Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Kung-fu Training Minigame

As I said in my previous post, I've been watching a lot of kung fu movies. A core feature of these movies is a training scene. The hero goes from nursing their bruised knuckles to smashing through stone walls. Importantly, there are frequently multiple training scenes. 36 Chambers of Shaolin is essentially one long training scene sequence.

Because training scenes are an important part of the genre, they seem important to gameify. Saying "Okay, you go off and train for a few months and we're back" seems insufficient. 

But how can you make doing 100 pushups, reciting 100 sutras, or carrying 100 jugs of water interesting?

From Kill 6 Billion Demons

Honing Your Skills vs Learning New Skills

When training, you can hone your skills or learn new skills

Honing your skills allows you to improve your HP, master a new technique from your main style, etc.

However, you can only do so much training on your own. You must have a teacher to learn new skills. 

Teachers include:

  • Kung fu masters
  • Kung fu manuals
  • Sparring partners
  • Schools and monasteries 
  • Weirder things, like surviving poison to learn Five-Venoms style
Traveling to find a teacher who can teach you the right technique to overcome the villain is a major point of the game.

Training Montage

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

Once per session (often at the end), you may declare that you're training. If you currently have a teacher, the GM will tell you 1-3 exercises they have assigned you

For example:

  • Pulling nails from posts with your bare hands
  • Catching thrown tofu without splattering it
  • Catching flies with chopsticks
  • Watching light bouncing off a mirror without turning your head
  • Pulling a laden cart up and down a mountain

Roll 5d6. You must keep at least one die, but may keep more. Your goal is to get the lowest value possible.

Threes are worth zero points. All other numbers are face value. 

  • If you keep a 4, 5, or 6, narrate a failure.
  • If you keep a 1 or 2, narrate a near success.
  • If you keep a 3, narrate an a-ha moment.
The GM will give you a 1-3 points of focus based on your description (see below).

Reroll the remaining dice and repeat the procedure, keeping at least one die and narrating a description until no dice remain. 

Sum the total value of the kept dice. 

  • If the total value of your training montage is equal to or less than your focus, the montage is successful. 
    • If you are training by yourself, hone one of your skills. If you are training with a teacher, learn a new skill.
    • Reset your current focus to 0.
  • If the total value of your training montage is greater than your focus, you do not learn anything new. You are bruised and exhausted.
    • Note down your total focus. Focus persists between training montages until your succeed.


The player rolls a 3-3-6-5-2 on their first turn. They keep both 3s. They also choose (but don't have to) to keep the 2. They roll the last two remaining dice and get 3-5. They keep the 3. They roll the last die. It's a 4. They must keep it as it is the final die. Their dice are now 3-3-2-3-4. Total score for that montage is 2+4 = 6.


When you try to learn a new technique, you begin with a focus of 0. The GM awards a player 1-3 points of focus for each narration during the training montage. Focus persists between training sessions until a training montage is successful.

1 point: The GM awards 1 point of focus for evocative descriptions of training. 
Example: "I struggle to smash all the hanging water jugs with my head, getting a bloody nose."

2 points: The GM awards 2 points of focus for descriptions that interact with the environment in some notable fashion, taking advantage of the scenery they've provided. 
Example: "As the Sick God continues throwing slices of tofu, I actually catch one this time without mashing it. Then another. Then another. The Sick God looks impressed and begins throwing the slices faster. I quickly run out of hands with which to catch the slices. I catch one in my mouth and my eyes bulge and cross."

3 points: When a player's narration causes the entire table gasps in awe, bursts into applause, or collapses into laughter, the GM should award 3 points of focus. 
Example: "As Ah-Biao and I spar atop the raised poles, I no longer need to look down and think about my footwork--I simply glide across them, like I'm skating across a pond in winter. As I fall back against his assault, he delivers an unexpected kick. I sail backwards, and would be knocked outside of the sparring ring, but I swing my saber in a lazy arc and cut a section from one of the red poles. I kick off of it in mid-air and land back in the ring, ready to continue."

Design Notes

The goal is to incorporate training scenes into a kung fu RPG in a way that emulates classic grindhouse kung fu movies but is also fun. Fun is derived from choices. 

There two main choices delivered by this system: 1) There's a small strategy in the minigame about when to take a low roll and when to reroll 2) The creative exercise of narrating interesting, pleasing scenes set by the constraints of the GM. These are minor but I hope they deliver a nice experience. 

Here are some other things that appeal to me about this system:
  • The minigame is derived from Threes, a dice game my friends and I play while drinking. It's fun without being complex or demanding.
  • The minigame is also super fast. Without narration, a single turn takes about a minute. With 4-5 narration beats, I anticipate this minigame taking about 5 minutes. This feels like the right training-to-play ratio for a standard RPG session. 
  • The focus system is borrowed from Exalted's stunt system. It is a fun system that works when you get your head around it.
  • Because training happens every session, players should be gaining new skills every session or so. Leveling up is fun and is very genre appropriate.
This needs playtesting, but I think there's something appealing here.

Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Meditating on the White Lotus

Sometimes I make kung fu posts. I've started using the `kung-fu` label to aggregate them. Click on this label to read my other mutterings on this subject.

I've been watching Shaw Brothers films at the gym this summer. If you're unfamiliar, Shaw Brothers was a prolific Hong Kong production company that produced grindhouse kung fu films. Basically, all the audio samples from Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) were from these films. 

> Frog style is incredibly strong and immune to nearly any weapon.

I like some of the films more than I like others, but almost all of them have something that made me say "Ha ha neat." Almost all of them have something gameable

In this post, I'm going to step through the Shaw Brothers' film Clan of the White Lotus beat by beat. Heavy spoilers warning, obviouslyWhen there's something gameable, I'll riff. 

This is a purely creative exercise. Maybe it will be interesting to you, too!

Clan of the White Lotus

I selected Clan of the White Lotus (titled Fists of the White Lotus in the original North American release) because it is standard Shaw Bros. fare. It is fun without being brilliant. It is third in a series of multi-generational revenge films concerning Pai Mei's betrayal of the Shaolin temple. (You might remember Pai Mei from the Kill Bill series.) It is basically a remake of the first film in this series.

Plot: A wronged martial artist trains tirelessly to carry out a plan of revenge against a martial arts master. In the background, political turmoil that undoubtedly has 70s Hong Kong implications that I do not understand. After leveling up, the wronged martial artist kills his rival. He says "I did it!" The credits roll. 

Cast: Here's a list of the characters to reference while reading this blog post in case any of the names are confusing.
  • Priest White Lotus - The main villain, brother of Pai Mei
  • Wen-Ting - The main character
  • Ah-Biao - The Shaolin fighter from the first film, murdered by Priest White Lotus
  • Mei-Hsiao - Ah-Biao's wife
  • Ko Chin-Chung - Governor of the region, nephew of Priest White Lotus

Intro Credits

The intro credits recap the battle from the first film in the series, Executioners of Shaolin, where two Shaolin monks join forces to defeat the villainous Pai Mei.

Gaming Observation: Designed for Small Tables
The traditional arc of these stories almost always has one hero facing off against one evil master and their horde. There are often minor characters, usually a love interest, a comedic character, and a good martial arts master. These would not make particularly interesting player characters. (Executioners of Shaolin is unusual in that there were two main characters.)

An RPG based on this paradigm would work well if designed intentionally for 1 player hero and 1 GM. Perhaps these two players trade roles--perhaps after every act or after every campaign. 

Rules for dual-heroes or, much more rarely, ensemble casts would be optional.

Act 1

The Shaolin clan is released from prison, following the events of the last movies. This includes Ah-Biao, who defeated Pai Mei. Ah-Biao has been lamed in prison. He returns home to his wife, Mei-Hsiao, and protégé, Wen-Ting.

The governor of the region and member of the White Lotus clan, Ko Chin-Chung, perceives the Shaolin as rebels to the Qing Dynasty. He asks his uncle, head of the White Lotus Clan (simply named "White Lotus Chief" or "Priest White Lotus" in my translation) to help kill the released Shaolin prisoners. Priest White Lotus agrees because he was brother to Pai Mei and wants revenge on Ah-Biao.

The White Lotus ambush and kill the freed rebels. Ah-Biao, because he was injured in prison, is killed. Wen-Ting is defeated by Priest White Lotus, but escapes with Mei-Hsiao.

Gaming Observation: Campaign conventions
The main loop of D&D is "Go into dungeon. Fight monsters. Take treasure. Spend treasure in city." The main loop of a kung fu game is "Watch master get killed by villain. Train. Find counter to villain's style. Defeat villain." This campaign structure can be used sequentially, ad nauseum, with different villains coming to revenge old ones and old heroes dying as inciting incidents.

Act 2

Wen-Ting and Mei-Hsiao go stay with Mei-Hsiao's brother, the buffoonish Cheng. He works making paper mannequins. 

Wen-Ting trains with Cheng to perfect his Tiger Crane style. Cheng is not a good martial artist, but Wen-Ting has to practice on somebody. This is a comedic sequence.

Gaming Observation: Level ups are fun
In a kung fu game, you should level up after every session. This level up can be spent either in training (to learn new skills) or during combats to represent a-ha moments (perfecting the skills you already have). 

Converting "White Lotus" into a campaign arc, imagine every act as one session. Wen-Ting goes from student to master over the course of 4. This implies that max level is 4.

Wen-Ting goes to the temple of the White Lotus to confront Priest White Lotus, cutting a swath through his minions to find him. Wen-Ting and the governor Ko Chin-Chung spar before Priest White Lotus joins the battle.

Gaming Observation: Mooks, Mini-bosses, and Bosses
There are three levels of enemies. 
  • Mooks are your acolytes, your ninjas, your guardsmen--faceless, nameless characters. They exist to die in droves. 
  • Mini-bosses are named characters with strong kung fu. They are worthy foes. They exist to give the player hero someone to defeat while perfecting their skills.
  • Bosses are the main villains of the campaign. Defeating them is the goal of the game.
Priest White Lotus has two powerful defensive abilities:
  • Light body, so strong attacks generate wind that simply pushes him away
  • Strong internal qi, so he can shrug off any attack that does hit
Priest White Lotus explains that he maintains these powers through a restful ritual on this day, the day of the Dragon Boat Festival. Priest White Lotus easily defeats Wen-Ting again. Wen-Ting escapes.

Gaming Observation: Defeat isn't death
When a player hero is defeated in combat, they do not die. Instead, they escape and are given a complication. Overcoming the complication frames the next session and moves the story beats on.

Complications include:
  • Injuries
  • Trailing spies
  • Captured friends
  • Burned home bases
Fighting the master villain is important because you learn what their powers are. Finding techniques that can defeat these powers is the main thrust of the game.

Act 3

Wen-Ting is followed by two incognito White Lotus members. Realizing he's being trailed, he gives them a slip through clever role-play in a tea house. 

Mei-Hsiao gives birth to Ah-Biao's son. Wen-Ting continues to train. Observing the way Cheng's paper mannequins are blown by the storm's wind, Mei-Hsiao has a revelation about how Priest White Lotus dodges.

Mei-Hsiao teaches Wen-Ting a woman's style of kung fu--less power, more grace. To train him in this, Wen-Ting does women's work such as embroidery and taking care of the new baby. (Mastering this style causes Wen-Ting to act effeminately, talking in falsetto and affecting a feminine style. This rules.)

Gaming Observation: Style combinations
The boss is undefeated because nobody knows how to get past their kung fu. Players spend their levels to learn kung fu techniques that, when combined, directly counter the villain's kung fu. 

A kung fu style can probably be abstracted down to a single technique--a defensive strategy, an attack, etc. The game should provide rules for combining styles, allowing players to create brand new techniques. 

Feeling confident in his Embroidery/Tiger Crane style, Wen-Ting returns to challenge Priest White Lotus again. Wen-Ting first (barely) defeats the chief's two swordsman bodyguards. 

Wen-Ting can now manage to strike Priest White Lotus but cannot injure him. Priest White Lotus is then revealed to have a potent attack move: 100-pace Strike. After hit with this strike, you can only walk 100 pages before dying. 

Wen-Ting, staggering from the temple, takes 99 steps and is found by Cheng.

Act 4

Cheng takes Wen-Ting back to the paper mannequin shop. The owner of the paper mannequin shop is revealed to be a doctor and also a rebel sympathetic to the Shaolin cause. The owner uses acupuncture to cure Wen-Ting. 

Wen-Ting reads the owner's acupuncture book and realizes that, using internal kung-fu, White Lotus Priest has moved his vital area (which my translation just called [Mumbling], inexplicably). Wen-Ting specifically arms himself with new weapons for his next confrontation.

Gaming Observation: New weapons
Villains tend to be static. Heroes are dynamic. When a hero changes their approach or gets a new weapon, this should provide them a meaningful bonus to the next encounter. There should be a system where players and GMs negotiate over the strategy of new weapons, with players solving problems through a broad selection of tools.

Wen-Ting returns to challenge the White Lotus Priest one last time. He returns again on the day of the Dragon Boat Festival, one year since his first challenge. 

Using a three-section staff, Wen-Ting solidly defeats the two sword-wielding bodyguards. 

Then, using embroidery pins, Wen-Ting stabs White Lotus Priest's body in his acupuncture points, finally defeating him.

He says "I won!" The credits roll.

Gaming Observation: Combat flow
Sometimes heroes get hit and are knocked back into another room. Sometimes you can tell they have taken a Bad Hit because some blood is coming from their mouth. After the hero has blood coming of their mouth, they can be given a Very Bad Hit that takes them out. Sometimes, when you think the Very Bad Hit is coming, the hero recovers instead.

Instead of tracking HP, player heroes and worthy foes have essentially three states:
  • Balanced
  • Staggered 
  • Taken out
You can't be taken out until you're staggered, first. The rules in REACH HEAVEN THROUGH VIOLENCE simulate these states well, and I'm still pretty proud of them.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Ten Interesting Traps

There have been many posts on this subject. This is mine.

(Because of His Majesty the Worm, I find myself in the position where I need to explain concepts in a worse way than the originator of the idea. I am standing on the shoulders of giants and falling.)


Art for HIS MAJESTY THE WORM by Marcin S

Put some of these traps into your dungeons. Use them as inspiration to create your own.

I. Mysterious Tower, Acid Lake

There is a tumbledown tower on the middle of an island. The island is in the middle of a bright-green acid lake. The lake is death for whoever falls into it.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: The possible rewards are tantalizing. (A mysterious tower? What’s in it?) The dangers are obvious. (The lake is bright green! Acid is deadly!) This is an open-ended problem with many possible solutions but no one obvious solution.

How to run it: Living creatures who fall into the waters are killed. Unless the player is as direct as saying, “I run and jump in the lake!” let them test fate to avoid this.

Unless an item is indestructible, it will quickly be Destroyed if placed in the acid lake. Carefully touching an item to the surface of the acidic water will simply Notch it. Players should be able to quickly experiment to determine how caustic the waters actually are.

Spells might help the guild cross the lake. Gust of Wind would allow at least one adventurer to cross the lake. Defy Depths would probably work, but the adventurer’s boots would burn off their feet as they walked on the surface.

Clever guilds might employ the use of flying monsters elsewhere in the dungeon to help them cross the acidic lake.

II. Arrow Trap

A hallway has a 10’ stretch of wall dotted with small holes on either side.

The floor between the holes in the wall is a pressure plate. Stepping on the pressure plate causes arrows to fire from the holes.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: Pressure plates and traps (arrows, pits, jets of flame, etc.) are genre staples. That’s cool. However, they tend to be both hidden and deadly. That’s a bad combination during play.

You can make these traps not suck by broadcasting the danger clearly and providing some part of the trap for the players to interact with. In this circumstance, the holes are both obvious and interactable. Apply this principle to make tropey traps more fun.

How to run it: If an adventurer steps onto the pressure plate, tell the player they hear a click. They have a split second of real-life time to tell you what they want to do. If they make a move away from the holes—dropping to the floor, launching themselves backwards—they can test Pentacles to avoid the volley. On a failure—or if they do nothing—they take a Wound.

The arrows will only fire once. (They need to be reset after they’re triggered.) If one adventurer triggers the trap, the rest can pass.

The holes on the wall should be a clear genre indication of danger. Adventurers can trigger the trap prematurely by throwing something heavy onto the pressure plate. They can also leap over it with a successful test of Pentacles. They might plug the holes up with alchemical glue bombs. Let the players’ ideas work if they make sense.

III. Quicksand

A swampy section of ground is actually quicksand. It begins to inexorably swallow anybody who steps into it—just like the old movies.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: Tropes are instantly understandable at the table. Quicksand is a good trope because it can be hidden without being deadly. It traps one adventurer and gives the rest of the guild something to do.

How to run it: If the guild is not moving carefully, the first adventurer in the marching order blunders into the quicksand and gets stuck. Unless they have a tool in their hand or on their belt that could help them with the situation (e.g., rope to lasso over a nearby tree limb), they can’t do anything by themselves to get unstuck. Other members of the guild can test Swords to pull the stuck adventurer out: rope grants favor to this test.

IV. Electrified Chest

A metal chest on a plinth. The plinth is electrified. The whole room smells of ozone. Nearing the plinth causes your arm hair to stand on end. Touching either the plinth or chest delivers a nasty shock.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: Although the danger of the chest and plinth might not be obvious by sight, the smells and sensations broadcast the danger. Having obvious treasure allows the guild to be instantly rewarded for their cleverness.

How to run it: Touching the chest or the plinth deals Piercing damage.

There are lots of different ways to disarm the trap. For example, an adventurer can knock the chest off the plinth with the butt of a spear to disconnect it from the electric current (though this might break the contents). Dwimmercraft could also be used to open the chest at a distance. 

V. Big Rolling Boulder

A sarcophagus. Behind it, a large devil statue—in a pose like a bowler about to make a throw—holds a massive boulder. Runes on the lid of the sarcophagus promise death for whoever disturbs the rest of Jarl Ninebones.

If the lid of the sarcophagus is opened, the statue throws the boulder, which rolls towards the guild Indiana Jones-style.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: It should be obvious based on the statue’s pose what will happen if the guild disturbs the sarcophagus. This gives the guild a chance to plan their approach, get out of the way, or disable the trap before it goes off.

How to run it: Once activated, the boulder will roll past the sarcophagus and chase the adventurers back the way they came. Each adventurer in the boulder’s path tests Pentacles. On a success, the adventurer jumps through the narrow door at the end of the passage, escaping the boulder. On a failure, they take Critical damage.

Players who have ideas like as “Jump in the sarcophagus” automatically avoid the boulder without having to test fate. Players who have ideas like as “Raise a stone wall by casting Wall of Elements with 3 Resolve to block the boulder” disable the trap entirely.

VI. Invisible Path

A door opens onto a chasm, apparently dropping into an endless pit. Falling into the pit would be certain death. On the other side of the chasm is another door. 

In actuality, an invisible bridge spans the two doors, though it does not go in a straight line. Rather, it meanders across the gap. 

Why this trap doesn’t suck: The danger is obvious and the solution isn’t. If the guild doesn’t understand there’s an invisible bridge, they can simply leave.

How to run it: The presence of the invisible bridge can be found by reaching out and touching the empty air directly in front of the door. Adventurers can tap on it with a ten-foot pole or tentatively put their weight on the empty air while their companions hold a rope tied around their waist.

The invisible bridge can be painted with paint, spilled ink, smashed lightning bugs, whatever. Sling stones or coins can also mark the path. Sorcerers can also use Dwimmercraft to activate their second sight and perceive the invisible bridge.

If the players have a good idea on how to ascertain the bridge’s position, they can make their way across.

VII. The Hungry Door

A doorframe is filled with a huge, gross, animate, slavering mouth. The teeth grind together, it smiles, it lolls its tongue, it belches. “Feed me!” it barks.

The door will open if it is well fed. It will be sated if it eats five rations or one sizable living creature.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: Like the invisible path, the guild can simply leave the door if they don’t have a good idea on how to get past it. Its danger is avoidable.

Also, the door is gross. Gross things are fun to put in dungeons.

How to run it: The door, despite being animate, can sustain damage like a metal door. If the guild attempts to smash the door down with something smaller than a battering ram, the door will chew on it and spit it out. This Notches items and/or Wounds the limbs of adventurers.

Feeding the door either requires some resource attrition (feeding it some of their precious rations) or cleverness on the guild’s part. Are they willing to sacrifice one of their animal companions? Can the guild bring the door a captured monster to eat?

VIII. Flooding Fish Statue
A shallow pool hosts a large fish statue with a large blue sapphire in its mouth. Removing the sapphire causes the doors to slam shut and water to gush from the fish’s mouth. Within moments, the door will be completely flooded.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: A too-obvious reward should make players suspicious that there is a hidden risk. If the guild makes an effort to position themselves for success before looting the gem from the fish statue, they can significantly reduce the risk of this trap.

How to run it: Tell the players that they have the length of three actions in total to try and disable the trap.

The simplest solution is just to put the gem back in the fish’s mouth. This effectively blocks the water. The guild can also jam something less valuable in the mouth of equivalent size. What do they have that’s shaped like a large gem?

If they have a tool like a crowbar, the guild can test Swords to smash their way out of the room. On a failure, they’ve wasted one of their actions and the water continues to rise.

A spell like Portable Hole will create a hole large enough for the water to flow out. After a few minutes, the water in the reservoir under the fish statue will run out.

If the guild cannot find a way to stop the flow of water after three actions, it’s okay to let them drown. Adventuring is nasty business.

IX. Pyrotechnic Mushrooms

The far side of the hallway is cluttered with ugly orange mushroom growing on the walls, floors, and ceiling. All naked flame in the hallway hisses and sputters. A sulphureous smell pervades the area.

If the mushrooms are disturbed, they fill the air with a highly flammable gas.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: The mushrooms are obviously bad news. The interaction with the guild’s light and the smell broadcasts the danger. Also, interacting with mushrooms will feel different from interacting with mechanical traps.

How to run it: Make it clear the guild cannot pass the mushrooms without disturbing them. If the adventurers have active flames (torches, candles, etc.) while walking through the mushroom area, an explosion is triggered. Anybody carrying a light catches on fire. They take a Wound and one flammable item in their belt/pack is Notched every time an action is taken until they can put themselves out. Everybody adjacent to a light-bearer in marching order takes a Wound.

The adventurers can put their lights out and safely traverse the fungus-riddled section of the hallway—but how will they deal with what’s beyond without a light?

X. Chess Board Room

A 40’ x 40’ room with an alternating pattern of 5’ by 5’ white and black squares on the ground—like a gigantic chess board. 

The guild can enter this room by any square on the front row. When they step onto a square, they hear a click.

The first square an adventurer steps onto magically marks them as a particular chess piece. That adventurer can only move through the room using legal moves for that chess piece. Stepping out of bounds results in electric shocks. 

An adventurer stepping into the king’s square on the back row results in another click. A secret door adjacent to the king’s square opens, allowing the guild to exit into a new area.

Why this trap doesn’t suck: This is a more elaborate, more puzzle-oriented trap—the sort made by a mad wizard. This sort of thing can be fun when used judiciously.

Having no obvious exits to the room is a clue to the players that there’s something up. They have the choice to ignore the room or brave the trap if they want to figure out the room’s purpose (and find the secret door).

Because the penalty for learning the rules of the trap is just a Wound, players have a grace period to experiment.

How to run it: Grab a chessboard or sketch out an 8 square by 8 square grid to show to the players. Ask the players what square they first step on. This procedure will make it obvious that the choice they’re making has some impact.

If an adventurer makes an “illegal” move, they take a Wound from a shock as soon as they step onto the new square.

Of course, there’s no reason the players have to play by the rules. The guild might break up furniture from an adjacent room and construct a long, impractical bridge across the room, then use pickaxes to smash open the secret door.