Monday, June 29, 2015


This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the Tenth full session of the current campaign (Session IX 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)
Jia (Long Shu's snake demon wife)
Nuan (Xi Kang's disciple)

The party headed to Mystic Sword Temple where Lady Plum Blossom had gone to destroy what remained of the sect. When they arrived they found piles of dead bodies and learned that Purple Cavern Sect had won (though their numbers had been reduced to 144). Lady Plum Blossom issued an order for all members of her sect to kill any Mystic Sword disciples on site and the party aided in searching the temple halls. 

In Lady White Blade's bedroom they found a small hidden compartment with a wall scroll that contained the Prophecy of the Calamity, these were the last words of General Dou Lun (an ancestor of Lady White Blade) who died at the battle of Yu Zhing when northern Hai'an fell to the empire 97 years ago. It read: 
When the Calamity Star rejoins I will be reborn. My skin will be marked by the birds of paradise flower and I will reclaim The Empire for the Daolin people.
The Calamity Star was a body in the sky that fragmented into three parts on the night of General Dou Lun's death and it rejoined seven years ago. Searching further they found orders issue by Lady White Blade instructing her disciples to seek information on the The Calamity Star's possible place of birth. There was a report that claimed it may have been in the Kushen Basin or in a village on Mount Hai'an called Buak. There were also orders to kill Zhi Zhu. In the library they found a number of manuals containing Mystic Sword Temple techniques. 

Lady Plum Blossom told Lingsu to copy the manuals and then she presented them with a letter she received from Bronze Master that had been issued to all the sect leaders. It was an invitation to a competition in Zun City on the first day of the Ghost Festival (in about two months). It stated that Lingsu, Long Shu and Min had found the Phoenix Crown and come into possession of the Wind Saber of Sunan. In the interest of the greater good, they had agreed to allow their ownership be settled during the competition, with the victor rightfully gaining both items. The party had agreed to none of this and had never publicly stated had either the crown or the sword. 

Lady Plum Blossom discussed their options and they considered making forgeries to present at the competition. Ultimately they settled on issuing a letter of their own to all the sects. The letter called for the establishment of a committee to form the rules of the competition. In their letter they nominated All the Orthodox Sect leaders, Lady Plum Blossom, Strange Phoenix, and the leaders of Majestic Lion and Zhe Valley. In addition they sent an anonymous letter to the Demon Moon Cult informing them that the competition was to take place and that a committee was to meet to determine the rules. 

The purpose of the letter was to take the rules crafting out of the hands of Bronze Master alone. It was also done to create conflict between the participants and to hopefully delay the event, which would give them more time to secure the safety of the Wind Saber. They decided to seek someplace safe to place the sword but first set out for Buak to learn what they could about the Calamity Star. 

When they went north they took the prophecy of the Calamity Star scroll with them to Mount Hai'an sect headquarters (which was on the way). They met with Jinghui, the leader of Mount Hai'an and presented the scroll to her. She was cold and a bit hostile. Though she never threatened to kill them, it was clear she deemed Purple Cavern an unorthodox sect worthy of death so the players left once they had passed her the prophecy. 

As they traveled through the mountain, Zhi Zhu checked to see if they were being followed and spotted four figured in black trailing them. Eventually they came parallel with the party and Zhi Zhu saw one of them change into the clothing of a Kushen Tribesmen. She eavesdropped and learned they were planning an ambush where the men in black would act as though they were attacking the Kushen and he would shout for help. 

Armed with this knowledge the party allowed the ambush to unfold. They found their opponents but up a mild fight, with one of them using a variant of Endless Arc of the Spear to wound the party with a green ring of Qi energy. Soon the party had the upper hand and dispatched their foes. Lingsu was able to determine that these were Yao, martial heroes who served the emperor and were completely loyal after having their hearts cut out and placed in a box. The Kushen said his name was Tartu and that the Yao had been after him because he knew where their lacquered heart boxes were kept. To be safe the party chopped off the heads and limbs of the Yao. Tartu said they would still come back and tried to secure their trust but knowing about the ambush they chose to interrogate him. 

Zhi Zhu pinned Tartu with Arms of Silk and they threatened to poison him if he didn't speak. Eventually he revealed that he was part of an ambush but only because the Emperor's grand councilor had taken his sister as a concubine and threatened to kill her. He also told them the Yao were planning a second attack that night and he was supposed to drug them beforehand. The party bound him, gagged him and took him as a prisoner. They then set out for Buak once more. 

This is where the session ended. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015


When I was learning guitar growing up my teacher used to tell me the hardest part about song writing and playing was choosing where to go when faced with different creative options. His point was a lot of people struggle not because they can't come up with anything but because they have too many ideas vying for control. They just have trouble discerning the best path and going forward. Guitar playing is a lot different than game mastering but I think the issue of choice is similar. 

When I run into trouble in a campaign or a session it is often a product of failing to make a concrete decision about a key event (did Lady Plum Blossom go to Mystic Sword Temple to wipe out the remaining disciples and if so how). I may even think I've made a choice but fail to make decisions about the details. This is is the worst case scenario because it creeps up on you and you have to spit out an answer when it comes up. 

Just decide. 

As a GM you are constantly making choices. A lot of this is before the game starts, during prep. But I think most of your choices actually arise in play as events unfold. Obviously you want to make the best decisions possible, and agonizing a little over choice can be a good thing, but I think sometimes you just need to pick something and move ahead. 

The biggest issue here is what I call the half-choice, where you leave the outcome of an event fuzzy in your mind, so it has a shape but no real definition. For example, if the players just stole the Wind Saber of Sunan from Lady White Blade, it would be very easy to decide that she reacts by sending people after them, but not follow up with any clear details (who does she send? Where? When?). You can wing this, just throwing a bunch of Mystic Sword Sect assassins at the party every so often so they feel the threat is real, but what happens when they take one of their attackers prisoner and demand answers? Granted the assassin may have a limited view of the big picture, but you should at least know what that view is. He at least knows when he was sent, who told him to go after the PCs and why. If you've only made a half choice on the matter then you have to make up those details as the players question the guy, and while that can work it can also lead to all sorts of contradictions. 

So what I find helpful is to simply make decisions about this kind of thing at the appropriate time, hopefully before I a situation arises where the PCs start asking questions. I'll just jot a note to myself during the game regarding Lady White Plans intentions, directives and actions. It is really helpful to have a campaign calendar here. I always keep one for my games, and while I don't always remember to make the best use of it, when I do it is one of the most helpful things for managing on-going events. This allows me to mark the day that something happens, pencil in a potential date for a certain event to take place (for instance if Lady White Blade sends someone to intercept the party in Chen, I can look at the map and estimate their travel time,then mark their arrival time on the calendar). 

Again, you can also improvise. Sometimes you have to improvise. You should improvise. But even during improvisation, you have to make choices and the point of making decisions for me is 1) consistency and 2) making player character decisions matter. If you make choices and stick with them, these root your NPCs and their actions in time and space just as the player characters themselves are rooted. Time becomes important to play. If the players decide to spend a day at the Silk Tavern, that decision could mean the bad guy gets away or that they arrive after the their Sifu has been dropped into a pit of venomous insects (not before or during). 

Making decisions, sticking to those decisions, is also a self imposed limitation on the GM that makes the world feel real. The GM can always cheat for a more dramatic result. While I am not saying the GM should avoid drama (I love when drama arises in play) or that he should always abstain from coincidences that keep things entertaining, I do think striving for believability is crucial to player-buy-in. And I feel like one important aspect of this suspension of disbelief is seeing that the outcomes the GM probably desires are not always occurring (sometimes NPCs make choices that work in the favor of the PCs and don't fuel challenge or drama). 

I want to be clear that I am not saying the aim should pure simulation of a world, where the players are reduced to dealing with everyday-life frustrations and annoyances rather than going on fabulous adventures. I am just saying it doesn't have to feel like Raiders of the Lost Ark all the time. That is a movie, meant to entertain viewers and not interactive like an RPG. I think in an RPG you need to make sure that player character choices matter and that the randomness of the dice matter. Not fudging and avoiding railroads is one part of this. A more subtle thing is the GMs role in managing the background details of NPC choices, reactions and events. The more concrete your choices the more solid the setting will feel. 


Sorry if we haven't been posting here as frequently lately but just going over the final version of the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate before sending it to the editor (it needs to be in by July 10th so I need to check for errors and make sure we didn't forget anything). After that things should move relatively quickly. 

We also started work on a new character sheet. The character sheet for Network games really hasn't changed in the last six years at all. Now is the right time to make some adjustments there. 

In the meantime I am re-organizing the layout of the blog. I consolidated all my wuxia reviews into one of the right hand panels (I may have missed some, but I think I got them all). I also put the logs for our Secret of Je Valley adventures in another panel, so people can see what a Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign might look like (note in the book we shifted the spelling from Je valley to Zhe Valley in case there is any confusion on that point). Feel free to let me know if you'd like to see any additional changes. 

I should have another wuxia review up soon. 

Monday, June 22, 2015


This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the Ninth full session of the current campaign (Session VIII 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)
Jia (Long Shu's snake demon wife)
Nuan (Xi Kang's disciple)

The party found their way into the forests of Dhamma and came to Kwam Metta, the village once under the protection of Iron Sky Maiden. As they approached they saw that the settlement was walled with a gate and that it appeared abandoned. From a distance they could see shapes of human figures inside but none seemed to move. Zhi Zhu climbed onto the rooftops of Kwam Metta and made her way toward the center of town where a great pagoda towered above the houses. On her way she saw that the shapes were people but they appeared frozen. The pagoda was about five stories tall and the wall of the upper floor was torn out, revealing a room. Zhi Zhu climbed the tower for a better view and saw a dead body on the floor being eaten by an enormous bird with a long neck and copper colored beak (a venomous Zhen bird). She also saw a contorted humanoid body clambering through the market area and gurgling before she returned to the party. 

Long Shu and Jia were able to guess that the people were likely Phoenix Ghosts, people whose phoenix and dragon spirits were separated through unnatural means, causing their bodies to freeze. Long Shu tested this idea by approaching one, which immediately animated and attacked him. He escaped and they decided to approach the pagoda from the eastern wall. The party had some difficulty climbing, with Long Shu and Zhi Zhu both falling before they made it over. Once inside they were careful to avoid the frozen bodies and went into the Pagoda. 

In the first floor they found a giant statue of Hen-Shi with thousands of smaller golden statues surrounding her. There were stairs going up and down, so they took the downward stairs first. 

They came to a room filled with bones and skeletal bodies. As soon as they walked toward another set of stairs heading down, they were attacked by eight skeletons. These proved little threat as they shattered them with one kung fu technique after another. 

The stairs eventually led them to a large underground room with a massive statue of Iron Sky Maiden. They felt a powerful tremor in their bodies and soon realized it was the voice of the Iron Sky Maiden speaking to them. "You may ask me one question, and only one question" she said. 

The party debated what to ask and settled on "What do you love most in the world" (they had been told that to get Iron Sky Maiden's favor they needed to bring her a gift of the thing she loved most). Her answer was "Kwam Metta". They debated what this meant and concluded it most likely indicated they should help restore the Phoenix Ghosts. 

They continued down and came to another chamber, this one with a fist-sized jade turtle statue with an amber glow in its center. Xi Kang took the turtle and they continued to the upper chamber of the pagoda. 

On the second story of the pagoda was a room filled with reliquaries. Here they were confronted by the rotting corpses of Dancing Hawk and Madame Hamaya. Zhi Zhu attempted Arms of Silk but both figures passed effortless through the fabric once ensured  Dancing Hawk attacked but his fluttering kicks were easily deflected. Madame Hamaya unleashed her own Arms of Silk technique against Long Shu and Zhi Zhu (ensnaring Long Shu). Once again the party proved victorious, and Madame Hamay proved to be the bigger challenge. 

On the third floor of the pagoda they came to a room with numerous wall scrolls featuring a number of different landscapes (The Tomb of the Timeless Master, Zun Valley, etc). A number of shadowy figures emerged from the air, Rong was able to discern that these figures resembled the party members. A fight between them began and it proved somewhat futile for both sides as they were able to attack and counter each other's moves fairly easily. Rong took a chance and lashed one of the wall scrolls, which causes a foe to evaporate. The party quickly destroyed all the wall scrolls, eliminating the remaining threats. 

On the fourth floor, the party came to an empty chamber with the word DESTINY written in Feishu script on the floor. They then saw three phantom figures at the back of the room. The central one looked like a Eunuch, while the two on either side appeared to be black armored guards. One of the flanking figures leapt forward and lashed out with a spinning spear attack that unleashed a circular blast of energy. In the end they were able to stop the threat by killing the eunuch. 

Upon the fifth floor they came upon the Zhen bird and Zhi Zhu used Arms of Silk so the party could take the body. Searching it they found a dragon-phoenix seal. They also saw writing on the written by a disciple of the village's successor to Iron Sky Maiden, 7th Brother. According to the text, the village was under attack from invaders and 7th Brother had placed the spirits of the residents into a Jade Turtle (the one the party possessed) but was turned into a demon before he could finish the rite. It said he had to be restored so he could complete the ritual. 

The party left the Pagoda and went into the street, where they were attacked by a luminous figure with bird-like features (7th Brother). Seventh Brother was enraged by the party's intrusion and their questioning infuriated him further. He immediately attacked unleashing a blast of energy that caused Long Shu's body to evaporate. 

This drove Xi Kang into a rage who attacked the demon. With the aid of Rong and Zhi Zhu he managed to chase it down the road and destroy it (at least temporarily). While the rest of the party comforted Jia, Kang went back to the chamber of the Iron Sky Maiden and demanded answers. 

Meanwhile Long Shu awakened in the road, in daylight (it was night when he evaporated), finding it filled with people going about their business. Walking back to the pagoda he found the body of 7th Brother laid on a mat and in a deep sleep. There were people praying nearby and they informed him that Mengwai (the disciple of 7th brother) was responsible and being held on the edge of town. Long Shu went and found Mengwei in a cage, protected by a man named Kraeting. He convinced Kraeting to release Mengwei who said he knew how to help 7th Brother. 

Speaking with Iron Sky Maiden, Kang explained the situation. He had a long conversation with Iron Sky Maiden (which she informed him would require her to take five months of rest) and learned that if he placed the statue of the turtle into the body of 7th Brother, he would restore and be able to finish the ritual. She told him though they had destroyed the body of 7th Brother he would return within the hour. 

Long Shu, who was inside the Jade Turtle, went to the Pagoda with Mengwei, where the disciple began to chant. 

As they did this, Kang returned to the party and they awaited 7th Brother's return. When he appeared, he was much larger than before and descended upon them from the sky. Kang threw the Jade Turtle and when it made contact there was a flash of light. 7th Brother's body was sucked into the turtle and the Phoenix Spirits of the residents were also pulled into it. When it was complete, Long Shu re-appeared beside them. 

They stayed the night in the village, in the former residence of 7th Brother. There Rong found a book The Pillars of the Sky (which was related to Iron Sky Maiden) and took it for the road. 

They continued back to Purple Cavern Sect, having some minor excursions on the way. When they reached the sect headquarters they learned that Lady Plum Blossom had taken most of the disciples to attack Mystic Sword Temple the day before. 

This is where the session ended. 

Saturday, June 20, 2015


Dancing Hawk is an NPC in my Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign who developed a grudge with the party after they killed Madame Hamaya and had several confrontations with them. He fought them on three occasions, and each time he managed to roll 1s on his attack rolls and never actually struck any of the player characters. By their third encounter the party had tired of his quest for vengeance so they killed him. 

Looking at his stat block above, you can see he isn't a stellar martial hero but he isn't terrible either (and in the campaign his Qi rank actually went up to 3 or 4 by the last battle). Still he always had an air of Don Knotts about him. 

This past session, he came back in the form of a phantom and fought the PCs one last time. He attacked the party once each round, and rolled 1s both times, then the characters destroyed him in a hail of daggers. 

This is a character fated to failure. In over twenty years of GMing, I have never seen an NPC fail so badly and with such consistency. 


Here is a transcript of the Q&A session for Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate: 


Thursday, June 18, 2015


Just posting our initial Character Sheet so people can see how characters work in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate (this is a tentative Character Sheet for now): 

Wednesday, June 17, 2015


Ravenloft had a huge impact on me and how I game. It was the first setting I truly GM'd and it was the only setting that I ran through my high school years. Something about it just clicked. When the black box set came out, I immediately bought it without hesitation and also picked up Feast of Goblyns (the first official module for the new line--there had been two Ravenloft modules prior to this but this was the first official setting module for the new boxed set). In the past I would pick up a setting, skim it over, then not have any real interest or desire in running it (I might want to be a player in the setting, but no wish to GM). I found myself engrossed in the material that weekend. I simply couldn't stop reading it and when I finished I re-read everything again (both the boxed set and module). I was hooked pretty much right away. 

This blog post go me thinking about why Ravenloft worked for me as a setting. In it the author expresses his ambivalence about the demi-plane of dread and talks about how the cliche-nature of many of the domain lords (and the overall static nature of domains) just didn't work for him. I think a lot of people feel that way, and I can see how some people might not enjoy it. I also have spoken to people who really liked the promise of Gothic Horror but feel it failed to deliver. This is fine. People should have different tastes and it isn't a bad thing that some folks like something while other folks don't. I do think those reactions are fair but my feelings about the lands of mists are different and I want to explain why I think it worked for me. 

I think the criticism about cliches is basically true. The setting draws pretty deliberately on Horror cliches and in particular cliches from classic hammer and universal movies. The criticism that it isn't gothic in the tradition of gothic literature seems sound to me too. I read quite a bit of gothic literature in high school when I first got into Ravenloft but I am hardly an expert on the subject. Still it does seem more inspired by the classic horror movies I watched growing up than the works of people like Sheridan Le Fanu (I do think novels like Dracula and Frankenstein had a big impact on Ravenloft though).

For me both of these things work just fine. While I am sure a setting based heavily on gothic literature could be great, I think what I really wanted when I first opened up the original black boxed set in 1990 was a setting that felt like the old horror films I watched with my uncle as a kid. For me it hit that tone really well, and it had a strong Hammer Film vibe that worked too. I always pictured Ravenloft in black and white (like the gorgeous Stephen Fabian art that accompanied the early books). That look and feel pulled me in. 

While people like to dismiss cliches, in gaming I don't necessarily think of them as bad. The original lords of Ravenloft were largely based on well known fictional and historical villains like Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, Caligula, Vlad Tepes, etc. I think these characters appealed to me because they were familiar, which made them instantly easy to run. You wrapped your head around the character very quickly and so did the players. But there were also less familiar and very colorful domain lords who were either new concepts or based on more obscure villains like Harkon Lukas (my favorite) and Baron Urik Von Kharkov (who started life as a panther before being polymorphed into a man and then becoming a vampire). 

Another major complaint you hear is that werewolves and vampires are not scary because people know what to expect, they've seen them again and again. While I think this can be true, Ravenloft devised a creative response to this problem. 

I always ran Ravenloft as a full campaign, for me that just worked better than the weekend in hell concept. I had been doing that since the first boxed set, when the material was primarily organized for small excursions from other campaign settings. I learned that the best way to run Ravenloft is to downplay the dark lords and focus on things at the ground level (Flesh Golems, Werewolves, etc). There really isn't a need to have the party face the dark lords when the dark powers themselves allow you to customize each villain they face. 

This is the heart of Ravenloft for me and why it worked so well. A major conceit of the setting is that the dark powers can alter people who perform evil deeds. This allows you to shape each villain to your liking. You can customize his or her powers, appearance, nature, etc. A villain might even approach the powers of a Dark Lord, controlling a small area within a domain (a haunted house, a river, etc). With the release of the Van Richten books this concept expanded to all monsters and threats (there was some treatment of it in the black boxed set but the Van Richten books crystalized the idea). 

In the Van Richten books you get both the tools and the explanations and examples of how to customize each monster. The idea here being that few werewolves or vampires in Ravenloft are uniform. Every monster will have its own weaknesses and strengths (and their power levels will vary considerably depending on things like age). This is how you get around the issue of the vampire being old hat and in my experience it genuinely works. When silver is useless against a werewolf, suddenly it becomes scary again as the players struggle to find its weakness before it tears them apart. It also naturally leads to what I think was the best adventure structure for Ravenloft: The Monster Hunt and Investigation. 

One of the reasons I was able to sustain long term Ravenloft campaigns (at least in my view) was because I focused almost exclusively on adventures that were about hunting monsters and employed investigative structure. This makes sense when the premise is each monster is different and its weakness needs to be discovered before it can properly be confronted (and this concept is pretty explicitly stated in most of the Van Richten Books). 

For me at least this is what worked. 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015


The Book of the Archon is our latest Pay-What-You-Want release (with a suggested price of $0.00). It is basically a whole new spell book for Sertorius and I want to talk a bit about what people can expect from it. 

First this is a completely new list of spells. There is as much magic in here as there was in the core game and you can use this to compliment those or as a replacement for them (up to you). 

Each book of the Archon will have a theme or tone for the new spells. For book of the Archon I we tried to go as over-the-top as we could, and make magic that was more awe-inspiring and flavorful than the we have in the core rules. In our core game we wanted something much more balanced because this was our initial release of the game and the core system. With Book of the Archon we allowed ourselves to experiment more and leaned on the random spell acquisition method for the balancing factor (you don't have to use the random method for Book of the Archon but we recommend it in this case because there are differences in power level from spell to spell). 

(Column III is All category so repeated)
We deliberately designed some spells to be more potent than others, giving every spell an unofficial ranking of 1-10. We knew going in how may 10s we wanted and how many 1s we wanted. The point was to open up more possibilities by allowing for lower power spells that do interesting an flavorful things and for truly epic spells. To balance this out we focused more on the Random Spell Table during character creation. 

The end result really worked in our own campaign. The general consensus was these were by and large more entertaining and exciting than the spells in the core game. 

I think this was partly due to the approach we took (where we allowed randomness to smooth out the balance). But it was also a product of being more comfortable with the system and understanding arrived at from regular play (I think when we started Book of the Archon we had been playing with the original spells for two years and we had a full year after that to play with the new spells). 

My personal feeling is the spells are just a lot more flavorful. One of my personal favorites is the Pestilent Smile of Tiresias, which can cause a lethal plague of joy. I also like spells like Awakened Death (just a solid undead producing spell). Aperture of Po was another one that people really liked. 

It is a free product so there are fewer bells and whistles than the core book. However we still tried hard to make it look nice and to make sure the content was solid. People who want to contribute to the line in some way can pay if they choose but we recommend $0.00 for the price. Incidentally if you do decide to pay more than zero and are unhappy with the product, send me an email at and I will give you two free PDFs of your choice. 

We are going to do something similar with Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. However Ogre Gate is being funded more like the core game and going to have a lot more art (it will also be released as a print book). 

If you are interested in checking it out, you can find Book of the Archon here: BOOK OF THE ARCHON: THE SCROLLS OF NICODEMUS

Monday, June 15, 2015


Happy to announce the release of the first Book of the Archon. This pay-what-you-want PDF provides players and game masters with a completely new book of spells for Sertorius. Each book is going to approach magic in a slightly different way and the consensus at our game table was the new spells exceed the promise of the original ones in the core rules. 

Book of the Archon brings a complete collection of awe-inspiring magic to the Sertorius setting.

This is the first in a series of optional spell books that can be used on their own or combined with the spells in the original rules. Each Book of the Archon enriches play with a different take on Sertori magic. The Scrolls of Nicodemus introduces more insane power levels and unexpected flavors.

It includes a full book of spells that vary considerably in potency, new Thauma, new Objects of Power and a new monster.

Available HERE

Sunday, June 14, 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.

Zu: Warriors From Magic the Mountain is a classic directed by Tsui Hark, one that brought newly developed special effects techniques to martial arts cinema to create a film brimming with action and magic. Starring Adam Cheng (Ting Yin), Yuen Biao (Ti Ming Qi), Brigitte Lin (Ice Queen), Sammo Hung (Long Brows), Damien Lau (Hsiao-Yu), Yi Chen (Mang Hoi) and Moon Lee (Ice Queen's Guard) and Judy Ongg (Li I-Chi) it was released in 1983.

Tsui Hark is often compared to directors like Spielberg and while the similarities are especially evident in Zu, Hark is no mere Spielberg imitator, he brings his own vision to the screen and radically reshaped the wuxia genre in the 80s and 90s. In my view, his talent continues with recent works, particularly the Detective Dee films. Tsui Hark doesn't just show you a movie, he brings you to enchanted worlds. Even when his movies feature little to no magic, the environments he creates are rich with texture and characters. Zu offers this in abundance, cocooning the viewer in its mythic landscape and dazzling effects. 

Ti Ming Qi and Mang Hoi under watch of
The Ice Queen's Guards
Set in 5th century China the movie begins against the backdrop of civil war. The protagonist, Ti Ming Qi, is a scout in the blue army (this is a color-coded war between reds and blues). While trying to report to his two commanders and follow their orders, he stumbles when they debate attacking by water or land. Caught in the middle, he can satisfy neither (and when he tries to compromise both see his act as insubordination). This forces him to flee where he meets and  befriends a red soldier played by Sammo Hung (who has more than one role in the movie). Neither soldier wants to fight but both are caught in the middle of the ongoing civil war. When their armies catch up with them, they pretend to fight one another and Ti Ming Qi eventually falls off a cliff and finds a passageway into Zu Mountain where the heart of the movie is set. 

Ting and the Ice Queen falling in love
In Zu Ti Ming Qi attaches himself to an immortal named Ting, and wants desperately to be his disciple (he refuses multiple times). The arrival of a Blood Demon threatens the entire world but is contained when they are joined by the immortal Long Brows who uses his Sky Mirror to temporarily imprison the entity. However the mirror's powers will diminish when an impending eclipse comes so Long Brows asks Ting and Ti Ming Qi to retrieve the Twin Swords and bring them back to destroy the blood demon. One of their companions, an abbot named Hsiao-Yu, is poisoned by the blood demon's attack and will himself become a replica of its evil, so they first must go to Fort Flame where he can be healed by the Ice Queen*. 

A misunderstanding leads to a battle with the Ice Queen and her forces. Here Ti Ming Qi is transformed when Ting tries heals him after the fight by unifying his veins. Ting then manages to smooth things over with the Ice Queen and secures her assistance. Later, while helping her heal Hsiao-Yu, Ting and the Ice Queen fall in love and he promises to return after they deal with the demon. Ti Ming Qi spends his time with Mang Hoi (Hsiao-Yu's disciple) under watch of the Ice Queen's guards. When the healing is complete they depart. On the road Ting gives his one of his swords to Ti Ming Qi but he is struck by the blood demon's energy when the sword is drawn and becomes infected in the same manner as Hsiao-Yu. Fearing he will turn into a demon, Ting makes Ti Ming Qi his disciple. They return to Fort Flame but the Ice Queen is too weak from her previous healing to cure him and Ting turns into a Demon. She tries to imprison him by sealing her fortress in ice, but he he breaks free, becoming a key villain in the movie. Ti Ming Qi and Mang Hoi only just manage to escape with their own lives with the help of one of the Queen's guards (played by Moon Lee). 
The Ice Queen/Countess

They go to Heaven's Blade Peak where the Twin Swords are guarded by their protector Li I-Chi. However when they arrive they discover a gate to a great evil (presumably the source of the Blood Demon) protected by an immortal named Heaven's Blade. There Hang Moi and Ti Ming Qi are sucked into the evil void when Ting arrives and tries to enter the evil realm. With the help of Heaven's Blade they are  expunged and finally reach Li I-Ching. She transfers the Twin Blades to them, making the heroes of the swords, telling them the swords are most powerful when their minds work as one.

Flying through the air they battle with Ting, who is destroyed when Ice Queen appears and chooses to sacrifice herself, joining him so they are both annihilated. Ti Ming Qi and Mang Hoi unify their minds and destroy the Blood Demon. 

Plunged into Zu
There are a lot of exceptional scenes in Zu, particularly those enhanced by the special effects. But one of the best in my opinion uses no make-up, editing or tricks of the camera. It is purely an exchange of dialogue at the start of the film when Ti Ming Qi must deal with his disputing commanders. I love this because its rapid-fire wit and because it quickly establishes the theme of duality and internal struggle that plays again and again over the course of the film. There is the civil war itself, the feuding generals on the same side and later in Zu we learn of a much greater conflict between the forces of good and evil, yet here again both these forces are split by internal strife. The movie really sticks to this one simple idea, which is present at just about every point and reflected in just about every relationship established. 

Heaven's Blade
Of course, the special effects are what the movie is known for and with good reason. Though dated by today's standards, Zu's special effects at the time were incredible, particularly for the wuxia genre. Tsui Hark recruited Hollywood special effects specialists Tama Takanashi (Blade Runner), Chris Casady (Star Wars) and Robert Blalack (Star Wars). This not only brought recent effects innovations to Zu, it helped lay the groundwork in Hong Kong for effects in future films. The end result really works well and despite being made in 1983 still holds up. The effects blending with the wirework is particularly exceptional. 

A lot of people complain that Zu is confusing because it zips through so much story in under 100 minutes (the more recent The Legend of Zu receives similar criticism). Hark plunges the viewer into a world filled with enigmatic characters and doesn't take a lot of time to explain the backstory or underlying foundations. While I am sure it was far less confusing to audiences in Hong Kong, who would have been more familiar with the novels of Huanzhu Louzhu on which the film is based, a lot of American viewers had some trouble following all the details of the story. I think as confusing as it can be at first, it works. We are meant to see things from the viewpoint of the main protagonist, who is a mere human who suddenly finds himself in a world of immortal beings and magic places. It is the kind of movie where it is best enjoyed if you just accept things as they come. When the Ice Queen steps on the stage, you accept that she is the Ice Queen, can heal and heeds the flame of fate. You know there is greater depth to this, but you don't need to see the details to understand it rests on larger structure. The story itself is simple enough that the viewer need not grasp every little element for it to work (we don't need to know why the Sky Mirror contains the demon, it does and that is enough for us to move forward). 

An example of the environment Hark creates
The rapid movement of the film is also one of its great strengths. It moves in the way Raiders of the Lost Ark moved. From beginning to end there isn't a dull moment. It stars with a scout fleeing from his allies, progresses into a great melee in the forest and then works its way into the temples and hidden passages of Zu where the hero immediately confronts demonic forces and immortal beings. This can be confusing but it is also exhilarating.  

Like a lot of films in the genre (particularly in the 80s and 90s) this one has plenty of comedy. Initially the comedy is heavier at the start of the movie, but it recedes as the story begins to take center stage. In the hands of performers like Sammo Hung, the comedy works well and helps you drop your guard a bit. 

The characters and action are so colorful
it is easy to miss the beautiful sets
For gaming there is so much to take inspiration from. From start to finish, any GM should find inspiration for dungeons, backstories, NPCs, monsters and more. This is the kind of movie where you see things on the screen and instantly see how they would fit into an adventure. 

Definitely recommend this for anyone who likes fantasy films or martial arts movies. strongly recommend it for gamers. If you like it, you might also want to check out The Legend of Zu, which was released in 2001. Should I have time I will do a post on that and talk about the two different versions available.   

*Note these names and places vary a lot depending on the version you watch. 

Friday, June 12, 2015


When I run Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, I give the players freedom to move around as they wish, trying to keep things open. I also pay attention to my NPCs and to the different organizations like Martial Sects, who react to things the players do. Between sessions this is fairly easy to track and think about, but during play, keeping dibs on NPCs as they move around and react to what the PCs do can be tricky because your focused on so many things at once. Here is an approach I've drawn upon to help manage that task. 

It is pretty straight forward. Basically I print a copy of the setting map, in this case my rough sketch of the Banyan Region (we should have an official hex map in the next few months). Then I use tokens to represent major NPCs who are currently working with or against the party (or who may just be involved peripherally). Right now I like d6s because I can rotate them to indicate how many people are in their group if they have followers or hired thugs (if I need bigger number I can always use d20s or d100s). Then I put a little post-it flag on the dice so I know which individual or group they each represent. 

When the session begins I place the dice on the map based on where the NPCs or groups are at that time. As the session progresses and players do different things, I may move them around while they react to what the party is doing or work to take action against them. For example if the party is heading north to find out about the Phoenix Crown from Heiping Sect and they are in the southern city of Chen, I may move Dancing Hawk toward the Redi Pass where he intends to ambush them because he has a grudge (provided he has word of their movement). I might also move Little Venom (who is working to find the crown for The Mystic Sword Sect) to Zun City because she intends to infiltrate the party and thinks they will be passing through that area. 

I find this is helpful for a few reasons. First it allows me to plausibly chart the movement of the NPCs. For me this helps with fairness, because I am not magically allowing them to catch up to the players if it isn't feasible for them to do so. It also gives me a better sense of the setting as a GM because I am physically moving my NPCs around. Second having the key players on the board in front of me, but away from my notes, helps remind me to bring them into play when they are relevant. It is easy to forget about this sort of thing, but when you have the tokens in front of you, you are more likely to remember these details. Third it helps me keep track of where everyone is. This is useful because it can swing the other way around. Player Characters might want to track down Dancing Hawk or Little Venom for their own reasons. When I know where the important people are, that is easier to respond to. This also makes it easier for me to get in the head of my NPCs and see what options are available to them. 


Just wanted to do a short post on how we handle martial arts styles in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate so people know what to expect. 

Obviously there are a lot of ways to handle martial arts styles in an RPG. We opted to keep this simple. Early on Bill and I wanted to avoid things like Technique Trees. This was simply a matter of preference. Those approaches are perfectly fine and plenty of people enjoy them, but they have never been our cup of tea. Also I wanted to have the flexibility to emulate any wuxia movie or book I desired. So our approach was basically to not create a mechanic for styles. Rather we have a massive list of Techniques, many of which we designed in clusters knowing they would reflect a style in the setting. So you might have an Eagle Claw master who has a bunch of techniques that involve Claws, Leaping and other unarmed attacks or defenses. The style is put together by having him take the relevant Techniques. 

Where the styles are most visible in the rulebook are the sects. Each sect has a listing of all its major techniques. These are freely available to members of the sects. So if a player character is part of the Zhaoze Sect he can expect to have access to many pressure point techniques and palm attacks (as well as a range of unique techniques made famous by the sect leader). 

In terms of technique growth, we opted, in most cases, for automatic scaling as the character increases in Qi rank, rather than having trees where a character is eligible for a more advanced version of an existing technique when they meet requirements. So some techniques do more damage as your Qi level goes up, or have different effects depending on the relative difference in Qi levels between attacker and target. 

Of course, one thing I've realized throughout this process is players and GMs often have very specific preferences around martial arts styles and techniques in RPGs. The martial arts system in Ogre Gate is what worked for our group and play testers through development. It might not be for everyone. This is one of the reasons we are releasing the Kung Fu Technique chapter into the public domain and encouraging people to create not just new techniques but new approaches to the technique system in the game. We may also release our own (just as we will be releasing alternative spell systems and spell books for Sertorius).