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Retro Review – Ziran

September 26, 2012

The Secret of Ziran – Core Rulebook

The Hand of Fate Book

Having finally got my own hand on The Hand of Fate Book (that’s Gamesmaster’s Book to anyone unfamiliar with the setting), I had the urge to give this fantastic setting another look. Although I’ve never actually played The Secret of Ziran, I’ve really enjoyed delving in the core rulebook numerous times down the years as it presents a great setting and some neat rule ideas.

In brief, the world of Ziran is a pulp-styled fantasy setting that has been deserted by the gods and recovered from a great war against superpowerful humans with god-like powers (and, indeed, god complexes) called Fane. Although similarly-themed fantasy settings have appeared since, it still contains quite a few original and intriguing ideas.

The core rulebook paints the world of Ziran in broad strokes – every nation is presented to the reader, but much detail is left undescribed. The Hand of Fate Book  does flesh the world out a little more, although not to the degree that I had hoped, with details on conspiracies and organisations that can be used to assist or oppose the PCs. This minimalist approach will suit those Gamesmasters who like plenty of freedom to create their own version of a setting or who dislike having to search through reams of data for minor pieces of information about a setting, but will annoy those who thrive on the little details or prefer to be able to focus their creativity on the adventure at hand rather than world creation.

The use of pulp stereotypes provides plenty of hooks upon which to hang plots, character descriptions and location, although some might find things a little cliched.

Although the title of the game and quite a bit of discussion about it refers to the secrets of the setting, these are actually rather understated and do not constitute the sort of metaplot obsession that annoys many gamers. Really, the secrets should be seen as a theme of the setting. The main secrets are listed in The Hand of Fate Book, but, if you were hoping for answers, you will find none as they are deliberately left for the Hand of Fate to decide upon as suits their own game. A little annoying if you wanted to learn more about the setting, but a good call if you are actually going to play in it.

Although an early 20th century-style technology dominates Ziran, given the pulp nature of the game, magic is a dominant force and comes in two styles – Rune Magic and Shadow Magic, both of which are interesting variants on the usual fare of fantasy spellcraft. The former sees mages wielding a ‘stylus’ to create runes (whether on objects or beings or in the air) that produce magical effects; this type of magic actually powers much of the technology in use in the setting. Shadow Magic is a newer sort of magic and has a poorer reputation as it involves drawing upon the spirit energy inherent in one’s shadow, often to produce strange and unsettling effects. The Hand of Fate Book provides some additional spells, but the core rulebook has plenty to be getting started with.

As I haven’t actually played a game of Ziran, I cannot comment on the rules beyond the fact that they seem workable on the page and character creation involves the use of ‘packages’ that represent careers or periods of activity; the idea is that characters, as heroes, have already had a fairly mundane (if, perhaps, exciting) life before embarking on their careers as world-changing adventurers, and, so, have plenty of useful skills and abilities.

Aside from being a little lacking in terms of monsters, a ‘flaw’ that The Hand of Fate Book corrects, the core rulebook contains everything you need to start your adventures in Ziran and the other book, whilst useful, is not essential. Ziran is a great setting for those who enjoy the pulp and fantasy genres and it offers a strong framework for adventure with plenty of leeway to develop the world as you wish and the potential for different types of campaign. Highly recommended.

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