Stories from Myth: Momotaro – August 2011 RPG Blog Carnival

The topic for this month’s RPG Blog Carnival is Animals in RPGs being hosted by Tower of the Archmage. For more details about the RPG Blog Carnival visit the archive of past blog carnivals over at Nevermeet Press.

This post was brought on by word association. I read “Animals in RPGs” and my mind thought of the dog, monkey and pheasant in Momotaro, or Peach boy. Maybe in another circumstance, “monkey-crab battle” might have popped up first or my mind might have gone off in some other direction entirely. Incidentally, in some variations of Momotaro, the supporting cast of Monkey-crab Battle join in rather than the dog, monkey, and pheasant, but we’ll get to that.
First, let’s look at the story of Momotaro, or Peach Boy, so that we are on the same page, and then we’ll look at things from another angle.

The story of Momotaro

Momotaro (桃太郎) is an old tale from Japan about a boy born of a peach. Often it is translated in English as peach boy because of this, but a more literal equivalent might be “John Peach” as Taro is a very general name that is even used colloquially if someone’s name is unknown.  John has this distinction in English.

Here is a version from Yei Theodora Ozaki,
a simpler version from the web, and brief summary:

An elderly couple found a giant peach floating on a river and when the peach was split, a boy came out. The couple raised the boy as their own. The boy grew strong and decided to rid the country-side of their ogre problem. Momotaro was given dumplings to take with him. Along the way he met a dog that joined him for a dumpling, a monkey that joined him for a dumpling and a pheasant that joined him for a dumpling. Together with his new companions, he sailed to Ogre Island where the ogres were said to live. He battled the ogres defeating them and the ogre king. The ogre king vowed to amend his ways and gave his treasure to Momotaro, and he lived happily ever after.

His Animal Companions

You could take a literal interpretation of the animals in the story. A young man with a dog, a monkey, and a pheasant could win in a fight. Many illustrations show them as literal animals.

Oddly enough, the animals are traditionally shown wearing samurai armor, even the pheasant. I’ve seen dogs dressed in various get-ups by odd people, and literal dogs of war sometimes were garbed in barding similar to warhorses, but especially considering the pheasant, which would be hard pressed to fly in armor, I find it more likely that the animals are figurative.

If you wanted to stick with this, fantasy is an accommodating genre. The dog warrior could be a gnoll, the monkey could be just a monkey-man (a la planet of the apes), and the pheasant a tengu or other bird-man.

Not Merely Beasts?

One way to look at the animals in the story is to take them as symbolic characterizations of men. The monkey could be an agile scout, strong of limb, creative and cunning. The dog could be a loyal foot-soldier, with a battlecry as fierce as his blade. The pheasant could be a nimble skirmisher, pecking and harrowing at their flanks with feathered shafts flying.

Using the animals as characterization can quickly solidify an image of a character, both in appearance and in personality. You could use an animal during character creation to help guide the theme of a player character or employ animals in tales told in the world to set imaginations running.

The chinese zodiac uses animals to describe people’s personality traits and is the front end of a system for soothsaying. It also represents a widely known set of archetypes ripe for use. With a d12 you can quickly add a believable set of traits, both positive and negative to a character:

  1. Rat – 鼠 : Forthright, tenacious, intense, meticulous, charismatic, sensitive, intellectual, industrious, charming, eloquent, sociable, artistic, and shrewd.
    Can be manipulative, vindictive, self-destructive, envious, mendacious, venal, obstinate, critical, over-ambitious, ruthless, intolerant, and scheming.
  2. Ox – 牛 : Dependable, ambitious, calm, methodical, born leader, patient, hardworking, conventional, steady, modest, logical, resolute, tenacious.
    Can be stubborn, dogmatic, hot-tempered, narrow-minded, materialistic, rigid, demanding.
  3. Tiger – 虎 : Unpredictable, rebellious, colorful, powerful, passionate, daring, impulsive, vigorous, stimulating, sincere, affectionate, humanitarian, generous.
    Can be restless, reckless, impatient, quick-tempered, obstinate, selfish, aggressive, moody.
  4. Rabbit – 兔 : Gracious, good friend, kind, sensitive, soft-spoken, amiable, elegant, reserved, cautious, artistic, thorough, tender, self-assured, shy, astute, compassionate, lucky, flexible.
    Can be moody, detached, superficial, self-indulgent, opportunistic, stubborn.
  5. Dragon – 龍 : Magnanimous, stately, vigorous, strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, eccentric, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, pioneering, artistic, generous, loyal.
    Can be tactless, arrogant, imperious, tyrannical, demanding, intolerant, dogmatic, violent, impetuous, brash.
  6. Snake – 蛇 : Deep thinker, wise, mystic, graceful, soft-spoken, sensual, creative, prudent, shrewd, elegant, cautious, responsible, calm, strong, constant, purposeful.
    Can be loner, bad communicator, possessive, hedonistic, self-doubting, distrustful, mendacious, suffocating, cold.
  7. Horse – 馬 : Cheerful, popular, quick-witted, changeable, earthy, perceptive, talkative, agile, magnetic, intelligent, astute, flexible, open-minded.
    Can be fickle, arrogant, childish, anxious, rude, gullible, stubborn.
  8. Goat – 羊 : Righteous, sincere, sympathetic, mild-mannered, shy, artistic, creative, gentle, compassionate, understanding, mothering, peaceful, generous, seeks security.
    Can be moody, indecisive, over-passive, worrier, pessimistic, over-sensitive, complainer, weak-willed.
  9. Monkey – 猴 : Inventor, motivator, improviser, quick-witted, inquisitive, flexible, innovative, problem solver, self-assured, sociable, artistic, polite, dignified, competitive, objective, factual, intellectual.
    Can be egotistical, vain, arrogant, selfish, reckless, snobbish, deceptive, manipulative, cunning, jealous, suspicious.
  10. Rooster – 雞 : Acute, neat, meticulous, organized, self-assured, decisive, conservative, critical, perfectionist, alert, zealous, practical, scientific, responsible.
    Can be over zealous and critical, puritanical, egotistical, abrasive, proud, opinionated, given to empty bravado.
  11. Dog – 犬 : Honest, intelligent, straightforward, loyal, sense of justice and fair play, attractive, amicable, unpretentious, sociable, open-minded, idealistic, moralistic, practical, affectionate, sensitive, easy going.
    Can be cynical, lazy, cold, judgmental, pessimistic, worrier, stubborn, quarrelsome.
  12. Boar – 猪 : Honest, gallant, sturdy, sociable, peace-loving, patient, loyal, hard-working, trusting, sincere, calm, understanding, thoughtful, scrupulous, passionate, intelligent.
    Can be naïve, over-reliant, self-indulgent, gullible, fatalistic, materialistic.
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