Fly Off The Wires With The Tianxia Role-Playing Game
  • Fly Off The Wires With The Tianxia Role-Playing Game


    The campaign that our group will be starting next week (and that I wrote a little bit about here last week) got me to thinking about martial arts role-playing games in general. I am probably by no means an aficionado of martial arts movies, or media, but I have enjoyed some Chinese martial arts films over the years (my first college roommate was/is a martial artist and fan of the movies). Plus, I am more of a fan of contemporary settings, and unfortunately the number of games that combine these two things are few. However, today I am going to talk about the Tianxia: Blood, Silk and Jade role-playing game from Jack Norris and Vigilance Press.


    If you don't know, Tianxia is a larger-than-life wuxia (yes, I know that those can be pretty much the same thing) role-playing game that uses the Fate Core rules as its foundation. I think that decision right there shows how knowledge of the genre and its tropes should inform an RPG's system design because I think that the combination of Fate Core and big screen, cinematic martial arts action is an inspired combination. I know that the Fate rules aren't for everyone, but the looser narrative sensibility of the rules are a great fit for genre's tropes, and the crunch of the Fate Core rules can really give players the mechanical meat to hang off of their characters. You end up with Tianxia characters that are unique and flavorful, and a part of the world that they are adventuring in.

    One of the things that draws me to the Fate rules is how you can make your characters more than just characters, you make them a part of their world. The best characters of fiction and movies aren't just loners, they are the people who have the connections to the people around them, and the world within which they all live. This is particularly important in wuxia, where the motivation for a character to act is often a threat to their community or the people who are important to them. Even The Man With No Name acts because he develops a connection to the people in the town he wanders through, regardless of which cinematic incarnation of the character you are watching. Whether it is an aspect that connects a Tianxia character to their teacher, family or home town, you (as the player) are not just showing what is important to your character, but you are also helping to fill out the world of your campaign.

    One of the flaws of third party Fate games, since the Fate 3.0 days, is the idea that the designer has to come up with immense lists of new stunts and/or powers for their games, to show that they have done something with their Fate game besides just reprint the game's rules. This is a similar flaw that a lot of supplements during the Dungeons & Dragons 3.x era had. While Tianxia does have new stunts available for characters, in the form of martial arts styles and substyles, there aren't as many of them as are in some Fate books, and all of the stunts included are helpful in explaining the capabilities of martial arts forms and helping to make characters feel unique. Rather than just having all of the forms pregenerated and presented as a menu for players, you pick two substyles and combine them to form the martial art style of your character. If you would rather, there are some premade styles that you can pick from to get your character set up. Regardless of whether you want to customize your character completely, or just pick and choose and start kicking and punching, your needs as a player are met by the set up of this book.

    It should be mentioned that Tianxia is not a standalone game, it does require the Fate Core rules in order to run a game. But with the Fate Core rules available as a Pay What You Want PDF from a number of online sources, you can have all the core rules that you need for as cheaply as free. Tianxia does a great of job of expanding and building upon the Fate Core rules for a wuxia game. In the gamemastering section you get an inspired discussion of the Fate Fractal (the basic idea of Fate being that you can build anything using the same elements as a character) that goes into such things as how to build a mystery like a Fate character. I say inspired because I would not have thought about writing up a "mystery" as a character, and then turning solving that mystery into a conflict between the detective character and the "character" of the mystery. This is a great way to add not only some variability to the conflict of solving the mystery, but the idea is a good one for helping to put some mechanical weight to an investigation. As the detective "damages" the mystery through the investigation consequences can give new clues, or even deepen the mystery. It turns the mystery into an almost living part of the world that adapts to what the characters do to it. Imagine using a method like this for a Jack The Ripper styled investigation, where the true antagonist is the mystery rather than whoever just happens to be committing the murders.

    Even if you aren't going to run a wuxia game, it is because of this level of design skill that Tianxia is a book that Fate GMs should have on their shelves (virtual or otherwise) to enrich their Fate games, regardless of the genre or subject matter. For some, Jack Norris may elicit a "Who?" response, but with publishers like Onyx Path, Green Ronin and Modiphius Entertainment he has provided the design bones that have taken games like Fantasy AGE, Trinity Continuum and John Carter into directions that other, and perhaps better known, designers would not have seen. I know that when I pick up a game with his name on the cover that I will find competent and risk taking design choices combined with compelling settings. As a designer and developer, Norris brings a lot of big ideas to the gaming table.

    Speaking of setting, that is a big part of the Tianxia book as well. First off, the art by Denise Jones is phenomenal. I love the fact that this book had one artist because it meant that a strong tone could be set by the art. Jones' art feels like it could have been lifted from the art book for the long running Tianxia animated series. The characters that she drew have life and personality, and the set pieces breathe life into the Jiangzhou Province (the game's default setting).

    You get plenty of detail on the Jiangzhou Province in the Tianxia core book. Everything that you would need to run a campaign in this world is here in this book, from important towns and temples to antagonists that characters might encounter as well as rival martial arts schools.

    Supplements to Tianxia push out the boundaries to the world as well, so there is as much detail as you might want available for your games.
    Now for me, the setting of the game, while rich, is probably the part of the game that would get the least amount of use in my own games (Sorry about that, Jack). Back when I was still living in Cleveland, in one of the less nice parts of town, I had wanted to put together a wuxia-inspired game that combined hip hop beats (with a heavy debt to the Wu Tang Clan) with high flying martial arts against the concrete skies of high rises, and inspired by comics like Matt Fraction's Iron Fist stories and the ninja-fueled noir of Frank Miller's seminal Daredevil run. I could easily take the material in this book and run it as a Tianxia Modern kind of game. It would be like the Hip Hop Family Tree where kung fu could add extra grease to the wheels of steel, and rap battles would take on an entirely new dimension.

    Tianxia: Blood, Silk and Jade is a game that you should check out if high-flying wire-fu combat mixed with poignant relationships and high drama are your thing. And, really, why wouldn't they be? Even if you aren't interesting in a game of Chinese-inspired fantasy, like the default setting of the game, there are still plenty of tips and tricks from an experienced game designer that can take your Fate games to the next level. This is a book that should be at the top of everyone's best lists for role-playing games, because I know that it is on mine.
    Comments 6 Comments
    1. Panda-s1's Avatar
      Panda-s1 -
      okay I hate to be that guy (j/k I love it) but can we stop naming fantasy Asian places after actual Asian places? like Tian Xia was already used in Pathfinder to name their fantasy Asia which was disappointing (the way they handled Tian Xia is in of itself disappointing, but that's neither here nor there). like you wouldn't make a generic eurocentric fantasy rpg and call it "Europa", at the very least it just feels lazy.

      Kara-Tur gets blamed for being a thinly veiled East Asia, but at least they did better than to name countries things like "Zhongguo" and "Nippon" and call it a day (also inb4 someone tries to tell me the name of the world in Greyhawk is "Oerth", that's not the point here).
    1. Bagpuss's Avatar
      Bagpuss -
      Tianxia is a really good book to just learn how to use the Fate Core rules, it has some great examples and explanations for why they did things the way the did. Highly recommend it.
    1. SilentJay's Avatar
      SilentJay -
      Quote Originally Posted by Panda-s1 View Post
      okay I hate to be that guy (j/k I love it) but can we stop naming fantasy Asian places after actual Asian places? like Tian Xia was already used in Pathfinder to name their fantasy Asia which was disappointing (the way they handled Tian Xia is in of itself disappointing, but that's neither here nor there). like you wouldn't make a generic eurocentric fantasy rpg and call it "Europa", at the very least it just feels lazy.

      Kara-Tur gets blamed for being a thinly veiled East Asia, but at least they did better than to name countries things like "Zhongguo" and "Nippon" and call it a day (also inb4 someone tries to tell me the name of the world in Greyhawk is "Oerth", that's not the point here).
      Tianxia is the name of the game, not the setting.
    1. Panda-s1's Avatar
      Panda-s1 -
      Quote Originally Posted by SilentJay View Post
      Tianxia is the name of the game, not the setting.
      I know it is, I think you missed the point I was making.
    1. Vigilance Press's Avatar
      Vigilance Press -
      Shenzhou is the name of the larger setting, with provinces individually named using similar naming conventions, like Jiangzhou, Dongzhou, Huangzhou, etc. Tianxia is the game name, and reflects the philosophy of "All under heaven" that is a loose translation of the words Tian and Xia together.

      It's also a fairly common word that carries over between Chinese and English speaking cultures, making it more accessible than simply naming the game after one of the regions covered in it. The other advantage is that, because Tianxia represents 'all under heaven,' we can use it as an umbrella to cover products that go beyond the borders of Shenzhou when we decide to expand the product line beyond that without having to re-name the product line itself.

      It also encompasses ideas that can be optional in your campaigns, like magic, and so forth.

      We talked about a lot of different ideas for the name of the line, and Tianxia just made more sense than anything else.

      We put a lot of effort into every detail of the setting, including the name of the game. I hope you enjoy playing!

      -James Dawsey
      www.vigilancepress.com
    1. CubicsRube's Avatar
      CubicsRube -
      Also note that TianXia is an old literary chinese term denoting the mundane world, in the sense of "All under the sky/heaven"

      Its totally appropriate. Itd be like a roman game called "mundani mundi" although with more pep!
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