Game Review: Legends of the Wulin

Another one for RPG Blog Carnival. This got a little wordy.

I wasn’t expecting to like Legends of the Wulin as much as I did. It’s a wuxia-inspired game, and a less-spirits-and-supernatural spiritual successor to Weapons of the Gods, to which the closest I got was a discussion of one of their key mechanics that ended “So you could roll to ‘figure out’ that your archenemy is secretly in love with you and the reason why she’s got you strapped down and is feeding your fingers to rabid koi is because she thinks it’s sexy?” I run with pretty detailed characters and motivations, and get most of my plot ideas from having firm character concepts; I was having none of this. (The Discovery mechanic still exists; we’ll come back to it in a bit, I promise.) Legends of the Wulin, though, sold me on several things: one, the relatively streamlined mechanics; two, the importance of clear thinking, observation and strategy; three, the fact that while your success does depend on the dice, they can’t betray you at the last minute as they can in most other games. And four, probably a combination of these—once I got the hang of it, I unabashedly enjoyed combat.

First—streamlined mechanics. There aren’t all that many stats in Legends of the Wulin, and they all work the exact same way. You roll a set number of dice, count up your pairs/triples/etc, and using those as a basis, add modifiers and get a result. Most of the difference between the kung fu styles isn’t so much what they do as how they fluff what they do, and what sorts of tactics and elements they are strong or weak to. One of the side effects is that a social monster or a curse-slinging priest can be just as effective as a warrior—the main difference is that the warrior is going for conditions that affect the body, while the courtier is going for ones that affect the mind and morale, and the priest is finding ways in which the world is punishing or can punish the opponent for some indiscretion or moral failing. Regardless of what the condition affects, though, it boils down to “change the description to fit this being true or take a penalty”, and the penalties getting increasingly aggravated until they disable the opponent entirely—or players inflicting Marvels that simply interfere with an opponent’s stats.

Second—clear thinking, observation and strategy. One of my running frustrations with most combat systems is that what I put into a given combat turn tends not to be nearly as important as what my dice put into a combat turn. Legends of the Wulin goes in the opposite direction—the success of your fighting is influenced by how well you use the numbers you’ve been given and how effectively you minimize your style’s weaknesses and exploit both its strengths and your opponent’s style’s weaknesses—plus, if you have beneficial conditions like the warrior’s combat approaches, how well you work with those. During one fight playing a Warrior, I could get the equivalent of a die and a half to each of my sets just by utilizing fire somehow, ensuring that my opponent came at me in a linear fashion (easier said than done), and doing something that only selectively showed my true intentions and/or skills. This applies just as firmly to attempting to inflict conditions other than physical damage in combat; insulting foes into incompetence is encouraged, and I think the most devastating successful tactic I saw was the Daoist priest cursing a drunken fighter to be separated from his alcohol. The Discovery system means that characters with the right skills can find traits in their opponents that will slow them down, or traits in their allies that will help them out—and yes, technically the rabid koi thing is possible, but it requires a nigh-on-unachievable roll and will take a lot of inflaming to have more effect than just increasing the innuendo in the dialogue.

Third—that thing with the dice. Legends of the Wulin is unique among the systems I’ve played in that, instead of rolling after you declare your actions, you roll before, and then base what you do on the number of pairs you have and/or whatever dice you might have stocked up from a previous action. So instead of pulling together one of your most powerful abilities only to be foiled at the last minute by rolling 4 on a d20, you can figure out whether a roll is worth using your special techniques on, and which part of the roll you’re going to emphasize if you are using your special techniques. Yes, the dice still have a strong impact, and yes, you can still be screwed over by your opponent’s roll, but at least it isn’t as random.

Like any game system, it isn’t without its potential difficulties. The biggest is the level of lateral thinking playing as anything but a combat primary requires; I have a fellow player who rolled a Courtier but sees the Discovery mechanic as having the GM’s work farmed out to him, and coming up with conditions when you don’t have a plan ahead of time can be tricky. Some of the mechanics that require expending banked dice may never see use in a low-powered character (this includes the special qualities of some weapons, which is a bit of a disappointment), and there are a lot of rather unpredictable (and while I wouldn’t call them game-breaking, potentially overwhelming if not planned for) interactions between kung fu styles, character archetypes, and backgrounds. Last is the issue of Deeds, where characters gain traits that connect them to the world through another player deciding they’ve fulfilled a virtue and giving them points in (most often) a background based on their rating in said virtue—even my group never quite got the hang of finding the right sorts of results to award to people.

On the whole, though, Legends of the Wulin is an excellent game—my one regret is that my group keeps not playing it.

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