Wuxia is a cinematic chinese martial arts game by Montreal-based gamer publisher Studio Mammouth. The review that follows is based on the french version of the game. The company’s website
states that it should be available in english fairly soon, and the two reps that were present at the game’s official launch told me that the system had not been revised for the english version. Translation aside, the following should therefore give you a good idea what to expect from the english version of the game. Keep in mind, however, that some of the terms I’ll use here might not be the exact terms used in the english version of the game, as I am translating the french terms myself for the purpose of this review.
While I got to try Wuxia at the game’s launch, I still consider this review to be a capsule review, as the two hours or so I had to try it out were not enough for me to consider this a playtest. Still, let it be known that the overall system is fairly straight-forward and plays very much like you’d expect it too.
For comparison purposes on the topic of asian / far east games, I would like to state that I have both read and played Feng Shui and Weapons of the Gods, that I have read Legend of the Five Rings, Jade Claw and Sengoku, but that I have not had the chance to pursue either Qin : The Warring States nor Hong Kong Action Theater!. I am also somewhat of an asian movie buff, and I have seen somewhere around 20 or 30 different kung fu movies, both mainstream and less well known.
Style : An overall impression.
Physically, Wuxia is sturdy and well-formatted. Its size is your standard RPG format, and the game is 163 pages thick. The font size is reasonably small, and the margins do not go to waste – there are more than enough words for your buck. The only problem on that front is the character sheet, which gets repeated twice. The binding seems well-done, too. The layout is moderately appealing, with the choice of fonts setting the mood well without failing to be readable.
On the visual side, Wuxia holds its own as well. The sober front cover – red and white with “Wuxia” written both in roman letters and chinese characters – sets the game’s mood quite nicely. The black and white illustrations inside the book, of which there are plenty, are pretty good for such a small-press game. The coolest thing, however, is how they saw it fit to bless us with pictures of the most exotic melee weapons listed in the equipment chapter. A picture is worth a thousand words, and weird weapons in RPG rulebooks more often than not lack those required thousand words to describe them properly.
The book’s prose is actually pretty good. The intro story (or stories, as there are a few of them across the bulk of Wuxia’s text) do not enter the realm of the hideously bad, which is all that I ask from an RPG rulebook. The rules and setting information themselves are written in a straight-forward fashion; dry enough for the content to be clear, but not so dry that you feel like you’re reading a rocket-science textbook. Just right. Hopefully, it’ll remain so in the translation to english.
Substance : Chapter by chapter.
Short and very average game fiction aside, the book jumps right in with “Chapter 1 : Martial Arts Cinema”. Beginning with a short history of martial arts in china, it follows will several pages dealing with the evolution of the chinese martial arts movie, beginning with the 1930s. Throughout those pages, the authors distinguish between two sub-genres, wu xia pian and kung fu pian, each with their own particularities. The chapter ends with a few paragraphs on the dominant themes of each sub-genre.
Overall, the first chapter sets the table quite well despite the lack of a standard introduction on what a roleplaying game is (more on this at the end of the review, however). The challenge with games based on a specific literary or cinematic genre is always to convey the feel of the genre to people who might not be die-hard fans already. Wuxia rises to the challenge here. It also feels like the authors did quite a bit of research - which is nice. However, they do not cite their sources, which is a shame. I have what you could call a basic distrust of geeks: being one myself, I know all too well how much we can talk through our respective asses and still manage to sound knowledgeable. Therefore, I find this lack of sources disturbing as it drives me to doubt the accuracy of the “facts” presented in the first chapter. Keeping in mind that Wuxia is not supposed to be an encyclopedia, however, this is a very good chapter that serves the rest of the rulebook quite well.
The second chapter, called “Chapter 2 : The Middle Kingdom”, addresses China as a campaign setting. It starts with the history of the land, from its mythic creation right up to 1911 and creation of the first Republic. From there, it goes on to describe Chinese society in its four basic aspects: the family unit, the caste system, the imperial court, and the territorial governance. According to the book, the details on society are the most exact when used during the Ming dynasty era, but can be considered relatively accurate for the bulk of China’s history, spanning from the Han dynasty to the end of the Qing dynasty. Finally, the Middle Kingdom’s major belief systems (Daoism, Buddhism, and Confucianism) are given a few paragraphs each, detailing for each their origins, their main principles, and their relation to “gods” or divine figures.
Short yet still packed with relevant information, the best term to describe the second chapter is “just enough”. You’re given just enough information to get a good grasp of the setting, without being overwhelmed by a legion of trivial details that you’ll never use – something that a good deal of games are guilty of. The only problem I have with this chapter is the same I had with the previous one – while it certainly feels well researched, the authors failed to cite their sources.
Chapter three deals with character creation and is consequently called “Chapter 3 : Character Creation”. Basically, the game offers two different ways to create characters. The first method offers various archetypes where you simply have to fill in a few blanks. Ten archetypes are provided in the rulebook: Ambitious Mandarin, Daoist Alchemist, Mysterious Rebel, Travelling Adventurer, Knight Errant, Heroic Magistrate, Ghost Hunter, Impetuous Monk, Terrifying Warrior, and Old Soldier. Apart from the Terrifying Warrior which I fail to recognize as part of the genre, all other nine archetypes are very much in touch with the genre convention of the chinese martial arts movie. Each one fits in a single page, complete with a bit of flavour text and an illustration.
The second method is a point-based system that starts off with the player choosing priorities in a way that’s very similar to early editions of Shadowrun. The players have to split a certain amount of “priority points” among five different categories : Type & Powers, Attributes, Proficiencies, Traits, and Experience. The following paragraphs will take the time to explain each priority, as the authors have chosen to explain the basics of the system, called Persona, throughout character creation. I’ll need you to bear with me here, as Wuxia is a textbook example of how the devil is in the details. The basic design of the game is pretty standard, but it’s the little things that ultimately harm the game in some cases, and make it somewhat innovative in others. Therefore, an accurate review requires going into those details. If you lack patience, I invite you to scroll down to the final section of my review. It’s going to be a long read – consider yourself warned.
Characters can be of five basic types, to which is associated a different amount of creation points to be spent on powers : warrior (20 points), monk (30 points), knight (40 points), assassin (50 points), sorcerer (60 points). Were I to nitpick, I’d point out that the term knight does not really fit the genre, and that assassin is a rather awkward term to use for what is basically just stealthy characters, but that’s beside the point. No, the real problem with the “type & powers” category is that it dictates both what kind of powers you’ll have access to and how many powers you’ll be allowed to buy. By fusing those two categories together in the priority system, the game designers have basically limited the kind of characters you can create. Goodbye failed apprentice of a sorcerer, goodbye young rebellious monk that flees from his sutra lessons to learn obscure but powerful kung fu techniques in secret. The most annoying thing about this odd feature is that, frankly, there is no reason for it, as the powers for each character-type are fairly equivalent in terms of game balance. I would’ve much rather been told to assign a priority to powers, and asked to choose one character type. As for the powers themselves, they are detailed fully in a later chapter.
Attributes are the first basic unit of the game’s system. Nominally, there’s nothing surprising about them – it’s ye olde obligatory five chinese elements that has now become a standard trope of asian-themed gaming. Mechanically, each attribute (rating between 1 and 10 for humans) constitutes a pool of d10s that you have to roll against a target number (usually 10) whenever you try to accomplish something.
Proficiencies are split into three categories – crafts, professions, and hobbies. Crafts and professions are the exact same thing except that crafts are supposedly physical and professions are supposedly academic. Those two types of proficiencies are widely encompassing of related skills. For instance, the proficiency craftsman – let’s say the craft is pottery – includes keeping a budget, building the tools needed to practice the craft, finding the materials, and negotiating the selling price of your product. While I very much agree with this way of handling skills as it keeps things nice and simple, it blows apart the distinction between crafts as physical pursuits and professions as intellectual ones, thus rendering it pointless. Hobbies, however, are different as they are simply much narrower skills – cheaper to buy, but less versatile. Were I to take “Potter” as a hobby, for instance, I could be very good at making pots but I would not have access to all those nifty related skills I get if I take it as a craft, nor would I be allowed to take specialisations. In any case, all types of proficiencies are mechanically handled the same way: their rating (again between 1 and 10 in most cases) are subtracted from the target number.
Here comes the clever part, though. Specialisations (because, hey, what game doesn’t have those?) do not add to your proficiency rating. Rather, they allow you to re-roll a certain number of dice that did not manage to come up a success (i.e.: equal or above the target number). How is that clever? I’m glad you asked. In most games, a specialisation is merely a way to cheaply raise your proficiency (or skill) by one increment; therefore, only one specialisation is usually allowed per skill. Not in Wuxia. As it simply allows you to re-roll, you can specialise in multiple areas (or even more than once in the same area) as much as you want without it off-setting the game balance. More than a cool feature, it’s something that’s very much in genre as martial arts stories are filled with characters that are average in martial arts as a whole but have complete mastery over a very specific weapon or two – something that’s allowed by having access to multiple specialisations. Finally, the proficiency list (considering their broad nature) is fairly extensive, with each one having several possible specialisations listed.
Traits are also handled in an interesting way. As a starting point, you are asked to choose your (chinese) astrological sign. You’re supposed to choose one that fits your character’s personality, which is fairly easy as the twelve signs cover the basics. The sign you’ve chosen gives you access to your first trait, which is the unique trait (i.e.: one that cannot be purchased) of that sign. As traits give a mechanical advantage (more about this below) while still being related to the personality of the character, this is a fine way to bring that personality to the foreground in the course of play in a way that’s mechanically meaningful. The creation points you bought in the priority-setting phase of the character creation then allow you to buy other traits, which are also classified under the various astrological signs. It bears mentioning that the traits are given colourful names like “Treasure of the Dragon” or “Pride of the Rooster”. While those kind of names can sometimes make it hard for you to remember when they’re supposed to come into play, they’re evocative and colourful enough that you can just outright mention one of your traits in-character without it sounding like you’re referring to the system.
There are two problems with traits, however. First, the traits you buy are split between innate traits (which can only be bought during character creation) and learned traits, which can be bought either now or later in the game with experience points. As far as I can see, that divide is needlessly complicated, and needlessly limiting on character development later on in the game. Second, whenever you buy the three traits listed under a specific astrological sign, you automatically gain the unique trait for that sign – just as if you were born under that sign. Somehow, I feel like this cheapens the whole concept of a unique trait you get based on your personality. Anyhow. Mechanically, most traits work like specialisations. Under special circumstances, they allow you to re-roll a certain number of dice that failed to come up equal or above the target number.
In the same section as traits are dramas. Basically, dramas are a mix of flaws and issues that inhabit a character, thus providing the player with roleplaying opportunities. Whenever the GM brings a drama into play, the player may be awarded a certain number of destiny dice (more on those below) based on how interesting the GM judges the roleplay to be. That sort of GM-centric approach is fine when taking up chinks in your character’s armor is balanced by awarding the player some extra points to use during character generation or simply by the fact that they can earn you bonuses during play – destiny dice, in this case. The problem with Wuxia’s dramas, however, is that their design goals are all over the place. Every character gets one drama for free, and can buy others with creation points dedicated to traits. Paying for negative aspects of a character, in my opinion, harkens to a less GM-centric style of play where you either collect on the mechanical bonus every time the negative stuff happens, or where you get to bring it into play yourself for purpose of character development. Or both. Here, we get a dysfunctional hybrid where you pay up but still surrender control over to the GM. That makes paying creation points for dramas a bad idea, no matter how you cut it.
Likewise, the idea of setting “experience” as a priority doesn’t make much sense. In the five priorities listed above at the start of character creation, one of the priorities is experience. Basically, your character starts with experience points (XP, from here on) that you get to spend on further attributes, proficiencies, and traits for your character. They do not get you any sort of new stuff – it’s just more points to spend. Up until this point, character creation was nice and clean. The only thing setting XP as a priority achieves is making it more complicated. That needless complication, however, isn’t nearly as bad as the other rule concerning experience points at character creation, which had me completely flabbergasted and bleeding through my ears. Basically, if a player takes up the responsibility of bringing “something artistic” (like a character journal, or sketches, or music composed for the game) every game session, he gets another 50 XP at character creation if the GM considers your creation to be good enough. That “something artistic” must be given to the GM at the beginning of each game session. If, for some reason, the player stops bringing said “something artistic”, he is imposed a 75 XP penalty that he’ll be required to pay before being allowed to spend any further XP on his character. (Hopefully, a GM Viking Hat will be included with the english version.) Honestly, if a GM ever pulled that one after I had spent several hours of my time coming up with stuff for the campaign, I would probably take my dice and leave. As far as bad ideas go, this one is pretty far out there.
Finally, all that’s left to do is determine secondary attributes. You have wound thresholds, which are basically reverse hit points. You note the damage you receive, and once it reaches a number higher than a wound threshold (Heavily Wounded, Critically Wounded, Unconscious, and Dead), you get some kind of penalty to your tests. An odd feature of the way wounds are calculated is that some characters can end up having an “unconscious” threshold that’s lower than the “critically wounded” threshold; in other words, the character swoons before he’s critically wounded. Although I can see where the authors are coming from on that one, I am left wondering whether or not easily swooned characters are in-synch with the genre the game’s supposed to emulate. Likewise, the panic thresholds are equally out of synch with most of the chinese martial arts movies genre, apart from a few ones related to ghosts. It’s a shame, because the mechanic here is very well done. The character accumulates fear points just like wound points, and they’re compared to various thresholds. While it’s simple enough, the fact that you can spend chi dice (more on those below) to stay in the fight even what you really want is run away awards a bit more control over a monster special effect that often ends up feeling disempowering for the player. Likewise, another clever bit is when you get scared enough that you simply must run away, chi dice or no chi dice. When that happens, you note that you’ve been driven to panic by this monster on your character sheet, and you start off with a fear point already the next time you meet it, up until you manage to defeat the monster. Once again, a nice touch that makes this basic mechanic more interesting than it first appears to be.
A whole other bunch of secondary attributes also come along. Each character get a free destiny die (which will be explained further, I swear). They also get chi dice, which get called chi dice despite the fact that they’re used exclusively as points to be spent and not as actual dice. In the huge majority of cases, those chi dice will be used to activate powers. Sadly, chi dice are an example of incoherent design in more ways than just the name. The number of chi dice each character gets is equal to half the sum of their attributes. What that means is that you might very well end up with a character that has a buttload of powers but very few chi to power them if you did not put a high enough priority on your attributes. Once again, as with the “type & powers” issue mentioned above, the possible variety of characters that can be created gets limited for no good reason by the system. Goodbye sickly daoist alchemist who can be broken in half with a strong gust of wind but who has an insanely high amount of mystical mojo at his disposal. Finally, you’re also told to choose a combat style, and then referred to the chapter on powers. That’s okay; it just means you’ll get to read about combat styles later in the review.
The last step of character creation is the character’s resources. As a baseline, the character’s Fortune Level amounts to piss poor, a situation that can be modified by the trait “Fortune of the Rat”, which can be taken multiple times. Sadly, I had to flip through the book several times before coming to this conclusion, because no reference to said trait is made in the section on the character’s fortune level. Equipment is also determined based on the character’s fortune level, except for magic items (called Baobei) which can be acquired during character creation by taking the trait “Fortune of the Dragon”. Thankfully, that one is pointed out clearly. Finally, the character gets either two contacts or one friend at the beginning of the campaign, although a trait can get you a few more, something that is also pointed out in the section on contacts.
The character sheet is presented both at the end of Chapter 3 and at the end of the book. I’ll describe it here, as several of my comments on it relate to stuff I’ve just explained. First off, let me say that it is visually okay – not awesome, not ugly either. This said, it is riddled with mistakes. Destiny dice get called melodrama dice, even if they’re never referred as such throughout the book. Moreover, there are two different places where you can write them up. Likewise, the first wound threshold is called “lightly wounded”, whereas in the text it’s called “heavy wounded”. Aside from that, the sheet is okay, but if you’re like me, that’s enough to annoy you to no end.
The fourth chapter, Chapter 4 : Game Mechanics”, is relatively short, considering how much of the system has already been explained throughout character creation. In fact, you can probably guess most of it. 1s are always a failure, 10s are always a success. Some tests are “simple” (unopposed) and based on the number of success you manage to score, while others are opposed and based on the number of success you manage to score above and beyond those that your opponent has managed to score himself. Target numbers are mostly 10 minus the appropriate proficiencies, although they can go up or down if the task is especially challenging or especially easy. An interesting aspect of the task resolution is that you actually need only one success in order to succeed. The other successes you might score are used as you see fit to amp up the result of your action. You can make it more lasting, more efficient, quicker, or even just cooler. In my opinion, that way to approach a system based on the number of successes you get is rather novel, and grant the player a nice amount of control over his actions. In fact, it feels like a good compromise between traditional game mechanics and those of games like Wushu or Dogs in the Vineyard where you have total control on the details of your character’s actions.
Following basic task resolution is a section on destiny dice. Basically, the GM hands them to the player based on roleplaying (in relation to dramas) or dramatic (i.e.: cool and impressive) actions. Destiny dice can be used in a variety of ways that basically amount to making tests more easy or trading them for an equal amount of chi dice. It’s also here that we learn that destiny dice take the place of XP based on the quality of roleplay, in Wuxia. If you do something cool or impressive, you get destiny dice. The rationale here is that good roleplay cannot be linked in-game to your character evolving, and therefore should not play a part in the XP awarded. While it’s a logic that doesn’t really appeal to me, I can certainly say that it stands on it’s on. More interesting, though, is the advice given on the relation between the game’s pacing and destiny dice. Basically, the authors point out that the more destiny dice the players receive; the more likely it is that they’ll throw caution in the wind. It’s certainly insightful advice, but once again, it’s an example of incoherent design. Think about it. Destiny dice are the only way to reward good roleplaying. If you want to put an emphasis on roleplay, you tone down the combat or make it more dangerous. How do you do that? Well, according to Wuxia, you do that by cutting back on the rewards you hand out for… good roleplaying. If that’s not painting yourself in a corner, I don’t know what is.
Next is combat. Initiative is resolved by a rolling an attribute (Earth), modified by the martial arts skill. The base initiative score is equal to the character’s Earth score, but each success obtained in the initiative test can be used to raise that score by one. Other options also exist, like buying a second movement, buying an extra attack, or putting some of your successes in your defense pool (more details later on). Next come the opposed rolls, with the both the attacker and the defender rolling. The winner of the opposed roll can then use his successes in a variety of ways. Finally, damage and various effects are resolved, based on attacks that were successful and how the successes are used.
The whole “spending successes” shtick is where Wuxia really shines. On the initiative side, it’s fun to get to decide what you’ll do with how quick you are instead of just acting faster by default. Likewise, the idea of declaring a basic attack and then using the successes you managed to score to customize the attack is very appealing. A fairly extensive list of manoeuvres is provided, with each costing a specific amount of successes. Likewise, there’s an equally extensive list of weapon characteristics – some of which work automatically, while others also need spent successes to work their thang. What’s interesting here is that Wuxia’s resolution system encourages special manoeuvres during the course of play, whereas in most RPGs attempting a manoeuvre is risky business because it usually decreases the likelihood of the action being successful.
There are a few problems, however. First, resolving damage after everyone has taken their actions feels like it can bog down play a bit. Second, there’s the issue of the defensive pool. Every success invested in that pool is a success you can use later to defend yourself against an attack. The thing is, the pool stays during the whole duration of the fight. Concretely, that means that characters can become damn nigh untouchable after a few rounds spent investing successes in the defensive pool, especially considering that dice from the initiative, various defense rolls and various attack rolls can be invested in it. Interestingly, damage was resolved right after every successful attack and no defense rolls were ever made during the demo game I played at Wuxia’s official launch. On the plus side, that means that those small problems are easily fixed by a few house rules. On the other hand, there’s something a bit upsetting about realising that the publishers of the game are using house rules to make it work better.
What is probably the most interesting mechanic in the combat rules, however, is the so-called group-reserve. Basically, when you fight as a team, you can invest a success in the group reserve each round, and/or draw two successes from it. Moreover, a character knowledgeable in strategy can act as leader and roll a test in order to expand the number of dice that can be sent in or taken out of the group reserve. Overall, this specific mechanic is an amazingly simple way to reflect how a group working as a whole can be stronger.
Apart for these points, the rest is fairly standard. You’ve got your ranged combat, your armor rules (its rating is substracted from the damage dealt), your encumbrance rules, your miscellaneous sources of harm rules, and your healing rules. They look like they’ll work well, but there’s nothing especially bad or innovative about them, so there’s no need to go into details.
The last part of chapter 4 is dedicated to experience points. Once again, Wuxia here is guilty of giving an enormous amount of power to the GM. Basically, they advocate setting objectives for a scenario, and assigning a certain number of XPs to each. The players are not informed of the objectives, and don’t have a say in what they are. Needless to say, this approach to experience points runs a huge risk of actually encouraging GMs to railroad the players. Anyway. Afterwards, there’s a short reminder of how to spend experience points, plus a short paragraph on using a training montage to illustrate how the players got their shiny new mojo from.
“Chapter 5 : Powers” deals with the characters’ martial arts styles and, well, powers. The chapter starts off by explaining how combat styles work. Basically, each style has a few weapons listed as belonging to that style, plus a few special specialities you can buy for your martial arts skill. Those specialities work with the various rules explained earlier in the book. Some allow you to re-roll dice, while others allow you to do some unusual stuff by spending successes. The coolest thing, though, is the speciality that allows you to give a characteristic to a weapon that it normally does not have. For instance, you can have your martial artist do attacks with a dagger that strike at everyone within an area of effect even though that sort of stuff is usually a characteristic of extra-long weapons, such as various pole arms. Using those guidelines, you can pretty much create any martial arts style you want, but the rulebook provides a dozen or so of them, some real and some fictive.
The list of powers is divided in categories. There’s a general one, from which everyone can pick, and then there’s a list of powers for each character type. While there is some overlap (i.e.: some powers are found under more than one character type), each type feels relatively different from each other. Each power has clear rules (again, in line with rules already explained) and is simple to use. Just pay the chi cost, use the power, and that’s it.
Overall, this is an awesome chapter. I won’t go into the details of the various powers or fighting styles, but hopefully you can take my word on the fact that they are very true to the chinese martial arts movie genre. Reading them, I could literally tie each of them to at least one scene I’ve seen in a movie at some time or another. That’s saying a lot, because this is an impression I did not get from Weapons of the Gods or, to a lesser extent, from Feng Shui.
The sixth chapter is called “Chapter 6 : Equipment” and it deals with, you guessed it, equipment. It starts off with a few rules of thumb for acquiring an item based on a character’s fortune level, and then goes on to describing various pieces of equipment and how to determine their quality.
Then, out of nowhere, the chapter turns absolutely brilliant as it addresses the issue of “weapons with a Soul.” Basically, the assumption is that if a weaponsmith puts an unusual amount of effort into creating a weapon (i.e.: it is of superior quality), that weapon develops a soul of sorts. It gains an attribute and a very low-key personality – a temper, really. If it’s forged by someone exceptionally apt or by a sorcerer, it can even have a special power or two, similar to regular powers for human characters. The weapon is not exactly sentient, but close. Now here’s the cool thing : the weapon gains experience. Each game session, it gains a point of experience. As the game progresses, the weapon’s attribute eventually gets raised and the weapon’s temper starts to have a more concrete influence on its wielder (although it never comes close to D&D’s intelligent swords). Likewise, the weapon’s name itself becomes famous. You can probably tell, but I find this whole idea quite awesome. Not only can it be a great source of flavour and roleplaying opportunities, but the whole “legendary weapons” that are so not because they’re insanely powerful but because they’ve been in the “field” for so long is very much in synch with the genre Wuxia is aiming for.
“Chapter 7 : Bestiary” is exactly what you’d expect it to be. It contains most classic monsters from the genre (hopping vampires, ghosts, dragons, etc.) and a few more original ones as well. Again, the monsters all feel as in-synch with the genre as monsters can be. Minor nitpick : there’s an entry for Bodhisattvas. That’s just silly.
The four last chapters of the book (“Chapter 8 : Kunlun”, “Chapter 9 : Jiang Hu”, “Chapter 10 : The Legend of Shaolin” and “Chapter 11 : The Opium War”) are all built on the same model. They’re basically four short campaign settings set at different moments in the history of the Middle Kingdom. Each presents the historical background, the important factions, a few locations, and a metaplot of sorts that you can use to build a campaign around.
Kunlun, set in ancient China, deals with various religious factions who once lived in harmony in the mountains, but that have now forgotten their purpose there, which was to keep an evil demon at bay. Of course, the metaplot revolves around the fact that the demon is stirring. Jiang Hu, deals with the martial arts underworld during the era of the Warring States. The metaplot centers on three martial artists plotting to use a tournament to eradicate their rivals by the way of assassins. The Legend of Shaolin, unsurprisingly, deals with destruction of the Shaolin Temple by the Manchus, and the metaplot follows that very story. Finally, The Opium War is set during the 19th century and revolves around the tensions between the chinese people and the evil european imperialists. The metaplot is of course set in Canton, and is ripe with stories of corruption and addiction to opium.
The historical background for each chapter is well-written and seems accurate (but yet again lacks sources), as are the description of the various factions and locations. The metaplots themselves are very railroady if played as a straight campaign, but ripe with potential if used as a framework within which to develop a campaign of your own. The idea of offering four different short campaign settings is relatively fresh and original. To the extent of my knowledge, only All Flesh Must Be Eaten did something similar. Most importantly though, all four of the scenarios are classic set-ups frequently used in chinese martial arts movies. For a game that aims at genre emulation, such a versatile approach is definitely a very strong way to tackle the genre.
The Bottom Line
The prose, layout, and illustrations of Wuxia earn it a rating of 4 in regards to style. If it had been published by a bigger publisher, it would’ve probably earned a 3 because the illustrations are good but not great. However, given the fact that it’s a small-press game, it definitely earns a 4.
The rating on content is way more tricky, as this game rates all across the board. The basic system isn’t that original (it’d earn a 3), but some bits are quite inspired (they’d earn a 4) while others are needlessly complicated or subtly incoherent (they’re earn a 2). Needless to say, the rule regarding “artistic” contributions and that XP penalty would earn a big fat 1, as would the character sheet which you can’t really afford to mess up, no matter how much of a small press publisher you are. The content itself is very good and quite in-synch with the genre as a whole, and would earn a 4. The lack of an introduction explaining what roleplaying is doesn’t bother me, but it’s a major oversight considering the business strategy of Studio Mammouth. While I was chatting with the reps at the game’s launch, one of them told me that they were about to publish a few board games as well, and that they planned to market RPGs are just another type of game, no different than board games. Considering this, not including a chapter on the basics is a huge oversight, so that would earn a 1.
While my overall impression of the game is that it deserves a 4 (mainly because it emulates the genre so well), some of the oversights and inconsistencies are too big for them not to have an effect on the overall rating. So, it earns a 3.
If you’re looking for a game with an old school design but that does very well at helping you emulate the genre of chinese martial arts movies, Wuxia might very well be for you. Be warned, however – you’ll have to come up with a few house rules to clean it up. Once that’s done, however, you’re good to go.