Friday, July 10, 2015

Playing Feng Shui 2, Introductory Adventure

Over the holiday weekend, I got a group of friends together to play Feng Shui 2, a recently-released tabletop RPG. I backed it on Kickstarter on someone's recommendation, but now I cannot tell you whose: it was one of those cases where someone I respect said, "You should back this," so I did. Marketers of crowdfunded projects, take note.

Feng Shui is a combat-oriented game inspired by Hong Kong action movies. My favorite quotation from the rulebook sums it up, from page 212 about how to write characters' melodramatic hooks into game sessions:

...You might work out who the antagonists are, what they're trying to do, where and in what time juncture they're trying to do it, and which progression of fights will enable the heroes to stop them. (You'll recognize these as the classic 5 Ws of information presentation: who, what, where, when, and fighting.)

This game system matches its inspirational source to a T: a quick jump into action; cinematic, collaboratively authored fight scenes; melodramatic narrative; and only enough connective tissue between fights to get you there.

I'm sure you can read more about the game itself elsewhere. I wanted to share more specific details about my experience running the introductory adventure that comes with the rulebook with my five friends. It was a mixed crowd: two had practically no tabletop RPG experience but lots of board game time, one is an active RPG player, one used to be, and one was a wildcard whose background with games I'm not completely sure. As recommended in the rulebook, I cut out the archetypes and send those out, asking each player to pick the one they would like to play. The archetypes are wonderful: their names and illustrations immediately conjure action movie heroes. We ended up with an Archer, Karate Cop, Masked Avenger, Full-Metal Nutball, and Drifter—even if you don't know the game, you can picture those characters! I restricted them from choosing characters who are not from modern times (Feng Shui crosses at least four time periods) as well as the Driver, since our one-off adventure would not have any chase scenes, and this means fewer rules to remember. It may also be worth noting that I used to run tabletop games all the time, but I was out of it for quite some time. Now, I run the occasional Zorcerer of Zo-inspired game with my sons and I ran half a doomed D&D5e game, but I was approaching the table pretty cold.

[Note: Spoilers about the introductory adventure follow.]

The players all showed up with their archetypes picked, and we had no trouble articulating the concepts and the melodramatic hooks. We did not spend much time on the hooks, knowing that it was a one-off game. However, this exercise made it very easy for the players to buy in to the first scene. It takes place in a community center. The Archer was looking for evidence of corruption, the target of the Masked Avenger's wrath was a donor to the project, the Karate Cop was on duty, the Drifter was in the right place at the right time, and the Full-Metal Nutball could smell impending violence in the air.

Jumping right into the action was easy. I explained the initiative and combat rules, and of course all the heroes charged in to stop the obvious bad guys. Combat requires a bit of mental arithmetic, and I found that I frequently forgot the last step—subtracting Toughness from Smackdown to determine Wound Points. There is promise of an app to help run combat, but it looks like it's planned for iOS only, which doesn't help me (though maybe that would be a good CS222 project to port to Android or a Web app).

All I really needed, though, was a simple tabular presentation of the critical information. I am surprised this was not provided with the adventure, since the book suggests making such a sheet yourself out of scrap paper. I did not prepare mine ahead of time, in part because I wasn't sure how many players would show up, and in part because I was not sure what I needed. If I ran the game again, I would make a simple spreadhsheet that lists, in one place, each villain's name, Defense, Attack, Weapon & Damage, Toughness, and Speed, with a spot for wound points and impairments. It was obnoxious to flip pages to find this information during the fight, taking away from the otherwise elegant rhythm of kicks, punches, bullets, and arrows.

During the battle, I thought the mooks' defense was strangely high. Turns out it was much higher than the mooks encountered later. It must be a typographic error: use 8 instead, not 15.

I am glad that I informed the players that Feng Shui encourages a three-act, three-fight structure. This helped them determine how and when to spend their Fortune points during the afternoon. These are a strictly-depleting resource.

The players had no trouble after the fight assembling themselves into a heroic force of justice, although it took some time for them to determine what to do next. I suspect some of the more risk-averse players, including the regular and old-time tabletop RPG players, were afraid of walking into a trap or getting into an impossible situation. It was here that one of the tabletop-novices really understood the game, as he pointed out, "What's the worst that will happen? If we get captured, we'll fight our way out!" Spot on!

The next battle went by the books, my improvising a few rules rather than bothering to look them up. The players enjoyed getting the drop on the enemies, and it was a quick battle. Here I realized though that the quality of "things that can happen in this battle" deteriorates through the adventure. The rules strongly recommend that everyone have a list of cinematic things for characters to do on their turns, for when inspiration for improvisation fails. The person running the game needs even more of these, of course, but I found the ones provided by the adventure lacking after the first encounter. If I were to run the game again, I would strongly recommend that players come up with stock actions and catch-phrases for their characters, and I would prep a much longer list of setting- and villain-specific actions. I was getting physically tired, and I am sure some of the villains' actions were less interesting than others. Actually, I found that I defaulted to kind of a slapstick description, not when I really wanted to, but it's what came to mind. Better to have some pre-written statements to set the tone.

Between the second and final battle is an opportunity to meet a character who can explain the whole situation, which really ends up being an overview of the entire Feng Shui setting. Without giving away too much, it includes wizards from the distant past, ascended animal spirits from the more recent past, global conspiracy, and futuristic cyborgs, apes, and mutants. As mentioned above, I was getting pretty tired at this point, and I was forgetting some of the names of the factions and characters—there are lots of them!—and I wished I had a prepared statement for this character. If I had created the world, I am sure my improvization would have been fine. In effect, however, this was like an oral exam after having read a novella, and I fear I did not instill in the players a sense of awe and wonder... probably more of a sense of confusion and a desire to skip the cinematic and get back into the action.

The final battle went well, the heroes saved the day, and they became heirs to the legend of the Dragons. It felt a bit like the pilot episode of a series that will probably never air, or if it did, many of the actors would suddenly change.

The game system does an excellent job of encouraging collaborative construction of cinematic moments. We all got into the rhythm of picking a target, rolling the dice, and narrating the action. Almost everyone used their skills during the connective tissue (the time between fights) to advance the story forward, and many of the players referenced each others' success and failures in their own narrative. The rhythm of the game, combined with the fact that it takes place in the theatre of the mind, kept everything moving forward so that we could complete the adventure within the five hours we had.

I do think that five was too many players. If you imagine a Hong Kong action movie, it's easy to think of fights with one, two, maybe three heroes, but five is too many to split screen time. More heroes means more villains, which means it's harder to keep track of who is engaged with whom. Again, the lack of miniatures and hexes is a strength here, but this also means that there's a lot to hold in short term memory. (We also had a screaming baby with us, which didn't really help our focus.)

The introductory adventure tries too hard to introduce the setting too, especially if used as a one-off session. Sure, there's some ape-people and futuristic weaponry, but you cannot do anything with this if you're just meeting once. Even if I were to set a campaign in the Chi War, I would rather take the pace more slowly, introducing the paranormal elements one at a time, so that the players have time to digest it. I suppose this introductory adventure would not have any significant mental weight to players who were familiar with the Chi War, or who had played the first edition of the game, but it was too heavy for my tastes. It would be fairly easy to replace most or all of the futuristic elements of the adventure with organized crime—and then in a campaign, players may realize later that these were part of the global conspiracy.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading the Feng Shui 2 rulebook: it made great reading material for conference travel. It's tempting to think about running the game again or maybe even a short campaign, but it is hard these days for me to carve out the time required. I have enjoyed starting a Viking-inspired PDQ game with my boys a few weeks ago, but who knows, maybe if enough of you put pressure on me, we can bust out the chop-socky action together another time.

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