Sunday, December 8, 2019

Pai Mei and Ringlerun

Reading book one of Legend of the Condor Heroes by Jin Yong, I've been reminded that D&D shares perhaps unexpected similarities with wuxia, the Chinese genre of martial arts adventures:

Advancement is important. adventurers go on adventures, martial artists train, but the desired result is the same.
High level characters can perform superhuman feats that are not necessarily viewed as superhuman within the fiction. D&D characters get extra hit points to shrug off attacks or various other special abilities (particularly in editions after 2nd). Wulin heroes get to fly around and do things with focused internal energies.
The protagonists are a class apart from regular folks. Adventurers on one hand, members of the wulin on the other.
Characters tend to have the their own thing. Call it "niche protection" or special techniques, the heroes of D&D and Wulin tend to be distinctive from other members of their party.
Special abilities tend to have names. Wuxia's are tend to be more flowery, admittedly.

There are some elements of wuxia that D&D doesn't tend to emphasize--but there isn't any reason it couldn't:

Mentors are important. How many D&D characters seek out a sifu or mention one they had in the past? No reason they couldn't though.
Named organizations. D&D characters used to join guilds (though that's less of a thing in later editions), but D&D could use more of the societies, sects, and schools of wuxia. Also, PC groups with names.
A world with its own rules. Adventurers are separated from normal folk by their abilities and activities but members of the wulin or jianghu are expected to adhere to certain codes, and compete with each other, almost like a large, loose organization.


Adam Baulderstone said...

Until a few years ago, I knew next to nothing about the wuxia genre. Then my friend Brendan Davis, the designer of the RPG Wandering Heroes of Ogre Gate invited me to be one of the regulars on his Wuxia Weekend podcast. My role initially was the guy who knew nothing that the experts could explain stuff to, but now I have seen at least 100 movies in the genre, and I have also read The Legend of the Condor Heroes and watched a TV series of its sequel, Return of the Condor Heroes.

I used to always consider the Monk class this weird outlier in D&D. Aside from being something a designer thought was cool, I didn't get why it was in this game. After seeing just a handful of '70s wuxia movies, I realized I had stumbled on the lost page of Appendix N, and the inclusion of the Monk made total sense.

One of the first movies I watched was Web of Death, which not only had a magical artifact in a trap-filled tomb, it had a sinister sect working out of an underground complex. Two dungeons in one movie! The underground tunnels in the Tsui Hark remake of Dragon Gate Inn is another great example.

Another D&D cliche that overlaps with wuxia is "You all meet in a tavern/inn". It's almost a guarantee that there will be an inn scene at some point.

Getting into tussles with the often ineffective town guard is another common element. It's common for for wuxia heroes to be high on their PC status, and utterly disregard authority.

Before watching these movies, I'd already hit on the idea of allowing D&D characters to be able to discern the level of other characters. In town adventures, it is easy for characters of vastly different levels to be interacting, and it made sense for them to have some warning when they were picking a fight with someone 5 levels above them. It also made sense to me that a fighter could size up another fighters ability level. I was pleased to see wuxia novels and movies make this an actual thing, with characters literally talking about their numerical levels.

The use of organizations is worth stealing. With fighters, even without adding any mechanical differences, you can still have a fighting style as a something cosmetically obvious to other fighters. People can see where you trained and what your possible allegiance is by the way you fight.

With magic-users, I've always liked the Ars Magica idea that every caster puts a distinct signature on their spells. Converting the idea to D&D, I like the idea of the signature not relating to the caster, but to the original researcher of the spell. That was organizations and lineages of casters share a common signature on their spells. You can also get yourself into a lot of trouble if you are get caught using a spell with the signature of an organization that you don't belong to if they are protective of their secrets.

Anne said...

I especially like the second half of this post! It's nice follow-through to say that if D&D really IS like wuxia then we should bring even more wuxia conventions into the game.

Getting players to name their adventuring companies would be an easy enough ask. (It would also make D&D more like a superhero game at the same time!)

The mentor thing is interesting change though, especially if the players have to seek them out as one of their goals within the sandbox. It feels like that should be optional (or that one mentor should be able to tutor the whole group) to avoid a pileup of characters visiting their teachers. (Or maybe those visits could happen as part of the "downtime" at the beginning and end of each session?)