Saturday, July 16, 2011

Jade Man's Skin by Daniel Fox

Back in the days of first edition of Advanced Dungeon's and Dragons, I loved the idea of Oriental Adventures. The lure of the far east, of martial arts, of exotic looking armor, of weapons that were non-standard was a big influence on me.

But I was always stuck for ideas on how to run the thing. When Legend of the Five Rings came out, it provided a hell of a background and methodology for running such a setting but at the cost of being so heavily involved with the setting, that my attention soon wandered off as events and timeline advancements took it well past where I was comfortable with.

That's not a bash against such events. I'm not too fond of them when they happen to say the Forgotten Realms, and hated Greyhawk Wars, but in those settings, I was so at ease with that style of adventure, that it didn't take much effort on my part to ignore this, or change that. I was never quite so comfortable with L5R to do that without worrying about the 'purist', which I freely ignored for my FR games.

But one thing that would have helped me enjoy making such changes and making the setting fully my own, would be books like Jade Man's Skin by Daniel Fox, the sequel to Dragon in Chains. I'll be discussing some of my thoughts on the book but a quick summary for those who don't want spoilers? It's a fun filled  romp in fantasy ancient China that's well worth a read.

Now onwards!

The book has one thing in common though with L5R right off the bat. The importance of Jade. In this setting, Jade is something that long term exposure to, can make you superhuman. Indeed, Jade is the source of the Emperor's longevity. It's also being used so much here, that you get tired of seeing it. The cover is an powerful illustration of an animal encountered in the book, a jade tiger. In the book its described as massive. There is also a set of jade armor made. Its so heavy that only someone who is already super human can use it because of its weight. While its a great idea and a great visual, the use of jade after jade after jade, apparently all of it the same color, is well, boring. There is nothing that can make the exotic and the far away as boring as overdoing it.

Having said that though, the book provides a reason for things like jade armor, not being used before. The sheet weight of it. Does that strike anyone as familiar? As anyone who played older editions and had to deal with having a very high strength to use certain weapons? And why certain magical items like Gauntlets of Ogre Power and Girdle's of Giant Strength were so highly sought after?

The nice thing though, is that like some of the old artifacts in the game, there is a potential price to pay. In this  case, the jade armor turns the emperor green, unto like jade itself. It is also difficult to remove. This reminds me of those quaint and weird little bits that some of the artifacts in the old edition could have in that you could gain vast power but it might cost you say, your humanity. There might be other costs, worse cost associated with it but that was part of the charm. I hate to bash 4e for this, but that game is so focused on the balance of magic items that most efforts at making quirky magic items or items with personality seem pale shadows of earlier editions.

When making unique items for your own campaign, try to give them something different. Try to give them something that's not standard. Try to give them something that works, perhaps better than promised, but has its own draw backs to it. If the draw backs are too high, the item goes unused. If the drawbacks aren't really drawbacks, then there's no point in including them. Some of the point build games used to be very specific in this, "A disadvantage that is not a disadvantage is not a disadvantage and worth no points." or something along those lines.

In terms of working themes into a game, one of the things that book starts off with is corruption. While a messenger is running along, he notes that several soldiers are abusing their position by taking items away from various merchants and family on the road in the name of the emperor. This is not an isolated problem to the realms or fiction, nor to the past. Corruption is an every day occurrence in the modern world and the weight can be costly.

Can you rely on the police if they're under the influence of drug cartels? Mexico seems to be having a lot of problems in that vein and the American movie industry has no shortage of corrupt cop movies. When corruption is present, trust is far and away. People forget things they saw. In some of these movies though, the people are more prone to work with outsiders and are more prone to possibly trusting them and allowing the outsiders to make real changes that couldnt' be made by internal forces. This is an opportunity for players who enjoy the role playing aspect, the challenge of convincing people who are scared for their lives, scared for their families, and scared for their own businesses, that they should trust the heroes.

Another aspect brought up is picking where you fight. One of the few things I think 4th edition tried to do well, that at least brought light to the subject, is making the environment more a part of the game. In previous editions, there might be a small bonus for holding the higher ground (+1 to hit!) but it rarely went beyond that.

Entertainment is far different in this old eras than modern entertainment. In one of the C. J. Sansom books, the author noted bear baiting. Here, Fox brings out fighting crickets. The differences in entertainment are as much a choice of the limits of technology as they are availability of resources. When not fighting for daily survival, what do people do to fill the time? For some like farmers that may be a foolish question as there is no spare time save perhaps to go to church and prepare for the better world that awaits in the next life. For those in the city and those who have the funding, what do they do?

And for those who have power, those who have responsibility, how do they react to it? Bernard Cornwell made no secret that some of the joy that the raiders took, including a Christian Priest, was that there was a savage joy in having no responsibilities to anyone other than yourself. Do such characters run away from their responsibilities when time allows? Do they seek to indulge themselves in their own past times?

And in terms of resources, how does an economy deal with dwindling supplies? Is there an acknowledgement that there is a problem? Is it covered up? Do those in charge send out seekers of new resources and supplies? Does the government prepare itself for when those supplies will run out? Or do they ignore it, pretend that its not a problem and that somehow, and someway, things will work themselves out on their own?

Fox also brings more of the setting's religion into the forefront this time around. A mother and her daughters were told to seek sanctuary at an old temple and now have taken to the temple as their own. And the goddess of that temple speaks through the mute, speaks through the damaged, speaks through those who would not speak on their own, including infants. How do the gods of the setting make contact with the world?

For those who are of noble blood or royalty or prestige, how do they declare it? Here, the Emperor's color is yellow, but a very specific, very pure yellow. Purple seems to be the color of royalty in the standard fantasy settings. The wearing of these colors, especially by those not empowered to do so, can be severer ranging from death and banishment to maiming. It is an obvious sign of challenge to wear the colors that are prohibited to any but the royal family.

On the other hand, it does make for a great method of impersonating members or even soldiers of such a family. After all, if the consequence for doing so is death, who would dare do it?

In terms of the creatures of the setting, what do they think about? How do they think? One part of running a campaign that can be hard to handle, is making non-humans different than humans. In this book, one of the character is tied into a dragon's mind. The view point of the dragon is so vast and different than whenever the link is active, the character feels threatened with drowning and being lost inside that mind.  If you can provide a different mind set to the monsters and provide them with reasons for that difference, you'll provide some interesting times to the players.

When creating NPCs, try to look past the surface. In the story here, the mother of the Emperor notes that she has been trying to poison a general who is advising the emperor falsely to no avail because the man is too well protected in court. It comes off like a not important remark, but it puts the older woman in a whole new light. It showcases a level of ruthlessness that a reader would never find otherwise despite her tough as nails demeanor.

If you're looking for ideas on your next Oriental Adventure's campaign, Jade Man's Skin is well worth al ook.