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Martial Arts, Bullets, Melodrama And 100 Mooks

In many ways, it seems tabletop gaming, of the role-playing sort, has temporarily died. Well, that is to say, what was the ‘regular’ Sunday gaming has died.

One alternative to fill this gap are gaming days, an attempt to deliver something different to a one-shot, in that it’s longer (it can encompass 2-3 actual sessions), and also mix it up with some food and an opportunity to socialise. We’ve done two so far: an urban fantasy game using Urban Shadows and a techno-fantasy using Fantasy Age.

I decided to give one a shot using Fengshui.

Fengshui And I Have History

There are a handful of games that heavily influenced my approach to role-playing games, some of these I ran, but some of them I never actually got to use. I was influenced heavily by their approach. It’s probably more to say they were games that confirmed how I’d like to run games and enriched that view.

One of those games was Fengshui and I never got to run it (or play it for that matter).

Fengshui was released in 1996. It was ahead of its time because it advocated a heavy genre emulation approach, aggressive action film scene framing and editing (though it never used those words) and literally ditched virtually every tabletop role-playing sacred cow of the time (encumbrance, a sense of verisimilitude of simulation and a host of other things). It wasn’t the only game doing this sort of thing but it was one of the ones seriously pushing the envelope and it had Robin D Laws name on it. Robin D Laws had pushed the traditions to one side before, namely in Over the Edge (another influence I never ran or played) which was essentially the source material for many a story game some years later later.

I was looking to give a game that had influenced me so much a shot, while being aware gaming and myself had moved on.

The System…The Good Bits

The main intriguing element of the Fengshui system is it embeds its genre emulation into the rules. This is different from a lot of games lately which tend not to do that, the genre emulation is largely up to the players at the table.

One of my favourite systems works like this: Fate. Pretty much all the genre emulation is in the Aspects the players have and how the table defines them, the rules for them are exactly the same no matter what you’re doing. While this works, I was interested in giving something a shot that embeds the genre in the different stats of each archetype and the various ‘powers’ they have.

The Assassin can cut through a hundred mooks in a blaze of bullets and glory because of his Carnival of Carnage ability. The Martial Artist can do the whole fight against the Crazy 88 thing because she can activate an ability that gives her a 50% chance of killing any mook that attacks her before there attack result is applied. These examples are spread across all the various archetypes. It both makes the characters awesome and makes them perfect incarnations of what they’ve seen characters that exemplify those archetypes do in action films. I guess the alternative argument is, without a lot of player colour being added all the time, they fall into ruts. Awesome ruts, but still ruts.

I liked the system in action in the sense it was relatively quick and easy. I liked the way the shot counter worked, though that would have been more interesting if more interrupts, like dodges, etc, had to be used. The powers did define the characters and they worked well.

The System…The Iffy Bits

There was some disadvantages, at least in the one session we played.

It felt a bit swingy, but this is probably it working as intended, due to the exploding dice. The Old Master was literally taken out due to an exploding die on a featured enemy and a high result on a mook pre-rolled sheet (and his old many toughness, he’s designed not to get hit). It seems hard to ‘balance’ the enemies so the fight has flow to get that sense of struggle. I’m not sure any of the fights felt challenging in that edge of your seat way. I have the same problems in all games that utilise a very narrow dice rolling range, as each +1 difference is extremely large. Possibly, the enemies should have had their skill levels boosted a bit to force the case, push the players to dodge a bit more, which would have impacted the resources in the game (both fortune points and shot costs).

Regrettably, one of the characters just didn’t seem to have as much impact in the game as the others. The Big Bruiser did not feel as powerful as the rest, primarily due to his attack role being +3 lower than everyone else. This is substantial. He was okay defensively, he just found it very hard to hit anything consistently. This was a bit frustrating, so much so we bumped his skill up a bit in the second half of the game. As you can imagine, this also capped the enemies stats unless I ‘designed specific enemies for specific heroes’.

Despite the cool powers the players have, it still means, mechanically, the players had only a few things they could do. It meant each archetype would fall into certain strategies and roles – such as the Assassin mowing down mooks, etc. The ‘excitement’ of the combat is very reliant on the players spicing it up with description, which It thing is fine. That’s what it used to be about, right? But in a game that’s so fast paced and with so many mooks it can be hard to think up something awesome ALL the time.

Ultimately, would I play the game again? Probably, if people were keen. Would I play it on a very regular basis? Probably not. I see it as a sort of special event sort of game that is best run infrequently. I’m not 100% sure it would holds its interest level when run on a regular basis. I’m sure many people differ on this front, but that’s what I felt coming out of it.

What About the Session Itself?

I’ll admit, I came away not sure, as I’ve got a bit of distance from it I actually thought it was really good but with some things that could have gone better (there is always something).

I think the great stuff can be condensed as follows:-

  • The episode titles were great and I actually remembered to do it more than I thought
  • The music really worked, much more than I thought it would (though I had put some thought into it), based on other games which it’s used.
  • I think the opening scenes worked exactly as intended, great character introductions, an easy route into the game and it allowed us to play with the system a bit.
  • There was some great stuff: an Assassin taking on five helicopters with a sniper rifle; the ancient Master’s windmill kicks (sheeet!); the one-on-one battle with the Martial Arts student in the bank vault due to the imagery; the Big Bruiser throwing a roulette table, and probably others I’m forgetting.
  • A hopping vampire combat, despite going entirely different than intended, and involving just a horde of mooks (so the players were rarely in danger), seemed to go really well due to a mixture of music (thank you free music, in this case, and Critical Role for point me to it) and visuals.
  • Did I say the music was great? Yeah, that was intended but still very surprising. Any game that can have a Britney Spears track being used and it add to the game wins in my view….

I think were it felt it could have went better can be condensed to the following:-

  • At times I felt I was info dumping and being a bit heavy-handed with what ‘to do next’, this was due to my terrible ‘in session’ memory and ‘things never surviving contact with the players’ meaning some information became hard to impart organically in dramatic situations due to how events played out. When that happens I’ll lean towards getting info out there rather than the navel gazing.
  • My terrible ‘in session’ memory forgetting things like the episode titles and the music in a couple of scenes. Minor, but annoying.
  • The usual ‘one shot’ problems in terms of character narrative – it tends to be absent (which enhances the feeling the players aren’t engaged) – that results in very little actual dramatic scenes until a sort of ‘end run to resolve the situations in play’ in what is essentially the epilogue.
  • As mentioned, The Big Bruiser just seemed at odds statistically with the rest of the characters due all the other character being top of tree on attack abilities.
  • A part of me thinks I should have kept it purely contemporary and not involved the Netherworld, but then I go back to the hopping vampires so it was probably worth it. I will say it was probably good I didn’t need the extra scenes which went to the future…might have been a step too far.
  • The system, due to its ‘swing’, the feeling characters followed set routes into the combat and I think it may be a game better in short, focused bursts than long sessions or longer campaigns (though I’m sure many people differ on that).
  • At times it probably felt a bit too abridge and ‘moving too fast’. Yeah, those that know me, probably can’t believe I just said that.

If I’d written this closer to the session I’d have probably been a bit more negative, but now I’ve gained some distance from it I think, usual one shot problems aside, the fact I was managing such a long session for the first time, it was pretty damned good.

There Was An Experiment That Went Well

It may not be obvious to anyone but me, but I am changing the way I run games. You have to understand I effectively stopped GM’ing in 1996, with some aborted attempts since then (stopped at characters, had a session, etc). There was nothing wrong with what I was doing back then, but it needs to change a bit. Each has been an exercise in freeing myself on some of my approaches to gaming that don’t really work any longer due to dynamics, time, systems, whatever.

Fate Fading Suns was an experiment in ‘how to have a big plot but a lot of freedom’ and I think that worked well. I have no idea if that came across in the actual game to anyone but me but that game wasn’t plotted (it might have seemed like it was tightly plotted) as such it was more that it had beats. Lots of stuff went entirely differently than what I might have imagined due to player action which then enhanced the conflict beats the game was sorting of tracking against. Basically, it planned strategically, but tactically it was totally open (in a way, thank you MBA). This was officially awesome.

The experiment in Fengshui was on something different. I’ve often felt the need to fill in the gaps and heavily facilitate how players get from one scene to another. Basically, I’m very nervous if I don’t have the plot logic sorted. This happens, they need to get to the bank and steal something so I must have an idea of how they can get into that bank..and so on. If the players don’t think of something it’ll just stop! This game experiment with…the characters, mechanically, have the have skills that make them awesome, just make up shit on how you infiltrate the casino or entering a heavily guarded ‘Bond base’ in China, etc. This allows me in the future to concentrate on the dramatic and exciting conflict stuff and go, you know what, the players will get between in some awesome way I’m yet to discover.

It went really well. I’ll freely admit this was a experiment almost entirely focused on that Nights Black Agents book I keep eyeing up purely because that game is purely driven on the Alias model of ‘someone will make up shit on how to get from dramatically important moment to dramatically important moment’ and the characters are awesome enough to facilitate it with skills and players awesome enough to imagine it. The skills shit up moments were used twice in the gaming day and both were brilliant and went in ways that were better as a group than what one person might have thought of individually.

This translated into how awesome the use of skilled characters and the cover and network rules will be in Nights Black Agents if you just let that shit flow.

Would I Do It Again?

I think so. This has changed over time. I still don’t think I’ve mastered these long sessions in terms of getting as much value from them as I like. It still felt like a one-shot, albeit a longer one, with all the usual problems that entails. I’ll be honest, while I’ve enjoyed these ‘day long’ experiments, they’ve all had different weaknesses due to the format that means I’ve not enjoyed them as much as a regular session sort of set-up. The ‘gaming day’ needs to start to feel like it is 2-3 sessions of play in one day, which is different!

On thinking about it more, I actually have numerous ideas in my head and they are tending to fall into two types: the ones that are probably good in this day long format, if I can get mastery over some of the disadvantages, and others that are longer but probably 3-6 (4 being a good bet) session sort of affairs. So even these fall below the typical season / campaign length of around 8 – 12 session we tended to do traditionally (and then sometimes multiple of those in ‘seasons’, but 8-12 without changing it up or some sense of a conclusion, tended to be a constant).

On that basis I think I will, but I still need to find a mechanism for some of those longer ideas that are more towards the traditional model, albeit relatively short in length. I also think it’s great the shorter structures allow different people to take part.

And I wrote this with the Fengshui RPG playlist on because the music was awesome…which is worth saying one last time…..

About Ian O'Rourke

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