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Reviews - Jade and Steel
 
by Matthew Pook


Jade and Steel cover Amongst industry insiders, Avalanche Press LTD is causing some scandal. Not for their range of board games, both new and reprinted, or for the content of their historically-inclined d20 System sourcebooks and adventures. Rather, many have taken umbrage at the covers selected for those d20 titles. The series got off to a good start with The Last Days of Constantinople, but some would say it took a downturn with the release of Greenland Saga - the Lost Norse Colony and the subsequent titles. We'll get to Avalanche's fourth d20 title, Jade and Steel, after a brief look at the industry is getting stirred up about.

The "Scandal"
After Constantinople, each book in the series has had a cover painting by Lorenzo Sperlonga of Heavy Metal fame. Each cover depicts some scantily clad, overly-endowed-in-the-mammary-department young woman, wielding a weapon or two. In other words, cheesecake. Unless you are particularly opposed to this style of art, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with either cheesecake or beefcake art. Yet the question remains, should it have a place in the books we buy as part of our hobby? Is Avalanche Press using sex to sell their books? Are these covers in danger of giving our hobby a bad name?

The real problem is that these covers have little to do with the actual contents of the book. They may be vaguely relevant, but certainly are not specific to the historically oriented material inside. What's worse is the fact that Avalanche Press makes claims about the authenticity of the writing, often employing experts as the authors. This is perfectly laudable, but surely the nature of the cover detracts from whatever historical accuracy they are trying to achieve? That's before we even consider their potential to offend the relatively small female sector of our hobby.

While I cannot say whether these covers are giving the hobby a bad name, it seems clear that the publishers are using titillation to target the young male audience. Their covers make us look, pick up and then turn over to read the blurb on the rear. They appear to be the only company currently doing so, which is very much at odds with the current thinking of the industry that the days of the chainmail bikini are long past.

Mythic China Awaits
Avalanche Press's fourth d20 system release is Jade and Steel, a 48-page supplement and scenario for "Roleplaying in Mythic China." Again, Lorenzo Sperlonga's cover is all cheesecake. Worse, it is rather bland and you cannot tell if the young lady depicted is either Chinese or Japanese, just oriental. The internal art, by Terry Moore Strickland and Peggy Gordon, is by far a huge improvement upon the cover. It has character (where the cover has none), and it gets across a sense of what mythic China is all about.

The book is divided into three parts, the first being a discussion of the setting and background of mythic China, in just ten pages. These act as a solid, thorough primer to China of 210 AD, during the time of the Three Kingdoms, and following the collapse of the Han Dynasty over a century before. Beyond a description of basic history and culture, the section examines various types of religion and philosophies. Occasionally there is mention of a suitable class for a particular faith, but even though the position of Magistrate is discussed in the section on crime and punishment, devotees of Judge Dee are not provided for in Jade and Steel.

The second section is d20 system specific, providing a number of new prestige classes and feats. These are all monk or wizard oriented. The wizard can become an Alchemist, which unlike its western counterpart is not looking to transmute base metals to gold. Instead, the Alchemist works to secure the elixir of life, which will grant them immortality. The Diviner, who consults the I Ching to foretell futures and uncover secrets, is also described, followed by the Geometer, who perceives the Feng Shui of an area and how to bring it into harmony. This may not be a Prestige Class suited for use by player characters, as the process of bringing a room or area into harmony is lengthy. Once this is done though, other characters can gain various benefits from resting in such a harmonius enevironment.

The new Prestige Classes for the Monk include the practitioners of Dim Mak or "Touch Of Death," who have learned secret arts that enable them to not only master, but extend the control of their own life force, known as Ch'i. They can manipulate the flow of their opponent's Ch'i to strike at vital pressure points and cause blindness, paralysis and even death without touching. The Iron Hand Disciple has likewise mastered their control of their Ch'i, but rather to entirely develop their physical abilities, from inflicting hardened unarmed strikes to hardening their bodies to the blows of others. Finally, the Sword Saint is a martial artist that has focused upon the use of a single weapon, and will only draw it against opponents that they deem worthy.

Although a few Chinese weapons are discussed, they are not illustrated. This is a pity, as players do like to know what the weapon they are wielding actually looks like. The second part of Jade and Steel ends with a description and rules on the use of rockets. Essentially, these are the giant fireworks that need to be braced and aimed before being fired - if you have seen the Disney film Mulan, then you will know what I mean. The use of rockets turns up in the adventure that follows in part three.

The sweep of Jade and Steel is broadly drawn. Despite the decency of the basic information provided, this is not what you could call a "culture game" like Empire of the Petal Throne, Skyrealms of Jorune or Sengoku. Instead this is a supplement designed for the heroic style of play, befitting the swords and sorcery game that is D&D3e. This is heroics inspired by films such as A Chinese Ghost Story, Disney's Mulan and the more recent Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon than anything else.

The third part of Jade and Steel is an adventure, "For Love or Money," that takes up more than half of the book. There is more than a whiff of Crouching Tiger in this scenario, which is set on the borders between the Northern Kingdom of Wei and the Western Kingdom of Shu. The city of Pai-San on the Wei side of the border and its governor, Lord Chiang, has recently has sent his daughter Kim Nan and a large dowry across the border to marry Jan Wei, the eldest son of the Lim family. Unfortunately, she never arrived, having been ambushed by bandits known as the Black Tigers.

Designed for four to six players of eleventh to fourteenth level, this is a decent enough adventure that should last two sessions or so. There is still room for expansion beyond the story's ending, but this is left for the referee to develop. Layout wise, the boxes containing the various NPC details skitter all over the place, which has been a problem in other Avalanche Press books. Considering the simplicity of their layout, this could have been rectified during the production with ease. As to the Cornugen being a new monster, it would appear that the writers have not checked the Monster Manual within the last year.

The material contained in Jade and Steel is decent enough, but a referee is not going to get a great deal of use out this book in the long term. This is not helped by the fact that it is a supplement intended for high-level characters and all in all seems a little thin for the price of $12.95. Owners of the Feng Shui/D&D3e crossover scenario Burning Shaolin could make use of Jade and Steel to some extent. However, unless the gaming group wants to make their journeys in Mythic China a brief visit, it would be best to wait for a longer, deeper sourcebook.

The author would like to thank Roj at Wayland's Forge for his assistance


 

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