Monday, October 19, 2020

EDUCATION AND RPGS: HISTORY, GENRE EMULATION AND EDUTAINMENT

I have often said that I am skeptical of the educational value of RPGs. I do believe this, but I think it sometimes is misunderstood, especially by those who haven't read my books or followed this blog regularly. I hope to clarify my position on the topic. I am going to be thinking out loud here, so consider this a work in progress in terms of how I feel about the subject. 

When I say I am skeptical of the educational value of RPGs, it is because I think as a medium, it is more social than educational. And its goal is to entertain, rather than educate. Obviously there is a book involved in most RPGs, and that book can contain information that is accurate and informative. But because its primary aim is to provide an entertaining and gameable system and/or setting, I just think people are usually better off reading history books, archeology books or science books if they are looking to learn about the world in a meaningful way. Even when RPGs are aiming to educate, they will feel the gravity of that primary aim. And there is always the danger of a book becoming pablum 'edutainment' when you prioritize education in an RPG book. Or worse, it can become the equivalent of the 'very special episode' format.

I like my books precariously stacked 
(it creates a sense of danger and foreboding)
That doesn't mean I think RPGs ought to be anti-educational, or disregard things like historical accuracy. Every game is different, so there is no one rule here. I like RPGs that get into real world history and are well researched. But I also like genre RPGs that adhere more to genre conventions and veer into historical romance. If there is room for both these extremes at my own table, I think there is room for them within the hobby.

In my own books you can see different degrees of this. I would never hold up Sertorius, Servants of Gaius, Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate or Strange Tales as scholarly books, but all were heavily researched in their own way. I was a history student and my interest in history has never waned. So it always shapes our games. 

Sertorius was built around a lot of my interest in ancient mediterranean culture, Thai history and languages like Arabic for example. It is still fantasy of course. But it is informed by real world history. There is a shelf of history books on Rome, Carthage, The Library of Alexandria, Late Antiquity, Byzantium and more that fed into the process of writing Sertorius. Posting pictures here of some of the shelves I regularly turn to when working on RPGs (my organizational method is extremely questionable).

Landlord's Daughter, Beneath 
The Banshee Tree and
Servants of Gaius
Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is wuxia, so it is mainly interested in conveying genre tropes rather than history, but the setting is inspired by Song Dynasty China and a good deal of research went into making it. It is still a game though, and it is still a fantasy analog of China. For instance, I did heavy research on the imperial exams and on scholar-official system, but Song Dynasty ranks and titles were rather nuanced and complicated, so I simplified to make things manageable for a game. And this illustrates perfectly what I am talking about: it is based on very real information but the demands of an RPG steered it in a direction that makes it less helpful than just reading a book like Civil Service in Early Sung

With Strange Tales of Songling, my main interest was providing a simple system and adventure book that shows GMs how to run adventures based on Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. One of my goals was making that process easy and welcoming. But I did provide an overview of books and movies important to the genre, as well as historical resources for running the game in historical China (the default setting is "World of Songling" to make running the game easier, but it can also be run historically as you will see below). With the adventures I took a lot of time doing research and consulting a historian to get the architecture and the maps as good as possible. I also made a point of visiting the Yin Yu Tang house at the Peabody Essex Museum, which is a fully reconstructed Qing Dynasty era house that was purchased from China, shipped here and rebuilt. I decided to draw on this for one of the major maps in the Strange Tales of Songling Book. 

Where I keep a lot of my books on Rome 
(and Walking Dead)

Servants of Gaius is probably my most historically accurate game (even if it takes major liberties with a key detail). It was set in Ancient Rome and I did my best to provide content so GMs could run an Ancient Roman setting. But note that my goal wasn't to educate, it was to give the GM the tools to run a historical game. Those are two very different things. A historian writing about ancient Rome isn't answering the same questions that a game designer writing about ancient Rome would.  Often the things GMs and gamers need to know to run and play a setting, while important historical details, are not the main issues historians examine.

And while history was hugely influential and important to Servants of Gaius, so was the book and TV series I, Claudius (and the book, Claudius the God). And it was alternate history on top of that. The whole basis of the game revolves around that moment from the I, Claudius series where John Hurt's Caligula asks his Uncle Claudius if he thinks he is mad. It is one of the most poignant exchanges, and their relationship, at least for me, forms the heart of the drama series. It is also a redeeming line of dialogue and performance, where Hurt humanizes Caligula. In Servants of Gaius I used that as a foundation for a thought experiment: what would happen if Caligula was really a god? I wanted to treat the character more like the Caligula from that scene (where the conceit is forming a foundational struggle to explain his behavior and to make him a more redemptive figure in the setting). Obviously this takes great liberties with real world history, and it wouldn't be advisable to read that conceit as accurate. But that conceit is what makes Servants of Gaius interesting. For me this is an example where, education and the needs of a game (and frankly the needs of something like artistic expression) were totally at odds. And I think if I had given into an educational rather than creative impulse, the game would have been insipid. The end result was far more flavorful and a lot more enjoyable to write than if it had been straight history. 

Going back to the beginning of Bedrock, this sort of approach has always been present. When Bill and I wrote The Landlord's Daughter for Colonial Gothic I did a great deal of local research and general research. Being from the area was quite helpful as it also gave me an understanding of the local geography. It is a horror game as well of course, so there are plenty of creatures, undead maidens and werewolves thrown in for good measure, but just as much time went into researching the adventure as writing it (probably more). And there were lots of things in there that were more emulative of Hammer films than history. And the idea is you trust the reader and audience to understand that (and not take everything in the book as being 100% faithful to history). 

Research with terrible handwriting
for my Strange Tales of Songling campaign

With our early Bedrock RPGs this was also the case. Terror Network was intensely researched (to the point that I went to the local FBI field office and got to interview an agent who served as a media liaison). With Crime Network, even though it was a subject I was a lot more familiar with already, I did research for that too. But these were still games. We tried to make Terror Network match the reality as much as possible, but you also had to have room for something compelling at a gaming table. When I spoke with the FBI media liaison, he asked me what the plot of my Patriot Incident Adventure was about. He told me where it was believable and where it wasn't. Both of us understood I was taking things in a  much more dramatized direction, but he did help me with ground level details like how Evidence Response Teams would handle a scene like the murder that the adventure opens up with (which turned out to be vital when I wrote the Agency Resource Guide). One interesting thing I learned researching the FBI and going to the field office, is you literally will not have access to some information that would seem rudimentary to making a game about. They simply aren't free to share classified information and a lot of information around structure of departments and procedures is classified. So you have to invent certain elements for the game to work (granted it has been about a decade since this was made so I am sure a lot has changed as well there). 

Even when I run adventures for my own game groups, I do an awful lot of research. It doesn't mean I always stay true to history or the facts. Sometimes I don't want to, sometimes I want to know the facts, so I can believably break away from them. Sometimes I learn the facts and they don't fit what is needed for an adventure to work, so I make changes. 

None of this is to say the books or games are perfectly accurate. I am sure there are areas where limits on my knowledge and understanding of a subject are visible. And am comfortable knowing and expressing the limits of my own knowledge. The point is simply to illustrate that I have a healthy respect for research, history and getting things as correct as I can. But I also like the freedom to invent, and the freedom to have fantasy elements that don't always cleave tightly to history. And I am uncomfortable with the idea that my games or my game sessions are tools for educating players.

Presently I am running two 10 session campaigns for Strange Tales of Songling. These are each going to be inspired by a separate Yuan Mei story (I wanted to explore more adventures based on Yuan Mei this time around). However, even though the focus is on this genre of literature, I am also doing a good deal of history research for every adventure. We just finished our first session, set at a Teahouse (which I will post information on in another blog entry). I am very interested in trade and mercantilism, so I spent a lot of my time researching the sugar cane trade and that made its way into the adventure. One of the players was a Scholar-Official, and was promoted to county magistrate as a result of the events of the first adventure, so now I am doing more research into counties during the Song Dynasty (I arbitrarily chose to set the game in 1077). When I am working on an adventure (even one like this for a home game) I still take lots of notes (see picture above). Still at the end of the day, this is just an adventure. I have no misconceptions about that. I don't expect my players to walk away with working knowledge of song dynasty China, and I don't believe my role in the group is as an educator (I think that would be extremely presumptuous of me). Maybe it will spark an interest. Maybe later one of them will remember me mentioning that oxen were used to pulverize the sugarcane, and that might be something they look into to see if it is true. But I would hope none of them take everything I say literally, because in a game, even when you are mixing in facts, you are mixing in fiction and fantasy too. And I think generally this is how we should approach all media: we should never assume what we encountered was accurate or true, even if the writer assures you of their research and expertise. We should always check anything we think might be true later with reliable resources. 

There is also the question of a game's goals and the aims of the genre or history you are emulating. I think a lot of people assume if something is set in a given historical period, then historical accuracy should or ought to be the goal. They equate historical or cultural accuracy with good. But if you are more interested in emulating a genre of literature or film that paints with a broad brush against the backdrop of history, that may not be the case. I think authenticity can be very good, but it isn't automatically the aim of a given project and in many instances you don't necessarily want authenticity. And even when you do, what you are trying to be authentic about it very contextual: i.e. am I making an authentic Roman History RPG, or rather am I trying to make an authentic sword and sandals RPG? The two are not the same. A good example of this is Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. That was heavily based on the Song Dynasty in China but it was also a fantasy RPG, set in a historical analog, and its bigger aim was to emulate wuxia and kung fu films. So it owes more fidelity to Chang Cheh's and Gu Long's sense of history than real world history. It much more interested in accurately representing Shaw Brother's sets than historical locations and architecture. 

A Bunch of Bedrock Books
Where I think RPG books can be most helpful in terms of education is sparking interest. This is one of the reasons why I usually provide a reading list with explanations and descriptions. This is particularly the case with Strange Tales, where I fully committed to this idea. A lot of thought and research went into writing Strange Tales, and that doesn't even get into the multiple translations of Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio I read and re-read as I was making it. The whole thing that sparked my interest in doing the game was a series of blog posts here where I read each story in the penguin edition and wrote game content for it (doing every story in the that edition of the book). I then became obsessed with Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio and picked up every translation I could find (my favorite is the four volume Chinese Classics edition, but the penguin still holds a special place for me because of its smooth prose). My hope was to illustrate through the adventure and monster content, what the genre was all about (or at least, what it was to me). I was also concerned about presenting an overly reductive overview of the genre (because that is very easy to do and can be quite misleading), so I opted to provide guidance on navigating the source material and other resources. I think you can tell people what a genre is all about all day, but they won't really understand or be able to replicate it, until they consume a large volume of it over time. There is really no shortcut around that. So you are much better off doing something that sparks an interest and gives people the tools to learn about it in my view. At least, that was my thinking and that is why the GM chapter is structured the way it is. 

And I should say every designer and gamer is different. I know some designers who are exceptional at producing historically accurate and gameable settings (those two things together are not as easy as they sound). And I don't want to dismiss what they do, because they do it very well. There are RPG books out there that are educational, or if not educational, at least provide really clear guidance on real world topics and history. But the vast majority are not. They are informed by real information, but in my opinion relying on RPG books to get real world info is usually like learning science from science fiction: it is definitely a decent starting point for developing an interest and it provides you with some crucial guideposts for retaining information, but it can easily lead to ignorance as well. 

Friday, October 16, 2020

THE FREE SPIRITS OF YUAN MEI

This month I plan on running a series of adventures inspired by Yuan Mei stories. He wrote in the same genre as Pu Songling, but was born one year after Songling's death. Compared to his contemporaries tackling anomaly accounts and tales of the strange, Yuan Mei was something of a rebel and bristled at moralizers (especially hypocritical ones). He was also a pleasure-seeker in life (and had advanced views on things like education of women). He was also influenced by Chan Buddhism, despite being a skeptic of religion. His stories are humorous, grim and graphic. He has been described as a "skeptic-iconoclast" and one of his more conservative rivals said this of him: 

"...There has never been anyone [except Yuan Mei] who, in broad daylight and beneath the warming sun, has dared go to this extreme in denying the precedence of the classics, doing away with sanctity and law, and indulging in such perverse, depraved, obscene and licentious ideas!"

That is quite a strong opinion to have about a writer and retired scholar official. Perhaps one of the reasons for this strong view was his accounts often mock officials who enforced public morality in hypocritical fashion (there is a story for example where an official, engages and delights in the very behaviors he is punishing through his selections punishments). 

Unlike Pu Songling, Yuan Mei's tales of the strange have not been as widely translated into English. Even when it has been, copies of such translations are often hard to obtain because of the price. His work, Censored by Confucius (Zi Bu Yu), is available in a condensed version published by Routledge. This version has 100 stories, while the full volume contains 747 stories. There is a more complete, 1300 page hardcover, translation available (by Paolo Santengelo) published by Brill. But it starts at 347 dollars. Personally, even though I understand it is an academic book, I think this is egregiously overpriced. I would recommend the Routledge version. 

The title of the book is taken from the analects, a passage that describes the things on which Confucius didn't speak: prodigies, force, natural disorder and the gods. It is a fitting title as he seems to strain a bit against the orthodoxy and social mores of his day. This is evident in the tales. 

However, Yuan Mei is most famous for his poetry and literary criticism, and it wasn't until his later years that he tackled anomaly accounts. 

Yuan Mei was born in 1716 in Hangzhou. His father was a junior secretary and his family was poor, but they were reputable and part of the gentry. He passed his exams at a very young age, and was regarded as a prodigy. However he had a setback and failed one set of official exams. He later related a story of being haunted and warned about his failure the night before by a familiar ghost. 

In 1738 he passed the second tier of official exams, the third level of exams the following year, and finally the palace exams, gaining the degree of Jinshi. This enabled him to secure a position at Hanlin Academy. He married in 1739 to a woman named Wong and served as an imperial official. In 1743 he was made a magistrate in Li Shui and other parts of Jingsu. In 1745 he was made a prefect of a region in Nanjing. He retired in 1749 at the age of 33 to Nanjing, writing poetry and attracting some amount of attention for his sex life. His anomaly accounts were published in 1788, about a decade before his death, and they were censored by the Qing government in 1836. 

Yuan Mei's attitude towards female education was quite progressive for his times. His tutoring sessions of young women were scandalous. He would tutor them at his Sui Garden Home (it was considered a breach of etiquette, because the norm would have been to teach women at their own home). 

His supernatural accounts differed from many of his contemporaries. At this time, such stories were typically didactic, and Yuan Mei had a different approach. He frequently described these tales as frivolous and fun, and when he did have a moral point, it was directed at moralizing officials themselves guilty of injustice. He is therefore often seen as antagonistic towards forms of puritanism, and official confucian orthodoxy. 

Stories like the ones found in Yuan Mei's Censored By Confucius and Pu Songlings Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, were popular with readers at the time. In these stories ghosts are commonplace. Supernature creatures have an almost mundane existence, living lives not unlike our own, but also capable of being revolting and horrific when it is called for. Monsters in these stories feel like real characters with needs and motivations that humans might share. 

Yuan Mei's style is rebellious and playful, as well as provocative. And it can be quite earthy at times. I am trying to capture this as I run my Yuan Mei inspired adventures this month. I put together an adventure set near Changdu, where the party confronts a ghostly mystery at a Tea House called The Four Seasons. I ran it with one group already and will run it with another next week. The first group I also intend to do a series of adventures with (one of the characters is a scholar-official and because of the events of the adventure he was promoted to a county magistrate post. The second adventure will occur where this character is governing from. 

I will post more about the adventure after I have run it for both groups (just so I don't ruin it accidentally for any of my players). I may post my adventure notes here directly---they are incredibly messy but I think it may be helpful for Strange Tales fans to see them.

I certainly recommend checking out Yuan Mei if you haven't. These kinds of stories very helpful at inspiring adventures. It really doesn't take much more than reading one or two brief accounts (some of them are less than a page long) to instantly have an idea for something. Of course many of the stories are longer and deeper, as well. But most contain some stark kernel of strangeness that is easy to game. 

One thing I am enjoying about focusing on Yuan Mei for inspiration is emulating his style frees me up more I am finding. Which works well in a gaming context. It takes that strange component and raises it to an almost gonzo level. 

Thursday, October 15, 2020

TIME FIGHTERS: A GAME OF HISTORY AND HISTRIONICS

This is a systemless and simple time travel RPG, made for fun, that can be used with any game of your choice. 

PREFACE

Time Fighters is a serious game. A very, very serious game. We take the topics and content of history with the grave concern it deserves. For this reason, we apologize for the tone. Originally, we set out to make a game that was written in a style suitable to the gravity of the topic. Unfortunately, due to extreme budget constraints, our hiring options were limited and we were forced to compromise on tonal consistency. You will find the system and its mechanics were all designed by competent professionals who took time to craft a playable game. We did not skimp when it came to engineering the framework of Time Fighters. It is merely in the writing where the problem arises. Hopefully this won’t detract from your enjoyment of the game. If you find it does break your enjoyment we would like to take this moment to clarify that we have a strict, no return policy, for all of our games. 

 

-The Bedrock Family 


TIME FIGHTER CONCEPT AND RULES

Time Fighters is a game about time travel, time travel institutes and historians run amok. The most important field of study, ever, is history. And you play yourself, but as a historian, belonging to the aforementioned institutes, hellbent on altering or preserving the past, in order to realize a grand vision for the present. 


Time Fighters is meant for any system. All you do is apply to the setting details and new rules below to your existing system and play. 

 



INTRODUCTION

This game makes no distinction between the game world and the real world. All the facts of the world we live in are true, this is indisputable and only madmen would say otherwise. Not a single line of history or a single detail of the present day has been altered in the making of this game. Time Fighters takes place in the real world. By the same token, you cannot be anyone other than yourself. The contrarian position to this assertion is a proclamation of one’s insanity. Therefore, in this game, you always play you. You never play anyone else. You are your player character. If you die, in this world or in the game world, you cannot and may not roll another character. Nor can you come back from the dead. No one has ever come back from the dead, such fantasies only exist in movies and trashy horror stories or fantasy novels. This game rejects these rubbish ideas. Should you die, go to the DON’T FEAR THE REAPER section below. 

 

DON’T FEAR THE REAPER

Death is the end. There is no coming back from the dead. It is natural and part of life, something to be accepted with the appropriate amount of mourning and sadness, but also a modicum of celebration. If you should die in the game, have no fear. You continue to play the game as yourself. This setting exists in a multiverse. And while you may have kicked the bucket in one reality, you can be sure that there is another reality out there waiting where you have not died. So, when you do die, and die you will, the game continues, as if you hadn’t. However, there is one slight hiccup: the world may change. Or rather the reality you shift to may be different than you one you died in in key ways.  


Any time a player character dies, the Gamemaster makes a Cliometrics Computation to determine how this new reality is different from the previous one. The Cliometrics Computation is a complex and scientific system that draws on a wide range of academic fields to determine the shape of any given historical reality. It is far too complex to explain, but rest assured your GM will arrive at a 100% accurate and truthful reality by following carefully outlined procedures. Changes may be small, for example you may have been blonde in the previous reality but brunette in the new reality. Changes can also be profound: perhaps the old reality was much like our world, while the new reality is governed by a council of Neanderthals who rule over humanity like iron fisted gods. 

 

TIME TRAVEL AND THE HISTORY WAR

Time Travel was invented in 1972. During the cold war, the Americans and Russians were in a desperate race to alter history through the use of time travel technology. They both succeeded in inventing time travel at precisely the same moment, and two forms of technology were invented: The Tachyonic Telephone and the Tipler Tube. This also sparked the first History War. 

 

The Tipler Tube is like the Tipler Cylinder, except it need not be infinite and it resembles a subway station (essentially a subway cart in a spinning system of tunnels). Invented by the Americans, the Tipler Tube was originally believed to be impossible without an infinite length cylinder. However, the Americans used advanced mathematics and gumption to shorten the length of infinity, resulting in something closer to the size of a small town. A Tipler Tube requires an area of at least 2 square miles. Tipler Tubes are cost prohibitive, don’t allow for a free range of movement but are solidly reliable. When you use a Tipler Tube to travel back in time, wherever the Tipler Car parks, that is the place you must return to in order to go back to your own time or another. This creates greater security problems, as others can hijack the car for their own purposes. For this reason, it is wise to have at least one Tachyonic Telephone with you when using a Tipler Tube. 

 

The Tachyonic Telephone is just what it sounds like, a rotary telephone that can be used to dial any date in history and send the user and up to four others back or forward in time. It was invented by the Russians. Originally it was limited to one’s own timeline, which set the Russians back in the war on time. Now it can take travel to any point in history. Tachyonic Telephones are a cheaper method of time travel but less reliable. Tachyonic telephones always have a flat 5% chance of sending you to the wrong time. To determine the time you travel to, roll 4d10, and then lay out the results from left to right, beginning with the lowest result (treat 0s as  zeroes): that is the year you arrive in. To determine if the date is BCE or CE, roll 1d10, a result of 1-5 is BCE, and a result of 6-10 is CE. After use, Tachyonic Telephones require one hour for their internal mechanisms to reset before they can be used again. 

 

The First History War began in 1972 the moment the Russians and Americans invented time travel. The two countries waged a bitter series of campaigns, each venturing back into the past to undo the other’s history, while strengthening their own present. Thankfully, the war ended peacefully with our original history fully intact, with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1990. The two nations signed a time treaty in the Mexico City, along with thirteen other countries, where all parties agreed to ban use of time travel technology. The Second Time War began the following day in that same year, when the Americans used time travel to make Alaska an American State. This detail almost went unnoticed, except the emergence of a new computing software that allowed for modeling potential changes in the historical timeline, which the Russians used to detect changes to history. This software was destroyed but not before it was stolen by the recently established Rankean Institute. Since that time, the world has been mired in the Second History War. 

 

The key difference between the first history war, and the second, is the first was a fight primarily between the Americans and Russians. The second History War is not only a global one among many nations, but saw the rise of Time Fighting Institutes, rogue history departments and amateur historians who repurposed government time travel technology to advance their own ideologies.


THE CLIOMETRICS COMPUTATION 

This is a sound and accurate procedure for calculating any change to reality when a character dies. The second portion of the method is also used anytime Players or NPCs alter history in a substantial way. It draws on all the latest academic disciplines and science to produce any new details or changes that arise through the process of shifting from one multiverse to another. Each reality has its own history, and this history can vary from small to large details. And those details shape the course of events over time. So change as simple as the Emperor Titus dying in 80 CE rather than his real death date of 81 CE, may have a cumulative effect that causes the Sack of Rome to occur in 410 rather than 420 CE, which lead to other changes, like bell bottoms going out of fashion before the 1990s. The GM needs to factor in all the details and approach this procedure with the rigor it demands, to produce an accurate and true account of the history. 

 

Method I

Method One is the official method, and therefore the best. It requires history books. If you don’t have history books, we do not understand why you are playing this game but we do offer a second method for people who prefer to stock their shelves with escapist nonsense. Whenever a player dies, the GM randomly selects any history book from his or her shelf, then places the book down on a table (any table will do so long as the legs are sturdy and made from a durable wood). Once the book is upon the table, the GM should select a random page, then close his or her eyes and point to a random passage on that page. Whatever that passage describes is the detail in history that has been altered. Should that passage be a bloviating section of analysis, or otherwise unusable, simply go to the next passage as needed, till you come upon a section with concrete historical details suitable for change. 

 

The Second Portion: Computation

This is the second and most important part of the Cliometrics Computation, the computation itself. When characters die, this portion follows the first portion of Method I. If characters or NPCs change history in the game, you take the details of those changes directly to this step. 

 

The computation is the hardest thing you will ever do physically or mentally as a human being. You must draw on all your knowledge of history, science, math, engineering, logic, economics, etc., in order to produce your computation. Have no fear, your conclusion is always 100% accurate. You just need to apply your real world knowledge of everything. The first step of the computation is to reflect on the change that has occurred, whether created by a player, an NPC or randomly determined due to character death. Think about its consequences over time. What economic, social, technological or cultural impact would it have? Allow your mind to ponder all the possibilities. How would this change lead to other changes in the timeline of history? Then think about its impact on the present day, even on pop culture. Also think about how this change may personally impact the players. Would it be a big change (a nation disappearing, a technology appearing, religious map of the world changing, etc) or would be small (a fashion lasting longer, a new pop star ruling the charts, a different person occupying a position of power). Once you have settled on whether the change is big or small, simply decide how it has impacted history and the present day world. Whatever you decide is completely accurate and cannot be countermanded. The method is without flaw in its design. Your computation, if you follow all the procedures, will be completely true and accurate.  

 

Method II

This method is for those who do not have history books to use as outlined in method I. Using this method allows such people to fully engage the concept of the Cliometrics Computation despite the enormous personal failing of not stocking their shelves with history books. This method is extremely simple. We kept it as simple as possible, because we are well aware of the difficulty Method II users probably have following even the simplest of instructions. This is Method II: obtain history books at your library, local bookstore or through an online vendor and then use Method I. 

 

HISTORY IS WHAT THE GM SAYS IT IS

History, as stated before, is the same as our reality. Whatever has happened in the real world, has happened in the game world. But this is a multiverse, and what multiverse you are in, shapes the details of history. And the one person at your table who can faithfully recall the facts of the history of your reality is the Gamemaster. For example, if your GM tells you that the Cold War ended in 1979 with the Iranian Revolution or that Constantinople fell to the Mongols in 1489, this is not evidence of his or her immense stupidity and ignorance, but a reflection of the strange reality you inhabit. So, what the GM says goes, even if that means World War I was over inflating cheese prices, or sparked by a love triangle involving Franz Ferdinand, Nicholas II, and Henriette Caillaux. 

 

Multiverses are unusual places, and the GM is always right. So, this applies to basic facts as well. For instance if the GM tells you that the average human walking speed is 27 miles per hour, or that a penny dropped from the empire state building could kill a man, this is a reflection of the physics governing your reality and not, as you might at first assume, evidence that your Gamemaster fails to grasp the physics of your reality.

 

FIGHTING TOWARD THE FUTURE
Time travel into the future, is impossible. One may use existing time travel technology to travel back and forth to any point from the past to the present, but one may never go beyond the present into the future. However, the fight for such technology is on! It is only a matter of time before someone, somewhere invents a way to take the battle into the future.

 

TIME TRAVEL AND THE LAW
Governments all want a monopoly on time travel. Every nation, without exception, has strict laws prohibiting use of time travel technology. Only government agencies may officially travel through time, and even these are often limited, officially, by treaties. In every country, even nations where such punishments are normally considered inhumane or illegal, the penalty for using time travel technologies is immediate execution without a trial. There are no exceptions to this rule, except one, in 1997, when the executioner accidentally walked into a passing bullet and was unable to render justice.  

 

 

TIME FIGHTING INSTITUTES

Toward the end of the First History War, the time travel technologies that were once monopolized by governments, fell into the hands of historians and nefarious groups. These often take the form of fully funded institutes, usually with a false stated purpose due to the strict laws governing time travel. 

 

AMATEUR AND INDEPENDENT HISTORIANS

This vary tremendously, but they are all amateur history buffs and enthusiasts who have managed to obtain time travel technology to use for their own purposes. Some seek to preserve history, some to change it, and some to sew the seeds of chaos. 


THE CLIODYNAMICS INSTITUTE 

This school is strictly interested in traveling through history in order to understand it. They make the fewest possible changes in their efforts. Extremely cautious, they rarely make use of their time travel technology, often spending years, even decades planning any excusion into the past. 

 

THE RANKEANS 

The Rankeans seek to restore history to its original state. They fear the chaos that the History War and the other institutes are producing. They use a special computer program called The Tablet, which, provided it is given accurate data from the past and present, can produce a clear narrative of events in history, as they occurred, before time travel began altering things.  


THE IDEALISTS 

This group seeks to change the past to create an ideal present. They are not a single institution or organized group but a philosophy embraced by a loose network of affiliated tenured historians. For this reason they often vary in their methods and goals. 

 

THE MICROHIST INSTITUTE 

This group aims to adjust history on the small scale: the individual. It believes in using history to change the present, but through a series of minor alterations that build to enormous change with time. Something as simple as providing a broom to a monk in 14th century Florence may be important and impactful when combined with other changes. It is divided into two camps: those seeking to restore the past through incremental change and those seeking to change the present through incremental change. 

 

THE REVOLUTIONARIES

These scholars come from a wide range of academic backgrounds. They are similar to the Justiciers but with a focus on creating an ideal past, rather than an ideal present. They seek to liberate people in history through revolutionary means. 

 

THE AUGUSTANS
The Augustans believe in preserving and spreading the glory of Rome. Their goal is to extend the Roman Empire into the present by preventing its fall at every possible step in history. There are similar groups seeking to promote the glory of other places and concepts, but none match the prestige and power of the Augustans. 

 

THE JUSTICIERS

The Justiciers originated from a small history department of like-minded scholars, but have grown over the years. Their purpose is to bring to justice those in history who have committed misdeeds. There are many different branches of the justiciers, all coming from different perspective and schools of thought in history, so their rationale and ideals vary. All branches believe any historical changes produced by their actions are acceptable collateral damage. 

 

TIME RIDERS 

These are bikers, racing enthusiasts and criminals who travel through time on motorcycles. They really just adapted the Tachyonic Telephone, kludging it to a motorbike. There isn’t any one overriding school of thought, but generally these groups use time travel for personal reasons (like sleeping with historical figures or winning the lottery), or to advance their criminal organizations interests. Their goals depend on the time riders involved.

 

THE ANNALES SCHOOL 

Similar to the Cliodynamics institute in many ways, the Annales emphasize the importance of the slow glacial change of history: at the large scale. Their mantra is “Geography is destiny”. What matters is the longue duree. Small changes are unimportant, only big changes over long periods of time matter. This school began nobly enough, but they have devolved into psychopaths who believe only the most significant actions have consequences and therefore there should be no constraints on time travel behavior. For this reason, they gleefully travel back in time, slaughtering at whim, knowing full well it makes no difference in the end*.  

 

GOVERNMENT AGENCIES

Many Governments seek to control and change history to their advantage. The Russians and the Americans have many Time Agents influencing history and infiltrating the various institutes of time. But other nations are involved in this as well.


*This is just for humor. My favorite historian is Fernand Braudel of the Annales school. 

 

 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

THE HAUNTED WUXIA DUNGEON

When I first started work on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, I wrote this blog post about the Wuxia Dungeon (and a PART II). This is something I have commented on a lot over the years, and my point was to emphasize that dungeons have just as much, if not more, of a role in wuxia as they do in medieval fantasy. I think there is an assumption that because wuxia also emphasis other things like drama between characters, that dungeons have less of a place. And my point was that a balanced wuxia campaign can include plenty of dungeons, and they provide plenty of fun and excitement. Here I want to talk about wuxia dungeons suited to October. 

A lot of wuxia films blend supernatural and horror (and plenty of horror films blend in wuxia elements). There is a fine line, as many more wuxia stories and films walk up to that line but don't cross it. For example Hua Shan's film, Bloody Parrot, presents a situation that seems supernatural but later turns out to have a logical explanation (still horrifying, but logical). On the other hand there are movies like Chor Yuen's, The Enchantress (not to be confused with Swordsman and the Enchantress), which embraces the supernatural. In the end, in an RPG it is a matter of taste and style. I often have supernatural elements like ghosts and spirited beasts present because it just makes it easier to have a long-ongoing campaign by giving the GM more tools to select from when designing adventures (it also adds more tonal variety). With that in mind, these are some of my favorite haunted wuxia dungeons I've done over the years. 

One of the earliest haunted dungeons I did was Iron Temple. This became part of The War of Swarming Beggars (I always wished I had published this as a book because the overall concept was so good). You can find the map and description of the dungeon (fully useable) HERE. The background is a great master destroyed a temple 60 years ago with a device called the Thousand Painful Deaths Flower (which also appears in the Maidens of the Jade Blue Sky sects book). The place became haunted, with the attacker and all the nuns of the temple turning into various ghosts. This was an adventure I remember working really well due to the supernatural elements. 

My favorite haunted wuxia dungeon is of course, House of Paper Shadows (in print HERE). It is an expansion of the Society of Leather Shadows (AKA The House of Paper Shadows) that first appeared as a small entry in the WHOG rulebook, due to their use of Leather Shadow Puppets (one of the more horrifying monsters in the game). At first it was going to be a subtle haunted house, but I ended up going in a much more gruesome direction (probably because I was watching a lot of Kuei Chih-Hung films and similar types of movies at the time). One of my readers described it as "sadistic". So this is not a subtle dungeon of horror at all. It is basically about a wasp demon who manufactures supernatural shadow puppets using human flesh. There are a lot of Clive Barker vibes. But it worked great at the table. I think part of that is the dungeon fully commits to the premise, but also it handles the backstory in a clever way with a small hidden time travel adventure that can reveal bits of the past (and give the players the power to alter the present). The other thing that makes this one great is the maps. Francesca Baerald produced a marvelous map for the book. It is a haunted earthen roundhouse (a Tulou dwelling). 

In Strange Land of Li Fan and the Ogre Gate Inn book I made a number of scary wuxia dungeons. That whole book is filled with stuff inspired by Pu Songling, and the region is meant to be more supernatural in tone. Perhaps the ultimate horror dungeon for wuxia is Yao Gong Palace. This is the foundation of the setting itself, and introduces an interesting opponent called the The Pure Ones. 

I think the most effectively horrifying entry though in Ogre Gate Inn is Bone Kingdom. It is a cave complex inhabited by three warring sisters who have all kinds of supernatural minions, including Death-Cursed guardians who painfully decay but never die. The dungeon itself is divided into three zones, each controlled by one of the sisters. 

The Ogre Gate Inn itself is something of a horror dungeon as well. It is three-layered, so it does depend on how deep the players go. But if they venture to the end, they find some truly terrifying creatures hidden beneath the inn itself. 

Another favorite of mine is She Lies in Stone (I challenge folk music fans to find the connection between this and Maidens of the Jade Blue Sky). This appeared on the blog is about a spirited turquoise stone who marries a man and uses him to lure in martial heroes that she feeds upon. It is a small dungeon but very fun and quite scary. 

Friday, October 9, 2020

RUN A CHINESE GHOST STORY THIS HALLOWEEN

If you are looking for something scary and fun to run this October, try my game Strange Tales of Songling. It is light, easy and you can make characters in minutes. Inspired by Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, a classic collection of anomaly accounts, as well as by movies like A Chinese Ghost Story and the Bride from Hell, this is perfect for Halloween. It is a game about ghosts, fox spirits and strange magic. 

One of the things I tried to do in Strange Tales was focus on monster-of-the week style adventures because, in my experience, a lot of horror gaming is one-shot or mini-campaigns. This makes it easier to get right into the adventure, without any fuss. 

Another thing that was important was keeping this firmly in the realm of horror and a big part of that is making characters vulnerable. This isn't a heroic game. This is a game where character death is a looming possibility. The monsters are powerful and characters can die. 

The system is very simple. We keep the rules section to the fewest possible pages, eliminating anything that was non-essential. However it is based on the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate game, so if you need more complexity, even though the systems are different, it is fairly easy to port in rules from WHOG. Personally though, I find the simplicity of Strange Tales is one of the things that makes it so enjoyable to run. 

While it was based on the Ogre Gate system, some key changes were made. For example, we paired defenses down to Hardiness, Evade and Wits (Ogre Gate has 6 defenses). Skills were similarly paired down and made easier to run on the fly (the goal was to make entries shorter so there was less need to look things up all the time, and so the material was easier to read when you did need to look things up). 

The inspiration for the direction of the system and for the look of the book actually comes from the Moldvay version of D&D. This is not an OSR retroclone, though my adventure and setting content always has strong OSR sensibilities. Rather it applies the Moldvay feel and style to Ogre Gate. I had played in a Moldvay campaign while working on Strange Tales and it inspired me. I loved the simplicity of it. And I wanted to bring that approach to the system. So everything in Ogre Gate was streamlined and tweaked to fit that goal. 

One important part of this was the introduction of Paths. Ogre Gate itself is more of a point-buy system. And character creation in WHOG takes time, by design. I didn't want that here. I wanted four Paths (Scholar, Ritual Master, Demon Hunter and Wandering Sword) that would facilitate character creation. We actually timed character creation and you really can jump right into the game (important when characters die more frequently). 

I also took a 'show, don't tell' to the books content. What I mean by this is nearly half the book is adventures meant to illustrate how the game and its setting operate. I put a great deal of effort into the adventures. It might not be immediately obvious but a ton of research went into getting the locations right. 

There are four adventures: Ghosts of Songbird Villa, Heads of Waterfall Bay, Lotus Fragrance, and The Judge From Hell. My favorite is probably Heads of Waterfall Bay, a murder mystery loosely inspired by the film Human Lanterns. The Judge From Hell is another I really quite like. Lotus Fragrance is actually based entirely on a story of the same name in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. Ghosts of Songbird Villa is an atmospheric exploration adventure set in a haunted manor. 

I also tried to make each adventure a different type of location. Strange Tales of Songling emphasizes monster of the week, but treats each adventure as a kind of contained sandbox and monster hunt. So there is a conceit that "this is the adventure we are doing tonight" but within that framework it tries to maximize player freedom as much as possible. For this reason I thought it was very important to illustrate how locations could serve as 'contained sandboxes'. So Ghosts of Songbird Villa is an adventure set in a manor and the surrounding woods. Lotus Fragrance is small region with an inn, bandits, a scholar's residence and other locations. Heads of Waterfall Bay is set in a city, while The Judge From Hell is set in a village and the surrounding countryside. 


Another key aspect of the book are the monsters. This is a game for people who love supernatural creatures, and a game where monsters are seen as the engines for adventures. I want this to be the kind of RPG that the GM can run by simply picking a monster from the rulebook and spinning a night of entertainment around it. 

There are tons of entries in the monster section and they are each inspired by something from Pu Songling, Yuan Mei, movies like Mr. Vampire or Killer Snakes. 

If you haven't read Pu Songling, I definitely encourage it. Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio has inspired countless films, and it is also a very engaging book. There are many different versions out there. The Penguin edition is condensed but the prose is warm and it is a good way to get an overview. I became mildly obsessed with Strange Tales and found every translation I could. I think for thoroughness my favorite is the four volume Chinese Classics edition. 

So give Strange Tales a try if you are in the mood for horror. It really is a pleasure to run, and it is one of the games I am most proud of. 



Thursday, October 8, 2020

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN

Remember fun? 

I almost forgot about it too. 

But delving back into horror movie classics for The Horror Express (THE) has reminded me of its importance. Take The Bride of Frankenstein (caution: spoilers ahead for a film that came out 85 years ago)

This week we'll be talking about it on THE, and rewatching it last night I forgot just how much fun it was. I remembered the tragic elements but had forgotten about the humor, the whimsical fantasy of the homunculi, and the stagey rolled Rs of Lord Byron. This is a campy, fun movie, that is still horror, but not just horror. It is a complete experience hitting a number of emotional tones over the course of its 1 hour and 14 minute run time. 


Directed by James Whale and released in 1935, it is a sequel to Whale's 1931 original Frankenstein. It picks up where the first movie left off, with the Monster and Henry Frankenstein both surviving. Henry recuperates and seems bent on a path of redemption, while the Monster ventures into the world, making a single friend, but ultimately reaching the conclusion that it is unloveable. Taking a thread of plot from the book, the movie is about the Monster's request for a companion, which it demands Frankenstein create for it. But this version brings in the deliciously vile Dr. Septimus Pretorius to goad Henry into resuming his research into making life. 

Dr. Pretorius is a fellow scientist, albeit a disgraced one, who has succeeded in seeding life and creating people whole cloth. His creations are much more humanlike than Henry's monster, but they are diminutive. He proposes they work together to create a female creature. And the film culminates around the successful experiment to create the The Monster's Bride. 

However, The Bride rejects the monster just like everyone else. Believing he is truly alone and unlovable, the monster pulls a lever that explodes the laboratory saying "we belong dead", killing himself, Pretorius and The Bride but letting Henry and Elizabeth (Henry's wife) flee. 

The film has a tragic story, and it brings more humanity to the monster than the first installment, but it is peppered with humorous moments. And much of the horror fun in an over-the-top way. A lot of this is due to Ernest Thesiger's performance as Dr. Pretorius. He is indulgently evil, completely rejecting moral norms. We see him delighting in fabricating small humans and dressing them up in royal attire. He enjoys a macabre meal in a tomb after an evening of grave robbing. It is a great character and memorably performed. 

The film also has quite a bit of heart to it. The monster befriends a blind hermit who plays the violin. He learns to speak and to smoke from the blind hermit. As with the book, his friendship is short-lived when others stumble upon the two and reject the monster. This aspect of the movie really works and gives the final scene its heft. 

There is also the Bride herself, who only makes a brief appearance at the end. But its quite memorable. Most people are probably at least familiar with the look of the Bride. But its really in the physical performance of Elsa Lanchester. She is strange and captivating, mirroring the awkward entrance of the monster as a new creature born into the world. 


Ultimately this is just a fun movie. Horror can have an element of fun to it. One of the reasons I like a lot of older horror films, particularly from the black and white era, is there is often a good streak of dark humor through them (something you see in 80s horror as well). Here it certainly succeeds in making a better movie than the first Frankenstein, using fun but also building toward a tragic conclusion. 

A couple of things I did notice this time. Quibbles, but given the fun tone of the movie, I don't think they are particularly important. The film is framed as a discussion among Mary Shelley, Percy Shelley and Lord Byron where she regales them with further tales of Frankenstein and his monster. This would have historically taken place in 1816. But the movie contains a reference to a grave with a death date of 1899. Another slightly awkward element I had never really noticed before, when The Bride is brought to life, Dr. Pretorius announces her as "The Bride of Frankenstein", basically making the mistake audiences have made in naming the monster. 

Of course with a film like this, these are not important observations. They don't really take away from the movie. I just noticed them this time around (and I am sure there are possible explanations for them). 

I certainly would encourage folks to check out the Bride of Frankenstein this Halloween season. We will be talking about it this weekend on the Horror Express and I look forward to getting Joel and Adam's opinions on the movie. I wasn't able to find it for free on any streaming service. But it is widely available to rent or buy. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

RIGHTEOUS BLOOD PODCAST: THE KID WITH THE GOLDEN ARM

Jeremy and I resumed the Righteous Blood Podcast, where we discuss movies that influenced the flavor and mechanics of our upcoming Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades RPG (RBRB), and talked about the classic film The Kid with the Golden Arm. 


The Kid with the Golden Arm uses a simple plot, the talent of the Venom Mob, and the hand of director Chang Cheh to reliably entertain fans with great fight scenes, tension, twists and likable characters. It has something for everyone, whether you are a wuxia fan or a kung fu junkie. For me this movie is solid all around, with Lo Meng playing a great villain, a cunning and wicked martial expert who has a sense of fairness, loyalty and clearly a personal code. 

We talk about how this influenced the Obsidian Bat Adventure (a sample adventure in RBRB), as well as our reactions to the costumes (which could be described as glamorous or over-the-top, depending on one's point of view). 

One reason I like to suggest The Kid with the Golden Arm to game masters is it is a very gameable film. It also highlights a lot of key tropes in the genre: poisoning, escort companies, love triangles, the personal codes of the jianghu, etc. 

Check out the podcast below and check out The Kid with the Golden Arm as well: