Monday, June 29, 2015

THE SECRET OF JE VALLEY PART X: THE END OF MYSTIC SWORD

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


Characters:
Xue Lingsu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Xi Kang(Affiliated with Mr. Red Claw)
Zhi Zhu (No Sect)
Long Shu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Min (Purple Cavern Sect)
Rong (Tree-Dwelling Nun Sect)
Jia (Long Shu's snake demon wife)
Nuan (Xi Kang's disciple)

The party headed to Mystic Sword Temple where Lady Plum Blossom had gone to destroy what remained of the sect. When they arrived they found piles of dead bodies and learned that Purple Cavern Sect had won (though their numbers had been reduced to 144). Lady Plum Blossom issued an order for all members of her sect to kill any Mystic Sword disciples on site and the party aided in searching the temple halls. 

In Lady White Blade's bedroom they found a small hidden compartment with a wall scroll that contained the Prophecy of the Calamity, these were the last words of General Dou Lun (an ancestor of Lady White Blade) who died at the battle of Yu Zhing when northern Hai'an fell to the empire 97 years ago. It read: 
When the Calamity Star rejoins I will be reborn. My skin will be marked by the birds of paradise flower and I will reclaim The Empire for the Daolin people.
The Calamity Star was a body in the sky that fragmented into three parts on the night of General Dou Lun's death and it rejoined seven years ago. Searching further they found orders issue by Lady White Blade instructing her disciples to seek information on the The Calamity Star's possible place of birth. There was a report that claimed it may have been in the Kushen Basin or in a village on Mount Hai'an called Buak. There were also orders to kill Zhi Zhu. In the library they found a number of manuals containing Mystic Sword Temple techniques. 

Lady Plum Blossom told Lingsu to copy the manuals and then she presented them with a letter she received from Bronze Master that had been issued to all the sect leaders. It was an invitation to a competition in Zun City on the first day of the Ghost Festival (in about two months). It stated that Lingsu, Long Shu and Min had found the Phoenix Crown and come into possession of the Wind Saber of Sunan. In the interest of the greater good, they had agreed to allow their ownership be settled during the competition, with the victor rightfully gaining both items. The party had agreed to none of this and had never publicly stated had either the crown or the sword. 

Lady Plum Blossom discussed their options and they considered making forgeries to present at the competition. Ultimately they settled on issuing a letter of their own to all the sects. The letter called for the establishment of a committee to form the rules of the competition. In their letter they nominated All the Orthodox Sect leaders, Lady Plum Blossom, Strange Phoenix, and the leaders of Majestic Lion and Zhe Valley. In addition they sent an anonymous letter to the Demon Moon Cult informing them that the competition was to take place and that a committee was to meet to determine the rules. 

The purpose of the letter was to take the rules crafting out of the hands of Bronze Master alone. It was also done to create conflict between the participants and to hopefully delay the event, which would give them more time to secure the safety of the Wind Saber. They decided to seek someplace safe to place the sword but first set out for Buak to learn what they could about the Calamity Star. 
MYSTIC SWORD TEMPLE


When they went north they took the prophecy of the Calamity Star scroll with them to Mount Hai'an sect headquarters (which was on the way). They met with Jinghui, the leader of Mount Hai'an and presented the scroll to her. She was cold and a bit hostile. Though she never threatened to kill them, it was clear she deemed Purple Cavern an unorthodox sect worthy of death so the players left once they had passed her the prophecy. 

As they traveled through the mountain, Zhi Zhu checked to see if they were being followed and spotted four figured in black trailing them. Eventually they came parallel with the party and Zhi Zhu saw one of them change into the clothing of a Kushen Tribesmen. She eavesdropped and learned they were planning an ambush where the men in black would act as though they were attacking the Kushen and he would shout for help. 

Armed with this knowledge the party allowed the ambush to unfold. They found their opponents but up a mild fight, with one of them using a variant of Endless Arc of the Spear to wound the party with a green ring of Qi energy. Soon the party had the upper hand and dispatched their foes. Lingsu was able to determine that these were Yao, martial heroes who served the emperor and were completely loyal after having their hearts cut out and placed in a box. The Kushen said his name was Tartu and that the Yao had been after him because he knew where their lacquered heart boxes were kept. To be safe the party chopped off the heads and limbs of the Yao. Tartu said they would still come back and tried to secure their trust but knowing about the ambush they chose to interrogate him. 

Zhi Zhu pinned Tartu with Arms of Silk and they threatened to poison him if he didn't speak. Eventually he revealed that he was part of an ambush but only because the Emperor's grand councilor had taken his sister as a concubine and threatened to kill her. He also told them the Yao were planning a second attack that night and he was supposed to drug them beforehand. The party bound him, gagged him and took him as a prisoner. They then set out for Buak once more. 

This is where the session ended. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

THE POINT OF NO RETURN: DECISIONS AND TIME IN CAMPAIGNS

When I was learning guitar growing up my teacher used to tell me the hardest part about song writing and playing was choosing where to go when faced with different creative options. His point was a lot of people struggle not because they can't come up with anything but because they have too many ideas vying for control. They just have trouble discerning the best path and going forward. Guitar playing is a lot different than game mastering but I think the issue of choice is similar. 

When I run into trouble in a campaign or a session it is often a product of failing to make a concrete decision about a key event (did Lady Plum Blossom go to Mystic Sword Temple to wipe out the remaining disciples and if so how). I may even think I've made a choice but fail to make decisions about the details. This is is the worst case scenario because it creeps up on you and you have to spit out an answer when it comes up. 

Just decide. 

As a GM you are constantly making choices. A lot of this is before the game starts, during prep. But I think most of your choices actually arise in play as events unfold. Obviously you want to make the best decisions possible, and agonizing a little over choice can be a good thing, but I think sometimes you just need to pick something and move ahead. 

The biggest issue here is what I call the half-choice, where you leave the outcome of an event fuzzy in your mind, so it has a shape but no real definition. For example, if the players just stole the Wind Saber of Sunan from Lady White Blade, it would be very easy to decide that she reacts by sending people after them, but not follow up with any clear details (who does she send? Where? When?). You can wing this, just throwing a bunch of Mystic Sword Sect assassins at the party every so often so they feel the threat is real, but what happens when they take one of their attackers prisoner and demand answers? Granted the assassin may have a limited view of the big picture, but you should at least know what that view is. He at least knows when he was sent, who told him to go after the PCs and why. If you've only made a half choice on the matter then you have to make up those details as the players question the guy, and while that can work it can also lead to all sorts of contradictions. 

So what I find helpful is to simply make decisions about this kind of thing at the appropriate time, hopefully before I a situation arises where the PCs start asking questions. I'll just jot a note to myself during the game regarding Lady White Plans intentions, directives and actions. It is really helpful to have a campaign calendar here. I always keep one for my games, and while I don't always remember to make the best use of it, when I do it is one of the most helpful things for managing on-going events. This allows me to mark the day that something happens, pencil in a potential date for a certain event to take place (for instance if Lady White Blade sends someone to intercept the party in Chen, I can look at the map and estimate their travel time,then mark their arrival time on the calendar). 

Again, you can also improvise. Sometimes you have to improvise. You should improvise. But even during improvisation, you have to make choices and the point of making decisions for me is 1) consistency and 2) making player character decisions matter. If you make choices and stick with them, these root your NPCs and their actions in time and space just as the player characters themselves are rooted. Time becomes important to play. If the players decide to spend a day at the Silk Tavern, that decision could mean the bad guy gets away or that they arrive after the their Sifu has been dropped into a pit of venomous insects (not before or during). 

Making decisions, sticking to those decisions, is also a self imposed limitation on the GM that makes the world feel real. The GM can always cheat for a more dramatic result. While I am not saying the GM should avoid drama (I love when drama arises in play) or that he should always abstain from coincidences that keep things entertaining, I do think striving for believability is crucial to player-buy-in. And I feel like one important aspect of this suspension of disbelief is seeing that the outcomes the GM probably desires are not always occurring (sometimes NPCs make choices that work in the favor of the PCs and don't fuel challenge or drama). 

I want to be clear that I am not saying the aim should pure simulation of a world, where the players are reduced to dealing with everyday-life frustrations and annoyances rather than going on fabulous adventures. I am just saying it doesn't have to feel like Raiders of the Lost Ark all the time. That is a movie, meant to entertain viewers and not interactive like an RPG. I think in an RPG you need to make sure that player character choices matter and that the randomness of the dice matter. Not fudging and avoiding railroads is one part of this. A more subtle thing is the GMs role in managing the background details of NPC choices, reactions and events. The more concrete your choices the more solid the setting will feel. 

WANDERING HEROES OF OGRE GATE UPDATE

Sorry if we haven't been posting here as frequently lately but just going over the final version of the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate before sending it to the editor (it needs to be in by July 10th so I need to check for errors and make sure we didn't forget anything). After that things should move relatively quickly. 

We also started work on a new character sheet. The character sheet for Network games really hasn't changed in the last six years at all. Now is the right time to make some adjustments there. 

In the meantime I am re-organizing the layout of the blog. I consolidated all my wuxia reviews into one of the right hand panels (I may have missed some, but I think I got them all). I also put the logs for our Secret of Je Valley adventures in another panel, so people can see what a Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign might look like (note in the book we shifted the spelling from Je valley to Zhe Valley in case there is any confusion on that point). Feel free to let me know if you'd like to see any additional changes. 

I should have another wuxia review up soon. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

THE SECRET OF JE VALLEY IX: THE PAGODA OF THE GOLDEN MERCIES

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


Characters:
Xue Lingsu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Xi Kang(Affiliated with Mr. Red Claw)
Zhi Zhu (No Sect)
Long Shu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Min (Purple Cavern Sect)
Rong (Tree-Dwelling Nun Sect)
Jia (Long Shu's snake demon wife)
Nuan (Xi Kang's disciple)

The party found their way into the forests of Dhamma and came to Kwam Metta, the village once under the protection of Iron Sky Maiden. As they approached they saw that the settlement was walled with a gate and that it appeared abandoned. From a distance they could see shapes of human figures inside but none seemed to move. Zhi Zhu climbed onto the rooftops of Kwam Metta and made her way toward the center of town where a great pagoda towered above the houses. On her way she saw that the shapes were people but they appeared frozen. The pagoda was about five stories tall and the wall of the upper floor was torn out, revealing a room. Zhi Zhu climbed the tower for a better view and saw a dead body on the floor being eaten by an enormous bird with a long neck and copper colored beak (a venomous Zhen bird). She also saw a contorted humanoid body clambering through the market area and gurgling before she returned to the party. 

Long Shu and Jia were able to guess that the people were likely Phoenix Ghosts, people whose phoenix and dragon spirits were separated through unnatural means, causing their bodies to freeze. Long Shu tested this idea by approaching one, which immediately animated and attacked him. He escaped and they decided to approach the pagoda from the eastern wall. The party had some difficulty climbing, with Long Shu and Zhi Zhu both falling before they made it over. Once inside they were careful to avoid the frozen bodies and went into the Pagoda. 

In the first floor they found a giant statue of Hen-Shi with thousands of smaller golden statues surrounding her. There were stairs going up and down, so they took the downward stairs first. 

They came to a room filled with bones and skeletal bodies. As soon as they walked toward another set of stairs heading down, they were attacked by eight skeletons. These proved little threat as they shattered them with one kung fu technique after another. 


The stairs eventually led them to a large underground room with a massive statue of Iron Sky Maiden. They felt a powerful tremor in their bodies and soon realized it was the voice of the Iron Sky Maiden speaking to them. "You may ask me one question, and only one question" she said. 

The party debated what to ask and settled on "What do you love most in the world" (they had been told that to get Iron Sky Maiden's favor they needed to bring her a gift of the thing she loved most). Her answer was "Kwam Metta". They debated what this meant and concluded it most likely indicated they should help restore the Phoenix Ghosts. 

They continued down and came to another chamber, this one with a fist-sized jade turtle statue with an amber glow in its center. Xi Kang took the turtle and they continued to the upper chamber of the pagoda. 

On the second story of the pagoda was a room filled with reliquaries. Here they were confronted by the rotting corpses of Dancing Hawk and Madame Hamaya. Zhi Zhu attempted Arms of Silk but both figures passed effortless through the fabric once ensured  Dancing Hawk attacked but his fluttering kicks were easily deflected. Madame Hamaya unleashed her own Arms of Silk technique against Long Shu and Zhi Zhu (ensnaring Long Shu). Once again the party proved victorious, and Madame Hamay proved to be the bigger challenge. 

On the third floor of the pagoda they came to a room with numerous wall scrolls featuring a number of different landscapes (The Tomb of the Timeless Master, Zun Valley, etc). A number of shadowy figures emerged from the air, Rong was able to discern that these figures resembled the party members. A fight between them began and it proved somewhat futile for both sides as they were able to attack and counter each other's moves fairly easily. Rong took a chance and lashed one of the wall scrolls, which causes a foe to evaporate. The party quickly destroyed all the wall scrolls, eliminating the remaining threats. 

On the fourth floor, the party came to an empty chamber with the word DESTINY written in Feishu script on the floor. They then saw three phantom figures at the back of the room. The central one looked like a Eunuch, while the two on either side appeared to be black armored guards. One of the flanking figures leapt forward and lashed out with a spinning spear attack that unleashed a circular blast of energy. In the end they were able to stop the threat by killing the eunuch. 

Upon the fifth floor they came upon the Zhen bird and Zhi Zhu used Arms of Silk so the party could take the body. Searching it they found a dragon-phoenix seal. They also saw writing on the written by a disciple of the village's successor to Iron Sky Maiden, 7th Brother. According to the text, the village was under attack from invaders and 7th Brother had placed the spirits of the residents into a Jade Turtle (the one the party possessed) but was turned into a demon before he could finish the rite. It said he had to be restored so he could complete the ritual. 

The party left the Pagoda and went into the street, where they were attacked by a luminous figure with bird-like features (7th Brother). Seventh Brother was enraged by the party's intrusion and their questioning infuriated him further. He immediately attacked unleashing a blast of energy that caused Long Shu's body to evaporate. 

This drove Xi Kang into a rage who attacked the demon. With the aid of Rong and Zhi Zhu he managed to chase it down the road and destroy it (at least temporarily). While the rest of the party comforted Jia, Kang went back to the chamber of the Iron Sky Maiden and demanded answers. 

Meanwhile Long Shu awakened in the road, in daylight (it was night when he evaporated), finding it filled with people going about their business. Walking back to the pagoda he found the body of 7th Brother laid on a mat and in a deep sleep. There were people praying nearby and they informed him that Mengwai (the disciple of 7th brother) was responsible and being held on the edge of town. Long Shu went and found Mengwei in a cage, protected by a man named Kraeting. He convinced Kraeting to release Mengwei who said he knew how to help 7th Brother. 

Speaking with Iron Sky Maiden, Kang explained the situation. He had a long conversation with Iron Sky Maiden (which she informed him would require her to take five months of rest) and learned that if he placed the statue of the turtle into the body of 7th Brother, he would restore and be able to finish the ritual. She told him though they had destroyed the body of 7th Brother he would return within the hour. 

Long Shu, who was inside the Jade Turtle, went to the Pagoda with Mengwei, where the disciple began to chant. 

As they did this, Kang returned to the party and they awaited 7th Brother's return. When he appeared, he was much larger than before and descended upon them from the sky. Kang threw the Jade Turtle and when it made contact there was a flash of light. 7th Brother's body was sucked into the turtle and the Phoenix Spirits of the residents were also pulled into it. When it was complete, Long Shu re-appeared beside them. 

They stayed the night in the village, in the former residence of 7th Brother. There Rong found a book The Pillars of the Sky (which was related to Iron Sky Maiden) and took it for the road. 

They continued back to Purple Cavern Sect, having some minor excursions on the way. When they reached the sect headquarters they learned that Lady Plum Blossom had taken most of the disciples to attack Mystic Sword Temple the day before. 

This is where the session ended. 


Saturday, June 20, 2015

DANCING HAWK: THE GUY WHO FAILED...ALOT


Dancing Hawk is an NPC in my Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign who developed a grudge with the party after they killed Madame Hamaya and had several confrontations with them. He fought them on three occasions, and each time he managed to roll 1s on his attack rolls and never actually struck any of the player characters. By their third encounter the party had tired of his quest for vengeance so they killed him. 

Looking at his stat block above, you can see he isn't a stellar martial hero but he isn't terrible either (and in the campaign his Qi rank actually went up to 3 or 4 by the last battle). Still he always had an air of Don Knotts about him. 

This past session, he came back in the form of a phantom and fought the PCs one last time. He attacked the party once each round, and rolled 1s both times, then the characters destroyed him in a hail of daggers. 

This is a character fated to failure. In over twenty years of GMing, I have never seen an NPC fail so badly and with such consistency. 

WANDERING HEROES Q&A

Here is a transcript of the Q&A session for Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate: 

THE HARDBOILED GMSHOE'S OFFICE

Thursday, June 18, 2015

WANDERING HEROES OF OGRE GATE CHARACTERS

Just posting our initial Character Sheet so people can see how characters work in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (this is a tentative Character Sheet for now):