Art of Wuxia Design Guidelines, Part 3 Tropes

Donnie Yen kung fu fighting
Donnie Yen in Wu Xia

Before beginning work on Art of Wuxia I developed a list of things that I wanted out of the game. Before every writing session and play test session, I take that list out and read it. My rule is that the list must absolutely be followed to keep the design of the game focused on its most important parts. The next few articles will cover this list and explain why I feel each of these guidelines was important for Art of Wuxia.

The tropes in wuxia are very strong. I’ll write another article on wuxia tropes later on but for now I’ll focus on my design guideline list.

Design Guideline: Anything can be used as a weapon. I have seen everything used as a weapon in wuxia movies and TV shows and the books are even more over the top. Built right into the weapons table in Art of Wuxia are improvised weapons. So if you can imagine using something as a weapon, you can.

Design Guideline: Unarmed attacks should be almost as good as armed attacks. Heroes in wuxia tales are usually as good with their fists as they are with their swords. The same thing is true in Art of Wuxia There are certain cases where having a weapon is better than not having one but it isn’t overwhelmingly so. One of the kung fu styles in the game doesn’t even teach weapons.

Design Guideline: Armor needs to be limited. Nearly every hero you see in wuxia stories doesn’t wear armor or if they do it is something light. You’ll still find armor in Art of Wuxia but the damage reduction it offers is variable, and it is expensive. Unarmed peasants (minor NPCs) don’t stand a chance against armored troops (minor NPCs). But if they have some heroes defending them…

Design Guideline: There should be a poser turn. I’ve talked about this one before. It is a favorite at my game table and at the convention games I’ve run. Just as in wuxia movies and TV series occasionally the heroes pose and the camera zooms in on them at a dramatic moment, so too this will happen in your game. It is a moment where the action pauses and something cool to help the PCs happens before the next turn begins.

Design Guideline: Adventures should include love and vengeance. Here is where the wuxia genre really departs from traditional fantasy. I can’t think of a wuxia story where these two elements weren’t a key plot element. The GM is encouraged (if the players are up for it) to provide romantic entanglements for the PCs to get involved with. These come with plot complications (he’s the son of the governor and she’s an outlaw) and can lead to further adventures. This is not forced on anyone and is an option if you really want to embrace the genre. After each adventure the GM goes over a checklist to see if anyone will seek vengeance for some slight, or harm caused by the PCs. Beware murder hobos! Beware!

Design Guideline: There should be wuxia examples and quotes. To help players and GMs get into the wuxia genre we are putting quotes by famous NPCs in the book. The quotes are designed to reinforce the tropes of wuxia and possibly give GMs adventure ideas. We’ve also listed examples of what spells look like for that wuxia feel and even specifically spells cast by certain sorcerer sects.

These guidelines were created to help ensure that wuxia tropes would be integrated into the rules. Yes, there is a list of wuxia tropes in the introduction but that would be useless if they weren’t reinforced throughout the rest of the book. Tropes can be shown with NPCs, items, skills etc. but the rules or “game verbs” of the book need to solidly support them.

You can see how strong the tropes of the wuxia genre are for yourself. Go to the Downloads page, download, and print the wuxia bingo cards. Then play wuxia bingo with friends while watching a wuxia movie. Remember to yell “WUXIA!” when you win.

Art of Wuxia Design Guidelines, Part 2 Adversaries

Villains from The Crippled Avengers

Before beginning work on Art of Wuxia I developed a list of things that I wanted out of the game. Before every writing session and play test session, I take that list out and read it. My rule is that the list must absolutely be followed to keep the design of the game focused on its most important parts. The next few articles will cover this list and explain why I feel each of these guidelines was important for Art of Wuxia.

Nothing defines wuxia heroes more than the adversaries they face.

Design Guideline: Bad guys should come in several flavors; crunchies, villains and master villains. Wuxia heroes wade through crunchies, have duels with villains and have epic battles with master villains. The D00Lite system (of which Art of Wuxia is based), already differentiates between minor NPCs (crunchies) and normal NPCs (named villains). We’ve added Master Villains to the game and they are designed to battle a whole group of player characters. In fact some of their stats are related to the number and power of the heroes. These are used at the end of major adventures. Heroes must come prepared to face such a challenge and give their all.

Design Guideline: Unimportant NPCs should be able to be fought by the dozens. Wuxia heroes are clearly cut of a different silk. They may start out weak but once they come into their own they can take on hordes of minor NPCs and not take a scratch. As mentioned above we already have minor NPCs and they are not much of a threat to heroes. Art of Wuxia lets you take it further and with the spending of chi, player characters can take out a dozen or more minor NPCs in one turn. Even more if you use the Battle Fu option.

Design Guideline: Most adversaries should be human; some will be demons/monsters. A strong trope of the wuxia genre is that these are human stories about human deeds, emotions, desires and actions. A guardian monster might play a role. A demon might be a powerful opponent but ultimately it must be about humans. The guardian monster is guarding something for a human. A human summoned the demon or otherwise let it loose for their own failings or ambitions.  Art of Wuxia does have a monster section in it for GMs that want more fantasy in their game but adventure generation tables and published adventures will focus on the goals of humans. Wuxia stories are personal stories and the main villain is seldom if ever a nameless monster.

Pai Mei (played by Lo Lieh), master villain of Executioners from Shaolin.

Adversaries are crucial to good wuxia stories and Art of Wuxia, by having genre examples of several different strengths and types, has you covered for any wuxia story you want to tell.

Art of Wuxia Design Guidelines, Part 1 Kung Fu

From Tai Chi Zero
From Tai Chi Zero

Before beginning work on Art of Wuxia, I developed a list of things that I wanted out of the game. Before every writing session and play test session, I take that list out and read it. My rule is that the list must absolutely be followed to keep the design of the game focused on its most important parts. The next few articles will cover this list and explain why I feel each of these guidelines was important for BBW!

Design Guideline: No real world martial arts. I think there is no better way of starting an argument than trying to codify which martial arts is better, has more historical impact, has the best fighters etc. The best way to avoid that is to not use real world martial arts. Besides, this is wuxia. The wuxia genre is filled with made-up martial arts techniques and styles and they can become a great way for a GM to express their creativity and world building.

Design Guideline: There should be a big list of kung fu styles. Players and GMs need to have choices and there are countless kung fu styles portrayed in wuxia stories. We have almost twenty kung fu styles in the game with some guidelines for GMs to make up more. The general feel of the style, common weapons and a collection of kung fu techniques defines these kung fu styles. Styles are also noted as internal or external, which determines what extra chi abilities are available at lower skill levels.

Design Guideline: You should be able to learn a style with multiple methods. By this, I mean there must be several ways in which a kung fu expert can learn their style. In Art of Wuxia, you can learn a style from your teacher. You can be a self-taught one-weapon wonder. You can also learn a style from a secret kung fu manual. Art of Wuxia has you covered. You can learn a few techniques from other styles and add them to your own. You can even learn more than one kung fu style and can mix them or switch between them if the need arises.

Design Guideline: You should be able to discover a secret weakness of a kung fu style. A common trope of wuxia stories is of the heroes gaining an advantage over their opponents if they know of a secret weakness of a kung fu style. If a kung fu style is widespread, someone, somewhere has found a method to defeat it. Secret weaknesses are typically found in special kung fu manuals written by long dead masters. Many a battle and adventure is based on the acquisition or protection of such a manual. If you learn a secret weakness of a kung fu style, you will always have an edge over an opponent using it.

Those are the design guidelines covering kung fu for Art of Wuxia. It has been very fun seeing Art of Wuxia kung fu in action and has been a big hit at convention games.

Art of Wuxia Lets you do cool things!

heroe surrounded
Seven Baddies about to be schooled by Golden Swallow in Come Drink With Me

Wuxia stories are filled with incredible action. A wuxia RPG must not only support such play style, it must encourage it.

I’m certain that Art of Wuxia does this in every game session.  For example I have seen fights take place across rooftops. I’ve seen accupoint strikes paralyze opponents. Players have used poles, chairs, tables, bowls, stones and a flagstone as improvised weapons. They have leapt down stairs and up to balconies. They have fought standing on tables and shooting while standing in a saddle. I’ve seen fans that have hidden blades, poles that spring out spear points, and sabers that are actually two swords used as one or two separately. I haven’t seen chopsticks used yet in game but I’m sure they will at some point.

So far, my favorite cool moment is when a player walked into a circle of minor NPC baddies calmly placing stones on the blade of his kwandao (glaive-like weapon). He told them, “Drop your weapons or I’ll drop you!”. They almost balked but decided their seven against one odds favored them. The PC spun flicking his blade and the stones went out striking and incapacitating all seven baddies. The table erupted with cheers!

Art of Wuxia has several game mechanics that support this type of action. First, baked right into the rules is Chi which is used like hero or action points in other games. Chi can be used to do all sorts of things from adding damage from an attack, leaping incredible distances, re-rolling a bad die roll to expelling a poison.  All players have access to certain Chi abilities with warriors having access to a few additional ones.

Another factor of cool is weapon damage is keyed to skill so the more skill warrior you are the more damage your weapons do. This also includes improvised weapons, which could literally be anything. This makes it so small darts are deadly in the hands of an expert. A teacup can be thrown and knock a weapon out of an opponent’s hand. A table can be picked up and used to knock several opponents across the room! These rules are designed to allow player imagination to be rewarded with cool action.

One final rule I want to talk about which really brings the cool factor up is the Poser Turn. Any character may call a Poser Turn by spending a Chi. Only one of these is allowed per game session. When called, the action stops, each player must describe how cool their character looks at that moment. Imagine if the “camera” focused on just each character one at a time and their name/nick-name appeared on screen with dramatic music. If the GM is satisfied that all the players were cool enough, the player that called the Poser Turn gets to assign a benefit to his team and a new turn is immediately started with the benefit added to the players. I’ve seen players uses this to offset bad initiative rolls at the end of an epic battle with a master villain who just won initiative. One of the players called a Poser Turn and it turned the tide of battle for them changing what could have been a defeat into a cheering victory. Now that is Cool!

Why Art of Wuxia!?

Heroes of Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber
Heaven Sword and Dragon Saber

My enthusiasm for wuxia as an art/entertainment form is large enough that most folks don’t ask me this question. Because I seem to enjoy it so much it must be good! Right? But still, it is a very qood question.

First, I think wuxia makes an excellent base for role-playing games. Wuxia books, TV series and movies are filled with perfect examples of heroes fighting villains, of adventuring bands foiling insurmountable evil and dramatic character arcs alongside outstanding action. Watching a single Shaw Brothers movie will give you a metric ton of gaming ideas, from devious plots, overt character examples, ingenious weapons, wicked traps, three dimensional battle sets and awesomely cool action.

As a GM I’ve got plenty of material to draw upon when developing adventures for my players. This works for players too. Simply watch a few movies from the genre and you’ll have a huge number of example character motivations and characteristics to draw upon.

Second, so much of the genre is already familiar to players of fantasy games. Yes, there is much that is different but I can get players to try Art of Wuxia by asking them if they like fantasy RPGs and if they would like to see what it is like with high flying kung fu action mixed in. They smile, join my table and have a darn good time. The genre is much deeper than this, of course, but getting people in the door is not as hard as other genres. At least that is what I find.

Just look at the commonalities of traditional fantasy with the wuxia genre: party of adventurers (check), delving into ancient tombs (check), fighting bad guys (check). If your wuxia has magic and monsters (and many examples do), you can see how similar it is. There are many differences and nuances but that can wait until after you have player characters swinging swords and facing master villains.

Third, the D00Lite rules used by BareBones Fantasy and Covert Ops by DwD Studios is an easy to learn game system with much more interesting combat and character development than you would think of games this size. I can teach the basics of how to play Art of Wuxia in two minutes or less. Yet my veteran players continue to amaze me with their interesting character builds and creative exploits when the action is on. It is a subtle system that I think really shines the more you play it.

Fourth, campaign play is very important to me. I simply must have a game that supports long-term play so that my players and their characters can really come together as a team and they can sink their teeth in a world rich with adventure possibilities. Art of Wuxia supports long term character growth and has many tools for the GM to build adventures, villains, monsters, treasure, traps, magic, poisons and more. It also has a setting laid out in broad terms to be developed as play continues. The setting can also be ignored for one entirely of the GM’s making. It doesn’t matter.

Fifth and final reason is that the game rules support cinematic wuxia action very very well. Player characters can wade through unimportant NPCs and have amazing battles with other kung fu experts and face off against master villains with fists, swords and spells! The game uses a press-your-luck system where defense is an action. The more offensive you take things the less you’ll have for defense. This aligns perfectly with wuxia action.

So why Art of Wuxia!? It is a game that has many good adventure sources to draw upon, ease of entry to those familiar with fantasy RPGs, a rules system that is easy to learn supports campaign play, and the action is simply beautiful!

We are currently well into testing all aspects of campaign play and the game is shaping up very nicely.