Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Saturday, 13 November 2010

Beasts of the East I

Monster books as I have opined in the past, are never easy to review. Simple lists of random monsters such as the contents of Monster Manual series for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition are not just difficult to review, but actually boring to review to boot. The better monster books are built around a theme or genre, such as the demons and devils of The Book of Fiends from Green Ronin Publishing and the genre of Pelgrane Press' Book of Unremitting Horror. Or they are written for a particular setting with monsters native to that setting, of which the Monsternomicon, the d20 System supplement for the Iron Kingdoms setting from Privateer Press is a personal favourite. In addition to providing a range of foes to be arrayed against the player characters, a setting's monster book needs to add detail to the world and the background.

The good news is that Qin: Bestiary, the third supplement to be translated by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for Qin: The Warring States, the French RPG from Le 7ème Cercle, is a monster book for the game's setting of Ancient China during the period of the Zhongguo or “The Middle Kingdoms.” Qin: The Warring States is a game of low powered Wuxia action, and can be seen as an alternative choice for the gamer who wants to roleplay in the ancient Orient, but one that is more cinematic and without the constrictions placed upon player actions by the society of Rokugan presented in the better known alternative, Legends of the Five Rings. What Qin: Bestiary presents is another aspect of the setting, one not fully detailed in the core book, that of the supernatural in the Middle Kingdoms. Given within its pages are creatures high and low, celestial and demonic, as well as many things in between.

The even better news is that the supplement is just a bit more. Not only is each of the creatures it presents is woven into the background, primarily through the use of flavour text that places each entry within the setting through in-game reports and tales and describes the attitudes towards it, but the supplement adds new supernatural powers, new exorcism techniques, new spells, magical items, and more. These new items are not numerous, but they either support an aspect of a creature described, such as the new Illusion and Flight supernatural powers for Ghosts; are derived from the creature itself, such as the sacred carapaces of the Celestial Turtles the markings of which aid in divination; or they are items are used by the creature itself, like the Style of the Shadowless Spear martial arts style wielded by the Children of Nü Wa, an organisation led by Yao-snakes.

What the book covers in turn is ghosts, the undead, minor spirits and local gods, demons and damned souls, monsters and minor creatures, and celestial creatures. Some of these – primarily the celestial creatures – are only described, not given stats, but then again, entities such as the Kilin or the Dragon cannot be killed by mere mortals. Interestingly, the Qin: Bestiary actually includes the full write ups and stats for the individuals who either appeared in or wrote the various pieces of in-game flavour text. Thus the GM has yet another set of ready-to-play NPCs to add to his campaign. An adventure seed appears alongside some of the creatures described, and while there might not be enough of them, the monsters and their flavour text are themselves interesting enough to inspire the GM.

Almost a third of the Qin: Bestiary is devoted to the Yao. These creatures were once animals, but through fortune or misfortune, have been raised to a near human state. They lack the souls that man possesses, but most strive to attain the same path to divinity. Yao come in many forms, the most common including buffaloes, cats, foxes, monkeys, pigs, snakes, spiders, and tigers. Each is immortal and capable of shifting between animal and human forms, but even in human form a Yao retains an aspect of its original form and much of its nature. Thus a Yao-monkey will be clever, but mischievous and have either a long tail or limbs, monkey-like features and so on... Given that Yao are almost human, they are really NPCs rather than creatures or beasts to be beaten, and this is supported with a fully written up example of each. Fans of the television series Monkey will no doubt enjoy this chapter.

It is suggested that no player be allowed to play a Yao. Reasonable enough given the powers and abilities of most Yao, but instead he could play a Ban Yao or half-Yao or almost-Yao. One of a Ban Yao’s parents was a full Yao and so he retains one of that parent’s animal features, but can also possess his natural armour, weaponry, and terrifying aspect. A lesser alternative is for a player character to be Yao Xie and descended from a Yao. With this gift, a character has access to one of the abilities of a Ban Yao, but only once per day.

Rounding out the Qin: Bestiary is a trio of scenarios that make use of the creatures it describes. All three stand independent of the Tian Xia campaign that is supported in the Qin: The Warring States corebook and the Qin: Legends supplement and are set in small town or remote places. The first, “The Sins of the Father” finds the heroes investigating a series of deaths in a small town. It suffers from too obvious a title, but is otherwise a decent affair built around an old theme. The GM will have more fun with the roleplaying opportunities present in “The Eternal Lover,” in which the heroes are caught up in the lies of a temptress and the trail of broken hearts she leaves in her wake. The last of the three “Ceramic Guardians,” is little more meandering in structure than the previous two and sees the heroes on the trail of an unstoppable monster. Some of the details in the book’s last section, devoted to Funeral Rites and Tombs, should inform what is the most dangerous of the three scenarios, but with careful play the heroes should survive.

Physically, the Qin: Bestiary is a decent looking book. It is not as liberally illustrated as I believe that a monster book should be, but the artwork is good. The editing is an improvement over Qin: Legends and the book is a decent read. Initially, that read is a disconcerting one. This is due to the book’s mix of fiction and fact; to the lack of entries compared to other RPG monster books; and to the way that the book is organised. It just feels odd to have a section labelled “A Few More Fabulous Creatures.” Anyway, once you realise that this book is not just about the monsters, but about the supernatural this is not an issue.

As an aside, this book can be used in conjunction with Enemies of the Empire, the foe guide for Legends of the Five Rings to add creatures and NPCs to Rokugan. Some conversion work would be needed, but since that game is based upon Chinese, Japanese, and Korean cultures, then the parallels are there for the GM to work with.

The Qin: Bestiary is several things. It is of course, a bestiary, but more than that it is a collection of NPCs that a GM can add to his campaign and an examination of the supernatural in the Zhongguo. The flavour fiction nicely captures the attitudes towards both the creatures and the sample of each creature it describes as much as the stats and write up give the game details. The inclusion of the sample creatures and NPCs makes the supplement both more useful and easier to use, with the three scenarios showcasing how that can be done. The Qin: The Warring States GM is naturally going to want a copy of Qin: Bestiary, any GM looking for a well supported, detailed introduction to creatures of Chinese myth and legend that he can add to his own game, should be looking at this supplement too.