• Sara Elsam

PHANTOMS OF OPPRESSION

From Cursed Vampires To Systemic Racism, Sara Elsam Speaks To Banana Chan About The Forces At Work In Jiangshi: Blood In The Banquet Hall...


Jiangshi - Blood in the Banquet Hall is a tabletop RPG that combines Chinese food with unknowable horrors amid the backdrop of racism and oppression. During the day, you run a Chinese restaurant with your family; you might prepare delicious meals, clean the bathroom or placate corrupt officials. But at night, spooky vampires known as jiangshi arise and terrorise your neighborhood.


Jiangshi - Blood in the Banquet Hall is a tabletop RPG that combines Chinese food with unknowable horrors amid the backdrop of racism and oppression. During the day, you run a Chinese restaurant with your family; you might prepare delicious meals, clean the bathroom or placate corrupt officials. But at night, spooky vampires known as jiangshi arise and terrorise your neighborhood.


‘The jiangshi are a physical metaphor for the oppression and systemic racism for the time,’ explains the game’s co-designer and co-publisher Banana Chan, who has previously worked on RPGs Kids on Bikes and Dune, plus board games Betrayal at Mystery Mansion and Terror Below. ‘Overall, there are a lot of mechanics that we built into the game that focus on the immigrant experience, especially with the different generations of family members.’


As players set across different generations, usually with the oldest family member making the biggest decisions, you hold the precarious balance of working hard while also dealing with the unnerving aftermath of what has come the night before - reflected by Resilience slots, effectively the player’s energy and health marker.


‘Historically, jiangshi feed on qi - a person's life force - which is very much rooted in Daoist belief,’ says Chan. ‘In the game, a player character's resilience goes down as they are bombarded with stress - this can take any form -physical, emotional, mental - which in a way is like knocking someone's qi off-balance.’


When they lose all their qi, players become jiangshi and are compelled to feed on other family members.


‘Unlike other creatures, they're like us and player characters can absolutely get consumed by the oppression and stress and turn into a jiangshi themselves,’ continues Chan. ‘But with the help of others, they can turn themselves back in the game.’


Players rely on their connection as a family to persevere, whether that’s talking to family about their dreams and nightmares for solace, rolling within a family pool of dice, or wielding their unique skills - which include the likes of traditional culture mythology and herbalism - to keep the family and business afloat. Unlikely to fight off supernatural horrors with axes and spells, you’ll mostly use vinegar, salt and roosters.


‘We also use something called Spirit Paper in the game that is inspired by the way that Fu (or Fulu) paper talismans are used in many East Asian spiritual practices,’ Chan comments. ‘Specifically in Daoism, they are used by priests or esoteric practitioners to cast spells or blessings or even exorcise demons. In pop culture, you might see the paper talismans attached to the jiangshi's forehead, which prevents them from moving, freezing them in place. In the game, the Spirit Paper is used to bring the family closer together to cast the jiangshi aside.’


With Spirit Papers, the family collectively decides on a phrase, like “Golden Dragon has the best fish soup!'”, which can later immobilise a jiangshi or heal an afflicted family member. Other aspects of Chinese belief systems and superstitions are reflected in the game’s dice rolls, which in the early stages of game development, were substituted with Chinese divination tool moon stones.


‘Numerology and homonyms are a big thing in Chinese culture, so with the dice mechanics, 4 is bad (clearing the highest rolled number), because in Chinese, 4 sounds a lot like the word for “death”, that's why it's bad luck,’ Chan explains. ‘On the other hand, 8s are great, because they rhyme with the word for “prosperous”, hence why we decided to use d8s.’



Playable as both a one-shot game and as an ongoing campaign with dice and cards, Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall covers a host of strange and creepy adventures. One story features a cursed dress maker that lulls unsuspecting kids into his shop, another involves rooting out mind-bending Silk Worms. Players might find themselves in a cave full of ghosts, fighting a street parade of hungry, hopping jiangshi, or learning about the reaches of Diyu (Chinese hell).


Alternately, you could find yourself playing Noodlerunner, a cyberpunk adventure penned by Chan, or City of Angels: Secrets and Garlic - a food cart scenario set in LA. The overall tone of Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall varies from silly, drawing from the camp hi-jinx of Cantonese jiangshi-themed horror comedy film series Mr. Vampire to serious and scary, akin to Hong Kong horror flick Rigor Mortis, where a suicidal actor has to contend with an apartment filled with vengeful ghosts.


‘Honestly, when I run the game, it is usually funny and closer to the tone of the Mr. Vampire movies. But when Sen-Foong [co-creator] runs the game, it's creepy and scary like Rigor Mortis or The Eye,’ comments Chan.


Despite its supernatural elements Chan explains that Jiangshi’s main themes are really the resilience and resourcefulness of immigrant families, how after everything they face they are still able to survive and work hard.


And like western horror flick Get Out, which influenced the game, the racism that the players face is ultimately Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall’s biggest threat. The game analyses many facets of the Chinese-American immigrant experience, most of which will be shocking to modern day players.


‘The core game is set in the 1920’s, a few years after the Chinese Exclusion Act has been set in stone,’ she explains. ‘During that time, Chinese immigrants who have already made it into the US weren't really allowed to do anything other than own restaurants, laundromats or grocery stores. Schools were segregated and a lot of the business had to also remain within Chinatown's borders.’ The bulk of play in Jiangshi takes place at the restaurant or within Chinatown as a result.


“THERE IS THIS IDEA OF THE ‘MODEL MINORITY' NOW THAT HAS ERASED AND REPLACED THE PAST. BUT WE WANTED TO KEEP IT ALIVE HERE”

‘A lot of this history has been forgotten,’ she continues. 'Because there is this idea of the ‘model minority' now that has erased and replaced the past. But we wanted to keep it alive here.’


The barriers experienced by immigrant families are even reflected in the title’s mechanics.


‘In the game, player characters gain Jiangshi cards that are flipped onto their “loss of self" side to cover aspects of their character sheet,’ explains Chan. ‘Some characters, dependent on which generation they're from, are better or worse at their own dialect or at English, making it harder for them to communicate with one another.’


Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall also examines the systemic racism faced by Chinese immigrants through its non-player-characters.


‘There are antagonising racist NPCs that appear, usually as corrupt law enforcement or politicians that we've written in,’ she says. The team consulted with cultural consultant James Mendez Hodes to ensure that the inclusion of these characters did not compromise anyone’s mental health, and that players could play safely, without undermining the subject matter - oftentimes by veiling it over, so that no one goes into details about the characters doing bad things.


‘It's also a great way to teach microaggressions to those who may not be too familiar with them,’ Chan explains, ‘or, for those who have experienced microaggressions in real life but have not been able to fully process the feelings, a way to validate those feelings.’



The game likewise explores gang violence from the era, such as tongs - organisations composed of Chinese immigrants, sometimes tied to illegal activity.


‘Though they did help in ways to build and protect the communities in Chinatown, there were times when they became subject to violence, which led to them being used as a scapegoat by the local governments to round up all the members of Chinatown, punishing and jailing anyone who didn't have paperwork to be there, which was most people at the time,’ she explains. ‘At the end of the day, the tong members themselves were also victims of oppression and trying to get by.’


Chan hopes that Chinese players will get to “feel seen” and see their own family dynamics portrayed, while non-Chinese players might recognise that the characters that they're playing are regular people who have hopes and dreams just like everyone else, moving away from toxic stereotypes of Chinese characters in popular culture being obsessed with “honor” or “devotion”.


And although Jiangshi: Blood In the Banquet Hall hones in on the Chinese immigrant experience, it further delves into other forms of racism through several different settings penned by a diverse range of writers. These include a Japanese internment camp story inspired by season two of The Terror, an adventure set in Cinco de Mayo and a Romani immigrant family scenario, among a host of others, including a Haitian-American scenario.


'Each of them deal with issues of systemic racism and oppression through the lens of the writers' own culture so it's very interesting to see,' Chan comments. ‘It was also a delight working with the writers in adapting the system to their scenarios. It almost feels like we're working on an anthology TV show and each scenario is a different episode.’



Jiangshi - Blood In The Banquet Hall is out now to print and play at drivethrurpg.com

Physical copies will be available 2021 from Wet Ink Games


This Feature originally appeared in Wyrd Science Vol.1, Issue 1














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