Friday, June 25, 2021

TO HELL WITH THE CAMPAIGN

In the Strange Tales of Songling book, I talked about ventures into hell and escape from hell campaigns, something I was increasingly using the setting for by the time the game was complete. I have been planning another Strange Tales of Songling campaign, and this time it is going to start in the afterlife. The details of the campaign are emerging slowly over the course of research and re-reading Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio. My thoughts on it are being put up on the podcast (see the links below for the current episodes on it).


In order to do this I need to map out some kind of hell-scape for the characters to adventure in. I want it to be inspired by the source material, by real world mythology and religion, but also need it to be gameable. One downside to this kind of setting is it can, at least in my experience, lead to very unnameable scenarios. This is particularly the case if you lean heavily on 'setting tourism', which can be tempting. So I am going to have to elaborate on things simply to make it function for the purposes of adventure.

My starting point is the ten courts of hell. Each of these is governed by a magistrate who passes sentence. The idea is more like a purgatory than hell, where you are cleansed of your sins through punishment so you can be reborn. I have some books on the Ten Courts of Hell, including a translation of the Scripture of the Ten Kings. Like I mentioned in the Strange Tales of Songling book, I am also taking a page from Chang Cheh's Heaven and Hell, which has always stuck with me. I will also be drawing freely on Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio as well for ideas. 

One thing I need is to make sure each court can function well as a place for the players to adventure, but in the context of undergoing purification for the next life (and in expectation of judgment for what that next life will be). I have a number of ideas, all laid out in the podcasts below (just note they are evolving). Two key ideas I want to talk about here are how I plan to deal with levels, and rebirth.

At first I was going to have characters start at level 1 in hell. But since this is supposed to follow the deaths of the characters in the real world, I felt it might make more sense to start them at level 10, and have hell be about all of their levels and abilities slowly being stripped from them as they undergo the process of reform. The abilities reflect their attachments to their prior life. I kind of like this idea. It is a little weird, since the goal is to get less powerful, and it is also strange in that it will make the campaign harder as it goes rather than easier. I am still figuring this out exactly. Since it is hell and you can't die, I figure when characters do die, they go to one of the tortures while the rest of the party adventures. There they lose their level and something else as a product of the pain. Characters who make it through the court level without dying would only lose their level (whereas the character who is tortured may lose a level but also have to adventure through the rest of hell without sight). 

For rebirth I have gone through a number of possibilities. One challenge is whether to do it individually or collectively. I won't get into that here as I am still mulling it over, but it will make a big difference in terms of how this is all executed. The first idea I settled on was to have the players judged in their journey through hell then that shapes what they become in the next life. That can indeed work, but one problem with it is, what is the future campaign-wise if they become a carp? I still want to retain this idea in hell itself (I will talk more on that below). Now I am leaning on the following: their journey and judgement in hell determines what campaign follows. Basically any game or system is on the table, it just needs to align with the judgment. So maybe really bad characters are reborn as adventurers in a Call of Cthulhu campaign, or reborn as Vampires in a Masquerade campaign. I might reward characters who do well, by allowing them to be Sertori in a Sertorius campaign or a supers campaign. Obviously whatever the next campaign is also needs to be something people want to do, but it is an interesting way to mix things up. And the idea is they would make their new characters as extensions of their old ones, just reborn (a bit like Cloud Atlas, with characters going from genre to genre in each rebirth). 

One idea I like is the players changing in their travels through hell, by way of torture, moral purification and moral decay. I like the idea that they can slowly turn into monsters the more they fail to let go of their attachments and the more they hold onto their sins. I don't quite know the details yet, and again this isn't a new game I am making so I want to go light on the kludging, but some kind of corrupting or benevolent mechanic that reshapes the character during their time in hell. This won't necessarily translate into what they become in the next life, but it gives them some indication, and characters who fail utterly, becoming terrible creatures, won't escape.

I should say that this is not something I am doing for publication. If it works great and I really want to publish it, maybe down the line that would be possible, but for now this is just for my own game group. Likely I will be posting material here though, so people can use it if they like the idea. 


Friday, June 11, 2021

RIGHTEOUS BLOOD SUPERNATURAL

Righteous Blood Ruthless Blade's, the dark wuxia RPG I co-wrote with Jeremy Bai, was intended to be the purest emulation of that genre we could create. We wanted it to play like it was set in a Gu Long novel or a bloody and grim 1970s wuxia film. So magic was minimal (much more so than in Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, the game I had released previously and the system on which we based RBRB). Still we had many discussions when we were working on Righteous Blood about how it might handle things like spirited beasts, ghosts, hopping vampires and magical talismans. And we wrote it with that in mind, knowing one day we might want to layer on supernatural options (we just didn't want the core book to lose its pure wuxia focus). For the past several weeks Jeremy and I have been working on a supernatural expansion of the game that will hopefully provide GMs and players with the tools to run adventures more in the spirit of A Chinese Ghost Story, Legend of the Demon Cat, Mr. Vampire, Legend of the Mountain, The Enchantress, The Enchanting Ghost, and Painted Skin. Today I want to talk a bit about what we are doing. 

Presently we are still finding the exact shape this expansion will take (and are not yet sure of the size of the final release and how it will be released: we are going over a number of options here). We just held our first playtest, in a series of playtests where Jeremy and I alternate as the GM (last session was his turn, this weekend I run a scenario). 

Our chief aims right now are to find our focus, to clarify our terminology and to lay down the baseline mechanics. Ideally the mechanics will layer on simply without creating additional stuff for players and GM's to memorize. With that in mind, we intend to lean heavily on making new Signature Techniques and make relevant monsters. Again here the focus is what we are trying to determine. 

Terminology is becoming important too. With Jeremy's background in Mandarin, we are trying to find the right balance with the labels we employ. I will leave it for Jeremy to discuss the intricacies of language on his blog but it is something both of us consider important. I think we are trying to balance the need for accuracy, with the need for something consistent that doesn't create confusion five, ten or fifteen years from now. 

Another thing we are trying to evaluate is power scale of the monsters. Basically how much do we want to lean on the horror and how much do we want to lean on the player characters still being martial heroes who can take on supernatural threats. Presently we are experimenting with different options and approaches. Which I think is key. 

I like this part of design, where we are experimenting with what works, and trying things, even if they ultimately need to be changed or redone. It is an important part of discovering the feel that the new mechanics create and choosing a creative direction that is exciting and functions well at the table. 

Unfortunately I can't discuss my scenario as I am running it tomorrow (maybe after I run it, I will post my notes or some details about it). Jeremy's scenario was quite fun and involved something called an "Undecayed Skull" that wreaked havoc on a temple. Our characters belonged to an organization called the House of Zhong and were sent to secure the skull to make sure it was not a danger to the world. Personally I had a lot of fun, and always enjoy being on the players side of games I am working on.

Expect to see more updates on this in the future, as well as some special episodes of Righteous Blood Podcast on the subject. 

Sunday, April 11, 2021

THUS SPOKE THE GRANITE HILLS

 I have been exploring other ways to run the Strange Tales system, thinking of alternative settings. One thing I may need to do is come up with new Character Paths, but it also occurred to me the paths aren't necessarily limited to the Strange Tales setting (Scholar is somewhat specific but you could run a scholar in Medieval Europe with a few tweaks). I came up with a small setting idea called The Granite Hills. It blends the Strange Tales system with the Sertorius concept of grime. The basic idea is a group of Sertori came to New England sometime prior to the Revolution, and one of them turned into a Grim, becoming one with the granite hills north of Boston and causing the whole place to be wrenched from time and space. This is little introduction I wrote for the setting: 

New England is mostly as we remember it, and nowhere more so than here near old Saugus. The spiked conifers crawl north along cave ridden hills that conceal the world’s horrors in their steep granite folds. Eastward marshlands stretch to the shores of a dark and foamy sea. South you will find the ruins of that great city, Boston, where the dead walk and rule over the living. But they leave Saugus and Salem in Peace, for we have enough dreadful beasts to contend with. And the horizon is an endless crimson veil that leads to nowhere. For the inhabitants here cannot leave. If you take a ship eastward, you will never reach the shores of Europe. If you head south, no matter how far you walk, you will never cross paths with Jamestown. You may arrive at other, bizarre and distressing destinations, however. Only we, the spiritualists can travel freely through the haze. For you see, it is much as we remember my dear friend, but different in ways you could not imagine, since the terrible events of 1658. 

--Hiram Marble, 1852 


The above was modeled after an old description of the area I found in a book. The setting is clearly inspired by Ravneloft (with Gypsies being replaced by Spiritualists--the area where I live, Lynn was a hub of the Spiritualist movement). And obviously the alternative history here may complicate the plausibility of it being a spiritualist hub in the setting (though the spiritualists I imagine as Vagabonds coming from our world, so it may world: rather than travel by caravan like the gypsies of Ravenloft, the spiritualists travel by trains and possibly hot air balloons. The setting is basically North Shore Massachusetts, and one in which the puritans still have power, where witches are hunted, the supernatural exists, etc. 


In terms of system and paths, initially I wanted to make all new paths. But I thought re-skinning or just using the paths presented in Strange Tales might work (provided I make new path powers). But here are some core paths I contemplated: 


Sorcerer (these are basically Sertori and actively hunted in the setting)

Swashbuckler/Buccaneer

Monster Hunter

Inventor 


Speciality Classes (Requires GM permission): 

Witch (Evil)

Freemason

Spiritualist (probably won't allow this one) 


One possibility too was simply making the monster hunters or the inventors freemasons. As you can see, I am still juggling the possibilities here. 



Monday, February 1, 2021

NEW RIGHTEOUS BLOOD PODCAST AND MARTIAL NICKNAMES

This week on the Righteous Blood Podcast, Jeremy and I answer questions, then talk about our GMing styles and adventure structures in wuxia. During the podcast we answered a question about martial nicknames not being listed in the rulebook, and mentioned that people could use the martial nickname table from Tournament fo Daolu. For convenience we are placing the tables below and including Deathblade's naming convention primer. Those who want to learn more beyond this can read his naming generation PDF

Righteous Blood Ruthless Blades is available now in print and PDF. 

   

APPENDIX TWO: DEATHBLADE’S NAMING CONVENTION PRIMER

The movie which really hooked me on wuxia was Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and I'll never forget this restaurant fight scene:

A stern-looking tough guy says, "I am Iron Arm Mi. I heard a true master has arrived.  I have come to seek a lesson."

Jen, the female lead character, ignores him.

"You asked for it!" he shouts. He charges and attacks Jen, who handily defeats him, also ripping off his sleeves to reveal that he is wearing iron bracers.

"What kind of Iron Arm are you?" Jen sneers.

Another man says: "You have amazing technique! I am Flying Machete. Are you related to Southern Crane?"

Jen replies, "Southern Duck? I don't eat anything with two feet. Who could remember such long-winded names?"

That scene captured my imagination and really hooked me into the idea of the martial world. It’s also a classic example of how martial names work. Generally speaking, they should reflect a character trait, weapon, or technique fundamental to your character. If you don't care about your name being "authentic" culturally, then the sky's the limit. Pick something that sounds cool or funny in English, and you're good to go. However, if you want your character's martial name to be more "authentic," then let me provide a few pointers regarding wuxia culture and Chinese language.


Usually the structure would be (Nickname) (Surname/Given Name). So if your character's name is Chen Long, and you fight like a monkey, something like Monkey-armed Chen Long would be the preferred format. Chen Long the Monkey would also be acceptable, but in the Chinese language, it wouldn't actually read that way. Sometimes, using the (Name) (Nickname) format in English sounds a lot better though.


It’s okay to make up long names which are a mouthful to say. In the scene I quoted above, the English subtitles are actually not very accurate. In Chinese, the first guy says, "I am 'Iron Arm Divine Fist' Mi Dabiao." Furthermore, his given name literally means "huge young tiger." Oftentimes even the given names of characters in wuxia movies sound impressive, albeit somewhat unrealistic. The same goes for the next character to speak in that scene. He literally says, "I am 'Flashing Shadow Disappears Without a Trace’ Feidao Chang." His martial name alludes to the speed of his blade, and his surname and given name contain characters which mean "flying blade," which is probably why the translators chose to call him Flying Machete. If you pick a really long martial name, that's okay, and might even make a great plot device, or at least a good talking point, in the game. 


If you really want to get deep into naming your characters, you should pick meaningful surnames and given names for them as well. In Chinese culture both ancient and modern, it’s not uncommon for people to explain the meaning of the characters in their name when they first meet someone. Because the Chinese language has so many homophones, it isn’t always obvious which characters make up a name. For example, in the name Wang Jing, that “jing” could be the character for “calm” or the character for “respect.” In wuxia, characters sometimes have bizarre or extraordinary given names. For example, in the novel I translated, Heroes Shed No Tears, one of the main supporting characters is named Xiao Leixue. His given name literally means “tears of blood,” and is a name you would likely never see in real life. Regardless of whether the name is common or more fantastical, Chinese names all have a meaning, and affect how other people view you.


If you don't speak Chinese, then probably the only way to pick truly authentic martial names, surnames, or given names, is to ask for help from Chinese-speaking friends. Certain words or phrases that are common in English won't translate well back into Chinese, and would be odd-sounding in a wuxia movie. For example, a martial name like “Moonwalking Jackrabbit” Tiao Tuzi would definitely not work well in Chinese. Chinese culture is very complex and goes back for thousands of years, so it would be difficult to get into too much detail about the cultural significance of the different words that can make up martial names, at least right here. If you're interested in maintaining accuracy on a cultural level, you could do an internet search such as "elephant in Chinese culture" or "number four in Chinese culture" to get some background information. 


Puns, wordplay, and cool words are great. Even in the above scene, you can get a taste of that when Jen turns “Southern Crane” into “Southern Duck.” In that case, forget about trying to have the name be authentic when translated back into Chinese. Let your imagination go wild. Make a character named “Corner-Cutting” Chen. He earned his name by cutting off the corners of a stone table with one sword slash. Unfortunately, no sects will accept him because they’ve heard that he constantly cuts corners. Of course, “cutting corners” is not an idiomatic expression in Chinese, and if you translate it directly, it doesn’t make sense. But it would definitely conform to the spirit of wuxia to have a character with a martial name like that. Or make a character called “Parallax Spear” Wang. The word “parallax” sounds pretty cool, but unfortunately the Chinese translation doesn’t sound very cool at all.

Another concept to be aware of is the Daoist or Buddhist name. After formally joining a Daoist or Buddhist order, a monk or priest would usually pick a new name to signify their new life. Such names are often very similar to martial names. They usually don't have a surname/given name combo, and can be just as colorful or meaningful as a martial name. In such a case, that person would likely cast aside their previous name and never use it again. Names like that are especially common in xianxia settings. For example, one of the most beloved characters in the xianxia series: I Shall Seal the Heavens has the Daoist name “Patriarch Reliance,” with no other name ever provided. 

If you are using the tables below to randomly generate a character name, then take some time to think how the character would end up with such a name. If you want to, look into what the surname means, if anything. You can do that by searching online for “Chinese surname XYZ.” You can do the same with the given name by using any number of free online Chinese dictionaries. 


In the martial world, people sometimes pick their own martial name, and sometimes they are given a name by friends or even the community as a whole. In the case of the latter, they might not even like or use their martial name. Your shadowy assassin might have the reputation of killing anyone who calls him by the martial name “Throat-slitting Viper.” But that won’t stop people from calling him that when they’re sure he’s not around to hear it. If your character is likely to be using a Daoist or Buddhist name, with no other name ever provided, consider why they would take such a name. Making up a backstory for your character’s martial name is one of the most enjoyable parts of creating Martial Heroes. 

In the end, make sure to have fun, and you’ll surely end up with a winning martial name.

RANDOM NAME GENERATION

Use the following tables to make NPC and Character names. For Martial Nicknames use TABLE ONE: DEATHBLADE’S MARTIAL NAME GENERATOR PART A for the first half, then roll on TABLE TWO: DEATHBLADE’S MARTIAL NAME GENERATOR PART B for the second half.  For proper names, roll on TABLE THREE or TABLE FOUR for the Personal Name, then roll on TABLE FIVE for the Surname. 


Adjust as needed so the name makes sense, and feel free to tweak it to your liking. If the name doesn’t make sense initially, consider swapping positions and adding “of” or “The”. You can also add a hyphenated word. For example a result of Broken+Monk, might be altered to Broken-Hearted Monk or Bro-ken-Faced Monk. If you get a number or title, adjust it so both words make sense. For example, you can treat “Fourth” as “Four” if it makes more sense, possibly adding in another noun from table B. So “Fourth”+”Wolf” could become “Four Dagger Wolf”. 

As an option, you can roll on Martial Name Generator B for the first part of a person’s name then roll on Tables Three, Four or Five for the second. 


Re-roll or change any results that don’t sound good.

 

TABLE I: DEATHBLADE’S MARTIAL NAME GENERATOR PART A 

Roll d100

1

Lucky 

26

Green 

51

Murderous/Killer 

76

Greedy 

2

Jade-Faced

27

First

52

Ferocious 

77

Grieving 

3

Wise 

28

Fat

53

Strange 

78

Saffron 

4

Invincible 

29

Golden

54

Drunken 

79

Celestial 

5

Eye-Gouging 

30

Lousy 

55

Profound 

80

Life-Ending 

6

Summer 

31

Devouring 

56

Skinny 

81

Third

7

Iron

32

Second 

57

Ugly 

82

Hateful 

8

Hidden 

33

White

58

Gentle 

83

Luminous 

9

Fourth 

34

Yellow 

59

White-Browed

84

Bronze 

10

Spring

35

Fifth 

60

Blue 

85

Grey 

11

White

36

Fiery 

61

Pure 

86

Broken  

12

Autumn 

37

Sixth 

62

Little 

87

Head-Taking 

13

Long-Armed 

38

Winter

63

White-Haired 

88

Purple 

14

Merciless 

39

Multitudinous 

64

Stone

89

Supreme 

15

Thunderous 

40

Righteous 

65

Dehuan 

90

Merciful

16

Cruel 

41

Longevity 

66

Seventh 

91

Qi 

17

Fragrant 

42

Western 

67

Hen-Shi 

92

Rambling 

18

Laughing 

43

Notorious 

68

Blood-Spilling 

93

Yen-Li 

19

Lovesick 

44

Karmic 

69

Gambling 

94

Southern 

20

Filial 

45

Smiling 

70

Perverted 

95

Reckless 

21

Spicy 

46

Porcelain 

71

Foolish 

96

Endless 

22

Lord/Lady 

47

Raging 

72

Begging 

97

Red

23

Northern 

48

Pearl 

73

Bamboo

98

A: Roll on TABLE V first, then this table, followed by TABLE II. 

24

Divine 

49

White-Robed 

74

Eastern 

99

B: Roll twice on this table, adjust results to make sense, then roll on TABLE II for final word in name. 

25

Heroic 

50

Flying 

75

Sorghum 

100

C: Roll twice on TABLE II instead. 

A: If you get this result the surname comes first, followed by the definite article, then the remaining two words. For example Zhang+Murder/Killer+Hornet/Bee/Wasp could be constructed as Zhang the Killer Bee. 

B: If you get this result double up on Table One, then roll on Table Two. So, you might get a result like Heroic Flying Lion. 

C: This result should be rolled again if it doesn’t make sense or displeases but simply roll twice on table Two. This could produce names like Death Whip or Viper God. 

 

TABLE II: DEATHBLADE’S MARTIAL NAME GENERATOR PART B

Roll d100

1

Death 

26

Fisherman 

51

Priest 

76

Brother/Sister

2

Lion

27

Menace 

52

Centipede 

77

Beast 

3

Fist 

28

Ghost/Gui

53

Monk/Nun

78

Mathematician 

4

Evil

29

King/Queen 

54

Palm 

79

Tempest

5

Arrow 

30

Prince/Princess

55

Willow 

80

Mountain 

6

Chopstick

31

Tiger

56

God/Goddess 

81

Raksha 

7

Whip

32

Centipede

57

Viper 

82

Mute

8

Bat 

33

Abbot/Abbess

58

Lover 

83

Beauty 

9

Dart 

34

Moon 

59

Scorpion 

84

Lizard 

10

Wolf 

35

Phoenix

60

Deer

85

Poet 

11

Beetle 

36

Ox

61

Judge Yu 

86

Toad

12

Protector 

37

Lord/Lady 

62

Dagger

87

Dragon

13

Sword 

38

Snake 

63

Peacock 

88

Plum Blossom 

14

Spider 

39

Fox

64

Sea Dragon 

89

Star

15

Bear 

40

Killer

65

Tornado 

90

Jiangshi 

16

Sage

41

Cobra 

66

Physician 

91

Bixie 

17

Kid 

42

Scholar 

67

Gushan 

92

Devil

18

Judge 

43

Naga 

68

Elephant 

93

Shield 

19

Axe

44

Duck

69

Mare  

94

Shadow Puppet 

20

Cauldron 

45

Calamity Star 

70

Chrysanthemum

95

Spirit 

21

Cloud 

46

Cat

71

Saber 

96

Ogre 

22

Cricket 

47

Hen-Shi

72

Mountain God 

97

Yao 

23

Asura 

48

Eagle 

73

Swallow 

98

Bi

24

Hornet/Bee/Wasp

49

Butterfly 

74

Roc

99

D: Roll again on this table, then roll on random name generator for a third word

25

Turtle 

50

Moth 

75

Shadow 

100

E: Roll on TABLES III-V (Your Choice)

D: This means roll again on Table Two then roll on Table Three, Four or Five (your choice) for the final word. It should result in one word from Table One, one word from Table Two and a personal or surname. So, the result could be Fragrant Scholar Bai. 

E: If you get this result, simply roll on Table Three, Four or Five instead of table Two. This should result in a result from Table One and a personal or Surname. For example, you could get Merciless Ying. 

TABLE III: DEATHBLADE’S RANDOM NAME FOR MALE CHARACTER 

I

II

III

IV 

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

1

Sunan 

1

Ying 

1

Zhe 

1

Anzhi

2

Kang

2

Bai 

2

Zai 

2

Gong 

3

Guan 

3

Xiang 

3

Lushan 

3

Jiushao 

4

Leng 

4

She 

4

Qi 

4

Pu  

5

Guo

5

Tong 

5

Chengda 

5

Sanxing 

6

Tian 

6

Meng

6

Fuling 

6

Ragua 

7

Yu 

7

Si 

7

Buwei

7

Duan 

8

Long 

8

Bu 

8

Yong 

8

Yuan 

9

Shu 

9

Fei 

9

Feng 

9

Jie 

10

Roll column II

10

Roll Column III

10

Roll column IV

10

Gui

 

TABLE IV: DEATHBLADE’S RANDOM NAME FOR FEMALE CHARACTER 

I

II

III

IV 

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

1

Min

1

Ying 

1

Pei 

1

A’zhu

2

Bao

2

Hou 

2

Qixia 

2

Daoyun 

3

Hui 

3

Zhao 

3

Mochou 

3

Shanhu

4

Na 

4

Feiyan 

4

Ruolun 

4

Wenrou

5

Mei

5

Zhi

5

Qingzhao 

5

Guanyin 

6

Ji

6

Nuan

6

Tao 

6

Lingyue 

7

Rong

7

Ye

7

Jieyu 

7

Xuanji 

8

Jia 

8

Shengtong 

8

Qiang 

8

Ruoxin 

9

Jiangnu 

9

San 

9

Zhen’er

9

Yuhuan 

10

Roll column II

10

Roll Column III

10

Roll column IV

10

Xiaolongnu 

 

TABLE V: DEATHBLADE’S RANDOM SURNAME GENERATOR 

I

II

III

IV 

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

Roll 1d10

1

Pei

1

Zhang 

1

Song

1

Ban

2

Hua

2

Ma 

2

Fan 

2

Cai 

3

Qin 

3

Zhu 

3

Yao

3

Feng 

4

Hu

4

Hou 

4

Gu 

4

Luo 

5

Hong

5

Li

5

Liang 

5

Sun 

6

Yang 

6

Leng 

6

Meng 

6

Xue 

7

Wang 

7

Wan 

7

Jin 

7

Xiao 

8

Liu

8

Ruang 

8

Nie

8

Shu

9

Lin 

9

Shao 

9

Ouyang 

9

Sima 

10

Roll column II

10

Roll Column III

10

Roll column IV

10

Zhuang