Saturday, 22 April 2017
RPGPundit Reviews: The Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate
This is a review of the RPG "The Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate", published by Bedrock Games, written by Brendan Davis, William Butler, and Dan Orcutt. As always, the review is of the print edition, which is a softcover volume of impressive size, quite close to 500 pages.
The cover is full-color and features an impressive comic-style illustration of two wuxia warriors fighting against some eastern-style ogres. The interior is black and white, adequately illustrated with a number of similarly-styled drawings.
I will note for the sake of disclosure that Bedrock are the publishers of my Arrows of Indra RPG. I don't think that will affect my ability to review the product, but I thought I'd explicitly mention it so the reader is aware of the fact.
Ogre Gate sets itself up as a game of "Gravity-defying martial artists inspired by wuxia film and drama series". Its setting is said to be inspired by Song Dynasty China. That happens to be my very favorite dynasty; we'll have to see how it measures up.
The book is so large it's a bit intimidating; but a lot of it is about long lists of martial art techniques and qi powers. Frankly, that's a size that I could expect from a really complete and self-contained wuxia RPG, as there's a lot of ground to cover. The question is more about whether the size is used effectively. Let's find out!
The book's preface certainly leaves it clear that Davis is well-acquainted with Wuxia classic films and series (something that anyone who follows him on G+ would already be well aware of). It also clarifies that the setting is not a fantasized version of Song China (in the sense that Dark Albion is a fantasized England, for example), but rather that it is a totally different fantasy world whose culture, government and belief systems are inspired by and quite loosely based on Song China. OK then, that's fine as long as it's clear; though the setting better be good.
Here's a brief breakdown of the setting: the world (Qi Xien) was once a kind of paradise created by a benevolent deity, but then something went wrong. An evil sorcerer named Yao-Feng crossed through into the world with an army of ogre demons, took over and became the Demon Emperor. A pair of heroic wuxia learned how to use the Qi power that Yao-Feng had brought with him, and used Kung Fu to take down the Demon Emperor and lock him in a place called the Ogre Gate, sacrificing their lives to seal that gate and guard it. The world would never be at peace again, but things gradually improved.
Eventually there was a great and benign ruler called the Righteous Emperor. When he died (about 100 years ago), his son (who called himself the Glorious Emperor) became tyrannical and plunged the world into oppression. The martial artists of the various schools who had descended from the ancient heroes who once defeated Yao-feng tried to fight him, but the Glorious Emperor used dark magic to turn many of them to his side.
Now, all the provinces but one are under the Glorious Emperor's control. Meanwhile, the rebellious martial artists retreated to a wilderness area called the Banyan region. They continued to resist the Emperor's tyranny, but have also developed bitter feuds between each school of kung-fu and spend much time fighting amongst each other.
The system for Ogre Gate is the "network system" which is a variant of the same system found in Bedrock's Sertorious RPG. In spite of the huge size of the book, the core system itself is very simple. In the first place, there are no ability scores. There's only skills. Characters make skill rolls of a number of d10, but only keep the highest result; the rolls are based on the ranks they have in a skill, which range from 0-3 (if you have 0 ranks, you roll 2d10 but keep the lower result). Success happens if you beat a difficulty number (rolling a 10 is a total success, which is sometimes special). Those are the basics, but the rules for mechanics, and especially combat, provide a lot of extra situations, conditions and details.
In combat, characters roll to hit, opposed by the other character's defensive value. These values are purchased the same way as other skills, but they are not rolled; rather added to set values to represent the difficulty number anyone attacking them needs to beat. The character's level of Qi also contributes to his defensive values.
If they hit, they roll for damage against a character's "hardiness" skill. If they succeed, they do 1 wound (2 wounds if they rolled a 10). Starting characters usually have 3 wounds, so it doesn't take too many hits to be dropped, but of course, there's a lot of other stuff that can factor into the mix aside from the basics (for example, kung-fu techniques that help you defend against attacks).
All characters also have "Martial discipline ranks", which have four types: Wuxia (kung-fu), Qinggong (described as "lightness kung fu"), Neigong (internal kung fu), and Dianxue (pressure points).
They have Qi ranks (1 qi at character creation) and these are related to the "kung fu techniques" characters will have. Starting characters begin with six kung fu techniques. New techniques can be gained later, in play, but cannot be bought just by xp spending; they require the PC roleplay finding teachers or manuals they can learn these from.
One important detail is the "imbalance rating". It's equal to the highest ranking you have in Martial disciplines. So if you put one point in each discipline, your imbalance rating is 1. But if you put 3 points into a single discipline, your imbalance rating is 3. This rating determines the difficulty for meditation techniques to avoid Qi spirit possession, and it determines the number of "imbalance" points if you use a Kung Fu technique "cathartically". If you get too many imbalance points, you can end up being possessed by a Qi Spirit.
Skills are selected from "skill groups". There are six skill groups: defenses, combat, specialist, physical, knowledge and mental. Characters will choose two primary and four secondary groups. Each group has a variety of skills associated with it, and characters get points to buy skills (twice as many for each primary group than for their secondary groups). Many skills will have sub-skills which may have to be chosen and bought separately.
Also, many skills have various "expertises", which are specializations that, when purchased, give you an extra d10 under certain circumstances of using the skill (for example, the skill 'medium melee weapon' can have an expertise in one individual type of melee weapon).
It is recommended that PCs be human, and there are various cultural groups of humans available for play (wisely, with lists of names for each culture). However, if a GM wants to allow players to play non-humans, there are some to choose from. The Hechi are goat-like humanoids with a single unicorn-style horn; they can detect truths. The Juren are four-armed giants who aren't very bright. The Ouyan are people with three eyes who can sense emotions. And the Kithiri are human-looking but have six different consciousnesses with six separate personalities.
Characters can also take 'flaws' which are disadvantages that in turn grant you an extra skill point. I don't care for any system where players select disadvantages and get stuff in exchange, because it always tends to create a situation of hedging bets where players will try to get the flaw that they think will bother them the least in exchange for the most return; at least in this case there is a limit to how many you can get at character creation, and the value of the flaws are all uniform, which slightly reduces the min-maxing tendency of buying disadvantages.
I should note that at least the idea of randomly rolling flaws is included as an optional rule; it would be one that I'd obviously recommend.
There's one flaw in particular that stands out, because it doesn't count against your total, and if you take it gives you two skill points rather than one. This is the "Fated" flaw; it means that your character is destined for something; the GM will determine what they're destined for via a random roll, and the player won't know their fate (at least not at the start of the game). At least, this particular flaw is both interesting and not entirely under the player's control, so it's an interesting touch. Especially since the concept of "fate" is quite important to the setting.
Combat techniques can be selected at character creation, one of them, and more can be bought later on in the game for xp. They are special moves, connected to offensive skills. Examples include "fists of steel", "blind swordsman", "drunken fighter", "from the shadows", "hefty crush", etc.
Another interesting detail in character creation is "reputation". Every character has two descriptive terms for their reputation; the first is how people who admire and respect the PC see them, and the other is how enemies see them. There are situations where almost any reputation quality could be theoretically positive or negative in terms of the impressions it makes on NPCs. A character's repeated actions could end up changing their reputation; so for example a character who had a 'truthful' reputation and proceeds to break their word publicly several times might lose that in place of something like 'untrustworthy'. There's one particular reputation, "poisoner" that if acquired will supplant both their reputation tags; using poison means friends and foes alike primarily think of you as a poisoner (feared, but highly dishonorable).
The GM section explains more details on Qi and Kung Fu techniques. This includes guidelines for the creation of new techniques. It also explains that Qi level can only be increased by gaining a certain level of experience and also by defeating an opponent of a higher qi level than your own. Characters skilled in Neigong can engage in "Qi duels" of fighting directly with Qi against each other.
XP is gained in the game by fulfilling certain conditions in each game session. If you beat a powerful foe in the session, you gain 1xp. If you advanced your reputation in the session, you gain 1xp. If you perform a great deed that in some way affects the setting, you gain 1xp.
Advancements are purchased through xp; you can get new techniques, new rituals, increase skills, or gain new combat techniques. The costs are variable depending on what you're buying and at what level. My impression is that advancement is relatively slow, which is good for a long-term campaign.
The GM section also introduces a new mechanic: Karma. In the game, characters gain 'good' Karma from acts of altruism, filial piety, propriety, rite, wisdom and justice (the Confucian virtues, essentially). The GM tracks PCs' karma, and it affects their relationship to higher beings, as well as their future rebirths. In higher level "Profound Master and Immortal" play characters start to know their own karma scores because they are now aware of them.
Speaking of the latter, characters are normal heroes until up to Qi level 6. Some GMs may only wish to play up to that level, but beyond that there are the levels of Profound Master (Qi level 7-13) and Immortal (Qi level 13+). These levels open you up to new super-wuxia techniques and abilities. Immortal level characters stop aging and if killed will quickly be reborn and age into adulthood, and can use celestial weapons.
Other material in the GM's section includes stuff on travel times, encounters, poison and disease (with lots of examples), army-scale battles, and even cricket-fights (for gambling purposes).
The chapter on Kung-fu Techniques is 64 pages long, and has literally hundreds of techniques (I lost count). They encompass pretty much any wuxia stunt or power you could ever imagine in any wuxia movie.
The list includes techniques for the four martial disciplines, plus special techniques, evil techniques, profound techniques and immortal techniques. Each describes what the technique does, what skill is rolled to use it, what the special effects are when used cathartically, and the minimum Qi rank to use it.
I should clarify there are no "Qi points" or something like that. The Qi Rank tells you the minimum value you must have in Qi to be able to obtain the technique, but once you have it you can use it without having to keep track of any special resource, which I think is a good thing. Using a technique 'cathartically' makes it more powerful, but opens you up to the risk of imbalance and Qi Spirit possession. Some techniques are common, while some are secret and can only be obtained by certain means. The designers even put in a sidebar that notes explicitly that some techniques are more powerful than others of the same level, because this is emulative of the Wuxia genre.
All this does mean that if a player has the book and reads through it he'll find shitloads of ways to min-max and powergame. There's so many techniques that I can't say for sure whether some of them might not be to some extent game-breaking but it does seem that whatever techniques a character has, someone else could theoretically have ones that would be a counter to it. Regardless, the whole thing puts a big onus on the GM to be careful not to make it too easy for a player to take undue advantage by knowing the mechanics out of character. The fact that you have to go find a way to learn the techniques, and can't just spend xp and declare you have it, is at least a mitigating force. If the GM really doesn't want to have a certain technique, he could just make it impossible to be found. He should also presume that not all techniques would actually be known by the PCs, so he should shoot down players who are clearly acting from OOC knowledge (ie. looking at the rules to judge how good or bad a technique is and then going 'shopping' for it).
Next we have a chapter on rituals. These are divided into two types: rites and magic. Rites are more basic practices of the sort that in the real world you'd see in the Confucian/Taoist concepts. They might be done by everyone (and in some cases, must be performed as a question of duty, for example with Ancestor Worship). While magic rituals are more powerful ceremonies tapping into significant magical forces. These have a bigger result and bigger risks: if a character fails significantly when performing a magic ritual, they can gain a mental affliction. Magic rituals have a wide variety of uses, with many dealing with summoning spirit-beings or creating talismans. There are also Qi Rituals, which are very powerful but will temporarily lower your Qi Rank when you perform them.
The equipment section has material on coinage, weapons, armor, mounts and transport, food and drink, general goods, everyday items, and alchemical material.
The listing of weapons is quite large and has pretty much every fancy kung-fu weapon you've ever seen in a movie, certainly including some that were probably more mythical than historical (like the "flying guillotine"). There's nice illustration pages that help you visualize them. The other sections are short but fairly complete. Some effort has been made to be accurate to the historical dynasty the setting is meant to be based on, for example in the book's approach to tea.
Next we get into a chapter on the world of the martial heroes, and the "Jianghu" (literally the land of rivers and lakes). I'll mention that this is a real term from Chinese culture, a term that originated from the times that Confucian scholars were sent out into exile from court, to the distant hinterlands of the Empire. It is a term that's significant in ancient Chinese poetry. But in the context of Wuxia, it refers to the more ephemeral 'borderland world' of martial artists, outlaws, and other marginalized people of dubious stature.
The chapter details the established sects of the setting, which are split into the orthodox (you could say 'respectable') sects, and the unorthodox (less respectable or legitimate) sects. Sects are detailed by their leadership, allies, enemies, general number of members, history, beliefs, reputation, and the techniques they train people in. Illustrations also show the outfits worn by members of different sects. The sects are each quite different from each other, and quite inspired both by history and by martial arts stories. A special section is devoted to 'strange cults and secret sects', which are I guess even more unorthodox than the unorthodox sects.
The next section after that is on the larger world of Qi Xien itself. We get a nice series of maps of the setting in different eras, and sections on the historical eras of the setting. Then we have a section on the religions and cosmology of the setting. These are not precisely like the belief systems of China but each are similar to them: Confucianism, Taoism, the Kuan Yin sect, and Buddhism. We also get an overview of core philosophical/cosmological concepts like the Mandate of Heaven, the different spiritual realms, the "five dragons and five phoenixes" (which are somewhat based on the real-life Chinese concept of the Wuxing, established by the School of Yin and Yang), a list of the important spirits and immortals, and some foreign deities.
We also get a description of some of the core moral values of the culture, cribbed right from traditional Chinese culture; and of the concept of Fate, and the wuxia code. Also a variety of details on customs and traditions. There's lots more: the calendar and zodiac, information on the imperial bureaucracy and military, city life, clans, prostitution, restaurants, agriculture, clothing, architecture, taxes, weddings and funerals, laws, and punishment. In short, just about anything you'd need to make the setting come alive in an authentic-seeming way.
There are some parts that aren't taken right from the Song, but rather are anachronisms of things that either wouldn't be a big part of the culture until later, or that were from earlier periods in Chinese history. But this is basically a historian's nitpicking.
This is followed up by a geographical overview of the world as it exists in the present-day of the setting. This section is accompanied by a modern map of the setting, done in hex-map style (a nice touch!), plus regional maps, city maps, and some floorplan/dungeon-style-plans.
In the course of 56 pages, you get a breakdown of the structure and political powers of the Empire, the other states, key areas, cities, etc. Also you get a larger breakdown of the Banyan region (the borderland hotbed of the martial artists and their sects), with important areas. Some temples, secret headquarters, tombs, and such are detailed with floorplans and area descriptions. Some NPCs are detailed with statistics. It's very thorough.
The subsequent NPC section details a large number of the important NPCs of the setting. Likewise, "Threats and monsters" contains a variety of statblocks for different human foes, from ordinary guards to sect masters, wild animals, monsters, and a colorful variety of demons.
The magic items section has a variety of swords, other weapons, secret manuals, talismans, and other objects of power. Each comes with a descriptive detail and mechanical effects. There's a decent selection of 38 objects.
The Gamemaster section goes on to provide guidance to the GM on a variety of topics. For starters, on the nature of Wuxia as a genre. In the text, whoever wrote it (Brendan Davis, I'm presuming) demonstrates a very advanced knowledge of Wuxia and the Chinese concepts that inform it. He's able to correctly assert that a lot of the impressive feats from Wuxia films aren't just invented for cinematic impact, but rather are based on traditional ideas from folk tales and mythology about Qi powers from advanced masters. He gives a good explanation of Qinggong (lightness kung fu) and Neigong (internal kung fu that works with Qi directly). He also gives short but good descriptions of some of the key genre elements of Wuxia stories. The section includes a large bibliography of history books and sources, as well as a huge list of Kung Fu movies and TV shows for inspiration.
Then the section moves to revealing some of the hidden truths of the setting, stuff that the GM should know but the player characters would not know at the beginning. In it, he explains what Ogre Gate is about, why the setting's ultimate deity is female (when in Chinese culture it was always male), how the current (evil) emperor has been alive for so long, and other secrets. There's also information about gender roles in the setting. Then we get into the section on Fate; this includes a random table for characters who took the "fated" flaw, as well as the fate of a whole PC party. There's also a section on the importance of Luck, which is just as significant in the setting (and Chinese culture) as Fate, and how these two seemingly contradictory forces interact.
Then it moves on to more pedestrian material, like travel and encounters (including encounter tables), and guidlines to managing play and designing adventures (again, there are some very helpful random tables for adventure inspiration). There's even a very decent section on how to make a "Wuxia dungeon", that fits the dungeon scheme but adds a Kung-fu movie style to it. Longer-term campaign play is also covered, including random tables for future events, and rules for managing different NPCs and NPC power groups.
The last actual chapter of the book, covering about 20 pages, is an adventure (titled "Ghosts From the Ashes"). Meant for a starting or low-level party, that will be good for introducing new players to the nature of the setting and game, the adventure deals with the PC group being offered a contract by a "Lady Tao" from the "Emerald Security Company" to investigate the death of an engineer and his daughter. Investigation leads to the revelation that the news of their deaths may just be premature, and leads them to a sect called the Golden Grotto Academy. I won't go into more detail than that so as not to produce any spoilers. I do think that the adventure as a whole will end up certainly getting the PCs thoroughly familiarized with adventuring in the game.
The appendices include quick reference tables for Kung-fu techniques, a glossary of important titles and offices and list of current rulers of the different regions, a guide to using Kung-fu techniques in the related Sertorius RPG, and a description of the different realms.
The closing pages include character sheets, NPC sheets, and a complete set of worksheets for a lunar calendar to keep track of campaign time.
So what to say about Ogre Gate? It's frankly magnificent. It's easily the most complete and authentic Chinese-setting fantasy RPG I've ever seen, probably rivaled only by Qin, which is more historical but has less variety and detail at the "wuxia genre" level. You can really tell the spectacular level of knowledge the designers had with both Chinese culture/history and with (especially) Wuxia themed literature and film.
The system, while having a few details that are not my own personal preferences in RPG mechanics, is easy to learn and handle, and (mostly) avoids the pitfalls you sometimes see with things like dice-pool systems or the type of character-generation mechanics you see here.
If you're looking for a martial-arts-action RPG, you pretty much have to pick up Ogre Gate. It takes the genre to a whole other level.
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