Jadeclaw Capsule Review by Frank Sronce on 21/02/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
Jadeclaw: the anthro martial arts setting for Ironclaw
Author: Chuan Lin and a lot of other people
Company/Publisher: Sanguine Productions
Page count: 351
Year published: 2002
Comp copy?: no
Capsule Review by Frank Sronce on 21/02/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Anime Asian/Far East
Jadeclaw 351 pages
Standalone rulebook for a new setting using the Ironclaw system
Jadeclaw is the latest product put out by Sanguine Productions for their Ironclaw line. It's actually a stand-alone RPG, as Jadeclaw includes all of the rules necessary to play. While Ironclaw was set on the island of Calabria (which was very european in its layout), Jadeclaw is set in the distant land of Zhongguo, which is pretty much "mythic China".
Like Ironclaw, most of the races are anthropomorphic animals... Players can play Cats, Dogs, Wolves, Oxen... there's a big list. Jadeclaw also includes a number of races that would seem quite alien in Calabria; there are several varieties of intelligent birds, intelligent reptile races (tortiose and snake) and some mystical races... dragon, phoenix and quiling (what D&D called Ki-Rin).
Like Ironclaw, character attributes, skills, and special traits are generally represented by dice, rather than numbers, so a character might have a Body of d12 and a Speed of d8. Higher values are represented by adding additional dice, so the next step after d12 is d12 & d4. In most cases, you resolve an action by rolling all of the dice you can apply to that action and taking the highest number rolled as your result. For some tasks, you'll only be able to roll a single die... while for others, you might be rolling three or four.
The system is quite workable, albeit "quirky" in places. Damage rolls can be a little cumbersome, as they're handled a bit differently. You roll all of your damage dice, your opponent rolls all of his soak dice (generally his Body and any Armor dice he might have) and then they're compared to each other, one at a time, from highest to lowest. Whenever your die beats one of his, he takes one wound (2 wounds if you beat it by 5 or more).
If you've played the original Ironclaw, and didn't like the rules system, then you'll probably find most of the same problems here. Conversely, if you do like it, this will be a mild improvement. Jadeclaw's system is a little more polished in some places (for example, they fixed the overpowered "wrestling crush" maneuver from Ironclaw), but except for a few fixes and some better layout, it's pretty much the same system as in the "revised" Ironclaw rulebook.
Here's an example of one of the rules that some people dislike: bonuses to your roll increase the size of all of your dice, but penalties force you to roll multiple times and take the lowest result. Personally, I've adopted a house rule of leaving the dice alone, but modifying the result rolled instead (bonuses add to the result, penalties subtract) which I've found to work perfectly well, but I know some people prefer the standard method in the book. I've played both ways and they both work fine.
The standard traits for characters are Body, Mind, Will, Speed, Career (which is basically just a package of 4 skills that you've had training in) and Race (which represents your animal instincts and how good you are at tasks associated with your race). But the game also supports adding additional traits, which again, you get to roll whenever they'd apply to whatever you're doing. You buy additional traits as Gifts, and they're all the same cost. Now, personally, I had problems with these in Ironclaw... some of the additional traits were far more useful than others, despite being the same cost. But it's better in Jadeclaw... all of the traits here seem at least somewhat useful.
Aside from having the same set of trait dice to distribute at character creation (everyone starts with 1d12, 1d10, 2d8, 1d6, and 1d4 to put in whatever traits they want), characters are built with character points, and spend points on Skills, Gifts for extra abilities and take Flaws to help pay for stuff.
Several things really distinguish Jadeclaw from Ironclaw. First, as said before, there is a wider array of available races (we get birds, reptiles and fantastic creatures in addition to the standard mammals), although some of the standard Ironclaw races are absent. So while there are asian Elephants, there are no stats given for Rhinos. Extrapolating new races is easy, though.
Second, the setting is quite different. Zhongguo is an empire, ruling with the mandate of Heaven. Weather control magic is available, and they license new weather mages. It's a very oriental-mythic setting, definitely.
Thirdly, it's got lots and lots of rules for martial arts. These range from the Empty Hand traits (all of which apply to Brawling, damage done with bare-handed attacks, a lore skill, and one other useful skill) to various Advantages, Defenses, Manuevers, Exploits, and Special Attacks. "Martial Arts" here, doesn't mean just unarmed combat. There are loads of martial art maneuvers for weapon-using PCs to pick up.
Characters must first qualify for these advantages, then purchase them individually with their starting character points or with experience points. Even some of the low-level ones require that you have at least a d12 & d4 rating in some skill before you can purchase the manuevers at all.
Advantages are abilities that you purchase that aren't directly related to attacking or defending. These are things like Quick Draw (draw a weapon without leaving yourself exposed) or Blind Melee Fighting (requires very keen ears, but allows you to fight in the dark at no penalties if you can hear properly).
Defenses are new maneuvers that you can use to deflect incoming attacks. The standard ones are things like Dodge, Parry and Block. Some of the optional ones are Handler's Secrets (lets you roll Speed & Animal Handling to dodge the attacks of an unintelligent animal) or Portentousness (allows you to use your Mind & Second Sight dice to dodge attacks). There aren't very many.
Maneuvers are new actions that you can take during combat, like Aim on the Draw (aim and fire as a single action that takes the entire round) or Climbing the Mountain (run into a wall, backflip off of it, and launch an attack at someone who was pursuing you).
"Exploits" are manuevers that you can only use when someone else attacks you in melee and misses you by 5 or more points. Basically, they can only be used when you parry or dodge an attack so well that your opponent is left exposed to a counter-attack. For example, if you have a Race of at least d8, it only costs 1 point to be able to automatically hit such an exposed opponent with a natural weapon.
When you hit someone with an attack and beat their defense by 5 or more, you always get some sort of "Special" result that improves the effect of your attack. Each weapon in Jadeclaw has a standard Special (some just do extra damage, others ignore part of the target's armor, or something else). The martial arts let weapons experts improve the Special results of those weapons. For example, a sword normally lets you choose whether to inflict an additional d6 damage with a hit, or ignore the target's smallest armor die. The "Cut-and-Thrust" Special (available only to expert swordsmen) lets you inflict both special results with the same hit (extra d6 AND ignores smallest armor die).
The martial arts maneuvers are broken up into Basic martial arts (easy to qualify for), Expert martial arts (you generally need a d12 & d4 rating or better in some skill), Heroic martial arts (you need 2d12 & d4, a skill no starting character could ever have), and then the Secret martial arts, where you have to be a member of a particular school of combat to learn them. The Secret schools can be very, very powerful... some of their maneuvers require Legendary (3d12 & d4) or even Mythic (4d12 & d4) skill in multiple skills before you can learn them. Which is a good thing- those martial arts techniques are very powerful.
I wanted to see if they had Squirrels in the standard races, and they seem to have dropped them from Jadeclaw. That may be just as well. Squirrels were good at Acrobatics, Climbing and Jumping, and thus would qualify for a whole lot of martial arts maneuvers just by having a decent Race die. Now I want to write up a squirrel Sword-Dancer sometime...
The martial arts are very cinematic and "over-the-top". For example, Death from Above costs 1 character point and requires Acrobatics, Climbing and Jumping of d10 or better. You also have to be unencumbered. Basically, you do a big spinning jump over your opponent's head and land behind them, then stab them in the back. What's "cinematic" about it is that there isn't actually any roll necessary to pull this off... if your attack hits, you end up behind them, otherwise you stay in front of them. But unless you botched the attack roll (which probably won't include Acrobatics or Jumping anyway), you always land on your feet and never slip and fall down. You don't have to roll Acrobatics or Jumping or anything else besides the attack roll (which gets a 1 bonus because it's a back attack).
That's good in some ways... if you regularly slipped up and landed on your butt, this move wouldn't really be worth learning. But if you don't want "over-the-top", unrealistic martial arts moves, you'd better prohibit almost all of the martial arts techniques in your game. These moves are generally cheap and well worth it. What master swordsman wouldn't spend one character point to double the bonus of his sword critical hits? Or what huge barbarian wouldn't want to spend one point on Sundering Blow, which permanently damages the target's armor on a critical hit?
And the Secret Schools are, in some ways, even more powerful. The career of Sword-Dancer ends up applying to their parry rolls with swords twice. The career of Vagrant-Warrior applies to every melee weapon and lets you learn special manuevers that are less accurate but inflict extra damage. Some of the schools seem like they are right out of kung-fu movies, like Drunken-Fist style, or the Secret Kicks of Dinh-Son. The "Forest Ghost" school even teaches the Dim Mak (death touch), which luckily is a Legendary Special, and thus way, way out of a starting character's reach.
The eight Empty-Hand techniques are subtly powerful. At low levels, you'd be better off hitting your target with your claws. At mid levels, you'd probably still be better off increasing your Body rating (which is included with damage in melee) than boosting your Empty-Hand trait. But since Empty-Hand applies to both attack rolls and the damage done, at high levels it can be superior to just increasing your Body or Speed alone. Each one also has a "weakness"... some skill that your opponent can include with his Soak rolls that he wouldn't normally be able to. For example, the Chi method (which originated as a breath-control technique) teaches you how to strike your opponent such that all of the air is driven out of their lungs. The target gets to include their Breath-Holding skill with their Soak, if they have it.
So the Empty-Hand techniques are kind of nicely balanced. In general, whatever the extra skill that the trait applies to IS, your opponent will get to apply that same skill to their soak rolls. So the Ti method, which applies to Brawling, Empty-Hand damage, Ti Lore, and Dodge, sounds good at first... Dodge is an important skill to have. But whenever you use your Empty-Hand attack on someone, they'll get to include their Dodge skill in the defense, and almost every warrior has some Dodge skill. You might be better off with the Chi method, because warriors only rarely worry about taking the Breath-Holding skill.
The martial arts moves look cool, and having run regular Ironclaw, I think they'd add variety and action to the combat system, without being too unbalanced. I wouldn't introduce them into my regular Ironclaw game though, at least not without tripling or quadrupling the point costs first. They just don't fit into the "grittier" setting of Calabria.
Okay, time to look at the magic system. This is the standard Ironclaw system for the most part. Mages have magic points equal to their Will trait and the sum of the magical careers. Your career gets you access to a list of available spells, each with its own magic point cost and difficulty rating. One important difference, though- unlike Ironclaw, the magic point cost is NOT almost always equal to the number of dice in the difficulty. There are a LOT of spells that have different costs. This allows them to be more flexible in their spell designs, but makes the spells harder to for players to memorize.
There are three standard "wizard" careers, each with a different spell list. The Dao Shih is pretty much the Elementalist from Ironclaw, but with 5 eastern elements (earth, fire, metal, water, and wood) instead of the standard western 4 (earth, fire, water, and air). The Fah Shih work with "supernatural laws" and get a wide variety of spells, including some weather control magic. The Shen Qing work with people's personal nature, usually either enhancing or weakening aspects of it.
The spell lists are huge, compared to Ironclaw. The Apprentice Fah Shih list has 21 spells, and getting to the Journeyman Fah Shih list (another 36 spells) requires you to master 8 spells off of the apprentice list. That's a huge expansion over the Ironclaw lists, which were mostly 8 spells per level, and you had to master 5 of them to get access to spells of the next level. And while Ironclaw broke up the lists into Apprentice, Journeyman and Master, the Fah Shih list adds Grand Master spells, while the Dao Shih actually has 5 levels (but fewer spells per list).
Now I do have a few qualms about the way they organized the spell listings. Ironclaw grouped them all by the type of magic they were, and then further divided them by the level (apprentice, journeyman, or master). Well, in Jadeclaw they couldn't do that. Several spells show up on multiple lists (for example, both Dao Shih and Shen Qing can learn "Flooding Deluge"). So instead, they put them all in alphabetical order and lumped them all together. This is good if you're trying to find a particular spell by name, but bad if you want to peruse what sort of magic a particular school is good at. There are a whopping 42 pages of spells here. It's a huge list, especially when you see how minimal the descriptions are. Each page tends to have 4-5 spells on it.
The vast number of spells they squeezed into these pages unfortunately means that the descriptions are skimpy. And some spells are very repetitive. For example, there are 12 Twice-fold Bounty of [Magic type] spells here. All of them work exactly the same way (pay one magic point now to get 2 mp for the casting of certain spells later). That's not really bad, per se... they wanted one for each spell type, and they are all separate spells that you have to learn individually, but it is somewhat repetitive.
Which does bring up something I really do like about the Jadeclaw system- they actually label each spell with what "kinds" of magic it's associated with. This is important, as spells like the Twice-fold Bounty of Weather gives you a bonus with any spell marked as a Weather spell. A lot of spells will have multiple types listed. For example, "The Turning Point" (an odd spell that reverses the mental state(s) of a group of targets) is considered Earth magic, Thunder magic, and Unholy magic. Any spell which boosts or weakens any of those will affect "The Turning Point".
Another set of meta-magic spells are the Auras. The Aura spells are broken up by the duration of the Aura (does it last for a single spell, does last for minutes, etc) and the type of spell it works on. There's a big chart showing the effects of each Aura on different kinds of Magic. For example, the simple Aura of Protection gives you additional resistance dice against every type of spell except for Healing. The Aura of Progress makes it easier to cast every single kind of spell. The Aura of Earth, on the other hand, makes Earth magic stronger, protects you from Heaven and Water magic, makes casting Metal spells easier, and leaves you more vulnerable to Wood magic. The dread Aura of Weakness makes you more vulnerable to every kind of magic except Healing, which it makes you more resistant too. It's a good thing that they have this chart, because the effects are quite varied.
A lot of the spells are slight variations on spells from regular Ironclaw, but with such a huge spell list, it would be kind of surprising if there weren't similarities.
Now while many of the spells are really cool... and like the martial arts, the very high level spells are much more powerful than anything you'd get in regular Ironclaw... this section is heavily marred by typos. It's a pity- it really kind of seems like they rushed the final design out without enough final proof-reading. There are a lot of typos. There are a lot of "copy and paste" errors, where it's clear that they copied an already written entry and changed a few bits... but forgot to change others. In the rest of the book, these errors don't really detract from the text, but here we've lost at least one spell entirely. Others have truncated entries, which makes it difficult to be sure that we've seen the entire description.
For example, the Wall spell creates a rampart of earth, but neglects to inform you what the game effects are. It's probably not too hard to guess... I imagine that it creates a wall of earth with 3d12 soak, but the spell description is cut off and doesn't say. Worse, under the "effect" heading, which is supposed to give you a one-line summary of the spell's game effects, it says "Makes the next spell you cast a Delayed one", which is clearly a cut & paste error since it has nothing to do with the spell in question.
Calling Down the Rain is lost completely... it's description is an exact duplicate of the Controlling the Rivers spell. Basically, there's gonna be a lot of errata for this section.
Through most of the book, the occasional typo isn't really harmful. It's very clear what the authors intended... no one would mistakenly believe that the Iron Fan skill really lets you use clubs, too. Or that the Fencing skill was also intended to include that line about being able to use axes. So in most parts of the book, the occasional typo doesn't really cause any harm. But since the spells are so sparsely described, errors here really put a lot of critical things (the cost, the difficulty, the effect) into question.
There are also spells that (due to the minimal descriptions) are poorly explained. For example, many spells mention a duration "determined by the Resistance Test". This sounds like the duration is based upon how many points you failed the test by, but I never could find any rules explaining how it worked.
There are also a bunch of spells that seem kind of poorly considered to me. For example, there are some "Group" spells that only affect whichever target in the group rolled worst to resist. For example, the text of Misfortune of Water says that whoever in the group rolls lowest starts to drown, and suffers 1 fatigue per turn until the spell wears off... and, of course, the duration is "dictated by the Resistance Test", which I was never able to find a clear explanation for. Worse, the one-line summary of the spell's effect indicates that everyone in the target group must resist or start drowning (not just whoever rolled worst), a much more powerful effect.
There are also spells like Oppression, which I know how works solely because I've seen similar spells (explained in detail) in other supplements. The description says this: Group must test Body, Speed, Mind, Will and Race vs 6d8 or become Asleep / Paralyzed / Confused / Afraid / Berserk. That's about all it says. Because I've seen similar spells elsewhere, I know that if you fail to resist the spell, you suffer the effect linked with the die that rolled lowest. So if your Body was lowest, you fall asleep, if your Speed roll was lowest, you become Paralyzed, etc. I just don't think that this would be obvious to someone who'd never seen a similar spell before. I suspect there was supposed to be more explanation, and it got left out by accident.
Still, from my past experience with Ironclaw, I'd call the magic system quite workable. There are a bunch of cool spells (like Cloud-Vaulting, which lets you travel huge distances by jumping from cloud to cloud. Or Net, which entangles a group in magical, barbed nets). I didn't see any obviously overpowered ones, except perhaps Earthquake, which really deserves a higher difficulty than 2d6 for the ability to trash a town. Amusingly, the description does mention that the spell is regulated by law, so presumably the government frowns heavily on abuse of it.
Jadeclaw doesn't have any really fancy elements like a spell construction system, but it's got a straightforward and usable magic point system. In fact, since you can become "Adept" at a spell to avoid having to roll to cast it, you can even make mages with very low Mind and career scores and still be a powerful mage, so long as you master all of your spells.
But all in all, the spell listing is probably the low point of the book. The minimal descriptions and the poor editing means that there are a lot of spells whose exact effect is unclear, or which could really use more explanation. And while I agree that the spell names have a very Eastern sound to them, it really makes it hard to get a handle on at times. What would you expect "The Pheasant Crying Out In Darkness" to do? Did you think that it temporarily blinded a single target? How about "The Tenacity of the Worker"? Still, most of the spells are not so awkwardly named. And I'm sure that with sufficient exposure, I'd end up memorizing them all. But I'd expect a lot of flipping through the book at first.
Now for something better- the experience section has a lot more detail than the original game on what things characters can improve, and what sort of in-game rationale they need to have to do so. They also slap limits on things like increasing your Body, which always seemed kind of odd in regular Ironclaw, since increasing your Body always meant that you got taller, too. I like the fact that they give good advice here, and offer suggestions for ways people could justify some of the odder things, like purchasing the Second Sight trait.
The history section details the background of Zhongguo, the forming of the empire, the various dynasties that ruled it, up to the modern-day setting. This is fairly detailed, considering how long the history of Zhongguo stretches back. The section after that details the many states that make up Zhongguo, with short descriptions of major cities, landmarks, and the names of some of the nobles that rule it. This area all seems very well written. A few typos, but nothing major, and well detailed. It also has maps of each area (a huge plus) and a map of the capital city of Majing. There's also a full continent map that ties all of the states together... it even show the path taken by trading ships heading to the distant island of Calabria, in case you want to cross over into the regular Ironclaw setting. I should mention those inset maps again- it's really nice to be able to see where all of the local landmarks mentioned actually are. A definite plus, and I hope they start doing this with future Ironclaw supplements, too.
The included adventure is so-so. It's kind of marred by some missing text. The villain's stronghold is incompletely described; he has some hostages, but we get no description of how they are guarded or locked up. It also never says how many guards he has available for the big fight. The plot also has a few inconsistencies, but otherwise isn't too bad. The authors are also sure to mention multiple solutions for most of the events, something I always prefer to see. It's definitely playable as is, but the gaps in the description of the villain's lair do hurt.
The NPC writeups looked fine, except, again for some minor typos. I'm pretty sure that "Invent new devices and gadgets" was NOT intended to be one of the primary motivations for the local peasants. Nothing really damaging, though.
After that is the first appendix, which is the bestiary. It details a lot of minor animals found in Zhongguo. This is a really nice addition; in Ironclaw, you had to wait for the supplements. These include ordinary animals (like the Bu zai-ya, which sounds like a kind of carp), riding beasts of various sorts (like the cavalry unit mainstay, the Zhong xi-yi) and dangerous predators (like the vicious lizards known as Gui wu). The art here is kind of substandard, and doesn't always match the descriptions, but it gives you the general idea of what each creature is like.
The second appendix covers supernatural beings, including Ghosts, other Undead, and the "Five Vermin"... magical beasts associated with dark emotions and particular elements. These are the Centipede, the Scorpion, the Spider, the Toad, and the Viper. These make excellent villains, and all have a permanent Aura of a particular element, making them very specialized but powerful mages if they know any magic. These are very cool, and would make excellent enemies for your PCs.
The third appendix lists all of the Abnormal states that are used in play, and their game effects. These are nice, especially since it summarizes all of the rules for things like being Berserk, Blinded, Confused, Drunk, etc., all in one place.
The fourth appendix (as has been common in the other Ironclaw books) describes a kind of secret (and in this case, highly illegal for most PCs) magic in the setting. This is Dragon magic, and the spells are actually pretty cool. For example, "Chiwen Gazes into the Distance" lets the caster extend his line of sight as far as he likes. Traditionally, you cast this sort of spell from a mountaintop, then peer at some distant landmark that you're interested in. You'll be able to see it as clearly as if you were there. There's also a "secret twist" to this magic (which requires learning the last spell in this section), but I'd prefer to consider it a "spoiler" and not go into detail. Suffice it to say that I particularly liked this section.
The fifth appendix (a really short one) describes how to pronounce these very foreign-looking words in english. A really nice addition if you want everyone to pronounce Cao xi-yi the same way.
Then they have a full-sized index. Yes, an index. That's always a major point in a book's favor in my opinion. Unless it's completely messed up, and this one isn't. Oh, I haven't checked every entry (and I did come across one term that was missing and probably ought to have been there), but it looks good.
Finally, we have the blank character sheet. It's a cleaned-up version of the standard Ironclaw sheet, and is quite servicable (although if your PC carries a lot of equipment, you will need an extra sheet- there isn't much space for gear).
Hm. Let's see... what haven't I covered?
The Equipment and Services section is extensive and well done. I particularly like the fact that for every weapon (ie- Flail) there is a section describing different kinds of flails. It's nice to see the wide selection, and it's always good to have details like the common names, Zhonggese names, and a detailed description for each type. For example, just under Flails, we have the Four-Section Staff, the Iron-Chain-Link-Club, the Soft Hammer, the Sweep or Broom, the Three-Section Staff, and the Steel Whip. And all of the necessary details for each weapon are contained in a table above it, including the reach, strength requirements, cost, and availability. There are even tiny sketches of many of the weapons, especially the ones that are difficult to describe. For example, the description of the "Sun-Moon" blade is detailed and accurate, but hard to imagine; having a little sketch showing how the two blades cross over each other makes me go "Oh! I see it now!"
Armor in Zhongguo isn't as good as the armor available in Calabria, but that fits the setting just fine. Guns are also almost unknown here, so there are no stats for them. The only ones in the setting would be imported from Calabria, and thus would require the Ironclaw book. The miscellaneous equipment is a nice, long list, too and covers a wide variety of common goods.
The art is a good mix, if strongly stylized in places. I liked almost all of it, but I had some players who hated it. It's all pretty high quality, with only a few exceptions, in my opinion, but it's not "typical" fantasy art, and may not suit everyone. If you buy books based on the art, I'd advise you to flip through a copy and make your own decision. Your mileage will definitely vary. Anyway, it's almost all line-art, and is all strictly black and white except for the cover art.
There are also several "mini-comics" spread throughout the volume. Some of these I really liked... and a couple were uninspiring. But I think that even the bad ones helped depict the setting well, and would help you get a handle on it.
The section on GM advice is high quality. I don't think it says anything that a good GM won't know already, but it's excellent advice for a novice, and a good reminder even for an experienced GM. It even has a section listing "player types" and the good and bad about each. It also lists the "common pitfalls" of Gming, like "Guided Tours" (the PCs don't really do anything, just wander through the plot as spectators), "Cooler-Than-You" (the Gm's favorite NPC is just better than the PCs at everything, and "Mandatory Skill Roll" (the adventure will hinge on one roll or one particular skill the PCs may lack). As I said, nothing really revolutionary or wonderful, but good, solid Gming advice that doesn't strike me as pretentious or insulting.
I've both run and played Ironclaw, and while I've made some modifications to the rules to fit my own tastes, the rules as is are certainly serviceable.
Jadeclaw is a fantasy anthropomorphic game of martial arts action and esoteric magic. It's set in a kind of "mythic China" locale and has a huge amount of area for the PCs to explore. There's no overwhelming "meta-plot" or anything like that, so a campaign will depend on the creativity of the GM, but at least future supplements aren't likely to conflict with your own game.
Overall, I like it. The "martial arts action" looks like the kind of thing I'd gladly play, even if I'd probably never run it. My ongoing Ironclaw game is more my style. Unfortunately, Jadeclaw is marred by poor editing, but I think a page or two of errata would probably cover all of the gaps.
I give it a 4 for substance and a 4 for style. The substance rating would have been higher, but I just couldn't give them a full 5 with the poor editing.