2012-12-31

Brilliant China-themed French comic books (cont'd)

I've already mentioned the Juge Bao series published by French publishing house Les Éditions Fei. This very same publishing house has started another series titled Shi Xiu set in the 19th century, at a time of great upheavals in Qīng China. This new series of comics tells the tumultuous and adventurous life of she-pirate Zhèng Shì (鄭氏), possibly the most famous and most successful she-pirate of all times.

Zhèng Shì is so famous that her life has been adapted many times on many media, even in the West. Jorge Luis Borges, for instance, wrote a short story about her titled La viuda Ching, pirata, which was made into a beautiful film in 2003 by Italian director Ermanno Olmi. The film is titled Singing Behind Screens in English, and I very much recommend it. It is quite slow and shows little action, but it is beautifully photographed and gives an idea of why the policy of not building villages on the coast had been enacted.

2012-12-04

Random Adventure Generator

Over at my other gaming blog, I have posted about using one's bookshelves (and a few dice) as elements of a Random Adventure Generator.

Go over to my other blog and read the full entry if you are interested, but basically the idea is to randomy choose keywords within your various gaming (or non-gaming) books to fill in the blank spaces of a common pattern describing a possible frp adventure.

Depending on the diversity of the books used, the resulting sentence can be a sensible adventure hook, or a super-gonzo, multi-genre crazy scenario seed.

I have decided to use the Random Adventure Generator to generate such a scenario seed for The Celestial Empire. However, I have also decided to restrict the book base to my East Asian-themed books, so as to respect the setting of TCE.

The resulting adventure is as follows:
Charles-Édouard Hocquard asks the Player Characters to go to Hǎilóng (in Liáoníng) to retrieve a dictionary. The PCs will end up fighting against Toyotomi Hideyoshi in Shāndōng. During the course of the adventure, gold and jade will feature prominently.

The only "gonzo" element here is that French military doctor Charles-Édouard Hocquard was stationed in Indochina at the end of the 19th century, whereas Toyotomi Hideyoshi was active at the end of the 16th century...

2012-11-29

Free Adventure

Well, not from me, sorry.

I have already mentioned RuneQuest 6. It is the latest incarnation of the original RuneQuest rules, which gave birth to the Basic Role-Playing (BRP) system back in the 80s. And of course you know that The Celestial Empire uses BRP as its 'engine'.

Now the earlier version of RQ6 was called Mongoose RuneQuest II, which was re-released as Legend after Mongoose lost the licence to using the 'RuneQuest' name. There are many non-Gloranthan settings available for the Legend game, and one of these settings is called Samurai of Legend and lets you play in Heian Japan.

Mongoose has just made available on DriveThruRPG a free scenario for Samurai of Legend, which is really good. From the blurb:
Beneath and Opal Moon is an introductory scenario for Samurai of Legend characters. It takes place in an isolated village in a southern Honshu province and is designed for between three and five characters, which can be samurai, sōhei, a mixture of the two and include a priest.
The scenario should provide a couple of strong sessions of play and produce ideas for future adventures.

You can download the scenario and play it as is (Legend and TCE are highly compatible, as are all D100-based role-playing games), or you can adapt it to your Imperial Chinese campaign game with the following suggestions. Note: do not read the following if you are a player, as it contains spoilers.

 - Set the adventure in Táng China— because of the nobility.
 - Set the adventure in South China— because of the rice fields.
 - Rename the families; Sakoda becomes Xīguō, Taira becomes Píng. Both are aristocratic families.
 - sōhei (僧兵) are Japanese Buddhist warrior-monks with no Chinese equivalent; still, you can use the Buddhist Monk profession from p49 of TCE.
 - kami (神) are Japanese nature spirits, again without any Chinese equivalent. For the scope of this adventure, however, the local kami can be replaced with the Village God (土地公 Tǔdì Gōng) and his wife, Earth Grandmother (土地婆 Tǔdì Pó). The Chinese Village God also has a shrine, like the Japanese kami, which is central to the religious life of the small community.
 - rokuro-kubi (轆轤首) are human-looking yāomó that feed on live human flesh during the night. The GM can stat the rokuro-kubi using the stats of the èmó (p116 of TCE) with the following modification: INT 3D6, and with the following demonic features: Extensible neck (the neck can extend and the head can attack up to several metres around the creature, delivering a bite attack), and Regeneration at level 3 efficiency (p159 of BRP), or he can simply use the stats provided with the adventure. A description of the standard rokuro-kubi (without the detachable head and guts form) can be found here.
 - A mujina (貉) is a sort of huòmó (p118 of TCE), except that her victim loses INT instead of CON characteristic points. The mujina in the adventure is quite intelligent (INT 14), much more so than the average huòmó.
 - The fact that placing blood in a kami shrine would pollute it is a typical Japanese belief; however similar beliefs did exist in ancient China. The GM may either keep the same incident, or devise another one (the statue of the Village God has been broken, or refuse has placed on his altar, or a piece of his golden ingot has been chipped away...).
 - Wandering Shinto Priest — to be replaced with a travelling Daoist monk. He's on a pilgrimage to Mount Qíyūn, one of the Four Sacred Mountains of Daoism.
 - gaki (餓鬼) is the Japanese form of the Chinese word èguǐ (p125 of TCE).
 - Replace the Lore (Shinto) skill tests with Knowledge (Religion [Daoism]) skill tests.
 - Replace Purity with Daoist Allegiance.
 - The Wild Man can be healed by the spirit of Tǔdì Pó or, as written in the adventure, by his wife's poetry or through a long period of spiritual healing in a Buddhist monastery.



2012-11-17

Chinese Hour Marking

Page 14 of The Celestial Empire lists the Chinese "large hours" in their order. However, I forgot to indicate their Chinese name. Here they are:

  • 11pm to 1am: the hour of the Rat (子  zǐ)
  • 1am to 3am: the hour of the Ox (丑 chǒu)
  • 3am to 5am: the hour of the Tiger (寅 yín)
  • 5am to 7am: the hour of the Rabbit (卯 mǎo)
  • 7am to 9am: the hour of the Dragon (辰 chén)
  • 9am to 11am: the hour of the Snake (巳 sì)
  • 11am to 1pm: the hour of the Horse (午 wǔ)
  • 1pm to 3pm: the hour of the Goat (未 wèi)
  • 3pm to 5pm: the hour of the Monkey (申 shēn)
  • 5pm to 7pm: the hour of the Rooster (酉 yǒu)
  • 7pm to 9pm: the hour of the Dog (戌 xū)
  • 9pm to 11pm: the hour of the Pig (亥 hài)


2012-10-10

Chinese Alchemy

One area in which I must recognise that The Celestial Empire is wanting is Alchemy.

Chinese Alchemy is a complex and all-encompassing subject. Any description of Chinese Alchemy should touch upon Chinese history, because of its very long tradition, with roots in the most distant past; cosmology, because of its strong links with the fundamental notions of , Yīn and Yáng, Wǔxíng; religion, because it is closely linked with Daoism; Traditional Chinese Medicine; Martial Arts...

It had been my firm intention upon starting working on The Celestial Empire back in 2000~2001 to have Chinese Alchemy play an essential role in the rules, at least as regards the chapters devoted to magic. However, as the rules began to take form, it became obvious that the task would be quite daunting. Also, because of the engine I had chosen (Chaosium's Basic Role-Playing System), any Alchemy rules I could write with the intent of remaining in the vein of the other BRP-inspired role-playing games simply looked too "European", whereas my aim really was to portray Chinese Alchemy as closely as possible to its real-world counterpart.

I had a draft system of which I was quite dissatisfied, so I discarded it. Then I had another, more playable, but still too European in flavour, so this got discarded too. Then I went for the easy solution and simply renamed the BRP Science (Chemistry) skill as Science (Alchemy) and added it to the skill list. This is the one on p59 of the rule book. This is also still unsatisfactory because, as it is described in the BRP book, the skill is still centred on poisons, gases, etc., just as my first attempts were.

I still hope one day to publish a real, satisfying, TCE supplement on Chinese Alchemy. It will have to be a supplement because, as written at the beginning of this post, there is so much involved.

In the meanwhile, I suggest you download a free copy of the 60-page PDF titled The Way of the Golden Elixir: A Historical Overview of Taoist Alchemy from Fabrizio Pregadio's blog. This short primer will give you an overview of internal and external Alchemy, of its Daoist origin, and of its change over time, from Antiquity to the Qīng — it will also let you realise why it's such a daunting task to translate all this into gaming terms!

2012-09-20

Warriors of Heaven and Earth (Tiāndì Yīngxióng 天地英雄)

Warriors of Heaven and Earth is a 2003 Chinese adventure film set on the Silk Road in Táng China. The film really, really unfolds like a Celestial Empire adventure: there is an adventuring party, with different professions (soldier, caravan guard, outlaw, Buddhist monk); there is a mission: safely bring the relics of Śākyamuni to Cháng'ān; there are the bad guys: the Göktürks; there are several pivotal scenes set in as many locales: the fight in the oasis city, the fight in the gorges, the flight through the gulley and the secret cemetery, crossing the Gobi Desert, the last stand in the abandoned fortress. The last scene involves an amazing array of different Chinese weapons, including firearms. You don't want to miss this film, it's truly a TCE player's dream come true. There's also a rival adventuring party to the main protagonists'... this almost feels OSR!

The film features gritty, manoeuvres-heavy combat scenes without wire-fu, and no spells or other supernatural powers [SPOILER: except at the very end], so again it is very much in line with what a player of the Basic Role-Playing System would enjoy, as opposed to other styles of role-playing.

The film has spawned a MMORPG in China, which is testament to its high "role-playability".

Oh, and did I mention the film features the delicious  Zhào Wēi  ^_^

2012-09-17

White Bone Demon (Báigǔjīng 白骨精)

Despite their name and their appearance, White Bone Demons are not demons nor undead, but a humanoid race with translucent skin and organs. In a distance, only their skeleton can be seen, hence the misnomer. This is usually enough to cause most opponents flee in terror. Upon close inspection, and  in broad daylight, the translucent skin and organs can be dimly seen, and the white bone demon is exposed for what it really is: a mere humanoid creature.

A white bone demoness features prominently in the Journey to the West. She is constantly trying to confuse the protagonists so that they fail their quest, using all kinds of tricks, mainly illusions, since Báigǔjīng can create illusionary faces to appear as normal people (and then hide the rest of their translucent body using loose habiliments). A white bone demon will usually avoid hand-to-hand combat, relying on its tricks to harrass or drive away opponents.

Báigǔjīng inhabit the wastelands between China and the Barbarian lands that surround her.


Characteristics:
STR 3D6 (10-11)
CON 3D6 (10-11)
SIZ 2D6+6 (13)
INT 3D6 (10-11)
POW 3D6 (10-11)
DEX 3D6 (10-11)
APP 2D6 (7)

Move : 8
Hit Points: 12
Qì: 10
Damage Bonus: None
Armour: None
Allegiance: Roll 1D100, 01-60: Mārā's Path 2D10+30; 61-00: Heterodoxy 6D4+6
Morale: Leader

Skills:
Dodge 30%, Invisible in the dark 80%, Knowledge (Region [Own]) 75%, Language ([Majority language of region]) INT×5%, Resist Cold 60%, Sense 50%.

Spells:
Battle Magic: Illusion 80% [limited to own face, see above]

Attacks:
Mêlée weapon 30%, damage: per weapon+db (per weapon)

Hit Location Table: Use Humanoid


2012-09-04

RuneQuest 6: Firearms

In terms of a rules engine to power your Celestial Empire games, I have already mentioned RuneQuest 6 as a viable alternative to the Basic Role-Playing 'Big Gold Book'.

RuneQuest 6 has been available for a few months now, and I really wish I had the time to write an in-depth study of the consequences of using RuneQuest 6 as the engine of your TCE games. Some day I hope I'll be able to post something.

In the meanwhile, I really urge you to download the free Firearms supplement for RuneQuest 6 on the Design Mechanism's web-site.

Page 12 should be of particular interest for pre-European contact games, or for encounters with very early Portuguese or Dutch colonists.

2012-08-29

Pirate Campaign Write-Up

I have already mentioned a Celestial Empire play-by-post game that has been going on on rpg.net. It is run by Asen_G.
The very same Asen is kindly sharing the introduction and the summary of another Celestial Empire game he’s currently running.
I find it very interesting because it mixes derring-do adventuring with both historical and supernatural elements, thereby showing how diverse and varied China-themed role-playing can be.

1674, near China
A single pirate ship atacks two traders. The attackers feel well-justified, as it turns out there are many martial arts masters among them! The Qing dynasty has chased many Han (and Hakka, and Hui...) from their homes, what with crushing the rebellions. Among them, many martial artists have joined not only Jianghu, but also the criminal underworld.
Just as the sailors start surrendering, the trap springs! People with caracteristic signs and skill of caravan guards start jumping from below the decks. It's time for the pirates to go back.
However, seeing his men going down when confronting some of the pirates, their leader bellows an order and issues a challenge. The pirate captain declines, having his scalp split during the fight, and the blood obscuring his vision. So he designates his first mate.
The battle doesn't last three steps, really... at least, not three steps after they pass from the traditional attempts to shame the opponent into submission.
First, the old master swings upward. His opponent parries, buying the illusion and readying himself to exploit the opportunity for a counterattack.
The old master releases his sabre's handle, and just continues his move forward. When his palm comes into contact with the chest of Li Hoi San, the Korean renegade-general, the current pirate is thrown backwards.
And then the old master's face changes, as he looks at the arrow sticking from his throat. He falls over Li's frame, spraying blood everywhere. An woman who was just shouting encouragements moments before, has pulled out a hand crossbow.
The situation is resolved quickly and with no more bloodshed after that. Having lost their commander, the caravan guards agree to stop the fight, and leave one of the ships to the victors. There is nothing of value on them — they were set up as traps and nothing else — but at least it is a ship. Should the pirates have fought on, the battle could have claimed a great toll on the pirates. So in the end both sides have shown reason – and both sides have thought that it would be different next time.
The captain is happy for a few days. In the closest port, he manages to sell off the ships (bribing the officials as needed), and picks up a few colourful characters. One of them was a student of an unorthodox master, and only seems to show visible interest in killing. The other one is a joyful girl with a spear and an attitude that won't endear her to any strict Confucians.
Luckily, overly strict Confucians do not abound on pirate ships...
They also take in a Daoist monk and his companion — obviously a courtesan — as passengers to Taiwan. That is their next destination, since the captain has received a prophecy last night in the pleasure house. The prophecy spoke about opportunity to get rich and famous there — and that's where the monk is headed as well.



The morning before their departure, Fan Meili, pirate and member of the White Lotus, notices a man with the clothes of a magistrate. Problem is, he was at an inn! Why isn't he in the yámen?
Her curiosity picked, she sits down and orders tea. Nobody recognises the sharpshooter from the naval battle days ago.
As it turns out, magistrate Yuan has "special orders", whatever that means. He also asks about some girl — and after one of his informers disappoints him, his guards (hired guards, she can notice — something else that does not fit) brutalise the man.
She leaves immediately and goes to the ship. As far as she can tell, nobody has followed her.



The ship has only recently departed when a tornado moved towards her. There is already a boat it has swiped from the water. Worse, it moves right after their ship irrespective of her manoeuvres, as if directed...
Almost everybody has relinquished hope and resigned themselves to a future bath, when the courtesan Liu Xiulang suggests using a piece of fireworks against the tornado. Fan Meili shots it and manages to hit the tornado close to its centre.
Obviously that is too much for the storm-spirit, because the tornado dissipates.
Two of the three people in the 'flying' ship even survive. One of them is a woman, and the other one is a fisherman that she has hired. The woman turns out to be Hua, a famous master of the bow (and some say, half-Korean— but never said it to her face).
It turns out that she has heard of the battle. And she wants to see Fan Meili. A quick competition later, it turns out Fan is not up to task in her book — hitting a piece of wood wasn't a problem. Shooting your bow while standing at the top of the mast and hitting a piece of wood was. Well, not for Hua.
As they arrive to Taiwan, two things become obvious. First, the captain has taken an interest in the courtesan. Second, her current employer is unfazed by this.
So after arranging formalities, the captain goes to his cabin — and not alone. The monk has already left, and the crew disembarks to get their own fun.
A couple of hours later, the courtesan is no longer there, but the captain is dead, with one of Hua's arrows through his chest. Luckily, Fan Meili manages to prove to the angry sailors that Hua has nothing to do with it — the captain has been poisoned earlier, and the arrow has been sticked in later.
The tea the captain and the courtesan have been drinking isn't poisoned, however, except what little remained in his cup. The perpetrator remains unknown.
The next day, they have to pick a new captain!
Most crew members support the first mate but the new spearwoman also presents her candidature.
A duel follows, with the two of them duelling. This time, Li Hoi San lasts much longer, and manages to win, albeit not unwounded! Clearly, the old master simply was too good for him.
After the second cut, Li Baozhai surrenders. The Korean congratulates her skills, and offeres her a place in the crew, and promises her advancement opprtunities.
She accepts.



That very evening, Li Hoi San decides to settle some old debts in Korea. To this end, he hires a couple new warriors, including a Han woman with a Sun-Moon spear and Sun-Moon blades on her sides. She is accompanied by her friends, both of them Barbarians — a long-nosed one, and a southern one from some islands in the ocean. In a fit of drunken honesty, Li promises them to help them as they help him — whatever their heart wish is, since his is to punish his disciple who has betrayed him.
The long-nosed Barbarian does not accept, but the other two do, which prompts a long scene of separation. But sometimes, friendship and even love have to step aside. Li isn't the only one with unsettled debts, the woman makes clear.
After that, they contact the local criminals, who want a smuggler ship captured, and are ready to go.



And then the adventure REALLY begins!
Ships are captured, sold, and re-fitted for piracy. Enemies are made, both human and supernatural. Couples (and love triangles, and a pentagram...) are formed and broken — or cut.
Li Hoi San gets his revenge. Korea receives a new king, who promises to abandon the practice of using hopping dead under sorcerous control as cheap labour and soldiers.
No doubt, this makes the Celestial bureaucracy happy. And Wen Xiaofan, as the last heir of Ming (who used a Sun-Moon weapons for a reason!) was even happier at having secured the help of Korea.
Mystics are contacted, their words studied, and their errands followed. Masters are found, and asked for teachings — or challenged. Numerous battles fought, and only Li Hoi San has lost his hand — but arranging the deal between the student of a martial arts master and a fox spirit, serves as payment for giving him a new hand. And they only have to run once, maybe twice.
Even a dragon has been defeated — although it is a human-made one. Some demons don't attract as much attention.
And then, near the fall of the tumultous year, a Korean army consisting mostly of freed slaves, is ready to join the anti-Qing rebellion in China.
Where will the story go?
Who knows?

Most of the players in this game don't post in RPG-related blogs. But if you want to know more about this campaign game, the GM (Асен Сварталфар) can be contacted relatively easily; he can be found on RPG.net posting under the nickname Asen_G, or through his e-mail address: asen.georgiev1980 [at] abv.bg.

2012-08-20

Expanded Divination Skill

I have just bought Mythic Iceland by Pedro Ziviani. It is a Basic Role-Playing supplement designed to play in mediæval Iceland. Despite its title, Mythic Iceland is firmy set in real world history and is historically, linguistically, and culturally accurate. In that respect, it is similar to the Alephtar Games historical titles :)

Anyway, the nice thing about BRP games is that they are mutually compatible. And 'mutually compatible' means you can steal from a given game whatever you think is cool for your own.

The Celestial Empire features the skill of Divination (pages 59-62). Mythic Iceland similarly presents the skill of Prophecy (pages 206-208), which has a slightly different scope: instead of requiring to GM to come up with a cryptic sentence that somehow predicts future in-game events, it requires the player character using the Prophecy skill to try and give some input to the GM's game through the prophecy itself, i.e., it introduces player-driven narration. Also, the Mythic Iceland version of the skill is much more articulate, with scalable effects depending on the amount of power points spent by the player character.

This post adapts the ideas from Mythic Iceland to The Celestial Empire. By spending more than 1 Qì point, the player character may use the Divination skill as the Mythic Iceland Prophecy skill. Replace the following text from the Divination skill description on page 59 of TCE:
After spending 1 Qì point, the diviner performs a divination ritual according to the tenets of his religion, and consulting the appropriate source; then the GM rolls against the character's divination skill (the result of the roll must remain hidden from the player since he has no idea whether the attempts to prophesy the future was successful or not).
with:
After spending a variable amount of Qì points [see table], the diviner performs a divination ritual according to the tenets of his religion, and consulting the appropriate source; then the player rolls against the character's divination skill. Depending on the result, the player may or may not announce the prophecy.
Fumble > The player character has a prophetic vision of his own impending doom.
Failure > No prophecy.
Success > The player character has a prophetic vision of his future. The player may express it in a seven-word sentence.
Special > The player may express the prophecy in a nine-word sentence.
Critical > The GM cannot interfere with the prophecy.

The table referred to above is the following one:
The divination attempt only involves the diviner...........1 Qì point
The divination attempt involves another person...........2 Qì points
The divination attempt involves a group of people.........3 Qì points
A precise location is 'seen' in the prophecy.................+1 Qì points
Precise people are 'seen' in the prophecy....................+2 Qì points
The prophecy involves some misfortune......................cost×2
The prophecy involves death....................................cost×3


Example: a diviner attempts to prophesy what will happen to his brother who has set upon a dangerous endeavour in Bukhara with a band of fellow adventurers. The divination attempt involves a different person than the diviner: 2 Qì points. The divination attempt involves a precise person: +2 Qì point. The diviner would like the prophecy to involve death: cost×3. Total: a hefty 12 Qì points. The player successfully rolls against his skill and chooses the following prophecy: 'My brother kills the emir of Bukhara'. Now 12 Qì is a huge amount, but the GM may still think it's to easy to get away with it like that. That's where the GM may decide this will happen... several years in the future! maybe after the diviner's brother has escaped from a harrassing stay in the emir's penal labour camps...

2012-08-18

Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan

The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan is a collection of fictional writings mentioned by Lovecraft in "The Other Gods" (1921) and "The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath" (1926). The books (or rather scrolls) are supposed to have been written in Classical Chinese around the 2nd century AD by the Chinese philosopher Hsan the Greater [although Hsan is not even a Chinese-sounding name]. The books allegedly contain information parallelling that contained in the Yìjīng, but with an esoteric rather than exoteric bent. Each scroll covers a specific subject:
  • Scroll One: the works of Huángdì, the Yellow Emperor, his miraculous inventions and cures.
  • Scroll Two: ritual cannibalism and ghoulish cults.
  • Scroll Three: spirits of the air.
  • Scroll Four: spirits of the water.
  • Scroll Five: Deep Ones off the south China coast and their human devotees; space and time: the hounds of Tindalos and the Liao drug.
  • Scroll Six: the Plateau of Leng in Central Asia and Unknown Kadath; their history and inhabitants.
  • Scroll Seven: a Mythos primer.
The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan may thus be used much like the Yìjīng, but with a more sinister twist to its use. For instance using the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan instead of the Yìjīng for a Divination skill roll (p59 of The Celestial Empire) may yield a darker bent to the results of the roll, or even ill-fated side effects. Using the example in the rule book, White Fox may want to follow the black falcon; however after having travelled through the mountains undetected by the guards in the fort, she may make more unsavoury an encounter, like a lone hermit dabbling in the black arts or even a Mythos-inspired creature...

Similarly, if the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan are used instead of the Yìjīng for a Necromancy skill roll (p63 of TCE) the monster summoned or the answers received will certainly contain Mythos-inspired elements...

On top of their use as an alternative, sombrer version of the Yìjīng, the Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan contain useful information for player characters.
  • Scroll One will impart bonuses to characters using cure-like skills and/or spells.
  • Scroll Two contains information about Chinese ghouls (wǎngliáng). This kind of information enables Monster Hunters (see p54 of TCE) to create secret recipes to fight against wǎngliáng.
  • Scrolls Three and Four impart bonuses to the Conjure Elemental spell.
  • Scroll Five contains information about the Hǎiruò. This kind of information enables Monster Hunters (see p54 of TCE) to create secret recipes to fight the Hǎiruò.
  • Scroll Six gives +20% to Knowledge (Region [Central Asia]) and/or to Knowledge (Region [Tibet]) in any cross-over CoC/TCE campaign game.
  • Scroll Seven gives +20% to Knowledge (Religion [Cthulhu Mythos]) in any cross-over CoC/TCE campaign game.

Perusing these scrolls may increase the Cthulhu Mythos Allegiance score of the reader (if used) or, alternatively, reduce the Buddhism allegiance score/increase the Heterodoxy allegiance score by 1 for each scroll read.

2012-07-03

Brocade Guards (Jǐnyī Wèi 錦衣衛)

I haven't posted for a long time because I'm pretty busy these days. I tend to try and favour personal research for my Celestial Empire posts, so I'd rather keep quiet for a while than post uninteresting stuff.

However I really feel I have to post something now. Posting about the Brocade Guards (Jǐnyī Wèi 錦衣衛) of the Míng emperors has been on my to-do list for quite some time now. Unfortunately I really haven't been able to do any personal research, so the following is mostly a summary from the Wikipedia.

The Jǐnyī Wèi (錦衣衛; literally "Brocade-Clad Guard") was the imperial military secret police of the Chinese emperors of the Míng Dynasty and were bound to serving the emperor only, and to taking orders from him only. The Jǐnyī Wèi was founded by the Hóngwǔ Emperor in 1368 to serve as his personal bodyguards and it developed into a military organisation the following year. They were authorised to overrule judicial proceedings in prosecutions, with full autonomy granted in arresting, interrogating and punishing anyone, including nobles and the emperor's relatives.

The Jǐnyī Wèi were also tasked with collecting military intelligence on the enemy and participated in battle planning stages. A Brocade Guard donned a distinctive golden-yellow uniform, with a tablet (pictured) worn on his torso, and carried a special blade weapon.

In 1393, the Hóngwǔ Emperor curtailed the Brocade Guards' powers after they allegedly abused their authority during the investigation of a rebellion plot, in which about 40,000 people were implicated and executed. When the Yǒnglè Emperor ascended to the throne, he was afraid that his subjects might be discontented with him, because he came to power by usurping his nephew's throne. He reinstated the Brocade Guards' authority to increase his control over the imperial court.

In the later years of the Míng Dynasty, the Brocade Guards were placed under the control of the eunuch faction. As the government sank into corruption, the Jǐnyī Wèi was constantly used as a means of eliminating political opponents through assassinations and legal prosecution.

The Jǐnyī Wèi was eventually disbanded by the Qīng in 1644.




The Jǐnyī Wèi feature prominently in fiction set in the Míng. The 2010 film 14 Blades focuses on the adventures of a group of ninja-like Brocade Guards.

Scenario seed: Both a judge and his retainers, and a grup of brocade guards are after a corrupt official. The former want to arrest and publicly try him, the latter simply want to eliminate him. The PCs are in either group and must fight both the corrupt official's bodyguards and the other party.
Alternatively, two groups of PCs could compete with each other (this would need two GMs).

2012-06-17

Fortune Cookies

Let's make one thing clear: there aren't any fortune cookies in China. There've never been any, there'll never be any.

Fortune cookies were invented at the beginning of the 20th century by Chinese immigrants to the United States to be served as dessert in Chinese restaurants in the United States. Restaurants do not serve dessert in China; it is a very Western thing to finish one's meal with dessert.

So please no fortune cookies in Celestial Empire games.

2012-06-16

Saṃsāra (cont'd)

I have already posted about Saṃsāra, the Buddhist cycle of birth, life, death, and rebirth. As explained in that post, it is every living being's lot to live, die, and be re-born in one of the "six destinies": deity, human, asura, animal, hungry ghost, or hell-dweller.
My post also featured quite a simple picture of this wheel of reincarnation.

Now I have found another picture of the wheel of saṃsāra, on a Buddhist blog that I follow, which in my opinion explains it even better:



The black arrows indicate the various possibilities of birth, life, death, and rebirth. It is apparent from the picture above that life in any one of the six destinies can lead to rebirth in any one of the six destinies, depending on one's behaviour vis-à-vis the five precepts and the ten good deeds (going "up") and the ten evil deeds and the five heinous crimes (going "down").

An interesting feature of the picture above, compared with the one in my earlier post, is that it also shows that nirvāna, i.e., liberation from the wheel of reincarnations, is possible -- it is actually the aim of Buddhism.

Now an even more interesting thing about the picture above is that it clearly shows that although the abode of deities (labelled Brahmaloka and Devaloka here) is "higher" than the world of men,  nirvāna may only be achieved from the latter.

2012-05-07

The silver standard and Chinese currency

The following is all from Wikipedia

China had long used silver ingots as a medium of exchange, along with the cast copper-alloy cash. The use of silver ingots can be traced back as far as the Hàn dynasty. But prior to the Sòng Dynasty, those silver ingots were used mainly for hoarding wealth. During the Sòng Dynasty, though first time in history the government became the sole issuer of paper currency after 1024, cast coins and silver ingots were still used as a medium of exchange. In the Chányuān Treaty, signed with the state of Liáo in 1004, Sòng China agreed to pay an annual indemnity or tribute of 100,000 tael of silver and 200,000 bolts of silk. This was the first time bulk silver in tael (Chinese: 銀兩) was used as indemnity in a treaty with a foreign power. Silver ingots had a shape similar to a boat or a Chinese shoe during the Yuán Dynasty. This became an ordinary shape for silver ingots during the following centuries.

The use of silver as a medium of exchange was very established at the time of the Míng Dynasty. Paper money was issued as monetary standard at the beginning of the dynasty. But due to the rapid inflation, the issues were suspended around 1450, although notes remained in circulation until 1573 (see Chinese currency). Meanwhile, silver was very much available through foreign trade with the Portuguese and the Spanish, beginning in the 16th century. The great taxation reform by Zhāng Jūzhèng (張居正) in 1581 simplified the taxation and required all the tax and corvée to be paid in silver. This can be seen as an indication of the firm position of silver in the monetary system of the Míng. But the reform would not have been a success or even feasible if the enormous amounts of silver were not available through the trade and imports from America, mainly through the Spanish.

an 1868 Mexican silver peso showing chopmarks from Chinese merchants

During the Qīng Dynasty, silver ingots were still used, but various foreign silver dollars had become popular in the southern coastal regions through foreign trade since the mid-Qīng era. It was apparent that the silver ingots became awkward and more complicated to use vis-à-vis the foreign silver dollars, which could be counted easily, given their fixed specification and fineness of silver. However, the Qīng dynasty very much resisted the idea of minting a silver coin of their own. It was not until late Qīng, in 1890, that the first circulating silver coin was introduced by Guǎngdōng province [in South China]. The coin was at par with the Mexican Peso, and soon this issue was emulated by other provinces. For these silver coins, the tael was still seen as the proper monetary unit, as the denomination of the coins were given as 0.72 tael (specifically: 7 mace and 2 candareens; see p20 of The Celestial Empire). The equivalent monetary unit yuán (圓) hadn't appeared yet. Note for the treaties signed between the Qīng dynasty and other countries the indemnities were all in taels of silver, except for the Treaty of Nanking, where the silver dollar was indicated. It was not until 1910 that the yuán was officially announced as the standard monetary unit. The yuán was subdivided into 10 jiǎo (角) or 100 fēn (分), and specified as 0.72 tael of 90 per cent fine silver.

2012-05-04

'The Civilization of China' by Herbert Allen Giles

The book The Civilization of China by the noted Sinologist is available for free on the internet on a variety of web-sites. I have found this site easy to peruse.

Even though it is somewhat centred on the Qīng era, this book is a very recommended read for gamemasters and players of The Celestial Empire.

From the Preface:
The aim of this work is to suggest a rough outline of Chinese civilisation from the earliest times down to the present period of rapid and startling transition.
It has been written, primarily, for readers who know little or nothing of China, in the hope that it may succeed in alluring them to a wider and more methodical survey.
H.A. Giles
Cambridge, 12 May 1911


Table of Contents:
1 — The Feudal Age
2 — Law and Government
3 — Religion and Superstition
4 — A.D. 220-1200
5 — Women and Children
6 — Literature and Education
7 — Philosophy and Sport
8 — Recreation
9 — The Mongols, 1260-1368
10 — Mings and Ch'ings, 1368-1911
11 — Chinese and Foreigners
12 — The Outlook

2012-04-19

Symbols from Chinese Cosmology and Unicode

Just been playing around with Unicode symbols. I have discovered that the Unicode standard has provided codes for all the symbols from Chinese philosophy. Unfortunately most browsers only seem able to display the trigrams.

The two monograms
⚊ 陽 Yáng (solid line)
⚋ 陰 Yīn (broken line)

The four digrams
⚌ Greater yáng
⚍ Lesser yīn
⚎ Lesser yáng
⚏ Greater yīn

The eight trigrams (bāguà 八卦)
☰ 乾 qián
☱ 兌 duì
☲ 離 lí
☳ 震 zhèn
☴ 巽 xùn
☵ 坎 kǎn
☶ 艮 gèn
☷ 坤 kūn

The sixty-four hexagrams — these are from the Book of Changes (Yìjīng 易經)
䷀ 乾 qián
䷁ 坤 kūn
䷂ 屯 zhūn
䷃ 蒙 méng
䷄ 需 xū
䷅ 訟 sòng
䷆ 師 shī
䷇ 比 bǐ
䷈ 小畜 xiǎochù
䷉ 履 lǚ
䷊ 泰 tài
䷋ 否 pǐ
䷌ 同人 tóngrén
䷍ 大有 dàyǒu
䷎ 謙 qiān
䷏ 豫 yù
䷐ 隨 suí
䷑ 蠱 gŭ [yes this is the same character as in sorcery]
䷒ 臨 lín
䷓ 觀 guān
䷔ 噬嗑 shìkè
䷕ 賁 bì
䷖ 剝 bō
䷗ 復 fù
䷘ 無妄 wúwàng
䷙ 大畜 dàchù
䷚ 頤 yí
䷛ 大過 dà guò
䷜ 坎 kǎn
䷝ 離 lí
䷞ 咸 xián
䷟ 恆 héng
䷠ 遯 dùn
䷡ 大壯 dàzhuàng
䷢ 晉 jìn
䷣ 明夷 míngyí
䷤ 家人 jiārén
䷥ 睽 kuí
䷦ 蹇 jiǎn
䷧ 解 xiè
䷨ 損 sǔn
䷩ 益 yì
䷪ 夬 guài
䷫ 姤 gòu
䷬ 萃 cuì
䷭ 升 shēng
䷮ 困 kùn
䷯ 井 jǐng
䷰ 革 gé
䷱ 鼎 dǐng
䷲ 震 zhèn
䷳ 艮 gèn
䷴ 漸 jiàn
䷵ 歸妹 guīmèi
䷶ 豐 fēng
䷷ 旅 lǚ
䷸ 巽 xùn
䷹ 兌 duì
䷺ 渙 huàn
䷻ 節 jié
䷼ 中孚 zhōngfú
䷽ 小過 xiǎoguò
䷾ 既濟 jìjì
䷿ 未濟 wèijì

2012-04-18

Agartha (cont'd)

My post about the mythical subterranean Asian kingdom of Agartha ended up as one of the most viewed of my blog — which confirms the general fascination with "Hollow Earth"-themed fiction.

I have found further information about Agartha on the excellent Penny Dreadful wiki:

Agartha is an ancient kingdom in either Sri Lanka or Tibet (travellers are not sure which, for reasons which are explained below). The kingdom, which may be mythical, would seem to have a strange effect on outsiders: they either do not notice it as they travel through it, or they forget about it once they have seen it. There are many rumours about Agartha, however. It is said that its capital, Paradesa, holds the University of Knowledge, where the occult and spiritual treasures of mankind are guarded. The capital also is home to an enormous gilded throne which is said to be decorated with the figures of two million gods, and it is further rumoured that their combined good spirits are what hold the world together; if they are angered by a mortal, their wrath will descend upon the world, drying the seas and smashing the mountains into deserts. Finally, it is said that Agartha holds the world's largest library of stone books, and that strange fauna inhabit the kingdom, including sharp-toothed birds and six-footed turtles as well as the natives, who are born with forked tongues. The guardians of Agartha are the Templars of Agartha, a small but powerful army.

2012-04-15

Fúsāng (扶桑), the Leaning Mulberry

The Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shānhǎi Jīng 山海經) is a compilation of mythological texts from well before the Hàn dynasty, i.e., from a period of time when the Chinese had a completely different set of religious sytems than in Imperial times — see p35-36 of The Celestial Empire.

As per the shamanic part of the archaic belief system, the sun was believed to rise from a gigantic mulberry tree in the far east, called the Leaning Mulberry (fúsāng 扶桑). This tree is obviously an axis mundi type of tree, common to all shamanic belief systems. The interesting difference here is that the fúsāng is supposed to be in the far eastern end of the world rather than at its centre.

The sun would follow the leaning branch of the mulberry tree above the earth, up to the far western end of the world: the Kūnlún Mountains. There, depending on the version of the myth, the sun would either die and be reborn the next day in the east, or it would be carried back by a three-legged crow (sānzúwū 三足烏) or in a carriage driven by the sun goddess (Xīhé 羲和). In any case, these myths were already considered as being non-historical in the late Hàn.

It is interesting to note that the earliest versions of the myth mention ten suns, who would travel round the sky one after the other. This could be the origin of the ten heavenly stems.
One day, the ten suns all set out at once by mistake, threatening the burn the world. Hòuyì (后羿) the archer saved the day by shooting down all but one of the suns. Hòuyì is celebrated at the Mid-Autumn Festival, see p14 of TCE.

2012-04-13

Generate Your Chinese City

All Chinese walled cities are built according to the grid diagram below. The white lines are avenues. The three horizontal and vertical central avenues connect the city gates. The yámen is always in square 5.


Standard map of an Imperial Chinese walled city


Roll 1D10 and 1D8 to place the other important city elements. If any one of the dice yields a result that has already appeared, re-roll. This means that 8 out of the 10 elements from the first table must end up shared between the eight outer city squares.

die - Element
1 - Audience hall
2 - Barracks
3 - Temple of agriculture
4 - Flowery business quarter (brothels)
5 - Temple of the City God
6 - Temple of Confucius
7 - Temple of ancestors
8 - Emperor Guān Temple (temple of the war god)
9 - City market
0 - Execution ground

die - Square
1 - 1
2 - 2
3 - 3
4 - 4
5 - 6
6 - 7
7 - 8
8 - 9

Example
The GM needs to create a city. He uses the table in this post; he rolls 2D10 (0, 5): the city is called Wángchuān.
The city has a square grid as per the picture above.
The GM now rolls 1D10+1D8; results: 5, 3: The temple of the city god is located in square 3.
The GM rolls 1D10+1D8 again; results: 8, 7: The temple of the war god is located in square 8.
etc.…

Now here is a fictional Chinese city map drawn by Robert van Gulik for his Judge Dee mystery stories. This one has the nice addition of having a river run through the city.



1. Tribunal
2. Temple of the City God
3. Temple of Confucius
4. Temple of the War God
5. Bell Tower
6. Drum Tower
7. Pagoda
8. Northern Row
9. Southern Row
10. Chien Mow's Mansion
11. General Ding's Mansion
12. Eternal Spring Wineshop
13. Hermitage of the Three Treasures
14. Mrs. Lee's House
15. Former Yoo Mansion
16. Yoo Kee's Mansion
17. Watergate
18. Execution Ground

2012-04-04

Blogging from A to Z April Challenge (sort of)

Every year in April, several blogs participate to the A-Z April Alphabet Blogging Challenge, which consists in writing every day a post that starts with a letter of the alphabet, and in the order of the alphabet.
I have toyed with the idea of creating a 'Blogging from 一 to 龠 challenge' myself, but it would last ⅔year because of the sheer number (214) of Chinese radicals...

For those unfamiliar with the intricacies of the Chinese language, I will write a few words about sorting order in Chinese.

Chinese is not an alphabetic language, and the two native Chinese initiatives at alphabetising the language for ordering purposes, Zhùyīn fúhào and Pīnyīn, both date from the 20th century and are hence unknown in Imperial China — and thus in your Celestial Empire game.




So how did the Chinese order their documents, their books, etc. and the names within the books themselves, before the 20th century? There were two main systems in use.

The first system is aimed at ordering tomes, much like we do with 1, 2, 3... or I, II, III... This system is based on two sets of Chinese characters specifically designed for reckoning and called 'the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches' (gānzhī 干支). The ten heavenly stems used alone: 甲, 乙, 丙... are equivalent to our numbering method 1, 2, 3... but only enable to number up to 10 since there are only ten such characters. If the amount of items to be numbered is >10, then the ten heavenly stems and the twelve earthly branches are used in combination: 甲子, 乙丑, 丙寅... The first term combines the first heavenly stem with the first earthly branch; the second term combines the second heavenly stem with the second earthly branch; this continues, generating a total of 60 different terms (the least common multiple of 10 and 12), after which the cycle repeats itself. This sexagesimal cycle is closely related to the sexagenary cycle mentioned on p15 of TCE.

The second system is aimed at collation, much as we do when ordering names according to their first letter: Alice, Bob, Charlie... This system is based on the elements that constitute a Chinese character. I won't go into too much detail here, but it is sufficient to know that amongst the many elements that make up a Chinese characters, there is a unique one that is called its radical, e.g., the character 安 (ān, 'peace') is made up of two elements, 宀 and 女, the former being the radical. The radical 宀 is radical No.40 in the canonical order of radicals. So any word or name starting with the character 安 will find itself collated with any other words or names that start with a character having 宀 as its radical — thus after words or names starting with a character having a radical in the 1-39 range, and before any other words or names that start with a character having a radical in the 41-214 range.
Within the words or names starting with a character having 宀 as its radical, there is a further sub-ordering based on the number of strokes that make up the character: 安 is made up of the radical 宀 and of the element 女, written with three strokes. Thus words or names starting with 宊 (radical 宀 + an element made up of four strokes) would be listed after 安, whereas words or names starting with 宄 (radical 宀 + an element made up of two strokes) would be listed before 安.

Now you can start and use this post to devise language-based riddles and enigmas in your TCE games :)

2012-04-03

Chinese-themed Dreamlands

I am a long time fan of HP Lovecraft's Dreamlands and, as is obvious if you are reading this blog, of all things Chinese.

There are many instances in Chinese literature and folk tales of men travelling to a kind of Chinese equivalent of the Dreamlands, which are usually portrayed as a place where the society of men is replaced by that of animals like ants or of mythological beings like dragons, but being in all other aspects very similar to Imperial China. Thus dragonfolk exhibit the same filial piety as the Chinese do, and the society of ants is governed by the same laws as that of the Chinese.


An extremely famous example is the Táng dynasty tale titled the Governor of the Southern Tributary State, in which a disappointed scholar and military man dreams up an entire lifetime of promotion, war, honour, marriage, family and demotion as the governor of the prosperous tributary state of Nánkē, only to suddenly wake up and slowly become aware that it was but a dream, and that a mere half-day has passed in the waking world. The startled man looks around himself, slowly readjusting to reality, and eventually noticing a large ants' nest. The man closely observes the ants' nets and is shocked at the realisation that it is in all aspects identical to the province of which he was the governor. Because of the popularity of this folk tale, the phrase "dream of Nánkē" has become synonymous in Chinese with "inanity of human ambition".

There are other similar tales, and they usually end with some moral teaching. As we can see, whereas Lord Dunsany's or HP Lovecraft's dream-tales are escapist in nature, the Chinese ones are edifying. Which doesn't mean we as players shouldn't enjoy dreamland adventuring in a Chinese setting :)

2012-03-24

Language (Own)

In the Skills section of the ‘Character Generation’ chapter of The Celestial Empire, on p58, I have written that the base chance for this skill is EDU×5.

Now there was such a divide in Imperial China (and in the neighbouring civilised lands) between spoken and written language, that I now wish I had given a different base chance for this skill. Most East Asian languages featured completely different sets of verbs and of pronouns depending on whether one was speaking in a relaxed way or in a codified, formal manner.

The optional rule I suggest is as follows:
  • the base chance for the spoken vernacular of Language (Own) is INT×5;
  • the base chance for the spoken variety of the learnt Language (Own) is EDU×5.

Using the sample character from the rule book:

White Fox has INT 14 and EDU 12. She speaks her Northern Chinese vernacular at 70%, but she only has 60% when trying to speak in an educated, formal way.

2012-03-20

Agartha

The Celestial Empire is targeted at historic or semi-historic games, or at least at campaigns consistent with Chinese literature, myth and legend.

Yet the recent piece of news published on the technology weblog Gizmodo about a 300 million year-old forest that has been discovered under a coal mine in Inner Mongolia has spurred me to write this short post about a "Hollow Earth"-themed campaign game. The "Hollow Earth" hypothesis, which posits that the Earth is hollow and that it contains a prehistoric or otherwise ancient world in its interior, does not appear in Chinese literature, myth or legend at all; on the contrary, it is a staple of Western occult. However, given the interest of many Western occultists for all things Tibetan, it could well fit in a TCE campaign, albeit an over-the-top one.

The idea is for the GM to have the players stumble upon the entrance within a cave for the subterranean kingdom of Agartha, which is ruled by an ancient lineage of über mysterious lamas and/or inhabited by Asura (see p123 of TCE).
Agartha would have lush prehistoric forests, strangely-coloured lakes, and obviously prehistoric animals (dinosaurs and Pleistocene mammals), which would provide some tough opposition to the player characters!

The subterranean kingdom of Agartha might or might not be connected with the underground City of Ghosts (Fēngdū), which could spell further trouble for the player characters...

2012-03-19

New Version of Magic World

The Worlds of Wonder boxed set, published in 1982 by the Chaosium, was their first shot at providing the Basic Roleplaying generic system (at the time much smaller than its current incarnation) with three genre-based settings, viz, fantasy, super-heroes, and science-fiction. Magic World was the name of the fantasy setting.

The Chaosium has announced today that Magic World would be re-published this summer as a stand-alone product (if I do understand correctly the phrase "self-contained fantasy role-playing game"), which means that there could be yet another alternative engine for The Celestial Empire, on top of the already mentioned BRP Quick-Start Edition, Renaissance, and RuneQuest 6.

2012-03-05

Brilliant China-themed French comic books (cont'd)

I have already mentioned the Juge Bao series of French graphic novels. Nie Chongrui, the artist, uses an engraving technique that produces extremely detailed and impressive black and white drawings. The women in his stories are incredibly beautiful, which is definitely  a plus.

Volume 4 (l'Auberge Maudite) has been available for a few weeks, which has been a good incentive to re-read the whole series. Recommended if you can read French (a good understanding of the langage is required as these are detective stories).

2012-02-27

RuneQuest 6: Mysticism

In his February 2012 update about the upcoming RuneQuest 6 fantasy role-playing game, Design Mechanism author Lawrence Whitaker announces the following:
RQ6 will have five very different magic systems: Folk Magic (Common Magic as was), Animism (spirit magic), Mysticism (brand new), Theism (Divine) and Sorcery. [...] Mysticism is completely new and aims to allow characters to replicate all manner of wuxia, martial arts, ki, and other powers that focus on self-realisation and potential. Its not a spell-based system, but it does have a very wide range of different effects/talents to offer considerable flexibility.

This is obviously a very interesting piece of news for any Celestial Empire fans. Knowing the work of the authors of RuneQuest 6, I expect RuneQuest 6 to feature a very kinematic combat system. If you like the historical or literary approach to Imperial China, keep the current BRP-based implementation of the rules. But if you like to centre your games on combat and action, you may well be advised to check RuneQuest 6 out when it's available and consider it as a possible replacement to the BRP.

More on this when RuneQuest 6 is finally available!

2012-02-26

Mùlán

I have found myself watching Disney's Mulan... It made me think about the gender-based limitations in The Celestial Empire (see the side-bar on p10 of the rule-book), and about how playing a heroine disguised as a male would be pretty much the only way of having a female PC in an adventuring party.

Mùlán is quite a popular character in Chinese lore, and there have been numerous films about her (legendary) story. The image on the left is from a 1927 silent film.

Edit: Funny I should read about women warriors in ancient China on my G+ stream the very same day I post about Mùlán.
One of the entries on G+ referred to this book. In Chapter Three, titled From Cross-Dressing Daughter to Lady Knight-Errant: The Origin and Evolution of Chinese Women Warriors, the author writes that
Among the many heroine types types in Chinese literature, women soldiers, wandering lady "knights" (xiá), and female outlaws occupy a unique position [...]  the women warriors of medieval China were the Chinese paradigms of female courage and heroism for Chinese girls to emulate.

If you manage to display the free excerpts of the book on Google Books, they are well worth reading.

2012-02-25

the Shānhǎi Jīng and Traditional Chinese Medicine

I have started reading the Shānhǎi Jīng in its English-language translation by Anne Birrell, as the Classic of the Mountains and Seas. There is quite a long and interesting introduction by the author, who tries to separate the various topics in the book, and why they would appear in it, and who may have written each chapter.

At the moment, I'm still at the introduction, and more precisely at the 'Medicine and the Human Condition' section. I'll quote part of it here because it is simply too interesting in terms of immersive role-playing:
The numerous medical conditions mentioned in the text constitute a health profile of a cross-section of the rural population of ancient China. The most common ailments are swellings of every kind, from the superficial to the fatal, both epidermal and organic. The organs most affected by disease are the stomach and heart, and the bodily parts most affected are the eye and skin. General ailments are piles, rheumatics, fever, choking, shortness of breath, itching, worms, chapped skin, and pains in the chest and belly. Preventive remedies are prescribed for sunstroke, risk of premature death, starvation, physical exhaustion, and epidemics. Social problems include farting and smelly armpits. Mental problems, such as stupidity, amnesia, nightmares, and nodding off are also treated. Psychological disabilities include various phobias (especially fear of thunder), depression, and acute anxiety. The sexual problems for which remedies are given include the need for contraceptives and treatment for infertility. The remedy for sexual jealousy is to eat a hermaphroditic animal, which is also good for carbuncles. [...] In prescribing treatment, the traveller-medic is careful to note any word-magic that might apply to the case. For example, a patient will not be lost or confused () if he or she wears some lost-mulberry (mìgǔ) in the belt. Colour symbolism is also a function of treatment. If a patient eats a scarlet mountain fowl, it will prevent fire. Preventive medicine also extends to personal situations, such as misfortune and bad luck, which is sometimes caused by the workings of the dreaded , a term that covers malign forces, poison, and internal worms.

PS— sorcery is described in gaming terms on p89 of The Celestial Empire.

2012-02-16

Yāshèng Coins

Note: part of the text below has been adapted from the relevant Wikipedia article

Yāshèng (厭勝) coins are a kind of special coin mainly made for ritual purposes. These coins are usually privately funded or cast, such as by a rich clan for their own family ceremony or, mostly under the Míng and the Qīng, issued by the imperial government for big festivals or for ceremonies like the emperor's birthday.
Yāshèng coins are not real currency, hence not legal tender, and cannot be used as a means of exchange in any commercial transaction.

Yāshèng coins are heavily decorated, typically being engraved with complicated patterns and/or archaic characters. These inscriptions customarily hail the Immortals, the virtuous kings of the distant past, or Daoist masters. Wearing or carrying the coins is obviously supposed to somehow transfer virtue, luck or blessings onto the bearer.
Yāshèng coins have a long history, have been in use since well before the Táng, and are much sought after by antique collectors. They first appeared under the Western Hàn (3rd century BC), and under the influence of the School of Naturalists, as paraphernalia for necromancy, for propitious wishes, terrifying ghosts, lucky money, or even for bringing victory at war. Yāshèng coins have hence been dubbed "spiritual coins" by some Sinologists.

For Celestial Empire games, it is suggested that each set of Yāshèng coins should function like a unique magic item. The exact effects can be duplicated from the effects of the magic items described on p83-84 of TCE. Other sample effects are:
  • a +20% bonus to any skill rolls in relationship with government officials for the bearer of a Yāshèng coin cast for the coronation of the emperor
  • +2 protection points to a piece of cloth into which a Yāshèng coin that references a king in armour has been sewn
The gamemaster is encouraged to devise unique effects for any Yāshèng coins in his TCE campaign.

A successful Knowledge (Art History) roll will give basic information about a given Yāshèng coin, such as its period of time, the kind of usage it was destined to, etc. A critical success will give the exact scope and expected powers of the coin.

2012-02-15

Hidden Gems

I love the iPhone and the iPad as tech gadgets but I've always hated iTunes with a passion. Yet I have just discovered a trove of hidden gems in iTunes, viz. the iTunes U service.

This service is the academic version of iTunes: it allows the user to download podcast-like lectures of famous university professors. At the moment, it has more than 500,000 lectures available for free download!
In the French-language area of the service, for instance, one has free access to the Collège de France courses on Confucius by noted Sinologist Anne Cheng [whose seminal work Histoire de la pensée chinoise (Paris, 1997) was a major source when I wrote the background chapters of The Celestial Empire].

2012-02-13

Chuchuna (Чучуна)

I have found out that there is a bigfoot-like legendary creature called the Chuchuna in Eastern Siberia (that would be north of Outer Manchuria on the map on p28 of The Celestial Empire). Just like the Yěrén, about which I have already posted, the Chuchuna is not a mindless brute but a cunning hominid. The Chuchuna has been described as six to seven feet tall and covered with dark hair. The Chuchuna would hence have the exact same stats as the Yěrén (q.v.), except for the following:
SIZ 1D6+13 (16-17)
Hit Points: 15
Damage bonus: +1D4
Allegiance: Shamanism 10D6

For those who favour TCE-CoC crossovers... notice how 'Chuchuna' and 'Tcho-Tcho' sound similar! I know the sizes do not correspond, but then the Tcho-Tcho are said to have migrated from the Tibet to Southest Asia, so the change in size could reflect their having adapted to a region where competition for food is fiercer.

2012-02-09

Trade Map of Asia

I have found an on-line map of mediæval Asian commerce routes (both land routes and sea routes). The map is not particularly nice —it is a scan of an old historical atlas— but it is interesting to see how the trade routes in Imperial China follow the rivers and canals. And then of course there's the Silk Road(s).

2012-02-05

Step-by-Step Character Generation

I am creating a character for the play-by-post game mentioned yesterday. The game is set in the Southern and Northern Dynasties period, which is slightly earlier than the time period contemplated by The Celestial Empire. I will use the Táng dynasty list of allegiances, removing Judaism; that should do the trick.

STR 11
CON 10
SIZ 9
INT 12
POW 11
DEX 15
APP 11
EDU 13
Since I'm mostly OK with the results, I'll only redistribute one single point, from APP to SIZ:

STR 11
CON 10
SIZ10
INT 12
POW 11
DEX 15
APP 10
EDU 13

This yields a starting age of (EDU+5) 18.  However, I'm adding a full 30 years of age to the character. That will give me an additional 60 skill points.
Character Age:  48.

Derived characteristics:
Damage bonus: None
Experience bonus: 6
Hit points: 10
Major wounds: 5
Qì points: 11
Movement 10

Fate points: 11. Note that these are managed separately from Qì points in TCE.

Home region: North China.
Name: Blind Bóxī. He's blind, meaning any vision-dependent skill is limited to POW%, unless he can make up with Listen or Sense.
Profession: Masseur (obviously I'm thinking of playing a Zatōichi-like character). Masseur is not amongst the professions in TCE, si I'll just create a "masseur" template:
Wealth: Poor
Status: 30%
Allegiance: None
Primary Skills: Fine Manipulation, Healing Lore, Insight, Knowledge (Streetwise), Science (Natural History)
Secondary Skills: Hide, Knowledge (Folklore), Knowledge (Region [North China]), Listen, Medicine, Mêlée Weapon (Quarterstaff), Persuade, Spot

Now on to using my EDU×20, INT×20, and 60 skill points; each skill has its base value plus the category bonus added before any further skill points are added:
(primary skills)
Fine Manipulation 5+6+30+30= 71%
Healing Lore 12+3+30+30= 75%
Insight 5+2+30= 37%
Knowledge (Streetwise) 10+3+30= 43%
Science (Natural History) 10+3+30= 43%

(secondary skills)
Hide 10+5+13= 28%
Knowledge (Folklore) 5+3+13= 21%
Knowledge (Region [North China]) 20+3+13= 36%
Listen 25+2+13+30= 70%
Medicine 0+3+13= 16%
Mêlée Weapon (Quarterstaff) 25+6+13+30= 74%
Persuade 15+2+13= 30%
Spot 25+2+13= 40%

(other skills)
Knowledge (Rivers and Lakes) 5+3+30= 38%
Sense 10+2+6+30= 48%
Status 30+2= 32%

(allegiance)
Buddhism 0
Confucianism 0
Daoism 1
Manichæism 0
Nestorianism 0

Equipment:
  • leather pouch with herbs
  • gloves
  • walking staff

All in all, and despite his low characteristics and his handicap, I think Blind Bóxī is going to be a fun character to play. His high Sense and Listen skill values will definitely make him a Zatōichi-like hero!

2012-01-27

Chinese Number Gestures

Because of the many dialectal differences in China, the Chinese have developed a method of using one's hands to signify the numbers 1 to 10.

Numbers 1 to 5 are, like in the West, simply signified through the number of fingers shown. Note, however, the slight differences with Western usage, most due to the Chinese not using the thumb, except for the number "5".

Numbers 6 to 10, contrary to Western usage, are signified by mimicking the relevant Chinese character using the position of the fingers as if they were character strokes (see picture).

In role-playing situations these number gestures can be used if the PCs have to communicate discreetly (e.g., during business negotiations), or if they are in a place where speaking is impossible (e.g., they are ambushing an adverse party and they need to communicate the number of people in the party), etc.

Obviously these number gestures could also be used to express larger numbers (seven could also mean seventy if the context is unambiguous; a "3" closely followed by an "8" could mean 38; etc.).

2012-01-26

Design Your Character

There's this nifty web-site for creating costumed dolls on-line... and one of the sub-categories is Korean Warrior! Obviously you can use it to design your Celestial Empire character.

The Korean apparel is supposedly from late Silla [Xīnluó  新羅], which almost exactly corresponds to Táng in China. But I believe this kind of clothing would fit TCE characters up until the Sòng.

I created the warrior above in two-three minutes of time. The scenery is fixed.

2012-01-24

Asian Barbaric Tribe Generator

This is another post inspired by Secret Santicore 2011! This time I am Sinicising Zak Sabbath's Barbaric Tribe Generator.

Roll 6D10 and 2D8, and pray Guānyīn for mercy!

㊀ TABLE I: The cruel and barbarous ways that they adorn themselves

  1. With dogs. Each is chained to a dog (see p335 of BRP)
  2. With a strange bluish paint that renders them fanatical (see p75 of TCE) for ten minutes
  3. With the skins of their forebears. Each tribesman must grow all fat in his dotage so that his son may wear a suit made from his skin and hide inside it. Nobody knows what they look like
  4. With barbarous tattooings. Actually they're pretty bright — each tribesman keeps all his important information tattooed somewhere. Notes on habits of local fauna, phases of the moon, maps, last time the neighbouring trading post was looted, and so on
  5. With the garish and mismatching patterns of many animals. The effect is equivalent to Befuddling the onlookers (see p75 of TCE)
  6. With elaborate tattoos made of Chinese characters. Any literate onlooker will try and read the tattoos instead of fighting the tribesman
  7. With dung. They a-smear themselves and this attracts bugs that act as an insect swarm (see p336 of BRP) against enemies
  8. With the bones and teeth of their fallen (human) foes. New and untested tribesmen have like no clothes upon them because they never killed anyone and the old warmaster crusties have like bonetooth armour (4AP)
  9. With poison (POT 10+1D4). Overcome the poison's potency or take damage equal to it
  10. With two cartridge belts

㊁ TABLE II: Their savage and ignorant beliefs

  1. They don't believe in killing animals because they're innocent. Got no problem killing people though
  2. They believe the soul is contained in the right foot and will evince an unhealthy obsession with severing a foe's right foot, to the exclusion of all other hit locations. Subtract 10 from all their mêlée hit location rolls
  3. They hate food and the eating of food. Publicly. In secret they all eat food (of course) and like it but in company they pretend they don't
  4. They don't believe in Confucianist virtue, Buddhist non-violence, Daoist wúwéi, etc.; they believe in quite the opposite, actually
  5. They believe that emissaries of foreign religions are an abomination and will concentrate all their energy on destroying any priestly player characters
  6. They believe it is blasphemous to use anything that is not stolen. Their equipment, homes, mounts and mates are all stolen
  7. They believe that if they are seen by anyone older than them they'll be owned by them in the afterlife
  8. They believe the first attack must always be a bite. They sharpen their teeth
  9. They believe that collecting their foes' severed heads will advance them spiritually. Add 10 to all their mêlée hit location rolls
  10. They believe that they are the only humans beings in the world and that all other people are demons in disguise

㊂ TABLE III: Details on the tribe's leader

  1. He is hideous and clothed in shadow
  2. He has worms in his head
  3. He has a hump like a camel, filled with jewels
  4. He owes a PC a single favour
  5. His fingernails are nine cùn long (see p20 of TCE)
  6. He is a Nāga (see p125 of TCE)
  7. He is a Yaksha (see p126 of TCE)
  8. He hopes to wage war against the moon and betroth Cháng'é
  9. He's always intoxicated
  10. He is, secretly, at the centre of all events in the campaign


㊃ TABLE IV: Their vicious bestial totems

  1. Their totem is the locust. They gibber and swarm
  2. Their totem is the maggot. They revel in ignorance
  3. Their totem is the jackal. They belong to treachery
  4. Their totem is the crocodile. They are patient, they are swift
  5. Their totem is the hog. They wallow and they wail
  6. Their totem is the scorpion. They live in solitude
  7. Their totem is the centipede. They form a long lean line
  8. Their totem is the snow leopard. They move in darkness
  9. Their totem is the wolf. They harry and howl
  10. Their totem is the suānní. They will burn you

㊄ TABLE V: The tribe's most sacred and vile object of reverence

  1. A powder with unusual properties
  2. Yak butter. A mound of it
  3. Your tears and those of many foes. In a great urn
  4. A baby wǎngliǎng (see p115 of TCE)
  5. The clothes once worn by a corrupt xiān
  6. A trident
  7. The defaced stone ball of a shīzi (see p126 of TCE)
  8. A Tarim mummy
  9. A fat, four-footed weasel carved of lard, smothered in beets
  10. Severed fingers, kept in the finest silk

㊅ TABLE VI: The twisted shamans that guide them

  1. Atavistic, armed with acid, aided by asps
  2. Belligerent, bony, bedecked with baubles. Breathes bats
  3. A crazed and crooked crone. Covered in clusters of candles
  4. A devious dervish. Dominates demons with a dazzling dance
  5. An eight-eyed exotic. An eater of eldritch energies. Engages in echolocation
  6. A fat faction of fleshy flagellants
  7. A glossy guǐ-gadfly. Guarded by ghosts
  8. A hebephrenic harlot. Housed in a hexagon
  9. An idiot and an incunabulist
  10. A jovial juvenile in a jewelled jerkin


㊆ TABLE VII: The tribe's name

Roll 2D8 (for first and second syllable of tribe's name):

  1. Bái-
  2. Běi-
  3. Cháng-
  4. Chì-
  5. Dōng-
  6. Luǒ-
  7. Nán-
  8. Xī-

  1. -dí
  2. -fán
  3. -hú
  4. -lǔ
  5. -mán
  6. -qiāng
  7. -róng
  8. -yí

2012-01-23

The Miáo (苗)

Amongst the various tribes of south-central China, the Miáo (or Hmong) have always been one of the most troublesome for central government. As such they are very present in Chinese myths and legends, much more so than other mountain peoples. There are countless accounts of Miáo rebellions, followed by harsh repression campaigns by the various Chinese dynasties, the worse being the devastating massacres organised by the Qīng in the second half of the 19th century. No wonder that, in time, the Miáo have slowly moved southwards from their ancestral home in south-central China to South-East Asia.

The following is a very evocative excerpt from the book Hmong and American: stories of transition to a strange land by Sue Murphy Mote (2004).

The Hmong were furious fighters. Since Shāng times their abilities had been sharpened by the need to defend what they desperately considered theirs. Guìzhōu Hmong, those against whom the Míng built the ten-foot high Hmong Wall, dressed themselves in armour made of buffalo hide, copper, and iron mail. They carried a shield in one hand, a spear in the other, and a knife in the teeth. Crossbows and poisoned arrows rounded out the arsenal. In the late 1600s, a Chinese factional general multiplied the power of the Hmong juggernaut immeasurably when he left behind in a Hmong village some flintlock rifles, gunpowder, and cannons. Another Chinese general, whom the Hmong had sheltered, showed the Hmong how to manufacture their own flintlocks, or blunderbusses, an item used in colonial America around the same time. Hmong made them by the thousands.
At the same time, Hmong began breeding mountain ponies for war. These animals, able to race up and down mountainsides, were regarded by the Chinese as the best horses in the empire.

The "Hmong Wall" mentioned above was like a miniature version of the Great Wall, one hundred-mile long, ten-foor high, and with watchtowers manned by armed guards that the Míng had built in the 16th century. This wall was to contain the Miáo within a given territory, where the Míng troops would foray to capture boys to be mass castrated and turned into eunuch slaves. This territory had the worse lands whereas the best arable lands were given to Hàn colonists. Some of the colonists (mostly Hàn soldiers who crushed the rebellion) would also be given Miáo wives.

2012-01-22

春節快樂!

Happy new year! The year of the Metal Rabbit is ending today, and the year of the Water Dragon starts tomorrow!

The Chinese New Year is the occasion for all Chinese to tidy up their homes, throw out old objects, buy new shoes and new clothes, and, most importantly, to remove the worn-out pictures of the Door Gods and to replace them with brand new shiny ones. See also p13 of The Celestial Empire.

The two pictures of the Door Gods (ménshén 門神) are placed on each side of the main entrance to the Chinese home and stand guard there for a full year to keep away evil spirits. The pictures face each other — it is considered bad luck to place them back-to-back.

Scenario Seed: Save the New Year!
The characters are resting in the city of [city name] before the Spring Festival. They are in the city magistrate's employ, or owe him a favour. They are summoned to the city yámén in the night before New Year's Day by a close retainer of the city magistrate. This is very unusual, since even civil servants are supposed to be off duty and celebrating with their family on New Year.
The magistrate receives them in casual dress... this is even more intriguing. He explains them that the situation is so urgent that he forgot about behaving properly. May Confucius forgive his misbehaviour. The whole stock of Door Gods prints that the city printer had prepared for distribution the next day has been stolen! The characters must absolutely find a solution or the whole city will go in panic mode once the disappearance of the good luck-bringing posters becomes public!

The characters may suggest...
  • that the printer re-print a batch of Door Gods pictures. This is impossible because there's not enough paper left.
  • that the magistrate buy a batch of pictures from another printer. This is impossible because the closest is in the next city, which is one day travel from their city.

Possible courses of action: the PCs could try and find paper somewhere (didn't that Buddhist abbot want to print out the Dàzàngjīng?), or they could try and a find a means to travel faster (isn't there a Daoist hermit in the mountains who can travel 500 lǐ in a day?). The best idea, however, would be retracing the thief. He's currently on the river bank, waiting for a boat that will take him to a city downstream where he's planning to sell the images.

Possible consequences should the PCs fail: Panic spreads through the city. Ne'er-do-wells and thieves take advantage of it to commit burglaries. The following days, having had word of the situation, brigands raid the city. In a campaign game with supernatural elements, the city could even fall prey to demons or yāoguài.