I had the opportunity to run my first Twitch stream last weekend. Gregory Wilson had me on his channel as part of a charity weekend fundraiser. More than anything I just wanted the chance to run Hearts of Wulin for my sister Cat Rambo, who taught me D&D. She lives in Seattle so we rarely get a chance to interact, let alone play together. It was a great session, and I respect Greg for being willing to bring a storygame into a channel that leans more trad.
Second hand I heard viewers had some confusion about the stat/rolling system—in particular why someone wouldn’t always choose to roll their best stat. It’s something I mentioned during character creation, but didn’t do a great job of reinforcing during play. This requires a little bit of a deep dive into HoW’s mechanics.
The stats in Hearts of Wulin come from the intersection of three of my favorite games: The Veil, Masks: A New Generation, and Fate Accelerated. Basically you have five elements as your stats. That’s not unusual—we’ve seen that in both Legend of the Five Rings and Weapons of the Gods. But in both those games, there’s a tight association between stats and particular actions. Masks showed me you could track harm functionally. Characters mark conditions which in turn give a penalty to particular moves. So Guilty gives a -2 to "Provoke Someone" and "Assess the Situation."
Fate Accelerated showed me that you didn’t have to link stats with specific actions. Other systems have done that, but FAE made that a cornerstone. The Veil presented a new way to look at actions making them about how your character feels when they act. It also gave the stats a limitation in that using a “state” repeatedly spikes it out. That affects your actions and limits your choices. Hearts of Wulin combines all three of these concepts.
When you go to roll a move, you choose which of your five elements applies. Each element has some loose themes associated—it weaves between feeling and substance. So while Water’s aspect of awareness might seem the go to for rolling "Study", it could also be Earth’s focus or Metal’s calculation. It depends on your character and where they are. And your character might not always have all your choices.
Two moves limit what you roll. You always roll with the element associated with your fighting style in a combat. But you can roll with anything but your style element when you face "Inner Conflict." More importantly, when the GM deals you harm through a move, you will “mark” an element. That means you can’t roll with it until you get that cleared. If you mark the element of your fighting style, you can’t fight. You have to choose another approach.
And here’s where all of that comes together. When you roll a miss, a 6 or less, the GM makes a move. Either as a soft move or part of a hard move, the GM inflicts harm by having you mark an element. But you always mark the element you rolled with. So if you go spamming your best element, eventually it will get marked. And as a GM, if I see you always using the same element, I’m going to enjoy making you mark it. I love push your luck mechanics and that’s what this offers. Choosing what to roll isn’t just about rolling high, you have to think more clearly about your situation and if something is worth the risk.
Scale is a key concept in Hearts of Wulin. If a foe is below your scale, you’ll win—unless you choose not to. If your foe is of equal scale, the question is up in the air. You could win, lose, or have to make a sacrifice for victory. But if you fight a foe of a superior scale—you lose. Better rolls let you narrate that loss, but you still lose. You have to figure out how to bring higher scale foes down to your level. Some legendary adversaries require you to go away and find a new technique. Others require changing the scene and setting.
- You’ve been poisoned
- Your weapon has been damaged or broken
- They’ve closed off your channels
- They perfected an Iron Body technique
- They’ve shifted their vital points
- The pair has trained together to coordinate their attacks
- Their unique weapon undercuts your style
- Sheer numbers
- They switch style in mid-fight
- How can you fight when you cannot see?
- Winning will hurt a loved one
- They’ve studied your style
- Their style was developed long ago to counter yours
- They hint at a secret about your past
- Their weapon changes form
- Their weapons interlock to create a wall of steel
- They’ve cultivated an immunity to the toxin filling the room
- Clever traps scattered around
- They’re a doppelganger
- They reveal themselves as a blood relation
- You’re exhausted from previous fights
- You’ve suffered a grievous wound
- Your supposed ally interferes
- You’re blinded by your rage
- Your master/elder/parent orders you to stand down
- You lost to this opponent before
- You trained together and could never best them
- You doubt your cause
- Your mentor doubts you
- They possess a legendary weapon
- They have a hidden weapon
- They have newly revealed allies
- Their style is corrupt but deadly
- They anticipate your every move
- Innocents in peril nearby
- “I am not left-handed.”
Hearts of Wulin combats usually resolve with a single die roll. That means the GM needs to give Duels (and Dealing with Troops) space to breathe. Battles should feel important and say something about who the PCs are. Take time to resolve these moves. Set the stage and the battlefield. As a GM, once a PC is clearly going to a Duel move, describe the environment and when possible show the stakes (emotional or physical).
Duels spotlight characters. I try to have something ready for each PC present in those scenes: named combatants, masses of troops, or something at risk. Before we resolve any fighting moves, we check in and establish clearly what everyone’s doing. Then we work through what we’ve framed and resolve each move, saving any climactic duel for the last. That means we have two steps: declaration & narration for everyone followed by resolution & narration for everyone.
Note that you can have multiple foes available for the players, but don’t force matchups. Offer opportunities, but let the players decide what they want to do.
Another combat framing technique comes from the World Wide Wrestling RPG. In that game’s matches the opponents create a collaborative description of the fight’s back and forth until they reach a highlight moment. Then they roll to see what happens. You can model this by describing how NPC characters seize the initiative and start out overwhelming the PC. Describe how the NPCs injure the PCs, force them back, or reveal their secret tricks. Then ask the player how they turn the tables and seize the conflict’s momentum. Shift that into the player’s description of how their character fights and then roll the move to see what happens.
"Duel" acts as a mirror to "Internal Conflict." The latter only affects the emotions of a character, the former can change the external world. "Internal Conflict" shows the limits of the PCs. Our wuxia heroes can fly across the battlefield and possess unearthly skills, but they’re shackled to their feelings and desires. That makes it vital that any "Duel" move showcases PC control and competency. Give the players lots of room and time to describe how they do things in a duel and how awesome it looks.
Be sure to check out the Hearts of Wulin Kickstarter!
For the full backlog of Age of Ravens posts on Blogger see here.