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What would in your opinion be the best system to play a campaign based on Mortal Kombat?

By this I mean:

  1. a system with a heavy emphasis on martial arts.
  2. this must include supernatural martial arts think Jade Empire (Bioware) or Avatar the Last Airbender.
  3. the system must allow for as great a diversity between the characters as possible, I generally want to avoid Fire Karate vs Fire Karate and aim for Fire Karate vs Shadow Karate for example.
  4. if RL martial arts like Tai chi for example make a appearance it would be a plus.
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As this is a game-recommendation question, please adhere to the FAQ, the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and our rules for game recommendations. All responses must cite actual experience or reference others' experiences!

As this is a system-recommendation question, please adhere to both the FAQ and the rules for subjective questions as outlined in Good Subjective, Bad Subjective and on our Meta. In particular, all responses should be based on actual experience and contain references and examples whenever possible. – Brian Ballsun-Stanton Dec 8 '12 at 4:06
up vote 12 down vote accepted

My favorite martial arts RPG is Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying, by Robin Laws. Its original incarnation was based on the Shadowfist card game. It has a fast and easy +d6/-d6 with exploding 6'es system, and a whole variety of mystical "Fu powers" you can choose from Hands Without Shadow to Drunken Fist to Flying Sword to King On The Water to Unyielding Tiger Stance, all powered by your Chi stat.

The game puts most of its details into high powered martial arts action, but you also have guns, Eastern magic, transformed animal and monster powers, and other stuff to give you a nice variety of freaky-deak fighters. The game is very freewheeling and action oriented. There's a whole line of supplements for it as well.

I've run Feng Shui extensively at home and at conventions and people pick it up quickly and have loads of fun with it.

I also own and have played Hong Kong Action Theatre! which is fun but doesn't get into the kung fu moves as much. I'd only use D&D 3.5 + Book of Nine Swords or GURPS if you are already fanatically wedded to either ruleset; both bring a lot of complexity and lameness to the table for kung fu action.

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And Feng Shui is now being revived by Atlas Games and Robin Laws! – mxyzplk Oct 3 '13 at 11:49

White Wolf released Street Fighter: The Storytelling Game back in the day. While it may be difficult to find, it does cover your bases pretty well.

1: The system is almost entirely Martial Arts/Hand to Hand Combat, yet it also includes a robust skill system (based off the oWoD).

2: It includes the supernatural martial arts that are featured in Street Fighter such as the Hadouken, Dhalsim's Yoga Fire abilities, Blanka's electricity and M. Bison's "Psycho" Techniques. Other special attacks include:

  • Dim Mak
  • Shockwave (Ranged attacked created by slamming the earth)
  • Acid Breath
  • Ghostform
  • Ice Blast

Those give a basis for elemental 'bending' type powers.

3 and 4: The system includes specific maneuvers for different real-life fighting styles, like Capoeria, Kung Fu, Wu Shu and Shotakan Karate as well as recommending general maneuvers to give the overall feel of that fighting style. It also includes martial arts like Sambo, Sumo and Special Forces training.

There is also information about running a campaign based around martial arts tournaments and the events surrounding them.

I've played a few games of it and it seems to be a pretty solid system (being based off of the old WoD helped that a lot.) You can choose to include or exclude the supernatural powers if you want the system to be a more realistic, or go all out like the source material.

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World of Darkness: Combat is the same mechanics for martial arts, but migrated to the normal oWoD damage rules. And either way, it is a very solid chanbarra system. – aramis Dec 8 '12 at 2:59
I ran a Street Fighter campaign for about two years and occasionally included Mortal Kombat-style elements in it. It worked really well, if you like the Storyteller system. – Sandalfoot Jul 18 '14 at 18:38

Try taking a look at the Burn Legend section of Shards of the Exalted Dream, it's designed to get the feel of fighting games like Street Fighter, KoF and Mortal Kombat, and includes supernatural elements.

Though it's technically an Exalted 2e Supplement and it's only one section of the book, it's not a very expensive supplement and as long as you know the basics of any White Wolf game you don't need Exalted's corebook to play it. It's pretty much entirely self-contained.

I have played it and it's very fun, it's not Exalted and doesn't try to be. I've been told it was a last minute replacement for another more Exalted thing that didn't work out, and the ties to Exalted are minimal and easily stripped, especially if you're not afraid of homebrewing your own Supernatural Martial Arts.

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This is looking very good it's a shame thought that there's so little material for it, I understand that it's a subsystem but it's still very concentrated IMHO. – George Bora Dec 7 '12 at 19:40
The developers have said that if there was enough interest in Burn Legend they would consider making a bigger standalone version of the system. – Draupadi Dec 7 '12 at 19:49

Hero System: Ninja Hero

The HS4E Ninja Hero setting book includes a variety of real world martial arts in Hero System terms. It also includes rules for building fantasy and real world styles, and maneuvers for those styles to include.

The computations for a Ninja Hero campaign are mostly front-loaded, and because speed remains insanely expensive, fast characters are relatively rare, and rather potent.

The book also gives excellent advice on running a martial arts type campaign.


Generally, my preference is for Street Fighter; HS4 or 5 with Ninja Hero is a close second. By preloading the math, it solves much (but not all) of the in-play math of Hero System that bogs down supers play. Likewise, the maneuver system is integral to 4th and 5th Ed Hero System, so HS4/5 players won't have to learn add-on rules. The integral powers system of the HSR allows for even more over the top chanbarra powers, if needed.

Need a "Helicopter Flame Kick"? buy it as a linked limited flight move and flying kick.

The system can scale from 25 active point talented normals through 250 active point martial supers. (Above that point, characters really become dominated by stats and powers, rather than maneuvers, but even then, martial arts can add nicely.)

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I loved Feng Shui back in the day, but fights can get pretty bogged down when you have competant combatants. This is because the mechanics make it very difficult to land a telling blow on an enemy with an equal or better martial arts stat. Nice variety of different styles though.

I own all the White Wolf Streetfighter books, I'm such a SF fanboy. It's a terrible terrible system - very time consuming to write out all the move cards and fights are even slower than Feng Shui! Hacking the Vampire system for the SF universe was never really going to end well.

Excuse the self promotion but I believe Eternal Contenders will give you just what you need, especially for a short campaign. The Void Walker style is Tai Chi tastic too! Not officially out yet but I think Chronicle City have some pre-release copies available.

Or for a rules-lite RPG with some funky leftfield mechanics (stabbing a real knife through character sheets?!?) try Mist Robed Gate

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If you want a crunchy system with tons of information on real martial arts as well as cinematic / supernatural arts, with the ability to craft your own powers and bring in whatever stuff you want, like chi-based magic and let's say...Gun Fu, then you can't go wrong with GURPS!

I would grab the Basic Set, and then pick up either:

or go nuts and get both!

You can add realistic, non-gun-fu firearm close combat with the Fairbairn book, martial arts spells with Magic, and whatever kinds of powers you might dream up with Powers.

You can jump in for free with GURPS Lite to see if you like the system.

Feng Shui

For a more story-oriented game, take a look at Feng Shui. It is my second recommendation because I have never gotten to play it, but it's by Robin Laws and his games rock in general. It has a very good reputation in the RPG community as a fast and colorful martial-arts action game.

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Two downvotes, no comments? Ouch! – gomad Dec 8 '12 at 4:25
Agreed I looked over the mentioned GURPS books, and they seem really good, I don't see what's wrong with this answer. – George Bora Dec 8 '12 at 9:08
@GeorgeBora - thanks, George! I think that some people here fail to make the distinction between, "This answer is not helpful" and "I disagree." That's OK though -- and thanks for the comment! – gomad Dec 8 '12 at 20:02

Dungeons & Dragons (any edition, as far as I can tell) is not a good choice overall; the system is too abstract in its combat for a game that focuses purely on martial arts. However, Tome of Battle (for 3.5) can go a long way towards helping things: it’s varied, fast, and has a nice mix of mundane and supernatural. It’s not enough, but if you’re considering D&D, that’s where I’d start. There is also a lot of relatively-good homebrew for Tome of Battle.

From personal experience, however, these rules can make for an excellent arena/gladiator/tournament game. You have to be very careful about what is or isn’t allowed – when we played, any build with a decent chance of one-shotting an enemy (or being one-shot) was not allowed, because it was considered necessary that all combatants get at least one turn. This is important. It is somewhat limiting at level 1; for the most part, Barbarian 1 was the “One True Way,” which is bad. Consider starting at level 2, or treating their HP as if they were a level higher; that will help.

But the rules provide uses for mental stats that might otherwise go disregarded (as does Tome of Battle), and provides a great system for allowing minor non-combat roleplay during combat. The Mortal Kombat games often had a crowd watching you, or Shao Khan, or whatever. I would recommend these rules, or something similar to them, for any system you go with. They really made that Pit Fighter game a lot of fun to play – far more fun than the concept should have been for 3.5, which admittedly does not well support the style.

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I remember there being a lot of very good ToB homebrew classes so there must be some that suit my purposes but I'm still wary of going with Dnd. – George Bora Dec 7 '12 at 19:38
I'm not sure I love this answer showcasing something that is "...not a good choice overall... If this is your offering for a "best system" for this style of game, I think it should put forward something that you can personally recommend instead. – gomad Dec 7 '12 at 21:15
@gomad: Only thing I have personal experience with. Furthermore, I think it's equally valid to say "I've tried this, and it didn't work particularly well." – KRyan Dec 8 '12 at 3:07
Fair enough, and I guess you're entitled. I'm not trying to rag on you in particular, I just think the set of "games that won't work for X" is infinite and that positive recommendations are more useful. Is that your downvote rebuttal below? ;) – gomad Dec 8 '12 at 4:08
@gomad: I have not voted on any other suggestion since I'm not familiar with any of the suggested systems. – KRyan Dec 8 '12 at 4:50

It's not an RPG, but you could break out the Yomi card game when you want to resolve important fights and fall back to an RPG when you want to do something other than fighting. Yomi generates combat with the tactics of a fighting video game without requiring mastery in execution.

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I'll give it a shot, it might not be a long campaign so we might not miss the leveling up aspect, and as you said we can roleplay outside of combat. – George Bora Dec 7 '12 at 19:23

I couldn't say the D&D (any edition) is best to play MK-like RPG, but it still is enough suitable to. At least I would really wish to try that. First thing to consider is a scenario plot. Assasin-type quests, multi-world setting, villains intrigues, powerful artifacts (DnD has a lot of these stuff to chose from and to combine in funny ways). Second view is a DnD combat action - it`s not good for 1v1 tournament, but it looks best for tactical/group combat. As for me the 4th edition is the finest version out there, which allows each player to freely use different classes with premade skill-cards pack. DnD-4 combat action cards are pretty easy to handle, and have epic descriptions.

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Welcome to the site! Unfortunately your answer, while descriptive (we like that!), doesn't seem to fit the criteria the asker is looking for. While I'm a big fan of 4e myself, it does not have a heavy emphasis on martial arts (barring heavy houseruling or refluffing), which is the asker's number one priority. – Oblivious Sage Jan 16 '13 at 18:22
Thanks for the suggestion, I like 4E but right now I don't have the time for heavy re-fluffing, maybe at a later date. – George Bora Jan 16 '13 at 21:38

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