You can't talk about designing anything for play 1) during the Colonial era and 2) in a pseudo-Asian setting today without talking about the representation of cultural tropes.
Problem the first: One problem with designing non-generic D&D has to do with implicit tropes that players/GMs might not have access to. OSR D&D can get away with brevity because it relies so much on a shared pop-cultural knowledge: nobody needs to be told what a 'goblin' is, everybody understands the Baron is somebody important.
In TTRPGs, where the curated space is imaginative and shared, the work of presenting new tropes is doubly hard. The GM has to learn / adopt new tropes AND communicate them to the players, AND the table then has to engage in a shared construction of the play-space. Basically: it's hard to get a table to imagine tropes they're not already familiar with.
(Sidenote: Electric Bastionland and the UVG are interesting to me because they ALSO draw on implicit tropes, just not 'generic' fantasy ones. EB evokes tropes about the City, and the experience of living in an urban space. UVG draws on Mad Max, psychedelia, Dune, and maybe Barsoom - edit: especially the art of Moebius)
Problem the second: When introducing tropes to do with real-world cultures, there's a tricky line between appreciating and parodying. More so because today, the line between 'Cultural Appreciation' and 'Cultural Appropriation' is thin, and seems to shift constantly. What discussions of 'Cultural Appropriation' can miss is that everyone is engaged in an artificial construction of 'culture'. My experiences as a Chinese person living as part of a diaspora in a 21st century city are worlds apart from the experiences of a Chinese person in 19th-century Qing Dynasty China. The experiences of a 21st century British person playing through D&D are worlds apart from the cultural assumptions of, say, 15th century Chivalric fiction (which is itself distinct from the experience of actually living in the 15th century), but there isn't that baggage of 'appropriation' if you get knights wrong.
Problem: my imaginative space labelled 'East Asia' is a melting pot of Hong Kong martial arts movies and Zhang Yimou films and Ghost in the Shell and Hayao Miyazaki and the time I took a trip to see the Forbidden Palace in Beijing. I'm making it up too.
Essentially, when I talk about designing an 'Asian' setting, I'm constructing an artificial pastiche of ideas as much as anybody else. Obviously, this doesn't mean that anyone should throw together some Asian tropes and call it, say 'Oriental Adventures'. But it does mean there is no platonic ideal of cultural representation, because what exactly does it mean to be, eg, 'authentically Korean' in the 21st century? Products that claim to be culturally 'authentic' are really just throwing around marketing buzzwords.
TTRPGs striving for 'authentic' might try their hardest to evoke 'Asian' tropes, but they often end up flattening them. I once attended a cross-cultural business talk about doing business in China (it was a bit like an out-of-body experience). The speaker (not Chinese) talked about the importance of face and shame culture and authority, which is a bit like someone insisting the keystones to British culture are tea and not making a fuss. Like, kind of, but not really?
This also applies to POC/Asians writing in diaspora culture. It is tempting for me to flatten Chinese culture into, say 'kinship ties', and then pretend that this motivates all sorts of behaviour, when really, people are people everywhere you go. They have similar motivations: they love their kids. They don't want to starve to death. They try to avoid harming people they care about. They like things being comfortable, and predictable, and generally don't like extreme change. Emphasising cultural difference can exoticize, when I think there's more that unites us as humans than sets us apart.
How many TTRPG East-Asian influenced products start with chapters waxing lyrical about 'The Way of the Samurai', or 'Duty and Honour', or some reference to the Tao or the Elements or the Spirits of Air and Water, as if these were the keys to comprehending what 'Asian' is?
(Sidenote 1:This is also the same problem that European representations of Asia have had for ages, the idea that understanding some cultural mythos is key to interpreting political behaviour. See 19th century attempts to essentialise Chinese culture from Staunton's translation of the Qing legal code, or for a more modern version, how Frances Fitzgerald's 'Fire in the Lake' tried to explicate Vietnam War revolutionaries by saying that the Vietnamese were just culturally different, rather than engage with how American policy consistently alienated the populace for very evident reasons.)
(Sidenote 2: About the use of the word 'Asian'. I've never actually heard the label 'Asian' used self-descriptively, outside of places with overseas diaspora communities like the US and the UK. In South-East Asia, people will say they are Thai or Korean or Chinese, because there are large differences between these cultures. You might get discussions about 'Asian parenting styles' or 'Asian education', but it's as broad as the term 'Westerner'.
...There's a whole 'nother discussion about how/why 'representation' is much more of a concern for overseas diaspora cultures or minority cultures than majority-cultures. Koreans in South Korea are generally far less concerned about 'representation' than Korean-Americans in the US.)
Problem the third: TTRPGs rely on a shared understanding of how the world works in order for players to take meaningful actions. At the most basic level, players need to assume that real-world physics are in play in order to meaningfully make a boulder-trap. At a social level, players expect that their actions will evoke comprehensible reactions from others. Certain actions are laudable and win respect. Other actions are reprehensible and incur disapproval. While sometimes GMs can play with this expectation to create a twist (eg the monster the PCs killed is actually sacred to the villagers, and now everyone is mad), a world that functions on very different social dynamics is one where PCs end up feeling continually alienated and bewildered.
In a continuation from Problem the Second, this is why so many TTRPGs that try to 'represent Asia' (usually China or Japan), insert very unsubtle mechanisms for guiding PCs to engage with 'Asian' dynamics. Thus, you have giri tracks and honour points and Face scores or whatever mechanic, to try and get players to engage with these different (and implicitly alien) social dynamics. The idea is that players are meant to learn how culturally distinct this setting is, but it ends up being like Romance Points in Mass Effect, where if you hit the 'nice' option enough you can get an NPC to sleep with you.
If I get 12 more honour points, the Daimyo will give me a castle!
Oh no, this betrayal has hurt my Giri-score. My PC is now depressed.
It's a bit like trying to make an 'American RPG' where PCs constantly have to manage 'Freedom Points' as a metacurrency. You could, but it would scan as parody, wouldn't it?
MY GRAND UNIFYING SOLUTION:
Give up, and don't bother. Thanks for coming to my TED talk.
I'm not aspiring to make a 'culturally authentic' setting, partly because I'm drawing inspiration from India/China/Japan so it's all pastiche anyway, and partly because I'm more interested in creating a space that explores a period, and letting people fill in the blanks.
Put another way, nobody plays D&D-as-written to get in touch with, say, their Irish-Catholic roots. But you can bet there's an Irish-Catholic GM and their players somewhere who've put something of their childhood into the NPCs or settings or locations they wrote up. I want a D&D where people like me can put in Oni and Hungry Ghosts and Fortune Cats if they want to, and not feel like they're setting up shop over Tolkien's grave.
This means that setting-creation will be collaborative. I'm hoping I can write something that any group can riff off-of, rather than something where people outside South-East Asia don't dare to play it because they'll do it 'wrong'.
...THAT'S A LOT OF WORDS FOR JUST D&D WITH SERIAL NUMBERS FILED OFF
Well, not quite.
Even if the actual cultural touchstones are hazy, I'm still calling it 'Asian Colonial-Era Sandbox Play' because I want it to evoke a broad experience. Even if you're playing members of a mushroom-empire getting colonised by psychic moles and mecha-squids, there's certain genre assumptions and principles to guide play.
If anything, I want to represent the material experience of colonisation interacting with the fall of empire. I want to complicate the narrative that colonialism involves bad actors with agency attacking a passive victim. I want PCs to consider if collusion makes sense in the moment, even if the wider consequences are to accelerate the collapse of a failing structure.
There'll be tea-houses and calligraphy schools and officials in sedan chairs. It will probably be entirely implicit in the random tables I draft, and vague enough to leave lots of gaps. I also want to preserve the weirdness of the OSR, so like it'll probably be caterpillar-men carrying sedan chairs.
I also really appreciated Chris McDowall's short, punchy guides for how to describe locations and types of characters in Electric Bastionland. I could probably do something similar for officials, villagers etc.
PRINCIPLES FOR REPRESENTING THE FALL OF EMPIRE / COLONIALISM (First pass)
1. EVERYONE IS A PERSON
This is the most important one. The tribespeople are people. The colonialists are people. The emperor's court is full of people. Everyone has motivations for what they're doing. Their motivations could be wrong, superstitious, selfish or corrupt, but they're still understandable motivations.
2. THE EMPIRE IS THE WORLD
The collapsing empire is the centre of play, in the same way that the Middle Kingdom is better translated as The Central Kingdom or The Centre of Everything. There's other places, but they are all judged in relation to the empire.
3. THE EMPEROR IS FAR AWAY, LONG LIVE THE EMPEROR
The sources of moral authority in the empire are unchanged, even if the material reality is shifting. Experience first-hand the dissonance of everyone saying they respect and venerate the emperor even as they rebel against him, because 'well he's just very badly advised by corrupt eunuchs so THIS is his true will'. (See what I mean by 'everyone is more similar than different'? Compare: the complex relationships of monarchs with popes, when moral authority =/ material authority)
4. IF ANYONE IS REALLY ALIEN, IT'S THE FOREIGNERS
The PCs have an understanding of the culture they're in, though they might meet strange sects, cults or deviant groups that defy the norm. The foreigners? Emperor knows what they're about. Every foreign empire has customs that are incomprehensible and defy common sense to the PCs. Ask your players to make some up. If you have fantasy-France as a colonial power, add a little something that emphasises how alien they are. Maybe they eat their dead. Maybe public nudity is not a taboo. Just bear in mind rule 1.
5. COLLABORATE ON YOUR SETTING
Talk it out with your players as adults. Spend Session Zero discussing features of your setting, bring in the tropes that people want to see. My setting is influenced most by China, and a little bit of India and Japan, but if you want to do something themed around, say, Portuguese touchstones, why not?
6. SET BOUNDARIES
Additionally, there's all this other stuff in the Colonial-era that people might not want to deal with. Drugs and racism are very much a part of the Colonial Experience(TM), but if your table doesn't want to deal with that you can toss it out. Enthusiastic Pirate Bois has animal-races, which 1) makes it easier for PCs to remember that Moles hate Frogs and 2) is, for me at least, an acceptable level of fantasy racism. But do what works for your table.
7. PROBABLY DON'T DO ANY ACCENTS THOUGH
They're rarely as good as you think.
GM GUIDE (A sample)
When the players meet an Official...
- Give them a formal title, which they will insist on
- Give them something they are meant to be in charge of
- Show how they are much less in charge of that thing than they say
- All excuses are made with reference to the emperor and his laws
(Note: Make a random table called 'What is this Official's Excuse Now?')
- Never directly acknowledge a loss of authority
- Give them a problem they need help with
- Always ask for help indirectly