Something I have struggled with for awhile is expressing themes as game mechanics. You can argue that every rule somewhat contributes to theme, which is true to an extent, but there’s something else. Something that makes a wuxia game feel fundamentally different from other adventure regardless of whether or not the characters can fly.
For me, most wuxia works came down to a theme of loyalty. You love her, but her father killed your father and you can’t be a good person if you don’t kill her father in revenge…which means you’ll lose her forever because she can’t be a good person if she doesn’t kill you. Navigating these loyalties was more central than how far you can jump or what styles you’ve learned.
What I finally came up with to try to express this are “goal axes”. Three thematic conflicts that are considered central to this particular game. (And they might vary for different campaigns.) The default for Shiyan has “empire” vs “justice” as one axis, “honor” vs “passion” as another, and “glory” vs “loyalty” as the third. Mechanically you pick 2 of those 6 things to care about, and you get in game rewards when you do stuff that furthers one of those goals (sometimes at the expense of another).
Empire vs justice is a pretty classic trope in wuxia. The empire is usually a necessary evil, tyrannical but preventing even worse catastrophes of rampant warring kingdoms from killing even more people. Rebels oppressed by this empire usually fight for small scale justice, helping wronged individuals against corrupt overlords. Most of the literature sides with justice here, but occasionally the empire are the good guys, seeing the bigger picture and (horror!) changing traditions that marginalize everyone who isn’t an educated man of a certain nation.
Honor vs passion is huge. There are just certain things you are expected to do. Get revenge, be dignified, stay away from foreigners, and whatever you do never date your teacher/student. And of course all that goes out the window for a decent love story. Really traditional tales are squarely with honor here, and it’s up to the heroes to keep the wayward lovers in line, or take them down when they go mad and become super villains. But the more modern stories start to play with this notion. Is honor really that important?
Glory vs loyalty seems like a strong constant undercurrent to me. Everyone in the martial world wants to be the best, but there is also a camaraderie that forms blood ties more important than family or marriage. And yet to be the best you may have to kill this great friend. Likewise the stories are filled with solitary masters who will betray any bond in their quest to be the best…and this is accepted and almost considered an admirable sacrifice. He may be evil…but at least he’s committed!
And then you start to mix them together. Would you betray your blood brother if justice was on the line? If you are bound by honor to fight for the empire, what happens when the empire acts dishonorably? Would you sacrifice your lover to learn a secret style that would let you rule the martial world? Which one of the two you chose is more important, and how extreme does the choice have to be before you change your mind? These are the questions that makes a game feel like wuxia.
A second part that I struggled with is not every character really fits on those axes. They have their own agenda, equally important as glory or justice. A character’s faults proved pretty fertile for these. Are you honest? One of your goals might be the truth, finding it and spreading it at all costs. I recommend taking at least one goal from the game axes so you’re somewhat attached to the central themes, but it’s not required.
The other cool thing about the axes is they clue everyone in to the kind of stories that are central to the game. A post-apocalyptic game would likely have an axis like hope vs survival, where you’ll have choices between helping other people (at great risk) or sacrificing strangers to live another day. And different campaigns within the same game could still have different axes to put more emphasis on certain themes.