Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Review: Jadepunk (Fate Core System)


Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City
Authors: Ryan M. Danks, Jacob Possin, and Mike Olson
Cover Artist: Conrad Javier
Format: 139 pages, softcover
ISBN: 978-0-615-98624-1
Website: http://jadepunk.com/

****
Funded by a successful Kickstarter campaign started summer of last year (2013), Jadepunk is yet another of the gaggle of Fate-based RPG's to appear since the wildly successful launch of Evil Hat's Fate Core in 2013.

All of this reminds me of the plethora of d20 based games launched with the advent of the OGL in the early 2000's, with similar results: a handful of great games launched using a basic universal system, and a lot of also-rans.

So where does Jadepunk fit into this equation? In my opinion it fits neatly into the 'great' category, for the reasons outlined below.

***
Presentation & Layout

First impressions: Jadepunk is a beautiful book. While there isn't art on every page, in all places there is a degree of artistry: from the use of genre-appropriate (but still very readable) fonts, to the ink-splashes and 'torn pages' effects that sub for the additional info boxes in Fate Core and other RPG's, the presentation throughout is slick, artistic and easy-to-read.

Where interior art does appear (provided by Nicole Cardiff, Conrad Javier, & Kurt Komoda) it ranges from good to absolutely excellent; some of which you will see scattered throughout this review. This is a book from an indie-press publisher and this is their first product: but you sure as hell cannot tell that by looking at the end result.

In fact, I think that some better established publishers should look at this book for an example of how to properly sell your game through sheer presentation. No complaints at all in this department.


Introduction + World of Jadepunk 

If you've read Fate Core, or more to the point Fate Accelerated Edition (and if not, you should: see my review) then there's not much the introduction has to offer that you haven't read before.

Much of the text explaining the system goals and intent is lifted/reworded from Fate Accelerated (FAE), which in my opinion is great choice: FAE is the tightest and most succinct presentation of Fate rules to date.

The overall philosophy of FAE reverberates throughout the entire text: present the tools you need to build your characters and world, explain how to resolve actions at the table, then get the hell out of the way so we can all get to gaming. The more RPG's that embrace this approach going forward, the better I feel about the future of our collective hobby.

What is new here is the unique setting of Jadepunk: a kind of wuxia + classic western mashup with serious steampunky overtones. From the book:
"...what would it be like if gunslingers from the Western literary genre were present in a wuxia world? Exploration of this idea found that the code of Xia (followed by many wuxia heroes) has very similar values to the code of honor many gunslingers follow. A perfect fit. Add to that an original take on the steampunk genre, with all its quirky fabulousness, and you have an original setting."
The jade in Jadepunk is integral to the setting: rather than being just the decorative stone it is in real life, in Jadepunk it is the source of magic in a world without overt magic - and also the thing that powers the world's most powerful technologies. And as a limited resource, it is also the main source of conflict in the world.

Although other regions of the world of Jadepunk are touched upon in the core book, the default setting for the game is Kausao City, which is basically a panache of early 1900's Shanghai mixed with Victorian-era Birmingham: like Shanghai, it is controlled by and split into quarters dominated by the Great Nations (a bit about them later). Like Birmingham (UK in this example, although true of the US version as well) it is also a source of a resource that powers industry: in this fantastic world this is Black Jade rather than coal.

Also akin to Shanghai in the early 20th century, this is a place of great wealth and grinding poverty: a place where the rich scheme to get richer, and keep the poor in their place...often with violence. What middle classes exist are simply treading water, hoping to get to the unassailable top while dreading falling into the bottom; from which there is no apparent escape.

And this is where the PC's come in: by default players are assumed to take the role of the Jianghu, men and women that fight against injustice, and are the protectors of the destitute and defenseless.


Character Creation: Professions and Aspects

This is Fate game after all, so character creation begins with the creation of aspects. I've discussed Fate aspects quite a bit on this blog already, so I won't get into the mechanics of them here.

What is unique to Jadepunk is how your five aspects (the same number suggested by Core) are stacked: rather than the High Concept + Trouble + Other stack presented in Fate Core, the required aspects are formalized as:
  • Portrayal
  • Background
  • Inciting Incident
  • Belief
  • Trouble
Portrayal is basically the same as a High-Concept in Fate Core: it's the one-sentence description of the character you are playing. Background is just that: where did you come from?  Following this, the Inciting Incident is what put you on your current path. Belief is your characters most deeply held conviction, and Trouble is...well, the main thing that causes you trouble. 

As in all Fate games, these aspects tie your character to the world, and the world to your character: major story elements both supporting your characters goals and presenting opposition can be presented during the character creation process. 

Before moving on to Professions, I think should address a non-apparent aspect of character options in the game: although this certainly an Asian-flavored game world, you are under no obligation to play a Pan-Asian character at your table. The world of Jadepunk is ethnically diverse, and Kausao City itself is a melting pot.

Populated -and dominated - largely by members of the Great Nations, Kausao City sees members with ancestry hailing from:
  • The Aerum Empire - A steampunk British Empire
  • Kaiyu - Tokugawa-era Japan with the serial numbers filed off
  • Naramel - The Near-East, complete with camels and minarets 
  • Tuyang - China in no particular era: but I read it as a steampunk Song Dynasty
Other nations are briefly touched upon, but so lightly that I can't really grasp their character in any detail. Hopefully these will be fleshed out with later supplements. 

On to Professions now: these replace Skills in Fate Core and are more akin to Approaches in FAE, or the six d20 inspired 'Skills' that appear in the Freeport Companion. Available Professions are limited to:
  • Aristocrat (Social/Resources)
  • Engineer (Tech/Mechanical)
  • Explorer (Athletics/Agility-based tasks)
  • Fighter (Melee + Ranged)
  • Scholar (Intellect & Education)
  • Scoundrel (All things sneaky and underhanded)
In practice, I should expect these skills to work roughly like FAE Approaches/Fate Freeport Skills, but far-less broad: there is a very clear line of demarcation between what your Engineer and Scholar abilities allow you to do, for example.

Before moving on to the next section, note that Jadepunk features the same single stress-track (used for absorbing physical and psychic 'damage'), as FAE: your Profession level has no influence on this track. You can, however, improve upon your characters ability to withstand stress via Assets, discussed below.

Assets, and the Colors of Jadetech

I've done a fair number of Fate Core/FAE builds. In fact, I'm not aware of anyone outside of - maybe! - the game's designers who have done more. I loves me some character builds, basically.

But when I first looked at Jadepunk's Assets system - which replaces both the Stunts and Extras presented in Fate Core - I really could not wrap my head around them. My first impression was that Jadepunk had taken the elegant Stunt rubric from Fate 3.0+ and replaced it with something wonky and overly mechanical. 

Having played around with the Assets feature over the past few weeks, however, I have slowly come around to liking this aspect of the system: although there is a learning curve to mastering building Assets, this does pay off in terms of flexibility and ease-of-use once you get the hang of it.

There are three sorts of Assets that you can take:

  • Ally (NPC or NPC's helpful to your character)
  • Device (exceptional gear that your character has access to, including Jadetech)
  • Techniques (exceptional abilities that you can draw upon)
Broadly speaking, Assets can be as powerful as the amount of resources (in terms of Fate-Point Refresh) that you choose to sink into them. We will talk more about Fate Points and Aspects below, but know that PC's start with 7 Refresh by default that they can spend on buying various Assets.

Let's say that you want to play an airship captain with a loyal crew. Easily done: you can buy the ship itself as a Device asset, the crew as an Ally (which includes options to make them numerous and independent to perform more actions for you). You might also take a Technique that gives you a boost when commanding or piloting the ship.

Or a martial artist who is a one-woman army into herself? No problem - take a high Fight Profession and list of Techniques to back it up. For some extra oomph and flavor, you can even take a jade-ink tattoo as a Device.

'Jadetech' is exactly what it sounds like: technology powered by jade. As mentioned in the first section of the review, in this world jade has certain mystical properties that can be exploited to produce powerful effects. The five colors of jade noted are:
  • Green (Earth: associated with strength/stamina)
  • Red (Fire: courage and power)
  • Blue (Water: cold, cunning and change)
  • White (Air: breath reason and freedom)
  • Black (Faith: basically an omni-jade to create strange effects)
In Fate terms, jade and the associated jade colors can be thought of as in-game aspect justification: while there are no hard rules to how jade can be incorporated to produce certain effects, the properties of each provides good guidelines.


Rules and rulings: Actions, Aspects and Consequences

If you are familiar with Fate Core, you already know much of how to do things and resolve action in Jadepunk: it uses the same four actions (Create Advantage, Overcome, Attack, Defend) as Core. The use of Aspects are the same, and the same systems for conflict resolution are presented as well. And if you aren't familiar with how to handle these things in Fate Core, all the rules are right there for you to read and reference.

And this is a good spot to point out a fact that I haven't specifically touched on until now: at a scant 139 pages, Jadepunk is a complete game system. Yes, I would like to see more Asset and character samples. And yes, I would like to see much of the world fleshed out some more. Hopefully we will see more of these in later supplements. But as it is, you have everything you need to play a full campaign and more, right here in a single volume. That's snazzy.

What is new here is the system for resolving duels. Well, actually, it not entirely new: it's simply a repurposing of the Contests system from Core to quickly and flavorfully resolve one-on-one fights. I won't go into the details here - this is a review, not an SRD - but suffice to say that I love the implementation and plan on using it for other Fate-based games.

If you are looking to convert your L5R game to Fate, I dare say that Jadepunk has you 90% covered already.


Kausao City and Beyond

The rest of the book covers the default setting of Kausao City, with gamemaster advice and instructions for creating NPC's with plenty of flavorful examples. If you are planning on using the setting - and you should consider it, it's a great setting- there's plenty of material for you to draw on here.

It's worth noting that by design Kausao is left with plenty of 'white space' for the GM and players to fill in their own details: you are expected and encouraged to make the setting your own at your table. If you are anything like me you were going to do that anyhow, but it's great to see this design philosophy called out and reinforced by the game's creators.

The suggestions for building NPC's (or 'faces') follows the cardinal rule that any great GM follows: Take Only What You Need to Survive. A basic NPC only needs a few aspects to define them; presented here as a Portrayal, Need and Secret aspect.

If they are more important to the story, and/or are meant to provide more active support or opposition, you can flesh them out with Professions and Assets. But most NPC's won't need these things, so a GM shouldn't bother building them out.

The book closes out with a very short section on District Creation (for filling in those white-spaces), some sample characters, and the all-important comprehensive index. And! On the PDF the index reference pages are bookmarked. This is in-line of the quality of the rest of the presentation and nice to see.

***

Jadepunk is a rare thing nowadays: a Fate game that costs actual money, even in PDF format. So does this game deserve your hard-earned gaming dollars?

I'm going to say that the answer to this is a resounding yes. The full PDF is only $14.99 - about what breakfast for two at Starbucks will cost you (Yeah, I live in Seattle. And yes, I get breakfast at Starbucks. Shut up, already). And the print and PDF version together is only $24.99 at the Reroll Productions store, which nets you a beautiful soft-bound book and a fully bookmarked and page-linked PDF.

Plus, as of this writing 30% of the profits from Jadepunk are contributed to worthy charities*. So some of your gaming dollars are going towards making the world a better place in larger ways: there's that too.

*Edit: This only applies to purchases made through the Reroll Productions store.

****

We will be looking at more at Jadepunk in the coming weeks and months, including some sweet character-builds as well as game reports from our upcoming 'Cyber Jadepunk' game, GM'd by the inestimable Gary Anastasio and featuring game co-designer Jacob Possin and his Jedi-inspired PC.