The name’s Davenport. I review games.
On a nice, quiet afternoon, there’s not much more annoying that a knock at my office door.
‘Cept maybe someone kickin’ in my office door.
“KIIIII-YAH!!!” says the fella, all dressed in fancy silk and carryin’ a sword.
“Um… Can I help you?” I says.
“IMMACULATE REVIEW COPY DELIVERY STRIKE!” he says, spinning around and throwing a book across the room, landing it neat as you please on my desk without so much as knocking over my stapler. A nifty trick, I had to admit.
Art of Wuxia, the cover says. Okay, so that explained a few things.
“So you want me to review this thing?” I says.
“ILLUSTRIOUS CRANE RESPONSE!!!” he says, jumpin’ up onto the back of a chair and perching on one foot. “Yes, please.”
“Right…” I says. “I’ll get right on that. Can I see you out?”
“No, thank you,” he says. “RIGHTEOUS DOVE WITHDRAWAL!”
He jumps out the window and goes running through the air down the street.
I just sigh, sit back down, and open the book. Time for some Elaborate Monkey Reviewing. Or something.
“Wuxia,” as the book explains, loosely translates to “martial heroes”. These are the Big Damn Heroes of an ancient mystical China — resolute, truthful, and just — wandering the land righting wrongs with powerful kung fu, swordsmanship, magic, and melodrama. Villains and the morally uncertain need not apply.
While the game could be used for playing in a fantastical version of historical China, the default setting is the purely mythological world of Longzhi; in particular, the Dragon Empire during the time of the Long Dynasty and the increasingly harried and paranoid Emperor Gaofeng. Evil sorcerers and bandits plague a kingdom riddled with corrupt authorities. It’s definitely a time for wandering heroes to do their thing.
The author lovingly describes the world and its locations of note in brief but evocative prose, covering the Dragon Kingdom, the evil, sorcerous land of Jin, and the hazardous, monster-haunted Demon Lands. It’s very detail-light, so the content might not be enough for every gamer, but it definitely sparks my imagination.
And speaking of sparking the imagination, the book further fleshes out the setting with the prevailing mindsets and religions of Longzhi, along with an extensive list of organizations that the PCs can join or oppose. To add a little extra dash of verisimilitude, the book even includes various forms of gambling and rules for those depending upon pure luck, luck and skill, and pure skill.
To make the GM’s job easier, the book includes both a random adventure generator and a random dungeon generator, the latter including a random trap generator. Great stuff.
I was rather surprised to see that the game includes a very respectable bestiary (I count 57 creatures). That’s not even including the basic creature templates the section includes for carnivores and herbivores of various sizes. Of course, I don’t know that much about the genre and the degree to which monsters factor in.
The creatures fall into one of five categories: Animal, Animated, Demon, Ghost or Spirit. All creatures of the same category share some common features; for example, all ghosts can only be harmed by magic or unarmed attacks. (Yeah, the latter seems a bit odd to me, but these aren’t the ghosts of European folklore.)
Before you ask: Yes, there are Dragons, Hopping Vampires, and Yetis. I didn’t expect to see so many giant versions of ordinary animals, nor some of the types of animals made giant — the Giant Pelican comes to mind.
The descriptions are kept short and to the point, the longest being around five sentences and most being one or two. That efficient writing meant that there was more room for critters. Well played.
While they aren’t really part of the bestiary, this seems like a good place to mention the game’s NPCs. Minor NPCs can be trained by their villainous masters to fight in formation, essentially becoming a single entity. The section includes many colorfully-described major NPCs. And master villains get a selection of devious abilities sure to frustrate the hapless heroes until they can find a weakness.
Weapons of Ingenious Design
One of many cool little sections tucked away in the book, this chapter discusses weapons that aren’t necessarily magical but are so finely crafted as to be extremely improbable. Many of these are disguised weapons of various descriptions, but others are downright bizarre — the saber than can be thrown like a boomerang comes to mind, as does the sword with a flexible blade that allows the owner to wear it like a belt until needed.
The game uses a simple percentile system, d00Lite, with one oddity: Double zeros count as zero rather than 100, so the roll is from 00-99. Doubles on a success are a critical success, and doubles on a failure are a critical failure. (This is the reason for the 00-99 mechanic, as it evenly spreads out criticals.) Rolls of 0-5 are auto-successes and rolls of 95-99 are auto-failures. I like the simplicity of this mechanic, and I appreciate the fact that the auto-success and -failures don’t translate into criticals.
Experienced characters can achieve scores in excess of 99, which seems to only matter insofar as multiple actions in the same round incur a cumulative -20 penalty. Degree of success doesn’t matter on contested rolls, which keep going until one participant fails. That doesn’t seem right to me but is easy enough to fix.
Characters have four ability scores: Strength, Dexterity, Logic, and Willpower. These start at range from 35-80 and can be determined randomly using 5d10+30 for each score or by simply assigning scores of 50, 55, 60 and 65.
Characters are human by default, although the game does offer the option to play an Anning (Kung Fu Panda!) or a Fox Spirit. In addition, the game lists creatures from other d00Lite games that could fit into this setting, giving their appropriate Longzhi habitats and name changes.
Now, here’s where the game system really starts to shine. Characters have only ten skills from which to choose, but each skill is what might be called a class or profession in other games, each starting at 1/2 of its associated attribute:
So, a character doing sneaky, underhanded things would use Thief, a character doing outdoorsy things would use Scout, and so on.
I like this. I like it a lot.
Skills have single-digit levels that translate in +10% per level to the skill base; however, some skills come with features that require no roll at all. For example, all characters with Sorcery can perform “Low Sorcery,” creating light orbs and small obvious illusions, mending clothes, making noises, etc., without the need for a roll.
The Warrior skill is noteworthy for at least a couple of reasons. First, it has two values: One based on Strength (for melee combat) and one based on Dexterity (for ranged combat). And second, players choosing Warrior for their characters get to select a kung fu style. Each style teaches specific weapons and techniques, both of which the game offers in plenty.
The kung fu techniques tend toward the mundane, relatively speaking, with abilities like multiple attacks and more powerful blows. Some, however, border on the supernatural, if not crossing the line: Long-distance melee attacks, skin toughened into armor, and going into suspended animation come to mind. Then there are the secret techniques, which are anything but mundane, including a weapon that fights alongside you, a poison aura, and fists that send foes flying with every blow.
Then there’s power of qi, which serves as the game’s incarnation of hero/fate/drama/luck points. Anyone can use qi more or less like the standard hero points for such things as rerolling the dice or adding a bonus to actions, but I have to say that my favorite such use isn’t remotely standard: A heroic pose that can rally your allies and dishearten your enemies just because you look so darned cool. Actual warriors can use qi to accomplish otherwise impossible feats, like miraculously healing damage and running on water or vertical surfaces. Characters start with only three points of qi and so must be thrifty with them, although I should mention that the water-running trick costs no qi — you just have to have at least one point left. I’m happy about that, because what would wuxia be without warriors running and leaping all over the place?
Alchemy is also available, producing substances to heal, harm, or make a great big boom.
Finally, there are the actual spells high sorcery. These are going to be very familiar to most gamers: Buffing spells, charming spells, warding spells, and the ever-popular blasting spells, to name a few. While these may lack wuxia flavor at first glance, the text includes possible descriptions that sound very wuxia indeed. The only drawback I see with the magic system is that every spell has its own degree of limitation on usage — some are unlimited, some are 1/turn, some are 1/day per level, some are just 1/day, some are 1/week per level, and so on. That’s a lot more to keep track of than, say, magic points or fatigue.
Oh, one more thing… I have to tell you about the way divination works in this game.
The diviner does his divining thing, then play continues on as usual. However, if at any point the diviner thinks that things are going south, he can invoke his ability and “rewind” back to the “save point” created by his divination. Everything that happened after that point was the vision of the future.
That there is some fine game writing, my friends.
Like everything else in the game, combat is kept simple. The attacker makes a skill-based attack roll, and the defender makes a Dexterity roll to defend. (I’m not crazy about that last part, since it means that combatants can’t get better at dodging or parrying based upon their skill expertise, but that’s a minor point.) As befits such a cinematic genre, the game allows for multiple actions at a cumulative -20 penalty.
Attacks that land do damage rated in d10s and do the greater of either the weapon’s listed damage or the fighter’s Warrior-based kung fu damage, so long as the weapon is taught by the fighter’s style. Unarmed fighters do either d10/2 damage or their kung fu damage, depending upon whether or not they have the Warrior skill. This does mean that a skilled Warrior may be better off fighting unarmed than using lower-damage weapons, at least in terms of dealing damage; however, unarmed combatants are at a disadvantage when fighting armed opponents. On the flipside, it also means that low-damage weapons like darts are really deadly in skilled hands.
Armor reduces damage, which is always my preference, and shields give a bonus to parrying.
The game increases its flexibility by offering several options to vary the cinematic nature of the game: Making minor NPC into one-hit “mooks,” varying the amount of qi for PCs and NPCs, and utilizing training montages. I’m all for having more choices, so this is a definite plus.
The beautiful black-and-white art combines Asian stylistic aspects with realism, resulting in a look that accurately depicts the subject while feeling totally appropriate to the setting.
The layout uses a vaguely Asian script-like font for headers, helping maintain the same feel as the art. The book is neatly organized and highly legible. This is a very pretty book.
The text reads like a good friend explaining his love for wuxia in a highly infectious manner without ever becoming tedious. Rules and setting elements are explained very clearly for the most part. I noticed no typos.
The book includes both an informative glossary and a large, useful index, as all good RPGs should.
Going in, I didn’t care all that much about wuxia. Now I’m eager to run this game. I can’t offer much higher praise than that.
This game packs an incredible amount of information into a mere 180 pages. The rules are clever and the setting is beautiful and compelling. If you love wuxia, I encourage you to check out this game in the strongest possible terms. If you aren’t into wuxia, then as was the case for me, this game may change your mind.