This section provides specific advice on how to make the most of Wushu’s dice mechanics, including more optional rules and guidelines for zero-prep gaming. Wushu’s a great system for busy Directors. You can run satisfying one-shots, or even serial episodes, entirely on the fly. (See also Part III: Terrible Vistas.)
Wherein we discuss advanced techniques and optional rules.
How many points of Threat you should assign to a scene depends on several factors...
Let’s say you have a group of three players and a dice pool limit of six. If they’ve all got combat-related Traits rated 4, and only devote 1–2 dice to defense, you can expect each of them to score about three hits per round. That means your Threat will lose nine hits per round, give or take. If you want the fight to last three rounds, you’ll want to set the Threat somewhere around 30 (9 x 3 = 27, plus change).Photo Credit: David Gordillo (Flickr)
You can add complexity to your conflicts by layering in side goals. Like Threats, these can be just about anything: protecting bystanders, covering your tracks, stopping someone from escaping, preserving the evidence, etc. Also like Threats, they can be represented by a pile of poker chips. To achieve the side goal, your players have to score a number of hits equal to its value.
Unlike Threats, side goals don’t fight back, so there’s no need to devote Yin dice to them. However, they’re called "side" goals for a reason: they should be added to a scene that already has a Threat and/or Nemesis in play. You might end up with several stacks of tokens on the table, so keep note cards on hand for easy labeling.
A classic example: Your heroes are chasing a Nemesis across the rooftops of some sprawling metropolis. Said Nemesis fires a few rockets into a building, causing it to collapse. You grab a handful of chips and put them on the table, telling your players that they represent a boy’s choir composed entirely of orphans. If they want to save those lives, they’ll have to throw some of their hits against the side-goal, leaving fewer for your Nemesis to fend off.
In situations like that, feel free to put a time limit on the side goal. If you only give your players 2 rounds to reach the goal, it means even more dice diverted.
Speaking of diverted dice, it’s not fair for groups of players to gang up on a single Nemesis. Rolling more dice than the other guy is a serious advantage, so your dice pool limits will need some adjustment when fights aren’t one-on-one. There are two ways to go...
If you’re feeling ambitious, let the Nemesis rack up a separate dice pool for each hero aligned against them. If two players get 6 dice each, you get a total of 12. Only 6 can be directed against a single hero, though. Fair is fair. If you’re feeling exhausted, make your players split a dice pool between them. If the Nemesis gets 6 dice, two players get 3 dice each. Three players would get 2 dice each. If that’s not enough, raise the limit a little (you get 8 dice, two players get 4 dice each).
One on One
I know it means “monkey-to-monkey” in Spanish. The wordplay is Latin. Stuff it.
If you want to cap off a mook fight with a little something extra, consider turning the last few points of Threat into Chi for a Nemesis. Then, you’ll get a chance to roll up your sleeves and engage your players in a final round of fisticuffs.
Let’s say your heroes are mowing down wuxia thugs in a tea house (again), but the players come up short and leave 2 points of Threat on the table after 5 rounds. They’re running low on stunts and you’re getting bored, so you grab the remaining chips and declare them Chi for a minor Nemesis. The gang’s enforcer knocks down the doors with his massive war club!
You only need to give the enforcer one Trait: the one he’ll be using to knock your heroes around, something like "Massive War Club 3." (I wouldn’t give the Last Mook Standing anything above 3. He’s only meant to last a round or two.) You start stunting, which gives your players something to riff on. The fight proceeds as normal from there.
Don’t let my enthusiasm for massive overkill fool you. Wushu’s core mechanic can handle any kind of roleplaying challenge, because it doesn’t discriminate between details. A wire-fu stunt is not mechanically distinct from a well-executed crossfire or a clever cross-examination, a frantic flight through dark woods or a bout of witty wordplay. Consider these examples...
If you can convince the group that your selection of firearm, angle of attack, or dirty trick would provide a tactical advantage, it’s worth a die. No need to compare or quantify. A detail is a detail.
Lauren: "We use shaped explosives to breach the front door and toss flashbangs inside. I crouch and swing in around the corner, covering the left side of the room, while my partner comes in behind me and covers the main area."
You: "The thugs in the main room don’t put up much of a fight, being temporarily blind and deaf, but the ones guarding the hostages quickly barricade themselves in the back room. One waits a few seconds for you to approach, then fires wildly through the door."
Lauren: "Bullet impacts knock me off my feet, but my kevlar vest is more than enough to stop their low-rent rounds. I return fire with three-round bursts of high-velocity, armor-piercing ammo."
That’s easily worth six dice of gritty, tactical action, and you didn’t even have to pause when the door was knocked down.Photo Credit: Matthew G. Bisanz (Wikimedia)
Most leads don’t pan out, but they’re all worth dice. Fingerprints, fluorescent lights, bank accounts, interrogations, they’re all equal in the eyes of Wushu. As long as your players roll at least one success, and were barking up remotely the right tree, you should reveal whatever clues you’ve got up your sleeve.
Jeremy: "First, I separate the suspects and run the old prisoner’s dilemma on their asses. When one inevitably turns on the other, I put them both on ice and head out to verify their story."
You: "Fair enough. The husband confesses, says he forced his wife to help him dispose of the body, but that’s all."
Jeremy: "If that’s true, there should still be gunpowder residue on his clothes or hands. We swab his nails and send all his confiscated clothes to the lab."
That’s at least 4 dice of solid police work. You let ‘em roll and Jeremy nabs the 1 requisite success.
You: "Nothing. There’s no way this guy fired a gun recently. He’s trying to protect his homicidal hausfrau."
The tricky thing about fear is that it requires protagonists who are less powerful than their opposition, quite the opposite of Wushu’s default mode. That doesn’t mean you have to hamstring your players, though. Everyone should delight in harrowing the heroes.
Julie: "Well, somebody has to go into the basement and check the fuses! I find a flashlight and tip-toe down the stairs, each step creaking like the screech of a bat. Shadows leap across the room as I cast my feeble light around."
You: "A cat pops out from beneath the stairs! You scream and drop the flashlight. It rolls to a stop and reveals a tiny, crouched figure in the back corner..."
Julie: "Holy shit! I stare at it in disbelief for a few seconds, just until it shifts a little and I’m sure it’s alive. Then, I run screaming from the basement!"
You: "Something gets a fistful of your hair right before you reach the door and yanks you back down into the darkness..."
Just make sure everyone understands the stakes. Julie isn’t trying to defeat the creature in the basement, just escape from it (and maybe change those fuses).Photo Credit: David Sagarin (Wikimedia)
I can’t say I’ve ever tried this one, but it’s sound in theory. The stakes in an emotional conflict might be getting a phone number, controlling your temper, or embarrassing yourself in public. In any case, a detail is a detail.
You: "Okay, she’s sitting at the bar with a friend. This is your chance to get her number, big shooter. Wadaya do?"
Mark: "I walk up to her friend and say, 'Hi. I’m thinking of hitting on your extremely attractive friend,' I say, gesturing over my shoulder. 'How do you think I should go about it?'"
You: "The friend looks at you like something she found in the back of the fridge and says, 'She’s standing right behind you, dumbass.'"
Mark: "'Oh, right.' I turn around to face the girl and say, 'Hi. I’m thinking of hitting on you. How do you think I should go about it?'"
You: "Well-played, sir. She laughs and introduces herself, but claims to only have a few minutes. 'I’m just waiting for my boyfriend to get off work. He’s the bouncer.'"
Mark: "'Well, then it looks like I only have a few minutes left to live. How do you think I should spend them?'"
You: "'Don’t most people say, 'Have a crazy orgy?'"
Mark: "'I think that's if everyone only has a few minutes to live.'"
You: '"Right. I suppose you could go hit on a girl who’s way out of your league.'"
Mark: "'I’ll let you know how it turns out.'"
Busy people deserve gaming, too. Wushu makes it easy to run one-shots on the fly. Just show up to the table with a setting idea and a few friends. You can have heroes, nemeses, and a plot outline put together in thirty minutes or less.
Everything that comes after will be easier if everyone agrees on what kind of game you’re sitting down to play. Action, probably, but the action oeuvre is a long and diverse buffet: traditional wuxia, martial arts epic, steampunk, Hong Kong bullet ballet, spy thriller, comic book supers, sci-fi actioner, and on and on.
The easiest way to align expectations is to reference a movie everyone has seen. If you’re gaming with real action aficionados, pick a couple and mix their tropes together or use one genre to put a twist on another. I like to navigate by directors; a Yuen Woo-Ping game is very different from a John Woo game, but Wushu handles them both with equal aplomb.
Part III: Terrible Vistas provides three settings tailor-made for zero-prep gaming. If you bring one of them to the table, it should only take a few minutes to give your players a tour.
This step isn’t just about setting, though. You also need to decide on a premise: What will your heroes be doing? Are they fighting a cabal of evil eunuchs, waging a bullet-ridden war against crime, pillaging the high seas, dismantling an army of cyborg zombies, or just getting revenge on a hated foe? Starting with a coherent premise makes for more cohesive heroes.
Say you’ve just sat down to play some Clockwork Wuxia. You tell your players, "It’s a steampunk wuxia alternate 1700s where the Ming Dynasty is the world’s great colonial power." They’re all onboard. You give them the option of playing pirates or American freedom fighters. They pick pirates and they want to be on the run from the Dynasty’s most-feared enforcer. Step one: Done.
Having just picked a premise, you should already have some idea of who your heroes are and what they do. Now comes the part where you grab a note card and write down some Traits. If this takes more than ten minutes, consider using the sample heroes or creating Traits on the fly.
Pro Tip: Try to make sure each character has a motivation that’s directly tied to the premise, but don’t duplicate. Having characters with subtly conflicting goals adds depth to their interactions. In the example above, you could suggest the following motivations:
As long as they can stay one step ahead of their pursuers, there’s little conflict between these motivations. Once they have to start choosing between their fellows and their own freedom, things will get interesting. However, none of them are in direct opposition and you could play out the whole scenario without any internal conflicts, if that’s the way you roll.
Next, make sure everyone’s got a distinct fighting style and your heroes are good to go.
Clockwork Wuxia comes with some suggested heroes: Cyborg Swordsman, Kung-Fu Scientist, and Zen Psychologist. Your players each pick one of the three, jot down motivations and fighting styles, and decide to leave their third Traits blank for now.
When improvising a session, the Director cannot be solely responsible for the plot. Take a few minutes to talk about the kinds of things you all want to do in the next few hours: types of challenges, fight locations, nemeses, mooks, etc. It shouldn’t take long for an outline to emerge.
Your steampunk pirates want to commit some actual piracy, charge through a naval blockade, cross swords with shaolin cyborgs, and duel their nemesis in the burning rigging of his flagship. Sounds like a rich, full evening. You jot all those things down on a sheet of paper, whip up a Trait or two for their nemesis, and you’re ready to rock.
Don’t spend more than a few minutes on this. It’s often best to charge headlong into your session with no real plan, just an idea of where to start (e.g. attacking and boarding a tramp steamer on the high seas) and where you want to end up (e.g. committing acts of arson and aggravated assault on the Ming dynasty’s naval flagship). Connecting the dots will be a breeze, because your players will help you do it.
Plan on 3–4 big set pieces per 4 hours of game. If you run low on time, cut to the chase.Photo Credit: Robert Cutts (Flickr)
When you’re running a one-shot, you don’t have time to waste making travel arrangements, browsing the local market, or rolling for random encounters. Frame each scene aggressively.
Drop your players into a situation that demands a response. You can figure out how they got into it later. This isn’t a blank check for non-sequiturs, I’m just telling you not to waste time worrying about it if no one’s worried about it. For example...
You: "You’re gaining fast on the Salty Mare, a huge merchant freighter. They’re not supposed to be armed, but you can plainly see a concealed port open up in her stern as a clap of thunder peals out over the waves. The cannonball whistles past your foredeck, either a miss or a warning shot. Care to respond?"
Why are they chasing the Salty Mare? Because they wanted to board and pillage a ship on the high seas! Do they have any history with the freighter or its crew? If your players think it’s interesting, they’re free to invent some! Don’t be afraid to break character and discuss these things during the game. Table talk isn’t just allowed during a Wushu session, it’s mandatory.
Once the conflict is resolved, cut to the next scene. If you’re not sure which scene that is, ask your players for input. In our example, we know that Shaolin cyborgs and a naval blockade need to precede the finale. Maybe your heroes have to run that blockade in order to make port and sell their ill-gotten gains, which would be a good place to cross swords with cyber-monks.
You: "Having gutted the Salty Mare, you set sail for an Indonesian pirate den. Unfortunately, the Chinese have established a blockade around the string of tiny islands. The crew have no stomach for further delays, so it looks like you’ll have to make a run for it!" You put a stack of chips on the table, representing the Threat of being captured or sunk by the blockade, and tell your players to start hatching a plan.
Be willing to give up on a scene if it’s played out, even when the game mechanics say otherwise. When this happens, it’s usually because you put too many points on a Threat or everyone’s just running out of steam.
Your blockade run has gone a few rounds, but the players rolled poorly and there are still chips on the table. You decide that the pursuing vessels are suddenly called back to the line, allowing the pirates to escape more or less unscathed... because a team of Shaolin cyborgs have already snuck aboard to infiltrate the pirate fortress!
It’s exactly that easy.
If you’re playing Wushu online, via a forum or a wiki, aggressive scene framing is even more important. You have to keep the pace blistering; the moment you lose your players’ interest, game over. Most online games die with a whimper.
I once ran a Play-by-Post (PbP) game set in The Matrix. Each scene began at the end of a mission, when something had already gone wrong and Agents started showing up. As soon as the last free mind disconnected, we moved on to the next scene. We skipped all the set-up and connected each scene with the barest threads of backstory. I’m proud to say that game ran at a brisk pace all the way through to a suitably climactic end.
You can also keep things moving by encouraging players to filibuster. If they can earn all their dice in a single post, you reduce the wait time between rounds. Less waiting means fewer chances for players to drop offline or lose track of the narrative. You don’t get those furious back-and-forth exchanges, but you can still use Passes to weave things together.
My last bit of advice is to handle all the rolls yourself; don’t make the player report their own rolls. Again, it means less waiting because you can count up the dice, roll the results, and do the bookkeeping all at once. Post the new Chi and Threat counts and you’re ready for the next round. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Sometimes, introducing your players to a new plot is like sending them on a blind date. They meet someone in a tavern; they engage a stranger in awkward, probing conversation; and hours later there’s still very little action. Flashbangs let you start your story in the middle and reward your players for helping you fill in the blanks.
For example, you could start your game in the middle of a chase sequence. Tell you players that they’re screaming down the freeway in a rental car. There’s a bag full of diamonds in the back seat and a swarm of armed men on motorcycles crowding their back bumper.
Your players don’t know how they got into this situation or why, but the situation itself is pretty clear: fight off the bikers and escape with the diamonds. Put a stack of Threat tokens on the table and let the festivities commence.
You’ve already established several facts that will need to be explained: the bikers, the rental car, the diamonds, and being on the freeway. Write each of those down on a piece of paper and leave it in the middle of the table. If your players want to invent a few facts of their own, write those down, too.
After a few rounds, or at some dramatic moment, pause the action and flash back to the beginning of your plot. In our example, you could reveal that someone’s locked in the rental car’s trunk or introduce a Nemesis in the form of a helicopter gunship. Make a note of how much Chi each of your heroes has remaining and then cut to "1 hour earlier..."
Now that your players have something to work toward, the plot should be an easy sell. When you mention a thieving biker gang, they’ll perk up their ears. When you dangle a rental car in front of them, they’ll jump on it. Each time they do something like this, you get one step closer to the flashbang and they get one more bonus die in their pool.Photo Credit: freestock (Wikimedia)
When you finally catch up to your opening scene, flash through the rounds of action you’ve already played. Remind everyone of where they ended up, what they were doing, and how much Chi they had left. Then, dive back into the action, but now the players can start using those bonus dice. If they were in over their heads before, this should even things up.
Flashbang dice don’t have to be earned with a detail; players can just grab one or more when it’s time to roll. Each die can only be used once, but they allow players to exceed the dice pool limit for the scene. This is a serious advantage.
Say our example flashbang ended with the arrival of a helicopter gunship. After a quick recap, the players begin a new round. The driver jumps their rental car off a construction sign, to lose the last of the bikers, and two of the other heroes leap onto the helicopter. Everybody takes one or two dice out of the shared pool and rolls them with their normal dice.
If there are any flashbang dice left in the pool after the conflict is resolved, the players can continue to use them as they please. You shouldn’t let these pools get ridiculously huge, however. Six to ten dice are more than enough for a group of 3–5 players.
When you want power with a price, reach for the Devil’s dice. Use this mechanic for volatile powers, dangerous magic, unstable super-weapons, or anything else that might blow up in a player’s face.
Give the player in question a pool of bonus dice to keep in front of them. Four to six dice should be plenty. Any time they use their power/magic/super science device, they can grab as many of these bonus dice as they like, even exceeding the normal dice pool limit.
Here’s the catch: They may have to roll a "self-control check" with the unused dice. (Unless the hero has a dedicated "Self-Control" Trait, roll against the default 2.) If they fail the roll, the figurative feces hit the proverbial fan. That could mean their powers get out of hand or their magic has unintended side effects or their high-tech doodad literally blows up in their face.
Either the Director or the player may decide what happens, but it really should cause some kind of undesirable complications for the hero.
Say you’re a werewolf who doesn’t subscribe to that "full moon" nonsense; you can draw on your feral side to boost your strength, fortitude, senses, whatever any time you want. Use too much, however, and the wolf takes over completely. Devil's dice are perfect for this.
You give the lycanthrope a pool of 5 bonus dice. In one scene, they need to track a fugitive's scent. They earn a few dice describing how they focus their senses, reach down into the dark abyss of their soul, and pull up just a tiny bit of the beast. The player adds 2 bonus dice to their roll and gets plenty of hits.
Then, you have them roll the remaining 3 dice as a self-control check. Their hero doesn’t have a dedicated "Self-Control" Trait, so they’re trying to roll 2 or lower. They get 5,4,2... and keep it under control. One hit is all they need.
Later, the lycanthrope is running down that same fugitive. They narrate a chase sequence in which they partially transform, galloping on all fours. They add 4 of their bonus dice to the roll and get more than enough hits to take out the nemesis... but that only leaves 1 die for their self-control check. Not good odds. They roll a 3 (failure!) and transform completely.
Now, the other players have to save the fugitive from a ravenous hellhound without (one would hope) killing the friend within.Next: Cut-Fu