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Saturday, 8 August 2015

Final Fantasy FATE

In 2014 we were lucky enough to get not one, but two Wuxia RPGs, both of them powered by Evil Hat Productions’ FATE Core. The first was Vigilance Press’ Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade, a traditional Chinese fantasy of honour and martial arts at the furthest edge of the Divine Realm. The second is Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City, an RPG that combines martial arts and honour with elements of the steampunk and Western genres.
Published by
Reroll Productions after a successful Kickstarter campaign, Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City casts the player characters as members of the Jianghu, folk heroes rebelling against the Council of Nine, the oppressive, corrupt government of Kausao City. Little more than a century old, Kausao City is the greatest and richest city in the world, its power and economy based upon its vast deposits of jade—especially black jade. For it is jade, once refined, that underlies the technology of the world. Green jade is used to strengthen and fortify swords, armour, and tools; red jade is used to power engines, firearms, and explosives; blue jade is used for preserving, water engines, and working with ice; white jade is used to defy gravity and lighten devices as well as for lens; and lastly, the rarest of them all, black jade, is used for working with electricity and signals transmissions, although its full possibilities have yet to be discovered. All types of jade can also be used in concoctions and potions to various effects. Examples of Jadetech include dirigible airships, red jade cannons and six-shooters, tattoos that enhance perception amongst other things, demalian green-jade infused steel blades, and data processing devices. Many of these devices also involve clockwork or steam engines.

Kausao City’s status as the ‘centre of the world’ is not only ensured by its wealth, but also by the backing of the four great nations that maintain controlling interests in the city. They are The Aerum Empire, an industrious and mountainous European-like country, known for its inventions, airships, and arrogance; Kaiyu, a Japan-like archipelago whose people highly value their honour; Naramel, a Middle East-like desert country known for its nomads, bankers, and negotiators; and Tuyang, a China-like empire whose people are haughty if learned and who are renowned for their skill with alchemy and tattoos. In particular, the four great nations support the current governor, who has held the post for twenty years—despite there supposed to be an election every five—and who rules with a jade-infused fist.Under the governor’s rule, the people labour for little reward, have little recourse to the law, and almost no chance of bettering themselves. For the rich it is a different matter, but to keep the people in their place, the owning of weapons has been outlawed, as has the study of martial arts. Yet, overworked and downtrodden, the teeming masses who survive and work in Kausao City have at last found hope—the Jianghu. Consisting of a body of men and women who are prepared to flaunt the governor’s strictures on weapons and martial arts, those of the Jianghu are prepared to step forward and defend and fight for the people. To the governor and the city watch, they are criminals and rebels, but to the downtrodden poor, they are folk heroes.

There is a no limit as to what characters can be in  Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City. As long as they believe in the aims of the Jianghu and the good of the people, they can be ex-members of the city guard or watch, Jadetech engineers, smugglers with hearts of gold, martial artists, airship captains, gunslingers armed with Jadetech sixshooters, and more… As with other FATE Core games, character creation involves deciding on a High Concept—or Portrayal as it is termed in Jadepunk—and assigning Aspects and Professions, before designing one or more Assets. A character then receives an Aspect each for his Background, his Inciting Incident—what drove them to join the Jianghu, his Belief, and his Trouble. He assigns set values to the six Professions: Aristocrat—social skills and standing, Engineer—fixing, building, and sabotaging technology and devices of all types, Explorer—movement and physical activities, Fighter—combat of all sorts, Scholar—knowledge and research, and Scoundrel—sneaking and deception. Essentially the Professions replace skills in other FATE Core settings, but there are fewer of them and they are very broad in nature. Lastly the Assets for a character need to be defined. Unlike the Portrayal and Aspects, these are more tightly designed, and can range from personal possessions and allies to devices and techniques, the latter a catchall Asset that might be special training, years of experience, natural talent, so on. So it could be a daisho of demalian green-jade infused steel, a former colleague in the City Watch, an airship, martial arts training, graduation from a university, deft fingers, and so on. Every Asset has a flaw, but they can also be made more powerful by expending further points of Refresh, the resource that determines how many FATE points—used to power Aspects—a player character has from one session to the next.

Name: Xiang Leung
Portrayal:  Ambitious AlchemistBackground: Sacrificed all for his apprenticeship
Inciting Incident: My master was murdered for his secretsBelief: An alchemical solution for every problemTrouble: I am wanted for murderProfessions: Engineer (+3); Scholar, Aristocrat (+2); Explorer, Fighter, Scoundrel (+1)
Asset: Exceptional Alchemist
Type: Technique
Features: Focus 2 (+2 to Engineer rolls)
Flaws: Situational (When applied to alchemical engineering)
Cost: 1 

The setting itself, Kausao City and beyond, is described in relatively broad details rather than in particulars. The aim here is not quite to give the GM a complete and ready to play setting as such, but rather allow the GM room to add the detail himself together with his players and thus create their own version of Jadepunk. A prime example of this is the identity of the Governor. His exact identity and thus his nationality is important, because this determines the most influential nation in the city. This does not mean though that there is not enough for the GM or the players to game with in Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City, yet what it could have done with is more Aspects for the setting—whether for Kausao City or the great and other nations, for example—for the GM and the players to invoke and compel.

Physically,
Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City is a decent looking book that benefits from several very nice pieces of art that contribute towards its oriental feel and setting. The map is more representative than detailed and it does feel as if it could benefit from being bigger and clearer. For the most part, the writing is reasonable, but in places it is jaw-clenchingly execrable. For example:
"Kaiyu Lands: The Kaiyu Islands are comprised of hundreds of paradisiacal, tropical islands of various sizes on the far side of a perpetually violent ocean. For centuries the Kaiyu were forced into isolation due to the impassability of the Storm Sea, which was exacerbated by the violent winds that sweep through through the rocky cliffs that line the shores of islands around the Funarino Channel, a treacherous, quick-moving wide strip of water that spans the length of the thousand-mile archipelago."
These poor lines were almost enough to make me put the book down and stop reading it. Fortunately, the style settles down into something that more than readable after the descriptions of the various great nations.

Since Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City has been written to be used with FATE Core or the FATE Accelerated Edition, it will be easy to pick up anyone who plays FATE. That said, there is still some decent advice on running the game for the GM, and if the GM and players are familiar at all with FATE Core then their Jadepunk could be run without the need for recourse to the rulebook. Also, given that Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City is a wuxia setting, it bears comparison with the other FATE Core wuxia setting, Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade. In that comparison, Jadepunk is the lighter of the two, broader in its detail, and broader in the number of genres that it encompasses. Tianxia is more detailed and more focused, much more of a martial arts game, but both share a by default lack of the outré or of magic. Of course, there is nothing to stop a GM from working to combine the two.

Despite its broad swathes of detail, the setting for Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City feels very playable. A mix of familiar genres—wuxia, steampunk, and the Wild West—makes the game very accessible, as does the setting, which hint at an Dickensian version of a far eastern city like Hong Kong or Shanghai. There is another setting that Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City feels like the computer RPG, Final Fantasy VII. It is not an exact match of course, but elements such as a single large city, a monorail, the city guard, large areas of wilderness, and so on, do echo aspects of that computer RPG.

Above all Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City is a light, accessible setting, one that pleasingly blends and balances its genres  to leave room for the player characters to be the heroes.


—oOo—

Note: After taking advice, this review was amended on Monday, August 10th, 2015, to include an example of the text from Jadepunk: Tales from Kausao City that were found to be execrable. It has been included to support the use of the word, ‘execrable’ which has caused offence in some quarters. No offence was intended, but I stand by the use of ‘execrable’.