RPG Review: The Great Zodiac Race by Alyx Bui

Welcome back to our series of reviews of some of the works from the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop. Each review will be followed with a brief chat with its author(s) where we will be delving a bit deeper into some of the aspects that most intrigued me. Every two days there will be a new review and mini-interview out, so keep tuned to discover some of the amazing things that these bright new authors are coming up with.

Spoiler warning: It is simply not practical to review a product without mentioning anything about it. I have attempted to remain vague where possible, however I can not guarantee that you will not learn something about the adventure by reading this review

Declaration of interest: This article includes affiliate links. Also I participated in the Fall 2020 RPG Writer Workshop, and my adventure is included in this bundle. If you want more information about my adventure, you can find my blog post discussing it here.

The cover of The Great Zodiac Race by Alyx Bui. It is hand painted and has the different animals of the race involved in various activities.
Cover image of the Great Zodiac Race by Alyx Bui. This is hand painted and full of little goodies, check out the interview section for details.

The Great Zodiac Race by Alyx Bui

An adventure for D&D5e, included in RPG Writer Workshop bundle 2.

Review

Drawing on Chinese mythology, The Great Zodiac Race retells the story of the origins of the Chinese Zodiac and Chinese Lunar calendar. The adventure starts in media res, discovering the scroll that kicks everything off. This is perfect for a one-shot, as it saves time on set up, but could also easily be an interesting side-adventure easily slipped into a larger campaign, if the characters stumble across a magic scroll. After being attributed (or choosing) a zodiac animal, the player characters take on some of the corresponding characteristics from the original myth, gaining physical attributes, ability score changes, and special abilities. The choice of zodiac animal will also determine what opponents the characters might face, again based on the original myth. After this choice the adventure begins in earnest.

The characters make their way through a series of challenges in a variety of landscapes. They must leap between pillars, save a village from burning, and finally cross a river, all while trying to beat their fellow competitors and insure their place in the Zodiac. These challenges are generally a series of skill checks, with the occasional combat encounter. Each of them, however, includes small variations in order to make things more interesting and unique. The players will have to make several choices throughout the adventure, on both major and minor matters. This choice generally means that they will have to choose between spending time early on or facing more difficult challenges in the future. Normally this would be an easy decision, but in the context of a race, time is of the essence. This presents a dilemma for the players, and also is fitting with the theme, where the members of the Zodiac from the original myth take different routes and challenges. The adventure ends when the characters make it to the far side of the river that makes up the final challenge, and take up their new place in the Zodiac.

The author has also integrated the mechanics into the narrative of the adventure. Failing a check leads to the character loosing time, pushing them further behind in the race. The players have to keep a count of the number failed checks, which will help determine the final standings. This ties the mechanics to the expressed theme. The Chinese Zodiac story has been integrated at every level of the adventure. Monsters have been reskinned into something fitting, with an accompanying pronunciation guide throughout. Notes have been provided to explain regional variations in the myth, showing yet again the care and attention that the author has taken.

The love for the source material is also evident in the descriptions provided, which will call upon all of your player’s senses as they are immersed in the world. The box text provides lush details of the characters voyage through this almost extra-dimensional world. This creates an almost cinematic feel to the adventure, as the landscapes seem to shift around the characters in an almost dream like state that is perfectly fitting with the adventure. This almost gives the impression that they’re caught playing out the whims of a god.

The adventure isn’t always perfect, there are a few places where it might be helpful to have a bit more guidance for the DM, though nothing major. While an effort has been made to provide a diverse array of skill checks so as not to penalise certain character classes, some checks do appear more frequently than others. Finally, the characters standing in the race at the end of one chapter seems to have little impact on the final placement, though this just means that there are a couple of extra rolls in the game and does make it appear slightly more dynamic. These are all minor problems that should in no way stop you enjoying this adventure greatly.

This is a very specific adventure, responding to a niche in the market that is in desperate need of attention. This adaptation of a traditional Chinese myth has been done with love and care, such that it could easily be imagined as an excellent way of introducing people to the original material. The descriptions are evocative and engaging, and the narrative is nicely tied to the mechanics in a new and intriguing way that is a solid foundation for anyone looking into how to run an engaging chase. A more than welcome addition to any DMs portfolio, which could easily be used for a one shot (for say, the Chinese New Year) or included as a change of pace and palate cleanser in a campaign.

Behind the Screens

Hello Alyx, and thanks for agreeing to this interview. Your adventure is a loving adaptation of the Chinese Zodiac origins myth. It’s pretty safe to say that D&D has a somewhat… checkered history when dealing with non-occidental stories. Is this a direct reaction to this history?

In a way, yes. The craft of D&D 5e chose me, but wasn’t created in my image. Many of the narratives in D&D 5e continue to centre the views and values of straight, white cis-men. It’s quite challenging to enter this space as a queer, non-binary Asian and feel safe, heard and represented. I wanted to bring more authentic and accessible Asian representation to play. Simply creating the content I wish I had.

You’ve put considerable care and attention into the different zodiac animals provided in the adventure. They all have individual personalities and traits drawn from the original material, as well as special abilities. Was there any specific reason behind wanting to make them all so individual? Or was it just something you really enjoyed doing?

Similar to the Western Zodiac, the Chinese Zodiac imbues certain personality traits, flaws, compatibilities, bonds, and prospects for the year, to each person born under that Chinese Zodiac animal. Players have the option between 12 Chinese Zodiac characters (plus the cat) through special abilities and personality traits based on the Jade medallion they chose. I wanted to do something different and to give players a way to really live out the Great Race myth.

I struggled at first trying to decide if players would actually transform into these Chinese Zodiac animals, if they were still able to use their weapons and spells if they did, or if I would create 13 new subclasses to reconcile having the Chinese Zodiac animals as playable character options. After many solo walks and staring at a D&D character sheet, I realized that D&D character sheets already had a place for personality traits, bonds, flaws and ideals. These changes to characters could be actually imparted through wearable Jade medallions and were quick and not too arduous to come up with. I looked at my 2019 Chinese calendar and borrowed many of the personality traits, flaws and bonds for these Chinese Zodiac animals.

Of course, many individuals will recognize the adventure drawing inspiration from the manga “Fruits Basket” in which the main protagonist, Tohru Honda, encounters various people that transform into various Chinese Zodiac animals. Each of these characters have special personality traits based on their Chinese Zodiac animal and because of my great love for Kyo, I included the cat into this adventure as a playable Chinese Zodiac animal.

The Zodiac animals also come with personalised puns, which is just great! Is this something normally associated with the zodiac? Also, do you have a favourite pun you want to share with us?

Nope! These puns naturally came out of a playtest with my regular gaming group, the Bad Caw Bandits. So many animals puns were used during the session that I had to include them in the module. The result was the “appundex” of animal puns.

My favourite pun would have to be “I musk-ox you a question.” I die everytime. Also, the Rooster’s special ability- “Cocks make some people happy,” is just gold.

The descriptions in the adventure are transporting. There is almost a feel of the characters entering a sort of dream sequence, at the whims of a god, with the world shifting around them more than them actually moving through it. Do you have any advice for up and coming designers for how to really capture a world in this way?

A lot of my world building came from intensive research of the real world. The characters move through “Zhangjiajie”, a heavily forested, mountainous range in Hunan province, China. The sandstone pillars that tower up into the sky and are covered by dense fog, inspired James Cameron’s Pandora in the “Avatar.” I’m very intentional in my language. I wanted to capture how awe-inspiring, magical and beautiful these biomes in China were. The RPG Writer’s Workshop also provided an excellent course on using the five senses to immerse and transport characters into the world, which I use in my writing. I got to give thanks to Chris Meining, for suggesting that characters enter this adventure through a scroll, whereas they initially entered through a dream (similarly to how Syaoran gained his powers in CLAMP’s Tsubasa). Characters are able to create their own version of the Great Race within the backdrop of the original adventure.

But also, from my Wesleyan University courses on Creative Writing, writing an adventure is like conveying a dream. You must persuade readers of the fiction you’re transporting them through. Ask yourself- why this setting? What is it about this setting that is lending itself to the players in experiencing this adventure? Nothing happens nowhere. Write with specificity, imaginative research, nouns and verbs.

You’ve used quite a lot of “read-aloud box text” in this adventure, which is in part how your convey the images you’ve used so well. There is some amount of controversy around the use of boxed text, with some very strong feelings for and against. What are your feelings on it?

You know another D&D adventure that uses a lot of read aloud boxes? The Curse of Strahd, which is considered one of the best official D&D adventures of all time. I feel read-aloud boxes are perfect for conveying my vision of the environments, NPCs and emotions to the GM, and are an aid to the GM to immerse the players in the adventure.

While I’m in love with the various aesthetic choices and writing I feel like it would be doing you a disservice if we didn’t talk about the mechanical integration. Anyone who has tried to run a chase scene knows that it can quickly become a slog of carefully measuring movement speeds, or else it tends to be expedited as a skill challenge to help keep it exciting, though this is hard to maintain over a period of time. You’ve decided to make an entire adventure around a chase scene, and I must admit you’ve done it marvellously. Where did the inspiration come from for the current system of adding the number of failed skill checks to a random roll to determine the outcome? Did you go through any other design iterations for the race mechanics while working on this?

This mechanism came out of a conversation with my friend, Nicolas Corbeil. I remember sending him the adventure to read through and he commented along the lines, “It’s a race. How are you conveying the character’s rankings?” We spent hours on the phone going back and forth, as he challenged many of the choices I designed within the game, to create the most optimal player experience. We went from using a die as a spin down counter and measuring recording moves, or using an initiative tracker to visually illustrate where characters ranked in the Great Race. I wasn’t happy with all these complicated options, but knew that I had to solve this problem, as it would enrich a player’s experience of a race.

I asked Logan Smith, my editor, what his thoughts were and he suggested maybe rolling a d20 to find out. Logan has helped me a lot in many sticky situations throughout my adventure. So combining everyone’s suggestions, I was able to finally come up with this mechanism of using failed skill checks and luck to determine the outcome. Simple, easy.

Are we to look forward to future adaptations of Chinese myth in your works? Or do you want to branch out into other domains in the future?

Maybe! Writing, designing and publishing an entire D&D module within a month is extremely exhausting, but rewarding. There are some ideas floating in my head, like a Choose Your Adventure, but make it a way where you can play two different characters, but the choices you pick influences the storyline and the other character. Or an adventure in which characters play through 5,000 years of Chinese history, putting to use the degree in International Relations and East Asia Pacific I have. I don’t know. It’s like when I run my half marathons- I say it’s one and done, but my track record would say otherwise.

If you’re a queer, Asian creator, hit me up, we could create something beautiful together. I’m also a filmmaker, so my next project is actually to write, direct and produce, “Myth of the Rabbit God”, a film that will explore Asian queerness within the context of Asian mythology, sensuality, desire and culture.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add before we end?

I hand painted the cover of my adventure within 7 hours and there are a lot of secrets hidden throughout. My cover is inspired by traditional paper cutting in China and the beautiful paper cut scroll of the Chinese Zodiac animals by Ren Yude that I picked up in the Beijing Silk market 4 years ago. I arranged all the Chinese Zodiac animals in the order and manner in which they arrived during the Great Race and in the Chinese character for “fortune” (“fuk” in Cantonese and “fu” in Mandarin, the two dialects that I am familiar with). Try to spot the addition of the Cat chasing after Rat. rat riding on top of Ox’s back. Rabbit holding onto a log. Snake scaring Horse. Monkey, Rooster and Sheep in a group. Tiger, Dog and Pig standing on their own. A battle axe, a bow, arrows, and a sword. The waves. The raft. The bamboo thrushes. The mountains. The cover actually conveys the entire Chinese myth of the Great Race and the Great Zodiac Race adventure, if you look.

My biggest thanks to Logan Smith (@neversaydice), my developmental and copyright editor, who had been on this long journey with me. Also, David Glass (@adavidpglass), my cartographer who created a kick-ass map of Tianmenshan Village. To my initial first and second round playtesters, my Bad Caw Bandits- Jonathan “Phancypants” Clark, Matt L., Alexa R., Eric Borowski, and Adam Weiler. Additionally to my third round of playtesters- Nicholas Corbeil, Chris Meining, Kate Riccomini and Alexander B. Grover. This adventure took a village to complete. Thanks Nic and Matt for the long hours on the phone and being my soundboards for this adventure.

Thank you again, and I hope that we get to see many more adventures from you in the future!

Thanks for the interview- I’ve thoroughly enjoyed re-living the creation of this D&D module I am so proud of. I originally wanted to create this adventure as a Powered by the Apocalypse (I still might!), in which players can choose a different, asymmetrical playbook. Who knows what 2021 will bring? Connect with me @daredevilalyx on Twitter for any updates!

You can find the adventure on the DMsGuild here, and more work by Alyx here. You can also follow Alyx on Twitter.

Until next time, be more kind,

TTFN,

Sam

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