Monday, November 9, 2020

HEAD OF THE TEAHOUSE (STRANGE TALES ADVENTURE)

The Head of the Teahouse is a Strange Tales adventure inspired by the Yuan Mei story  The Lady Ghost of the Western Garden. It is also more broadly inspired by Yuan Mei because it is part of a series of adventures I wrote in October based on his tales in Censored By Confucius. These all have a slightly different feel than the stories in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, so I tried to capture his transgressive humor, iconoclasm and earthiness as best I could (mostly this is in the finer details). 

This adventure works for a standard party and was playtested on two groups of level 1 characters. It works especially well if there is a Scholar in the party with an official rank of some kind. 

SYNOPSIS
In this adventure, the players go to the region surrounding Ruo village to investigate the disappearance of a tax official who came to the town in the fall to collect revenue for the county magistrate but failed to return. They likely discover he met a terrible fate at the local brothel, the Four Seasons Teahouse, where he was devoured by the monstrous head of the proprietor's husband. If they discover the truth about the magistrate's death, they may try to destroy the head and confront the proprietor, a skilled powerful Ritual Master. 




BACKGROUND
Thirty years ago, the Four Seasons was just an ordinary teahouse, operated by Chen Rushi and her husband Xu Yan. When Xu Yan decided to take a woman named Li Susu as his second wife, Chen Rushi initially agreed. But soon after her heart filled with powerful feelings of jealousy and rage. She also came to suspect Li Susu of seducing her husband with the goal of stealing their wealth. She sought the help of Jiang Yue, abbot of Wan Temple after hearing rumors he practiced black magic. At first he refused, but she knew he secretly desired her, and seduced him. The seduction worked and he created three magical objects to help Chen Rushi get revenge on both her husband and his new wife. He also began guiding her in the use of such magic. 

The magic of Jiang Yue produced a special blade, a tea elixir and a flute. He gave these to Chen Rushi with instructions on how to use them. She used the blade to cut off the head of her husband, Xu Yan. The head continued to live and grow, but was not very intelligent and only had flickers of Xu Yan's personality (mostly his growing rage over what befell Li Susu). The head was placed in the granary and contained by talismans Chen Rushi learned to fabricate. Provided it was fed a human body every month or so, it would be satisfied and not try to escape. His body was rigid and slow but also continued to live and seemed to house his true personality. Any head sewn onto the neck of the body would function fine and, over the years, Chen Rushi collected an assortment of heads to fit onto her husband so he could perform his duties at the Teahouse and other functions. 

The tea elixir, Chen Rushi gave to Li Susu who drank it. This made her eternally youthful but if she didn't drink it daily her body would start to rot away and die in hours. She then forced Li Susu to serve as a prostitute at the Teahouse, to punish her but also to punish her husband. She delighted in forcing her husband to watch Li Susu become the star of the teahouse, servicing clients regularly. Over the years the Teahouse has become one of the more renowned brothels in the prefecture. 

Jiang Yue's brother, a scholar named Jiang Ye, heard he had broken his vows for a woman and came to persuade him to change his behavior. Jiang Yue struck his brother down in anger, killing him and causing a curse to fall on the temple. The monks turned into ghosts at night, but remained mortal men during the day. Jiang Yue became a Rotting Ritual Master. He dutifully buried his brother in a tomb just outside the Ruo Village, but this act did nothing to alter conditions at the temple. 

Last fall, a tax official and poet named Gui Pu came to collect revenue from Ruo Village and the surrounding area. He stayed at the Brothel. That month the head of Xu Yan had not been fed as Chen Rushi had difficulty finding a suitable victim. It escaped from its granary and Gui Pu witnessed it from his chamber window at the teahouse, floating above the pond. Inspired, he wrote a poem on the wall then went to investigate and was devoured by the head. 

KEY NPCS
Chen Rushi: Proprietor of The Four Seasons Teahouse. Cut off her husbands head (see Xu Yan) soon after he took Li Susu as his second wife. She then made Li Susu serve as a prostitute at the teahouse to punish them both and used a special elixir to keep her forever youthful. 

Xu Yan: The decapitated proprietor of The Four Seasons Teahouse and the husband of Chen Rushi. His head continues to grow and feed in the granary behind the teahouse, while his body continues to manage daily tasks at the teahouse itself (using a variety of heads he has stored in his room, which he sews onto his neck)

Li Susu: A prostitute at the Four Seasons Teahouse who is eternally youthful but dependent on Chen Rushi for a daily elixir to survive. She is also the second wife of Xu Yan. 

Jiang Yue: An abbot at Wan Temple. 

HOOK
The players are sent to investigate the disappearance of the tax official Gui Pu. If any member of the party is a Scholar who holds official rank, that character is an ideal person to be tasked with investigating Gui Pu's fate. As with all Strange Tales adventures this is a monster-of-the-week style one-shot that begins at the adventure site. So the rest of the party should have good reasons for traveling with the scholar if you go with this hook (as the scholar's retinue, as bodyguards, as hired help, etc). If there is no such character in the party, they could be here as investigators on their own following rumors of Gui Pu's disappearance or one or more of them could be relatives of Gui Pu. Strange Tales is all about not fretting so much over the hooks or the idea that "this is tonights adventure" and emphasizes player character freedom at the adventure site location itself (a sort of contained sandbox). So the important thing is to hash out with the players beforehand, why they would all be here together as a group, looking into Gui Pu's disappearance. 

RUNNING THE ADVENTURE
Strange Tales is designed with one-shot adventures in mind. For this reason it is assumed play begins at the adventure site, but it assumes little else from that point on. Once the players begin investigating, let them do what they want, and just focus on running the monsters and NPCs as believable and living characters with goals of their own. The session doesn't have to build up to a particular set of events or climax. As long as the players sufficiently engage the adventure, that is enough (even if they end up just unearthing the giant head, and running away from it for their lives, that is enough for them to gain XP, particularly if they managed to solve the mystery). That said, how well they conduct their investigation could matter a great deal after the adventure if the characters are trying to advance through the ranks of the imperial bureaucracy. 

This adventure assumes the players will be investigating the disappearance of Gui Pu and tracking down clues, then following any leads they find. They can do so by asking around town, going to the temple or the teahouse. Many clues are specifically mentioned in locations and being with specific NPCs, but keep in mind, these are just the very likely and obvious ways to obtain these clues. It is always possible the players think of a potential way to find information that isn't stated here clearly. For instance while it is possible to learn from two patrons at the Sweet Ox Wine Shop that Gui Pu went to the brothel after a night of drinking with them, it is also possible they told other people in town this as well (so while a clue like that is pinned to the Sweet Ox Wine Shop, it is entirely possible to pick it up elsewhere). 

Don't pull punches. Characters can die in Strange Tales. But be fair in your adjudication of any combat and in any ruling you make. When death is on the table, it is that much more important to take individual rulings seriously. 

While this adventure is structured around locations, it is very much intended to be character and NPC driven. The NPCs should react to the players in believable ways and try to advance their own interests over the course of the adventure. And while many of the NPCs are villains, they are not stupid. They can be reasoned with and negotiation is always a possibility. 

LOCATIONS 

WAN TEMPLE
This is a haunted Buddhist temple dedicated to Guanyin. The monks here and their abbot were cursed thirty years ago (see Backstory). At night the monks turn into ghosts  but remain human during the day. The abbot, Jiang Yue is a rotting Ritual Master. The temple is still on good terms with Chen Rushi of the Four Seasons Teahouse, and Abbot Jiang Yue is still very much in love with her. Should players come here during the day, it looks like a normal temple. At night it becomes more dangerous as the monks have little control over their need to feed on human life. Jiang Yue, however is always in control of himself and always a Rotting Ritual Master (though he passes for human). 

JIANG YUE 
Jiang Yue is a Rotting Ritual Master. His face looks quite young and innocent, but his body is cobbled together from a variety of human parts. Though he looks human, both his arms were taken from female bodies, and this discrepancy in his appliance is discernible on a Detect TN 10 roll. Any involved medical inspection reveals his nature. Jiang Yue attempts to maintain the charade, and will even offer evening accommodations to visiting PCs. He will only seek to harm the party if they begin to pose a threat to Chen Rushi or if they learn too much about the temple's curse. Jiang Yue is gentle in his demeanor but there is a deep and powerful lust behind his eyes that can be gleaned by anyone using the character observation ability. 

Jiang Yue is torn between his guilt for his crimes and his love and lust for Chen Rushi. He does not blame her for her evil deeds, but himself. He is only capable of seeing the good in Chen Rushi and loyally aids her as much as possible. 

Jiang Yue has recently uncovered the Create and Control Ghosts ritual, but has yet to use it. He will use it on the party if he kills any of them (and the GM should feel free to keep such characters in the game as ghosts). 

Defenses: Hardiness 3, Evade 4, Wits 8
Key Skills: Arm Strike: 0d10, Detect: 2d10, Speed: 0d10, Muscle: 0d10, Persuade: 2d10, Empathy: 2d10, Divination: 2d10, Alchemy: 2d10, Ritual: 3d10, Survival: 1d10, Religion: 3d10, Trade: 3d10

Max Wounds: 1

Powers
Immunities: Jiang Yue is only affected by magic. If killed by other means he remains motionless for 1 day and returns the following day. 

Devour Heart: Every human heart he eats gives him an extra 1 Max Wound for 24 hours. 

Fuse Flesh: He can take limbs and skin from living beings and fuse it to his flesh. 

Rituals: Sword of Head Taking, Warding Talisman, Rotting Death, Create Talking and Walking Objects, Spiritual Defense, Filial Coin Trick, Find, Paper Talisman of Mimicry, Create and Control Ghost 

Substances: Tea Elixir of Youth

MONK GHOSTS (8)
During the day, these are just normal monks who reside at the temple. At night they turn into Bitten Ghosts (STRANGE TALES OF SONGLING, 56) which look like pale and bloated corpses, arms hanging at their side. They feed on life energy by pinning down people who are sleeping and drawing the breath into their nostrils. These ghosts are oddly susceptible to bites from living people. 

During the day they lose their immunities and if they are killed turn into a a pool of green goo. 

Defenses: Hardiness 7, Evade 6, Wits 6
Key Skills: Life Drain: 3d10, Arm Strike: 2d10, Muscle, 4d10, Speed: 0d10

Max Wounds:  4
Max Wounds: 1 (human form)

Powers
Bite Vulnerability: They flee when bitten by people and take 2 extra wounds from such attacks 

Weight of Many Corpses: On a successful Arm Strike roll they can pin a target down holding them in place to feed. It takes a Muscle TN 7 roll to lift the ghost off person's body or for the person to escape. 

Life Drain: Roll 3d10 against Evade when the monk is close to the victim's mouth. On a Success the target loses 1 Hardiness (returns at rate of 1 per week). 

Immunities: Only affected by magic weapons, rituals and Kung Fu Techniques. Vulnerable to human teeth. Each ghost is susceptible to a unique substance or thing. A given ghost is vulnerable to one of the following (based on their personal history): ginger, tea, silk cloth, erotic poetry, sugar, fecal matter, books, or bath water. If struck or first to ingest/endure any of these substances, the ghost takes 3 wounds. 


RUO VILLAGE
Population: 480
Leadership: Elder Sai Guo 
Exports: Sugar, Timber, Ceramic Goods (Ruo Porcelain)
Imports: Salt, Medicine, Clay 

Ruo Village is a small village famed for its sugar and porcelain. The sugar cane is harvested, then turned into a juice or pulverized and processed into a powder. Oxen are used to break down the sugar cane (and so there are a large number of oxen in the village). Merchants come from great distance to obtain sugar materials here then ship it down river. The village is also known for its red tea, which it sells in brick form to grind as a powder. There are a few street vendors selling roasted chestnuts, candies, meats and more to both visiting merchants and locals. Two of note are Ouyang and Gu, who are a good source of information. See their entry in The Sweet Ox Wine Shop for details. 

Elder Sai Guo: The village is led by Elder Sai Guo, who bears no relation to the Sai sisters at the Four Seasons Teahouse, however he helps Chen Rushi and in return she lets him use the brothel for free. He often helps Chen Rushi obtain bodies for her head to feed upon (usually criminals who have been detained and awaiting to be sent to the county or district magistrate for trial). A common saying here when someone dies is they 'went before the county or district magistrate'. Should the players investigate him and his residence they will find that the last record of him actually sending someone to appear before the district or county magistrate was two years ago. 

He has six stalwart men to help enforce and manage the village: 

STALWART MEN (6)
These men are only loyal to Elder Sai Guo because he pays them well and he looks the other way when they misbehave (which they often do). 

Defenses: Hardiness 6, Evade 5, Wits 6
Skills: Arm Strike: 1d10 (1d10 Damage), Melee: 1d10, Detect: 0d10, Speed: 0d10, Muscle: 2d10

Max Wounds: 2

MADAME HAN'S HOUSE 
This is the house of Madame Han, a poor widow, whose husband, Han Leng, disappeared three years ago. She is convinced it has something to do with the teahouse, as he spent many nights there the week that he died. She adores and trusts Elder Sai, but detests Chen Rushi. She only has a small bit of money but will offer it to the player characters if she learns they are investigating in the region to help solve the case of her missing husband. Her husband was indeed killed and his bones can be found inside the granary. 

RUO INN
Proprietor: Long-Winded Buwei  
Rooms: 20 Coins 
Food: Braised Pork (12 coins), Dandan Noodles (8 coins), Baiju (5 coins)

This inn caters primarily to merchants, and is run by Long-Winded Buwei. The food here is exceptionally good and this is a reliable location for finding people with information. Players coming to the inn can easily chat with Long-Winded Buwei or Merchant Rong Mo, but these are just examples of the types of people they may meet here. The GM should feel free to use the inn as a place to obtain information found elsewhere in the adventure at different times (since many people are coming and going it makes sense that new rumors and information can be found here if the players return after an initial visit). Long-Winded Buwei often allows and participates in gambling games in the rear of the inn. 

LONG-WINDED BUWEI 
Long-Winded Buwei is tall and gossipy. He is handsome and in his early 40s, and has a wife named Xuan Ge and three children (Shali, Shanlin, and Shuxin). Buwei is especially fond of officials, often giving them free food, rooms and other preferential treatment. He has a small weakness for gambling but only allows himself to lose so much on the habit each month. He knows the following: 
  • Many locals have disappeared in the past several decades, often after being arrested by the elder
  • Wan Temple is definitely haunted, he has heard many rumors about this from reliable people
  • A ghost haunts the tomb of Jiang Ye, in the Vermillion Hills
  • Ouyan and Gu (local street vendors who spend time at the Sweet Ox Wine Shop) were seen around town with Gui Pu when he came
  • He doesn't know what became of Gui Pu 
MERCHANT RONG MO
Sugar merchant Rong Mo has been here a month, spending most of his funds at the inn and the Four Seasons Teahouse. He is delaying returning to his family in the east because he knows this voyage was largely a wasted effort. He has a ship and a small crew but is here alone, drinking most days while he thinks of a way to salvage the trip. Because of his drinking he is rather confrontational, but may be willing to talk to anyone who can help him out of his current situation. He had an encounter with one of the monks last night and can share that. Here is what he knows: 
  • On his way back from the Four Seasons Teahouse last night, he was attacked by a ghost dressed like a monk. He ran for his life and managed to make it safely back to the village
  • The Four Seasons Teahouse is a brothel. He has been there many times and always likes to see Li Susu when he has the money. This time he spent his time with Sai Xiaowan. He was here late fall as well and at that time he found the most wonderful poem written in one of the rooms (see AREA D of the FOUR SEASONS TEAHOUSE)
RUO SUGAR SHOP 
Proprietor: Nie Zai
Goods: Sugar Cane (10 coins), Jars of Sugar Juice (20 Coins), Candied Fruit (1 coin each)

This shop sells an assortment of sugar goods and is run by Nie Zai, who is affable but always looking for a way to make money. He is happy to help the player characters purchase sugar goods, but will only be happy to give them the information below if they pay for the information or offer future business arrangements. 
  • If they ask about other possible disappearances, Nie Zai tells them that Madame Han's husband disappeared a number of years ago 
  • He knows the brothel used to be a teahouse and that the husband there tried to take another wife (soon after it became a brothel)
SWEET OX WINE SHOP 
Proprietor: Bao Qin 
Wines: Standard Baiju (5 coins per cup), Ruo Baiju (12 coins per cup), Moon Flower Baiju (15 coins per cup), Sweet Ox Wine (12 coins per cup)

Bao Qin claims to have many extraordinary alcohols for sale. He has an elaborate story and list of ingredients for each type, but discerning customers (Detect TN 10) will note all of his Baiju taste the same and his Sweet Ox Wine tastes like a simple rice based wine. He claims his moonflower Baiju is made from from rice fermented under moonlight (some evenings he claims to brew it using a night bloom that fell from from the moon). Most locals know the truth but enjoy his storytelling and don't care if all the wine is the same 

Like the Ruo Inn, this is a location where the players can get information found elsewhere at the GM's discretion. However there are two regular patrons here, always together, named Ouyang and Gu who are a reliable source of useful clues. 

OUYANG AND GU 
Ouyang and Gu cook and sell skewered chicken from a cart they share together. They are good friends, though they frequently argue. Ouyang is tall and extremely skinny with a deep fondness for music and an incredible eye for detail (any Scholar Character who makes a Character Observation on him may learn he has untapped potential to be a scholar-official if he is provided with the means to study and take the exams). Gu is the stronger personality, considerably more short but athletic. He has a strong temper but is quick witted and good with money. When they are not selling skewers or exploring business opportunities with passing merchants they are here drinking together. Here is what they can tell the player characters: 
  • They drank last fall with Gui Pu at the Sweet Ox Wine Shop. He left that evening to go to the Four Seasons Teahouse, saying he would return to drink with them again the following night (they never saw him again after that)
  • Ouyang's son, Bo, was at the Teahouse that night, saw Gui Pu, but left. On his way home he heard a scream. A loud, powerful scream that he believed was a ghost or demon 
  • If they really trust the player characters: Elder Sai sometimes 'cleans up' the village by "sending people to the district magistrate". If pressed they explain this means people think the Elder has trouble makers killed from time to time
  • The woman who runs The Four Seasons is rumored to practice black magic 
JIANG YE'S TOMB 
This small stone tomb was erected for Jiang Ye by his bother, Jiang Yue. After Jiang Yue struck and killed Jiang Ye, he felt guilty and paid to have the tomb constructed (he hired workers on a passing merchant ship). Outside the tomb is the following inscription: 

Dutiful Brother laid to rest by a hand disloyal

The stone door to the temple can be opened on a Muscle Roll TN 10. Otherwise opening it will take a fair amount of work. The cremated remains of Jiang Ye are housed in an urn and in an alcove. His belongings are placed in a larger alcove, and include a robe that contains the following letter: 

Brother, please do not come. Now is not a convenient time. The temple is not safe. 


THE FOUR SEASONS TEAHOUSE
While tea is served here, and is of excellent quality, this location is really a brothel. It is operated by Chen Rushi and her husband, Xu Yan. There are four prostitutes at the brothel but the most highly regarded among them Li Susu. Thirty years ago this was a normal teahouse, but when Xu Yan took Li Susu as a second wife, Chen Rushi's jealously built until she got revenge by using magic to cut off Xu Yan's head and forcing Li Susu to consume a tea elixir that made her ever-youthful but dependent on Chen Rushi (see Backstory). Xu Yan still tends to the teahouse, greeting customers and managing the cleaning and wait staff. He wears different heads that he has acquired through the years. His original decapitated head has become a monstrous thing housed in one of the granaries. Chen Rushi runs the teahouse and mostly does so to savor the suffering she causes her husband and Li Susu. 

The teahouse is famous for its Ruo River tea, which is 5 coins per serving. The prostitutes will sing a song or provide entertainment such as conversation for 50 coins (and anything beyond that is negotiated in very oblique ways). There are rooms as well which can be rented for 100 coins a night. They also have a food menu but it is all by request (Chen Rushi prides herself on being able to serve any dish a customer should ask for). The prices scale according to the difficulty and challenge of each dish. 

Clues
Clues can be learned here organically by interacting with the staff and the prostitutes of the teahouse. The GM should be familiar with the backstory and the character entries below to determine who is willing to talk about what. But if the players come to the teahouse and ask about the disappearance of Gui Pu, they will be told the following: 
  • He stayed one night in the fall (if pressed they can confirm it was room B)
  • He spent time with Xiao Yuan that night before suddenly dismissing her 
  • He left in the morning and said he was going back to the village (this is a lie, and all at the teahouse know it is a lie---the staff all believe he mysteriously disappeared in the night. Chen Rushi knows he was devoured by the monstrous head by the pavilion
Be sure to allow Scholars with abilities like Character Observation to make good use of them. One thing players might pick up on is Xu Yan has slow and unusual manners. Truly observant players may notice his head is sewn on (see his entry for details). 

1. Chen Rushi's Room
This is the room of Chen Rushi. It is kept neat with a bed, fine drawers and a large bronze mirror. She has a small compartment hidden in the wall (Detect TN 8). In here she keeps the Black Sabre she used to cut off her husbands head. This is also where she keeps the ingredients for her red tea elixir. She keeps a thimble-sized man, Magistrate Guan Sanli, in a terrarium garden made of crystal behind a screen in the chamber. 

Compartment
Black Sabre: This ferocious black sabre functions like a normal sword except it cuts off the target's head on a Total Success. In addition the head and the body, if not destroyed continue to survive in the same manner as Xu Yan (see backstory and Xu Yan entry). 

Red Tea Elixir Ingredients: Red Ruo Tea Brick, garden angelica, nut grass and the ground up teeth of a human woman in her twenties. While the ingredients are here, only Chen Rushi and Jiang Yue know the special way to prepare them. 

Crystal Garden of Guan Sanli
This is concealed behind a screen (no roll required if examining the room, but a TN 6 Detect if just glancing inside). It is made from a fine clear, crystal and has a miniature wooden house, with a pond, small bridge and diminutive garden. Inside is Magistrate Guan Sanli. 

MAGISTRATE GUAN SANLI
He was once the prefect of Fen Prefecture (or Fenzhou) 24 years ago. Chen Rushi turned him into a thimble sized man while he still held office and brought him here to serve as her advisor. He has gained her trust over the years, playing a very careful game to orchestrate his eventual escape. However he has also developed a fondness for her, even a small bit of love. He will eagerly work with the party if they help him escape and promise not to harm Chen Rushi but help reform her instead. He knows all of the brothel's and Chen Rushi's secrets. 

Defenses: Hardiness 1, Evade 2, Wits 7
Key Skills: Arm Strike: 0d10, Speed: 0d10, Muscle: 0d10, Detect: 0d10, Survival: 2d10, Talent: 3d10, Institutions: 3d10, Religion: 2d10, Classics: 3d10, History: 3d10, Places: 3d10

Max Wounds: 0

Powers
Easy-to-wound: He is easy to wound, and when hit by any attack, dies, without the need for a damage roll. 

2. Li Susu's Room
This is the chamber of Li Susu. It is one of the most ornate chambers. Chen Rushi spares no expense for the presentation here.

3. Xu Yan's Room
This is Xu Yan's room. It is a typical bed chamber except there is a cabinet with 5 heads in it (he has six heads in total but is always wearing one of them). Each of these heads appears lifeless until worn. Xu Yan attaches them to his body by sewing them onto his neck. Because these are taken from individuals that Chen Rushi has murdered and fed to the head in the granary, Xu Yan and Chen Rushi often use the identities of the heads for deceptive purposes. See the Grim Possibility note below for an optional possibility of having Gui Pu's head be among those in the cabinet. 

The heads he possesses are as follows: 

Magistrate Hu Wen of Hongzhou: This head was taken ten years ago from a magistrate in Hangzhou. 

Poet Yan Shu: This is a famous poet and imperial official's head, but no one yet knows that he has died (his death was recent so it is possible for Xu Yan to pretend to be Yan Shu if he desires). Yan Shu's poem, the Pearl Jade is his most famous work. 

General Yang Wenguang: This is the head of General Wang Wenguang. It was taken last year, and while still notable, the general has yet achieve many of his greatest deeds. Unless his head is somehow restored to his body, or unless someone assumes his identity and performs those deeds, this will greatly influence the course of future events in the campaign world. 

Merchant Mu Tian: This is the head of a reputable merchant from Kaifeng. 

Farmer Han: This is the head of a simple sugarcane farmer from the local region. He was killed by Chen Rushi three years ago. 

Huyan Mei: This is the head of a notorious criminal, a bandit, with a branding on his forehead denoting him as such. 

4. Staff Quarters
This is a hall outside, drafty and made from inferior wood, where the kitchen, cleaning and waitstaff reside. 

A. Basic Rooms
These are basic rooms, each 100 coins a night. They all share a connecting balcony however that can be used to watch the granaries. Xiao Yuan stays in one of these rooms each night. 

B. Elite Suite
This chamber resembles area D, and it meant for elite clients. It costs 200 coins a night. 

C. Sai Sisters Room
This is the room of the Sai Sisters (see their entries below). They keep the room neat and have a shelf with a number of books and instruments. There is also an ornate ceramic bottle containing a Bottled Fox here. They use the bottled fox to take possession of enemies of the teahouse (see STRANGE TALES OF SONGLING, 55). 

D. Gui Pu's Room
This is the suite that Gui Pu stayed in, it costs 200 coins a night. It is luxurious, reserved for officials and wealthy clients. There is a window overlooking the pond and pavilion. It is here that Gui Pu saw the head roaming the area, dismissed Xiao Yuan, then climbed out the window to investigate. But before he did, he was so struck by the beauty of the moment, bizarre as it was, that he etched a poem on the wall (one Chen Rushi has not noticed) that is a play on a classic poem and reads: 

The solitary head does not rest
He roams about and calls, missing his love
No one knows or remembers this vestige 
It lost its body to the confusions of pleasure 

Anyone who is part of the imperial bureaucracy or is familiar with poetry can make a Talent or Institutions roll to identify this as a poem in the style of Gui Pu. 

E. Pavilion 
This is where Gui Pu was attacked by the head. There are faded blood stains discernible in the wood of the bridge leading up to the Pavilion on a Detect TN 7 roll. On a Medicine TN 7 roll it can be determined that the blood is from the fall and would have been abundant. On a Detect TN 9 roll, a rotting paper talisman can be seen wedged between the floor boards of the pavilion (this is a talisman that came from the granary the night the head escaped). Anyone specifically asking to look at these areas closely doesn't need to make a roll to get this information. 

Grim Possibility (Gui Pu's Head): At the GM's discretion, Gui Pu's head could have survived the attack and been placed in possession of Xu Yan in area 3. This would allow Xu Yan to masquerade as Gui Pu (perhaps coming up with an elaborate excuse for his absence since the fall). Originally this was how I planned to do things in the adventure but didn't do so because it seemed like it would add too much complexity to the deception at the Teahouse. However, I think this can work if done right, so wanted to add a note about this possibility. 

F-H. Granaries 
These are rice Granaries. F and G contain rice, while H contains the Head of Xu Yan. The door to H is extremely wide and layered in dozens of paper talismans that prevent the head from escaping (it can only exit the granary if all the talismans are removed). The granary (H) contains piles of bones from previous victims (including Madam Han's husband; see MADAME HAN in RUO VILLAGE). 

THE HEAD OF XU YAN 
Xu Yan's head is enormous, taller than a man and wider than four or five men standing side by side. It moves freely in the air like a fish in water. Its expression is locked in a rage. It seems to house all of the rage and anger of Xu Yan, accrued through the years of watching his beloved Li Susu serve man after man (the head is aware of what the body senses though they are two distinct entities at this point). It cannot speak, but it can scream, groan and talk in a garbled manner that resembles human speech. The head must feed on human bodies to survive, which Chen Rushi provides, and with each feeding it grows. Unless it is under the control of Chen Rushi, it will attack and eat anyone it can. It has nothing but hatred and contempt for humanity. 

Defenses: Hardiness 8, Evade 6, Wits 2
Key Skills: Bite 1d10 (5d10 Damage), Speed: 2d10, Muscle: 5d10, Detect: 2d10

Max Wounds: 7

Powers
Immunities: Harmed only by magic weapons. 

Chen Rushi's Flute: The head can be controlled by Chen Rushi's flute (on a successful Talent roll against Wits). 

Bone Crunching Teeth: On a Total Success on its Bite Attack, the head breaks the brittle bones of humans with its chomping. This does normal damage plus it reduces Hardiness by 2 (which returns at a rate of 1 per month). Every 100 people it devours increases its size and its Max Wounds by 1. 

Residents of the Teahouse
SAI XIAOWAN AND SAI XIANGJUN 
These two feuding sisters are prostitutes at the Four Seasons. They fight bitterly, but care for one another's well-being. They are most famous for their talent in musical instruments. They can both play almost any instrument, with Xiaowan favoring the flute and Xiangjun favoring the pipa. Both detest Li Susu, and ingratiate themselves to Chen Rushi. They are in possession of a Bottled Fox which they use to help the teahouse against its enemies. 

XIAO YUAN
A prostitute at the teahouse, Xiao Yuan is known for her gentle and refined manners, as well as her singing talent and her skill in strategic games and puzzles. She is somewhat careless and naive. This often works to her favor with clients but makes her a source of frustration for the staff at the teahouse. 

LI SUSU  
Li Susu is the star prostitute of the Four Seasons Teahouse. She is known for her poetry and her appreciation of good poetry. Li Susu is forced to serve here by Chen Rushi, who keeps her by threatening to withhold the daily tea. She always looks youthful because of the elixir (does not appear to be a day over 20) and without it she begins to die and rot away. She wishes to escape but fears Chen Rushi and knows she cannot outwit the woman. She still has feelings for Xu Yan though she dares not express them as that only infuriates Chen Rushi further. She is content to bide her time, hoping to find a way to make the tea elixir herself one day, then kill Chen Rushi if she is able. She would be the most willing of all the residents to work with the party, provided they have a very good plan and promise to help her achieve her goals. 

Defenses: Hardiness 3,  Evade 3, Wits 6
Key Skills: Arm Strike: 0d10, Muscle: 0d10, Speed: 1d10, Talent: 3d10, Persuade: 3d10, Empathy: 2d10, Classics: 2d10, History: 2d10

Max Wounds: 2

CHEN RUSHI
Chen Rushi is the proprietor of the Four Seasons Teahouse and a powerful ritual master who used her magic to enact a terrible revenge against her husband, Xu Yan, and his second wife, Li Susu (see backstory for details). She is pretty, with a round face, and in her mid-60s. She has a close friendship with Jiang Yue of Wan Temple, whose love of her she exploits (he was the one who originally taught her magic and bestowed the flute, sabre and tea elixir to her--he has since surpassed his abilities). Though Jiang Yue loves her, she finds him useful but annoying. She treats Xu Yan, or what remains of him, like a pet, not an equal or a husband. Xu Yan's head she also treats as a pet, but more as her trusted and loyal attack dog. Her only real friend is the diminutive Magistrate Guan Sanli (see AREA 1 of the Teahouse), whom she is beginning to have romantic affection towards. 

Chen Rushi is sneaky and clever, capable of adapting to situations and primarily interested in her own welfare. She is also calm and diplomatic, but incredibly nosy and suspicious. When reminded of her husband and Li Susu, she quickly becomes furious as if it happened yesterday. She enjoys tormenting them both, but the truth is she is beginning to tire of the game she is playing and is starting to wonder if there isn't greater purpose to her life. She could go in one of two directions: seeking a more benevolent path or seeking a path to greater power. How the player characters interact with her, will greatly impact the course she chooses. If the player characters put pressure on her or if she suspects they know the truth, she may try to kill them by setting up an ambush (probably involving the head) but she might also try to bribe them or come to some other type of arrangement. If the player characters truly impress her and show mercy towards her (rather than a desire to simply kill her or bring her to justice) she may even be willing to change her ways and aid them in their pursuits of the supernatural. She feels fully justified in her actions and will respond very positively to anyone who acknowledges the pain she experienced. 

Defenses: Hardiness 3, Evade 3, Wits 9
Key Skills: Arm Strike: 1d10, Muscle: 0d10, Athletics: 1d10, Speed: 1d10, Medicine: 2d10, Divination: 1d10, Alchemy: 3d10, Ritual: 3d10, Command: 2d10, Persuade: 3d10, Reasoning: 2d10, Creatures: 2d10, Talent: 1d10, Theft: 1d10, Institutions: 2d10, Places: 1d10

Max Wounds: 1
Level: 10 (Ritual Master)
Equipment: Chen Rushi's Flute, Red Tea Elixir Ingredients, Black Sabre 

Substances: Red Tea Elixir, Shrinking Substance 
Rituals: Talisman of Command, Talking Beast, Spirited Object, False Coins, Find, Love Magic, Crippling Illness, Demon and Spirit Powder, Forgetting Fog, Roasted Piglet Demon

XU YAN 
Xu Yan is the husband of Chen Rushi, and technically the husband of Li Susu (though he dare not treat her as his wife for fear of Chen Rushi's anger). He has no head, and must wear other peoples heads in order to see, talk, etc. His head was cut off by Chen Rushi and placed in the granary. Now he is just a slow body. His personality remains intact, though it is more meek and cowed by Chen Rushi. He is slow. He attached one of six heads from his collection to his body by sewing it to his neck. The head functions normally except there is a lethargy to its expressions. Anyone looking at Xu Yan or interacting with him can notice this trait pretty quickly. He conceals the stitchings on his neck so seeing those requires physically pushing aside his robes. 

Defenses: Hardiness 4, Evade 2, Wits 6
Key Skills: Arm Strike: 0d10, Muscle: 1d10, Speed: 0d10, Trade: 2d10, Persuade: 1d10, Survival: 3d10, Talent: 1d10, Places: 3d10, Instituions: 1d10

Max Wounds: 1


NEW SUBSTANCES AND RITUALS 

CREATE AND CONTROL GHOSTS  
For this to work the Ritual Master must first kill someone, then cremate their body and place the cremains in an urn. Casting the ritual turns the victim into a ghost of the caster's choice, and places the ghost under the caster's control so long as the remains are never properly laid to rest and in possession of the caster (anyone who steals the urn can take control of the ghost themselves). This can be performed on as many ghosts as the Ritual Master has Wits. 

RED TEA ELIXIR
This bestows youth but at a price: it makes the drinker appear no older than 20, but if the drinker doesn't have a full serving each day, he or she will die over the course of 1d10 hours as their body ages then rots. 


Wednesday, October 28, 2020

DOOM SPIDER: THE EVOLUTION OF HUA YIN

ZHE VALLEY UNDER HUA YIN

Back when I was running my Bone Breaker and Disposable Disciples campaigns, I came up with a character named Hua Yin. Initially she was a spider demon who fell through time and took over Zhe Valley (the party had abused a time travel device called the Chariot of Du Qian, and this caused cracks i the fabric of time, causing future, past and present to bleed into one another). However very quickly she turned into a much different type of character. This is what I wrote for her initially. She evolved into a human character in the Lady Eighty Seven campaign book who controls the Vermillion Bird Teahouse. But her origins were more mythic and horrific (and well suited to the month of October). 


Feel free to throw Hua Yin at your party if you need something a little terrifying this month. 


HUA YIN

Hua Yin is a primordial spider from the very first days of creation who fell through the cracks in time and took over Zhe Valley. When the world was young, the Enlightened Goddess made entities such as Hen-Shi and Gushan from her hair and body. But before she made them, she created Hua Yin from a single strand. Hua Yin is a massive spider demon, who sees the world as a conflict between herself and Gushan (the two beings made from the Enlightened Goddess' hair). Though she was there at the beginning of time, she fell through the cracks of history and found herself in the present day, in Zhe Valley. There she found her spider descendants, who had flourished and used them to take over Zhe Valley.  These The Valley Spiders follow her commands and take over human bodies by entering the brain. She believes Gushan, her old enemy, has lost himself. But she regards humans as Gushan's descendants and seeks to control or eradicate them. 

Hua Yin is gigantic, the size of a modern two-story house. But she can transform into a human-like woman (of any size), though she always has eight arms. 

 

Defenses: Hardiness 8, Evade 6, Parry 8, Stealth 10, Wits 8, Resolve 6

Key Skills: Silken Web: 2d10, Bite: 3d10 (5d10 Damage plus Poison), Arm Strike: 3d10, Leg Strike: 3d10, Grapple: 2d10, Throw: 1d10, Light Melee: 2d10, Medium Melee 2d10, Muscle: 2d10, Detect: 3d10, Speed 3d10, Talent (Poetry): 3d10, Classics (All): 1d10

 

Wounds: 45

Equipment: 8 Daggers (2d10 Damage), 8 Sticks (3d10 Damage, +1d10 Accuracy), Crippling Venom Antidote

 

Powers

Bite: Hua Yin’s bite is powerful, doing 5d10 Damage plus 5 Extra Wound and exposing the target to her Crippling Venom (See Below). 

 

Crawl: Hua Yin can move along vertical and inverted surfaces with ease like a spider at her normal Movement. 

 

Silken Web: Hua Yin can shoot a web from her belly (in human form from her navel) that engulfs targets and immobilizes them. Roll 2d10 against Evade. On a Success, the person is wrapped up in a sticky web that pins them in place and makes basic movement nearly impossible. Inflicting 2 Wounds on the web releases the person (as does a Muscle roll TN 9). This can also be used to create weblike structures.

 

Eight Armed Strike: Hua Yin can hit up to eight different targets, focus all her strikes on one person or even divide her attacks between a few different targets. Roll once using the relevant skill against Defense for her attack. If she succeeds, roll Damage once according to the weapon and add 1 additional Wound for each limb striking the target. 

 

Immunities: Hua Yin is immune to mundane attacks and only harmed by Kung Fu Techniques. 

 

Crippling Venom: Hua Yin’s venom causes tremendous pain and makes targets convulse until they cannot perform physical tasks. Roll 3d10 against the Hardiness of anyone exposed. On a Success, they take an increasing -1d10 Penalties to all Physical Skills and Combat each round. This lasts until the poison is cured. 

 

Spider Minions: There are sacks filled with eggs throughout Zhe Valley. These each contain 1d10 Zhe Valley Spiders. 


Shape-Shift: Hua Yin can take the form of a giant spider or a human of any size. 

 

ZHE VALLEY SPIDER 

These are thick furry spiders that are extensions of Hua Yin’s ego. They burrow into the body and take control of the brain. 

 

Defenses: Hardiness 3, Evade 6, Parry 2, Stealth 8, Wits 3, Resolve 3

Key Skills: Bite: 1d10 (3d10 Damage plus burrow), Speed: 0d10, Detect: 2d10

 

Max Wounds: 2

 

Powers

Bite and Burrow: Zhe Valley Spiders burrow into the flesh doing 3d10 Damage each round. Every round they remain inside they work their way to the brain (reaching it in a number of Rounds equal to the Hardiness of the target). They can be removed with a Medicine TN 7 roll. On a Failure the subject loses 2 Wits. 

 

ZHE VALLEY SPIDER DISCIPLE (400)

These are disciples of Zhe Valley who have been overtaken by a Zhe Valley Spider. They are loyal to Hua Yin in their present state. 

Defenses: Hardiness 3, Evade 3, Parry 4, Stealth 7, Wits 7, Resolve 6

Key Skills: Arm Strike: 0d10, Leg Strike: 0d10, Grapple: 1d10, Throw: 0d10, Light Melee: 0d10, Medium Melee: 1d10 or 3d10 (Jian), Heavy Melee: 0d10, Small Ranged: 1d10, Athletics: 2d10, Speed: 1d10, Muscle: 0d10, Endurance: 0d10, Creatures (Animals): 2d10, Talent (Poetry): 1d10, Talent (Painting): 1d10, Survival (Wilderness): 2d10

 

Max Wounds: 1

Weapons: Short Bow (2d10 Damage) or Jian (1d10 Damage, +2d10 Accuracy)


ZHE VALLEY MASTER SPIDER SENIOR DISCIPLE (13) 

These are senior disciples of Zhe Valley taken over by spiders who serve Hua Yin. 

Defenses: Hardiness 4, Evade 6, Parry 6, Stealth 8, Wits 7, Resolve 7

Key Skills: Arm Strike: 2d10, Leg Strike: 1d10, Grapple: 2d10, Throw: 0d10, Light Melee: 0d10, Medium Melee: 2d10 or 4d10 (Jian), Heavy Melee: 0d10, Small Ranged: 3d10, Athletics: 2d10, Speed: 1d10, Muscle: 1d10, Endurance: 2d10, Creatures (Animals): 3d10, Talent (Poetry): 2d10, Talent (Painting): 2d10, Survival (Wilderness): 2d10, Trade (Wood): 1d10, Command: 2d10, Detect: 2d10

Qi: 3

Max Wounds: 7

Weapons: Short Bow (2d10 Damage) or Jian (2d10 Damage, +2d10 Accuracy)

Key Kung Fu Techniques (Waijia 2, Neigong 1, Qinggong 1): Blasting Blade, Breath of Fury, Drift of the Butterfly Fish, Flight of the Hawk, Hands of the Hawk Beak, Rain of Arrows, Storm of Arrows, Intercepting Arrow (Counter)

 

ZHE VALLEY SPIDER SCHOLAR (13)

Defenses: Hardiness 4, Evade 6, Parry 7, Stealth 8, Wits 8, Resolve 7

Key Skills: Arm Strike: 2d10, Leg Strike: 1d10, Grapple: 2d10, Throw: 0d10, Light Melee: 0d10, Medium Melee: 2d10 or 4d10 (Jian), Heavy Melee: 0d10, Small Ranged: 3d10, Athletics: 2d10, Speed: 3d10, Muscle: 2d10, Endurance: 2d10, Creatures (Animals): 3d10, Talent (Poetry): 3d10, Talent (Painting): 3d10, Survival (Wilderness): 2d10, Trade (Wood): 2d10, Command: 2d10, Detect: 2d10

Qi: 4

Max Wounds: 9

Weapons: Short Bow (2d10 Damage) or Jian (3d10 Damage, +2d10 Accuracy)

Key Kung Fu Techniques (Waijia 2, Neigong 1, Qinggong 1): Blasting Blade, Breath of Fury, Drift of the Butterfly Fish, Flight of the Hawk, Hands of the Hawk Beak, Rain of Arrows, Storm of Arrows, Zhe Valley Blade, Zhe Valley Fist, Intercepting Arrow (Counter) 

 

 


 

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

FINGER OF DOOM (RIGHTEOUS BLOOD PODCAST DISCUSSION)

Today on the Righteous Blood Podcast, Jeremy and I talk about the movie Finger of Doom. It is a fitting film for this time of year, featuring macabre martial arts and a trove of horror tropes. The way the movie is shot resembles classic horror films, and many of the characters feels like monsters pulled from such cinema, but recast to fit the wuxia genre. There is a hunchback, creepy martial experts who roam the land in coffins (in which they sleep and use as a kind of sedan), a terrifying martial arts technique that turns victims into ghoulish slaves, etc. It also features two woman as the main protagonist and antagonist, members of the same sect. Ivy Ling Po plays a disciple sent by the Tai Yin sect to eliminate one of her fellow students whose is using their martial art to wreak havoc. Along the way she befriends a man whose brother fell victim to her martial sister's Tai Yin Finger technique and the two must face off with the renegade disciple in an epic showdown. 

Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades is very much focused on the wuxia genre. Unlike Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, or Strange Tales of Songling, which both feature supernatural creatures and magical abilities, RBRB is more grounded in the wuxia you see in things like Gu Long, 70s Shaw Brothers, etc. And Finger of Doom is a good illustration of how to bring horror to this style of wuxia. In the podcast we talk about this, and many other things.  

Saturday, October 24, 2020

LOTUS FRAGRANCE: A HUMAN GHOST STORY

If you need inspiration for spooky adventures this month, I highly recommend reading Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. And if you need a game to fit the themes of Pu Songling, check out Bedrock's own Strange Tales of Songling. Today I want to discuss Pu Songling's story Lotus Fragrance, which inspired one of the adventures in the Strange Tales RPG. Please note for the purposes of this post I will be drawing on the penguin translation of the story. 

Sang and Lotus Fragrance fleeing Li
Art by Jackie Musto

Lotus Fragrance is a very human ghost story, about a scholar named Sang who is visited by a fox spirit and female ghost, both of which seduce him but who are at cross purposes and in competition with each other. It is a playful tale but also romantic and occasionally frightening. The story is set up very well, where we are introduced to the idea of a haunting seductress through a prank played on the scholar by his friends before the real supernatural creatures arrive. 

He is first seduced by a Fox Spirit named Lotus Fragrance, who he believes is a sing-song girl from a local brothel. He is then seduced by a ghost named Li. Often in these stories such creatures do harm to men by draining their life. And the twist here is Lotus Fragrance is protecting Sang from Li. But she is unable to convince him that Li is doing him harm. 

Eventually Lotus Fragrance leaves Sang in anger when he refuses to believe, and when she returns months later, finds him hovering on death's door (a result of Li's evening embraces). But these are not just monsters, they are characters with human motivations. When Lotus Fragrance finds Sang in this state she rebukes Li saying: 

"How could a beautiful girl like you use love as a weapon of hatred [....] to make love to him like that, night after night! Even a human lover would have endangered his health with such indulgence--let a long a ghost"

What follows is a debate between the ghost and fox spirit over which type of creature is more harmful to men. Li points out that fox spirits kill men as well, but Lotus Fragrance retorts that she is not that type of fox spirit and maintains "...there are harmless foxes, but never harmless ghosts."

Saffron Creek Map 
by Francesca Baerald

In the tale it is clear that Li's nature is harmful to Sang but largely this seems to be a product of their excess. One of the commentators (Strange Tales is accompanied with commentary text) even states this clearly: "In truth it is neither foxes nor ghosts that hurt mortals: morals hurt themselves." In these kinds of ghost stories, female ghosts frequently seduce men (as do fox spirits), but their love drains men. 

The two work together to cure Sang and bring him back from the brink of death. It succeeds, and the three live happily together for three months but eventually Li begins to vanish and then fades completely. However she is reborn in the body of a recently deceased daughter of a well-to-do family named Swallow. Sang and Lotus Fragrance Marry, then the scholar also takes Swallow as his second wife. Again they live happily for some time and Lotus Fragrance gives birth to a boy.  However, Lotus Fragrance grows ill. She tells Li to care for her son and expresses the wish that she will see them again in a number of years. Lotus Fragrance dies, and upon her death her body returns to its true fox form. Li cares for the boy as her own son. Years later they meet a young woman who is the Lotus Fragrance reborn. Upon meeting Sang and Li again, her memories of her former life restore. With Lotus Fragrance and Li both human now, they bury their former remains together at the same site and presumably the three live happily ever after. 

This synopsis leaves out a lot of details. Lotus Fragrance is one of the longer stories in Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio and there are many elements that are worth their own topic of discussion (for example when they meet Lotus Fragrance after she is reborn, they purchase her from a woman; and throughout the first part of the story, Li's small slipper---which is from her foot binding in life, or at this this is the implication---can be used to summon her). But here I just want to focus on the elements that I drew from to write the Lotus Fragrance adventure. 

The first thing that struck me about this story when I first read it was how it didn't feel anything like any ghost story I had read before. It had moments one might describe as horror, but at times it reminded me more of something like Three's Company than a horror film. There was a playfulness to it and the fox spirit and ghost both seemed quite human. It was also not stifled by tone. It wasn't one note. There was a lot more than just horror. I think this opened up a lot of possibilities for gaming purposes. It always you to treat ghosts and similar creatures much more like any type of character and it also opens up your imagination because there are fewer tonal limitations. At least this was my sense reading this story and the others in Strange Tales from a a Chinese Studio for the first time. Ghosts have plenty of backstory and personality in English and American horror stories but they are usually antagonistic and you just don't see them form these kinds of relationships. Lotus Fragrance is different. It is a ghost story that has tremendous heart to it. 

In order to make it work as an adventure I made considerable changes though. I made Li more antagonistic overall, because I felt the adventure needed a villain if PCs were to be involved. This isn't the only way I could have done it though. I tried to think of ways to create a human villain that would preserve more of the story. In the end, making Li the definitive villain of the adventure worked better for what I needed at the table. And it still allowed for Lotus Fragrance to largely remain the same. One element I did change that I wished I had kept, was the slipper. I think that could have been an interesting clue that would leave open the possibility of the player's accidentally summoning Li early in the adventure (which could be an interesting encounter). My adventure also makes it a bit more like A Chinese Ghost story. In the adventure Li isn't a solitary ghost but part of a ghost family who live at a nearby teahouse. 

What I do like about the adventure is it keeps one of the core aspects of Lotus Fragrance, which is trying to save Sang from death. The players are only in as much peril as they put themselves in. Otherwise, the real threat is to the life of Sang (who is slowly being killed by Li). When we put Strange Tales together and planned out the adventures, even though Lotus Fragrance was written first as a blog entry, we made a point of introducing Sang in an earlier adventure in the book so that there would be a more compelling hook later on. 

The first version of the adventure was written for the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate ruleset on the blog (I had done a series of posts for each story in the penguin edition of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio). You can see the difference in the original map I designed for the region and the final map that Francesca Baerald did for the book. You can find that first draft of the adventure HERE

The final version of the adventure in the Strange Tales of Songling Book is refined and expanded. It has more details on thing like how to run the adventure and is just structured more cleanly overall. But I think for the most part, you can get the same evening of entertainment from the blog adventure. The biggest difference really is in adjustments made due to playtest between the blog entry and the time the adventure was ready for the book. 

Pu Songling's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio had the most profound effect on my of all the material I was reading and consuming during the development of Ogre Gate. Personally I had an amazing experience drawing on Pu Songling's accounts and finding ways to use them in adventures. Lotus Fragrance was a turning point for me in terms of realizing just how far the ideas could be taken in an RPG. And it is a wonderful story, worth reading on its own if you have a chance. You can find free translations online. I personally recommend the Penguin edition because it is affordable and the prose has a nice feel (just be aware it is only a portion of the full book: there are multi-volume translations available and of those I recommend the Chinese Classics edition). 




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.