Author: Phillippe Tromeur
Reviewed by: Ron Edwards, 1999-08-01
Wuthering Heights is seven pages of rules and a character sheet in PDF format, distributed free off the internet from the author's site (a longer version is available in French). I've been wanting to play it for a couple of years, and especially so since its recent revision in March 2001. It's intended for pure celebration, or perhaps parody, of the distraught, uptight dramas of the Bronte sisters and their ilk. For instance, one element of character creation is identifying what about your player-character "floats in the wind." Or, similarly, the best possible mental and physical states are Worried and Tired; i.e. no one is ever Happy or Fine in the Wuthering Heights world.
WHAT IT'S LIKE
This is serious springboard role-playing. You make up your character mainly through random methods, including his or her problems as well as numbers, and you're launched into space, go!
Like Ghost Light, actual physical scores or abilities are completely irrelevant; what matters are the emotions that drive actions. One has three attributes: Rage, Despair, and Oldness. Most actions are delivered or required due to rolls involving these alone. That is, if you're angry enough (roll under your Rage), then the physical actions based on that emotion follow from there. More on the system later.
Surprisingly little prep is needed. In fact, we were initially concerned that the setting and background for a play were too light (i.e. absent), but as Dav discovered, the action starts with very little prompting. All you need is anything that invokes or kicks off a character's problem, and there's no dearth of material. He provided the murder of a young pianist, and thus began, before his eyes, our sordid homosexual love triangle, a plot to murder the murderer, tormented confessions, and horrifying confrontations with our own souls. About halfway through he provided an extramarital affair among some NPCs, and that spurred the final awful chapter.
The photos in the PDF show instances of play, with people dying messily on the gaming table, standing to declaim their actions, and waving their arms around. That's not posed. Our own session became just as melodramatic without any stated need to do so. Let's see - Wherry MacGeary, my naïve pastor, ended up skewering himself with the claymore in his wee chapel, distraught over the jail-cell suicide of the deranged Charlie Higglesbottom, who'd murdered the vile killer of poor what's-his-name, who was Wherry's secret lover - oh God, and there was all sorts of other stuff in there too. Halfway through, someone mentioned that the characters now all needed to have big black corrupted shadows under their eyes, as in Edward Gorey illustrations. We were clutching our chests and crying out in heartfelt despair just like the guys in the PDF photos.
How does the game system result in such carnage, not to mention player-intensity? Basically, the system is fabulous, and in fact represents an elegant improvement on some principles found in a few well-known games.
Again, you have three scores, the most important being Rage and Despair; they are rated on a percentile scale. Various actions require rolling either UNDER or OVER one's score. For instance, to make an important decision, you must roll over your Despair (the more despairing you are, the harder it is), but to have a wise insight, you must roll under your Oldness. So functionally, there are six "categories" of acts to perform in terms of the Fortune resolutions. There are a couple of extra steps involved in things like murder, suicide, or opposed actions like duels.
Rage and Despair are pretty labile; they go up or down all the time, depending on events that affect the character. The GM often rolls d10/2 and assigns a loss or gain, and these in themselves may prompt acts. For instance, if you lose 5 or more Despair at once, you suffer from a fit of joy, which of course is usually seized upon by the player as an opportunity to do something the character is going to regret.
The implications are hilarious and lead to great role-playing, both in the sense of histrionics and in the sense of driving plot events. I especially like the following:
1) In order to be sincere, one must roll beneath his Despair. Think about it. This means that in order to LIE, no roll is necessary; i.e., hypocrisy is the default behavior. It also means that the only reason one DOESN'T lie is because he "just doesn't care anymore," momentarily. That is just too funny.
2) Upon losing or gaining a lot of either Rage or Despair, extreme actions are required. Afterwards, you gain (or lose) a bit back. Without going into the math, there's a small chance that the amount gained back actually prompts the extreme effect of the reverse emotion! This is not likely to happen very often, but when it does, you get the most outrageous see-sawing mood swings. It's definitely worth the wait.
3) Suicide isn't ever required through the system, but it seems perfectly reasonable in a grotesque literary fashion, now and then. The "nipping off to kill myself now" announcement isn't to be found in any other RPG I can think of. The really fun part is not being able to figure out what's more depressing, success or failure.
4) We didn't get a chance (due to my PC not successfully doing himself in early enough) to enjoy the "becoming a ghost" rules, but on paper they're very clever. Next time, perhaps.
SYSTEM GAME-GEEK ANALYSIS
It took me a bit to realize that the behavior-system is the same as the more familiar opposed-trait method from Pendragon, but I think that Wuthering Heights' version is more easily understood and more elegant, mathematically. Here's the idea.
Think of an opposed pair of behavioral categories, with a probabilistic range of numbers in between. Think of a "sliding toggle" that rates, based on its position, how much of the range on each side is represented or governed by each category. On each side, under each category, is a long list of possible player-character actions.
In Pendragon, you might have "Mercy" on one side and "Cruelty" on the other, each rated at 1-20, with the total always being 20. If you do something cruel or merciful, you receive a "check" on that side of the dichotomy, and between sessions, checks warrant a roll to see whether you lose a point on one side and gain a point on the other (as appropriate to the action). The more of the 20-point range you have on one side, the easier it is to keep racking it up.
In Wuthering Heights, it's the "toggle" that's named ("Rage") and numbered, not the sides, so you have one number to roll over or under on one range, not two to roll separately on interacting ranges. If you were to translate Rage in Wuthering Heights into Pendragon terms, you'd have Violence and Apathy on each side.
Aside from the frequency of instances (in WH, these rolls come a mile a minute), the math works out pretty much the same as in Pendragon and is easier for people to understand, based on the roll under-or-over thing method. And in WH, it is the ONLY resolution system for actions, not an add-on as in Pendragon and Unknown Armies.
Pendragon aficionados are familiar as well with the required "check," meaning that the GM may call for a test of one of the sides, the results of which dictate a response. This is equivalent in spirit to the Wuthering Heights effect of gaining/losing a lot, which also results in a required response. So we see a very similar mix of dice-dictated actions DERIVED from the scale, as well as player-voluntary actions that AFFECT the scale.
I think that the idea behind Wuthering Heights' resolution method should be developed and applied to a lot of RPGs, including those of more serious intent and content. It's tremendously easy to understand and apply, and it offers a good mix of "what the dice say" and player control. I see it as a perfect blend of Ghost Light (using the emotions AS the resolvers, letting the physical side of things simply reflect the emotional side) and Pendragon (shifting values and within-character conflicts, as reflected by time and events).
[In passing, I tip the hat to Call of Cthulhu, for introducing personality mechanics to role-playing games, and to Unknown Armies and Fading Suns, both of which provide methods evolved from Cthulhu and Pendragon. All of these represent a "family" of personality mechanics, which may be compared to the adjective-driven "family" begun by Champions and continued through most RPGs since then, like Vampire, L5R, and many others.]
Most of the problems provide plenty of room for scandal or self-torment, but a couple seem fairly undramatic, like mute or deaf. I think more "Oh heavens no" problems are better than disability-type problems.
I strongly suggest that the text should provide guidelines for the degree of preparation and contribution by the GM, especially to start. I would like to see a breakdown of the types of general crises that bring people physically together (and emotionally at odds) in this genre, with a few examples of how they can be used to kick off a session of play.
Also, we borrowed a page from Soap and established a couple of relationships among player-characters at the outset of play. That might do well in the rules too.
On a related note, at some point in the middle of a session, the GM might chime in with some information or usable "handles" to bring things together or provide room for a desperate ploy. I see Wuthering Heights as moving in two "acts," the first of which involves everyone getting neck deep in torment or intrigue, and the second consisting of the final resolutions. A key revelation or logistic event can provide the transition between the two.
Our suggestions about the behavioral rules are few, as in general they work wonderfully.
1) As it stands, if you lose lots of Rage, or gain lots of Despair, the necessary behaviors are very similar - apathy, catatonia. Given my point above about Despair and being sincere, I suggest that the behavior required upon gaining lots of Despair be changed, from catatonia to having to deliver a heartfelt confession to someone.
2) When Rage or Despair reach extreme levels, then some "extraordinary" results are listed. We were disappointed during play to discover that these results were merely repeats of the results of losing or gaining, which we'd already seen. We wanted great big extreme results, new results, new torments, new agonies.
One issue that's left entirely unexplained is the time and scope of actions. A "violent action" as resolved by rolling under one's Rage - is that good enough to cover wrecking a whole roomful of paintings, or beating an innocent servant to within an inch of his life? Or should it only resolve "one round" of such actions? I'm sure Tromeur runs these issues very clearly, but for the game to be maximally usable by others, the rules should include some guidelines, or at least mention that such things may be judged by the GM and players.
Similarly, scene-transition guidelines at all ranges seem like a good idea. When is it OK to suggest that six months go by? Is this entirely under the GM's control, or may a player do so, based on the outcome of an action? Since stories in this genre often have long lapses in time, I think the rules ought to address some standards for who may influence these things.
Despite its parodic and overwrought subject matter, Wuthering Heights is a solid role-playing package. It's playable, it's fun, it's original, and it works. Its behavior mechanics deserve serious scrutiny from all RPG designers interested in such things. This is one of the strongest "fun little" games I've seen - more so than I expected just from reading it, in fact - and it illustrates yet again that a free short-guy on the internet can stand with any book-published game.