Jade & Steel (2001)
Jim Lai (Avalanche Press LTD)
Another year has passed. My holiday foray into winter-haunted Canada rocked, the new Star Wars was a piece of shit and elfgames are still delicious. Now back to your regular programming.
I figured there would be no better way to kickstart the new year then with a look at yet another obsolete campaign setting from that hook-nosed old peddler of the d20 era: Avalanche Games! Jade & Steel is a campaign setting supplement for histo-mythical roleplaying in Three Kingdoms era China. Because this is an Avalanche games product, it isn’t very good, though not for lack of trying. Sorry Avalanche, participation awards were for 2015!
Jade & Steel is a 3-part campaign setting that clocks in at about 41 pages of content if you discount table of content, credits, OGL and whatnot. It is helpfully divided into three sections, containing respectively, setting information, player options and a sample adventure.
The setting is mythical China in the year 210 AD. The corrupt Han Dynasty has finally collapsed and the Empire has been divided into three warring kingdoms. General Tsao Tsao has crushed his rivals and secured control over the figurehead Emperor with the aid of three legendary heroes, founding the Kingdom of Wei. Not eager for yet another round of political infighting that would put the Byzantine empire to shame, Liu Pei and the two other heroes seize control of a large chunk of the empire and declare the kingdom of Shu. Figuring that you only live once, some other guy named Sun Chuan, who was presumably frequently given wedgies by Tsao Tsao during his highschool years and never got invited to the parties with the really cool generals channels his gamma-fueled frustrations into the establishment of a 3rd kingdom, named
Little time is taken to differentiate the 3 kingdoms, but the essentials are laid down so we at least have an understanding of the relations between them. Wei is unsurprisingly the richest and most fertile region, Shu has dealings with smelly Tibetian tribesmen in order to bolster its military might and Wu is the weakest and lamest of them all and is constantly sending diplomats to both sides to ask if they would please not invade it. That’s about it. I figure the famed nation states of the chinese equivalent to the Illiad deserve at least a page of differentiation each but no such detail exists. A shame.
In contrast to previous Avalanche products, the topic of Magic is at least given some much needed attention. The section is short but speaks to the imagination with its terse sentences of evocative description. Magic in the three Kingdoms is real, ubiquitous and a manifestation of the balance of Yin and Yang (Ch’I?). Necromancers fuck around with the P’o segment of the soul to create the undead, Alchemists try to find the secret to Eternal Life, Feng Shui practitioners reorganize spaces to harness the elemental forces of Water and Earth, powerful warriors can perform feats of superhuman ability by harnessing their Chi I mean Ch’I and all manner of spirits, demons and other ancient powers inhabit the land ready to curbstomp a wizard that does not tread carefully.
The chapter then proceeds to delve into a variety of spiritual and philosophical topics that were relevant at the time. The traditional four element Fruit-grains-vegetables-protein has been replaced by a far more bewildering rock-paper-scissors-lizard-spock of wood, metal, earth, water and fire because FAK YOU AIR. Elements do not simply oppose but supplant, control or inhibit eachother and after you have explained this to your players they now presumably have all the tools to play a chinamen druid without being ensnared in a metaphysical spiderweb.
I seem harsh on this exposition but this section actually contains some good stuff. The I, Ching makes an appearance as a tool for Divination, Feng Shui is a real (and powerful) art that allows divine spellcasters to essentially enchant entire buildings with permanent spells that affect all their occupants and the philosophies of Animism, Taoism and Buddhism are briefly covered and given Clerical domains. The philosophies of Confucianism (i.e shutting the hell up about all that meta-physical clap-trap, going to your room and getting back to work) and Legalism (i.e a philosophy of statecraft akin to that of the Imperium of Man) are also covered. What struck me as interesting is that there is no real religious or philosophical strife despite the plethora of religions and philosophies, though unscrupulous (or is that unscrupurous?) magistrates might persecute a certain group for personal or political gain.
There is a good page on law in old (and I guess probably contemporary) China. Villages and towns are adjudicated by a labyrinthine bureaucracy that dispenses draconian justice to criminals and civilians alike. Both parties and even witnesses are frequently caned during a trial to establish a proper subservient attitude towards the magistrate and to prevent frivolous lawsuits, and torture is a common method of both obtaining a confession and as a sentence in itself (though it is pointed out that killing a witness/suspect through torture before a confession is obtained will result in the execution of the Magistrate). Castration, blinding and the dreaded Death of a Thousand Cuts are common sentences and it should come as no surprise that the science of torture has been raised to a fine art in mythic China. As a bonus, punishment is often generational as a deterrent. TLDR in ancient China law is spelled with a capital L*.
Section 2 covers characters in mythic China and takes up almost 12 pages (about as much as the first section) of mostly prestige classes. Surprisingly, it is not shit. One noteworthy improvement on previous products by author Jim Lai is the addition of notes on extraordinary vs supernatural class features. Points for d20 mastery.
J&S goes in with two-fists by banning demi-humans and recommending you play as Chinese characters only for the purposes of genre emulation; an eminently sensible decision that would theoretically be met with shrieking cries of outrage and RAAACIIISSSS had it been published in today’s perpetually triggered milieu. Female characters are more then possible by referral to historical source material (bonus points) and you can play whatever class you goddamn well please (even the paladin?).
So, prestige classes. I have started to hate prestige classes because so little mileage can be had out of them and I hold the opinion that the majority of published prestige classes have yet to see actual fucking play even once in the history of rpgs but these are good prestige classes that tie into the Wuxia/Magic nonsense the book covered in the first section. The prestige classes in J&S are mostly for arcane spellcasters, monks and the odd divine spellcaster or fighter build. So you can either go for magic kung fu or weird esoteric oriental secrets. Suits me.
Ah but what lovely prestige classes they are. The arcane prestige classes are pretty good.
The Alchemist (not unlike its Magic of Faerun counterpart) learns to brew potions of higher levels, substitute rare materials for XP and gains the secret of the (extremely dangerous and prohibitively costly) Elixer of Life at the 10th level. You lose several years of age, gain rapid healing and Tarrasque-like immortality for a season. But wait! The Elixer is super hard to brew and if you fuck up it has terrible side-effects when consumed! Nice.
The Diviner does what it says on the tin. You can consult the I-Ching by succeeding at a very difficult Scrying check (anyone remember the Scrying skill?) to perform a variety of divination spells as you increase in levels. This class gives the players essentially unlimited access to divinations like augury at the cost of a paltry 10 minutes and some feats, virtually ensuring the exponential proliferation of Amulets of Non-Detection throughout the Three Kingdoms as the campaign progresses. Recommended for directionless and indecisive groups.
For the homemakers we have the Geometer, the Taoist practioner of Feng Shui, who comes equipped with the ability to prepare locations so they give bonuses to his allies as well as the batshit insane ability to permanently enchant a location with spells of up to 6th level, allowing anyone inside to invoke the enchantment at will after staying there for 8 hours. Can’t seem to decide whether it is a divine or an arcane spell-casting class because of sloppy editing but I am guessing it is a divine class. Horrendously potent if the characters have a fortress, still strong if the players travel frequently. The 8-hour preparation time that is required for the regular non-enchantment Feng-Shui to take effect means it is suitable for groups that are fond either careful preparation or unusually slothful and lazy. Nevertheless an Interesting class.
Since most GM’s that will use this book (ha! ha! as if!) are never going to read Romance of the Three Kingdoms but will instead watch Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon/House of the Flying Daggers/Hero three times and call it a day J&S gives us ample monk prestige classes to cater to this laziness.
The Dik Mak Practitioner fucking kicks ass, getting rid of all of the supernatural tossfiddlery of the monk class in exchange for MORE POTENT STUNNING BLOWS that allow you to cripple, blind, quivering palm, fatigue and/or deal ability damage with each successful stunning blow/special attack and eventually MAKE A RANGED TOUCH ATTACK BY PUNCHING PEOPLE IN THE CH’I. YOU ARE ALREADY DEAD. YEAH! In a flourish of excellent flavorful design, the Dik Mak practitioner can also use his knowledge of Ch’I to reverse slowing, blindness and paralysis.
The other monk prestige class is a sort of Iron Body master with increasingly potent hand to hand attacks, Natural AC, a Ch’i form of barbarian rage and finally the ability to cast Iron Body 1/day. A decent addition but nothing spectacular. We round it off with the Sword-saint, essentially the Li Mu Bai Prestige class that blurs the line between fighter and monk and comes pre-loaded with an code-of-conduct forbidding you from using your chosen weapon against inferior opponents (you seek conflict only in accordance with achieving inner harmony through turmoil). Well done.
There is a feat section but unlike many previous supplements it does not suck and all of the feats consist of cool martial arts moves like butterfly kicks, superior two weapon fighting feats, charging while continuing your movement and so on. Good stuff. The Jump skill is made useful again.
The section ends on a suprising note. J&S avoids the habitual Orwellian twist of making an equipment section that consists only of equipment that may not be used and instead provides stats for Jiann, Hook-swords, Butterfly swords and FUCKING FIREWORKS ROCKETS while leaving the choice of permitted equipment in the hands of the benevolent and all powerful GM.
Section 2 is very solid and would have made for a fine section in a more extensive work on the Three Kingdoms but as it stands, it is merely a well-polished and efficient engine in a partially constructed plane that lacks the wings to carry it aloft. Well done but ah las.
Section 3 is an adventure called For Love or Money which takes up almost half of the book. It is designed for 11-14th level characters?!? Sweet Christmas. The adventure proper is a series of linear encounters with some investigation/talky bits resolving in a big showdown. The treasure is bog standard and there are no unique monsters but the plot is well written and most of the enemies are named NPCs with goals/motivation etc. etc. Also good job on the level-appropriate treasure/equipment for NPCs, most 3rd party guys are too lazy to get it right.
The adventure takes place on the border between Wei and Shu. Baron Chiang’s daughter Kim Nan is about to be married off to the powerful Lim clan but she has been kidnapped by evil bandits called the Black Tigers, along with her dowry. PCs to the rescue!
The adventure opens with an overview of the town of Pi-San, its main source of income, its military strength, and a mention that the Pearl Festival (a local harvest festival) has been taking place there, meaning an influx of traders, merchants, foreigners and so on. PCs arriving to gather information (already having heard that Kim Nan has been kidnapped) can actually gain useful insights (the adventure goes so far as to describe what person gives them the info, which adds some color to the adventure). You can figure out the young Lord Lim is a drunk and a suspected wife-murderer, the existence of a survivor of the Black Tiger attack (castrated for his failure naturally) and even that the Lim hired some sort of diviner to help out poor lord Chiang. Did I mention the Chiang and the Lim used to be one family and broke apart?
After the adventure kindly informs you that the players would be honoured to accept a dinner invitation from a mighty lord you are given the possibility of either speeding it along (if your players are like me and want a game like this to be about Kung fu action) or really playing it out if they are the sort of nauseating degenerates that like wasting everyone’s time with role playing about nothing. The longest fucking description ever takes place as the PCs are escorted to the dinner by Li Shin, favoured concubine of Lord Chiang, escorts the players and a lengthy description of the meal and the hall follows, including the general clientele (merchants). After the dinner is over, Chiang stops the bullshit and cuts right to the chase.
Chiang wants to re-unite the Lim and the Chiang by marrying his hot daughter to their eldest sun Jan Wei, but the fucking Black Tigers kidnapped her, even though he sent her there in disguise, in the middle of the night on a secret road. He needs her back. At least the reward is actually worthwhile. 10.000 gp per character and Chiang’s personal alchemist will make you an item each. Fucking count me in, at least Chiang isn’t stingy. I’d spend that on a new wing of my castle. They also give a good reason why Chiang doesn’t just send a band of his soldiers. The Pearl festival means a vast influx of outlanders and Chiang cannot appear weak or leave his town defenceless at this time. Perfect.
Anyway, after the PCs are done talking they leave in the morning. If you talked to Chan Pao (the castrated loser who survived the ambush) you can convince him to come with you but he is a 3rd level monk so he gets to make the campfire and empty the chamber pots and very little else.
After they depart the party is ambushed by 10 5th level soldiers in the livery of the Black Tigers with firework rockets, heavy crossbows, polearms and finally hand to hand weapons, all masterwork quality. They all fire their firework rockets (touch Attack d6 fire/d6 force, 5ft. explosion) in the opening round. Props for making this encounter challenging for high level characters without resorting to more hit dice by giving the soldiers proper tactics. 5th level is about the limit of what you would expect nameless elite soldiers to have, and the tactics are intelligent enough. Of course if the party has a wizard, a single well-placed cone of Cold would reduce them all to frozen corpses. Only 37 hp and a reflex saving throw of +2? You are mincemeat.
The adventure says they fight to the death out of fear (and given the way survivors are treated this is not surprising), but the PCs can convince them to give up and run, AFTER WHICH THEY GET ATTACKED BY A CORNUGON HELD IN RESERVE BY THE EVIL WIZARD SUN KUAN JIANG OF THE LIM. I feel an opportunity to make some sort of unique Chinese devil was missed here, but I guess Chinese folklore offers plenty of opportunities for devils and demons so whatevs. Even here it is described as a straight up combat but a dispel magic will free the devil from his bondage, causing him to disappear immediately (and later re-appear in an optional confrontation between Xiang Xiao (Chiang’s alchemist) and Sun Kuan Jiang and attempt to kill Jiang for enslaving him). They are straight up combat encounters but they all have intelligent tactics and a little extra.
During the combat the two heroes Black Tiger and Black Crane join the melee to aid THE PCS?!?
It turns out to have been a double trick. Kim Nan is in love with Black Tiger and gave her location away so she doesn’t have to marry murderous drunk Jan Wei and can instead run away with her dowry like an irresponsible twat. Meanwhile, the Lim, led by Sun Kuan Jiang (evil diviner), Li Shin (secretly a member of the Lim and in possession of an amulet of proof against detection and location because of course she does, also a 12th level monk/Dik-mak practitioner) and a sword-saint named Lin Sung (strong silent type) deliberately set up this bullshit marriage with the intention of getting soldiers into Pi-San and killing the shit out of Chiang. The Lim overestimated the prowess of their elite soldiers and unfortunately all their masterwork weaponry can easily be identified as made by Lim Blacksmiths. Also all the Black Tigers have a Tiger and Crane tattoo over their hearts. Duh. The adventure takes into account the possibility that your players will simply murder both Bandit characters in cold blood, for which I commend them.
After the ambush is over the PCs can either opt to follow Black Tiger/Black Crane to their camp or, if they killed them, pass a series of unlikely fucking Wilderness Lore, Intuit Direction and other garbage skill tests. The sheer number of fucking Wilderness Lore tests in case the players don’t go with BT/BC is bound to elict groans and fake-retching from all across the table. Thus it is not a good design choice.
Anyway, the PCs arrive the camp-site only to detect sounds of battle. Two Clay Golems (that look like the terracota soldiers from the imperial tomb nice palette swap) are beating the shit out of everyone and no one can do anything, not even Kim Nan! Enter the PCs/BC/BT smackdown. After the battle is over and your castrated NPC buddy Chan Pao is almost certainly dead by now there is some gabbing with the princess. Kim Nian is not willing to come along but she does offer the PCs her dowry of 100.000 gp (aka a fucking castle) if they just let it go. The adventure kind of assumes the PCs don’t slaughter the remaining bandits and take her by force but that’s okay. If the PCs didn’t kill them out of hand everyone starts talking about not trusting the Lim and you get yourself a bunch of allies while you rush back to Pi-San to check everything out. Unfortunately keeping the dowry means you get hunted down as thieves which sucks ass.
As the PCs arrive in Pi-Sang for the last act, shit is going down, the castle is under siege by Lim soldiers inside the city walls, the gates have been barricaded and SOMETHING needs to be done. Enter the PCs. A gate enchanted with True Seeing prevents you from just casting a bunch of spells (i.e any illusion or invisibility spell) and bypassing the gates, but the response to a breech is very weak and while sneaking past or going in via a hidden entrance are certainly options, you are better off just taking the place by force since whatever response you draw is very unlikely to slow down 3-6 11th-14th level characters.
After they have entered and opened the gates, the players have 2 choices. Join the fight between Sun Kuan Jiang and Xiang Xiao or join Kim Nan to rescue lord Chiang. No alteration to the stats of Xiang Xiao or Sun Kuan Jing are provided which is kind of bullshit but interfering in their fight doesn’t really do much besides saving Xiang Xiao and thus ensuring the PCs that their magic item reward remains intact. Unfortunately, not joining Kim Nan means that when they meet up with her her father is already dead and the adventure is kind of fucked. You get a dowry but Pa-San is fucked and the villains return later to plague the PCs. Whoops.
If the players took the smart option, they find Chiang kneeling down with a sword in his side, the blood of 20 men on his weapon, kneeling in front of the bodies of his wives and children. The villains execute him on the spot and then offer alliance, banishment or a quick death to our noble heroes. If they don’t comply they will kill his remaining 5 kids. Depending on whether or not certain NPCs are there they will respond in a certain fashion but expect a big martial arts fight with lots of jumping and karate chops and whatnot. The adventure mentions it is not hard to get to the roof! Anyway, the villains will attempt to flee once they reach 25% hit points or less and have intelligent tactics. You then get a whoppin’ load of cash and you get to maybe help rebuild Pai-San, setting the stage for further adventure.
This adventure is not spectacularly original but the setting, the named NPCs and the different intrigues going on give it some added spunk. It is linear but not a railroad, and there are some opportunities for roleplaying and concocting a clever plan and the combats are at the very least not boring. It’s by no means brilliant but its a competently executed adventure that manages to give us at least some impression of what roleplaying in the Three Kingdoms would look like.
Pros: Good prestige classes and feats. Adventure is alright. For once the equipment section didn’t piss me off.
Cons: Nowhere near enough setting information to actually run something in the Three Kingdoms without having to consult the book and watch a bunch of movies. Give us an Appendix N next-time Jim!
Final Verdict: Jade and Steel at least gives you the impression they knew what they were doing and they really tried but 25% setting, 25% crunch and 50% adventure is not the ideal choice if you want to help people create campaigns in such an unfamiliar setting. Why not go for a bunch of adventure seeds instead? Even as a supplement to Oriental Adventures I can’t truly recommend it because of the overlap between different classes/prestige classes. It’s not a bad supplement by any means but it is certainly incomplete. Too bad. 4 out of 10.
As for constructive criticism that no one will read, what this thing needed was an Appendix N, a gazzeteer with some major settlements, a boatload of major NPCs from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, some unique creatures and items and a boatload of adventure seeds.
* = Anyone seeking to delve further into the statecraft of ancient China should probably read the Book of Lord Shang, included in the Wordsworth Classic edition of the Art of War, if you can ignore the occasional forays on the topic of Dialectial Materialism by the commentator, a Chinese military officer.