Over the years I have received many, many requests about aspects of creating martial art styles for role-playing games. While many of the requests were specific aspects of game systems, I’ve also received quite a few questions on general creation aspects. So, with a bit of modification, I’ve outlined some basic guidelines on how to create martial art styles for role-playing games.
The following sections are designed to get the creator of a martial art style some basic ideas of what information will be useful in creating a martial art, some guidelines on how to use that information, and a general method to tie everything together. The specific output of a martial art style will vary from system to system, though much of the information covered remains the same.
Naming Your Style
I prefer to start with the name of the style, this let’s me do two things, get a feel for the style through the name, and keeping clear exactly which style I’m working on (especially important if you don’t do everything at the same time, or it takes several days to iron out the details). The name is important, and will be repeated at least a few times throughout the entry for the style.
A couple of things to keep in mind for the style. Foreign (i.e. names that aren’t in English) names should use one romanization throughout the style, typically this will be the same as the name used at the top. Also, whenever possible, a translation and/or alternate romanizations of the style should be listed. However, do not use the translation as the name of the style. You add more depth to the style if you use it’s proper name and provide a translation in the description text.
Country of Origin
Country of Origin often goes directly in hand with the name of the style (besides, it often tells you which language(s) the style should know). While it doesn’t necessarily have to be listed in it’s own little stat entry, the country of origin should at least be mentioned in the description of the style.
In general there are four identifying areas used to describe a martial art style; Hard/Soft, Internal/External, Passive/Aggressive, and Striking/Grappling/Weapon-Based. All of these terms help describe how the style works.
Hard and Soft simply determine the primary type of motions used in the style. Soft styles use circular deflecting movements, while Hard styles use straight, muscular movements. Some styles use a mix of motion within the style, being described as Firm.
Internal and External simply describe the focus of these styles. Internal styles focus on spiritual and mental training, External styles focus on improving the body. Balanced styles will use a mix of both internal and external focus, providing a more rounded approach in training.
Next we have Passive and Aggressive, they simply denote how active the style is. Passive styles tend to be less active (consequently having less attacks and combat moves), while Aggressive styles tend to be more active, with more attacks and combat moves. Some styles are neither passive or aggressive, being Intermediate in activity.
Last is the primary method of combat. This includes Non-Aggressive styles, Striking styles, Grappling styles, Weapon-Based styles, and styles which are a combination of two or more primary methods of combat. Non-Aggressive styles tend to train in areas outside of attack, and may be defensive-based, avoidance-based, or power-based. Striking styles employ a variety of unarmed hand, foot, and strikes with other parts of the body in order to inflict damage. Grappling styles tend to emphasize unarmed combat moves which immobilize the opponent, or remove the opponent from the fight. Weapon-Based styles are fairly common, and simply employ weapon usage as a major feature of their training. While several styles only focus on one method of combat, many are more rounded, focusing on two or more combined methods, including Grappling/Striking, Grappling/Weapon-Based, Striking/Weapon-Based, and Grappling/Striking/Weapon-Based.
These are the minimum (often statistical) requirements need for someone to begin learning the martial art style. Racial, gender, occupation (what many systems consider "class"), and/or social class limitations may also apply. Letters of introduction, formal requests of a teacher, or a monetary donative may also be needed.
Now comes one of the harder parts of creating the style, the description of the style. This information is what is used to entice the player into selecting the martial art style as well as an explanation about the style. I like to break this section down into three paragraphs myself.
The first paragraph details the history and origin of the style and includes such things as translations of the name, alternate spellings of the name, country of origin of the style, originator/creator of the style, when the style was created, and how the style came about.
The second paragraph should be a written description of the style, including such things as types of movements (often including names of these techniques), philosophy of the style, training methods of the style, important focuses of the style, and preferred combat method of the style. This paragraph will be the meat and bones of your style creation, as anything that shows up later (including combat moves, bonuses, skills, powers, and level advancement bonuses) should be justified by this paragraph.
The last paragraph will present information on how and where students can learn this style, including location of instruction, current instructors (if known), whether or not the style is common, any types of restrictions on learning the style and so forth.
Again, this is often one of the hardest sections of the style to complete, as you may have some idea of what particular moves or abilities you want in the style and need to work the description to match. The lack of research sources for converting a real world martial art style can also limit what information you can provide.
The costume will be the typical outfit that style practitioners wear. There are many different martial art costumes out there. These can include Kung Fu Sams, Karate Gi, Korean Dobok, Hakama, or other cultural clothing. Armor, street clothing, religious vestments, robes, loincloths, special wraps, and other outfits are also possibilities. On the other hand, not all martial art styles wear costumes.
Many game systems use skills so when creating a martial art style, keep in mind that many styles (particularly those which provide years of training) may also be developing and teaching certain skills to the character.
These are the applicable attacks, defensive, locomotive, evasive, and weapon proficiency features of a martial art style. I have to admit that I prefer to utilize martial art systems in games where the moves are defined by the style rather than the selection of moves determining the style, as the style-determines-moves approach makes more sense. However, I’m also open to the idea that a particular style may use a more "grab bag" approach to selecting combat moves.
A stance is a body position, often a standing posture, adopted by the style, typically as an initial position during a fight, exercise or form. By giving or selecting a stance for a style, you gain a useful tool in helping to flesh out descriptive comments when describing martial artists in game as well as creating an additional role-playing aid when the player characters become sufficiently adept at determining information from the use of a stance.
These are other techniques which conceptually aren’t skills, moves, or powers, which a martial art style may teach. These will generally vary depending on the system the martial art style is created for. In most cases these will be considered feats or martial art techniques.
These are supernormal, supernatural, paranormal, spirit, chi, karmic, or super powers which may be taught in more fantastical settings as part of martial arts teachings. Unless the campaign is high-powered, these will have very limited availability, though the possibility of gaining more as one increases in power or experience is possible.