Chatting with Noisms, author of Yoon-Suin

I had the pleasure of interviewing noisms who recently self-published a campaign setting of languid prose and exotic curiosities known as Yoon-Suin the Purple Land. Sadly, it was not over tea and opium. Here is my impressionistic review. This is his blog.


How is Yoon-Suin supposed to be pronounced?

I’m not sure how to use the phonetic alphabet but I suppose like “Yoon Soo-in”.

When I google the title of your book, Yoon-Suin, I also get a Korean jazz singer named Na Yoon-sun. Any relation? Tell me how you came up with the title and what it means to you?

No relation whatsoever, but I’ve also noticed the occasional Korean person making an appearance when googling the book. The title has no real meaning and I’m honestly not sure how I came up with it. I think it just popped into my head one day and I liked it. It sounds a place where slug-men would live, don’t you think?

Did it take you 5 years fully realize Yoon-Suin? What was your thought process during the writing process? Were you confident in its completion or were there moments you never thought it would come to fruition?

It did take about 5-6 years total, but that’s a bit misleading because at the beginning it was just additions to an existing campaign setting (the Mountains of the Moon is the oldest thing in the book and a place where I was already running games; the rest of Yoon-Suin was something I sort of tacked-on to that). Then subsequent to that it was just a campaign setting I was detailing for games and for my own personal enjoyment. I began really working on it in earnest as something to be published probably in 2011 or so. I made a kind of bet with a good friend and it snowballed from there.

I definitely had moments where I lost focus but I don’t think I ever doubted I’d finish it eventually. At the same time I was working on it I managed to finish a PhD thesis, and that taught me a lot about getting big projects done: you just have to keep writing and writing and writing and in the end you finish. There’s no other way, and 99% of achieving anything is through work. That’s all.

What had you written before this, either in regards to tabletop roleplaying or other writing?

Nothing roleplaying related - with the big caveat that I have been blogging regularly since 2008 and have written getting on for 1000 entries. I think blogging is good writing practice; just the discipline of plugging away and trying to be concise and interesting on a more-or-less daily basis. When I was a youngster I was a frustrated fantasy novelist if you can count that? Otherwise, academic articles and academic work in general.

Tell us how you were introduced to RPGs.

I can’t really remember exactly, because I was playing/reading Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and Warhammer before the age of 10, and I would class those as being introductory to RPGs as a sort of gateway drug. I also read the Advanced Fighting Fantasy books, which were a rudimentary RPG of sorts, at a very young age, although I didn’t play them much. (I mainly played the mass battle rules, which make for quite a nice little rules-lite war game). I recall the first session of D&D I played vividly: it was red box basic and I was a Halfling. My friend’s older brother was the DM and we entered a dungeon; more or less the first room we entered contained a red dragon. We spent a considerable period trying to negotiate with it, and then it breathed fire on us and killed us. I don’t think there was ever going to be any other outcome. It’s interesting I carried on with the hobby, in retrospect…

Describe your roleplaying life from then until the present.

Like many people active in the hobby I played a heck of a lot during my teenage years and then fell away from it. Between the ages of about 12 to 17 every weekend and most weekday nights my friends and I played either Warhammer Fantasy Battle or 40k and variants, or an RPG. The RPGs we played were primarily Shadowrun and Cyberpunk 2020, but we played a lot of D&D too, mostly 2nd edition, plus Call of Cthulhu, Earthdawn and Rolemaster/MERP and other RPGs which were popular at the time.

I stopped playing RPGs in my late teens and when I went away to university and then subsequently moved to Japan. I got back into them in my mid-late twenties, primarily through PBEM games and then face-to-face.

What authors, TV shows, movies, and other gaming products have influenced your writing and creative process?

Difficult to say because I’m sure there are many influences I can’t even name, but here goes.

First, in the fantasy genre, The Lord of the Rings and Tolkien’s other work should really go without saying. Although you might not see the influence directly in Yoon-Suin it’s influential conceptually because of the way Tolkien strove to create a coherent world - not just in terms of geography and culture and language but also thematically. The themes of his work (loss, ageing, fate, destiny, decline, etc.) are imbued in all of it and it’s something his imitators have all really failed to grasp. They get the furniture (elves, dwarves, orcs, wizards) but not the fact that there are such strong underlying thematic elements.

After him, then definitely M. John Harrison’s Viricionium books and short stories (see below) and China Mieville’s Bas Lag books: both of those authors, either consciously or unconsciously, recognised that Tolkien’s achievement was not creating a world with elves and orcs in it, but creating another, mythic world which actually expressed something. That idea of a fictional world making thematic sense as well as nuts-and-bolts sense has really stuck with me and I tried to make sure Yoon-Suin also does that.

Also George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which I first started reading way back in the day (must have been 1999 or 2000 or so) and which more than anything else shows how important characters are: everybody, every single last NPC in any game, even those who appear randomly and you make up on the spot, should have goals and desires and interests. If you can make sure that happens games almost run themselves - because any chance encounter with an NPC can become an adventure or a tangent or a reason to do something.

Then there’s Warhammer, which is superficially like Tolkien’s work but also really warped and twisted and different - and again which has strong underlying themes, which are radically different from Tolkien’s…although also oddly similar.

And I’d have to include John Blanche’s artwork for Warhammer and also the Fighting Fantasy books like the Sorcery! series. The Sorcery! books had a huge effect on me as a kid, and I put it down in large part to John Blanche’s art. It’s just so unusual and characterful and strange: it gives you this real sense of distance and oddness that makes your mind wander to other things that are distant and odd.

Outside the fantasy genre, Noble House by James Clavell may be my favourite book. A huge doorstop that must be 1500 pages long, all set in one city, Hong Kong, and making the city of Hong Kong almost a character itself. I love that and I think it definitely influenced my ideas about the Yellow City. The thought that a city is not just a setting but some living breathing entity that generates stories all by itself.

David Simon’s Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets and The Corner. Nonfiction books which reinforce that sense that everybody is a person, everybody has motives, everybody has goals: that real life is impossibly rich and varied and if you’re serious about creating a fictional world you need to recognise that.

I could go on forever but I’ll stop before I get carried away.

What overall effect were you hoping to achieve with Yoon-Suin and do you think you achieved it?

I was hoping to basically create a setting of genuine ‘otherness’ that made sense on its own terms and wasn’t beholden to any pre-existing tropes. And was also thematically unified. I think I have achieved that to a degree, but obviously readers can make their own minds up about that!

Yoon-Suin either contains or is (part of) some kind of "yellow city". Was Robert W. Chambers, Lovecraft, or the old school gaming book Carcosa an inspiration for your yellow city?

Not really, no. I would say that the drive to have this big, core city came from other work that I admire: like the role Sigil plays in the old 2nd edition Planescape campaign setting, or Hong Kong does in Noble House, or Viriconum in the Viriconium books. More than just a place: an extra character.

The name “Yellow City” comes, again, from me ripping off Tolkien. If you look at The Hobbit in particular you’ll notice that Tolkien used very simple and evocative names: Laketown, River Running, Mirkwood, etc. The names mean something. That’s because he knew that in real life, place names mean things. They’re not just nonsense words. “Yellow City” sounds much more evocative than “Yagahamabay” or whatever, because it conjures an instant image in the mind: a city of yellow.

That said, I did of course know The King in Yellow and read a lot of Lovecraft, and I’m sure that influenced the choice of colour in some unconscious way! There may be some Lovecraftian influences in Yoon-Suin in general, although the horror writers I like tend to be those who write more traditional ghost stories (M. R James and Ramsay Campbell’s non-Lovecraftian work) or more conceptual stuff like Thomas Ligotti’s short fiction.

How influential has real world Asia and similar exotic lands been in the making of Yoon-Suin?

Part of the idea behind the Mountains of the Moon, which as I said earlier was the first area of Yoon-Suin to come into being, was that I started to wonder why I’d never come across a fantasy Tibet or fantasy Nepal. The Mountains of the Moon were a kind of fantasy Himalayas. So Yoon-Suin is very, very loosely based on that region of Asia, plus Northern India, Bangladesh and Burma. But I always say it’s only based on that region of the world insofar as the Forgotten Realms is based on Europe. There’s no sense it’s supposed to be an accurate portrayal. If anything it is more based on an orientalist’s view of Asia than Asia itself. It’s like what some European from the Middle Ages who was asked to imagine Asia would think of.

I’m a fan of orientalism and I think it gets a bad rap, mainly because for some reason Westerners are squeamish about being culturally insensitive. It’s interesting that never bothers Asians, who quite merrily produce works of fiction which are quasi-Western in tone (occidentalist?). The crucial point is that orientalism doesn’t have to mean creating a fantasy Japan or a fantasy China. It can be much richer than that: just a different approach to fantasy worlds that is inspired by different cultural perspectives or geographies.

How many players have been through your campaign setting altogether?

Probably a dozen or so all told who I have been actual DM for.

Why a toolkit for Game Masters to create their own Yoon-Suin rather than your specific, detailed, "canon" Yoon-Suin?

Partly for practical reasons: I know I never use campaign settings as written, and I doubt many DMs do. Partly also because I hate the idea that you have this setting and it becomes canonical and people come to obsess over the details, like what such-and-such an NPC ate for breakfast a week last Wednesday. That ties into meta-plot, which I am always suspicious of.

But mainly because I like M. John Harrison’s concept of Viriconium as a place that is always thematically the same or similar, but which in each story morphs into something slightly different. In every story, the city of Viriconium is recognisably Viriconium, and the characters are similar archetypes, and yet it is different. It’s like the reader never sees the real Viriconium, but perceives it through a different lens in each story. I wanted to capture some of that: everybody who has the book has their own lens through which Yoon-Suin is viewed, but the real Yoon-Suin is something that nobody can ever truly see. That sounds a bit pretentious but I like the idea nonetheless.

Did you do the book's layout yourself?

Yes, and it was hellish! I did it all in Word, because I didn’t know any better, but I will never do that again. Just weeks of painstaking effort, frustration, and boredom. There is without question a big gap in the market for easy and usable layout software that is better at it than Word but not as complicated or intimidating as InDesign.

Where did the artwork come from and what can you tell us about that aspect of the book?

The artwork was basically entirely done by the Australian artist Matthew Adams. I advertised on G+ for people to help do the art, and he was one of the first to send me something; I instantly thought his look was a great fit. It’s like nothing that exists in any other RPG, and I love the sense of whimsy about his pieces. It reminds me a lot of Quentin Blake, although somebody on G+ called it “Shel Shilverstein on mescaline”.

In general I’m not a fan of realist fantasy art. For me fantasy isn’t about realism; it’s about stimulating the imagination. I’m much more interested in looking at a picture which immerses me in a world or a feeling than I am in looking at something which seems to accurately portray how a dragon’s muscles ought to look or whatever.

At any point did you try to publish your book through an established OSR publisher or similar outlet?

No. I wanted complete creative control over the final product, for good or ill.

It's 324 pages! Why tackle something of this size?

To be honest it just turned out that way! I had all these notes, and started committing them to a Word document. And then as time went on I kept on coming up with more and more. Believe it or not 324 pages was me reining myself in. I could have gone on indefinitely. And there was a definite point at which I told myself I had the final draft and I needed to stop.

I’m not sure whether I have this in common with other ‘creative people’ (God, I hate that term) but the problem for me is never coming up with ideas. I can do that forever and ever. The problem is creating a coherent, final thing.

Speaking of size... the book is printed in unorthodox landscape format at 9" wide by 7" tall, correct? What was the reasoning behind that?

Two reasons. The first is that the book is mostly tables (as you may have noticed) and random tables work best with plenty of columns - which usually makes them very wide. And if your book is more tables than text, so to speak, then it makes more sense for the book to be a table-friendly format. That meant one that was wide enough to accommodate wide tables.

But also, I like the way landscape books flip. There is something very pleasing about it. It may not be particularly practical, and it may look awkward on the book shelf, but I really enjoy browsing through the final product as a physical sensation.

So far, what has the response been regarding Yoon-Suin?

Very positive. Sales are much better than I was expecting (although I’m not sure I knew what to expect) and there has been quite a lot of buzz. Initial reviews have been excellent, and people seem to ‘get’ it - or at least, a sizeable portion do. Of course, it takes a while to read and digest a 324 page book, even one which has a lot of tables, so I don’t expect actual weighty critical engagement with it for a while yet (if ever).

What are you planning next, if anything?

I am definitely planning something. I have a number of ideas but at the moment the one I am most interested in exploring is called something along the lines of “Relics of Cartography” and is based on the Borges short story (micro-fiction piece really) “On Exactitude in Science”. It’s more of a real-world affair - I’m thinking post-reconquista era Spain and Portugal for some reason - and involves huge maps. By which I mean maps which are so physically huge they can actually be entered and explored and adventured in in their own right. Watch this space.


Interview conducted by Venger Satanis


Readers' Rating: