Written by Shaun
Enjoy this Spotify Playlist I made to accompany this article, it should get you in the Kung Fu mood!
Nothing is better than getting struck by inspiration for an adventure. You may be soaking in the tub, reading a comic, driving down the highway, or watching the climactic final confrontation of the A-Team movie (or even a combination of all four!) Suddenly, as you turn the page, inspirado strikes! Your mind is filled with visceral images of the setting, action and obstacles your players will face, and you know – just know without a doubt – that you will never rest until you play out that adventure.
This was how I felt about the Oasis Down one shot, and before that the Whisper Blade Tower one shot. Both were scenarios that bubbled around in the back of my head for years before I finally felt ready to play them. Part of my problem is that I get the idea and it itches around without me actually putting real effort into planning the scenario. When I do finally plan, I perseverate over small features and minutiae: what the NPCs motivations are, where they stand when they perform their gloating monologue, what tone the scenario should be. These details jumble around, I forget to write things down or make voice memos, and eventually I have to start all over again.
This problem ends now. I’m going to plan this one before a whole year passes!
When we decided to work blog posts into our patreon model, I knew that I wanted to give you glorious and generous people content you could use, and so with that, today I’m going to outline a concept for a one-shot and try to beef it out with some useful system agnostic details that will be juicy enough for you to bring to any table.
As my players have begun to figure out, when I plan a one-shot adventure, I’m almost always inspired by a movie. Whisper Blade Tower was inspired by the Raid, and Oasis Down by movies like 1917 and Annihilation. This time I’m planning a session based on great Kung Fu movies like Enter the Dragon, Bloodsport and yes, even Mortal Kombat.
A martial arts tournament is a super fun and engaging set piece to drop into any adventure. Depending on the flavour of your campaign the scenario could take place in a Hippodrome, Gladiator arena, a Jousting Tournament, a Kung Fu dojo, or even a convention of Arcane masters determined to test their magical mettle against each other. Despite the setting, there will be common factors:
- The invitation – a personalized invitation that excites the players and teases the mystery
- A Villain oversees the event – an obviously unscrupulous baddie that has just enough charisma, sway with the crowd and threat to keep the characters from launching an attack on them during the opening ceremonies
- The tournament
- An ally reveals themselves – a sympathetic competitor who needs the character’s help (whom the players are obviously forced to fight against in the tournament)
- A Secret – something that proves the Villain is evil, and there’s no time to spare in putting and end to their plot
- The Showdown – The final confrontation against our BBEG, the more fantastical the better
By picking the right threats, opportunities and rewards for your group, this will be an adventure your players are talking about for years.
How the players get invited to the tournament can help set the tone and establish the character’s roles as they begin the adventure. Your characters may have broken up a street fight (or participated in one), been recruited by the town guards, the Harpers, or your world’s equivalent to the CIA. They may be champion warriors that legitimately deserve a spot on the tournament roster. The invitation informs the players about the time and location of the tournament, giving them a hint of the martial challenges upon their path. In my opinion, it is critical that the invitation be personalized to the player characters. Much like Count Strahd Von Zarovich inviting the player characters to his castle, this villain has noticed the player characters and wants to test his mettle against theirs… or something even more sinister! I wouldn’t relegate the player characters to be merely spectators of the competition (unless I had a very strong sense that that is what the players preferred).
Maybe one of the player characters has a tie to the villainous host, another competitor in the tournament, or they suspect (rightly so) that the tournament is a front for a nefarious plot and need to put a stop to it.
They’re so bad it’s good. Your villain could take many forms, depending on the genre, setting or power level your players are sitting at. They may even appear to be good at first, and then The Secret reveals the truth!
In Enter the Dragon, the villain is a crime lord named Han. He’s a powerful martial artist with a prosthetic hand which he swaps in and out to great effect as a weapon and that makes him memorable as well as dangerous. In Kung Fu Hustle, Brother Sum rules the Axe Gang with slick 50s dance moves and his trademark tuxedo. In Big Trouble in Little China, Lo Pan is an ancient sorcerer attempting to suck the life force from a beautiful woman with jade-coloured eyes. O-Ren Ishii, Bill, Shredder, Donaka Mark, Shang Tsung, Goro, the list of memorable, fun and despicable villains goes on. Your Villain is the one with the brains, the resources and the villainous drive for power necessary to put this whole shindig together.
Need some suggestions for your villain? Maybe they are one of the following:
- An actual dragon, disguised in humanoid form
- A warlock, wielding unnatural occult powers
- An immortal demon-monk
- A child-king with a chilling otherworldly presence
- A disfigured crime-boss with a posse of powerful minions
- An awakened plant or manakin that disguises itself as humanoid
- An ordinary and innocent person inhabited by an evil spirit
No villain is complete without minions. I would suggest that for this scenario, most competitors in the tournament fall into this category. Powerful individuals or pairs with cool abilities, dangerous attitudes, and something to gain by associating themselves with the villain. This is where the barbarian rage of Mad Dog from The Raid, the supernatural powers of Scorpion from Mortal Kombat, or the dangerous sonic magics of the Guqin harpists from Kung Fu Hustle get to take your battles to the next level.
- A half ogre barbarian that is more muscle than brain and uses the environment as a weapon
- A bard that uses the power of their voice to emit sonic booms and debilitating effects
- A firedancer inhabited by the lifeforce of a fire elemental
- A lithe ninja fighter that specializes in takedowns and throwing (best on a battlefield with some dangerous terrain)
- An army of ceramic golems that crumble to dust when defeated
- A gold plated knight that battles using the spikes on her armor
It can also be fun to give each minion, or even the Villain a weakness. Weaknesses can vary from your bog-standard “Vulnerable to Fire” to the more juicy storywise weaknesses like “the Villain holds the half-ogre warrior’s wife hostage.” If the heroes of our adventure can pull at the thread of the minion’s secrets and backstory, they become living breathing characters in the tale, instead of nameless-faceless goblin mooks. Oh! Goblins! Maybe the minions are a goblin troop that have mastered a Gobliny version of Capoeira! You’re screwed now, players!
Fight time! More likely than not, your players are all looking forward to this part, but definitely some of them more than others. You can anticipate that your fighters, barbarians and monks are itching to prove themselves in the ring, but your wizards and rogues may not want to display their talents in such a toe-to-toe fashion. Having one-on-one matches will shine the light on your martial duelist, but could leave the rest of your table yawning as they sit on the sidelines.
I would plan for two sorts of scenarios:
- A duel for your more martially focused, where some sort of action is also happening away from the ring:
- A social encounter/battle-of-wits against a minion or even the villain (not a combat)
- A drinking contest
- An investigation of a rival competitor’s room for clues
- A grand melee or team battle, where the player characters must work together against a hand picked team of warriors
You want these events to be challenging, exciting and draining. The enemies may impose lasting conditions when landing critical hits like exhaustion, poisoned, slowed, or invent conditions like broken toe, bruised tailbone, concussed to have the impact from intense fights continue to be felt as the adventurers head from the arena into the depths of the Tournament master’s lair. You also want the characters to make an impact. They should discover a clue or treasure, sabotage an opponent, or recruit an ally. If you have to split the party, consider setting a timer for yourself so that you don’t spend too long with just one player while the others wait.
The party should not be simply thrown from deadly fight to deadly fight endlessly. The Tournament is also a huge party! The Villain has thrown a massive gala to show off their opulent wealth. There will be fine food, wine, and conversation to be had. The party should have ample opportunity to meet the oddball competitors, villainous minions, servants and potential allies in during the Opening Ceremonies or nightly celebrations as the tournament goes on. All of these Non-Player characters can be used to feed information, clues, and help to your players as they investigate the Secret, or attempt to ferret out an enemies weakness.
Potential allies may include:
- An Arakocra looking for his brother
- A young woman sent to fight in her father’s stead
- A disgraced man-at-arms hoping to reclaim his honor and station
- A bard looking for a valorous warrior with a fascinating story to chronicle
Don’t wait until the last moment to come up with potential allies! I like to have a small stable of NPCs in my binder that I can pull out in any given situation, including plot hooks and boons they can grant the party.
How did you not see this coming?! The villain is obviously hiding something, and the grand tournament with all its pomp and circumstance is merely a precept allowing for these grand plans to move forward. Is the dragon bringing powerful adventurers together in order to steal their magical items while they rumble hand to hand in the ring? Does the warlock intend to sacrifice the victor to his dark patron? The child-king want a new host for the dark spirit inhabiting her to possess? Is the crime boss using the traffic coming and going from the event to smuggle a powerful new drug, bribe powerful politicians, or market a legendary and dangerous item to interested buyers?
The Secret needs to pique the interest of your players, and if you make the Villain suspicious and despicable enough, they should be roaring to go once the lights go out after the Opening Ceremonies. Encourage exploration, use NPCs and setting as a chance to tease the Secret out, let them slowly unravel the truth over the course of two or three days as the tournament nears its climactic final round.
On the roof of the temple during a lightning storm? Or on the arena as the ground quickly crumbles away into the angry roiling sea below? Oh, maybe in a labyrinth of mirrors, as glass golem copies of the Big Bad leap from the reflections to slow the characters down and weaken them? In the shadowy caves beneath the dojo, on a catwalk suspended over a roiling pit of acid… or is that actually a Lazarus Pit, ready to resurrect the villain even stronger than before? There are too many great possibilities!
Your final showdown should be memorable, dynamic and dangerous. Consider giving your Villain some Lair Actions that interact with or change the environment. Walls crumble and collapse, a fallen torch lights the building on fire causing a wall of flame to separate the fighter from the rest of the party. Demonic ninja-spirits rise from the ancient burial chamber to support the Villain… or drag their soul back into the chamber of imprisonment!
What happens after the player characters defeat your Villain is totally up to you. If this is part of a longer campaign, the tournament could be part of the ongoing adventure, giving the player characters clues or information regarding the grander plot, or simply a fun side adventure. If it’s a oneshot, congratulate your players and tease potential future adventures their Kung Fu Champions could pursue. Perhaps they discovered a portal to the dark spirit’s home realm and feel the need to pursue the demon. Maybe the ghost of the child-king begs them to return her ashes to her homeland. The crime boss, dethroned and defeated, leaves a power vacuum to be filled by a greater threat, or the player characters themselves.
All that really matters is that everyone had fun! Roll On!