Tuesday, July 22, 2014


When it comes to gaming no one is a better judge of your own tastes and preferences than you. Sometimes, particularly on the internet, that truth can escape us, and we start believing what others want us to believe rather than what we know to be true for ourselves. I think this is normal human behavior when you are in an environment filled with other people. Online this is amplified because there is a kind of natural selection at work involving the rhetoric of preferences, where the best crafted arguments, even if they are untrue in the end, dominate the conversation. A lot of people give in to this, and cede their own point of view in the process. 

But when it comes to taste, these debates can grow rather silly. Often what it amounts to is a person having a gut response to a game, mechanic or style of play, then trying to explain why that gut response is there. Another person might step in and debate the reasons the person has laid out. This doesn't make the gut reaction wrong, it makes the explanation faulty or incomplete, and those are two very different things. Other times the explanation is perfectly fine, but specious argumentation wins the argument/thread. 

I also see instances where a dominant strain of thought becomes imbedded. It has simply been said for so long people assume it to be true, or those who disagree have lost the argument too many times (again even if they are not wrong in the end). Schools of thought are fine. They can help people navigate the sea of ideas present in the hobby. But militancy about ideas isn't good. I have succumbed to this myself and have stopped because I see it as being highly unproductive and a sign of insecurity in one's own beliefs. 

I think there is a place for discussion about gaming, both in real life and online. I myself participate in a number of gaming forums, and these have helped expose me to ideas and concepts I might not otherwise have known about. This is all good. But it is a double-edged sword, leading to cliques and attempts to find the one-true way of gaming. While this is sometimes the result of a single skilled debater or forceful personality, the true fault lies with those who follow along. No one can force you to believe something. No one can force you to play a particular way. If you do so at the insistence of a stranger online or a gaming friend at the table, then you have only yourself to blame. So pull back for a moment, think and don't just accept what is presented because it sounds good. If it doesn't ring true, do not adopt it. 

This applies to everything from play style to the way you GM. I give a lot of GM advice here on this very page. My hope is people find it helpful and that my experiences at the table have something to offer others. However I wouldn't want anyone to adopt my ideas if they don't feel right or contradict something they believe. So by all means take what is useful for  your game from a variety of sources, but remember to think for yourself. 

Monday, July 21, 2014


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.

The One-Armed Swordsman was released in 1967 by Shaw Brothers and directed by Cheh Chang (Five Venoms and Golden Swallow). It stars Jimmy Wang as Fang Kang, Lisa Chiao Chiao as Xiao Man, Tien Fang as Qi Rufeng, Angela Pan as Qi Pei Er, Tang Ti as Smiling Tiger and Yeung Chi-hing as Long-armed Devil. It features classic wuxia swordplay against the backdrop of feuding sects, but also features a central love story that isn't overwhelmed by all the action (and there is a good deal of action). 

(Spoilers ahead)

It seems that the wuxia films that start with very simple story lines seem to work out the best. The One-Armed Swordsman is no exception, and begins with a very simple plot. It opens when the main character, Fang Kang, is still a boy. His father is a servant employed by the famous master Qi Rufeng of the Golden Sword school. Qi Rufeng attracts the enmity of some local bandits for disrupting their activities and they deliver a message to the master laden with poison, which proves enough to subdue him and force him to retreat deeper into his school grounds. Fang Kang's father, Fang Cheng, fends off the attackers while the disciples take Qi Rufeng to safety. Cheng manages to kill the attackers but is mortally wounded in the process. As a dying request he asks Qi Rufeng to take his son as a disciple, and the master agrees. Fang Kang then picks up his fathers sword, which had been broken in the middle during the fight. 

The film then elapses to the present, where Fang Kang is chopping wood at the insistence of the master's daughter, Qi Pei Er. Though a disciple of Rufeng, and well liked and cared for by the master, Kang is poorly regarded by his fellow disciples, and Qi Pei Er in particular seems to single him out for malicious treatment (later we learn this was her way of expressing her love for Kang). 

That evening Qi Rufeng reveals to his wife, his desire to retire from the martial world and make Kang his successor and marry him to his daughter. He also mentions a feud with Smiling Tiger and a master named Long-armed Devil, who Qi Rufeng once defeated, causing him to spend years seeking revenge. 

After a particularly bad argument with Pei Er and two other senior students, Kang decides to leave, writing a note to his master and setting out so his presence will no longer create problems for the school. As he is leaving through the woods, Pei Er and the two senior students stop Kang and demand he stay at the school. A fight ensues in which Kang defeats one of the male students. Pei Er insists he fight with her, but Kang only agrees to fight without weapons (to avoid accidentally harming the master's daughter). He beats Pei Er, throwing her to the ground. In a rage she slices off his arm and he flees toward a nearby village where he collapses over a bridge into a passing boat driven by a peasant girl named Xiao Man. 

Xiao Man nurses Kang back to health and the two grow fond of one another. She encourages Kang as he learns to fish with one arm, and tries to discourage any interest in him resuming martial training. When a couple of thugs, who it later turns out are disciples of Smiling Tiger, happen upon the couple, they humiliate Kang by giving him a vicious beating and nearly incapacitating his other arm. He sinks into a depression and Xiao Man tries to help by giving him a manual once possessed by her father. She reveals that her father died trying to protect it, and asked her mother to keep it for him as he died. It was partially burnt by Xiao Man's mother, who then decided against destroying it, and now only contains techniques for left-handed swordplay. Using the manual, Kang masters a new style that allows him to fight with only one arm. It also requires use of a smaller blade (because the left hand techniques are all meant to be off-hand). So he uses his father's broken sword, which just happens to be the right size. 

As Kang improves his martial arts, the conflict between Long-armed Devil and Qi Rufeng intensifies. The former has invented a weapon designed specifically to counter Rufeng's golden swords. It uses a locking mechanism to trap the weapons, enabling the user to pin the swordsman and finish him off with an off-handed dagger. He gives this instrument to Smiling Tiger and the two begin murdering Rufeng's disciples. They also kidnap Pei Er, who is rescued by Kang. 

The war between the masters escalates, and Long-armed Devil plans his final attack on Rufeng's 55th birthday, where the master intends to announce his successor in the presence of all his disciples. It culminates in an epic battle at the Golden Sword school with Kang showing up at the last minute to defeat Long-armed Devil using his new techniques and his father's half sword. 

I love The One-Armed Swordsman for a variety of reasons. The sets and filming all work to capture a tightly contained world of martial heroes. It almost feels cozy and like it has half a foot on the stage (it is very easy to see how much of this was likely inspired by theater). Most importantly I like the film because the protagonist is maimed, and I think this has appeal to anyone who has every felt disadvantaged or handicapped by circumstances. Even before he loses his arm, it is clear that Fang Kang is looked down upon by his fellow students due to his low birth. And why this works is it captures the essence of the martial arts for me. Fang Kang begins with the worst possible handicap for a swordsman, a lost arm. And not just any arm, but his right arm. But through hard work and perseverance he adapts, developing a new style that outwits his school's enemies. He takes what little he has and turns it into something potent. 

This is also a wuxia movie that emphasizes the problems inherent to the martial world (I hope to feature a couple of other movies that deal with this theme soon). It is about the cycle of grudges and violence that plagues martial families for generations. The film opens with a murder (Kang's father) caused by a grudge, and ends with a battle caused by a grudge. Xiao Man is the voice of reason in this world and that is probably one of the reasons Kang is drawn to her. Because of her experience with her father, she wants Kang to retire from the martial world to live as a farmer with her. 

A lot of the little touches in The One-Armed Swordsman also contribute to my enjoyment. I like how all the smaller pieces fit together so nicely in the end (his father's sword and his off-handed technique circumventing Long Armed Devil's sword locking mechanism for example). 

I didn't give it as much coverage as it deserved, but the love story between Kang and Xiao Man is very important in the movie, and I think handled well. It also provides most of the tension for Kang, because he is torn between wanting to protect his master and wanting to leave the martial world to be with Xaio Man. It is effective and handled in a way that is believable. 

This is an absolute classic and it genuinely stands the test of time. If you get an opportunity to watch it, definitely do so. Thankfully it is also a film that has been well preserved. It should be easy to find a copy with excellent quality audio and video. 

For gamers there is a lot here to inspire. More in the realm of NPCs and institutions I think. I once used The One-Armed Swordsman as the basis for a small mystery in my Oriental Adventures campaign and it worked very well. I tweaked it considerably of course, and I think most GMs can take some of the basic elements like I did, fleshing them out into something much more substantial. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Sertorius: Thai Influences in Gamandria

Sertorius is set in the world of Gamandria, a place that draws on many historical cultures familiar to fantasy fans. Most notably the ancient Mediterranean cultures. But there are other influences as well and some of the strongest are the early Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. 

The earliest civilization in Gamandria, Nong Sai, draws from Thai history and myth. It is a fusion of the early kingdoms and the Thai version of the Ramayana, called Ramakien. This is the basis of Gamandrian history. It was a powerful cluster of Ogre kingdoms, occasionally united by a single ruler and always at war with Anumar, a rival power in the west. The two would clash in brutal wars fighting alongside their respective gods, Senga and Lorgo. Nong Sai was assisted by elven slaves, who were specifically created to serve the kingdoms. However they were released by the benevolence of Senga and this spread the culture further to the southwest. In the end, Nong Sai was destroyed when its final king stole Senga's power, killing the god and creating Sertori. This unleashed the wrath of the other gods who pulverized Nong Sai and cursed the Ogres.

Most of the present day cultures in Gamandria are surrounded by Nong Sai ruins. Many build their cities on top of them, incorporating the ancient architecture into their own designs. The language of Nong Sai, Singh, remains influential and most people speak it in bits and pieces. The elves carry on and in some cases deliberately resurrect elements of Nong Sai culture. The Ogres who are cursed to wander, also continue the traditions of their great civilization. 

I was inspired by many different sources. For the myth, I mainly took inspiration from temple art and from oral retellings of Ramakien when I worked at a Thai restaurant. But I also used translations of epic poems that inspired me. One that I quite enjoyed is the Isan folk tale Phadaeng Nang Ai translated by Wajuppa Tossa. For history I found both Chris Baker's A History of Thailand and David K. Wyatt's Thailand: A Short History to be useful. Another helpful resource was a book called South-East Easia: Languages and Literatures, a select guide (Herbert and Milner).  Thai movies, music and television shows also provided some inspiration. 

If you look at the images of Ogres in the Sertorius rule book the Thai influence is pretty apparent. In the above illustration of the Ogre King killing Senga, the backdrop is based on Sukhothai temples. The clothing is based on Thai design and the magic symbols floating around Senga were inspired by Thai gold leaf images. Present-day Ogre chieftains in Gamandria wear crowns based on the Thai chada (see the illustration below). 

And it isn't only the Ogres or elves who continue Nong Sai Traditions. The humans living in elven influenced regions have adopted the ways of Nong Sai. This is most notable in Khata and the surrounding areas. Below the image of the Ogre chieftain is a human being crowned queen in a city within the sphere of Khata's influence. 

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Gather All Ye Gamers: Bringing together many styles of play

Back when I first started gaming, there were many books and articles talking about different player types like the min/maxer, the rules lawyer or the thespian. Many of these described personality traits and others referred to styles of play as well. We sometimes used different words of course but these  were usually types of people everyone knew from their own groups. It was pretty normal to have a wide range of player personalities and styles present in a single campaign, with the GM needing to accommodate them all. Increasingly it seems that there is a lot more interest and discussion in having groups that are largely homogenous. I am not so sure this is a good thing. 

This may simply be one of those things that happens online more than in real life. I am not sure, because while my own groups are fairly diverse, I also am aware of changes in the direction I describe locally in my area. And if people want to seek out players who match their own style of play, it isn't like there is anything wrong with that, I just worry that too many of us are embracing this approach when we might benefit from exposure to other tastes and preferences. 

I am sure many of you are familiar with the Malcolm Gladwell Ted Talk Choice, Happiness and Spaghetti Sauce. If you haven't seen it, here is the link: MG TED TALK. It is actually a really great presentation and it has some obvious connections to play styles in RPGs, so it often gets mentioned once or twice in online discussions about roleplaying preferences. I think there is some truth to that. We all have our own preferences and it can be a good thing to find the common set of tastes and create games around them. 

However, there was always something that troubled me a bit about the Malcolm Gladwell talk on spaghetti sauce. Those three options are great if you are the only one eating the sauce, or if by luck everyone at the table shares your preference for chunky. I grew up with an italian mother who made sauce at least once a week, and it was always shared by 4-10 people (a bit like a roleplaying game). She had to consider everyone's preferences and make sauce that we were all willing to eat (and we had to return that courtesy). I do like my sauce a bit on the thin side, but one of my sisters didn't, so the result was a compromise that still tasted delicious. I think in gaming it is pretty similar. Gaming is more like that. 

Now I am not saying people shouldn't design focused games. I like focused games once in a while. I think they serve an important function in the hobby. But I am saying you shouldn't limit your dinner company to those who share your tastes in tomato sauce. This isn't so much about game design as it is about how people choose gaming groups. Play with people who like different things than you do. If you are a GM, it will expand your repertoire and open you mind to different approaches. If you are a player, it will get you to try different things. 

In my groups I play with all different kinds of people. We have players who get really into character and like systems like Savage Worlds. We have players that enjoy exploration and a dose of realism, and prefer games like GURPS. We have players who are into story, tactics or power. I have one player who really likes Dungeon World, another who really likes 3E, and another who can't get enough of old school games. I also have players who are newer to the hobby, whose tastes are evolving as they play. 

As a GM, I am pretty accommodating. While I have my own preferences, and I try like when people share them, I also am quite at home running a game for groups united by a love of optimization, monty haul, or tactical play. When I was younger, I resisted styles I didn't like. I didn't attempt to understand players who had preferences I did not share. Eventually I realized there was a lot to be gained by running games outside my comfort level. 

When I look back at my groups, without question my favorite campaigns involved players who represented a mix of styles. Not only did it produce better gaming, but it also created a much more enjoyable social environment. 

This does mean as a GM you have to weigh the needs of the many. You can run what you want, how you want it, but how successful that will be depends on a certain degree of flexibility and your ability to customize the game to those present. 

Friday, July 18, 2014


Tonight we have another session of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate and I have been thinking a lot about Kung Fu Techniques. In Ogre Gate, Kung Fu Techniques operate mechanically much like spells in Sertorius, except they are divided into four types of Kung Fu: Lightness (Qinggong), Internal (Neigong), External (Waijia) and Pressure-point (Dianxue).   Characters have ratings of 0-3 in each of these categories and that determines how well they can execute such techniques. I will do a separate blog entry on this system and on individual Kung Fu Techniques we created. For now, I just want to focus on how new Techniques are gained. 

Characters gain new Kung Fu Techniques through Experience Points and by finding a source to instruct them. Here is what the rules presently state on the subject: 

Gaining New Kung Fu TechniquesTechniques are gained by spending experience points AND through teachers, manuals or great individual training effort. Both requirements must be met for characters to learn new techniques. Teachers and manuals can instruct you in a given technique over the course of hours to weeks, while individual effort through training, meditation insight and other actions takes  months. In some cases, such as secret techniques, the presence of a teacher or manual is required. With GM approval characters can learn secret techniques on their own but only with years of effort.

Time to Learn Technique                    Method
Hours to Days                                    Teacher
Days to Weeks                                   Manual
Months                                               Individual Effort*

*This requires GM approval and should be rare.
Players must take an active role in obtaining new techniques. It is not enough to simply look through the rule book and spend XP. To gain new techniques start by finding teachers to instruct you or looking for manuals. As you meet people with greater martial skill than yourself, they may be willing to train you.

While the time increments are clearly not meant to reflect real world learning times, they are intended to reflect the accelerated learning rates seen in shows like Condor Heroes. The Gamemaster should determine the exact length based on the rarity, complexity and difficulty of the technique. The source of instruction may also be a factor. A Sifu who is particularly adept at teaching students, could help someone master a technique in less time than a Sifu who is difficult to work with.
In Wuxia television series, movies and books, obtaining new techniques serves an important function. Often times characters will face opponents too skilled for them to defeat. The enemy may have a particularly lethal attack that is hard to defend against, for example. Finding the right technique to overcome this enables heroes to defeat their foes in the end. 

But it also serves another purpose. Characters in Wuxia are always changing and evolving. That ultra powerful master who crippled the main character's uncle at the beginning of the story, may be quite weak in relation to all the other characters in the end. By the same token, a character with below average skills who is mocked by his fellow disciples, may discover the secret manual of the Storming Phoenix and learn its techniques to become one of the great masters. The point is characters are constantly in flux, so we wanted to bring that to the game both in terms of NPCs and PCs. 

I will give an example of how this might work based on our own campaign. Last session the characters were attacked by the Bronze Monks of Bao. They faced only one monk and he proved nearly impossible to defeat. They also learned that one of their enemies commands the monks and will likely keep sending them. This has the party on the run. Now there is tremendous pressure for them to seek out a master or manual with the right technique to make the monks less of a threat. There are a number of possibilities here, but the most favorable technique in the setting for their situation is The Third Fist of Yanshi, which enables practitioners to pulverize stone, metal and other solids with their fists. This is an Internal (Neigong) technique, and is only possessed by Master Yanshi (a man who does not teach his Kung Fu to just anyone). If the players really want this technique, they will need to seek out Master Yanshi and ask to learn his Third Fist Technique. Every master is different. Some are willing to share their knowledge, others require something of new students before training them, while some simply refuse (or have outrageous demands). 

As you can probably see, this makes the acquisition of new Techniques quite important to the focus of play. I liken it to gaining treasure in games oriented toward dungeon crawls or exploration. It becomes a driving force of adventure on its own. 

So far this has worked, but I after last session, when a character learned Tree Bounding Stride, I felt acquiring new techniques might need an additional mechanic to help determine success. This is just a thought at the moment, but presently I am leaning toward requiring a Skill roll for each increment of time it takes to know the technique (so learning from a teacher you might roll every hour or every day). When you get a Total Success (a result of 10) you know the technique. Here is what I have so far in rough (very rough) form: 

Mastering a new technique: For ease of play the GM may simply decide that at the end of a given period of training the new Technique has been mastered. However we recommend you require a single skill roll per increment of time it takes to learn (so one roll every hour, day, week, etc). This should be the skill used to perform the technique. The new Technique is learned when you get a Total Success on the Skill Roll.
This looks good on paper to me, but I need to actually see it in live play to know if it is workable. Should it prove successful in the next couple of sessions, we will discuss its merits and drawbacks (always with an aim for simplicity) and see what improvements should be made. 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Just Say Perhaps: When powerful characters smash your setting

I have made frequent comment in interviews on the need for the Gamemaster to adapt to PC power levels in Sertorius. This means being open to the possibility of drastic change in the setting at the hands of the players. For some GMs this is a terrifying proposition, it can shatter their carefully laid plans and lead to all kinds of chaos (not to mention the deaths of beloved NPCs). But this also creates potential for more adventure and excitement and gives the players greater stake in the game world. 
There is a common bit of advice that goes "Just say yes". That has never quite worked for me, because sometimes the answer ought to be "no". However "Just say perhaps" captures the spirit of my point about powerful characters. 

There are two things I don't really like as a player. One is when the GM clamps down on clever plans or legitimate actions taken by the PCs, because he doesn't want the adventure or the setting disrupted. The other is when he hands them victory even though their plans ought to have failed for obvious reasons. The impulse to protect your setting is understandable. The impulse to keep an adventure on track is also understandable. The impulse to protect and make this easy for the players is also understandable. But managing both becomes much easier when you allow the players to contribute through the actions of their characters. Protecting players takes away much needed risk int he game. In such cases it is also crucial to say "perhaps" and let the dice fall where they may.

In my second post on our Orcs of the North campaign, Bill did exactly what I am describing (here: ORCS OF THE NORTH). In that adventure we plotted the assassination of General Brogustu of Caelum. This wasn't just any character. This is a big name NPC in the book, whose presence adds a lot of flavor to the Caelum Republic. He is a bit like Caesar and Augustus rolled into one, marching the republic toward Civil War and establishing himself at the  center of a cult of personality. He is my favorite character in the game and one of Bill's as well. But Bill was willing to allow us a chance to take him out. 

Bill said "perhaps". He didn't say "yes". He didn't say "no". We said we wanted to kill the General and he allowed us to try. 

It should be pointed out, we almost didn't succeed. There were many moments where the dice nearly turned against us. This is not only what made it exciting, but made our final impact on the setting that much more meaningful. We could just as easily been caught and executed. Perhaps one or two of us would have escaped; even so, the possible consequences for a failed plot against the general were visibly severe. 

In the end, we succeeded. Brogustu died and now Bill has to deal with the setting fallout that creates (and since Bill is running the campaign I have no idea what direction he will go with that). Our characters do get to return to Atroxis as heroes but Caelum is also sure to respond (and the internal political dynamics of Caelum are likely to shift considerably). 

Clearly this is a golden opportunity for Bill to weave all kinds of interesting adventure hooks. Our positions in Atroxis will change (leading to potential campaign developments), bounty hunters may come after us, and a war between Caelum and Atroxis went from being almost an impossibility to likely indeed. And all this because Bill said "Perhaps".