Thursday, February 15, 2018

Hearts of Wulin: Moves & Mechanics

We’ve had two sessions so far of Hearts of Wulin. When we’re done all four, I’ll put all these rules together in a manageable form. I’ll also be doing edits and changes. But today I wanted to show you what we’re playing from. This post just covers the non-playbook; next week I’ll post the playbooks. I’ve added comments in a couple of places to clarify choices. This is a PbtA hack, so it assumes knowledge of those mechanics.

My vision of wulin comes from a ton of stuff: RPGs to movies to TV shows. Of those, four stand out as my touchstones. For movies that’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Painted Skin. The latter has more supernatural than I’m working with, but has awesome personal entanglements. More important are two Chinese TV shows. The first is The Handsome Siblings (2005) aka The Proud Twins. Taken from a novel by the prolific Gu Long, that story’s been adapted multiple times for film and TV. The second and more important is Laughing in the Wind (2001), taken from the novel The Smiling, Proud Wanderer by Louis Cha. That’s had several adaptions, including Jet Li’s Swordsman II.

I also want to note that I wrote an earlier, terrible version of this. Renee Knipe generously looked at that and nicely didn’t point out how awful it was. She’s also working on a PbtA wuxia game and I suspect her version’s stronger than mine. As well I started listening to Jianghu Hustle just after I began this revision. That heavily influenced my thinking—especially the concept of Scale and having triangular entanglements. Go listen to that podcast. Lastly I probably wouldn’t have written this if the amazing Weapons of the Gods/Legends of Wulin didn’t have the most convoluted and opaque mechanics I’ve ever seen.

Characters have five stats, also called Chi. Each has a loose thematic; typical areas it covers. Think of Fate Accelerated’s approaches or The Veil’s emotions rather than concrete abilities. Players have a choice of three arrays for distributing stats:
Array 1: +2, +1, +1, 0, -1
Array 2: +2, +2, 0, 0, -1
Array 3: +1, +1, +1, 0, 0

Stability, Focus, Presence:::Obsessive, Condescending, Uncaring
Creativity, Speed, Passion:::Reckless, Alienating, Unfocused
Control, Solidity, Reflection:::Unsatisfied, Inflexible, Scared
Awareness, Wisdom, Flexibility:::Uncertain, Isolated, Depressed
Might, Endurance, Growth:::Overconfident, Angered, Licentious

When players mark a condition, they mark one of their Chi. Until they clear that condition, they may not roll with that stat. If a condition directly results from their roll, they always mark the Chi they rolled with. Players can describe the condition as they want, usually based on what’s happening in the story. Chi conditions can be a lack or excess of that element within them. The right-hand elements under each present options, but players choose their own name for what’s happened.

Players also have a sixth condition, Wounded. This doesn’t close out a stat but does take them out of a conflict. It also requires time and medical attention to heal.

Everyone chooses a style the Chi associated with it. You roll that stat for martial combat. Your style element should reflect your style’s appearance and flavor. You’ll also name your style. I have some example names below, but please feel free to make up your own.

Ways of the Waters, The Hidden Path, Unfallen Dragon, Seeking Pilgrim’s Style, Storming Master’s Form, Shadow Brother’s Style, Shooting-Stars Hands, Way of the Graceful Warrior, Black Crane, Secrets of the Stone, Heavenly Gifted Form, Eight Diagram Sabre, Path of the Blossoming Tear, Vengeful Beast Mastery, One Soul Legion, Sun and Moon Serpent Sword, Golden Hawk Form, Sunburst Method, Fist of Precise Thought, Forge-Hammer Heart, Quiet Sage’s Steps, Taunt of the Monkey, Thousand Spear Palm, Grasshopper’s Wisdom.

By default, you can use your style unarmed, but most styles have a weapon associated with them. This is for color and fiction. You can actually fight with anything. Typical categories are:
  • Flexible (Chains, ropes, whips, cloth)
  • Improvised
  • Massive (axe, hammer, greatsword)
  • Paired (knives, wind & fire wheels, sticks)
  • Sabre & Sword
  • Staff
  • Spear
  • Thrown
  • Unusual
A character’s style should be important color for them, but not something we spend mechanics on. If players focus on their style, they can create custom moves for it as an Advance. I lifted the weapon groups from Legends of Wulin, but I may rethink their presentation.

You can spend bonds as a resource in play to get a +1 on a roll (after you roll). By default you start with 1 Bond each with your Clan/Faction/Family, the player to your left, the player to your right. You can use a simple descriptor for those (friend, brother, rival, lover, suspicious). Note: to keep things simple, I had them just start with one for their clan and one for their most connected PC.

You’ll gain more bonds via moves. You may have a max +3 bond with someone or something. If it would go higher, you reset it to 0, mark XP, and reveal something about them (subject to PC approval). Burning a bond can represent you alienating that group, calling on their aid, or using up the boost their friendship gives you.

This is the bread & butter of the relationships in the game. Each entanglement represents a fraught relationship with a person, group, or institution. But each one is a triangle as well, with a third party who creates problems. Since these include PCs, hold off on detailing all of them until everyone’s introduced their characters.

You begin with three entanglements, one of those must be romantic. (In the spreadsheet) I have some example entanglements; feel free to make up your own. I’ve written them for persons but you can easily sub in groups or factions in some places.

I posted my list of entanglements here. Originally I’d steered away from too much guidance—I only required at least one romantic entanglement. When I’d had specific restrictions for relationships in my Changeling the Lost PbtA hack they’d been a stumbling block in character creation. But a couple of players suggested we needed more rules: one entanglement with two NPCs to give you something exclusively your own, at least one with a PC involved, and at least one romantic.

I also didn’t realize how quickly players would engage with their entanglements and change them. I need to think about guidance for making those changes: what can they shift, when can they do that, and how does that affect things?

When you fight against a worthy foe, roll +Style Element.

If your foe is lesser scale than you, on a hit you win the conflict. On a 10+ you may mark XP if you permit them to escape or show them mercy. On a 7-9 you may let them go or finish them with a cost (now or in the future). On a failure, you win but they inflict a condition and escape. Depending on the fiction they may return at a higher scale.

If your foe is your scale, on a 10+ you win the conflict and may mark XP if you show mercy. Additionally if appropriate you may declare a change in the fiction (a change of heart, impressing someone, shifting an entanglement). On a 7-9 choose one:
  • You win at a cost (condition, injury, escape, reputation, roll Take a Powerful Blow).
  • You narrate how you lost (mark XP). You gain +1 Forward the next time you face them.
  • You deadlock with your opponent. You may reveal or learn something about them.
If your foe is above your scale, you lose the conflict. On a hit, you may declare how you lose. On a 7-9 roll Take a Powerful Blow.

Once you have faced or studied a foe above your scale, you may do something to even the score: study a secret technique, acquire a weapon, conduct a stratagem, weaken them, cheat, fight alongside someone that you have an adversarial entanglement with, team up with a group who shares mutual bonds, or the like. Some potent named foes may require several steps to equal in scale.

When you challenge another PC make an offer of what you’ll give them if they accept your victory. You may offer your unspent XP, character actions, burning bonds, changing entanglements, or similar things the GM approves. You put a single offer on the table. If the other player accepts, they lose the duel and mark XP. You must follow through on your offer. If the other player rejects the offer, you both mark a condition.

When you fight a group of foes who collectively are below your scale, roll. On a hit, you defeat them. Describe how you do so. On a 10+ you do so easily. On a miss, choose: their numbers overwhelm and you must retreat (mark XP) or you win at a cost. If multiple characters fight mooks, then if one retreats the others must as well (and mark XP).

When you pressure someone susceptible to your words, say what you’re trying to get them to do and roll. For NPCs: on a 10+, they bow to your words and do what you want. On a 7-9, they can instead choose one.
  • They reveal themselves: you may ask two questions of them.
  • They overreact: you gain bond with them. 
  • They hesitate: you gain +1 ongoing on them. This lasts until there is a major change with them in the fiction.
  • They alienate: they create animosity between themselves and someone of your choosing.
For PCs: On a hit if they do it, they mark XP. If they don’t, they mark a condition. They may burn a bond to avoid this. On a 7-9 you mark a condition as well.

We had some questions with this move. You can see various versions in other PbtA games, but I think I had “Provoke Someone” from Masks as the model. One players questioned the “reveal themselves” aspect here. I think it works because it’s a choice the NPC makes to avoid doing something. In Session Two I mistakenly read an action as triggering rather than Study. It really should have been that since players wanted the NPC to tell them something.

When you act to impress others or succeed at a competition, roll. Describe your performance. On a hit you impress and convince. Pick two. • Create a bond • Gain a favor • Clear a condition. On a 7-9 the GM will offer you a hard bargain. If in direct competition, the bargain will usually relate to them. This move is useful for public gatherings or explicit or implicit competition, (artistic performance, kata demonstration, tournaments). For working with someone specific, see Hearts & Minds.

When you study something in order to change the game state, roll. On a hit you always gain basic information. On a 10+ gain two hold. On a 7-9 gain one. Spend this hold 1 for 1 on the options below,
  • Ask a question about a situation or place (escape routes, hidden details, biggest threat, dangers)
  • Ask a question about a person (motivation, desires, intentions, means of manipulation)
  • Learn a person’s scale
  • Reveal a detail—declare something which changes or adds to the established fiction significantly.
I talked about my feelings about PbtA informational moves in my Mystery Academy post. This is my solution—bundling together spout lore, read a sitch, pierce the mask, etc. One of the end of session comments suggested having set questions like other PbtA games. I don’t know if I want to run it that way, but I might create an optional version for GMs who dig that. At the very least I’ll include sample questions.

When you comfort or support someone, roll. If you’re outside a charged situation, on a hit they hear you: they clear a condition. On a 10+, you can clear a condition yourself, ask them a question they must answer, or gain a bond with them. If you’re in a charged situation, on a hit you may give them +1 on their roll (before or after rolling). On a 7-9 you share in any consequences from their action. Need to better point to the split within this move.

When you deal with forceful emotional turmoil and pressure from one of your entanglements, roll anything but your style element. On a 10+ you manage to keep yourself together. On a 7-9 you must either flee the scene or mark a condition until you make a change in the entanglement.

Given how much we interacted with entanglements, this became a go-to move. Monsterhearts influences this.

Someone’s assault gets past your defenses, roll + conditions marked. This can be physical, social, or emotional. On a 10+, choose one.
  • you must remove yourself from the situation: flee, pass out, etc.
  • you give your adversary everything they want
  • two options from the 7-9 list
On a 7-9, choose one.
  • you embarrass yourself and lose face. Burn two bonds.
  • you give ground; your opposition gains something they want
  • you struggle past the pain; mark two conditions
On a miss, you stand strong.

This move is really reserved for a climactic scene where characters face someone significant. It’s a response to a GMs Hard Move. I expect, given the outlets elsewhere, we’ll rarely come to this. Is it necessary? Not sure.

When you do something under pressure, roll. On a 10+, you do it. On a 7–9, you flinch, hesitate, or stall: the MC can offer you a worse outcome, a hard bargain, or an ugly choice. On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

So here’s our “Act Under Pressure” move. Do we need it? I think we do; it generates interesting results and responses. I want to use it sparingly though. We assume competency for our wulin heroes, so we can handwave a ton of stuff. But, for example, when one of the players had to flee a scene with a corpse in tow and the guards pounding on the door, we had them roll this. The 7-9 result got them away, but not before being spotted.

When the PCs go into conflict as a group, nominate one PC as the lead. Two rules apply here. One, you cannot be the lead character again until everyone has had equal turns at it. Two, if the conflict's directly related to your entanglements, you have priority. This does not trump the first rule. The lead character has first choice to take on any worthy foe(s) in the scene.

If there is more than one worthy foe, they may face both (putting themselves down a scale) or ask other PC(s) to handle the other foe(s). Non-lead character can perform other actions: set up opportunities, comfort & support, and most importantly deal with the Mooks.

This tries to formalize PC spotlighting in what might otherwise be a chaotic scene. Some of the other moves refer back to it.

When you go off to develop a new technique to face a foe of higher scale, describe your montage and roll +(the number of times you have faced that foe). On a hit, you gain scale on your foe. On a 7-9 there’s a significant cost to learning the move.

Once per session when you meet a new wuxia character, nominate a PC present. They get into a conflict with them—describe the nature of the misunderstanding. Roll +Style Element. On a 10+, the PC may choose to win or choose to leave it undecided. If the latter, they may mark experience and gain a bond with the encountered character. On a 7-9 the result is undecided before the fighting’s finished. On a miss, the result is undecided but the encountered character will bear a grudge.

This needs revision The idea’s good, but the phrasings unclear on two points. First “a new wuxia character” ought to be “a wuxia stranger.” I want to emphasize that they don’t know each other. Second, I use the term ”undecided” in slightly different ways in the paragraph. To make it clear, the 7-9 should say something like “it’s unclear who would have won the fight.” And perhaps the player should get a question? On a fail, it should be, “though no one wins the fight, the encountered character will bear a grudge.”

When you walk alone into a dangerous situation you’re aware of, but your character isn’t roll and mark XP. On a 10+ you’re altered by something before your adversaries can take advantage. On a 7-9, you’re taken somewhat unawares—the enemy can do something before you act (even the scale, seize something, change the locale, reveal a trap, close off escape, frame you for something).

This one needs work. I added it for Session Two. In the debrief we talked about its intent and how it gets played out. In the wulin genre we often have heroes walking into situations that we as the audience (and the players) know are dangerous, a trap, etc. I want to simulate and incentivize this. The move itself has two problems.

First, I wrote “alone,” because that’s how I pictured it: a PC heads off by themselves to put their life in danger. But that’s a needlessly restrictive detail. It could be the group as a whole. Second, there’s the difficulty of emulating heroic naiveté. It’s hard to divide a player’s smart sense of danger from what their character might expect. I think, if I want to do this, I need to phrase it as an offer from the GM. It’s a different kind of fictional trigger, more like a compel. I’m still thinking about this.

I wonder if I couldn’t merge Misunderstanding and Heedless somehow.

Bonds represent friendship and influence. If you have a bond, you can burn it to gain a +1 on a roll. This can represent you alienating that group, calling on their aid, or using up the boost their friendship gives you.

I mentioned how those worked above, but here’s some of the additional text:
You may clear chi conditions via the Support or Comfort move. Alternately, between scenes you may narrate how your character deals with the problems of the condition. This should cost something (time, resources, making an entanglement more messy). You can then clear the condition. The Wounded condition’s more involved and requires time and medicine to heal. At the end of a story arc, all characters may clear a condition.

You mark XP in several ways. When you take a loss in a conflict, when you agree to pressure from another PC, and when certain moves offer it. Each session you highlight one of your entanglements. If you interact with that entanglement in a significant way during the session, you may mark 3 XP. If you interact with your other two entanglements, you may mark 1 XP each.

When you gain 8XP, you may take an advance. This is a shortened version, so we’re not worrying about higher level advances. With an advance you may:
  • Add +1 to one of your Chi (Stats). You may take this option five times; once for each Chi.
  • Add a new move from your playbook. You may take this 3 times.
  • Add a new move from another playbook. You may take this twice.
  • Add a custom move for your martial style. You may take this twice.
I have some other ideas about advancement, but I kept it simple for this version. I probably need to specify a Start of Session move where players highlight one of their Entanglements.

Next Post: The Playbooks


  1. "One of them must be romantic" is very non-inclusive and not cool.

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