Since you’re reading this, chances are good you’ll be the one running the game. (Good on ya!) That means you’ll be the facilitator and referee, as well as a player. You’ll be responsible for the setting and every supporting character, from helpful allies to epic villains. There’s advice just for you under Running the Show, but first we need to cover the basics. These are the core rules that you and your players need to know.
For the most part, your Wushu sessions will play out like this...
You: Ninjas fall from the sky like rain. They create a ring of swords, chains, staves, ginsu knives, green clovers, and purple horseshoes all around you.
Lauren: "I crack my knuckles, curl my fingers into kung-fu fists, and trace a line in front of me with one foot, daring them to cross."
Jeremy: "I throw my arms open wide and an automatic pistol pops into each hand from spring-loaded holsters up my sleeves. I hold the triggers down, spin down onto one knee, and spray them with lead!"
In short: a bunch of creative types with violent tendencies trying to one-up each other with quick bursts of action movie imagery.Photo Credit: Steve Collis (Wikimedia)
Within the imagined world of your shared narrative, everything the players describe happens exactly how they describe it, when they describe it. This is called "the Principle of Narrative Truth" and it’s the nitrous that makes Wushu fast and furious. Actions should always be phrased in the present tense: "I kick him," "I fly over that," "They crash through the wall like wrecking balls." No need to wait for the dice to tell you what happens.
However, that doesn’t mean the players always get what they want. It’s your job to place obstacles in their path. Some of these obstacles will be represented by piles of poker chips. Others will be characters under your control. To overcome either, your players will need dice. Dice are earned by narrating details and rolled against their heroes’ defining traits. Successful rolls score hits on the opposition or defend the heroes from harm. Once your obstacles have been whittled down to nothing, the players get to narrate their victory. It’s as simple as that.
Maybe not quite as simple as that...
It’s all Geek to me.
If you’ve never played an RPG before, I might use a few terms that are unfamiliar. I’ve tried to get away from the usual acronyms (inscrutable ciphers like NPC and GM), but a little definition goes a long way. When I talk about...
Players, I mean the closeted sociopaths who sit next to you at the game table and describe scenes of unspeakable carnage. As opposed to the Director, who is also a player, but has other unspeakable things to do, too.
The Director, I mean the person who’s running the game. One person needs to be in charge of guiding the session, setting the scenes, and narrating for the bad guys. Everyone is encouraged to think like a movie director, but players only need to worry about their heroes.
Heroes, I mean the point-of-view characters controlled by the players. You’ll learn all about them under High-Flying Heroes.
Dice, I mean 6-sided dice, just like you’ll find in most board games. Gamers collect strange dice like numismatists collect rare currency (look it up), but you won’t have to worry about that. Just swipe some dice from the Parker Brothers and you’re ready to go.
You’d be surprised how many things can count as a detail: fight choreography, car stunts, one-liners, special effects, camera movements, internal monologue, tactical maneuvers, techno-babble, hocus pocus... anything that’s appropriate to your story. (For examples, and I'm talking a metric assload of examples, see Part II: Glorious Mayhem.)
It’s up to the rest of your group to let you know if you’ve strayed too far from the desired tone or genre. If they don’t like what they hear, try something else. I refer you to Rule Zero: Don’t Be a Dick.
Each detail earns you 1 die. More dice = more control over the next round of the narrative. For example, I would give Jeremy 3 dice for the narration above: 1 for the props (spring-loaded sleeve holsters) and 2 for the stunts (quick-drawing the guns, then shooting in a circle).
A generous Director might divide it up even more...
Your best bet is probably somewhere in between.Photo Credit: Ashcoounter (Wikimedia)
For each scene, the Director will set a max number of dice per player per round, usually 4–10. (I default to 5 or 6.) This is called the dice pool Limit. Smaller limits encourage shorter, punchier rounds of narration and give players more chances to alter their dice rolling strategies. Higher limits allow for longer, more elaborate bouts, but fortunes can change drastically from one round to the next.
Once everyone has reached the limit, or is just happy with how many dice they’ve earned, you all roll at once. (You may have to split your dice into offensive and defensive sets, see below.)
Each character will have a number of Traits, each rated from 1–5. Compare the result of each die roll to your character’s most relevant Trait, discarding any dice that roll over that number. (If you don’t have a relevant Trait, the default is 2.) The remaining dice are your hits. How hitting things works (i.e. well) is explained below. If there’s no opposition, you only need one hit to secure victory.
When there is opposition, your conflicts will flow through three phases. First, a round of narration sets the stage. Then, dice are rolled and hits are scored. Repeat until victory is achieved or denied, then the victor(s) get to narrate their success.
Why use dice at all?!
Dice are far less powerful in Wushu than they are in other roleplaying games, but they still serve an important purpose: They provide a mechanical benefit for thrilling stunts and cinematic flourishes. They give players a reason to describe how the force of a punch ripples across a mook’s face in slow motion or how the "camera" follows a bullet as it streaks across a crowded nightclub. Rolling dice also injects a certain amount of chaos into the narrative. It’s never enough to derail the story, but just enough to keep conflicts interesting.
The first round of a conflict is always freeform. The goals for this round are simple: determine who’s in the conflict and what they’re trying to do. In the example above, you introduced a bunch of ninjas and the players described their reactions (i.e. fighting, as opposed to running for cover or trying to talk their way out).
Depending on how much effort you want to put into this scene, you’ll create a threat and/or a nemesis (or several nemeses).
Threats are things that stand between the players and their goals: mooks (see below), time bombs, burning buildings, security systems, stubborn witnesses, polite conversation, anything. Place a stack of poker chips (or some other counter) on the table to represent each threat. This is the number of hits the group needs to score before they can narrate victory.
Mooks are a special kind of threat. They’re those nameless, faceless goons that infest all action movies: ninjas, robots, gangsters, trolls, soldiers, cops, thugs, whatever. Mowing them down by the dozens, if not hundreds, is a proud wire-fu tradition. Players are free to describe however many mooks they want, wherever they want, in order to describe all the rapid-fire ass kicking they want.Photo Credit: Gisling (Wikimedia)
All threats are assumed to score 1 hit per round on any heroes within their reach. (If a hero is off fighting a Nemesis while their friends handle the mooks, you should probably give them a free pass.) This means that the players will always have to worry, at least a little bitty bit, about defense.
Nemeses are, quite simply, your villains. When you want to roll up your sleeves and bloody your narrative knuckles, put opposition characters into the fight. There’s no telling how many hits it will take to defeat a nemesis, since they earn and roll dice just like the players. They have traits and chi (see below), just like the heroes. When fighting a nemesis, whoever takes a hit first loses.
Once all the pieces are in play, everyone narrates themselves their first dice pool (as described above). Then, you let ‘em roll!
Depending on the circumstances, you may need to split your dice into various pools before you roll. Most of the time, you only have to worry about offense and defense, but complex conflicts may involve multiple threats. Your table should be adorned with at least two colors of dice...
Yang dice are directed against your enemies. They take points off a threat or put nemeses in their place. Sometimes, you may need to split your Yang dice between multiple goals.
Yin dice are for self-defense. One is all you need to take care of the automatic hit from a Threat. A nemesis, on the other hand, might hit you many times in one round. It takes 1 Yin to block 1 Yang.
You score a hit for each die that rolls below, or equal to, your character’s most relevant trait. Notice that “hits” can be both offensive and defensive; they can happen in combat and out of combat. Hits tell you who’s winning, no matter the game.Photo Credit: Francisco Diez (Wikimedia)
As soon as you take a hit, your opponent gets to narrate their coup de grace. Yin dice are your first line of defense, but all heroes can fall back on their Chi in times of trouble. At the beginning of each scene (or whenever you feel like allowing it), each player gets 3 Chi tokens. Nemeses can have anywhere from 0–5 Chi, depending on how tough you wanna make ‘em. One chi can be cashed in for 1 Yin success after the dice are rolled.
You’re not out of the fight until you take a hit and can’t pay for it. Being at zero Chi means you’re brushing plaque from the jaws of defeat, but you're not out of the fight yet.
Continuing our example, Lauren’s hero has a trait called “Curiously Strong Chi 4.” She goes on the offensive with 5 Yang dice and 1 Yin. She rolls 1,1,1,3,4 (Yang) and 4 (Yin). Those all count as hits, because none of them exceed 4, her trait rating. That means 5 hits on the mooks and 1 hit to defend herself.
Jeremy’s hero has a Trait called “Ballet of Bullets 4.” He rolls 4 Yang dice and gets 2,4,5,5. Only the 2 and 4 count as hits, so two more points come off the threat. His 2 Yin dice are boxcars: 6,6. Both exceed his Trait rating, so he gets no defensive successes and will have to cash in one point of Chi.
Remember, everything happens as you describe it, when you describe it. Dice are rolled afterward and they only tell you what should happen next...
Success Through Failure
Since all details are treated the same, you can play a character who routinely gets their ass handed to them... and still win. Your intrepid archaeologist can trip every trap and trust the wrong hired goons, but still make good her escape. Your scrappy boxer can spend a whole fight on the ropes, bleeding profusely from the face, and then come back for a K.O. punch in the final round. A detail is a detail is a detail.
Use the results of each round to frame your descriptions in the next round. If a hero really lays into some mooks, keep the momentum going. If you have to cash in some Chi, describe the tide of battle turning against you. If a hero and a Nemesis fight each other to a standstill, describe your tense face-off or compliment each other’s kung-fu.
In our example, Lauren rolled a heap of hits and slashed the ninja’s threat in half. Next round, she’s entitled to go hog wild on the black-clad bastards...
Lauren: "I stab the first ninja with his own sword; kick the second in the throat, crushing his trachea; duck a staff swing and leg sweep the fourth; then flip over the fifth and let him catch a volley of shuriken in the chest. Finally, I kick him into the shuriken-thrower, crushing them together like a jagged metal Oreo."
Jeremy wasn’t so lucky. He got a couple of offensive (Yang) hits, but not a single defensive (Yin) hit. He has to cash in 1 of his Chi to counter the mooks’ one automatic hit. Next round...
Jeremy: "My gunfire decimates the first wave, but more appear out of the shadows. Two of them catch my arms in their chain weapons, so I can’t reload. Their friends close in with knives. I parry their attacks with a few well-timed kicks, then lock my feet around one ninja’s neck and hurl him into a chain-wielder. I reload with my free hand and shoot the other chain-wielder in the face."
If a hero and a Nemesis score hits on each other in the same round, hits that neither of them can block with Yin or Chi, then whoever takes the most hits loses. If they tie, victory goes to the player. So remember: If you really want that coup de grace, consider throwing all your dice Yang and hope you kill them deader than they kill you.
The Pass — Improvising beautiful violence is hard work. One way to help each other out when exhaustion sets in is to narrate things that the other players can incorporate into their descriptions. Say I throw a mook across the room; rather than send him through some furniture, I could leave him hanging in mid-air and pass to the next player. They might have him collide with the mook they’re fighting, drop his weapon in their hand as he sails past, crash into a lantern and set the room on fire, etc.
The Filibuster — It’s not just for Senators anymore. If you don’t feel like counting out your dice, or just want to show off, feel free to narrate a carnival of carnage so elaborate that it more than justifies the maximum dice pool. Of course, the other players are well within their rights to cut you off at any time, but they’ll let you keep going as long as you keep them entertained.
The only thing you cannot narrate is victory, not until you’ve earned it. After someone scores that fateful hit, or lops off that last point of threat, their following round of description is called a coup de grace. You won’t earn any dice, because you won’t need any. Victors are entitled to narrate their spoils.
Of course, Rule Zero still applies, so don’t be a dick about it. Directors shouldn’t execute heroes and players shouldn’t humiliate Nemeses. Try to stay focused on the stakes you set way back in the beginning of the conflict. If you get greedy, someone will let you know.
After two rounds of conflict, our example players have wiped out the ninja Threat. They collaborate on their coup de grace...
Jeremy: "I slide between a ninja’s legs, pop up behind him, and use him as a meat shield while I ventilate his remaining friends."
Lauren: "With his last breath, the meat shield pulls a poison dart from his black pajamas and tries to stab my partner in the face, so I grab a kama off a corpse and throw it, severing the bastard’s arm at the elbow."
Jeremy: "I look down at the dart in his still-twitching hand, scowl, and snap his neck on principle."
Keep in mind that anyone can concede a conflict at any time. What that means depends on how you set the stakes. If two groups are trying to kill each other, either side can give up and flee. If some mooks have outlived their usefulness in a scene, you can call a retreat or replace them with a nemesis. If the dice aren’t done with a conflict by the time the players are, too damn bad for the dice.
You’re doing it all wrong!
Traditional roleplaying games have a hard time with wuxia, and cinematic action in general, because they insist on things like turn-taking and situational modifiers that cramp a fight choreographer’s style. Wushu throws those conventions out the window with glee. Specifically, there are three things Wushu doesn’t do...
Weapon Damage - A character’s choice of weapon should have more to do with their personality than tactical advantage. That’s why Wushu doesn’t have rules for weapon damage. Getting kicked hard in the chest hurts just as much as getting stabbed in the face, at least mechanically. This frees players to select weapons that say something interesting about their characters.
Situational Modifiers - Similarly, Wushu is not a game about smart tactics. Things like taking cover and flanking an opponent make great details, but Wushu never slows down to look up maneuvers or consult tables of modifiers. If you want your players kicking down doors and crashing through windows, don’t penalize their foolhardy bravado.
Initiative - There are no rules for initiative in Wushu. Who acts before who is irrelevant most of the time and, on the occasion when someone does want to cut in, they can just ask! As long as it’s for a cool stunt, nobody will mind. (In dramatic situations, like quick-draw contests or samurai duels, you can devote the entire first round to determining who strikes first.)
That's it for rules. Seriously, that's it. The rest of this section explains by example, using the Clockwork Wuxia setting in Part III, Terrible Vistas.
Mark and Julie are trying to hijack a fortress. This particular fortress rides its own railroad through the rocky mountains of the New World. Mark’s Zen Psychologist is in the engine room, trying to take control of the locomotive. Julie’s Cyborg Swordsman is seeking sweet revenge in the Governor’s glass-bottom parlor.
You put a stack of 6 chips on the table and introduce an angry mob of grimy laborers to thwart Mark’s hero. You take 3 Chi for the Governor and jot down a combat Trait: “Kung-Fu Science! 4.” Then, you let the players kick things off...
Julie: "I try to draw my steam-powered sword, but there’s not enough space in the parlour to get it out of the scabbard, so I assume Iron Tiger stance and wave the Governor over."
Mark: "Oh, wait! Meanwhile, I’m weaving my way through the throng while these slave drivers crack their electrified whips across the bulkhead. One of the laborers swings at me with this huge wrench and, when I dodge, he knocks a valve loose. Steam blasts him in the face and the train lurches to a stop."
Julie: "Which causes the Governor to fly off his feet and into my waiting hands! Or, more to the point, my mechanical tiger claws!"Photo Credit: Casimiri (Wikimedia)
You: "Fortunately, the Governor knows precisely where to kick your elbow joint to temporarily reduce pneumatic pressure in those claws. He gets smacked, but not shredded."
Julie: "I lean forward and press his face into the glass. Cracks start to spider out..."
You: "The Governor takes hold of your arm, shifts himself to the side, and pushes your center of gravity out from under you! All 300 pounds of you crash into the glass. He slaps the floor with one hand, sending himself spinning like a rolling pin back to his feet as the glass explodes beneath you!"
Julie: "Lying down, I have enough room to draw my sword! I extend the blade so it impales the far wall, then drive one foot into the near wall, suspending myself over empty air."
Mark: "Which is right about the time the engineers compensate for the broken valve and the train starts accelerating again."
You decide that everyone’s earned at least 6 dice by this point, so it’s time to roll. Here’s how the numbers shake out:
Mark: 6 Yang
Julie: 5 Yang / 1 Yin
You: 4 Yang / 2 Yin
Mark: "Lets enemies defeat themselves 4"
Julie: "Get revenge on the Governor! 5"
You: "Kung-Fu Science! 4"
Julie: 2,2,3,3,6 / 3
You: 2,3,4,4 / 1,6
Mark: 4 Yang
Julie: 4 Yang / 1 Yin
You: 4 Yang / 1 Yin
Mark’s pretty sure he can take care of these mooks before they run him out of Chi, so he decided to go all offensive and reduces the Threat from 6 to 2. He cashes in 1 Chi token to counter the mooks’ automatic 1 hit per roll, leaving him with 2 Chi in reserve.
Julie is counting on her higher trait rating to carry her through, but the Governor gets lucky and matches her hit for hit. They both have to cash in all their Chi (4 hits = 1 Yin + 3 Chi). The next round will be do or die.
You: "The Governor kicks off the wall and plants both fists in your abdomen, folding you in half so your foot slips its moorings, then he flies to the safety of the doorway."
Julie: "I collapse my sword blade and bring it under me, pushing myself up with one, quick jab. The rails devour it, but it’s enough to get me upright and clinging to the wall. I turn to the Governor and growl, 'That’s coming out of your salary.'"
Mark: "A dozen laborers lie unconscious or disabled, but there are dozens more coming. I spot an exhaust pipe above me and flash back to my childhood. I’m sitting in a cave with some monks. Noxious gas seeps in from the mountain’s depth, but the monks are perfectly calm. I meditate with them, slowing my heart and stilling my lungs.
"Back in the engine room, I charge one of the slaves, run right up his chest, steal a wrench out of his hands, and leap onto the upper catwalk. I smash open the exhaust pipe, then calmly sit down as thick vapors pour into the room, concealing me and asphyxiating everyone else."
Julie: "Back in the parlour, I’m leaping around the edges of the room, tearing down every piece of art and ornamentation that looks expensive. They rain down into the tracks, following my trusty sword into oblivion."Photo Credit: chensiyuan (Wikimedia)
You: "Oh, that’ll piss him off. The Governor waits until you’re in the middle of a jump, then runs along the wall and snags a handful of your hair as you pass each other. He yanks you clean off your feet!"
Julie: "I slash through my own hair with my working claw and roll to a stop in the doorway. Down on all fours, I roar at the bastard and leap again!"
You: "The Governor does likewise and you meet in the center of the room, suspended over the kill zone..."
Whew! That was one filibuster from Mark and at least 6 details from everyone else. It’s an aggressive round and everyone goes on the offensive:
Mark: 6 Yang
Julie: 6 Yang
You: 6 Yang
Mark: Lets enemies defeat themselves 4
Julie: Get revenge on the Governor! 5
You: Kung-Fu Science! 4
Mark: 4 Yang
Julie: 3 Yang
You: 3 Yang
Both heroes manage to squeak through the round. Again, Mark cashes in 1 Chi token to counter the mooks’ automatic hit, but he reduces the Threat to -2 and earns a coup de grace. Julie rolls the number of the beast, leaving him with 2 Yang hits and zero defense. Your roll isn’t quite that bad, but your lower Trait rating means you still only get 3 hits. Without any remaining Chi, both the Governor and the swordsman take 3 hits. Since ties go to the players, Julie also gets a coup de grace.
Mark: "Once I stop hearing bodies hit the floor, I stand up and slowly seal the exhaust valve. While the air is clearing, I round up the watchmen’s electrified whips and resuscitate anyone who stopped breathing. With their slave drivers neutralized, I’m able to convince the laborers to mutiny and flee with us into the mountains."
Julie: "The Governor’s kick hits me in the throat, crushing my trachea, but he made the mistake of thinking I’d defend myself. Instead, I envelope him in a bear hug and we plummet together through the shattered floor. The railroad tracks tear us both to pieces. The train shears off his head when he hits the back wall, but I manage to anchor myself with one hand. They salvage my head, arm, and most of my organs, then rebuild me into an even more powerful murder machine!"Roger Price (Wikimedia)