RPG Play Session Summary: A Thousand Thousand Islands
Posted on February 14th, 2022
For our fourth RPG session at the lab, we got back in person to play Munkao and Zedeck Siew’s A Thousand Thousand Islands[ATTI], specifically their introductory adventure module, Quiet Lake, a preview for their forthcoming book Reach of the Roach God. ATTI is a Fantasy world-building project that draws on visual and textual research into the history and ethnography of Southeast Asia, the myths and stories of the region that the creators grew up with, and their own daily experience. Before Reach of the Roach God, the project existed as a series of zines each representing a place, for example: Hundred Red Scales, a few islands peopled with monitor lizards featuring a temple where weaving and dyeing is taught; or Ngelalangka, a trade route and the regional market it leads to. These places are detailed with Zedeck’s writing and Munkao’s illustrations. Beyond rollable tables to randomize certain elements, there’s no rules in the sense of stat blocks and special abilities, the rules (if we want to call them that) are the realities of the places described and illustrated, the social relations of the place and its peoples.
Quiet Lake is the first adventure module for ATTI, an entry to the vast underground caves (filled likely with many roaches) that will make up Reach of the Roach God. Like previous ATTI zines, Quiet Lake beautifully details a particular place: the titular lake surrounded on all sides with limestone cliffs, the various people and roaches of the underground who’ve traveled to the surface and make residence in the surrounding caves, and a small lakeside village on edge after one of their goats has been taken.
Here, I’m going to summarize our session with Quiet Lake. Because it’s an adventure module, I’m going to focus more one how the adventure helped me GM it, what tools it gave me, and what I did to run it. We also had the great fortune of having Zedeck Siew come to speak with us the week after our session. His talk, What does a Dagger look like, to you? focused on how Siew and Munkao create A Thousand Thousand Islands, countering two poles of fantasy related to South East Asia, one, an orientalist colonizer fantasy and the other a nationalist fantasy of idealized warriors. He used the example of always using a common english word versus a specific one, a dagger not keris, both as an act of re-centering fantasy and countering these two poles of representation.
ATTI is what’s called system-agnostic, meaning that it isn’t written to be compatible with a particular RPG. Although it is written with oldschool fantasy games in mind, people have played it with a wide variety of games. I opted to go oldschool-inspired with it, adapting Bonito(@dreamboatactual)’s Project Shinobi Gang to ATTI, by merging it with Zedeck and Munkao’s house rules for running ATTI in 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons.
Project Shinobi Gang is a hack of Luke Gearing’s OD&D reference document, adapting it for games inspired by Akira Kurosawa or Sekiro: Shadows Die Twice. Its sparse and elegant rules, worked well to merge with the ATTI house rules. For example, Bonito’s game has a similar use of language to ATTI. Just as in ATTI, where there are daggers not kerises, in Project Shinobi Gang, there are swords not katanas, masterless warriors, not ronin. I did make some changes though, I removed the rules for armor and changed around some of the equipment to better fit with ATTI, looking towards items that are mentioned in other ATTI zines. I also made starting equipment random, both to remove a fixed currency and to speed up character creation for our one-off session. I kept many of the procedures. Of special note was the elegant stealth rules, that assume as a baseline being unnoticed. These originally drew me to the ruleset, and proved useful for our session.
Characters were rolled randomly, but players were able to be whatever they wanted. A lot of ATTI’s art features both animals and people as characters. Entities defy categorization, a cat might be a pet, a merchant, a ruler, a god. If players wanted some inspiration, I had out our other ATTI zines for them to leaf through, especially to look at the world building done through Munkao’s illustrations.
Our characters were Neha, a crocodile shaman; K.C., a mousedeer who survives by stealing from the military; a Pentakill, a failed but cocky pirate; and Bo, a mild-mannered fisherman whose boat the others absconded with, after robbing a village up river. Our characters arrived at the small village as night fell and heard a keening in the sky and a baby crying.
Some hijinks ensued as the group docked, our pirate tried to make off with the boat, but didn’t get very far. The commotion drew Iba, a villager, to the shore. In a brusk, monotone, she directed our party to Ginta’s, a lamp lit tea stall in the village center. There the village gathered, anxious and alarmed after a goat was stolen.
The village in Quiet Lake is defined by these gathered people, each with little details of their actions at this gathering, their voice, their mannerisms. Galak Deng, the village healer, sticks paper charms on the players as they enter the tea stall. Ghikri, the goat herder alarmed and quick speaking, shows them his thumb, pricked by a chitin spike lodged in his fence post. These descriptions create little conflicts and threads to follow, Galak warns in a phlegmy cough, to not go near quiet lake, but Iba goes there every day. Munkao’s portraits and the character descriptions gave me everything I needed, actions to describe, voices to do. The stats are just plain language. Lura, the Worried Mother, whose baby they heard crying is ordinary and hale, skilled at weapon arts, drinking, and surviving. She has a battle axe, and is unprotected.
After having some wine and betel nuts with Ghikri to calm his nerves, our party accompanied him to his goat shed, and were shown the spike still lodged in the fence and a trail of blood leading into the forest. Galak would tell them the path it followed ends at a nearby cave. Though our party hoped for some of Ghikri’s goats as reward for finding whatever made off with one of his flock, they decided to wait till morning to track it, and spent the night on the floor in Ginta’s.
In the morning they set out into the forest. In Quiet Lake, you always encounter something whenever you leave the village center. What you encounter, however, can vary wildly. The set-up for the encounter tables in Quiet Lake is three adjacent d6 tables, the first and last are animals, people, natural phenomena, or weather. The middle one is an action. They link the two together, so you might encounter a rooster spooked by a swirling updraft of leaves. This process of fitting three disparate results together makes the encounter table a dynamic sort of oracle, how do these things interact?
Our group followed this blood trail into the forest. At a bend in the rough path they spotted some motion in the underbrush, near a large mossy boulder a stick like thing was waving in the air and rustling. Hiding, they observed it for awhile, eventually the stick disappeared and they heard a creepy, cackling voice: some creature taunting something out of their sight. Eventually, our mouse deer crept forward with the fishermans blowpipe to go check it out. They saw a cat sized cockroach, poking with a spear that looked suspiciously like the spike that was embedded in Ghikri’s fence post, trying to torment a black and yellow striped snake hiding in a gap underneath the boulder. Thinking this roach was likely the culprit of the missing goat, they planned to try to incapacitate the roach with a dart from a blow pipe, but the dart and its poison proved lethal for the small and already injured roach.
Our party left the snake be, and traveled on to the cave. There in a mess of roach droppings, they found what remained of the goat. At the back of the cave was a small (as the text describes it office-vent-sized) passage. Our intrepid group decided to squeeze through there into the cave system beyond.
Like encounters in the forest, both the sections of the cave and the encounters within them are generated randomly. Each passage always has an encounter, meaning entering the cave network under the quiet lake is both unpredictable and dangerous. Our group got quite lucky, finding mostly other animals taken by the roaches as food. The section of cave they were in was determined to have an underground river of shallow water, fed by many cascades. As our party had only a single paper lantern to light their way, they had to be careful, and traveled (along with a nervous goat they guided out of a roach covered passage) on the back of their crocodile fellow, using an an oiled fabric to keep their lantern dry under misting waterfalls.
Eventually they came to a cave chamber decorated with scratched and black goo painted images of swarming roaches led by a great creature, like a rearing centipede of roaches fused at the head. In a fortuitous result of the random room generation, this creature Ma Blat, aspiring queen of these roaches would be in the next chamber. When our group entered her chamber, she crawled down from the ceiling, surrounding them circling the chamber walls on her many legs as she prodded them with questions about their ‘daylander’ society.
This is one of my favorite details of Quiet Lake, Ma Blat is starting a new society. She’s a rebel against the Roach God, and wants new ideas from her prisoners. The text gives us her values, that her brood will constantly expand, that those weaker than her are food, and some sample ethical questions, “What is power? Who has the right to rule? How many babies is it moral to eat?” These kind of conundrums, lead, for me, to some of the most exciting interactions in RPGs, as the players build their world on the fly but also have to deal with their aims and the conditions, namely, in this case talking to a fearsome and hungry queen formed of many roaches. Our group tried to pull a fast one on her to get her to stop stealing the village’s goats. They tried to convince her that their society was very austere, that power could be gained by relinquishing things, that not owning things like goats is a sign of great virtue. This ploy half worked, though Ma Blat believed that they believed this, it only made them weak in her eyes. If they didn’t desire any goats, well then she could just take them all. Though our group protested, fearing they might become food instead, they accepted, and offered to bring the village’s goats to Ma Blat’s cave.
Our group returned to the village in low spirits, fearing there was little they could do in the face of Ma Blat and her growing roach brood. The situation only got worse when they returned.
In Quiet Lake, an encounter with a roach in the forest ticks a timer, leading to new events in the village, keeping the tension and the threat of these invaders high. When they returned, Musun, one of the villagers, was missing, a trail of beads leading to another cave on the banks of the river. Now with little faith that the roach raids would stop, even with a supply of goats to appease them, our group quickly informed Lura, who’d taken to guarding the village, of all they’d seen in the caves. They then sped off to this river cave themselves, hoping to catch Musun’s captors.
In the caves, our group passed through a disgusting chamber where the roaches digested their own to use their bodies as tools, and arrived at Ma Blat’s chamber from the opposite direction. They could hear Ma Blat interrogating Musun, as she had done to them hours before. Using the roach dissolving acid flung from their trusty oilcloth, our group was able drive Ma Blat away long enough for them to grab Musun and flee the caves. Though they triumphed from their quick thinking, they returned to the village still in fear, having likely drawn the ire of Ma Blat further.
With that brief victory, our session ended. I hope we can return to Quiet Lake at some point. One of the great strengths of the adventure, it’s ramping tension and the way the threat of the invading roaches grows, made it really easy for me to run as an exciting one-off. But the focus on this particular thread also means there’s a lot more to explore. There’s a lot of quieter parts to Quiet Lake too. What of the keening our group heard in the night as they guided their boat to the lights of the village? What of Iba’s journeys to Quiet Lake?
I’ve wanted to run ATTI for a while, and I hope beyond returning to Quiet Lake in the future, I can run some of the other zines as well. Zedeck spoke in his talk to us about ATTI being a project of inviting people into his (and Munkao’s) home. I think that as an adventure, Quiet Lake really exemplifies that to me, Ginta’s tea stall, rendered as it is with Munkao’s line-art of its lantern-lit facade, and the five villagers with their gossip, their tension, and their small actions, was the perfect entry into ATTI.
I think Quiet Lake also surfaces one of the tensions of running these one-off sessions. Zedeck spoke to us about how when an ATTI zine is done, it’s done. And from it the players will create their own version of ATTI, of Quiet Lake, in their game and at their table. Reading and running Quiet Lake, that way of thinking, of making games, really comes through. Everything is articulated as your first encounter, the first scent in a cave chamber, or the snippets of your first conversation. Even the escalating roach raids are illustrated as a new event, not how those events might resolve or lead into each other. It’s great that in our brief session we got a bit of this, making our own world by crafting our characters in it, figuring out what the village is like next morning. But I do think the magic of the groundwork laid in Quiet Lake happens more as that process of creation and play continues. What travelers arrive at Ginta’s tomorrow night? What lies two more days down river? And of course how will our village deal with Ma Blat’s brood scuttling out from beneath their feet?