Ancient Detective got me thinking more about my idea of a Brindlewood Bay/Hearts of Wulin mash up. I posted about that earlier here. But since then I’ve refined my approach and run several sessions of it—as a one-shot drop-in for an ongoing campaign and as a standalone series I’ve called Hearts of Wulin: Numberless Secrets.
One of the challenges for Western players is it might not have the same resonance of tropes that Brindlewood Bay does. Murder She Write and similar cozies are a great and useful touchstone. This version relies on different, less universal sources. In novels Gu Long’s Lu Xiaofeng and Chu Liuxiang series both have a strong focus on mysteries. While translations are hard to come by many of them have been made into movies (see below).
In TV series, besides Ancient Detective, you can watch several other mystery wuxia series with English subtitles: Magical Nights of the Glorious Tang (aka Oriental Odyssey), The Four, Maiden Holmes, Miss Truth, Maiden Holmes, Amazing Detective Di Renjie, Young Sherlock, The Longest Day in Chang’an, and Vigilantes in Masks. Movie-wise I’d recommend the Detective Dee series (young and old), Pursuit of Vengeance, Duel of the Century, Clan of Amazons, The Sentimental Swordsman, The Four series (film), Swordsman & Enchantress, and the Lord of Justice series.
Note: this hack assumes knowledge of both Hearts of Wulin and Brindlewood Bay.
In this version of Hearts of Wulin we adapt elements of Brindlewood Bay. In particular clues, theorize, and the conspiracy. What defining elements get left out? the day/night moves, the Crown move, and the player-facing approach to the metastory.
First, let me define some things:
The Mystery (with a capital M) is the current investigation facing the players. Usually this is a murder (or string of murders). To progress on the Mystery, the players need to acquire clues. They can look to gather other information about the situation, persons, or places but this is background and doesn’t add to the final roll for Theorize. It may offer context and establish truths, but the Mystery Clues always trump this.
The Conspiracy (with a capital C) is the big plot going on in the background. I’ll offer some examples later. At the start, the players know there is a conspiracy, but not what it is. As they play, the characters will uncover Conspiracy Elements. These are like the Void Clue and Conspiracy ladder from BB. At the first stage, the players will be give passing details or signs that point to something else. Conspiracy Elements are arranged in Tiers. Until the players gain enough Conspiracy Elements, they may not move forward. They can’t investigate the Conspiracy directly until they have Elements (=# of PCs).
It is a given that the Mystery has a connection to the Conspiracy. Depending on how far the PCs are along the Conspiracy tiers, they may discover that connection or backfill what connection there was later.
The Unready (Loyal)
When you want to help someone, you may choose to skip using Bonds. Instead, roll to assist. On a hit, you boost their level of success by one (a miss becomes a 7-9, a 7-9 becomes a 10+). On a 7-9 if their final result has costs or consequences, you share in those. On a miss, your intervention drags both of you down and the final result becomes a full fail you both share in. (Note: you may not spend on bonds on this helping roll).
Note: I’m not entirely happy with this one-- it needs mention of a check in and it isn’t as interesting as I first thought. I want to reconsider this.
The Former Assassin (Outsider)
You begin with only one Entanglement. For your second, choose someone as your anchor for your past or future. When faced with what could have been or the delights of a normal life, roll Inner Conflict. (Note: making this roll counts as interacting with a second entanglement for purposes of end of session XP).
You committed terrible sins in the past. When you describe your secret role in an NPC's tragedy, briefly play out the flashback and take +1 Forward in dealing with them. When you reveal that secret to them, roll. On a hit, choose: halt their current action, clear an element (you or them), make them answer a question, drive them off. On a 7-9, manipulation or betrayal are revealed- mark an element (choice). On a 6-, they reveal how your actions destroyed a hope they had. They turn fully against you.
The Amnesiac (Student)
Your past is locked behind a gate your mind can no longer open. When you take this role, describe how much you've forgotten and what it cost you. Once per session, you may describe how your memories connect to something in the present, becoming crystal clear for a moment. When you do, roll.
On a hit the memory remains clear. You may declare the connection or ask the GM to establish it. You create an appropriate bond. On a 10+ if someone’s trying to conceal the connection, they give themselves away. Take +1 Forward against them. If not, clear an element instead. On a miss the memory shatters and the gate closes once more Choose: you hold on to the wrong part of the memory and make a terrible assumption, or whoever locked away your memories will take action against you and what you hold dear.
The Historian (Aware)
You’re part of the group dedicated to recording the stories of the Wulin world and updating the rankings of members in the world. When you meet a new, named member of Wulin society, roll. On a 10+ they desperately want a good story of them told or to have their rank adjusted. Take +1 Ongoing to Hearts and Minds against them as they work to impress you and curry your favor. On a 7-9 they reveal a secret about someone or something in the Wulin world. This may be a Conspiracy Element but not a Mystery Clue. You may declare this or ask the GM.
On a 6- the person has an abiding dislike for your society due to perceived bias, inaccurate reporting, or some kind of discourtesy. They will ignore or abuse you.
The Eccentric Expert (Bravo)
You’re bored with the little cases everyone brings to you. *Yawn* When you are brought or butt into a case which is not part of the Mystery or the Conspiracy, roll. On a hit, narrate what actually happened. (check in with any connected players). You impress and astound those around you convincing them of your expertise. Word of your skill spreads. Gain a bond with someone present. On a 7-9, name one person who resents or grumbles about your “methods.” On a 6- you’re wrong. Choose: you’re wrong and realize it, but you can’t admit it; someone of lower status points out a flaw in your work; or this is all a set up by an enemy to undercut you.
I had one other new role which I’m not using. I want to present it as a good example of someone spotting something outside my thinking. Here’s the role:
The Dying (Unorthodox)
You suffer from a deadly malady inflicted by someone (poison or a curse). At the start of each session roll, on a hit your condition has an unexpected side effect. Choose:
- Once during the session, you may use an unchosen move from another playbook. After you’ve chosen a particular move for this, you may not pick it again in the future.
- You may avoid marking an element.
- Your condition sparks sympathy and elicits aid from someone.
On a fail, your condition takes a turn for the worse. Mark your style element or Wounded. Choose a symptom which can only be cured by intervention of an expert: visible marks, weird eyes, disfigurement, freezing chills, heat sweats, or the like. This will be noticeable to others.
A reader pointed out to me how ableist this is and how it treats serious, real-life debilitations flippantly without consideration of how triggering that could be. While I first considered a rewrite, I think the premise is flawed and I want to figure out another direction.
In addition players GMs may choose to allow Courtly and Supernatural roles and moves. If they chose the latter the GM can easily add the Influence Mechanic. If they choose the former some will need to be excluded, but a surprising number can be refined as wuxia mundane instead of supernatural magic. For example one player took the mystical communication move of Phoenix Flying in the Sky and shifted it into a network of informants and (very in genre) carrier pigeons. Another took the In Human Disguise role move from the Unorthodox playbook and made it about a gender switching identity.
Basic Moves Changes
When you study something in order to learn about the world or establish new facts, roll.
ON A 12+ You may gain a Clue and choose two options from the list below. Alternately you may declare a new Clue or Conspiracy Thread.
ON A 10+ you may choose two options from the list below; gain a Clue, or gain a Conspiracy Thread with a cost.
ON A 7-9 you may choose one option from the list or gain a Clue with a cost (alienate someone, cause a misunderstanding, reveal a secret, etc.).
- Ask a question about a situation or place (escape routes, hidden details, threats, dangers, etc.).
- Ask a question about a person (motivation, desires, intentions, means of manipulation, etc.).
- Ask any other question.
- Learn a person’s Scale (below, on your level, above).
- Reveal a detail—declare something
When the Heroes have an open, freewheeling discussion about the solution to a mystery based on the clues they have uncovered—and reach a consensus—roll plus the number of Clues incorporated into the theory or otherwise explained away, minus the mystery’s complexity.
On a 10-11, it’s the correct solution. The Keeper will present an opportunity to take down the culprit or otherwise save the day.
On a 7–9, it’s the correct solution, but the Keeper will either add an unwelcome complication to the solution itself, or present a complicated opportunity to take down the culprit or save the day.
On a 6-, the solution is incorrect, and the Keeper reacts.
On a 12+, it’s the correct solution and you may declare a Conspiracy thread.
These are elements which push towards the group uncovering the bigger mystery happening behind the scenes. Until the group has gained a Conspiracy Tier by uncovering (# of players) Conspiracy Threads they may not begin to go after the conspiracy directly or establish its agenda or membership. Going up in further tiers will open up new options.
When you do not succeed on a Study roll as well as you would like, you may mark a Shadow. This raises the level of your roll by one tier (i.e. a miss becomes a 7-9, a 10-11 becomes a 12+). Each Shadow has a theme and the player must narrate a flashback involving that theme. You may only unmark Shadows with an advance, trading in one advance to reset two Shadows.
These Mysteries follow the pattern of Brindlewood Bay: a set up with a basic premise, a cast of characters, a Clue list, and a Conspiracy Thread list. Here’s the example from the current series.
- Bao Shi--an Eccentric Expert and consulting detective of the well-informed Mengzi Society.
- Iron Lotus/Golden Peony--Bao’s “assistant” and a formidable mind disguised as their late brother.
- Blue Mountain Scholar/Lost Song Zhenai--another PC in complex disguise, this time a young woman taking the place of her legendary investigator great uncle who is currently occupied elsewhere.
- Song Da--a young man who became a historian in The Bureau of Legends, despite the disappointment of his wulin clan.
- Sun Guanyu—master of the Sun School. The host and murder victim.
- Sun Zheng--daughter of Guanyu and apparent favorite.
- Sun Yang—envious son of Guanyu. As the PCs would discover also the secret child of Mao Qing.
- Mao Qing—older warrior, past her prime
- Yellow Shadow Hunter—Guanyu’s first disciple and day to day leader of the Sun School.
- Undaunted Zedong—drunken master with inside information
- Starry Garden—a wuxia hero with a history with Guanyu and some of the other invitees. Thought Mao Qing invited him.
- King of Pearls—an arrogant and nervous wuxia. (Conspiracy thread uncovered: desperately in debt to secret force).
- The White Monk—Not a Monk. Chief Sun has something on him.
- Cheng Ruogang—Possesses a secret technique. Carries a legendary trick sword once borne by Songbird Rao.
- First Orchid—A spy and thief. Calls herself a “Diplomat” scholar
The PCs are individually invited to a gathering at the estate of Sun Guanyu, chief of the Sun School. He indicates he has a matter of importance to tell them. They arrive after meeting some people on the road including a merchant secretly delivering coffins to Guanyu’s house. The group arrives and senses tension. Some of the guests have a history with Guanyu and don’t care for him.
During a dinner it is mentioned that this is the anniversary of the death of the leader of the Green Leaf Society. Guanyu benefited from that death but he believes that those who killed the Leader are now after him-- citing recent mysterious events. The PCs learn that a child of the leader survived and would now be the age of the PCs and some of the guests. Guanyu suspects one of them could be that child. The reason for the other invitees being there isn’t made clear, though they all worked for Guanyu or knew him from the past.
Some time after dinner, when everyone but the PCs have retired, screams are heard from the garden. When everyone rushes there, they find the decapitated body of Guanyu though the head is nowhere to be found.
(I’m not providing the full clue list as I may use some for later mysteries)
- Weighted I Ching coins found near the body
- A tiny pot with an acrid smell. It turns out to be tattoo remover and smell matches the body.
- A legendary sword is found rusting in a pond. It turns out to be the sword of one of the said to be deceased disciples of the Green leaf Society.
- A jugs of a fine vintage in the household is discovered to have been opened and resealed with only passable wine within.
- Four coffins are sound concealed near a shrine. Inside they find the bodies of the ox car driver and Yellow Shadow Hunter, the latter strangled
- Sun Zheng, daughter of Sun Guanyu, possesses a corrupt form.
- Hand drawn sketches are found showing all all but Zheng, White Monk & First Orchid
- The leader of the Green Leaf Society’s disciple - Winter Willow - was quite close to Sun Guanyu but their body was never found
- They find a used sleeping draught in Guanyu’s room.
- Translucent snake skin used for a disguise is discovered.
Our mystery starts years ago with the death of the leader of the Green Leaf society and the death and vanishing of his disciples.
In truth Sun Guanyu was behind this plot, aided by one of those disciples. That traitor broke his sword to prevent identification and assumed the identity of Yellow Shadow Hunter.
Years passed and rumors swirled that the leader of the Green Leaf Society had a child who would have come of age and be seeking revenge. Guanyu worried about this, especially as Yellow Shadow Hunter had begun to change, making Guanyu leery of his second in command. Guanyu suspected that Yellow Shadow Hunter had secretly been teaching his daughter a forbidden form.
Guanyu concocted a plan-- and began to organize what would appear as attacks against him. He used this opportunity to remove students who might be more loyal to Yellow Shadow Hunter than him. He then invited a number of people: including old allies he planned to kill and a several persons he suspected be the Green Leaf Society heir.
Guanyu commissioned a notable scoundrel calling himself the White Monk to craft a set of masks to conceal his identity, including one of the Monk himself “in case we need to switch identities.” The White Monk had served with a villainous clan notable for its miraculous disguises.
After the dinner party, Guanyu sought out the White Monk and killed him by beheading. He concealed the head and used a substance to remove a tattoo on the Monk’s body. In this and the moving of the body, the Monk’s crooked set of I Ching coins and the empty bottle of the tattoo remover were dropped.
At some point, Guanyu’s son confronted him. Not wanting to harm his child, Guanyu immobilized him with his arts and hid him away. He planned on finding some way of convincing Sun Yang after this whole business was finished.
Guanyu assumed the identity of the Monk and then after the revelation of the first murder sought out Yellow Shadow Hunter. Perhaps Guanyu had let him in on the plan enough to make him believe this scheme was something else. He drugged Yellow Shadow Hunter with the sleeping draught. Guanyu replaced the wine taken out of fear that the investigators might find something off with his accounting, since he’d proudly boasted about the number of wine jars he possessed. He concealed Yellow Shadow Hunter’s body next to the body of the Ox Cart driver who had delivered the coffins. These were hidden nearby a secluded shrine at the back of the estate.
When the Magistrates arrived, Guanyu switched to Yellow Shadow Hunter’s identity. The Magistrates include several NPCs from the PCs’ entanglements, including Guard Captain Lin, the object of affection for Bao Shi With the magistrates' arrival, Guanyu realized his small errors had led the skilled detectives towards the truth. The player roll a 7-9 for their Theorize and so in another guise Guanyu has met with Guard Captain Lin and led him off.
The group fears that Guanyu plans to kill Lin and use his identity to escape!