Every wuxia hero needs an excuse to give physics the finger. This will have a lot to do with the setting you’ve chosen, so sit down with everyone and discuss the setting, decide on a premise, and brainstorm characters together. (See Running the Show for more advice on zero-prep gaming.)
Traditionally, the source of a kung-fu master’s abilities is Qi cultivation: They’ve trained for years to focus their energies and survived brutal physical conditioning at the hands of their iron-willed masters. As a result, they can skip across rooftops and shatter stone with their fists. Specialists can even manipulate other people’s Qi to cause paralysis, unconsciousness, or death. It has a lot to do with Taoist ideas like "wu wei;" if you want to adopt a suitably wuxia mindset, there's no substitute for research.
Or you can just say "they’re vampires" and be done with it. Works for Hollywood.Photo Credit: Greg Walters (Flickr)
Heroes and villains are defined by their most exceptional qualities. Don’t waste ink on the things that make a character normal: language fluency, common skills like swimming or driving, average strength, etc. Just pretend every hero and nemesis has an unwritten Trait called “Everything Else 2.” That gives you a pretty good odds of rolling at least 1 hit with six dice.
All Traits are rated with a number between 1 and 5. This is the highest hit you can roll with that Trait.
If you’re in a high-stakes poker game and your most relevant Trait is “Lucky Devil 5,” you only fear the number 6. Everything else is a hit. If you’re a slightly less lucky devil, say your most relevant Trait is “Poker Face 4,” then you throw out both 5's and 6's.
You can write Traits in many ways. Skills like "Gunsmith," "Ninjutsu," and "Weaponized Origami" are popular, as are professions like "Soldier," "Enlightened Master," and "Masked Vigilante." You can also use broad adjectives, signature quotes, bits of back story... anything that helps you articulate who this character is and makes them unique.
Here’s the structure I recommend, particularly for heroes...
Motivation - Why does this character fight? Make it specific, like "End the False Emperor's Tyranny" or "Keep my Ship Sailing." A good motivation tells everyone where you want this character’s story to go and it only kicks in at truly dramatic moments. Give your motivation a rating of 5, so the character is always at their best when it counts.
Action! - You’re not a wuxia hero if you’re no good in a fight. It’s important to put a particular spin on a character’s fighting style, since all heroes will be equally competent. Classics like "Preying Mantis Style" and "Buddha’s Palm" are excellent choices, as are broad schools like "Judo" and "Capoeira." (If you’re stuck, see below.) At least make sure you cover an action scene niche like "Parkour," "Speed Demon," or "Kung-Fu Chef." Give your action trait a rating of 4, so your hero can pull their own weight.
Big Ol’ List of Action Traits
- Crane Style
- Iron Shirt Technique
- Horse Stance
- Tiger Claw
- Bullet Ballerina
- Dim Mak
- She of the Blood-Soaked Spear
- Sixgun Samurai
- Enfightened Master
- Feral Street Fighter
- Inventive Anarchist
- Reluctant Assassin
- Flying Swordsman
- Frying Dutchman
- Circus Juggler
- Super Soldier
- Blow It Up!!!
- I Know Kung-Fu
- Precog Pugilist
- Piano Wire Virtuoso
- Subspace Ninja
- Whirling Dervish
- Monkey Fist
Profession - What does your character do besides fight? Do they have any notable training, abilities, or talents? This one should be broad: "Manhunter," "Respected Elder," "Hacker," "Occultist," "Eunuch Bureaucrat," "Silver Tongue," "Millionaire," etc. Give your profession a rating of 3, since you’re just a bit better than average at these sorts of things.
Weakness (Optional) - Weaknesses are funny things. They can add depth to a hero and enforce genre tropes, but characters should consider them Things Best Avoided. Superman doesn’t get any credit for handling Kryptonite, it just kicks his ass. Hence, Wushu players are not rewarded for roleplaying their Weaknesses, they're penalized for roleplaying against them. A Weaknesses is a Trait that’s rated 1. It’s worse than default, but your players should never actually roll against it. They should avoid it, just as their characters would.
This rule is optional, because it’s all stick and no carrot, but it can be a useful stick. Say you’re running a noir-inspired cyberpunk game and you want to motivate your characters with a classic femme fatale. Trouble is, your players are the suspicious type and there’s no way they’d fall for such a thing. Give one of them the following Weakness: "Sucker for a Pretty Facsimile 1."
The player can be suspicious all they want, but they gotta play their character like a two-time sucker. If they don't, this becomes their most-relevant Trait and any dice that roll higher than 1 get thrown out. They're better off being a chump and dealing with the consequences, which is so damn noir it hurts.
Let’s say you’re running a game set in India and the heroes are all modern Bodhisattvas, people who’ve turned back from the brink of enlightenment so they can help others. You want to make sure they stick to their Buddhist morals, so you give them all the following Weakness: "Virtuous 1." This means no lying, stealing, drinking, sexual misconduct, or (and here’s the tough one) killing. That rules out about 90% of all actions performed in a typical roleplaying game. By assigning the players this Weakness, you’ve given them a mechanical reason to stay in character and find new ways to solve problems.
In other words, Weaknesses are for making your players do things the hard way.
Maybe you’ve got a player who just can’t make up their mind, or maybe your players want to make sure they pick a Profession that’s going to be relevant to the plot. Maybe your game involves a group of amnesiacs who wake up in a Mexico City meth lab soaked in someone else’s blood. For whatever reason, you just don’t want to write down all your character’s Traits before you start playing.
Fine! Have it your way! Just jot down the three Trait values (5, 4, 3) on a notecard, placing each on its own line. It should look something like this:
Now, start playing. Your players can go the whole game without filling in a single Trait, as long as they don’t mind rolling against 2 (the default Trait rating) all the time. Once that gets old, they’ll have to start filling in the blanks.
Amnesiacs are easy (every new skill is as much a surprise to them as anyone else), but the same trick works with anything. Say you’re running a traditional wuxia adventure set during the Warring States period. One of your players can’t decide on a fighting style until she’s ambushed in a tea shop. She writes in "Drunken Master" as her Action Trait, tosses back a few drinks, and makes with the monkey fist.
Or you could be running a modern occult investigation and one of your players wants to make sure they pick a useful Profession. He leaves his "3-" blank until the group finds itself in possession of an ancient Egyptian spellbook. He jots down "Egyptologist" and says, "Let me take a crack at that invocation!"
The only catch is that a Trait cannot be moved or changed once it’s written down. I highly recommend this method for pick-up games or any time you just want to hit the ground running.Photo Credit: Manjunath Doddamani Gajendragad (Wikimedia)
If the 5/4/3 method is too confining for you, here’s how to rate your Traits the old-fashioned way. Just write down your character's traits, no more than six of them, and default each to a rating of 2. Now, distribute six points among them; each point increases the rating by one. i.e. Raising a Trait to "3" costs one point, "4" costs two points, and "5" costs three points. If anything's still rated 2 when you're done, erase it. That's the default for everything, anyway.
If you’re working with Weaknesses, give yourself 1 additional point for each Weakness. I’d cap this at 2 Weaknesses per character, but season to taste.
There, now you can have a 4/4/4 structure, a 5/5/3/1 structure, or even a 3/3/3/3/3/3/1 structure. Enjoy!
Wushu has no tradition character advancement: no skill progression, no leveling up, no experience points of any kind. No waiting for weeks to play the character you actually want. With Wushu, you create exactly the hero you want to play. And then you play them.
Even so, all characters naturally develop as you write their history and establish their relationships. They also change the world around them, whether it’s by resolving a plot or solving a mystery or dismantling a web of organized crime that’s been slowly suffocating their beloved city.
There may be times when a change to a character’s Traits is in order. Maybe you’re trying to create some kind of Hero’s Journey or maybe Dr. Feng hit you with the Dim Mak and totally blocked your chakras. In any case, there are several ways you can handle this kind of character development...
Shuffling Traits - You should allow your players to change their Traits between sessions. (If you used the point-allocation method, let them move those points around on a 1:1 basis.) Most commonly, their motivations will change as they resolve their personal subplots. They might also want to try a new kung-fu style or tweak their profession to match a bit of back story. As long as they’re not changing things in the middle of a session, it should be fine.
Milestone Traits - To really get Campbellian on their asses, you should plan out a series of three milestones for any new Trait. Each time the player meets one of these challenges, or makes a milestone choice, the Trait increases by one. For example, a hero trying to master an ancient and cursed weapon might have the following milestones ahead:
At first, using this weapon would mean rolling against the default target number of 2. After their first combat victory, the relevant Trait increases to 3. After successfully defending a hated enemy, the Trait increases to 4. Finally, after learning the true value of human life (awww), the Trait increases to 5. Only those who do not seek power are fit to wield it.
Two-Sided Traits - If you want to drive home a character’s dramatic arc, consider giving them a pair of opposed Traits like Occult Power and Sanity, Honor and Freedom, or Loved and Feared. These two Traits always have 6 points between them; increasing one means decreasing the other. You could have Occult Power 4 and Sanity 2 (4+2=6), but never Occult Power 4 and Sanity 3 (4+3=7). Pushing either Trait to level 5 means turning the other into a Weakness.
Unlike normal Traits, these are meant to be adjusted during play. Any time the player makes a choice that pushes in one direction, increase/decrease the Trait ratings accordingly. Do this before the dice are rolled, so the player is always faced with the temptation of quick power. Never let them adjust it back in the other direction right away, though. Choices mean little without consequence.
To illustrate all of the above, and just in case you don’t have five free minutes to write up a character, here are a half dozen pre-written heroes from the Warring States period to modern-day Hong Kong. Source material, both cinematic and semi-historical, is cited where appropriate.
You may notice that there are way too many Traits in each slot. I just can’t help myself; I need to give you options. Only have your players copy down the one they want to use. The Weaknesses are still optional, so ignore them if they’re not wanted.
You have seen reality’s true face and made it your ally. While others struggle against nature, you go with the flow and let your enemies defeat themselves. You might be a Taoist who acts through inaction or a rave kiddie who steps to the beat of the word. In any case, you’re also highly principled and a paragon of self-control.
5 - Help others find enlightenment. / Sever your last ties to samsara.
4 - Wue Wei / Flying Swordsman / Shaolin Kung-Fu / Wudan Master
3 - Chinese Medicine / Auteur / Right Place, Right Time
1 - Virtuous / No Attachments = No Money
See Also: Li Mu Bai (CTHD), Iron Monkey, Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li’s version).
The masters wouldn’t teach you their secrets, so you stole them. Maybe it was a powerful kung-fu style or experimental tech from a super-soldier program. In any case, your power is not entirely yours. Short-cuts were taken, best guesses made. You filled in the gaps with tricks of your own and now you’re something unique.
5 - Get revenge on the order that shunned you. / Live free or die.
4 - Striking Snake Style / Dirty Tricks / Kill Reflexes
3 - Thief / Hacker / Runaway
1 - Pride (won’t bow down to anyone)
See Also: The Jade Fox (CTHD).
You don’t have to be inebriated in order to fight, it just so happens that you usually are. Whatever you were before, now you’re just a bum with strong Qi. Maybe you drink to forget your past or maybe you’re too enlightened to care what other people think. In any case, you’re in no hurry to climb out of the gutter.
5 - Find something you lost. / Make up for a past mistake.
4 - Drunken Fist / Curiously Strong Chi
3 - Vagrant / Brewmaster
1 - Dirt Poor (a social and economic Weakness)
See also: Beggar So, Wong Fei-Hung (Jackie Chan’s version).
Technically, you’re here to enforce the law. You might be an imperial magistrate with a quick blade or a hardboiled cop with too many bullets. In any case, you tend to shoot, stab, or kick first and forget about asking any questions. Until your superiors tell you otherwise, the ends justify the means.
5 - Bring a killer to justice. / Clear your name.
4 - Sixgun Samurai / Righteous Fist
3 - Cop / Manhunter / Authority
1 - Until Proven Guilty (duty-bound to protect the innocent)
See also: Chow Yun-Fat (Hardboiled), Liu Jian (Kiss of the Dragon).
5 - Take down your former employers. / Protect a former target.
4 - Bullet Ballerina / Ninjutsu / Piano Wire Virtuoso
3 - Master of Disguise / Criminal
1 - Most Wanted (your famous face makes life difficult)
See also: Chow Yun-Fat (The Killer and/or The Replacement Killers.)
You’re not entirely human. Maybe your father was a god or your mother was bitten by a vampire. It makes you powerful, but it also alienates you. You can keep one foot in each world, but neither will ever accept you. Alienation drives you to violence and only the fact that you murder monsters makes you a hero.
5 - Find the thing that made you... and end them!
4 - Demon Within / Invulnerable / Tooth & Claw
3 - Hunter / Occultist / Runaway
1 - Outcast (all social interactions must be hostile)
See Also: Blade, The Black Mask.Next: Running the Show