Friday, June 6, 2014

Tommy's Take on Tianxia: Blood, Silk & Jade

Used to be, this would have been a hard sell for me...but more and more I've been getting my martial arts geek on, and given my new found interest in Fate, I wound up backing the Tianxia Kickstarter, a martial arts setting and sourcebook for Fate Core by Vigilance Press! Before I get started, I do have to offer a huge shoutout to my blogging colleague Jay Steven Anyong, who is doing a great Let's Study series on Tianxia over on his blog.

WHAT YOU SHOULD KNOW: Tianxia is $15 over at DriveThruRPG, and the print books are available at Indie Press Revolution, where they will retail for $45 (with a free PDF). This review is covering the print version, which is a full color, hardcover tome. It does require Fate Core to play, which is available in a Pay What You Want PDF, or in print, and they also recommend that you have Fate Dice for this reason (though alternatives are provided in the book).

First off, this book is a glorious example of why Fate Core is a good thing, as it is NOT a bloated tome, due to the core rules being in their own book, unlike basically every other Fate book. Yeah, that means it's not complete unto itself, but I'm okay with that.

The first section is an introduction to Tianxia (which means "Under Heaven"), and is basically a primer for the wuxia genre, including a glossary of terms for the game, and even has a couple of tips for twisting some classic movie plots into the genre. The Wu Xing, a theory of interconnected colors/animals/seasons/etc.

The setting of Tianxia is the empire of Shenzhou, with this book focusing specifically on the province of Jiangzhou and the city of Bao Jiang. This is a mythical China-That-Never-Was, hitting on the important elements and tropes of mystical, wuxia China. It is meant to provide the GM with maximum flexibility, with sidebars practically pleading with you to make it your own as much as you can. The fictionalized setting is also set up to encourage more opportunities for, say, female characters than you would find in a historically accurate China. The text provides setting Aspects that can come into play, like a GM compelling a Holds Many Dangers Aspect while the heroes are traveling on The Jade Road and leaving the PCs in the middle of an ambush. Important NPCs are provided, as are interesting adversaries like The Three Motherless Killers. Many areas are intentionally left "blank", the size, number and orientation of Kung Fu schools in the city, so this can be customized to meet the needs of the gaming group without contradiction. There is also a section on crime and punishment (which has gotten slightly less lethal over the years) and even over eunuchs (which have their own setting twist, in that a mystical process is now used to make a being genderless, rather than simply removing genitalia).

The rules section is arguably the BIG selling point, primarily the Kung Fu system. By the book's own admission, Kung Fu Syles are one part Stunt Families and one part Extras. Six elements (Forest, Ghost, Iron, Lightning, Stone and Storm) combine with six animals (Crane, Dragon, Monkey, Phoenix, Serpent and Tiger) to create 36 styles. Each half of the equation provides three maneuvers (Iron has Flesh Breaks on Iron, which can allow you to damage an enemy that that strikes you, if you successfully defend, while Lightning Crosses the Sky can allow you to cross 1 zone if you succeed with style on a Fight attack, and Monkey Grabs The Peach gives you a +2 bonus against a foe if you are taking advantage of a consequence, while Dragon Rules The Fields gives you a stronger boost when succeeding with Style). However, each of the substyles also adds a secret Technique when combined, like Serpent Strikes from Tall Grass (essentially a First Strike effect for Forest Serpent style), Scales and Teeth Unto Like Iron (part armor and part natural weapons for Iron Dragon style). Additionally, each substyle has a Form that is essentially an Aspect to be invoked as well.

There are also Lost Techniques to be learned, sometimes even without knocking Kung Fu. This is some pretty epic stuff, like Gemini Union, which affords you a deep connection with a partner and grants all kinds of bonuses when working together, or Heart of Hell, in which you inflict pain and fear in order to keep yourself healthy.

This section also provides explanations for why groups of black ninjas are so ineffective (every character has a Jianghu Rank, which measures their prowess and ability, and characters with a lower Jianghu can never gain a Teamwork bonus against them. Rank 0 is an unskilled novice, Rank 1 is a neophyte who knows one style, Rank 2 is a master of one style (or has a broad base of knowledge), Rank 3 has mastered multiple styles and Rank 4 is a Grandmaster.

There is one new skill added to the list, Chi, and it is detailed in the book, along with its special effect of Chi Armor. Jianghu Ranks affect Chi armor as well. Though no other new skills are included, suggested names for existing skills are provided, for calling Athletics Acrobatics, or Shoot Archery.

The GMing section stresses a lot of action, and distills the genre five rules (Wu Xing!), including another great sidebar, this time on Legendary Weapons. This chapter also discusses The Bronze Rule (or Fate Fractals), which is turning just about anything into a "character", using examples like Diseases, Corruption, Mysteries and Kung Fu Challenges. It's some pretty enlightening stuff, teaching you how to use an ancient manual to lead a hero down a rabbit trail of darkness, for instance. Optional Initiative Rules are provided, as well as an optional Interesting Times rule, based off of the old Chinese proverb.

A list of generic antagonists are provided, like Evil Eunuchs, Barbarian Chieftains, Lin Kuei Assassins and mobs like Pirates, Bandits and Evil Cultists, as well as animals (Tigers and Bears and Snakes, oh my!). This includes a sidebar on straight up playing an animal PC.

A group of advenures/adventure seeds are provided, featuring vampiric Kung Fu cults, a Kung Fu death tournament and more, even a list of tables (not random) that you can use to cook up a plot quickly.

The author leaves off with a list of media inspirations, from films like Bunraku to video games such as Jade Empire.

The book also includes character sheets and play aids, as well as an index.

WHAT WORKS: A very creative martial arts system layered onto Fate, providing some good mechanical depth. Lots of optional rules that you can take or leave as you see fit. Great examples. Very pretty production values. Enough setting to get you going without overly detailing it.

WHAT DOESN'T WORK: If one isn't into the setting, then I don't think the rules are enough to sell one on it. I always prefer a random adventure generator.

CONCLUSION: One other thing I didn't mention is the Lifepath Generator, which I have already as a Kickstarter backer. I love Lifepaths, and that's another nice piece to the game, one I would probably use in most games. It is still distinctly Fate while feeling notably different from other Fate games, such as Dresden Files or Agents of SWING, and that's a good thing. I don't remotely regret backing this Kickstarter, thanks to both the turnaround time of the product and the quality of it, and can't wait to see what's coming in the line (well, I know Mass Combat Rules are coming, and that's awesome). In the aftermath of the extremely successful Fate Core Kickstarter, folks have been concerned that there's becoming a D20-like glut of cheap cash-in products, but I really don't believe that's the case here. A lot of care and effort went into the book and it shows. If you like martial arts films and you aren't already deeply locked into Wu Xing or Feng Shui, try's like Fate kicked you in the mouth.