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Sunday, 12 July 2015

The FATE of Wuxia

Out to the west lies Jiāngzhōu, the ‘border land’ on the edge of the ‘Divine Realm’ that is Shénzhōu. Far from the capital, this province is a place of banditry, gangsters, and corruption that preys not only on the local populace, but also the merchants that travel along the Jade Road and the Silk River. In response, the merchants have formed trade houses and hire security companies to protect their interests—interests that sometimes extend beyond the simply mercantile. Pirates, like the Blue Carp Brotherhood, led by the infamous pirate king, Fish-Eye Cheng, prey upon the boats moving up and down the Silk River; Five Demon Forest is known to be a haven for bandits and thieves, but is reputed to be haunted too; and perhaps the best place to meet famous fighters, soldiers, and wandering warriors in Băo Jiāng, the ‘Jewel of Jiāngzhōu’ that is the province’s biggest trading city, is the Drunken Dragon Inn, Playhouse, and Bath. Such a place has become an important meeting place because Jiāngzhōu is also home to the Wuxia, the ‘Wandering Swordsmen’ and ‘Knight Errants’ who lead lives often independent of society. Many are mercenaries, some follow their own paths, but all seek to become masters of Kung Fu.

This is the setting for Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade, a Wuxia RPG setting in which chivalrous knights travel the byways and rivers of a province of a China that never was, righting and redressing wrongs, fighting for righteous, thwarting oppression, and seeking retribution for misdeeds. Published by Vigilance Press after a successful Kickstarter, Tianxia combines martial arts and cinematic action to tell stories in the vein of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms. It is powered by Evil Hat Games’ FATE Core, a generic system that is light in tone and more than suited to cinematic action that relies upon the narrative input of the players—and Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade gives the means to do that Wuxia style.

As per the FATE Core rules, characters in Tianxia are still defined by their Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Changes to these—and indeed to the FATE Core rules—are kept to a minimum. They include the addition of a new skill, Chi, used to regain focus and overcome distractions, to create temporary Aspects that complement Kung Fu manoeuvres, to withstand magical attacks, and so on, as well as suggestions as to what to rename the existing skills to better fit the setting.

More than anything in Tianxia though, characters are defined by their martial arts style. Each martial arts style consists two substyles—element and body. With six element substyles—forest, ghost, iron, lightning, stone, and storm, and six body substyles—crane, dragon, monkey, phoenix, serpent, and tiger, Tianxia gives a total of thirty-six martial arts styles. Each sub-style provides three techniques, so every style has six techniques plus a lost technique which can only be learnt once the others have been also been learned. Once all seven techniques have been learned, a practitioner is said to have mastered that style.

Picking a style will go some way to defining a character. Want to turn the whole of the field of the battle—including your opponents—to your advantage? Then select Forest Monkey. The Lightning Tiger style relies on hard strikes at range or up close, but movement for defense, whilst Stone Crane emphasises defensive blocks combined with a solid stance. The range of styles available also means that the average starting group is unlikely to share the same styles, although overlaps in terms of element and body is possible—and will become more likely as a campaign progresses. In addition there are several lost techniques are given that a character might learn, research, or indeed create himself. Some of the styles and the way they interact are nicely illustrated with a full example of play using a set of sample characters.

Our sample character is a Tax Inspector, a recent graduate considered to be too much trouble to have in the capital despite having graduated with top marks in his examinations. He is too attentive, too assiduous when interpreting the law, and as good as he is at his job, he is regarded as a fool. Thus he has been dispatched to Jiāngzhōu, ostensibly to ensure that the taxes are collected from a slightly wayward province. Either he will be successful and learn some judgment, or he will annoy the wrong person and be assassinated, or simply he will fail. Either way, Ning is out of everyone’s hair for the moment and someone else’s problem.

Ning Choi-san
High Concept (Aspect): Incorruptible Tax Inspector
Trouble (Aspect): Every errand needs a fool
Aspects: Numbers never lie, There are always lessons to be learned, Honour the ancestors
Stunts: Time to hit the scrolls, The quill is mightier..., Not sure I should be here!
Skills: Lore (Great +4); Investigate, Will (Good +3); Chi, Fight, Rapport (Fair +2); Athletics, Crafts, Physique, Resources (Average +1)
Physical Stress (Physique): 1 2 3
Mental Stress (Will): 1 2 3 4
Refresh Rate: 3 Fate Points: 3

Jianghu Rank: 1
Kung Fu Style: Iron Crane Form
Crane Hides in Reeds: Add an additional +2 bonus when in Full Defence to defend yourself in combat. If used to defend others, gain 2 Armour instead.

Mechanically, there is nothing to stop a character from learning techniques from more than the one style; story-wise it may be well be another matter. Learning and mastering more techniques and styles will increase a character's Jianghu rank, with  practitioners of a higher rank having advantages in terms of movement and actions when facing those of a lesser rank, particularly when facing mobs. Instead of a mob being a means to inflict damage on an opponent, in Tianxia it more becomes a timing tool, a narrative device to speed up or slow down the players’ progress . 

If there is a limitation to the martial arts rules in Tianxia it is that they focus purely on hand-to-hand combat and styles, so there are no styles for using melee weapons, missile weapons, or indeed firearms. Of course there is nothing to stop a character creating a signature weapon—as per the core FATE Core rules, but nevertheless the martial arts styles in Tianxia are resolutely hand-to-hand based. The lack of firearms is understandable given that in Shénzhōu gunpowder is only used in rockets and fireworks and as explosives. So no firearms, but the lack of styles for melee and missile weapons is at odds with the genre and many of the setting’s inspirations. That said, there are suggestions as to how they might be handled, but that is all that they are, suggestions.

The setting of Jiāngzhōu is rather broadly drawn, with little more than a handful or two of locations and NPCs being detailed. They include plenty of Aspects for the player characters to bounce off and for the GM to use as inspiration. This paucity of locations and NPCs is intentional though, because it leaves space and more for the GM to create and and detail himself. Most notable of these are the number and types of Kung-Fu schools, but again this is intentional, the GM being given room to develop them himself, in part based upon the styles employed by the player characters. That said, an example or two would not have gone amiss.

For the GM there are optional rules allow for faster fights; a guide to applying The Bronze Rule, that is, turning anything and everything into a ‘character’ so that it can be modelled using FATE Core; and a discussion of the game’s core genre elements in play. The Bronze Rule is supported by examples including mysteries, kung fu challenges, epidemics and ailments, corrupt Chi, whilst the genre elements discussed include ‘One person can make the difference, good or bad’, ‘Heroic isn’t always good’, ‘The best rewards do not always glitter’, ‘Equipment is always important’, and ‘It’s okay to lose, and sometimes you will’. Of these ‘Equipment is always important’ looks a little odd in the context of Tianxia because it is a game where equipment is not intrinsically important. Here though equipment is important because it tells so much about a character, whether player character or NPC. How well he dresses, whether he carries a broken sword, or whips out poison darts all tell much about a character.

Broader campaign advice suggests Campaign Aspects for the various Wuxia subgenres—comedy, epic, horror, romance, and so on. These, for example ‘Death isn’t funny… misfortune is’ for comedy and ‘Duty is the enemy of romance’ for romance, can be tagged like any other Aspect in the game, but these help enforce the feel of the game. Similar sections examine relationship triangles in the Wuxia genre and applying ‘Interesting times’ to a campaign. More specifically, the GM is provided with a lists of formidable opponents, dangerous mobs, and fierce creatures, the latter also including an option for the players to choose animals as their player characters. Rounding the section for the GM is a set of decent adventure seeds, each including more NPCs.

The setting of Jiāngzhōu is rather broadly drawn, with little more than a handful or two of locations and NPCs being detailed.This though, is intentional, because it leaves space and more for the GM to create and and detail himself. Most notable of these are the number and types of Kung-Fu schools, but again this is intentional, the GM being given room to develop them himself, in part based upon the styles employed by the player characters. That said, an example or two would not have gone amiss.

Physically, Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade is pleasingly presented full colour hardback with bright artwork and some engaging colour fiction. That said, the book does feel slightly spacious in places, almost as if a slightly smaller book had been spread out to fit a larger book.

Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade is not quite perfect. It is missing a decent treatment of martial arts weaponry and the setting could be said to be too broadly drawn, though to be fair, the former does not fall within the remit of the game and the latter is by design. That aside, what Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade sets out to do, it does very well. It is accessible, it presents a solidly playable set of martial arts rules, and FATE Core supports the type of cinematic action that Wuxia calls for with just about the right amount of detail. In a very many way, Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade is the Wuxia RPG I have always wanted.