Monday, September 27, 2010

Tommy's Take on Wu Xing: The Ninja Crusade

Wu Xing: The Ninja Crusade was a bit of a hard sell for me, being a quasi fantasy game in an oriental mish-mash fantasy culture with a heavy anime influence...that is kind of a laundry list of things I don't like (except for the fantasy part).

And yet, while I was reading (and loving) Apocalypse Prevention Inc., the book's writer Eloy Lasanta asked me if I would be interested in checking out Wu Xing for a review...off the strength of the API series, I said yes.

Wu Xing is available in hardcopy from Studio 2 Publishing and in PDF from RPGnow. The core rules are 221 pages with simple cover design and decent amount of black and white art. Like API, you never get the feeling that art is being used to fill space and inflate page count. It uses the Dynamic Gaming System, which is fundamentally simple, with lots of cool combat crunch (making it about spot on for the genre, I think).

...IN BRIEF

The book opens with a one page summary of the game, including the ten Ninja Clans and the clanless Ronin. The whole set-up is very reminiscent of the group set-up in World of Darkness games, so there is probably going to be a hint of familiarity for folks.

WHAT IS ROLEPLAYING?

Pretty standard "what is roleplaying" section, with a little example, with a Ninja PC trying to end a fight with intimidation and not conflict.

NINJA VS THE EMPIRE

This is the setting chapter, and it is a nice setting indeed. Ninjas are kinda like superheros, using their chi to do amazing things that mere mortals cannot.

The ninja made their first public move during the Crime Rebellion, also known as The First Ninja War, when they crippled the Orime Empire in a guerrilla war.

From there ninja clans as they exist today began, and the kingdoms that arose from the fall of the Orime Empire hired the clans to do their dirty deeds, sparking the Mercenary Wars, also known as the Second Ninja War.

The War of Withered Fangs, or the Third Ninja War, occured when The Slithering Gods began slaughtering other, smaller ninja clans. This one ended when the ninja publicly aligned with kingdoms and the Izou Empire and broke the back of the Withered Fangs, which evolved into the Recoiling Serpents.

The Expansion Wars, or Fourth Ninja War, saw an end to the affiliations between the ninja and the Empire as the Empire quickly expanded into ninja lands, taking everything they could. The Emperor outlawed ninjas and public use of chi.

The Ninja Crusade, the Fifth Ninja War, is where we are at now...The Empire is hunting and killing ninja at every turn. The ninja have formed the Lotus Coalition to pool resources against The Empire.

We get an overview of the ten ninja clans, each of which have a very distinct worldviews and even martial arts, but have a built in reason to work together due to the Lotus Coalition.

Ninja used to be recruited by blood, but as time has moved on, ninja are now recruited as often as they are born. There is also a bit about the student-master relationship and how the reputation of the master can go with the student, for better or for worse.

A very informative discussion follows on how the ninja have set up hidden cities, the basic structure of clan politics and realities of clan rivalries, even with the Lotus Coalition.

We get the Lotus Coalition side of things, where they joined forces after the Empire moved to gunpowder fueled weapons and slaughtered ninja for about a year before they they joined forces. The Big Tent of the Lotus Coalition still has a lot of in fighting, and it nearly got torn apart when a groom from The Pack of the Black Moon and a bride from The Recoiling Serpents had their peace-brokering wedding spoiled when the groom was mysteriously poisoned, casting suspicion on the Recoiling Serpents.

We also get the history of the Izou Empire, and my favorite part is the Emperor himself. Emperor Izou ascended to the throne at the age of ten and quickly consolidated his power. This continued until his two sons were caught in the crossfire between two ninja clans, leaving the future Emperor dead and the surviving brother seething with rage. This led to the public ban on ninja, which lasted until an undentified clan attacked the Emperor's wife and daughter, decapitating the former and giving the latter a slow acting, lethal poison...at that point, the war expanded to any chi users and the Ninja Crusade began. The author does a great job of establishing that Emperor Izou is a bastard, but he is also justified in his rage.

We get introduced to the class system, which is very important to the setting. The classes start with Commoners, Artisans, Merchants, Warriors and Nobles...with Untouchables being those beneath Commoners, on the outskirts of the Class system.

There is a short bit about religion, which doesn't play a huge role in the game, but there is a growing religion about a single figure who is greater than any ninja or the Emperor, so that religion sure isn't too popular in the Empire.

A big section follows on the ten provinces of The Empire, with plot seeds built in for use in the game. This is followed by The Five Kingdoms, which are the remaining kingdoms that exist outside of The Empire. Both an Empire map and a World map are included, and the information in the sections provides ample information without bogging the sections down with Too Much Detail.

CLANS

This is the overview of the ten clans, plus the Ronin. The set-up is very similar to how clans, tribes, etc, are treated in World of Darkness games, with the overview and stereotype of each clan, the clan's thoughts on the other clans, the Ronin, the Lotus Coalition and The Empire, plus clan specific character creation information.

The Bamboo Herbalists: The Bamboo Herbalists are healers, but they are far from stodgy, cleric types...they are thrill seeking adventurers, to a fault. However, they are imbued with a resistance against disease and poison.

Blazing Dancers: Blazing Dancers are often not taken as seriously as the other clans, due to being performers at heart. However, they are very much ninja like the other clans, capable of their own deadliness. They can muster minor magical effects to use to enhance their performances.

Grasping Shadows: These guys are what most people commonly think of when they think of ninjas: Assassins appearing from the shadows and killing their targets. The begin with extra levels in the "core" ninja skills, but REALLY do not play well with the other clans.

Hidden Strands of Fate: Dirty, dirty manipulators who are very likely playing EVERYONE for fools. They often have hidden objectives within missions and will order their members to sabotage Lotus Coalition missions. They can actually physically manipulate common threads with chi, playing on their nicknames.

Living Chronicle: The Living Chronicle tattoo history on their bodies, and their dead are preserved as a record of what has happened. Knowing that they are a living part of history provides them extra resistance against fear, but they don't relate well with people.

Pack of the Blood Moon: Exceedingly loyal, each member of the Pack has an animal companion that it shares a spiritual link with...to the point that any powers they use extend to the animal as well.

The Recoiling Serpents: They have an inherent, extreme amount of flexibility...but an extremely overdeveloped sense of vengeance.

The Virtuous Body Gardeners: These guys broke off from The Living Chronicle and tattoo themselves heavily. However, they can use chi to manifest their tattoos in unique ways. In fact, they can incorporate minor objects into the tattoos! However, they stand out like sore thumbs.

The Wardens of Equilibrium: Every Warden has a partner whose chi is opposite their own. They are obsessed with balance to the point that they will change sides in a conflict if it becomes unbalanced.

Will of Iron: These guys are obsessessed with justice, holding it above anything, even turning on allies who do wrong. Being metaphorically unyielding as metal, they can become attuned to metal (such as swords), and cannot be disarmed if they made the weapon themselves.

Ronin: Ronin can mix and match skills, powers and fighting styles, but lack the resources and power base of clan members.

My main comment on this section is that the comments from each representative clan member about the other clans was at first very jarring and very "western"...to the point that it almost bugged me. But as I'm not a huge fan of the source material, it probably made it easier for me to accept it all.

CHARACTER BUILDING

Character building is point based, being very similar to Apocalypse Prevention, Inc. However, some bits are necessarily different.

You start by selecting your Concept, Passion, Element and Clan. Concept and Passion function largely as they do in API, while Element helps determine your starting Chi and Clan has a huge impact on you, as it dictates the Fighting Styles and Wushu (special powers) available to you.


The Passions either mirror the API passions or come close, but the Elements are a new bit. The chi users are tied to an element that holds sway over them, informing their actions, and when their chi is out of balance or depleted, the element influences them further. Earth-natured characters are heavily focused on balannce, Fire-balanced characters tend to be energetic leaders, Metal-balanced characters are firm, rigid and focused on justice, Water-focused are intelligent and cautious and Wood-natured are both kind and resilient. It also helps determmine your chi, which is used too power your wushu (Wu Xing's name for kewl powers).

Chi comes in both Yin and Yang varieties, which can fuel wushu or provide a number of effects each, depending on the type of chi. You can also absorb too much chi, which can explode if not expelled fast enough.

The API stats of Power, Agility, Vigor, Intellect, Insight and Charm present here as well, with 30 points divided among them. All ninjas get a rank each in Legerdemain, Discipline, Stealth, Survival and their Primary Fighting Style before their 30 skill points kick in.

The Fighting Styles have charts full of modifiers...but also have special techniquest that the players can learn. Every style has an area that it is weak in and one that it is strong in, as well as a weapon that it favors.

The styles are Bear (these guys can seriously take a hit, and can unleash frightening roars), Crane (they strike early and often, but for less overall damage), Crocodile (slower, stronger attacks), Dragon (skilled at fighting multiple opponents at once), Eagle (they try to keep their distance), Hawk (focused on striking very quickly), Horse (they try to outlast their opponents with pure stamina), Monkey (more unorthodox attacks), Snake (focusing on coiled, measured strikes), Tiger (heavy on damage, but not energy efficient) and Wildcat (heavy strikes, but a lot of openings).

Ronin get 12 Bonus Points to spend on Gifts, everyone else gets 10. Many of the API Gifts and Drawbacks are here, but there are several new ones that are specific to Wu Xing, including determining your class.

A very handy reference guide is included, with a summary of all the steps in character creation and page number references for everything that didn't fit on the two pages. A sample character, built step by step, is included...complete with character sheet.

WUSHU

This is the Kewl Powerz chapter. Some powers can be powered by any kind of chi...some require either Yin or Yang specifically. A character's clan provides a bonus to the clan's favored Wushu, and the character's Element can provide bonuses or penalties in circumstances where other elements are involved.

There are ten general Wushu and ten clan specific Wushu. The general Wushus include The Ways of Beasts, Earth, Fire, Metal, Movement, Survival, the Unseen, the Warrior, Waterr and Wood. The Clan Specific Wushu are the Ways of Balanced Scales, Caring Hands, Ebony Clutches, Great Serpents, Heaven's Judgement, the Immaculate Show, Inked Skin, Kept Lore, Spun Threads and Twin Beasts.

Every Way begins with minor effects which grow in power and effect. The Way of Beasts, for instance, begin with using Yang to enhance the ninjas eye sight and culminates in being able to transform into an animal. The Way of Fire can be used to cauterize a ninja's wounds and stop bleeding...or breathe fire. The Way of Metal can provide some very cool, Magneto-esque effects. The Way of Movement starts with running up walls, moves to running THROUGH walls and ends in teleportation.

The Wardens of Equilibrium can destroy chi, the Bamboo Herbalists can actually raise the dead, the Grasping Shadows can bind a target's shadow (semiparalyzing the target), Recoiling Serpents can shed their skin (healing surface injuries in the process), the Will of Iron can create diviine weapons of judgement that only harm their target (and harm them BADLY), the Blazing Dancers can learn an opponent's moves for a fight (including their Wushu if they sacrifice chi), the Virtuous Body Gardeners can draw weapons from their tattoos, the Living Chronicle can place the memories of themselves (or someone else) into a blank book, the Hidden Strands of Fate can manipulate their vocal cords to alter their voices and the Pack of the Blood Moon can atually merge their bodies with their canine companions!

That is just a sampling of the effects brought on by the Clan Specific Wushu. There are also guidelines for PCs altering Wushu, combining aspects of Wushu and even creating Wushu from scratch.

EQUIPMENT AND COMBAT

Wu Xing uses a very lite wealth system: You compare your Class ranking to the Cost of items, and if it is equal to, or better, and you could reasonably access the item, it's yours. Starting equipment is not limited to Class, but by character concept.

All of the weapons are given a brief description, as well as the armor. The armor of the Empire is bulletproof, which can be a nice surprise if a ninja takes away a gun and turns it on one of the Emperor's warriors.

Wu Xing uses the same combat system as API, implementing the Counts system, where characters can take multiple actions per round based off of the speed of their attacks. If you like combat with a lot of options, the Wu Xing system is going to be right up your alley. It provides a ton of choices, without a huge amount of crunch.

Most major (and minor) situations are covered by the rules, including some loose guidelines for combat in unusual situations such as fighting on rooftops or even treetops.

Making traps is also covered in this chapter, as ninja sure do like to use traps. They can even use chi powered traps, and guidelines are given for the different types of traps.

The chapter ends with a combat sample that runs through the paces, showing combat tracking system.

The combat system is crunchy in the sense that it provides a ton of options, though tracking Health, Stamina and Chi might get to be a bit much for some people. Personally, I think it just pushes the border, with the payoff exceeding the work, especially in small scale combats (1 on 1 or other small conflicts).

ANTAGONISTS

This chapter covers the important, useful stat blocks in the game, starting with animals. Townsfolk, town guards and local vigilantes are up next. The Empire's soldiers, engineers, Golden Lions and executioners are included. Various ninja stat blocks are provided, and then the book veers into spirit animals...celestial animals, both lesser and greater, that the ninja can bond with, as well as oni - big, bad demons.

My primary complaint with this chapter is that it could use a bit more description regarding oni. A single "average" oni is present, but a few more examples would have been preferable.

STORYTELLING

This is, essentially, the GMing chapter. It encourages you to make sure that you are making the players the centerpiece of the story, and provides a list of the anime inspirations. I've heard of several of the anime, but I don't think I've seen any of them, except in passing. There are several campaign types provided, with plot hooks to work off of.

The book ends with several reference pieces, starting with a glossary, then an index, the Fighting Style charts, a single page character sheet, blank combat tracker and three page character sheet.

CONCLUSION

I don't really like anime. I don't really like martial arts movies. There should be no compelling reason for me to enjoy the game...and yet, it is just FILLED with "cool". The setting should be incredibly one note, with Ninjas vs Empire, but there is still a ton of room to play around with. The world is large, with plenty of room open for you to detail it yourself. Several mysteries are set up, but are meant to be answered by GMs as their campaigns dictate, not to be filled in by future supplements, an approach similar to that of Apocalypse Prevention, Inc...there is no metaplot dictating the direction of the Ninja Crusade, which I consider a plus.

There are some issues, however. The editing was a bit suspect on this one, with notable issues in the first chapter (especially with homonyms, such as the "Forth Ninja War"). More examples for oni could have been great as well.

The book is in black and white, but as manga is typically in black and white, I don't consider that a style issue, and virtually every page is two columns of text, so the 221 pages are FILLED. With two RPGs produced so far, Third Eye Games has rapidly moved into my top tier of favored publishers this year and Eloy Lasanta seems to have a knack for creating settings that I just want to dive into and play in that is matched, to me, only by the Pinnacle crew.

I have reviewed a lot of games this year, and I would be hard pressed to find one I recommend more than Wu Xing. I can't WAIT to see more, from Wu Xing and from Third Eye Games in general.