Hopping zombies of Chinese myth and folklore – BananaChan fills us in on on Jiangshi: Blood in the Banquet Hall

10 November 2022
We pull up a chair to chat with BananaChan about her Silver ENNIE winner, Jiangshi: Blood In The Banquet Hall

Hot off the back of a Silver ENNIE win, we sat down to chat about hopping vampires, running a restaurant, and racism with Banana Chan, the creator of Jiangshi: Blood In The Banquet Hall.

Jiangshi themselves are the famous hopping zombies of Chinese myth and folklore – although of course, like all folktales, they slip between the boarders created by the living into all neighbouring cultures. These reanimated corpses have the dual aspect of being extremely funny (they hop!) and terrifying (they’re a reanimated corpse of a neighbour who wants to eat you now!). And they also form the background threat of this exciting and innovative roleplaying game.

Banana Chan is a game designer, writer and one of the co-founders of a small publishing company with a very appealing offer in its name: Game and a Curry. We began by talking about how she got started in game design.


How did you get started with RPGs? What is your gaming origin story?

My first roleplaying game was a game of Dungeons & Dragons – I don’t remember which edition – in high school and it wasn’t too much fun to be honest. I think at the time, it was a combination of an awkward teen group and me being more interested in trying to get a fake ID for liquor. I had always played video games though and I loved the stories told through the Fallout series. Around that time, I also developed an alcohol problem, so my priorities were a little different.

It wasn’t until my mid-twenties that I got hooked on LARPing. No, LARPing didn’t solve my alcohol problem, but it did help me wean off it. I was also starting my publishing company, spending a lot of time with boardgame designers and tried getting back into playing RPGs. When I turned 26, I went sober and started writing LARPS. The Golden Cobra Challenge [a LARP focused design competition] really helped me boost my confidence, after I got an honourable mention the first year and an award for Best Pervasive LARP the year after. From there, I started getting contract jobs in RPGs, wrote some stuff... and less than a decade later, I’m here.


What is Jiangshi: Blood in The Banquet Hall?

It’s a game about a Chinese American/Canadian family running a restaurant in the 1920s, when they are suddenly faced with hopping vampires. It is about regular people being thrown into a terrifying situation that they have to persevere through. It’s also about family dynamics, feeling othered, dealing with oppression as a family and the immigrant experience. It’s full of Chinese American and Canadian history and history of the time.

And what was your inspiration ?

Sen-Foong [Lim, the co-designer of Jiangshi and designer of Junk Art] and I had a lot of inspiration points for this game: our own families, memories of eating around a table, Chinese restaurants, Chinese American and Canadian history, Hong Kong jiangshi movies (the Mr. Vampire series and the Spooky Encounters series), Daoism and folk religious practices... it’s a lot of stuff! I would also really like to recognize the woman who did a folk sorcery ritual for me while I was visiting Hong Kong in 2018. If you ever get the chance to go, highly recommend going to Goose Neck Bridge and getting a da siu yan ritual done. 


Can you give us a quick overview of how it’s played, there’s tons of interesting mechanics here – the personal and family dice, the board for players and the restaurant, the Mung etc – what came first and what’s the ‘heart’ of the thing?

I think what came first was the character sheets and the restaurant board in the centre. Like most roleplaying games, each player gets their own character sheet, but the sheet is laid out kind of like a placemat and each slot of the character sheet has a different thing about the character they’re playing—their items, their Facets, their Hopes and Dreams. The slots are numbered so that when they take damage or get stressed out, a Jiangshi card (or Mung card if you’re rolling for nightmares) gets placed over one of the slots so they can’t use the thing anymore, until that Jiangshi/Mung card gets removed through healing. 

Each slot on the character sheet also has a number of hours that they can spend doing their chores. The board for the restaurant has a circle in the middle that’s segmented into Morning, Afternoon, Evening and Dead of Night. On the exterior, there are also several card slots that do two things: one, they let the players do a bit of world building with the restaurant itself and two, the restaurant provides special abilities as well. When chores can’t be finished in the Morning, those chore cards will cover the card slots – starting from one again. 

Also, there’s dice! We use a pool of d8s that everyone rolls from and they take the highest number rolled as the outcome. 1-3 is treated as a failure, 5-6 is a success but something weird happens and 7-8 is a success. Fours cancel out the highest number, because they’re considered bad luck (as four is a homonym for death and eight is a homonym for wealth). 

Tell us about how you’ve set up the family dynamic to be playable – often people struggle to improvise outside of their own experience when it comes to things like family, was that part of your consideration?

I think that through playtesting, we found out that the game wasn’t just for a Chinese American/Canadian audience. It was also resonating with folks who were from other immigrant families. A lot of the character building mechanics aim to create more realistic drama between the family members, so the Hopes and Dreams would sometimes be in conflict with one another between characters, but they also provide moments of kindness between family members when they do nice things for each other – like listening to another family member when they’ve had a bad dream to remove a Mung card. 

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There’s a tension in the game between the board with the chores, the restaurant, and the players having to deal with the Jiangshi – tell us about creating this tension and what kind of stories you are trying to tell?

I think my favourite kinds of stories are about normal people who get thrown into situations that are out of their wheelhouse, but they still somehow persevere out of it. For me, I love horror-comedy, because it’s usually a bunch of frantic characters arguing with one another, trying to get from one problem to the next. I think Sen is more of a horror fan, so his games tend to be more serious and dark.


Let’s talk ghosts. Why do we love the Jiangshi? Is it because they’re quite funny guys?

I think they’re great, because they’re both silly and scary. Like, it’s a literal hopping corpse that can suck the life out of you. The hopping is silly and fun, but the idea behind why they’re hopping is kind of terrifying. Also the longer they live, the more powerful they get, so that’s also kind of scary.

The root of their horror is in ill-health, how have you set the game up for scenarios that use health (and say, the health of the restaurant) as a key dramatic point?

I swear, we wrote all of this before the pandemic. Ill-health was more of a metaphor for being consumed by the oppression or hardships that linger day-to-day. When you get all eight Jiangshi cards, then you become a Jiangshi and when the restaurant gets all its eight cards, it falls into decay. The scenarios help the GM and the players push the story forward, as the characters’ sheets get covered up, making things seemingly more difficult. 


Dealing with racism is part of the game, it’s this kind of lingering threat in proportion with the Jiangshi, can you talk about the way these two kinds of ‘fear’ work within the game?

So a lot of the real world threats, e.g. racism, happen more so during the daytime, while the Jiangshi come out at night, so there’s never any rest for the family. The family is actually living through a time after the Chinese Exclusion Act has been put in place, racism is something that they have to live with on the regular. Customers and other characters could be threats to the family’s livelihood, but the Jiangshi are an immediate life or death threat – and they also act as a metaphor for the stresses of real life.


How has the reaction been to the game? Have you had any surprising fans?

Overwhelmingly positive! It’s honestly so nice to see so many people who are excited to play in this setting and are open to experiencing the game. I think the most support we’ve seen was from adult kids from immigrant families.


What’s next for you as a designer and publisher at Game and a Curry?

First, we have to get our copies of Deimos Academy out to everyone. It’s a game by Austin Taylor, Amanda Kahl and I about returning to a cursed boarding school that uses paper dolls and a colouring book. I also have a project called Forgery about an art forger who’s been commissioned to recreate a cursed painting—it’s a solo RPG with a choose-your-own-path branching system that uses paint-by-numbers. It’s another horror-comedy game I’m very excited about. 


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