Tuesday, February 9, 2016

BLOOD OF THE DEMON MOON CULT SESSION 22: AN EYE FOR DIAMONDS

This is the campaign log for the Twenty Second session of a google+run Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign. The previous session is described HERE

I am running two campaigns in the same setting and treating them as occurring in different realities with some vague similarities. Characters in one may appear in the other, but there are no direct causal effects from one campaign to the next. Partly this is to playtest, but this is also partly due to the multi-dimensional aspect of the universe I run all my games in. It would theoretically be possible for the party from the Blood of the Demon Moon cult campaign to dimension travel to the Secret of Je Valley Campaign, in which case direct interactions could occur (and they could even meet their counterparts in the alternate dimension).  

CHARACTERS

Player Characters
Zhang Wan (Bone Breaker): An unpredictable and violent martial expert who is the brother of Zhang San. First chief of Qui Pan Bandits. Married to Huo Ju (Little Venom)
Zhang San: A wandering hero and sister of Zhang Wan, more calm than her brother
Chen: A poisoner and healer known for his lazy ways.

Key NPCs
Jade Priestess: Bone Breaker's Sifu and former member of the Demon Moon Cult
Jade Butterfly: San's Sifu
Senior Grand Councilor Cai Yuanyu: Highest ranked official in the Empire below the emperor; plotting to 'invert heaven' and has recruited Bone Breaker into his plans
Prince Yuan: Son of the King of Li Fan, controls the eastern territories. 
General Dee: An important military commander in Hu Qin who pays Bone Breaker for services 
Iron Spear Tip: A magic weapon with a mind of its own, the bride of Zhang Kang.
Little Venom (Huo Ju): Bone Breaker's Wife
The Venom of Zhaoze (Huo Si): Leader of Zhaoze sect, father of Huo Ju (Little Venom) and Sifu to Chen

This session resumes the efforts of Chen and San to trade the Immortal Killing Swords for the Phoenix Talismans from the Temple of Supreme Righteousness. 

Chen and San had come to a peak in the Banyan mountains and scaled it to reach The Temple of Supreme Righteousness. They brought Nergui (the Kushen King's chief adviser) and Princess Sarnai (the King's daughter) along for the journey. Previously Chen was made a commander of 10,000 in the Kushen Army, giving him a great deal of influence among the invading tribesmen. 

They found narrow stairs carved into the peak and began to climb them. As they did, Negui and Chen began to feel heavy and slow, as if some supernatural force was weighing them down. A voice boomed "Leave the Immortal Killing Sword and turn back."

Hesitantly they continued forward, and Nergui was lifted into the air by an unseen force, he disappeared around a bend and moments later came crashing down the steps before them, dead. Chen grabbed Nergui's Meteor Hammer and the party fled back down the mountain but were pursued by three disciples of the temple. 

They managed to defeat them quickly, taking one prisoner, and continue on into the desert. As they traveled they became lost and found themselves in the middle of a sandy maelstrom that swirled like a whirlpool. Princess Sarnai was sucked below, disappearing into the sand. Chen and San managed to leap out of the way. Taking the chain of the Meteor Hammer, Chen lowered it down and dropped himself into the sands to rescue Princess Sarnai. However he slipped through the sands and fell thirty feet to a cavern floor. Above him he saw swirling sands and beside him was Princess Sarnai. 

San lowered the chain again, and they were able to leap onto it, then climb out. When they reached the surface, Princess Sarnai saw a nearby outcropping of red stone. Chen inspected it and saw that it had a likeness of Hen-Shi with script written at its base reading: No man shall enter. 

Enraged by the incident, Chen used Stone Shattering Finger Technique to destroy the statue. It immediately shattered into thousands of fragments and a burst of red energy flowed from the stone into his chest leaving him irritated and itchy. When he opened his shirt, there was an eye peering from his own flesh near his breastbone. 

They decided to travel to Heaven Palace Sect and speak with Dawa on the matter. It took them a couple of days and when they arrived Chen informed her about what had happened. He also gave her the prisoner they'd taken from Temple of Supreme Righteousness (which delighted her). She told him that they might not be powerful enough to confront the Temple yet. She would look into the matter and try to find a solution. In the meantime she told him that she could use her talismans to remove the eye but it would come at the cost of one of his own eyes. Chen thanked her and said he would use that option as a last resort but would investigate the matter himself for a while before making a decision. As they left they saw that Qinwen was still strapped to the wall and serving as a source of amusement for Dawa. 

They went back to their fortress in their newly acquired land between Snake Peak and the Hill of Opulent Fruits. When they arrived, Chen went to speak with Miss Hai*. He asked her about the eye and she said it appeared to be an Eye of Hen-Shi, which was a kind of curse used by Hen-Shi sect to help them track and understand their enemies. She believed the could sense everything he saw or heard. Chen thanked her and went to meditate on the matter. 
The Witch of Zhaoze Zhou


San went to pay her respected to her Sifu, the Witch of Zhaoze Zhou. She found her in a new hut, about half a mile away from the fortress. There were animal skulls on posts along the approach to the hut. When she arrived her Sifu was pleased to see her but appeared concerned. She gave her a coin necklace that had the characters: Phoenix-Dragon-Spirit-Enduring written on it. She told San to wear it at all times and never to take it off (under any circumstances). 

San asked if there was a solution to Chen's problem and the Witch of Zhaoze Zhou told her that with a couple of well selected human sacrifices she believed she could eliminate the eye. San left to bring this news to Chen. 

In his meditation, Chen saw a vision of a great diamond statue in the shape of the one he'd destroyed. He had a sense that it was in a region far to the south, and saw it being erected near maelstrom. He told his second in command to organize an expedition. They debated the numbers but settled on taking 10 Heroes and 20 laborers. His commander informed him that the men were nervous about the Witch of Zhaoze Zhou, that several of their number had gone missing and most believed she was responsible. Chen said he would take care of the matter and went to visit the Witch himself. 

On his way he bumped into San who told him about the witch's solution (and about her necklace). Together they went back to her hut and he asked her about the missing people. She confessed to killing them, as part of a ritual to make a special neckless for San. Chen demanded to know the nature of the necklace and she informed him that it would protect her spirit, making it possible to resurrect her should she be killed. She then reprimanded him for taking her disciple on dangerous missions to face powerful sects. 

Eventually they worked out an arrangement where, if she needed sacrifices, she would go through Mr. Kwan (their contact among the villagers) to find suitable people. She would no longer kill any of his Kushen soldiers or his bandits. He also said he would seek his own solution to the eye problem. 

Before going south they went to pay their respects to Ganbaatar (leader of the Kushen). On their way they noticed many of the farmers in their land glaring at them. Chen went up to one of them, a man named Zhongong and asked what the problem was. Zhongong called him a traitor to the Daoyun people and scolded him for allying with the Kushen. He said the farmers were angry because their land had been taken and they were forced to pay a heavy tax to the Kushen. Chen was unaware this arrangement was all that different from their previous one and asked for more information. Zhonggong informed him that many of the people owned the land themselves or worked the land owned by landlords (and in many cases had an agreement where they worked the land occasionally). Since the Kushen came, they'd lost many of their rights and were forced to work land now handed out to individual Kushen leaders. 

Chen told Zhongong he didn't want to be unreasonable. That he would allow Zhongong to speak with the other famers and find out what sort of arrangement would be acceptable (within reason). Zhongong accepted this and said he would begin speaking with everyone. 

They then continued on their way and reached Ganbaatar's encampment. When Chen arrived he gave him a white steed named Lightning, saying it was one of his best horses. Chen told him about Nergui's death. Ganbaatar was not angry with Chen and did not blame him (he only asked how Nergui died) but he announced Nergui's death to his men and promised that they would settle their grudge with the Temple of Supreme Righteousness within the year. 

Chen and San then headed back to the fortress and prepared for their journey south. 

This is where the session ended. 

*Miss Hai is a living head they found in the Emerald Empire. She is an old aunty of Zhang Kang (the Bandit King) and a great storyteller. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

THE MONKEY KING AND THE MONKEY GOES WEST (REVIEWS)

I decided to do some Journey to the West posts this month, because Monkey King II is coming out for the Chinese New Year and this is the year of the Monkey. Going to start things off with two reviews of films that adapt the material from the novel. 

For those unfamiliar with Journey to the West, it is one of the four classic Chinese Novels. Written by Wu Cheng'en* during the Ming Dynasty it tells the story of a monk named Tang Sanzang (also known as Xuanzang, Tripitaka and Tang Seng) who is assigned a mission to go west from China to India and retrieve Buddhist sutras on Vulture Peak. It is set during the Tang Dynasty and follows Tang Sanzang as he goes from one adventure to the next, facing demons, spirits and monsters on his lengthy journey. He is joined by Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy Friar (all powerful and monstrous beings in their own right). It is told over the course of 100 chapters and is available in a number of English Translations (I recommend the four volume translation by Arthur C. Yu). 

Monkey King is something of a break-out character in the tale. The book actually begins with his origin story and he is popular because he is such an unorthodox hero. Starting out as a chaotic monkey born from a stone who nearly overturns heaven itself, he is imprisoned by the Buddha in Mount Wuxing (which is formed from Buddha's palm) and freed when Guanyin tasks him to accompany Tang Sanzang on his westbound journey. Monkey joins Tang as his disciple but proves overly violent and disobedient. He is contained by a magic headband given by Guanyin (it allows Tang to cause Monkey King crushing headaches when he chants). So many of the adaptations have focused on Monkey King in some way. 

Here I will review The Monkey King (2014) and The Monkey Goes West (1966). But you can also see my two other reviews of adaptations of Journey to the West: 

Journey the West: Conquering the Demons
Chinese Odyssey 

THE MONKEY KING
Monkey King is a 2014 film directed by Cheang Pou-Soi, starring Donnie Yen (Monkey King), Chow Yun-fat (Jade Emperor), Aaron Kwok (Bull Demon King), Xia Zitong (Nine Tailed Fox Demon) and Joe Chen (Princess Iron Fan). It tells to story of Monkey King's birth, rise to power and the upheaval he causes in heaven. 

Because I watched and read some negative reviews of The Monkey King, I was reluctant to watch it. However I ended up buying it on Amazon with a Holiday gift certificate along with a bunch of other movies and was pleasantly surprised. I understand many of the criticisms people had of the film, but I probably shouldn't have allowed them to influence my earlier decision to avoid it. Part of the issue is, as one review pointed out, this is a more family friendly version of the story, and the character Monkey King is a bit more likable than in some other versions. However I found it incredibly entertaining and enjoyed Donnie Yen's performance as Monkey (both for the physical skill he brings and the personality). It isn't the best adaptation I've seen but it didn't leave me bored or fail to hold my interest.

Even though it is family friendly, The Monkey King still cleaves somewhat closely to the source material. It is basically the first 5 or 6 chapters of Journey to the West. There are some inventions, some tweaks here and there but on the whole it does a good job giving his origin story for a new audience (and I think this was aimed at an international audience). There are changes though and some are notable. They add in a love interest and position Bull Demon King as an early antagonist. This is used to give Monkey King a more sympathetic reason for creating an uproar in Heaven. These changes are significant because it alters Monkey King's motives and makes his behavior arise more out of misunderstandings than his own complicated personality. Personally I prefer the latter, but it didn't wreck the movie to make him sympathetic. 

The overall depiction of Monkey King is much more sympathetic here. I like Monkey King a bit on the mean side, but this works for what they are trying to do. What impressed me was that I kept forgetting it was Donnie Yen in the role. Part of this was the special effects, but much of it was his performance. Is he my favorite Monkey King? Probably not, but he did a good job and had a slightly different take than Stephen Chow or Liu Xiao Ling Tong.

One complaint a lot of people had is overuse of CGI. It isn't a complaint limited to The Monkey King, there has a been a lot of CGI in these kind of movies lately. This hasn't bothered me as much as it has others I think. I can appreciate the complaint, because it does make interactions between actors and the environment more ethereal. Sometimes it isn't well executed as well. But this is also firmly in the realm of myth, so I think it makes sense that they'd use a lot of CGI effects (particularly for the scenes occurring in Heaven and the domain of Dragon King of the East Sea). It is used abundantly throughout the movie to give it an almost cartoonish or dreamlike atmosphere. I think that works. I enjoyed feeling like I was in another place, not the real world. So this achieved it for me. Again though, if CGI isn't your thing, you might not enjoy it. The CGI wasn't always perfect because it was so ubiquitous, however I thought in comparison to many other movies in the genre, it did a good job (though again it was going for more of a family friendly approach). Generally what I'm finding is these movies are slowly getting better and better with CGI effects (or I am just getting more accustomed to them). 

I would cautiously recommend checking it out if you have an interest in Chinese mythology or any mythology for that matter. There are some places where the CGI could cause issues for some people. If you are familiar with Journey to the West and don't like too many alterations in your adaptations, that may also be a point of contention. I found the story engaging and the action dynamic and exciting. 

For gamers, I think there is a little less here than in some other adaptations. One area though where it can offer a lot is its depiction of The Heavenly Bureaucracy. If you are running any sort of high level campaign, it is definitely worth watching because there are aspects that could help a GM visualize those elements. 

Interestingly the sequel (which is playing this week in the US) cast Aaron Kwok (who plays  as Monkey King (he plays Bull Demon King in this version). Early reviews I've seen appear more positive and it looks to be a bit darker in tone and possibly better special effects judging from the previews. So it is probably also worth watching this version if only to catch up to watch the sequel.  

THE MONKEY GOES WEST
The Monkey Goes West is a 1966 Shaw Brothers release directed by Ho Meng Hua and starring Yueh Hua (Monkey King), Ho Fan (Tang Sanzang), Pang Pang (Pigsy), Kao Pao-Shu (Green Snake Demon), Tian Shun (Sandy Friar) and Lan Wei-Lieh (Black Wind King). It is the first in a series of four films that tell the story of Journey to the West. 

This adaptation of Journey to the West begins a little after Monkey King (2014) ends. It focuses on the Tang Monk's (Tang Sanzang) introduction to his major companions: Monkey King, Pigsy and Sandy Friar (Shu Wujing). It is reasonably faithful to the source material though it makes changes and mixes and matches some material to accommodate the medium. However, watching it, it is very easy to recognize where each change is derived from. So they will often combine chapters and blend elements. 

This was made in 1966 but it looks surprisingly good in terms of effects, sets, and costume design. The image quality has also held up (at least in the version I have). It does have a lot of musical numbers, which really isn't that uncommon with a film made in the mid-60s. If you watch a lot 60s and 70s martial arts films, many of the melodies will be familiar. 
Publicity shot of Tang Sanzang, Pigsy and Monkey King

The early part of the film emphasizes Monkey King's difficulty adapting to life as a monk. He has just come out of his imprisonment in Wuxing Mountain and hasn't entirely given up all his evil ways (he is less bad than before but his temper gets the better of him on many occasions). It then follows Monkey King and Tang Sanzang as they set out and gain their companions. 

The story is entertaining though in places it is a bit on the slow side. It really starts to pick up about midway through. The fight choreography is pretty good, and being more in the style of the early 60s films (more swashbuckling than stylized). Yeah Hua is enjoyable as Monkey King but personally I felt that Pang Pang stole the show playing a lustful and gluttonous Pigsy. 

The set-pieces are wonderful (which is often the case with Shaw Brothers), complete with fuming mountains, caverns, villas and an undersea kingdom. I particularly liked the underwater sequence. The costumes are also very nice but some do require a little extra investment from the audience (again this was made in 1966). The monster effects vary considerably, but for the time they are not bad. Generally though monsters relying on make-up and costume are more convincing here than things like Sea Dragons. 
Example of a set piece from the movie

This is merely the first installment in a series of 4 movies, so I think it can be forgiven for taking a little time to set things up. Once it does get into the flow of things (roughly when Pigsy and Monkey King first meet) it is thoroughly enjoyable. 

I would recommend this film. I think particularly for gamers there is a lot to be gleaned. Watching it, I could easily see a GM spinning each of the major beats into a small adventure. Plenty of fodder for dungeons and the like. 

*There is debate over this. 




Saturday, February 6, 2016

THE SECRET OF JE VALLEY SESSION 22: DEATH, DELIVERANCE AND REVENGE

This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the twenty-first session of the current campaign (Session 21 can be found HERE)


Characters*:
Xue Lingsu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Xi Kang(Affiliated with Mr. Red Claw)
Baku (Kushen Tribesmen)
Zhi Zhu (No Sect)
Long Shu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Min (Purple Cavern Sect)
Rong (Tree-Dwelling Nun Sect)
Nuan (Xi Kang's Disciple and a former Flying Phantom)

Last session, they had met Baku, a Kushen Tribesmen, and confronted members of Bone Breaking Sect for stealing the Face of Vaagu. After dealing with some witches, they let San and Chen (two high ranking members of the sect) join their party to help them face Fearless Cat (the leader of Bone Breaking Sect). Together they headed south to the Banyan to stop her from killing the immortals of Red Mountain Villa. 

BLOOD AT RED MOUNTAIN VILLA
The party went to Red Mountain Villa. On their way they passed ten disciples of Purple Cavern and asked them to send a message to their friends Lingsu, Min and Long Shu. They continued on and found Compassionate Monkey, the guardian of the bridge entrance, slumped on the ground. He said they’d taken everything and struck him with the Immortal Killing Sword, leaving a wound on his side that kept bleeding. 

They pressed him for details and he shared that a lady with the Immortal Killing Sword and a bunch of soldiers came, killed the Immortals and wounded him. They took the Phoenix Crown and the Key of Yao Feng, then headed north. Monkey said he was dying and asked Kang and Zhi Zhu to burn his body and return him to his people. He also said he had magic pills he’d stolen from heaven stashed in his homeland. If they brought him back they could have these. 

Back at Purple Cavern, Lingsu had been there for some time dealing with sect matters while the rest of the party had been in the north. Lady Plum Blossom went into seclusion to master the secrets of the Jade Maiden Statue. She wanted no disturbances and placed Lingsu in charge of the sect. As he was tending to daily matters, he received a message saying that his companions were heading to Red Mountain Villa after learning that the immortals were slaughtered by Fearless Cat. He packed quickly, took two disciples and head there himself. 

Lingsu arrived and found the party members in camp, with Monkey.  He tried to heal Compassionate Monkey with Plum Blossom Palm. Initially it didn’t work but examining the wound he felt if he did it precisely, he might manage to save the creature (basically he needed a total success). Estimating that he had three hours left, he tried his best. On his third attempt, as Monkey was getting close to death, he succeeded, letting a flow of energy into Monkey that instantly cured him. Monkey leapt up and thanked LIngsu for his help. 

Monkey then announced that Kang and Zhi Zhu could no longer have his pills. That he had promised them when he felt he was dying, so his thoughts were unclear. 

FEARLESS CAT'S ENCAMPMENT 
Dancing Hawk and Madame Hamaya
The party decided to head north and track the Bone Breaking Sect. Baku attempted to follow their trail, but lost the way and they walked into an ambush. As they rounded a rise in the wilderness, a group of 32 Bone Breaker Disciples charged at them. 

Lingsu was able to dispatch ten right off the bat with Sword Whipping Strike and Baku used Storm of Arrows to take out the rest. Only two were still standing but they quickly surrendered. 

Zhi Zhu slit the throat of one of them and Monkey flew into a rage, stabbing at her for the action, calling her unmerciful. He chased her around and she asked him to teach her about mercy. However his explanation made very little sense. He seemed to think that when he killed someone it was always merciful, but that others couldn’t kill unless it was purely in self defense. Since the men had surrendered, he wanted them alive. 

Kang, who had declared himself the new leader of Bone Breaker Sect, asked San to speak with the 30 wounded soldiers, telling them he’d take them into his fold if they swore loyalty to him. They agreed and took a formal vow. 

The men then told them that Fearless Cat and the rest of the sect’s soldiers were in an encampment to the north in Zun Valley. They went there and left Ku, Monkey and Bing in a camp (because Monkey was wounded and Bing and Ku were not skilled fighters). They discussed different plans and settled on dressing as Bone Breaker Sect soldiers and having San and Chen lead them in. However Zhi Zhu would go sneak into the camp first to steal the Immortal Killing Sword from Fearless Cat. 

Using Stealth of the Spider Demon, Zhi Zhu made it easily into Fearless Cat’s tent. She had taken her Horse Hair Pin and dipped its tip in the wine poison they’d found in Li Fan. She then approached Fearless Cat’s bed and jabbed her in the face, running away the moment it sunk it. She heard a scream and saw activity in the camp as she fled. 

When she reached the party, and told them what happened, they didn’t know what to expect. They continued into the camp, with Zhi Zhu on the periphery. Reaching Fearless Cat’s tent, San looked inside and came out. She said she needed to go in and speak with the soldiers, that Fearless Cat was dead. The party went in with her and Chen. San grabbed the Immortal Killing sword and said “Arrest these people, they killed Fearless Cat”. 

Immediately everyone had their weapons drawn. Baku used Slicing Arrow, which struck San, then Chen, then dropped about 5 soldiers. There were still other soldiers in the tent fighting alongside Chen and San, but they couldn’t tell what was happening outside. 

Outside the tent, Zhi Zhu saw the thirty men who’d sworn loyalty to Kang, organizing the other soldiers, saying they knew what was going on. 

Back in the tent, Rong managed to kill San with Storming Daggers, while Lingsu used his secret Willow Manual technique, plunging his fingers into Chen and draining his life energy. Kang used the Bone Breaking Stick to smash in Chen’s face. Eventually they killed the remaining soldiers. Searching the room, Rong and Kang found the Key of Yao Feng and the Phoenix Crown of Bao. Long look the Crown, while Kang took the Key. 

Stepping outside the tent, all the soldiers kneeled and shouted “Bandit King!”. The thirty who had sworn loyalty, remained loyal and convinced the other soldiers to take Kang as their leader. He addressed them and had each one swear allegiance to him. Then they organized a feast and the soldiers got drunk. 

Zhi Zhu went back to Monkey and Bing and told Monkey to leave saying “I don’t want to be around you anymore. You know nothing about compassion.”

Monkey was furious but a gaze from Bing caused him to stay his rage. He said Zhi Zhu was a brat and too bold. He also suggested he’d kill her if he wasn’t in such a compassionate mood. Then he left in a huff to the south. 

After she returned to the encampment, Zhi Zhu informed the party what had happened with Monkey, Lingsu was angry. He and Baku went to track Monkey, finding him angrily carving an image of Zhi Zhu into a tree. It took time, but Lingsu convinced Monkey to help him by going to Purple Cavern and guiding the entrance in his absence. He even sent a disciple with him. 

Returning back to the encampment, they discussed their next move. Kang sent most of the soldiers back to Bone Fortress to guard the Face of Vaagu. They discussed recent rumors that Lingsu had heard, saying that Lady White Blade had returned. There were also reports of beheaded Tree Dwelling Nuns in the North. While they were talking, a disciple Lingsu had instructed to gather information arrived and told him they found ten beheaded Tree Dwelling Nuns half a day away on the road from Zun City. 

THE FLYING GUILLOTINES 
Because Rong belonged to Tree Dwelling Nun Sect, they decided to investigate. They found ten dead Tree Dwelling Nuns, each with their head severed. Long found indications that the bodies were dragged to the road from the woods and followed the trail. There she spotted the characters for White Blade etched into the earth. They also found a trail leading south. 

Lingsu remained with the bodies, inspecting them. He inspected the wounds, and could discern that the heads were severed by two blades intersecting. He also found that three had stab wounds in their chest and stomach. 

Lingsu rejoined the group and they followed the trail, finding it led to the Fragrant Petal (Madame Hamaya’s Brothel*). Zhi Zhu crept onto the roof. Kang, Baku and Rong went inside, where a woman greeted them and gave them seats in the hall (there were lots of people here dining and enjoying music). Kang ordered chicken and asked for a singer to perform for them. Lingsu had remained slightly behind, inspecting the courtyard. 

Kang looked around and spotted a woman peering at them from a room on the second floor. She resembled Lady White Blade. He also noticed people in white robes lingering beyond many of the other doors on the second floor. The party leapt up and immediately six white robed figures stepped onto the balcony surrounding the hall, lowering strange weapons at their sides. Later the party would learn these were Flying Guillotines. The woman resembling Lady White Blade fled into the chamber door. 

The figures tries to land their guillotines on the heads of Rong and Kang but missed. Rong stormed up the steps, using Blasting Blade to unleash a spray of debris against two of the figures in white (dropping both). Kang went up the opposing stairway and dropped one with his Bone Breaking Stick. Baku jumped onto the Balcony with Leap of the Swan and used Strike of the Divine Falcon to grab and slam another white robed figure into the hall floor. 

Going after the woman who resembled Lady White Blade, Rong made it to the Window to see her fleeing toward a cliff. Zhi Zhu, who was on the roof, used Arms of Silk to ensnare the woman. She resisted but Zhi Zhu forced her to talk by squeezing. The woman said her name was Nuan, and as she did her face changed from that of Lady White Blade to a face neither of them recognized. She admitted to working for Master Ta, who was Dancing Hawk’s uncle and wanted revenge against the party. Further pressing forced her to admit that she was a member of Golden Dragon Sect. 

Zhi Zhu let her loose when she promised to teach her the Shift of the Chameleon Technique (the skill she’d been using to disguise herself as Lady White Blade). She began instruction but once Zhi Zhu completely loosened her Arms of Silk, the woman attacked Rong, delivering a potent stab to the belly. Rong replies with Storming Daggers, which finished the woman off. 

Lingsu made it into the hall and spotted another woman in White flying through another chamber door. He gave chase and spotted her fleeing through a window into the woods. Kang followed. 

When Lingsu reached the woman in a clearing, she paused and two more figures with Flying Guillotines stepped from the woods. A battle broke out, but with Kang’s help, Lingsu was able to kill the figures and take the woman prisoner. She made a similar confession to the other, but told him that Bronze Master was also behind it, that they worked with Master Ta to help engineer the weapons. 

The woman told them her name was Cui, and Lingsu let her live (but placed a blindfold on her). They then discussed their options. They thought of attacking Master Ta right away but decided to go get help from Tree Dwelling Nun Sect and from Kang’s newfound soldiers. They also sent Baku to scout the mountain for Bronze Master (who they thought might have tried to escape if he received word of their attack on the Fragrant Petal). 

Bronze Master
Baku went south to scout the Mountain. He took a horse from the stables and managed to find Bronze Master sneaking through the woods (he’d rolled a Total Success on his Survival Roll to track). He approached Bronze Master, who had never met him, and said he was a traveler from the north looking for someone to join him on his journey. Bronze Master smiled and greeted him, offering him food or aid. He said he’d be delighted to have a Kushen as company and suggested they made their way to the neighboring city. Once there, Bronze Master brought them to a fine Tea House and ordered exquisite foods and teas for them to dine on. The two talked, with Baku avoiding any mention of his party members or their experiences. 

Kang and Zhi Zhu headed north west to their encampment. On their way they were intercepted by four more figures with guillotines (Cui had mentioned that Bronze Master had about 40 of them in the area). This fight was much closer with Kang narrowly escaping the guillotines with his counters on at least three occasions. However between Tai Lan’s Staff Strike (one of Kang’s techniques) and Zhi Zhu’s stealth, they made short work of them. 

Rong and Lingsu went west, to the Tree Dwelling Nuns. 

This is where the session ended. 

*Madame Hamaya was someone they killed in their very first session, which caused her lover, Dancing Hawk, to come after them. 

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

BLOOD OF THE DEMON MOON CULT SESSION 21: THE FALL OF HU QIN

This is the campaign log for the Twenty First session of a google+run Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign. The previous session is described HERE

I am running two campaigns in the same setting and treating them as occurring in different realities with some vague similarities. Characters in one may appear in the other, but there are no direct causal effects from one campaign to the next. Partly this is to playtest, but this is also partly due to the multi-dimensional aspect of the universe I run all my games in. It would theoretically be possible for the party from the Blood of the Demon Moon cult campaign to dimension travel to the Secret of Je Valley Campaign, in which case direct interactions could occur (and they could even meet their counterparts in the alternate dimension).  

CHARACTERS

Player Characters
Zhang Wan (Bone Breaker): An unpredictable and violent martial expert who is the brother of Zhang San. First chief of Qui Pan Bandits. Married to Huo Ju (Little Venom)
Zhang San: A wandering hero and sister of Zhang Wan, more calm than her brother
Chen: A poisoner and healer known for his lazy ways.

Key NPCs
Jade Priestess: Bone Breaker's Sifu and former member of the Demon Moon Cult
Jade Butterfly: San's Sifu
Senior Grand Councilor Cai Yuanyu: Highest ranked official in the Empire below the emperor; plotting to 'invert heaven' and has recruited Bone Breaker into his plans
Prince Yuan: Son of the King of Li Fan, controls the eastern territories. 
General Dee: An important military commander in Hu Qin who pays Bone Breaker for services 
Iron Spear Tip: A magic weapon with a mind of its own, the bride of Zhang Kang.
Little Venom (Huo Ju): Bone Breaker's Wife
The Venom of Zhaoze (Huo Si): Leader of Zhaoze sect, father of Huo Ju (Little Venom) and Sifu to Chen

Last session, the House of Paper Shadows had hounded Bone Breaker, so he decided to deal with that before tending to more important matters (the invasion of Hu Qin and the Kushen developments). He then sent a message to Hu Gao, persuading him that the House of Paper Shadows had stolen wine tribute intended for him and instigating a conflict. The wine in question was highly prized Jade Wine, worth a small fortune. He later heard a rumor that Hu Gao went to their headquarters, The Shadow House, and never came out. 

To obtain lands south of Hai'an, Bone Breaker hired an actor named Han Qingzhao to impersonate him and head south with 50 soldiers and 6 martial heroes. He was instructed to make his way into the Suk lands and find an ideal location for a new compound or fortress. 

In the previous session, Bone Breaker was in Hai'an preparing to help them invade Hu Qin. This session he learned that his mole, Bronze Master (who was disguised as General Dee, the military leader of Hu Qin) had been discovered and had to flee. So he kidnapped their king then used his Dreams of Infinite Sky Realm technique to enter the dream of General Kang (Dee's successor) to convince him that the king was held by the Kushen in Li Fan. However this ploy failed, and he was forced to kidnap the general as well. He then had both brought to Li Fan and held prisoner in his fortress and instigated the Hu Qin army to head west to save their leaders. This allowed Hai'an to attack Hu Qin while it was not well defended, resulting in a quick victory. 

However, word reached Bone Breaker that the Kushen had met the Li Fan forces and crushed them, then decided to continue east and take Hu Qin themselves. The Hai'anese Generals were nervous, feeling they didn't have enough soldiers to withstand a Kushen siege. However the lead General informed Bone Breaker that the Queen would have them both killed if they failed. 

Bone Breaker went to the Kushen encampment at the border of Hu Qin and spoke with their leader, Ganbaatar. He negotiated a peace with the Kushen, who asked for 10 Million Spades tribute from Hai'an. He then took this news to the Queen, who agreed to pay. Under this arrangement, the Kushen would remain in Li Fan. 

While visiting the Queen in Hai'an, he obtained the land around Whispering Lake promised to Mr. Shan for Bone Breaker's help with the invasion. Mr. Shan was also given the title Duke of Whispering Lake. Bone Breaker then secured land for himself from the Queen he agreed to keep him secretly in her employ. Before he left, Bone Breaker ordered nine of his Silk Worm Assassins (former Flying Phantoms) to start finding and abducting members of the House of Paper Shadows. 
Princess Sarnai (left)


Bone Breaker brought the ten million spades to Ganbaatar, who allowed him to keep 1 million for himself. He then informed Bone Breaker that he was concerned for Chen and San, mentioning that his right hand man, Nergui, and his own daughter, Princess Sarnai, had gone with them to the Temple of Supreme Righteousness. He was unclear on the details but recognized the temple as a powerful threat. Bone Breaker sent Nuan to shadow them and act to aid his sister, San, if she was in danger. 


Inquiring about the situation in Li Fan, Bone Breaker learned that Chen and San had angered the local population by helping the Kushen take their land and enforce a heavy tax. He also learned that a woman named Xinyu, the estranged wife of General Dee, was likely organizing a group of local heroes against them. He decided to go and negotiate with her, hoping she might help him find a way to deal with the House of Paper Shadows. 

He went to her home on Snake Peak in Li Fan, bringing two experts with him: Madame Hurarui and Zheng Gong. According to his sources, Xinyu still kept up the manners and dress of a Hu Qin aristocrat. So he made sure to bring her appropriate gifts and used the experts for advice on addressing her correctly. 

On Snake Peak he found her and she invited him to speak on a cluster of rocks near her hut. There she summoned and pet swarms of venomous snakes. Bone Breaker assured her that the actions of his sister and sworn brother (San and Chen) were merely out of necessity and that he intended to help her deal with the Kushen invasion (though he may need to do so in secret in order to have maximum effectiveness). She was reluctant to take his word but over the course of the conversation, she came to trust him. 

They went over the various possibilities for dealing with the House of Paper Shadows, and she suggested hiring a sorcerer. They also discussed the possibility of finding a spy to join the House of Paper Shadows (preferably someone who was a known enemy of Bone Breaker). 

This is where the session ended. 



Thursday, January 28, 2016

LETHALITY AND FUN IN OUR GAMES AND THE ORIGIN OF SERTORI

I saw some discussions this week on Tomb of Horrors and it got me thinking about lethality and fun in RPGs (something I've posted about plenty before). Personally I don't want to weigh in on the module. If someone doesn't like it, or if someone likes it, that really isn't something that affects me much. But I was interested in the discussions it generated because this is one of those topics that always comes up among gamers, and it isn't limited to intense fans online. So I think it is a topic that is important for people to talk about, to set expectations around. Lately I've been thinking about how it emerged in each of our games. 

I view lethality as both a mechanical and GMing matter. Character death is more likely to come up in some systems than others, and a lot of it is baked into the mechanics themselves. But from the GM side, how hard you push the players, how often you take off the kid gloves, these all impact whether characters live or die. So even if you are playing the game 100%, the GM still has a huge impact on survivability. And for me lethality changes a lot from campaign to campaign. 

All approaches are viable here. If players want a game where PCs have a little extra padding form death, especially if they are focused on things away from combat, that can be a lot of fun. But when I am doing a mafia game or a classic dungeon crawl, I like having death on the table. I've enjoyed high body count games, games where characters never die, and games that in the middle. You can see this in our games as well.

Crime Network is meant to be lethal (and in my opinion the core rules actually are not quite lethal enough). Of all of our early Network Games (pre-Servants of Gaius), Crime Network encouraged character death more than any other. Some of our later games have shifted from that a bit. Sertorius is meant to be more in the middle, for example, because we wanted dungeon crawls and crazy magical battles. The real reason we made Sertori demigods emerged from this. Originally Sertori were normal men who manipulated magical energy but every time I ran a dungeon crawl they kept dying. So I decided to give them a bunch of extra Max Wounds out of the gate to act as a buffer, then we explained this after the fact with the whole 'fragment of a dead god in their soul'. Having an ancient deity die and release magic into the world was there from the start, but initially it was imagined as energy flowing freely in the world that people could manipulate, not located in the PCs themselves. So in Sertorius we gave PCs enough health that they could survive, but they'd still die if they were unlucky or pushed beyond their limits (and this panned out in play with a number of PC deaths). This then informed the flavor of the setting. 

When we got to Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (which should go to layout in February by the way), I wanted to bring the lethality more into the control of the characters and NPC but still have death be a threat. I didn't want to eliminate it completely, because it is a bloody genre, but the aim wasn't to accidentally slaughter PCs or make character death a frequent thing. What I wanted was for killing to be a bit of a choice. I also wanted characters to be harder to kill as they grew in power but easier to kill early on. So we established that there was a certain expectation that people controlled their attacks, and we gave PCs the ability to do that. That way if you dish out 7 wounds, you can control it so it only inflicts 5 if your foe has just 5 wounds remaining (instead of killing him---though you can opt to kill). This applies to NPCs as well. The same thing applies to maiming. It is a choice. It can still be unexpectedly lethal to the players if they take on a Profound Master who is hell-bent on killing people in her path, of course. We also increased wounds with Qi level to make characters tougher as time passed. 

So with Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, PCs still die, but it is unlikely that a foe will accidentally kill you. Generally characters will die when an NPC is truly intent on doing them harm, or if they do something like fall off of a 200 foot cliff. The same goes for maiming, and it is a two way street as well (so players can exert control with their techniques to decide if they want to deliver a killing blow or not). 

I find all these different approaches enjoyable for very different reasons. To me it comes down to two thing: what the campaign/game is about and the gaming sensibilities of the players at my table. Personally as a Player, I find I have more fun when things are lethal. As a GM I liked the sense of uncertainty the potential for character death can create but I am pretty flexible since my goal is to entertain my players. 

In the right group, a super lethal grind can be a lot of fun. But games where you pretty much know the characters will survive can also be enjoyable. When I was a younger GM a leaned more toward the latter, then later leaned toward the former. Now I realize I have more fun, and so do my players, if I gauge their preferences on the matter and run the game accordingly. Or if a certain amount of lethality is real important to the concept (like Call of Cthulu or Crime Network), I simply explain this is part of the premise and they should be prepared for character death. 


Monday, January 25, 2016

BLOOD OF THE DEMON MOON CULT SESSION 20

This is the campaign log for the Twentieth session of a google+run Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign. The previous session is described HERE

I am running two campaigns in the same setting and treating them as occurring in different realities with some vague similarities. Characters in one may appear in the other, but there are no direct causal effects from one campaign to the next. Partly this is to playtest, but this is also partly due to the multi-dimensional aspect of the universe I run all my games in. It would theoretically be possible for the party from the Blood of the Demon Moon cult campaign to dimension travel to the Secret of Je Valley Campaign, in which case direct interactions could occur (and they could even meet their counterparts in the alternate dimension).  

CHARACTERS

Player Characters
Zhang Wan (Bone Breaker): An unpredictable and violent martial expert who is the brother of Zhang San. First chief of Qui Pan Bandits. Married to Huo Ju (Little Venom)
Zhang San: A wandering hero and sister of Zhang Wan, more calm than her brother
Chen: A poisoner and healer known for his lazy ways.

Key NPCs
Jade Priestess: Bone Breaker's Sifu and former member of the Demon Moon Cult
Jade Butterfly: San's Sifu
Senior Grand Councilor Cai Yuanyu: Highest ranked official in the Empire below the emperor; plotting to 'invert heaven' and has recruited Bone Breaker into his plans
Prince Yuan: Son of the King of Li Fan, controls the eastern territories. 
General Dee: An important military commander in Hu Qin who pays Bone Breaker for services 
Iron Spear Tip: A magic weapon with a mind of its own, the bride of Zhang Kang.
Little Venom (Huo Ju): Bone Breaker's Wife
The Venom of Zhaoze (Huo Si): Leader of Zhaoze sect, father of Huo Ju (Little Venom) and Sifu to Chen

In the last session Bone Breaker had gone to Hai'an and was trying to unite the martial world while Chen and San fended off an attack from the king's soldiers, allying with the Kushen. We left off when Bone Breaker was preparing to help Hai'an invade the Empire's client kingdom, Hu Qin, and after the Kushen had taken the city of Fan (capital of the southern kingdom, Li Fan). 

San and Chen
As a reward for his bravery and skill, Ganbaatar, leader of the Kushen, gave Chen 15 Li of land between Snake Peak and Opulent Fruit Hill. Ganbaatar also made Chen a Commander of 10,000. After meeting with Ganbaatar, Chen and San went south to find the Witch of Zhaoze Zhou so San could learn Merciless Black Claw technique.

On the way south, Chen returned to Heaven Palace Sect after receiving word that Dawa had taken over. He appeared before her and she offered him use of her Talisman for free as reward for his help. She also said if he obtained the other two talismans for her, she would grant him another use. 

Bone Breaker
As Bone Breaker made his way north to the city of Xuanlu, for a meeting with Hai'an's generals, he and his retinue heard the sounds of flute music through the forest. The surrounding trees were bare white, and as the sound filled the area, they saw Leather Shadow Puppets dancing upon the tree's surface. Abbot Fire Brand fell to the ground as they paralyzed his legs. Bone Breaker too found his left leg went dead. He screamed for his heroes to spread out and kill the flute players, also sending out Spear Tip to deal with them. This was clearly the House of Paper Shadows using its magic against them. 

Bone Breaker tried to reason with their attackers, telling them he had an agreement with the House and that they were working together, but the music only intensified. With his one good arm he punched a nearby flute player in the throat and heard the sounds of blades sinking into flesh all around him. Within a few minutes things had died down and his people stood victorious, rounding up the surviving players for interrogation. 

Bone Breaker demanded information and when it was refused he broke one of the Flute Player's fingers. However, ever since his meeting with Iron Sky Maiden, he'd been wearing the Belt of Mercy and it immediately squeezed him, causing not just pain, but damage to his body. He relented and left Jade priestess to gain speak with the man. She learned that the order came  from the head of the House of Paper Shadows. 

They continued on to Xuanlu. 

San and Chen
Chen and San reached the Banyan and traveled to Cha, where they paid a fisherman named Guan and his sons to take them through the swamps of Zhaoze Zhou. They heard a cry for help deep in the swamp and saw a face bobbing out of the waters. The man screamed for help but they moved on. His cries intensified, so they returned. Looking closely they saw crocodiles swarming nearby. As they approached, the man plunged beneath the water. One of Guan’s sons grabbed a long pole and pushed it down into the swamp to help the man. Something grabbed the pole and nearly pulled him overboard. He would have fallen in but Chen grabbed him at the last moment, saving his life. They decided to leave and press on to the Witch. 

The Witch of Zhaoze Zhou
They found Li Sou Chao, the Witch of Zhaoze Zhu, in her hut. She agreed to teach San the Merciless Black Claw if San used it to kill Queen Lu Zhi of Heiping Sect. San was reluctant and instead agreed to be the witch’s disciple provided she didn’t have to honor her grudge with Heiping. The Wtich agreed and San kowtowed three times and formally acknowledged her as Master. 

On the way back north, after they left Guan and his sons in Cha, the group stopped at a village and met an old man named Ouyang Shi. He was skilled in the art of massage and Chen asked him to teach him the basics. Ouyang agreed for a small daily fee and comfortable travel arrangements. 

Bone Breaker
Bone Breaker went to Xuanlu to speak with the generals and found they looked down on him for being a merchant. However he had the King’s seal and an order granting him authority to organize the campaign against Hu Qin. He was met with resistance when he refused to give details on his precise plans and instructed the generals to simply mobilize. One general, Yan, was particularly dismissive of Bone Breaker's standing and kept pressing him for more information. General Jing was able to speak in private with Bone Breaker and get some assurances. He said they could be ready in about ten days. 

Satisfied, Bone Breaker then sent his people into position and sent an instruction to Bronze Master. Bronze Master, who was disguised as General Dee (the military leader of Hai'an) was to gather all the generals in the Towering Chrysanthemum at an appointed day and time. He then tasked one of his men to go and kidnap the king, he then sent the rest of his retinue to go help Bronze Master. 
Queen Lu Zhi

San and Chen
When they reached northern Li Fan, San and Chen went to inspect their new land. Chen went to master Kwan’s house and informed him of the change. At first Mr. Kwan objected, saying it was his land. But Chen grabbed his finger and twisted him to the ground, telling him the Kushen had taken over and the land belongs to them now. They talked for a bit and Kwan agreed to collect for him if his tax could be overlooked. 

Making rounds through the farmsteads, Chen was attacked by a farmer with a hoe. He came to the man's house to inform him that the land now belonged to him and was going to collect 10% of their harvest. The farmer charged at him and called him a traitor. Chen had his Kushen soldiers detain the man and his wife. He then used his Kung Fu to smash one of the man's walls. 

When the man still refused to submit, and even spit at him, Chen had him sent to work in the salt mines. He then imprisoned his wife, and gave the couple's land to one of his Kushen. 


The wife screamed that Lady Xinyu, a great martial hero who protected the people, would destroy Chen and his men. Chen asked his soldiers to find out about Xinyu. He then went back to Heaven Palace Sect and told Dawa he knew what he wanted her to use the Talisman for. He asked if she could transport their Qui Pan Fortress from Dragon Tail Mountain to the land they'd just acquired and encircle it with a river of poison. Dawa tapped the Talisman and a golden light flowed from it to the heavens and she told him the change was made. 

This is where the session ended.