Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Review: Tianxia (Fate Core)

Format: Hardbound Book/PDF: 192 Pages
Publisher: James Dawsey
Author: Jack Norris
Art: Denise Jones
Map: Marco Morte
Editing: Nathan Kahler
Art Direction and Graphic Design: Daniel Solis, with Ruben Byrd

Launched via a successful Kickstarter campaign in October of last year (it seems like this is how you launch RPG's nowadays...), Tianxia is a wuxia setting and rules supplement for Fate Core.

Although I was instantly enticed by the style and presentation presented in the Kickstarter - the art especially, as the art is gorgeous..more on that below - I dawdled on contributing until November, and didn't really examine the PDF at length until about a month ago.

My thoughts in brief: if you already own Fate Core and you want to play a high-octane wuxia game, you owe it to yourself to at least check it out. If you are new to Fate and just want to play a wuxia game that supports all the tropes, then you should still check it out.

More details as to the why of this in my review below.

  • Presentation & Layout

My thoughts on Tianxia very much parallel what I had to say about Jadepunk in my review of that game earlier this year: this is a beautiful and beautifully laid-out book where the design really sells the genre and flavor of the game on every page.

This is also one of the blessed few RPG books where the reader is rewarded by reading it cover-to-cover, like a storybook: and indeed, we are given the story and flavor of the world of Tianxia well before the author presents the hard mechanics that make things work in play. 
  • Setting and Background
An except from the book sells the basic idea well:
"Tianxia (“under heaven”) is a series of rules and setting supplements for the Fate Core system. 
The title of the game comes from both the concept of all the lands and people in Imperial China existing under the purview of the gods and their celestial kingdom and the term used for the imperial unification of kingdoms and cultures to create a central “China” that had previously not existed. The films Hero (Jet Li, not Dustin Hoffman) and The Emperor and the Assassin present fictionalized but highly entertaining versions of how that unification began.  
Just as Tianxia the concept was supposed to include everything that existed “under heaven” in real world imperial China, Tianxia the game includes everything in our rules and setting materials heavily inspired by Chinese myth, legend, and modern media such as Kung Fu and wuxia literature and film."
What follows is a pastiche of what is the 'standard' setting for a traditional wuxia adventure: Jaingzhou, the wild west of this fictional version of China. The book explains that this is but one of the nine-provinces of Shenzhou (which itself is but another name for China), the other eight being promised in greater detail in later supplements.

Far from the grip of the capital, rule of law in Jaingzhou province is more of the 9/10th of the law variety: if you can hold it or steal it, it's yours. This is a place full of bandits, secret societies, corrupt officials, private security services: a land of corruption and injustice. A place badly in need of heroes.

In short: the perfect place to have adventures!

Everything you need to run a full campaign is here: loads of named NPC's, locations, and organizations to power your game: but enough white space to make it all your own.

Where the flavor text and character stats end, various sidebars inform the philosophy of the game designers, discussing matters like creating an inclusive gaming environment, possible adventure hooks and story ideas, and even the traditional role of eunuchs in Chinese culture and legend. All dandy here.
  • Rules & The Deadly Arts of Kung Fu
Although Fate is often presented as a 'story game', Fate Core in particular has a lot of bits to define character competency via Skills and Stunts. Tianxia expands upon this by adding a new Skill, 'chi', and a new way to build martial arts abilities via the Forms system.

An important note here: although it does contain 192 pages of wuxia goodness, Tianxia is NOT a complete game system. You very much need Fate Core to play it and build complete characters: even the action resolution tables are missing from the book.

As stated in the intro, I participated in the Kickstarter and was already playing Fate Core when I picked this up, so this wasn't an issue for me. But this basic point is not mentioned in either the front or back covers, and appears for the first time under 'What Is This Book' at pg.16. I can easily see a new gamer overlooking this factor, even upon relatively close inspection.

So if I picked up this book after flipping through it at the FLGS and discovered this when I got back home and not already in possession of Fate Core..I could imagine being a tad upset. Maybe a niggling point since Fate Core is currently a 'pay-what-you-like' (including nothing) PDF download, but it's my one complaint about the physical book.

But let's talk about the good stuff!

In addition to the 18 Skills presented by Fate Core, Tianxia presents a new one: Chi, the quasi-mystical force that represents the body's flow of energy. The actual concept of chi (or 'ki', or 'qi') is complex and tied to Chinese Daoist thought...but here it's a kind of super-power that gives characters greater physical/mental endurance and recovery abilities, as well as expanding what the character can do in conjunction with their Forms and Stunts.

Forms are really neat. For those already familiar with Fate but not Tianxia in particular, it's best to think of Forms as specialized (and discounted) Stunt packages.

For example: the character Smiling Ox (character sheet below), is trained in the Iron Tiger Form. Per the book:
"The dreaded Iron Tiger practitioner is thought to be one of the most aggressive, lethal fighters around. 
What Iron Tigers lack in maneuverability and flexibility they make up for in physical power, toughness, and aggression. This style eschews many of the tactics and principles of softer styles to focus purely on hard-hitting blows, disabling strikes, painful locks, and linear but effective defenses."
Each form is also an aspect that can be invoked/compelled like any other aspect in Fate. Taking a form has cost involved, in terms of Refresh (your starting Fate Points): one point of Refresh (or Stunt slot) gives you the form and one Technique (worded as pre-generated Stunt). Each additional point of Refresh spent on the Form grants two more techniques.

Like the Iron Tiger Form above, all Forms consistent of a element (Iron, Storm, Forest, etc.) and an animal (Tiger, Monkey, Dragon, etc) that flavors and informs your martial arts style.

There are additional rules that grant certain benefits when you master certain Forms, which I won't get into here. Bottom line is: although this is an optional system for character creation, I cannot imagine NOT taking a Form if you are playing game where physical conflicts are going to come into play. They are just too powerful to be ignored.
  • Sample Characters and GM'ing
The GM'ing section starts out sprightly, with a handful of sample characters emulating certain tropes (I recognize Detective Dee and Princess Mononoke as templates- I'm sure more informed readers will spot others). This leads into a sample play session starring these characters, to demonstrate how Tianxia character builds work in play. 

This then leads into the standard GM advice section, some comments on legendary weapons (standard Fate rules: if gear is important to the story, model it. If not, it's just flavor), story advice and more plot seeds, and a 'bestiary' of standard and exceptional NPC's that can be encountered in play. 

All of this is followed by four simple - but well-plotted - two page adventures to run your new characters through.

Like the rest of book, these sections are presented in informative (but not authorial, in the bad sense of the word) way, and all the material is easy and fun to read to boot.

  • Inspirations and Afterword
Much of the final 20 pages or so (about a tenth of the book!) are taken up by listing inspirations from films, books and video games. At first blush this might seem like an excessive use of limited space, but it's clear that the author (Jack Norris) wants to provide this because:
  •  It's good to know where he is coming from in terms of game-design and play
  • He wants you to have plenty of sources of inspiration for your game as well.
For my part, I've seen four of the eleven listed films, am familiar with (but have not read) two of the four listed books, and I've played two of four listed games. Personally I would have added the two Zu Warriors films to the mix, as well as Iron Monkey: but it's not my book.

Author Jack Norris' afterword is nice too, noting his personal journey to finally getting this game published after a decade plus. This has clearly been a labor of love for him, and this absolutely shows in the finished result.
  • Final Thoughts
So the book looks nice, has great content, and an interesting system to build kung-fu powers: but does it work well in play?

Well, I've recently been GM'ing a game using the system recently and I can give the affirmative to that: abso-friggin-lutely yes it runs great in play! My players have been having a fantastic time exploring their various kung-fu powers, and as GM I've had a blast coming up with scenarios to challenge them.

Now, this is still Fate - the roleplaying aspects of portraying characters at the table are still important - but thats true of any good RPG, Fate included. What Tianxia brings to the table are the extra bits, and those extra bits are fun and don't bog down gameplay at all.

Is it worth your gaming dollars? Well....that depends. It's a nice coffee-table book - the art and presentation are great, as noted above - but at $44.95 (USD) it's pretty steep investment for a book that won't ever be played. And this is a game that wants to be played.

If you are already gaming with Fate Core and have been thinking about playing a wuxia game: then yes, it's worth the investment. If you prefer playing from PDF's (or just don't want to pony up for the hardback), then that's just $14.99 on DriveThruRPG. 

If you aren't familiar with Fate Core but think playing a high-octane (but still story-driven) wuxia game might be fun, I would suggest you download and read Fate Core first (available as pay-what-you-like/free price-point), before investing in either the PDF or the hardback for Tianxia. Tianxia takes what Fate Core offers and builds on it: if you don't like or grok Core, you will have the same trouble with Tianxia.


More on the blog soon about our Tianxia game here in Seattle: The Kingdom of Xinjou!