Swords of the Middle Kingdom
The genre of samurai fantasy is well catered for, not least by Legend of the Five Rings RPG. However, ancient China has just as rich legends and traditions, and if Japan's tales are dominated by samurai honour, bushido, then China's are rather more free-wheeling, and generally about outlaw heroes fighting corruption, injustice or foreign rule. Previous works such as GURPS China have not yet managed to capture the spirit of such films as 'Chinese Ghost Story' and the excellent TV series the 'Water Margin'.
Now Event Horizons, building on the 'Cinemaction' system used in their 'Hong Kong Action Theatre!', have come up with a game which, despite some rough edged and dubious production values, manages to conjure up that superheroic genre, melodramatic, over the top, and very, very fun.
China -- sorry, Wulin -- is groaning under the yoke of the evil but efficient Manchu, barbarian conquerors from beyond the Great Wall. The characters are typically members of the underground kung fu sects, each of which has its own distinctive ideas, fighting style and ambitions, ready to fight for the restoration of the Heaven's Law to Wulin, challenge the Manchu, protect the downtrodden, battle magical monsters, and above all deal out some serious kung fu mayhem.
Reflecting its roots in HKAT!, the system is very cinematic, simple but designed to encourage heroism and drama. Consider combat: the anonymous mooks, spear-carrying extras and the like, are easy to hit and easier to take down. Characters can wade through them in fine style, picking them up and hurling them at the reinforcements, skewering five on a spear, whatever. The more important NPCs are to the overall plot, the tougher, the harder to hit and the more powers at their disposal. Furthermore, characters can try 'stunts', ranging from the relatively mundane (in movie terms!), like catching an arrow in the air, to the ridiculous: pushing someone off a cliff, taking something off them, and then catching a window ledge on the way down! There are also rules for posedowns (attempts to intimidate an opponent), and chases, the staples of action movies. Characters can also use their Hero Points (experience points), not just for the usual improving of stats or skills, but to introduce minor or major script re-writes. A minor re-write would be, for example, discovering a loose bar in the window of your cell, while a major re-write would be to find that the jailor was your long-lost brother.
As a result, I found that players accustomed to more 'realistic games take a short while to get acclimatised to the more rip-roaring style of SMK. However, they quickly come to appreciate not just the speed and flexibility of the system, but also the greater opportunities to play an active part in shaping the game, with plot re-writes, by coming up with exciting stunts and generally by playing shapers of Wulin. The result has been games which are not only great fun, but also encourage players to engage fully with the game, coming up with their own ideas and indulging in shameless melodrama.
It does have to be said that the quality of production is a bit of a let down. Typoes abound, some of the art is of very poor quality, and stills from wuxia action films are often unclear. But this hardly detracts from the game. For a game which packs as much of a punch as its kung fu heroes, in a world of colour and adventure, this is very strongly recommended.
Style: 2 (Needs Work)