Wednesday, January 4, 2012

[Read-Thru] Wu Xing: The Ninja Crusade

In July of 2010, my buddy Eloy Lasanta, owner of Third Eye Games, sent me a review copy of Wu Xing: The Ninja Crusade. I read the book and loved it, and I had Eloy on my podcast to discuss the game several months later. But I never got around to commenting on the game here. Recently, I’ve had reason to go back and re-read the game (maybe the reason will be discussed here one day), so I figured I’d give my thoughts about it while it’s fresh in my memory.

In Wu Xing, you play a ninja who has joined the Lotus Coalition, in an effort to strike back at the Izou Empire, which has called for the destruction of all Ninja. While the Lotus Coalition means well, there is still plenty of enmity between the various Ninja clans, so there’s a lot of potential for some awesome storytelling.

Let’s take this chapter by chapter...

The book starts off with a brief introduction, which includes a look at the setting, the ninja clans, and the (very) basics of the game system. It also includes a short example of play in the “what is roleplaying” section.

Wu Xing is powered by the Dynamic Gaming System (DGS), the same system found in Apocalypse Prevention, Inc., which requires only a single d20. This is not in any way related to The d20 System--it simply uses a d20.

I think this section of the book is just about perfect. It was enough information to get my juices flowing about the setting, without setting me up to re-read too much later in the book (who has time for that?).

Chapter One: Ninja vs. The Empire
Ninja vs. Empire goes into more detail about the setting. You get the history which leads up to the Ninja Crusade. You learn a little more about the clans and what it means, in general, to be a ninja. The major players of the world are discussed, to include the Lotus Coalition, the Izou Empire, and the Five Kingdoms surrounding the Empire. (The Five Kingdoms are only given a very high-level view, as they will each be covered in source books, the first of which has been released--The Land of Seed and Blossom.) There are two beautiful maps: one for the Izou Empire, and one for the rest of the world.

There is a great deal of information in this chapter, and I feel like, once again, it’s just what a GM needs to create her own campaign. Eloy is known for amazing control of the delivery of setting information, and he didn't disappoint here.
Chapter Two: Clans
The Clans chapter goes into detail about the 10 major ninja clans of the setting. (To date I believe the number of playable clans has roughly doubled with the release of two source books and one single-clan PDF.) They are presented in what I call the classic White Wolf style--you get a quick story about a sample clan member, the history of the clan, the lifestyle of a typical clan member, clan agendas, character creation info, and the telltale Clan Impressions section, which gives a sentence or two describing, in the words of a clan member, what they think of the other clans, the Lotus Coalition, and the Empire. The clans include:

Bamboo Herbalists: Adrenaline junkie healers with a propensity for going where they’re not wanted to get their ingredients.

Blazing Dancers: Light-hearted circus performers who use performance to stay in shape for ass-kicking.

Grasping Shadows: These guys are probably what comes to mind when you think of a Ninja (deliberately capitalized here).

Hidden Strands of Fate: These ninja spend less time fighting and more time politicking and controlling things from within.

Living Chronicle: Contemplative biographers of the world, they keep their records on their skin.

Pack of the Black Moon: These are the country folk, attuned to nature--especially animals. They can grant their powers to specially-trained dogs.

Recoiling Serpents: Masters of poison, and they’re ambitious to boot. Everyone watches them closely.

Virtuous Body Gardeners: Tattooed upstarts, these guys can animate their tattoos. Since they’re a newer clan, they are constantly looking for ways to improve themselves--which usually involves taking crazy risks.

Wardens of Equilibrium: All these ninja care about is balance in the world. They created the Lotus Coalition to combat the imbalance created by the Empire. Most of these guys are merchants.

Will of Iron: These metal smiths like to fight. Think of a Viking, only violent.

Another skill, at which Eloy excels, is the ability to keep you thinking about “your character” as you read through his books. In this chapter, I had to keep re-reading sections because I kept going off into my own world, thinking of “my character.” Then I’d realize I didn’t know what I just read. That’s a nice problem for a gamer to have and a nice one for a designer to create.

The Clan Impressions and the fiction in each clan write-up solved another problem for me. In the first chapter, I was thinking Eloy’s writing style might be wrong for a game about the Far East. The Clans chapter solved this conundrum for me. By the time I read the included fiction and the Clan Impressions, I got the sense Eloy was deliberately going for a looser style. The language and the sensibilities of the book are deliberately Western (the hemisphere, not the genre), and it will make Wu Xing more approachable to folks, like my wife (hint hint), who know little about Eastern cultures.

Chapter Three: Character Building

Character creation is basically a point buy system, with each part of the character having so many points to spend. There are six steps to creating a character. They’re listed in a sidebar at the beginning of the chapter. I couldn’t find step four (select Wushu) anywhere in the body of the chapter, but it’s listed again in the quick reference at the end (and Wushu is covered fully in the next chapter). The chapter is rounded out with a complete character creation walkthrough, to include a completed character sheet. More games should have this.

This chapter includes all the stats you’ll use, to include Skills, Gifts, and Drawbacks. Wu Xing has a lot of numbers to keep track of--this is seriously one of the crunchiest games I’ve liked in years--but this chapter does a decent job of conveying what needs to be done. With the exception of Clan choice, Wushu, and equipment, everything you need for your character is in here, which should minimize page flipping, at least a bit.

The skill list is short, which is a Good Thing(TM). There are a number of Fighting Styles to choose from, definitely taken from Kung-Fu styles, named after animals. There are a lot of variables in here--each style gives bonuses for different things, and there are special abilities associated with the styles. It’s great for flavor, but could create issues with keeping track of what your character’s bonuses are for which moves.

There is quite a bit in character creation that gets a player thinking about her character and provides guidance on how to play it. Eloy spends quite a bit of space on concept, including upbringing, gender issues, etc., then there are stats that provide guidance as well. Your character’s Chi levels in Yin and Yang determine much about personality. Your ninja will also have an elemental soul, which also provides more great food for thought. Put these together with Drawbacks, and even less-experienced players should walk into the first session with good ammunition for getting into their character’s head.

Character advancement is very White Wolf. Basically you get a point for showing up, a point for learning, etc. These XP can be spent to improve your character. 

Chapter Four: Wushu 
Wushu are ninja powers. Each clan has their clan-specific wushu, and there are more general wushu, which more than one type of ninja may possess. Those are usually elemental.

The powers are activated with a die roll, and Chi is spent in different ways to fuel it.

The feeling of wushu covers the gamut from spells to superpowers, and there’s a lot of variance between the different types of wushu. The chapter ends with some quick and dirty rules for making your own wushu. It gives magic  a “sky’s the limit" feel.

(Coming from a guy who plays a lot of Savage Worlds, the way powers are set up in Wu Xing is certainly refreshing for me. All the characters are spellcasters, and they all manage to feel different. It takes a lot of suspension of disbelief on my part to have multiple spellcasters in Savage Worlds--not so here.)

Chapter Five: Equipment and Combat
I’ll say right away I was taken aback by having equipment share a chapter with combat. Equipment isn’t just about weapons, so there’s more to it then fighting. I would have definitely broken these up.

In regards to equipment, your Class in life determines what you can afford to have as a character. Land-owners can buy things with Cost: 1 or less, Artisans can buy things with Cost: 2: or less, and so on. It’s really clean, and it ties nicely into the setting. As weapons and armor help in combat, other items can help with skill checks. Pretty straightforward; I like it.

Combat is pretty crunchy, but I think in a game where spells, fists, feet, and swords are flying, wuxia-style, that’s completely appropriate.

Different combat actions essentially provide a combination of modifiers to attacks, defense, and damage. These numbers are further modified by Fighting Styles, armor, and weapons. Everything you do has a Speed, which brings me to the initiative system.

Each combat round consists of 20, half-second Counts on a combat tracker. Your initiative roll determines your starting space on the tracker. Then on your turn, the action you choose determines when you’ll go next. Every character has at least two actions per round.

You may initially be thinking, “oh, crap--phases ala Champions,” and you would be wrong. Instead you have to make strategic choices every time you act or react to someone else in the combat.

Example: You act on Count 2, your opponent on Count 7. Do you take an action that does more damage and give your opponent the chance to act next, or do you go for less damage, but give yourself two actions before your opponent? For your opponent, do they try to avoid your blow, pushing them down the combat tracker and giving you another chance to attack, or do they take the hit and hope for a killer comeback?

By default, the DGS uses no battle mat, but my sense is there’s little chance of falling into “I attack, I hit, I damage” with this system. And unlike other game systems, not using a mat won’t require a ton of GM fiat either.

I haven’t played it enough to give a final verdict on this, but I’m really excited to spend some time with it.

The chapter is rounded out with a three-round, one-on-one combat example. It does a great job of conveying what Eloy is going for with this combat system.

Chapter Six: Antagonists
There's a thorough selection of NPCs. There are also supernatural creatures, to include Spirits, Celestial Animals, and Oni. The stat blocks presented are pretty easy to read and understand--they’re neatly organized.

Barring something very specialized, there’s no reason a GM should ever need to fully stat up NPCs with what’s presented. That said, it’s my hope there will be a supplement to expand on the supernatural creatures, especially the Oni. I just wanted more.

Chapter Seven: Storytelling
This chapter is all about GMing. There are tips on theme and mood and recommendations for animated films to watch (for the record, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Naruto, and Basilisk). Also included are story hooks, based on the different styles of story the game is meant to be played with. The chapter is rounded out with some general “don’t be a dick”-style GM tips.

Between this chapter and everything else in the book, this game deftly avoids the trap so many games fall into: “so now what?” In Wu Xing, the “what” is clear.

The book is rounded out with a glossary of terms, a series of quick reference sheets for combat and fighting styles, character sheets, and an index. The index is serviceable, but not as detailed as I’d like (to be fair, most aren't).

This is my favorite Third Eye Games setting so far, which is saying something, since I edited the bulk of Part-Time Gods. I’ve loved them all, but this one fires on all cylinders for me. One of my favorite features is there’s no metaplot, just the setup. There are no secrets, which only the game master may know--another Good Thing(TM). The end result is players can read this book, cover-to-cover, and their understanding and enjoyment of the game can only be enhanced by doing so.

While I've mentioned the crunchiness and statiness (new word) of the game, the core mechanic of the game is simple--roll d20, add modifiers, beat target number. A deft GM could easily roll in the additional mechanics as needed, to a crunch-shy group.

I have two issues with this book: 1) It seems to me a game about a war should include mass combat rules. I know ninja battles are showcased as one-on-on events in anime and manga, but larger-scale skirmishes and battles are mentioned; so they should be represented by rules. 2) The editing in this book leaves much to be desired. There are times where I laughed for all the wrong reasons when I was reading.

If you’re looking for a blow-by-blow replacement for Legend of the Five Rings, you may be disappointed by Wu Xing. Further, avoid it if you weren’t excited about my description of initiative and combat. But if you love martial arts action, and authentic Eastern culture is a tough sell at your game table, this is a must buy. Heck, if you saw Avatar: The Last Airbender and loved it, go directly to your FLGS or Third Eye Games' store or RPGNow--do not pass go; do not collect $200.