Beijing – The Dragon and the Phoenix

Red banners touch the sky and golden stars decorate monstrous monuments. In courtyards of ancient stone, dragons play in the sunlight and the legendary Phoenix spreads its wings to the sun. But this is not some fantasy world. This is Beijing, the capital of China. Let me take you on a whirlwind tour of this fascinating city and leave you inspired with its ancient history and modern wonder.

I recently visited Beijing on a four day sightseeing tour. Living in Japan gave my wife and I a great reason to visit one of the most populated cities in the world. It’s an amazing place. I’ve been to New York, London, Las Vegas, Cairo, Nairobi, Tokyo and a host of other cities around the world but I don’t think anything compares with Beijing.

Playing Dominoes at the Temple of Heaven
People are the life blood of any city.


The first thing I noticed about China was the impressive architecture. From the moment you step off the airplane you’re dwarfed by impressive buildings. From the ancient to the modern, Beijing is not just great walls, it’s great doorways, hallways, pillars and pagodas. Modern skyscrapers and some of the most expansive world heritage sites in the world can all be found in Beijing. And that leaves an impression. Nothing says “money and power” quite like impressive buildings and monuments.  Beijing left me with just such an impression, that not only is Beijing powerful, but so too is China. If you’re building your own campaign world, dress your cities to impress, it will make them more memorable and significant.

The next thing I noticed was the weather. It’s humid here, but compared to where I stay in Japan, Beijing was a treat. That said, there had been the worst flooding in years only a few days before we arrived and as we were leaving two typhoons came in to dump more rain. Weather is an important part in setting the mood in any adventure. Likewise, every city reflects the weather it experiences in some way. If it’s in the desert, the city probably has covered wells. If the weather is relatively comfortable, buildings might be more open to let in the breeze.

There’s something to be said about exploring a city on foot. In a car you can see many things, but when you’re walking you smell the odors, feel the air, brush against the people and hear their language. Beijing streets are a bustle of activity, with people spitting, hawkers selling cheap goods and bicycles whirring by. What does your city feel like? Think about it in terms of the five senses. Beijing felt muggy, sounded like chaos, tasted like sweat, looked like a seething mass before a background of red and gold and smelt like rotting cabbage.

Details are everything when setting the scene.


We visited an old area of Beijing and met a guy who reminded me of Jackie Chan. He showed us his house, divided in two, with a courtyard in the middle. Here a black bird I’ve never seen before clattered around in a reed cage. Outside in the street again we rode a rickshaw and another rickshaw driver felt my arm hair; he has none. Everything is a riot to the senses but the people are the most interesting. Who lives in the cities in your campaigns. What makes them a local of the area and how does that translate in their appearance and attitude?

Our first day in China ends after a drink with friends from Japan in the hotel bar. Japanese and Scottish whiskey. It’s great to travel, to see and experience other cultures and there’s still a lot left to see.

I’m expanding on my free fantasy setting, Avernos, from time to time, so be sure to check it out. Also, if you’ve ever been to China, or any other place for that matter, and found it inspired your games, let us know by leaving a comment below.