Jade and Steel – Roleplaying in Mythic China

The Emperor is dead, his realm split into three kingdoms. Warlords, bandits, and powerful families run amok. Only China’s proud heroes stand between the people and utter chaos.

Jade and Steel is a d20 system supplement providing for high adventure in these troubled times. Add six new Chinese classes to your d20 fun: the Alchemist, Dim Mak (Touch of Death) Practitioner, Diviner, Geometer, Iron Hand Disciple, Sword Saint. Nine new feats help create that wire-fu spirit.

Is your ch’i sufficient to the task? Head for the Pearl Festival of Pai-San and find out!

In nearly every published campaign setting, no matter how similar to Western Europe, there is nearly always another land based on East Asia, making the ‘Orient’ a ubiquitous ‘secondary setting.’ Kara-Tur in the Forgotten Realms (and originally part of the Greyhawk setting) and Rokugan in 3rd edition confirm the obsession. It’s hardly surprising. While most of our ancestors were building houses out of mud and animal feces over a reed frame (daub and wattle), a technologically sophisticated Imperial state society had grown up in China. The crossbow was in use from 400 BC, iron was commonly used for tools by 150 BC. In 220 AD China entered the Three-States Period, when Jade and Steel is set, after the end of the 400-year Han Empire. Much of what we have come to know as ‘Chinese’ was well developed by this time. Confucianism was foundational to the organization of the state and Buddhism had been in China for more than 100 years. Mythic China offers a nice break from the standard Western fantasy inspired world or tribal societies still dominant in much of Europe and other parts of Asia at the time.

However, Jade and Steel is not a ‘campaign setting’ in the traditional sense. At 48 pages, it is too short to delve into such an ambitious undertaking with anything more than a cursory review. The useful page count is further whittled down with the cover reprinted on page 1, credits on page 2, the table of contents on page 3, a full page ad on page 47 and the Open Game license on 48. There are only 42 pages of content. Unlike other Avalanche Press books like Viking Age or Celtic Age, there is little background information on China. A DM is going to have to consult other sources for information on the culture, society, and geography. The background information includes as much on the I Ching (a fortune-telling method) and feng shui (the process of organizing living spaces to maximize ch’i), as on religion and Chinese history. Virtually no information is provided on social organization – certainly well short of explaining how a PC might fit into society other than as an established ‘hero.’ There is nothing about how someone becomes a ‘hero’ in this period of Chinese history. Are there hereditary feudal warlords (like Western knights and the later Qing Bannermen) or peasants turned mercenaries? The closest the book comes to providing this information is by providing ‘appropriate’ Chinese prestige classes.

Each of the classes merits close scrutiny.

The first class is the Alchemist. An alchemist is a ten level prestige class with full spell-casting advancement. From a player’s perspective there is no reason not to take the Alchemist prestige class rather than continue as a base wizard, or sorcerer. In addition to full spell casting, the Alchemist benefits from a d6 HD, a good Fort save, and special abilities at every level. The special abilities are related to the ability to brew potions. A 10th level Alchemist can brew any level spell into a potion (and spells up to 6th level starting at 2nd level). They may also turn potions into other forms. This is where things start to get wonky. The third level ability is to ‘Brew Tablet.’ Tablets are ‘small pills that take effect when swallowed.’ How that is different from a potion (a liquid that takes effect when swallowed), is unclear.There appears to be no benefit to the tablet, unless perhaps, it is easier to talk while holding a ‘potion’ in your mouth.

Oils are strange in the same way tablets are. Oils (according to this supplement) take effect when applied to bare skin, but costs three times more than a standard potion. At 5th level, the Alchemist can brew paint. Paint follows a unique mechanic. The time to apply a paint is equal to one minute for every 100 gold pieces the potion would cost. Thus, a potion that normally costs 750 gold pieces would require 8 minutes to apply. The benefit is that the duration of the ‘potion’ is equal to a number of hours equal to the Alchemist’s prestige class level (which is at least seven hours when the ability is gained). This would allow, for example, a PC to walk around with a Globe of Invulnerability for 7 hours instead of 7 rounds. But it gets scarier… fast.

At 9th level the alchemist can brew a potion that works as a gas. The gas affects everyone within a 10’ radius spread, but cost quadruple the normal price. Still, you can stack a lot of corpses in a 10’ radius spread for an effective ‘mass raise dead.’ Imagine what a caster could do with gas of imprisonment or gas of energy drain.

The final ability for the Alchemist is the ability to brew an elixir that can, if brewed correctly, make a creature immortal. This requires a Craft: Alchemy check to be successful, DC 45. The Alchemist has a bonus on Craft: Alchemy checks equal to half his total character level (+10 at 20th level). In addition, the text of the ability says explicitly that the Alchemist can take 20 on this check, even though there are consequences for failure. I presume that is a typo, and it should read ‘an Alchemist can take 10 on this check.’ Because of the negative consequences, it further suggests that the DM should make the check to ensure that the character is not certain of success. Assuming it is take 10, an Alchemist with full ranks at 20th level can succeed by taking 10 as long as he has at least a +2 Intelligence bonus.

The Dim Mak Practitioner is designed to complement the monk class, and characters can freely multi-class between this prestige class and the monk class. Dim Mak levels stack for the purposes of determining unarmed strike damage, AC bonus, etc. Strangely, it also says that monk levels stack for the purpose of determining Saving Throw bonuses. That would actually be a bad thing, since at 20th level a Monk/Dim Mak Practitioner would have a +12 base saving throw if they stack, or a +14 if they were figured individually. Since other classes don’t stack for the purpose of determining saving throws, it is the one way that taking monk levels prior to this class is a bad thing. A character that takes this class without monk levels counts as a monk of the Dim Mak Practitioner level to determine standard monk benefits. To illustrate the point, it uses the example of a 4th level Cleric/1st level Dim Mak Practitioner. The fact that it is impossible for a cleric to qualify for the prestige class at 4th level (it requires a +4 BAB in addition to 3 feats) bothers me a little. While gaming products by their very nature are complex and difficult to edit, it was obvious to me on a casual read-through, so it forces me to question the attention to detail and overall quality of the work.

In addition to a monk’s normal stunning attack, the Dim Mak can also deal Strength and Dexterity damage, cause fatigue, blind an opponent, force an opponent to take only partial actions for 1d6 rounds, or paralyze an opponent (at high enough level). The capstone power is the ability to deliver these debilitating attacks as a ranged touch attack.All things considered, this class does a good job of translating depictions of ‘wire-fu’ into game terms.

The next prestige class, the Diviner, is another full spell-casting progression prestige class. In addition to the normal spells, the class allows a character to use the I Ching to cast additional divination spells, depending on the Diviner level. This allows the Diviner basically unlimited uses of augury, contact other plane, divination and find the path at high levels. Each reading takes 10 minutes to complete. In addition, the Diviner has an ability similar to Bardic Knowledge. They can make an Intelligence check to learn about any person, place, or thing, with the DC dependant on how obscure (maxing out at 30), with a bonus equal to their Diviner level. At 9th level the Diviner doubles the bonus provided by their Intelligence modifier. Considering how easy it might be to get a +26 to the check, Diviners can pretty much know anything about the campaign world if they want to.

The next prestige class is the Geometer. As a specialist in feng shui, the Geometer is most appropriate for PCs that wish to focus on interior design. The Geometer has the ability to create an area of positive energy, which imparts a beneficial spell effect. Creating a 10 ft. x 10 ft. area requires 1 hour, and the Geometer can create one such area for each level he has in this prestige class. The description of the ability implies that such areas are temporary, unless a Geometer uses the ability during a building’s construction. In this case, the spell effect can be applied each day.If the PCs should ever build their own stronghold, having a Geometer involved in construction is a very good idea. A PC might take this class since they do continue with full spell casting, even if they aren’t interested in the special abilities. They would also gain a d8 hit die and 4 skill points per level.

The Iron Hand Disciple is another monk-inspired prestige class. PCs would do well to avoid this class. While the levels in Iron Hand Disciple stack for monk abilities, the special abilities granted by the class are weak. The first level ability, Iron Hand Attack, allows the Iron Hand Disciple to do an extra d4 points of damage on an unarmed strike twice per day per Iron Hand Level. Thus, at 10th level the Iron Hand Disciple can deal this extra damage to 20 attacks. Tracking this extra damage is pretty annoying for the miniscule benefit. Crushing Blow grants the Iron Hand Disciple’s unarmed attacks an enhancement bonus on attack and damage, starting at +1 and reaching +3 at 7th level. However, since gaining enhancement bonuses to attack and damage is fairly easy with magic items or spells, this ability essentially becomes superfluous. Greater magic fang will provide the same bonus with a 3rd level spell slot, and the 1 hour/level duration means that by 12th level a single casting each day should be all that’s required. The Iron Hand Disciple gains the ability to rage (+4 Strength and Constitution, -2 AC) at 4th level. Since you can’t normally get a raging monk (monks must be lawful and a lawful barbarian can no longer rage), this might be a worthwhile ability for some players, but the general uselessness of the other abilities makes that a tough sell in my mind. The Iron Hand Disciple also gains DR (maximum of DR 3), but is bypassed by magical weapons, which are exceedingly common by the levels of play where this ability becomes available. Finally, at 10th level, the Iron Hand Disciple can cast iron body once per day.

The final prestige class is the Sword Saint. The Sword Saint is extremely devoted to a weapon (and it need not be a sword), and becomes an expert with it. This class also seems to fit very well with the ‘wire-fu’ movies that this book is based on. Eventually a Sword Saint gains Perfect Balance – the character can reduce his weight to one pound and gains a +30 bonus on Balance rolls – allowing him to balance on a twig or other such improbable surface. The final ability of the Sword Saint is to deflect ray spells or energy missile spells that target the character. To use Spellcleaver the character must succeed on a Reflex save of 15+caster level of the spell. I find the ability rather intriguing, since deflecting spells with a sword is a fantasy trope that is not reflected in the core rules.

There are nine feats included in this book, but there’s nothing particularly groundbreaking. But there’s nothing broken either. While a DM can probably allow these feats into the game without fear, I don’t think many players will take advantage of them. One feat allows a character to substitute Dexterity in place of Strength for grapple and trip checks. Another allows a character to retain their Dexterity bonus to AC while climbing.

The last half of the book is devoted to an adventure inspired by the setting. Like the rest of the book, the adventure probably owes most of its inspiration to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which came out the year before this book was published. The adventure begins when the Chiang family hires the PCs to find and rescue their daughter. She was traveling incognito to be married to a rival family, to help bury the hatchet after generations of feuding.

Eventually, the PCs reach the point where her caravan was ambushed by bandits. The PCs are also ambushed, but by agents of the rival Lim family. If things go poorly for the PCs, the bandit leader that kidnapped the Chiang daughter will rescue them.

The PCs will either kill the bandit leader or find out that he loves the missing princess, and she loves him. They have been married. But Lim family agents, in the guise of looking for her, are moving an army into the Chiang family compound. The story revolves around whether the PCs killed her husband or not, but regardless, it becomes clear that they need to protect the Chiang family. The character of the bandit leader – Black Tiger – is something of a problem. As a character of higher level than the PCs, if he joins with them, it is possible that he will overshadow them in future combats. The adventure itself is very linear, and the PCs will have little opportunity to influence the outcome. For example, when the PCs return to the Chiang family compound, they will find the assault has already begun. It is irrelevant whether they return in 4 hours or 4 days – the moment they arrive is just moments after the assault began. Regardless of how quickly the PCs vanquish their foes, all the Chiang family (except some young children and possibly the kidnapped daughter) will be killed. Players that enjoy the opportunity to shape the course of the adventure are sure to be disappointed.

All in all, Jade and Steel serves more as an adventure than a campaign setting. Used in conjunction with a book like Oriental Adventures, it can help flesh-out an Asian-flavored campaign. On its own, it doesn’t provide enough breadth or depth to be a truly useful resource.

 

[img]/sites/all/images/jade_and_steel.jpg[/img] [b]Jade and Steel - Roleplaying in Mythic China[/b]
[b]Author:[/b] Jim Lai [b]Publisher:[/b] [url=http://www.avalanchepress.com/]Avalanche Press[/url]
[b]Publish Date:[/b] 10/2001 [b]ISBN:[/b] 097079613-7
[b]Pages: [/b]48 [url=ratings.shtml]Rating[/url]:[img]../images/rating04.jpg[/img]
[b]Retail Price:[/b] $9.95