Originally published at: http://diehardgamefan.com/2012/02/21/tabletop-review-qin-the-
Qin: The Warring States is a role-playing game for those who want cinematic and fantastic adventure in ancient China. This is not a Western RPG in an Eastern setting (like AD&D’s Oriental Adventures), this game is steeped in Eastern feel, which I thought was quite impressive coming from Cubicle 7, a UK-based company that produces a wide variety of games from different designers, most recently The One Ring RPG based on the Lord of the Rings series.
Some thoughts on layout
Aesthetically, the book is gorgeous and has some nice artwork, which at times leans towards the romantic and at other times towards the cartoonish (particularly in the bestiary section). The textual layout is nice and clean, as is to be expected of any professional production, and the columns are very wide. I almost felt like there could have been a bit more space between the columns and not such a large margin at the side of the page, just to help readability a little, since the tiny space between the columns gives the impression of full-page text and not the two-column style so idiomatic of RPG manuals. As far as the content itself goes, at times I had a problem with the way the material was presented: sometimes a term was used in context before it was explained. This is a minor gripe, as the term was generally described soon afterward, but generally when I read a rules manual I expect at least a general description of the term before it’s going to be used in context. Let me present a small example: on p. 59 under the “Yin/Yang Balance” and “Critical Failure” headings, the term “Chi” is used just before its place in the game mechanics is described on p. 60; it is described thematically on p. 48, but I have no understanding of the mechanical value until later. This might seem silly, but I find it very helpful to understand a term first, and then see it used in context.
On that same tack, I was disappointed that the book has pre-fab character examples so early on. Now, I can understand that this was probably in order to spark interest and whet the appetite for what can be achieved, but I like more integration; I would have liked to maybe have one typical pre-fab character on a separate sheet so that I could look at it for reference and understand each aspect of character creation as I read through the chapter. The more nuanced pre-fabs could be presented after the character creation chapter as templates to jump off from. As it is, I would have to constantly flip back and forth to get that reinforcement of text and visual aid. Also, I think a brief overview of the basic dice mechanics and characteristics would have been helpful before the character creation section. I know it is typical to have character creation early on in the manual, but in this case there are a lot of terms and ideas particular to this setting to be understood before you go about creating a character. To the first time reader, I would suggest starting with the basic dice mechanics and Chi concepts (p. 55-61), and then possibly reading the sections on combat, magic, and Taos before beginning the character creation section. Note that there is a nice character creation walkthrough at the end of the “Characters” section (p. 52-53).
System Mechanics and Character Creation Overview
Qin uses a Yin/Yang Die, which is a proprietary term for two 10-sided dice, one black and one white (note: they will be referred to as a single die from here on out, as they are presented in the rules as a single die). When the die is rolled, the lower result is subtracted from the higher, and any modifiers are added to or subtracted from the resulting number before comparing it to a Success Threshold (ST), determining whether or not the roll was successful (a “0” is a true zero, not a 10, so the highest die result is 9). The “average” ST is 6, which seems rather difficult with a straight roll, but when modifiers are taken into account it looks much more achievable. A “Yin/Yang Balance” occurs when both dice show the same number, and indicates a critical success; if the numbers are both zero, however, it is a critical failure.
Characters have five basic attributes, corresponding to natural substances: Metal, Wood, Water, Fire, and Earth. Metal is a martial attribute, Wood a mental one; Water is agility and dexterity, Fire charisma and passion; finally, Earth is a mystical aspect, sort of a metaphysical strength or affinity. These attributes are a thematic breath of fresh air from the standard RPG set. First of all, I am generally in favor of less attributes, and five seems like a pretty good number. I also feel like the attributes really are distinct and apply clearly in any situation. For example, if Pang the coal miner is trying to figure out a riddle, but his Wood attribute is only 1, he is going to have a very hard time. There is no questioning whether to use Pang’s Wisdom or his Intelligence score, because in this system, the problem clearly belongs in the sphere of Wood (if he instead tried to punch the person who presented the riddle that would clearly be Metal). When a character is created, the standard point allotment is 14 to distribute between the five attributes, and 2 is considered an average score (the maximum is 5). There are secondary aspects as well that will depend on calculations using your attribute scores, which are “Chi” (spirit and special ability points), “Passive Defense” (basic defense), “Breath of Life” (health points), and “Renown” (status). The way Chi and Breath of Life are calculated is interesting, because they depend on a character’s “Balance”: a character will have the greatest Balance when the total of their Fire and Wood attributes (mind) is equal to the total of their Metal and Water attributes (body). This is a great way for players to weigh their character creation decisions and think about them thematically as well as mechanically. A balanced character will have certain perks that an unbalanced one will not have.
There are no character classes in Qin, and that is something I like very much. In the character creation section there are a lot of suggestions for character archetypes, which are a great resource, but nothing is stopping a player from making their characters blur as many lines as they want to. After a player is done buying aspects and determining secondary aspects, they will choose an advantage and a disadvantage, and buy skills and “Taos” (special abilities).
Combat and Experience Points
This being a cinematic game and an RPG in the classic vein, combat will likely be an integral part of any campaign, but also not something to be taken too lightly by the GM. The characters are meant to be powerful, capable of amazing feats and dealing relatively easily with opponents of a less extraordinary stripe. Mechanically, combat is straightforward; players roll for initiative, and then use actions to move and attack (or do anything else). Players can use Taos or combat techniques to do things out of the ordinary, like move extremely quickly or strike extra-hard. There are special rules governing how henchmen (the lowest level of human opponent, basically) act and coordinate. As a group, henchmen will attack as one unit if they have a singular target, streamlining combat a little. Of course, other opponents in the form of NPC “VIPs” are also available for the game master to create and throw at the PCs at his or her discretion, although the book advises that these NPCs be important to the story somehow, since they take more investment to make and incorporate. Toward the end of the book is a small bestiary which gives basic stat blocks for animals and more detailed information for creatures from ancient Chinese lore.
Damage is somewhat abstracted into Breath of Life, which consists of several boxes on the player sheet. The player will cross these off as they take damage points, and as they progress into worsening conditions, will suffer penalties. Henchmen have no Breath of Life, and so simply are disposed when they suffer a strong enough blow.
Experience points are given out at the end of a session depending on what the character accomplished during the session. In this way, experience is not dependent only on fighting. Instead, the GM decides what to award points for and how many, usually in values of 1 or 2 and usually for contributing something exciting to the game. The example in the book awards 3 EP for a session, which makes advancement look like it moves quite slow. Depending on what you are trying to improve on your character, it may or may not be a very slow system of advancement; buying an Apprentice level (the lowest trained level) skill costs 4 EP, the next level 8 EP, and costs are cumulative, so that buying a new skill at the second level would cost you 12 EP (or four sessions according to the example!). Experience can also be awarded if a player spends time studying and training, which is a nice touch, but the points earned must be spent on the particular thing that was being studied. Experience points are the currency a player uses to make their character more powerful in a specific area, or more well-rounded if you want to add new skills, spells, or Taos.
Finally, I’d like to discuss the “Magic” chapter. Magic is treated very practically in Qin, as it is simply a skill learned like any other skill. However, the skills of magic require great amounts of attention and knowledge, because they involve understanding and manipulating the properties of the universe; in other words, Qin treats magic as a branch of science. I enjoyed this part of the book very much, and I like how the four disciplines of magic are each very distinct and interesting, much like the attributes. The juxtaposition of the External Alchemy practitioner versus the Internal Alchemy, where the former uses physical objects like ointments and elixirs to change physical aspects, and the latter, Chi and respiratory discipline to change his spiritual aspects, is very interesting. The other two spheres are more ethereal, being Divination and Exorcism. In all, this chapter is rife with possibilities and really brings alive a lot of mystical elements of the game for me. The fact that magic is open to anyone at any time (provided they are willing to spend the points to learn it) is also excellent, again allowing characters to flow in any direction they wish.
Other thoughts and My Impressions
There are several sections in the book, and a few that I did not discuss, dealing with all that you need to know to get started playing the game. In fact, there is probably more than you need to know. All of it is presented with an Eastern feel, and drenched in thematically aromatic taxonomy. Every Tao has an interesting name, every spell or potion an intriguing euphemism, and the Chinese flavor is generally prevailing all around. To a Westerner like me, this book feels exotic and new, even though I know it was made by other Westerners. Not being disposed toward Eastern-themed games, I did not expect to be interested in playing Qin, but I have been drawn in by the evocative ideas and presentation. I also like the openness of character creation, and despite the rather slow “default” advancement (which is completely up to the GM and players to accelerate if they wish), feel that I would enjoy playing a character and gradually choosing those new skills or a new Tao or something exciting to use in the next session.
Along with all that, I also get the feeling that Qin is geared toward combat, just like a lot of other RPGs. It depends how the game is run in any group, but how can you pass up all those cool martial arts? It’s Qin: The Warring States, not Qin: Flower Gardening Along the Yangtze! I can’t imagine playing and not wanting to make awesome leaps off of a wall to crush an opponent in mid-air, or run across the surface of a pond in order to ambush a surprised enemy on the other side. The game does, however, have an air of sophistication and repose that seems absent from many other RPGs. There is honor, and renown, and a feeling that the guy in the corner wearing ragged clothes might be a total badass, so you should watch who you mess with. Things are not as they seem in the Warring States, and to me that mysterious feeling is compounded by the exotic nature of the subject.
Did I mention the core book has about 90 pages of setting information? It has about 90 pages of setting information. More, if you count the fiction vignettes that appear occasionally. This consists of a little bit at the beginning of the book and a whole chapter devoted to it later in the book. Want to know exactly what the Warring States are about? You will if you want to.
Veteran gamers are going to find a lot that they are familiar with in terms of structure (stats, skills, spells, equipment, etc.) but in a refreshingly different packaging. Newer gamers or gamers who have less systems under their belt will be rewarded if they decide to investigate Qin; the die mechanic is very simple, and the modifiers are much less volatile than those in other modifier-heavy games (D&D 3.5, for example). This might be the first Eastern RPG that I embrace, and if you haven’t checked this game out yet, I suggest that you do.