Running the game
These rules are designed for roleplaying in Song Dynasty China. The principal source is the traditional Chinese novel The Water Margin. Reading this will give
an idea of the world, and the sort of characters who inhabit it. The story has been interpreted in various forms, including tv shows and films. Other inspirational sources include films such as A Chinese Ghost Story and the slew
of period dramas Hong Kong produced in its wake. These can be useful as well as entertaining. However you may find contradictions between them and what is written here. China is a huge country with a long history, and rather than mixing it all up into some sort of bland Western-based stew, this game focuses on the Song Dynasty of the Water Margin novel. It isn’t completely accurate
(even the novel is full of anachronisms), but I’ve done my best. So you are
welcome to mix-and-match to your heart’s delight, knowing that the game
provides some sort of stable perspective.
Many roleplaying games now come with what amounts to a manifesto. They announce themselves as cutting edge, belonging to one or another style of gaming, complete with requisite jargon. This game doesn’t. It pretends to be nothing other than a roleplaying game about Song Dynasty China. It expresses my roleplaying preferences, but I make no greater claim for them than that I happen to like them, and they have kept me interested in roleplaying since 1978. If that means that I am not ‘cool’, so be it. You can still have a ‘cool’ game with these rules, if you like.
Before starting to play, you will need to decide who is the referee. You can either have a fixed referee, who does that job every session, or you can rotate in some way. For inexperienced players, it’s usually easier to have a fixed referee, at least
until another player has a strong desire to take over as referee. Referee preparations
The referee will need to make sure of the following before the game starts: all players should have player characters (see below)
the referee should have some notes about the place the game starts (you can use the sample town Jinfang for this)
the referee should have an idea of how the game starts—how the characters
meet each other and so on
the referee should have some notes about events which will happen at the start of the game, which can develop into adventure (again, the Jinfang setting features this)
Each player will need the following before the game starts:
a player character
basic knowledge of the setting at the start of the game appropriate to their player character
These rules provide you with the means of describing just about any kind of player character appropriate to the setting. However, I’m not going to recommend that you just give players a free choice. It can be fun, but it can make getting started difficult, and it can make for contrived relationships. Relationships, and social interaction, are important components of this game, so it’s better not to mess them up from the start. That’s why I recommend limits on the types of characters players can choose.
These limits don’t have to be imposed by the referee. If the group discuss what sort of a game they want, they should be able to come up with a group theme that provides a reason why the player characters might interact with each other. Possibilities include:
the player characters are already established as a small outlaw group. the player characters are all related: they all belong to the same clan. the player characters are employed in the same work (they are the staff of a district magistrate, for example, or they are soldiers in the same army unit, or from the same monastery).
the player characters all belong to the same organisation, whether it be a Beggar’s or Merchant’s Guild, a Tea Appreciation club, or a secret society
dedicated to overthrowing the dynasty.
the player characters all live near each other.
the player characters have no connection with each other, but are brought together by some major event at the start of the game. For example, they all happen to be crossing a certain river when their boat is attacked by river pirates. the player characters are actual heroes from the Water Margin, and they meet as described in the story. It is only from the start of the game that events deviate from the story.
The group theme established here will determine the referee’s preparations. By allowing players the freedom to establish their group theme, a referee can use the players’ creative input to her own advantage.
The basic task in the first session of a game is to establish the identities and relationships of the characters. There are two ways to do this: they can be ‘designed’ when the players prepare their characters and the referee prepares the game, or they can ‘emerge’ during the first session of actual play. The latter is more difficult: some level of prior planning is usually necessary.
Once the planning is out of the way and the game starts, what do you actually do? Again, the easiest traditional answer is that the player characters are already together. The referee describes the place so that the players know where their characters are. Players can then describe what their characters look like. And then someone makes an assertion . . .
Can you use a pen? Yes? OK, can you write an explanation of how to use a pen for someone who has never done so? Trickier, eh? You’d probably feel you’d
rather just show them how. That would be much easier. Well, roleplaying’s a bit
like that. It’s not difficult to do, but you wouldn’t think so from reading the
explanations. So if you already know how to roleplay, whew, I’m relieved. If you
don’t, well, finger’s crossed, here goes.
The old chestnuts are the best chestnuts. Yes, roleplaying really is like the let’s
pretend games that most kids play. You pretend to be someone else, somewhere else, and your friends do the same.
Another chestnut of an explanation is that roleplaying is like improvised radio theatre. And yes, it’s like that too.
But obviously it’s also different from both of those, otherwise it wouldn’t have
its own name, and loads of books devoted to it.
Improvisational radio theatre sounds great as explanations go, but it doesn’t
quite fit, because radio plays consist mainly of dialogue. Roleplaying games can have dialogue too, when you really pretend to be your character and talk as if you are them, but they have more besides.
Let’s pretend is another useful explanation, but it has holes too. In let’s pretend,
you physically act out what you’re doing. This makes leaping on to roofs or other
remarkable feats a little problematic.
Roleplaying of the sort this game is concerned with is done without physical acting out. So physical actions are described by players. And as in the two chestnuts above, players can also speak as if they are their character. In other words, players both control the actions of their characters through description, and enact the utterances of their characters through direct speech. Those new to roleplaying often worry that this will cause confusion. Relax, it very rarely does, and on those rare occasions it’s easy to clear it up. If I say:
‘I draw my sword and leap forward, performing a somersault in the air as I go,’
then you know that I am describing the actions of my character (some players would say the name of their character, rather than I, just to make it extra clear). If, on the other hand, I say:
‘Zhao Yong, your continuing presence here is an affront to my senses! Leave, before I set my servants on you with brooms!’ then it’s clear that I am speaking
as my character.
While this is a little different, roleplaying is like both let’s pretend and
improvised theatre in that it involves a group of people creating a story out of a situation without using a predetermined script. The story may not be great literature if written down, but that doesn’t seem to matter. In most cases, what
the story loses in literary merit, it makes up for in immediacy and involvement. Assertions
I like to describe everything a player says as an assertion. By this I mean that everything a player says adds to the story in some way. So everything a player says is an assertion about how the story should proceed. But how do we know who should speak next, and how should we decide whether an assertion really does add to the story?
Actually there is no rule for who speaks save that of common courtesy. Players don’t usually ‘take turns’ to make assertions, although in a few cases it can be a good idea, just to make sure everyone has a chance. So one of the skills of roleplaying is learning how to chip in with assertions that contribute towards the story. Another reason we have a referee, by the way, is to compensate a little for differences in assertiveness. If one player is talking a lot, a referee can intervene and ask another player what they are doing, effectively inviting an assertion.
A trickier case is how we know whether an assertion is ‘true’ or not. For the most
part, we assume that anything that a player says as their character is what the character says. It becomes ‘true’ as soon as the player says it. But actions are a different kettle of fish. If one player suddenly says: ‘I get a sword and chop off
the heads of all the other characters!’ then other players might object. This is the
sort of thing that caused arguments in let’s pretend games. But roleplaying has a
neat solution—though perhaps one that has got a little out of hand in some games—called the rules system.
It works like this: in the game, any assertion that a player makes that affects others is understood to be a provisional reality. It’s a possibility: something that
the player’s character is trying to achieve. If they say it, and none of the other players (including the referee) objects, then it happens: the assertion becomes true. If, on the other hand, someone feels things might not work out the way the player suggested, then they can challenge the assertion. The player who made the assertion then has to use the rules system to make that assertion come true. In many cases, players will simply assume that contentious assertions will be challenged, and go straight to the rules system.
This whole process, rigmarole though it may appear from my description, actually enables disagreements to be smoothed over so easily—and in many
cases entertainingly!—that the story continues without breaking down.
Another of those little jobs the referee has to do is to manage the rules system—
though if players are experienced with it this doesn’t involve all that much extra
So that’s my explanation of roleplaying. Probably as impenetrable as all its predecessors. I can only suggest trying to get to watch a game in progress, or better still, join in!
Ah: one thing I forgot:
You may have been wondering where the story comes from. What do the players do: sit around and chew the fat with each other? Well, they can do that, of course, but I claimed earlier that this was a game of action and adventure. Where does that comes from? Yes, the overworked referee.
Although I said that there is no predetermined script, the referee can nevertheless set up what we call ‘scenarios’. A scenario is a set of possibilities. It
can be written very narrowly, in which case the possibilities are more like probabilities; or it can be written very loosely, describing a situation that can unfold in a multitude of ways. Personally I prefer the latter, as it makes the most of the creative contribution of the players. Generally, the commercial roleplaying games business has tended towards the former, because it gives more control, and insecure scenario writers feel that they can describe themselves as ‘artists’ if they limit the creativity of others. But don’t mind my
ranting: you can do your scenarios whichever way suits you best. The referee plays characters who can meet, befriend, cheat or fight the player characters. These characters enable the referee to present the players with opportunities for adventure. Referee characters will present challenges and introduce situations in which the player characters can get involved. More on this in later sections.
Basic rule system
When an assertion is challenged, resolve the challenge using the rule system. First, make sure you’re clear on what the assertion is. This affects the traits the character can use. It is also essential to know what’s at stake: what’s the
character trying to achieve overall?
To find out whether a character succeeds at something he is trying to do, and how well, all you have to do is follow this basic procedure:
The player checks to see whether the character has any traits that assist him in the task (see Using traits, below). If so, these are added to produce a Chance.
If the character has any special advantage bonus from the situation, this is added to his chance of success.
The referee can then add or subtract a bonus reflecting the difficulty of the action (see Difficulty, below).
Roll two dice. Add them together and compare the result to the chance (see
The result is then interpreted (see Interpretation, below).
The referee should consider what the character is trying to achieve, and decide whether there are any traits that are necessary. If there are, and the character
doesn’t have them, he will suffer a penalty (see Difficulty, below).
The referee has final say on which traits may be used in a given task, but it will usually be obvious which are applicable. For example, a character attempting to run away from an enemy may add any bonus for running to the chance of the task. If the same character had a motivation of Fear towards that person, then that could also be added.
If there is disagreement about whether a trait can be used, a compromise is available: a trait which is relevant, but not completely appropriate, can be halved (round up) and added.
The basic mechanic assumes a challenging task. This is because in the case of easy tasks, it’s assumed that assertions are less likely to be challenged. If the referee judges that the task being attempted is fairly easy, then she can add a bonus of +1 to +5 to the chance. In most cases it won’t be necessary.
Similarly, if the task being attempted is ridiculously difficult, then the referee can subtract between –1 and –5 from the chance. This should only be done for
superhuman feats, or when players make incredibly complex assertions as a means of trying to add extra traits to their chance. The referee should also subtract 5 from the chance if a character tries to do something which requires a certain trait which he doesn’t have.
Sometimes bonuses will also be provided by the result of a previous dice roll. Success
If the roll of the two dice is less than the chance, then you have a success. This basically means that the player’s assertion becomes true.
If the roll is more than the chance, then the character has failed at what they attempted, and suffers the consequences.
Rolls of double one and double six are special cases. They are explained below. Interpretation
Once the dice have been thrown, they can be interpreted in terms of the assertion made. Exactly who does the interpretation is a matter for you to decide. Traditionally the referee decides what it means. But if you think the referee is already too busy or powerful, you can let the player interpret her own result. You need to have a certain level of trust in the group to do things this way.
A success is easy to interpret: it indicates that the character has succeeded in whatever it was he wanted to do. Further interpretation is provided, if necessary, by the particular dice rolled. The degree of success, given by the higher of the two dice, indicates the quality of the result. If a double is rolled, the two dice are added to give a quality.
Don’t misinterpret the quality: the character has still succeeded at whatever they wanted to do.
A failure is usually fairly easy to interpret, so long as you have been careful to establish what is at stake before the dice are rolled. Note that failure doesn’t
always mean that the character hasn’t done what he has tried to. Sometimes it
just means that he hasn’t got the outcome he wanted.
A double six is not usually a good result. If it’s a failure anyway, well, that’s
enough. If the character had a chance of 12 or more then it is a success, but only just (in competitive rolls, explained below, it always loses the competition). The degree of success is 1.
A double one is a snake-eyes. Whatever its results in the mortal world (and it will normally be a success) it makes a connection with the Otherworld, and that’s not a good thing. Whenever you roll a snake-eyes, you should roll again to see if anything bad happened. This will depend on how much bad joss your character has accumulated. The amount of bad joss is the roll’s chance. A failed
roll means nothing special happens. A success in the roll means the character’s
bad joss is reduced by the number on the higher die, but also has some bad luck. Roll two dice and consult the table below. Note that you will need to come up with some explanation within the story for these things happening. Roll Effect
2 Lose the knack: the character’s highest trait bonus is halved for a
number of weeks equal to the number of points of bad joss lost.
3 Lose face: the character’s face bonus is halved. If the character doesn’t
have the face trait, then he acquires a bad reputation (gains the trait of
4 Falsely accused. This may be an accusation of criminal action, or
treachery, disloyalty or any other undesirable behaviour. Or it may be
blackmail, or political, professional or financial pressure, as appropriate.
5 Suffer nightmares. No recovery from sleep, and energy reduced by 2 for
a number of weeks equal to half the number of points of bad joss lost.
6 Lose motivation. The character’s highest personality trait is reduced by
one. If the character doesn’t have any traits describing personality, he
gains the trait of Listless –1.
7–8 Contract a disease. See the Disease section.
9 Demoted: the character loses a point of position trait. A character who
doesn’t have a position trait will lose a point of face.
10 Lose money: lose 1 point of wealth trait bonus.
11 Become afflicted with an excess of Yin Energy. Those who associate with
the character will feel uncomfortable, and will suffer the loss of a point
of bad joss for every day spent in the character’s company. This effect
lasts until cured by a purification ritual, or for a number of weeks equal
to the number of points of bad joss lost by the character.
The above basic system covers a simple situation where a character wants to do something. But often there are complications. What if the character is struggling against another character? What if more than one character is trying to achieve a task? These are resolved by slightly adding to the basic system. Opposed Rolls
If a character tries to do something, but another character tries to stop it happening, then both must roll. Players total their respective characters’ traits:
at least, the ones that can contribute towards this conflict. Unless both have the same scores, one or other of the characters will be have a higher score than the other. The difference in scores is referred to as the superior character’s edge.
The edge functions as a bonus which the superior character can choose to use after dice are rolled. It is added to the higher of the two dice rolled. It thus increases both the total roll and the degree of success. You may notice, though, that it’s possible for it to make the character’s roll into a failure: in this case you don’t have to add the edge, just use the dice as rolled. Adding the edge also
makes doubles impossible. So you can choose not to add the edge in order to take advantage of a doubles roll, if you want to. Oh, and you can’t add your edge on to a double six.
As in the basic rules, if you roll under a character’s chance, he has succeeded . . .
but if the other character also succeeds, then you haven’t achieved exactly what
you wanted. To make it clearer, here’s a table. Let’s refer to one character as甲,
and the opposing character as乙.
乙 succeeds 乙 fails
Whichever has the higher total 甲 succeeds 甲 has a success
result has an opposed success
Whichever has the lower total 甲 fails 乙has a success
roll has a bonus result
If both characters succeed, the character with the higher roll ‘wins’. But this
doesn’t mean they achieve what they wanted. The victory is narrow, or possibly partial. The degree of success of the ‘loser’ is subtracted from the degree of
success of the ‘winner’ to produce a ‘net’ degree of success. It’s possible for this
‘net’ degree of success to be negative. In this case, the victory could be described as Pyrrhic, as it has been achieved at a cost.
In the event of a tied roll, see below.
A character who gets a success has achieved what they set out to achieve. The degree of success indicates just how well it has been achieved, but don’t take a
low value as indicating that the goal hasn’t been achieved—it has been, just not
as completely as the character might have wished.
If both characters fail, then the conflict is unresolved. However, the character with the lower roll has the advantage and can describe the progress of the conflict. Take the higher of the two dice rolled by this character, and subtract the higher of the two dice rolled by the opponent. Half the result is the bonus the character with the advantage can add to his next roll (note that, oddly enough, this ‘bonus’ may occasionally be negative).
In the event of a tied roll, see below.
A tied roll for two successes indicates that both sides have achieved what they were trying to do. The characters must do their best to interpret this in the light of the assertions. It can’t always be pulled off perfectly: if two characters are running a race then this indicates a dead heat, which is really a double failure! A tied roll for failures means that both sides have failed: usually in such a way as to prevent a continuation of the conflict.
Conflicts with more than one roll
In some circumstances, one roll of the dice may not be enough to cover a conflict. If you want to reflect a conflict which has significant stages, then you can divide the whole conflict into more than one rolls. Better to aim for no more than three, though.
The obvious example is fighting—though in fact this can be resolved in a single
roll in some cases.
Structure of combat
In this game, most combats are simplified into two stages. The first stage is where the combatants jockey for position, test their opponent’s weaknesses, and try to get into a position to launch a winning attack. Depending on the combatants, this stage can last quite a lot of time. The second stage is where the combat becomes all-out, and the roll here will usually decide the outcome. This is not the only possible structure, of course. A character may straight away launch a murderous attack on another—this can be resolved in a single roll. Or
after the jockeying stage a character may realise that he is outclassed, and thus give up or run away. On the other hand, in some cases the second stage of the conflict may not resolve the matter, and another roll may be necessary to determine a final outcome.
The important thing is to be clear what is at stake at each stage. In the case of the initial stage of combat described about, what is at stake is the gaining of advantage, and the ability to initiate serious combat from a position of strength. What is at stake in the second stage is usually victory or defeat. It’s possible, though, to refine this. You can specify death or glory, for example. Or you may have more specific needs: what is at stake may be overcoming a guard without that guard being able to alert anyone.