Okay, since this article is all about identifying patterns and play styles associated with niche genres of roleplaying games, let’s go to something really obscure. Today, we’ll take a look at Wuxia, the Chinese version of High Fantasy as popularized in stories as far back as the Ming Dynasty all the way to modern comic books and films that have won awards worldwide.
Anyone who has watched even some of the cheesiest movies in Kung-Fu Theater has some concept of what Wuxia is. The fantasy aspect of this genre lies in the near magical command that the heroes have over their Chi to perform impossible deeds such as running over water, or the famous “wire-fu” jumps. In addition, Wuxia stories always revolve around people with some form of kung-fu, ranging from the various fighting styles, to even more exotic ones like fighting with the use of musical instruments, an abacus, or even hair. Their kung-fu is what enables them to rise above the common man and enact change to make the world a better place.
To better understand Wuxia, let’s take a look at some elements common to Wuxia Stories:
- Kung-fu – This may seem like a no brainer, but it’s always good to remember that the term kung-fu is actually a term to denote a cultivated skill, or individual accomplishment. Henceforth a bun maker’s proficiency in making buns could be considered his kung-fu. Wuxia celebrates the nature of accomplishment by hard work. You see this often in movies where the weak protagonist eventually becomes exceedingly powerful over the course of several months (or years) of training.
- Wandering Swordsmen – the Xia are a class of martial artists (usually swordsmen) who wander the world righting wrongs. Similar to questing knight errants and ronin samurai in Western and Japanese fiction, the Xia are invariably the heroes of most Wuxia fiction. Like their counterparts, the Xia conduct themselves along an honor code that espouses righteousness and honor. The Xia are willing to put their martial prowess to the service of the greater good, or in some cases, for righteous revenge against evildoers. Take note that this honor code does not make any any effort to say that the Xia are bound by the law, resulting in a lot of stories around kung-fu vigilantes or revenge.
- Revenge vs Pacifism – There are two general schools of thought in terms of proper conduct among the Xia. While some would go to avenge themselves or others against the villains without a thought, a second group espouses a more pacifistic Buddhist ethos of forgiveness and prohibits killing.
- Social Injustice – Most Wuxia stories take place in settings overrun with corruption, where the local government is too inept or unwilling to protect the common man from bandit raids or evil kung-fu societies. In other examples, the local government itself is the villain, usually represented by the often-used stereotype of the evil magistrate.
- 2 Basic Plots – Most Wuxia fiction follows a plot that most fans of kung-fu movies will find very familiar. The first involves a young protagonist who experiences a great tragedy or personal loss, and goes off to train to avenge and better himself, eventually returning as a great hero who will extract revenge from the evildoers. The other plot would involve an older, mature hero and his eventual showdown with his nemesis (like Li Mu-bai facing off against the Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)
Now that we’ve discussed the more common threads in Wuxia stories, how does one turn a broad genre like this into something playable?
Given the basic plot and framework of the Wuxia film, I would suggest starting off a group of player characters with individual stories first, working with the players to hammer out just how their characters became Xia. While not all characters have to cleave to the wandering swordsman archetype, all of them must be good in something. Wuxia is not a genre where the heroes are everyday people, and their concepts must reflect this. Some common concepts would be:
- The Sword Saint, a prodigy with a given weapon who wanders the world to hone his art, or use it for the greater good. The reverse of this is the Assassin, who fights not for the perfection of his art, but instead kills for money. Assassins make up a good number of nemesis-style opponents in Wuxia.
- The Doctor, often a martial artist who specializes in knowledge of pressure points and herbs to heal injuries. This may also be reversed by the Poison Master, who uses his medical knowledge to cripple, maim or poison his opponents.
- The Courtesan, a character who does not often fight as well as the Sword Saint, but whose specialty lies in the intrigues of the court. Their power lies with the web of intrigue that they dominate. This role sees reversal usually in the form of the Eunuch.
- The Scholar, a character who practices legalism, and whose knowledge in science and lore are often the key to solving enigmas or mysteries. Scholars also practice kung-fu. In more high powered games, the Scholar is often the one with magic, which is often the purview of his opposite, the evil Sorceror.
- The Prodigy, a character who is usually young, and most often female who represents unbridled potential in her kung-fu. The reverse of this would be the Doddering Old Man, who is quite often a powerful martial arts teacher in disguise.
- The Monk, I don’t even think I need to explain this, but the monk is often the epitome of the Buddhist Xia, who fights to defend others, or to teach bullies a lesson and never kills. An interesting reversal of this is the Evil Monk, who has either betrayed the order or follows an opposing ethos.
Some of the common plot hooks for banding characters together in other genres work well with Wuxia. One of the most effective however would be the common threat, whether it’s the corrupt government official and his private army of magistrates, or the ubiquitous Evil Kung Fu school that trains its students to be nothing more than thugs.
In terms of motivation the Xia take the law into their own hands just because there’s nobody else to count on. Rewards are secondary, and often take the form of food or wine or a place to stay rather than an actual exchange of money. Consider the scenario where the Xia are to liberate a city from a cruel taxman and his band of magistrate thugs. The most one can expect from that is perhaps a meal in a local teahouse. The Xia do good because they can.
Revenge can be the very cornerstone of a Wuxia film. By making characters all disciples in a given school, taught to focus on different aspects of a holistic martial education, you permit them to diversify while sharing a single (ill-fated) Master, who will pretty much kick the bucket at the hands of a powerful rival school. Driven by the need to avenge their master’s death, the team decide to go off to train themselves individually and swear to meet up in the ruins of their former school five years hence to enact a plan of kung-fu revenge.
However, there is something you have to pay attention to with regards to Chinese literature vs. RPGs. For one thing, your players will proably despise you if you stick to the standard Chinese ending: Tragedy. RPGs are all about triumph over adversity, so let’s stick with that. Unless your players are perfectly fine playing a long drawn out tragedy of people who can parry arrows with swords and run on water but commit suicide because circumstances force them to break their code of honor, I’d suggest sticking to more positive themes.
Overall I find that Wuxia is a severely underestimated setting. It’s traditional fantasy using a while new tradition featuring swordsmen that leap for a dozen yards at a time, strange sorceries, superstitions and magic, an exotic collection of bizarre monsters that break away from the standard orc and goblin parade. If your players like high adventure, just a little melodrama, and aren’t willing to trade their swords for guns, give Wuxia a try and see if they start quoting Sun Tzu.
- Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - One of the most easily accessible movies for the Wuxia beginner. The introduction of various stereotypes like the Sword Saint, the Prodigy and even the Poison Master are all played out. Add a great (if tragic) tale and you’ll enjoy the film more than you’ll be researching it.
- Once Upon a Time in China – Starring Jet Li as the legendary Chinese folk hero, Wong Fei Hung, Jet Li portrays a skilled Doctor who takes up arms to fight anything from government corruption to foreign invaders. This is also a great alternative to the classical Wuxia setting, instead taking place in China during the times of Western Imperialism. Extra points for great theme music.
- The Storm Riders – Check out the comic for some crazy combat. Storm Riders is an epic tale about two Sword Saint protagonists, named Wind and Cloud, whose adventures would take too long to describe, but rest assured that the comics convey an incredible sense of motion and have some fantastic duels (mainly sword fights.)
- HERO – This movie is a visual masterpiece, and if you can pry your eyes away from the incredible use of color as a means to set the mood for the storytelling, you’ll see that this film highlights just how different the Xia code can be from Western fantasy. This tale follows Nameless (played by Jet Li), an Assassin whose mission is to take out the King of Qin.
- Hong Kong Action Theater – isn’t exactly a Wuxia game, but with the well researched expansion book Blue Dragon, White Tiger, players can actually play actors playing characters in a Wuxia film. Confused yet?
- Qin: the Warring States – is what you should pick up for adventures in the same vein as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, where you don’t have magical energy bolts, but Lightfoot techniques and fighting forms are still kick ass.
- Weapons of the Gods – if you enjoy Hong Kong comic books like the Storm Riders or Weapons of the Gods, then this one is everything you need. Written with the comic book’s setting in mind, Weapons of the Gods features mighty weapons as powerful artifacts, mountain cleaving kung-fu and a whole lot of over the top action. Great for fans of high action.