Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying
Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying Playtest Review by BlackSheep on 09/07/02
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)
As befits a game based on Hong Kong action movies, Feng Shui isn't sophisticated. It isn't detailed. It definitely isn't subtle. It is, however, fun. And that's really all I ask of a game. If the subject matter appeals to you in any way, I can't advise you strongly enough to pick this up.
Product: Feng Shui: Action Movie Roleplaying
Author: Robin D. Laws
Company/Publisher: Atlas Games
Line: Feng Shui
Cost: £20-£25 (RRP $30)
Page count: 256
Year published: 1999
Comp copy?: no
Playtest Review by BlackSheep on 09/07/02
Genre tags: Fantasy Science Fiction Modern day Historical Asian/Far East
Action Movie Roleplaying
Doctor Robert Kwan looked up from his noodle plate, chopsticks dropping from his fingers, as an explosion tore through the ornamental gardens across the street. BOOM! Another detonation ripped the heart out of a grove of willow trees. BOOM! An ancient Pagoda became so much flying matchwood. BOOM! Meticulously raked gravel was flung carelessly in all directions.
Even before the echoes had faded, the air began to fill with the noise of gunfire. Bullets cut the air between two groups, each a couple of dozen strong. On one side of the exchange were uniformed police, security guards, and a few suits. Their adversaries were younger, some sort of gang maybe. Leather jackets, dyed hair, tattoos, or all three. It didn't take a genius to work out who the saboteurs were.
On the other side of the table Kimiko was already on her feet, one hand reaching for the katana stowed in her bag. An off-duty cop had abandoned his meal and was sprinting to join the fray. A woman who moments ago had been admiring a decorative pond had drawn a gleaming pair of automatics with a practised motion. At the far end of the street that American he'd met a week ago, Butch something, was heading towards the trouble, still carrying a bag of souvenirs.
Kwan sighed and stood. So much for a quiet lunch...
Okay, I know that starting off a review with the word 'BOOM' is a cheap way to grab attention. But in the Hong Kong action cinema world of Feng Shui, this is exactly the sort of trick a good GM should be ready and willing to pull. Fast-paced fighting, improbable stunts, spectacular pyrotechnics and high melodrama are the order of the day.
Let's get a few things out of the way first. Feng Shui does not attempt to be a realistic game, nor a complex one. If you're after detailed equipment lists and an extensive skill system, you might want to look elsewhere. If you think guns should be lethal all the time, not just when dramatically appropriate, this is probably not the game for you. If you have a problem with a world where the new waitress at the local restaurant is really a world-class martial artist hunting down her twin sister to avenge the destruction of the monastery where she was raised, it's possible you won't appreciate what Feng Shui has to offer.
If, on the other hand, you want a game where action and adventure are more important than looking up rules, where the mechanics are intrinsically linked to the conventions of the genre rather than to mundane reality, and where the correct answer to 'Can I do this?' is 'As long as it looks cool', then give this a try. It has all these, plus a whole lot more. Including cybernetic chimpanzees from the future.
I'll skip over the boring stuff quickly. Feng Shui is a hardback book, standard 11in x 8.5in size, 256 pages long, black and white throughout. It was written by Robin D. Laws, published by Atlas Games, and goes for between £20 and £25. There was an earlier edition published by Daedalus, which I can't really comment about as I've never seen a copy. Apparently the internal art of the original book was in colour. Don't quote me, though.
The layout is clean and clear, with little wasted space. Illustrations are relatively infrequent and of decent if unspectacular quality. The font is a nice ordinary one, and formatting effects are kept to a minimum. The result is solid and readable.
The cover art is in colour. The front shows a group of three secret warriors, consisting of a robed monk, a suited gunman, and a woman who appears to be a ghost. The backdrop to the trio is, unsurprisingly, an enormous explosion. I'll explain exactly what a secret warrior is in a moment. On the back are the symbols of the various factions of the Feng Shui world. A key to these would have been a useful addition to the book, although you can figure them out with a little thought. Or a Shadowfist deck.
Overall the appearance of the book is good enough for what it needs to do. It's nothing special, but it doesn't detract from the writing.
The first chapter is called 'Kiii-Yaaahhh!', a good start if ever I saw one, and functions as a brief introduction to the world of Feng Shui. It quickly guides the reader over roleplaying for beginners, the setting and its major power groups, and the central mechanics of the game.
Feng Shui is something of a cross-genre piece, and explaining its setting without spoiling too much of the game is a little tricky. Is it contemporary? Fantasy? Sci-fi? Historical? Yes, all of them and then some. The game revolves around a series of battles through time known collectively as the Secret War. The objectives are the control of feng shui sites, places of power which shape the flow of fate to fit the desires of their owners. Possess enough sites, and things will go your way. Possess more than anyone else, and you rule the world. But you might not rule it tomorrow, and for that matter you might not rule it yesterday, because the world is a multi-layered thing and time doesn't work how we're used to. There are four junctures in the world of Feng Shui, four time periods across which the Secret War is fought, in addition to the mysterious Netherworld. The players are initially residents of one of the junctures, most commonly the contemporary one, who stumble upon the Secret War and are drawn into its machinations. And that's all you're getting from me. If you're intending to play this, I've probably said too much already. Just trust me when I say that the background is imaginative, cohesive, and allows you huge freedom in setting the style of your game.
The core mechanic is nothing incredibly innovative, but its simplicity suits the game perfectly. For any task you will have an Action Value, an appropriate skill or attribute, and a Difficulty, either a similar opposing value or a number set by the GM. You then roll two six-sided dice, one positive, the other negative. Adding the first to your AV and subtracting the other gives you your Action Result, which must match or beat the Difficulty to succeed. Sometimes, primarily in combat, you'll need to work out the degree of success, known as the Outcome and defined simply as the difference between the Action Result and the Difficulty. Nothing we haven't seen before - in fact, I came up with a remarkably similar system some ten years ago when I thought I was going to grow up to be a games designer. But it works, it takes a minute to learn, and it doesn't slow anybody down during gameplay.
Example: Rei Sasaki, a ninja hailing from the 1850 juncture, is attempting to infiltrate the manor of a wealthy merchant. She is perched on top of the outer wall, but there are guards patrolling the gardens. She decides to leap across their heads, onto the roof of the main building.
The GM rules that this is a tricky task, with a Difficulty of 7. Rei's Action Value is her Agility of 9. Her player rolls a four on the positive die and a two on the negative die for a net Action Value of 9 + 4 - 2 = 11, easily beating the Difficulty. She lands safely on the roof as the oblivious guards continue their patrols.
Adding significantly to the cinematic feel is the fact that most rolls are open - if either die comes up with a six, it is rerolled and added to or subtracted from the total as appropriate. If you get another six, you keep rolling until you don't. This system can produce incredible rolls on occasion, and ensures that there is always a chance of success or failure, no matter what the odds. If both dice come up sixes, known in the trade as rolling boxcars, something spectacular happens. Both dice are rerolled as usual, but the result will either be a critical success or an appalling failure depending on whether the roll succeeds or not. Fumbles can also happen if your Action Result is negative, although this is rare for even vaguely competent characters. Finally each character has a number of fortune dice to spend each session for an extra boost to any roll.
Example: In the midst of a heated battle at a construction site, a patrol car carrying two Hong Kong police officers turns up at high speed. Detective Zhao Wei, at the wheel, aims the car for the nearest zombie and slams the pedal down.
Wei's Driving skill is a whopping 15; the zombie's Dodge is a pitiful 7. The roll is made, and scores a double six - boxcars. Reroll produces a two on the positive die and, oh dear, a six on the negative one. Reroll of the negative die comes up five. Total Action Result is 15 + 2 - 6 - 5 = 6, just short of what's needed. But the double six means this is no ordinary failure, but a full-blown fumble. Wei is in trouble.
The car rams into the zombie alright, but instead of being crushed under the wheels it's thrown up onto the hood and bounces off the windshield, shattering it, before rolling away unharmed. Wei finds his vision suddenly impaired, and elbows the broken glass out of the way just in time to see a two-storey deep hole looming in front of the vehicle. He and his partner hurl themselves out of the side doors as the car plunges into the pit, fuel tank detonating on impact. The chief isn't going to be happy with this one.
Introducing the cast
The next chapter covers character creation, for which Feng Shui uses a template system. You select the character type you want to play, come up with a name and a background story, and then adjust the attribute and skill numbers to fit. Select special abilities, known as schticks, and weapons as appropriate, and you're done. A character can literally go from concept to completion in minutes. Before we get into the numbers themselves, something worth mentioning is the idea of the melodramatic hook. Every character must have one of these, and it serves as motivation for the player and idea generator for the GM. Is your character a demon on the run from scientists who want to study his powers? Is she the daughter of the head of an ancient and malevolent order of sorcerers? Is he a rogue cop hunting down the people who had his partner on the force killed? Great. This is the sort of thing a good GM can use when writing adventures.
The book includes the twenty types from the first edition, and an additional six previously published in a sourcebook due to lack of space in the original book. The available templates vary from movie archetypes (Big Bruiser, Scrappy Kid, Ancient Master, Everyman Hero) to RPG standards (Thief, Sorcerer, Techie, Medic) to characters unique to the Feng Shui world (Transformed Animal, Abomination, Monster Hunter). Each type takes up a page and gives you the base attributes and skills of that type, the points available for tweaking these numbers, the schticks and weapons accessible to the character, a paragraph of description, a picture and a quote.
Okay, those stats. There are four primary attributes - Body, Mind, Reflexes and Chi. The average human has a 5 in the three 'normal' areas and a Chi of 0, but player characters will usually have better scores. They're the stars, after all, so they're supposed to be a step above the norm. Each attribute is further divided into three or four secondary attributes, which default to the level of the related primary attribute unless adjusted independently. Mind, for example, covers Charisma, Intelligence, Perception and Willpower, so a character with a Mind of 5 will have a base value of 5 in each of these as well. Yes, it's simplistic, but then it's supposed to simulate movie characters, not real people. Broad strokes are what make up memorable heroes and villains.
Skills are derived from a base secondary attribute and a skill bonus. For example, the Police skill is based on Intelligence, so with a Mind of 5 and a bonus of +4 you'd have a base Police skill of 9. This would act as your AV when you use this skill. Finally, each character type has a typical Wealth level, which is abstracted down to just three possible values - rich, working stiff, and poor. Money isn't a big issue is Feng Shui, so when it does come up a general idea of your financial situation is more than sufficient. Remember, broad strokes.
Example: I'm making a character based on the Killer type. I decide that she's a former Triad assassin, now retired due to a crisis of conscience. Expanding on this idea I come up with my melodramatic hook - a child in the care of my character, rescued from a hit gone wrong which resulted in the death of the kid's parents. That should give the GM something to work with. I name my character Maoyu Yuan, or May to her few friends.
I start with the standard 5 / 5 / 5 / 0 attribute spread. I can add 3 points to any one primary attribute, 2 points to another, and 1 point to any secondary attribute. I add the 3 to my Reflexes, the 2 to my Mind. My primary attributes are thus Body 5, Mind 7, Reflexes 8, Chi 0. All my secondary attributes increase to the appropriate levels as well. I then add the final point to my Perception, bumping it from 7 to 8. All my other secondaries stay at the default scores. Now for skills.
I start off with Deceit at +2, Driving at +3, Guns at +10 and Info/Gangland at +2. Looking up the relevant secondary attributes gives me Deceit 9, Driving 11, Guns 15 and Info/Gangland 9. My Guns score should actually be higher, but there's a maximum value of 15 listed so I get that instead. I change the Info/Gangland skill to Info/Triads to better reflect my history. I now have six points to spend on improving these skills or buying new ones. I put a point each into my existing Driving and Deceit skills, and two points each on the Seduction and Intrusion skills. My final skill list reads Deceit 10, Driving 12, Guns 15, Info/Triads 9, Intrusion 10, Seduction 9. I also make a note of my Dodge score, which is equal to a character's highest combat skill AV. In this case, my Guns of 15 gives me a Dodge of 15. Not bad at all.
The Killer gets five Gun schticks. I choose three levels of Both Guns Blazing, which allows me to use a weapon in each hand without suffering a penalty to hit, and two levels of Fast Draw for a +2 bonus to initiative rolls in gun combat. Coupled with my high Speed (a secondary attribute based on Reflexes) I should get the first shot in most of the time.
Weapons next, and the Killer gets to choose an arsenal of any five shiny implements of death. Since I'm from the contemporary juncture, I choose guns from the contemporary list. Two Smith and Wesson Sigmas will be my standard sidearms, highly concealable and suitable for stealth jobs. For heavier work I take two high-capacity Glock 18s, fully automatic for that essential rapid-fire action. And as a backup I go back to Smith and Wesson and opt for their Bodyguard model, a neat little revolver which can be stowed up a sleeve for emergencies.
Finally I note that my Fortune of 0, based on Chi, means I won't have any fortune dice to spend. However, as a Killer I qualify for the rich wealth level. Who says crime doesn't pay?
The third chapter covers the skill system in more depth. There are a total of eighteen skills in Feng Shui, plus a flexible Info skill. This doesn't sound like a lot, and indeed it isn't, but these skills are broad. Really, really, broad. Martial Arts, for example, covers everything from aikido to archery, from kendo to kickboxing, from shaolin to streetfighting. In addition, it is also used for the academic side of the skill - your knowledge of the history of a particular school of karate, for example. And it even serves as an indicator of your contacts within the field, so May's high Guns skill means she can probably find a reliable arms dealer at short notice. Overall, then, the skill list covers a lot more ground than is immediately apparent, and for the gaps that remain an Info skill will usually do the trick. A neat quirk of Info is that the subject matter can be as wide or as narrow as you choose, since the Difficulty of an Info check will vary accordingly. A more specific skill may be useful less often, but it'll be a lot more effective when it is used.
Example: With a successful roll on his Info/Rock Music skill, Billy Cassidy recognises his captor as none other than Sabrina Ferran of the Dump Warriors. If his skill were Info/Music, the Difficulty would have been higher. If it were Info/Hong Kong Rock Music, the Difficulty would have been lower. If it were Info/American Rock Music, however, the skill wouldn't have applied at all.
The next six chapters each deal with one specific type of schtick available to players - guns, fu powers, magic, creature abilities, transformed animal packages, and arcanowave gear. All of these use the same central mechanics, but vary slightly in application. They also have very different 'feels'. Unfortunately, a lot of the material in these chapters references the full combat rules, which haven't yet been covered. Given the importance of fighting in Feng Shui, I'd be tempted to place the combat chapter earlier in the book. Anyway, I'll skim quickly over each section.
There are only seven different gun schticks, but as shown above each can be taken multiple times to increase the bonus it grants you. Since this doesn't take up much space, the chapter also covers some of the general firearms rules, such as concealment, reloading, malfunctions, automatic weaponry, and so on. The rules here, as ever, are cinematic rather than realistic. Automatic fire isn't much more effective than normal fire, for example, because it's primarily a special effect to send bullets pinging off the scenery. Shotguns do more damage if pumped before shooting, but the player must both mime the action and make the appropriate 'ka-chink' sound effect. Special ammo types have no game effects whatsoever. Nor do laser sights, beyond looking exceptionally cool.
The section concludes with the guns themselves. It's worth noting that there's relatively little game difference between guns of the same type, so that while the stats of a shotgun and a handgun vary considerably, one 9mm automatic is pretty much the same as another. You're encouraged to pick a gun based on how cool it looks. A lot of guns are covered, certainly all those popular in action movies, and there are guidelines for assigning numbers to unlisted ones should your favourite be missing. Bows and black powder weapons, as well as some more futuristic armaments, are also dealt with under the same rules.
The chapter on fu powers, by comparison, is taken up entirely by the schticks themselves. This is mostly because there are over eighty of them, divided into a dozen progressive paths. Early fu powers have useful but relatively minor effects, such as granting small bonuses to Dodge or unarmed damage. Later ones are more impressive, allowing the martial artist to pull off such tricks as destroying tanks with her bare hands or running up vertical walls. One of the most devastating, though costly, is the Shadowfist schtick, which permanently knocks an opponent's Martial Arts skill down by five points. Each fu power has a Chi cost to activate, and you only have a certain number of Chi points to spend each round. More powerful ones unsurprisingly cost more to use.
Magic next, and again those cinematic mechanics come to the fore. Subtle magics are more difficult than flashy ones, predictable effects are harder to achieve than entertaining ones. Any magic use that would derail the plot automatically fails. No more will the GM set up an elaborate mystery only for the players to use a divination spell and solve it in minutes. Sorcerers in Feng Shui don't have spell lists, but simply flexible areas of influence such as Weather or Summoning, as well as more obvious ones like Heal and Blast.
Supernatural creatures can be anything your imagination can conjure up, from vampires and ghosts to ogres and demonic tentacled monstrosities from the depths of the Underworld. All obey a few basic rules, then select from twenty-odd creature abilities, most of which can be taken multiple times for greater effect. Want to regenerate, breathe toxic fumes, walk through walls or drain blood through the spines running down your arms? Then this is the character for you.
Intelligent animals in human form make up one of the more unusual features of the Feng Shui mythology. Again, there are common features shared by all transformed animals, whether snake or tiger or rat, but the schticks themselves are arranged by the animal from which the character is descended. Selecting a package not only determines which abilities you have access to, but also changes your base attributes. A bear, for example, starts the game with +4 to Body and Willpower and can pick from the Bellow, Fortitude, Slap and Rage schticks. A dragon, on the other hand, starts with no schticks at all but superb attributes - Body 9, Mind 9, Reflexes 9 and Chi 7 - and can in time learn abilities from other animal types. The schticks themselves function similarly to fu powers, but may be taken multiple times for added effect.
A downright nasty blend of dark magic and future technology, arcanowave gear is for the character who wants power and is prepared to pay the price. Brave the risks and you too can make use of such equipment as Neural Stimulators, Agony Grenades, Aerial Mobility Units and the fearsome Helix Ripper.
Lights, camera, action
At the heart of Feng Shui is its combat system. Three vital concepts are introduced here: stunts, shots, and unnamed characters. I'll address each separately.
Stunts are what make combat in Feng Shui interesting. You can't get away with just declaring an attack and rolling the dice. Instead, combat actions should be as imaginative as possible. Make use of the scenery. Describe your attack in slow-motion detail. Above all, don't be afraid to try things which would be border on the impossible in real life. Provided your stunt doesn't seek any extra game benefit, the attack roll will be no harder than any other. In fact, it might well be easier.
Example: During a pitched gunfight in an apartment building, Robert Kwan is facing off against Sneezy Teng, who is blasting away with a machine pistol from the other side of a sofa. Kwan leaps onto the couch, using the furniture as a springboard to launch himself in a somersault over the gangster's head, and catches Sneezy with a kick as he rises into a firing position. Because the game effect of the attack is simply a normal Martial Arts attack, the roll is made with no penalty despite the apparent difficulty of the manoeuvre.
During the same fight scene, Special Detective Shenshu Wu hangs back by the door in heavy cover, attempting to kneecap Happy Cheung with a shot from her trusty handgun. While perhaps a sensible approach, it is also extremely boring. As such, the second time the same attack is attempted, Wu suffers a penalty to her attack. The penalty increases each time, in the hope that her player will eventually get the hint and enter into the spirit of the game.
Characters may also use stunts to give their attacks a different or added effect - temporarily blinding an opponent by ramming a vase onto his head, for example, or shooting a high-pressure steam pipe in order to floor three enemies with your last bullet. Such stunts gain very minor penalties, but the potential gains are usually worth it. This encourages players to experiment further and keeps combat lively.
Example: As Captain Han levels his twin BFGs at Kimiko, she makes a grab for the barrels of the two guns and then backflips, attempting to pull them out of his hands. She makes a Martial Arts check against his Dodge, with a -2 modifier to her AV. A success will disarm her adversary, while a failure will land her directly in his sights...
Sequences and shots together make up the initiative system under which Feng Shui's combat scenes are fought. A sequence is roughly analogous to a round. At the start of each sequence, everyone involved rolls initiative, which is equal to your Speed plus the roll of one die. The character with the highest initiative goes first, obviously, but the highest initiative roll also determines the number of shots in the sequence. A simple action, such as reloading an automatic or parrying a sword, takes one shot to perform. Standard actions, including most attacks, take three shots. So your initiative roll not only tells you when you act, but also how often. With a roll of 12, for example, you might empty the contents of your Uzi into the approaching soldiers as you sprint across the factory floor, dive behind a crate for cover from their return fire, jam a new clip in the gun, pop up to squeeze off a few more rounds, roll aside to avoid a grenade lobbed over the crate and come up shooting.
Keeping track of everyone's current shot can be something of a pain. The solution I used was to draw out a chart and use a counter for each character involved in the sequence, moving them down as they took their actions. A tip passed on from a friend was to use sweets as counters, so that when a combatant went down their attacker got to eat them. Cheap trick, maybe, but it gets the players interested. Stock baddies were Jelly Babies or Minstrels, while PCs and major villains were mini bars. The combined look of fear and greed on my players' faces when I pulled out a 300g Dairy Milk bar was priceless.
Characters in Feng Shui are sharply divided into two types - named and unnamed. If they have a name, they're important in some way, either as a significant plot element or a substantial threat. PCs are named characters, as are their key allies and opponents. Unnamed characters, also known as mooks, are the extras. The street thugs who pick on an ancient master for treading on the wrong turf are unnamed. So are the hooded foot soldiers of the evil sorcerer, the ones trying to hold the heroes up while the ritual is completed. Even the hordes of cops mown down in the streets by the enemy death machines are unnamed. Unnamed and named characters work in exactly the same way except for one major difference. In combat, named characters have to keep track of wounds as they take them. An attack on a mook, on the other hand, has only two possible outcomes. Either they're out of the fight - dead, unconscious, pushed halfway through a fence, holding their arm and crying, whatever - or they're still fighting. This greatly reduces the book-keeping required for large-scale fights, and means that in true cinematic fashion a gang of plucky heroes can go up against a small army and win.
On the subject of wounds, named characters suffer minor penalties when heavily injured, and eventually reach the point at which a Death Check is called for. Succeed and they grit their teeth to fight on through the pain. Fail and they're down, although not necessarily out. While an instant death is possible, it's more likely that the character will have a grace period before actually dying. Usually enough time for last minute medical assistance, or at least a final speech and closing montage.
Finally we have miscellaneous combat rules like aiming, cover, range, called shots, and so on. These are again here to be enforced where dramatically appropriate and ignored elsewhere. If it's foggy, why bother penalising attacks on both sides for partial cover? But if a villain is using your partner as a human shield while you attempt to nail him with a sniper rifle, then the modifier will come into play. It's also worth noticing that the brief damage chart here is the only place with any statistics for hand-to-hand weapons, which is odd considering the number of pages devoted to guns. Still, it's easy enough to assign comparable stats to unlisted weapons.
The chapter on GM advice is a must-read, even for experienced GMs. There's stuff here for general use, to be sure, but most of it is specific to creating and maintaining the feel of a Feng Shui game. A guide to running your first adventure, advice for writing your own, tips on handling rules in the middle of combat, suggestions on pacing and continuity, an explanation of why maps have little or no place in the game, and so on. Invaluable stuff. I particularly liked the ruling on language, which can be boiled down to the idea that everyone, no matter where or when they originate from, speaks modern Cantonese. After all, where's the fun in an ancient Japanese necromancer who can't taunt his foes?
The experience system is simple and logical, and ties in with the idea of gaining power from feng shui sites. The next section is on the sites themselves and their uses. Not much I can say here, since this stuff should really be GM's eyes only. Suffice to say that the rules work, and the flavour text contains plenty of ideas for adventures. A handful of sample monsters round out this part of the book. Nothing remarkable, although those hopping vampires could raise a few eyebrows, but useful for judging power levels of your own creations if nothing else. And there's a great rule that states that creatures gain a large bonus to all their AVs against any players who have read this section and think they know what their stats are.
The book closes with the more in-depth information on setting. First we have a guide to the factions in the Secret War. No stats here, just histories, methods and aims. All useful stuff for the GM, and again full of adventure hooks. It's worth mentioning that, while one of the groups is clearly intended for the players to join, only two of the remaining six can be described as unambiguously evil. The others could equally well function as allies or adversaries. Or both, as my players found out on occasion.
Next up is time travel the Feng Shui way, including such juicy topics as reincarnation and reality shifts. The Netherworld gets its own chapter, since the game will almost certainly head there at some point, and then it's on to Hong Kong. This is the default setting for the start of the game, and the tourist guide here should at least give you enough of a feel for the place to put up a convincing backdrop. Perhaps more useful is the stuff on the Secret War in Hong Kong, with stats for the key NPCs and yet more hook-laden goodness. You could easily run a campaign out of the rulebook alone. Come to think of it, I did.
I should also mention the fiction scattered throughout the book, with most chapters preceded by a page of text. The story follows a gunman as he goes from trying to pull off 'one last hit' to being dragged headlong into the Secret War, and also introduces game concepts gradually so the reader can get an idea of how they fit into the world before they move onto specific rules. It's not literature, but it's not meant to be. It's an action movie on paper, and as such is excellent for illustrating the intended tone of the game.
Baptism of Fire, the sample adventure, is possibly the best thing in the book for the budding GM. The adventure itself is perfectly suited for a group's first outing, throwing new players into the action from the start, giving them just a hint of the deeper plots, and setting up future instalments. But the best part is the extensive GM advice strewn through the section. Ideas for stunts, ways to keep the plot moving, multiple investigation paths to lead the players to the next fight scene, background on the characters and locations involved, and a big expensive finale. The only problem I had was that it ran longer than I was expecting, but then that wasn't surprising given my inexperience. Two thumbs up here.
Rounding off the book are a sample of HK movies from which inspiration may be drawn, some handy photocopiable quick reference sheets, and a decent index.
My only GMing experience before picking up this game was a single session the better part of a decade ago. The first adventure overran but otherwise went smoothly. Soon the one-off spawned a sequel, and then a campaign. It became a 'mixer' game for our roleplaying society, with characters being frequently written in and out to suit schedules and allow new players to join, across a spectrum of experience ranging from "I've never roleplayed before in my life" to "I run games at GenCon". In all ten different players took part in the series, which was styled as a movie trilogy, each covering three or four sessions. All the example text in this review is drawn from this campaign.
In the first Secret War movie, A Call To Arms, the PCs went from a brawl in a restaurant to becoming fully-fledged secret warriors recruited by the Dragons. The movie ended with the defeat of a foe from their first outing and the subsequent acquisition of the group's first feng shui site. In the sequel, Critical Shift, the ragtag heroes ventured further afield, learning the dangers of time travel the hard way. And the conclusion, To The Death, saw them joining forces with their enemies in the battle to retake their world from a greater threat. Along the way they outran the squad cars of a totalitarian future government, fought an honest-to-goodness dragon, became restaurant owners, learned never to trust snakes, were targeted by a strangely familiar hunting party, decided that the only good cop is a dead cop, discovered that telling the good twin from the evil one isn't as easy as you'd think, and laid waste to literally hundreds of mooks.
Feng Shui isn't sophisticated. It isn't detailed. It definitely isn't subtle. It is, however, fun. And that's really all I ask of a game. If the subject matter appeals to you in any way, I can't advise you strongly enough to pick this up. If action movies leave you cold, however, you probably won't get much out of it since nearly everything here, from setting to rules to advice, is geared towards the emulation of this genre. The handful of complaints I have - debatable balance between certain character classes, some issues with sequence duration, the slightly haphazard layout - are more than outweighed by the good stuff. I'll leave you with the ending to the second movie, a cliffhanger which I carefully arranged to fall immediately before a break in the campaign. Because I'm evil, as my players frequently remind me.
The Dragons spilled out into the alleyway, trailers of mystical energy still sparking off their clothing. Inches behind them, grimy bricks interlaced as the gap in the wall closed abruptly. As they took stock of their new surroundings, they noticed the soulless uniformity of the buildings, the thick smog hanging in the air, the cameras and loudspeakers visible on every corner. Apparently the unstable portal had returned them to the future they'd just fled, under the unblinking gaze of the global police state that the world was destined to become. Resignedly, they began to make their way down towards the street. A sudden voice in front of them caused guns to be readied, swords to be drawn, knuckles to be cracked in preparation for the trouble ahead. Then the realisation dawned that the words were issued automatically from the speaker system.
"Attention consumers. Curfew begins in thirty minutes. Please return to your homes immediately."
The group relaxed slightly, sheathing their weapons. Just another announcement for the drones. They'd evaded the police forces here before. Violating curfew shouldn't be a problem. The recording continued anyway, oblivious.
"We repeat, curfew begins in thirty minutes. The time is currently 7:30 PM, March 17th, 1996. Attention consumers..."
There was a long moment of silence. Kwan was the first to speak.
"Nineteen ninety six?"