Malaysian creators Mun Kao and Zedeck Siew have been worldbuilding. For the past few years they have been creating a fantastic Southeast Asian game setting. It’s called A Thousand Thousand Islands, and this set of four zines are the first hardcopy products from the project.
The creators wanted to build a fantasy setting that doesn’t come from the reference points of an Anglo-centric or Eurocentric world. They also wanted to get away from contemporary ethno-nationalistic portrayals – some periods, like the Malacca Sultanate, have been romanticised or politicised in Malaysian media and textbooks for various reasons. Finally, they just wanted to have fun playing with the magic and myths of our local lands.
Sailing Away from Eurocentric Fantasy
A Thousand Thousand Islands depicts magic, monsters and societies that don’t fit typical definitions of such in the English language. Local spirits or monsters are called hantu, which dictionaries usually translate to English as “ghost” or “spectre.” But, as Zedeck points out, this isn’t entirely accurate. The concept of the hantu doesn’t necessarily imply an incorporeal or undead spirit.
The famed penanggalan, which preys at night on newborns and pregnant women, appears as a woman’s head, torso and dangling intestines, flying through the darkness. But it rejoins the rest of its human body and is a living person. In roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons or Night’s Black Agents, the penanggalan is defined as “undead” or “vampire,” despite not really fitting into the traditional English-language definition of either.
Zedeck and Mun Kao wanted to get away from such assumptions about how to depict or classify elements of Southeast Asian folklore. In the DIY spirit inspired by the OSR (retro-style D&D) scene, they produced A Thousand Thousand Islands in zine format. For those unfamiliar with the concept, zines are small-circulation, self-published booklets descended from the fanzines and amateur magazines that proliferated in the 20th century in areas like sci-fi and fantasy fandom. The whole idea of creating your own stories and house rules in RPGs has led quite naturally to today’s wide range of RPG zines, in both PDF and print formats.
These are system-agnostic books for inspiring your own roleplaying adventures. The production values are spartan, clean and uncomplicated. Each of the staple-bound 40-page A5-format booklets has a single-colour printed card cover. The internal layout sets Mun Kao’s intricate sketch art in the middle of wide white spaces. Zedeck Siew’s text is sparse but evocative.
Crocs and Cats
The first two books are settings. MR-KR-GR, the Death-rolled Kingdom is about a fabulous city where crocodiles rule humans amidst ancient ruins and bustling markets full of jungle goods. Some of the random tables, descriptions of magic fruits and brief write-ups of foreign ambassadors can inspire entire adventures. For instance, I could adapt Grant Howitt’s hilarious Honey Heist to play bear-people of the jungle enacting a scheme to extract honey from beehives embedded into shambling corpses using music and dancing – that’s a thing in MR-KR-GR!
The second town, Kraching, is a quieter, more pastoral place. The local woodcarvers who have a mostly-friendly relationship with the feline followers of the cat-god Auw. As with MR-KR-GR, there are craft goods, magic charms and secret agendas detailed here.
In MR-KR-GR and Kraching, the text reads a bit like the field journal of an anthropologist-turned-spy, sent to learn about the lands, stories and secret intrigues of the titular islands. Somehow I’m reminded of the “future anthropology” book Always Coming Home. It’s all very LeGuin-meets-LeCarre.
I don’t want to see the traditional Eurocentric adventurer parties blundering around these towns; I want mythic folk-heroes of the local variety saving star-crossed interspecies lovers, or investigating reptilian court politics. Imagine King Solomon sending Sang Kancil, the mouse-deer trickster, to attempt a census of crocodiles in the Death-rolled Kingdom (a remix of a local folktale where Sang Kancil merely does this as a ruse).
Haunts and Heroes
The third book, Hantu! is a collection of essays about the Malaysian hantu tradition, and five of Zedeck’s own creations inspired by hantu folklore (built using prompts from the Hantu Generator random tables at the back of the book). Zedeck’s accompanying essays put hantu into the context of the local now — a very real part of our polyglot reality.
Because we live in a country where every family has its own stories of personal encounters with spirits, hauntings. Scraping sounds in the ceiling of the house built in the old rubber estate. High-paid shaman consultants of major construction projects. A relative passes by an old cemetery and becomes plagued by a bad spirit until someone calls a Taoist exorcist. In Malaysia, the line between fantasy and our own world is less clear.
The final book is all black-and-white artwork by Mun Kao, uncaptioned. It’s a lot of work, the product of two years of research and creation in his Patreon for A Thousand Thousand Islands.
Our local fantasy heroes and supporting cast. Determined, muscled, poised in mid-action, these characters are the centre of their own stories.
Why These Zines Should Be On Your Shelf
A Thousand Thousand Islands is a great book for Malaysian gamemasters who want some fresh inspirations for roleplaying in a pre-colonial Southeast Asian milieu. Books 1, 2 and 4 provide building blocks for a Nusantara-themed fantasy game, but you will need to do more work to expand the setting fully. These aren’t full sourcebooks, more like notes by a visiting spy. Book 3, Hantu! could help inspire the creation of locally-flavoured monsters for either fantastic Nusantara or a modern horror setting. Again, no statistics or game mechanics (apart from cool random tables).
Be aware, there is some adult content — nudity, a bit of sex magic and the kind of visceral ghosts that will float around with dangling entrails or bite off your private parts. Also, gamemasters from outside the Southeast Asian context may have to do more work to depict this setting. There’s certainly space in the market for a more in-depth Nusantara RPG sourcebook. But until then, there is really nothing in the world quite like A Thousand Thousand Islands.
You can order A Thousand Thousand Islands at Zedeck’s tumblr account. The tumblr showcases his writing, research, and thoughts. Meanwhile, you can also support Mun Kao at his Patreon, where you can get a first look at his latest work on the project. athousandthousandislands.com is the official site for the project, although there isn’t any content up on the site yet.
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