A New Setting: Wuxia for D&D 4th Edition

It’s not exactly a secret that I love martial arts films, especially those in the vein of Forbidden Kingdom – as much as I love my elves and dwarves, “Classic Fantasy,” dungeon-punk, steampunk, cyberpunk, punkpunk, high fantasy, or swords & sorcery, sooner or later I long for a different type of setting. I want a departure. Something fresh. Welcome to my new series. Welcome to Wuxia.

First, An Introduction

“Wuxia,” broadly speaking, is a brand of Chinese fiction roughly analogous to the western stories of knights-in-shining-armor, except instead of knights the protagonists are martial artists, instead of being members of the nobility they’re usually from the poorer classes, and instead of taking place in ancient Europe, they take place in ancient China. So really, it’s nothing like the stories about the knights. Except that in both genres, the subject of the story is the stuff of legends.  We’re not here to talk about the older stories, though. We’re here to talk about the genre as it exists today, and how to adapt it into a setting that suits a game of Dungeons & Dragons. 

A Confession

Recently, I had some time to kill at a friend’s house while he was away at his summer classes, so I picked up his copy of Jade Empire. I wasn’t worried too much about the gameplay issues (I’m well familiar with the Bioware RPG, having worked through two iterations of KoTOR in the past) but I was hoping for a good story and a refreshing break from the heavy-handed European fantasy I’d been getting from Game of Thrones.  I wasn’t disappointed. It was epic, emotionally engaging, and the setting was rich and deep. It was everything I’d hoped. And the entire time I found myself thinking, “Dude, this would make some awesome D&D.”

The Core Assumptions

Today, we’re going to be dealing with the core assumptions of the setting. Let’s take a look at some assumptions that make our Wuxia setting different from (and similar to) the standard Points of Light. Loosely based on ancient China (with some rare elements of other parts of Asia), this is “The Middle Kingdom.” Or possibly even, “The Jade Empire,” depending on my mood.†

  • The World is a Fantastic Place: Magic is an undeniable fact of the world. Chi-bending elemental masters; wizened old mystics hold the power to shatter boulders or to paralyze with a single touch; dragons and nature spirits, gods and demons; floating cities; the world could only be described as fantastic.
  • The World is Ancient: Ruins of ancient cities and civilizations can be found throughout the world, but the Empire has stood much as it is for hundreds of years.
  • The World is Mysterious: Most people don’t know all that much about the regions far from their villages, but few forget to revere their Emperor.
  • Monsters are Everywhere: They might not be the same monsters that plague the western lands, but they’re there. Bugbears (called “ogres” in this part of the world) hire themselves out as farmhands or mercenaries, fox spirits dwell in the forests and occasionally take human form to play tricks on humanity.
  • Adventurers are Exceptional: And for much the same reasons as other settings.
  • Magic is Not Everyday, But It is Natural: Most citizens of the empire are untouched by magic, apart from those who study at martial arts schools under masters, but few hold any superstition for it either.
  • The Gods Are Distant: Nature spirits called “Daemons,” and other spirits like the djinn, however, both good and evil, interact with the world regularly through various anchors. As part of the Celestial Bureaucracy, they constantly work to maintain (or undermine) the balance between order and anarchy.
  • Heroes are Martial Artists: Whether a swordsman, archer, spellcaster or priest, the power of heroes flows from rigorous (often lifelong) study of the martial and mystic arts. A fighter is not merely another warrior—he’s a disciple of ancient fighting techniques rarely mastered in the modern day. Likewise, a sorcerer makes esoteric gestures to perform his magic, and a priest is an enlightened, almost monastic follower of a powerful god.
  • War Has Left Its Mark: Everywhere are the ruins of old empires, the stains of ancient battles, and proof that the world is not a peaceful one. The martial and mystical arts are largely channeled toward combat because training in those arts is focused toward the honing edge of battle. As well, in a violent world, the effects of ephemeral power are best pointed at one’s enemies—after all, the power may be short-lived, but damage remains.
  • “We’re All Human Here”: Humanity is the only truly civilized race in the world—all other creatures are either monsters or subhuman savages. All of the existing player character races are sub-species of humans, making them accepted in the Middle Kingdom. 
  • Breath is Life: All power comes from chi (or ki), translated “breath” or “spirit.” This force grants life to all things, and its two halves—Yin and Yang—provide balance and duality to the universe. Arcanists master chi through ritual and express their power through elemental forces, martial exploits manipulate chi through physical effort, divine characters channel the breath of the gods themselves.
A number of these assumptions were borrowed from this thread and I make no claims of originality for them. I have modified several of them to better suit my own purposes.

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