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Sunday 27 December 2020

Blood, Blades, & Booze

Out beyond the reach of the Emperor is a world of martial arts practitioners, bandits, criminals, and gangs, prostitutes and brothels, secret sects and societies, inns and teahouses, tales of heroism and notoriety, and more. It is a place of corruption and lawlessness and unbridled consumption of alcohol despite the best efforts of the Emperor and his officials, but it is also a place of wandering ‘knights errant’, martial artists, court officials, pursuivant detectives, and the ‘greatest’ swordsmen of the age who right wrongs, feud with rivals and lovers, dedicate themselves to their arts and their crafts, engage in fierce, determined battles with their enemies, compete in tournaments for great prizes and reputation, enter into duels for reputation and face, and more… This is the Jianghu, not so much a place as a culture, and also the setting for Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying, published by Osprey Games—the imprint of Osprey Publishing best known for its highly illustrated military history books. It is the fourth roleplaying game from the publisher after Paleomythic, Romance of the Perilous Land, and Those Dark Places.

Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is not designed as a sourcebook on historical China, but rather presents a romanticised, even ahistorical version ancient China, one drawn from the Wuxia novels of Gu Long and the darker films of the Shaw Brothers Studio of the 1970s and 1980s to create a grimmer, more brutal, and more dangerous take upon the Wuxia genre. It comes complete with rules for both martial arts and character creation, a discussion of the genre, a lengthy reading and watching list, notes aplenty on Chinese culture for the Game Master and player who is new to it, and an extensive sample Jianghu, a sandbox with tens of NPCs, organisations, locations, and potential plots, as well as a scenario. The focus is entirely upon Wuxia and martial artists. There is no magic—except for astrology and similar forms of divination and an option allowing the Magical Arts skill to launch attacks, which requires Game Master approval, and there are no supernatural creatures—so there is scope for the Game Master to create her own or for the authors to write a supplement. Instead, players take roles such as Brave Archer, Daoist priest, Master Swordsman, Palm Master, Unarmed Boxer, and others, who all study and practice some form of martial arts.

A character in Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is defined by his Signature Abilities, Counters, Special Resources, skills, eccentricities, and an occupation. A Signature Ability represents martial arts styles or talents, for example, ‘Butterfly Sword Expert I’, which means that the martial artist fights with grace and skill to easily deflect blows and slide in strikes to improve his Evade ability, or ‘Breath of Fire’, with which the martial artist can channel the fire element to scorch all of enemies around him. A Counter is a means of defence against a particular type of attack, such as ‘Bending Reed Defence’, with which a martial artist can lean out of the way when his head is targeted, and then snap back to deliver a sharp blow, or ‘Water Torrent’ with which the martial artist splashes water onto the floor and uses it to slide behind an opponent to attack with a bonus on the next round. Special Resources can be wealth and property or social resources. So an illicit business, landed gentry, or a manor, or a loyal friend, devoted ex-lovers (who feud and bicker when they meet—brilliant for roleplaying potential and comedy there), or an official post and title—though sometimes this prevents the martial artist from leaving the post, so he can send a loyal servant instead, in which case, the servant transmits the Experience Points earned to his master in his reports! Skills fall into five categories. These are Defences, Martial Arts Skills, Specialist Skills—such as Medicine and Alchemy or a particular talent like painting or poetry, Unorthodox skills such as Disguise and Drinking, and Mental Skills such as Command and Reasoning. Eccentricities are quirks and flaws, from Absent-Minded and Beautiful to Persistent Smile and Scars. They can also include Deep Eccentricities, which represent recurring problems for the Martial Artist, such as Bad Breath, In Love, or Social Climber. 

A martial artist also has a Max Wounds value—typically three for a starting martial artist, representing the amount of damage a martial artist can take before rolls on the quite nasty ‘Death and maiming’ Table, a Resist Value—the ability to absorb wounds before taking damage, and Fire Deviation and Killing Aura. Fire Deviation represents an internal imbalance in the martial artist’s Qi energy and is gained by failed meditation rolls or can even be selected to gain an extra Signature Move. However, suffering from Fire Deviation also means gaining a Fire Deviation Eccentricity, such as suffering from delusions of grandeur or your hair or eye colour changing. Killing Aura is measure of how powerful or capable a martial artist is and is equal to his Level. It can easily be detected by other martial artists. In addition, for each NPC or Player Character a martial artist kills, he increases his Killing Aura Darkness, which hangs over the martial artist like a cloud and again, is an indication of how powerful he is and to an extent, his reputation.

To create a martial artist a player chooses a Signature Ability, a Counter, a Special Resource, assigns points skills—this is done by skill type and is standard for all martial artists, an eccentricity, and an occupation, before defining a backstory and filling out secondary details. If the martial artist qualifies for it, he can also select an occupation. This primarily determines his income. The process primarily involves making a fair number of choices and is simple enough, and notably, the deadliness of the setting and rules is foreshadowed in the suggestion that a player create a backup martial artist! However, the process is hindered by the wealth of choices and everything that a player needs being spread out over eight chapters—almost half of the book—and not necessarily in the order that the checklist gives.

Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle is the daughter of a wealthy merchant who was forced to marry beneath her status when her father’s business collapsed. Her husband was a tailor and his mother taught and scolded her over her lack of skill as an embroiderer and seamstress. She did not love her husband, but when he was killed by bandits, she first escaped their ambush and then set out to kill them one by one, tracking them down and enticing them in her company before sewing them up and leaving them behind her… When she returned, she told her mother-in-law that she was in charge now and would be taking over the business. Free of the scolding, she flourished and her skill grew and grew until she is one of most talented women in the Jianghu with a needle.

Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle
Signature Ability: Needle and Thread Expert
Counter: Steel-Shattering Finger
Eccentricity: Beautiful
Special Resource: Prosperous Business
Occupation: Artisan

Max Wounds: 3
Resist: 1
Fire Deviation: 0
Killing Aura: 1
Killing Aura Darkness: 0
Drinking Limit: 1

Defences: Evade 2 (7), Hardiness 1 (6), Wits 2 (7)
Martial Arts: External 0, Internal 3, Lightness 1
Specialist Skills: Medicine and Alchemy 1, Meditation, Survival, Talent (Seamstress) 3, Trade 2
Unorthodox Skills: Disguise, Drinking 2, Gambling 2, Magical Arts 2, Theft
Mental Skills: Command, Detect, Empathy 2, Persuade 2, Reasoning 2
Physical Skills: Athletics 2, Endurance, Muscle, Ride 1, Speed 3
Knowledge Skills: Institutions 2, Jianghu 2, Peoples and Places 2, Religion, Scholarly Arts

Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a Level and skills roleplaying game. A martial artist will start play with one Signature Ability and one Counter, but will gain more, plus increases to his skill as he goes up in Level. The rate at which he rises is determined by the length of the campaign—the shorter the campaign, the faster the improvement rate, up to maximum of Level Nine, whatever the campaign length.

Mechanically, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying uses pools of ten-sided dice. Typically, this will be one, two, or three ten-sided dice, depending upon the level of the skill. Rolls are made again a target number—typically six—and the single highest die is counted. If it equals or succeeds the target number, the martial artist has been successful. A Roll of ten counts as total success and gives a more specular result. In opposed rolls, the single highest die rolled is compared to the opponent’s roll, the highest roll succeeding. Penalties and bonuses subtract or add dice respectively, as do many Signatures Moves, although there is a soft skill cap of a maximum of seven being rolled for any one action.

For example, Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle has tracked down one of the bandits who killed her husband and attempts to seduce him. Her player declares that she will not actually seduce him, but lull him into a false sense of security and to do that, Wang Yimu will use her Persuade  skill, which gives her two dice. The Game Master gives her a bonus die because the bandit is drunk. This gives her player three dice to roll and he rolls two, six, and seven. The latter is the highest result and is definitely higher than the bandit’s Wits of six. Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle has him where she wants him.

Combat revolves around six skills. The three Martial Arts—External, Internal, and Lightness, and the three Defences—Evade, Hardiness, and Wits. Evade is the ability to avoid being hit, Hardiness to withstand damage, and Wits a martial artist’s mental strength. They are not rolled, but provide the target numbers when a martial artist is attacked. External Martial Arts combines physical force and explosive damage, employing a martial artist’s bodily might with either weapons or unarmed; Internal Martial Arts is fighting with internal energy or inner force, to be able to emit energy blasts, fight with energy-based weapons-play or unarmed combat; and Lightness Martial Arts is about a martial artist’s control of his body weight and speed to be able to do all of the signature man oeuvres that the Wuxia genre is famous for—running up walls, hopping over rooftops, and balancing on treetops.

Combat involves three phases. In the ‘Talking and Analysis Phase’, opponents attempt to bluff or out talk their way out of the fight, psych them out to impose a penalty, assess them to gain bonus, or learn about a Signature Ability or Counter. In the ‘Roll Turn Order Phase’, the players roll their martial artist’s Speed to determine who goes first, and in the ‘Move and Perform Skill Action Phase’, the martial artists attack each other using a combination of Martial Arts skills, Signature Abilities, and possibly weapons. If appropriate, a Counter can be used in response to an attack. Notably though, the mechanics are deadly, so the Game Master will want to be careful as to what level of opposition she wants to pitch against the martial artists.

Continuing the example, Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle has tracked down one of the bandits who killed her husband and has him in her sights—she is ready to strike. . In the ‘Talking and Analysis Phase’, she definitely wants to analyse the bandit for the bonus. Her player two dice for her Empathy, getting a nine and five, the nine again being higher than the Bandit’s Wits of six. This grants her a bonus dice to the attack roll and bonus to the damage done if any wounds are inflicted on a Total Success or roll of ten. In the ‘Roll Turn Order Phase’, the player rolls three dice for Wang Yimu’s Speed, getting a one, three, and seven, the latter higher than the Bandit’s four and five. Wang Yimu, the Widow of the Needle will now use her Signature Ability of Needle and Thread Expert, making an Internal Martial Arts roll against the bandit’s Evade of six. Wang Yimu’s player has four dice to roll, three for the skill and one as a result of  the successful assessment. His roll of three, seven, eight, and eight indicates that the needles hit and Bandit is snapped out of his lascivious designs upon her by the sharp points imbedding themselves in his skin. Wang Yimu’s player rolls for damage, inflicting a single wound. The bandit responds by pulling out a knife and throwing it at her. The Game Master rolls two dice for the bandit’s External Martial Arts of two, attempting to beat Wang Yimu’s Evade of seven. He rolls ten and ten, which if successful is going to hurt her. Her player declares that Wang Yimu will Counter with Steel-Shattering Finger, which requires her player to roll a success and with a five, six, and seven, she gets her fingers in the way and stops the blade dead. At the end of the round, Wang Yimu has the bandit impaled on the needles and thread and the bandit needs to find another weapon.

In the second round, the bandit attempts to Psych Wang Yimu out, telling what he has planned for if he catches her. This is a Command roll, but with a score of one, the Game Master rolls the one die and on a five, does not best her Wits. Wang Yimu responds by telling the bandit what she did his comrades and with a roll of four and eight on her Persuade, it works—the bandit will be a penalty of one die to attack. However, the bandit first has to get a weapon, so the Game Master states that this will become a bonus die on the damage roll as he moves away from the pull of Wang Yimu’s needle and thread. This is automatic since the needles are embedded and the bandit is moving. Wang Yimu’s player rolls a seven and a ten. The latter inflicts two wounds, reducing the Bandit’s wounds to zero and necessitating a roll on the ‘Death and Maiming Table I: External Injuries’. A roll of ten indicates that the Game Master needs to roll on the ‘Death and Maiming II: Internal Injuries’ and the result of four is an intestinal injury which levies an Endurance penalty. The needles are free though and the bandit is armed, but is badly torn up by the said needles…

Beyond the rules, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying provides the Game Master with swathes of information, ranging from overland travel, poisons and antidotes, rare and prized objects and weapons, rules for handling alcohol—it is possible play a drunken master with some effort, and more, even before she gets to the second half of the book, which is solely for the Game Master. This covers how to referee the Jianghu and run the roleplaying game, it includes an introduction to the Wuxia genre and a good bibliography, and a discussion of various scenarios and campaign types. There are also rules for handling fated destinies, calamities, secret histories and the like for martial artists in campaigns with bigger, bolder fates.

Aspects of Chinese culture in the Jianghu are also covered, including Face—earned, lost, given, or taken, various religions, philosophies, and beliefs, the drinking culture—inhabitants of the Jianghu, especially martial artists, are renowned for capacity to drink alcohol, the imperial bureaucracy, and more. As well as suggesting ways for Game Master to create her own Jianghu, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying comes with its own. From the Top Ten Fighters and Top ten Weapons to the twenty locations and organisations and ninety-five NPCs—all nicely detailed and given stats and relationships with each other, this is a rich, Soap Opera Wuzia-style sandbox of a setting with a huge wealth of information for the Game Master to delve into and draw out ideas for scenarios and encounters from. This Jianghu could keep a campaign playing for a few months, there is so much information there. To help get a playing group started, ‘The Obsidian Bat’, a short scenario is also included, which has plenty of action and doublecrosses to keep the martial artists happy. Details of another scenario, free to download from the Osprey Games website, is also included.

Physically, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a sturdy, glossy little hardback, done in the simple style seen in other titles from Osprey Games. It is well written and both illustrations and maps are excellent. However, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is simply not as well organised as it could be. Essentially chapters feel like they are out of order and they present the reader with such a deluge of information that it is at first difficult to take in and then it is difficult to work with. The index is decent, but finding things is not easy in the book and for example, creating a character takes a lot of flipping back and forth through its first half. 

Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying really is a simple, straightforward Wuxia roleplaying game, one that is easy to learn and easy to play. However, its organisation hampers both that and learning the game, there being nothing wrong with the organisation of individual chapters and their content, but rather the order in which the chapters are arranged. It also does not introduce the genre and what to watch or read for the player at all, let alone before leaping into the rules and the generation of martial artists. And for that, it presents the player with such a wealth of options, it is difficult to know where to start, such that it might have been useful if some ready-to-play archetypes had been included. There are pointers to that end, but they are just that.

Ultimately just hindered by its odd organisation, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a gritty martial arts fantasy roleplaying game which plays fast and light, if not more than a little deadly, all backed up with plenty of well written background and advice for the Game Master and a fantastic Jianghu, or sandbox, of its very own. With a little bit effort to get past its organisational issues and Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying is a great introduction to roleplaying in the Wuxia genre.

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