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Water Margins & Dragons


Being an exploration of why D&D is surprisingly good for playing games in the setting of The Water Margin, and how you can do some specific, quite simple things to do so. 


Above: your D&D party, yesterday. 


The Water Margin 水滸傳 is a classic adventure novel almost certainly mostly written, in vernacular rather than classical Chinese, by shi Nai'an 施耐庵 in the 14th century. It tells the tales of 108 outlaws who get involved in various escapades, duels, jailbreaks, robberies, rebellions against the Song dynasty (on both sides) and so on. They eventually congregate in a stronghold on Liangshan, a mountain surrounded by a large marsh that was largely beyond the reach of government control: the ‘water margin’ of the title. 

It’s an ancestor of wuxia, which is a 20th-century genre, but it’s not the same thing. One way you can tell is because I like The Water Margin, whereas wuxia is, to me, what happens when The Water Margin is ruined by nerds. It’s the D&D 5e of Chinese adventure fiction: things get over-systematised. The jianghu becomes a set of formalized secret societies and martial artists rather than the more diverse ‘soft counterculture’ it traditionally represented. Categorising things and making lists is, to be fair, a longstanding Chinese cultural tradition, but wuxia creates order where The Water Margin depicts... well, kind of a mess. Except in the later, universally acknowledged as less good, chapters. 

Backstory: setting a Hearts of Wulin episode in the Against the Cult of the Reptile God village, it occurred to me that much of the D&D material wasn’t that useful for HoW (although quick side note: you can benchmark NPCs’ tier by comparing their level/HD to the recommended levels on the module cover, and that works pretty well). And I found myself reminded of the bit in The Water Margin where two of the heroes run a Sweeney Todd-style inn where visitors sometimes end up in the dishes. 

The village temple became, to my mind, the same temple from which the idiot official releases the 108 spirits in The Water Margin (spoiler alert for chapter 1 of a novel written in the 14th century).  

The why: 

The Water Margin heroes are, in many cases, murderhobos. Frequently accompanied by comrades who despair of their impulsive, destructive antics as they kind of forget to do the adventure. In other words, they are D&D PCs.  

They’re also generally able to recognize other members of the jianghu, often after a short brawl. In other words, they know who the PCs are. 

Once I decided to run Reptile God in Song-era China, things started to fall into place - as I started reskinning things, more things proved to be apt for The Water Margin

D&D clerics aren’t much like anything in Arthuriana or LotR - but what do Taoist priests legendarily do? Disable the undead with talismans and banish demons with peach-wood swords. 

It is abundantly clear that D&D spells just sound cooler when you talk about them as if they’re mystical martial arts things. 

Rolling up magic items for the pre-gens, I got a pair of boots that let the wearer travel 100 leagues in a day or whatever. Strikingly similar to the novel’s “Heavenly Traveller” Dai Zong, who has magic boots that etc. and so on. 



The how: 

Fighters, thieves and clerics stay basically the same. 

Magic users are like no user of magic in The Water Margin, much as their lack of Tolkien or Western folkloric parallels has historically anguished D&D enthusiasts of a certain stripe. But once you rename them “Martial Artists” it falls into place again. Fighters are your big, bruiser types, always ready for a brawl, while the martial artists are not so physically tough but dedicate long practice sessions to esoteric techniques. Spell memorization also explains why they only ever seem to do their most impressive moves once per fight. 

Finally, when creating pre-gens, I gave each character an appropriate nickname from the less well-known Water Margin heroes, but left the name itself blank for players to decide on. 




Cards for players' special abilities, equipment and agendas

Link to Google Docs version for easy printing 


Priestly blessings


Healing Benediction (1) 

Place your hands on a living, wounded creature to restore 1d6+1 points of damage. 


Detect Evil (1) 

Detect evil thought or intent in any creature or evilly enchanted object. Note that poison is neither good nor evil. 

Duration: 6 turns. Range: 120'.


Spirit Light (1) 


Cast light in a circle 30' in diameter, not equal to full daylight. Duration: 12 turns plus your level.


Protection from Evil (1)

This spell serves as an armour protecting you from various evil attacks, adding a +1 to all saving throws and AC versus evil opponents. Duration: 12 turns.


Ritual of Purification (1) 

This spell will make spoiled or poisoned food and water safe. The quantity subject to a single ritual is approximately that which would serve 12 people.


Mystic Techniques

For martial artists, who replace magic users.  

Burning Palm Technique 波動掌 (1)


A blast of flame shoots from your hands, 30’ long and 15’ wide at the end. Any creature caught in it takes 1 point of damage per level of the caster. Flammable materials catch fire; they may be put out in 1 round by dousing, beating, etc. 

Bewitching Melody 魔笛 (1) 

Range: 120’

When you play a whimsical tune on your flute, erhu or pipa, you can bring a single human or humanlike creature entirely under your sway. The victim may make a saving throw to throw off the enchantment at regular intervals determined by its Intelligence score. 

Body Lightness 輕功 (1)


Range: caster         

Duration: caster level in turns

Negates damage from falling. 

Cloud-Ascending Ladder 梯雲縱 (1) 


Range: touch    Duration: 1 turn 

Subject gains the ability to leap 30’ in any direction, including horizontally to essentially run at super speed. One jump may be made per level and must be done within the duration. 

Tempest Pear Blossom Darts 暴雨梨花针 (1)


A casket of magical needles that fly unerringly true, striking for 1d6+1 damage. Range is anywhere within the caster’s vision, but at 70’ or further the target may save for half damage. 


Lightning Palm Strike 閃電掌 (1) 


The mystic’s touch deals 1d8 points of electricity damage plus 1 point per character level. 

Melody of Tranquility 安静魔曲 (1)


Range: hearing     Duration: 4d4 turns

When you play an eerie but soothing tune on your flute, pipa or erhu, it causes any creature of 4HD or less in a 10’ radius to fall irresistibly into a magical slumber. 

Pierce the Barriers of Thought 檢測思想  (2) 


Range 60’     Duration 12 turns 

When you brew a special potion and inhale its steam, you can detect and understand the thoughts of any intelligent creature within range. 

Mystic Veil 隱形 (2)


You turn invisible! The effect ends when you attack someone or something, take damage or decide to stop being invisible. 


Friend of Night 創造黑暗(2)


Range: 120’    Duration: level x 2

By performing mystical gestures, you cause a point or object to radiate total darkness to a 15’s radius. Non-magical light cannot illuminate the area. 


Equipment packages 

(1 per PC) 


Peach-wood sword (for driving away demons) 


Incense & burner 


Sword (1d6) 


Lamellar armour (AC 7) 


Writing brush and paper

Tea set 

Book of poetry 


Spear (1d6) 


Just enough rope 


Dagger (lowest of 2d6) 


Grappling hook 



Sack of trade goods 

Wine jug 


Peach-wood sword (for driving away demons) 


Incense & burner 


Writing brush and paper

Tea set 

Book of poetry 


Reasons for being in the village 

Players: Choose 1 and pass the rest on 

GM: Give secret signs for informants to the thief, bandit, evil sect member. 


Imperial envoy: sent to summon the temple’s Grand Master to stop a plague in Kaifeng. 


Army deserter: coming to stay with your aunt to hide from a vengeful superior officer. Your aunt is the wife of (choose one): a famer (house 22), the constable (2), a tavern keeper (6)  

Student of the esoteric arts: You have come to study with the Grand Master of the temple here. 

Bandit: you’re scouting the village in preparation for a raid for supplies and treasure. 

Thief: word is that the legendary Cloudbringer Sword 载云剑 is hidden somewhere near the village. 

Filial child: you are coming home to visit your beloved family. Your father is (choose one): a famer (house 22), the constable (2), a tavern keeper (6)  

Evil sect member: you are bringing a message from your superior in the Lizard Sect, which can only be delivered into the hands of the Reptile Cult Master. 

Lawful sect member: you are bringing a message from your superior in the Wudang Clan, which can only be delivered into the hands of the Purity Sect Master. 


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