Hearts of Wulin: From Wulin To Jianghu (an idealized play report)

Today I GM’d a oneshot game that was poorly executed. The main issue was my failure to connect the whos and the whys before the second hour. Near the end of the third hour it’s clear that there won’t be a satisfying ending, and I couldn’t even ramp up to a punchy confrontation with the antagonist. The cliff-hanger was purely due to time running out, and any intrigue left hanging felt like a whimper. Hours after the game it’s as if my Qi is still blocked from my bad improvisation. Other than sleeping it off, I don’t know how else to feel better about this disappointment. So I’ll try to summarize today’s game and add in what I think would have made it a “better” story. Maybe it’ll clear the Qi blockage, or maybe I’ll just be wasting time. I just like wuxia too much to let it go easily. :sob:

On the river that flows through Zhengyan City, a mid-sized cruise ship was ready to leave the port. At the bow the ship, Lin Tian Nü (Sky Daughter) was hosting a gathering of the wealthiest merchants in town and trying to sell her real estate strategy to the group, perhaps to gain some favors or investors. To her chagrin, two of her admirers sneaked on board before the ship started to coast along the docks.

Na Cang Shuai (Pale Cricket) of the White Mountain Guardians needed time to recover from a severe internal injury at the hands of his sworn brother Yu San Long (Third Dragon). He believed it was an accident, but it nonetheless disqualified him from becoming the next leader of the Guardians. What had been keeping him busy recently, however, was his wish to win the heart of Tian Nü. And using the flute as cover, Cang Shuai made it onto the cruise ship by blending in with the musicians.

Cheng Hai was born into a gang, the Old Forest Demons, but had grown tired of their bloody ways. He fled to the city and fell head-over-heels for the well-to-do Tian Nü, and started to impersonate a merchant in order to get closer to her. News traveled back to the Bandit Queen, who swore vengeance on both her cowardly cousin and this rich lady who stole his heart. Today, however, his disguise and charm were enough to get him onto the ship full of wealthy merchants.

Tian Nü had her sights set on higher social standing, and neither Cang Shuai nor Hai could help her in that regard. She made sure to not give either of them the time of day, not knowing the former was an older brother of her friend Pan, while the latter’s criminal family wanted to take her life as well her riches. Cunning as she was, Tian Nü expected to be robbed as the cruise maintained its slow speed and short distance from shore. She had no fear, because she had sent in an anonymous tip to the Magistrate’s office. She knew her friend would come to her rescue.

“Magistrate Na,” a guardsman reported to Pan, “we received a tip that there will be a robbery at the docks today.”

Out of concern for her friend, Pan immediately summoned a team, until the sudden arrival of her mother put the whole thing on hold.

“Mother, I have to take care of some important business at the docks.”

“Then add another to your to-do list, and make it a priority.” Mrs. Na said, “I heard news that your brother is in town. Find him. And bring me some tea.”

“I will look for him after I stop a robbery.” Pan knew her brother always get better treatment than her.

“What could be more important than your brother?” Mrs. Na said, “You have so many servants who can take care of that other business! I’ll wait here while you go find him.”

Pan was glad to be let out the door, but frustrated that she had to dispatch all of her reliable guards to tend to her mother. Only one guard remained on her team, and he might as well not have come along.

The White Mountain Guardians had a succession ceremony not long ago, transferring the reins of leadership to Yu San Long, the surviving son of the previous leader. As the righteous defender of the region, the Guardians sought to cleanse the land of evil. But San Long wanted more than peace, he wanted power. The path through bureaucracy would be counter-productive to a man of his background, he thought, so why not win the hearts of the people directly? Give alms, promise safety, and show them a good fight.

The two rivals for Tian Nü’s affection had long since become frienemies during their struggle, and they treated each other no differently today. Between wine and a shared sense of being ignored by the host, Cang Shuai and Hai made small talk about their life. Even during breaks in her sales pitch, Tian Nü would rather wave to someone on shore than to greet them.

Magistrate Na Pan gestured wildly for the ship to dock, but Tian Nü seemed to not understand her meaning. A splash from the stern of the ship and a cry of “man overboard” would draw everyone’s attention to the back. Pan decided not to wait for the ship to come to her, instead, she would lightfoot her way onboard. Whether or not her guard could make it there was his problem to solve.

Tian Nü pushed through the spectating crowd and called for someone to save the fallen flutist. Cang Shuai hesitated out of concern of his injury, as well as not wanting to dirty his robe. A wealthy guest asked if Cang Shuai could just play his flute instead, and in that moment Hai dived into the water. The opportunity to impress his crush was too great, he couldn’t simply rely on a rope to do the work.

There were men clinging to the keel of the ship below the waterline, some bearing their tattoo of the Old Forest Demon. Hai hoisted the flutist onto the rope and scrambled back onto the ship in preparation for an attack.

“This outfit doesn’t suit you.” she said, “You should change out of it.” Did she see through his disguise? Hai wasn’t sure, but maybe she was just concerned about his health? Soaked as he was, he was just happy that Tian Nü showed him a glimpse of gratitude.

As Pan stepped onto the railing she also spotted a man climbing along the side of the ship. She pulled him onboard and disarmed him quickly with her paired knives.

“Why are you doing this?” Pan twisted the bandit’s arm behind his back.

“Robbing the rich bastards, what else!” Two other bandits climb over the rails but Pan sent all three of them back into the water.

Cang Shuai hid from view of his sister as he fend off a few bandits with his flute. The family reunion was too soon, as he hadn’t told anyone about his sudden leave of absence from a promising career with the Guardians.

The guests shrieked in fear and clumped together at the center of the deck. A bandit grabbed Hai’s wrist and demanded that he return with them. Luckily it was not overheard by Tian Nü as she lunged at other bandits with a chair. She had no martial arts training, but she had to show the investors her willingness to protect their interest.

Cang Shuai rushed to her aid first, but once again it was Hai who actually dispelled the attack, breaking the wooden flute he “borrowed” from the flutist. Pan was one step too slow, stunned by the presence of the brother she hadn’t seen for years.

The siblings exchanged some choice words, but all Tian Nü could hear was their connection.

“You two are related?” Perhaps this Cang Shuai could be of use to her after all.

“Don’t cancel the cruise.” Cang Shuai insisted, “With all three of us here-”

“But mother expects you back at the office.” Pan said pointedly.

Cang Shuai couldn’t believe Hai’s good fortune. He swallowed his pride and bowed to excuse himself. “While I must go see my mother, you will still have my sister and Hai to keep the ship safe.”

Tian Nü bowed back, and what appeared to be respect in her eyes was the consolation prize Cang Shuai sorely needed at this point.

Back at the Magistrate’s office, Mrs. Na fussed over Cang Shuai as soon as her sharp hearing recognized his footsteps. But for a family that values status in the wulin, her affection was conditional.

“Your father is thinking of retiring as the Lieutenant of the Guardians. We were hoping you could rise to a higher position…” Mrs. Na made her disappointment known. “Why did you leave before the succession ceremony? And not say a word, no less?”

For the second time today, Cang Shuai swallowed his pride and said, “I am no longer fit to carry on the mantle. Perhaps Pan is the better candidate.”

“What brought this on?” His mother could not believe her ears. Cang Shuai had always been groomed to pass on the family tradition while the younger sister chose to serve a different authority.

“Do not pry any further, mother.” Cang Shuai spoke in a restrained tone, careful to walk the fine line between disobedience and assertiveness. “My reasons are my own.”

When Tian Nü dismissed Hai from guard duty, the ex-bandit retreated to a shady tavern where he could hide among “friends” and “borrow” leisurely. He did not expect to find Magistrate Na’s guard there, drunk-dissing his boss with unknown faces.

“She didn’t even cared that I fell in the water!” the out-of-uniform guard said, “I didn’t get paid so little to be treated like that!”

“Why don’t you apply to the Old Forest Demons?” Someone in the crowd said, “They seem to be expanding. Outta the forest and into the river, am I right?”

Hai scooted closer, despite not wanting to be recognized for his face or his tattoo. Though he was not the only one curious about the talk. A young man dressed in white inserted himself into the conversation. “Two tael of silver, for anyone who can tell me where the Bandit Queen is.”

“We don’t snitch on the Queen, lawman.” As the gathering quietly disperses, the drunken guard mumbled, “They won’t talk, trust me. Or I’d have been promoted by now.”

“Why do you want to know?” Hai tested the stranger.

“I want a duel with her.” The stranger’s eyes shined with the glint from the silver. “A duel to the death.”

Hai felt no kinship to his blood-thirsty cousin, and for Tian Nü’s sake he would have wanted to find the Bandit Queen and kill her anyway. So he took a chance. The money looked good too.

In the shadier alleyway outside the tavern, the two made their dealing and the stranger took off in the blink of an eye. Hai was glad that he wasn’t the target.

Pan headed back to the office after Tian Nü wrapped up her event. Her friend seemed extraordinarily calm, Pan thought, despite what could have been a deadly encounter, knowing the infamy of the Old Forest Demons. It was concerning how this countryside gang of highwayman may be moving into the city. Would they have been driven out of the hills by the White Mountain Guardians? And why was it so easy for them to set up today’s attempted robbery? How many people on the docks have been turning a blind eye to their activities? She asked around, seeking guidance even from beggars, and several of them described the Old Forest Demons tattoo that were seen on suspicious men earlier in the day.

“Have you been pressuring your brother to give up his career?” Mrs. Na’s stern voice reached Pan sooner than her stern gaze.

“Wh- How? I haven’t seen him in years.” Pan saw the pained expression on her brother’s face and decided to save him from that line of questioning. “Brother, you have to take me to see that friend of yours, Hai. He may know more than he let on.”

Hai debated with himself about whether to follow the stranger, and finally decided to go in the same direction. Hai, Pan, and Cang Shuai converged on the same location after either trails to the Bandit Queen’s old lair ran cold, or witnesses saw a different man with Hai’s tattoo. Inside the front door of a mid-sized residence that had been broken into, the three of them found no corpses, only shattered valuables and pieces of the Queen’s short sword stuck on a pillar. The Na siblings recognized the sweeping pattern in the dust left behind by someone of the White Mountain Guardians. Pan checked Hai’s wrist for the tattoo, and demanded that he help them track down the gang.

Not far outside the city, Yu San Long had chased the wounded Bandit Queen to a field where she could no longer continue. Her loyal followers dug in for a fight to the death, but she begged her trusted confidants to flee with important information.

“The girl’s too clever, she thought to trap us for that Third Dragon of the Guardians to find us.” She spoke with shortened breaths, “I would’ve killed her, just for that. But not after, after this. Take this letter, to my brother… Proof… We found his, his other chil-”

“Sworn brother!” Cang Shuai jumped into the fray after following the sounds of clashing metal. Pan joined in without hesitation, probably beginning to notice Cang Shuai’s slower reaction time.

Hai, on the other hand, had his eyes trained on the thorn to his side. From a distance, he would let loose an arrow that ended the Bandit Queen for good. Her confidants finally decided to escape while the lower ranks met no mercy under San Long’s Iron Palm.

Tian Nü rode in haste to the scene, trying hard to hide her mixed expression at the situation. Her gaze met with San Long’s, then looked toward Magistrate Na, and bowed.

“Thank you for catching up with these evil-doers so quickly.” Tian Nü dismounted and looked around at all the dead bodies.

You’re safe now, Hai wanted to say, “The city is safe now. The Old Forest Demons are destroyed!”

“Yes, much thanks to the White Mountain Guardians…” Tian Nü gave San Long another meaning look.

“Together with help from Magistrate Na,” San Long returned a bow, “the White Mountain Guardians shall make Zhengyan City safe again. And soon, the whole region.”

Tian Nü dropped by the side of the dead Bandit Queen and searched her body for something. In the end, she stood up empty-handed. “But they kidnapped my friend’s family. That residence they broke into, it belonged to my friend’s family.”

“Then we’ll go and rescue them.” Cang Shuai already forgot any discomfort he felt during the fight. “You can count on us.”

“Oh, how inconsiderate of me.” San Long turned to Cang Shuai with concern painted on his face, “Sworn brother, how is your injury? Have you recovered?”

Pan looked toward her brother, who now displayed the same expression as he had under their mother’s questioning.

“Those men must have taken the ransom letter.” Tian Nü broke the silence, “If they don’t intend to ransom, then the hostages are as good as dead.”

“I will summon the Guardians at once.” San Long and Tian Nü locked eyes again, “Your friend has nothing to fear. The Magistrate can grant us the authority to sweep the region clean. Isn’t that right?”

He turned to Magistrate Na, who could only answer with a frown.

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