Courts of the Wulin

With the draft of Hearts of Wulin in the hands of the editor, I thought this might be a good time to showcase some of the optional materials we've developed. Two of our stretch goals involved increasing the material devoted to Courtly and Fantastic wuxia campaign frames. Here's the first part of the new Courtly mechanics. I'll look at the new roles and moves next week. 

Many Chinese wuxia and historical dramas take place in a palace, revolving around intrigues and passions. It’s easy to reframe a Hearts of Wulin game for this setting by resetting the fiction a little. For players and GMs who want a deeper set of mechanics, we offer the following new basic moves, roles, and playbook elements.

Pick and choose from these add-ons. Some depend on other systems, so check those carefully. 

Some of these historical dramas can be (but aren’t necessarily) more grounded and realistic when it comes to the wulin world and abilities. If your group decides they want a more restrained game, talk about how you might calibrate the limits of such elements. Can you run up walls? Balance on branches? Make incredible leaps? A few wild playbook moves can be justified by dramatic license (Flying Daggers from the Loyal). Others will need to be swapped out for moves from other, unused playbooks (Kid with the Golden Arm from the Unorthodox). We encourage you to be generous in your readings. 

A court is a gathering place, literally and figurative for those who want to be close to the ruler. They may be trying to manipulate and undercut their rivals. They may be trying to succeed or replace the ruler. 

Series like Princess Agents, Rise of the Phoenixes, and Princess Weiyoung center around court struggles. They combine the romantic melodrama of innocents caught up in these affairs and political machinations as nobles try to seize the throne, destroy their enemies, or simply gain revenge for historical slights. 

On the other hand, some stories have a more informal sense of court. In The Smiling, Proud Wanderer, our court is the Five Mountains Sword Sects Alliance, wulin factions with old rivalries and an ongoing struggle to see who will be chief. Here the ruler is about power rather than hereditary authority.

Starter questions for playing a courtly game:
  • What kind of court is it? (alliance of factions, confederation of pirates, empire, kingdom, noble household, regional lord, school, other)
  • What kind of ruler does it have? (chief chosen by acclaim, hereditary ruler, lord selected by higher power, master chosen by trials, regent, survivor, usurper, warlord, other)
  • What’s their demeanor? (aged, cruel, cultured, exacting, hedonistic, in thrall, innocent, manipulative, meddling, moody, popular, paranoid, reclusive, vengeful, young, other)
  • What’s their major source of authority? (bloodline, fear, military favor, network of agents, old repute, popular acclaim, regency, respect for their predecessor, scheming, someone behind the throne, web of alliances, other)

You should also decide what kind of physical space the court occupies. Is everyone under one roof? Are there different houses for the noble factions? Does it move from place to place? 

Once you have a sense of the general shape of the Court, the group should select three threats which currently face the court: Alliance Among Old Enemies, Bad Omens, Banditry, Barbarian Hordes, Conspiracy for Overthrow, Corruption, Droughts, Earthquakes, Famine, Flooding, Factional Fighting. Local Authorities Rebelling, Monsters, Piracy, Plague, Pollution, Pretender to the Throne, Questions of Succession, Rival Nation Threatens War, Something Valuable Stolen, Storms, Supernatural Forces, Wulin Clashes, Other

These rules add a new resource, called Influence. This abstraction represents a character’s pull, connections, and also general goodwill. Like Bonds it can be spent, in particular for the new The Game of Court move and Duel (Social) move. Unlike Bonds, players do not track it for individual connections. Instead it is a pool which can be spent from. Default PCs have a cap of 3 on their Influence and begin the game with 0 influence. 

Players can now gain influence from several of the basic moves.
  • Impress: Add gain +1 Influence as an option.
  • Comfort and Support: On a 10+ you may choose to gain +1 influence instead of a bond, question, or cleared element.
  • Hearts and Minds: Instead of trying to get them to do something, may simply attempt to extract influence from an NPC. On a 10+ they give you +1 Influence. On a 7-9 they may give you that influence or pick one of the choices.
The GM also has a new move, Cost Influence. They may have players give up influence to pay for a move’s cost or as the result of a miss.

New Move: The Game of Court
When you attempt to put your plots and schemes into action, roll +Influence spent. You may not spend bonds to assist with this roll. On a 10+, gain two hold. On a 7-9 gain one hold. Spend this one for one to make someone (including yourself):
  • Alienate a key ally
  • Be subject to or avoid an investigation
  • Conceal all traces of your involvement
  • Gain a reputation.
  • Lose or gain favor or position
  • Obtain or close off access to a protected object or person.
  • Slow or divert one of their plots
  • Spend resources
  • Take or lose control of a key location or resource.
  • Gain +1 Influence

On a miss, the GM will flip the move back on you by imposing one of the choices on your character.

Variant Move: Duel (Social)
In base Hearts of Wulin, you can frame the Duel move for social conflict with an NPC. Here we offer a more detailed variant.

When you take on a political foe in a struggle of words, arguments, and revealed machinations, roll. You may either spend Influence or Bonds to affect this roll, but not both.

If they are above your scale: on a hit you lose but may describe how you manage to survive their manipulations. Mark an element (choice). On a 10+, you gain +1 Influence as your determination impresses some. On a miss, your opponent crushes you. Lose all bonds and influence and be prepared for the worst: exile, condemnation, destruction of your line, etc.

If they are below your scale: on a hit, you win the struggle. They suffer embarrassment, humiliation, loss of authority, and/or an end to their plotting. They lose value to their superiors and will be cast aside. On a 10+, gain +1 Influence or maneuver for an even harsher punishment for your foe (jail, exile, execution, line destroyed, etc). On a miss, choose: you win but at a cost or you’re unable to press your case and mark XP.

If they are the same scale: on a 10+, narrate your brilliant approach or stratagem. You may undercut their position, destroy their support, bring their plans to a halt, direct the wrath of higher powers against them, or force a physical duel. On a 7-9, choose one:
  • Win at a cost: You must take drastic steps to succeed. Burn three bonds and/or influence in any combination; make a promise that disrupts one of your entanglements, or sacrifice a friend. If you do, take the 10+ result.
  • Stalemate: Neither of you come away with the edge. Gain +1 Influence.
  • Give Ground: You lose. Suffer embarrassment, but mark XP and take +1 Forward the next time you face them.

Social Interactions and Moves
These rules create more options for social interactions, so when do you use which moves? These overlap and we encourage the player and GM to negotiate about which route to take. But here are general guidelines:
  • Impress: If your character’s at a large scale performance or event and trying to show off, then use this one. For example, if you want to make a grand entrance into Court.
  • Hearts & Minds: If you want to use gentle persuasion, manipulation, or light intimidation to force an individual to take an action roll this. If you’re trying to wheedle a PC to do as you ask this is the right choice.
  • PvP: If, however, you’re trying to make a fellow PC do something they do not want to do, through intimidation, threats, blackmail, guilt, demands, or agitated persuasion, then you need to go to PvP. In this case, you should let the target decide what’s appropriate (Hearts & Minds or PvP). But the acting player should have the option to not move forward if they don’t feel it’s appropriate to escalate.
  • Comfort & Support: Use this when one PC attempts to aid, cheer, or otherwise restore another, even if their motives might not be the purest.
  • The Game of Court: When your character wants to indirectly affect things through social manipulation and pulling strings use this move. Use this move to reduce the social scale of an NPC foe. Note that the GM may require the social equivalent of New Technique to reduce the scale of Superior Foes.
  • Duel (Social): When you face down an NPC political foe one-on-one with the intent of defeating them, putting them in their place, or taking them off the table, use this. 

After setting entanglements, players should set an agenda for themselves. This should describe the reason they’re involved with the court and what they want to accomplish. 
  • Bring down (person, group)
  • Discover the truth about (person, group, history)
  • Gain prestige for (self, group)
  • Gather support for (plan, person, group)
  • Get close to (person, group)
  • Impress (person, group)
  • Obtain office or position for (self, person)
  • Prevent revelation about (self, person, group, history)
  • Prove innocence of (person, group)
  • Reveal (person, plan) as a villain
  • Steal (object)
  • Support (person, group)
This is a guideline for the fiction, but does have mechanical support. When you’re forced to act directly against your agenda, roll Inner Conflict. Like entanglements, players can change and rewrite agendas in play. The group should check in on these at the start of session.

If you missed the Kickstarter, you can pre-order Hearts of Wulin here. 

Courts of the Wulin