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 where sandbox is the focus. This series discusses a wide variety of methods and procedures I use. These should be regarded as tools, not as required steps in building a sandbox. I may use all, some or none for any given campaign. Every time I run a campaign, I take a slightly different approach based on what the needs of the current campaign are.
The purpose of this blog series isn't to set up proscriptive procedures. It is simply to give people a better idea how I run my wuxia sandbox campaigns.
My view on wuxia in RPGs is every GM has their own take on the genre, their own sensibilities about how to best bring it to the gaming table. This is true of any genre, but with wuxia it seems especially the case. Please do not take my advice as definitive in any way. Watch and read wuxia for yourself and form your own conclusions. What works for one GM, will completely miss the point for another.
THE ART OF PINNING IT DOWN
One of the reasons I like to run sandboxes, is I want player choices to matter. I don't want the illusion of choice and I don't want a campaign that feels like I might as well just hand my players my notes so they can see what is on tap for the evening. I want a game where choices matter and choices drive the direction of the campaign. I also want a world that is always expanding beyond prepared material. One very useful tool is what I call 'pinning it down'.This is nothing new, nor is it anything I invented. It is basic note taking. But it is important. Obviously you have things prepared for the setting prior to play but players always go beyond what you have planned. You may have a heavily mapped out city but if the players throw you a curve ball and ask if there is a poetry society in town, and one likely would exist, you will need to flesh that out. But this presents a fork in the road, especially if you decide there is more than one in town. So you need to pin down your details in your notes the moment there is any hint of this coming up then stick to that pin.
For example they are seeking a crazed killer and famed poet named Divine Calligrapher Zhu. He has killed several of the party's acquaintances and seems to have it in for them. And so they seek a poetry society in order to find a lead. Once they mention a desire to do this, you start making Poet Societies in your notes. These don't need to be magnificent, you just need something to grab hold of. And you want to establish the key facts prior to them arising in play.
Start by jotting down names:
The Society of Bao, The Four Wonders Association, and the Crimson Moon Society.
Then you decide very quickly what any of them know. Since they are poets and you aren't trying to make things difficult you have each one know something of value. So you write down:
Society of Bao-Heard that Divine Calligrapher was staying at an inn in Mai Cun, The Four Wonders Association-Knows that Divine Calligrapher Passes the Lucky Mountain Gambling Hall for a week of drinking every fall, The Crimson Moon Society-Knows knows that Divine Calligrapher is good friends with Fox Poet Hu.
You then need to decide who the head of the poet society is, just a name will do with some basic motives, but importantly if any of these organizations would either obstruct the party or be difficult in handing out information. So you write:
The Society of Bao is led by Poet Wan; greedy and desperate for funds.
So not only will he require some kind of fiscal compensation he may act like he knows more than he does to get more money from the party. You then write:
The Four Wonders association, led by Gao Yitai. He is is a prolific poet and is always looking for inspiration
From this you can deduce he wants nothing more than to learn about the party so he may incorporate their exploits into his works. Next you scribble, trying something a little more nefarious:
Crimson Moon Society, led by Scarlet Dart Wuqing, Qi rank 4 Martial Expert, admires the poetry of Divine Calligrapher and wicked
To get information from him will take the use of force or some other form of coercion. And it is likely given his admiration and his wickedness, he will try to lure the party into a trap to curry favor with the poet. Also you make a note that once the players go somewhere, word may spread to the other poet associations. Ideally with time, you are putting all these kinds of details together in a single scribbled block in your notes the moment any organization like this comes up (the above are all written out for clarity but in my notes I take all kinds of short cuts to make things compact and fast).
The value of this is it really does make players choices matter. And it matters because you are delving deeper into he world as they probe the setting more. The GM making the setting is crucial but equally important is the players exploring unmapped places. Even places on the map have unmapped areas. You may have had the region and city mapped out but no poetry societies.
Even in a relatively small location like the above where the players are simply choosing where to go, these decisions are important because who they go to first may determine if a villain like Scarlet Dart Wuqing is alerted to the presence and able to plan a trap easily, it may also matter in the above scenario because time might be a consideration when trying to find a killer (often in these kinds of scenarios the longer it takes the party to track a murderer down the more people die). And some of this information may be more accurate or current so it can impact the success of their efforts if they follow the first lead they obtain.
This also matters because it makes the locations concrete before the players arrive. You have given yourself handholds so you aren't just making it up as you go. You are improvising and making things up on the fly, but when the players arrive at the Crimson Moon Society, you will have a solid idea of what that actually is. And this is an important process of world expansion. It is one of the things that makes the difference between a static exploration of maps and GM notes and a world that is alive and unlimited.
GENERATING SETTING ON THE FLY
I don't know why but writing stuff down gives me more confidence than just making it up out loud. What I mean by this is if the players go into a restaurant and say they want to find the toughest looking man there. You suddenly need to know who that is. You can just say "Yes there is a tough guy by the door, drinking Emerald Phoenix Wine". And that can work. But if you note down just a few concrete details, I find it leads to better interactions and stronger sense of the world being real. This is another use of pinning it down.
And you don't need much, but you at least need a name, Qi rank, basic martial arts abilities, personality and goals. Again, this doesn't have to be brilliant. The more you do it, the better the material will get. But you should just force yourself to pick things. Write some notes like this:
Steel Fingers Yang, Qi Rank 3, Neigong 3, Waijia 1, Finger Flick, Stone Shattering Finger, Red Claw Strike (2d10 in all relevant skills, Hardiness 8); looking for his daughter Yue. In a bad mood because he learned she was kidnapped by The Ferrel Bat.
It might seem like this would take too long to jot down but once you formulate your own shorthand for these things and once you have practice it becomes second nature and pinning these kinds of details to the page makes the encounter so much better than if you are just coming up with those details as they arise in conversation. For me, it has become rather easy to populate a restaurant with a number of noteworthy patrons like the one above (which creates a better sense of a world inhabited by real people).
You also have everything written down so you know what to do. What I have there isn't complete character, but it is enough for me to run basic combat should that arise. I can intuit the remaining details from what I have written. Sometimes I even come up with a quick signature kung fu technique and jot that down too:
Steel Finger Strike: Stab fingers at -1d10 into chest. On success does 1d10 damage and 1 Extra wound. Cathartic: 3 Extra Wounds and drains 1 Hardiness for a week.
Coming up with kung fu techniques on the fly is very important in a wuxia sandbox. Characters in the genre aren't just a personality. Characterization includes things like skillsets, which often are extensions of their personalities or even contrasts to their personalities. I may get more into this in a future post as it is quite crucial but developing a quick way to give an NPC a suite of techniques heightens everything. In some genres you can afford generic NPCs, and you will have to rely on them from time time, but in wuxia I think it is important to think of martial arts as a part of sketching a character. And these will often need to be unique to that NPC.
Pinning isn't just about characters and poet societies, it also works for fleshed out places, even adventures. Pinning is really just coming up with key details on the fly and committing them to writing. Like I said, this isn't anything new. But in a sandbox, where players are going to be going off in new directions you don't expect, it is a very good reflex to develop because it honors a sandbox commitment to letting the players try anything they want, to set their own agenda. They also help you flesh out the world, because it is one thing to prepare setting material, but it doesn't really come to life until the players explore it.