Archive for January, 2008

Some Alternate Rules for Water Margin

2008 Jan 15

This is mostly a braindump, so it’s not so eloquently written.

There is a numbered list of the bravos of Mount Liang, the 108 Record, listing their full names, most prominent nickname (frex: “The Nine Dragoned” or “Leopard Head”), and a list of the oracle entries (chapter titles) in which either of their names appear. Additionally, in the oracle entries, whenever the name or nickname of one of the bravos appears, there is a circled number next to their name, indicating which one they are, so they can be easily referenced in the 108 Record.

When you determine which entries you are going to play in a given session, you mark those entries off a master oracle list, the Record of Tales, because no oracle entry is ever played twice. If the names of some of the 108 bravos appear on the oracle entries for a particular session, you should also check these entries off where they are listed next to a given bravo’s name on the 108 Record. If a given bravo now has no checkboxes left, this is the last session in which he will appear. Characters that have no checkboxes, because they are not specifically mentioned in any oracle entries, can only appear in one session.

Any characters that specifically appear on the oracle entries for a session are automatically a part of that session, even if they are not on the We Owe List. They do not have to fully appear during play, however. They can have performed the actions mentioned in the oracle before the start of play or “off-screen” and be long gone somewhere else or dead.

There is also a list of character names from the Water Margin to use whenever you need characters who are not bravos. Some of these names may also appear in oracle entries, but these entries may not come up until many sessions in, after you’ve already established things about a character with that name. This is great. You could keep notes after each session about what a given character did if you are interested in preserving some consistency of character. But you may not care about that.

Note that characters who are explicitly not bravos can never become bravos. However, the bravos themselves spend plenty of time not being bravos. Some were once officials or become officials for a period of time. Many have been hired by local lords as generals or killers. Many are also gentlemen or ladies when the occasion demands it, or were once high born and refined. Some have given their lives to the Buddha and sought refuge in monasteries to hide themselves from their enemies, only to cause an uproar and be forced back to their life of banditry. Some are secretly sorcerers or intellectuals or blacksmiths. Bravos frequently travel in disguise. In sum, bravos can be anything (even the sworn enemy of all bravos, bent on their destruction), but other people are inevitably what they seem to be.

You have completed the Water Margin when you have worked your way through all 200 oracle entries (which at a rate of 4 per session should take you 50 sessions) or run out of bravos. If you want to create a shorter campaign, it’s easy to measure campaigns by the number of bravos you’ve exhausted. Perhaps you only want to work through 30 of the 108. Note that bravos are exhausted much more quickly if you 1) use a bunch of minor one-shot bravos or 2) select the oracle entries listed in the checkboxes of bravos you have already started using to be the entries for the next session.

Oracle for Along the Water’s Edge…

2008 Jan 15

Creating a Water Margin-based oracle for In a Wicked Age is about the simplest thing known to mankind. Each chapter of the epic is titled with two short lines describing major happenings in that section of the story. All I have to do is type all the chapter headings up and post them on Abulafia. Here’s a start, from Pearl Buck’s translation:


  • Heavenly Teacher Zhang prays to dispel the evil flux.
  • Commander Heng mistakenly frees the demons.


  1. Wang The Chief Instructor goes secretly to Yan An Fu.
  2. The Nine Dragoned makes a mighty turmoil at the Village of the Shi Family.
  3. Shi Jin escapes by night from Hua Ying.
  4. Captain Lu kills the bully of Guanxi with his fists.
  5. The Lord Chao repairs the temple to the Wenzhu god.
  6. Lu The Priest makes a mighty turmoil on The Five Crested Mountain.
  7. The little robber king in drunkenness enters the gold-spangled curtains.
  8. In the night The Tattooed Priest greatly disturbs the peach flower village.
  9. The Nine Dragoned Shi Jin turns robber in the forest of red pines.
  10. Lu Zhishen burns The Temple To The Mountain God.
  11. The Tattooed Priest, and how he pulled up the weeping willow.
  12. The Leopard Headed unwittingly enters The Hall of White Tigers.
  13. Lin Chong is branded and sent into exile.
  14. The Tattooed Priest creates a vast turmoil in The Wood Of The Wild Boar.
  15. Chai Jin welcomes to his door guests from everywhere under Heaven.
  16. Lin Chong overcomes Captain Hung with his staff.
  17. Through wind and snow Lin Chong goes to The Temple Of The Mountain God.
  18. Lu The Guard takes fire and burns the Temple granaries.
  19. Zhu Gui lets fly a singing arrow from The Pavilion In The Lake.
  20. Lin Chong on a snowy night ascends the mountain of the robbers’ lair.
  21. Lin Chong becomes a robber in the Great Lair.
  22. Yang Zhi goes to the capitol city to sell his knife.
  23. The Eager Vanguard struggles for glory in the northern capitol.
  24. Zhou Qing and The Blue-Faced Exile compete in battle.
  25. The Redheaded Devil sleeps drunken in the temple.
  26. Chao The Heavenly King in the Village Of The East Creek acknowledges one for his nephew.
  27. Wu Yong exhorts the three Ruan Brothers to join the robber band.
  28. Gongsun Sheng fulfills The Prophecy Of The Seven Stars.
  29. Yang Zhi guards the bearers of the gift-treasure.
  30. Wu Yong takes the gift-treasure by guile.
  31. The Tattooed Priest alone conquers The Double Dragon Mountain.
  32. With The Blue-Faced Beast he captures The Temple Of The Precious Pearl.
  33. The Beautiful Bearded traps The Winged Tiger by guile.
  34. Song Jiang secretly frees Chao The Heavenly King.
  35. Lin Chong kills a comrade in the robbers’ lair.
  36. Chao Gai conquers the lair and that without great pains.
  37. The heroes of the robbers’ lair do reverence to Chao Gai.
  38. Liu T’ang travels by the light of the moon to the city of Yün Ch’en.
  39. The old woman Yien in a fit of drunkenness beats T’ang Liu Er.
  40. Song Jiang in his wrath kills P’o Hsi.
  41. The old woman Yien makes a great ado in the court.
  42. Chu T’ang because of friendship allows Song Jiang to go free.
  43. Chai Jin presses his guests to stay.
  44. Wu Song kills the great tiger of Ching Yang Ridge.
  45. The old woman Wang, desirous of a bribe, rouses evil passions.
  46. Yün Ko in a madness of anger makes a furor in a teashop.
  47. The old woman Wang now thinks to advise Hsi Men Ch’ing by guile.
  48. The adulteress poisons Wu The Elder.
  49. Ho steals the bones of Wu The Elder at the funeral pyre.
  50. Wu Song makes sacrifice of heads to the spirit of his elder brother.
  51. The she-monster of the sea sells human flesh on the road to Meng Chou.
  52. Wu Song meets Zhang Qing at The Cross Roads Ridge.
  53. Wu Song‘s power shakes The Encampment Of Peace.
  54. Shi En justly takes the back The Happy Wood Wine Shop.
  55. Shi En seizes the road to Meng Chou once more.
  56. Wu Song in his drunkenness beats Chiang The God Of The Gate.
  57. Shi En goes thrice to the goal of deaths.
  58. Wu Song creates a vast turmoil at The Pool Of The Flying Cloud.
  59. Blood splatters The Hall Of The Mandarin Ducks.
  60. Wu Song walks by night on Centipede Hill.
  61. The priest Wu in his drunkenness beats K’ung Liang.
  62. The Five Hued Tiger frees Song Jiang with all courtesy.
  63. Song Jiang goes by night to see The Lantern Mountain.
  64. Hua Yung makes a mighty disturbance in The Camp Of Clear Winds.
  65. He Who Rules Three Mountains greatly disturbs Ch’ing Chou.
  66. The Fire In The Thunderclap passes through a wasteland in the night.
  67. The General writes a letter in a village inn.
  68. Hua Yung shoots a wild goose with his arrow.
  69. Wu Yong of the robbers’ lair introduces Dai Zhong.
  70. Song Jiang comes upon Li Chün at Ching Yang River.
  71. He Whom No Obstacle Can Stay pursues The Opportune Rain, Song Jiang.
  72. The Boatman Zhang disturbs Chiang Chou.
  73. The Opportune Rain meets The Magic Messenger.
  74. The Black Whirlwind fights with White Stripe In The Waves.
  75. Song Jiang writes a revolutionary poem in the Ching Yang inn.
  76. Dai Zhong of the robbers’ lair brings a false letter.
  77. The heroes from the robbers’ lair make a rescue from the execution grounds.
  78. They gather at The Temple To The White Dragon.
  79. Song Jiang by guile captures the city of Wu Wei Chün.
  80. Chang Shih captures Huang Wen Ping alive.
  81. In a village three books are received from Heaven.
  82. Song Jiang sees The Goddess Of The Ninth Heaven.
  83. The false Li Kui robs lonely villagers in the wilderness.
  84. The Black Whirlwind kills four tigers on the Mountain I Ning.
  85. The Five Hued Leopard meets Dai Zhong upon a bypath.
  86. Yang Xiong meets Shi Xiu upon a market street.
  87. Yang Xiong in drunkenness curses his wife.
  88. Shi Xiu by his guile kills P’ei Ju Hai.
  89. Yang Xiong greatly disturbs the mountain called The Jade Screen.
  90. Shi Xiu burns the inn of the Chu family.
  91. The Eagle Who Smites The Heavens twice writes a letter of brotherhood.
  92. Song Jiang goes for the first time to attack the village of the Chu famiy.
  93. The Ten Foot Green Snake alone captures Wang The Dwarf Tiger.
  94. Song Jiang attacks the village of Chu for a second time.
  95. The two brothers Hsieh escape from the gaol.
  96. The two brothers Sheng rush into the goal, mighty to save.
  97. Wu Yong uses a double-linked plot.
  98. Song Jiang thrice attacks the village of Chu.
  99. The Winged Tiger uses his rack to strike a maid.
  100. The Beautiful Bearded in a careless instant loses the magistrate’s son.
  101. Li Kui kills Ying T’ien Hsi.
  102. Chai Jin is made prisoner in Kao T’ang Chou.
  103. Dai Zhong for the second time sees Gongsun Sheng.
  104. Li Kui alone splits in half Lo The Holy Man.
  105. The Dragon Of The Clouds uses his magic to vanquish Kao Lien.
  106. The Black Whirlwind descends into a well to save Chai Jin.
  107. The Commander Kao leads forth three ranks of soldiers.
  108. Hu Yien Shu sets out two ranks of horsemen.
  109. Wu Yong sends Shun Ch’ien to steal armor.
  110. T’ang Lung decoys Ch’ü Ling to the mountain lair.
  111. Ch’ü Ling teaches the robbers how to use the hook-bladed spear.
  112. Song Jiang overcomes the chained horsemen.
  113. The three mountains gather together to attack Ch’ing Chou.
  114. All the tigers turn to the robbers’ lair.
  115. Wu Yong takes The Golden Bell by guile.
  116. Song Jiang makes a disturbance in The Great Hua Mountain Of The West.
  117. Gongsun Sheng vanquishes The Devil On The Mountain Of Wild Grass And Rocks.
  118. Chao Gai is wounded with an arrow in the village of Chen T’ou.
  119. Wu Yong beguiles The Jade Ch’i Lin.
  120. Zhang Shun by night disturbs The Golden Sands.
  121. Yien Ch’ing lets fly a lone arrow and saves his lord.
  122. Shi Xiu leaps from a balcony on the execution ground.
  123. Song Jiang and his fighting men attack Ta Ming Fu.
  124. Guan Sheng seeks a way to seize the robbers’ lair.
  125. Hu Yien Shu deceives Guan Sheng on a moonlit night.
  126. Song Jiang seizes So Ch’ao upon a snowy day.
  127. The spirit of The Pagoda-Moving Heavenly King Chao Gai appears as a god.
  128. White Stripe In The Waves Zhang Shun takes his revenge upon the face of the waters.
  129. Shi Qian burns The House Of The Jade Cloud.
  130. Wu Yong takes the city of Ta Ming Fu by guile.
  131. Song Jiang rewards the victorious robbers.
  132. Guan Sheng overcomes two warriors of water and of fire and leads them to the lair.
  133. Song Jiang attacks by night the village of the Chen family.
  134. Lu Junyi seizes Shi Wen Kung alive.
  135. The Nine Dragoned through accident is imprisoned in the city of Tung P’ing.
  136. In great mercy Song Jiang sets free The Warrior Of The Two Spears.
  137. The Featherless Arrow lets fly stones against the heroes.
  138. Song Jiang discards the grain and captures a warrior.
  139. The Hall of Righteousness And Loyalty receives words from Heaven upon a tablet of stone.
  140. The heroes of the robbers’ lair are fearful because of an evil dream.

More Water Margin

2008 Jan 13


Some great resources from the internet.

  • Japanese illustrator Kimiya Masago (who did the designs for Chen Kaige’s The Promise) has created an amazing series of images showing the 108 bandits, which I probably can’t afford the rights to. However…
  • There are a couple of great woodcut illustrations of the 108, such as this one, in a more traditional style, but THIS ONE blows me away because it looks so much like Vincent’s work. I’ll have to see if I can figure out who did it.
  • There was apparently an old video game about the Water Margin called Bandit Kings of Ancient China, which gave stats for all the heroes that might be worth drawing on.

Along the Water’s Edge…

2008 Jan 13

For those of you who want to follow something besides the current U.S. primaries, the most recent legislative election in Taiwan was a landslide for the Nationalist Party, which formerly ruled the country in an authoritarian dictatorship up until 1996. Funny how things change. The presidential election will follow soon, leading many people to suspect that the Nationalists will be back in power in a big way. The Democratic Progressive Party — which started out as a bunch of democracy activists against the Nationalist dictatorship — lost big, because current President Chen Shuibian is very unpopular and his party’s upper leadership has been charged with corruption across the board. Personally, I’m pretty excited about the Nats winning, because that will lead, hopefully, to closer ties with China and less likelihood of a war — something that once seemed far-fetched, but recently is looking frighteningly real, with Chen pushing for Taiwanese independence and China threatening to invade.

Speaking of China news, I was talking a bit with Shreyas about developing a set of oracles for Vincent Baker’s new game In a Wicked Age, based on the Water Margin. The great thing about the Shuihu Zhuan is that it has the same kind of “progressive protagonization” that Vincent tries to set up in his new game, with the main protagonist role constantly shifting to new characters, often characters that have just appeared in the story for the first time. And the Water Margin certainly takes place in a wicked age, when the best men have become bandits due to the injustice of the state and of the wicked men around them.

There are, however, a few key differences that I’m trying to figure out how to hack:

  1. In the Water Margin, the 108 main characters are fixed — the 36 “heavenly spirits” and the 72 “earthly fiends” — each with a given name and nickname, such as Lin Chong, the Panther-Headed or Lu Zhishen, the Flowery Monk. I’m thinking that maybe there should be a separate deck of cards filled with info on all the outlaws, and you simply deal out cards when you need outlaw characters. Maybe their stats would be predetermined too, I don’t know.
  2. The list of stats that Vincent uses — covertly, directly, for myself, for others, with love, with violence — doesn’t really fit the Water Margin. I don’t think I have a better list yet, but I think I might be able to come up with one after re-reading more of the original epic. Most prominently, love is not a major motivating factor in the Water Margin. Loyalty and camaraderie, maybe, but I’m not sure the outlaws would call that love. Manners and treating others with respect and hospitality seems a more fitting companion to violence, in this case.
  3. The Water Margin is both a collections of stories that are frequently told out of order — you might go to an opera or storytelling session and just hear “Wu Song Kills the Tiger” in isolation — and a series of stories that have a set order to them. If you read or hear or see the entire tale from beginning to end, there is a kind of progression to it. This makes me wonder about setting forth a long Primetime Adventures-style list of “episodes” or “chapters” before the game begins and then playing them in whatever order the group chooses. And if you chose to play an episode next to a previously played episode, you’d read through your notes about what happened in that session to make sure you connected up the stories on either side. So basically, before play, you’d create something like this table here, except not filled out.

In any case, I want to play In a Wicked Age a bunch before reworking it for a new hack, but I’m excited about the possibilities. As always, a new game by Vincent means a few doors have been pushed open, partially because of the progressiveness of his design work and partially because his games get so much attention that people can’t ignore what he’s doing. All in all, a good thing for roleplaying and for those who love his games.

P.S. I talked about the rotating protagonist structure of the Water Margin back in March, where I outlined the protagonists for the first three chapters. If I could do that for the whole book, it would be pretty helpful for constructing the oracle, I bet.

The Despotism of “Story”

2008 Jan 8

Crossposted from Story Games.

Milan Kundera is one of the most brilliant writers I know. I just picked up his most recent book, The Curtain: An Essay in Seven Parts (2005), which is his take on the history, development, and value of the novel. Like his previous book of essays, Testaments Betrayed (1992), it has many insights that are relevant to roleplaying.

Like many folks, he begins with a discussion of Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel, 1532) and Cervantes (Don Quixote, 1605), who didn’t really see themselves as doing anything new when they “invented” the novel, or, really, when they were the most prominent members of a bunch of early novel writers. Kundera then moves on to Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749) and Fielding’s assertion that what distinguished the novel from other literary forms is its goal of exploring and discovering new things about human nature and life, things that are often far more banal than the concerns of other literary works. As Kundera says:

Homer never wondered whether, after their many hand-to-hand struggles, Achilles or Ajax still had all their teeth. But for Don Quixote and Sancho teeth are a perpetual concern — hurting teeth, missing teeth. “You must know, Sancho, that no diamond is so precious as a tooth.”

This discussion then leads into a passage titled The Despotism of “Story”, which is the main point I’m hoping to talk about.

Kundera first describes the basic plot of Tom Jones, in which the main character, much like Voltaire’s Candide (1759) ten years later or The Little Prince (1949), spends most of the middle of the book wandering from place to place meeting various characters, some of which join him on his journey. Then, finally, at the end, the book wraps up with a conclusion to the opening dilemma of the main character. This style is sometimes called a picarsque novel. Fielding also includes a great many digressions in the book, where he moves the focus from the main character to some other point of interest, as in Goldman’s The Princess Bride (the book, 1973). Kundera says:

When Fielding proclaims his complete freedom with the novel form, he is thinking primarily of his refusal to allow the novel to be reduced to a causal chain of actions, attitudes, gestures, words that the English call “story” and that is seen as constituting the meaning and the essence of the novel; against that absolutist power of story he particularly claims the right to interrupt the narration “as often as I see occasion,” with the interpolation of his own comments and thoughts — with, in a word, digressions. Nonetheless he too utilizes story as though it is the only possible means to assure unity in composition, to bind the start to the finish. Thus he closed Tom Jones (though possibly with a secret ironic smile) with the “happy ending” of wedding bells.

Kundera next hails Stern’s Tristram Shandy (1759)…

Whereas Fielding, so as not to suffocate in the long corridor of a causal chain of events, flung wide the windows of digressions and episodes throughout, Stern renounces story completely; his novel is just one big manifold digression, one long festival of episodes whose “unity” — deliberately fragile, comically fragile — is stiched together by only a few eccentric characters and their microscopic, laughably pointless actions.

Sounds almost like Paranoia or Toon. I think, too, that many modern novelists have been drawn back to this kind of storytelling-by-assemblage. I’m thinking, in particular, of David Mitchell’s brilliant books — Ghostwritten (1999), number9dream (2001), Cloud Atlas (2004), and Black Swan Green (2006) — which contain thematically connected episodes in which certain bits of descriptive imagery serve as reoccurring leitmotifs, connecting the disparate elements together. A. S. Byatt also talks about this tendency to look back to early novelists and collections of quazi-related stories (The Thousand Nights and A Night, Hans Christian Anderson, the Brothers Grimm) in her brillant essay collection On Histories and Stories (2000).

Kundera, though, has a somewhat different point. He says…

Those who deplored that “insignificance” [of topics explored in early novels] were using the right term… Now, are great dramatic actions really the best clue to understanding human nature? Are they not, rather, a barrier that hides life as it truly is? Isn’t “insignificance” actually one of our greatest problems? Isn’t that our fate? And, if so, is that fate our good fortune or bad? Our humiliation or, on the contrary, our solace, our escape, our idyll, our refuge?

This, again, is the contrast with Homer, with epic stories. In Kundera’s opinion, the novel is founded on the exploration of simple reality of the human condition, on Don Quixote’s teeth, which escapes from this “despotism of story,” being overly focused on how one event leads to another or the grand actions of superhuman beings.

Things This Says To Me:

  1. The value of “immersion” in roleplaying seems like it may be connected, in part, to Quixote’s teeth, the desire to explore the fundamental banalities of human existence. That’s an aspect I had never really considered before.
  2. Many task or conflict resolution systems seem to put an emphasis on what Kundera criticizes as the “despotism of story,” moving the narrative forward in a causal manner. I don’t think I would cast a value judgement on them, as Kundera does, but it’s certainly worth noticing. However, I also think that some resolution systems, such as in Dogs in the Vineyard, mitigate this by allowing players to bring in or invent small details that place the emphasis back on Quixote’s teeth. That’s pretty cool.
  3. I think there has recently been a movement in indie game design towards games in which “story” is not the most important thing being constructed through play. I see many more episodic games where the various bits of play are not unified into a single narrative but only vaguely connected together. I think this is a trend in cinema as well, with films like Traffic, Crash, Babel, and Syriana getting a lot of attention for their ability to depict the complex, diverse-yet-interconnected world of human life. You can even see bits of this in the way they film shows like Heroes, with diverse characters in different locations somehow creating a broader picture of experiences. Most of the games that consistently produce or support this kind of play have not yet been formally published (they are drafts or Game Chef concepts or in playtest), but Meg’s 1001 Nights and Joshua’s Shock: do this kind of thing fairly regularly. I may be missing some others, due to less familiarity.
  4. There are still very few (no?) roleplaying games that play like novels in the sense Kundera means, that focus on the “insignificant” aspects of human life as the things that provide meaning, as opposed to an unfolding story of events or grander historical developments. That’s one of the things that excites me so much about Emily’s Sign in Stranger, I think, that is has the potential to really support that kind of play, focusing on the most basic and universal human experiences. From talking to Emily about it, I know that she doesn’t want to make that the default play style, that the characters in Stranger can be at the center of major issues that involve the fate of entire worlds if the players want that, but that seems, personally, much less exciting, since I already have a shelf full of games that can do that.
  5. I really want to write a game inspired by David Mitchell. Like, if it was a game modeled after Cloud Atlas, I’d recruit 5 other designers and we’d each write a completely different game on the same core themes. Then we’d figure out a way for some of the mechanics or other bits to be shared between the games, so there would be some overlap or interconnectedness. And then we’d structure play such that play groups would switch between various games between sessions. So you’d play the games in the following order: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1. And there would probably be an endgame for each game that only kicked in during the second session of a given game. So you’d get 6 beginnings and then 6 endings. And there would be some method of record keeping that would keep track of things developed in the first session to keep everything from being forgotten. Sounds like a game anthology project for Push 3 or something.

What does this mean to you?