Sunday, August 30, 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. Specifically I discuss characters who die in the Five Venoms. If you don't want to know who lives or dies, do not read this review until after you've seen the film. 

The Five Deadly Venoms
Directed by Chang Cheh and released by Shaw Brothers in 1978, The Five Deadly Venoms is a cult classic that has had an enormous influence on pop culture. Its effect can be seen in rap lyrics, movies and video games. It is more than a cult classic, The Five Deadly Venoms is an iconic martial arts film that is deservedly held in high regard by a wide ranging audience. 

Despite its later reputation, The Five Deadly Venoms was not a huge financial success when it came out, which is why there was never a direct sequel. Many of the actors appear together in films before and after, often with Chang Cheh at the helm, and these are sometimes labeled "Venom Films" but they were not sequels or prequels, they were just a stable of actors who worked well together and the director liked. In places like the US these movies were sometimes marketed as sequels because of its international popularity. For example The Crippled Avengers was titled The Return of the 5 Deadly Venoms in North America. The actors are sometimes called the Venom Mob, a term that isn't that different from the Rat Pack. 

The film stars Lo Meng (Toad Venom), Kuo Chui (Lizard Venom), Wei Pak (Snake Venom),  Sun Chien (Scorpion Venom), Lu Feng (Centipede Venom) and Chiang Sheng (Yang De). While the characters all have additional names and assumed identities in the movie, to avoid confusion, I refer to them soley by their Venom Sect names. 

Brief Overview
The movie opens at the Venom House, where the Master of the Venom Sect is dying and being treated by his last student, Yang De*. He tells De that there used to be five other students who each trained in a style based on a particular venom (Centipede, Lizard, Snake, Toad and Scorpion). That they went forth into the martial world and started using the house's Kung Fu to bring harm ruining their sect's reputation. Before he dies, he asks De to eliminate the senior students who continue on an evil path and to recover one of their treasures. Because the Venom House is so poorly regarded all five of the former students have assumed new identities and are in hiding.  De has learned a small portion of each of the five styles but is told by the master that he is no match for their skills. He will have to learn from one of them if he is to succeed. 

This sets the stage for a story of brotherhood, intrigue and murder. De plays the fool to uncover his senior brother's identities. Three of the brothers, Scorpion, Snake and Centipede, conspire to take steal the treasure, and commit murder to learn its location. Toad and Lizard abide by their master's teaching, with the latter living as a local law enforcement official. After Centipede and Scorpion kill Bookeeper Yuen in an effort to learn the treasure's location, Lizard leads the investigation and arrests centipede with the help of Toad. This is where the intrigue begins as Snake, who is wealthy and influential, bribes local officials to reverse the court's verdict and have Toad arrested instead. 

In the wake of Toad's execution, De teams up with Lizard and the two train together. Centipede and Snake eliminate anyone who can trace the real murder back to them. Their methods are nasty but effective. Snake Expresses regret to Scorpion (who wears a mask so the viewer is uncertain of his identity), and asks when they can stop killing. Scorpion tells him they can never stop killing.  
Toad Experiences the Coat of 1,000 Needles

De and Lizard devise strategies for dealing with each of the Venom's unique styes. Lizard utilizes lightness Kung Fu to leap high and walk on walls, so most of their tactics center on positioning. When they are ready they go to Snake's estate to confront him and are joined by Lizard's former superior. De, snake, centipede and lizard battle it out, with the former superior hanging out in the background. Just as things turn in the hero's favor, the superior reveals himself to be Scorpion by poising Snake with his barbs. Centipede and Scorpion then team up against De and Lizard. They eventually kill Centipede and are helped by a dying and remorseful Snake dispatching the Scorpion. 

The film ends with the pair finding the map to the treasure on Scorpion's body and vowing to give it to charity. 

Great Story and Characters
There is not as much action as one might expect in the Five Deadly Venoms. That isn't to say it is action light, just that it has a story to tell and devotes ample time toward that end. However this isn't something that one really notices while watching because the story itself is so captivating and the characters really draw you in. And the action, when it does break out, is diverse and engaging. 
The Lightness Kung Fu of Lizard

Because each venom has a unique style, it makes every fight unique. Toad is a strongman who is largely impervious to weapons, while Snake relies on sharp hand strikes and scorpion is a master at kicking. Centipede attacks with a flurry of limbs while Lizard and De have much more acrobatic modes of attack. This make the fight between Centipede and Toad very different from the one featuring Toad and Snake, for example. 

One thing I really like about the action sequences are the acrobatics, particularly in the final fight. Chiang Sheng, who plays De, and Kuo Chui, who plays Lizard, have solid backgrounds in these sorts of stunts and it shows on screen. 

Lo Meng as Toad has the right physique for the role. When swords bounce off arms and chest, you believe it because he is so imposing. And he brings a great deal of charm to the character, a sort of simple but likable hero. At the start of the film the Toad is frustrated because he can't use his Kung Fu while concealing his identity. When fighting breaks out, he is clearly in his element. 
Toad and Snake Square off in Court

According to Stephen Teo, The Five Deadly Venoms is an example of the yang gang hero movie, a more masculine and tough character that came to dominate martial arts films in the 1970s. Like many of his films, The Five Deadly Venoms features very few women. Chang Cheh was known for featuring male heroes and avoiding female heroic leads or support. In my review of Golden Swallow I mentioned that he gave Chen Pei-Pei a more diminished role in the Come Drink With Me Sequel and this created tension between the two. His films are definitely very male focused, and they sort of chart with the decline of female leads over the decade. Personally I think wuxia is a genre that really benefits from giving both men and women prominent roles; it enhances the action and choreography in my view. And this is something people do occasionally criticize Chang for. 

However one cannot deny Chang Cheh's talent. He may have had a preference for male leads and not as interested in female fight sequences, but he made good use of the format that appealed to him. His film One-Armed Swordsman is a masterpiece, and the Five Deadly Venoms is a cult classic with a rich story and captivating characters. 

Chang Cheh takes violence and bloodshed to artistic heights in his movies. The climactic scene in Golden Swallow is so excessive in its brutality that it nearly crosses the line into the ridiculous, but Chang Cheh manages to walk that line and make it powerful, almost religious. By the same token, Five Venoms is a violent movie, particularly in the second half. But it isn't violence without a purpose, it is in service to the story. Characters are tortured, their ears are stabbed out, and they get skewered in Iron Maiden-like devices. In one of the more horrifying scenes, The Toad is executed by having wet pieces of fabric or paper placed over his mouth until he suffocates. It is uncomfortable to watch, especially since he is one of the more likable Venoms. However all this violence helps demonstrate the  corruption of the setting and helps invest us in the heroes for the final battle. When the end finally comes, the viewer despises the Scorpion and the Centipede (and to a lesser extent The Snake). Chang Cheh tells gripping stories written in blood. 
Centipede and Toad battle it
out in the streets

In terms of gaming, there is a lot to inspire in The Five Deadly Venoms. The initial set-up alone would be the great basis for an adventure or even a campaign: where a party has to find their former brother who have gone into hiding and taken on new identities. There is also a murder mystery, buried treasure, a corrupt court and a stable of villains. 

One thing that the movie would suggest to a GM is how to conduct a mystery with characters coming at it from potentially different angles. Basically you have three sets of characters initially who drawn into the mystery in different ways and for different reasons. The players don't necessarily have to be the "investigators" in such a scenario. It is also a perfect Situational Scenario

The Five Deadly Venoms is a well told story, with stark characters and well creatively executed action sequences. Its influence has been colossal, and this isn't an accident in my view. I strongly recommend it to anyone, not just martial arts fans. I also think it is good viewing for Gamemasters. 

*I've also seen this as Yang Tieh and Yang Da. 

Saturday, August 29, 2015


When I work on a project I like to listen to music that matches the atmosphere I am aiming for. Previously I posted my personal soundtrack for working  Sertorius. When I do this, I am not worried about it matching in terms of culture or lyrics (I'll listen to a blues song while working on an Arabian Nights adventure for example if gets me to the right place). So a lot of the music on that list was pretty diverse. I found myself listening to some of the same music while working on Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, but overall my listening habits are different for this project. This is my current music list. In cases where the entry is odd or not widely known I will offer a small explanation or link. I usually begin with the artists name but in some cases I do not know who the artist is, so I begin with song titles. 

I like heavy stuff and dramatic music, but I am also a sucker for nice melodic lines. Generally I try to stay as open-minded as possible when looking for inspirational music on a project. I don't want to exempt things because simply because they are a modern style or belong to a genre not always associated with the theme of the game I am working on. My main purpose is to help keep my ideas fresh, lift my mood while I think and to get ideas. So while a Dio Song like Don't Talk to Strangers might inspire interesting ideas like the Starlit Inkstone, a song like Opening the Vastness, which I don't understand the lyrics to, just helped me visualize the setting and characters. 

Take some of these artist and title names with a grain of salt. Some of these are songs from shows I like and while it was easy to find the songs, I was not always 100% certain of the artist or writer (or even the song title itself). 

A.R. Rahman: Warriors of Heaven and Earth Soundtrack (album)

Arkona: Ot Serdtsa k Nebu (Album)

Arkona: Goi, Rode, Goi! (Album)

Bella Yao/Yao Beina: Bodhisattva  (Theme Song from Empresses in the Palace/The Legend of Zhen Huan)
Unfortunately Bella Yao died of breast cancer earlier this year, but this song is one of the most haunting vocal melodies I've ever heard. Very evocative. You can listen to it HERE

Carabao: Drunken Uncle (Song)
This is a Thai Rock band. This is well outside what one might expect for the mood of wuxia, but the twin guitar melody on this one really works for me picturing aspects of the setting. It has a certain emotional weight to it. You can listen to the song HERE

Da Endorphine: Night Blooming Jasmine (Song)
Da Endorphine is another Thai artist. She has a powerful voice and can manage a wide range of styles. This song is a sort of minor ballad that fits the mood in the same was as Tianxia Wushang (see Return of Condor Heroes Soundtrack below). You can listen HERE

Da Endorphine: The Last Request (Song)
This is my favorite Da Endorphine song. Lots of energy and power. Great voice on display here. This song sold me on her as an artist. You can listen HERE

Dio: Holy Diver (Album)

Dio: Last in Line(Album)

Ennio Morricone: The Ecstacy of Gold
To me this song perfectly captures the spirit of wuxia even though it was made for a western. 

Frankie Chan and Roel Garcia: Ashes of Time Soundtrack (Album, redux version with Yo-Yo Ma)
Gao Sheng Mei

Gao Sheng Mei: Double Album 
I do not know the name of this album, I picked it up ages ago in China Town and the title isn't in English. No internet search has been able to help me find the name. But a great album. 

Iced Earth: Burnt Offerings (Album)
I like Iced Earth's range. They are not afraid to be melodic or heavy. They do ballads, but don't phone them in. The rhythm guitar is always awesome. Burnt Offerings is really dark and proved inspiring for a lot of the more sorcerous elements of Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. 

Immortals and Mortals in Love (Seven of the Sky Soundtrack)

Iron Maiden: Seventh Son of a Seventh Son (Album)

Iron Maiden: The Final Frontier

Iron Maiden: A Matter of Life and Death

Jan Zhang: Painted Heart (Song)

Tan Dun: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon Soundtrack (Album)
I really like Tan Dun. For me he is up there with Ennio Morricone. This album works well for any setting. 
Tengger Cavalry

Tan Dun: Hero (Soundtrack Album)

Tengger Cavalry: Ancient Call (Album) 
This is a Mongolian Folk Metal Band and I find their rhythms and melodies really helped inspire me for the Kushen Basin region. It is a nice blend of traditional and heavy. 

Tengger Cavalry: The Expedition (Album)
This was the Tengger Cavalry Album I listened to most while working on Ogre Gate. It just hit the right mood for me. The song "Khan" is especially good and reminiscent of Ecstasy go Gold. 

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (opening theme song)
No idea what the name of this song is or who wrote it, but it works for me for wuxia. You can listen to the song HERE

Mozart: Requiem in D Minor

Peng Qing: I Can Only Love You (Song)
This is a bit of a love song, but that is a common theme in Wuxia. I quite like this one. It wasn't the main theme, but they played it a lot in the 2008 Legend of Condor Heroes. You can listen to the song HERE
Sa Dingding

Raymond Lam and Eva Huang: Promise (Song)

Ronald Cheng: Lonesome Hero (Song)

Sa Dingding: Harmony (Album)
Sa Dingding is an interesting musician. Her songs are traditional in sound but also experimental with electronic and synth. They can also be a bit unusual at times. This album is a bit difficult to describe, but it is definitely atmospheric. 

Stephanie Sun: Hua Mulan (Song)

Taro Iwashiro: Red Cliff Soundtrack (Album)

Xiaochong and other artists: Return of Condors Heroes Soundtrack
A very good soundtrack in my opinion. In particular the song, Tianxia Wushang performed by Jane Zhang, is highly recommended here. You can listen HERE

Zhang Jie: Opening the Vastness (Song)
You can listen HERE

Friday, August 28, 2015


This campaign is set ten years after a previous set of adventures (HERE). This is the Thirteenth session of the current campaign (Session XII can be found HERE). It was an interim session conducted online. This adventure was very much inspired by the three Dragon Gate films (Dragon Gate Inn, New Dragon Gate Inn, and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn). 

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 were on their way north to the Ogre Gate Inn. They went back to Huisheng to inspect the Yue residence where they subdued Yue Yen and Yue Ru, then found evidence that the Blood Elixir was planted by the emperor (they found a prophecy encouraging them to bring Water Lily to Ogre Gate Inn so she could take the Blood Elixir). Yen and Ru were the children of Yue Guang, who was the person who planted the elixir in the first place and sent a letter to White Qirin with instructions to bring the child to drink the elixir. The party had already decided the elixir was likely a trap but wanted confirmation, which this provided. 

Before heading north they returned to Purple Caverns and placed Yen and Ru in a holding cell. Then they set out and decided to travel through the Banyan Region directly to Ogre Gate Inn. On their first night in camp, they spotted a Zhen Bird flying overhead periodically. The next day they came upon the head of an official they had met on Mount Hai'an, stuck on a pike in the earth. Then they heard the sound of a great drum. 

Lingsu recognized the sound as the same one sounded back in the village of Buak, where a Zun Demon Master summoned a reptilian spirit from a ritual vessel. They spotted such a vessel 200 feet away on a nearby mound rising above the tree line. 

The party rushed to the mound as smoke billowed up into the heavens from the ritual vessel. Lingsu and Min used great stride to reach it in a blink. Kang relied upon his Flight of the Hawk Technique and Zhi Zhu made her way stealthily through the trees. 

When Lingsu and Min reached the mound they found both a Demon Master and one of the emperor's Yao dressed in red robes and wearing a face plate*. The Yao struck at Lingsu with a spear, the tip only grazed his skin but caused a frost to spread across his robes. Lingsu grabbed the Demon Master and hurled him at the Yao with his Eagle Descends Loudly Technique. Min used her Swan Taming Strike to batter the Yao with her sheathed sword. When Zhi Zhu arrived she used Arms of Silk to entangle the Yao, while Kang struck at him with the Wind Sabre of Sunan (causing paralysis). They were able to dispatch both foes but dismembered and buried the Yao to be safe. 

Resuming their journey north, they made it over the Banyan Mountains and reached the Li Fan Desert in four days. They crossed the desert successful and came to the Ogre Gate Inn. 

Kang, Min and Lingsu went inside, while Zhi Zhu climbed the roof to keep watch. In the Inn they found a band of Kailin Tribesmen and a group of thugs or bandits seated at separate tables. They took a table and demanded wine. When it was served both Kang and Lingsu (who are skilled in Poison Use) sniffed their cups and smelled poison. Kang dumped his cup on the ground and demanded another. The proprietor returned to their table and said he would get them more. Lingsu grabbed the proprietor and slammed him against a rise in the floor, causing a terrible head wound. The man stood up and as he did so, all the thugs at the other table encircled the party. 

At this point, Zhi Zhu heard the sound horses approaching. Soon about forty horsemen lead by an imperial official came into view. She snapped Min with her arms of silk and pointed. 

While Zhi Zhu kept an eye on the horsemen, Kang walked over to the table the bandit's had occupied and started drinking their wine. They tried to stop him but he used Tai Lan's Staff Strike to crack each of them on the head. The bandits backed down and Min tried to alert the party to the presence of soldiers outside when a hail of arrows rained down on the inn. Zhi Zhu saw this coming and ducked into an inn room, but some inside were surprised and struck by shafts that entered through open windows. Two of the tribesmen were killed, and three bandits died. Min and Kang were both struck but their wounds were not that bad. The party, the bandits and the tribesmen all found safe spots in tavern area to lean against. 

The official then demanded that "All guilty parties step into the courtyard". 

Lingsu spoke with the proprietor, asking why he tried to poison them (assuming the proprietor worked for the emperor). He admitted to the poisoning but said he knew nothing about the officials, he just wanted to protect his treasure (he also admitted to killing the previous owner). The details were unclear, but the Lingsu convinced him to take them to a safer area below the Inn. 

This is where the session ended. 

*Yao are martial heroes loyal to the emperor who have had their hearts cut out and placed in lacquered boxes for safe keeping. The process imparts supernatural abilities upon them. They can regenerate and don't seem to die permanently. 

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


The other day I posted about Servants of Gaius, discussing its development and some of the aspects of it that provoked strong reactions from people. Since then, it's been on my mind and I came up with an idea for a sort of sequel campaign set in the modern world. Hopefully I will get a chance to run this in the near future and if I do, maybe it will turn into something more like a supplement, but for right now it is just a simple idea. 

The concept is very basic: The Minions of Neptune won. The world is similar to our own but much worse. It is different in each part of the world but in the US the minions have created the illusion that we are in control. In reality their agents always manage to replace any leader we elect so that there is no visible change once people are in office and they never reflect the will of the voters. Again this is much more pronounced and extreme than in our current day world. 

The Minions as presented in Servants of Gaius are shape changers so this would work as the basis of a conspiracy. A bit like the Reptoids (a stupid theory but a great basis for a campaign). 

For centuries the Minions have done well to cover evidence of their vast conspiracy but the internet changed everything. It was simply impossible for them to contain information and what once may have spread as whispered rumors now blazes across screens in every household in an instant. They've clamped down and managed to suppress some of it, but a small cluster of resistance movements have emerged and the PCs belong to one of these organizations. 

The idea still needs some development for me to run it. This is the basic concept though. If I have time when Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate goes to layout I may give it a small test run and refine the concept a bit. 

Tuesday, August 25, 2015


Servants of Gaius has been on my mind the past few days since we just participated in a bundle of holding where it was part of one of the specials. It's one of the games I would like to revisit in the future with either more support or a revision of the core book. But today I want to talk a bit about one of the things that comes up a lot when folks ask me about Servants of Gaius. First though, a bit of history. 
Art by Michael Prescott (from Servants of Gaius)

The central conceit of Servants of Gaius is that what we know about Caligula and Early Imperial Rome is wrong. Not only was the young emperor not insane or wicked, he was in fact righteous hero defamed by later writers like Suetonius and Cassius Dio. The reason for this perversion of his legacy is a vast conspiracy by a secret organization known as The Minions of Neptune. Whether this mystery cult is truly devoted to the sea god is left for the GM to decide (other possibilities are suggested) but their war with Rome is at the heart of the game. 

Clearly this is alternate history and my inspiration for the idea came directly from the television series I, Claudius. I, Claudius elaborated on a passage in Suetonius where Caligula instructs his soldiers to plunder the sea and declares victory. Later in Suetonius there is mention of Caligula being haunted by 'the spirit of the ocean'. In I, Claudius these two points are connected as a full conflict between Caligula and Neptune. 

There is a moving and humorous exchange in I, Claudius where Caligula asks his uncle Claudius if he thinks he is mad. It is a strange moment of clarity where he appears to understand that this is all a crazy fantasy created by his fevered mind and is willing to accept it if a reliable third party can confirm his suspicions. But Claudius errs on the side of caution and states that as Emperor and as a god, he sets the standard for sanity, so cannot be insane (this alleviates any concerns Caligula has on the matter). I remember thinking it would be interesting if that were the case, if he were not insane. 

At the same time I was trying to come up with an alternative history RPG concept that would take some of what worked in Terror Network and shift it into the past. Between these two things, I the seed of the game began to emerge. One final piece that helped crystalize the concept was a new biography of Caligula by Aloys Winterling. This was a more sympathetic treatment of the emperor and it approached sources like Suetonius and Dio with a great deal of caution and skepticism. I found Aloy's argument interesting, and to a degree persuasive, but I should state I still agreed with the consensus that he was not sound. 

Something that comes up a lot when people mention Servants of Gaius or ask me about it, is our decision to make Caligula a hero. I suppose for me the answer is it doesn't reflect any beliefs I have about the emperor, or a desire to invert his reputation for its own sake. It is just an interesting twist and a humorous one at that. Certainly enough time has passed that we can joke about Caligula and have fun with Rome during his reign. At least that is my attitude. The joke is obviously Caligula wasn't a hero, that he was one of the worst emperor's of all time. "But what if he was right all along" is the grim punchline that makes the joke work. 

This is often the case with our games. Some folks interpret Terror Network as an endorsement of Bush era policies for example (both Bill and I opposed those policies, but liked 24 and were interested in current affairs). These days it seems like it is harder to for people to separate writers from their work, and this applies to game designers as well. So I just want to be clear that something appearing in one of our games isn't an endorsement of  anything. It just means we thought it was an interesting concept to add. I am interested in Roman government as well and read a lot about it. In Sertorius for example we have a region that is inspired by the Roman Empire, that doesn't mean I endorse Empire or support many of Rome's violent and oppressive cultural practices. 

I bring this up because I've heard from folks who are uncomfortable with the concept or don't like the idea of playing in a history campaign where a historical villain is made light of or made into a good guy. I can understand that position. But I personally don't have this issue myself and Servants of Gaius is absolutely not apologetic in its approach. Those who feel this way, probably should avoid it. But if you don't mind a bit of gallows humor and laughed once or twice during John Hurt's performance as Caligula, this might just be the game for you. 

Monday, August 24, 2015


This isn't a review as much as it is a suggested viewing for Gamesters dealing with scenarios involving imperial palaces, coups and intrigue. There will be spoilers in this post, so don't read it if that's a concern. 

The Curse of the Golden Flower is an unusual film directed by Zhang Yimou (House of Flying Daggers and Hero) and stars Chow Yun-fat and Gong Li. It is an imperial drama set at the end of Tang Dynasty or the Five Dynasties period* and is about an internal scheme by members of the royal family to take the throne. Though it is somewhat light on swordplay and martial arts, the few fight scenes it does feature are striking. Like most of Zhang Yimou's other films, Curse of the Golden Flower makes extensive use of color and color contrast to convey themes. The two main colors in this case are black and gold.

Most of the film occurs within the palace itself, and it does a good job conveying both the beauty and the confusion of this interior. It seems the empress (Gong Li)** is quite ill and taking a dose of thick green medicine every two hours. Over the course of the film it becomes clear that the medicine is the source of her sickness, that the Emperor (Chow Yun-fat) has recently added a new ingredient to the mix: Black Persian Fungus. 

The Royal Family
When her son, Prince Jai, returns back to the palace to assume command of the Palace Guards after three years away at another post, it becomes clear that the Empress intends to stage a coup on the eve of the Chrysanthemum Festival (this is the Golden Flower the title refers to). The Empress convinces Prince Jai to save her from his father by leading the guards on the night of the coup. 

This is an extremely dysfunctional royal family. The Empress's incestuous relationship with her other son, the crown prince Wan, complicates the coup greatly. Technically the empress is not his birth mother, so in the strictest sense of the word, they are not committing incest. However the prince's ignorance of his birth mother's identity ultimately leads to an incestuous relationship with his birth sister. And this is just a small example of the kind of problems plaguing the household. The chief source of consternation appears to be the imperial father. 
The Empress (Gong Li) Takes Her Medicine

The Emperor is quite the menacing father figure. He is oddly lenient of his sons' shortcomings and betrayals but always firmly in control of the household. There are moments when the viewer doubts this, but on the Eve of the Chrysanthemum festival it is clear he is a ruthless and cunning ruler, perhaps impervious to even the most well laid plans. He has agents everywhere, who descent on his opponents (quite literally) like spiders from an unseen web. You never really know when the emperor is alone and vulnerable. 

Chow Yun-fat is incredible as the emperor. He gives is a terrifying performance. It particularly works because he can oscillate believably between a cruel reprimanding side and soft, caring side. Gong Li is equally good in her role as Empress. I think the film largely comes down to their two performances working. You kind of need to want both of the them to succeed even though they are in complete opposition, and both actors are persuasive in this respect. They are helped by an excellent supporting cast. Chen Jin as the emperor's former wife, and Ni Dahong as the imperial physician (and husband of the emperor's former wife) are two that stood out for me. 
The Youngest Prince Takes a Stand

The film culminates with an impressive showdown at the palace. It is a big battle fought in stages and one of the reasons I want to talk about Curse of the Golden Flower

I think the film is useful for gaming because it deals with issues that could come up in a number of campaigns, and is of particular interest to anyone running anything resembling ancient China. The coup scene during the Chrysanthemum Festival is especially helpful to a GM (as are many of the scenes leading up to it where issues of palace security are addressed). 

The Emperor (Chow Yun-fat)
Reflecting in the aftermath
Not only is this a well choreographed battle, it also shows, in a very stylized way, how challenging it might be to pull of such an attack (even when one has the backing of powerful people). It is never portrayed as impossible, it just demonstrates what a palace full of soldiers and bodyguards would look like and how a resourceful emperor might respond as an attack is occurring.  

The other reason is the measures the Emperor uses to protect himself. His guards and agents are masters of stealth. They are literally hanging in the rafters of the palace completely out of sight, lulling his attackers into a false sense of security. When they drop down to fend off an assassination attempt, it is quite the moment and the sort of thing that could work great in a game session. 

Prince Jai leads the charge
But there are other things that make the movie instructive for any campaign where palace life enters into the adventure. Imperial dramas like this provide all kinds of fodder for intrigue. Curse of the Golden Flower suggests a cool seed for a mystery adventure where the victim is not yet dead, but actively being poisoned (and the goal would be for the PCs to figure out by whom and why). The complications of palace life place an interesting restraint on investigating the matter. Even if one doesn't use this as a seed for a mystery, it is a solid foundation for internal conflict in a palace. 

Definitely recommend it for gamers running wuxia or a historical Chinese setting. Would also recommend it for standard fantasy games with a lot of intrigue. It is an odd film in a lot of respects but beautifully shot. And while it isn't a steady flow of combat, when action does arise it is unflinching and violent. 

*The precise date is a little unclear as is the exact setting. 
**Again it is a bit unclear depending on the version whether this is an empress or a queen. Same with the emperor. I am just going to go ahead and stick with what the subtitles said in my version. 

Saturday, August 22, 2015


The presence of magic has a profound affect on mystery and investigation adventures. It not only impacts the clue-finding process, it also alters your villain's schemes. In a mystery adventure set in a fantasy world she can draw on the same magical resources to commit and cover up her crime that the players use to solve it. This is an idea I tried to commit to fully when we were working on Beneath the Banshee Tree for Sertorius. I am not going to reveal the details of how magic appears in the module (because I don't want to spoil it for players) but I am going to talk about the process and the things I considered while working on it. 

Before doing anything I went through the spells in Sertorius to see how they might be used in the motive for a terrible crime and what spells the perpetrator could use to evade detection and pursuit. I had the advantage of getting feedback and input from Dan Orcutt and Bill Butler so I talked with them about what kind of villain the system might support in that respect. 

This opened up a whole new set of possibilities, including motivations that wouldn't appear in a mundane campaign. In a world where magical duplicates and mind altering potions exist, a mystery plays out very differently. Out of this oddness, new kinds of clues emerge. Ultimately the mystery began to take shape around some of the spells in question. 

Understanding the parameters of the spell in each case, how it would play out on the ground was something I gave a lot of consideration to. I don't like when adventures hand wave magic, making it work differently for an NPC than it works for players using the same spells or rituals, so I made sure I followed spells as written. I attempted to be as creative as possible within that limit however. I just didn't have spells do things they didn't do in the book and I imposed on the stated limits on my NPC.

After this I looked at the spells once again from the point of view of players trying to solve the mystery. I didn't do this in an effort to thwart potential solutions but to be aware of the solutions and also think of how the NPC might take those into account (provided the NPC knew about the spells as well). This step is really important in a mystery set in a fantasy or supernatural setting because there are simply tools at the player's disposal that don't appear in a noir mystery. They are not cheats, they are just tools. A player using a read mind spell or speak with dead spell is no more cheating than a player in a modern campaign using a cell phone or the internet to help solve an investigation. This allowed me to account for those solutions and mention them in the text of the adventure in case they came up. 

Then I set about creating my locations, events and clues. For Beneath the Banshee Tree I wanted to do a twist on our standard "Events Timeline" so instead of a regular timeline where an event occurs on a given day or hour (provided no one intervenes) I randomized it, having ten different "mysteries", with one occurring each day as the result of a d10 roll. This seems like a pretty simple thing, and it is, but it really made investigations play differently. Somehow it breathed more life into it for me as the GM. It also meant all of my pieces needed to fit together no matter what results came up. I like it as well because its like dropping a bomb each day that keeps the mystery fresh. 

For each event, I had to decide what the aftermath would be (i.e. the dead body found in the inn), what had happened, who was involved, what clues were present, and where these clues might lead. Factoring magic into these mysteries was important. Again, I had to decide what spells went into the indecent itself, what spells may have been used to cover up the incident, and how players using spells might find clues beyond just looking around the room or talking to people. 

All this together produced a scenario that wasn't like anything else I'd run before. I have played a lot of investigation adventures, and included magic, but I don't think I've ever committed this fully to the magic and the system underlying it. Now it has become my standard approach when magic is present. 


Films at the Gate is a three-day Kung Fu Festival held at the Chinatown Gate in Boston each year. The next one takes place Friday through Sunday August 28th-30th and will feature Shaolin Soccer, Drunken Master and Iron Monkey. You can learn more about Films at the Gate and other activities organized by the Asian Community Development Corporation HERE. I spoke with one of the ACDC's Event Coordinators, Shu Qi Ke, to find out more about this year's showing.

You are coordinating the youth volunteering effort for Films at the Gate; what does that entail and how broad is your outreach?
What is your role for Films at the Gate and with the Asian Community Development Corporation?

As one of the Event Coordinator with Zi Liang Ruan, I help team leaders (like decorations team, food team, interactive games team and etc) with their team preparations and volunteers. Also I try to prepare the new event with last year’s successful event in mind, making this year’s 10th anniversary of the Films at the Gate even more successful.

I started getting involved with Films at the Gate through ACDC’s youth program called A-voyce. Since joining A-voyce in 2013 I have learned to be more of a leader, learned how to be a better public speaker and become more involved in the community. I've also learned more about professionalism. I participated in the August Moon booth with ACDC and Films of the Gate. At the event I gave suggestions on the first day which led me to be more knowledgable with the event on the first day. I led the volunteers on the second day, helping set up the A/V equipment, tables and chairs. After the event I continued to volunteer and work for ACDC. By the second year I became a kind of leader for the volunteers, helping with set-up and other things. This is my third year and I am now the event coordinator. I'm hoping this year will be more successful than previous years.

This event is managed by the Asian Community Development Coordination; can you tell me a little about the organization?

ACDC (Asian Community Development Coordination) is a non-profit organization which helps build low income housing in chinatown and other areas. ACDC also creates workshops for new home buyers to better understand the process and also provides help for any home-buyers with their problems. ACDC has created many building for low income housing. Right now our project is Parcel 24/One Greenway (at 66 Hudson St next to the highway).

Are there particular issues or challenges faced by the Asian American community?

Right now there is a big problem with housing as the market price for houses in Boston increases and many big companies build high luxury condominiums which low income families like Asian Americans cannot afford. This causes them to move away from chinatown into nearby towns like Quincy and Malden. So they take the public transportation everyday to go to chinatown to work.

How important is Chinatown in Boston as a cultural hub?

Chinatown in Boston is a very important cultural hub as all Asian Americans come here to buy asian food and other goods that are not available anywhere else. Chinatown to me is where I can get authentic asian food and feel like home. People come to chinatown for the food and the culture experience.

For those who don’t know, can you explain what Films at the Gate is?

Films at the Gate is a three day event, where ACDC host free Kung Fu Films each day for the community. This event is where the community can come together and watch a movie, eat popcorn with their family and friends. Elders come and enjoy old kung fu movies with their grandchildren and passers-by sit down and enjoy the movie as well. It's a family event that brings the whole community together.

Can you tell me how the event has developed and changed over the years?
Can you talk about the tradition of film in Chinatown?

This started because there used to be theaters in Chinatown and after the movies played you could watch an old Chinese film for a nickel. But those theaters are now out of business, so ACDC started Films at the Gate in 2006 with an empty abandoned lot (Ginza lot) screening movies. As the years went by there were more and more attendees who come to watch the movies. So the event had to be moved to the Greenway to place more chairs for more attendees. Now we have around 800 people showing up to the event every night to watch the movie. This is our 10th year.

Why is Films at the Gate Important to you?

To me Films at the Gate is something I have done for a long time and something that I enjoy. I get to meet new people, the event brings the community together, and also brings the volunteers together. Getting to meet new people and seeing the people enjoy the kung fu films is something I enjoy.

This year you will be showing Drunken Master, Iron Monkey and Shaolin Soccer. They are all excellent films; why these movies in particular?

These movies were popular in the past and there are still young kids who enjoy watching them. They blend Kung Fu and humor. I love to hear the attendees laugh.

How can people participate in Films at the Gate?

Participating in the event is easy, just come to the event, sit down watch some real live martial artist perform and enjoy the movie. To be more involved you can always email ACDC and we will also have a table with more information at the event. At the end we just ask for a little donation so next year’s event can be successful.