Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Adapting Wushu Genre to Homebrew

So today a more rpg mechanics oriented post, going over what I'm working on for the Wushu campaign. At heart, I'll be using the classic Storyteller mechanics. I'm used to them-- having adapted them for Legend of the Five Rings, various HCI portals, Exalted, and Vampire. Classic ST uses a dice pool system-- for most tests a number of dice equal to rating in appropriate skill plus appropriate stat. Dice which show up as 7+ count as a success, with 10's rolled counting as two successes. How many successes you need depends on the difficulty of the task involved. The system has nine stats broken into Physical (Dexterity, Strength, Stamina), Social (Charisma, Manipulation, Appearance) and Mental (Perception, Intelligence, Wits). There's a pool of about 30 broadly defined skills. Those basic resolution mechanics work well, so we'll run with that.

Combat will be handled slightly differently from that system. Storyteller is good in that it allows multiple actions pretty quickly, but that system can work against itself. With high dice pools, players can game out the system with multiple actions and running out an opponent's actions. The big change will be that players will have two separate dice pools in combat: an Action Pool (for attacks, parries and other tested maneuvers) and a Dodge Pool. The Action Pool is based on their particular skill, like Melee + Dex and the Dodge pool's based on Dodge + Dex. When a character defends he can choose to take a Parry, in which case he rolls his Action Pool or a Dodge, in which case he uses his Dodge pool. Each time he takes an action from a particular pool, he drops two dice from that pool.

So for example, let's say Scott has 8 dice in Melee and 8 dice in Dodge. He's attacked twice before he goes, so he opts to defend with his Dodge pool, rolling 8 against the first attack and 6 against the second. This means when he does attack, he can roll 8 dice for his attack. If he'd chosen to Parry one attack and Dodge another, he would have rolled 8 dice for each. However, when he went to attack, he'd only roll 6 dice.

What's the difference between dodge and parry?
*Dodge is affected by any armor the character is wearing.
*A character is limited in the number of parries and attacks he can make by the rate of his weapon, typically 3.
*Some weapons give parry bonuses.
*Some things cannot be parried.

Weapons, Armor and Damage
Since this is a fantasy game, I'm going to build the weapon table relatively broadly. One of the things about the Wushu genre is really that any weapon (except maybe a magical one) is about as effective as another one. Not realistic, but in fitting with the genre. So, if we assume that the standard 1H Sword is the baseline weapon, then you can define things from that. For example, a bow will have a lower rate, but has the bonus of being usable at range. Those two things balance out, so a bow will probably have damage close to a sword. On the other hand, the thrown dart/knife, has a standard rate, usable at range, and can be concealed, so it will have a slightly lower damage. Other elements-- like having to use two hands, parry bonuses, or special effects (like assist with disarms) will be worked in. I'm not saying that all weapons will be equal, but I'd like to get away from the problem Exalted has-- where there's one weapon everyone ought to have, period or else they're behind the curve.

I'm doing away with the distinction between Lethal and Bashing damage. Damage is damage. Armor has a Damage Resistance rating, usually fairly low-- since armor's less of an element in this genre. So maybe the heavy plate will eat up five wounds. You don't have to roll for that, it is simply subtracted. Armor, on the other hand, will significantly impinge on your ability to Dodge. Beyond the set DR of a character's armor (if any), they will get to roll dice equal to their Stamina against damage. Each success reduces the damage by one. Damage done with a weapon is rolled-- equal to weapon damage plus strength plus any maneuver bonuses. When the player rolls the initial attack, any 10's they roll also give them an extra die to roll for damage. 10's count as two successes for damage. Characters will have a pool of wounds (around 12) based on Stamina plus any advantages.

Combat Styles
The heart of a Wushu game--he basic principle for the Martial Arts system in this game is that characters learn elements which they may apply to their Attacks and Defenses. Elements are learned in sets of styles. In the beginning, characters will be limited in the number of elements they may apply to any single maneuver. Warrior Archetype characters will be able to apply one more than other archetype. A character can only apply a particular element twice if they have learned it from two different styles. For example, Damaging might be called “Hammering” in Blessed Smithy Style and “Dragon's” in Claws of the Storm Style. If a character knew both styles, he could apply both to get something like Hammering Dragon's Strike, which would give him +2 dice damage.

We found in play that having one's maneuver elements on cards allowed players to quickly sort and come up with what they wanted to do. I've generally listed elements as being applicable to Offense, Defense or All. In addition, some obviously apply to Ranged or Grapple attacks so I've noted that. Some are very magical elements, so I've noted them as “Super”. Not all of these elements are necessarily balanced, but styles should have about six elements which should balance that out-- as well, more powerful effects will appear less frequently among the styles.

Scholar and Courtiers archetypes will have some guidelines for applying the elements to their respective spheres. They will also have a set of three styles each exclusive to their Archetypes.

Some example elements:

Must follow a successful grab. Adds +2 damage to a Grab and Crush attack. Doubling adds +3 damage.

Maneuver gains a +1 bonus to damage.

Fighter may parry a normally non-parryable attack such as a missile weapon. Doubling allows the fighter to either parry unusual attacks such as flames or thrown boulders or reflect the attack. If the attack is reflected, the original attacker must defend against his own attack.

Successful maneuver knocks weapon out of target’s hand in lieu of doing damage. Target must make a Strength test to resist. Doubling allows the fighter to gains control of the weapon used if the disarm is successful, gaining a bonus if they attack with it.


If the attack or parry is successful, the target also loses a point of Chi.

Maneuver draws the attention or the target or temporarily disrupts his senses: flash powders, spat needles, etc are examples. The opponent suffers a -1 penalty to all Perception or Attack rolls until the end of the turn. Doubling makes this penalty -2 or doubles duration.

If the attack or parry is successful, the target also loses a point of Willpower.

Here are three sample styles:

Eight-Diagram Sabre
Nerve ---> Demanding
Grab ---> Harrying
Resilient ---> Mirrored
Choke ---> Righteous
Feint ---> Sublime
Lock ---> Hidden

Taunt of the Monkey
Venom ---> Nail
Damaging ---> Lashing
Breaking ---> Gift
Distraction/Trickery ---> Monkey’s
Precise ---> Echo
Returning ---> Crying

Fist of Precise Thought
Paralyze ---> Empty
Rapid ---> Continuous
All-Around ---> Total
Distraction/Trickery ---> Dividing
Mook-Breaker ---> Singular
Unblockable ---> Final

Characters can freely apply elements from different styles together to create new attacks and new maneuvers. These maneuvers are still classed as an Attack, Parry or Dodge. Some of the Super elements, like Explosion, with have a Chi cost as well to activate them). This is yet another reworking of this system and this time I've tried to eliminate or change maneuvers which brought up timing issues. Also some effects I've moved out to special abilities or stances just because they did work as well.

Note that elements and styles are not weapon specific-- they can be equally applied to anything one is doing. This simplifies things-- meaning you don't have to keep two or more sets of different kinds of word and also represents the flexibility of the various martial forms.

Styles are purchased in sets, with three ranks to be purchased. The first rank gives the character four of the style's words/elements. The second rank gives the character another word, plus a stance particular to the style. Stances are continuous effects a player may invoke on their turn. For example, a stance might increase a character's ability to soak damage, might allow them to conduct secondary actions uninterrupted (like writing a letter while fighting), or provide a bonus to resist grapples. The third rank gives the last word of the set, called the Secret Word-- often one of the more potent or Super elements. As well, it also gives the character a special ability.

I have 22 styles done up in basic (elements with their particular words). Nine of these (three each) will be specific to particular archetypes (Warrior, Courtier, Scholar). The rest will be generally available. My thought is that they represent basic schools and forms-- so there might be some variation depending on sub-schools and so on.

Willpower, Virtues, Chi and Epics

I'm pretty sure I'll have two different expendable resources for the players. Willpower is spent by characters to activate Virtues, ala Scion. Characters choose three Virtues to represent themselves at the beginning of the game, like Honor, Sincerity, Valor, and so on. They have a rating, usually from 1-3. If a player wishes they can explain how a particular action fits with the carrying out of that virtue. They can then spend a point of Willpower to gain dice on that action equal to their Virtue's rating. They're also limited to doing this in a scene to a number of times equal to the Virtues rating.

Chi, on the other hand, will have a couple of uses, but will be primarily for activating special abilities. I'm still getting the dynamics of that.
Finally, I'll also be using the concept of Epic Dots in stats. An epic dot in a particular stat means that when you roll that stat, you get an automatic additional success. I'll be keeping this fairly limited, but I'd like players to end up with a couple of Epic dots just to give them some potency.

More later.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

White Mountain, Black River: Societies and Cities of Yanzhou


Part Two: Societies and Cities

The Wulin World, as you know has several different paths, each containing within them a host of sects, brotherhoods, and styles. The accidents of history-- geography, master teachers, alliances and betrayals has shaped those orders and organizations. Those of the East fall have been called the Temple orders, in the East, they follow a tradition called Kiongfu, the heartlands organize under the umbrella of Wuxia, the South calls it Gongzhu. In the northern reaches, including Yangzhou, the tradition and the orders which hold to them are referred to as the Jianghua Societies. There exists a central shared tradition among many of those orders, a lineage of a sort. Even those brotherhoods not presently tied to the Jianghau Society principals today generally trace themselves back to an early teacher. Regardless of what forms and principles the Jianghua Societies originally formed under they've expanded, diversified and changed so much that each sects seems very different from one another.

Within Jianghau, the Society itself has split into two major factions, with several groups outside or at the margins. The Holy Society, the smaller of the two, takes its name from the sacred retreat of the Sect, located on Holy Mountain. Holy Society, despite its name, generally has a negative reputation. They're seen as extremely strict and some fanatical members in the past gained great and unrighteous reputations. However, it may not be beneficial to describe them as evil or wicked out of hand. They certainly pursue a darker path, but some members have been loyal heroes or important figures within the Wulin world. Notably among Jianghua groups, Holy Society led the movement to support the Tian Dynasty and the overthrow of the last dynasty. Three major groups make up this sect. The first is the Ninth Void which leads the group, but remains fairly secretive. Orders from the Void come down from Holy Mountain and their operatives are said to move throughout the many orders of the region. Their style is said to have a more sorcerous bent. The second is Twilight Blade, whose leader Shadowed Saber, has command over Only Six Devils city. His agents range far and wide throughout the north and have a generally neutral reputation. On the other hand, the Harvesting Fists, the last of the three major sects of Holy Society has a more fearsome presence-- with a leader, Avalache Tsui, who seems ready to bring any simmering conflict into open war.

The other major sect of Jianghau, the Righteous Party, has a better reputation, but still contains within it some troublesome elements. It has five sects presently counted among its number, the sixth having been dissolved after an internal struggle some fifteen years ago. Worryingly General Guan Cang has a great deal of influence within the Righteous Party, having supported the elevation of his cousin Tengfei Cang to leadership of the Blazing Wheel, the most important sect within Righteous Party. Closely allied to the Blazing Wheel are the Seven Fiery Ghosts, which practices a conventional style despite the exotic name. The Pilgrim's Ox Escort Bureau and the Purity Sword sects of the Righteous Party have an excellent reputation for justice and heroism. On the other hand, the Hundred Faces, a Daoist wushu sect, with a strange masked style maintains a haughty attitude and mysterious ways which alienate outsiders.

The rift between the two sides within this Wulin order has significant consequences. Members of the Holy Society may not associate with the Righteous Party and vice versa. Both sides keep to this, with violations being punishable by exile or death. Both sides take their war seriously-- and conflict can occur frequently. However, the Governor has brought some measure of control to the situation. Duels or battles between them which cause a disruption to the public order is not punishable by death-- and regardless of the circumstances he holds both sides accountable. Additionally he declared Waiting Sage's City off-limits to fighting between the two sides in any form. All representatives of either side to receive punishment should that peace be broken. This has meant open conflict has been reduced, but the battles still go on behind the scenes. Holy Society has fewer members, but a more hierarchical system of leadership and control. Righteous Party, while larger, suffers from a diversity of authorities and tensions at times between the sects.

Other Wulin groups do have a presence within Yanzhou beyond these two sides. The Beggar Clan, as elsewhere, elects a Beggar King to this area, in this case the notorious Ugly Yedong. Other small groups exist, such as Red Lotus' Blossoming-Towards-Crimson Academy and Ironhand Nan's Sheathed-Blade Empty-Hand Prosperity Society, both of which operate independently in Only Six Devils with the approval of Shadowed Saber. Some of these groups are small schools, while some are portions of or a presence for a particular clan.

Beyond the world of formal Wulin, three groups exert a dangerous and unrighteous influence within Yanzhou. The Wicked Pavilion is a potent and dangerous criminal organization operating within Yanzhou. They trade in conventional banditry, theft, extortion and murder for hire. As well, they are said to have a significant stake in the trade in Black Lotus. Unlicensed production and possession of Black Lotus is a serious crime. However, Yanzhou Province has a number of legal production points-- with those crops being sent on to the capital to be made into medicines. It is a well-known fact that the amount of Black Lotus actually produced and trafficked through Yanzhou far outweighs the amount alloted to the license. In some cases, this is clearly a bureaucratic tactic with paperwork being confusing and misleading. In other case further away from the cities, groups like the Wicked Pavilion undertake such harvests without even the pretense of legality. The Governor does, from time to time, send enforcers out to burn some fields as a gesture. However, the trade continues and is likely of high value to all parties involved. Investigators should exercise caution when dealing with these trades.

A more fearful group, however, has also made its name known in recent years. Once thought exterminated, the Many Venoms Sect is said to be growing. They're an awful group-- practicing forbidden arts and rituals. In the past they grew strong enough to challenge the authorities and the putting down of them created the Scarlet Marsh and destroyed the regional capital. They treat with demons and devils, practice magics based on blood and have little purpose other than destruction and power. Any sign of their activities should be taken seriously. Should they be reforming in any form, they must be put down mercilessly.

Lastly, the Hell Clan, as everywhere throughout the land, has a presence here. From their stronghold in the East, the Hell Clan keeps its fingers in all manner of criminal activity, through a network of agents and powerful enforcers. They have great power in the margins-- kingdoms not aligned with the Empire, barbarian lands, and the settled places far from local authorities. The Hell Clan seems bent on power-- but especially seems devoted to the acquisition and control of Heavenly or Divine Weapons. Those weapons shape destinies and they believe controlling them means their star will rise. The recruit with threats and coercion-- claiming that in such unsettled times, only the strong will survive. Those who refuse to become their clients are killed.

The Hell Clan's Lord, Dominion, watches for any and tales tales of legendary weapons arising. If he believes they can be obtained or taken, he sends his powerful emissaries to undertake the task. Rest assured that the Hell Clan has agents present in Yanzhou, though for now, their identity remains unknown.

The Cities and Towns of Yanzhou
Only Six Devils is an unusual place-- reckless yet tightly controlled. Shadowed Sabre remains in his palace, overseeing the affairs of the city. Rumor has it he travels out, but few if any have seen him. Only Six Devils is the second largest city within Yanzhou, rivaling the capital. Other smaller places are more properly called towns rather than cities. Yet, most accept that the master of this place has no ambitions greater than maintaining his fief as he wills it. Only Six Devils serves as the gateway to the western reaches. Traders know that goods of a questionable provenance will have a less thorough examination here than elsewhere. The city itself is divided into six districts, each overseen by a unique district governor. Entry into the wealthier sections of the city requires sponsorship-- keeping the rabble to the outskirts. This also ensures than persons within the district maintain their client relations to their allies.

Three Wisdoms in the northeast is home to General Guan Cang and his family. The city itself sits beside the Dai River in the midst of the verdant woods. Great trouble has been taken to clear the area surrounding the city, while at the same time keeping the feeling of a natural place. Visitors coming upon the city from the great road often express surprise as the city itself miraculously appears from within the forest. Guan Cang himself rules the city in fact, if not in name. Stone-Minded Lang serves as the city's governor, but he comes from a client family closely allied to that of Guan. Three-Wisdoms serves as the central city for the Righteous Party, and their members have strong sway here. It should be noted that the General maintains his troops in various barracks scattered within a day's distance from Three Wisdoms and that traps and breakfalls have been set up for the unwary attempting to infiltrate.

Nine Tiger's Watch in the southeast is also a city of the Righteous Party. However their presence is less overwhelming and more cooperative. Pang Yuwei of the Ox Pilgrim's Escort Bureau commands the city, but leaves much of the day to day affairs in the hands of trusted advisors. Instead he splits his time between the city, the Bureau's affairs, and time in his sect's sanctuary in the mountains. Nine Tiger's Watch is a smaller and more open town sitting on the lake. It forms the hub of a trade network of smaller villages along the lake. Many describe the pace here as sedate, others as boring.

When the Jewel of Morning, the Summer Capital of the old Yan Ruling family fell, the remaining royals abandoned the place. They resettled to Yanzhou and completely forgot this place. However, while the disaster had been mighty and the Scarlet Marsh nearby remains haunted, people eventually returned to the area. Many structures and buildings remained intact, and so people simply set up shop here. Over time the community grew, as people discovered that good quality clay could be harvested from the the marsh. Renamed Drowned Gate, under the Tian Dynasty, the city has come to be formally recognized. It remains the smallest and poorest of the cities of Yanzhou. The City Governor, Grandmother Yiyi, maintains loose rules. She does, however, keep a small staff of exorcists on call to deal with the occasional problems which arise. Travelers to Drowned Gate have described the experience as quite strange-- some parts of the city feeling as abandoned as ever and even the settled areas possessing a haunted feeling.

Eight-Walled Grace, in the north, is a medium town built as much as a fortress. That had been its role before things quieted in the north. The Governor, Pei Feng Fu, keeps a close eye on the situation. At the same time, he's fairly welcoming of outsiders and those of the north who wish to come into the Empire. Most describe Pei Feng Fu as an able administrator, reasonably dedicated to the prosperity of people in his town. That is said less of Flawless Ning, master of the town of Rooted Serenity in the south. He's more devoted to the improvement of his family and sect, the Heaven's Hand Brotherhood. Before Ning, they'd been aloof from Imperial and local affairs, but now they've more fully entered into the realm of politics. Ning has the ear of the Governor, or perhaps vice versa. Rooted Serenity is a modest town, a gathering point for downriver trade and Flawless Ning makes the most of his authority to inspect cargoes and check on goods.

Finally, we will move on to a discussion of Yanshan, the provincial capital and consider the character of the Governor and his people.

Friday, June 26, 2009

White Mountain, Black River: The Land of Yanzhou Province

Working on my Wushu campaign and just finished the material on the geography of the region they'll be assigned to. I drew a map which is of fairly decent size. When I figure out where to post that (maybe on one of the wiki's) I'll put a link here. I borrowing and melding a lot of of concepts together here, so you may see some things you'll recognize if you know the genre or the rpg games.


Part One: The Land Itself

To begin with, let us consider the geography of the province of Yanzhou. It seems fairly likely that you will have to travel across the area in pursuit of your duties, so I've provided some recent maps from the Office of Imperial Destinations and Certainties. You will memorize those maps and then return them to me. An additional set of scrolls and materials detailing survey and other information will be provided to you in the Magistrates code.

You will forgive, I hope, an old man his meandering description of the area. We begin first by describing the outline of the body, of the region. Those natural elements and barriers which surround Yanzhou. They set the shape and the limits of the province.

Yanzhou itself lies mostly between three mountain ranges, to the West, the great Fox Mountains form a border with Tengzhou, a province currently outside of the Empire. Crossing this range is difficult, especially in winter when the snows close most travel. However, Broken Leopard's pass serves as a major route for trade-- annoyingly the pass is wide enough that while most of the traffic can be monitored, various paths and trails hidden in the high points can be used by those wishing to smuggle persons or goods into Yanzhou. Since beyond Tengzhou lies our rival, the Kingdom of Zhang, you can expect evil and mischief to certainly come from this direction.

Adding to the complication is the state of the city which lies on the Yanzhou side of the pass, Only Six Devils. Only Six Devils provides trade in exotic goods, and a refuge for my travelers wishing to skirt the eyes of the law. The city is overseen by the Wenyi family, and in particular the reclusive Shadowed Saber. Several notable organizations and sects have their home there-- all of whom have only a passing degree of alliance and sympathy to the Emperor and to the Provincial Governor. Shadowed Saber, the lord of the city is a powerful man, and turning him out from there has remained out of the question. When pressed the about controlling lawlessness there, the Governor asks for specifics and turns to the agreement which brought Yanzhou into the Empire, making such matters the Emperor's responsibility. I despair of such legalisms-- but know that the situation there is unsettled.

I should also stop and mention that the pass there lies in the shadow of White Mountain, one of the the three sacred Mountains located in Yanzhou: White Mountain, Holy Mountain, and Seven Waters Mountain. Of these White Mountain has the most accursed reputation. It has been the site and refuge for rebels in the past, and in particular for cults practicing strange and dark occult ways. There have been rumors of late of another group having set up there, but so far no agent who has investigated the matter has returned.

Where was I....yes, the two other ranges of mountains. In the northeast, the trailing end of the Songshan Mountain Range reaches into Yanzhou. There lies Seven Waters Mountain, a site of many pilgrimages. Some believe the Water Dragon itself lives beneath the mountain there, providing the rich series of rivers, springs and water falls which dot the area. One of the richest deep forests of the land runs along the western side of that mountain range, the Emerald Cloud Forest. While the southern end of those woods been settled, the northern portion of it is dense and mazelike-- a home to bandits, spirits and some accursed places. If you travel there, you will need to employ a trustworthy local to help you navigate those depths-- otherwise you will likely never return.

The Songshan Range splits apart desolate areas-- on the western side lies the southern edge of the Vengeance Wastes, a forbidding and desolate area, with a single large mountain known at the Prophetic Master's Peak overlooking it. The desperate, the exiled and the barbaric make this land their home. Beyond that lies wilder lands, homes to tribesmen who war among themselves and on occasional gather enough strength to raid the Empire. That being said, some trade does originate from here-- skilled merchants can obtain rare spices, the occasional relic, and powerful horse lines from the barbarians. As well, some of the more obscure forms of Lotus originate from among these people, a problem potentially worse than the Black Lotus trade in Yanzhou-- but I get ahead of myself.

On the other side, east of the Songshan Range range lies the Copper Sands. It is a rough desert, sporadically dotted with rocky plateaus and a few oases. The sands there have a deep coppery hue and wear down anything standing there for long. Beyond the Copper Sands lies the Kingdom of Wei, another realm which has stayed outside of the Empire. Wei is small, but said to have many clever and capable scholars. Some trade comes across the Copper Sands from caravans hugging the line of the mountains, but more goes along other routes to different provinces of the Empire. Those routes are, however, heavily monitored and watched which means that Wei smugglers and agents rely on the Copper Sands route to move goods without the Emperor's approval.

The Copper Sands, despite a forbidding nature, also serves an important role in the economy of the region and the empire. Several rich silver mines exist there. Caravans from the mines to the capitol provide a rich target for banditry, hence an Imperial Garrison stationed at the fortress of Unthinkable Noose. They escort the caravans on an irregular schedule and help ensure the proper tribute and distribution comes to the Emperor of Tian.

I should mention as well, before one even reaches the Copper sands, from the Yanzhou side, one must cross the Twin Brothers Gorge or else take a more northerly route. The canyon is said to have resulted from a struggle between heroes in the days of the First Dynasty-- when The Brothers Eng stood against the Beastblooded and kept them from encroaching into the newly founded Empire. When they sacrificed themselves and their Divine Weapons a rift opened in the earth, swallowing the invading army. Today the Gorge serves as a refuge for outlaws and wandering hermits, a dangerous places likely to swallow those who venture there unprepared.

South of the Gorge lies the Eighteen Prayers Mountains. Less treacherous than the other ranges it runs from here eastward before trailing south. At one time the mountains housed a number of Daoist Temples. However persecution in the earliest days of the previous dynasty forced many away. Some say a few sects remain there, quiet and sequestered away from the world. The mountains are rumored to also host a large population of Wukong, a unclean monkey race. Some claim the Wukong have been the source of theft and misfortune in the area, but investigations have turned up little factual evidence.

Lastly One Spider Forest serves as another natural border for the province. This area lies south of the Eighteen Prayer Mountains. The name comes from the breed of spiders particular to the woods, all the deepest blue with identical and elaborate red markings on their backs. Legend says the woods holds only one spider and all of the little ones seen are actually fragments of that original great glass spider, shattered by a hero even before the First Dynasty. One can find several small villages along the outskirts of the forest, populated by families who have cut wood there for centuries.

With the body of the province thus outlined, let us consider the flow of blood through it. The Black River provides that nourishment-- running through the center and connecting the various areas. The Black River begins in the far north, at Prophetic Master's Peak and continues through Yanzhou, fed by smaller rivers coming from the surrounding mountains. Many small tributaries exist, meaning that the river and the plains themselves are well-watered-- particularly in the resource rich north. The Black River is massive in many places and holds an unusual feature. When the river reaches the center of Yanzhou it turns back north and then reverses itself, heading back towards the south. River tradesmen, depending on the weather, must choose whether to follow the course of move good overland at that point. The provincial capital of Yanshan lies along the river in the center of this formation, serving as a trade and exchange hub.

Three tributaries are of significant size to be noted on your map. The first is Dai River which descends from Seven Waters Mountain. This river is said to be plentiful wish fish and blessed by the gods themselves. The second is the Middle River which comes from Fallen Starlight Lake. Locals use this river to transport wood, fish and other goods. The third is Crying Daughters River which comes from the Crimson Marsh. That river constantly shows its violence, flooding frequently and wrecking unwary vessels with jagged rocks and fallen trees. The marsh itself came into being after a tragic battle nearly a hundred years ago, involving sorcerers and a portion of the Many Venoms Cult. A good number of the former the royal family of Yanzhou died in the battle and the summer and winter capitals combined at Yanshan. The ruins of the old capital remain there, part of the renamed city of Drowned Gate.

Some suggest that disaster, and the eventual extermination of the line of Yan, caused the imbalance of harmony which still affects Yanzhou. Until that time, both north and south prospered equally well, but afterwards, changes in the weather and quality of the harvests forced many to the north which had prospered. Indeed the weather in Yanzhou has a reputation for strangeness. The region receives both a strong winter, with snows coming down from the mountains, as well as a significant portion of the Monsoon weather which funnels up the valley. However, in the north these seasons bear more temperance-- and nourish the land, whereas in the south they can be devastating for those trying to survive.

If the natural borders form the skin the rivers form the circulatory system, then the farmlands form the muscles of an area. Those muscles are stronger in the north than the south. Other features then also serve as the organs of the region, notably the cities. I've mentioned the capital, called Yanshan or Waiting Sage's City, as well as Drowned Gate and Only Six Devils. In the far north lies Eight Walled Grace, the border city which organizes trade and wealth for the area-- moving those goods downriver to the capital. Eight-Walled has a diverse population, including barbarians who have decided to take up and urban life. It maintains communication with the border fort and trade post at Binyan's Rest, lying even further north along the river.

While many villages exist, three other major towns help keep sustain the health of the area. Three Wisdoms lies in the Emerald Cloud Forest, close by the Seven Rivers Mountain. This is General Guan Cang's demesne. His family has held influence in this area for generations. It generates great wealth for himself and for the province. Guan Cang maintains a large standing force there-- ostensibly to protect the area from bandits and to ensure that the Imperial Silver shipments reach their intended destination.

Further south lies the town of Nine Tiger's Watch along Fallen Starlight Lake. Pang Yuwei is master of this city. He's said to be an independently minded man. That has won him no favors from Governor Qui Cheng. Still they maintain cordial relations. Pang's family maintains the Pilgrim's Ox Escort Bureau. This serves as both a wushu order, teaching his own Harmony Saber style, as well as providing private guards for persons and caravans. Pang Yuwei handles the affairs of the various lake villages in the area as well.

Finally, the last city before one leaves Yanzhou to the south is Rooted Serenity. This city is overseen by Flawless Ning, an administrator hand-picked by Governor Qui Cheng from among the notable Heaven's Hand Brotherhood. The Heaven's Hand have been a righteous clan in the past but disquieting rumors have reached imperial ears of their engaging in less noble practices. Flawless Ning himself doesn't stand out as a particularly noble man. He's strongly tied his affairs to those of the governor, clearly hoping for greater influence and the elevation of his family further.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

GUMSHOE Spyworld

Working on finishing some script pages and getting a geography overview done for upcoming Wushu campaign. I'd like to get both done by tomorrow so I can have Friday to devote to the Libri Vidicos prep-- plus I have some outstanding game emails to do. So, lots of things on my plate right now. I finally broke down and move my set up down to the basement with the laptop. The house has AC but it can get hot on the second floor during the day-- and eventually that wears me down. So, trying to get used to working on the laptop rather than the bigger screen. In any case, I don't think I shared my notes on my Espionage rethinking for the Gumshoe system. I know I presented my sketch notes for the session I ran, but not the mechanics changes.

Gumshoe's a great system-- except for the challenge task resolution system. The investigation system is, however quite good and makes a great deal of sense. My spy/espionage games have a combination of investigation, caper, and action-- so I tried to rework the system for that. If I were to go back to revisit this I would reduce the pool of skills in the various sections I list before and I would overhaul the challenge (i.e. physical actions, combat, etc) mechanics.

We've been looking at Gumshoe and one of our group is about to run a short-term Steampunk adaptation of it. I've been thinking about doing a more espionage and Bondian version. We've been particularly inspired by one of Robin law's posts on planning in rpgs. We used that in several games recently. I was thinking you could build a system for that into a secret agent version of Gumshoe.

I was thinking of slimming the skills down and having three types: General, Investigation, and Operational.

Martial Arts

I'm imagining Cool as a version of Sanity for this setting-- used for resisting torture, keeping a level head in threatening situations, etc. Technical covers all the mechanical and electronics stuff. Tradecraft would reflect knowledge of procedures, basic disguise, and serve as a catch-all skill.

Data Retrieval
Human Perception

I've put many of the skills together here. Connoisseur covers all the fine knowledges (Art History, Geneology, etc). Professional would cover things like accounting, law, etc. Human Perception is BS Detector plus profiling and psychology. Education covers things like history, politics, and so on. I think the rest are pretty clear.

Operational skills are used to explain something that you have set up beforehand while carrying out a plan. It is not used to do something in the present, that is what General and Investigative skills are for. Instead, you use these skills to justify an existing situation. For example-- Rob is crossing through a hallway when he detects a set of guards coming his way. He says that his advance preparations told him of an accessible vent nearby which he can hide in. This is the use of his Advance Team skill (indicating someone who has found the floor plans for him). He spends one point from his Advance Team skill. Once that is used up he cannot call on that. The GM may rule that certain requests are either impossible or cost more points. At that point the player may choose to not use the skill, pay the extra points or attempt to have something more reasonable occur.

These are very rough thumbnail descriptions.

Advance Team
Someone has gotten advance information (floor plans, guard schedules, names, etc) ahead of time that you can use.

Back Up Team
Second stringer support people who can pick people up, provide minor distractions, or give signals.

A significant person from within an organization (like the Mafia, another Intelligence Agency, etc) provides support.

From uniforms to latex masks, you have a quick and ready disguise.

Someone within or close to the target organization has been fooled into doing your bidding. It could be bribery, seduction or simple manipulation.

You have a fake identity and documentation to convince someone of who you are or to get past a checkpoint.

Strangely enough you just happen to have an obscure technical device just for this situation.

You have laid the necessary groundwork to break into a system, or perhaps you already have broken in and only now your Trojan Horse is going active.

Lucky Break
The fortunes smile upon you as something just happens to assist you at the right moment.

You've trained yourself for this-- perhaps swallowing a key, having a receiver inserted beneath your skin or being able to slip free of bindings by dislocating your shoulder.

You have the necessary item at hand-- from a vehicle in place to flares on hand to rope stowed away. This could also be money.

Pulling Strings
You have called in a high level favor from someone (arranged for a power grid to go out, called in a Keyhole satellite). This is the kind of favor that makes noise and gets noticed.

Your knowledge of the particular kind of security involved has allowed you to create a dummy image, set off sensors elsewhere, or find a hole in their field of view.

Sleight of Hand
You've planted something on someone or lifted it from them instead.

You've cut the brake lines, arranged for an explosion, or set up a remote delayed breaker.

Your training has given you an insight into the situation you can exploit.

I'm wondering how many points I ought to assign to each. I've trained to keep the three categories of skills even (at sixteen skills each) which has meant some lumping together and overlap. I might put a limit on the Lucky Break skill as well so people can't just sink points into that.

Couple of other thoughts that occurred to me. First, spending points from the Operational skills essentially allows you to redact or retcon something you've set up ahead of time into the present events. You might still have to make a check on a General skill to see how well the effect goes off. I'd still want some risk, but in general I'm imagining that if the player spends the point then it should at least have the minimal effect. On the other hand, there might be unintended consequences and/or the player may have to start making checks to keep up with changes to the present events.

Second, I was thinking about how this fits best with something like a Mission Impossible or Global Frequency campaign, rather than straight spies (mostly since the espionage genre is better suited to a single protagonist rather than an ensemble). I wouldn't want to get too crunchy or detailed, but I was thinking that a character might have 1-3 specialties with the General skills. For example, a master weaponsmith might have that as a specialty under Technical. Or a Martial Artist might have locks or throws as a specialty. When carrying out a task within their specialty, the character would gain +2 to the roll per point spent rather than +1. I don't want to extend this too far as one of the things I like about Gumshoe is the simplicity and wide brush-strokes of the system. But it could be a nice way to have a character define signature moments, abilities or moves which make them stand out from the other PCs.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Profession Tracks for Action Cards High Fantasy

The second part of my Gamemastering NPC series is up over at Fantasy Magazine-- give it a clickthrough if you're generously inclined.

Continuation of yesterday's post looking at the new variations I've made to the Action Cards system-- the second half of the Profession Tracks I developed. You'll notice my liberal borrowing of RM terms (Pure and Semi-spell casters, the idea of realms of magic). I also added in some of the concepts for magic that Sherri developed for her Third Continent RM game-- Willful abilities, Frameworks, Magical Languages. She managed to come up with a set of ideas about magic and the realms that I've pretty much merged into my understanding over the years.

Part One can be found here.


A Pure spell-caster of the Divine. The character has begun to dedicate themselves to the service of a particular deity and learn those powers. The character must have purchased the Pure spell-caster talent.

Rank One: The Initiate may choose two magic schools. She gains five ranks to divided among them. The character is limited to five schools at up to three ranks in any of them.

Rank Two: The Initiate may choose up to three schools to gain a +1 bump in, as the Natural Adept talent (in the magic section).

Rank Three: The Initiate may choose an additional school and three additional ranks to divide among the schools she knows.

Rank Four: The Initiate has learned to defend his faith. He gains a skill in (Weapon) Attack or Parry. In addition, the Initiate may take a skill in Divine Legends, Ritual, Counseling, or Temple Management.

Rank Five: The Initiate may move up his Social results by one grade on three Fixed cards.

Priest (Initiate, Secondary)
The Priest has walked further down the path of his or her cult, being taught deeper secrets and learning to contact and commune with the forces of the cult's god and that god's allied spirits.

Rank One: The Priest gains +2 wounds.

Rank Two: The Priest may choose a new magic school and gain a rank in it. The character is limited to seven schools at up to four ranks in any of them.

Rank Three: The Priest gains five ranks to distribute among the magic schools she knows.

Rank Four: The Priest may apply a single modifier twice when casting a spell.

Rank Five: The Priest may spend a point of focus to modify the next buff spell he casts. It automatically becomes others, many and selective-- essentially affecting the whole party. These bonus modifiers do not count towards the modifier cap for the spell.

Mystic (Initiate, Secondary)
The Mystic communes with the Spirit Realm, but is less driven towards service to a particular god. She may still be a strong and proud follower of her god, but she has developed abilities dealing with the lesser spirits and their forces.

Rank One: The Mystic may reflexively detect the presence of active spirits in an area. By spending a point of focus, he can determine the presence and nature of bound spirits in an area or item.

Rank Two: The Mystic may choose a new magic school and gain a rank in it. The character is limited to seven schools at up to four ranks in any of them.

Rank Three: The Mystic gains a skill in a magic school of his choice. In addition he gains the talent Strong Will.

Rank Four: The Mystic gains five ranks to distribute among magic schools she knows.

Rank Five: The Mystic gains the ability to use Spirit Matrices at rank one. During a scene, the Mystic may activate a spell in his framework as a free action. Activating a Spirit Matrices spell costs one focus. No casting pull is required, but if the spell is an attack spell, an attack pull is made. Once a spell has been activated, the Mystic must wait until he has prep time to reload the spell in his Spirit Matrices. Spells in Spirit Matrices do not have to be declared ahead of time.

A Pure spell-caster of the Arcane. The character perhaps picked up knowledge from a traveler, served as an apprentice or been trained with a small group. Sorcery and the Arcane carries with in a major stigma in many areas of the continent. The character must have purchased the Pure spell-caster talent.

Rank One: The Apprentice may choose three magic schools. She gains three ranks to be divided among them. The character is limited to five schools at up to three ranks in any of them.

Rank Two: The Apprentice gains three additional ranks to divide among the schools known.

Rank Three: The Apprentice may choose one spell Modifier. This Modifier is considered to apply to all of that character's spells and don't count towards the Rank Limit. Fast may not be taken. This is as the Masterful talent.

Rank Four: The Apprentice has learned that discretion is the better part of valor. He gains a skill in Dodge Melee or Dodge Parry. Additionally he may choose a skill in Magic Lore, Magic Languages, Magical Crafting or Labwork.

Rank Five: The Apprentice may move up his Knowledge results by one grade on three Fixed cards.

Magician (Apprentice, Secondary)

Magicians tend to be elementalists, focused on the basic forms and structures of magic. They focus on casting directed spells and learn how to ready themselves for magical combat.

Rank One: The Magician may choose one school with direct damage effects. He always does +1 damage when casting damage spells from that school.

Rank Two: The Magician may choose a new magic school and gain a rank in it. The character is limited to seven schools at up to four ranks in any of them.

Rank Three: The Magician gains a skill in Spell-Throwing or Spell-Countering. He also gains a skill in a magic school of his choice.

Rank Four: The Magician gains five ranks to distribute among the magic schools he knows.

Rank Five: The Magician gains the ability to use Frameworks at rank one. During a scene, the Magician may activate a spell in his framework as a free action. Activating a Framework spell costs one focus. No casting pull is required, but if the spell is an attack spell, an attack pull is made. Once a spell has been activated, the Magician must wait until he has prep time to reload the spell in his framework. Spells in frameworks do not have to be declared ahead of time.

Enchanter (Apprentice, Secondary)
Enchanters approach magic in a more careful way. They tend to work with objects, runes, sigils and devices. They're skilled at protections and recognizing magical devices.

Rank One: The Enchanter may gain a skill in a magic school of his choice.
Rank Two: The Enchanter may choose a new magic school and gain a rank in it. The character is limited to seven schools at up to four ranks in any of them.

Rank Three: The Enchanter may spend a point of focus to retroactively declare a buff on a piece of his own equipment of that of an ally. This buff lasts for that scene. This is a free action, but may only be done once per scene.

Rank Four: The Enchanter gains +2 wounds. In addition, the Enchanter gains the ability to reflexively delve the magical properties of items without having to cast magic. Depending on the item and its realm, the read may be superficial.

Rank Five: The Enchanter gains five ranks to distribute among magic schools he knows. In addition, when struck by damaging spells from a school he knows, he may reflexively spend a point of focus to give himself DR equal to his in that school. This is a free action, but does require a Knowledge pull to initially activate. The Enchanter must be aware of the attack. This DR lasts a number of rounds equal to the school rank.

A Semi spell-caster of Willfuls. The character has begun deeper and more meditative training to understand his own abilities. He has learned to channel those in new ways.

Rank One: The Acolyte may choose one magic school and gains 2 ranks in it. The character is limited to three schools at up to two ranks in any of them. If unarmored, the Acolyte may spend a point of Focus to give himself +1 Soak/DR and +1 Dodge (Melee or Ranged, choose) for a scene.

Rank Two: The Acolyte gains either a (Weapon) Parry skill or a skill in Dodge-- either Melee or Ranged.

Rank Three: The Acolyte may choose a magic school. He gains 2 ranks in it. He gains an additional wound box.

Rank Four: The Acolyte gains+1 Focus. He also learns the art of Willful Balance. By spending a round of prep, he can give himself cat-like reflexes for a scene, allowing him to walk tightropes, stand on ledges without fail, and keep himself steady against natural events. If persons actively attempt to unbalance him, he gains a +1 bump to associated tests.
Rank Five: The Acolyte may move up his Physical results by one grade on three Fixed cards.

Monk (Acolyte, Secondary)
The Monk has developed his ability to focus his internal power, allowing him to enhance his own abilities. These arts of Internal Alchemy allow him to survive and flourish in harsh conditions.

Rank One: The Monk gains +2 wounds.

Rank Two: The Monk has learned to survive in the harshest of environments-- he becomes more resistant to starvation, extended exposure to the elements, and can go without sleep for longer than the average human being.

Rank Three: The Monk may learn one new magic school. He gains four ranks to distribute among the Schools he knows. The Monk is limited to five schools and up to three ranks in any of them.

Rank Four: The Monk may choose a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. He is limited to a maximum of two combat styles.

Rank Five: The Monk gains a rank in a new magic school. The Monk learns the art of Willful Quickness. He may spend a point of focus to activate this ability. On following rounds, he may spend a point of Focus to act twice in the round-- once on his normal action and again at the end of the round.

Seer (Acolyte, Secondary)
The Seer has developed his perceptions and senses to an extraordinary level. He connects with the world on a different level, able to sense the ebb and flows of fate and chance.

Rank One: The Seer gains a skill in a magic school of his choice.

Rank Two: The Seer learns the art of Willful Perception. By spending a point of focus he may sense effectively in total darkness, in smoke or fog, or even while blinded. This lasts for a scene.

Rank Three: The Seer may learn one new magic school. He gains four ranks to distribute among the Schools he knows. The Seer is limited to five schools and up to three ranks in any of them.

Rank Four: The Seer has mastered the art of Willful Intuition. He may spend Drama points not just for himself, but also for his fellow players or even NPCs. Additionally, when faced with a set of apparently equally valid choices (such as a set of locked doors), he may spend a point of focus to gain a bump towards the most advantageous choice (as per the old Gurps Intuition advantage).

Rank Five: The Seer may choose a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. He is limited to a maximum of two combat styles. The Seer gains +2 wounds.

A character who has begun to explore deeper service to their deity, but combines that dedication with other skills and talent. Paladins and the like begin on this track. The character must have purchased the Semi spell-caster talent.

Rank One: The Layman may choose one magic school and gains 2 ranks in it. He also gains the Strong Will talent. The character is limited to three schools at up to two ranks in any of them.

Rank Two: The Layman may take a (Weapon) Attack skill of their choice.

Rank Three: The Layman may choose a magic school. He gains 2 ranks in it. He may also add +1 Wound box.

Rank Four: The Layman may choose a Combat Style. He may have up to two Combat Styles.

Rank Five: The Layman may move up either a Combat or Social result by one grade on one Fixed cards. He gains +2 wounds and a skill in a magic school.

Dervish (Layman, Secondary)
The Dervish focuses on movement and perception in combat. The channel their energies to make themselves blindingly fast and more difficult to hit. They've mastered how to distract opponents in order to defeat or evade them.

Rank One: After a successful blow, the Dervish may reposition himself and his opponent in the same relative area, spinning the combat to change the facings of both combatants (still facing each other, but spun within the 360 degree imaginary arc).

Rank Two: The Dervish gains a skill in Dodge Melee or Dodge Ranged.

Rank Three: The Dervish may learn one new magic school. He gains four ranks to distribute among the Schools he knows. The Holy Warrior is limited to five schools and up to three ranks in any of them.
Rank Four: The Dervish may choose a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. He is limited to a maximum of three combat styles.

Rank Five: The Dervish may spend a point of focus to negate an incoming attack on himself. The attack still happens, but the Dervish manages to dodge, dance or twirl out of the way. The attack will not hit another person, but might cause environmental effects depending on the cleverness of the character. This negation must be declared before the attack pull is made.

Holy Warrior (Layman, Secondary)
The Holy Warrior has learned to channel the blessings of his cult for their defense. He can smite his enemies and use his knowledge of his rites to supplement his weapons and armor.

Rank One: The Holy Warrior gains +2 wounds.

Rank Two: The Holy Warrior may spend a point of focus to empower his armor. This raises the number needed to do wounds to him by one for the scene. This effect may be dispelled.

Rank Three: The Holy Warrior may choose a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. He is limited to a maximum of two combat styles.

Rank Four: The Holy Warrior may learn one new magic school. He gains four ranks to distribute among the Schools he knows. The Holy Warrior is limited to five schools and up to three ranks in any of them.

Rank Five: When fighting cult enemies (the Undead, Chaos, or specific faiths), The Holy Warrior may perform a Smite at the cost of one focus. All damage dice which would be normally rolled are converted directly to damage.

A Semi spell-caster of the Arcane A character who has picked up a few bits and tricks about Arcane spell-casting. He may have learned some simple spells from adventurers or found discussion of an odd path. He combines this eclectic knowledge with other talents. The character must have purchased the Semi spell-caster talent.

Rank One: The Dabbler may choose one magic school and gains 2 ranks in it. He also gains a skill with Sleight of Hand, Holdout or Fast Talk. The character is limited to three schools at up to two ranks in any of them.
Rank Two: The caster may opt to take a wound instead of a fatigue point from casting as with the Deep Channel talent.

Rank Three: The Dabbler may choose a magic school. He gains 2 ranks in it. He may also raise one result on a card.

Rank Four: The Dabbler may choose one Combat Style and the associated elements. He is limited to two combat styles.

Rank Five: The Dabbler may move up a Combat or Knowledge result by one grade on one Fixed card. The Dabbler gains a skill in either Dodge Melee or Dodge Ranged. He also gains a skill in a magic school of his choice.

Spellblade (Dabbler, Secondary)
The Spellblade focuses on using his arcane talent to boost and amplify his signature weapon. He's able to reflexively call the forces of the elements to amplify his abilities and attacks.

Rank One: The Spellblade gains +2 wounds.

Rank Two: The Spellblade's empowering of his weapon gives him +1 to damage done with that weapon.

Rank Three: The Spellblade may choose a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. He is limited to a maximum of two combat styles.

Rank Four: The Spellblade may learn one new magic school. He gains four ranks to distribute among the Schools he knows. The Spellblade is limited to five schools and up to three ranks in any of them.

Rank Five: The Spellblade may spend a point of focus to grant his weapon elemental properties for a scene. This reduces the number needed to do damage by one. As well, the Spellblade may choose one of the following effects when first activating this ability: Fire-- can be used to ignite objects and target must test against blinding effect; Ice-- freezing makes target test against unbalancing; Lightning-- ignores DR/Soak for metal armor; or Earth-- stronger damage to inanimate objects and successful hits reduce target's DR by one.

Mountebanc (Dabbler, Secondary)
The Mountebanc has studied the arts of deception and trickery in his spellcasting. He can disguise his own magical aura and cover his true nature easily. His skills lend themselves to more practical matters, rather than combat exclusively.

Rank One: The Mountebanc can Feign Death by spending a point of focus. While in such a state, he appears dead to all non-magical analysis. The Mountebanc remains aware of his surroundings, although they may be a little hazy. It takes a minute to come out of the state. A Mountebanc may remain in this state for a number of hours equal to the total number of spell ranks he has. When he emerges from the state his hunger and other bodily needs will assert themselves.

Rank Two: The Mountebanc may spend a point of focus to disguise his spell signature. When casting his spells will not have the normal odd feeling given off by arcane magic. This lasts for one scene.

Rank Three: The Mountebanc may learn one new magic school. He gains four ranks to distribute among the Schools he knows. The Mountebanc is limited to five schools and up to three ranks in any of them.

Rank Four: The Mountebanc gains Mastery over the Subtle spell modifier.

Rank Five: The Mountebanc is Fleet of Foot, allowing him to move an extra two yards in combat. He also gains a skill in a magic school of his choice. He also gains a skill in Sleight of Hand, Begging or Pickpocket.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Adaptations for Action Cards High Fantasy

A two-parter today and tomorrow looking at some of the additions to the mechanics I've done to the Action Cards system to simulate a high fantasy campaign. These are long posts, for which I apologize. As I struggle with in a number of blog posts before, I wanted to create a slightly crunchier version of Action Cards while still maintaining that flexibility and narrative control for the players. I'd adapted some more detailed mechanics for the Changeling version of Action Cards-- Clarity, Glamour, the Seemings and Kiths, and especially the Contract sets. But there I'd deliberately remained fuzzy on a couple of areas. For handling the Third Continent campaign (where we'd run four times before, all with old Rolemaster or Rolemaster Standard System) I knew I needed to do something different. I went back and forth on that, eventually deciding on Action Cards at least in good part because I knew it would be easier to do.

For reference here's the online doc with this version of Action Cards. I have some adjustments and clean up still to do.

The major changes/additions I made to the system:

-Stronger delineation of skills and advantages. They're still flexible, but I gave some more specific examples and also said how combat skills ought to be bought (i.e. (Weapon) Attack and Parry are bought as different skills, rather than just Swordplay or the like).

-The addition of a Focus point resource-- used to activate special abilities.

-An adaptation of my Crouching Noun, Hidden Noun flexible martial arts system for the combat styles.

-Cleaning up of the magic system to make it easier to work with. We'll see how that ends up looking in play. As I've stated before, in terms of damage-dealing and effectiveness, I want Mages and Non-Mages to be about equal-- with some situational advantages.

-Using dice for damage, as I discussed before. I've talked about my reasons for doing this and at first blush, after a single combat, I've generally hopeful. I don't want to give it a thumbs up yet-- I liked Scion the first couple of fights and then I started to see the cracks in the mechanics. In coming up with the dice mechanics and ranges, I owe Gene a significant debt for his input.

-Finally I introduced a Profession Track system. Classes and Professions have always been one of those chrome features I've liked from various rpgs-- but at the same time I don't like level systems. I wanted to build something players could buy into as they chose, though with some additional restrictions. In this I'm inspired by old Rolemaster with the wealth of professions, the career track system from the old Warhammer Fantasy rpg, and to a certain extent, the idea of Prestige classes from d20-- a great idea mostly badly executed. But probably my biggest inspiration has been the class track mechanics from the Final Fantasy Tactics game series.

The system is still a flexible point-buy one. However, players can buy into Profession tracks which represent a path of development. These tracks have some special abilities not found elsewhere-- but they're the kinds of things they could make up and buy outside of the tracks. So the trick is a little that players could get most of these things without buying those tracks. The exception comes in the form of limitations on number of combat styles and magical ranks & schools-- so it does push people to invest there. I'm hoping the system will give flavor and at the same time help people make purchases for their characters-- an easy way to do development, not unlike the job packages from later Gurps materials.

Here are the notes on the Profession Tracks and the first batch of those tracks. I'll post the other half tomorrow:

The profession tracks represent grouped abilities to help define the character. These ten tracks are starters, with many of the later Professions requiring some experience in one of more of them. If taking a second starter track, the first rank costs 10, rather than the usual five because of the extra stuff there (so, 10/5/10/10/15).

Secondary Tracks follow up from Starter Tracks-- characters must have mastered, that is bought up to Rank Five, the appropriate Starter Track to buy into the Secondary Tracks. Secondary Tracks cost 5/5/10/10/15.

Some special talents require spending Focus to activate. As well ranks within the professions limit some of a character's knowledge and abilities-- regarding number of schools of magic known, maximum ranks in any one school, and possible number of combat styles. These are not cumulative-- you apply the highest of the various values given.


The basic melee fighter type. The character may have trained in a militia or have come from a family where experience with a weapon was valued.

Rank One: The Squire gains three wound boxes and may take a (Weapon) Attack skill with a melee weapon of their choice.

Rank Two: The Squire may spend a point of Focus to add +1 Damage to his attacks for a scene.

Rank Three: The Squire may select a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. The character is limited to two Combat styles.

Rank Four: The Squire may apply two Combat Style elements to the same action. He may not apply the same element twice unless he knows it from two different styles. If the Squire already has this advantage, he gains a new Combat Style instead.

Rank Five: The Squire may move up his Combat results by one grade on three Fixed cards.

Soldier (Squire, Secondary)
The Soldier has taken his combat knowledge and applied it to larger scale and most organized endeavors. He's drilled and learned how to survive in even the bloodiest conflicts.

Rank One: The Soldier gains +2 Wounds.

Rank Two: The Soldier has lived and fought in his armor for so long, he has learned its strengths and weaknesses. If he's wearing his own, well-fitted armor his can increase its capabilities. When wearing Light or Medium armor, he increases the target number for doing damage to him by 1. If wearing Heavy Armor, he gains +1 Soak/DR instead.

Rank Three: The Soldier adds +1 damage in melee. In addition, he may spend a point of Focus to force the GM to reroll damage against him.

Rank Four: The Soldier learns how to make an additional Parry or Block. Characters are normally limited to one Parry and one Block in a turn. The player must choose which expertise he will acquire when taking this ability. In addition, he may choose a skill in (Weapon) Attack or Parry or in Block.

Rank Five: The Soldier learns an additional Combat Style. The character is limited to four Combat Styles. The Soldier also gains a skills of his choice from Survival, Tactics, or Leadership.

Bashkar (Squire, Secondary)
The Bashkar forgoes any attempts at finesse in combat. He's decided to make himself a killing machine-- believing all the strategy and tactics of the world boil down to a simple maxim: kill all your enemies.

Rank One: The Bashkar learns a (Weapon) Attack skill.

Rank Two: The Bashkar gains +2 Wounds.

Rank Three: The Bashkar has learned the art of overwhelming force. His armed melee attacks reduce the target number needed to do damage by 1.

Rank Four: The Bashkar may spend a point of Focus and let loose a blood-curdling War Cry. He makes a Physical test. Nearby opponents must make tests to avoid being unnerved, lose actions or even (in the event of fumbles) run away.
Rank Five: The Bashkar adds +2 damage in melee. He is also Hard to Kill-- giving him a bonus for unconsciousness and death checks when he goes to negative wounds.

A character who has lived and trained in the outdoors. He may not have hunted but he has learned how to survive in the wild.

Rank One: The Hunter gains his choice of Hunting, Survival or Tracking as a skill. Outdoors the character may spend a point of Focus to blend perfectly with the environment to cover his own tracks and scent.

Rank Two: The Hunter gains +1 damage with Ranged attacks.

Rank Three: The Hunter may select a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. The character is limited to two Combat styles.

Rank Four: The Hunter may apply two Combat Style elements to the same action. He may not apply the same element twice unless he knows it from two different styles. If the Hunter already has this advantage, he gains a new Combat Style instead.

Rank Five: The Hunter may move up his Combat results by one grade on three Fixed cards.

Sharpshooter (Hunter, Secondary)
The Sharpshooter has mastered his ranged weapon or choice, be it the bow, a slingstone, chakram or thrown dagger. He concentrates in the deadly effectiveness of such attacks.

Rank One: The Sharpshooter may perform an All-Out attack using a ranged weapon.

Rank Two: The Sharpshooter gains a skill in Melee or Ranged Dodge.

Rank Three: When attacking from cover or concealment, the Sharpshooter may convert three rolled damage dice into two wounds before rolling.

Rank Four: The Sharpshooter learns an additional Combat Style. The character is limited to four combat styles.

Rank Five: The Sharpshooter may spend a point of Focus to reroll all non-successful damage dice.

Scout (Hunter, Secondary)
The Scout has learned to use the natural environment to supplement his abilities. He becomes a dangerous stalker, able to survey his enemies and then pull back to inform others.

Rank One: The Scout has mastered the art of camouflage. In a natural environment, with at least a minimum of cover, the Scout may become effectively invisible to natural senses. He can move at a walking pace while so in hiding.

Rank Two: The Scout gains +2 wounds

Rank Three: Outdoors, the Scout has a natural gift for traps. He has a sixth sense for ambushes and can spot traps, pits, deadfalls and the like with ease. Given time and basic materials, he can whip up his own outdoors traps quickly and reliably.

Rank Four: The Scout learns an additional Combat Style. The character is limited to four combat styles.

Rank Five: The Scout may spend a point of Focus to make two ranged attacks on the same round. These may be made on the same or different targets.

A novice Martial Artist or specialist in the arts of dueling and combat. The character has focused on the ability to fight and fight well at the expense of other talents.

Rank One: The Brother may select a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. The character is limited to three Combat styles.

Rank Two: The character may choose to either be able to parry armed opponents while unarmed or gain +1 damage while fighting armed with light or medium weapons (this must be selected when purchased).

Rank Three: The character may spend Focus to eliminate Wounds at a 1:2 ratio. This may only be done when the initial wound is dealt. While fighting unarmored, the character gains +1 Soak and takes wounds on a 5+.

Rank Four: The Brother may apply two Combat Style elements to the same action. He may not apply the same element twice unless he knows it from two different styles. If the Brother already has this advantage, he gains a new Combat Style instead.

Rank Five: The Brother may move up two Combat and one Physical result up by one grade on Fixed cards.

Duelist (Brother, Secondary)
The Duelist has focused on armed melee, but almost exclusively in the realm of single combats and duels. He shies always from mass battles, but know he can hold his own when pitting his weapon against most rabble.

Rank One: The Duelist may spend a point of focus to go first in a round-- even if surprised.

Rank Two: The Duelist adds +2 wounds.

Rank Three: When fighting one-on-one in melee, the Duelist combines precision and deftness. He reduces the number needed to do damage to his opponent by one and increases the number needed to do damage to him by one. This ability may only be used in Light armor and with a Light or Medium weapon.

Rank Four: The Duelist may select a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. The character is limited to five Combat styles

Rank Five: The Duelist may apply three Combat Style elements to the same action. He may not apply the same element twice unless he knows it from two different styles. If the Duelist already has this advantage, he gains a new Combat Style instead. The Duelist also adds +2 wounds.

Warrior Monk (Brother, Secondary)
The Warrior Monk has combined a focus on unarmed with armed combat. He's learned to fight with minimal armor and still survive against the toughest opponents. From Pit Fighters, to Pugilists, to Martial Artists, the Warrior Monk profession covers a lot of ground.

Rank One: The Warrior Monk adds +2 Wounds.

Rank Two: The Warrior Monk has learned the art of the Open Palm. His unarmed attacks reduce the target number needed to do damage by 1.
Rank Three: The Warrior Monk may select a Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. The character is limited to five Combat styles

Rank Four: The Warrior Monk may spend up to three focus. For each point spent he raises the number needed to do damage to him by one for the combat (up to a maximum of 8+). Note that this is not cumulative with armor, magical or otherwise.

Rank Five: The Warrior Monk gains a skill in Ranged or Melee Dodge. He also gains a skill in (Weapon) Attack or Parry. The Warrior Monk also gains the advantage High Pain Threshold.


An Urban survivor and starter to the Rogue and Thief tracks. The character has learned to survive by his wits alone.

Rank One: The character gains the Fast talent, allowing him to go first in combat. He may also choose from Evade Pursuit, Streetwise or Pickpocket as a skill.

Rank Two: The character may spend a point of Focus to change one wound die rolled to a 10 when using a light weapon.

Rank Three: The character may choose one combat style. The character is limited to two Combat styles.

Rank Four: The Urchin gains +2 wounds. Additionally, he becomes Fleet of Foot, allowing him an extra two yards of movement in combat.

Rank Five: The Urchin may move up one Combat, one Physical and one Knowledge result by one grade on Fixed cards.

Burglar (Urchin, Secondary)
A specialist thief type who has mastered certain physical skills allowing him to break and enter with ease. He uses his quickness to evade and defend in combat.

Rank One: The Burglar gains a skill in Dodge Melee or Dodge Ranged.

Rank Two: The Burglar always lands on his feet. If the Burglar falls within arms reach of a surface (wall, tree, etc) he can fall up to 40' with no effect. Higher height falls have their damage slightly reduced.

Rank Three: The Burglar has picked up many tricks of the trade. He can quickly assess the quality and potential pitfalls of any locks or safes he encounters by spending a point of focus. This gives him a significant bonus on attempts to pick said lock, will tell him how long it will take, and if the attempt is even possible. He will also often be able to detect traps associated with the lockpicking attempt, possibly even magical ones.

Rank Four: The Burglar has trained himself to be flexible. He can slip out of most bonds and manacles by spending a point of focus. He can also slip through tight spots with ease (small windows, tunnels, etc).

Rank Five: The Burglar has trained his eyes well, allowing him to see in dimly lit areas (though not in total darkness). The Burglar also gains +2 wounds. Finally, when fighting unarmored or in light armor, the Burglar gains +1 DR/Soak.

Rogue (Urchin, Secondary)
The Rogue knows that operations sometimes go horribly wrong and being quick with a blade of other weapon is sometimes one's only option. The Rogue plans carefully, but always has an escape route ready.

Rank One: The Rogue gains +2 wounds.

Rank Two: If the Rogue knows an area (a town, a neighborhood, a particular outdoors area) he can get away from all but the most dogged pursuit. If alone and if the pursuers have no extra special resources at their disposal (magic, extreme numbers, fellow rogues) he automatically gets away to safety. If contested, then he gains a +1 bump to his chase escape attempts.

Rank Three: The Rogue may choose one Combat Style and the associated maneuvers. The character is limited to four combat styles.

Rank Four: The Rogue specializes in careful operations in combat. He presents an elusive target, making it more difficult to hit him with a ranged attack while he is engaged in melee. As well, if the Rogue kills his opponent in combat, he may make an immediate move action. This move may not be used to engage another opponent however.

Rank Five: If the Rogue has time to plan and assess an operation, he can develop a master plan. He must spend a point of focus and make a Knowledge check. If successful, he gains a number of temporary drama points equal to his success (one for OK, two for Good, and three for Sacre Bleu) which may be spent by the party while conducting the operation.

A learned character and starter to the Diplomatic tracks. He has dedicated himself to interactions and the gathering of knowledge.

Rank One: The character begins the game with 3 obscure knowledges. He may declare these later, at any time, rather than spending a drama point. He also gains three Knowledge or Social raises to be placed on non-fixed cards.

Rank Two: The character may choose from a skill in Diplomacy, Research or Merchant.

Rank Three: The character can establish a credit rating for himself easily and gain access to better goods and services by spending a Focus Point in interactions. He may also spend a Focus to give himself +1 to Dodge for a scene.

Rank Four: The Student has learned the art of verbal distraction and confusion. As an action he may attempt to hold the attention of someone, keeping the whole of their focus on him. Outside of combat he may use this ability to attempt to impose an emotion on someone through verbal patter. While anyone can do this normally, the Student's effects are more potent and effective.

Rank Five: The Scholar may move up one Social, one Physical and one Knowledge result by one grade on Fixed cards.

Merchant (Student, Secondary)
The Merchant learns the art of reading and interacting with people. He knows where to find what he wants and how to strike bargains to get those things. He's learned to read people's secrets and desires when first meeting them or through his established network of contacts.

Rank One: The Merchant gains a skill in (Weapon) Attack or Parry.

Rank Two: The Merchant gains a skill in Item Assessment.

Rank Three: The Merchant makes it his business to know people. When meeting someone for the first time, he may make an immediate check to have heard rumors about that person or be able to get a read from their clothing, bearing or manner.
Rank Four: The Merchant is nothing if not prepared. He may spend a point of focus to retroactively declare a plot or plan in place, within reason. This should usually be related to having uncovered information, hired extras, or advanced bribery.

Rank Five: The Merchant may choose a Combat Style. He is limited to two Combat Styles. The Merchant is also a master of cultural adaptability, allowing him to be able to retroactively prevent faux pas by spending a point of focus.

Scholar (Student, Secondary)
The Scholar is a researcher par excellence. He can track down clues and information in a fraction of the normal time. He's also adept at keeping his secrets held close. As well, the Scholar learns the tricks of other professions over time, allowing him to emulate their talents on the fly.

Rank One: The Scholar can reflexively code his research notes and letters. He may spend a point of focus to retroactively claim the intended recipient has access to the key.

Rank Two: The Scholar gains a skill in Dodge Melee or Dodge Ranged.

Rank Three: The Scholar may gather information with rapid speed-- allowing him to delve through texts and tomes he can understand in a fraction of the normal time. He's also a mastering of gathering information locally, allowing him to quickly get a Streetwise read on a particular topic.

Rank Four: The Scholar has the ability to inspire. As an action, the Scholar may spend a point of focus to refresh another player's focus pool. This may be done once per player per session. Multiple Scholars may not set up an infinite loop on this ability.

Rank Five: The Scholar may spend a point of focus to emulate the Profession ability or Combat Style maneuvers of a fellow PC. This does not allow the Scholar access to magical talents, but does allow them to utilize one style (for example, limited by the style cap for the Scholar character or one, whichever is higher). Any costs for the use of the ability must be paid in addition to the Focus cost for this ability. This ability lasts for a scene and the Scholar may emulate up to two abilities at the same time.

Friday, June 19, 2009

The Joy of Wuxia TV Series

How do we define fantasy-- films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Hero and House of Flying Daggers all have fantastic elements but are they fantasy? Certainly movies such as The Bride with White Hair, Storm Riders and Chinese Ghost Story add more of what we'd call classic fantasy to the mix. These films come out of a rich mythological tradition, but also out of a Chinese fantasy literature-- the specific genre of Wuxia novels. In the 1960's and 1970's China had a resurgence of interest in those novels and several notable authors made their mark.
As I was hunting through for more films of what we can call “Chinese Swords and Sorcery” I found many of those novels have been made into long-running wuxia television series. You can find a number in the States through online stores or via Netflix. I started watching them and became an immediate fan, despite some of the cheesiness. If you like fantasy and martial arts you should try out at least one of these shows. They're fun and a great insight into how traditional fantasy gets read in a non-Western culture.
*The video quality will likely be the first thing you notice when you start watching one of these series. All of them seemed to be done with rather basic digital video-- think the reenactment episodes on various history programs. I'm no expert on DV but there seem to be two levels of focus to what you see-- either straight digital video which has an odd crispness or what I'll call processed DV usually for scenes which have effects or elements added. It can be disconcerting at first, especially for those used to prime time TV image standards. However you can grow used to it over time. I've gotten to the point where I don't notice except when the shot switches back and forth between the two qualities and jars me out of my reverie.
*Confusion, then irritation, then more confusion and finally a state of blissful lack of self-consciousness. The subtitled translations range from adequate to arcane. They're not exactly a Babelfish straight transfer but come close. Given the amount of translating necessary for series of this size, you can imagine mistakes will slip through. However some problems show up consistently-- notably tenses and the use of particular terms. What family members call one another changes from moment to moment-- like a wife calling her husband her brother. You'll also find that the term for “Kung-fu” as a society will change from series to series. Still, the subtitles do get the job done. It doesn't sink to the level of some films I've seen. I remember watching the published version of Dragon Chronicles: Semi-Gods and Semi-Devils and being absolutely unable to follow the plot or characters at all.
*Misunderstandings and non-communication serve as the main engines for many of the plots. You'll finding yourself screaming, “Why don't you say something?!” more than one. Honorable silence in the face of accusations will keep digging the characters into deeper holes.
*The quality of the effects varies between decent and really bad in nearly all of these series. You have to suspend disbelief about the wire-work in many places, but eventually it grows on you. There's a brilliant scene in Condor Hero with two characters fighting across falling umbrellas. While the effects used there feel more than a little static and weak, it comes off amazingly cool and imaginative. Most series use CGI liberally-- in most cases to show attack effects and magical forces flying. Those generally work, but some also present CG monsters and characters that make Hercules and Xena look like a Spielberg film.
*These series range in length from 30-40 episodes, with each episode coming in at 40+ minutes. That means following through becomes a considerable investment of time.
*These series range in length from 30-40 episodes. If you hate seeing your favorite series wrap up in 20-some episodes, or even less nowadays, you can really sink you're teeth into these. It's worth checking out the first DVDs from a couple of series to see which one actually clicks.
*These series provide a great introduction to a surprisingly extensive foreign literature of the fantastic. Most are based on Wuxia novels written in the 20th Century-- the 1960's and on. The authors Louis Cha, Gu Long and Liang Yusheng helped the redevelop that genre during this period. They brought more modern ideas about the novel together with what might be best described as a pulp mentality. They are literary touchstones for action, adventures and fantasy like Lord of the Rings, Dune or even James Bond. Many of the novels have been remade several times (ala Dune). Imagine if popular epic fantasy novels like Wheel of Time or A Game of Thrones got this kind of treatment-- forty episodes to tell the story. I'd been aware of the more classic Chinese novels of fantasy and action-- Journey to the West, The Water Magic and Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but I hadn't known about these more modern ones until I watched these series. A number have been published in the States and fan-translations of some unpublished works can be found online.
*If you like visual spectacle, then you'll likely enjoy these shows. Each one has amazing costumes-- colorful silks, striking peasant warrior sashes, and period armor. Many series have at least one if not more major military clash with hundreds decked out. The Court scenes are especially impressive to watch. The sets are usually magnificent, and you'll soon be watching for the classic layout of buildings and how the fights will go down in them. These series equally well showcase the amazing landscapes and natural beauty of the region. Its easy to become a little jaded-- “oh look, another amazing waterfall for them to train by...”.
*The fights bring people in, of course, and the series don't disappoint. You'll have a decent showpiece just about every other episode and they are often skillfully executed and a pleasure to watch. The over-the-top battles often combine magical powers and maneuvers with classic swordplay.
Probably my favorite of the series I've watched. Based on Louis Cha's 1967 novel The Smiling Proud Wanderer it has apparently been adapted several times into various TV series, movies, comics and even a stage production. Jet Li starred as the main character in the Swordsman I & II. You can also find the Master Swordsman as a domestic DVD-- a fairly bad attempt to cut down another TV series into movie length.
The main character Linghu Chong finds his sect caught up in a complicated battle between the various sects of the wushu world. He finds himself questioning the old practices and alliances-- especially the divisions of the Evil and Good sects, having seen opposite behaviors on both sides. Where many characters in these series have problems arising from pride or naiveté, Linghu's notable for his devotion to drink, often shown as a serious and disabling condition. The story's filled with excellent swordplay, fantastic martial arts forms, and strange magic practices. The complicated and epic story wins for the great characters presented-- complicated romantic circles, drives for revenge and great betrayals.
It does have a couple of drawbacks, however. Some of the episodes seem to have been heavily edited to get them in under the allotted running time. That creates confusion in the early plot of the first dozen episodes. Action jumps from place to place without little explanation for the passage of time. A characters introduced may not be given a decent explanation for an episode or two. Despite these flaws the series is worth putting the time into.
Another one based on a Louis Cha novel, this series has amazing production values. The novel it draws from, The Return of the Condor Heroes, is actually the second in a trilogy. Protagonist Yang Guo turns out to be the son of the bad guy from the first novel, raised for a time by the hero of that novel. Yang Guo eventually studies with a Taoist sect, but escapes from the cruel punishments of his masters. He's taken in by a female supernatural martial artist who eventually trains them in her arts. She raises him until he becomes a young man-- at which point circumstances, confusions, mistaken identities and an intolerant world act to separate them. The story follows their quest to be reunited.
If you want amazing spectacle and over the top wire-fu combats, then this is the series for you. It looks like a much higher budget production than any of the others I've watched. The Taoist formation sword-fighting, the ribbon and sleeve-based styles, and the acrobatic combats make it one of the best shows I've seen. Its worth watching just to see the way the show handles color choices in different places.
However, and this is a big however, the main character Yang Guo doesn't really appear as an adult until something like the fourth or fifth episode. When we first meet him, he's about ten years ago. And obnoxious. I mean, really, really obnoxious-- in that way where your sympathy lies much more strongly with the Taoist masters who want to beat some sense into him. Then there's the other problem-- he's raised by Xiaolongnü a mysterious female martial artist. When he does grow up and they fall in love, there's a kind a creepy vibe to it that everyone seems to ignore. Instead they focus on their violation of the Master-Student relationship. If you can get past that, and make it through the episodes with young Yang Guo, then you get to see a visually stunning show.
Another great adaptation, this time of a novel by Gu Long. Twin brothers end up separated at birth-- one--Xiao Yu’er-- raised by the Ten Villains and the other--Hua Wuque-- raised as an killer for the mistresses of Yi Hua Palace who had caused their parents death. Both manage to grow up heroic despite this and when they finally meet they join forces. The plot of the series concerns their efforts to break free of their past, save their various loves, and uncover the secret of their birth.
This series has a good deal more slapstick than most of the others. From the first couple of scenes with Xiao Yu'er you might get the impression that the show will end up being more Kung Fu Hustle than Crouching Tiger. However, Dicky Cheung who plays Xiao absolutely sells it. He's a pleasure to watch on screen. He became famous for his portrayal of Monkey in a TV adaptation of Journey to the West and having seen him here, I imagine it must have been great. Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse plays Hua Wuque as the perfect straight man-- his handsome honor against the plots and plans of Xiao. The series hits its stride every time the two of them share a scene.
The series has less of the overtly fantastic elements-- except for some supernatural medicine and medical items, wire-fu fighting styles, and the bizarre set up of the Ten Villains Village (actually intended to trap and keep the villains in). While it does descend into heavy physical comedy at times, it has a healthy dose of tragedy to match that. If you're looking for a lighter place to start that does eventually bring the drama, this might be the show to begin with.
Seven Swordsmen adapts another classical martial arts novel, The Seven Swords of Mount Heaven by Liang Yusheng. Tsui Hark produced the series-- but he also directed a separate film based on the same material called Seven Swords. Of course the TV series is about 40 episodes at about 40+ minutes each long while the movie's a little over two hours long. The two have striking differences and similarities in the production and design making it worth it to watch both. Both share the same story of an executioner from the previous dynasty who tries to redeem himself by fighting against the excesses of the current emperor who has made study of the martial arts punishable by death. He gathers seven skilled swordsmen each bearing a magic weapon to aid the people of one village. As you can imagine, the story owes more than a little debt to The Seven Samurai.
While interesting and filled with some memorable bits, the TV series comes off as a slightly low-budget operation than some of the other series here. Shots end up being extensively reused within the span of a couple of minutes, characters change facial hair between shots, and the camerawork can vary wildly in quality from moment to moment. Then there's the issue of the music-- I've become used to hearing the series borrow from other places, including Hans Zimmer's score to Batman Begins. However when the main character first appears on screen we get the Waaa-waa-waa musical cue for the Man with No Name from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. This repeats several times, pretty much leaving me with the giggles.
Overall it lacks of the eloquence of the other series, but still manages a few great details. Each of the seven warriors possesses an interesting and unique magic sword with different properties and effects. Their path to learning and harnessing those powers sets up some great moments. However a number of the swords have distinct CGI effects (a warping when blows land, a trail of water) that can get in the way of seeing the action on screen. That's a general problem for the series where interesting visual ideas and CGI effects work to make it harder to follow the action. The series also has a non-chronological approach in the first few episodes which can make things hard to follow at the start-- but does make a nice change of pace. Set in a later historical period than most of the other series, it is also worth watching to see the use of rifles and the shift in costuming for imperial clothing and armor (which quite frankly looks really impractical while at the same time saying: Yup, We're in Black, We're Evil).
Quick Takes:
Based on a classic Chinese novel, Fengshen Yanyi or The Creation of the Gods this has the most high fantasy of the series I've seen. Demon servants, angry gods, magic weapons, sorcerers who cause floods and so on. Has a great mythic quality to it while providing interesting and sympathetic characters. Has lots of CGI creatures and monsters-- dire wolves, serpents, giant panthers, dragons and nine-tailed foxes. Think Clash of the Titans in ancient China
Swordsmen with mystic powers, a legendary book detailing the ways of a poisonous martial arts, and a secret cult run by a white-haired witch. Interesting in that so much of the action focuses away from who we assume ought to be the hero. However the other characters have better stories so it works.
Well done with some exciting sword battles between masters at the beginning. Young man searches for the man who killed his father, only to fall in love with his enemy's daughter. Has a grand conspiracy plot. Most of the fantastic elements reserved to the fighting styles. Does has some green-screen moments that have all the quality of a Sid and Marty Kroft production.
A Chinese swordsman raised in Japan returns to his homeland to find a set legendary swords and fight every weapon master in China. Seriously. He wants to fight them all. Good character actors and some great showpiece fights. The secondary plots deal with a wushu conspiracy and an evil grandmother. More elegant cinematography than many other series.
Based on a classic Chinese fable rather than a novel, this series has a female protagonist in the central role. Trained as an assassin, Hong Fu turns away from the evil of her masters and must battle her way to freedom. Some dynamite fight sequences with ribbons, cloth and musical instruments.