Monday, May 2, 2016

THE DEMON SPEAR OF YAO YUN SESSION TWO: INTO THE BELLY OF THE TOAD

This was the second session of the Demon Spear of Yao Yun. While the first session focused on Zhaofeng Yu's mission to Heiping, this one occurred during that time, focusing on Wandering Owl and Feng Yaochun). 

CHARACTERS
Zhaofeng Yu: A junior disciple of Mount Zun Sect.
Wandering Owl: Daughter of Feng Yaochun and an initiate into Mount Zun Sect.
Feng Yaochun (Hardened Bull): Father of Wandering Owl and an artisan who joined Mount Zun Sect. 

SESSION
Yaochun and Wandering Owl were summoned before Master Gaozi who asked them to head north to Li Fan, going to the city of Siyu to investigate reports of people rising from the dead. He informed them that he had similar reports from other regions and wanted them to be cautious as Siyu was within Celestial Heart Sect territory. If they found anything notable, they should report it to Celestial Heart Sect as well. 


The two set out, taking flight on a Shadow Owl summoned that Wandering Owl summoned. This cut their travel time to 3-4 days, but they still needed to camp. One night, camping in the Badlands of Yao. They were ambushed by a group of men and a hulking figure hiding in the darkness. The men looked like they came from the south (which was odd given they were so far north). The men attacked, Feng Yaochun speared two with his sword, then Wandering Owl used Kick of the Swan to drop the remaining men (seven in total). The hulking figure approached revealing itself to be a Demon Toad. It lashed out with its tongue and sucked Yaochun into its belly where he began to suffer from the burning acids of its stomach. Yaochun started carving his way out from the Toad Demon as Wandering Owl kicked it and protected herself from its attacks with Deflecting Canopy. 

It took some time, but eventually Yaochun sliced his way from the body of the Toad after Wandering Owl killed it with one of her kicks. 

They then continued on to Fan (the capital of Li Fan, about one day east of Siyu). There they investigated and learned there were rumors of ghosts on the outskirts of the town. There were also rumors that something terrible occurred in Siyu. 

They went to a gambling hall where men were betting on Cricket Matches (the match was between Iron Greeny and Blackened Champion). Yaochun spotted a man on a winning streak and placed bets on the same cricket, winning several thousand spades. He went back to drink with the man, who introduced himself as Golden Han. Golden Han was also an artisan (he made lucky golden bracelets) and confirmed rumors of ghosts. 

After the conversation, Yaochun went to another table where a group of men who had lost their money on the match were sitting. He noticed they were all eyeing Golden Han so he struck up a conversation. They were a group of scholars and they believed Golden Han had slipped a poison onto the losing cricket during the match. The leader of the group was Li Chun (Iron Scholar) and one of his companions, Fei Wu, has made a point of watching Golden Han. Fei Wu claimed to have seen Golden Han poison the cricket with his own eyes. 

The mood at the table was dark and tense, and Yaochun believed they meant to harm Golden Han. He asked about the ghosts, but the scholars dismissed them as exaggerations by overly imaginative locals. They also accused Golden Han of capitalizing on the hysteria by marketing his bracelets as protective against spirits. 

They were about to leave the gambling hall when Wandering Owl went to Golden Han and asked about his bracelets. He told her they could protect her against any evil in the world and that he would sell them to her for 100 spades because she was friends with his new pal, Feng Yaochun. She agreed. He returned with two and offered to sell them both for a total of 150 spades. She bought them, saw they had the characters for Happy Luck on them and returned to her father. 

The party sent a message to Mount Zun, and this is where the session ended. 

Thursday, April 28, 2016

DEATHBLADE AND WUXIA ROCKS INTERVIEWS

For this interview I’ve done something a bit different. It is a two-part interview, with the first half featuring Deathblade (a translator at Wuxia World), and the second half featuring Wuxia Rocks (a longtime wuxia fan and writer who posts on the subject online).

DEATHBLADE INTERVIEW
Brendan Davis: Can you tell me a little about your background and your work at Wuxia World?

Deathblade: I'm a Californian born and raised (not of Chinese heritage) who started studying Chinese in around 2007. Believe it or not, one of the main things that got me interested in Chinese culture was the release of the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Eventually, I even moved to China, where I still live right now. As the years went by, I decided to try my hand at translating some wuxia fiction into English. Initially I did it to improve my reading and vocabulary, but then it turned into a hobby. I started out with some lesser-known Gu Long books, and eventually even tried my hand at a modern novel by Taiwanese novelist Giddens Ko.

Later, I was contacted by the owner of Wuxiaworld, translator RWX, who was looking for someone to work on translating a popular Chinese web novel called I Shall Seal the Heavens, or ISSTH for short. ISSTH is a classic xianxia novel about a young Confucian scholar named Meng Hao who gets caught up in the world of Immortals. The novel was incredibly popular in China, and has also become one of the most popular web novel translations currently being released.

BD: Web novels seem particularly popular with Chinese audiences. I’ve seen a number of series that started as web novels. Can you talk about some of the more well known web novelists and the place web novels have in the culture (which seem to be taken more seriously there than over here)?

DB: Honestly, as far as the popular authors go, it's a huge topic. Some of the top authors known to the English-speaking world are I Eat Tomatoes, Tang Jia San Shao, and Heavenly Silkworm Potato. I Eat Tomatoes is probably the most well-known. It was the translation of his novel Stellar Transformations that started the entire Chinese web novel translation scene. The author of ISSTH is Er Gen, and although he's relatively popular in the English-speaking world, he's actually a newcomer to the web novel scene, and is sort of a rising star.

Actually, I think web novels are popular in China the way that comic books or pulp sci-fi/fantasy novels are popular in America. They are are highly profitable and have huge audiences, but aren't necessarily viewed as "literature." For however many people love them, there are plenty of people who ridicule them.

BD: Wuxia is used somewhat broadly in the US to mean a range of genres, can you speak a little about the definition of wuxia and talk about related martial arts genres that are popular in Chinese media?

DB: Wuxia generally refers to martial arts stories that do not take place in modern times. Usually they feature fantastic martial arts abilities and skills that make the heroes capable of performing feats similar to western superheroes. Although there are occasionally magic and fantasy elements to wuxia, the most typical and classic wuxia is a bit more grounded in reality. Although the heroes accomplish impossible feats by means of manipulating the Qi in their bodies, they usually do not possess powers of high magic.

A genre very similar to wuxia is xianxia. Whereas wuxia literally means "martial heroes," xianxia means "Immortal heroes." The protagonists practice magical cultivation techniques, with the goal of becoming Immortals, or even beyond. Many times the characters literally become gods. Have you seen movies with guys flying around on giant swords, shooting energy out of their fingers, summoning dragons, etc.? Chances are you were watching a xianxia movie.

In addition to these two, there is another popular genre called xuanhuan or "alternative fantasy." These stories take elements from wuxia and xianxia and mix them with Western fantasy, sci-fi and other genres to create a mash-up genre that is incredibly popular.

BD: What genre is of most interest to you?

DB: Wuxia always has and always will hold a special place in my heart. I specifically prefer stories with wandering swordsmen who have adventures in Jianghu. Recently, I have been draw to xianxia, mostly because my current translation is considered classic xianxia. Xianxia transports you into a mythological world that far exceeds the bounds of the usual fantasy, or wuxia, setting.

BD: Why are official translations of wuxia and similar genres so scarce in English? Do you think we will see more printed translations of writers like Gu Long and Jin Yong in the future?

DB: I think there are a many, many reasons. Perhaps the most obvious is that these stories are difficult to translate. You either end up with something that differs in many significant ways from the original, with the goal of making the novel more readable to general audiences, or you end up with something awkward-sounding in English, but more accurate to the original Chinese. The easy-to-read translation misses out on a lot of the "heart" of the original Chinese, and angers dedicated wuxia fans, whereas the accurate version is not something wider audiences would be attracted to.
Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils

Another reason printed translations is scarce is that the wuxia genre itself is not relevant to the general English-speaking audience. In China, wuxia stories are like stories about knights, pirates, or Robin Hood in Western countries. It clicks culturally. For English-speaking audiences, wuxia is exotic and strange, sometimes even unbelievable or silly. Without explanations of why the wuxia heroes can fly, shoot needles out of fans, immobilize people by hitting pressure points, etc., many Western readers tend to pass it off as "not realistic."

After the release of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon there was a surge in popularity in wuxia, which is one of the reasons a handful printed translations appeared. That popularity has long since dwindled. Without something in mainstream popular culture driving an interest in wuxia, xianxia and other Chinese genres, I think it will be difficult to create a demand for printed books.

BD: I’ve often found explaining the reasons for the powers goes a long way toward getting American viewers to give the wuxia genre more of a chance. Could you elaborate on some of these elements and maybe discuss how some of them have been misunderstood in the west?

DB: I agree, and one of the problems is that in wuxia movies or books, the powers and abilities usually aren't explained in detail. Such things are so deeply ingrained in Chinese culture that it's not necessary. Take, for example, "qinggong," the ability to make the body lighter and faster to the point where flight and other superhuman abilities are possible. This is a martial arts skill based on real techniques, exaggerated in Chinese fiction to superhuman lengths. However, such abilities can be read about in Chinese books thousands of years old!

Essentially, the source of the wuxia special powers comes from manipulating the Qi and energy of the body in various ways. Again, this is an actual practice in martial arts, just exaggerated in wuxia.

It's easy to make the argument that wuxia heroes have powers that are no different from many comic book superheroes. While that is true, there is a major difference between the two that tends to cause Western audiences to be put off. In comic books, there is always an explanation for the super powers. A spider bite, a mutation, cosmic rays... there is always a "logical" explanation for the powers. In wuxia, there is no "explanation." The powers are just there, the result of "practicing martial arts" or finding that "secret manual." Because wuxia is generally presented as taking place in the "real world," Western audiences find it hard to reconcile. Like you said, I think the only way to solve the problem is for wuxia lovers to do their best to provide explanations and be passionate about sharing what they like with friends and family.

I think a third problem is special effects. With a very few exceptions, the visual portrayal of wuxia abilities has been poor. In some of the blockbuster movies like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and Hero, the flying and other special abilities was portrayed in such an artistic way that it seemed more like dancing than fighting. Alternatively, in other movies where it was supposed to be "cool," the effects were so poor it just looked stupid. All of this leads to further misunderstandings and distaste on the part of general audiences.

BD: How long does it take to translate from the original language into English and what are some of the challenges that may not be obvious to readers?

DB: For the current story I'm translating, each chapter is about 2,500 or so Chinese characters, which tends to result in an English translated version of 2,000-2,300 words. Considering I've already translated over 600 chapters, I've gotten quite used to the author's writing style and quirks. I translate a lot faster now than in the beginning. Currently, if I focus and work quickly, and no difficult passages come up that I need to research, I can finish a chapter in 1.5 hours. Sometimes I run into Chinese characters, expressions, slang etc. that require further research, which can lead to a chapter taking 2 or even 2.5 hours. After that, the chapter gets proofread by my proofreading team, then I edit it, which takes about 20 minutes. Therefore, the total time from when I begin translating a given chapter to when it is ready for release usually costs me about 2-3 hours.

The ISSTH translation started out relatively slow, with only 5 chapters being translated and released per week (the author usually releases 3 chapters per day in Chinese!!) As the translation gained popularity, I began to increase the chapters per week, first to 7, then 12, finally to 14. Recently, I made the decision to leave my regular full-time job here in China to focus solely on translation. Right now I release between 14-17 chapters of ISSTH per week, and expect to increase it a bit more in the coming months. The novel has a total of over 1,600 chapters, and I just recently passed the 600 chapter mark, which means that at my current rate, I should be able to complete the translation in a little over a year.

Many readers are probably unaware of how different Chinese is from English. There are no formal grammar rules in Chinese, which often makes it difficult to figure out what any given paragraph is talking about. Chinese writers don't use periods except at the end of paragraphs. Usually a paragraph is a bunch of sentences connected by commas, which makes it hard to figure out where one thought begins and another ends.

Chinese has no true past, present or future tense. You have to rely mostly on context to figure out when something happened. Generally speaking, there are no plural nouns. Does the sentence mean "the most powerful warrior in China" or does it mean "the most powerful warriors in China." Big difference in English, but in Chinese, you have to rely on the context to figure it out.

BD: I am curious about some of the translation issues you’ve raised in the interview, in particular, humor.  As a viewer, one thing that sometimes troubles me is I don’t know when something is intentionally funny or when it is due to translation difficulties. How do you find humor translates from Chinese to English and what did you think are some of the biggest misconceptions here among American readers/viewers?

DB: Whether you're talking about movies or written stories, there will be two types of humor. One is situational, the other has to do with language. The situational humor (into which I would lump physical humor for movies and such) seems to come across well regardless of culture. ISSTH is filled with a lot of funny situations that the English-speaking audience tends to find completely hilarious.

In contrast, language-based humor is often hard or impossible to translate. Chinese is so full of idioms and expressions, complex characters, homophones, etc. that it can make it very difficult. However, a clever translator should be able to overcome that challenge. In novels, it can be handled with clever translating or use of footnotes. In movies or TV shows, the translator might have to be a bit more creative.

In my opinion, the audience shouldn't be left wondering if something is supposed to be intentionally funny or not. Although misunderstandings are bound to crop up, a good translator should make the humor come across for the majority of the audience. And of course, things that aren't supposed to be funny... shouldn't make the audience want to laugh.

BD: For English speakers reading this interview who may be interested in learning more about these novels and web novels, but not sure where to find them or where to begin, what do you recommend?

DB: Well of course they could go to wuxiaworld.com which is the home to some of the most popular translations out there. One good place to start is the novel Coiling Dragon, which is one of the only completely translated web novels out there. Some of the other popular translations are Against the Gods, Tales of Demons and Gods, and Desolate Era.

Other than that, I would recommend the website novelupdates.com, which features reviews, ratings, and rankings that should help newcomers find a title that is a good fit. There is also a very active Reddit subreddit /r/noveltranslations. Every few days, someone on the subreddit asks for recommendations of novels to read, making it a good place to start the search for a novel.

You can find out more about Deathblade at: 

WUXIA ROCKS INTERVIEW

Brendan Davis: Can you tell me a little about your background and experience with wuxia?

Wuxia Rocks: Yes. I was born into a family who enjoyed watching Wuxia series. At the time we were friends with the owner of an Asian video rental store, so my family would pick up various Wuxia series. That's pretty much how I got into Wuxia. My first introduction to the genre was a series called The New Adventures of Chor Lau-heung 1984, by TVB, an adaptation of Gu Long's Wuxia novels. Of course at the time I didn't even know what the genre was called. I was a kid entertained by all the colorful costumes and martial arts sequences. I was hooked. And from there I would watched just about every Wuxia series as they were release. Interestingly, I moved to a different state in the early 90s, but we somehow ended up making friends with another owner of an Asian rental store. So we continued to get Wuxia series throughout the 90s. Even now, I still watch Wuxia and still keep up to date with each series, even as early as they get in production.

BD: Can you talk about your family  and why wuxia was important in your household?

WR: I wouldn't say it's important, it's just that when we first moved to the state, we didn't know English very well, so we just watched Wuxia for entertainment.

BD: As a kid, did you watch the shows in their original language or with English Subtitles?

WR: Neither. At the time the only options I got were dubbed. Thankfully, it was in another Asian language I understood, so it's fine. There were no English Subtitles for these shows back in those days.    

BD: How do you define wuxia?

WR: Martial Arts Adventure. Or as it is define, 'Martial Hero.' I would describe Wuxia as stories set in ancient China, with people who practiced Martial Arts for various means, whether to protect the weak and oppressed, or to become the world strongest.

BD: What do you think are some misconceptions about wuxia?

WR: I haven't spoken to many outside of the Wuxia fandom, but the most recent misconceptions I came across were some who think Wuxia is about Ancient heroes in fantastical settings, with magical elements, such as spells, summoning, sword riding, and mystical beasts. The reason for this misconceptions is because they are not very familiar with Wuxia to begin with, and they only caught glimpse of recent Mainland China series. The genre is 'Xianxia', 'Immortal Hero', which is different from Wuxia, as it is more fantasy base. But the genre has become very popular in recent years, thanks to series like 'Chinese Paladin'. Of course the genre has been around long before that. But Mainland China has been producing a lot of them now, and to those who is not familiar with Wuxia, they might think that is Wuxia.

BD: For English-speakers who are interested in learning more about wuxia series produced in the 80s and 90s, before the boom of mainland series, what shows and resources might you recommend?

WR: Too many to list. But majority of them were produced in Hong Kong by TVB. While I enjoyed them growing up, I don't think they'll be as great to modern viewers, especially those who enjoyed the newer Mainland produced series. Not to directly compare them since they were made in different era, but those older series are low in production quality. Though they made it up with plot and acting. For anyone interested, I would recommend checking out their adaptations of Jin Yong stories. Demi-Gods, Semi-Devils 97, State of Divinity 96, Legend of the Condor Heroes 94, Return of the Condor Heroes 95, Duke of Mount Deer 98. As for the 80s, The New Adventure of Chor Lau-heung 84, Legend of the Condor Heroes 83, Return of the Condor Heroes 83, The Return of Luk Siu-fung 86, New Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre 86. There's a lot more, too many to list. For where to get them, that I don't know. Maybe some online sites. If you can find an English sub version, you're in luck. As they are pretty rare.

BD:  For those who might not be familiar, can you give an overview of some of the different genres beyond wuxia?

WR: Beside Wuxia and Xianxia, I don't know as many. Historical is among them. They're mainly focus on historical events and figures. With a mix of martial arts sometimes.

BD: What kind of wuxia series, movies and books do you enjoy?

WR: Honestly, I enjoyed any Wuxia, as long as the story is good to me. The ones I loved most are stories written by Jin Yong; Legend of the Condor Heroes, Return of the Condor Heroes, Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber, Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils, Smiling, Proud Wanderer. And a few Gu Long's stories as well.

BD: What makes Jin Yong in particular so popular?  How would you compare his stories to those of Gu Long in terms of style and focus?

WR: I think what made Jin Yong's stories popular are their universal themes. Such as family, loyalty, right and wrong. They are relatable. His stories plays heavily with ironic tragedy and poetic justice. Example being, one character who uses poison all his life, in the end dies by his very own poison. Another one, the most vicious man ends up dying by the hands of the most innocent. Men with straight face carries hidden agendas. There's a well balance of action, drama, humor, romance, intrigue. I think it's these elements that made Jin Yong stories so well loved. They're filled with adventures of heroes and heroines going through trials and tribulations. Where as Gu Long's novels they are mostly about mysteries and crime solving detectives. His characters usually starts out powerful right away. Also his novels are often split into several different arcs. These are some the differences between Jin Yong and Gu Long's stories. 

BD: What aspects of wuxia do you think sometimes get lost in translation? 

 WR: Probably the terminology. Sometimes not every words can be translated accurately. Or at least convey the exact meaning. I don't usually get bothered by these little things though. Wuxia are hard to come by as is already, any decent translations is better than nothing.

You can find out more about Wuxia Rocks at:




Sunday, April 24, 2016

AGE OF HEROES (RPG REVIEW)

I owe the author of this book an apology as it was sent to me some time ago with the hope of me doing a review and I haven't had the opportunity to write one until now. I feel  bad in this case because William Butler (my business partner who passed away in 2014) was particularly interested in this game when I showed it to him and had been planning to run some sessions of it. So this review is one I should have done about two years ago. 


The game is Age of Heroes and the author is Brian Gleichman.  Brian is someone whose intelligence and consistency I've come to respect a lot over the years and this game is a clear demonstration of those two things. It is not a system for those who want rules light or who eschew realism. This is a game for people who want realism supported by legitimate crunch where it counts. That said, the game is pretty good about knowing where that crunch ought to be, so if you are worried about games that go overboard and have fiddly bits in all the wrong places, that really isn't a concern here despite the comprehensive nature of the system. This review is based on Age of Heroes version 5.0.1.

If you gamed during the 80s, Age of Heroes will feel familiar. It definitely is written in the spirit of the systems I grew up playing and loving. It reminds me of games like Hero System, Basic Role-play and Rolemaster. This isn't a game like D&D but more like the other systems that attempted more realism. These days these kinds of games might be thought of as too rules heavy, but I tend to think of them as just very precise and complete. Reading through age of heroes it is like Brian Gleichman continued with that trajectory of design evolution. So if you aren't a fan of that style, this won't be the game for you. Mechanically it is a bit baroque, but I think that is a strength here. 

One thing to keep in mind if you haven't played a game requiring real math in some time: Age of Heroes values math and uses it to achieve its objectives. Games tend to avoid that now and I was actually surprised that I had to refresh some of my math skills while reading the book to make sure I was doing the formulas correctly. It isn't difficult, it is just something a lot of gamers might be out of practice with. Just to give a quick example so people know what I mean here. The game uses Location Points, or LP, for taking damage in combat and the formula for figuring them out is:

LP=(cube root of character's weight)-.3 

There is a handy chart too. But then the Stun Levels (or SL) also use a formula:

SL=(LP+CO+(WP/2))/3-2

Other aspects of the game like Cumulative Hit Points and Movement Rate use similar methods. This isn't stated here to critique or deter. And the whole book doesn't read like this. But parts of character creation do involve math, do involve the kinds of formulas you might not have seen in a game book in a while, so just be aware of that going in. To his credit, Brian Gleichman very clearly states this in the introduction. 

The aim of Age of Heroes is to simulate a world of high fantasy and to do so in a way that allows for long term campaigns that can span generations. It places strong focus on tactical skills and it very much rooted in a war-game approach to RPGs. 

The game has ten stats: Strength, Quickness, Agility, Constitution, Will Power, Aptitude, Intuition, Magic Strength, Charisma and Physical Appearance. While these range from 2-12 in value (with an average of 7) they are arrived at by rolling a percentile die and consulting a chart. This might feel a bit counter-intuitive or like an unnecessary step to some, but I rather like this. It allows the designer to set the frequency of each result in the game. So 12s come up 3% of the time because on the chart they are in the 98-100 column. Each stat value is clearly set to where the designer feels it ought to be. NPCs use a different column on the chart (with 'unusual' NPCs using the same results as PCs and standard NPCs having a higher range between 5-9). Stats impact a number of things from skill point costs to your ability to lift and your defense modifiers. Importantly they are not the last word in anything. While strength matters when determining Lift Capacity, so does your character's weight. One can quibble over choices like this but personally, as a slightly smaller than average guy who used to spend a lot of time in gyms sparring with bigger guys, I think a lot of his choices are sound here. 

After Stats, you handle things like Race and Culture. These are somewhat campaign specific but base cultures and races are provided. They are basically templates that provide restrictions, size ranges, weight modifiers, stat modifiers, character points, etc. These do include modifiers for sex, which can be a touchy subject. However it also provides an optional rule for getting around these issues. Basically male characters are baseline and female characters have stat and size modifiers (some are positive like Constitution, some are negative like Strength). 

Following this you get into secondary traits which include age, spell points, height, weight, effective strength, hit points, movement rate, etc. This is where a lot of the math I mentioned earlier comes into play. 

Past this point there are sections on family, social class, character points, character classes, and skills. Character Points are important because they help set individuals apart from others. These can take the form of re-rolls or modifiers, special items, and special abilities. They are a nice way to help flesh out a character. 

Character Classes are pretty important as well in the game. They don't limit what you can do, but they do control how well you can do any given thing. So your combat modifiers, magic combat modifiers and your access to magic and skills filter through the character class. It doesn't appear anything is restricted. If I understand the skill system and the magic system correctly, you can generally still access these things even if they are not listed on your character class, they just cost more. In some cases this can impose a heavy modifier to cost. For example a character taking non-classed skills (Skills not listed as Primary or Secondary for the class) pays 50% more for them. Classes seem to be mainly about aptitudes toward certain skill sets. Other things like weapon familiarity, XP advancement and special abilities are covered by class as well. 

But the heart of making your character appears to be in the skills. This is the last section of character creation and the most lengthy. Skills cover everything from combat to crafting and magic. Some skills have their own resolution methods but the core system is a d100 roll where you must roll under a number (called the Base Skill Chance). I personally like roll under systems. I do realize many consider them counter-intuitive but I've always found them fairly easy to work with and grasp. There are basically five ranks for skills (though these can be exceeded) that help set the base skill chance at different increments. So a rank in a skill of 3 gives you a rank base of 80. Like other aspects of the game, the skill roll section is somewhat involved but it is pretty clear and all makes a good deal of sense. For example skills have learning time (and there is a formula involved). Results can be broken up into failure, success, extraordinary success, and (in rare cases) critical success. The guidelines for these are fairly simple and straightforward, understanding that the GM really needs a lot of room to interpret what extraordinary success means based on circumstances. 

Combat is very tactical in nature. There are rules for facing, zones of control, etc. Combat flows in five steps which begin with deciding your action but allow for the defender to make a parry or dodge attempt. On a successful round you would roll for hit location and damage. Of note there are many combat options listed. So the first step of combat actually holds 28 officially listed possibilities. These include things like Normal Strike, Full Swing, Dive for Cover, Disarm, Trample, etc. You can only perform one combat action in a round.  It also offers up a number of optional rules to crank this up even more (things like Bleeding rates, combat formations, etc). In addition there are number of "Special Cases" rules for close combat, withdrawing from combat, taking friendly fire, and more. 

You will definitely need a GM who understands the system fully to run it. There are a number of important distinctions to keep in mind as you deal with things like wounds, combat modifiers and hit locations. It is a system designed to reward players who make sound tactical choices and it does so with an aim to simulating a feeling of reality. Players can probably get by knowing a bit less than the GM, but they will definitely benefit with more mastery of the rules. 

Magic system looks solid to me on first reading. I think given what is being emulated here, the division into subtypes would work well for a number of campaigns. Spells are divided into types and these determine how they are cast as well as special rules for them. These are the categories: Battle Spells (single target attacks), Combat Spells (area attacks), Characteristic Assault Spells, Defense Spells, Instant Spells, Non-Combat Spells, Talent Spells, and Ritual Spells. These types have mechanical weight to them. The spell descriptions are varied and flavorful. 

After this are the campaign rules which cover everything from overland movement to magic items. It covers all the key challenges like falling off cliffs and breaking objects. Healing is also found in this section of the book and it can be pretty gritty. Healing is dealt with based on the where you were wounded. So you have to track a damaged arm and head separately. Healing times are tracked and can have varying effects on you. What is more, characters can face the prospect of permanent disability from such wounds. Again, there is a bit of a detailed method to this (though it comes with a chart). 

While this is complicated at times, my experience with such things is they really do give characters a palpable history. When you have a system for dealing with bum legs that can arise naturally, unplanned, through the course of combat, that creates characters who feel real. If I understand the healing rate correctly, how wounded you are impacts how much you recover each day. Being tended regularly by a physician also affects this. I'd have to run it live though to really get a feel for it, so my impression is based on the charts and text. 

There is a bestiary which comes with a nice list of common abilities that look like they make customizing your own creatures easy. The bestiary looks fairly complete to me, especially given how much the rest of the book covers. It includes selections of horses, elementals, goblins, monsters like trolls, demons, and humanoid threads such as dwarven adventurers, human lords and wizards. There is also a section of mythic creatures. 

This is followed by the appendices. The first is a one page character creation checklist which is actually rather useful. This page clarified a lot for me, because it helps you see all the steps in a clear plan. But even better are the design notes. I'd even go so far as to say the design notes are worth buying the book for even if you have no interest in running the system. 

When I first got to this section I was anticipating they might be harsh, because I know Brian Gleichman has strong views on his gaming style. But this was a very compelling read that clearly laid out what his goals were, and did so in a way that didn't feel like an attack if you happened to disagree. He presents five clear design goals but one thing that stands out is the game was designed to reward players for making good choices. It is the kind of style where success isn't assumed simply because you are a hero. You do have to earn success and part of the fun comes from the GM presenting legitimate challenges to overcome. This means a high kill rate (which he puts at 15-40% in his own campaigns). I rather like this style of play myself, though I recognize it can be a difficult sell these days. To me, it means more to be a hero when the risks are higher and the chances of death ever-present.

Something he addressed here is the mechanics he chose not to add to the game. One of his design goals was to avoid mechanics that interfere with players running their characters, so he felt in some instances that meant knowing when not to have rules if they can be handled by GMs and Players naturally on their own (for example rules for romance). 

Gleichmann also addresses styles that are not well-suited to Age of Heroes. He acknowledges those put off by math, non-dramatic outcomes, combat and the rewarding of player skill, might not enjoy the game. Over the course of the section he explains his decisions for various mechanics. 

The appendix also includes a history of the hobby, suggestions for modifying the system and a recommended reading/viewing list. The history section is notable because you can get a clear sense of what the writer likes and doesn't like from it. The reading list is not overwhelming but offers some interesting choices. For example, for Paladins one of its recommendations is Mark Twain's Personal Recollections of Joan of Arc. When I was young my father developed a fascination with this book and I certainly can't object to it being on the list. For general reading there is a lot of what you'd expect for high fantasy but also selections like The Princess Bride (which I think is a book worth reading if you like the film). With the films, again I can't object. All movies I think are great fantasy and adventure films and I can definitely see how all the recommendations match the flavor of the book. 

This is definitely worth checking out if you want something with a little more crunch where tactics and choice matter. If math is a huge deterrent for you, this may not be a great fit, but I am not super into math myself and didn't find it difficult once I got back into the groove of it. If you gamed during the 80s, and feel maybe we've thrown out a bit of baby with the bathwater in the intervening decades, this is also worth checking out. If you want to run a high fantasy system, with a robust ruleset, that doesn't compromise on mechanics, then definitely give it a try. 

In terms of writing, I found the book very engaging and well written. I particularly liked the design notes section in this respect. The organization of the book is quite clear. While it is a complex game, you shouldn't have any trouble finding the section you need during play. I haven't had a chance to play it myself. It is certainly on my short list of games to run when I have time away from the game I am currently working on. So do take my opinion with the necessary grain of salt. 

Age of Heroes is available on lulu for those who are interested: HERE



Saturday, April 23, 2016

WANDERING HEROES OF OGRE GATE: PROFOUND MASTER AND IMMORTAL LEVEL CAMPAIGNS

I've been a bit silent on the blog lately, mostly because I've been working on the finishing touches for Ogre Gate and making sure it goes smoothly into layout. However I also made more of an effort in the last four to five months to refrain from posting unless I have something I really want to talk about. So aside from campaign logs, design/campaign notes, and the occasional review, I've been staying away from posting here as much as I used to. This helps keeps me more focused on finishing out books (devoting a set amount of time each day to blog entries takes away from that). 

But today is too hot in Boston for design work (this was written on Friday). At least for me. It isn't scorching but it is nearly 80 and I don't have the AC set up yet, so I've mostly been watching Kung Fu movies and taking care of other things. For me, 80 with any amount of humidity is hot. 

So I figured I'd take some time to talk about what I've been learning as we've started to really delve into the Profound and Immortal levels of play in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. Much of this is just preliminary thoughts on my part in terms of campaign structure, but interesting because it is very much the opposite of my experience with our other game, Sertorius. 

In case you haven't seen my posts before on the subject, the Profound and Immortal book is going to address higher level campaigns for Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. The low levels of the game focus more on wuxia-style campaigns, while the higher levels allow for campaigns in the style of Immortal (Xian Xia) and martial arts fantasy genres. Even at the earlier levels, these fantasy elements are present, but they become much more pronocuned when you reach Qi ranks 7 and beyond. There is material for this in the core rulebook, but to address it completely, it needs its own book. These levels begin at Qi rank 7 and go to 24, taking you all the way to becoming immortals or demon heroes. This is very much the point in the game where you become more of a super-being, and get into godlike territory. 

Our other game, Sertorius, features characters who start out with this level of power, and as they grow the campaigns tend to open up, becoming more freeform and sandbox as the players amass power and can do what they want. But the cosmology there is different, the gods are not as involved. In Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate it is inspired by the Heavenly Bureaucracy from Chinese sources, so there is more of a celestial structure and hierarchy in place. The result is players start out in the lower levels having more freeform sandbox-like play, but once they hit those profound levels and attract the attention of immortal forces and sects, things become more structured (at least in general). 

So you have an arrangement where characters shape their own destiny early on but then eventually, when they hit a certain apex of power, settle into the celestial hierarchy and have to work within that. This doesn't mean they aren't free to roam; they are, they just have to contend more with the rules put in place by various deities (or be really clever about it if they want to break them). A Monkey King style campaign is certainly possible, where the players rebel against Heaven or something. But those are more rare, because they come with such risk for the players. 

The shift in exploration also shifts a bit. At earlier levels there was a lot of exploring the local environment, but at higher levels the players are exploring realms mortals would have great difficulty accessing. So the landscape changes and that makes for a different kind of expiration. 

There are still investigations, city adventures, crawls across the kingdom and so on, but because the players are becoming more important, have attracted the attention of deities and immortals in a world with a fairly centralized cosmology, it produces a very different experience than similarly powerful characters in Sertorius. 

This has been my experience at least. 

Thursday, April 21, 2016

MAGIC BLADE (MOVIE REVIEW)

Magic Blade is a 1976 Shaw Brothers release that blends wuxia and mystery. It was directed by Yuen Chor* (Killer Clans, Heroes Shed No Tears, Legend of the Bat) and stars Ti Lung (as Fu Hung Hsueh), Lo Lieh (as Yen Nan Fei), Lily Ho (as Yu Chin), Tanny Tien Ni (as Moon Heart), Ching Li (Chiu Yu Cheng), and Teresa Ha Ping (as Devil Grandma). The storyline is based on novels by Gu Long. 

Like Killer Clans, Magic Blade is a perfect blend of Gu Long story and Yuen Chor directing. It is gritty wuxia in that the ruthlessness of the characters and their passions are on full display on screen, it is fantastic wuxia in its swordplay choreography and use of elaborate weaponry. 

The story is fairly simple, two swordsman, Yen Nan Fei and Fu Hung Hsueh, meet during a festival to have a duel. In their previous duel a year earlier, Fu Hung Hsueh had been the victor so they are meeting for an appointed rematch. As they trade sword strikes, assassins leap in and try to kill Yen Nan Fei. This unites the men against a common threat, Master Yu who wants to rule the martial world. First he intends to kill the two swordsman who could stand in his way (Yen and Fu), then he wants to possess a mighty weapon called the Peacock Dart. This thrusts the swordsman on an adventure where they must elude Yu's assassins and obtain the Peacock Dart before he can get his hands on it. Along the way they meet Chiu Yu Cheng, the daughter of the Peacock Dart's protector and the three brave their way to Master Yu's manor. I don't want to give too much way away but the movie culminates in a wonderful final confrontation with fun twists and surprises along the way. The film itself is dark, moody but endlessly inventive with its antagonists and ambushes. 

Ti Lung as Fu Hung Hsueh
The movie puts a good deal of emphasis on the realities of a world where people spend all their time fighting. These are heroes with scars, who have drunk their fill of both wine and blood. Right from the start of the film the dialogue reveals the blood soaked haze that martial world has cast on them as Fu Hung Hsueh declares "I came prepared to kill, but I forget why I want to kill you." Yen then informs him that it is the other way around, that he is the one who wants to kill, because Fu Hung Hsueh beat him in their last match. The movie is filled with these kinds of lines and the opening does a good job setting the tone for the rest of the film. 

Devil Grandma taste's Fu Hung Hsueh's
blood and steals the show
One thing that truly sets this movie apart is the number of memorable villains. Gu Long is exceptional in this respect but in this film in particular the characters are all stark and entertaining. All the antagonists have a flair and gleam that works, everyone from the five assassins sent by Master Yu to Moon Heart, lady of the Ming Yueh Restaurant. Many are great chess players, poets and painters. But the most notable in my view is Devil Grandma played by Teresa Ha Ping (sometimes known as Hsia Ping). She is so cruel, wicked and unrepentantly nasty that is a pleasure anytime she makes an appearance. Devil Grandma is a terrifying side villain who works for Master Yu and loves to eat her foes after the've been defeated. Mid Battle she ruminates on the possibilities of 'stewed Fu Hung Hsueh, fried Yen nan Fei and braised Chiu Yu Cheng'. For me this character really steals the show. Later in the movie she tastes the wounded hero Fu's blood and declares "Your blood is delicious!". I've seen characters like this plenty of times, but rarely done this well. 
Yen Nan Fei (left)
Fu Hung Hseuh (right)

The Peacock Dart, which the heroes spend most of their time finding and protecting is a marvelous weapon. At first the viewer thinks it is simply some particularly well crafted dart or dagger, but in truth it is a metal disc fitted with darts that look like flower petals. How it works exactly is initially unclear, they state that it kills 'mysteriously'. When it is first used at Peacock Fortress by Master Chiu (the dart's original protector) it is particularly stunning and unexpected. 

But the Peacock Dart is just one among many weapons here. Weaponry has the ornamentation of costume here. Yen's sword is gilded and fitted with an unusual basket hilt, while Fu uses an elaborate spinning sword that allows for some truly spectacular choreography. 

Fu Hung Hsueh and Chiu Yu Cheng (Ching Li)
The fight scenes are all very well done. This is full throttle mid-70s style wuxia (so in a lot of ways it is reminiscent of other Yuen Chor films from this period, but everything seems particularly well oiled in Magic Blade. The action choreography was done by Tang Chia (also known as Tong Gai), who also did the choreography for Killer Clans, Avenging Eagle and many other notable films. In this particular case, I think the action sequences are quite good. 

But the fighting here is more than just swordplay. The scenes are engaging not only for the grace of movement and choreography but because they each present their own unique, chess-like, challenges. At one point there is a literal chess board incorporated into the battle. These set-ups work wonderfully because they also give the characters opportunities to exchange dialogue. Given the plethora of colorful foes, it all comes together well as a result. 

Magic Blade is a lot like Killer Clans and movies like it in that its focus is the dark underbelly of the martial world. The hero, Fu Hung Hsueh is good-hearted but perhaps weary of the bloodshed (or at least not attached to the pleasures of the world the way the other characters are). It certainly has its share of carnage and nudity (though not as much of the later as one finds in Killer Clans). But it is a touch sentimental in its approach (and I don't mean this as a criticism). There is one scene in particular, where Fu Hung meets a woman who hasn't eaten for three days and offers to sleep with him if he buys her a bowl of noodles. The whole exchange sort of shifts the focus from the  martial world to the he real one, in a very interesting way. And we find that it is a world with just as much pathos and beauty as the martial one. 
Master Chiu and his daughter
Chiu Yu Cheng 


Sometimes the wuxia films can load too many characters into a 2-hour film. This is especially a challenge if you are not acquainted with the source material. But Magic Blade manages to brim with characters from the very start and not overwhelm the viewer. I think part of this is because it does a good job establishing who each character is (even listing some of them clearly in the dialogue). Really though, I think the reason it works is because the characters are all so memorable and all contribute to the flow of the movie in their own way (and the important ones usually back again and again). 

Moon Heart (Tanny Ni Tien)
I personally love this movie. I think some people might be put off by certain elements but I still highly recommend it to wuxia fans, martial arts enthusiasts and gamers. If you like action, there are no big lulls. If you love colorful martial heroes, this film has them in spades. If you want clever dialogue and some sentiment to go along with your bloodshed, Magic Blade surely has them. It has everything I usually look for in a wuxia movie and more. 

From a gaming point of view, this is pure gold. You should be able to get five adventures and countless encounters (not to mention NPC ideas) from this. I didn't really get into them in my review much but it also has lots of inspiring locations (temples, villas, fortresses and inns).

*I have been very inconsistent with ordering of surnames on this blog, using this ordering as it has appeared this way in previous reviews on this blog page. Similarly the other names are simply in the order I most naturally lean toward. If you research these names online, surnames sometimes appear before personal names and vice versa. For example, Lo Lieh, is sometimes written as Lieh Lo.