Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Wushu (longer review-ish, plus Wushu/7th Sea hybrid)

Two days ago, I GM'd Wushu for the first time. I'd played it once before, a week and a half ago. This week's game was set in the world of Theah, the setting of 7th Sea. Here's some observations:
  • In general, I really like Wushu. The best innovation it has is that the paradigm of "state what you want to do, then roll to see if you do it" has been done away with. Instead, you state what happens, and once it's been said, it happens. If you say "I stab him" then you stab him. The die roll determines how effective the stab is, but the die roll can't make you miss.
  • The second best innovation (which, honestly, is just the second half of the first innovation) is that you aren't describing a single action, nor just your own actions. When you watch a sword fight in a movie, it's not a matter of one person moves, then swings, then the other person moves, then swings, then the whole series repeats. Instead, the fight takes both parties all around the scenery, and involves aggressive flurries, combo moves, and colorful stunts. If you say "I swing across the room on the chandelier, and drop behind him. He spins around just in time to barely parry my initial assault. I beat my blade against his several times, making openings and forcing him to give ground all the while. He manages a few counter-attacks, but eventually I back him in to the corner from whence there's no escape, and that's when I carve my initials into his shirt," it happens. If someone narrates an action that your character would never do, you may invoke a veto, but otherwise what's said happens, no matter who said it.
  • Wushu is light and flexible, and readily ported to other settings. It's easy to use it to handle games (like 7th Sea) that have great, fleshed-out settings, but slightly clunky rules sets. A complicated system from 7th Sea, like a Swordsman School or any one of the 5(+) styles of Full-Blooded Sorcery, can be boiled down to a single Wushu attribute. Rather than having to memorize and understand a complicated system, you can use it as a summary and springboard for stunts and ideas. This will of course work best when all or most of the players have read large sections of the complicated rulebooks, so that everyone knows roughly the kinds of things various powers are allowed to do within the setting. It's still worth buying and reading more complicated games, but you now only have to understand the nutshell concepts, not the fiddly minutia.
That said, the Wushu system isn't without its flaws. It's a good system, but not perfect.

  • The decision to make low dice successes on pool rolls was a strange one. Players are trained by the majority of games to feel like a high roll is a good roll. Going against that isn't a big deal, but neither would it have been a terrible burden to invert the number system. Doing so would have made character creation a tiny bit more difficult to explain, but certainly no harder to play. It's also worth noting that the game uses two types of rolls: pool rolls and scab rolls. One one type of roll you want to roll low, on the other you want to roll high, and there's no mechanical need for this discrepancy. Given the choice between two decisions, one of which will save 1-2 paragraphs in the rule book, and the other makes play more intuitive and more psychologically rewarding, I know which decision I would have made.
  • Wushu Open has pretty much nothing in terms of timing rules. With the right group, that's a big plus, but I think they may be limiting their market to experienced RPG groups by doing so. The lack of timing is the only thing that keeps this from being the sort of RPG to cut your teeth on. New players, especially those new to gaming (not just new to this game) need a little more structure. Without it, more boisterous players will hog the glory while quieter casual gamers sit around doing nothing. Similarly, inexperienced GMs would probably get overwhelmed (out-of-character) the first time the PCs decided to dogpile on an NPC Nemesis.
  • Wushu is at it's best when the PCs are heroes. The lack of timing rules, coupled with the lack of actions for mooks, requires the villains to do some villainous at the start of the scene to justify the PCs smacking them around for the rest of the scene. If the PCs are anti-heroes, or if the NPC villains are initially passive, flaws with the (lack of a) timing system become much more pronounced.
  • Likewise, the mook battles don't leave much for the GM to do. This is especially pronounced in a one-player game, where by the rules, a GM's only action in a minor fight scene might be to announce the arrival of the mooks. With 2 or more PCs, there'd be more interaction, but with 1 PC and a GM it's almost a solitaire game at points.
  • Our 7th Sea / Wushu hybrid game was a one-player (plus GM) scenario, in which Sarah's character was a Pirate. Man, did that ever make the first scene awkward! She picked [as in started] the fight, and at cannon-range it's pretty much just a mook battle, so there wasn't much for me to do. She'd only played Wushu once before (and never actually RP'd a high-seas cannon battle) so she was having a hard time getting into the feel of the system and what kind of stunts are appropriate during a cannonade. The only way I could help was by breaking the rules. Which I did eventually, and thus it all worked out, but the first 5 minutes were really odd. Having learned that lesson, it won't be a problem the next time we play.
  • Other areas that are a little weird in the Wushu Open rules is the transition from 'acting' to 'action'. There's really no GMing advice in Wushu Open, and with no timing rules, it's hard to say exactly when a parlay becomes a melee. Again, this is the type of problem that sorts itself out with familiarity and experience with the system, but it's gonna be slightly awkward the first time it happens. (Why would this be awkward in Wushu, when it isn't in most other games? Because in Wushu, when you act, you aren't just narrating your own actions, you're also saying what the foes are doing, what's happening in the background, etc. But prior to the fight breaking out, the GM is presumably the one playing the NPC. When and how the transition happens isn't clearly defined).
  • The flaw/weakness system in Wushu is just so-so. On paper it looks good, but in practice it doesn't quite feel right. The vampire example (given in the Wushu Open rules file) doesn't just make Vampires take more damage when struck by a wooden stake, it makes the Vampire significantly less effective on it's own attacks, less capable of using it's magic, etc, any time the foe is holding a stake. It doesn't seem logical that holding a stake should protect me from his hypnotic gaze.
  • When we do the 7th Sea / Wushu hybrid again (which we will since, despite all the above complaints, we both really enjoyed it) I have a "fix" to solve the weakness of weaknesses. We'll do away with the weakness rules as written. Instead, each PC (and major NPC) will have a Flaw or Hubris, chosen from the corresponding charts in the 7th Sea books. Obviously, we won't have Drama Dice to activate them as one would in 7th Sea. So instead, the Flaw will be revealed (a peek behind the curtain, so to speak) at the start of the scene. That way all parties involved know what the weak spot of the enemy is. Rather than affecting dice rolls, it'll just be stated that no one can use a veto to over-ride a situation where a described action plays into their Flaw/Hubris.
  • Wushu has no experience system or character advancement. That makes it somewhat unappealing for a long-term campaign. If it had a finer scale of gradation (d10 instead of d6, for example) it might better support an XP system, and thus have longer legs. As is, it's a sweet little one-shot engine.
For those now interested in Wushu, here's some links:
  1. download Wushu Open the free version
  2. various Wushu PDF books priced from $2 to $5 at drivethruRPG
  3. Wushu resources
  4. a very thorough and insightful Wushu review
  5. a short Wikipedia article (which doesn't meet their notability guidelines, and thus may disappear sometime soon).

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