Feng Shui is one of those games I've intended to buy on and off for ages. I heard about it when it was first released by Daedalus Entertainment; friends who played it praised it. I was somewhat sorry to hear later on that Daedalus weren't doing too well. Oh well, I thought, I probably won't bother with Feng Shui in that case.
Then someone said Feng Shui had been bought by Atlas Games, and that it would be reprinted. Thus, it wasn't too much of a surprise when I saw the hardback standing on the shelf of one of Sydney's game shops. I was there with a friend, and I hemmed and hawed for about five minutes; when he stepped up to the counter to purchase Violence and the latest Knights of the Dinner Table, I had the book on the counter. I love impulse buys; sometimes, you really don't know what you're getting into.
The review below was written before and after I playtested the game. The Basics is a summary of the game itself. First Impressions are my thoughts on the game after reading and making a character or two. Post Playtest is my thoughts on how it all works after I had a chance to GM the game with some friends. This is probably where most of the comments on the rules will be.
The basic premise of Feng Shui is to simulate the kinetic, high-speed, butt-kicking action of Hong Kong action cinema. How well it does in fulfilling this goal, I'm not sure I'm qualified to say; although I've seen a few Hong Kong movies, I don't have the breadth that I know some people do. Feng Shui isn't Heavy Gear; it doesn't present an entire world with its broad scope of adventure possibilities. Instead, it works from the premise of the action movie by introducing the core concepts of butt-kicking heroes and high action adventure, providing you with the good guys and bad guys and leaving the rest to you.
When designing Feng Shui the author wanted to allow players access to the broad range of characters from any of the common Hong Kong cinema genres; ancient, magical China (e.g. Chinese Ghost Story), British colonial-era China (e.g. Project A), contemporary (e.g. Police Story or Hard Boiled) or future (e.g. ... I haven't seen any Hong Kong science fiction yet). Thus the central premise is the secret war, a time-spanning conflict waged between powers from the past, present and future bent on controlling all of history. This can only be guaranteed through control of feng shui sites; places on Earth where there is a particularly strong flow of the mystical energy known as chi. When you control a feng shui site, things begin to go your way; control of the major feng shui sites in a particular time juncture means you effectively rule the world.
The characters are secret warriors in this conflict; people who have stumbled on the war for time and who now fight the forces of evil and oppression. These are your stereotypical Hong Kong (and, to a certain extent, Western) action heroes; from the everyman hero and martial artist through cops, thieves, spies and gunmen to sorcerers, supernatural monsters and those beautiful Chinese ghosts who always fall in love with young, impressionable monks, not to mention the young, impressionable monks who always fall in love with beautiful Chinese ghosts.
Feng Shui is currently available in a 256 black-and-white page hardback edition.
The best thing about Feng Shui is that it sticks to its premise. It presents a quick, easy character creation system and a fast, flashy combat system that encourages the wild stunts so common to Hong Kong action films. It also supports both the player and the GM in creating that action movie feel.
Every so often, before the beginning of a chapter, we are treated to a one-page diary entry of an unknown gunman who is drawn into the secret war. Each entry typically covers the material in the chapter to come, and serves not only to give the reader a taste of the world and style of Feng Shui, but also how the material in the coming chapter can be presented in the game. The stories pretty much show you how the coming concepts work before giving you their mechanics. I like that.
Many people feel constrained by a template-based character generation system, wanting to build characters from the ground up. Feng Shui's character creation system is designed to fill two goals: one, to ensure the process takes up as little time as possible before getting straight into it; two, to ensure that characters fit the roles of action heroes. The templates provided ensure these goals are met, allowing a player to take a basic action character concept and quickly modify it to suit his ideas.
Robin Laws has succeeded in his goal of making the system mechanics of character creation fairly easy and quick, once you get used to the system; there are more than enough character templates to ensure variety in the average game group. The shopping-list mentality relating guns, ammo, armour and equipment prevalent in many games is absent here, so characters won't (and can't) spend hour poring over various equipment lists to make sure they've got everything they could conceivably need.
One of the things I really like about character creation in Feng Shui is a sidebox named "If At First You Don't Succeed", which encourages players to make any (legal) changes they feel are necessary after the first session; the subject is brought up again in the GM Tips chapter. This idea is something other product lines typically leave to the Player's or GM's Guide (kudos to Robin Laws), and reduces what little agonising there may be over a relatively quick and painless character creation system even further.
At first glance, the Feng Shui skills list appears very short. However, skills in Feng Shui have three components; Physical, which covers active use of the skill (shooting a gun), Knowledge (recalling the stats of the latest Glock pistol) and Contacts (gun dealers, people you may know in weapon manufacturing firms, other professional gun users). This is a great way of reducing the amount of time characters spend agonising over picking skills (although most skill picks are chosen for you by the template) and ensures there's less likelihood something vital may be overlooked.
The skills section describes in good detail what each component of each skill does. Also, skill use focuses on the extraordinary: the Drive skill doesn't cover basic vehicular operation, it covers driving like a maniac down a crowded city street at 120 kph and pulling a bootlegger into a vacant parking spot. Characters who don't have Drive aren't assumed to be incapable of driving, they just can't drive like race car drivers - or action heroes in rolling firefights.
As with many modern Hong Kong action movies, guns are a prerequisite for many characters. However, guns are kept simple like the rest of the system; as he book says, "In this game, guns are as much a fantasy element as magic, supernatural creatures or exotic fu powers." All guns have only three statistics: Damage, Concealability and Ammo. In fact, many guns of similar type (i.e. rifles, SMGs, automatic pistols) have identical statistics. You're more likely to pick a gun from the silhouettes provided than on the stats. ("Yeah, yeah, Mike, I know the Glock 17 has more Ammo, it's Concealability is lower and the Damage is comparable, but damn it, I want a Desert Eagle Magnum! It looks so cool!") This is better style over substance than Cyberpunk!
Feng Shui ensures its fights are full of wild stunts; players are encouraged to make fights flashy, stunt-laden extravaganzas, and are given various shticks which allow them to do so. Not only that, but performing a boring manoeuvre in combat ("I shoot him") can garner a negative penalty. Furthering the action movie feel are the combat time divisions; sequences (three-second blocks of time) and shots (measures of time individual actions take).
One of the trickiest concepts in any fiction is that of time travel; many stories involving it have a tendency to gloss over the intricacies of paradoxes, changing the past or future and all that jazz. Feng Shui manages the concept very well. Time travel can only be accomplished entering and leaving the Netherworld (a mystical place outside of normal time and space) and you can only access certain "junctures". Time elasticity ensures that changes in the past don't affect the overall flow of the future; the names and perhaps the places may alter but generally history plays out the same way. Even when time changes in a big way (which can only be accomplished by gaining control of the majority of feng shui sites in a particular juncture), lateral reincarnation allows characters who have been to the Netherworld to retain their memories of how things were before the shift. Unfortunately, they don't get the memories of their new selves: they have to do some fancy footwork until they can catch up on the new history and their place in it. If a GM is willing to do a lot of prep work, this option can really throw characters off balance...
Feng Shui offers a lot of support for the game moderator. The book provides a wealth of detail on the various forces in the secret war, including history, organisation, major players and what their current power base is, without going into too much detail. From this, a game moderator can easily come up with interesting allies, villains and other characters. Feng Shui also provides a great starting location: modern day Hong Kong. The summary of the island and the New Territories contains some of the more interesting spots in Hong Kong (yes, even the ones only secret warriors know about), as well as the influence of the various forces in the secret war and major players for all factions. I suddenly have this itch to jump on a plane and get a feel for the place before I start playing...
The GM Tips section includes assistance for creating Feng Shui adventures, running fights, introducing players to the world, creating a greater plot and making sure the tone of the game fits that of an action movie. Just in case the poor GM is feeling rather bemused by the high-speed universe of Feng Shui and needs a little inspiration, Appendix B focuses on the films Feng Shui is inspired by; it goes over some of the better Hong Kong movies by names like John Woo, Tsui (Just how the hell do you pronounce that? Choy? Schwee? Chewie?) Hark and Jackie Chan.
The back of the book (just before the index) contains four pages worth of summaries. Each page deals with one topic: the task check mechanics, character creation, sequences and shots, and combat. These are a positive godsend; not only do they do they contain virtually the entire basic Feng Shui rules set in four pages, but a GM can give players the rules without having to hand the entire book over, which risks the players learning about the game world. (Not to mention damaging your precious tome!) Atlas games have also posted PDFs of these and the Feng Shui character sheet on their web site, so you don't have to worry about crushing your book in order to get a good photocopy.
The entire book is well laid-out in an eye-pleasing two-column format; headings are clearly delineated and traditional sidebar material appears in boxes that fit between the regular text. The page numbers are bracketed within gunsights and shuriken appear at the outside top corner of each page. The character art is probably the best art in the entire book; artists Jeff Miracola and Brian Snoddy do a good job of creating images of the character archetypes. Other books (like Heavy Gear) may be better presented, but Feng Shui is still a good looking product.
The Atlas printing appears to contain all the material from the original Feng Shui plus extra material (including character templates) from the first supplement Back For Seconds. I like this; when a friend loaned me his copy of the Daedalus printing, I was driven nuts by the continued references to a Magic Cop template which didn't exist. Apparently, this wound up in Back For Seconds. Rest assured, dear readers, the Magic Cop does indeed appear in the new printing, along with the Journalist, Medic and Thief, amongst others.
In character creation, you are told that an equals (=) sign before a value in a character template means an action value or attribute cannot be raised above that value during character creation. This can be confusing at first; does "Fortune =4" mean that Fortune starts at 4 and cannot be raised, or starts at 0 and cannot be raised higher than 4? With a little browsing, I discovered that the values on a template refer to the current value (unless it says something like (Max 15), and that's usually after the value in question), so "Fortune =4" means that Fortune starts at 4 and cannot be raised.
The problem occurs with skills. The base action value for a Skill is the Attribute (the basic, untrained ability a character has; there are four Primary Attributes and each has three to four Secondary Attributes) plus the skill bonus (the level of accomplishment in a particular area). So, if you raise an Attribute and the action value of a skill with an would go above its starting =value, should you bring it back down?
In the character creation process, it mentions reducing attributes or action values. If a player wants to decrease an Attribute or skill bonus below its listed value, they may, but they don't get points to boost other values by doing so. They should be doing this because it fits their idea of the character (nice little anti-minmaxing tool). So, presumably, if I raise an action value by upping the Attribute, I'll have to bring it back down by lowering my skill bonus (which I did). I think this should have been mentioned; I was sitting with the book for about five minutes thinking "Okay, now I've raised my Attribute and the action value for this skill is above the maximum. Do I keep the skill bonus the same but say the action value is the maximum listed, even though it should be about two higher?"
After its several-page listing on the various guns available, I would have thought Feng Shui would have devoted at least a page to the various melee weapons available to secret warriors. To my dismay, I discovered no such listing exists. I only found info on how much damage weapons do in the Combat rules. Admittedly, a melee weapon would only need a statistic for damage (and perhaps concealability), but some weapons, like chains or nunchaku, may have other optional effects like entangling. These are not mentioned anywhere.
Although the summary on Hong Kong is rather nifty, they do mention in the second paragraph that more detail will be provided in the supplement Blowing Up Hong Kong. There's nothing particularly wrong with this; they can only fit so much in (and what they do fit into the book is marvelous), and you can get more detail on Hong Kong by picking up a decent encyclopaedia or hitting the library. But it still feels like a plug...
Feng Shui does have an index, but no central reference or glossary for essential terms; sometimes you have to hunt down a rules clarification in the body of the book.
The art of Feng Shui is typically good, but some of it looks a little rough or ugly, especially Thomas Manning's art on pages 77 and 180. However, none of it is of particularly low quality.
One thing I do miss from the old Feng Shui is the full-colour edition. Perhaps this would have hiked the cost up even further, but Jeff Miracola's character template artwork looked so much better in colour. The only problem with doing a colour version is the black-and-white art also included, especially the character templates from Back For Seconds (these are inked line art). Still, perhaps a softcover will feature the return of the colour edition...
This is a small, perhaps petty annoyance, but on the back cover, there are seven colour insignia for the major factions in Feng Shui. However, it isn't immediately obvious whose insignia some of them are; they don't appear elsewhere in the book, and only one of the factions actually has a description of its insignia.
In playtesting the game I used the Baptism of Fire scenario from the back of the book. It's fairly simple and uses a lot of the genre stereotypes; Triad bosses, big ugly henchmen, grouchy old men and a cute, terminally shy woman who the PCs must save.
The trickiest thing about Feng Shui is keeping to the flavour of the game; the temptation is to send up, rather than simulate, action movies. The PCs' melodramatic hooks are one of the big areas of abuse. The melodramatic hook is used by the GM to create plotlines from; every character must have one. The trick, though, is not to go for silly, weird or implausible. A few of my players took a while to get the idea (and I'm not sure whether one of them ever did).
Combat was fast, nice and simple; Unnamed mooks dropped like flies as they do in the movies, and the players found the main Named tough very hard to put down. The dice-rolling mechanic (one positive die and one negative die are rolled and the result is applied to the skill total to get an action result) was easy to get the hang of, although I made a mistake with Active Dodges (which I rectified later in the game).
The main problem I had was with the players; the majority went around in a very aloof, cynical-killer fashion. I felt like I was railroading them into being good guys, or even moving the plot forward! At one stage, one was shooting already-vanquished, unconscious mooks in cold blooded "in case they turn into Zombies" (this did happen earlier on). As the one player who attempted to refrain said; "This isn't a Hong Kong action movie any more". The justification the players gave me at the end was that it was their first go at the game they were having fun, but I'm one of those guys who only goes for cold-blooded violence in games if it suits the mood, and Feng Shui isn't about that. You're meant to be fighting the forces of evil and oppression, and although you might be using similar tools as your opponents (fists, guns and magical blasts) you're not meant to share their mindset!
Besides, even though it was their first time playing, it was my first go GMing the product, and did make the point they were meant to be playing good guys (at heart, at the very least). That shouldn't be a hard concept to grasp! I stopped the scenario before the final biff as I felt like it wasn't working any more.
I know RPGs are a co-operative effort between players and GM, and the goal is for everyone to have fun, but being un-adventurous in an adventure game and cold-blooded murderers in a game which is about the kind of heroes who let the bad guys shoot first? Come on...
The fast-and-loose action feel of Feng Shui is kept up from beginning to end throughout this book. Character creation is a breeze, combat is simple, nimble and stunt-laden, and the game world allows for a lot of action. More than most other core books which sometimes feel like they're mainly for players, Feng Shui feels virtually complete thanks to its attention to detail and equal attention paid to the needs of the player and GM.
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)