Friday, January 31, 2020


With the release of Strange Tales of Songling, I want to spend the next month discussing some of the movies that were sources of inspiration for it. I already wrote about Heaven and Hell, and today I am going to talk about Fruit Chan's Dumplings, starring Bai Ling, Miriam Yeung, and Tony Leung Ka-fai. It was released in 2004 both as a short film and full length feature (more on this below). The following contains minor spoilers of plot details that appear very early on, but does not discuss any of the surprises or developments that occur deeper into the film. 

Miriam Yeung plays Mrs. Li, an aging actress who is desperate to restore her lost youth and regain the affection of her husband (Tony Leung Ka-fai). She finds a remedy in dumplings prepared by Aunt Mei (Bai Ling). But her rejuvenation comes with a price.  

Dumplings is very upfront about its premise. Rather than tease the audience or play games like "what's in the dumpling" it lets the viewer know Aunt Mei's recipe right away: human fetuses. The point of the horror isn't any kind of suspense about what Aunt Mei is up to. It is also very frank in its approach. From the start, we see Aunt Mei mincing fetus meat. And it is prepared in a mundane way like any other ingredient. This adds to the believability and unease when Mrs. Li takes her first bite, so the audience can feel the crunch of every bite. Overall the movie is very effective at getting you to feel what the characters feel. 
Aunt Mei (Bai Ling) makes dumplings

The movie is almost more of a character drama at times than horror, which works in its favor (this is particularly true of the full length version). It is still a horror movie. But like Kuei Chih-Hung's Killer Snakes (which I hope to discuss in another post this month), it spends a lot of effort on its characters. Which helps, because much of the horror is a blend of body horror and gore (though the gore is more subdued than you might imagine). 

There are two versions of Dumplings: the extended theatrical release, and the short 40 minute film that was released as part of Three...Extremes. However both use mostly the same footage, with the former adding scenes and having a different ending. 

In some ways, the short film is superior in my opinion. It is tighter, not wasting an ounce of fat, so it never drags or meanders. It also feels more firmly a horror movie. The extended version takes a lot more time and clarifies key details. I think in most cases, the details are implied enough or not essential enough to the story that the shorter version works fine without them. But the changes do make for very different movies. 

In other ways, the extended version is better. It has more time to explore its characters and themes. A big part of what makes Dumplings work is Aunt Mei. And in the theatrical release we get to see a lot more of her. She spends screen time with Mr. Li, for example, and there is a whole subplot around that. It illuminates her personality and her past a lot more, and shows sides of her we don't see in the short film. This produces a character that is the same but different in many ways. There is perhaps less mystery to Aunt Mei in the longer version, but the loss of mystery is replaced with depth. But in both cases Bai Ling's performance is exceptional. 
Mrs. Li (Miriam Yeung) 

Some aspects of the longer version, make it feel less like a horror movie and more like a character study. This is just as enjoyable to watch though in my view. It is just a matter of the film feeling less tight overall, so I think the longer version has a greater chance of losing some viewers than the shorter one. But it might also have wider appeal because it extends the premise further beyond the genre. The longer version has some scenes that don't feel quite as necessary, but it also does submerge you more in the world of the characters. And many of the changes, for instance a key plot point involving a medical procedure, result in surprises in one version, but foreboding in the other. 

Even though some of the length takes away from the horror, parts of the longer theatrical version add to it. For instance both movies do a great job lingering on details to impose discomfort on the viewer (in a way that movies like this should). But the full length film adds a lot to this. Whether it is watching Aunt Mei prepare human flesh or perform a painful and dangerous medical procedure, the camera makes you watch. When you want the camera to move or flinch, it does not. 

The biggest difference of course is the ending. Personally I think the ending in the short film is better. It is a more frightening and poetic conclusion. There is also a stronger hint, even if it is subtle, of the supernatural in the short version's last scene. Both endings are shocking in their own ways. 

A scene with Mr. Li (Tony Leung Ka-fai)
 in the theatrical version
That there are two versions is one of my aspects of Dumplings. It is interesting to see what a difference running time and editing can make. I think one of the conversations that follows watching them is about the editing process and what it either adds or takes away from a story. People are bound to favor one or the other, so I do recommend watching both of them if you can. 

If you like horror, if you like gore, but you also enjoy great character performance, and perhaps some grind house elements, you should see Dumplings. The horror is more subtle than overwhelming, even as the gruesome details are dangled in the forefront. And there is a lot more going on than just horror. This won't be everyone's cup of tea of course. It will make some viewers uneasy, perhaps even angry (there is at least one very upset review about this movie, though I personally think it completely misses the point). But movies the evoke a strong response are worth watching. It is also a gorgeous film. The cinematography is wonderful, which is one of the key things that makes it so effective. Definitely check it out if you have never seen it. 

Friday, January 17, 2020


There is a wonderful film by Chang Cheh called Heaven and Hell. It isn't good in the standard sense of the word, and a it isn't a good-bad movie either. It is just a very unique film and a strange blend of styles and tones. I love this movie. When I first saw it, I wasn't quite sure what to think, but with each viewing my fondness for Heaven and Hell grew. I have given my opinions on it HERE and HERE. I also wrote a halloween review for it some years ago for Shaw Brothers Universe (but if my memory is correct it was swapped for another topic I wrote about and slipped through the cracks). 

I like escape from hell scenarios in RPGs. And I think Heaven and Hell is probably the best example of how to run one successfully. I talk about this a bit in Strange Tales of Songling, and I mention the movie Heaven and Hell in one of the adventures in the book. 

Escape from Hell adventures are a great way to turn something like a character death into something much more interesting. Better yet, they are a great way to follow-up an instant party kill. I like lethal games, but I also have no problem with players earning their way back to life if they are up for a whole campaign devoted to it. 

I think there are some basic rules worth considering. I generally follow there rules. First, it shouldn't be easy to make it back. Second there should be ground rules to making it back. Third, failure should have significant downsides. 

If a single player character dies, the escape from hell scenario is easiest to do with them storming hell and helping the other player escape. Exactly how that plays out will be somewhat dependent on the kind of afterlife you are dealing with. If there is a total party kill, then it is very easy to center a whole campaign around escape. This can be as surreal or literal as you want. You can even start a new campaign, with a whole different system if you like, and slowly reveal this is an afterlife and the characters are the spirits of the player characters from the previous campaign. This is one way I began using Strange Tales of Songling, as an afterlife for my Ogre Gate campaigns.

There are lots of movies, legends and stories to draw on for escape from hell. But Something about Chang Cheh's Heaven and Hell seems to line up most with how it would work in practice in a typical RPG. Here is my original Halloween Review of Heaven and Hell (which I think gives an overview of what to expect from it): 

Heaven and Hell provokes different reactions in viewers. I avoided watching Chang Cheh’s divisive delve into the afterlife for many years because I had heard many negative remarks about it. When I did finally watch, I wasn’t entirely sure how I felt about the movie. Only a few films have had this effect on me. Soon after, I began to think about Heaven and Hell a lot. I began obsessively reviewing the scenes in my mind. I wasn’t sure why, but it clearly had a large impact on me. So I watched it again, and again, and again. I came to love its surreal and experimental approach. It is somewhere between My Young Auntie and Ashes of Time with a dash of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory thrown in. It takes you on a dream-like tour of a genre-splattered cosmology with weird musical interludes, kung fu and dancing. This movie quite literally has everything, but it won’t please everyone. And I think that is why it is so good. 

Heaven and Hell is divided into three parts. It begins in Heaven, in the court of the celestial bureaucracy. We are soon plunged to earth, where the celestial guard, Xin Ling (Li Yi-Min), is banished for helping a heavenly couple escape. There he’s a cigarette smoking taxi driver who dies and goes to Diyu (Hell) after trying to once again save a pair of star-crossed lovers. 

Watching Heaven and Hell, for me, is like going to a concert or a magic show. It is an experience. It is a movie you feel. The plot is fairly crazy, made more strange by some of the aesthetic choices along the way. For example, the earth sequence, which features Alexander Fu Sheng and Jenny Cheng as the star-crossed lovers in question, utilizes intensely minimalist stage design at times and incorporates more than one musical number as well as dance fighting in the manner of West Side Story. This is one of the aspects of the movie that I couldn’t stop thinking about. A lot of people don’t like the minimalist sets and are equally put off by the dancing. It is true the sets can be bare-bones but they create a sense of theater that works and actually immerses me in the experience more deeply by focusing my attention on the essential elements of music and image. I also find it intoxicating. The dancing and the total commitment to a certain feel heightens my experience of the movie. Visually it is impressive and also adds to the atmosphere. Watching it is like being slightly drunk, which is how Ashes of Time always makes me feel.

Most of the film is taken up by the third portion: Hell. We get a tour of Diyu’s gruesome punishments as people are formally judged and assigned an appropriate sentence. This is where the movie feels a little like Willy Wonka to me, with the elaborate props and creative punishments in a psychedelic hellscape. But the exploration of Diyu works and Cheh succeeds in creating an entire world with memorable characters and places. 

In Diyu, Xin Ling meets a woman named Red Dress (Lin Chen-Chi). After a trippy flashback sequence we learn she died on a misadventure involving alcohol, pills and a hypnotic shuffle off of a window sill. They travel the underworld together before being separated and then re-united at Plow Hell. 

Red Dress and Xin Ling are able to appeal their case to the Buddha of Mercy, who tasks Xin Ling with finding men wronged like himself to form a team that will break out of hell. The assembling of the team of heroes affords an opportunity for a series of smaller stories as we learn about each of their tragic backgrounds. They all have been betrayed or done a significant injustice. And what a team. It includes Sun Chien as a Taekwondo expert killed by robbers, Lo Meng as a brash youth with terrific kung fu who got shot in the back, Philip Kwok as a wuxia hero betrayed by his sworn brother, and Bruce Tong as a vengeful son done-in by corrupt magistrates. 

By this point in the movie, there have been so many genres touched upon, and here is where the it feels a bit like My Young Auntie to me. Not only are the heroes all from slightly different genres, they are in many instances from different periods in history. The world created, flattens everything and allows for all these things to exist side-by-side. It is the kind of movie, where you feel like you’ve seen every movie by the end. 

Heaven and Hell has a star-studded cast. Because it is broken up into three parts and each sequence has a largely different cast and title card, it is easy to overlook how many notable actors appear in Heaven and Hell. Everyone from David Chiang to Philip Kwok and Alexander Fu Sheng are present. My understanding is part of the reason for the wide-ranging cast is due to stop-and-start production issues, but I think it just gives the film a larger scope. 

This is, in my opinion, a very compelling movie to watch for Halloween. It is not as scary as some of the other Halloween offerings out there, but it is so strange, dark and surreal that it is worthy of the season. It is inherently divisive. Not everyone feels the same about it. I can’t promise that you’ll love it. I can’t promise you will like it. I can promise it will be a unique experience. I find it impossible to predict how people will receive Heaven and Hell, and that is one the things that makes it so exciting. Watching this film is a roll of the dice, but if you like to gamble, there may be a place for you in hell.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2020


Been working on something a bit different lately, that arose out of a conversation I had on the podcast with Joel Clark, where we tried to design a game on the air. 

We came up with a concept called Schlock, a one-shot emulation of straight to video movies (and films of that caliber). The system is extremely simple, character creation literally takes a couple of seconds, so its easy to get characters in after player character death (we figured a lot of Schlock is high body count, so that is going to be important). The rules themselves are just a page and will appear at the start of each adventure. There are core rules that cannot be altered, but each adventure can add rules to create better genre emulation. For example, if we make a Kung Fu module, that would feature additional mechanics for martial arts (but they would still be simple in nature in order to preserve the feel of play). 

A key part of the game is a figure named Ricky Vibrato. He berates the GM in the sidebars with insulting, but good advice, and is the fictional publisher of the Schlock line. He is intended to come across a bit like the Larry Bishop character in Kill Bill Volume 2. 

The first adventure is called Burn, and it is inspired by the Deep Purple song of that name. It leans full tilt into my interest in hard rock and heavy metal. I have wanted to do something musically inspired for a very, very long time. I always throw in lots of easter eggs in games that are musical references, and occasionally it serves as inspiration for content (a lot of Ogre Gate was inspired by Dio lyrics for example), but this is the first time I've found a way to make it the foundation of the adventure. The whole adventure really is built from music. I've played guitar since I was 11 or 12 and this was a chance for me to bring some of that into the game. 

Burn is one of my favorite Deep Purple Songs. I recommend checking it out if you have never heard it (and especially paying attention to the guitar solo and organ solo in the middle), but the lyrics suggest an apocalypse where a female figure descends and lights people on fire. That seemed pretty gameable to me, it fit the Schlock concept well, so I turned it into an adventure. 

We play tested about a week ago and it went well. We are planning another playtest soon. After that I will complete my revisions and then run it myself (so far I've been functioning as a player in the playtests so I can see how other GMs handle the content first). 

The plan is to have Joel write the other adventure and we might do it as a double feature. We haven't quite decided how this is going to be released. Those details are still being worked out.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, January 13, 2020


Strange Tales is finally available in PDF (and will be available in print in the next month or two). You can find it HERE

A Horror RPG Inspired by Chinese Ghost Stories: 

Adventure in worlds haunted by fox spirits, hopping vampires and ghosts. Strange Tales is a Chinese horror RPG inspired by the supernatural accounts of Pu Songling and Yuan Mei. Players confront the supernatural as demon hunters, scholars, wandering swords and dangerous ritual masters. 

Strange Tales provides a streamlined and easy system for quick play and comes with four complete adventures. It also includes a selection of monsters based on Chinese anomaly accounts, folklore, and horror movies. The GM section provides a number of approaches with a focus on monster-of-the week style play.