While Heart of Wulin’s still in development, we have a robust playable version. Jason announced on Twitter that we will Kickstart it later this year. HoW’s only exists because of The Gauntlet. The community has gone along with my weird experiments—some successful (Changeling the Lost PbtA) and some not so much (Masks: ANG: Zombies). You can see some the development process on the earlier Age of Ravens blog, but I want to give an overview here.
Hearts of Wulin is a PbtA game for telling melodramatic stories of the wuxia. If you’re thinking movies, then my template’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers. But HoW’s even more influenced by Chinese wuxia TV dramas like Laughing in the Wind, Flying Fox of Snowy Mountain, and The Handsome Siblings. Hearts of Wulin explores heartbreak, betrayal, and duty facing the PCs. Sometimes things will go unspoken, sometimes they’ll be able to solve problems with a duel…and sometimes that will make things worse.
Hearts of Wulin takes place in a “fantastic” version of historical China. The world of the martial clans, the wulin, operates outside the normal realm of society. They have their own power structures and rules. Our stories deal with relationships and struggles within the wulin world. You play out melodramas in Hearts of Wulin. Characters have heightened reactions and responses, and nothing is simple, there’s always something at stake. Most importantly, your characters often talk obliquely about things: emotions, desires, drives. Misunderstandings, hesitations, and overreactions fill these stories.
And I, for one, think that’s awesome fun at the table.
Hearts of Wulin simulates a genre, rather than a specific setting. The default world has factions and characters with amazing powers, but there’s no magic per se. However, HoW will include tools to handle supernatural elements, the high fantasy of xianxia, and even courtly adventures. Like many Powered by the Apocalypse games, it has playbooks (Aware, Bravo, Loyal, Outsider, Student, and Unorthodox). Each of these has three “roles” with a unique move.
Hearts of Wulin adds some tech to the PbtA mix. As we’ve played, three HoW elements have really shined. These elements have been critical in generating stories, driving action, and helping players embrace the genre.
Entanglements: Player characters have relationships with one person which are complicated by another. We call these entanglements. These triangles offer a push and a pull. A couple of recent examples:
- I love Sedate Rao, who I overlooked for too long; now they love Perfect Mist.
- I’ve learned my friend Nightsky Ming has been lied to by her mother Coral Lantern, but she will never believe me.
Entanglements will change in play. Feedback encouraged creating an explicit start of session moment where players discuss, negotiate, and revise these entanglements. For example, by the end of the campaign, the two entanglements I mentioned above had changed.
- I still love Sedate Rao, but they are engaged to the villainess Whiphand Sheng.
- I allowed my sister Nightsky Ming’s adopted mother Coral Lantern to escape justice. I can't bring myself to make Ming an orphan again, even if Coral Lantern means us harm.
Inner Conflict: I love this basic move: “When you come face to face with 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 flee the scene or mark a chi until you make a change in the entanglement.”
The wording needs tweaking—in play we’ve refined when it triggers and what fleeing means. But right now that’s the heart of the game. You face entanglements and have to steel yourself. Sometimes you manage to hold it together, but often you must make a tough choice. In play I usually ask if a moment rises to the level of Inner Conflict. I want the players to choose their level of emotional stakes. They don’t roll every time they see their unrequited love, but when something or someone painfully reminds them of that distance, they roll.
And I make sure to remind them. I’m super happy with the moments and stories which have rolled out of this move. There’s lots of feels at the table. On the other hand, sometimes players just want to fight, and that brings us to the third element.
Scale: My earliest attempts at a wuxia game were crunchy to say the least. I wrote a full Storyteller-based system complete with styles, weapons, maneuvers, and on-the-fly combinations. Even my earliest PbtA thinking had lots of details: harm tracks, style moves, etc. That’s not to say that’s a bad approach; Weapons of the Gods, Tianxia, and Qin all do interesting stuff with that level of detail, especially for conflict.
But those mechanics often don’t help with the romance side. I wanted to emulate those Chinese wuxia soap operas. I needed to spotlight combat, but make it quick and easy to figure out. Originally I had ideas about tiers and levels, with differences in levels impacting harm dealt. But the Jianghu Hustle podcast illuminated the idea of scale for me. In a fight, someone’s either worse, equal to, or better than you. That’s scale.
If they’re worse, you’re going to win most times. In a duel with them, even a 6- roll gives you the option to win at a cost. If they’re equal to you, then there’s a real question. A 7-9 result there offers choices, including taking a loss. But when you face someone of a higher scale, you lose. Your roll determines who gets to narrate that loss. Figuring out how to even that scale is one of the big challenges. In all of these cases, the fight’s determined with a single roll. It’s done and then we deal with the aftermath of the battle.
There’s lots more to Hearts of Wulin. I’ve borrowed from Fraser Simon’s The Veil in how I handle stats. Characters have five stats, called chi, based loosely on Chinese Wu Xing philosophy. When you make a move, you decide your mood or approach and pick the chi which feels right. There’s a little bit of calculation. If a roll results in a GM move, they can have you mark chi and you always mark the chi you rolled with. While HoW has some exceptions to this, it’s a fairly straightforward means of marking harm.
I’m happy with many other bits of the rules—the playbook moves have generated unexpected and wonderful moments. We have a simple set of guidelines for factions (with options for making that more robust). When PvP moments arise, if you started the exchange you make an offer to the other player about what you’ll give them if they let you win. I’ve seen wounds, XP, entanglement changes, revelations, and even narrative control offered. In future posts I’ll look further at some of these mechanics, with examples drawn from our play.
Now that we’ve got a strong basic skeleton, I’m working on fleshing Hearts of Wulin out. In particular I want a lot of idea and glossary material: discussion of concepts from the genre, understanding Chinese historical elements in this media, describing combat, terminology, etc. I’m working on several toolsets to allow you to change the frame up a little to cover related Chinese drama types. If you’re an rpger familiar with the source material—the many, many TV shows and/or the novels of Jin Yong, Gu Long, and Liang Yusheng—I’d love to talk with you about it. I’d also like to talk with someone knowledgeable about Korean period dramas to see if this could work with those.
- If you’re interested in watching some actual play videos, you can see my playlist of sessions here.
- You can see the first session of Gerywn’s series here.
- Here’s Mathias running it for katyfaise’s Twitch channel.
- If you prefer podcasts, Fraser Simons brilliantly edited several sessions in Hearts of Wulin: Deadly Meldoy for Pocket-Sized Play which you can find here.
- You can find the amazing Jianghu Hustle podcast here.
- Agatha, co-host of the Asians Represent! podcast, found this great video talking about what jianghu and wuxia means in the context of Chinese dramas.
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.