A Tale of Two Secret Cults – A brief introduction to TRPG and Cthulhu Culture in China

By Hao Zhang

There’s an idea, a saying that when a thing travels, evolution, alteration, and other unexpected outcomes go with it. This idea sometimes can lead one to pleasant views. And this is how we at Labyrinth see it.

Before we formally begin the mumbling, we’d like to notify you dear readers that we wrote this article majorly based on our personal impressions and memories, therefore it would not be a bad idea to treat what we are about to recount as a mere story:

[the beginning]

By the end of 20th century, there were rumors and legends being told on the Chinese-speaking part of the Internet of stories about a sort of game, a unique kind of playing, which allows its players to freely act out the characters and to experience their adventures in a way that no other form of gaming can provide. It’s called Tabletop Roleplaying Games.

For many of us players in China—a place that’s literally a half planet away from where TRPG was born, this was how we first heard of it.

By the end of 1999, an article was published on the nation-wide magazine Popsoft, it was likely the very first systematic introduction of TRPGs written in the Chinese language. Due to the magazine’s popularity, we can also safely say that it was likely the first time TRPG was introduced to the mass-public of Chinese players.

Shortly after that, the Dragonlance novels and RA Salvator’s Forgotten Realms novels were published.

Following this, the D&D 3.0 edition core rule books.

For the first time, TRPG doesn’t just exist in the “introduction threads,” for the first time those who formerly could only say “I’m curious about this TRPG thing” could actually become a player.

And this was the beginning of an actual TRPG player population in China.

Since the stories about TRPG were mostly spreading within the video gaming communities (Popsoft itself can be arguably deemed as a video game magazine, too), most of these early players are also video game players. It’s interesting to mention that before many of these first TRPG players ventured into the world of TRPG, they first played CRPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Planescape: Torment.

That said, due to the fact that the fantasy novels were basically introduced to Chinese youth at the same epoch, among the first TRPG players we also have a lot of fantasy novel readers. But in most cases a Chinese TRPG player is both a fantasy novel reader and a video game fan.

To put this on a larger scale, we can say that most of the first TRPG players were the Chinese young people who are fascinated by western pop culture in general.

And since then, TRPG began to flourish in China… as many of us once so hoped.

Actually, since then, until the D&D 3.5 and 4.0 rule books both got published in 2009 by two different entities, it was mostly just silence.

The number of TRPG players in China remained relatively low for many years, the lucky ones who managed to talk their friends into TRPGs mostly play in local board game cafes, and the less-lucky-but-determined ones could only play online.

Due to the lack of actual games, many TRPG players here formed an online reading habit and became rather knowledgeable about various pop culture subjects. At first it was heavily focused on D&D and genres like high fantasy, but soon other games/systems (like World of Darkness, Sword World RPG, and GURPS) and other genres were explored.

Thanks to these knowledgeable pioneers and their activeness in all sorts of video game forums, while TRPG itself seemed very insignificant and marginal in China, the influence it had on the entire Chinese pop culture is tremendous: together with fantasy novels and animations, it inspired a whole generation of web novel writers and game designers, it’s like the Illuminati society for Chinese pop culture aficionados, you just cannot call yourself an insider without stating your admiration and interest in TRPG…

Speaking of Chinese pop culture, it’s also hard to avoid mentioning animations and other Japanese pop culture works. If the the influence of earlier works like Slayers was still largely limited to the anime fan community, the impact of classics like Record of Lodoss War was just huge.

As more animes and light novels were made since the late 2000s, this impact from Japan got more significant and began to turn Japanese pop culture fans into TRPG players.

From the Japanese pop culture fanbase emerged a wave of new players whom are introduced to the TRPG via light novels, manga, J-CRPG, anime, and Japanese-style visualized AARs (in some of these AARs the characters have “Yukkuri” version portraits of Touhou characters and they often talk in the voice of Google), a considerable part of these AARs are CoC AARs.

And thanks to Nyaruko: Crawling with Love, today a lot of people among us here in China are used to refer Nyarlathotep as Nyaruko even in non-anime discussions.

Despite that many earlier “western school” players are also anime watchers, due to the cultural differences that existed in the two different worlds, the “Japanese school” players have a small cultural gap with the “western school” players. That said, fusions can be also widely observed.

And while TRPG in China slowly evolved here, “another secret cult”—the Cthulhu culture also crept into the Middle Kingdom and gained its own place.

It’s hard to tell which one arrived first: the CoC game, or the literature works associated with Cthulhu mythos, or maybe they appeared at the same time in one online thread? We can only tell with certainty that some of the literature was published along with some other fantasy novels here in PRC during the first decade of 21st century.

If TRPG is a marginal cult, then in general the Cthulhu culture was even more marginal, when TRPG was still recognized by the pop culture geeks and hailed as an important source of inspiration, Cthulhu mythos was like a whisper, only murmured in the least visited corners of Chinese-speaking Internet.

The very reason for the Cthulhu pop culture itself looking so alike to the in-work secret cults and mysteries, was probably that the Cthulhu-associated works were never (or at least just rarely) systematically introduced, if somebody in the 2000s would have searched “克苏鲁” (the Chinese transcription of Cthulhu), he would most likely only get scattered information: a couple of books, some short introductions to HP Lovecraft, some longer articles full of specific terms, and some “Iä! Iä! Cthulhu fhtagn!” replies here and there.

Of course this mystery doesn’t last forever, as the Chinese pop culture community grows and the earlier fans expand their explorations into more and more different worlds (resulting in more translated works and even original works), and as the Japanese creators started to use more Cthulhu-related references in their works, now it becomes much easier for anyone interested to get information. On top of that, we at Labyrinth even have Trail of Cthulhu translated and published.

We’ve been saying that a majority of the Chinese TRPG fanbase are into western pop culture (and they play western characters more often than not during games), but as most of them are still born and raised in China, a cultural difference still exists. Here’s a quick example, for many Chinese players, the Prohibition Era is something they are unfamiliar with, and thus moonshine and bootlegging can be interpreted in unexpected ways…

This doesn’t mean they can’t enjoy the games though, many players smartly avoid such issues with characters from backgrounds they are unfamiliar with. And the Chinese players are sometimes very into playing out their characters’ personalities and charms , some creative folks here even play with largely minimalized rules to have greater freedom (meanwhile some others deem this unorthodox).

So this is how the things feels like at a glance and how they became so. So far TRPG culture and Cthulhu culture have grown slightly bigger than they originally were when they first arrived, but these cultures are still young here and will have a long way to go to until they can be considered as fully fledged.

But as long as the legends of TRPG are still being told and the Lovecraftian mysteries are still being whispered, this story will just live on.


Hao Zhang is the founder and CEO of Labyrinth Culture
Ever after his engagement in the localization of D&D 3rd Edition Core Rule Books in 2000, Hao has always been an over-serious aficionado and a zealous promoter of TRPG. He founded Visionary e-magazine, the first magazine in China that focus solely on TRPG in 2005 and co-founded Khan Kon in 2011. The games he brought to Chinese players include Fiasco, Trail of Cthulhu, and Pathfinder.

4 Responses to “A Tale of Two Secret Cults – A brief introduction to TRPG and Cthulhu Culture in China”

  1. Tony Williams says:

    Very interesting article.

    I went to the Labyrinth website and it is interesting to see the ToC books in their Chinese form.

  2. Keith says:

    Wonderful article, thank you!

  3. Tom Clare says:

    I enjoyed this. I’d love to hear more on this topic. China’s late entry into rpging explains why I haven’t yet found the Jin Yong-inspired game I’ve been looking for…

  4. Nick Edwards says:

    Very interesting. I go to Beijing and Shanghai relatively regularly on business. Does anyone know about CoC/Rpg clubs (it’s not clear to me from the article about actual play)?

Leave a Reply