Nerding it up with Legends of the Wulin

I’m just gonna gush about the game for about a million words, so let me put this up front.

If you ever enjoyed Exalted, get Legends of the Wulin right now. Jump straight to the bottom of this entry to make that happen.

You know how anywhere you go online for tabletop discussion, about half the conversations revolve around Exalted? And at least 90% of those are about how to fix Exalted because it’s an unplayable mess disguised as a game? I mean, you can tell me it’s not, but even the people who made it are doing this, so you’re basically wrong. you can click here to find the best online games there are.

It’s a sad sight really, like watching news reports about the latest doomsday cult. These pilgrims are swept up in delusions of what could be and of what should have been and the idea of a better world where it’s all real that awaits them, and only them, the true believers. They move from one system hack to another and they’re blind – utterly blind – to what the rest of us can see: the world will not end, their prophets are con men, and this newest total conversion, like all those what came before it, will fail to bring salvation from the sins of Essence attrition and Perfect Defenses.

But then a miracle happened, and they called it Legends of the Wulin. It is everything Exalted wishes it had been. And it’s damn near everything its players have been searching for all these years.

Don’t get me wrong. LotW is so much more than merely a way to play Exalted. It may be so much more than any other RPG you own. But I figure there’s so many people out there who want to play Exalted if only the game would let them, and Legends of the Wulin can scratch many of the same itches with an elegance bordering on the pornographic.

LotW occupies this intriguing and largely untapped space between strongly narrative driven indie games, say FATE and its ilk, and something as tactical or crunchy as modern D&D.

The result is a game of conflict via narrative resolutions with just enough rules that it’s not a bunch of hippy storysharing bullshit. The same rules governing a jump kick apply to biting reparte, curses both literal and metaphorical, social faux pas, detective work, predictions, and so on — even to the degree that not only can you do all these things in the same conflict, the game expects you to be doing some or all of them per turn, and it will not bog down the action.

Legends of the Wulin is a dice pool game with ten-sided dice and two differences. First, the dice pool is called a Lake. Get used to it. Second, instead of building a Lake out of stats and skills, it’s a function of your level. Everyone of the same level has a Lake of the same size and you roll it for everything. This may send some warning signals up your spines, but here’s what you do about that: shut up and keep reading. The Lake works this way to evoke the cultivation of excellence — whether martial or otherwise — that we see in all kung fu artists from wuxia fiction. Also consider that every FATE game is based on a dice pool of four for every single roll of every character and thing ever, so this is not exactly a treacherously untested philosophy.

When you roll your Lake, you try to build sets of matching dice from your roll. The number on the matching dice is the ones digit, the number of them that match is the tens digit. So, if you roll 5 7 3 0 4 7 2, you can get 27 out of that. If there had been three sevens, it’d be a 37. Or, if you really wanted, you could have chosen, say, the lone 4 to get 14 because it’s one (1) matching four (4) — this way, no matter how poorly you roll on your turn, you can attempt to do something. You then add bonuses and relevant penalties to that number for your final result. That probably sounds way more complicated than it is in practice. The only hard part, really, is keeping track of those bonuses and penalties. But even that will become second nature after a few rounds.

In addition to your Lake you have a River. The River is where rolling dice gets amped up. You can put any number of dice from an unused set from any roll into the River up to a total depending on your level — the higher level, the larger your reserve in the River. Those dice sit there and can be flowed out to help boost another roll. In the example roll above, our best set was a 27. But if I had a couple 3s sitting in my River, I could have moved those into the roll to get a 33 instead.

And if you have multiple sets? You can use one for your Attack and another to add a Knockback, Disorient, or Disrupt effect — mechanically these simply apply penalties, but in practice the way they are applied via narrative gives them a whole other level of functionality. Every Attack gets its own Defend roll, and you have to defend against each effect individually using a different set from that roll. Remember, the Defender’s got a River to help out too! Turn your crappy Defense roll into something with more oomphf, or split your River die between several sets to minimize unavoidable damage.

Additionally, some abilities are triggered by flowing a die from your River, so it’s not always your best option to flow River die into your rolls — you might be limiting your options.

Managing your River is this fantastic twist to the standard function of a dice pool. It becomes a great little mini-game of, like, dice poker in every turn. It necessarily makes every single roll matter above and beyond the immediate action the dice represent at that moment. The only downside to this system I can see is it almost requires playing together in person. At a shared table, once the group has gotten the hang of things, combat can fly fast and furious with tons of last minute saves and unforeseen counters and such. It feels very much like the wuxia fiction it emulates. But it seems like you’d lose a lot of that energy and excitement by doing it in a play-by-post or chat environment.

Where there are exceptions to the rules, they are explicitly labeled as such and internally consistent. Not sure if you’re following the exact letter of the law? That’s fine. There’s enough wiggle room built into LotW so you can fudge it to keep things moving instead of bogging down game night with arguments and rules lawyering.

Okay, so that’s the basics of combat. Let’s talk about damage.

There is no damage.

That’s right. No Hit Points, no Health Levels, no Wound Penalties.

Successful Attacks in combat may inflict Ripples which can create Injury Conditions or Chi Conditions — which one depends on the source of the Ripple. If you’re familiar with FATE, you might want to think of Ripples as Stress and Injury Conditions as Consequences.

Anyway, either kind of Condition is an effect defined by the Attacker and based on the narrative of the Attack subject to GM approval/tweaking — you can’t punch a guy in the face and make his leg slice off. Injury/Chi Conditions slap a penalty on all rolls that would be impacted by the nature of the Condition. These build up and you’ll reach a point where you cannot effectively attack or defend, and you are Taken Out. The exact nature of being Taken Out varies wildly and may be defined by your opponent or by the player in question depending on how you got there — it could be anything from beaten unconscious to being held down to fleeing to being killed.

The twist is that the penalties from Conditions can be cancelled if you alter your behavior to avoid them.

That’s right. The sole mechanical impact of damage can be negated, 100% no strings attached, just by acting around it. Maybe that sent another warning signal racing up that spine, but hang in there, it all makes sense.

Legends of the Wulin is all about balancing mechanical power against narrative power. This begins as early as character creation — you gain interesting kung fu abilities via allegiance to the sects that teach them, but you inherit their problems, their enemies, their agendas, and so on.

The penalty of any Condition can be avoided in principle, but it requires giving slices of your narrative power to your foe. You must act in certain ways and avoid acting in other certain ways to negate the penalty. Every Condition limits your options. Every Condition is an opportunity to be manipulated by your enemy. No matter how clever you are, at some point it’ll be impossible to juggle your penalties, the behaviors necessary to avoid them, and what you want to accomplish in a given conflict. Though, ideally, that’s what you’re doing to your opponent.

It may sound like this would make combat drag on forever, but it doesn’t. You’re thinking in traditional RPG terms where a combat ends when everyone on one side is dead. LotW makes you rethink the nature of conflict. At the end of every combat, everyone makes one last roll to gain a Condition based on how many Ripples you accrued in total. Remember, successful Attacks make Ripples, and Ripples may lead to Conditions, though it’s not a guarantee. This final “end” roll is though. It represents the toll of conflict — maybe you’ll gain respect for your enemy, or hatred for the common people you were defending, maybe you’ll find out you were injured far worse than you thought you were in the heat of combat, etc.

So the longer and more brutal the combat, the greater the consequences. This significantly reduces lethality. One or both parties in a given conflict, whether martial or verbal, are far more likely to break off long before murder is on the table. Not only is this a huge change in philosophy from most RPG conflicts, it’s much more evocative of the source material Legends of the Wulin emulates, and it minimizes that bullshit where the players slaughter The Big Bad way too early on.

By the way, all that shit above? It applies to social combat too. Instead of kicks and Injury Conditions, it’s inflaming Passions or Inspirations for Chi Conditions. And since you’re using the same Lake and River for martial combat as for social combat, you are not penalized for building a character who favors insults over combat. You may choose to make a dude who’s not as fit at martial matters, but you won’t be forced into it simply because you want to engage in social machinations.

I mean, all this stuff? Brilliant.

Yet there is more. So much goddamn more!

I mentioned earlier that LotW ties mechanical strength to narrative obligations. Leveling up works like this too — every session your actions create ripples in the world. You change lives, create problems, solve other ones, and all the while you’re gaining a reputation for good or ill whether true or false. You earn a few Experience points in each session, LotW calls it Destiny, and in addition you get some Entanglement Destiny. You can spend Destiny on improving your skills and kung fu, but Entanglement can only be spent on things like your reputation, obligations to people or groups, and the like. Social connections, really, you may have instant likes for Instagram but in real life and in person things are different. Therefore, as your martial power and entanglement in the world increase, so does your level.

The extra fun bit? You get Entanglement points, but the other people at the table choose where yours go based on what you did in that session! And you help to choose where theirs go! Ahhhh!

I ain’t even done!

There are no stats. Your character is defined by kung fu styles, skills, class, and filial obligations — the Entanglements I mentioned. Even here we see a level of abstraction that empowers the player. For example, your class is nothing more than which of the five Secret Arts you have access to. But all the Secret Arts do the same thing — they let you declare bonuses and penalties conditional on character behaviors. But the behaviors that grant bonuses to a Warrior, and the opportunities to apply them, will necessarily differ from those of a Doctor. Just pick the one that best fits the theme of the character you have in mind.

This also means there’s no such thing as a non-combat class. You can certainly build a pacifist, both in the sense that there are kung fu styles catering to non-violence and that you’re free to narrate any attack and its result as harmlessly as you like. But what I mean is: being a Preist, Scholar, Doctor, or Courtier does nothing whatever to penalize your ability to kick exactly as much ass as a Warrior.

Think of Dr. Yang from Iron Monkey. Was he an amazing martial artist because of his medical expertise, or was he a great doctor because of his amazing martial skill? Legends of the Wulin posits that either interpretation makes sense, and it’s up to the player to figure out which way it works for his or her character.

I’m just going to stop here because honestly I could talk about this game all day long. Possibly every day. You can grab the PDF right now for $30. It’s bookmarked all to heck for easy reading. If you are a true member of the jiang hu, though, you’ll want to go whole hog and pre-order the physical book available later this year. It’ll run ya $65 but that includes international shipping from China and you can grab the PDF for free.