Flower Liches of the Dragonboat Festival (2017)
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Kabuki Kaiser is starting to win my heart with his weird ass products. I first encountered this strange, elusive figure by way of his grotesque Castle Gargantua, a megadungeon inspired by such works as Gargantua & Pantagruel, the Nutcracker Suite, Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelungen and Mervyn Peake’s Ghormenghast. From the first page on Kabuki fascinates, avoiding convention without forsaking the essential elements of DnD. Rather then skulking forlornly within a forsaken mountain top Gargantua looms over the players, a vast mansion the size of the Empire state building. Kaiser has courted controversy by pointing out the at times cynical (and eminently predictable) entry-ism of what one could call the Avant-garde OSR crowd, which deserves merit and may be read here. I was thus delighted to check out his latest and even more exotic adventure/sandbox/bicycle-repair manual/campaign setting Flower Liches of the Dragonboat Festival, written and statted for both LL (DnD basic) and LotFP (DnD basic with warhammer fantasy rules bolted on) with a vague connectivity to an earlier publication, the Mad Monks of Kwantoom.
Flower Liches of the Dragonboat festival is set in a non-specific medieval Chinese/East-Asian city, and is, at its heart, an investigative adventure with tacked on Sandbox elements. It is meant to be compatible with any asian-themed campaign and even the old Oriental Adventures setting though I would imagine a copious amount of lotus dust and opium would be involved in the process. It poses a challenge to review because of its odd design philosophy, originating as a one-on-one supernatural murder mystery involving the 5th level psychic detective Tu Wang Ping but being expanded to accommodate adventuring parties of nonspecific levels. I feel this hampers FLotDF at times, making it more useful as a mine for ideas or piecemail bits then something that can be ported wholesale to the gaming table, a viewpoint I shall attempt to defend as this review carries on.
The style is a quirky mixture of ghost story, detective and wuxia martial arts drama, though Kaiser manages to weave it all together in a balls-to-the-walls house-of-flying-daggers meets chinese-ghost-story meets Dirk Gently extravaganza with hobgoblins and wizards. You wanted Weird-ass DnD? You got it!
The centrepiece of FLotDF is the titular Dragon Boat Festival, a 7-day death-race through the canals of the nameless city meant to appease the aforementioned Flower Liches, ancient and evil spirits who will bring great prosperity to the city’s inhabitants in exchange for the souls of the losers. Celestial Decrees forbid them from fucking with anything but the festival, over which they hold absolute dominion. As the festival is about to commence, Li’ling, fairest maiden of the city, disappears, her servants babbling of spirits and great evil, only to reappear the next day, her servants laughing it off as a drunken idiocy. Tu Wan Ping is on the case!
The challenge for the GM thus becomes to integrate the myriad of hooks, red herrings, dragon-boat racing sub-systems, events, NPCs and locations into a sandbox investigative adventure. The mystery plot is outlined before anything else, which allows the GM to at least keep track of what the fuck is going on, but a cheatsheet for dummies would have been immensely helpful. Thank god almost everything is crossreferenced. Specifying the city and providing us with a city map, however abstract, would also have helped.
Further complicating the matters is the nature of some of the clues, like the ones in the house of Nightshade (the perpetrator), which may only be found using Tu Wan Ping’s psychic abilities, which are not easily replicated using a wizard’s spell list. If your campaign setting does not include Tu Wan Ping as one of the characters or perhaps some other asian-themed psychic/thief dual class detective, considerable prep is needed beforehand to ensure the characters have the right tools for the job (those right tools being Augury/Speak with Dead if you are a cleric btw).
The adventure provides you with a list of random encounters/events within the city during the festival, with a highlighted subset for Tu Wan Ping mostly relating to the mystery.
Tu Wan Ping encounters vary from an astrologically forecast Black Day where the race is cancelled and all shops are closed and one may only travel through the city garbed in black or take a permanent -2 penalty to social interactions within the city, to martial arts poets reciting drunken riddles and requesting a meetup at the graveyard, a dead body washing up on shore (complete with a red herring side-quest), an illusionary love-boat with intelligent giant fireflies, an encounter with a serial-killing mantis/human alchemist specialized in poison and the undead, a pouch filled with red-herrings and leading to a minor side-quest and a band of grotesque jungle-dwellers.
And that’s only the Tu Wan Ping part. Reading this adventure is like watching an entire library of wuxia cinema on fast-forward while chugging ayuasca from a beer-hat. It’s nuts.
For bigger parties anything from camel-races, free fish soup that rots your mind, pennelagan hunts, bullywugs, Flower Ghouls, solitary wraiths (but asian-themed and fucking bizarre as hell), everyone-wear-a-mask day, everyone-hallucinates-he-is-an-animal and gets those powers day and enchanted kite-flying competitions is all good. This thing is dense and tight-packed with ideas and weirdness and it might not be to everyone’s taste, but anyone into weird oriental undead dnd is going to have a blast.
No setting book worth its salt would be complete without an equipment list (which should be AT THE BACK OF THE BOOK IN THE APPENDIX IF YOU DO THE INVESTIGATIVE ADVENTURE FIRST THEN DESCRIBE ALL THE MOVING PARTS THEN SPICE UP THE RED HERRINGS AND THEN BRANCH OUT) and even here, Kaiser has spared no effort in making it as complete a list as possible; everything from a Koi Carp to a flask of vinegar is provided, with a bare minimum of stats. A nice addition is the henchman section. Each type of henchman is not only 1) firmly embedded into the setting (i.e Aishegaru mercenaries with period-style equipment may only be hired in groups of 8), but the habitual formula of torch-bearer, mercenary, baggage-carrier is supplemented with a new type, the Storyteller. A storyteller may be hired for 250 gp per session (an arbitrary fee for game balance reasons) and will record and tell the exploits of the adventuring party, earning them a Fame score which can be levered into various socio-political favors. Great addition.
The Dragonboat Race (should also be in the appendix), is handled in terms of a relatively simple mini-game that takes into account the skill of a possible drummer and sweeper as well as the number of crewmen. Before the race starts, each team is checked by the Flower Liches, drained of spells, divested of magical items and enchantments but after that, anything goes since the losing team gets sacrificed to the Flower Liches. The prizes for winning are considerable and increase with each successive victory, with Kaiser making it clear that losing means you will fucking die and the GM should pull no punches in coming down on the Players should this happen. While interference from bystanders is punished by howling angry mobs, if you do manage to smuggle in some magical artillery past the Liches you won’t be punished for it! In other words, the Dragonboat race holds more resemblance to an aquatic version of the chase scene from Mad Max: Fury Road then it does to a wholesome family Chinese festival.
The race itself is handled in 5 turns, with individual rolls against a target number tallying up to determine performance. If the drummer or the sweeper fail their roll, everyone must roll saving throws or fall into the water (and waiting for them to catch up means you gain no points that turn), and if both fail the boat capsizes (you can still not lose provided you came farther then another capsizing boat). Weather conditions during the race change each turn, at times ludicrously (1d10 for weather/conditions can mean rapids the first turn and A TYPHOON the next turn) and there is also the possibility of random encounters (see Oriental Aquatic Sweetwater Adversaries and no that is not an upcoming Patrick Steward module). Even here the trademark inspiration and creativity is fully on display. A giant toad holds a giant carp in its stomach which in turn holds an enchanted ring. Classic.
Keeping track of the myriad NPC teams would normally generate an almost unforgivable amount of bookkeeping but thankfully the adventure provides you with a handy analogue method, provided you own sufficient d20s (accumulated victory points) and d6s (surviving crewmembers). Random encounters for NPC crews are handled abstractly, with plenty of colourful examples provided to help you flesh things out. Should you want to add some variety to the enemy teams, there is the option of customizing them, with everything from Tax Office officials to Ogre Magi competing for the prize of winning the DragonBoat Festival. As a final noteworthy element, the race is woven into the detective plot by having Pin Lung, Great Priest of the Temple of the Horse God, join the race by himself (he has been blackmailed by the kidnapping of his daughter), which ties in to the side-quest of a bid for power by the Tunshang Barony to gain control of the Temple.
The Flower Liches themselves are very interesting. Each is a long-dead wizard hailing from a forgotten hyperborean empire, long-destroyed but conjured forth or even created (the truth is left shrouded in mystery, as is only appropriate) by the ritual of Flowers, which brings vast prosperity to the City (going so far as to magically replenish the city’s coffers, and double the monetary wealth of its inhabitants) in exchange for the sacrifices of the losing team. What prevents these super-powerful entities from running roughshod over the city is a Celestial Decree, granting them absolute authority over the Dragonboat races but forbidding them utterly from interfering anywhere else. Any violation must of course be proven (where else) in a court of Law, with statues of the gods as witness, and will result in the immediate destruction of the offending Flower Lich. This is a neat twist on the part of the adventure, as it allows he players to investigate these super-powerful entities without being swatted like the gnats they are.
The Liches themselves are as varied and colorful as the rest of FLotDF, and they are by no means a united front, with petty rivalries, character flaws, enmities and vulnerabilities. Anything from a rotten petal-vomiting Sahuagin lich to a mutant Thark lich may be found among their ranks. Because their spellcasting ability has dwindled considerably since ancient times, they have instead each mastered a forbidden martial arts technique and will cast Dweomer of Rage (which I believe might be analogous to Tenser’s transformation) on himself in a fight. As KK remarks, Yes, these are Kung Fu Liches. It’s the descriptions that really stick with you, each a memorable kaleidoscope of scents, sights and sounds. Clever PC’s would do well to play them off against eachother, though dealing with such evil and corrupt entities is by no means safe.
The central locations of FLotDF are the Gulistans, or Houses of Flowers. Each Flower Lich has its own appointed demesne within the city proper, theirs for the duration of the Dragonboat festival. These are not meant as adventure locations exclusively, but also as locations of wonder, or, very probably, TPKs. Each Gulistan was once a place of worship, now defiled by the presence of the Flower Lich and its unholy servants (unique to each Flower lich). Each one is also loaded with treasure, monsters both unique and familiar and the occasional quest hook (the Gullistan of Datura holds a maimed prince within a glassteel prison, the return of whom yields the PCs 3 War elephants per PC for example). KK specifically states that these Gullistani are not balanced towards any sort of encounter level and this shows. I can a possible use for them beyond flavorful locations, as targets for a chinese-haunted house Ocean’s eleven, albeit it at potentially ruinous cost to the burglars. If I level criticism, the locations as written are little more then extremely colourful and creative monster hackathons, not unlike an IED loaded up with skittles.
Fuck it, some examples. Animating porcelain dolls in a rotting theatre setting. A bloodstained stairway leading to a golden shrine with scrolls of human skin in different colours of the rainbow, each holding a different 1st level spell. An Offal elemental. A Koi Carp dragon. Ghoul/Flower hybrids that freeze or burn with a touch. Datura takes the face of the character’s beloved and once per turn changed into a beautiful plump princess. A scarlet lotus creeper is rooted in the throne room of an old Judge’s place.
This: This tall, six-storied octagonal tower rises above a bustling market, its yellowish silhouette robed with billowing purple clouds. When the wind scatters the mist for a fleeting second, the eyes of the tower emerge: red, huge, and bulging, scouring the space in all directions at once. Loon-like cries, air-sucking baby screams, and weird hoots echo from the tower’s walls, mingling with the sound of crashing water from the river nearby. The ground around is littered with crimson leaves and has turned to a brittle smoky rose quartz; cracked and dented. The air around is suffused with the smell of clove, cinnamon, and rotten shrimp.
The most suprising/wonderful entry is the Gullistan of Nightshade, the villain, which is a tenement from 1920s Shanghai somehow ported through time and space. It is also the location that is the most likely to be investigated by the PCs, and therefore the least deadly by far. I am really digging the haunted house vibe FLotDF is going for here. A cursed rocking chair that summons shadow goblins to wait upon the master’s every whim. Miniature hobgoblins that spring from a grandfather clock and grow to normal size. An oven that will disgorge flaming zombies. A phase panther (displacer beast) that leaps from a painting. Interesting treasure too; A theory of Colours by Wolfgang von Goethe that can teach you the Colour Spray spell, an 1848 Colt Revolver, a unique Deck of Many things. Nice job. Ample opportunity to utilize Tu Wan Ping’s psychic abilities to glean some clues from this place as well for which I salute the adventure.
Li’ling’s place is given a map, but the focus here is on her and her servants. Nightshade has been a naughty boy, possessing Li’ ling and murder-replacing all of her servants with simulacrums. The plot is that Nightshade has swapped spirits with Li’ ling’s body and intends to use her as a vessel to bring a powerful demon lord into the world, granting him influence and presumably control over the city. Meanwhile, Li’ling is trapped in Nightshade’s Flower Lich Body and mentally dominated by his evil lich girlfriend Datura. Why he wants to summon the demon lord specifically is never explained, which is crucial in a detective story. Motive should have been clearly established. Is she in league with the Funguslord? What is the overal plot? Qui bono? This information is critical since it establishes not only why Nightshade would risk breaking the Celestial Decree (and the reward had better be astronomical since the cost is potentially obliteration) but also whether or not the other Flower Liches would assist Nightshade, however covertly, or work against him if they have more to gain from him. Is the demon lord going to help him return? Is it just about being evil? What is the deal?
Each simulacrum is given notes on subtle personality changes to clue the PCs in on something being fishy (if finding the bodies of her actual servants in the river is not sufficient). I can see a potential problem here as well: A simple Speak with Dead spell cast on one of the bodies and the jig should be up. ESP on the servants is more ambiguous since only some of them remember being murdered, and I call massive bullshit on Nightshade’s Poisonous Mind ability, which can mean a save or die effect if you attempt to read Li’ ling’s mind, comes with no warning, and has an astronomically high chance of occurring if the PC in question is even slightly savvy about using ESP this can end the adventure right here. What the fuck GM?
This section of the detective adventure should really have been designed better, and potential death for using ESP could have been replaced with something far less debilitating. A wasting sickness or a curse could have sufficed. Guidelines for what exactly constitutes ‘evidence’ in the court of law should also have been covered, making this section feel weak. The set up is awesome and the locations are beautiful and wondrous but more time should have been spent on the actual detective adventure.
Other then the Gullistans, some other locations are covered, which could serve as side-quests, each pretty well done. A looted tomb with animating rusty swords and the wraith of a long dead general. The Tunshang Barony, once a mighty holding, now reduced to a single mansion within the city, serves as the setting for a secondary intrigue involving the Tunshang baron plotting to gain control of the Temple of the Horse God via his brother by kidnapping the daughter of the other high priest and forcing him to commit suicide by Flower Lich in the dragonboat races. The location is described in terms of guards, NPCs and even compromising documents, making a covert burglary far more viable then a frontal assault. This plot, while only peripheral to many of the set pieces of FLotDF, ironically works well, and the more low-magic take renders it far more suitable for psychic detective shenanigans. Even here the guards are distinct (amazons and Yu-Shentong tribesmen), the treasure is delicious and the game equips the evil mandarin with his own unique spell.
Flower Liches of the Dragonboat Festival is one of the strangest and most colorful works I have seen come out of the OSR thus far and it is hard to judge. Everything screams inspiration and flavorful monsters, memorable encounters and weird ideas jump off almost every page, but at the same time it is a kaleidoscopic mess. Its central premise, the detective adventure, seems wonky given the plethora of magical divination abilities available to PCs of levels 3+ and Nightshade’s poisoned mind ability is likely to render Tu Wan Ping dead in any solo adventure. The red herrings/side-quests only serve to add to the kaleidoscope of colorful noise. As a setting or event FLoTDF could work in piecemeal fashion, with the Gullistan’s serving as locations to be either burglarized, explored or best avoided. Flower Liches is designed schizophrenically and all the adventures run together in a beautiful but chaotic mishmash of vivid imagery, bizarre encounters and faery-tale nonsense. Is this what madness feels like?
Pros: Inspiration and exotic allure burst from every page. Still feels like it hugs the edges of Dnd. Many unique monsters and encounters. Great random tables. Secondary plot works like a charm. Dragon boat racing works well. Truly weird.
Cons: Central detective plot has an instant death trap, unclear villain motivation and ambiguity on what constitutes evidence before the Celestial Court. Plethora of different encounters and hooks likely to obscure an already oblique mystery detective plot. Some of the content is going to be challenging to put into effect. Who plays 1-on-1 DnD anymore? Really weird, even for an Oriental Adventures inspired game. High magic mystery plots, like far future sci-fi mystery plots, are hard to do.
Final Verdict: This is the first product that actually leaves me stumped. On the one hand I admire its creativity and dedication and the way encounters explode in your mind but it feels like five different products meshed together. While it can (and should) be mined for ideas, the detective adventure that is a central premise is rickety and the Gullistani are hard to use as little more then deathtraps to burglarize. There is good in this but it is difficult to imagine myself using much of it. So many of the NPCs are going to collect dust as anything more then window dressing. I want to like the hell out of this because of the clear inspiration and hard work that went into it, but it is too messy for me and the information should have been presented with more clarity.
Protip: Do the detective mystery first. Introduce the central plot (done!), then move on to the suspects (Flower Liches), contacts (mantis-man), witnesses (servants/Lilung) and the locations they are in. Then add the complications and dwell on possible resolutions. Then flesh out the secondary mystery plot. Then branch out and do the rest of the setting, with the dragonboat racing and equipment prices in the appendix. As it is much of it is simply hard to use, despite frequent cross-referencing. Flower Liches of the Dragonboat Festival is made by someone of obvious talent but its implementation is difficult as shit.
As it stands, Flower Liches is a veritable treasure trove of ideas, memorable monster encounters and bizarre Npcs marred by a flawed execution of the central premise and an unstructured presentation. Definitely something to check out and to mine for ideas or bits and pieces but not something I can see myself using ah la carte any time soon. 6.5 out of 10.
Still curious? Check out the pdf here, it’s only 5$: http://www.drivethrurpg.com/product/213677/Flower-Liches-of-the-Dragonboat-Festival