Nearly a decade ago, as a teenager, I was exposed to two pieces of media that left a real impact on me: Hayao Miyazaki’s legendary Princess Mononoke, and the Tales of the Otori trilogy by Australian author Lian Hearn.
Both presented a mythicized fantastical version of Japan, using the supernatural as a lens to draw out and enhance the cultural distinctiveness of tribes and ethnic groups that had once roamed the islands.
Both were also infused with classic Buddhist themes - impermanence, fleeting beauty, mortality and morality - and the most integral conflict in traditional Japanese fiction: the clash between giri (duty) and ninjo (human feeling).
Years later, around the age of 18, I was exposed to a game that called back to these works: Timothy Kleinert’s The Mountain Witch.
Though I remain unconvinced about certain aspects of that game mechanics, I was compelled by its atmosphere, the story it framed, and the basic premise of a Reservoir-Dogs-style blood opera of betrayal and suspicion. I was also deeply impressed by my favourite mechanic from the game: the giving and spending of Trust, which enables the rōnins’ passage up the mountain (through teamwork) but becomes a knife in their hands when their secrets and destinies turn them in on each other at the end.
The Mountain Witch is a game I’ve been coming back to for almost 5 years now: I’ve run it straight, written alternate mechanics to fit around the Trust system, discussed it and loved it.
Someday, if I’m lucky, I may even get to play it.
In 2015, inspired by the existence of a Mountain Witch hack for playing desperate soldiers in an Apocalypse Now-like context, I drew from all the parts of the game I loved to create my second convention game: To Tread the Spiral Path.
“Mythic Ireland. Five outcasts quest for a chance to regain their honour and place in society.
Five warriors, five wanderers, five exiles. Bear, Fox, Hare, Lynx, Wolf. Five lost souls offered a chance to reverse their exile.
These three things stand in their way: the spirits and little gods of the Otherworld; a druid dark and rotten as the corpse of a kinslayer; the weakness and frailty that doomed each to exile and leads them on towards a tragic wyrd.”
It was an excellent con.
I ran the game 9 times, and all but one session embodied the tonal and thematic ideas – uncertainty, betrayal and trust, the bonds of honour versus the bonds of feeling – that I had responded to in The Mountain Witch and set out to explore and evolve.
And at some point, in that fruitful void between what I remembered and learned from the con and a rewatch of Princess Mononoke a few weeks after, the seed of another game was planted.
Land of a Thousand Autumns is that game.
It is a mythic Japanese setting filled with tribal peoples drawn from Japanese history and folklore, strange magics and gods, and dangers that duty demands must be confronted whatever the cost.
It is inspired by the “symbolic neverwhen clash of three proto-Japanese [cultures]” presented in Princess Mononoke and the clear cultural barriers that separate social groups – the nobility, the monks of Maruyama, the pacifistic Hidden, the Tribe – in Tales of the Otori.
It is concerned with that same set of themes: loyalty and trust, uncertainty and betrayal, the ways we make relationships on an individual level and to higher concepts: religion, tribe and village, culture.
It aims to tell stories of tribal champions sent out to deal with the threats that endanger the precarious survival of their people. It aims to tell stories of the heavy burdens these champions carry, the hopes and fate of their people and the chains of duty and obligation. It aims to tell stories about the messy ways that people come to love and connect with each other, and how the heart is just as dangerous as sorcery or the sword.
At heart, Land of a Thousand Autumns is a game about people with strong ties to their village and culture and heavy obligations to them, torn between the demands of those duties and the human feeling they have found in their fellows.
I ran a conceptual playtest (an alpha test, to borrow Australian convention-writing parlance) back in November to see if the idea was worth running with. I learned (with total consensus from players) that the answer was yes, and learned more besides about the structure and nature of the game.
Currently I've finished a round of updating the basic moves and playbooks, and am starting to look at another playtest once I get the GM stuff for the first session worked out.
I hope to report back soon!