Tuesday, January 14, 2020


Art by Jackie Musto 
Since Strange Tales of Songling was released in PDF yesterday, I'd like to talk about why I made this game in the first place. I only put out about one game a year or two (Bill and I made the decision to shift to a slower production schedule in order to improve quality and allow games a more natural time to develop). 

Horror is the genre that I connected to most as a gamer, and particularly as a GM. The first campaign I tried to run on my own was a Ravenloft Campaign. Knight of the Black Rose came out, piqued my interest in the setting (I had grown up on universal horror movies and hammer films), so I picked up the black boxed set and Feast of Goblyns. That was the setting that always resonated with me. And if I wasn't running Ravenloft, I was playing in a horror setting like Orrorsh.

My interest in Strange Tales started when I was working on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. I had a number of sources of inspiration for that and one of them was Pu Songling's Tales from A Chinese Studio. This is a collection of anomaly accounts (reports of strange events) and many of its key stories are well known and been made into movies (A Chinese Ghost Story and Painted Skin being two big examples). I liked Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio because the entries were relatively brief, but provided great fodder for adventure ideas. You could sit down in the morning before a game if you didn't have anything planned, and reading a handful of the entries would quickly inspire gameable content. The stories themselves are quite compelling and span a range of styles. But many of them feature ghosts, scholars and fox spirits. 

I was so fond of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio I decided to a blog entry for every entry in the Penguin translation of the book. I chose penguin's version because I like the prose of the translation, but also because it is a condensed translation. Other versions are multiple volumes and it would have taken me a very long time had I used those. I do recommend the multi-volume translations, as you get a lot more content, but for my purposes, the Penguin edition was fine. 

Map by Francesca Baerald
I decided to have each blog entry turn one or two of the Strange Tales into material for Ogre Gate. It worked so well that I began writing a new game (which became Strange Tales of Songling). This was going to be a much simpler system with four character paths, because I felt for horror that would work better. I even timed all the character creation to make sure it wasn't taking too long because I wanted players to be able to get back into the game fast after their character died (and in horror I am a believer in character death being on the table). 

I also wanted Strange Tales to take more of a monster-of-the-week approach because I think that works well for horror games. My regular games are often sandboxes, but I tend to run horror in a different way. 

The book structure was something I wanted to approach differently as well. I decided to include four adventures in it, rather than one, and have the adventures serve as a guide for what the game is all about. Because the mechanics are simple this made it easy to devote a large section of the book to adventures (and to include a robust monster chapter). 

Working on Strange Tales was great. I had a terrific time developing the game, researching the genre and history. It was also a good excuse to watch a bunch of horror movies over and over again. I became a bit obsessed with picking up every multivolume translation of Strange Tales from the Chinese Studio I could. Because of the language barrier, I wanted to get as many different translations and explanatory footnotes as I could. 

In the end Strange Tales emulates Pu Songling, Yuan Mei and a number of movies in the genre or near to it. I kept the genre boundaries porous enough that I could also incorporate movies like Heaven and Hell or Killer Snakes as sources of inspiration. 

The book is out now. It has wonderful art and maps (Jackie Musto did the cover and interior art, and Francesca Baerald did the maps). If you like horror, if you like movies like A Chinese Ghost Story, definitely check it out: HERE

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