A Thousand Thousand Islands with Zedeck Siew
Surprise! We've got a very special episode this week focusing on the medieval history of Southeast Asia and featuring game designer and writer Zedeck Siew. Come join us on this island adventure, where every land its different and you never know what's around the next bend.
Zedeck was kind enough to join us by streaming all the way from Malaysia, where he works with Mun Kao and Grace Wong to create Reach of the Roach God, the first complete campaign in the "A Thousand Thousand Islands" setting. Zedeck told us that he hopes this setting will help "rehabilitate our imagination" for creative works and Malay historical myth.
In the creation of A Thousand Thousand Islands, Zedeck pulled inspiration from the "mouthfeel" of Malay culture as well as from the two pillars of Malay myth: the Malay Annals and the Hikayat Hang Tuah. These texts highlight what some consider "the golden age of the Malay Empire," but Zedeck shared an alternate perspective. Before the arrival of the Portuguese Southeast Asia, small city-states dominated the islands. The lord of that city projected a "mandala of influence" out from that city, resulting in smaller, independent polities that were not dominated by a racial or ethnic group. Both the Annals and the Hikayat Hang Tuah reflect this landscape.
Zedeck compared that to how many ethno-nationalists attempt to use these works toward their ideas of Malaysia as an ethnic and national kingdom. He notes that the oft quoted phrase "never will the Malays vanish from the earth," accredited to Hang Tuah, does not appear whatsoever in the Hikayat Hang Tuah.
Still, neither work is easy to understand. The Annals are obscured by layers of translation and cultural transmission. The original Buddhist and oral tales were written down by Muslim scholars in Jawi -- a transliteration of the Malay language into Arabic script -- and then these records were translated into Portuguese and English by European imperialists.
The Hikayat Hang Tuah shares a similar history. The text is both a romance and bildungsroman, and highlights the life of Hang Tuah as the model of a Malaysian subject to his feudal lord. The tale has no known compiler, but has multiple continuators. The compilation uses two distinct sections to illustrate how Hang Tuah is both a warrior and diplomat; this switch reflects the various additions the text collected over the years.
We won’t get into the depth of the texts here, since they’re both too deep to delve into in a single podcast, but here are a few key terms to know if you do decide to jump into these works:
Amok: though we use this borrowed Malay term in English, the Malay meaning runs deep. To run amok was to engage in a socially accepted rupture of the social order in the form of a massacre. The individuals affected by the amok were considered to be possessed by the wind of the tiger spirit. Oftentimes, those who ran amok committed suicide, and those who did not were amnesiac after the event.
Daulat: the divine right to rule. Malay kings were set apart from the rest of the world due to their divine lineage, which gave them the right to rule.
Zedeck and his fellows have encapsulated the Malay world found in these tales and beyond through A Thousand Thousand Islands — not in reaction to the colonizing forces that have dominated their culture, but by not focusing on “the trap of representation.” Zedeck has truly left the conventional borders of both his nation and tabletop gaming behind; the project provides the GM and players with a system agnostic setting inspired by Southeast Asian tales for all to explore. Just as each of the kingdoms had their own gods, traditions, and stories, so too does each setting in A Thousand Thousand island. Whether you pick up one of the zines or help fund their full campaign setting, The Reach of the Roach God, you’ll find compelling, poetic details to create around and explore.
We asked Zedeck what he hoped to achieve with A Thousand Thousand Islands, and we’ll leave you with his words: “We write as an invitation. What happens at your table is your table, but you’ve made the effort to at least come to my table at lest for a moment.”
Thanks for joining us in this week's episode of The Maniculum Podcast. Looking for more? Check out our Master List series for the full collection of segments at the end of our show, and for more gaming and world building ideas, check out The Gaming Table section of our blog, Marginalia!
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