Shuihu Zhuan (Water Margin, often translated as Outlaws of the Marsh), is considered one of the four great classic works of Chinese literature, along with Journey to the West, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and Dream of the Red Chamber. It tells the intertwined stories of 108 men and women who became outlaws and formed a rebellion against the corrupt officials of the Song Dynasty. In addition to being a great example of a classic plot, Outlaws is the novel that forms the foundation of the entire wuxia genre.
The idea of wuxia in the west has come to be nearly synonymous with "wire fu", but the true underpinnings of the genre lie elsewhere. The stories revolve not around treetop duels but around the people that inhabit the jianghu, the underworld of martial arts, and the particular code of honor that they follow.
The outlaws of the Water Margin follow the same arc as the tales of Robin Hood (indeed, they are sometimes referred to as the Brothers of the Greenwood, a name more than a little reminiscent of Hood's band.) They run afoul of corrupt officials, become outlaws and exiles, and eventually band together to rob those who so richly deserve it and fight corruption in the name of the true emperor.
Steal This Idea
Eric Yin discusses the xia code of honor in his excellent Introduction to Wuxia article, in addition to talking about the qualities that set the xia apart—like their willingness to use force to solve their problems. The wandering Chinese hero is thus an excellent analogy for the traditional adventure, and the combination of the codes of xia and the traditional setting full of official corruption is a situation generator of the greatest kind.
The novel is full of little details about China that could be useful to any game set there, from common turns of phrase and proverbs to details like the "golden print", a tattoo on the cheek of an exiled criminal.
The most logical place to start is the better-known cousin Romance of the Three Kingdoms. Set hundreds of years earlier, it tells the tale of the reunification of China after the collapse of the Han dynasty. Like Outlaws, it has inspired everything from video gams to film.
Wrap-up and Rating
While the writing in the Shapiro translation can seem somewhat stilted at times, the characters, situations, and stories are enough to keep you reading.
As proven by the fact that it has already spawned a TV series, its own tabletop RPG and a highly successful series of console games, this novel is packed with ideas for NPCs, encounters, situations and anything else a roleplayer might need. It's also an interesting look at a culture that's unfamiliar to us, and it does a great deal to break down some of the stereotypes surrounding martial artist characters.
"The Brave Know the Brave": A Quick Hack
Again and again throughout the novel, one of the outlaws encounters people he has helped (sometimes in a place hundreds or thousands of li distant) or an enemy turns out to have heard of his skill and honor. Here's a quick rule you can add to any appropriate game to help simulate this sort of story:
Any time adhering to the ideals of xia causes you problems, take a point. (The GM may wish to award these points for other genre-appropriate behavior, like indulging in your fatal flaw or swearing an oath of brotherhood.) You can spend them in the following ways:
- Spend 1: Someone you helped in the past appears. They are effusively grateful to you and will help to the best of their ability, which does not extend to fighting but might include food and shelter, an alibi or distraction, or similar things.
- Spend 3: Your opponent "has eyes but did not recognize Mount Taishan." When they find out who you are, they cease attacking and express their deep respect for your chivalry and skill! Their attitude immediately improves to friendly.