Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Oriental Adventures, often rendered in shorthand these days as “1E OA,” was the first role-playing product I ever bought with my own money. As a wee gamer in the making, my tastes in fantasy had run more towards “Kung Fu Action Theater” than towards Lord Of The Rings, so the prospect of being able to play characters like the ones I saw in The Bride With White Hair or A Chinese Ghost Story got me really excited about 1E OA.
Until I read it, that is. It’s not that the book was bad; it wasn’t, not at all. In some ways, it remains one of the best 1st Edition products published, one that has aged well. The book went into great and, as far as I could tell, accurate detail about a particular Asian culture and time period, and made for a great primer on total immersion role-playing in that culture.
The problem was, that culture was medieval Japan. Sure, there were a few tidbits from other Asian cultures sprinkled into the mix, but for the most part, 1E OA was designed with Japanophiles in mind.
This is not a bad thing; ninja and samurai are cool. They just weren’t what I was interested in. 1E OA was heavily grounded in the tropes of chambara fantasy, and I was looking for wuxia. And its emphasis on (pseudo-)historical and cultural accuracy distracted from the fantastic, other-worldly feel of kung fu fantasy films. Sure, wuxia stories are nominally set in Imperial China, but they’re often a-historical in feel, and could easily be set in a completely fictional time and place that only vaguely resembled China. 1E OA was trying to pull me, I thought, in the opposite direction.
And its martial arts rules were not terribly theatrical, I thought.
In the years since, I’ve wanted to either run or play in a wuxia-style D&D campaign, but no version of OA on offer ever really gave me what I was looking for: a simple, flexible set of rules that handled fast-paced martial arts fighting in a cinematic fashion… a game where wizards could cast spells as part of their kung fu rather than having to choose between magic and fists.
Enter Flying Swordsmen RPG, the OSR(ish) game of fantasy martial arts action, by Dennis Lafey, otherwise known online as Lord Gwydion. Lafey’s completely-free game understands exactly what’s appealing about wuxia, and knows exactly how to render that appeal in the form of a D&D retro-clone without all the clutter of a complex proficiency, feat, or skill-point systems.
Flying Swordsmen is apparently a retro-clone of an older, 2E-ish game called Dragon Fist. I”ve never seen Dragon Fist, so I can’t fairly judge whether Lafey has captured its essence. What I can say, though, is that if he has done so, then Dragon Fist “got” wuxia better than any other “Asian” version of D&D ever did.
Flying Swordsmen does two things with the OSR rules structure that successfully evoke the pace and feel of wuxia: it replaces ability score modifiers with stunt dice (and an associated system of Stunts); and it gives every character class automatic access to martial arts, without having to spend “proficiency slots,” “skill points,” or “feat trees.”
Stunt dice are perhaps the coolest concept in the game, as they give a bit of narrative autonomy to the players, and the Stunt system can handle on-the-fly simulations of later-edition things like Feats without bogging either the player or the DM down in a mountain of bookkeeping.
The system works like this: each of the six standard ability scores has a corresponding type of Stunt rated from 1d2 to 1d6 (Strength = Might stunts, Intelligence = Savvy, Wisdom = Insight, Dexterity = Acrobatics, Constitution = Fortitude, and Charisma = Charm). The die ratings of your Stunts are determined by their associated ability scores, just like static ability score modifiers in a standard OSR system.
So, where a character with a Strength of 15 might get a +1 static bonus in a standard old-school system; in Flying Swordsmen, he instead gets a Might stunt die rating of 1d3. Whenever he wants to do something impressive with his Might, such as bend a bar or lift a gate, or give himself an edge in melee combat, he rolls his stunt die along with the d20 (or his damage dice, whichever is appropriate), and adds its result to his total. The final number is measured against a difficulty rating set by the DM (in combat, this would be AC), or determined by the level + ability score of another character. If the total beats this number, the character succeeds (the game uses an ascending AC, higher-is-always-better-system).
The catch is that the player has to describe what he’s doing in some detail. This is where the Stunt system can allow players who prefer proficiencies or feats to mimic those game mechanics without having to write them down anywhere. “I want to use my Might to attempt a Cleave maneuver,” could be one way a player coming in from 3.x would use the system.
Of course, Flying Swordsmen supplies every character, regardless of class, with a nice assortment of Martial Arts Maneuvers that have evocative names like Grasping Monkey or Phoenix Strike, allowing players to simulate the time-honored wuxia tradition of telling their opponents exactly what they’re doing to them (“Ha ha ha, your Grasping Monkey is no match for my Phoenix Strike!”). That’s where the second feature comes in.
There are four base character classes in Flying Swordmen: you guessed it; they are Fighter, Shaman, Thief, and Wizard, that all do pretty much what you expect. However, each one also has its own Martial Arts Maneuvers By Level progression table, that works somewhat like the spell-slot system for spell casters. Each class must take specific maneuvers to fill its slots up to 3rd level, after which, they are free to customize and diversify as they see fit.
This means that every character class is capable of impressive feats of martial artistry like those seen in wuxia films… and spell casters can use some of their Maneuvers, along with Stunts related to their prime requisite scores, to augment their magic. In other words, they can use kung fu as part of their magic, rather than having to choose one or the other.
That hits the wuxia nail right on the head with a resounding Iron Fist.
There’s lots more here that’s evocative, too:
- The saving throw categories have been renamed to correspond to the five elements of Chinese myth (Earth, Fire, Metal, Water, Wood).
- Each of the character classes comes with a set of “profiles” (sort of like kits or sub-classes) that further refine and define their role in the campaign world (fighters, for instance, can choose to be Mystic Archers or Weapon Masters; wizards can be Taoists, or Yang Magicians, etc.).
- The Equipment list gives a pretty good sampling of Chinese arms and armor (but could have used some art to illustrate them).
- The magic section replicates some classic OA spells, and gives us some new ones, as well. Ditto for the Monsters (finally, Hopping Vampires done right!).
- And the default campaign setting looks pretty nice, too, and even comes with a continent map.
But it’s the Stunt system and the Martial Arts Maneuvers By Level mechanic that really set Flying Swordsmen apart from its OSR kin. Dennis Lafey rolled a natural 20 on this game.
HOW I’D USE IT: Kara-Tur, anyone?
I’m about to start running a Spelljammer campaign, tentatively using Labyrinth Lord as its skeleton, in which the Shou Lung of Realmspace play a much bigger role than they were given in canon material. The party will begin their careers as crewmen aboard a Shou dragon ship. Flying Swordsmen would be great for running that campaign from the Shou Lung point-of-view.
But, if the DM is willing to do a little conversion work, the core system of Stunts and Maneuvers By Level could also be used to simulate the great acrobatic and witty sword duels of swashbuckling non-Asian fiction like The Three Musketeers or Pirates Of The Caribbean. Which makes Flying Swordsmen even further suited to being used as the base system of an OSR Spelljammer game.
I still might just do that.
And did I mention that the game is completely free?