Monday, December 25, 2023


This is part of my Wuxia Sandbox series. You can see the previous post HERE. These are all primarily written with Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate and Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades in mind but can be applied to most wuxia RPG campaign. 


To be Zhou Donglai or Little Gao 
Wuxia can vary like any genre but baked into the name is the concept of being a hero. Some wuxia characters are dark, there are even wuxia stories and movies with characters who might be called anti-heroes, for the most part wuxia is about using your power to protect the weak and promote righteousness. But wuxia stories and movies feature a range of characters who aren't the protagonist, and are populated with plenty of eccentric bullies, villains and outright murderers. The question in a wuxia is sandbox is: are the players the heroes? 

I take the position that it works better not to force players into a heroic role. If they want to be wandering heroes who uphold justice and protect the defenseless, that is fair, let them be Guo Jing or Little Gao but if they'd rather be Ouyang Feng or Zhou Donglai that works too. 

This naturally leads to the question of power itself and how that impacts a wuxia campaign setting. 


In a wuxia campaign, depending on the system of course, characters are likely to have abilities and powers normal people in the world do not. A party of martial heroes is a powerful force. But this isn't a problem, rather it is something that makes wuxia campaigns easier to manage because when players have power to affect the world they become more invested in it.

In Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate, this is particularly the case. Characters with good kung fu techniques are going to be powerful and capable of taking on the powerful. And this makes it easier for characters to 'disrupt' the setting and defeat major NPCs. 

Generally if the players are adhering to heroics, I find all of this is not even usually less of a concern. Heroic and good characters are largely constrained by their morality, they can be reasoned with and will use their powers in responsible ways that minimize destruction in the setting. Generally speaking. They can still use their power to radically alter the setting for righteous causes. But it is when you deal with non-heroic characters that powers can quickly have effects you may not anticipate. So if the players are not the heroes, you will want to keep this advice in mind even more. 

Some players just want to join with Iron Palm Sect and cause trouble
One strategy for dealing with powerful characters is to resist it, to try to thwart it, by fudging, by waging a competitive GM campaign against them, and by stacking the deck against the party. Another solution is to lean into it, because it actually makes running a game much easier when players use their powers in this way. 

The world I make for a wuxia sandbox is meant to be toppled. This is an axiom that Robert Conley of Bat in the Attic games uses where he says in a sandbox GMs must be willing to let players trash their setting. I think one habit GMs can develop that harms sandbox play is an impulse to protect or shield what they have created. But for me I view a campaign as a science experiment, it is all about the chemistry that unfolds, explosions and all, when players are introduced to the martial world of the setting. 

There is also another impulse that harms sandbox play. This is when the GM adopts an attitude of "but this is what is supposed to happen" or "but this is not supposed to happen". It can be a product of planning ahead (i.e. you have stuff prepared you want to occur) or it can simply be something you assume should always be or not be the case in the campaign (i.e. the players shouldn't be able to easily defeat Iron God Meng!). These kinds of thoughts need to be put aside in a sandbox, and in particular a wuxia sandbox. You have to focus on what is happening, not on what you want to happen. 

If not out of the gate, eventually the players will be powerful enough to do things that provoke the above impulses. And they will be powerful enough to assert themselves in the setting by doing things like murdering powerful martial heroes, taking over powerful sect or even wiping them out. The key is to remember is you aren't crafting a story for the party to participate in, what the PCs do, that is the story. If they arrive at the Lucky Mountain Gambling Hall and kill Iron God Meng in the first ten seconds, that is the beginning of their story. What happens is a blend of what the players try to do, what the NPCs try to do, and what the dice say. 

The Boxer from Shantung 

This often gives rise to characters who quickly establish their own sects and can challenge other powerful organizations in the masters in the region. This isn't a problem. Plenty of great wuxia and kung movies and stories are built around powerful and capable characters. In Magic Blade, Fu Hongxue dispatches his enemies with ease most of the time. The Boxer from Shantung is all about the rise and fall of a powerful martial artist as he makes his way in Shanghai. Heroes Shed No Tears is about a powerful martial hero who is taking over the martial world by absorbing and wiping out rivals. 

None of this ought to be a foregone conclusion. The players need to earn their victories through their talents and the roll of dice. But the point is to learn to see great successes like this, ones that seriously rattle and change the setting, as opportunities rather than as problems. Players who seize political power or institutional power, then have the very big challenge of maintaining and growing that power, and they have put an enormous target on their back for rivals in the process. Campaigns only get more interesting when things like this occur. 

Say the players go to Sun Mai Temple and take over the sect early in the campaign. It might irk a GM because they weren't expecting such a massive change by new characters. But if the victory is truly earned, it is going to be a lot of fun exploring. Even if it wasn't well earned, if they got it through luck or cunning, that too will be interesting because enemies in the martial world will sense and exploit this. 

I often call these "Boxer from Shantung Campaigns". But they could just as easily be called "Scarface campaigns". Ma Yongzheng isn't as bad as a man like Tony Montana, he is more of a criminal with a conscience, but it is a similar type of rise and fall in a harsh criminal underworld. These are campaigns about characters who are seemingly nobodies taking over powerful organizations or forming their own. In my opinion these are a lot of fun. So if they emerge in play, the best thing you can do is step out of the way and let them take off. 

And campaigns of the players rising through the martial world like this are exciting because you don't know and the players don't know how it will end. Will they survive or will they fall like Ma in the Boxer from Shantung? It is fun to discover how things end. 

Even in campaigns that don't go this far, the ability of player characters to shake up the setting is important to honor in sandbox. No sect, no NPC, no institution or physical location is too sacred here. As a GM it helps if you stop anticipating what you think should happened, stop worrying about what think should have happened, and just focus on what is happening. What are the players doing in this moment and what foundations for future fun at the table are those actions establishing. 


1 comment:

  1. Nice article Brendan as always. Perhaps for your next article you can glom on to this, how to add real challenges to the characters identity, whether a self-sacrificing hero, or a self-serving villian or anti-hero. I have seen you do it often enough, where you introduce a moral or goal driven dilemma for the characters or the group. When done well with the right group, it can severely alter the campaign and create often the stuff of legends...or if not that, then solidify the PCs own drive for a more singular driven focus on one aspect of the game. Either way, keep writing and I'll keep reading.