Which Wuxia Works?

So, a while back Dan ran a campaign using Weapons of the Gods, and it ended up being one of those RPG campaigns which is fun because you have good players and a talented GM and everyone likes being in each other’s company but the actual game system itself isn’t pulling its weight in terms of facilitating the action.

I still have my rulebook and character sheet from that game, because I’m generally reluctant to dispense of such things when so many fond gaming memories can be rekindled by taking a peek at them. However, recently another mid-2000s wuxia RPG has come into my life, thanks to the Bundle of Holding offering up a Qin: the Warring States package, the core rulebook of which impressed me enough that I bought a hardcover copy. It’s time to see whether Weapons can retain its place on my bookshelf against the challenger, and since books are too inanimate to face each other in a kung fu duel I suppose I’ll have to review them the old-fashioned way.

Qin: the Warring States

This was originally published in French by 7th Circle in 2005, before a translation into English emerged from Cubicle 7 in 2007. This partnership between the two companies strikes me as a smart move; to my knowledge, 7th Circle’s previous foray into the English-language RPG market was the release of the third English edition of Kult, and I’ve previously discussed on here what a  disaster that was. Partnering with a foreign licensee who can take on the risks themselves and have more direct links in the English-language market seems like a no-brainer.

The game itself is set during the historical Warring States period in Chinese history, during the third century BCE; it’s one of those convulsions China went through, like the Three Kingdoms period some centuries later, when there was either no Emperor or the Emperor’s authority had diminished to being purely theoretical, and rival territories competed to see who would attain the Mandate of Heaven and found a new Imperial Dynasty. Player characters are martial artists who adventure within the shadowy world of the jiang hu – a society at the margins, where the nobility still hold sway despite the modernising reforms of the Warring States and old-fashioned principles of honour govern the martial arts clans.

One thing which distinguishes player characters from average joes is their ability to use Chi powers, and indeed managing the flow of Chi is a crucial part of the game system. The resolution mechanic is a standard roll, add appropriate numbers, and hit target number system, with an interesting die-rolling method: you roll two D10s and see if the numbers are different. If they are, then the difference between them is the result. If they are not, then you have attained perfect balance and get a critical success – unless you rolled double zeroes, in which case your effort was void of quality and you get a critical fail. Critical successes can be compared based on the number on the dice, with double-9s being best and double-1s, whilst still being critical, not being quite as good. Another way the character generation system rewards balance is by a multiplier applied to your Chi score; the more balanced your mind and body stats are, the higher the multiplier, thus discouraging players from creating characters who are hulking brutes or fragile eggheads. (At the same time, the two mental stats and two body stats don’t need to be in balance, so your character can emphasise a different type of intelligence or different types of physical well-being depending on your character gen choices.) When you get a critical success you regain Chi, when you get a critical fail you lose some, and you can spend Chi to give a bonus to rolls.

Chi is also used to power Taos, martial arts, and magic. Taos represent the sort of special abilities you see characters in wuxia tales like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon deploy, where despite being beyond the capabilities of normal people as we understand them are not explicitly presented as being magical or supernatural but are instead the result of exceptional training and Taoist insight; martial arts are, obviously, special fighting techniques, typically tied to signature weapons; magic consists of either internal or external alchemy (utilising the elements to improve and perfect oneself and attain other results), divinations, or exorcisms. It’s expected that PCs will have at least a few Taos and martial arts relevant to their particular fighting style, but getting magic is a bit trickier since the various magical arts have additional skill prerequisites.

As far as the setting material goes, in some chapters Qin presents a mass of interesting historical data with sufficient depth to be properly evocative whilst also teasing out just how surprisingly modern in many respects China was at the time in (or, if you turn that around, how hilariously behind the curve we Euro-barbarians were at the same time). These parts hit a good balance between highlighting the cultural barriers and prejudices of the era (such as the role of women and attitudes towards homosexuality) whilst remembering that just because society set a particular model that doesn’t mean that everyone conformed to it, or that nonconformity was necessarily always met with failure and destruction.

Elsewhere – specifically in the parts detailing the jiang hu, or the martial arts world, the information given is more pseudohistorical. This is a convention of the wuxia genre with a complex history, but so far as I understand it to a large extent the “martial arts world” in the sense it is used in Qin and most other wuxia works never actually existed, any more than King Arthur’s court did, and each entry in the genre must to a certain extent craft its own particular take on the wulin.

This is a point which I rather wish Qin had made clearer, because otherwise it’s a little too easy to conflate the historical information in here with the mythology presented in the jiang hu-focused chapters and more generally the book could really do with a crash course in wuxia conventions for those who are not familiar with the subgenre. Still, the version of the jiang hu cooked up here is an engaging one, with various interesting clans vying for dominance and an emphasis on the idea that the jiang hu is a parallel society for those who don’t fit the norms of the mainstream culture, and so in many ways is more egalitarian and meritocratic than the mainstream.

The book is rounded off with a sample adventure that at points is a little railroady and seems intended to act as the jumping-off point for some sort of metaplot, but Cubicle 7 haven’t put out that much in the way of subsequent adventures so it doesn’t seem like the English game line is going to be too overtly perturbed by such impositions, and the adventure is flexible and open-ended enough that the GM could take it in all sorts of different directions rather than following the metaplot.

As a whole, Qin presents a solid enough system that you could probably adapt it for wuxia campaigns in plenty of other historical periods – as I believe 7th Circle have done with the French line – whilst also presenting a compelling historical setting that is tantalising enough to encourage readers to do more research and reading about the time period. It sets a high bar, and then shatters that bar with a sweet roundhouse kick.

Weapons of the Gods

When I got this book out to do this review I kind of winced at seeing the Eos Press logo on it. This was the first game that Jenna Moran (writing at the time as Rebecca Borgstrom) designed for Eos, and more recently her relationship with them has completely unravelled due to their utter and complete failure to act in good faith in relation to her latest game. The full ugly story can be gleaned from this RPG.net thread; it’s one of those situations where people make a bunch of accusations, and one of the people being accused of bad behaviour comes in and makes excuses, and the excuses they make end up making it sound like either they are an outright lying crook or they are a total chump who is being taken for a ride by a crook, neither of which really bodes well for the future of Eos.

In fact, let’s look at the current “About Us” page on the Eos website – which has yet to be updated to reflect the fact that Jenna has left and taken Nobilis and her new game with her. Of the four human beings listed on that page, you have Syn Samma, the guy who supposedly pocketed the printing money and then didn’t bother to print the books and stopped communicating with anyone; you have Jesse Covner, who was the one who swung into the rpg.net thread and gave statements so badly misjudged that they managed to incriminate him more in the eyes of most participants in the discussion, and was complicit in some really nasty treatment of Jenna if comments from her more outspoken friends in that thread are to be believed; you have Jenna, whose fanbase seems to have been what made Eos viable over the years and – touch wood – should hopefully help her carve out a future for herself in self-publishing (or at least finding a publisher who won’t cheat her); and you have David Ramirez, whose main role in the thread was to abjectly beg people not to write off Eos because he really wants this Legends of the Wulin game he’s been working on to be a success, having somehow kidded himself that the Legends of the Wulin name has enough name recognition attached to be valuable and that he wouldn’t be better off just splitting from Eos and presenting a game which restated the mechanics distinctly differently enough to avoid copyright infringement and using a different title.

(Notably, before Eos was Eos, Syn Samma was involved in running the extremely short-lived Hawthorne Hobgoblynn Press, who put out the first edition of the Godlike core book before the Godlike/Pagan Publishing cabal established Arc Dream Publishing to put out their work instead. The change in publisher has never to my knowledge been clearly explained, and part of me wonders whether Greg Stolze and pals saw or heard something during their involvement with Syn that didn’t feel right and pulled out as rapidly as they could; certainly, in retrospect it seems like they have dodged a bullet.)

On the whole, it doesn’t look good for Eos continuing to exist as an RPG publisher, considering that their star designer has left them under circumstances that has burned what goodwill they had to the waterline and revealed that the two main partners in the business don’t even seem to know what each other is doing any more. In principle, this shouldn’t affect my opinion of Weapons of the Gods, and if I actually liked the game it wouldn’t – I’d just be advising people to obtain it second hand, rather than giving yet more money to Eos. As it stands, I don’t like Weapons enough to recommend it anyway, and the controversy over Eos’ treatment of Jenna has intensified by distaste for it because now it’s not just a game I don’t happen to like but the first chapter in the story of a deeply unpleasant business relationship.

Weapons of the Gods is based on a wuxia comic series of the same name, which means that the book here is at least filled with plenty of pretty pictures sourced from the comics. However, rather than giving an exhaustive rundown of what goes on in the comic series, Moran instead takes the sensible route of detailing the setting in sufficient depth to provide gamers with a Weapons of the Gods-flavoured backdrop for their campaigns that they can take in whatever direction they please. The first major problem with the book is the manner in which this information is presented. Moran has this tendency to sprinkle her works with bits of micro-fiction – indeed, her blog Hitherby Dragons is based around such super-short stories. Nobilis was known for it, and Weapons of the Gods takes it to an extreme, with almost every subject discussed after the comparatively short character creation and rules overview chapters being accompanied by a bit of game fiction.

In a book whose layout decisions already make it quite hard to find particular subjects (I read about a particular topic in the first chapter that I wanted to rant at Dan at whilst I was preparing this review, and then took ages to find it even though I’d just read the section in question that morning), filling out the book with what, if you separated it out and put it all together, would constitute quite a volume of microfiction in its own right makes it near-impossible to find anything once the stories start coming thick and fast. Say what you like about White Wolf’s game fiction, but at least they tended to keep it to the start of chapters so if you opened the book to the approriate chapter and found yourself staring at a bunch of fiction you could at least flip forward a few pages and be in the region of the rules you were after. Not so here, and the utter lack of a decent index exacerbates matters.

Moreover, this is combined with an unusual style of presentation, in which subjects are arranged into lore sheets which you have to buy with Destiny points – the local equivalent to XP – if you want your character to understand the subject in question (a bunch of lore sheets cost 0 Destiny, representing subjects which most people in Shen Zhou will understand, so you can choose not to know about them if you want to play a sheltered or ignorant character but if you don’t want to play such a PC you can get the info for free).

Once you buy a lore sheet you unlock various things you can spend Destiny on; for instance, you can spend Destiny to make sure your character will find their fates beneficially entwined with something related to the subject in future, or be connected to a particular secret society, or be destined to obtain a particular Weapon of the Gods, or gain access to a type of kung fu. The upshot of this is that important information about particular kung fu styles or God Weapons ends up being spread between multiple different parts of the rulebook, with the background lore needed to obtain them in a different portion of the book from their actual rules.

It also results in a certain strange muddle between expenditure of Destiny points to gain knowledge of something and expenditure of points to entwine your destiny to it. You really ought to be able to spend Destiny in order to entwine your fate with a subject without buying the associated lore sheet, since in principle it’s entirely viable IC for someone to join a secret society without knowing its true history or nature, or to learn a kung fu style without knowing where it comes from, or to obtain a God Weapon and not know which one it is, and so on and so forth. However, you explicitly can’t buy any of the stuff under a lore sheet unless you have paid the cost to unlock it, which feels limiting; I’d prefer it if everyone could spend Destiny on whatever they liked and “IC knowledge of lore” was an option on the menu rather than something necessary to unlock the menu in the first place.

Of course, you can still end up doing a lot of this stuff without spending Destiny if you are lucky and your referee sets up the right opportunity (though I don’t think you can unlock kung fu styles without expending Destiny, which is fair enough because you can see that as a training cost), but the point of the Destiny system is to allow you to overtly signal to the GM that you would like a particular thing to happen to your character. Then again, there is an extent to which I wonder whether it is even necessary for that task, or has the intended effect. The thing is, you can already indicate to the referee stuff you would like to happen in any RPG simply by talking to them about it, and if you feel like you can’t talk to your GM about stuff like this that’s a problem that you aren’t going to solve with a game system. Maybe there are people out there who are shy enough that they find it easier to do this stuff if the system gives them explicit permission to do so, but that isn’t actually what this system does – instead, it creates a barrier to expressing this sort of desire by giving it a points cost (and even if you have the points, if you are shy about expressing a preference you might be equally shy about doing something in-system which makes it loud and obvious that you are expressing a preference). Maybe there are GMs out there who need to be explicitly told to listen to their players’ preferences and desires when it comes to their personal plot arcs, but this system doesn’t actually say that – instead, it directly implies that you only have to listen when the players have spent points to make you listen.

On top of that, the system actually creates an incentive not to spend Destiny on shaping future plot stuff. If you are not super-invested in your character having a particular plot arc (and as I’ve said before, most of the time I’m not and I think it is an unhelpful expectation for people to have), and if you trust the GM to give you opportunities to do cool shit, join secret societies, obtain God Weapons and otherwise get up to the sort of stuff characters in this game get up to (and if you don’t trust the referee to do that I question why you are playing with them in the first place), then you can just spend Destiny on character improvement and let the future take care of itself. This might be a roundabout way of encouraging people to “live in the moment”, but it is a baroque and clumsy way of doing so.

Dan also likes to point out, whenever the subject comes up, that various people contributing to Weapons don’t seem to have understood the implications of the system. This is particularly unforgivable because the chapter that explains the system – which, in part due to its lack of microfiction, is the clearest and most readily understood part of the book – explicitly lays out how a +5 advantage to a roll is nothing to sniff at, a +10 bonus is really very good, and a +20 bonus is a very big fucking deal indeed and you probably don’t really want to throw those around too freely. Thus, when God Weapons end up giving you bonuses in the +30 to +50 range, they end up being utterly absurd and game breaking. In our own campaign we came to the conclusion that once you got a God-Weapon you essentially couldn’t be seriously challenged by someone who didn’t have a God-Weapon of equal or better rank.

To be fair, there’s a certain extent to which this may be a bid for genre emulation; after all, the Weapons of the Gods comic is all about the characters striving for the particular God-Weapons, so it makes sense that gaining or losing a God-Weapon should be a huge, huge deal for the purposes of that plot. At the same time, this is one of those plot points which simply doesn’t translate well to the “party of allies, each of whom gets their fair share of spotlight time” model of a traditional RPG. Effectively, once one PC in a Weapons party gets a God-Weapon, you kind of have to give all the other PCs one in short order to prevent them from being utterly eclipsed. This is especially true for PCs whose particular focus is combat, and due to the three different archetypes offered up by the game in character generation that’ll constitute about a third of the PCs (and possibly more, because the Daoist magic-and-healing system detailed in the book is sufficiently complex and hard to follow that many would be put off following the scholar archetype).

Speaking of archetypes, they provide an excellent example of the way the book’s left hand often doesn’t know what its right hand is doing. When the archetypes are first introduced, the book talks about how your choice of archetype is important and will have substantial knock-on effects on the rest of the character generation process besides, which is true enough. On the exact same page, there is a bit of boxed text addressed to people who aren’t so keen on this archetype idea telling them that archetype isn’t actually that big of a deal. This is a deeply unhelpful mixed message to send and in general I don’t see the point of trying to convince people who have decided they aren’t keen on part of your game system that they shouldn’t write it off, especially if your argument involves contradicting what you’ve said on the same page about the importance of the system concept. Game texts should concentrate on establishing buy-in and explaining stuff clearly to those who do buy in; trying to win back people who have already decided not to buy in is useless padding and wasted effort.

So, Weapons of the Gods is frustrating to interpret and play, and that’s a real shame because there are some aspects about it I like. The dice-rolling mechanic is fresh and interesting, and I particularly like the concept of the “river” – a store of dice you can shunt unwanted rolls from earlier on into and then retrieve the rolls later in order to pull off really impressive stunts, which nicely emulates how in wuxia action sequences participants build up to sudden outbursts of superhuman capability. On top of that, I like how Weapons actually bothers to give a cogent explanation of what wuxia is, and it tends to draw a more distinct line between what’s a wuxia genre convention, what’s an idea invented specifically for the setting , and what is real history than Qin.

Weapons was the first game in the Wuxia Action Series; the second one was Legends of the Wulin, which came out after Eos lost the Weapons licence, and apparently represents a substantial reorganisation and revision of the rules unhampered by any need to reflect the comics. In principle, I might have been interested in taking a look on the off-chance that the end result was a significant improvement, but since this whole sorry business with Jenna Moran’s Kickstarter I don’t really fancy giving more money to Eos on the off-chance that they might have an improved Weapons for sale, particularly since Qin already offers a much cleaner and easier to follow and play wuxia game.

The English version of Qin actually came out towards the end of Dan’s Weapons of the Gods campaign, and I floated the idea of converting to that, but we didn’t bother because by that point we were close to the end of the game anyway. I think, on balance, I will be stashing my old Weapons character sheet in the back of the Qin book and divest myself of Weapons, because I can’t see myself willingly playing that again, especially not when Qin is on the table.