Wednesday, May 27, 2015


While Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is focused entirely on wuxia, there are elements of it present in Sertorius as well. We were influenced by a range of martial arts movies when designing the Gamandrian setting. This included classic wuxia like Come Drink With Me and The Bride With White Hair; newer wuxia films like House of Flying Daggers and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn; martial arts fantasy movies like Painted Skin; and Thai films like Ong Bak 2. If you look at places in the setting like Phra Goa or Khata you can definitely see traces of this (The Monks of Isharna for example are inspired by Madame White Snake). Even a few of the spells are meant to lightly emulate the wuxia genre (Dancing Steel and Flying Steel for example). 

Illustration by Jackie Musto
from the Sertorius Rulebook
Gamandria is a big world though and wuxia, while influential, was a small part of a much larger foundation of influences. One of the reasons I wanted to do Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate in the first place was to make full wuxia campaign possible in Sertorius. This is why it was originally going to be a book of new spells inspired by martial arts movies (in Sertorius a lot of spells enhance your combat abilities, so it was certainly doable). However the more I worked on it the more I wanted to do a complete wuxia game and setting on its own. So the project evolved into something else, connected to the Sertorius cosmology but very much its own thing. 

Still I plan on including a section in the appendix explaining how to use the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate rules in Sertorius. Right now we have three methods and we are trying to refine them a bit. 

The first option is to add Martial Heroes to the setting as distinct character types. This means that players can choose to be a Martial Hero, a Sertori, an Ogre or a Mundane at character creation. Martial Heroes exist alongside Sertori as an option in this method. This does require some flexing of the setting assumptions but mechanically works fine (though you do need to adjust the Sertori as well to make things smooth). 

The second option simply treats the Kung Fu Techniques as spells available to normal Sertori. This is probably the easiest one to implement, requiring the least amount of changes. 

The third option makes it possible for Sertori to learn Kung Fu Techniques in addition to their normal magic. This one makes the most sense for the setting. Qi energy in Wandering Heroes is the same substance that gives Sertori their powers, but it operates very differently in Gamandria. In Wandering Heroes, Qi flows through everything, it is unbound. In Gamandria it is contained in Sertori. This means it makes a lot more sense for Sertori to be the ones who can master Qi based Kung Fu techniques in the Gamandrian setting. 

We are still reviewing these adaptation and need to test them out so they are subject to change.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the sixth full session of the current campaign (Session VII can be found HERE). 

Xue Lingsu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Long Shu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Min (Purple Cavern Sect)

We held a brief interim session to deal handle the details of what happened to the three members of Purple Cavern sect when they went to speak with the Snake Demon, Jia. In session VI (HERE) Long Shu had entered the snake demons lair dressed in her deceased husband's robes. Her husband was a physician named Shun who died decades ago. When she saw him, she believed he was the reincarnation of her husband and that he was fated to find the robe so that they could be rejoined. 

At the start of this session Long Shu returned to the lair and asked Jia to come outside and speak with him. He told her that he was happy to have her come along with him and try to be with her but he did not recognize her and did not believe himself to be Shun. Jia seemed unconvinced, finding the similarities between them too striking but agreed to allow him to time to regain his memories of her. She would travel with him to Purple Cavern Sect and try to become a member. 

The group headed south to Zun city and learned more about Jia and her history on the way. Lingsu spoke with her about medicine and Kung Fu Techniques, expression interest her Eight Divine Snakes. Since they had about nine days before the rest of the party met them again in Zun, they decided to travel to Je Valley so Min could learn Double Strike Technique from The Gentle Demon. 

In Je Valley they exchanged news and Min learned the Technique. They then journeyed back to Zun uneventfully and are now awaiting the arrival of their friends. 


Michael Prescott illustration from
Average Joes
Here are some unusual fictional terrorist organizations for your Terror Network campaign

The Federation: The Federation began as a book club in Horn Lake Mississippi. However they were radicalized eleven years ago when an adaptation of a classic set of science fiction short stories was released in theaters and failed to follow canon. Since then they've embraced a radical literalist interpretation of all science fiction and fantasy literature. In particular they object to any deviation from the text when such a novel or short story is made into a film. Typically they target theaters but have been known to target A-list directors as well. 

The Fists of the Sprue: This group of dietary vigilantes recently unleashed a wave of terror in the wake of new FDA guidelines for the labeling of Gluten Free foods. They target food manufacturers that label their products gluten free but don't take adequate measures to prevent cross-contamination. One particularly radical sub-group seeks to eradicate gluten from the food supply by burning wheat fields. 

Baroque Commandoes: This splinter group of the Westfield Chamber Orchestra adheres to an extremist ideology that holds music reached its pinnacle in the Baroque era and are devoted to destroying all post-Baroque musical forms. They usually target a particular style of music each season, most recently focusing their attacks on folks festivals. 
Michael Prescott Illustration
from Average Joes

Champions of Silence: This secretive individual or group reacts violently to "spoilers" about popular TV and movies. Radio talk show and other media hosts were their first victims, but more recently they have begun to organize a determined campaign against the entire movie trailer industry. It is unknown whether this is the work of a lone wolf or a small cadre of individuals.

The Grammatologists: A much feared organization devoted to enforcing strict adherence to proper grammar in all media. They've been known to stage public executions of writers, bloggers and media personalities who violate their narrow understanding of syntax, punctuation, style and grammar. The group turned against itself, dividing into two camps when younger leadership objected to the use of the name Grammatologist. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015


We've recently contemplated making a small adjustment to the scaling of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. Before our plan was to just have normal Heroes and Immortals, with Heroes being Qi ranks 1-6 and Immortals being Qi rank 7+ (but going up as high as 24). Now we are thinking of adding an intermediary stage. Mechanically it really isn't a huge tweak because we already had Qi ranks 1-24, we would just be adjusting what the midrange means. 

Originally once characters reached Qi Rank 7, they could potentially become immortals. This would not only give them special abilities like regeneration and other perks, it gave them access to Profound Kung Fu Techniques and Immortal Powers. This works great but if you don't want to run an Immortal style campaign, it does limit your options. So instead what we are considering is having Qi ranks 7-12 simply give you access to Profound Kung Fu Techniques, without actually having you become immortal. I think this creates a smoother gradient and makes running a pure Wuxia campaign (with fewer fantasy elements) more feasible. I should point out each Qi Rank represent a pretty big leap and it can take some time to get from one to the other. Right now, if you played once a week and you earned the max amount of experience possible each session, you might reach Qi rank 6 in a year (we do intend to have optional XP tables for more condensed campaigns). 

This is still just under discussion. If we do make the change, then it will likely be the last significant alteration because of where we are in the development process. 

One thing to note: the Profound Master and Immortal levels of play are not the focus of the current rule book. We provide some details on running immortals and some key Profound Kung Fu Techniques, but those are going to both be handled later in The Profound Masters and Immortals supplement (we still haven't settled on an official title). 

Friday, May 22, 2015


In Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate we have roughly 180 Kung Fu Techniques and while it is great to playtest them in isolation, my goal from the start has been to playtest things as much as feasibly in a campaign. That can be tricky because you can't really force things in campaigns. But I don't mind gently nudging things when I play testing in order to see them in action. One solution I've looked to is the martial contest. 

In wuxia tournaments happen all the time. They can arise for a variety of reasons but often its to resolve leadership issues (for example to see who can be chief of the Wulin) or ownership of an object of importance. Contests can also be a part of the promotion of training process. A major plot point in Demi-gods and Semi-Devils involves a tournament between the major sects. 

So in my current campaign the possibility of a tournament between the major martial sects looms large. There is a lot going on and there are a few possible reasons for holding such a contest.

Here are some initial thoughts on how to run a good tournament in the martial world. It is possible I've missed some points or possibilities so readers should feel free to chime in with their own ideas. 

The Stakes Should be Real 
By real stakes I mean it should be over something that matters and actually affects the campaign. This might be a tournament to unit the sects under one leader for example (or just to help elect the head of a particular sect). Another good reason is control of a significant object, manual or artifact. In our game the Wind Saber of Sunan, which has caused untold havoc as a source of envy and conflict, could potentially be used in this way.  A tournament might also be held to secure a coveted position in someone's service. In all these cases, victory means a significant outcome that potentially has a huge impact on the PCs themselves (or at the very least their sect). If the players are going to go to a competition, they won't be too excited if its for the setting's equivalent of a plastic trophy. The competition really needs to be worth their time and effort. 

An Organizer
Every tournament needs an organizer. Just anyone can't arrange for the heroes and evils of the martial world to assemble for an organized competition of skill. It has to be someone with the resources or reputation to compel the gathering. Who is it and why are they organizing the event in the first place? 

Ground Rules
There is a good chance the less orthodox competitors will violate some of these but you will want a list of basic rules of combat. This really can be anything you want though you'll need to address some basic assumptions. Is this to do the death? Are all techniques permissible? How many competitors per match? How long is each match? 

Some common ground rules you see in wuxia are things like limiting each match to a set number of strikes or exchanges, disallowing repeated use of the same technique, forbidding lethal force, etc. Some tournaments also have special rules to make things interesting. You could have a competition that only allows kicks or requires computers to drink between rounds. The match might not even be about defeating an opponent, it could be about using your Kung Fu to make the perfect noodle dish, play chess or play keep away. 

An Elimination Process
This is about the actual structure of the competition. Whether it is 1 on 1 or team competition, you need to decide how people are eliminated and how they advance. This is going to be very specific to the competition itself. For example you might start with teams, with groups of champions from each sect being selected then having two sects at a time face one another. A given team might only have to beat one or two matches to get to final competition. How many sects are involved will be a big factor here. For instance if you have 8 sects you may have an elimination bracket that looks like the following:

Obviously the only matches you might want to play out live are the ones the PCs are actually taking part in. I personally like to to run the combats separately before the game to know what the outcome will be (if it is too big a task I might eyeball or simplify to a roll off of some kind). However whatever outcomes I have, I assume intervention might change them (for instance if a player decides to poison members of Zhaoze sect because he wants  the party to face Sun Mai Temple instead). 

You could keep it much simpler too. A common device in wuxia is for the competition to start with one man or woman who takes challengers and the victor of each match remains until no one is willing to step in and fight. This is a pretty straight forward and easy method (though its fairness is debatable). 

Ulterior Motives and Politics
Yes there is a competition happening and that's the focus, but it doesn't have to be all that is going on. Maybe the person who organized the tournament did so just to get their hands on something that belongs to one of the other sects (in fact he sent a team to their temple to steal it while they are busy fighting in a silly competition). There may be a wholly unrelated adventure or series of events that unfold and involves the party on the tournament grounds or where they area staying. Perhaps a rival group that wasn't invited shows up to disrupt the event. The point here is to consider the agenda's of the different factions and participants, and make use of them. 

A Full Roster
This is the hardest part of planning for a competition. You need to come up with stats for all the NPCs the players may face. If it is relatively small affair, then you may just need a handful of opponents. If it is sizable, then you may need pages of foes. This is probably a good thing anyways because it will help you flesh out your sects with characters you can use again in the future. Since your the GM you have control over how big the scope of the tournament is (unless a PC is organizing it). So make it a size you can tackle. 

When you are making lots of different NPCs for a wuxia style game, something I've noticed is they each need to pop and be memorable, just so things don't get too bland. These are all martial heroes with distinct and colorful identities. You might throw in some mooks but for the most part a tournament is going to be focused on people with some amount of skill. Try to mix it up with different weapons, personalities and techniques. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015


Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate draws on a number of sources for inspiration. I watch a lot of wuxia movies and TV shows, and these have had a big influence not only on Ogre Gate, but on Sertorius and many of my d20 campaigns. I am hoping to share some of my favorite movies and shows in the genre here as we work on WHOG.

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective. 

Note: This review contains many spoilers. 

Green Snake is a 1993 film directed by Tsui Hark and based on a novel by Li Bihua (which is itself based on the legend of Madame White Snake). It stars Maggie Cheung (Green Snake), Vincent Zhao (Fahai), Joey Wong (White Snake) and Wu Xing-Guo (Hsui Xien). This is more of a mythic or legendary film than wuxia, but had enough of an influence on Ogre Gate that I want to review it here. 

If you've seen the more recent film with Jet Li, Sorcerer and the White Snake, then you will recognize the main storyline. The original source material, Madame White Snake, has been made into numerous films and television shows (as well as books). While I quite enjoyed the Jet Li version and while I rather liked the 2006 version of the television show, this one, for all its shortcomings (most of which are a product of the time it was made) is my favorite version. 

What is interesting about the story and how it's been used is its malleability. The character of Fahai, who is the unrelenting monk trying to stop the two snake demons is depicted quite differently depending on the adaptation. In Hark's film, he is a kind of flawed and hypocritical fanatic who unleashes terrible evil in his efforts to deny his own desires and protect the human realm from demons. In many ways he is the villain, but it is clear that he is redeemable.  

The main character of the film, is Green Snake, though her sister, White Snake is prominent as well. In other versions of the story White Snake is usually the focus, but here while we follow her transition to becoming human, it is seen from the point of view of Green Snake, who struggles to understand human emotions like love and pain. 

Both of the sisters are Snake Demons trying to become human. White Snake is the senior of the two, and been cultivating the change for over 1,000 years, while Green Snake is younger, less in control of her abilities and emotions, and only been cultivating for 500 years. 
Green Snake threatening a temple monk

White Snake becomes infatuated with Hsui Xien, a scholar who teaches at a local village. She wants to complete her cultivation by marrying him and having a child and arranges to meet him by offering him a ride on her boat across the lake in the rain. Over the course of their courtship she explains and teaches Green Snake what it is to be human. However she and Hsui Xien are beset by Fahai, who opposes their relationship out of a desire to protect the human realm. Their love is also thwarted by a blind daoist, who wants to steal the combined 1,500 years of power the two snakes have cultivated. 

Fahai has several encounters with the snakes over the course of the movie. They recognize his power and attempt to avoid him but Green Snake seems drawn to the monk. His first encounter is in the bamboo forest, before they meet Hsui Xien, as they try to shield a villager who is giving birth from the rain. Recognizing that they are helping her, he turns away and shows them mercy. Here we also see the hypocrisy and lust at work in Fahai as he seems to struggle with the sight of a naked woman giving birth (and in fact soon secludes himself to fend off tempting lust spirits). He encounters them again when they save a village from flooding waters with their magic, and again spares them for their good nature. However he soon sees them as a threat when he realizes that one of them has married Hsui Xien. 
White Snake Calls the Rains

There is a crucial scene about a third of the way through the movie when Hsui Xien pours Xiong-Huang Wine (which is a problem for snakes) into the river by their house, forcing Green Snake (who is in the river) to take her natural form. The sight of a giant serpent terrifies Hsui Xien so much he collapses and his breathing stops. White Snake says the only way to save him is to obtain a special herb from Kunlun Mountain, but it is protected by a magic crane. The two sisters go together to retrieve the herb. They are chased on their way by Fahai and Green Snake offers to contend with him and the crane so her sister can get save Hsui Xien. 
White Snake and Green Snake

Green Snake is nearly killed by the crane. When Fahai arrives he almost destroys her himself, but shows mercy when she says they stole the herb to save a life. He then says he'll let her go if she helps him test his inner strength. Green Snake attempts to seduce him while he meditates and she succeeds in provoking his lust, which only angers him (even though he asked for the test himself). Green Snake is outraged because he promised to let her go if she helped him, and in her mind he lost.

The film culminates with Fahai confronting Hsui Xien about the snake demons. He shows him that his house is just an illusion and abducts him, taking the helpless scholar to his temple where he tries to forcefully turn him into a monk. Hsui Xien protests that he doesn't want to be enlightened, that he wants a secular life, but Fahai is determined. 

When Green and White Snake reach the temple to rescue Hsui Xien we get an epic confrontation between the demons and the monk. This is not a mundane battle but one that is mythic, with both sides commanding powerful elemental forces. At one point Fahai even lifts his temple into the sky so it can escape the water floods summoned by the snake demons. 

As the battle reaches a climax, White Snake gives birth to a child. This disrupts Fahai's concentration because he now regards her as human but the ceremony continues. White Snake loses control of the waters and they engulf the village. In the temple the monks beat on drums and chant as they work to convert Hsui Xien. In an attempt to block the water floods, Fahai sends them into the temple, flooding its chambers. White Snake dies trying to save her child, handing it to Fahai and asking him to let her sister and husband go. Green Snake rescues Hsui as her sister dies but he has already become a monk and she accuses him of betraying them. When she reaches the surface and sees that her sister has died, she kills Hsui (saying he belongs with her sister). 
Green Snake Testing Fahai's Internal Strength

Fahai storms down, baby in hand, ready to deliver retribution against Green Snake for taking a life, but she points to all the dead monks, drowned by the water he redirected into the temple and he realizes that he's guilty of killing as well. Green Snake muses that even humans don't know the nature of love or good and says she may return when he has figured it out. Fahai is left to contemplate the destruction as he cradles the child. 
Green Snake Trying to Seduce Fahai

Green Snake sometimes gets dismissed for its dated special effects and heavy-handedness but I think it is an incredible movie. It captures everything I love about wuxia and martial arts fantasy films, particularly rich use of colors and imagery to pull you into another world. There isn't a whole lot of fighting in Green Snake, and it can be easy to get hung up on the erotic elements. However in this instance the eroticism is necessary for the themes Tsui Hark is trying to explore. While it is clear that Hark had his own agenda and vision when he made it, the great thing about Green Snake is it can be read a number of different ways and I think most people will find something about it that engages them.  While it clearly can be read as a political allegory, I think the moral and religious themes are more universal and resonate just as clearly with a global audience. 

One thing that is interesting about Green Snake is the prominence of the female characters. While isn't that unusual in Hong Kong action movies (especially wuxia) in this case it feels a little more pronounced than usual. The men are either instruments to carry the women's stories forward (as in the case of Hsui Xien) or they are the opposition (Fahai and the blind Daoist). Hsui Xien is bumbling and ineffective. His wife, White Snake, is by far the stronger of the two. At the end of the film he is the one being kidnapped by Fahai with the two snake demons going to rescue him.  
Despite a few hokey effects, the visuals are stunning

While there are not many fight or action sequences, there are a few and they are epic. This isn't precision choreography, it is larger than life, effect laden, soaring clashes. It is the kind of martial arts action dripping with magic and unfurling fabrics that canopy the sky and keep tides at bay. 

There is also a chase scene through the canals of the village, with the Daoist priest trying to catch Green Snake and failing at every turn. 

Tsui Hark is known for his use of special effects and there is plenty of it here. It does suffer from what was possible at the time. There was CG, and this film has some, but it mainly relies on traditional effects. This may be striking for modern views. While the notion of suspending disbelief at a giant rubber snake seems comical now, it wasn't as outrageous at the time and to an extent they did a good job working with what was available. Rubber snakes aside, it shines in other areas. The wirework, the costumes, the editing, the lighting and the overall look is impressive. There are moments where it slips because of reliance on old techniques, but there are truly stunning shots in this movie. One of the more interesting aspects is the simply use of the human body to convey that snake-demon nature of the characters. Maggie Cheung is particularly good here, convincing us with her sway and pacing that her legs are more serpentine than human. 

Temple Monks
The music is particularly well chosen. Some of it is a bit dated, as with many 90s Hong Kong Films, but the main themes feel timeless and work for the scenes they are meant to bring life to. This is complimented by the use of colors and composition of the shots. Each scene has a frame that feels like a painting, where it is clear Hark put a lot of thought into what he wanted the viewer to see. 

Like The Bride With White Hair, Green Snake is a movie that captures a mood and atmosphere, and so it dips into the surreal at times. It uses that to tackle some interesting ideas and moral themes. The film is morally ambiguous, but it doesn't question the existence of good and evil themselves, but our ability to discern the two clearly. 

I recommend it primarily because it is just a good film, but also because it has a lot of gaming potential. Any wuxia campaign or even a bog-standard fantasy campaign could benefit from some of the more fantastical elements here. Magic items and magic powers abound, demons of various kinds proliferate and the whole conflict between the monks and the snakes could work really well in a campaign (as a backstory, backdrop or focus). I think most GMs would be inspired and find a well of ideas in Green Snake

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Last post I mentioned a conflict that arose between party members during a recent session of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (HERE). In a world and genre of feuding sects, shifting alliances and ambitious heroes, I think a certain amount of internal party conflict is to be expected. Several years ago we published an RPG called Crime Network, where players were members of the mafia working their way up the hierarchy. That was a system built around party conflict. While Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate isn't such a game, the presence of some internal conflict has made it easy for me to apply many of the lessons and approaches we used in Crime Network. 

There is quite a bit of cross-over between the wuxia genre and crime genres. The world of martial heroes and sects can, at its worst, resemble the world of competing mafia families or inner city gangs. Obviously there are key differences too, but when I watch films like Killer Clans, The Bride with White Hair or even Butterfly and Sword, it is hard not to think of the kinds of violent conflicts you have between gangs, outlaw motorcycle clubs, etc. While this is mostly directly outwardly against rivals, sometimes the violence turns inward. Perhaps it is because of this similarity that I've prepared for many of my Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate sessions the way I prepare for Crime Network sessions. 

My prep for Ogre Gate isn't identical to Crime Network. There are a lot more investigations, quests and dungeon crawls than you are going to find working as a soldier for the Martino Crime Family. My mafia sessions are all about the characters and organizations. They are conflict adventures driven by the motivations of the people and groups involved. When I prepare a Crime Network campaign, I simply drop the players into that situation and see what kind of reaction I get. There are elements of this to my Wandering Heroes campaigns as well. For example a big part of my prep involves mapping out all the different sects so I can get a quick sense of where they stand on key developments. Another important part is coming up with all the members of those sects who matter and creating a network of NPCs. 

Once the game is in motion, if conflict emerges, I don't shy away from it. It is great if the party gets along and shares an agenda, but it can also be enjoyable to see what develops out of conflict. In some games this might be viewed as the end of the campaign, as an implosion, but I find, at least for me, in wuxia it merely leads to more possibilities (I would argue it can in just about any kind of campaign, but that is a topic for another day). I think the key when you are GMing such conflicts is to hold yourself to highest standard of impartiality possible. That doesn't mean you'll be perfect, but you have to strive for it. 

As a rule of thumb, when player versus player conflict occurs, particularly if combat is involved, I run things 100% by the book and look up every rule if there is any doubt at all about the details. I also explain my rulings more clearly to people so they understand risks and how I intend to proceed. It is a trade off because it does take a little more time, and it can shave off some of the drama, but it really does help contribute to the sense that things are being handled fairly. 

It is pretty important here to gauge your players. We're all human and when PCs start fighting people can take it personally or get too aggressive and competitive. I try to read the mood in the room and if anyone seems upset or I'm just not sure what they are thinking, I will pause to deal with that. I've found it helpful after sessions where there is party conflict to ask questions and be open to the responses you get because it gives you better information going forward (for example you may have thought someone was upset but they were really just excited and getting into character, or you might have mistaken anger for passion in another instance). 

Party conflict doesn't end the campaign, it just causes it to pivot (to varying degrees). Initially that can frighten a game master. It can throw a wrench in what you have in store or force the you to try to corral the party into a unified whole again. I've come to see party conflict as reducing my workload rather than increasing it. Conflict creates something new, it adds to the campaign. It may be messy, it may require scores be settled and a new order be established in the party, but it sets a path. The role of the GM in this instance is to clearly see what path that is, to elaborate on the ramifications. That may mean other groups or characters get involved, it may mean you need to start thinking about where the conflict will take the party next (geographically, politically, socially). This is where sects really come in handy in Ogre Gate. Once word of an internal conflict gets out, other martial heroes may take notice and capitalize on the division. 

A lot of folks are wary of party conflict in RPGs, and with good reason: it can turn into real hostility between players and have a negative impact on the game group as a whole. It can also be difficult with some adventure structures or styles of play. For this reason, some might opt to avoid it when running Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, which is fine. I think people need to run the game the way that works for them and their players. But I would advise against dismissing it out of hand because you might miss out on some interesting developments that expand your campaign.