Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Review: Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate

"Welcome to Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, a game of gravity defying Martial Heroes. Characters start as lowly members of the martial world and roam the land perfecting their Kung Fu. Some uphold justice in the lawless shadow of a corrupt empire, while others seek only to further their own glory. Whatever path they take, to improve their martial arts they must learn from and defeat more powerful masters. Only then will their Kung Fu grow profound." - Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, p23

Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is a wuxia game (although heavily featuring xianxia elements as well) set in a fictional world (Qi Xien) inspired by ancient Chinese history, mythology, and literature. The system it uses (called the Network System) is fairly simple, and most of the crunchy bits come from the dozens of techniques and rituals characters can master. It also falls more on the trad/simulationist end of the spectrum (no metacurrencies or shared authorship) and promotes an open-ended approach (with the characters acting as wandering free agents collecting rare manuals and learning secret techniques, for example).

System Summary
  • The core resolution mechanic is the Skill Roll. The player rolls as many d10s as their Ranks in the relevant Skill (ranging from 0 to 3), then compares the highest result against the Target Number. At 0 ranks, roll 2d10 and take the lower result.
  • Target Numbers are normally determined by the GM (3 simple, 5 challenging, 7 hard, 9 extremely difficult). Certain Skills are resisted by a Defense Skill (plus a static bonus) acting as a Target Number (e.g. Command is rolled against the target's Resolve +6, while ranged attacks are compared to the target's Evade Skill +3).
  • Situational modifiers and abilities may impose a penalty or grant a bonus either to a Skill roll or Defense Rating. However, there is a soft cap of 6d10 for most Skill rolls (and even if certain circumstances allow exceeding that, there is an absolute hard cap of 10d10).
  • Rolling a 10 counts as a Total Success, and it often results in a mechanical advantage (or the very least a spectecular success). Multiple 10s result in multiple Total Successes, the number of which is significant in some cases.
  • At character creation two skill groups (out of Defenses, Combat, Specialist, Physical, Knowledge, and Mental) are declared to be Primary (allowing more points to be spent in these categories). Skills cost progressively more points to increase.
  • With these skill points (or XP during the game), Expertise may be bought. They cover a specialty within a skill (such as Recover Health for Meditation, Hearing for Detect, or Guan Dao for Heavy Melee). When applicable, they provide +1d10 on the skill roll.
  • Starting character may pick up to two Flaws (granting 1 or 2 skill points each), such as Cowardly, Hedonist, or White Hair. Beyond flavour and roleplaying opportunities, each comes with mechanical baggage, too (e.g. Lazy characters have -1d10 Speed and Detect, whereas if you have an Enemy, they permanently take up a slot in the Grudge Encountr Table).
  • Each character also starts with a Combat Technique. These are similar to feats in D20 games (e.g. Drunken Fighter eliminates Combat and Physical penalties for being drunk, Deflect grants +1 Parry, and Accurate provides +1d10 on attacks against targets in cover).
  • Combat is resolved in 10-second rounds, where Turn Order is determined by a Speed Skill roll (as usual, only the highest die counts, although Total Successes beyond the first increase initiative by +1). Combatants act in decreasing order based on the result.
  • Each participant may perform a Move and an Action (usually a Skill roll), although there are other options (such as double moves or exchanging one option for a slight bonus).
  • Attack rolls are made with a Skill corresponding to the weapon or Technique used, made against Parry (melee attack) or Evade (ranged attack).
  • After a successful attack, the weapon's Damage (usually Speed or Muscle modified by weapon, +1 for each Total Success on the attack) is rolled against the target's Hardiness. They suffer 1 Wound on a success (plus 1 more Wound for each Total Success). This is called Closed Damage.
  • Some attacks, however, deal Open Damage. The difference is that in this case each die that meets or exceeds the target's Hardiness deals 1 Wound.
  • Martial Heroes, such as the player characters, have 1 Max Wound plus 2 per Rank of Qi (so PCs normally start with 3 Max Wounds). All other NPCs have only 1 Max Wound.
  • When someone takes as many Wounds as their Max Wounds, they become Incapacitated (conscious but unable to do anything save stumbling around). If an Incapacitated character takes a Wound, they start dying - they perish after a number of rounds equal to their Hardiness (although any further Wounds they sustain during that time kills them instantly).
  • Wounds heal at a rate of 1 Wound per Rank of Qi per day. Those without Qi heal 1 Wound per week.
  • Kung Fu Techniques are divided into four disciplines (called Martial Disciplines): Waijia (External Kung Fu), Qinggong (Lightness Kung Fu), Neigong (Internal Kung Fu), and Dianxue (Pressure Point Kung Fu).
  • At character creation players can spend 4 points among these disciplines. They can only learn Techniques from a discipline if they have at least 1 Rank in it. Note that these points cannot be changed later in the game (or rather, not without the aid of specific abilities).
  • One's Imbalance Rating is equal to their highest Martial Discipline. When a Technique is used Cathartically (meaning an extra amount of Qi is used to produce more spectacular effects, but it also brings great risk to the user), Imbalance Points are gained (that can only be removed by meditation); the higher the Imbalance Rating, the more points per Cathartic use.
  • If 12 + Qi Ranks points are accrued, a Qi spirit possesses the character, and each day a Skill roll determines who is in control. The spirit must be purged, otherwise the character will slowly transform into a demonic creature (and become an NPC).
  • XP is awarded for defeating powerful foes, growing one's reputation, and performing great deeds (resulting in 0 to 3 XP per session). Special bonus XP may be awarded for exceptional deeds (2 XP) and finding secret manuals (3 XP).
  • To advance in Qi Ranks (basically "levels"), a certain threshold of total XP earned must be met or exceeded. Furthermore, a foe of higher Qi Rank must be defeated in one-on-one combat (or someone 2 Ranks higher as a group).
  • Qi normally ranges between 1 and 6 for Martial Heroes. Once it reaches 7, the character becomes a Profound Master, and when it reaches 13, they become Immortal. Techniques and abilities available to Profound Masters and Immortals are barely described in the book (but will be detailed in the upcoming "Profound Masters of Ogre Gate").
  • XP can be spent to increase Skills, learn new Techniques, etc. Learning Techniques also requires a master (Sifu) or a Kung Fu manual.
  • Kung Fu Techniques are divided into three types: Counters (usable off-turn in response to an attack), Normal Techniques, and Stances. Each Technique further belongs to a Martial Discipline and has a Qi Rank requirement to learn in the first place.
  • Each individual ritual (whether a simple Rite or Magic) is its own instance of the Ritual Skill. Each has its own mechanics and Target Number to use. Some are rather simple (you can use talismans with Activation or bring about good fortunes for the family via Ancestor Veneration), while some are quite fantastical (with Draw Out the Demons you can force demons hiding nearby to appear in the open, you can swap places with a Gui spirit using the Ritual of the Boundless Perfection, or you can kill anyone with the words "Demon King" you inscribed with the Tattoo of the Demon King).

That's 189 pages so far (63 of which are just Kung Fu Techniques). The next 300 pages are dedicated to advice regarding the genre, descriptions of the setting with particular attention to the Jianghu (sects, cults, important NPCs), cultural details (religions, calendar, customs, social structure), maps and a gazetteer, adventure locations, monsters, and coveted objects of power. In short, it's doing similar things to the excellent Ghastly Affair, except it also provides a worked example (the Banyan Region) along with detailed adventure material (a sect headquarters, a tomb, and a mystery) and lots of NPCs (37 pages of descriptions and stats!).

What I Liked
  • The PDF is extensively bookmarked (no hyperlinks in the text, but in my experience that's the less important one).
  • There are many sources of inspiration mentioned in the book, both historical and fictional.
  • Relatively simple rules for various maneouvres in combat (preparing an attack, aiming for a round, charging, etc.) and hazards (falling, drowning, catching on fire, etc.), all in one place.
  • Reputation is handled with a pair of adjectives, describing how one's allies and foes view the character (e.g. one might be viewed as Loyal by their friends and Reckless by their enemies).
  • There are rules for Qi Duels, where the loser gets blasted by the accumulated Qi energies that build up during the duel.
  • The players must find new masters or manuals to learn new Techniques (especially the most elusive ones), which reinforces the sandbox nature of the game.
  • There's a cool list of poisons, diseases, remedies, and other special substances.
  • Lots of useful advice and random tables to prepare adventures and maintaining campaigns.
  • Chapter III describing Kung Fu Techniques (exluding art) is released into the Public Domain!
  • You can assess another's Kung Fu using the Medicine skill (basically you can gauge their Qi Level and/or Martial Disciplines).
  • Meditation is not only used for staving off the effects of Qi Spirit Possession, but also to stabilise oneself while dying.
  • Knowledge skills are explicitly only tested if the information sought might be beyond the level of mastery the character possesses. Otherwise, they automatically know it.
  • An extensive equipment section with illustrations for weapons and details regarding cultural items (drinks, instruments, everyday objects, etc.).
  • Rules for travelling, regional encounter tables, random events, and also procedures to make past interactions relevant through Grudge Encounters.
  • The appendices are top notch. The first one collects all Kung Fu Techniques in alphabetical order (also listing which sects and NPCs know them). The second is a glossary of titles and offices. The third is the shortest: the current rulers of the various regions in the setting. The fourth provides guidelines to use the game along with Sertorius (a high fantasy game by the same author). The fifth is just a page of ideas regarding other realms of existence (such as the Hanging Valley of the Dead or the Infinite Sky Realm).
  • There is an incredible app to look up Kung Fu Techniques from Ogre Gate and spells for Sertorius as well as to create characters for both games.
  • The author's blog provides incredible support in the form of ready-made adventures, NPCs, random talbes, and extensive campaign journals to steal ideas from (just look at that sidebar!).
  • Did I mention the PDF is PWYW?
What I Disliked
  • The book is 492 pages long, yet there is no index. As a consolation prize, the table of contents is 16 pages long (sadly, it's not hyperlinked in the PDF; but then again, it's extensively bookmarked).
  • Some sections are unnecessarily wordy, especially when it comes to descriptive text.
  • No Oxford comma. In general, a lot of commas are missing (although it rarely obscures the intent).
  • Some terms are a little inconsistent (cf. Skill Rank vs. Skill Point or Qi Rank vs. Qi Level).
  • A few times a single paragraph or a few lines flow to another page, or more annoyingly, a section's first few lines fall on the bottom of the previous page. It's not dealbreaking, except that the recommended media list's last four entries are on the top of the page where hidden truths and secrets of the setting are discussed.
  • It's a little disappointing that so few higher level powers and techniques are included (but then again, Profound Masters and Immortals constitute and entirely different tier of power anyway).
  • There is a Karma score secretly tracked by the GM, but the current implementation does almost nothing. Only a few guidelines are given about when to increase or decrease it, and it doesn't really interface with the rules for Martial Heroes (it will only become important in the Profound and Immortal tiers).
  • The character sheets in the back have a faint image in the background, making it a little too busy for me (and slightly more costly in ink).

It is quite a crunchy game, although not more so than D&D 5E, because most of the complexity arises from the wealth of options (and not page-long tables of modifiers or complicated dice mechanics). In fact, the majority of the author's other games based on the Network system (Terror Network, Servants of Gaia, and Strange Tales of Songling in particular) are fairly simple.

There is a lot I love about this game. Most wuxia games to me feel a little gimmicky in terms of mechanics (e.g. Rivers & Lakes or Legends of the Wulin) or include too many storygame elements for my taste (e.g. Tianxia or Hearts of Wulin), whereas Ogre Gate sits firmly in the traditionalist camp: simulation through wuxia physics (rather than wuxia story beats), GM as referee, and great support for sandbox play in the form of advice and mechanics. The book is a little unwieldy at times, and another round of editing would have helped, but all that juicy content packed inside far outweighs its shortcomings.

Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate was designed by Brendan Davis, William Butler, and Dan Orcutt and published by Bedrock Games in 2016. The PDF is available on DriveThruRPG, or you can get the softcover or hardcover version from Studio2.

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