Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life by Shin Myung-ho and translated by Timothy V. Atkinson (Discovery of Korean Culture, Dolbegae Publishers, Eng. Ed. 2004)
Courtly intrigue is a major staple both of Korean historical and fantasy narratives, and of popular South Korean historical TV series. However, for those coming from outside Korean culture, it can be a bit challenging to wrap one’s head around everything that is involved in Korean traditional culture and customs surrounding royal courts. As always, it’s important to recognize that your RPG is not a history emulator, but rather a game that draws inspiration from history (as well as culture and media) to create a fun story for the play group.
If your main interest is basically running itinerant adventurers who rarely set foot inside a palace, then the universal fantasy tropes related to royalty, as well as the material in The Koryo Hall of Adventures, should prove more than sufficient for your game. However, if you’re interested in a basic primer on royal court life in traditional Korea, then Shin Myung-ho’s Joseon Royal Court Culture: Ceremonial and Daily Life (translated by Timothy V. Atkinson) is a great resource with clear explanations of many aspects of royal life, a generous amount of illustrations and photographs, which I think would provide a solid basis for anyone preparing to run a campaign with a heavy emphasis on court intrigue or drama.
The book has seven sections, which respectively deal with the role and treatment of the king in Joseon society, the role and life of the queen, the lives of royal family members, palace life, funeral customs for royalty, palace rites dealing with ancestral spirits, and royal historiography, or in other words how history was written about the kings, queens, and their families and actions. Each chapter of the book is a mini-smorgasbord of material, facts, and details that could be used when developing adventures centered on palace life and palace intrigue.
Consider, for example, an occasion as momentous as the death of a monarch. This can be a campaign-changing event even outside the palace, but within the palace walls, you’ll have a lot of issues for your party to deal with: power must be safely and peaceably transferred down the line of succession, a funeral must be organized, ancestral rites carried out, and historical accounts written. There’s plenty of room in all these steps for meddling by crooked courtiers, wily infiltrators, unscrupulous spellcasters, or monsters-in-human(oid)-clothing. Probably an entire year-long campaign could be run just spanning the weeks or months just before and just after the death of a monarch, and if I were preparing such a campaign, Joseon Royal Court Culture would be the book I’d draw on for ideas and inspiration.
But even if your player’s characters only make a short visit to the palace to, say, report to a high-ranking bureaucrat about a mission they were recruited to carry out, there’s useful material here about what the bureaucrats would look like, what sort of things to expect them to do, and, say, what games the characters might glimpse the young crown prince or princess playing with his or her minders. Likewise, the material on the handling of royal audiences, palace emergencies, and about royal pregnancies all can provide interesting detail for brief visits to the capital.
Not every gamemaster will find Joseon Royal Court Culture a necessary resource, but for those who are interested in exploring courtly intrigue as a thread in their campaign, this book is a great resource that will inspire you and give you enough grounding to help you create a convincing and distinct-feeling contrast with the courtly settings familiar from typical Western-styled fantasy RPG settings.
Joseon Royal Court Culture is no longer in print, but you can likely get your hands on it via interlibrary loan, as it’s among the holdings of many libraries worldwide: here is its WorldCat page.
The Koryo Hall of Adventures draws on Korean history and culture, as well as the experience of living in Korea, and not all players and Game Masters are familiar with this cultural background. Appendix K, named as a riff on Gary Gygax’s now-celebrated “Appendix N,” attempts to provide a list of references to help better visualize this campaign setting. In this series, Gord Sellar covers movies, television series, books, music, and other works that offer inspiration, adventure seeds, ideas, helpful visuals, and more.