The last month has had me re-reading The Wiles of War: 36 Military Strategies from Ancient China which is a great book in terms of highlighting my favorite parts of Chinese folk-history military stories – a mix of political intrigue, military strategy, and personalities in conflict.
For the last few years I had always thought Pendragon’s mechanics around Character Traits would be a good way to model some of this, so I figured I should write up some rules for using this. (Mind you, enough is being done differently that you don’t need to get the full Pendragon game – you can pick up the 48 page Book of Knights for a few bucks and get what you need to work with here.)
Survival of the State
The biggest difference is the focus of what a campaign looks like. This isn’t Arthurian romance – this is Warring States China – alliances are made, broken, betrayal might happen at any time. No one is going on grand quests and no one really has time to spend pining about romance. The focus is keeping your state together, and perhaps, if you’re bold and ambitious, growing it.
Characters might already be the Dukes or royal families, generals or ministers, or low ranking captains struggling to gain recognition and promotion. A fisherman one day might be the general a year later… under the right conditions.
Conflict may be neighboring states looking for conquest, internal struggles among nobles, rebellions and uprisings… even terrible and incompetent rulers above you.
Unlike the full Pendragon game, I don’t think a giant setting book of historical China is really the way to go. Instead, I’d rather just do a few random rolls to build your state and it’s scenario.
You can roll for the overall strength of your nation, or, if you want to as a group, just pick what kind of campaign you want. A weaker nation has to deal with problems from multiple directions, while a stronger nation has less sources of conflict to deal with. I’m not giving hard mechanics to all the strengths and weaknesses, however you should use them to set up what kinds of conflicts make sense or resources the characters should expect. When you do have situations like morale checks (“Roll on Valorous…” for general troops), you can add a +4 bonus where one of these things would apply, or -4 if it’s a negative.
1 Failing Nation – 1 Strength 3 Weaknesses
2-3 Shakey Nation – 2 Strengths, 2 Weaknesses
4-5 Good Nation – 2 Strengths, 1 Weakness
6 Strong Nation – 3 Strengths, 1 Weakness
1 Mountainous Terrain (good metalworking, mineral deposits, defensive terrain bonus)
2 Good Fields (good amounts of crops every year, more food, larger population)
3 Strong Trade (more wealth, good intel, good roads/riverways)
4 Courageous People (stronger military)
5 Strong Industry (better equipment, better/faster construction)
6 Stable Past (More loyalty from citizens)
1 Divided Noble Clans (create at least 2 NPC clans that are at odds, NPCs of those clans have Hatred of the opposed clans)
2 Flanked by Larger Nations (when you create neighboring nations, they have more troops, resources, etc.)
3 Decrepit Defenses (through peace or neglect, most of your cities are not well suited to withstand assault…)
4 Bandits and Uprisings (a sizesable number of people are causing havoc in your nation)
5 Targeted by another Nation (either because of your resources or a personal vendetta. You’re on the brink of war)
6 Mismanaged Resources (someone in the near past or currently has wasted a lot of the food and wealth…)
Setting Up the Nation, then your characters
You’ve got a couple of key features about what’s going on with your Nation. Give it a name and some description – is it landlocked, does it have major rivers? Is it by the ocean? How stable has it been? Don’t worry, we’ll get to the neighboring countries soon enough.
If you have an idea about your Nation, the players can pick out what kinds of roles they would like to play and make characters for:
A Duke? His prince sons?
The Prime Minister? Any of the other Ministers or Advisors?
A General? Lower ranked captains?
If no player has picked these roles – write them down – you’re going to create them as NPCs: King, Prime Minister, General (Strengths or Weaknesses of your Nation may make you have to create Noble Heads, or Princes, or Bandit Leaders or whatever fits as well).
Starting PCs begin with the following Passions:
Loyalty to Liege 3D6
Love of Family 2D6+6
Loyalty to Nation 3D6
(Notice a character might be more loyal to the Nation than to their Liege… or, vice versa…)
For NPCs, don’t bother rolling all of these up – roll twice on the following chart to find their most relevant Passions and each one will be 2D6+6 (reroll or pick another if you get a duplicate)
3 Loyalty (Liege)
4 Loyalty (Nation)
5 Loyalty (Family)
6 Hatred (pick a person/group) – this is about revenge for a wrong, legitimate or perceived petty slight…
Player characters start with Valorous 15/ Cowardly 5. Pick one of each pair and roll 3D6 to get your Traits per the usual set up in the Book of Knights.
There are no specific religious bonuses as per Pendragon. During this time, it’s the Hundred Schools of Thought – philosophies and religions and ways about how to live are at odds. Sometimes someone is praised for being reckless and courageous, another story will have someone praised for using deception and cynical manipulation to protect their land. While this means there may not be a universal set of traits, you can be sure that most NPCs prefer people who have attitudes like their own.
Again, with NPCs, don’t bother rolling for all of the Traits, you’re going to roll twice to find their most relevant character defining Traits. If the player characters would have known the NPCs for months or years, then their Traits are known, otherwise they are hidden from the players.
1-3 See Chart 1
4-6 See Chart 2
4 Generous / Selfish
5 Honest / Deceitful
6 Just / Arbitrary
1 Merciful / Cruel
2 Modest / Proud
3 Pious / Worldly
4 Prudent / Reckless
5 Temperate / Indulgent
6 Trusting / Suspicious
After you’ve determined which pair, roll again to see which of the two Traits is going to be dominant (1-3 first one, 4-6 second one) and it will be rated at 12 + 1D6.
NPCs – your own Nation and Others
So for the NPCs in your own nation, you should have a couple of Traits, and a Couple of Passions. Finally roll a 3D6 to determine the quality of the NPC at their job. You can consider that their skill rank for doing stuff related to their role.
Look for characters with high Ambition, Hatred, Loyalty, or Honor. Look at their Dominant Traits. Think of how they might go about things in life and how that might play into, or against, the Strengths or Weaknesses your Nation has. If the player characters are other people in positions of power, consider how their own Traits and Passions probably meshed with, or grinded against, the NPCs. Some people are probably tight allies, and some hate each other.
Figure out how many Nations directly border your own – 1D3+1 is a good bet. Now make a set of NPCs for each of them – King, Prime Minister, General – and look to see which sets might be potential threats to your player’s nation.
Running the Game
All the Traits and Passions set up a lot of the tools to do Flag Framing play, with many NPCs easily fitting the 7 Types of Antagonists, the Strengths and Weaknesses plus your own world building of the Nation can use Logistics and Politics conflict tools, and the actual action scenes can pull heavily from the Big List of Combat Stakes.
Most of the usual awards around Glory and Honor apply just the same or are easily modified for Warring States China. You might need to bump a few of the skills over as well, as the cultural context is different, however it’s not too hard to make those adjustments.
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