OnAn on is an obligation or burden of shame. A samurai who acquires too great an on has no choice but to expiate it with seppuku. One night while Oishi was playing the drunken wastrel to confound Kotsuke's spies, a samurai from Satsuma province came across him lying in a drunken stupor by the roadside. Outraged, he spat on Oishi, cursing him for choosing a coward's life instead of upholding the ways of the Buke - the warrior class. A year later, upon hearing of the actions of the Forty-Seven Ronin, he felt he had incurred an unbearable on through his hasty judgment of the faithful Oishi. He went to the grave of Oishi where he performed seppuku as a sign of his contrition, and he was buried alongside the ronin.


  1. Interesting - a shame the Legendary Sourcepacks never saw the light of day.
    I remember how suspicious my teachers were when they saw how much fun myself and my peers would have reading Fighting Fantasy or similar... They questioned how wholesome a book could possibly be that created so much delight and discussion so quickly, but I think the historical (not to mention literary) value in something like the Legendary Sourcepacks would have been quite convincing!

  2. Some years later, Leo Hartas and I tried to sell the board of Dorling Kindersley on the idea of revamping their rather twee 'n dusty edutainment line. We felt that educational and entertaining didn't have to be opposite poles. Most of the board would've gone for it, too, but the retiring chairman thought the best way to rejuvenate DK would be a return to their '80s founding principles - lol. On this subject I'm with Plutarch, who said: "The mind is not a vessel to be filled. It is a fire to be lit."

  3. I know this is offtopic, but have you thought about releasing the books to a Android Operative System so i can play Fabled Lands on the go in a tablet? That would be awesome.

    Also i would like to know if the sales of the first 4 books are going well and if more are going to be republished? :) Thanks

  4. Hi Davide - I guess we'll see how the iPad game sells. A version for Android OS would be next on the list. We're also looking into the posibility of Blood Sword being turned into an iOS game. More on that if and when...

    The books are doing pretty well, but we need to sell a lot more to continue the series. If they keep on selling for another 6-8 months at the same rate as they have been, we should get the green light to continue. But we really need to get some reviews out there on blogs and websites. The reviews we've been getting on Amazon are great, but those only target people who've already heard of the books. We need to attract new readers. These next 6 months will be make or break for the FL series.

  5. Coincidentally, Keanu Reeves is about to start filming a Hollywood version, in 3D. One is not hopeful.

  6. You're right, Jon - the mind boggles. There's an amusing (and probably accurate) preview of what it'll be like here:

  7. Pretty interesting story yet for some reason, I've never really been fascinated by the whole Japanese culture/mythology (unlike seemingly everyone else).

  8. I know what you mean, Hamza. I'm mostly interested in Heian Japan, which predates samurai and all the other baggage most people seem to love. My pet hate in all that stuff is ninja, which were pretty much invented by James Clavell in Shogun. The notion that there used to be medieval villages where people practised creeping across creaky floors, or hiding in the bushes wearing black pyjamas, is not only laughable, it's stultifyingly boring. Jamie and I had to include ninja in Tetsubo because it was being written originally for Games Workshop, but I made sure that our ninja were solitary wizard-tricksters rather than SAS types.

  9. If you ever want to try releasing the Legendary Source packs again, you might want to take a look at the homeschooling market. It's not as large, but this is exactly the sort of thing that would sell well, in my opinion. And word of mouth travels fast with those folks.

  10. That's a very smart idea, Drackler. It's a project that Jamie and I would like to work on, so maybe we'll look into that.