Sunday, December 8, 2019

STRANGE TALES PREVIEW

Strange Tales is in layout and getting ready for release. It is a Chinese horror-inspired roleplaying game, based largely on Strange Tales from the Chinese Studio (and the movies that drew on it). The system is a simple but deadly version of the one used for Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. Everything has been stripped down to its essentials, for a much more basic and fast approach. I love how the game runs and feels. The book comes with a bunch of monsters, four adventures, and a lot more. 



All of the interior illustrations are by Jackie Musto. She also did the marvelous cover art. 
Character creation is very fast and divided into Paths. You can select from Demon Hunter, Scholar, Ritual Master, and Wandering Sword. Each path has its own set of abilities it gains with each level. 

This isn't a tome like Ogre Gate though, it is leaner and meant to easily be run after an initial read (the rules chapter is only 4 pages long). 

Each character path has its own abilities. The entries are kept simple and characters don't have to worry about juggling a ton of them. These include everything from Rituals that allow for spiritual combat to amazing feats of martial arts and talismans to control hopping vampires. 
The monster chapter has tons of entries inspired by material from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio and other anomaly accounts and tales. There are also original monsters made in the spirit of the genre and monsters taken from other styles of Chinese horror (for examples movies like Killer Snakes). 

The book has four complete adventures, all with maps by Francesca Baerald. These range in style from exploration to mystery and more. 




Saturday, November 23, 2019

WE ARE REVITALIZED

It has been a while. But I am learning to speak only when I have something to say. 

There will be more in depth updates soon. I can tell you that Strange Tales is in layout and just about ready for printing. So it will be out in January as expected. Most of my attention now is on the Lady 87 Campaign Sourcebook. 

In podcast news, Wuxia Weekend, Metal Workshop, Bedrock and Baulderstone, and Wuxia Workshop all have new episodes. Check them out at the Bedrock Podcast. This week on Wuxia Weekend we talked about True Legend. On B&B we discussed Kill Bill Volume 1. Jim and I complained about a list that shall not be named on Metal Workshop. And we recently discussed Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan at Wuxia Workshop. 

Friday, December 28, 2018

DARK WUXIA RPG READING: THE ELEVENTH SON PART TWO

I'm re-reading the Eleventh Son as I work with Deathblade on a new Dark Wuxia RPG. I already posted PART ONE where I discussed Chapters 1-5. Here I talk about chapter 6- 
Shen Bijun, Lian Chengbi, Xiao Shiyi Lang and Feng Siniang
From the 2016 Drama Series

CHAPTER OVERVIEW

Chapter Six (The Heart of a Pretty Woman): In this chapter, Feng Siniang and Xiao Shiyi Lang go to a teahouse in Jinan, where the patrons shift their ogling from Feng to a carriage outside carrying Shen Bijun. An old man with a hunchback explains that Shen Bijun is now Mrs. Lian, having married Lan Chengbi of Flawless Manor of Gusu. She was married two years ago and has come back to Jinan to visit her family at Shen Manor. Feng and Xiao later bump into Yang Kaitai, a genteel swordsman who seems awkward with women and is clearly in love with Feng. He is also owner of Yuanji bank, and very good with money (though Feng finds him annoying an overly frugal). Feng Siniang uses his admiration for her to get him to cover their meal costs at a fancy restaurant called the Guest Pleasing Chamber. Yang says he and the other Six Ideal Gentlemen (Li Gang, Lean Chengbi, Liu Seqing, Zhu Baishui, and Xu Qingteng) were invited by Master Xu Luzi, the maker of Deer Carver, so he can give the sabre to one of them. He has yet to decide who to give it to and has two conditions: the person who gives Deer Carver to must always carry it, no matter what & they must agree to kill the world's most notorious bandit; Xiao Shiyi Lang. Xiao continues to talk with Yang, who doesn't realize he is Xiao Shiyi Lang, and learn about the fighting styles of the Six Ideal Gentlemen. Yang agrees to take them to Shen Manor. 

Chapter Seven (Awe-Inspiring Lady Shen): Xiao, Yang Kaitai and Feng all go to Shen Manor. We learn that Shen Bijun's parents were killed trying to wipe out bandits at battle of Jiayi Pass. Lady Shen, Shen Bijjun's grandmother, is now in charge of the manor and highly respected in the Wulin. Lady Shen tells people that Shen Bijun has morning sickness. Zhao tells Lady Shen that the Deer Carver was lost to Xiao Shiyi Lang. Everyone agrees that Xiao Shiyi Lang must die. Xiao departs quietly, leaving Feng behind with Yang and a note telling her to Marry Yang Kaitai. 

Chapter Eight (Hawk King's Secret): Xiao encounters injured Hawk King. Hawk King asks for help but attacks him, then flees. Xiao sees three figures in the woods come upon Hawk King's body: Hai Lingzi, Tu Xiaotian and a mystery person named Little Mister (who has the Deer Carver). Little Mister cuts off Hawk King's head and tells the others that it was Xiao Shiyi Lang's doing in an effort to frame him. Little Mister writes a poem on the tree claiming responsibility for the killing in the name of Xiao. Then he tells the others to cut out the section of tree and deliver the message to Lady Shen. It is revealed that Little Mister is working for a great master and has been tasked with obtaining the Deer Carver and abducting Shen Bijun (who Little Mister describes as the most beautiful woman in the aylin). They intend to use Xiao Shiyi Lang as bait, so he will be distracted while they go after Shen Bijun. 
Candy Wen as Little Mister (AKA Little Lord)
From the 1978 film Swordsman and the Enchantress


Chapter Nine (Beauty of Beauties): In this chapter, Little Mister tries to waylay Shen Bijun's carriage, but Xiao also arrives at the spot. Little Mister kills Shen Bijun's retinue, and Shen Bijun dramatically exits her carriage and attacks using needles. Little Mister stabs her with a poisoned boot knife and she falls asleep. Little Mister is revealed to be a woman (up to this point the character was presented as either an effeminate man or a boy) and uses this distraction to scratch Xiao's neck with poison in order to make an escape. 

Chapter Ten (A Murderous Look in the Eye): Xiao isn't harmed by the scratch after all (calling it a mere cat scratch) and goes after Little Mister, rescuing Shen Bijun and taking her to an abandoned temple. Before the rescue, Little Mister seems jealous of Shen Bijun's beauty and even on the verge of harming or killing her (for fear that her master will shift attention away from her and onto Shen Bijun). 

THOUGHTS

Chapters Six through Eight feel like the point where the plot really begins to take shape. I completely forgot how important Lady Shen is in the story. 

Deer Carver is described as a "Blade like a blue rainbow" (page 95). The poem Little Mister writes is:

Carving the deer is nothing
Compared with carving the head
Pare off everyone's head, if I can
Wound't that be a thrill!

I forgot how delightful Yang Kaitai is as a character. Gu Long does an especially good job breathing life into him and laying the ground work for he and Feng Siniang's future. 

Little Mister is also a very good villain. The way the character is described provides plenty of hints about her true nature, but cleverly done. I didn't realize Little Mister was a woman the first time I read it until the reveal and when you go back it is interesting to see the trail of hints. I also realize that in a novel, the trope in the genre of women passing as men by simply wearing different clothing makes more sense than in movies. Partly because you can see the other character's thought process (where they think she is just a boy or an effeminate man). 

Shen Bijun has a defense called Cloud Wrapping Shooting Stars (which protects her against needle attacks). 

One thing that I hadn't noticed before as much was the way the context of the story shifts and Xiao Shiyi Lang's personality feels different because of the contrast. Initially he is quite playful and seemingly carefree. He remains this way, but as it becomes clear there is a division between the more lofty and reputable members of the Wulin and the less respected characters within the broader Jianghu, this gives him a much darker shade. Much of the book is about this division, and about Xiao's inability to fend off accusations of wrong-doing because of his lower reputation (he is both lowborn and a notorious bandit, so people like the Six Ideal Gentlemen naturally assume he is guilty. 

This has given me a lot of fodder as well for thinking about wuxia RPG design. Particularly around building of the jianghu. 

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

DARK WUXIA RPG READING: THE ELEVENTH SON PART ONE

Ti Lung in the 1978 film based on the book
I am re-reading the Eleventh son for the upcoming Dark Wuxia RPG I am working on with Deathblade. I have read it several times already but was surprised by the details I didn't remember, as well as the details I simply hadn't noticed as much. This time I am looking for very specific things. In particular, I am paying close attention to how Gu Long presents things like martial arts techniques, the kinds of characters he creates, and the geography of his martial world. I'll star with small synopsis of the chapters, then give some thoughts. 

CHAPTER OVERVIEW
These are very rough overviews. I don't think my notes quite do the story justice, so I would encourage anyone with interest to read the book. It is a very fast and engaging story (a little over three-hundred pages or so). 

Chapter One: The book opens on Mount Jumbled Rocks (otherwise known as Bandit Mountain) in a bath tub in an inn. Everyone here is a bandit, including the innkeeper. Feng Siniang bathes as local low-lives peep at her. She unleashes 12 needles and each one is struck in the eye. She is here to find Hua Ping, leader of the bandits of Guanzhong, hoping he will help her obtain the Deer Carver Sword. Hua Ping arrives and kills them to put them out of their misery. He reveals his left arm, which is famous for his Left Handed Divine Sabre Technique, has been cut off by Xiao Shiyi Lang. She decides to go find Flying Doctor instead, whose lightness kung fu will be a big asset in her venture. She arrives to find him on a palanquin being attacked by his bearers. 

Chapter Two: Flying Doctor kills the bearers and reveals his legs have been chopped off by Xiao Shiyi Lang. When they go to Flying Doctor's Tomb (her resides in a tomb and sleeps in a coffin), they discover his coffin has been stolen. A boy arrives with a missing arm, and says "Xiao Shiyi Lang", suggesting Xiao Shiyi Lang stole the coffin (the coffin contains an inscription of Flying Doctor's Kung Fu). Feng Siniang tracks down the thief, who is strung upside-down in a tree. She demands to know who hired him and why he tried to masquerade as Xiao Shiyi Lang, but the bandit swallows poison and dies instead. When she returns to the tomb, Xiao Shiyi Lang has already returned the coffin to Flying Doctor. 

Chapter Three: It is Feng Siniang's birthday, she is thirty four and feeling lonely. She drinks and Xiao Shiyi Lang arrives. She shows him two swords, Blue Jade and Crimson Glow. Crimson Glow has been cut. 

Chapter Four: They eat noodles and we learn that Xiao Shiyi Lang is the most famed and professional thief in 500 years. She then tells him the story of Deer Carver Blade (the sword that cut it). It was forged 6 months ago by Xu Luxi, a descendent of the great swordsmith Madame Xu (Madame Xu isn't a woman, "Madame" was her personal name). The name of the blade comes from the poem that states "The Qin Empire has fallen and lost its deer", because the deer represents the throne. Deer Carver is on its way to Guanzhong, being escorted by Zhao Wuji, Chief of Supreme Boundless Gate, with the help of Tu Xiaotian, Hai Lingzi and Zikong Shu: The One-Armed Hawk King. She wants his help getting the sabre but she ends up having to do it herself. 

Chapter Five: This chapter is set at Endeyuan (a Muslim restaurant) run by Boss Ma Huihui. Feng Siniang poses as a prostitute to get close to One-Armed Hawk King and take the Deer Carving Sabre. She manages to paralyze him, only to discover this is itself a trick, and he uses his arm extending ability to grab her. Xiao Shiyi Lang leaps in through the window, takes the Deer Carving Sabre and stops One-Armed Hawk King. Feng Siniang manages to take the sabre and escape , leaving Xiao Shiyi Lang. Later, Xiao Shiyi Lang returns to her and asks for the Blue Jade in exchange for his help. She gives it, he tells her that the Deer Carver is a fake, that One-Armed Hawk King was a decoy. He then gives her Blue Jade as a birthday gift. 

THOUGHTS
I was struck by the number of martial arts techniques and styles mentioned. I tend to think of Gu Long as placing less emphasis on them than other writers, but here he makes frequent mention. I will say though, his writing style, which utilizes a lot of brevity and suggestive description, can easily gloss over the details. But we do get some specifics. One case that is interesting is One-Armed Hawk King's arm lengthening ability. Another is the same characters Strength of the Hawk Talons (which he uses to rip the heart from a live ox so he can eat it). 

I think it is interesting that the story begins with Feng Siniang, even though the protagonist is Xiao Shiyi Lang. We have about 3-4 chapters of Siniang, before Xiao Shiyi Lang is introduced. And her personality is most unusual. Her character is very sexual, but also in love with Xiao Shiyi Lang. She expresses a disdain for conservative traditions regarding the relationships of men and women. For example, she carries Flying Doctor to his tomb when she discovers his legs are missing, but he protests because men and women are not supposed to have physical contact. She responds saying "I never pay attention to these stupid restrictions." But Feng Siniang wants to settle down and start a family. 

At this point in the story we don't know very much about Xiao Shiyi Lang, though he comes off as charming and a bit carefree. Most of his dialogue with Siniang is teasing in nature, but he and she clearly have a history and friendship. We do know he is younger than Siniang. She is 34, while he is 27, so he calls her Big Sister. 

The fights in this are all pretty quick, and the descriptions are quite interesting. Gu Long has a tendency to skip ahead a bit, and you need to just figure out what is going on based on context. It all makes sense, it isn't difficult to follow, but it gives the book a more intense pacing. 

The presence of the Muslim restaurant is interesting. Also the way backstory is handled is quite nice. Siniang explains the background the of blades. The first two have long histories, so when you hear that a 6-month old sabre has cut one of them, it is pretty striking. We also learn about the Battle of Tongye Island where the island's disciples were wiped out by Hainan school (and only one pupil of Hainan, Hai Lingzi, survived). 

The characters all feel unique and eccentric. We get quick glimpses of basic martial styles that highlight the character's personalities. 

The language is sometimes surprisingly direct and libertine at times. For example, this is a line that Siniang thinks when she is masquerading as a prostitute at the Muslim restaurant: 
   She knew that the less she dressed up, the more she would stand out as a refreshing beauty.
   There is something ironic about men's expectations. They like a whore not to act like a whore, but rather to act like a noble lady or the girl next door. 
   On the other hand, when they meet a decent woman, they wish she would act like a whore in bed. 
Obviously this is a translation, so I can't say for sure if this matches the original text's frankness (hopefully I can get some clarity on this in the next few days and post an update if there original text is at all different in this respect). 

I also noticed the story mentions Count Carefree very early (dropping his name in one of the first few chapters). He becomes a more important character later. 

This is just the first five chapters. There are 25 in total. Looking forward to continuing with these posts. I am also planning on using these notes to compare to the 2016 drama series and the film Swordsman and the Enchantress. 



Saturday, December 22, 2018

WUXIA WEEKEND: THE SUPREME SWORDSMAN

This film was a pleasant watch. I hadn't seen it before, and I honestly thought it looked and sounded a bit dull, but when I watched it yesterday it was a delight. This is the kind of movie that refreshes your enjoyment of a genre. I haven't been surprised by the story, tone and fight choreography of a wuxia film in a while. The Supreme Swordsman managed to surprise me on countless fronts, and delivered a really good tale of martial ambition and revenge. It stars Derek Yee and Jason Pai-Piao, who both do a stellar job. Jason Pai-Piao plays a man obsessed with being number one in the martial world, and wants to build his 100 Sword Villa by defeating the best swordsman and placing their blades on display in his hall. When he kills the father of Derek Yee's Yan Bei, the focus becomes revenge and the viewer is exposed to a much richer and more eccentric jianghu than the first half of the movie reveals.

We talk a lot about the tone shift in the discussion but this is a film that uses tone shift in an interesting way. As the tone of the movie changes, we are drawn deeper and deeper into the world of Black Magic Clan, and we learn more about Yan Bei's father. The movie also is more than meets the eye. It is a film I know I need to see again because there is clearly a lot going on in terms of parallels between characters and references to other films. You can listen to our discussion below:


Saturday, December 15, 2018

WUXIA WEEKEND: BUTTERFLY AND SWORD

The latest episode of Wuxia Weekend is available. This time we discuss Butterfly and Sword. It is a true flying swordsman film featuring Michelle Yeoh, Donnie Yen, Tony Leung and Joey Wong. It is a tremendous cast, has some great moments, but the group had some criticisms. I quite enjoy the over-the-top action but something about the film always makes me a little hesitant to rewatch. This movie in particular is always interesting to me because my opinion of it shifts a lot with time. Michelle Yeoh does a wonderful job as Ko, a woman on the cusp of ruling the martial world who suffers because of unrequited love. Tony Leung is the object of her affection and I think their relationship works really well. The circle is completed by Donnie Yen's character, Yip Cheung, who is in love with Ko. Most of the movie feels like a contrast between the world of love and the martial world. 

Butterfly and Sword is based on the book Meteor, Butterfly, Sword by Gu Long, which is itself something of a take on the Godfather. As far as I know there is only a partial translation of the story available online, but it is worth checking out. There is also an earlier Chor Yuen film called Killer Clans, based on the same source material. 

Listen to hear what people thought about it. 

Thursday, December 13, 2018

WUXIA DESIGN THOUGHTS

We have been playtesting and developing the Dark Wuxia RPG I mentioned a while back. I've also been involved in a couple of related conversations which got me thinking about where I am in terms of game design, particularly when it comes to martial arts systems. 

The first big venture into wuxia for Bedrock was Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. The point of Ogre Gate was to emulate wuxia martial arts and to bring the Jianghu to life with its sects, grudges and broken hearts. Because it is based on individual techniques, and characters can have a lot of them, we knew that would mean the game would be a bit on the heavier side, or at least combat could take time until people get accustomed to using the system. I liken it to running a D&D campaign where everyone is a wizard. Keeping track of the Techniques is the challenge. It is especially challenging for the GM. But in my view, this was worth the trade off for what we wanted to achieve. Still there was an inescapable downside to this method, and we were aware of that going in. 


But Bedrock started out as a rules light company. And I've always gone back and forth between different types of games in my own gaming life. So I started working on a simplified version of Ogre Gate for the Strange Tales system. This game is also more horror oriented, but it takes the core Ogre Gate mechanics and uses them in a way that produces fast character creation (generally under 20 minutes), and fast play (combat is very quick). The focus of Strange Tales is on the role-play and the adventure. 

Now I am working on another game as well. This is a wuxia RPG, with a dark and gritty feel to it. It is not going to be published under Bedrock Games. Another publisher will be releasing it. It is meant to be played fast, with an emphasis on role-play, but unlike Strange Tales, it is firmly in the wuxia genre and still needs to emulate that. However unlike Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, this game is more in the spirit of Gu Long. If you ever read Gu Long, his fights are almost the opposite of Jin Yong. The latter often has fight sequences that go on for a chapter or even two. Gu Long tends to emphasis the suspense and build-up to the fight, with sudden, violent results. His stories also focus more on intrigue and mystery and seem to have a darker underlying point. This is more what we are going for in the new Wuxia RPG. 

In order to achieve this goal, we can't take the Ogre Gate approach. We intend to use some of the same core elements, just like we did with Strange Tales, but we can't have a huge list of techniques. Instead we want characters to have a more narrow selection of broad abilities that improve over time. There is much more to the system than this, but that is how we intend to handle the martial arts. And we really want the focus to be the Jianghu. 

Right now, we are heavily play testing the core system of the new game. It has been going well. And we really want to take out time vetting each of the signature abilities. But what I want to discuss today primarily is what the point of all these different systems is.

I've usually gamed with groups who rotated GMs or rotated games. There would always be bread and butter (perhaps a primary game, campaign or GM) but generally I've enjoyed trying different systems, trying out different GM and play styles, and getting a feel for different approaches. One downside of designing your own games, is, if you want them to function well, you have to run your own games more than you run other peoples' games. Because I've been playing wuxia campaigns exclusively the past several years, I found that I needed greater variety of mechanical options. Strange Tales was an attempt to add an addition option to the shelf, for when I feel like running a ghostly, monster of the week adventure in the style of A Chinese Ghost Story. The dark wuxia RPG is so I have something on the shelf when I really want to keep the focus on the characters, the drama and the intrigue or suspense. Ogre Gate is for when I want more in depth martial arts. At some point, there are two other approaches I want to explore. 

If I have time, I will get to them eventually. One is to do a Kung Fu Craze RPG. I've toyed with the idea and would like to get to it at some point. The other is to do an RPG specifically rooted in Jin Yong's stories. This one would be class based, and feature class dipping in an interesting way. Essentially every martial technique or style would be a class. And you could multiples freely. So you might take levels in Dragon Subdoing Palm, or Nine Yin White Bone Claw. The idea was inspired by the moment in Return of Condor Heroes where Jinlun Guoshi breaks through to the 10th level of his Dragon Elephant technique. There is a lot of quantification in Condor Heroes that feels highly gameable. 

One last game I'd always love to do, but probably wouldn't be able to because we'd need to secure the rights, is to take the Bride With White Hair source material by Liang Yusheng and make either an Ogre Gate supplement built around it, or a completely new game. I actually took extensive notes reading Baifa Monu Zhuan for the purpose of doing just that (I had started a large list of all the techniques, with some description and the pages they appear on. I also took notes on other important aspects of the book like all the characters and sects. If I did it, I would want it to be official, to actually be The Bride with White Hair RPG. But again, securing the rights, particularly since it gets into movie IP as well, was the thing that makes this so unlikely it will probably always just be a thought. 

I hope this sheds more light on recent developments and where I am coming from when I make games. I decided to write this because there was a conversation at my wuxia community on Google+ about this subject and people seemed curious when I mentioned some of my reasoning behind Ogre Gate. 

I suppose one last point worth making is this: I get a lot of questions about specific rules in the Ogre Gate system. One thing to consider is, if I did Ogre Gate today, there would be some differences. For example, I treat open skills rather differently in my own campaigns now than the book currently does. There are little details like that, which I would adjust. But, there are lots of techniques that have deliberate ambiguity around points that would either raise or lower the power of the ability. This was intentional. There were many moments in design meetings with Dan and Ryan where we asked something like "but what happens if they add this technique on top of that one" or "can you do this while doing Y, or Z". In each of those cases, we decided it was better to leave that to the GM to decide. We did this because we realized, even among ourselves, we would each handle the call very different and we believed in providing a rulings over rules framework. So one of my most common responses to many questions is to provide my personal ruling, clarify the literal meaning of the text (especially if the wording is not ideal) and to say this is basically a GM call. 

By the way, I really enjoy hearing from people and getting these questions. It is never fun to design a game and get no feedback. Ogre Gate has gotten a pleasant response, and I love that people have these questions and I have a chance to share my thoughts with them. One thing I particularly appreciate about wuxia RPG fans, is everyone has their own tastes. Ogre Gate has a particular feel and style, which captures my take on the martial world and on the genre (and some related genres). There are clearly lots of ways one could go about making a wuxia RPG. And it is nice to see an enormous about of output in this respect these days. And one of the benefits for players is that means everyone is striving to the best they can because they see quality all around them. But it hasn't felt bitterly competitive to me at all. It has very much felt like all the other designers I've met and spoken to have a mutual respect that makes this design environment enjoyable, yet challenging. I think that is ideal, because one of my frustrations when I was trying to run my own wuxia games using existing systems, was finding the perfect game that did exactly what I had imagined. The more choices that are out there, the better it is for anyone who wants to run a wuxia campaign.