Tuesday, July 29, 2014

FLEXIBILITY OF DISBELIEF

I talk a lot about believability and immersion. In particular I like to comment on the things that disrupt my suspension of disbelief in games, so I know how to maximize my enjoyment. But sometimes I feel I ignore the issue of flexibility here and how really, believability is a spectrum...it isn't meant to be a rigid, binary notion. 


Concepts that are rigid are weaker than ones that have flexibility. If you look at a tree for example, even the strongest one, if it doesn't bend to the wind, will crack. In the same way, approaching believability in an RPG without flexibility is a potential problem. 

To elaborate, I think at times people approach disbelief in gaming by identifying the things they believe detract from it, then making those things forbidden. So meta-gaming might be an example of this. To aid immersion and believability I could eliminate meta-gaming entirely from my table, but then I think you begin to unnaturally avoid what might be quite organic and normal for your typical gaming experience. Obviously you don't want meta-gaming to become a major issue, but if you are actively avoiding it, becoming paranoid about its hidden impact on play, you then allow it to have just as much of an influence on your gaming. I don't like to restrict peoples' natural impulses at the table, just because I have an idea they might disrupt believability.  

Another place where this occurs is realism. Again, I talk a lot about the need to have the GM step in on occasion and smooth out mechanics when they produce results that are inconsistent with the setting or create unbelievable outcomes. I think this is important. However I still think you need to be careful about applying this rule of thumb, and that you want to reserve it for the more egregious instances. In short, I don't use it to go over everything with a fine tooth comb and vet it for realism. 

And there are also times when believability needs to be challenged. For example when you are trying to adhere to genre conventions in a setting. Granted the genre usually has its own internal logic that you still want to follow, but if you were trying to play or create a game where the point is to experience a setting that emulates the superhero genre, you wouldn't necessarily want physics getting in the way of a cool power, and you might not want death to be so common or permanent. There is a difference between running a gritty game set in a quasi realistic fantasy setting, and running wuxia campaign where the characters are expected to take on thirty guys and defeat them all. Genre emulation isn't for everyone, but it has a place I believe and there is value in distinguishing between realism and what is plausible in the genre. 

My concern is that sometimes in my effort to share my enthusiasm for how I like to play, I give the impression that I am less flexible than I actually am at the table, or that I avoid playing with folks whose preferences are different from mine. This isn't the case. I approach gaming with an eye toward flexibility and learning from others. I also don't like to tell other people how to game, nor to I like to be told so by others.  

This is more of a positive approach to play style than a negative one. Instead of "don't", I am advocating that you "do" the things you believe contribute to a better RPG experience, without restricting people who have a different view. That demands some flexibility at your own table. It means heeding the interests of others, allowing for ingredients you might otherwise avoid. It doesn't mean you embrace everything. We are talking about flexibility, not capitulation. You can incorporate a little salt into a sweet dish, without undermining the flavor. It doesn't become salt because it has a little salt in it.

WHAT IS WUXIA?

I had the pleasure of meeting Chang Yaoyuan through wuxia fan pages online. He is from China, well versed in Chinese literature and is enthusiastic about sharing his knowledge of wuxia with English-speakers. In this video he explains the concept of wuxia, getting into the literal and metaphorical meaning of the original chinese characters. 





If you are interested in learning more, here are some handy online resources: 

An Introduction to the Wuxia Genre

Wuxiapedia

Wuxia Edge

Wuxia Pan

Monday, July 28, 2014

Wuxia Inspiration: Killer Clans

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


NOTE: Killer Clans is one of the more graphic films in the genre and I will be addressing that frankly. So be aware the following review contains things the Bedrock Blog normally avoids. This post also contains many spoilers because it is difficult to discuss the movie without getting into specifics.


Killer Clans was released in 1976 and directed by Yuen Chor (Jade Tiger and Death Duel). It stars Zong Hua (Meng), Gu Feng (Sun Yu), Chen Ping (Lady Kao), and Yueh Hua (Hsiang). It is based on a Gu Long novel called Meteor, Butterfly, Sword. 

The hero of Killer Clans is an assassin named Meng. An orphan, he was raised in a brothel by Lady Kao and kills for her when she receives contracts from members of the martial world. Lady Kao is vicious and has bred both Meng for killing. He doesn't fear death, but he has no real friends, family or loved ones. This is a recurring theme throughout the film. 


The basic plot is a war between two clans: The Lung Men Society and the Roc Society. Lady Kao receives a contract to kill the head of Lung Men Society, Sun Yu, and assigns Meng to the task. Along the way, Meng meets a woman in a forest villa playing the guzheng. They talk about poetry and butterflies and she serves as a kind of contrast to the ruthlessness of Lady Kao. By the the time he leaves Meng has already started to fall in love with her. Meanwhile the growing blood-feud between the clans escalates as each side tries to outwit the other, leading to the murder of Sun Yu's son, and the death of many of others. 


Lady Kao learns about Meng's meeting at the forest villa and reveals that the women is Sun Yu's daughter. Fearing that Meng might fall in love with her and refuse to complete his mission, Lady Kao sends another assassin to complete the task. He fails, and Sun Yu uncovers Meng's intentions but shows him mercy, bringing him into the fold of his clan. 

Sun Yu weaves plans ridden with counter moves and feints and lays down preparations should the worst occur. It becomes clear there is a spy in his society and he must rely on his right hand man, Hsiang. However, Hsiang betrays him. He tries to seize Yu's position, wounding him with deadly needles and causing him to flee. Now the only one who can help Sun Yu regain control of his clan is Meng. It is soon revealed that Hsiang is the one who paid Lady Kao to have Sun Yu killed. 


At this point in the movie things get very dark. Sun Yu has been making plans in advance for years. Throughout the film he talks about the importance of patience and planning, and it is obvious he has all sorts of contingencies in place. One such contingency involves a couple who leave near the end of a tunnel leading from Lung Men Society's headquarters. Sun Yu saved the husband many years ago, and they are pledged to help him hide in a well should he run into trouble (the details of this arrangement are a bit murky but apparently they have to commit suicide in order to keep the master's pursuers from finding his hiding spot). When Sun Yu arrives at the well, the couple's children rush from their home to see what is happening. The look on Sun Yu's face when he realizes they have young children, foreshadows what is to come. The man and wife hurry the master into the well and bring their children home for a last meal laced with poison. 

The look on Sun Yu's face when he realizes children are going to die is intriguing. He is clearly appalled, apparently shocked, but continues with the plan and accepts their deaths in order to save himself. 


The film culminates with a climactic battle at Lung Men Society headquarters, as Meng and Sun Yu attack as Hsiang is trying to form an alliance with the Roc Society. Hsiang is forced to flee and finds refuge at the Dragon Gate Inn, operated by his childhood friend who gives him poisoned wine and kills him. 

At the end of the film, Sun Yu sends Meng off to live with his daughter. At first this seems to be a reward for his aid, and perhaps it is, but he tells Meng he is sending him from the martial world because eventually he thinks Meng will grow ambitious and try to kill him because that is the way of Jianghu. 

Cynical in its presentation of the martial world Killer Clans deals with the cycle of violence created by grudges and ambition. It is a story that emphasizes the cost of killing and of being a part of the clan system that makes up the Jianghu. It is also graphic, featuring nudity and rape. 

Violence is common in these movies. Sex and nudity are not. At first these scenes seem thrown in to give the movie more allure. However I think the reason they are there is to emphasize the grit of the martial setting, the dirtiness of it. 


It is an interesting film. The fight choreography is pretty good, if a bit stiff now and then. The characters seem pretty typical of many of the Gu Long inspired films I have seen (and the one Gu Long novel translation I've managed to get my hands on). I think much of it turns on that well scene. It is a terrible thing to witness but it also does give weight to Killer Clan's theme. 

PONDERING KUNG FU TECHNIQUES: REAL-WORLD KNOWLEDGE AND DESIGN

We've developed a vast list of Kung Fu techniques for Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate and continue to add to and refine this list of attacks, counters and stances. Our goal is to reflect what we see in wuxia films and television, not create realistic fighting styles. At times I have found myself needing to forget what I know about real-world martial arts and think more in terms of the fantasy of film. 

Before I got sick, I was into martial arts for years and would train every day for hours. I had solid experience in a few different styles and over time managed to dabble in quite a few others just to see what was out there. But like a lot of people who trained in martial arts, I also watched martial arts movies (in fact kung fu films inspired me to take up actual training....I'd be lying if I didn't add that Star Wars was another factor). One thing I learned pretty early on was the vast gulf between martial arts on screen and how they are actually practiced. 

When I started designing games, I saw this experience like any other expertise or knowledge I could bring to the design table. Generally when I worked on games with other people, they would defer to my knowledge of this, just like I might defer to the science buff's knowledge of physics. However I noticed this was hindering my ability to make workable martial arts mechanics. I would over think, I would consider things from far too many angles, and generally it just muddled my approach because there are so many variables to consider in real life. I wasn't happy with the results, even if they met my criteria for "realness". 

One day I just decided to stop. I would think more like a fan of the genre than a practitioner when it came to design. This freed me up considerably and I started to enjoy the process more than before. It allowed me to embrace the fantasy element of wuxia rather than get into the nitty gritty of actual practice. 

So when we started on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate I only allowed my self to bring one piece of real world knowledge to the table. There is a single kick in the entire list of techniques (which right now must be close to 80 or more) that is based on my actual experience in the martial arts. Other than that everything is purely inspired by the screen. 

The technique in the book based on my real-world knowledge is called Spinning Back Kick. I modeled it after a counter I used to use at my first martial arts school, and think the mechanics capture that aspect of it well (they fall a little short capturing its more offensive applications). However I have concluded my decision to include a single real-world technique was the right one. Tellingly, no one has shown any interest in taking spinning back kick. Not the folks who choose techniques based on the coolness of the name, nor the folks who choose the technique based on the mechanics. So far, I have only been able to use it through my NPCs. And I have to say, it is serviceable but nothing special in the game. 

I think in game design real world knowledge can be helpful. It can also be a hinderance if you are not careful. Knowing what real world knowledge to apply and what real world knowledge to keep in check is an important skill I have learned over the years. As a generally rule, if it enhances the game, or adds needed depth, then by all means use your real world knowledge. But if you find yourself engaging in unnecessary pedantry or clouding the system with "buts" and "ifs" you might want to step back and refrain. 

Sunday, July 27, 2014

WUXIA INSPIRATION: BROTHERS FIVE

Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (WHOG) draws on a number of sources for inspiration. I watch a lot of wuxia movies and TV shows, and these have had a big influence not only on Ogre Gate, but on Sertorius and many of my d20 campaigns. I am hoping to share some of my favorite movies and shows in the genre here as we work on WHOG. Today it's Brothers Five, one of several movies starring Cheng Pei-pei that I will review in the coming months. 

For those not familiar with her work, Cheng Pei-pei is most recognizable to western audiences from her role as Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but in the 60s and 70s she was the "Queen of Swords", appearing in films like Come Drink With Me, The Lady Hermit, Golden Swallow, The Jade Raksha, The Shadow Whip and many more. Known for both her ferocity and grace of movement, Cheng Pei-pei is an icon of the wuxia genre whose fight scenes have been described by some as poetry with the sword. If you watch movies from his period her performances really stand-out. 

Brothers Five features a number of stars from Come Drink With Me (which I talked about HERE), including Yeuh Hua, Lee Wan-chung, and Cheng Pei-pei. Directed by Lo Wei (Fist of Fury and Snake & Crane Arts of Shaolin) and released in 1970 by Shaw Brothers Studio, Brothers Five has some rather lengthy swordplay sequences and a wide range of weapons including the iron hat and a massive sledge hammer. 

Unfortunately Brothers Five under-utilizes Chen Pei-pei, and therefore sees her more in a supporting role, but she still brings a lot to the movie. My understanding is during the 70s, the role of women in wuxia, who had normally played prominent parts in the genre, diminished as men were cast more often as the leads. Whether that had anything to do with this or not I do not know (though Cheng Pei-pei did briefly leave acting the following year for America, only to return a few years later to make more films). 

A story of five brothers separated at birth and re-united by Miss Yan* (Chen Pei-pei) to avenge the death of their father, the hero Gao Shi Yu of Flying Dragon Villa who was killed by Long Zheng Feng. Feng has replaced their father as head of the villa and turned it into a criminal enterprise, leading a gang of thugs who terrify the surrounding region. After Miss Yan finds the five brothers, and after several failed assaults by the brothers on the Villa, she trains them and shows them a manual with a technique called "Five Tigers with one Heart" that will enable them to fight as one and kill Long Zheng Feng. 

Each of the brothers Gao brings a distinct personality to the table. For example one is a black smith who wields sledge-hammer, one a gentlemen scholar who fights with a capped pen, another a dashing thief with a whip and bandolier of daggers and so on. They did a good job of making it easy to keep track of five brothers who seem to be roughly in the same age range. 


This movie does some interesting things. Notably the fight scenes are quite long, much longer than seems the norm in this kind of film. The choreography is good enough that this works fine. One element I liked is many of the shots are at a distance, giving you a view of the performers entire body with minimal shifts in perspective. This allows you to see all the movement and places more demands on the actors. 

In my opinion the swordplay in this is awesome. And it isn't strictly speaking just swordplay. There are guys throwing daggers, swinging hammers, stabbing with calligraphy pens and using a number of other martial weapons. One of the brothers wields an iron hat with a sharpened rim and that really balanced out some of the other weapons (and made for some nice motions). Cheng Pei-pei wields a sword but also uses a wooden version of the guandao (here) to simulate the villain Long Zheng Feng's techniques as she trains the brothers. I did like that the battles often feature large numbers of combatants. It had a real swash-buckle feel because of that. 


That said the movie isn't perfect. Some of the fights start to look pretty similar after a while. They're still good, it's just that they needed more variation. At times a few of the fights get a little silly and there are a few visible slip-ups too. 




The final technique, Five Tigers with One Heart, is both a blessing and a curse. If you have the forgiving eye of a kung-fu fan, it will probably work for you. However on its own, it does look a little ridiculous and it doesn't seem like it would really do much of anything the way they use it. Basically they form a wall by standing atop one another's shoulders, then in the final battle they spin around for some reason. I really liked the idea of five brothers fighting as one and the visual is charming in a way. It still is a bit tough to swallow though. 


In the end this is a solid movie. The final battle, cheer leader pyramid aside, is quite good. It is a Cheng Pei-pei movie, totally worth seeing, but some of her other films are much better (I would personally recommend Lady Hermit and Come Drink With Me before this one). Mainly it isn't as good because she is underused. 

*Note: The version I have is a blue ray version and part of the Shaw Brothers Sword Masters series issued in 2008. Some of the names in my copy appear different from other versions. I am going to use these spellings in this review. 

ORCS OF THE NORTH: THE MARRIAGE OF PRINCE ORTHU AND ANAREE

In this session of Sertorius, where our characters have been serving King Malka of the Pendeo Tribes, we continued our flight from Caelum after assassinating General Brogustu (our last session). 

The party is still mainly Orcish and consisted of the following: 


-Enos Ozihel (my character), an Orc who worships Ozias.

-Shillek, a Halfling from the Shahr Republic who has business in the North.

-Aetos, an Orc Tribesman who died, became a Ghoul and was then blessed by Ozias of service and made into a vampire. 

-Ah-Sri, a Hasri raised by Humans in Ronia.


-Varia, a Human from East.

When we left off, we were still in Caelum and trying to flee after we had killed Brogustu. Originally we wanted to go by land, but it was decided a single voyage by ship from Rono to Neoda was our best bet. However that is a long voyage, so we had some difficulty finding a ship at the last minute. We tried persuading a local merchant vessel but lacked the funds to make it worth their while. Ah-Sri provided the solution by using The Transformation of Ashan, a spell that enables him to turn substances into gold temporarily (note, this spell is from the upcoming free PDF, Book of the Archon). Transformation of Ashan also can make transmutations but it comes at great cost, and we decided not to take the risk. Instead we used the temporary attempt as a demonstration to show the captain we could make him gold endlessly (we actually could not do this but it was a lie we needed to tell to escape). We made a deal that upon arrival in Neoda, the king would reward him for his troubles, granting him double what he could have made otherwise and establishing favorable trade ties with the local chieftains. He agreed but we still had a many weeks journey by sea ahead of us. 

Thankfully, and through use of various magics to assist safe passage, we arrived in Neoda several weeks later with only a few shark sightings along the way. In Neoda we re-united with the other members of the party and presented ourselves to the king to announce the death of Brogustu. Malka was pleased and made us all priests of Ozias. He also provided us with ample living quarters. 

The King then told us his plans for war with Caelum. He wanted to ally with the Mandaru tribes, so had reached an agreement with their Kashan: Malka's son Orthu would marry the Kashan's second daughter Anaree. We were placed in charge of managing the details and escorting Orthu to Mandaru. This alliance would allow both powers to strike at Caelum, one from the North and one from the South. It also brought Sardona into the fold, because Mandaru treats them as a client kingdom. 

We were quite concerned about the distance to Mandaru, both in terms of securing safe passage for the prince but also because it posed some logistical issues for the invasion. However we were informed that the king's Sertori adviser had created a solution. Using powerful magic called Thauma, something well beyond our own abilities, he constructed portals making travel between Neoda and the Mandaru lands possible in an instant. He also intended to use these portals during the invasion. 

We traveled through the first portal, which was a swirling cloud encased in an iron rim and arrived near Vashanu (the Mandaru capital). There we met with Anaree, the Kashan's daughter, and found her to be quite against the idea of marrying an orc. Anaree seemed intelligent, hot tempered and interested in taking an active role in politics and war (she even mentioned wanting to fight in the upcoming conflict). We heard her concerns and went back with them to Malka and Prince Orthu. 

Speaking with Orthu, he was less impressive than Anaree and this caused us some concern. For the invasion to work, the marriage would need to go forward without any difficulties. Orthu was quite oblivious to the seriousness of the situation, and seemed incapable of impressing Anaree. But more concerning than that was the fact that Orcs and Elves, to our knowledge, cannot procreate together. This meant, if Anaree were to go to war and die, there would be nothing left to tie the two powers together. Therefore we went to King Malka to devise a solution. 

Our first proposal was to approach Ozias and see if a miracle could be performed making such a child possible. This was dismissed as outside of Ozias' concerns. We then considered an appeal to Ranua (the Elven goddess) asking for the same miracle, but Malka feared offending Ozias. In the end we decided it would be best to allow Anaree to have a child with an elf she found acceptable and then have King Malka adopt the offspring of that union as his own grandson. Provided Anaree and Orthu agree to this solution, it might work. However we also decided the elf in question who serves this function would need to be dealt with so he doesn't threaten Orthu's claim. King Malka decided the easiest solution would be to have him lead the initial invasion, where he would be likely to die. 

Saturday, July 26, 2014

WUXIA INSPIRATION: NEW DRAGON GATE INN

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

It probably comes as no surprise to those following the blog that the Dragon Gate Inn movies are a particular favorite of mine and that Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is named in part as a homage to these films.

The original Dragon Gate Inn was made in 1967 and Directed by King Hu (Come Drink With Me and A Touch of Zen).  King Hu actually made three films that prominently feature an inn (Come Drink With Me, Dragon Gate Inn and The Fate of Lee Khan) but the inn of Dragon Gate has become quite iconic. The film was remade in 1992 as New Dragon Gate Inn, and again re-imagined in 2011with Jet Li as the star in Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. These are all excellent movies in my opinion (though unfortunately today it is very hard to find a quality copy of the original). But now I want to discuss New Dragon Gate Inn.

New Dragon Gate Inn was made in 1992, directed by Raymond Lee and produced by Tsui Hark. It stars Donnie Yen (Tsao), Tony Leung Ka-fai (Wai-on), Brigitte Lin (Mo-yan), Maggie Cheung (Jade), and even features Elvis Tsui in a small but memorable role. It follows the same basic plot as the original Dragon Gate Inn but contains more action sequences and dark humor. It also turns Dragon Gate into a black inn (a place that serves human meat).


Against the backdrop of the Ming Dynasty, the storyline follows a group of rebels pursued by the powerful East Chamber (an intelligence bureau headed by the eunuch Tsao Siu-yan). The film opens with Tsao executing his rival, Minister Yang. He murders the entire family but saves two children to use as bait to lure Yang's ally, General Chow Wai-on. Wai-on's men and his lover Mo-yan rescue the children and take them a desert inn on the frontier where they plan to meet rendezvous and escape. Bad weather and dust storms force the rebels to remain at the inn as Tsao's men, posing as merchants, investigate the place and wait for reinforcements to arrive. The Inn is operated by a colorful woman named Jade and is a refuge for brigands and thieves.

The bulk of the film occurs at the Inn, and involves two main conflicts: a love triangle between Wai-on, Mo-yan and Jade; and the rebel's efforts to escape with the children while sharing an inn with Tsao's agents. This creates plenty of opportunities for both action and comedy. 

The sword-play is solid, and very different from the sword-play of King Hu's original. In the first Dragon Gate Inn the action sequences were more fluid and discernible. Like a lot of 90s wuxia, the camera angles and editing make many of the actions in the remake seem more sudden and occasionally choppy. It works fine and is simply a bit more stylized. The best fight choreography is a dialogue ridden sparring match between Jade and Mo-yan, that is played mostly for laughs. The final battle is also quite good.

Donnie Yen as Tsao sees very little action in the movie. Aside from some flourishes at the very beginning, he pretty much doesn't do anything (aside from sit patiently in a sedan chair) until the very end. While some folks feel this is a waste of his talent, I feel it adds weight to his final scene and makes it that much more magnificent (and it is a brutal, bloody end).


It is a strong cast, with several great actors turning in a good performances but Maggie Cheung absolutely overshadows all the other talent as Jade. She plays a witty and seductive proprietor with a shady past. This is definitely a more risqué take on the first film. The dialogue is filled with double entendres, with Jade offering to give Wai-on access to "all of my secret corridors" after he asks her about escape tunnels leading to the border. Again this is done mainly for laughs, but it is far from tame.

There is also a small but pleasant performance from Elvis Tsui, who plays a bombastic general with a connection to Jade and the inn. Donnie Yen is there mostly for his martial arts, and he does deliver in the final scene.


I like New Dragon Gate Inn in terms of gaming because it provides a great venue for adventures. Inns are a staple of the genre and this is definitely one of the more remarkable ones. The added element of serving human meat disguised as steamed buns is perfect fodder for a campaign. The desert location also works really well (even if it leaves you wondering where they are getting water from exactly).


 I recommend this one for certain. It is dated though. You can definitely tell it was made in the early 90s and the versions I have seen have all been a little on the grainy and faded side (but still much better preserved than the original). If you can find it, absolutely check out King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn. That one is a classic, but just be prepared for less than stellar sound and image quality (though it has faired better than his other classic, A Touch of Zen).  I'd also highly recommend the latest remake, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn. That one also has the advantage of being directed by Tsui Hark (and in my opinion it is one of the better recent wuxia movies).