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.
This post is advice specific to Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate. It can be applied to other games but the main focus is on helping the GM come up with NPCs and kung fu techniques on the fly. Some of the preliminary principles have been covered in prior posts but I am including them here so everything is conveniently together.
KEY NPC PRINCIPLES
These are three principles I try to keep in mind when making NPCs and running NPCs. While they apply to all NPCs, not just those made on the fly, I wanted to go over them because they inform how I make characters live during play. Because NPCs and Kung Fu are often created hand in hand, I felt these were important to go over.
For me the heart of a good wuxia sandbox is less the living world and more the living characters in that world. Again this is the reason I much prefer the label living adventure to sandbox*.
What does it mean for an NPC to live? It means they have real motivations, goals, hidden layers, that they can be reasoned with, even if they are unreasonable at times or hellbent on some grand scheme of mass destruction. It also means they aren't tethered to a location. They aren't waiting for the PCs to act, they take initiative on their own and they respond when the players do act with their own actions. They act intelligently like a real person. That doesn't mean each NPC is a genius but they do have a brain and use it to make decisions. Their choices are guided by their motives and goals not by the GM's desire for a particular encounter or set-piece. They are an organic part of the setting. In game terms, they are moving pieces on the board.
THEY ARE GAMEABLE
Yes you want to make characters who live and give them understandable personalities and aims, but you aren't creating characters for a literary novel, you are making characters for your campaign. This means you need to have gameable elements.
When I work on NPCs, the questions I keep asking myself is: how is this character gameable? Is there anything in the entry that makes the character more than an interesting personality to meet? What elements can the players engage? This is the difference between world building for engagement and world building for tourism.
Art by Jackie Musto
An easy place to start here is with stark goals. What does the NPC want most? An NPC who wants the Five Ghost Hand Manual or who wants to kill Dancing Corpse Queen Wan Mei, is instantly gameable to me when the players encounter them. This doesn't mean meeting them must lead to an adventure, but it can. Also knowing what NPCs want is the core of of a good interaction.
Sometimes the line between flavor and being gameable is not clear. That is fine. You don't want your characters to feel like they are just plucked off a game board or video game to give your player's fetch quests**. But you want to get a feel for whether the character has hooks the players can work with.
KUNG FU AND CHARACTERIZATION
One of the crucial elements in a wuxia RPG is using martial arts to help characterize an NPC. Even random martial experts you make on the fly need to have something that make them stark, sets them apart in the player's minds. In a wuxia campaign an NPC isn't just backstory and personalty. Their martial arts abilities are a reflection of who they are. In any genre, capabilities like this are important, but in wuxia it is important to consider not just the martial arts style and technique of the character but things like the weapon the weapon they use.
KUNG FU PRINCIPLES
These are general principles I keep in mind when designing Kung Fu Techniques (whether on the fly or between sessions).
Ogre Gate prioritizes setting and characters. So I would first advise that you think in terms of flavor, genre and what works for the character, before proceeding to mechanics, and when you get to mechanics, don't obsess about balance and don't fret of the precise Qi rank (the exact Qi rank of a technique can be adjusted over time when you are designing them on the fly). Think about what the technique does, how it works in the setting.
BALANCE AND IMBALANCE
Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate is not designed with a rigid sense of balance in mind for its martial arts. In fact, as stated many times here, imbalance is part of the concept. I picture the martial world evolving and changing, with periods of stability and balance and periods where a new powerful technique or suite of techniques throws the martial world into chaos (but the world responds to this imbalance and eventually as counters develop to it, as new techniques develop to contend with it, balance is restored). So think more in terms of balance over time, not balancing each technique rigidly. Also it is okay for there to be power spikes in techniques. This is part of the genre.
FOCUS AND STRUCTURE
I try to follow a standard structure when I make techniques. If you look at Ogre Gate, the best techniques usually have a 1-2 sentence description, followed by a concise mechanical description:
Make a [blank skill] roll again [blank defense]. On a Success X happens. On a Total Success Y happens. On a Failure Z happens. Cathartic: When used cathartically A occurs
I like techniques to be three paragraphs, no more. Some have to be larger but generally this is the preferred length.
Techniques should also be focused. Keep the concept as simple as it needs to be and make sure the flavor matches the mechanics. If there are too many concepts in a single technique this is hard to do, and it usually is a sign that instead of making one technique you need to divide it up into multiple techniques. Often this is how technique suits are born.
I wrote about these two points in a previous blog entry which you can read HERE.
One thing you need to do when making a technique is decide how powerful it is and figure out how to make it that level of power. This is more something you develop an instinct for over time, but things to look for are: how many wounds can a technique do in a single attack (is it enough to kill a PC for example), how many targets can it affect, does it have any impact on accuracy, can it weaken powerful foes, etc.
There are no official rules here but we do have reference sheets we occasionally use. While I do occasionally use this rough sheet to gauge power levels, it really is more of a starting point and it isn't particularly helpful, at least to me, when making techniques on the fly. Still here is one example of such a sheet, but keep in mind, these are baseline numbers that almost never match techniques in the book exactly, don't treat them as rigid guidelines. Once you begin considering other factors, you will find you move these numbers up and down considerably. Note I have a few versions of this, with different variations.
MOVIE AND BOOK MARTIAL ARTS INSPIRATION
Draw from wuxia media when designing techniques. My biggest source of inspiration is Martial arts movies. If you watch enough wuxia, you will develop a library in your head of common moves that should be easy to turn into techniques. And often you will see a technique and this will inspire you to make a new concept based off it. With books it is similar, but books often provide more in depth explanation of principles which can be helpful.
REAL MARTIAL ARTS
When I first started work on Ogre Gate it was after years of trying to make a martial arts RPG system. I had been taking cracks at it forever, at one point trying to put together a fight system based on slapping down playing cards (because to me that felt like an approximation of a real exchange of blows and also how you mental library of options diminishes during a fight). But by the time I sat down to do Ogre Gate, I had moved away from trying to base it on real world martial arts and leaned more heavily into cinematic martial arts. While that is very much at the heart of the game, just like wuxia movies and kung fu movies draw on real styles, it can be useful to take real elements and bring them into the techniques. Here I would say go with what you know and are most familiar with or if you have read about something recently and feel excited by the idea of it, try turning that into a Kung Fu Technique.
KUNG FU TECHNIQUES ON THE FLY
These are just different ways of approaching technique creation on the fly. Most important is to not overthink and not second guess too much. You are making them in the moment, they won't always be perfect, you can revise them when you have more time. The most important thing is to write something down.
Again, balance is not a chief consideration here, especially when making techniques on the fly but I do think when making up a technique or suite of techniques in the moment, you should consider a few important things. How dangerous do you want the user to be to be in the martial world. Don't think Qi rank. Just think about how much damage they can do in a single attack, how many people they can attack at once and if they have solid counters. Also think about how you want the technique regarded by the martial world. Is this meant to be a relatively innocuous ability or is it something special others covet?
The chief thing to consider is: who can this kill in a single use of the technique?
WHOLE CLOTH AND SHORT HAND
Coming up with a technique whole cloth on the fly is liberating because it can be anything you want and anything that feels right for the NPC or group you are making it for. You don't need to write out a complete technique. You just need a note about what it does, a mechanical effect, and if you can think of it, a Cathartic effect (often I assess this after). Getting it on paper is the most important thing. If you do this enough, it starts to become second nature.
Instead of seeing the time crunch to create in the moment as a limitation, try to see it as an opportunity to truly imagine a character with a distinct martial arts technique. You can untether yourself from the the pages of the rulebook and just imagine.
MODELING FROM EXISTING TECHNIQUES ON THE FLY
You can use existing techniques as models. Often this is too difficult to do on the fly. But you can do it from memory. After running WHOG for a while you should know a number of Kung Fu Techniques and you can use these as guides for making new ones quickly. Also sometimes you will have time to look up things or think because players are engaging one another in character conversation. So if that is the case, feel free to look up a random technique or a specific one and rework it into something new that fits the NPC.
This is not reskinning. Reskinning is somewhat illusionary, you want to give you techniques individual character and mechanical heft. So when you built off an existing technique it is more like taking inspiration from a song to write a new song. You can use the core idea, you can use some of the mechanics, but try to throw in enough new material that ties to your new NPC so it feels fresh and not copy and paste.
Reskinning techniques is something I do as a last resort but it works in a pinch. Just grab a technique, and use that as your foundation for the NPC and the suite of techniques. Take the mechanics but change the weapon, change the flavor, make it fit the NPC. However if you can quickly grab a random technique from the rulebook, or find one in a timely manner that matches what you need in some way, reskinning can be perfect. Also you can and should fiddle with details when you reskin once you get accustomed to this approach, so that each technique is unique.
THE BEDROCK APP
The Bedrock App, available on The Bedrock Games Website, is very helpful for on the fly NPCs and Kung Fu Techniques. It has an NPC generator which is useful. But it also has the full library of Kung Fu Techniques which are searchable, so it is a good way to find models to use when you have to make them on the fly.
If you are an improv player in a band, you need a library in your mind that you can readily go to of chords, scales, etc. In an RPG, you need a library of mechanical widgets you can go to. When making a Kung Fu technique on the fly, think about what mechanics in the game you are comfortable sculpting into a martial ability. The work for this begins by trying to observe basic patterns in the system. For example techniques can do a wide variety of things as an effect, but common ones are adding damage dice to a roll, improving an attack roll, reducing or draining defenses such as Hardiness or Wits, turning damage rolls into open damage rolls, adding extra wounds to an attack, improving the users defenses or counters, triggering falling damage, imposing skill penalties, etc. This may seem extremely basic and obvious but it is one of the easiest things to lose sight of or overlook. And you can start to be more creative the more you master the system.
This is the most recent example from my own campaign. It isn't a perfect example and there are some flaws, which I will discuss, but I think that is better for demonstrating what I am talking about. In this session I drew on a lot of the methods I describe above to make a technique, an NPC and a small sect as we were playing.
During the session I had a group of players who were adventuring in Hai'an. One of the players asked someone who trained them in techniques as a favor if there were any notable manuals in the region. This player was interested in finding and learning the techniques in them. When I looked at the list of manuals in the War of Swarming Beggars entry on the blog to inform the NPCs response, I realized it was rather lean and so I added two more manuals in my notes that the NPC mentioned: The Green Raksha Manual and the Silver Spear Manual.
Both of these suggestions were fairly generic but the player wanted spear techniques and asked about the Silver Spear Manual. So I wrote in quickly thought of the Crack of the Hard Whip Technique as a model:I was initially going to go by memory, but there was enough conversation happening among the players as this unfolded that I opened the entry and impulsively changed it to suit a spear, deciding to have it be more about bleeding people than stunning them or debilitating. So this is what I wrote down:
Spear of the Immortal (Qi 3, Waijia): Spin & slit throat. Heavy melee at -1d10 against 1 target per Qi rank. Normal damage plus 2 Extra wounds. On Total Success bleeds target 1 Hardiness each round. TN 5 Medicine to stop bleeding. Cathartic: Does 3 Extra wounds, and TN 8 to stop bleeding.
The player asked where the manual was and the NPC told him it was in Hening at the Silver Spear School. They then found a group of erhu musicians heading to Hening and offered their escort services for the journey. As we made rolls for the three days of travel I made a note about the Silver Spear School. The technique seemed cruel and ferocious. But the image the Silver Spear Manual conjured was of a righteous looking school. So I wrote down:
The Silver Spear School: In Hening. Led by Spear Immortal Xiang Di, Qi rank 5; sub chief Lin Wi rank 3, 30 Students. Spear Immortal Xiang Di presents as a righteous chief of a school and escort company but is really a bandit and his students are his underlings. He likes aggression and cruelty, and forms close bonds with his men through their robberies. This is also how they train in their techniques. Chief Lin is sneaky.
This gave me enough information to extrapolate that if the chief was impressed by the players inititial meeting he would tell him to meet for training, but really plan to test him by taking him to rob a caravan. The other players had decided to look for Mrs. Wu of the Autumn Inn while they were in Hening, so my notes not that were minimal because she has a lot of information in the War of Swarming Beggars entry and in my own note book for the campaign.
The above has some issues. Silver Spear School is not only very, very generic, which isn't always a problem, but it is worth noting. More importantly I already have a school to the north with a similar sounding name. But you don't have time to get the perfect title. I was a lot happier with the details of Spear Immortal Xiang Di because the character was immediately clear to my mind. And his interactions with the PC worked perfectly. The technique itself also worked well in practice. The player who joined them was able to learn it, so I will see over the coming weeks how good it is.
In my other campaign (I run two a week), the players discovered that a boat bound for Mai Cun was smuggling celestial plume. When this was introduced I had to come up with the who, how and why. So I decided to lean on a technique I call shadowing. I take something a PC has done in the setting before and create a shadow of that for a new NPC (somehow I find this creates characters the players recognize or find familiar and believable even if they can't quite place it). So I determined that the boat would have been funded by a group in Jinsa led by a man named Iron Crocodile. Again you can see a theme this week of me leaning heavily on color-based named or material based names, something I wouldn't do if I had more minutes to think up the idea. But the point here is to just get something on the page, so that Iron Crocodile it was. I then decided he had two disciples, Bone Eating Monk and White Naga (another color-based name!). Iron Crocodile would be building a plume empire not for the money, but because he wanted to gain notoriety in the martial world in order to rise and challenge others in regular contests so he could prove he was the top fighter in the region (this is the shadowing part of the character). I only had time to write down a single signature technique and started with the name: Iron Tail Whip.
To mix it up, I decided to make it a pressure point kick, glanced at some dianxue stuff in the book and wrote:
Iron Tail Whip: Spin kick hits precise point in spine, cause legs fail. Leg Strike and Medicine against Parry. Success target legs limp 1 round per rank Dianxue (if lower Qi rank). Total Success, arms limp too. Cathartic: Limp 1 week per rank Dianxue. Two Total Successes, effects permanent.
This technique also shadowed the technique of the character I had in mind when I made it (at least in terms of his overall theme.
I want to emphasize how imperfect these entries were. Sometimes I think GMs over think doing things on the fly and want everything to be perfect. But you are operating in a high pressure moment to come up with material as fast as you can to adapt to choices the players are making. While I would have loved to avoid the pattern of names like Iron Crocodile and Silver Spear, and I would have preferred to come up with a wholly original concept instead of a shadow concept of a previous PC or NPC, the purpose is to have something, anything, written down and useable, so the world and the techniques are all concrete. With techniques, you can always improve them later, and it is important not to get too hung up because a lot of kung fu you introduce on the fly will die moments later with the NPC who wields it.
*This idea comes from a concept Blake Mobley called The Wandering Major Encounter in the Feast of Goblyns module, and that reflects the advice in the original Ravenloft module to "always keep in mind the motives of the vampire, how he moves about, and what his cunning plot his. You must play Strahd in the same way the players play their character."
**There is nothing wrong with fetch quests, I use them plenty but the point is these should feel like living characters