Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Tommy's Take on Wu Xing: The Firebrands

I have trumpeted the virtues of Wu Xing pretty loudly since its release, and I AM pretty much a fan of supplements, so there probably weren't a ton of people more excited than I was when The Firebrands was released. Currently available as a 90 page PDF for $9.99, or part of a bundle with Wu Xing for $20.94, it is the first of the Clan Books, detailing the history and activities of the Blazing Dancers and the Virtuous Body Gardeners, as well as shedding light on some new techniques and Wushu for them...and hopefully, it will be the first of many. It looks as though the plan is to "pair off" the clans, covering a couple of clans per book or so (thematically linked).

What You Need To Know: As noted, this book is all about tearing back the veil for the Blazing Dancers and the Virtuous Body Gardeners. The Blazing Dancers are the performance artists of Wu Xing, while the Virtuous Body Gardeners cover themselves in tattoos which can give them cool and freaky powers (like turning tattoos into weapons, for instance). Aside from a fiction-only prologue, the book is divided into four chapters, the first covering the Burning Dancers, the second covering the Virtuous Body Gardners, the third covering all of the new mechanical material in the book, including some new clans, and the fourth being an adventure.

The two clan chapters are written in character, as if part of a one sided conversation. In the Blazing Dancers chapter, the narrator has been the target of an attempted poisoning by The Grasping Shadows, but has proven immune to the poison's effect. She explains to the assassin just why the Grasping Shadows would want her dead, using it as an expository hook to explain the history of the Blazing Dancers and their role in the world as more than just "dancing fools" as any hold them to be. The narrator's baton seems to be handed off to Odoriko Minori, she explains the role that the Blazing Dancers serve inside of the Lotus Coalition, as well as expands upon the sentence or two "Clan Impressions" from the Wu Xing rulebook. We also learn about the sects within the clan, from the Tamers (animal tamers) and Bellows (fire manipulators) to The Thousand and The Hand. The latter two are particularly interesting, as they show just what the Blazing Dancers are capable of, with the former being masked agents who operate with strict autonomy and anonymity, while the latter are essentially spies and infiltrators sent blend in wherever needed (being skilled actors). The narrator switches again, and we get an overview of some of the geography relevant to the Burning Dancers, with helpful hints and plot points (never hire an unregistered guide). Finally the baton changes hands one last time, this time to the former assassin who has been lectured to through this chapter, both embracing the ideas of the Blazing Dancers while struggling against the ideals, somewhat stuck in her Grasping Shadows mindset.

The Virtuous Body Gardeners chapter is told in a similar format, with rotating narrators speaking to a new recruit. We first learn of the history of the Virtuous Body Gardners as a splinter clan broken off from the Living Chronicle (not surprising, given the propensity of each to tattoo), with the difference being that while the Living Chronicle focuses on the facts of events, the Virtuous Body Gardeners focus on the feeling and emotion behind events. The second narrator discusses in detail the kinds of body modifications undertaken by The Virtuous Body Gardeners (complete with an unsettling image of one hanging from wire hooked through rings in their body over bamboo spikes), as well as a tale about a Virtuous Body Gardener and an encounter with a spider-like oni. Next, we get another run-through of relevant geographic locations, before switching narrators to learn about the breakdown of the clan structure. There are interesting tidbits about the needles used by the Virtuous Body Gardeners, which are keyed to each clan member, with interchangeable handles so that one can perform work on another without breaking the bonds between the flesh and the needles. Sumi Rika is our narrator here, as she embelishes on the insights she provided in the Wu Xing corebook as well, expanding on the thoughts and relationships between the Virtuous Body Gardeners and the other clans.

Chapter three is all about game mechanics, providing a new Passion (Teaching) as well as Dancer and Ink specific Gifts and Drawbacks. For instance, Gifts are provided for those wishing to play a Tamer, Bellow, Thousand or Hand, or the Ink Drawback Unscarred and Unpainted, which shows them as very reluctant to embrace the clan philosophy. Seven new weapons are included, as well as the Fox and Scorpion Fighting Styles. New Wushu is provided for the Ways of Fire, Immaculate Show and Inked Skin, allowing the users to heat their palms before making attacks, produce a bright flash that momentarily holds their targets in place or unleash a barrage of chains from their very bodies. New Celestial Animals are provided in the form of Foxes, Phoenixes and Red Dragons, as well as three whole new clans: The Gracious Illustrators (with their Way of 18 Strokes Wushu), the Grey Tigers (with the Way of Bloody Claws) and the Winds of Aion (and their Way of Deadly Crescendos). The former work with the Living Chronicle and can use their Wushu from such "basic" wonders are painting a hole into a wall that they need to pass, to painting the future and making it come true. The latter are...in a word...paranoid. They are incredibly secretive, to the point that they will kill other ninja just for knowing they exist. The Winds of Aion are musicians, and if you think that just means that they just play flutes, you haven't been paying attention. They have an intense rivalry with the Dancers, to the point that they will betray the Lotus Coalition to The Empire just to strike blows against the Dancers.

Fittingly, the included adventure is designed for Dancers, Inks or (perhaps ideally) a mixed party. It is a rescue mission to retrieve a captive Ink, whose liberation has been made possible by a disgraced Dancer seeking redemption. It's a fairly straightforward infiltrate and release mission, but I give particular props to the climax, which turns into a pitched battle with a lethal swordsman ON A TIGHTROPE...this adds an extra awesome complication, because the PCs not only have to stay alive - they have to avoid knocking their adversary to the ground below and causing an extra commotion. There is also a page dedicated to providing extra material if the PCs decide to snoop around the castle instead of trying to get straight in and out. The adventure even ends with a couple of follow-up ideas.

What Works: The adventure is very well done if you don't mind a fairly linear adventure, and is keyed to the strengths of the Inks and Dancers (ESPECIALLY the Dancers). The extra information on the clans is great, from the different sects inside the Dancers (and the mechanical support in the form of Gifts) to the different types of body modifications for the Inks, and the new Wushu is some pretty great stuff. The Gracious Illustrators and the Winds of Aion are interesting extensions spinning off of the existing clan concepts, providing more options for players. The production values take a step up here with tighter editing than the core book had and a GORGEOUS cover. Having the "perspective" characters from the Wu Xing corebook as narrators in the Clan chapters was a very nice touch.

What Doesn't Work: I'm not a fan of large chunks of books written from an in-character perspective, and many of the voices felt so similar that I didn't realize at first that we were switching narrators on my initial read-through. The Grey Tigers are a cool concept, but just seem very out of place to me in *this* book...seeming like they would be much more at home in a book about the Recoiling Serpents or the Pack of the Black Moon. In fact, the only link I could see to the Dancers or Inks was that they count Way of the Fire among their Favored Wushu.

Conclusion: The Blazing Dancers are not one of my favorite clans, but this book does a lot to make them very cool. While there is some room for improvement, the basic template for future clan books is in place and looks great. Like any great supplement, there's nothing in here that you ABSOLUTELY NEED in order to play Wu Xing, but if you like Wu Xing, you will have a lot of cool stuff you can use, especially if you are a fan of The Blazing Dancers or Virtuous Body Gardners. Great start to the Clanbook series...I can't wait to see what's next.