Back in the Chi War

I’m still behind on my blogging. I’ve got two posts ((That I haven’t written yet.)) that should be going up before this one, but you’re getting this one because there’s some time sensitivity to it: the Kickstarter for Feng Shui 2 is supposed to go live this week, so I wanted to get my impressions up before that.

TL; DR – Feng Shui 2 is an awful lot of fun, and you should back it as soon as the campaign starts.

Feng Shui is an awesome game by Robin D. Laws from 1996 that captures the style and feel of the early Hong Kong action movies and ((To a lesser degree.)) wuxia. I got a copy of the Atlas Games version of the game, but never got a chance to play it – the approach was different enough at the time that I didn’t quite get it, and didn’t have a group that I could force it on.

Earlier this year, I found out that Feng Shui 2 was in the works. Robin was doing a new edition of the game, and it was going to be published by Atlas, starting with a Kickstarter to get things going. At the time this was announced, there was a call for playtesters, but I really didn’t have time in my gaming schedule to commit to a serious playtest of a new system ((If I’m going to do an “official” playtest, I tend to take it pretty seriously, as evidenced by my posts on The Dresden Files RPG and, indeed, the existence of this blog.)), so I just sighed and resigned myself to waiting for the publication.

Then, Cam Banks started looking for GenCon GMs to run FS2 events. I checked to see if I could fit that into my schedule, and couldn’t. But Cam said that he’d give me the playtest package to use to run the game at Games on Demand, and I jumped at that chance ((Thanks again, Cam!)).

So, I got to run FS2 at Games on Demand, and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to try it again with a group at home, where we could take more time and explore it a little more. Both sessions were a lot of fun, and everyone at both tables seemed to enjoy themselves a lot.

Now, the ruleset I’m using is a playtest document, so I’m not going to go into too much detail about specifics – they may still change before publications, but I’ve got some observations I want to share.


Back when I saw the first edition of Feng Shui, I was kind of taken aback by the idea of choosing an archetype, doing some pretty minimal customization, and playing that rather than building my own character from scratch. Since that time, other games like Apocalypse World and Marvel Heroic Roleplaying and Lady Blackbird using similar ((And, in some cases, more restrictive.)) methods of character creation. I’ve lost my fear of such systems, and have grown to appreciate the way such approaches get you up and playing quickly.

FS2 sticks with the picking of an archetype, but you don’t customize mechanical things about your character ((Not entirely true – swapping out some character abilities is offered as an advanced option.)). Instead, you customize the backstory and motivations of your character, adding life to the numbers that way. There are over 30 different archetypes in the playtest document, so you’ve got lots of variety – pretty much every major character type from the source material is covered ((Though, after rewatching A Better Tomorrow, I found myself wanting a Reformed Gangster archetype, so I could play Sung Tse-Ho.)), plus some interesting variations based on the game’s setting.


The system is pretty similar to the original game, but the mechanics have been vastly simplified. All the information you need to play your character is right there on the character sheet, and you don’t have to deal with large lists of skills and abilities.

This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of options for your character. Most of the options are covered by broad skills or abilities and a simple rule for default rolls when you don’t actually have a rating in whatever you’re trying to do ((Example? Sure! The player of the Old Master in our last playtest decided that he was blind, which was fine – it was just character colour, and didn’t limit him. Blind masters are common in wuxia movies. But then he decided that he wanted to use his heightened hearing to check the heartbeat of someone they were interviewing to see if he was lying. I thought that was a cool idea, but didn’t want it to become a defining schtick, so I just had him roll on the default skill level. Took about thirty seconds to figure out how to do that in game, and he got a cool character moment that wasn’t covered by the rules. Easy.)). What it means is that players can rapidly master their characters and resolution is quick and flavourful.

Combat ((Yeah, it’s part of the system, but in a game like this, combat deserves a bit of special comment.))

There are three things about combat you should know:

  1. Stunts. When you do something in combat, whether attacking a foe or dodging a hail of automatic weapon fire or trying haul babies out of an exploding hospital, you are encouraged ((In the original system, in fact, you were penalized if you didn’t come up with a cool description.)) to phrase it as an action-movie-style stunt. So, you don’t just shoot the mook, you slide across the polished bar-top, scattering bottles, and fly off the end ((In slow motion, of course.)) while firing two .45s into the chest of the foe, who staggers back into a giant mirror which smashes and rains glass down on the whole area. Now, the description of the stunt doesn’t have any mechanical effect, but it has a narrative one – it makes your characters as cool as their movie counterparts. It supports the theme and style of the game brilliantly.
  2. Shots. Initiative is handled by the same shots system as the original game ((Though there may be a few tweaks. It’s been a while since I looked at the original, so I can’t say for certain.)), which provides an interesting, fluid structure to the fights. There’s a bit of a risk though: if you roll low and others roll high on your initiative, you could have some folks taking multiple turns before you get to do anything. It’s not a huge problem, because each turn takes very little time to resolve. The longest part of the turn is trying to come up with the coolest stunt you can.
  3. Up  Checks. One of the coolest aspects of combat, in my opinion, is the way characters don’t have hit points the way they do in other games. As you accumulate damage, you become more impaired (i.e., you take a penalty to rolls) and, at a certain threshold you need to start making checks to see if you can stay on your feet. What that means in play is that, once you reach a certain level of injury, your character could drop at any point. Even if he or she doesn’t, you may have to make a check at the end of combat to see if you were wounded badly enough to die ((After a touching scene with your comrades, where you get to utter a few parting words.)). This uncertainty adds a level of risk to combat that I haven’t seen since Unknown Armies, where the GM tracks hit points, and just describes the injuries to the players.


The setting is an adjusted version of the original Chi War setting. You still have your genre-bending, time-hopping badasses fighting for possession of various feng shui sites so as to control the secret history of the world, but the four time junctures have switched up a bit. Now you get to play in the modern era, in 690 CE ((During the reign of the woman emperor, Wu Zetian.)), in 1850 CE ((During a fairly dark period of European domination of China.)), and 2074 CE ((Where

the Jammers have turned the world into a barren, post-apocalyptic wasteland by detonating a Chi Bomb that killed 97% of the population.
)) ((Why is that in a spoiler tag? That bit of backstory forms part of the plot of the intro adventure.)), as well as in the spooky, mystical Netherworld that links these time periods.

The assumption is that you will play members of the Dragons, a Chi War faction that mainly wants to prevent the various other factions from exerting their cross-time tyranny over the common citizen of the planet. They have – once again – been pretty much wiped out, and the PCs are new recruits dragged into the conflict.

If you don’t think that sounds cool, there’s no hope for you.

Play Experience

So, that’s the bones of it all, but anyone can get that from reading the rules. How does it play at the table?

Awesome. It’s fast, it’s flavourful, and it creates great cinematic moments.

Now, the basic structure of the game, like the source material, is somewhat formulaic – adventures are crafted around big, set-piece fights, and then connections are built to help get from one fight to another. That said, one of the things I tried in both playtests ((But emphasized in the most recent one.)) was taking more time with the between-fight stuff, letting the players roleplay more, interact with the world ((In non-fighty ways.)), and generally try the system in non-combat contexts. The simple resolution system let things flow, the characters’ Melodramatic Hooks ((That’s the game term for the aspect of the character’s backstory that drives him or her to do crazy, action-movie things – stuff like “I must avenge the murder of my father!” or “I will find a worthy heir for my family kung fu style!”)) kept them pushing forward, and the style and theme of the game kept them all being over-the-top awesome.


Feng Shui 2 is one of the most fun systems I have ever run. The setting is crazy, the mechanics are both simple and flavourful, and it’s very fast to get a new group up and running. These are all things I look for in games these days, and they are here in spades. We all had a lot of fun playing, and I’ve added the game to the list of campaigns I will pitch to my players when one of my current campaigns wraps up.

The Kickstarter is slated to begin later this week, according to Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff ((Which, incidentally, is a good podcast to listen to if you’re interested in finding out more about FS2. Hell, it’s just a good podcast to listen to, regardless.)). There will probably be some more info once the campaign goes live, so look for that.

And back the project, Chi Warrior! The Dragons need all the help they can get!


So, you probably know about Kickstarter. And you probably know about the Hillfolk Kickstarter by Robin Laws. Well, as a backer, I received a .pdf copy of the current (post-playtest, pre-final) draft of the rules, and I took a little time to read the game this weekend. I liked what I read, and so want to tell you about it. You can think of it as me shilling for the Kickstarter if you like; I certainly want the game to reach all its stretch goals.

In Hillfolk ((And yes, I hear the theme from Lothar of the Hill People every time I read the title.)), you play members of a tribe of iron-age raiders. The game uses a new engine, called DramaSystem, that emphasizes character-driven play – the game is more about the interactions and relationships between the characters than about the characters facing external threats. It’s meant to emulate the TV-style serial drama, in the vein of The Sopranos, Mad Men, Copper, such. In a way, you could call it a soap opera engine, I guess, but only if you call shows like Rome or Deadwood soap operas ((Really, soap operas – daytime dramas – differ very little from the evening dramas in their basics. It’s in the execution and production values that the real differences show. Fair enough; after all, soap operas produce at least five episodes for every episode of an evening drama.)).

Play happens through a series of scenes, each framed by a player in turn (including the GM). Scenes are divided into two types: Dramatic and Procedural.

Procedural scenes are scenes wherein the characters are trying to gain a practical result – raid an enemy herd, cross a dangerous desert, find a new grazing land, dig iron ore out of a mine, whatever. These are scenes familiar to most gamers, and often you’ll have several characters co-operating against the GM to accomplish your goal. Mechanics for Procedural scenes revolve around spending different coloured tokens to gain draws from a deck of playing cards, trying to match a card drawn by the GM. It’s pretty straightforward in practice, though a little convoluted to explain, and there’s an appendix that adds an advanced mechanic to the process for those who want a more detailed, fine-grained system.

Dramatic scenes are scenes where one character is trying to gain some emotional reward from another character. This is where things depart most from other RPGs – there aren’t really any rules to determine whether or not you get what you want in the scene. You go in with your goal and, at the end, the GM will ask you if you got what you want ((Some similarities here to Fiasco and other story games.)). There’s a token system in play here that incentivizes not getting what you want – if the person that you want to respect you dismisses you as beneath him, you get a token; if someone comes to you looking for approval, and you grudgingly grant it, you get a token. Tokens can be used to manipulate the narrative a bit, including forcing a concession from someone or jumping in on a scene when the person setting the scene doesn’t include you.

The emphasis of play is on Dramatic scenes, with a goal of deepening, enriching, and entangling the emotional needs of the characters. Characters are built to feed into this, with each character defined more by what he or she wants than what he or she can do. Relationships are important, and during character creation, each character is given a relationship with a couple other characters, including something that the character wants and why the other character won’t grant it. These motivations are all emotional needs – approval, love, respect, fear, acceptance, praise, deference, etc. Each player also chooses two dramatic poles for their character to be pulled between: leader or tyrant, warrior or peacemaker, faithful or traitor, anger or wisdom, etc. And, almost as an afterthought, you get to pick some skills that your character is good at, and some that they aren’t.

The goal of the game, as I’ve said before, is to create the kind of rich, dramatic story of people and relationships that you see in today’s serial TV dramas. Sessions are played as episodes, with each episode having a theme, and the story deepens and richens as the characters interact, each reaching for their emotional need, and either achieving it or not, building a history for the relationships and the tribe as a whole. Needs may change over the campaign as the characters grow and change, and the story grows and changes with them. After a number of episodes, it’s suggested that you call an end to a season, and start a new season after some in-game time has passed ((Or hasn’t passed, if you end the season on a cliffhanger.)), letting the series take another step forward in development.

Now, the game is called Hillfolk, and that’s the default setting, but the book is also going to include a number of Series Pitches – alternate settings for DramaSystem games. There are currently 10 other settings unlocked as stretch goals, and they’ll all be included. Each setting, including Hillfolk, includes a brief rundown of the basic assumptions of the setting, along with a number of questions that the players can answer ((Usually in and through play.)) about things that will customize the setting for the game. You can see a list of the unlocked Series Pitches on the Hillfolk Kickstarter site, as well as any new stretch goals that have been added.

Now, I’m excited about this game, but I fully recognize that it’s not going to be the right game for some ((Perhaps many, but I hope otherwise.)) people. The emphasis on dramatic scenes, the lack of a “real” combat system, the sharing of authorial responsibility and, perhaps most tellingly, having your character “lose” in confrontations with other characters – these are all things that can scare off gamers, moving them out of their comfort zones. For some gamers, the game just won’t work ((And the same can be said of any game.)), because it’s not giving them what they want out of gaming. Specifically, I think that gamers who enjoy more simulationist combat and those who are more interested in their character than in their character’s story ((This is an important distinction. In stories, bad things happen to the characters. Some players just want to sculpt their character to be able to triumph over all the hardship without the setbacks that you find in stories. Nothing wrong with that; it’s just a matter of taste and play style.)) will find this game lacking or frustrating. And those players who demand hard and fast rules to determine who wins in any confrontation may find the Dramatic scenes particularly frustrating.

But for those who are interested in the kinds of story that involve lots of interpersonal drama, who want to model the kinds of TV shows that are getting a lot of press – and a lot of viewers – today, who are interested in the kind of gaming that de-emphasizes combat for interaction, this is a Kickstarter you should get in on. Now.

Go wolves!