Originally featured on the blog Halfling's Luck:
I'm a huge fan of Adventures Dark & Deep, published by BRW Games. It's the 2nd Edition I always wanted. So much so that,when I decided to do a major book purge, I chose to keep ADD over AD&D 2nd edition. When +Joseph Bloch announced that BRW Game was going to be releasing The Golden Scroll of Justice I was a bit disappointed. I thought to myself "Oh, great. Another Oriental Adventures-style supplement."
I'm not a huge fan of the original OA, nor am I a fan of most Asian fantasy RPGs. But that's because they're not really Asian. Instead, they're almost always a kind of pseduo-Japanese fantasy RPG. Now, don't get me wrong - that's all good and well, but I'm bored with ninjas and samurai being done over and and over again ad nauseam. Also, my personal preference was always for the more wuxia stylings of media like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, or Hero. Wuxia isn't limited to foreign films. Tarantino's Kill Bill films and even John Carpenter's classic Big Trouble in Little China use the same themes and motifs in the modern day as told by western directors. Wuxia was about high adventure, mythic stories and a touch of the spiritual. Legends told with sweeping cinematography and wire-work. Legends brought to life in an exotic land. That was the Oriental Adventures I wanted, but I never quite got.
But I think the reason for that is that Wuxia films have a strong element of Chinese style and mythology to them - and this shows through in what the original Oriental Adventures both is and isn't. But what Bloch has done with The Golden Scroll of Justice is finally created a supplement that includes cleanly written, well organized rules for running Wuxia style campaigns or integrating elements of that into an existing campaign. While it's written for Adventures Dark and Deep - it can be easily adapted to fit any "Advanced" retro-clone out there.
Like Adventures Dark and Deep, The Golden Scroll of Justice doesn't give us a default setting. Instead it paints a collection of classes, races, skills, magic items, monsters and full rules for kung-fu in the themes and motifs of Chinese myth and Wuxia style in the same way that most fantasy RPGs are painted in the general theme of Euro-centric, pseudo-medieval fantasy. But there's something subtle going on in Bloch's text: The game never feels... bland. The rules and options in TGSoJ always remind you that you're in a badass time of legend and if you harness your Qi and hold to the Code of Xia, then honor and adventure await you.
The book itself is laid out in a manner exactly like Adventures Dark and Deep. Clean, crisp and concise. It's easy to read two-column format with black and white art that is thematically appropriate through out.
It begins with the introduction of two new races and one new variant on standard humans. The Shanxiao are humanoids with a fair resemblance to monkeys who live in private communities and seem to have a propensity for the more spiritual classes, while the Gouran are dog-headed and aggressive. I rather liked the Shanxiao, but found the Gouran to be a bit "thin" on their racial write-up. They seemed to offer nothing more than an attribute bonus and class restrictions, with no other racial abilities described. The third "race" listed is that of human eunuch. This is a bold choice on the part of the author and provides interesting insight into the implied society and culture of the setting.
Next up we get classes. Not a lot of time is spent adding new classes. Instead the focus is on addressing existing classes and what changes when they are put into a Mythic Chinese setting. Some classes, like the Bard are out and out removed - but most have a few small modifications. Monks are also addressed in detail, as one would expect, as are two new classes: The Wu and the Fangshi. The Wu is a kind of cleric sub-class that deals mostly with spirits and have a very earthy vibe about them. While the Fangshi are more alchemists and astrologers. At first glance, both classes seem to be simple re-skins of existing classes (cleric and magic-user, respectively), but when the reader takes a look at their spell list that's where the flavor of both Wu and Fangshi really begins to shine.
Next up is Secondary Skills and this is where GSoJ really starts to shine. Adventures Dark and Deep has a really innovative skill system and the new skills provided are just fantastic. While it might seem silly to include skills like Acupuncture, Feng Shiu, and Qigong, Bloch includes them in a way that evokes the feel of old Wuxia films in clear, simple rules that just heaps on the flavor while adding new and interesting touches to a character. This is closed with a brief touch on social class, literacy and money. Once thing that I am very pleased by is the fact that Bloch did not convert the equipment in the book to a thematic currency. Conversions are just a pain in the ass and gold pieces are an arbitrary place-holder than can easily be renamed.
The equipment section is very, very extensive and provides all manner of unique items suitable to the flavor that permeates the rest of the book. Everything from silk robes to fireworks are covered - and yes, there is a plethora of new weapons. I am pleased to announce that there is no katana listing. Bloch is really focused on Chinese themes here and keeps his attention there.
Next we come to the Kung-Fu mechanics for GSoJ. Let's face it: unarmed combat in D&D (regardless of edition), has never been stellar. What's done here is Bloch has expanded his Secondary Skill system to include different martial arts styles. Each style has three tiers that are become not only more expensive (in XP) to learn, but also more difficult to find a master who is willing or able to teach the style. At each level of skill the player is provided with one option that can be used without a skill check and another that can be used if the character succeeds in a skill check. While initially I felt this felt a bit like a "feat" system from D&D 3.X, when I read the mechanics as a whole I realized that the amount of work it would take a character to advance in more than one style was ridiculously difficult and in this, it prevented a player from having to remember a plethora of combat options. The rules seem written with the implicit belief that most characters who learn Kung-Fu will probably never learn more than one style over the lifetime of their character. In addition, Bloch's Kung-Fu rules do not limit themselves to just hand-to-hand combat. Several styles allow or even require the use of specific weapons - which is a nice change. My only problem with the Kung-Fu rules is the the absence of Drunken Monkey style. C'mon, Joe - DRUNK MONKEYS ARE AWESOME AND YOU KNOW IT.
Next we have magic. This includes a list of several pages of new spells and a basic presentation of Chinese cosmology. The new spells reflect that cosmology very well and as previously stated really strengthen the flavor of the Wu and Fangshi classes. They feel balanced as well.
A brief primer on running a Mythic Chinese themed campaign is provided. Five pages review the themes of the Wuxia genre as well as the tropes and tradition of Wuxia stories. This is a really good read for both players and referees alike as it gets to the heart of how GSoJ differs from other Asian fantasy supplements out there.
A dozen pages of new magic items are included and some of them are really cool. From the Coin Sword to the Pill of Immortality (Yes, it's exactly what you think it is... almost), these are flavorful items that, for the most part, don't feel like re-skins of magic items we saw in the original Adventures Dark and Deep core rules.
The book begins to wind down with a 25-page bestiary of monsters, most of which are taken from Chinese mythology. Included as well are seconds addressing devils, demons and of course, dragons. My personal favorite were the Long-Armed People, which is something really bizarre and unique that I'd never encountered or heard of.
The final pages of GSoJ feature three Appendices. Appendix A is a reprint of the unarmed combat rules from the Adventures Dark and Deep Player's Manual. Appendix B provides updated Armor Type vs. Weapon Type. This isn't my thing, but it's a nice touch, given the arsenal of new weapons in the book. The final (and for me, most important) Appendix features inspirational material - both books and film.
The Golden Scroll of Justice clocks in at 114 pages, but it feels bigger because there is a lot packed into these pages. The magic of this book for me is the fact that it does something that no other fantasy RPG supplement has done (in my eyes): It gave Asian classes and culture the same psuedo-historic grounding that had previously been provided to traditional European fantasy gaming. They finally feel like they came from somewhere and that grounding makes me a lot more comfortable intergrating monks and other mythic themes of the east into an existing fantasy campaign.
Could you use GSoJ to run a traditional "Oriental Adventures" type game? Sure, but you'd be wasting a lot of this book's potential. Instead, use its fully realized sense of mythology to integrate a far off culture in pieces, whispers, hints and light touches into your existing campaign so that finally the Middle Kingdom that never was can have a place in the history of your campaign.
[5 of 5 Stars!]