Tuesday, 9 June 2015

Review: TIANXIA - Blood, Silk & Jade

A couple of years ago, through the magic of social media, me and a handful of my players had the opportunity to playtest what was then a new game from Vigilance Press, TIANXIA. I was so flattered by the offer that I accepted, although I should have known that we were probably the last people who should have thrown their hat into the ring to playtest a game. It took us way longer to play through the game than would have been useful for our feedback to help the creator with edits, if we had engaged with the mechanics of the system for our game (and we really didn't). But our experience with this game was a very good one, and although I've already talked about it at some length on the podcast, it's worth a mention here - if only to say a belated thanks to Jack Norris, James Dawsey, and Vigilance Press by giving their excellent game a bit of signal boost. 

TIANXIA is a martial arts roleplaying game, set in a fantasy world that strongly evokes ancient China passed through the lens of wuxia kung fu movies. Just in case you never saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero, these sorts of martial arts movies feature martial artists who can do amazing, larger than life feats with their kung fu, flying through the air as though suspended by wires, skipping off the surface of lakes like stones, parrying the blows of a dozen attackers at once. If you've ever wanted a Fate game about larger-than-life heroes, this is for you. 

The meat of the book is a system of martial arts for use in Fate, and it's pretty terrific stuff. To create a style for your character, you pick a combination of two substyles - one element, and one body (although "body" could as easily be "animal", as all of those substyles refer to animals). The elements are Forest, Ghost, Iron, Lightning, Stone, and Storm, and the bodies are Crane, Dragon, Monkey, Phoenix, Serpent, and Tiger. Each of these could be easily re-skinned by renaming them (we had a character who liked the sound of "Spirit Phoenix" rather than Ghost), but right out of the box you have a very evocative way of creating a martial arts style with its own strengths and weaknesses. Your players may not know a lot about kung fu, but they sure as hell know that being a Storm Tiger sounds cool. 

Each substyle has techniques and secret techniques associated with them, so it's very easy to make yourself a kung fu warrior with a lot of cool tricks in her bag. My only complaint here was that I found it was a lot of crunch to keep track of, having all those techniques on the character sheet on top of the regular Fate stunts. A lot of groups would find this just enough crunch, and I'm not complaining about it, exactly, just saying that for my players a lot of their crunchy bits were either under-utilized or ignored. Again, not our group's thing. We were playing a game that was more about punching people in the feelings than kicking them in the face, in the Crouching Tiger tradition.

The signature characters grab a bite to eat at the local teahouse. 
The martial arts rules alone are probably enough to be worth your gaming dollars, but there is more here -- a lot more. The book includes a very lightly-sketched setting (the land of Shenzhou, and more particularly, the seedy city of Bao Jiang) that's just enough to get your game started without marrying you to a lot of details. There are a handful of characters and plot threads that you can pick up or discard as you please, and plenty of flavour to get things started right. This is exactly how I like my setting material presented - all of it usable and malleable. I did ask my players not to read a lot of that stuff, so I was able to use a lot of it in our TIANXIA game right out of the box with no changes, which helped us get our game up to speed more quickly (with only a few small changes). There is a discussion of genre here that is inspirational for whatever flavour of kung fu is your favourite, from the soap opera-style modern stuff that inspired us to more fantastical sword-and-sorcery material. The writer, Jack Norris, does an excellent job giving you a lot of clear, useful ingredients without telling you exactly what you should cook. 

And the book! Sweet Bruce Lee's ghost, this is a beauty. Daniel Solis does his usual stellar job of layout and design, and the artwork by Denise Jones is evocative of stuff like the Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra television cartoons. She brings the "signature" characters to life, giving them strength, dignity, humour, and grace. I look at those characters and see not only the seeds of characters I'd like to play, but kinds of kung fu games I'd like to run. Perfection. 

Check out how awesome this sample page is, featuring Smiling Ox, one of the signature characters.
The reason I'm coming back to TIANXIA just now, after a long break, is that James has been just recently promoting some newer TIANXIA products that were produced as part of the Kickstarter. If you like the idea of a Fate kung fu game, there has never been a better time to jump aboard the TIANXIA bandwagon! In addition to a Fate Accelerated version of TIANXIA, which I'm very excited for, they have also produced a "Path of Destiny" -- essentially, a Lifepath system you can use for your TIANXIA games. I'm a big fan of these, especially for genres where players maybe aren't quite sure where they should start, because they can give you evocative material to build a genre-appropriate character. I think this would be a big boon for a lot of wuxia noobs who like the look of the book (and why wouldn't they?) but don't know the territory. Both of those products are available on a Pay-What-You-Want basis from DriveThruRPG, and I understand there is also a TIANXIA Arcana that will be available soon for the Deck of Fate. 

I strongly recommend TIANXIA: BLOOD, SILK, AND JADE to anyone who loves kung fu movies and comics, like me, to anyone who loves good Fate games, and really to anyone who just loves books that are filled with good writing, sharp artwork, and gameable material. This product is one of the best third party books I've seen for Fate, and one of the best games I've played period in the last few years. Get it, and give these good people your money. They make terrific games. 

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