The Ravages of Time (火鳳燎原, Huo Feng Liao Yuan, lit. The Fire Phoenix Scorches the Plains) is a manhua series, created by Chinese artist and writer Chen Mou (陳某), retelling the same events as Romance of the Three Kingdoms. As in most modern retellings, the characters are drawn larger than life, but without fantastic magic or explicit superpowers. They probably include more Chess Masters than any other adaption, since the plot puts a good deal of focus on the politics and warfare of the Three Kingdoms period, and some of the main attractions of the series are the associated mind games, military strategies and battlefield tactics. Naturally this leads to chapter after chapter of ploys and deceptions, using almost every trope possible from the Gambit Index.While the strategists plot, one-man-armies kill their way wantonly through lots and lots of soldiers, and the plot regularly zooms in on the personal development of the main protagonists, detailing their dynamic responses and attitudes to the events unfolding around them.The story, at the beginning at least, mainly revolves around Sima Yi. He is the head of the Sima Clan, a rich merchant family, and the leader of the Crippled Legion, a bunch of Handicapped Badasses who assassinate people on his behalf. Soon, events conspire to sweep him up in almost every major conflict as narrated in Romance of the Three Kingdoms.The Ravages of Time is currently serialised in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Japan, with compiled volumes published in China, Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore. It is one of the few manhua of its format to reach such an extensive foreign market.
The Ravages of Time provides examples of:
Achilles' Heel: Cao Cao have both ferocious generals and talented advisers serving under him. He himself is a liberal and broad-minded ruler and he has the backing of the Han Emperor. His armies have gone through numerous baptisms by fire - first Lu Bu, then Yuan Shao and have came up top. His forces are nigh unbeatable, except for one fatal flaw — Underestimating the enemy, which happens to be Zhuge Liang's favourite exploit.
Adaptation Expansion: The series goes into more detail on pretty much everyone who appears in the original Romance of the Three Kingdoms. While it seems that Chen Mou made some of it up on the spot, other characters are well-researched, based on their biographies. One example is Gao Shun; in the manhua he thrashed Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan, which matches the historical record. Of course, the details are embellished.
The side-story novel series is this to the manhua; but there are also enough significant changes to make some readers deny its canonity and consider in some sort of Alternate Continuity. In case you're wondering, the characters in the novels are portrayed as having far more emotional issues and being much more broken than their manhua counterparts (Xiao Meng and Sun Ce are blatant examples), certain important events are changed in details (like the circumstance of Guo Jia's death and the aftermath of Dian Wei's death), significant additions are made in the character set (specifically, the current Crippled Legion has a sixth member). Oh, and the author also pulls no punches when he describes the stark reality of war and the misery of common people, which aren't shown in explicit detail in the manhua, making the novels even Darker and Edgier than the original adaptation.
A Father to His Men: Almost every notable general. Subverted with Lu Bu, who is a good boss enough to talents like Zhang Liao, Gao Shun or Chen Gong, but thinks of his mooks as little more than disposable pawns.
Zhang Liao goes further than usual — his initial "defiance" is so as not to "lose face" before his "brothers"-in-arms who've been killed in battle or executed, but after he capitulates to Cao Cao, in the prelude to Guandu he disobeys orders by leaving camp with his surviving "brothers" to dig up their slain brothers' remains... then he beats the hell out of Yuan Tan's routed army for disrupting the exhumations, even though said army had actually been fleeing from the last gravedigger whose work they'd disrupted: Liaoyuan Huo.
Alternate Character Interpretation: In-Universe, Up to Eleven. For some examples, Zhao Yun starts out as Sima Yi's assassin under the alias Liaoyuan Huo, while Diaochan is merely a cover identity of the eunuch assassin Xiao Meng, and Dong Zhuo is actually an Anti-Hero of sorts — or at least he plays one in public, anyway. For more, see below.
Alas, Poor Villain: Chen Mou really loves doing this In-Universe. Every dead villain gets at least a chapter for an eulogy, yes, even Yuan Shu. And if you never thought you'd feel sympathy for the One-Man Army Lu Bu, you might change your mind after reading about his downfall.
Anachronism Stew: Paper books (and probably kunais) are yet to be existed during later Han and Three Kingdoms era.
Attack Pattern Alpha: Those inevitably comes up when two big forces face off with each other. There has even been a 'clash of formations' in certain cases. Some of those formations are not strict arrangement of troops, but rather principles for the troops to stick to (how aggressive they are supposed to be and whether they should be holding ground).
Lu Meng has peculiar one which deals with "leaving a dump for the enemy". It is unnamed, though.
Jia Xu is reputedly the "King of Formations". However, besides the mention of a "Night Travel Formation" which speeds up troop mobilisation in darkness, he wasn't showed using any other named ones.
In the battle between Guo Jia and Yuan Shao, a few more surface - Sun Tzu's Encirclement Formation, Laozi's Formation, Army Organization and Guan Zhong. The author pointed out those were named in ancient Chinese texts.
There is even supposedly a 'lost formation'. Yuan Fang used the "Eight Formation Diagram" against Guo Jia and won decisively.
During the battle of Guandu, one of Yuan Shao's generals remarked that though Cao Cao has less soldiers, everyone of them are drilled in at least eight or more formation, making them adaptable in battle, and eight years later at Changban it's Liu Bei who remarks that Cao Cao's army was able to adopt the Eight Formation Diagram, whereas it took years for Yuan Fang's troops to do so.
While Lu Bu was fighting off Yuan Shu, a historian from Cao Cao arrived to observe the battle. He was writing up to the part of how Dong Zhuo was killednote with the historian outright telling himself how Dong Zhuo will be demonized to make Cao Cao look better and he said that whether to credit Lu Bu for it would depend on his performance in the battle with Yuan Shao.
Then slightly subverted when the historian sees Lü Bu fighting and concedes that he could never write about him as anything but a great warrior.
Liu Bei scoffed at the idea that the last emperors of any dynasty were corrupt or useless, saying that the winners chose to portray them that way to justify their claiming power for themselves.
Liaoyuan Huo and Lu Bu teamed up to kill Dong Zhuo, who was one step ahead and ambushed them with a sizable force plus two skilled assassins from Xiliang. By the time reinforcements arrive, all the ambushers are dead.
Liaoyun Huo and Sun Ce faced off an entire army back to back. Or rather, Liaoyuan Huo and 'Sun Ce', a.k.a. Ling Cao.
Badass Boast: Zhang Liao - "No one has ever passed the range of my swords".
Avert with several minor characters (Ji Ling) who got chopped off immediately after. If you are minor character and said (or being praised) like "I'm better than Lu Bu." or "He's a heavenly warrior.", prepare to be dissected in three pages.
Big Screwed-Up Family: Most notably, the Liu clan with a powerless teenage Emperor and way too many royal relatives with too much powers on their hands who only look out for their own selfish interests. The Yuan clan is also a prime example, due to the constant in-fightings between the three Yuan brothers and the fourth illegitimate brother, Yuan Fang.
Book Ends: The series begins with the death of Sima Yi, then at the heights of power as the de facto leader of Cao Wei and lording over Cao Cao's grandson. If you look closely, the narrations in those black pages inserted at the end of every chapter, which foretells many major events and gives comments on the going-ons in the chapters in a memoir style, are implied to be written from the POV of either Sima Yi or Liaoyuan Huo, who kills and dies together with him on that day.
The Chessmaster: The whole series is full of them. Apart from the main characters, it is a recognised profession, and there are at least two organizations of strategists selling their services to the various warlords.
There is the Water Mirror's Eight Geniuses, consisting of various famous advisers in the era. Xun Yu, Guo Jia, Jia Xu, Zhou Yu, Pang Tong and Zhuge Liang, namely. Each of them is enough to change a no-good warlord into a soaring dragon.
Adding to the mix are a strange breed of warriors who have the reputation of "Having courage but lacking in wits". However they turn out to be not just one-man-armies, but capable schemers in their own right (See Author Tract avobe). Zhang Fei, Wen Chou, Yan Liang and... Lu Bu, of all people, fall into this category.
There are also your usual mix of advisers who are capable, but will never out-shine the Eight Geniuses. Examples: Chen Gong, Lu Xun, Cheng Yu.
Every major character's death brings reminiscence about the point of their beginnings and sometimes mirrors them. And there are enough major characters to keep this list overpopulated.
Sun Ce's body double Ling Cao's death and the narration line hanging in that scene: nineteen volumes later, Sun Ce also meets his end with an arrow to the head in chapter 309, and that very same line was the last sane thought passing through his mind. Likewise, in chapter 171 when the song Ling Tong confronts him about desecrating Ling Cao's tomb and declares, "If there is justice, you will die a gruesome death," Sun Ce concedes that "If there is justice, I swear, when Heaven reprimands, pray that I will suffer a hundred days of pain before I die!" Sixteen volumes after that, chapter 310 is titled "A Hundred Days of Pain", and Sun Ce expires in chapter 316. Oh the irony.
At the execution ground of the White Gate Tower, just like what he once said to Cao Cao about giving up his dignity for the sake of staying alive, Lu Bu begs Cao Cao for his life and humiliates himself to humor the bystanders. In response, Cao Cao applauds him for making a sensible decision at the cost of worthless pride... but executes him anyway, since he's not about to risk a Lu Bu comeback.
Xiao Meng's death is a panel-for-panel call back to his parting with Liaoyuan Huo.
A decade later at Changban, when Liaoyuan Huo — or rather, Zhao Yun — is pressed on all sides by Cao soldiers with spears about to impale him, he has a vision of Xiao Mengnote who'd died impaled by a multitude of spears from Cao soldiers while reaching out towards the sky within the maze of spears reaching out to him.
You have to squint your eyes really hard for this: in their first meeting (occured in volume 12), Liaoyuan Huo was unable to stop Dian Wei from murdering Tao Qian, governor of Xuzhou and thus "swore to himself". At that point, it's unknown what exactly he promised to himself and the line is quickly forgettable. As hinted by the preview page for volume 23 and then shown by volume 23 itself, the promise was to kill Dian Wei, and Huo makes good on it.
Volume 15, titled "Golden sun shines on the Hegemon", marks Cao Cao's first step in his grand plan of a big showdown with the Yuan. Chapter 349, so similarly titled, marks Cao Cao's victory against Yuan Fang and thus an end to his year-long scheme.
Sima Yi's meeting with Guo Jia in volume 27 is a blatant call back to their first encounter in volume 13 - it rained both times, and in volume 27 Sima Yi wore a straw rain coat very similar to the one he put on to disguise as the rain god back in volume 13. Guo Jia's pissed off reaction indicated that he didn't miss the jab at all.
Sima Yi and Liaoyuan Huo's final talk, in which Huo's manners, words and overall appearance (draped in full-body cloak, a torn piece hanging over his left eye) bear an uncanny resemblance to the monster who appeared in Sima Yi's nightmare at the beginning of volume 1. The call back to that scene is extremely unnerving, because at that point, both Sima Yi and Liaoyuan Huo respectively already knew the identities of the monster who kills him and the old man whom he kills in the dream and Sima Yi is basically looking at his Grim Reaper in the face.
Sima Yi and Shan Wuling's intimate moment and running gag: "- clan is already near my lips" in volume 20 call back to a similar scene in volume 17.
In Chapter 387, the story of Liaoyuan Huo's upbringing is a plot point: As an urchin boy he was brought in to the Sima clan by Liu Da, who "used a bun to buy a boy", but when Liu Da calls him out for his Face-Heel Turn at Changban, Liaoyuan tells him that "they say, it is better to value benevolence than to passively follow your teacher". When Liu Da, now holding Lady Mi and Adou (the future Liu Shan) hostage, balks at Huo's offer of "I'll let you live if you let them go," Huo's response is to stab him through Lady Mi... just like Liu Da once did to him when he was a boy to kill an enemy behind Huo. Liu Da gets it, accepts it as Liaoyuan Huo having surpassed him and praises what Huo — now having fully internalized the Zhao Yun persona — and even tells his men, "You all must learn from him!"
"Only two.. of the Eight Geniuses use [the Eight Position Diagram] formation".
In volume 24, chapter 192, Yuan Fang has a discussion with Chen, an apprentice historian, in which he ponders the longevity of life and how its unpredictibility can thwart the most meticulous plan. Chen agrees that by Yuan Fang's advice, he will name his son "Shou" (longevity). Chen Shou is the very historian who penned Records of the Three Kingdom, one of the very few historical text recording this era left til today.
Volume 37, chapter 307 alone has two such calls:
Lu Meng, to Sun Ce on Guan Yu blocking Sun Ce from pursuing Cao Cao: I swear to the Heavens that one day I shall bring down Guan Yu.
Zhang Liao, having switching out his headband for Lu Bu's after Taishi Ci and Zhou Tai withdraw: Hear me now - if you return to Hefei, you will face a different Zhang Liao!
Said chapter 359 doesn't only call forward to the famous Zhang Fei vs. Ma Chao battle, but also to the equally reputed Guan Yu vs. Pang De battle.
Chekhov's Gun: Ravages of Time sleeps with this trope and makes it its bitch. And if you think for once that you've counted all of them, think again: another might be waiting for you somewhere for another re-reading. Remember: "Eons of Cultivation For Use in a Single Moment" is pretty much the motto of any genius-level strategist when it comes to armies, resources, and even relationships.
Chekhov's Army: Guo Jia is crazily prepared (see below) but Xun Yu takes the prize for being able to think long term by fielding two Chekhov's Armies on different occasions. Count: The ex-Yellow Turban troops he recruited for Cao Cao, the outlaws he place in Xuzhou to be used as pawns in the battle of wit between Zhang Fei and Lu Bu.
Chekhov's Boomerang: None takes the cake other than that scene in volume 1, where Sima Yi suggested that his family should invest in rebuilding Luoyang, which was bound to be burnt down by Dong Zhuo, whom Sima Yi correctly surmised to be preparing to leave Luoyang because he didn't have the funds to camp there. It becomes a key point in his next plan of rescuing his brother, then turns up again as a key point that leads to another chessmaster's plan for hostage rescue in volume 3. Fourty-four volumes later, we finally see for ourself what has become of that reconstruction project.
Chekhov's Classroom: Pang Tong's hilarious as hell teaching session in volume 20. Turns out his students can get what he was talking about, after all.
Chekhov's Gag: Cao Cao's generals don't find his idea of training troops funny.
Chekhov's Gunman: Xu Lin, Shan Wu Ling, Sun Ce, Sun Quan, Huo Xiong's three subordinates, the legendary one-eyed leader of Crippled Legion...
Chekhov's News: In volume 16: "Looks like our lord [Yuan Shu] has found another investor..." He learns in volume 34 that it's not a good idea to let the Sima clan, a vassal of Cao Cao, build his capital.
Chekhov's Skill: Yu Jin's famous in the Cao army for being the general who is always tardy because of his cautiousness, and the one whose troops always place first in Cao Cao's training sessions. His cautiousness helps.
Forbidden Chekhov's Gun: A warlord's rebellious act of capturing the Emperor and installing himself as the regent chancellor.
Shan Wu Ling's passing line in volume 17: "After lord Sun Jian’s unfortunate death, his descendants came to the Shan clan to avoid their enemies", which is revealed in volume 33 that she wasn't just talking about Sun Ce here. Sima Yi's dream in volume 1, which turns up in volume 13, can also be counted as one.
None of the warlord alliances in this series lasts longer than a few volume, and being engaged in one never stops any of these guys from trying to one-up the other.
Lu Bu holds no candle to Yuan Fang, who manages to turn on nearly every alleged allies of his (to be fair, only a handful of his allies are not manipulated as Unwitting Pawn for his scheme in one way or another) and Sima Yi, who does this to Cao Cao on a daily basis.
Cool Mask: All of the Eight Geniuses must wear masks to prevent their identity from being revealed until they have 'graduated'. The rationale for this is because they are the best strategists of the time and every warlord wants them to lead their armies.
Crapsack World: The author goes out of his way to mention this. For example you would be lucky to live up to 30 during this time and betrayal runs rampant.
Shan Wuling/Zhang Chunhua: In this day and age, more than half of the population die on the battlefield. Only three men out of every ten may live past the age of forty.
Played Up to Eleven, if that's even possible, in the novels.
Crazy-Prepared: Guo Jia is supposed to have a back-up plan for every situation. Yes, even for the events after his death!
And Sima Yi, who is such a crazily prepared chessmaster that people can never, ever, know exactly how many back-up moves he has up his sleeves. No less than three Geniuses (Xun Yu, Guo Jia, Jia Xu) and one Cao Cao has lampshaded it at several points.
Believe it or not, Zhang Fei is an accomplished artist, skilled at painting landscapes and imitating anyone's handwriting, both of which come into play during the would-be relief of Tao Qian's force.
Cao Cao and his sons were renowned poets, and founded one of the major styles of poetry of the time.
Ji Ling just loves to quote the sages and from history books. Zhang Liao called him "a good student" on a battlefield once when Ji Ling was lecturing all of them.
Notable subversion in Lu Meng, who's fond of shitting on everything under the sun. Knowing the source material, however, it was only a matter of time before he turned into one, and at Sun Ce's deathbed he recites the Spring and Autumn Annals to demonstrate to the dying Sun Ce — and to Sun Quan at his side that Lu Meng's become more "civilized" and cultured.
Even (and especially) Lu Bu gets in on this trope, complete with name-dropping Mencius, citing the place of Mount Tai in Chinese lore, and taunting Cao Cao with the stories of Goujian and Han Xin. (This last one backfires on him years later, when he's the one begging for his life, with Cao Cao citing Goujian right back at Lu Bu to reveal that he knows what's really going onnote namely, Lu Bu attempting to buy time for a comeback by enduring temporary humiliation.)
During the Battle of Puyang, Lu Bu fight Dian Wei, Xu Zhu, Han Hao, Cao Hong and Yu Jin all the same time, and thrashed them.
Then there's Sun Ce, who kicks Zhang Liao's ass, then the legion of foot soldiers between him and Cao Cao, then Cao Cao's entire prized Tiger and Leopard Cavalry.
You don't want to face Zhou Yu in a naval battle, even if you are the 3rd Genius Jia Xu.
Derivative Works: The novel series penned by Wang Yi Xing, which so far has featured Liaoyuan Huo ("Crippled Legion"), Xiao Meng ("Xiao Meng"), Lu Bu ("Feng Xian"), Zhang Fei ("Yi De"), Sun Ce ("Bo Fu") and Yuan Fang ("Yuan Fang"), each with their respective side stories with the contents approved by the author. Whether the series is considered canon remains to be seen, what with its addition of details not included in the main story (which fuels much fan rage to the possibility of Recursive Adaptation), its changes of some plot points and its take on the character's inner turmoils bordering on Flanderization.
Discussed Trope: Chen Mou loves to do this. Sometimes, the tropes in discussion might even be shown to be invoked, averted or subverted at the same times.
Because Destiny Says So: As put by Xu Lin in the beginning chapters and echoed several times by other characters, once even by the author himself in an interview - "Those who are fated to die will die. Those who are fated to live will live."
Cruel to Be Kind: How Cao Cao, Guo Jia and Jia Xu see their brutal methods as - they're willing to tell anyone who would listen that they're for the sake of wiping out the villains who corrupt the country and bring peace to the people. And given the setting, these arguments actually make a lot of sense.
Genius Bruiser: Chen Gong, as do many other wise strategists, believe - and tell others to convince themselves to believe - that every warrior who is in a command position of an army is one. They are.
Correspondingly, one of the sayings in the story is that if the enemy general wins, call him brash and reckless; if he wins again, blame one's own military advisors; if he is ever victorious, call him valiant but lacking wits... better for morale for the troops to believe that they're against Dumb Muscle than a Genius Bruiser.
Honor Before Reason and Face Death with Dignity: Discussed and defied by several characters, most notably Lu Bu, who value their lives more than superficial pride since they believe there's always a chance for comebacks as long as they're alive.
Undying Loyalty: Discussed as a powerful and much despised means of literati and conquerors to subjugate their servants.
Faking the Dead: Often employed to lull an enemy into a false sense of security.
Lu Bu faked death numerous times by sacrificing substitutes. He even once asked his subordinates, "So, how many times I have 'died'?"
Cao Cao, in the battle of Puyang, faked his death to draw Lu Bu out. And was assassinated again, but was saved by Dian Wei, but told Dian Wei to spread news that he died.
Sun Ce faked death numerous times. Ling Cao willingly pretended to be Sun Ce and serve Yuan Shu, and 'died' so Sun Ce could escape.
Foregone Conclusion: As the beginning chapter shows, Sima Yi will be the winner and reign over Cao Cao's descendants. And he will be killed by a monster on fire, who is later revealed to be Liaoyuan Huo.
Foreshadowing: Ravages of Time is practically married to this trope and has dropped hints, both obvious and subtle, for the ending of many characters since chapter one, but it will take a long time for a lot of them to make sense to readers since they predict events very far into the future, while the manhua's plot barely covers a third of the novel at the moment. A few spectacular examples would be:
Sima Yi's dream in the 1st chapter, which foreshadows his death in a fashion markedly different from historical records and the novel. Later revealed to be a foreshadowing of Liaoyuan Huo aka Zhao Yun's ending in Chen Mou's original plot, as well.
In volume 21, when Ling Tong calls Sun Ce out for desecrating his father Ling Cao's tomb to provoke his army, Sun Ce admits he knows what he does is wrong, and that if there's divine justice, he "will die in extreme agony". And he does, for roughly a hundred days, suffer delirium and excruciating pains from a poisonous arrow before dying.
In volume 27, upon discovering Pang Tong is traveling across a river, Liaoyuan Huo prepares to shoot him with an arrow to avenge the Sima clan, but eventually doesn't because he wants to leave the favor to Sima Yi. Chen Mou's brilliance will hit you in the face if you remember that in the novel, Pang Tong will be killed by arrows when he's caught amidst a battle, and Chen Mou just spoils for you just who is exactly the culprit behind his death in this version of Romance of Three Kingdoms.
In volume 41, upon learning that Liu Bei treasures his sworn brothers more than his own dead child, Guan Yu laments that "[Liu Bei's] sentiment over brotherhood will ruin their ideal". And that's how after Guan Yu's death, the remaining two figureheads of Shu will die, greatly undermining Shu's strength and leaving it to Liu Bei's inexperienced son to govern.
In volume 43, during his extermination of Yuan Fang's moles in the courts, Xun Yu once again swears his loyalty to Emperor, and that the Emperor will be safe on his throne "as long as he remains". According to the novel, because his loyalty ultimately lies with the Emperor rather than Cao Cao, Xun Yu will become a thorn in Cao Cao's side, despite being one of his best and most trusted advisors, and lose his life for it.
Sun Quan's genius in raising the value of capital is a nod to his talent in administration of the Wu kingdom in the future.
Gambit Pileup: Happens in almost every major arc. Usually, the case is: a warlord sets up plan to fulfill his agenda, which happens to clash with another warlord's plan pursuing a different goal because hey, the world is a small place for a series full of chessmasters. And let's not count the third parties, who want to see them up against each other to gain some benefits from it, and utilize other plan(s) of their own.
The hostage rescue arc in volume 1-5, in which Yuan Fang and Dong Zhuo exchange blows, the former with the purpose of taking over Luoyang and rescuing the Guandong hostages and the latter with the purpose of using the hostages and Luoyang as bait to kill Yuan Shao. Meanwhile, the Crippled Legion members infiltrate both side to carry out a rescue mission of their own. In the end, neither Yuan Fang nor Dong Zhuo achieve their desired goals, and the ultimate winner is the Crippled Legion, who not only successfully rescues Sima Lang but also saves Yuan Fang's and Yuan Shao's lives after they fail to save the hostages and fall into Dong Zhuo's hands.
Cao Cao's first Xuzhou campaign. At first it looks like one of his attempt to gain control of a big territory, which is then thwarted by repeated counter plans from Liaoyuan Huo, Sima Yi and Zhuge Liang. But then it turns out that Lu Bu has been eyeing Xuzhou and Cao Cao's homebase as well and chooses this moment to step into the scene, and Guo Jia reveals that baiting Lu Bu is what he's been aiming at ever since the beginning of this campaign. This arc culminates in an all-out battle between Cao Cao and Lu Bu, and Cao Cao wins with the involvement of the Crippled Legion and Sima Yi.
The Rise of Sun Ce arc. The main players are Yuan Shu, who wants to obtain the Imperial seal the Sun clan has been hiding, and Sun Ce, who wants to gain military supports from Yuan Shu to return to the Eastern region. Behind the scene is Cao Cao, who has instructed the Shan clan and Sima clan to help Sun Ce, so that Yuan Shu's force will be diminished and thus eliminates another threat on his side.
A minor one is Lu Bu's takeover of Xuzhou. Zhang Fei and Lu Bu duke it out in a ferocious battle of wits, and Zhang Fei loses. But it's only because he wants to leave Xuzhou from the beginning, and essentially loses to Lu Bu on purpose. Then it's revealed that Cao Cao has been funding them both in the hope that they will kill each other and save him a big load of trouble, and that's why they didn't use military force, because neither side want to play into Cao Cao's hands. Yuan Shu is no mere spectator to this play either, he helps Lu Bu deal with Liu Bei's main force, since he doesn't want Liu Bei, a royal relative, to interfere with his ascension plan.
The Sun Ce vs. Taiping cult arc. At first it's only between Sun Ce and Yu Ji, then Pang Tong gets involved to help Sun Ce by orders of his teacher who hates Yu Ji's guts, then Cao Cao gets involved to help Yu Ji because he thinks Sun Ce's getting out of control. Zhou Yu even solicits the aids of Yuan Fang to prepare for a surprise attack on Cao Cao's force. The outcome of this battle is a bitter victory for both sides: Sun Ce defeats Yu Ji and his Taiping army but gets assassinated by Zuo Ci, another leader of Taiping cult and subordinate of Yuan Fang, while the Taiping cult manages to kill Sun Ce but loses Yu Ji, meaning their whole plan to take over the Eastern region is doomed.
Genre Shift: The series originally started with more combat, feats of exaggerated prowess (such as Zhang Fei hurling a man over a city wall), and wuxia elements, such as SignatureMoves and Calling Your Attacks. However, over time the author found fans more receptive to the mind games, and the action of the series toned down after the fourth volume.
With nearly every significant character getting upgraded to strategists on top of the actual strategists in the source material, this is unavoidable.
Gray and Grey Morality: There are no real "good guys". Even the best characters have plenty of I Did What I Had to Do moments. Every single warlord of the era has their own rationalisation for plunging into war against the others.
Yuan Shu believes by declaring his own kingdom he can protect the commoners within his domain from more warfare.
Yuan Shao wants to root out the other 'corrupted' dukes so that the Han Dynasty will be strong.
Cao Cao claims by seizing power for himself, he's helping the Emperor to rule the kingdom.
Liu Bei wants to set to an example to discourage others from overthrowing rulers through warfare and armed rebellion.
Well, Dong Zhuo and Lu Bu pretty much wanted to take over China because they liked power, so make it Grey and Black Morality.
Handicapped Badass: There is the Crippled Legion, a group of assassins who are all handicapped in one way or another. People tend to over-look them when assessing threats. Averted with Liaoyuan Huo who, even though he's their leader, is not handicapped. PSYCHE! It's a Double Subversion, Liaoyuan Huo DOES have a handicap: Chronic Anesthesia, he's completely insensible to pain. Which is kind of a useful "handicap" for one who earns his living through violence.
I Know You Know I Know: The series is full of those. One strategist would lay out a plan, and in the end would say, "Of course, if the enemy strategist is any good, he would know that I will be planning this, so...".
Chapter 177 plays this up to at leastfifteenlayers deep. Zhang Fei and Chen Gong were scheming against each other; the former was trying to lure Lu Bu to Xiapi to kill him while the latter wish to drive out Zhang Fei to take Xiapi. Both of them outlines their plans, and the narrative switch back and forth between them anticipating each other.
According to Pang Tong, the ultimate strategy is to "Let your opponent know your next step. Even more brilliant is to let your opponent know your next two steps." (And then, the next three...)
Kansas City Shuffle: Guo Jia played this one straight beautifully in the battle to take Xiapi. He had dug a series of pit traps to ambush Lu Bu's powerful cavalry. To avoid the traps, the cavalry pulled back from the area. When the rainy season comes, Guo Jia connected those pits traps to form a drain which divert the rain water to submerge Xiapi. He managed to do it because Lu Bu's troops pulled out of the area!
Killed Off for Real: This manhua does not shrink from killing off characters, although that goes hand in hand with one of the series' mottos ("Those who are fated to die will die, those who are fated to live will live").
Long Runner: As of early 2013 it's up to 48 volumes and chapter 389 yet we're only up to the Battle of Changban! Heck, it took until chapter 380note where Zhuge Liang's face was finally revealed after forty-four volumes at the Longzhong visit, released in late 2012!
Mr. Fanservice: Any male character who isn't drawn as a Gonk and is important enough to the plot to star in a volume or two.
No One Could Survive That: Liaoyuan Huo and Dian Wei has been stabbed through, cut, smashed and generally endured enough abuse to kill any other man ten times over. Helps that the former does not feel pain. The latter's just a berserker.
Crosses over into Artistic License - Biology at times though. Not feeling pain doesn't change the fact that a certain fatal blow is fatal.
Listed with the character above are also Lu Bu, :Yan Liang and :Wen Chou; at least one character voices a belief that they deliberately cultivate such a reputation to surprise the enemy, in keeping with third part of On Morale (specifically "if the enemy general is ever-victorious, call him brave but lacking wits").
Lu Bu single-handedly tried to break through the siege of Xiapi with his daughter strapped to his back. Mooks swarmed him, and he was outnumbered at least 100 to 1. He still managed to take out all of Cao Cao's generals who took him onnote Yu Jin was with Cao Cao contending against Gao Shun, then single-handedly broke through Cao Cao's army to Cao Cao — rescuing Gao Shun in the process — and Lu Bu was only beaten by Zhang Fei when he was exhausted and already wounded.
Liaoyuan Huo and Zhang Liao tore through Yuan Tan's elite forces like hot knife through butter.
Sun Ce was trapped behind enemy lines, got all his troops killed and still survived.
Basically any fighter worth anything could take on at least 20 or more regular soldiers. Top fighters could charge into armies and slaughter them with ease.
Only Six Faces: The female characters in this series have very similar designs with only different hairstyles, a fact many fans are not happy about.
Plot and scene time wise, Cao Cao, Li Ru, and Yuan Shao suffer a lot from this. Li Ru himself even said it outright in the end of vol 10.
Pen Name: Chen Mou (陳某) is a pseudonym meaning Mr. Chen. Given how common the surname Chen is in China, it is roughly the equivalent of calling himself Mr. Smith.
Plot Triggering Death: Of wiseman Xu Lin, a fictional advisor on Dong Zhuo's side, orchestrated by Sima Yi and executed by Liaoyuan Huo. It serves as the catapult that flung the Sima clan into the conflicts among warlords... and the cause of Xu Chu and Xu Ding swearing vengeance against the Sima clan.
The Power of Friendship - The Peach Garden Trio (Liu Bei, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei) are the most famous, but quite a few groups of people are also bound to their friendship to each other. (However, the former classmates that are the Eight Geniuses consider each other rivals and pretty much go their own way to serve different lords.)
Guan Yu surrendered to Cao Cao in exchange for safety for his elder brother's family : Guo Jia went on to poison Liu Bei's young son but made it look like he died from illness. Guan Yu was too ashamed to return to his brother. Liu Bei's reply: "If my son is dead, I can beget another. If my brother leaves, how can I replace a missing arm?"
Progressively Prettier: Given the art revolution this series undergoes in 40+ volumes, this is to be expected of anybody, but Guo Jia's case seems to be most apparent to the readers. Just read these comments.
Rain of Arrows. Expect to see some of these whenever 2 large forces fight.
Red Shirt Army. Huge armies clash, but most of the common soldiers seem to exist only to die under the blades of the heroic characters.
Spotlight-Stealing Squad: Despite trying to humanize several characters, Chen Mou has a bad habit of highlight some of his favorite and dumb down others. Although it should be note that he usually comes up with good backstories to keep them from being full-blown Mary Sues. For Example:
Lu Bu: Despite being one of the most well-written characters in this series, it cannot be denied that he got a lot of Character Focus after he appears that you could rename the first thirty-two volumes as 'Lu Bu: God of War'. His moral issues and inability to predict a long-term strategy is still there but dumbed down somewhat since no one seems to call him on it (at least until he's about to abandon his men). Chen Mou even saved his dignity somewhat on execution scene (strangling, which is an execution save for woman) by doing that to every single one of his soldiers, and in Cao Cao non-sarcastically praising Lu Bu's last-ditch tactic before having him executed. Still, Chen Mou developed his character well enough that he become one of the most favorite characters.
Thanatos Gambit: Several times. Notably, two of Dong Zhuo's underlings sacrifice themselves within a short period of time to set traps for Lu Bu in revenge for their lord's death. Lu Bu falls for it both timesnote probably because while he can and does recognize such when it's explicitly going on in front of his eyes, Lu Bu's selfishness makes him blind to considering that the out-of-sight deaths of Niu Fu and Dong Yue might have been intentional self-sacrifice but he only realizes what's happened upon the second time — by which "his" forces are already storming his headquarters.
Liu Bei. After Lu Bu took Xiapi from him, Liu Bei became more pragmatic and less idealistic. He sided with Cao Cao when the latter attacked Xuzhou in order to get close to the Emperor, and eventually persuaded Cao Cao to kill Lu Bu.
Liaoyuan Huo. To protect his clan, Sima Yi tragically betrays Xiao Meng, causing his death. He apologises to Liaoyuan Huo for having lost control of the situation, and swears he will never make such a mistake again. Huo replies, "And I, from now on, will be undefeatable", leading to his You Shall Not Pass moment, where he went in search of Xiao Meng's body, and slaughtered Yuan Tan's elite officers with a hoe... then gets on a horse, grabs a spear and literally routs Yuan Tan's army by himself.
Zhang Liao, after being defeated by Sun Ce.
Trademark Favorite Food: Ma Teng loves Xi Liang Noodles (with or without meat) to the point of using noodle terms as political metaphors; Liaoyuan Huo loves mantou (steamed buns) to the point of owning his own store.
Undying Loyalty: If the lord is even remotely decent or charismatic, expect his followers to show a lot of this. Lu Bu, however, is contemptuous of this trope (though, ironically, he has his own undying loyal retainer in Zhang Liao), and his defiance of this trope highlights another aspect of his "unhuman" characteristics as regarded by the common men.
Zhang Liao: "No one yet has passed the reach of my sword." He repeated this feat at least four times.
Guan Yu: "Those who dare to step through this circle of blood, will suffer the same fate."
Liaoyuan Huo: "I'm in a bad mood today. Scram!"
Viewers Are Geniuses: This manhua is fairly no-holds-barred in assuming familiarity with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Confucian philosophy, the writings of Mencius, and so on. Understanding the plot requires considerable concentration and re-reading too.
The Worf Effect. The best way establish you are somebody within the Three Kingdoms era? Beat up one of these guys.
Xiahou Dun and Xiahou Yuan (and their squad) have been thrashed rather consistently to establish how Bad Ass Cao Cao's various enemies are, though Dun at least would recover somewhat as a "tunnel rat" during the Battle of Guandu.
Lampshaded when Zhang Fei and Guan Yu 'cheated' to help Liu Bei win in a duel against Lu Bu. Liu Bei's fame immediately skyrocketed — just as Zhang Fei and Guan Yu had intended..
If a named character who hadn't appeared is the Romance of the Three Kingdoms is presented as smart or powerful, you can be fairly certain, that he will be used by one of the original/historical characters as a stepping stone. Handicapped Warriors seem to be a major exception to that, until we learn that Liaoyuan Huo actually is Zhao Yun.
On the advisor front, you know that the shit has gotten real when your Water-Mirror Geniuses get outwitted routinely by a single guy... though at least that single guy is the first Water-Mirror Genius, Yuan Fang.
From volume 1 - Xiao Meng, the eunuch on being commissioned by Sima Yi for a rescue operation: "I am... Diaochan?"
From volume 4 - Liu Bei, interpreting Liaoyuan Huo's silent answer for an earlier question about his name: "Is he Zhao Huo? Zhao Tian? Or... Zhao Yun?"
In volume 13, when the subject of Sima Yi's dream (of him sitting on the throne and abusing a young Emperor) is brought up for the first time after its mention in volume 1, Yi's friend Liaoyuan Huo discloses another dream that has recently clouded his heart: "In that dream, I was in so much rage... that I just wanted to kill that man on the throne".
Sun Fu, a cousin of Sun Ce in the death of Sun Ce climax of volume 17 - "I, Sun Ce, now understand the meaning of propagation."
From volume 24, the annihilation of Sima clan started with the new Crippled Legion leader announcing his identity to be Xu Ding, older brother of Xu Chu and son of Xu Lin, a wiseman the Sima clan and Liaoyuan Huo had disposed of in volume 1.
The Sun family just loves to do this. In volume 33, you sense something is amiss when Shan Wu Ling's (unnamed) little brother, who has been Put on a Bus from volume 6, now returns and speaks of his departure. Then, at the end of this chapter, when he bids his sister and teacher farewell... "Oath-sister, master. Zhongmounote aka Sun Quan is leaving."
At the beginning of the Guandu arc, "Master.. the bond between the Eight Geniuses is no more."
From volume 43, one of the last things Yuan Fang heard was: "A word from Guo Jia. You have Xu You. I have Yang Qing". And the revelation of the deliverer Yang Qing's identity to be Yang Xiu.
Even the normal lines can become legitimate Wham Lines for whoever has read the novel and recognizes a Foreshadowing for future events the author has casually dropped there.
At the end of volume 46 : "Liang, is coming", from the 7th Genius Zhuge Liang to Liu Bei.