Wednesday, October 8, 2014

In Retrospect

I've been thinking a bit about Flying Swordsmen.  You know, that free OSR game I made, a retro-clone of a little known freebie from WotC just prior to 3E launching named Dragon Fist, all about wuxia fantasy Chinese martial arts magical action?

Yeah, that one.  Probably you downloaded it.  Maybe you even read some (or all?) of it, and thought it seemed pretty cool. 

But did you play it?  Probably not.

Did you make a Flying Swordsmen PC and run it through a FLAILSNAILS game?  Never heard of anyone doing that, and I was pretty much too busy with grad school stuff and our local games to do it myself (although I wanted to).

Did you at least throw one or two of the monsters into your megadungeon just to mess with the expectations of your players who are jaded from years and years of the same old Monster Manual listings (which they know by heart because hey, they're often DMs too)?  Why the hell not?

Anyway, the point of this post isn't me trying to guilt trip you into trying to actually play my game.  There are lots of pdfs of games and supplements and adventures that I've downloaded, maybe looked at and thought it was neat, and there it sits on my hard drive collecting virtual dust.  It's actually sort of the opposite. 

A confession.

I've tried to run it several times, and while in theory it should be a lot of fun, something about the game just doesn't work the way it's intended.

Flying Swordsmen is about emulating all of the awesome wire work/CGI stunts you see in Hong Kong martial arts fantasy action movies.  Dancing over the helmets of a troop of warriors.  Fighting across a crowded inn while balancing a tray of dim sum on your head.  Standing on a swaying bamboo branch and fencing with a master who outclasses you.

But what happened when I ran the game?  "I roll to hit." [clatter clatter] "I roll for damage." [clatter clattter]. 

The problem wasn't that the system didn't support the desired actions.  Flying Swordsmen, and Dragon Fist before it, both do.  The problem is that neither game rewards such play.

If a player is fighting a villain, they can make a risk-reward analysis each round of combat.  Should they attempt something flashy just because it's cool?  Or should they just make an attack to whittle down the villain's hit points?  In my experience running the game, they choose the latter.  And why not?  The only thing going for the first one reward-wise is bragging rights.

Flying Swordsmen needs to reward players for having their characters attempt crazy wuxia stunts.  Something simple, like a 5xp times your level for attempting and failing a stunt, and 10xp times your level for achieving your desired result.  When I finally get around to revising FS, this is going in the rules.  If I ever get a chance to run the game before it's revised, I'll use this.


  1. Getting more XP for trying it is nice, but if I try it and still fail all the time because there is no bonus for doing it, A) do I still get the XP, and B) will I want to try it, fail a lot, get frustrated, and go back to plain, old vanilla hitting?

    I am a big Wuxia fan, and one of my good friends and players is a fanatic. I'm sorry to say, neither of us have tried your game. I pointed it out to him, we both said, "Neat", and then never really looked at it again.

    Why? Well, when you go back to the earliest days of the hobby, the 1970's, the height of the kung-fu movie craze, no one was really implementing that stuff into the RPGs that were coming out around the same time. OSR games aren't, generally speaking, designed with the same mindset one has when filming a Wire-Fu movie.

    For us (my buddy and I) an OSR Wuxia game is as appealing as non-fat, sugar free Chocolate Sundaes or Puritan Porn.

    What if you got a bonus to hit, or to your AC, or could take extra actions or something, the more over-the-top your maneuver is? What if making things more difficult for yourself (balancing a Dim Sum tray, while fighting a Swordmaster, using only chopsticks) unlocked special damage or conditional effects if successful?

    IMHO, Wuxia is not something you bolt onto a OSR game. It requires a completely different way of looking at the mechanics so that they reflect the genre.

    That's just me (and my pal). Take this with a grain of salt. You managed to complete a game and I have not (well, aside from the Muppets and Smurfs RPGs). You done good, but like all of us, it can always be improved.

    Good Luck!

  2. I think the bonus XP might be a bit too removed from the action -> reward loop to have an effect. Dungeon World uses it for failures, but it's also the only way to advance in Dungeon World (and DW is about avoiding very binary did or did not die rolls). I might consider adding something like an escalation die and taking a page from the "partial success" philosphy of DW. Off the cuff I would suggest something like:

    1) There is a stunt meter, represented by 2x d10. One die represents the opposing force's value, the other represents the player's. Values run from 0 to +9.

    2) Every successful stunt performed gives 2 stunt points. Stunt points must be spent immediately or forfeited and allows the player (or DM in the case of enemies) to either increase the value of their own stunt meter or decrease the value of their opponent's by 1 for each stunt point.

    3) If a stunt is unsuccessful, the performer is given a choice. They can gain 1 stunt point, spent as normal and the action fails, or they can give the point to the opposing side to spend in exchange for the stunt succeeding.

    4) The value of the stunt meter (from 0 to +9) is applied as a bonus to the roll for all non-stunt rolls. Alternatively, depending on how your combats play out, the player could choose to apply it to either the roll or the damage.

    5) Each round that a side goes without performing a stunt, reduce that stunt meter by 1. Alternatively, for more swing, each time a creature take a non stunt action, decrease the value of the meter after that action.

  3. @ Lord G:

    I was unaware of your game till you mentioned it on my blog last week. I haven't yet had a chance to read it.

    Like BA, I used to love the late night Kung Fu flick on the UHF channel..."The Golden Sword" comes to mind as one that I attempted to model in my AD&D game back in the day (before OA). I wouldn't mind playing such a game...but it's not always easy to find players on the same page. And it has to have the right rule set; I never could get into Feng Shui (for example).

    In general, I'm of the mind that (like BA says) you kind if need to design this kind of game from the ground up. But I can't really comment on your particular design questions till I finish reading your book.

  4. Thanks for all the great feedback.

    Flying Swordsmen was never meant to be a perfect fit of the wuxia genre. It is a retro-clone so a lot of my "design decisions" were already done for me.

    I had actually toyed around with a dedicated wuxia RPG system using a classless skill purchase system for character generation around the same time I started in on FS. Retro-cloning Dragon Fist proved easier, so that's what I went with.

    My goal in Flying Swordsmen, though, was to keep the game basically the same as its source (an add-on to 2E AD&D), just streamline a few clunky bits, add a few more cool options, and get something with the right wuxia flavor that could be used alongside standard D&D (with some modification/adjustment of course).

    One other point I may need to consider, as well, are the people I've played with. When I played Dragon Fist shortly after it was released for a few sessions, I had two players, both of whom were into the whole thing and went out of their way to make their characters do "wuxia" sorts of stuff.

    A couple years ago when playing Flying Swordsmen, my group were not so focused on that. They're great players, and they did get into character well outside of combat. But when the combat resolution started up, they were very "results oriented."

    Anyway, as I get closer to finishing up Chanbara, I'm taking a hard look at Flying Swordsmen, and trying to see why I'm so proud of what I created, but dissatisfied with how it plays. Hopefully I can avoid that with my new game.

  5. Maybe it's as simple as offering actual rewarding mechanics to the 'results oriented' crowd. Instead of giving a bonus to XP for attempting wuxia-style hijinks (or in addition to the XP), you increase their critical threat range, or let them add a die to either their damage or attack roll, or perhaps their attack circumvents their opponent's defense entirely, ensuring an auto-hit. I imagine that attempting wuxia in practice requires some kind of initiating roll?

    To my shame, despite downloading Flying Swordsmen, I haven't even gone through page 1 of it yet (I kind of went crazy over RPG kickstarters, and I buy almost everything Chaosium puts out, so I have a serious backlog of RPGs to read)

  6. I agree with Barking Alien, it's a huge accomplishment to get a game finished. I was a bit surprised to read the post, though, as it is shows a rare honesty. Because, if this were a marketing scheme, you wouldn't talk about where you see a problem with the game you made, but how intensive research and play-testing brings you now in a position to produce a far superior 2nd Edition of Flying Swordsmen! :-)

    About the problem you see in the rules, I'd say a retro-clone should be perfectly able to emulate the wuxia genre without stretching it that much. But I wouldn't use xp or (complex) additional systems, as those things tend to get lost during play. At least that's what happened to ca. 80 % of all the house rules I tried to use in D&D ...

    The first thing that came to mind after reading your post, was something like giving players +10 hp and +1 to saves/attacks/damage for every level they got for as long as they describe those combat moves (same goes for the enemy, of course). It'd do two things: to get a fighting chance against those foes able to fight that way, they really need to do the same. It'd happen automatically (and the players wouldn't forget, either). Another benefit would be that effect where enemies unable to fight that way would fall fast and easy, just like in the movies. If they're not using their moves (or are drugged/poisoned/etc.), they'd have normal hp (no idea, though, how one would translate damage between states ...).

    Anyway, it's just an idea. I'd have to give FS a closer look to see if it could fit (which I really intent to do, btw.). If I had the time to at least try all the games I want to play ...

  7. I like Flying Swordsman as a game that allows me to play D&D in the style of Wuxia. It may not be a pure Wuxia game, but sometimes I just need a flavor of something new to reinvigorate the game.

    And really, any time you play lie " "I roll to hit." [clatter clatter] "I roll for damage." [clatter clattter]." the game will get flavorless.

    1. Good point. It may have been less the game and more the fact that I wasn't really giving the players enough motivation to ham it up.

  8. @ Lord G:

    Okay, I just downloaded this yesterday and started reading it. This is a really beautiful book. I might have more to say after I've looked at the system.

  9. I just discovered this game. I still have to read through it. If you are looking for something that gives you the Wuxia feel, there is a game out there called "Wushu RPG". It is more free-flowing, and the mechanics are very simple. If I were going to play a purely Wuxia game, I would use it. However, I'm looking at your game as a way to spice up the "Monk" class.