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In my first original article for TheRPGsite I want to talk about running wuxia. I’ve found it is an ideal genre for table top RPGs. Here I will explain what it is and how you can prepare and run a successful Wuxia campaign.

WHAT IS WUXIAFirst what is Wuxia? I realize the term “wuxia” can sound a little pretentious, and even though I am an avid martial arts fan, when I first encountered references to wuxia film, it felt like a fancy way of saying Kung Fu movie.  Really though I had been watching wuxia for years, in fact I preferred wuxia, and just didn’t realize it was a sub-genre. It is a actually useful term for distinguishing a key sub genre. Basically in martial arts movies there are two main strands: Kung Fu and Wuxia. The former is stuff like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, with a lot of focus on hand-to-hand combat and not as much fantasy or supernatural elements. The latter is more about martial heroes with a focus on swordplay and a fair amount of fantasy and the supernatural.

But wuxia is more than just a film sub-genre. Most of the movies come from wuxia novels, which have been popular in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan for some time. There are also wuxia television series (also frequently based on the novels) and those can be just as, if not more exciting, than the movies.

Wuxia is usually translated as “martial hero” or “knight errant”, among other terms. It often features wandering swordsman and martial artists who help protect the weak from the strong and inhabit a world on the periphery of imperial control, against the backdrop of government corruption and rampant crime. I won’t bore you with the linguistics, but my friend Chang put together a short video on the subject and you can see it on the Bedrock Blog page here: WHAT IS WUXIA?

WHY WUXIA IS GOOD GAMING MATERIALI think a lot of people see wuxia and dismiss it as silly because the fighting looks  unrealistic at times and highly stylized. This is true, it is stylized and it isn’t for everyone. But there is an internal logic to combat in wuxia. When you see Donnie Yen whip out a spear and slice through 40 guys in one motion, that isn’t placed there arbitrarily just because it looks cool. When characters leap on roof tops and skim over water, this isn’t there without an explanation. These are an outgrowth of the assumptions about Qi and basic aspects of Kung Fu.

Wuxia takes Qi, internal energy, as a given that exists and this fuels the abilities of the martial heroes in the genre. This is why a 90 pound character can use speed and lightness to outmaneuver and defeat a 260 pound character. It is also why you see things like energy blasts and people leaping thirty feet into the air.

The leaping and the water skimming are a product of lightness Kung Fu, the ability to manipulate your own body weight in a variety of ways. The energy blasts are a product of internal Kung Fu, the ability to harness Qi energy. There are many other aspects to this, including pressure points and the like. The point is they are based on an internal logic that supports the fantasy.

In a way, Wuxia is not that far removed from the Super Hero genre, westerns or even D&D. It is not identical to these things but it has a lot in common.

Wuxia also makes liberal use of historical settings. It treats historical China as a canvass and fills it with all kinds of interesting elements. The blend of fantasy, martial heroes, and history, all make for a really good gaming foundation. Plus the plethora of inns, evil emperors, kung fu sects and security companies, all provide for great setting material.

Another convention in wuxia to consider that works for modern gaming is the relative parity of the sexes in terms of Kung Fu abilities. These are movies and books where some of the most powerful characters are female like Golden Swallow or Huang Rong. Women become great masters and can lead their own sects.

Wuxia is also great for exploration. Not only is it tailor made for the roaming band of adventurers but it actually features a lot of dungeons. Wuxia is riddled with tombs, caverns, underground cities and palaces with underground passages. Take Return of Condor Heroes for example. The sect that the two main characters belong to is based in an elaborate cavern complex filled with chambers, tunnels, hidden doorways and much more. It is exactly the sort of place you would expect adventurers in a typical fantasy RPG to explore.

CHOOSING A SYSTEMBefore you start your campaign, you will want to choose a system. For wuxia, look for something that allows for the sorts of things you expect to see in a movie like Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn or Come Drink With Me. Thankfully there are a lot systems out there designed specifically for the genre like Qin, Weapons of the Gods, and the recently released Tianxia: Blood, Silk and Jade. Legend of the Five Rings is another game that is suitable for the genre. Scarlet Heroes is a recent release that blends OSR and south east Asian elements. There is also classic Oriental Adventures and the d20 Oriental Adventures (as well as Legends of the Five Rings d20). The game Hong Kong Action Theatre! is another possible choice. It is a little unusual in that you don’t play regular characters, rather you play Hong Kong Cinema stars in various action roles. But stripping that aspect out, the game works for a wuxia-style game.

You don’t have to use a system tailor-made for Wuxia though. You can take a generic system or even something less generic and tweak it to fit your needs. I think Savage Worlds would work quite well (you could also use a Savage Worlds martial arts variant like Iron Dynasty). GURPS is good too and has some great resource books available.

These are all just examples, there are many games out there suitable to wuxia.

Whatever system you decide to use, you will want to determine whether your game will be more gritty and realistic like Come Drink With Me, or full-bore wuxia fantasy like Tai Chi Master and Painted Skin. You are likely still going to have fantastic elements, but it is just a question of how grounded they are in real world physics and expectations. Also for martial arts techniques and powers, do you want something that handles them broadly but allows for a lot of flexibility or something with many discrete abilities that gives you more specific techniques?

Once you’ve established that, you will want to make sure your game contains the following things:

Healing rates appropriate to your expectations: In some wuxia characters heal slow, in others they heal much faster. I tend to accelerate healing times for the more powerful characters when I run wuxia. There are also healing techniques that use internal energy in Wuxia films, so having a simple method that allows characters to heal themselves or others in this way can be handy.

An adequate martial arts system for your needs: This is tricky because peoples’ opinions vary considerably. I like systems that either let me create a bunch of discrete powers as needed or has them. But I have used other approaches.

A method for dealing with things like learning Kung Fu Techniques from masters and manuals: This need not be a mechanical resolution, but you will want to be prepared to deal with this when it comes up in game and have a way of determining how long it takes, as well as what needs to be done to master the technique.

The system should have mechanisms that allow you to reflect the different aspects of wuxia kung fu: The ability to lighten your body and scale walls or even glide and fly are things you will want mechanics for. You will also want stuff for pressure points and internal energy.

Underlings: If you decide to go more full-bore wuxia, then you are going to need things like Henchmen rules that enable a party of powerful martial heroes to take on dozens or even hundreds of guys. At the other end of the spectrum you need the system to have a high upward cap of power so your profound masters of Kung Fu can destroy those with less skill than them.

Supernatual Elements: Wuxia movies and series feature varying degrees of fantasy. Monsters, sorcerers, powerful items, ghosts and immortals can all be features of wuxia. There is plenty of myth and legend to go around in the genre, so it is really up to you where you want to set the bar here. I’ve included things like gates to other worlds and animate statues in my games. If you want this stuff the system needs to accommodate it. Qin is a good choice here because it is scalable by design.

ADJUSTING THE SYSTEMOnce you have a system, you probably will need to make some adjustments to get what you want. If it is a game like Qin, designed specifically for the genre, you’ll likely have less work ahead of you but I find with pretty much every game there are changes I want to implement.

Because my group likes d20 products, I either use the Oriental Adventure books for third edition D&D or I run my own system based off of Sertorius called Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. I’ve also found bits and pieces of other games like Qin very useful.

With Oriental Adventures, I immediately change a number of things. First, I alter the healing rate so that characters heal by hour. I also use every conceivable splat book and make liberal use of feats and prestige classes to cobble together what I want. I find feats work particularly well as Techniques found in manuals. In practice it usually involves taking a little bit of everything available from d20 to get what I desire here. So I think it is one of the less ideal systems out of the box, but the customization afforded by d20 multi-classing and feats makes it very possible provided you are willing to do the extra work. This is also a case where optimization can actually be your friend.

For my own Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate system, Kung Fu techniques operate more like spells or feats. Also as characters advance their Qi level rises, and this increases their health, power and access to techniques. Techniques are divided into attacks, counters and stances. Attacks are your basic offensive techniques. Counters can be used instantly to block, counter or redirect attacks. Stances give you bonuses and penalties provided you maintain them. So you might have a stance like Reclining Stick Stance that makes it easier for you to defend against attacks but harder to initiate them (raising your Parry Score but lowering your Speed). In my system you can use techniques all day but doing them at full power comes with risks. I find this works very well to emulate wuxia series and movies but it has the downside of requiring the player and GM to remember a large number of discrete abilities (characters start with 6 techniques and this increases as they advance). It certainly isn’t the best approach for everyone. I also added in rules for fate and divided Kung Fu Techniques into four basic groups: External Kung Fu, Internal Kung Fu, Lightness Kung Fu and Pressure Point Kung Fu. Characters can take ranks in these groups, increasing their aptitude for individual categories. If you do make your own system, the benefit is you can keep finetuning it until it does wuxia exactly the way you want. So every time you catch a cool new ability in a film or see some interesting Kung Fu manual in a TV series, you can easily bring it into your own system (of course tacking it onto an existing system is easy enough as well).

I think the take home here is you should be open to customization. Normally I run game systems pretty much how they are written, not deviating too much from core rules. But with a Wuxia game, I feel customization is needed for pretty much every system because most people have different ideas on what a martial arts RPG ought to do.

PLANNING AND RUNNING THE CAMPAIGNBefore you plan or run the game, you should do some research. Even if you are not running a game set in historical China, you will want to read up on Chinese History and examine the different historical periods because likely you’ll end up going with one of them as the basis for your setting. You’ll also need to familiarize yourself with some basic cultural elements like Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.

It is then time to consider setting. Do you want historical China or a fantasy analog. Personally I like to use the analog because it gives me a little more freedom. But historical China is the setting used in most wuxia books, series and movies. I quite like how it is handled because they treat it like a canvass and suited to the sorts of adventures you have in RPGs. If you go with a historical setting, then you might want to incorporate the Qin rulebook into your game (even if you don’t use the system) because it has a lot of information including details like weights and measures and toys.

Really, running a wuxia game is like running any other. Much of it comes down to your playstyle and expectations. I have something of a traditional and modern blend of sensibilities so my wuxia sessions are one part sandbox (which I find works extraordinarily well for the genre with its wandering martial heroes) and one part conflict driven/power group campaign.

By conflict driven, I mean there are many things I drop into the game outside of the player characters choices that fuel conflict and create adventuring potential. These range from things like grudges that intersect with the PCs interests to petty bandit lords trying to take over their favorite town.

So before I start my campaign, I create my setting, then focus in on small area where the PCs will start. There I establish all the various martial sects, towns, leaders, masters, inns, tea houses, wandering scholars, angry magical emerald monk statues, etc.

I think for the genre one of the most important things to hammer out is your sects. You need to have their names, principles, goals, history, membership, reach, key members, etc. In the movies there can be over 70 such groups, I tend to stick with more manageable numbers like 20 or less. Then I create a map showing alliances, and grudges.

In my Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign the players caused a rift between several sects with their actions, resulting in a full-scale war. Now they are wandering from one sect to the next to build and maintain alliances before things come to a head.

It is important to stay organized with your sects, updating them as the campaign moves on and considering the plans of its leaders. As things progress and as the players take new actions, they should adjust accordingly. This is a world of rapidly shifting alliances filled with betrayal.

Grudges are another important thing to help fuel campaigns. This is a common trope in the genre and is my go-to character motivation for hostile NPCs. A grudge can be anything from wanting revenge against the man who killed your father to wanting some sort of justice because somebody once looked at your sister the wrong way. They can be rational or irrational. It really varies a lot. I’ve even got a Grudge table for random encounters with folks who have a beef with the party (because some grudges can predate anything that has occurred in the campaign or even the PCs liftetime).

I also make more room for fate in my wuxia games, because it features prominently in the genre. In the Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate campaign I use Fate flaws, which players can take at the start of the game. In addition to this I have been playing with a Fate table for the entire party that I roll on once per campaign. If they take a Fate flaw, I roll on a table to see what the will of heaven has in store for them. It is the GM’s responsibility to make sure this sort of thing comes up during the game. One of the characters got the result: Fated to be “…loved by many admirers, who want to be the one and only. Those denied will despise the character and plot their vengeance.” Right now I have 30 possibilities on the chart and the roll is secret so the player has to intuit through events in the campaign what his Fate is.

In this case, the character’s Fate has been an enormous influence on the flow of events. He caused a rift in the Heiping Mountain Sect when one of its Nuns fell in love with him and the two eloped (stealing the a treasured sword from the Heiping Sect leader in the process). It caused further disruption when the daughter of an important member of an allied Sect fell in love him also.

For the most part, the players wander around and do what they want to do, occasionally finding villages in need of help or seeking out masters to teach them a particular technique. In my games learning techniques is something that drives the game forward. Sometimes defeating a particular enemy relies on finding the right counter move, and if they find a Sifu known for a style that sounds suitable, getting such a master to train them can be an adventure in and of itself.

WATCH WUXIAThis really should go without saying, but if you are going to run a wuxia game, you should become familiar with movies, books and series that fit into the genre. Use them as a resource for ideas. It can be intimidating if you only have a peripheral exposure to wuxia. Don’t worry about that. You do not need to be an expert or know everything about it.

For movies I suggest going back and watching some of the 60s and 70s (particularly Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films) like Come Drink With Me, A Touch of Zen, The Last Hurrah for Chivalry, The Fate of Lee Khan, Dragon Gate Inn, Golden Swallow, Killer Clans and One-Armed Swordsman. There is plenty from that era to inspire a campaign. I also recommend checking out material from the 80s like Brave Archer and Zu Warriors from Magic Mountain. The 90s is filled with good wuxia and I highly recommend The Bride With White Hair, Wing Chun, Butterfly and Sword, Tai Chi Master, King of Beggars, Swordsman II and the New Dragon Gate Inn. There is also a lot of new films to enjoy like House of Flying Daggers, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate Inn, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Hero, and Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons.

Wuxia television series are another great source of inspiration. They take a little more time investment but have more you can use in a campaign, simply because they are longer than films. There are countless of these and folks sometimes distinguish between the more current ones made in mainland China and the ones made in Hong Kong prior to transfer of sovereignty. I will leave the debate about which are better to others, but some series worth catching are Return of Condor Heroes (1995 or 2006), Demi-Gods and Semi-Devils (1997), Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre (2001 or 2003), Swordsman (2013), The Book and the Sword (2009), Sword Stained with Royal Blood (2007), State of Divinity (1996), Condor Heroes/Eagle Shooting Heroes (1983 or 1994), and The Chinese Paladin series. Note that these have been made and remade multiple times, which is why I list more than one date in some instances. There are still more than the ones listed in most cases but these are versions I think are a good first choice if you’ve never seen them before.

Books are more tricky because few have officially been translate into English. The two main authors you are likely to find are Louis Cha and Gu Long. For Cha you might be able to find the Book and the Sword, The Deer and the Cauldron and Fox Volant and Snowy Mountain in English. For Gu Long the only book available in English I know of is The Eleventh Son, but the translation of this one is particularly good and probably a best first introduction for that reason. You can however find plenty of fan translations online by fans. There are also some graphic novel versions of books like Cha’s Heavenly Sword and Dragon Sabre available in English. If you do buy any of this stuff online, just make sure it is actually in English before you pay a dime.

ONE AT A TIMEWuxia campaigns are not for everyone, so it is a tougher sell than other genres. However I have found if you get people to just try a couple of sessions and they have a background in things like D&D or other fantasy RPGs, they are often pleasantly surprised by the experience. Now my players express more of an interest in the movies and series, and they see why I am so enthusiastic about wuxia. Slowly but surely I’ve been building interest one player at a time. At first no one knew what to expect when I said I was going to run a wuxia adventure. Now everyone is eager to play.

Great article! I love the genre myself, but I've never been able to find a group of players for it.

(fyi, you misspelled Scarlet Heroes)


--- Quote from: danbuter;778089 ---Great article! I love the genre myself, but I've never been able to find a group of players for it.

(fyi, you misspelled Scarlet Heroes)
--- End quote ---

Thanks. I will go in and fix the spelling.

You might want to try google plus. I have been running a wuxia campaign on there and on Skype. It enabled us to get an extra slot during the week for a game.

Great writeup!
I've been a fan of this stuff since I was a kid, watching Kung Fu Theater on USA. Crazy stuff like Legend of the 8 Samurai... with it's awful dubbing and disco romance interlude.
I'm a BRP fan so Dragon Lines and The Celestial Empire have been my base for injecting the flavor into games, but systems like Qin and L5R are great to grab inspiration/ideas from.


--- Quote from: Simlasa;778135 ---Great writeup!
I've been a fan of this stuff since I was a kid, watching Kung Fu Theater on USA. Crazy stuff like Legend of the 8 Samurai... with it's awful dubbing and disco romance interlude.
I'm a BRP fan so Dragon Lines and The Celestial Empire have been my base for injecting the flavor into games, but systems like Qin and L5R are great to grab inspiration/ideas from.
--- End quote ---

BRP is a good choice. I wish I had mentioned it now.

If you like the genre, I am doing a series of film reviews on our blog (linked in my sig). Right now trying to do a bunch of Cheng Pei-pei films.


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