When Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon came out twenty years ago, it exposed a new audience to a new side of the wuxia genre. There were plenty of western fans of the exquisite fight sequences, but many also were hooked on the stoic romance between the main characters. This has always been part of the genre but American releases of these films tended to focus on ones with hard-hitting action. Asian fantasy has followed a similar path within role-playing games. Most spend a lot of time focusing on replicating the swordfights because that’s easier to do for most tables. Hearts of Wulin, from designers Lowell Francis and Joyce Ch*ng, puts the romance right there in the title. They sent along a review copy for me to read, so let’s see if this game is worthy of the blade.
The game uses a Powered By The Apocalypse structure. Characters have stats that are based on the five Chinese elements: Fire, earth, metal water and wood. Unlike most PbtA games, moves aren’t connected to specific elements. The player chooses what they roll based on why they are taking action. The elements have emotional connotations which inform the player and the GM why they are doing something. Not only does this inform roleplaying, it guides the GM how to shape reactions to the roll and it also opens up a player to losing that element should they fail. A marked element can’t be used and the main way a player removes those marks is the comfort and support move to get in touch with their feelings. I first saw a system like this in The Veil and it really appeals to me as a player and storyteller for games like this. Asking why a character does something in a genre where emotion plays such a big role is a great bit of genre emulation.
Another way Hearts of Wulin tweaks the PbtA formula is through Entanglements. Rather than the usual bonds that pre-establish why the PCs are hanging out, Entanglements make those connections and then complicates them. There’s the usual Mad Lib fill in the plan, but the statement involves two characters in this game. Your character loves A, for example, but B’s family has already arranged a marriage between them. Or your character learned the secret Fifteen Crane Sword technique from C, but D thinks they should be the bearer of the sword. Not only do these entanglements bring the characters together but they also set up conflicts that will drive drama and trigger the Inner Conflict move, which checks to see if your character holds it together. Chances are you do for a while, but inevitably someone will roll a 6 or less and the game encourages the GM to make a hard move for maximum drama.
But what if you aren’t in the mood for love? There’s still space in this game for you. Players are encouraged to take one romantic and one general Entanglement, but the game explicitly says it’s okay if people take two general entanglements. In fact the game’s treatment of gender and romance is very open. It discusses queer, asexual and aromantic aspects of romance, how the genre reflects those elements and safety tools for everyone involved. It reminds me of the enthusiastic consent of Thirsty Sword Lesbians but in a genre that’s a little more reserved. Romances in these stories are more about moments of touch and longing glances rather than brash flirting or making out. Tables not ready to jump into the deep end of adding romance to their games might find dipping a toe in here to be more to their liking.
The best PbtA games double as guides on the genre and Hearts of Wulin is one of the best genre guides I have read in a long time. The book provides excellent resources, discussing origins, themes and examples to watch for inspiration. It also offers direct adjustments for variations on these stories. In addition to the base game, the book discusses how to run a game full of courtly intrigue or games with explicit supernatural elements. Modified playbooks are provided for each variant, which almost makes it seem like three games in one are included in the book.
Fans of swashbuckling, romance and martial arts will find a lot to love in Hearts of Wulin.
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