Sunday, May 31, 2015


This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the eighth full session of the current campaign (Session VII can be found HERE). 

Xue Lingsu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Xi Kang(Affiliated with Mr. Red Claw)
Zhi Zhu (No Sect)
Long Shu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Min (Purple Cavern Sect)
Rong (Tree-Dwelling Nun Sect)

The party re-united in Zun City. Long Shu, Lingsu and Min had just returned from the Tomb of the Timeless Master where they resolved things with Jia, the Snake Demon (she would become a member of Purple Cavern Sect and remain with Long Shu--who she believed was the reincarnation of her deceased husband, Shun). Kang, Rong and Zhi Zhu came to the city having removed Red Claw from power in Bei and stolen Lady White Blade's Wind Saber of Sunan. 

While staying at the Hen-Shi Tea House, Long Shu was visited by Bronze Master who informed him that a member of The Golden Dragons (his own sect) had masqueraded as Lady Plum Blossom and killed Lady Tao (HERE). Bronze Master had the man, known as the Chameleon, beheaded and brought the body to Zun City to hand to Purple Cavern Sect. Bronze Master then formally apologized on his knees for the problems The Chameleon caused. 
Illustration by Jackie Musto

After the meeting with Bronze Master the party regrouped at the Tea House. Zhi Zhu went out on the roof to look around and saw a Flying Phantom (one of Mystic Sword Sect's elite disciples) peering at Long Shu's room from another roof 70 feet away. Getting the rest of the Party's attention they converged on the spy and Long Shu descended upon her with his I am the Arrow Technique. Spearing her through the shoulder, Long Shu demanded she talk. When Kang Threatened torture, she begged them not to make her betray Lady White Blade (she feared further maiming from her Sifu). Kang offered to take her into the Red Claw Gang as his student, giving her protection from Lady White Blade if she told them what she knew. 

Nuan accepted and kowtowed three times, accepting him as her new Sifu. She then told the the party that Lady White Blade was planning an ambush outside town and was merely awaiting word from Nuan on their direction. She also informed them that Lady White Blade had sent a poisoned Phoenix Crown to Long Shu's room. 

Long Shu quickly returned to the room and found Jia opening a box with a phoenix crown, told her it was dangerous and threw it out the window. 

Before their departure the party discussed what to do with the Wind Saber of Sunan. They wanted to destroy it or place it somewhere safe. Lingsu went to Sun Mai temple to research and based on his information they decided it might be a good idea to find another immortal to give the sword to. Long Shu asked Jia where they might take it and she suggested the Iron Sky Maiden as a possibility (telling him she had hoped to find her so she could be made fully human). According to Jia the problem was finding her and knowing what gift to bring to earn her favor. 

Bronze Master once again paid Long Shu a visit, informing him that Lady White Blade had recently married the head of Zhaoze Sect. He also told him he knew they had the sword and made the suggestion that a competition be held to see who should control the weapon (implying it was time for a new leader to unite the sects). 

They used the information about the ambush to fool Lady White Blade, with Zhi Zhu masquerading as Nuan and sending a message that the party was leaving through the western gate (while they went through the eastern gate instead). 

The Party made their way to Red Claw Pagoda because Kang told them Strange Phoenix had many books on Iron Sky Maiden. There Nuan was inducted into the organization as a formal member and as Kang's disciple. Strange Phoenix told them that Iron Sky Maiden was from the Kushen Basin and she believed there was a gate to her Realm in a strange rock formation in the middle of the desert. She was also a former member of Sun Mai Temple (the only woman ever to be inducted) and if they went to the Sun Mai Temple Headquarters in the south, the abbot might be able to give them guidance on gaining her favor. Before leaving they retrieved The Bear (Zhi Zhu's brother) with the intent of taking him with them to Sun Mai). 

From the Red Claw Pagoda the group moved west to the mountain entrance of the Purple Caverns to speak with Lady Plum Blossom. Long Shu informed her about their dealings with Bronze Master (mentioning the competition). He also told her he intended to marry Jia, a snake demon. Lady Plum Blossom contemplated the problem of Jia's nature and ultimately decided that the couples' love and the sect's compassion mattered more than any concerns for reputation in the Jianghu. The marriage rites were performed in the The Shrine of Sunan and Bao and Jia and Long Shu were properly married. 

After the wedding the party went to Sun Mai Temple. Along the way they contacted Jia's Zun Tribesmen (she is worshipped by members of the Sun Tribe) who informed her that Lady White Blade was on their trail (they also provided a guide through the wilderness and mountains). To evade Lady White Blade they detoured north and passed through Nature Loving Monk territory meeting with Begging Dog (the sect's leader). He drank with them and vowed to detain Lady White Blade should she pass through. 

To get to Sun Mai they had to scale the south western mountains near Zhe Valley. While they initially lost their path, they eventually reached Sun Mai Temple. The Abbot accepted The Bear as an initiate and told the party that in life she was most attached to the town of Kwan Metta, a place far in the south, in Dhamma. She was its protector of the Pagoda of the Golden Mercies (a shrine to Hen-Shi in the center of the community). He believed if they brought a gift from the town to her, that might help them gain her favor. He also gave them a Jade Hen-Shi medallion, saying to present it to her if they earned her anger. 

The party moved south and made good time but managed to get lost for a day. Kang asked Nuan to use her Flight of the Hawk technique to survey the area for Lady White Blade. Flying over the mountainside she spotted Lady White Blade's group waiting ahead at a nearby pass. 

They tried to avoid the ambush, but their guide (who failed a Survival Roll) inadvertently led them into it. There they were confronted by Lady White Blade, Shang Long (leader of Zhaoze), The Venom of Zhaoze, Little Venom and Jade Butterfly. 
Illustration by Michael Prescott

Immediately Kang handed Zhi Zhu the sword and told her to run. She scrambled up the hills but Lady White Blade flew after her through the air causing an enormous melee to break out. 

Lady White Blade attacked Zhi Zhu with Lady White Blade's Bursting Charge, but Zhi Zhu countered with Wall of Caltrops, creating a protective expanse of caltrops that pinned Lady White Blade in the air. 

Rong dealt with the two Venoms, using Tree Bounding Stride to smash both of them. Nuan assisted with Slashing Blade (hitting both Venoms as well and killing Little Venom). The Venom of Zhaoze responded by using Naga Palm on Nuan (who started convulsing and developed a black hand print on her body. Rong unleashed Storming Daggers on The Venom of Zhaoze. Riddled with steel blades he dropped dead. 

Kang used Somersault of the Drunken Monkey to attack against Shang Long, dazing him. Jia used her Whipping Strands to assist Kang. Kang struck Shang Long twice with Dog Bashing Stick while he was restrained. Jia then bit Shang Long, poisoning him with her venom. 

Seeing that her side was quickly loosing, Jade Buttefly made no attack and was urged by Kang not to do so (he told her they had no grudge or will). 

Zhi Zhu and Long Shu teamed up against Lady White Blade, using the opportunity presented by the Caltrop to attack. Long Shu speared her body with I am The Arrow. Zhi Zhu struck with the Wind Saber of Sunan, which paralyzed last White Blade. This allowed Long Shu to decapitate her. 

Seeing he'd lost, knowing he was poisoned, Shang Long surrendered. Jia gave him the antidote to her venom and healed Nuan with Nine Divine Snakes Technique. They allowed Shang Long to leave and resumed their journey south. 

Wednesday, May 27, 2015


While Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is focused entirely on wuxia, there are elements of it present in Sertorius as well. We were influenced by a range of martial arts movies when designing the Gamandrian setting. This included classic wuxia like Come Drink With Me and The Bride With White Hair; newer wuxia films like House of Flying Daggers and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn; martial arts fantasy movies like Painted Skin; and Thai films like Ong Bak 2. If you look at places in the setting like Phra Goa or Khata you can definitely see traces of this (The Monks of Isharna for example are inspired by Madame White Snake). Even a few of the spells are meant to lightly emulate the wuxia genre (Dancing Steel and Flying Steel for example). 

Illustration by Jackie Musto
from the Sertorius Rulebook
Gamandria is a big world though and wuxia, while influential, was a small part of a much larger foundation of influences. One of the reasons I wanted to do Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate in the first place was to make full wuxia campaign possible in Sertorius. This is why it was originally going to be a book of new spells inspired by martial arts movies (in Sertorius a lot of spells enhance your combat abilities, so it was certainly doable). However the more I worked on it the more I wanted to do a complete wuxia game and setting on its own. So the project evolved into something else, connected to the Sertorius cosmology but very much its own thing. 

Still I plan on including a section in the appendix explaining how to use the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate rules in Sertorius. Right now we have three methods and we are trying to refine them a bit. 

The first option is to add Martial Heroes to the setting as distinct character types. This means that players can choose to be a Martial Hero, a Sertori, an Ogre or a Mundane at character creation. Martial Heroes exist alongside Sertori as an option in this method. This does require some flexing of the setting assumptions but mechanically works fine (though you do need to adjust the Sertori as well to make things smooth). 

The second option simply treats the Kung Fu Techniques as spells available to normal Sertori. This is probably the easiest one to implement, requiring the least amount of changes. 

The third option makes it possible for Sertori to learn Kung Fu Techniques in addition to their normal magic. This one makes the most sense for the setting. Qi energy in Wandering Heroes is the same substance that gives Sertori their powers, but it operates very differently in Gamandria. In Wandering Heroes, Qi flows through everything, it is unbound. In Gamandria it is contained in Sertori. This means it makes a lot more sense for Sertori to be the ones who can master Qi based Kung Fu techniques in the Gamandrian setting. 

We are still reviewing these adaptation and need to test them out so they are subject to change.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the sixth full session of the current campaign (Session VII can be found HERE). 

Xue Lingsu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Long Shu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Min (Purple Cavern Sect)

We held a brief interim session to deal handle the details of what happened to the three members of Purple Cavern sect when they went to speak with the Snake Demon, Jia. In session VI (HERE) Long Shu had entered the snake demons lair dressed in her deceased husband's robes. Her husband was a physician named Shun who died decades ago. When she saw him, she believed he was the reincarnation of her husband and that he was fated to find the robe so that they could be rejoined. 

At the start of this session Long Shu returned to the lair and asked Jia to come outside and speak with him. He told her that he was happy to have her come along with him and try to be with her but he did not recognize her and did not believe himself to be Shun. Jia seemed unconvinced, finding the similarities between them too striking but agreed to allow him to time to regain his memories of her. She would travel with him to Purple Cavern Sect and try to become a member. 

The group headed south to Zun city and learned more about Jia and her history on the way. Lingsu spoke with her about medicine and Kung Fu Techniques, expression interest her Eight Divine Snakes. Since they had about nine days before the rest of the party met them again in Zun, they decided to travel to Je Valley so Min could learn Double Strike Technique from The Gentle Demon. 

In Je Valley they exchanged news and Min learned the Technique. They then journeyed back to Zun uneventfully and are now awaiting the arrival of their friends. 


Michael Prescott illustration from
Average Joes
Here are some unusual fictional terrorist organizations for your Terror Network campaign

The Federation: The Federation began as a book club in Horn Lake Mississippi. However they were radicalized eleven years ago when an adaptation of a classic set of science fiction short stories was released in theaters and failed to follow canon. Since then they've embraced a radical literalist interpretation of all science fiction and fantasy literature. In particular they object to any deviation from the text when such a novel or short story is made into a film. Typically they target theaters but have been known to target A-list directors as well. 

The Fists of the Sprue: This group of dietary vigilantes recently unleashed a wave of terror in the wake of new FDA guidelines for the labeling of Gluten Free foods. They target food manufacturers that label their products gluten free but don't take adequate measures to prevent cross-contamination. One particularly radical sub-group seeks to eradicate gluten from the food supply by burning wheat fields. 

Baroque Commandoes: This splinter group of the Westfield Chamber Orchestra adheres to an extremist ideology that holds music reached its pinnacle in the Baroque era and are devoted to destroying all post-Baroque musical forms. They usually target a particular style of music each season, most recently focusing their attacks on folks festivals. 
Michael Prescott Illustration
from Average Joes

Champions of Silence: This secretive individual or group reacts violently to "spoilers" about popular TV and movies. Radio talk show and other media hosts were their first victims, but more recently they have begun to organize a determined campaign against the entire movie trailer industry. It is unknown whether this is the work of a lone wolf or a small cadre of individuals.

The Grammatologists: A much feared organization devoted to enforcing strict adherence to proper grammar in all media. They've been known to stage public executions of writers, bloggers and media personalities who violate their narrow understanding of syntax, punctuation, style and grammar. The group turned against itself, dividing into two camps when younger leadership objected to the use of the name Grammatologist. 

Sunday, May 24, 2015


We've recently contemplated making a small adjustment to the scaling of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. Before our plan was to just have normal Heroes and Immortals, with Heroes being Qi ranks 1-6 and Immortals being Qi rank 7+ (but going up as high as 24). Now we are thinking of adding an intermediary stage. Mechanically it really isn't a huge tweak because we already had Qi ranks 1-24, we would just be adjusting what the midrange means. 

Originally once characters reached Qi Rank 7, they could potentially become immortals. This would not only give them special abilities like regeneration and other perks, it gave them access to Profound Kung Fu Techniques and Immortal Powers. This works great but if you don't want to run an Immortal style campaign, it does limit your options. So instead what we are considering is having Qi ranks 7-12 simply give you access to Profound Kung Fu Techniques, without actually having you become immortal. I think this creates a smoother gradient and makes running a pure Wuxia campaign (with fewer fantasy elements) more feasible. I should point out each Qi Rank represent a pretty big leap and it can take some time to get from one to the other. Right now, if you played once a week and you earned the max amount of experience possible each session, you might reach Qi rank 6 in a year (we do intend to have optional XP tables for more condensed campaigns). 

This is still just under discussion. If we do make the change, then it will likely be the last significant alteration because of where we are in the development process. 

One thing to note: the Profound Master and Immortal levels of play are not the focus of the current rule book. We provide some details on running immortals and some key Profound Kung Fu Techniques, but those are going to both be handled later in The Profound Masters and Immortals supplement (we still haven't settled on an official title). 

Friday, May 22, 2015


In Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate we have roughly 180 Kung Fu Techniques and while it is great to playtest them in isolation, my goal from the start has been to playtest things as much as feasibly in a campaign. That can be tricky because you can't really force things in campaigns. But I don't mind gently nudging things when I play testing in order to see them in action. One solution I've looked to is the martial contest. 

In wuxia tournaments happen all the time. They can arise for a variety of reasons but often its to resolve leadership issues (for example to see who can be chief of the Wulin) or ownership of an object of importance. Contests can also be a part of the promotion of training process. A major plot point in Demi-gods and Semi-Devils involves a tournament between the major sects. 

So in my current campaign the possibility of a tournament between the major martial sects looms large. There is a lot going on and there are a few possible reasons for holding such a contest.

Here are some initial thoughts on how to run a good tournament in the martial world. It is possible I've missed some points or possibilities so readers should feel free to chime in with their own ideas. 

The Stakes Should be Real 
By real stakes I mean it should be over something that matters and actually affects the campaign. This might be a tournament to unit the sects under one leader for example (or just to help elect the head of a particular sect). Another good reason is control of a significant object, manual or artifact. In our game the Wind Saber of Sunan, which has caused untold havoc as a source of envy and conflict, could potentially be used in this way.  A tournament might also be held to secure a coveted position in someone's service. In all these cases, victory means a significant outcome that potentially has a huge impact on the PCs themselves (or at the very least their sect). If the players are going to go to a competition, they won't be too excited if its for the setting's equivalent of a plastic trophy. The competition really needs to be worth their time and effort. 

An Organizer
Every tournament needs an organizer. Just anyone can't arrange for the heroes and evils of the martial world to assemble for an organized competition of skill. It has to be someone with the resources or reputation to compel the gathering. Who is it and why are they organizing the event in the first place? 

Ground Rules
There is a good chance the less orthodox competitors will violate some of these but you will want a list of basic rules of combat. This really can be anything you want though you'll need to address some basic assumptions. Is this to do the death? Are all techniques permissible? How many competitors per match? How long is each match? 

Some common ground rules you see in wuxia are things like limiting each match to a set number of strikes or exchanges, disallowing repeated use of the same technique, forbidding lethal force, etc. Some tournaments also have special rules to make things interesting. You could have a competition that only allows kicks or requires computers to drink between rounds. The match might not even be about defeating an opponent, it could be about using your Kung Fu to make the perfect noodle dish, play chess or play keep away. 

An Elimination Process
This is about the actual structure of the competition. Whether it is 1 on 1 or team competition, you need to decide how people are eliminated and how they advance. This is going to be very specific to the competition itself. For example you might start with teams, with groups of champions from each sect being selected then having two sects at a time face one another. A given team might only have to beat one or two matches to get to final competition. How many sects are involved will be a big factor here. For instance if you have 8 sects you may have an elimination bracket that looks like the following:

Obviously the only matches you might want to play out live are the ones the PCs are actually taking part in. I personally like to to run the combats separately before the game to know what the outcome will be (if it is too big a task I might eyeball or simplify to a roll off of some kind). However whatever outcomes I have, I assume intervention might change them (for instance if a player decides to poison members of Zhaoze sect because he wants  the party to face Sun Mai Temple instead). 

You could keep it much simpler too. A common device in wuxia is for the competition to start with one man or woman who takes challengers and the victor of each match remains until no one is willing to step in and fight. This is a pretty straight forward and easy method (though its fairness is debatable). 

Ulterior Motives and Politics
Yes there is a competition happening and that's the focus, but it doesn't have to be all that is going on. Maybe the person who organized the tournament did so just to get their hands on something that belongs to one of the other sects (in fact he sent a team to their temple to steal it while they are busy fighting in a silly competition). There may be a wholly unrelated adventure or series of events that unfold and involves the party on the tournament grounds or where they area staying. Perhaps a rival group that wasn't invited shows up to disrupt the event. The point here is to consider the agenda's of the different factions and participants, and make use of them. 

A Full Roster
This is the hardest part of planning for a competition. You need to come up with stats for all the NPCs the players may face. If it is relatively small affair, then you may just need a handful of opponents. If it is sizable, then you may need pages of foes. This is probably a good thing anyways because it will help you flesh out your sects with characters you can use again in the future. Since your the GM you have control over how big the scope of the tournament is (unless a PC is organizing it). So make it a size you can tackle. 

When you are making lots of different NPCs for a wuxia style game, something I've noticed is they each need to pop and be memorable, just so things don't get too bland. These are all martial heroes with distinct and colorful identities. You might throw in some mooks but for the most part a tournament is going to be focused on people with some amount of skill. Try to mix it up with different weapons, personalities and techniques. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015


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 WHOG.

Note: I am writing these as a fan of the genre. I am not a movie expert or an expert in asian cinema. These are my own observations based on what I have learned by watching wuxia and kung fu movies, and by reading about them through interviews and books. But my knowledge is quite limited and I am an English speaker. So understand that my commentary comes from this perspective. 

Note: This review contains many spoilers. 

Green Snake is a 1993 film directed by Tsui Hark and based on a novel by Li Bihua (which is itself based on the legend of Madame White Snake). It stars Maggie Cheung (Green Snake), Vincent Zhao (Fahai), Joey Wong (White Snake) and Wu Xing-Guo (Hsui Xien). This is more of a mythic or legendary film than wuxia, but had enough of an influence on Ogre Gate that I want to review it here. 

If you've seen the more recent film with Jet Li, Sorcerer and the White Snake, then you will recognize the main storyline. The original source material, Madame White Snake, has been made into numerous films and television shows (as well as books). While I quite enjoyed the Jet Li version and while I rather liked the 2006 version of the television show, this one, for all its shortcomings (most of which are a product of the time it was made) is my favorite version. 

What is interesting about the story and how it's been used is its malleability. The character of Fahai, who is the unrelenting monk trying to stop the two snake demons is depicted quite differently depending on the adaptation. In Hark's film, he is a kind of flawed and hypocritical fanatic who unleashes terrible evil in his efforts to deny his own desires and protect the human realm from demons. In many ways he is the villain, but it is clear that he is redeemable.  

The main character of the film, is Green Snake, though her sister, White Snake is prominent as well. In other versions of the story White Snake is usually the focus, but here while we follow her transition to becoming human, it is seen from the point of view of Green Snake, who struggles to understand human emotions like love and pain. 

Both of the sisters are Snake Demons trying to become human. White Snake is the senior of the two, and been cultivating the change for over 1,000 years, while Green Snake is younger, less in control of her abilities and emotions, and only been cultivating for 500 years. 
Green Snake threatening a temple monk

White Snake becomes infatuated with Hsui Xien, a scholar who teaches at a local village. She wants to complete her cultivation by marrying him and having a child and arranges to meet him by offering him a ride on her boat across the lake in the rain. Over the course of their courtship she explains and teaches Green Snake what it is to be human. However she and Hsui Xien are beset by Fahai, who opposes their relationship out of a desire to protect the human realm. Their love is also thwarted by a blind daoist, who wants to steal the combined 1,500 years of power the two snakes have cultivated. 

Fahai has several encounters with the snakes over the course of the movie. They recognize his power and attempt to avoid him but Green Snake seems drawn to the monk. His first encounter is in the bamboo forest, before they meet Hsui Xien, as they try to shield a villager who is giving birth from the rain. Recognizing that they are helping her, he turns away and shows them mercy. Here we also see the hypocrisy and lust at work in Fahai as he seems to struggle with the sight of a naked woman giving birth (and in fact soon secludes himself to fend off tempting lust spirits). He encounters them again when they save a village from flooding waters with their magic, and again spares them for their good nature. However he soon sees them as a threat when he realizes that one of them has married Hsui Xien. 
White Snake Calls the Rains

There is a crucial scene about a third of the way through the movie when Hsui Xien pours Xiong-Huang Wine (which is a problem for snakes) into the river by their house, forcing Green Snake (who is in the river) to take her natural form. The sight of a giant serpent terrifies Hsui Xien so much he collapses and his breathing stops. White Snake says the only way to save him is to obtain a special herb from Kunlun Mountain, but it is protected by a magic crane. The two sisters go together to retrieve the herb. They are chased on their way by Fahai and Green Snake offers to contend with him and the crane so her sister can get save Hsui Xien. 
White Snake and Green Snake

Green Snake is nearly killed by the crane. When Fahai arrives he almost destroys her himself, but shows mercy when she says they stole the herb to save a life. He then says he'll let her go if she helps him test his inner strength. Green Snake attempts to seduce him while he meditates and she succeeds in provoking his lust, which only angers him (even though he asked for the test himself). Green Snake is outraged because he promised to let her go if she helped him, and in her mind he lost.

The film culminates with Fahai confronting Hsui Xien about the snake demons. He shows him that his house is just an illusion and abducts him, taking the helpless scholar to his temple where he tries to forcefully turn him into a monk. Hsui Xien protests that he doesn't want to be enlightened, that he wants a secular life, but Fahai is determined. 

When Green and White Snake reach the temple to rescue Hsui Xien we get an epic confrontation between the demons and the monk. This is not a mundane battle but one that is mythic, with both sides commanding powerful elemental forces. At one point Fahai even lifts his temple into the sky so it can escape the water floods summoned by the snake demons. 

As the battle reaches a climax, White Snake gives birth to a child. This disrupts Fahai's concentration because he now regards her as human but the ceremony continues. White Snake loses control of the waters and they engulf the village. In the temple the monks beat on drums and chant as they work to convert Hsui Xien. In an attempt to block the water floods, Fahai sends them into the temple, flooding its chambers. White Snake dies trying to save her child, handing it to Fahai and asking him to let her sister and husband go. Green Snake rescues Hsui as her sister dies but he has already become a monk and she accuses him of betraying them. When she reaches the surface and sees that her sister has died, she kills Hsui (saying he belongs with her sister). 
Green Snake Testing Fahai's Internal Strength

Fahai storms down, baby in hand, ready to deliver retribution against Green Snake for taking a life, but she points to all the dead monks, drowned by the water he redirected into the temple and he realizes that he's guilty of killing as well. Green Snake muses that even humans don't know the nature of love or good and says she may return when he has figured it out. Fahai is left to contemplate the destruction as he cradles the child. 
Green Snake Trying to Seduce Fahai

Green Snake sometimes gets dismissed for its dated special effects and heavy-handedness but I think it is an incredible movie. It captures everything I love about wuxia and martial arts fantasy films, particularly rich use of colors and imagery to pull you into another world. There isn't a whole lot of fighting in Green Snake, and it can be easy to get hung up on the erotic elements. However in this instance the eroticism is necessary for the themes Tsui Hark is trying to explore. While it is clear that Hark had his own agenda and vision when he made it, the great thing about Green Snake is it can be read a number of different ways and I think most people will find something about it that engages them.  While it clearly can be read as a political allegory, I think the moral and religious themes are more universal and resonate just as clearly with a global audience. 

One thing that is interesting about Green Snake is the prominence of the female characters. While isn't that unusual in Hong Kong action movies (especially wuxia) in this case it feels a little more pronounced than usual. The men are either instruments to carry the women's stories forward (as in the case of Hsui Xien) or they are the opposition (Fahai and the blind Daoist). Hsui Xien is bumbling and ineffective. His wife, White Snake, is by far the stronger of the two. At the end of the film he is the one being kidnapped by Fahai with the two snake demons going to rescue him.  
Despite a few hokey effects, the visuals are stunning

While there are not many fight or action sequences, there are a few and they are epic. This isn't precision choreography, it is larger than life, effect laden, soaring clashes. It is the kind of martial arts action dripping with magic and unfurling fabrics that canopy the sky and keep tides at bay. 

There is also a chase scene through the canals of the village, with the Daoist priest trying to catch Green Snake and failing at every turn. 

Tsui Hark is known for his use of special effects and there is plenty of it here. It does suffer from what was possible at the time. There was CG, and this film has some, but it mainly relies on traditional effects. This may be striking for modern views. While the notion of suspending disbelief at a giant rubber snake seems comical now, it wasn't as outrageous at the time and to an extent they did a good job working with what was available. Rubber snakes aside, it shines in other areas. The wirework, the costumes, the editing, the lighting and the overall look is impressive. There are moments where it slips because of reliance on old techniques, but there are truly stunning shots in this movie. One of the more interesting aspects is the simply use of the human body to convey that snake-demon nature of the characters. Maggie Cheung is particularly good here, convincing us with her sway and pacing that her legs are more serpentine than human. 

Temple Monks
The music is particularly well chosen. Some of it is a bit dated, as with many 90s Hong Kong Films, but the main themes feel timeless and work for the scenes they are meant to bring life to. This is complimented by the use of colors and composition of the shots. Each scene has a frame that feels like a painting, where it is clear Hark put a lot of thought into what he wanted the viewer to see. 

Like The Bride With White Hair, Green Snake is a movie that captures a mood and atmosphere, and so it dips into the surreal at times. It uses that to tackle some interesting ideas and moral themes. The film is morally ambiguous, but it doesn't question the existence of good and evil themselves, but our ability to discern the two clearly. 

I recommend it primarily because it is just a good film, but also because it has a lot of gaming potential. Any wuxia campaign or even a bog-standard fantasy campaign could benefit from some of the more fantastical elements here. Magic items and magic powers abound, demons of various kinds proliferate and the whole conflict between the monks and the snakes could work really well in a campaign (as a backstory, backdrop or focus). I think most GMs would be inspired and find a well of ideas in Green Snake

Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Last post I mentioned a conflict that arose between party members during a recent session of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (HERE). In a world and genre of feuding sects, shifting alliances and ambitious heroes, I think a certain amount of internal party conflict is to be expected. Several years ago we published an RPG called Crime Network, where players were members of the mafia working their way up the hierarchy. That was a system built around party conflict. While Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate isn't such a game, the presence of some internal conflict has made it easy for me to apply many of the lessons and approaches we used in Crime Network. 

There is quite a bit of cross-over between the wuxia genre and crime genres. The world of martial heroes and sects can, at its worst, resemble the world of competing mafia families or inner city gangs. Obviously there are key differences too, but when I watch films like Killer Clans, The Bride with White Hair or even Butterfly and Sword, it is hard not to think of the kinds of violent conflicts you have between gangs, outlaw motorcycle clubs, etc. While this is mostly directly outwardly against rivals, sometimes the violence turns inward. Perhaps it is because of this similarity that I've prepared for many of my Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate sessions the way I prepare for Crime Network sessions. 

My prep for Ogre Gate isn't identical to Crime Network. There are a lot more investigations, quests and dungeon crawls than you are going to find working as a soldier for the Martino Crime Family. My mafia sessions are all about the characters and organizations. They are conflict adventures driven by the motivations of the people and groups involved. When I prepare a Crime Network campaign, I simply drop the players into that situation and see what kind of reaction I get. There are elements of this to my Wandering Heroes campaigns as well. For example a big part of my prep involves mapping out all the different sects so I can get a quick sense of where they stand on key developments. Another important part is coming up with all the members of those sects who matter and creating a network of NPCs. 

Once the game is in motion, if conflict emerges, I don't shy away from it. It is great if the party gets along and shares an agenda, but it can also be enjoyable to see what develops out of conflict. In some games this might be viewed as the end of the campaign, as an implosion, but I find, at least for me, in wuxia it merely leads to more possibilities (I would argue it can in just about any kind of campaign, but that is a topic for another day). I think the key when you are GMing such conflicts is to hold yourself to highest standard of impartiality possible. That doesn't mean you'll be perfect, but you have to strive for it. 

As a rule of thumb, when player versus player conflict occurs, particularly if combat is involved, I run things 100% by the book and look up every rule if there is any doubt at all about the details. I also explain my rulings more clearly to people so they understand risks and how I intend to proceed. It is a trade off because it does take a little more time, and it can shave off some of the drama, but it really does help contribute to the sense that things are being handled fairly. 

It is pretty important here to gauge your players. We're all human and when PCs start fighting people can take it personally or get too aggressive and competitive. I try to read the mood in the room and if anyone seems upset or I'm just not sure what they are thinking, I will pause to deal with that. I've found it helpful after sessions where there is party conflict to ask questions and be open to the responses you get because it gives you better information going forward (for example you may have thought someone was upset but they were really just excited and getting into character, or you might have mistaken anger for passion in another instance). 

Party conflict doesn't end the campaign, it just causes it to pivot (to varying degrees). Initially that can frighten a game master. It can throw a wrench in what you have in store or force the you to try to corral the party into a unified whole again. I've come to see party conflict as reducing my workload rather than increasing it. Conflict creates something new, it adds to the campaign. It may be messy, it may require scores be settled and a new order be established in the party, but it sets a path. The role of the GM in this instance is to clearly see what path that is, to elaborate on the ramifications. That may mean other groups or characters get involved, it may mean you need to start thinking about where the conflict will take the party next (geographically, politically, socially). This is where sects really come in handy in Ogre Gate. Once word of an internal conflict gets out, other martial heroes may take notice and capitalize on the division. 

A lot of folks are wary of party conflict in RPGs, and with good reason: it can turn into real hostility between players and have a negative impact on the game group as a whole. It can also be difficult with some adventure structures or styles of play. For this reason, some might opt to avoid it when running Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, which is fine. I think people need to run the game the way that works for them and their players. But I would advise against dismissing it out of hand because you might miss out on some interesting developments that expand your campaign. 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015


In a recent Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate session we split the group in two temporarily, with one half going to deal with a Snake Demon and the other heading south to take care of some personal business. The team who went south crossed paths with Lady White Blade, leader of Mystic Sword Sect. She had abducted the brother of Zhi Zhu (a player character) and burned him in an incident described HERE. In rage, Zhi Zhu led the party to Mystic Sword Tempe to rescue her brother. Once they got there she took the opportunity to steal Lady White Blade's Sword, The Wind Saber of Sunan. This is a magical weapon that carries a lot of prestige in the martial world. The person who has the sword and the Phoenix Crown of Bao, according to custom, becomes master of the Wulin. 

A lot of other things happened that session but the key event was an internal squabble in the party over the sword within days of taking it. It occurred when Xi Kang asked to borrow the weapon so he could kill Mr. Red Claw (the notorious leader of Kang's gang). Though he did promise to return it to Zhi Zhu, when he had finished killing his master he told her he could not relinquish it to her because she was the only person who could reclaim the Phoenix Crown (the details of this arrangement are explained HERE). 

Things got a bit intense during the standoff between the characters. There were three participants: Rong, Zhi Zhu and Kang. Ultimately Rong sided with Kang and a fight ensued (with Zhi Zhu holding her own but taking some tough hits from Rong's Storming Daggers. 

I was intrigued because this was a totally unexpected development. It made sense from all the characters' points of view, I just hadn't seen it coming (nor had I anticipated them stealing the sword in the first place). 

This was also curious because the previous campaign (which serves as the backdrop for this one) was all about a conflict over the sword. In this one, the martial world had kind of settled into a calm, and the party placing the Phoenix Crown at Red Mountain Villa helped reinforce that calm. 
One-Armed Fire Demon loses The Wind Saber 

When the rest of the party meets up, we will have to see how they deal with it. 

One of the interesting things about this weapon is it isn't really that powerful. It is nice sword and has a couple of potent abilities, but by fantasy RPG standards it is a fairly tame item. Most of its value comes from its place in the setting and tradition associated with it. 

This has prompted some thoughts on part conflict in the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate setting (which I will probably post in the next day or so).

Monday, May 18, 2015


Playtesting is something I've mentioned in other posts previously. This is a consolidation and expansion of those thoughts, things I've learned through play testing our Network rules. This is simply what works for me and what I believe will work for the typical gamer, I am sure other people have different experiences though.  

Here is what I've found helpful: 

Crunch the numbers
This just boils down to doing the math and making spread sheets. Probabilities are really important in an RPG. You can develop an intuitive sense of them from just playing the game a lot but it is still critical to know the actual numbers. If you make an injury mechanic for example that is triggered by a critical result, you ought to know the likelihood of that coming up on a given roll. With single dice systems this can be relatively easy to calculate (a 20 comes up 5% of the time on a d20 roll for example), with a dice pool (which is what I tend to work with) the probabilities are a lot more involved and you need to hash out all the potential pools a player or NPC might have.. 

For instance in the Network system the Target Number and the dice pool can vary. This creates a certain level of opaqueness, which I like on the player end but isn't particularly good on the development end of things. So we created charts for ourselves that show the probability for different skill ranks and modifiers against all the possible TNs. With this we can see what 2d10 against TN 8 is but also see what 5d10 against TN 6 or TN 9 is. Without this we would have been working in the dark. 

All that said, even if you have the probabilities mapped, and you know the numbers, you still need to see it in play. The math can give you a clue, but it can't give you the experience itself. 

Play your own games
I think this is one of the most important things in play testing and development. After you finish your game and publish it, you should keep playing it. Otherwise you start to know less about the system than the fans and it becomes increasingly difficult for you to write and design support material. 

This may mean some sacrifices on your end. Campaigns are time consuming. Most people can only manage one or two sessions once every week or every other week. If you have the extra time you might be able to squeeze in more. Ultimately if you have to choose between running your own game and running the latest edition of D&D, I think you should choose your own. If you'd rather play D&D, you might want to consider making d20 material instead of using your own system. 

Play other peoples games
I do think it is important to play your own system. That said exposure to other games is also important. This can be hard if you are busy running your own system. My solution is to be a player in games with other systems and to focus on GMing my own games. I also run one-shots of systems I am interested in (but nothing beats long term play over time).  In addition to these solutions one thing I've tried from time to time was setting aside one sunday every week or couple of weeks to run a different system. Usually I do this sort of thing when there is a block of games I want to try out and consider for longer term campaigns. 

Run focused play tests
These are sessions where you hone in on specific parts of the system. They are not about running through scenarios or a campaign, rather the focus is putting individual mechanics to the test. In this kind of session you might run a bunch of characters against a single set of challenges and one combat encounter, you could focus entirely on combat, or traps, or poisoning. Whatever mechanic (s) you feel you need to see in action and evaluate, you can run it through a bunch of different but similar situations to get a handle on. 

Focused platests in my experience are necessary though they are not as enjoyable as just running a regular adventure. With focused play tests it helps to stay organized. Take active notes and put together spreadsheets to gather data. 

The value of the focused playtest is it forces a mechanic into action so you understand it, see some of its flaws and can get a better handle on its overall level of balance in the game. It can also help you uncover anything unusual you might not immediately see just reading the rule. For example your poison mechanic might break down under scrutiny, perhaps it just doesn't connect well with the act of poisoning a character in game (too abstract or just not thought through). A focused playtest can help you see this. 

A downside of the focused playtest is it can lack the context of the full adventure or campaign. That can create problems for evaluating balance because none of your mechanics are going to exist in a vacuum. Something that seems broken in an isolated encounter or challenge may not be when characters are trying to use it over the course of a regular day in their life. 

Run full campaigns
I am a big believer in running several campaigns of a game while play testing it. These can be run at the same time (which I find gives you a big window into the system) or back to back. There really is no replacement for a campaign when trying to crack a system. Things just come up over the course of campaign play that don't in limited scenarios or single adventures. 

Honestly this is the most helpful thing I do during play testing. There is nothing quite like running a campaign to get a handle on what your system does well, what the strengths of the setting are, and how everything just comes together. The worst place do figure all that out is in your own head, the best is at the table. 

If I didn't run campaigns with my own games, I don't think I could even begin to write the GM section of each book. I just don't see how you do that if you haven't run an ongoing campaign of the system and setting. 

Don't be the smartest person in the room
There is a temptation when GMing and when designing a game to be smart, not to allow people to catch you being stupid or making mistakes. If you made an error in the game and it comes up in playtest, accept it, acknowledge it. You will make mistakes. You will make stupid decisions. There will be inconsistencies. When people point these things out, that is good, it means you are finding the problems that need to be fixed. If you let your ego get in the way that can hinder the process. Your job isn't to be the most brilliant thing at the table, your job is to get feedback from people who catch your mistakes. 

Take Notes
Take notes for everything. You can playtest 1,000 hours for 41 days and nights, but if fail to take notes, most of your observations will be forgotten or misremembered. As a general rule, write down observations the moment they come up. 

Saturday, May 16, 2015


This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the seventh full session of the current campaign (Session VI can be found HERE). 

Xue Lingsu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Kang Xi (Affiliated with Mr. Red Claw)
Zhi Zhu (No Sect)
Long Shu (Purple Cavern Sect)
Min (Purple Cavern Sect)
Rong (Tree-Dwelling Nun Sect)

At the Tomb of the Timeless Master the party split, with Min, Long Shu and Xue Lingsu heading back into the upper fortress of the complex to deal with the snake demon while Kang Xi, Zhi Zhu and Rong headed toward Zun City to take care of other business. 

This session focused on the exploits of Kang Xi, Zhi Zhu and Rong. As they made their way toward Zun City, Zhi Zhu noted symbols left for her from The Bear* indicating he wanted to meet north of the city in the tea fields. Rong and Kang Xi went into Zun City while Zhi Zhu followed the trail of symbols. As she got closer to the source, she noticed that the method of communication was out of date (they have been evolving their code language for many years). Deciding something was amiss, Zhi Zhu joined the others in the Imperial Inn in Hai'an Quarter of Zun City. 
Lady White Blade (right)

Zun City was in the midst of the Phoenix Celebration, an event where they simultaneously burn several effigies of Phoenixes, execute prisoners, light off fireworks and perform a Phoenix Dance to mark the departure of the Phoenix Seasons (this is called the Five Departures). 

In the dining area the party spotted members of Mystic Sword and followed one of them when he left on his own. They trailed the Mystic Sword Disciple to the area in the tea fields where The Bear's symbols had pointed to. However The Bear was nowhere to be seen, instead they found Lady White Blade flanked by 17 of her Flying Phantoms. The party crawled up into the trees to spy, seeing that Lady White Blade held a tall basket in her hands. Fearing it was a trap they moved south and continued into Nature Loving Monk Territory. Once there Kang Xi learned Dog Bashing Stick Technique from Begging Dog. They stayed the night with the Nature Loving Monks, enjoying wine and food by the fire. The next day they headed to Rong Yao intent on reaching Purple Cavern Sect Headquarters. 

In the woods, Zhi Zhu continued to look for symbols from The Bear and eventually found an etching indicating he was in trouble and in the hands of Lady White Blade. They asked around Rong Yao to see if Mystic Sword had passed through, learning that Lady White Blade and several disciples had come to the city five or six days ago with two prisoners and headed north (presumably to Zun City). 

Fearing that her brother was in danger Zhi Zhu decided to go back to Zun. The rest of the group joined her and once there they learned that something strange had happened during the Five Departures. As the Phoenix boats burned, Lady White Blade swooped in and pulled a man from one of the ships. He was badly hurt by the flames and matched the description of The Bear. Lady White Blade healed him and declared that Purple Cavern Sect had placed him in the Phoenix boat to die, but she learned about it in time to save him. She then left with the Bear (who was barely conscious) and her disciples to the west (most likely to Mystic Sword Temple). 

The party followed her trail and along the way found the basket that Lady White Blade had been holding. It was fixed to a tree and a long sheet of paper was stamped to it bearing the words "A head for a head, a brother for a crown". This seemed to indicate that she wanted the Phoenix Crown in exchange for The Bear. Inside the basket they found the head of River Master Li (you can learn more about him HERE). 

They continued to Mystic Sword Temple, a large temple structure atop a steep hill. The party searched around the base for a point of entry and found a cave complex. Kang Xi remembered the text they saw on the wall in The Tomb of the Timeless Master "Between Mount Rong and Mount Hai'an" which would indicate the area that Mystic Sword Temple was in. He decided to look around the caves a bit to see if they could find anything related to the timeless master. Eventually they found a secret passage that led into an enormous domed chamber with a 60 foot statue and two passage ways trapped with an enormous blade. Down one of the passages Zhi Zhu found and took a golden scroll case that contained the second half of the Iron Spear of the Timeless Master Technique. 

They then spied on the temple and found a vantage where few guards could see. Observing for several hours they identified the building where Lady White Blade's chambers were likely to be and where The Bear was probably held. At night, when Lady White Blade conducted lessons with her students they snuck up the hill and Zhi Zhu climbed silently into the grand hall using her Crawling Tiger Technique. Inside she found the bear and also found the Wind Saber of Sunan (which she took). She slipped The Bear on her back and descended using her Arms of Silk. The party then moved down the hill but was spotted by a sentry who sounded the alarm. It took mystic sword a few moments to realize the extent of the breech and they gave quick pursuit. Luckily Rong's knowledge of the wilderness enabled them to cover their trail and make a good escape. By the second day of travel they seemed to have lost the Mystic Sword trackers completely and decided to go to Red Claw Pagoda so Kang could help his Sifu (Strange Phoenix) take over the gang. 

Kang asked Zhi Zhu if he could borrow the Wind Saber, saying her would give it back. Zhi Zhu agreed and Kang went to Bei (the town near Red Claw Pagoda) to contact Strange Phoenix and make his move. 

Zhi Zhu examined The Bear's condition and discovered that Lady White Blade had crippled him. He asked her to take him to Sun Mai Temple so he could become a monk. She agreed but it would have to wait until they settled the current situation. 

Kang concocted a paralytic poison and antidote, then sent a message to Strange Phoenix telling her to bring Red Claw to The Duck House. At the Duck House, Kang approached Red Claw and Strange Phoenix at a private table. Red Claw was pleased to see Kang and eager to hear about his many exploits. Kang sat down and poured them both some poison wine. He drank it, but gave himself the antidote. Red Claw consumed twice the amount Kang had and was soon paralyzed. At this point Kang decapitated him with the Wind Saber of Sunan and then threw down one of the masks they had taken from the Flying Phantoms of Mystic Sword. Strange Phoenix cried out that mystic Sword had assassinated Red Claw and Kang escaped in the clamor. 

Returning to the group Kang told them the deed was done. When Zhi Zhu asked him to return the Wind Saber of Sunan, he said "Zhi Zhu I am not going to give you the sword, it is too powerful and you know where the Phoenix Crown of Bao is."

This led to a lengthy argument over whether he had gone back on his word and ended with Zhi Zhu using Arms of Silk to take the blade when she thought Kang was about to flee. She missed him with her initial attack however and Rong stepped in to mediate. In the ensuing conflict Rong struck Zhi Zhu with Storming Daggers. Eventually Zhi Zhu calmed and saw some sense in what Kang was saying. It was agreed that Kang would hold on to the blade but they would find some place to keep it safe from the world. 

Leaving The Bear in Bei they went to Zun to meet up with the rest of the party. 

*The Bear is the brother of Zhi Zhu and they meet from time to time to exchange news.