Saturday, February 12, 2022

Art of Wuxia - A Partial Review

This is going to be a partial review of the Art of Wuxia RPG rules. It's "partial" not because I am biased, or because I haven't read the entire rulebook (I haven't) or played the game, but because I have decided to not use much of the rules for my campaign and so I did not read those parts thoroughly, and I cannot give a review of them.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, there are a few wuxia RPGs out there, but because of my own idea of how I want my wuxia setting to be and how I want the play to feel, I eventually decided on getting Art of Wuxia. Rather than giving a detailed and systematic review of the system, I will just highlight those aspects of the rules which sold me on it.

The first is how "schools" or "sects" of kung fu are represented in the game. One of the core tropes of the wuxia genre is different schools having different strengths and weaknesses. In Art of Wuxia this is depicted by having a list of over thirty kung fu Techniques. These Techniques are like the special skills in Blood Bowl, and as your character levels up, he can learn more skills. The genius here is, each school typically 'teaches' only 5 or 6 skills, which together define a certain fighting style: an assassin style school will have skills that grant dexterity and missile bonus or moves, while a "brute" style school will have skills that increase your melee attacks or damage. Since the combination of the sets of Techniques are unique (I believe) to each school, practitioners from each school will have different fighting styles or combat roles within a party. You can choose which school your character is from by looking at the 'build' you want him to achieve over the course of a campaign, in the same way you would build a Blood Bowl player.

More broadly, schools are either of the Internal Qi of the External Qi style. The concept of Qi is of course another core trope of the genre, and here I feel the author did a great job representing not just Qi in general, but also the differences between the Internal school and the External school. Both schools can use Qi points for things like healing surge or re-rolls, and the External schools have some abilities not available to the Internal schools, but only the Inner school has the ability to use Qi for 'Lightness' or flying/wire-fu. This superpower is offset by the way the rules for Lightness works: characters typically have 3 points of Qi, and using Lightness does not expend a Qi point but requires you to have at least one point left, while carrying someone while you 'fly' will require you to have two points in reserve. This is a simple but elegant way of balancing the game without making the choice a forgone one.

On to the mechanical part of the rules. The basic system is a d00 system, so characters succeed by rolling equal to or below a target number. This is pretty standard, but the rules allow you to take multiple actions in a turn, with the successive action incurring a 20% penalty. This means that a character with a high score in, say, melee can make multiple attacks with good chances of hitting. In addition, some Techniques allow you to make additional attack or defence rolls without incurring the 20% penalty (or rather the penalty is deferred to the roll after if you choose to take another action, as I understand it), so high level characters can take on several opponents alone.

Another thing I like about Art of Wuxia is the way human NPCs are represented. Unlike PCs (and monsters, which I don't use), NPCs do not get a full 'stat block'. Instead, a 'mook' level NPC will just get a single score of say 60 as a target number for combat and tasks/skills that he is good at, and half that for tasks/skills he is not so good at. (This is the same concept behind the Monster Math in Five Torches Deep RPG.) This simple system allows the GM to run a large number of low level NPCs, certainly another beloved trope of the genre, without having to look up several numbers.

Major and Master level NPCs have more stats, with a different number for taking actions and resisting attacks, and they also have skills and Techniques like the PCs. In another stroke of genius, the author represents the "fighting formations" by treating the mooks who will make up one of these formations as a single Major NPC, so a GM can recreate this trope without having to learn another set of rules.

So those are the things I like about Art of Wuxia. There are many other aspects of the rules that I think work fine, but don't really make me excited.

The Class/Skills system is a hybrid of a class-based and skills-based character system, in that each class encompasses a number of skills, but some skills rolls can be tried by a character even if he is not of that class, while some class skills like those of the Alchemist and Mystic can only be made if your character is of that class. There are ten classes, and each PC takes two (one of which is almost certainly the Warrior class). Since I omit three of the classes (Diviner, Mystic, Sorcerer), I can't really comment on how the rules for magic and divination work.

There is a default setting and fluff for the game, but I have set my campaign in historical China, and the rules can certainly accommodate that. There are rules for a more high fantasy campaign, including the Journey to the West style with humanoids, deities, and demons. Perhaps one of these days I will run such a campaign, but for now I think we can have a perfectly good campaign even when we don't use all the magic and monsters - after all, many popular and beloved wuxia novels/movies/TV series don't either.

If there is one complaint about the rules, and I am really nitpicking here, it is in the 'translation'. Specifically, it is the names of some of the Techniques, schools, and items, and also some of the quotes from characters in the flavour text. Now I am functionally and compulsively bilingual, so when I read or hear something in English in entertainment media (yes, it's rather specific) I automatically translate it into Chinese in my head. And the thing is, certain word that sound cool together in English don't always sound cool when translated into Chinese. To be fair most of the names are good, and the whole is certainly not the travesty that is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny.

All in all I am very happy with the rules, and if you are looking for a set of rules for a wuxia campaign, I hope you have found my review helpful.

Wednesday, February 09, 2022

The Trigram Chronicles #1

L to R: Li, Wu, Zhang, Luo, Wang, and Soong 

Assassination attempt on General Yen fails; our heroes are saved by Cripple Li

Tiantai Monastery burned to the ground; our heroes outwit the Black and White Emissaries

It was the third year after the Qing's passage through the Great Wall (1464 CE). Prince Regent Dorgon had issued the queue edict during the previous year, and it was being enforced in the lands south of the Yangtze with great brutality. Chief among these enforcers was General Yen, a former Ming general who had defected to the Qing. Forces under his command massacred those who defied the edict - tens of thousands perished.

Our heroes - former imperial assassin Zhang Ziyi, warrior-scholar Wu Wen Xiong, blind beggar Wang Ah Hu, and lay student of Shaolin kung fu Soong Wu Qing - all of whom have lost family to General Yen's forces, came to learn that he was traveling to the north, and thus laid an ambush on his entourage as it passed by a narrow defile. But they had overestimated their own skills, for while they were able to slay several of his guards, the four were no match for General Yen - Zhang and Wu were sent off the side of a cliff to the river below, while Wang narrowly escaped capture, saved only by the quick wit of Soong - together the two leapt off the cliff too to avoid falling into the hands of the Qing.

When they awoke, our heroes found themselves in a cottage, tended to by an old physician who called himself Cripple Li, and his student Li Hui. They had drifted down the river, unconscious, until they were found by fishermen and brought to Li's cottage. Cripple Li learned of the heroes' quest for revenge, and tried to dissuade them from their mission, but they could not be convinced. Cripple Li revealed that General Yen had mastered the Heaven and Earth Kung Fu, and possessed such power that was matched only by a few in the wuling.

His tale was then interrupted by the arrival of Qing soldiers, hunting for our heroes. Cripple Li handed Li Hui a bundle, and bade her to take the heroes to a shack in the mountains nearby via a hidden path, and thence to find his friend the Claypot Monk at Tiantai Monastery at Jiuhua Mountain, while he tried to stall the soldier. As the party climbed the foothills, they could see smoke rising from the village, and Cripple Li being cut down by the Qing soldiers...

When they had reached the shack, which was used for shelter by Cripple Li and Li Hui when they went to gather medicinal herbs, Li Hui opened the bundle to find a letter from her master. In it he told Li Hui that despite her natural aptitude for kung fu, he had instead taught her the healing arts, believing that it was more virtuous to save lives than to take lives; however, in times such as those they faced now, one sometimes had to kill the wicked to save the lives of the innocent, and thus he had passed his kung fu manuals to his student.

The party traveled south, eventually arriving at the great Jiuhua Mountain, and ascended to its summit. When they arrived, they found the main prayer hall of the Tiantai Monastery smothering, its pillars burnt out and its great tiled roof collapsed. In the courtyard laid the bodies of more than thirty monks and twenty thugs, each wearing a red scarf around their neck, all of them bearing wounds. Li Hui, who had met the Claypot Monk once when he visited Cripple Li, could not find the body of the man. The party searched the compound, but found only ransacked quarters, kitchen and scripture hall. It actually took blind Wang, prodding through the tiles of the great hall's collapsed roof, to find the monk's body. When they unearthed him, they found his body covered with wounds, and his arms were wrapped around a buddha statue. Once again, it was beggar Wang who felt the cracks in the back of the statue, giving a clue to a secret compartment within. Just when the party had figured out how to open the secret compartment, they were interrupted by the voice of a man demanding they hand the statue over.

The party looked up to find themselves surrounded by ten men, eight of whom wore red scarves around their necks; the remaining two, who appeared to be the leaders of the band, wore broad-brimmed straw hats; one wore a black cloak, and the other a white cloak.

Wu recognised the two as the Black and White Emissaries, two of the Twelve Banes of Jiangnan, leaders of a vast band of bandits that terrorised the lands after the collapse of Ming authority. Our heroes refused the Emissaries' demands, and the bandits attacked. Outnumbered, our heroes began to fall one by one, until Zhang fled the fight with Li and the buddha statue, drawing the Emissaries away. Zhang hid Li in the monastery's kitchen, and then led the Emissaries on a chase, until at last Li emerged and offered to surrender the statue for their lives. With many of their thugs dead and the White Emissary wounded, the Emissaries agreed, and left with the statue. Unbeknownst to them, Li had opened the secret compartment and removed the metal scroll case which was hidden within.

To learn what was hidden therein, gentle reader, please turn to the next chapter...

Prepping and Running the Game

So went the first session of our wuxia campaign, and I must say I have not had this much fun GMing for a long time. That is not to say that I did not enjoy our previous campaigns, but because of how familiar all of us are with the wuxia genre, we found ourselves speaking in character much more than we did in our other campaigns. Granted, most of the dialogue were "cut-and-paste" lines from various wuxia novels, movies, and TV shows, but one can say that this is the essence of the genre and indeed much of classical Chinese literary tradition, and it was a lot of fun saying them, sort of like an extended session of an RPG session where the characters spoke exclusively in Month Python quotes. To further encourage my players, I tossed them replica Chinese copper coins representing Experience Points each time they said something in genre.

The second fight scene of the session and the idea of the Twelve Banes of Jiangnan was inspired by the 12 Golden Butchers, but the other scenes are just tropes you must have seen in over a dozen wuxia movies.

The opening scene was railroady, but the players were happy to go along for the ride, with two of them even throwing their characters off the cliff into the river because they knew that was what they were supposed to do. Sadly for them, they did not all wake up in a cave where the text of the ultimate kung fu could be found inscribed on the walls as they had hoped...

The second scene was an exposition scene, where the players could tell their backstories, and where I could further detail the dastardly deeds of General Yen.

The third scene did not go quite as I expected it to. As these rules are new to us, we did not manage to get all of the rules correct, and the players certainly did not yet know how to use all of their characters' special skills. As a result they were overwhelmed by the bad guys, but fortunately for everyone they managed to outwit the opposition, and pull off another wuxia trope.

What I realised after the game was that the players and their characters had failed to fight as a team to capitalise on their strengths and to cover for each other's weaknesses. This was not necessarily a bad thing though, as this would be realistic from the narrative point of view too. Hopefully we will see them gel together in the Avengers fashion after a couple more fights.

I started this campaign with nothing planned beyond these three encounters, but thankfully my players gave me some ideas on what their characters want to do next. The next session will be in two weeks, which will give me ample time to plan for it. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, February 02, 2022

Art of Wuxia - The Trigram Chronicles

When we neared the end of our Space Opera campaign, I realised that I will need a 'filler' campaign for the months of February to May, when I hope to start my Blood Sword campaign. I had earlier planned on running a "The Last Kingdom" campaign using "The Hero's Journey" rules, but I didn't think it was a good idea to run a fantasy campaign right before the another. I asked my players for ideas, and one of them suggested a wuxia campaign.

Now we are all but one of us East Asian in ethnicity, yet despite that we have never played any "oriental" campaign. And the wuxia genre is not an unfamiliar one to us: I must have watched more than a thousand hours of Shaw Brothers kung fu movies and Hong Kong TV series based on the works of Louis Cha, and even read a few wuxia novels back in my childhood. Anyway, everyone liked the idea of playing something different, and so I started planning for campaign.

There are no lack of kung fu RPGs on the market. I spent several days googling and looking at various forums, and in the end I decided that Art of Wuxia was the set of rules that seemed to fit what I have in mind the best. Its full rules and default setting are still a lot more fantastical than the setting I have in mind, but it was easy to just omit all the magic and monsters and keep the rest of the rules. Perhaps I will do a more detailed rules review in the future.

For the theme of the campaign, the player suggested it to be about fighting government tyranny. What came to my mind then was the queue edict issued by the Qing government in the early years of their conquest of China - this was an order issued not for any practical reason, but solely to demand a demonstration of submission, on pain of death; tens of thousands of Han Chinese were slaughtered for disobeying the order, ironically at the hands of Han Chinese soldiers under the command of Han Chinese generals who defected to the Qing. This premise also gave me a villain for the campaign, as well as a reason for the PCs to get together: they will all be novice martial artists who have lost family and loved ones to the order, and their goal is to take revenge on the general who led the massacres, who I have decided will look like Donnie Yen in Once Upon in China II.

Over the course of the campaign, we hope to cover the usual genre tropes, with the heroes meeting and fighting mooks and villains with "evil kung fu", learning new kung fu as they level up, and eventually avenging the deaths of their families.

The Qing Conquest of China was of course a drawn out and complicated affair, and for the purpose of our campaign I will utilise artistic license and not be sticking to history, so I hope the more learned readers will forgive me.

The Party

Li Hui - Physician. An orphaned Muslim girl, Li Hui was taken in by Cripple Li, a former army physician. Cripple Li had initially taught his student only the healing arts, but after her master's death, Li began to learn kung fu.

Luo Yun - A foundling raised by farmers, Luo Yun was recruited by the White Lotus Cult and learned kung fu. When the Qing government began to suppress the cult, Luo Yun returned home to lie low but found his entire village slaughtered by Qing soldiers under the command of General Yen.

Soong Wu Qing - Soong's family ran a famous armed escort company, but when his father refused to work for General Yen, his entire family was killed in retaliation. Soong was away in Shaolin Temple studying kung fu, but left upon learning his family fate to seek revenge.

Wang Ah Hu - Wang served as a soldier under an officer in Yen's army when he was still serving the Ming emperor. Rightly concerned that the officer and his men would not take kindly to his decision to defect to the Qing, Yen ordered the unit into an ambush laid by the Qing. Wang lost his sight in the ensuing battle, and became a beggar, but driven by his thirst for revenge, he had learned to overcome his disability.

Wu Wen Xiong - Born a sickly child to a rich family, Wu was not favoured by his father. His mother, formerly of the Sword Sisters Sect, secretly taught him kung fu to make him stronger. Wu's family were arrested and executed after General Yen accused his father of sedition over a poem the elder Wu had written, and their property seized. Wu managed to escape, and had sworn vengeance since.

Zhang Ziyi - Formerly an assassin in the service of the Ming, Zhang was ordered to assassinate one of her relatives who had earned the displeasure of General Yen. Zhang refused the mission and fled, but when she reached her home village she found that her family had been murdered on order of General Yen.