Thursday, January 19, 2017

Blam Blam Epigram: Playing Feng Shui 2 (Part One: System)

I backed the Feng Shui 2 Kickstarter-- full disclosure. Why? Well back in the day I dug Shadowfist but had already invested in too many CCGs. I skipped it despite the amazing backstory. Instead I flipped through other people’s cards to piece that together. So when Daedalus Entertainment’s full-color Feng Shui rpg arrived, I bought it immediately. Its reality war concept appeal to me. I also liked how Feng Shui used the archetypes to sell the setting. The game offered new approaches to combat. Laws’ discussion of mooks and set-piece fights changed my GMing.

But I never actually ran Feng Shui. We were too wrapped up in GURPS, Storyteller, and Champions. But FS stuck in my head. Cut forward to 2014 and a promised new edition. I backed for the hardcover and a few choice options. I wanted to see the original odd system married to a more modern game design approach. Feng Shui 2 was probably the Kickstarter game I burned hottest for. But somewhere between the time I backed it and I actually got a copy in the mail, my interest shifted. Now I wasn’t sure I could get a campaign out of Feng Shui. Our group’s devotion to long-play also meant f2f test drives weren’t a realistic option.

But running the Thursday night TGIT online series for The Gauntlet Hangouts has opened new options. I’ve been able to get my “boughten & unplayed” rpgs to the table. Spoiler: while it looks like I’m showcasing a wide assortment, I’m actually working through my backlog.

I’ve just finished up two sessions of Feng Shui 2, which I recorded. I ran from the scenario included in the core book: “Shadow of the Future of the Apes.” So there’s spoilers in there. If you like RPG Actual Play, you can check those out here (Session One & Session Two)

So Feng Shui 2.

It’s a good game. The book looks awesome; it’s well laid out and gorgeously illustrated. It moves you quickly through the rules in a breezy way. The designer’s voice echoes on every page. You’ll find some character to go gaga over. Feng Shui 2 has the massive list of them—each with different powers and a striking picture.

If I’d gotten a copy of this 10-15 years ago, I’d have gone nuts over it.

Today, it’s not exactly what I want. Feng Shui 2 has a reason for its approach: a stunt-descriptive number-crunchy action game. But some of its mechanics and approach doesn’t work with how I play these days. Let me start with the mechanics.

Feng Shui 2 has deceptively simple rules. Resolution’s based on a roll + single value vs. static target number. Your margin of success impacts the result. Classic. You only have five “stats”: Defense, Toughness, Speed, an Attack value, and “Fortune,” fate/power resource number. That last one’s given different names depending on the character type (Chi, Genome, Magic, etc). Weapons only have three values- damage, reload, and concealment. Some characters have skills, mostly for out of combat bits. But these are sparse. One archetype has eight and two have five. Most have two. Even the biggest character skill lists consists mostly of different trivias (“Info”).

Shticks complement the minimal stats and skills. They’re the feats/powers/talents that give each character flavor. Each archetype has five or six of these. But even those don’t have dense mechanics. They mostly offer triggered effects, bonuses, or situational options. It’s all pretty minimal. Seems like a clean, clear approach. I like a simple character sheet.
But let me swing back to that that resolution roll. It isn’t simple one.

When you make a Task Check, you take your AV (Action Value) and roll 2d6. The first d6 is your positive number and the second’s your negative. Subtract the second from the first. Generally this die roll will range from +5 to -5. That’s called The Swerve. You add the Swerve to your AV.

But remember that if you roll a “6” on either die, it explodes. Roll again for that die and add it. This can keep going. So while you’re usually going to end up with a zero, it can flail wildly in either direction. I’ve had players who disliked the swingy-ness of Fate dice. They’d flip over this.

Now also don’t forget that if you roll doubles, the final result’s effect is amped up (for better or worse). That’s mostly color in the fiction, but can be confusing. When I explained that to the players they mixed up doubles and exploding dice in the heat of play. They also wanted a concrete sense of what doubles actually meant.

Players can mitigate the Swerve a little. You can spend your Fortune one to add a one die, +1d6 positive, to any check made. You can do that after a roll. This doesn’t explode, so you’d better remember that switch. Also, you can spend a Fortune to add a d6 to your Defense value against an attack. But this time you have to do that before opponent rolls.

Each combat breaks down into Sequences and the Shots that make up that sequence. Imagine that each shot is a tic of time. You roll Initiative at the start of each sequence: d6 + Speed. That’s probably going to fall in the 9-12 range. That number’s the “shot count” you get your first action. The GM tracks named baddies individually and mooks as a group. Feng Shui suggests using a visual for this, the Shot Clock. The Kickstarter had a nice laminated one, but you can make your own. I suspect you could get the same effect online with Roll20’s images and tokens.

That’s important because you have to track and shift characters on that clock throughout the sequence. When you perform an action, you reduce your initiative by the number of shots it takes. That’s usually 3. Three shot actions include attacking, picking things up, reloading, a running sprint. A few actions have different costs—performing an active defense only costs one shot and increases your defense by three for that attack. That cost pushes your next action back, making it a hard choice.

But those mechanics and counts change up as you get to the end of the sequence. On shots 2 and 1, characters may take actions that cost up to 3 shots even though there aren’t enough shots left. There’s no penalty for this, and the unaccounted-for shot cost is not carried over to the next sequence. Actions with a shot cost higher than 3, however, do carry over. If you use an interrupt—like defend-- during the last three shots, it reduces your initiative during the next sequence.

When you hit that next sequence, everyone rolls initiative again and you reset the shot clock. Some effects carry across sequences. If a combat condition lasts a “keyframe,” that means it stays until the same count on the next sequence. Luckily you can only have one of these effects on at a time. The book suggests that fights shouldn’t last more than three sequences. If you go that full distance, you’re looking at 9-12 actions per character in a fight.
I used an app to handle this when I ran. I’ll come back to that.

To hit someone you roll attack AV versus the target’s defense. If you beat that, you add that margin of success (Outcome) to your attack damage. That total’s called the Smackdown. But the target then subtracts their Toughness from that and takes the remainder as Wounds. Side note: if you want to hit someone and do something else (i.e. shooting and catching a falling idol) you can either declare it after if your Outcome’s 4+ OR declare it before and add 2 to target’s Defense.

Combat Process: calculate final roll, add AV, subtract Defense, subtract Toughness, subtract remainder from Wounds.

Characters have a bunch of Wounds. When you hit 25 wounds you’re impaired and subtract 1 from AVs. At 30+ subtract -2 from AVs. If you hit more than 35 Wounds, they start making “Up Checks” to seeing if you stay standing. The damage track on the sheets goes up to 60 but characters will be out by that point. On the NPC side, you’ll usually hit Enemies in one of three classes. Mooks go down in one hit; named baddies can take damage like the PCs and go down at 35 Wounds; Bosses can take 50 Wounds before checking if they drop.

Let me run those numbers on a named foe. Let’s assume a fairly average successful roll gives an outcome of +1. Let’s say the damage value of the attack is a 9. That’s higher than a pistol, but seems good when I look through the character sheets. So our total Smackdown will be a ten. But our target will then subtract their Toughness from that. Let’s say that’s pretty low-average, so a five. That means with this average check, the attacker does 5 points of damage.

That means, reading things straight, we’re going to need 7 successful attacks to take down that opponent. The sample fights in the book have one named baddie per PC, plus a number of mooks equal to the number of PCs. Let’s leave the mooks out. Some characters have powers that can easily dispense with them in a single action.

On paper that’s a lot of successful hits. A lot of resolutions and calculations. But it characters stats will swing this in different directions, raising the Smackdown. But not by that much. All four of the PCs I ran for fell into this range. Of course you then also have the combat Shticks, but at least among our group they more added effects than pushed this up much. Players can spend a single Fortune point on a check, even after the roll. That adds 1-6 to that final results, but costs a limited resource that often powers their other abilities. You can attack multiple foes with a single attack, subtracting the number of targets from your roll. That reduces your chance of success and your overall damage. Great for killing mooks, much more risky for other foes.

And the dice are swingy as I mentioned above. So a few bad rolls can drag this out and a few good rolls can cut this time. If the GM has the big rolls, they can seriously dish out damage. Bottom line: the fights can take a while, chipping away at opponents’ health. That’s classic for a lot of games, so nothing inherently wrong with that. It just feels dragged out compared to what I’m comfortable with.

What Feng Shui 2 offers is a game with a different tactical space. We don’t measure space really—the book only mentions distances in a couple of places. Instead we track time and moments. That’s combined with some number processing which you can affect in few ways. You don’t have a whole suite of options, but you have some choices. On top of that is the idea of big, dramatic narration. But you’d better hold off that narration until you see what you rolled.

In some ways it reminds me most of 13th Age mechanically, though with a more complicated initiative system. I can imagine FS2 working for a lot of groups. And if I’d gotten this book in 2000, I’d probably have run it hard and heavy. But today it didn’t fit with the kinds of games I want to run/play.

This is running a little long, so I’m going to split this into two parts. Next post I’ll talk about running online, using the app, things that I loved, things that bugged, and how I’d try to do a Feng Shui game.