I started a new campaign for our Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate RPG, which will be a free PDF sometime in the near future. This is a wuxia setting where the players are wandering martial heroes. My current group of player characters belong to a sect called the Golden Dragons and had an epic battle after being captured by the bandit lord, Mr. Red Claw. I will hopefully have time to post the playtest report with more details from our Friday session sometime tomorrow. Before that though I wanted to talk about the challenge of running a wuxia setting.
This is something of a follow-up to my Wuxia Campaigns article at theRPGsite (HERE). In that I basically outline how to prepare for and run a wuxia campaign. I address the difficulty of running games rooted in the genre, but I think in hindsight I didn't go into that enough or acknowledge how hard it can be for some folks. So let me recognize that here and say wuxia can be tough to run. It can be an intimidating genre for even the most seasoned GM.
Anytime you go outside standard RPG settings, it can be more difficult to prepare campaign material and run sessions. This is normal, you would expect to have more trouble running a game that is less familiar. When I talk to people about Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, among those who are excited by the concept many still have reservations about GMing a game set in a wuxia setting. I encounter similar concerns among people expressing interest in Arrows of Indra. I think in both cases this is understandable as the settings are well outside what most folks are familiar with. Even if you are fan of wuxia movies, you might still not feel comfortable running something in that setting. Or maybe you are a fan but not a "super fan" and feel best to leave it to others.
My advice is don't worry about your fan credentials. If you like the genre, that is enough. How many folks have run a spy campaign after only watching a handful of spy films? There are certainly folks who have seen every film and TV in the Spy genre but it isn't widely viewed as a requirement for running such a game (though certainly it helps to know the genre well). You can learn on the job provided you have enough interest and passion. So maybe you've only seen Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero or an old Jet Li movie. If that was enough to get you interested in running a game, go for it. Research what you can ahead of the start of the campaign and just focus on having fun.
Once the game starts then, just like you might with a fantasy RPG, you'll start looking at wuxia differently when you see it. Now is the time to start watching those movies you haven't seen or checking out some of the television series. You'll find you pay more attention to the scenery and to the genre conventions. You'll slowly get better at incorporating it in your game.
Just run it like you would any game and bring in more and more wuxia elements as you feel comfortable. I started paying more attention recently to how my familiarity with wuxia films and series contributed to being able to run the game smoothly. In my last game for example, I noticed I was drawing on details I had picked up when I needed to improvise and that it informed much of my prep work for the session. But it wasn't always like that, just like my sessions of D&D or Cthulu were not always smooth (in fact they still are not always smooth).
My first attempt to run this sort of campaign was, at least in my opinion, a bit lackluster. Part of it was because I didn't do a good job of conveying the setting to the players all that well. The other half was at the time, my knowledge of the genre wasn't as deep and I was focused on bringing in as much of my real world knowledge of martial arts as possible (which counter-intuitively was getting in the way). This was back when they released Oriental Adventures for 3rd edition and I was eager to run something that felt like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or True Legend.
The basic problem I kept having was I had trouble running it as anything more than Lord of the Rings with asian martial arts thrown in. Still I think the players generally had fun. Not the greatest campaign in the world, but certainly not the worst either. But my expectations were so high, at the time I was probably more disappointed in the outcome than was warranted. This is just one of those types of settings that takes time to get comfortable with and until that happens, you just need to run it however comes most naturally. So you may be drawing on fantasy conventions and other things that are more familiar at first and that is okay.
Now I feel quite at ease running such a campaign. I still mess up or have off-sessions, but I don't worry about it like before. The two biggest factors for making it easier are that I've simply seen a lot more movies/series in the genre and I've had enough experience running it that I know what details to pay attention to when watch them (I hone in more quickly on potential sources of inspiration or details that might be relevant to the setting in play).
One of the trickier parts of running this kind of game, I think, stems from the fact that it has so much in common with fantasy but doesn't have the plethora of monsters that you find in D&D. There are similar genres that do, but generally wuxia is about humans and human problems. There is some wiggle room and there is a martial arts fantasy genre that is similar and I often incorporate elements of it into my wuxia campaign (Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is a blend for example). But if you are trying to make a campaign that plays like The Swordsman trilogy or Killer Clans, the foes will be human, there will be no bugbears or goblins to throw at the party on a regular basis and keep them entertained. That means your human opponents need to be distinct. Their texture and entertainment value can't hinge on their nature alone. That is a bit harder to pull off.
Again, watching lots of wuxia movies is what helps here. Just like watching and reading lots of fantasy instructs you how to use brownies or dragons, watching wuxia instructs you how to use bandits, evil masters and corrupt officials. One way to deal with this, as I said above, is to supplement the mundane elements with fantasy when you first start. Throw in some monsters or deadly spells. Mix in D&D-like adventures until you get used to running something that plays more like Come Drink With Me (though in truth, the core conflicts are really pretty similar).
Wuxia campaigns, like modern police procedurals or alternate history settings, can be tough to run if you haven't done it before (especially if you have only run one type of campaign in the past). The key is to know you don't have to hit it out of the park right away and that liking the genre is the only real barrier to entry. You don't need to be a super geek about it to enjoy it, and if you enjoy it you will natural become more familiar as you watch more films and consume more wuxia media. Until then, feel free to draw on what you do know to make it work and fill in the gaps.