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

Sunday 16 June 2024

Far West... Finally

The fortunes of the Empire have always ebbed and flowed with rebellion and repression and restoration. An Imperial Governor deciding to throw off the shackles of Imperial control and declaring independence, only for his rebellion to be crushed and he be replaced by a political opponent. Always on the Periphery of the Empire and always following this pattern until a cascade of rebellions began The Session Wars. The Imperials had industrial and economic might manifested in superior training and technology, the Periphery had numbers and zeal. The August Throne also had time and it picked and pecked at the alliances between the rebellious new states, defeating each in turn until years later, the last free Kingdom of the West, Orinost, stood alone, the engineering geniuses at the Engineering school at the University of Alsdolan, the so-called Circle of Iron, used their advances in technology, especially Cog Science, to withstand the Imperial assault. This, combined with the efforts of the Clever Folk of the Far West and the Grand Masters and Legends of the Dust Road, to harry and undermine the efforts of the Imperial forces, enabled Orinost to hold out for three more years and so create its own legend along those of many of its great defenders. Ultimately, the two sides would clash at the battle of Ash Ford which would see men and women capable of shattering mountainsides with their bare hands battle each other, thousands killed, and Orinost defeated, yet the Emperor, in his wisdom, came to terms. The rebels were allowed to enter exile on the condition that they never took up arms against the Emperor again. So they fled West as far as they could from the Empire back East. They took the Dust Road over the border beyond the Periphery and the Last Horizon, and so into the Far West.

Yet the Far West is not quite as wild and barbarous as Imperial propaganda might say it is. The trains of the Chartered Houses, each led by a great Steam Baron, run far to fortified towns within territory, bringing goods and people to the new land; the people value their honour and courteous to a fault lest they insult one another; and the Marshals, empowered by the Chartered Houses to bring Imperial Law and ‘justice’, are known for the masks they wear which keep their faces hidden as much as for hunting down and executing the bandits which infest the region, though their reputation for ruthlessness has made them equally as feared. Then there is ‘The Dust Road’, a path rather than a road, walked by the Clever Folk, those whose knowledge and skill, whether in the arts, engineering, or sciences, and especially in the martial arts of kung-fu, transcend that of ordinary men. They can manipulate ink to blind their opponents, stand upon one spot unmoving no matter how much force is brought upon them for they will shatter first, make any object as sharp as a sword or as strong as steel to withstand a blow from a sword, target the humours of an opponent and so upset his equilibrium, shoot opposing bullets out of the air, and so on. Heroes or villains, they upset the natural order of things and so are not to be trusted, as thirty years since the battle of Ash Ford, the Empire eyes the lands beyond the Periphery with greed, the Chartered Houses plot to expand their economic grasp, and bandit armies strike fear into settlements large and small in the Far West.

This is the set-up for Far West: Western Wuxia Mash Up Adventure Game. Published by Adamant Entertainment, it is undeniably one of the most notorious roleplaying games of the modern age. Not because it is bad or its subject matter is contentious or its designer has expressed himself or done anything that could be regarded as inappropriate. No, it is notorious because it is late—and not just late, very late. In fact, to fair, very, very late. A decade late. In the past this would not have been an issue, but Far West was among the first roleplaying games to be funded via Kickstarter and to raise what was then a lot of money in doing so. In other words, its supporters put their money into the project and did not receive the much-promised book—until now, that is. Funded via Kickstarter on August 25th, 2011, it has taken almost thirteen years to bring the book to fruition. In that time, the designer, Gareth-Michael Skarka, has suffered illness and difficulties, least of which is the damage to his reputation, the roleplaying game has undergone a drastic redesign, and there have been numerous delays. Finally, with the assistance of Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Far West has seen print. To say all of this is not to attack the designer, but rather to give context and an understanding of the history of
Far West. Yet the author barely addresses the issue in the book and certainly does not go so far as to apologise or offer a mea culpa for those delays, though his introduction to Far West would certainly have been the place to put that on record.

If anyone has had the patience to wait the thirteen years for the book, then they certainly owe Pinnacle Entertainment a debt of gratitude for helping the designer get
Far West into the hands of the remaining Kickstarter backers and to T.S. Luikart, for working with the designer to complete the roleplaying game. Then with the book now out, the designer can at least put the project behind him, and those who waited for it, discover whether that wait has been worth the final product.

As the title suggests, Far West: Western Wuxia Mash Up Adventure Game combines two genres. One is the Old West of the post-Civil War United States, the other the Jianghu, the world of martial artists and the Wuxia genre of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero, and Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Warring States period of Chinese history. More specifically for the first genre, it draws upon the Spaghetti Western rather than the Wild West, with stories set along the border between Mexico and the United States of America. This brings what is called a Castalan—in other words, a Hispanic—aspect to the setting. The combination of the Spaghetti Western and Wuxia genres also means that the traditional displaced native peoples typically found in the latter do not appear in
Far West. In some ways Far West feels tonally very much like the television series Firefly, although without the Science Fiction elements. However, with the addition of Cog Science, Far West is also a Steampunk roleplaying game.

A Hero or Player Character, one of the Clever Folk, in
Far West is defined by his Rank, Attributes, Background, Occupation, Skills, Spirit and Aspects, Edges and Flaws, and Allegiance. Rank, from Novice to Legend determines how many dice a player has to assign to Attributes and Skills, the number of Kung Fu Forms he knows and how much Spirit he can have. The seven Attributes are Reflexes, Strength, Wits, Toughness, Presence, Knack, and Kung Fu. Of these, Knack is a measure of aptitude with tools and technology, whilst Kung Fu represents how good he is in the special forms of martial arts. Background, such as ‘Back East—The Empire’ or ‘The Rolling Steppes’, and Occupations like ‘Artist’, ‘Gambler’, ‘Hired Gun’, ‘Lotus Girl/Willing Lad’, and ‘Wrangler’ all provide bonuses to skills.

Aspects are descriptive elements of a character. They can include relationships, beliefs, descriptions, catchphrases, distinctive possessions, tied to Advantages and Disadvantages. In play, a player can spend Spirit to Tag an Aspect, bring it into play and gain two bonus Wild Dice to a roll, whereas the Narrator can compel an Aspect, bring it into play, forcing the Player Character to act against his best interests or simply earn a penalty to roll. In return, the Player Character is rewarded with Spirit. It is possible for one Player Character to Tag another and so gain the Wild Dice bonus. One advantage of tagging an Aspect is if the roll is successful. If so, the Spirit spent to Tag the Aspect is refunded, but if the roll is a failure, the Spirit is lost. A player can refuse an attempt to Compel an Aspect, but this will cost Spirit to do so. Aspects can also be built into scenes to be Tagged or Compelled. An Aspect can also be Tagged after a roll, but this does not gain the two extra Wild Dice, instead allowing a reroll.

Spirit is a Hero’s inner power or life force. It is based on the value of his Attributes and Kung Fu dice. Divided into Permanent Spirit and Temporary Spirit. Permanent Spirit is reduced to learn Kung Fu styles, whilst Temporary Spirit is used to add dice to rolls, Tag Aspects, and so on. A Hero has an Aspect each from his Background, Occupation, highest and lowest Attributes, and Rank. The Background and Occupation Aspects must be selected from virtues of the Dust Road. These are altruism, justice, individualism, loyalty, courage, truthfulness, disregard for wealth, and desire for glory, and one must be negative and one positive. Edges, such as ‘Blinding Speed’, ‘Deadly Aim’, and ‘Fortune Of The Celestial Monkey’, are purchased by spending Skill dice, whilst a Hero can add to his Skill dice by choosing Flaws like ‘Addlepated’, ‘Debt’, and ‘Thick As A Stump’.

Kung Fu is different in that its four skills are determined by the Kung Fu Attribute. The four Skills are External Kung Fu, which focuses on physical power and agility with direct, explosive attacks; Gateways Kung Fu is about the flow of Spirit along meridians within the human body to the points where they intersect at gateways or pressure points, which can be disrupted to cause paralysis or even death; Internal Kung Fu is about the flow of Spirit within the practitioner’s own body to harden the flesh against attacks, expel Spirit as attacks, and master balance and leverage; and Lightness Kung Fu is about the manipulation of the practitioner’s own body weight to be able to walk along walls, leap over roofs, and move swiftly and lightly.

Allegiance can be to an organisation, a belief system, nation, or a philosophy, and in play, mechanically, it can be Tagged or Compelled like any other Aspect. The default Allegiance is to a Clan, but a Hero can also be a Drifter in which case he suffers interaction penalties when dealing with any Clan. Some Clans are secret like the ‘lotus girls’ and ‘willing boys’ of the Foxglove Society, a clan of assassins, or secretive, such as the ‘Brotherhood of Steel and Song’, the solitary Mariachi. Others are more obvious, such as the Iron Dragons, which work the rails back and forth across the
Far West, whilst the Jade Family are nomadic con artists, beggars, thieves, entertainers, and fortune-tellers who take ‘Jade’ as their surname to indicate membership. Every Clan is described in some detail, including its background, philosophy, fighting styles used, organisation, symbol, and benefits.

The actual process of creating a Hero is a matter of assigning dice to both Attributes and Skills, and making choices. It is not a difficult process, but it is a daunting one because of the array of choices possible and the lack of advice when it comes to those choices. There are templates at the back of the book, but they are bare bones and there is no complete example of the Hero creation process—there are lots of little examples—and then the player has the problem of tying his Hero into the setting. This is compounded by the sheer number of Kung Fu styles to choose from—there are over eighty! The question is, which Kung Fu style goes with what concept or background? Which Kung Fu styles can be used with melee weapons or firearms? Perhaps it would have been helpful if some archetypes had been given, complete with Aspects, Kung Fu styles, and origins to tie them to the roleplaying game’s setting, both to illustrate and sell the setting?

Name: Mathias Pouke
Rank: Initiate
Background: Back East—The Empire
Occupation: Artist (Journalist)
Allegiance: The Wandering Stars
Spirit: 16 Permanent, 9 Temporary
Aspects: Individualism (Not From Around These Parts), Desire For Glory (Something to Prove), Fingers & Thumbs, A Way With Words, The Cat’s With Me
Edges & Flaws: Animal Ally (Cat, her name is Fence), Famous (Chronicler of the Far West), Debt
Kung Fu Styles: Brushless Sight Stroke, Fluttering Fist, Quivering Palm)
Reflexes 4D (Dodge 1D)
Strength 2D (Running 1D)
Wits 4D+2 (Artist 2D+2, Bureaucracy 1D, Gambling 1D, Investigation 2D, Scholar 1D+1, Streetwise 1D)
Toughness 3D
Presence 4D+2 (Animal Handling 1D+1, Bargain 1D+1, Charm 1D+1, Persuasion 1D)
Knack 2D (Lockpicking 1D)
Kung Fu 4D (External 1D, Gateway 1D, Internal 2D)

In terms of rules, Far West: Western Wuxia Mash Up Adventure Game is also a combination of two mechanics. The core rules are the D6Plus system, which uses pools of six-sided dice and which is a development of the mechanics first seen in Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game, published by West End Games in 1987. The other is the storytelling or narrative Tagging and Compelling of Aspects as seen in FATE. The D6Plus system measures everything in terms of how many six-sided dice it has, primarily attributes and skills. It can have a bonus of +1 or +2, but never +3 or more. If an attribute or skill has a bonus increased to +3, it is instead increased by a whole extra die. A player will be typically rolling a number of dice equal to the rating of the attribute or skill, adding the results of all the dice, aiming to beat a Difficulty Number. An Easy Difficulty Number is roughly five or more, Easy ten, Moderate fifteen, Difficult twenty, and so on. Bonuses and penalties can apply from the situation, equipment used, or other factors.

When the dice are rolled, one die must be of a different colour. This is the Wild Die. If the result on the Wild Die is a one, it indicates a Critical Failure, whilst a roll of six on the Wild Die is a Critical Success and the player can roll the Wild Die again and keep adding as long as the Wild Die result is a six. If a Critical Success is rolled and a roll of one occurs, it does not mean that a Critical Failure has been rolled. A Critical Failure either negates the result of the highest die rolled or a complication occurs, the severity of which is determined by the Narrator, the suggestion being to make it lean into comic relief rather than necessarily being deadly. There are some suggestions for complications for the Narrator to use, such as “One of the characters kills a bandit. Unfortunately, the bandit was preparing to throw a stick of dynamite. The characters have only a few seconds to act before the dynamite explodes...” and it is suggested that the Narrator also write possible Complications into scenes and encounters in her scenarios. Additional Wild Dice can be added to a dice pool by spending Spirit.

An optional rule allows for ‘Joss’ or extra luck in a dice roll, but after the roll has been made. This counts doubles in the roll. If the doubles are low, the Hero suffers ‘Bad Joss’ and the situation does not turn out in his favour, whilst if they are high, the Hero has ‘Good Joss’ and the situation does turn out in favour. Where the ‘Joss’ rule is interesting is that it is possible to fail a roll and still have ‘Good Joss’ or a roll to succeed and suffer ‘Bad Joss’. This is the equivalent narratively of ‘Yes, but’ and ‘No, but…’.

If a roll is a success, the amount by which the roll succeeded is called ‘Result Points’. These are used to add bonuses to future rolls, like damage and defensive rolls, sets the length of time for an effect or the complexity of later tasks. In some cases, the whole value of the Result Points is not used. For example, it is halved as a bonus for the Hero’s next roll and divided by five for the damage bonus.

For all the simplicity of the D6Plus system, combat in Far West is comparatively complex. Ranged combat is straightforward enough, a simple skill roll versus range, but close combat is not. Skills rolls are made against the difficulty of wielding the weapon used, brawling attacks are always very easy, whilst each Kung Fu style has its own Difficulty value. However, all of these Difficulty values can be replaced if a defendant decides to use the Dodge skill to avoid the blow, the Melee or Brawling skill to parry, or a Kung Fu style with a defensive element. This turns combats into a series of opposed rolls. Modifiers adjust the number dice to be rolled due to range, cover, protection, the type of manoeuvre, and hit location. There are also penalties for multiple actions, these being very likely if a defendant wants to avoid or stop an attack. Add into this the some eighty of so Kung Fu styles and that is a lot to take into consideration. Obviously, not all eighty Kung Fu styles are going to be used in single combat, but with four Heroes, which is twelve that the Narrator needs to be aware of before she even considers those for the NPCs.

Duels—which work for both the Western and the Wuxia side of
Far West—are actually neatly done with ‘The Showdown’ rules. This is divided into two phases. In the ‘Stare-Down’ phase, in which the participants make opposed Intimidation (or Prescence) rolls. The ‘Stare-Down’ can last multiple rounds during which the participants attempt to roll higher than the other. The loser always chooses when the ‘Stare-Down’ ends and the winner then uses the Result Points from his total rolls to modify his initiative roll in the ‘Quickdraw’ phase. This gives the winner an advantage as otherwise he would have to use dice from his weapon skill to modify his initiative.

Damage comes the weapon used, plus the Strength Attribute if a melee weapon, and Kung Fu style if appropriate. This is opposed by the defending combatant’s Toughness, with Result Points determining the effect of the damage done. A stunned combatant suffers a die penalty to all actions, a wounded one is knocked to the floor, and if the Result Points are sufficient, the defender can be killed. Damage options include substituting severe injuries instead of outright killing someone and there are descriptions given for narrative damage. Combat is surprisingly deadly, and a player may want to spend Spirit Points to temporarily increase his Hero’s Toughness or he can reduce damage on a one-for-one basis.

The setting itself is supported with a solid section of arms, equipment, goods, and services, and it is here that the Cog Science is covered. Each device has a Scale ranging from Character to Huge, plus the various dice bonuses it provides, bonuses and limitations, skill required for its use, and so on. This can include adding Aspects to the Cog device. The Cog Science skill is required to build any device and a player works with the Narrator to determine what it does and what its total value is. The value indicates how many days the device will take to complete, whilst the Narrator works out how much it will cost based on the cost of other devices given in the book. To compare, a Pocket Tracker has a value of twenty-three versus the fifty-one of a Repeating Rifle. Numerous example devices are given, but the few pages here—just eight—barely scratches the surface of this aspect of
Far West. The guidelines are serviceable, but not spectacular. Arguably, Cog Science could have done with a chapter all of its very own.

A fifth of the book is dedicated to the setting of
Far West, its history, geography, culture, common means of travel and communication, and more. This includes how the peace is kept, how business is done, what entertainments and medicines are available, what faiths are followed, festivals celebrated, and so on. There is quite a lot here and it also includes a Far West lexicon. It is, however, all quite broad in its detail, as there is a lot to cover. The Narrator is given a chapter of her own which really introduces the two genres of the roleplaying game properly and gives some pointers as to the elements of both. The advice highlights the parallels between the Wuxia and the Spaghetti Western genres and it is these parallels which bring the two genres together. There is decent advice on what types of adventures can be run in the setting as well as campaign ideas, and some suggestions on legendary weapons and Kung Fu manuals—the latter being one of the primary ways in which to learn more Kung Fu styles, the creation of other Clans, and a random adventure generator as well as some hooks throughout the Narrator section. Add in the random settlement generator and the Narrator is given the tools to create the bare bones of her own scenarios. That said, a starting adventure would not have gone amiss.

Overall, the rules for
Far West are at best serviceable, rather than exciting. The D6Plus system is generic and leaves the Tagging and Compelling of Aspects to do a lot of work in terms of bringing the setting to life mechanically. In fact, the combination of a nearly forty-year-old game system with a more modern one—and even that is a decade old—feels creaky. It does not help that Critical Successes are undeveloped, doing no more than allowing extra dice rolls, in comparison to the attention paid to Critical Failures. The Hero creation process is hindered by a lack of a fuller example and archetypes which could have showcased what was possible in terms of character types. Similarly, whilst there are lots of little examples of the rules and combat, there is no one big example of play or combat which would have showcased everything in action, which in the case of the latter would have helped the Narrator understand the complexities of the combat system.

Far West is, in general, well presented, being vibrant and exciting in terms of much of its art. Yet the editing could have been tighter and the artwork is not without its problems. Notably, one of the pieces that illustrates Cog Science is directly inspired by Lego Technic. Then there is the issue of representation, of which Far West is a victim of its own Kickstarter campaign. One of the pledges, ‘Grand Master of the Dust Road’, enabled backers to submit a photograph which would be turned into a portrait in the setting and book. Consequently, the resulting artwork reflects the backers and reflects the gaming hobby as it was in 2011, so there are a lot of Caucasian faces and there are a lot of stocky, bespectacled male faces* within the book. This does not mean that Persons of Colour, whether Black or Chinese, or as well as women, are not represented in the artwork. They are. However, whether they are represented enough is another matter. What is clear is that a lot of the better artwork—and there is a marked divide in quality—does depict male Caucasian faces. Again, this is not intentional, but rather the consequences of the Kickstarter campaign.

* To be fair, I am one of them.

Ultimately, it is great to have Far West: Western Wuxia Mash Up Adventure Game in the backers’ hands. They have waited a long time. Has the wait been worth it? With regard to what they may have pledged for on the Kickstarter campaign, probably not, since the book itself does not feel very special. Mechanically, arguably not, since
Far West underwhelms and simply does not do enough in terms of its rules to bring the setting and game to life, and against that, there are a lot of little aspects of the game, primarily the many styles of Kung Fu, which complicate play and make it just a bit more fiddly. In terms of look, debatable, but then to be fair, there are mitigating circumstances. In terms of setting, arguably, yes. The concept of a Western/Wuxia mash-up is still an intriguing, even enthralling combination, a great vehicle for action and storytelling even thirteen years on. That is perhaps where Far West: Western Wuxia Mash Up Adventure Game shines, in its core concepts and parallel genres rather than its execution. Overall, Far West: Western Wuxia Mash Up Adventure Game is not a disaster ten years in the making and it is playable with some effort upon the part of both the Narrator and her players, but it does show its age in very many ways.

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