26 July 2013

Feng Shui and Fireborn

Are there any games for you that after you encountered them, the way you looked at games in general had changed? Where they showed you a new perspective and it simply resonated? That is what Feng Shui did to me. I played it well over a decade ago and it was my first real encounter with a game that really tried to make things feel cinematic - really cinematic - and empowered players to build on the scene. 

I recently concluded a Feng Shui mini-series and I must confess: it is still one of my favorite games. The system is very fast, incredibly simple to pick up, and can produce some suspense like few others. You know that feeling when you drop box cars? Yeah, that's the one. The initiative has been replicated in various ways over the years, but the shot clock is still classic and visceral like few others.

Most of the players in this game had never encountered it before and it took them a little while to grasp it. This game is different than others, it operates on different assumptions. Once you've done something ridiculously stupid/awesome in Feng Shui, it's hard to not want to bring that into other games. Well, that is if Feng Shui is for you in the first place (I firmly believe that not everything is for everyone, nor should it be).

This is by no means to say Feng Shui is without problems. It has them in a big way. I could run down a big list of all my personal gripes with it and how I have gone about trying to fix them, but that would be long and not what I'm after with this. If that is something you would like to see, drop a comment and let me know. The fact is that I love it, warts and all. Normally I'm not a fan of classes/archetypes, but they work in Feng Shui. They direct your attention away from carefully constructing the supreme badass back to the action. If you want to play that character, it's pretty simple and even encouraged - just find the character with the biggest combat skill. They aren't hiding from you.

Now, one of the things that I both like and don't is the setting for Feng Shui. I will typically run this game as a straight contemporary action game and slowly add in supernatural elements, maybe bringing in the Secret War, maybe not. It lends itself extremely well to running episodes in whatever crazy setting you want, not bothering with events in-between sessions, and even handles time travel in a way that doesn't make you go cross-eyed. The problem is that's just not how I plan things. Good news - it's incredibly easy to scrub that from the game and cook up whatever else you want.

Which brings me to Fireborn. Here we have a game that has the most amazing premise ever - you play a dragon that has been reborn into a human. Um, YES. More of that. Throughout play you will relive events from your past lives in the mythic age that probably have significance to what is playing out in the contemporary setting as magic returns to the world. Oh yeah, in those past lives you are a dragon - not just a human with the soul of a dragon, but a straight up dragon. Suffice it to say, you are pretty awesome.

The system to this game is interesting. I cannot bring myself to say good. It's interesting. There are some very neat things that it does, such as fighting styles and the ability to build the actions you want to take from various moves. The Active D6 element, where you move your dice pools around, is also neat. But man, is it complicated. If everyone at the table doesn't get this on a pretty fundamental level, play is going to slow to a crawl. It certainly doesn't help that the rules have significant errata and could use better explaining in the first place.

But you get to play a freaking dragon. So, there's still that. A lot to like in this game, a lot more to be frustrated about.

Where this is going should be pretty obvious at this point. One of the players in my recent Feng Shui mini-series figured it out. Drop Fireborn into Feng Shui. I've done it a couple of times now, and man does it work. Feng Shui gives Fireborn the mechanics to really be what it wants to be. The mechanics of Feng Shui on the GM side are about as easy as you could ask for to build whatever you need.

With the system of Feng Shui and premise of Fireborn, the resulting game is awesome. The players were excited by the end of it. The actual mechanics of fitting the supernatural powers of Fireborn into Feng Shui are already there in the form of Creature Power and Transformed Animal Schticks. Since you play the Dragons in Feng Shui, the game is asking for it, right? I do mean premise instead of setting for Fireborn. I don't use all of the default assumptions (for example that it is set in London - I don't know London and my players like to use guns... a lot) because that's just the person that I am.

I ran Fireborn with the mostly default setting (I cannot help myself, okay?) once. The weakest part in the end happened to be that I just was not familiar enough with London to be comfortable. Even if I was more familiar that the rest of the players and they were more than willing to go along with anything just for the ride (seriously, that was an amazing group, I don't know what I would give to bring you all back together), I wasn't content with running things as I normally would be. They didn't seem to notice, or were cutting me slack, but I did and that is what counts.

The recent mini-series itself was run as the prelude to what could be a much longer game; it essentially put the setting into motion. When it fits and is possible, I often like to put those events in the player's hands. To give them ownership of all the terrible things that just happened. It makes the subsequent plots where they go to fix it feel more natural. It also gives them a stake in what happens, which is important. Cleaning up someone else's mess isn't quite as satisfying as cleaning up your own mess.

A side effect of that is there are less NPCs running around that have critical information, but only respond in cryptic answers. Sometimes that's the game, but those are more "let's resolve this big mystery" games. Feng Shui isn't that game. It's "let's go punch the mystery in the face until candy comes out!" The players pretty much killed everyone, especially Dr. Lucky, and released a Pandora's Box of crazy onto the world. There were some deep themes about the price of revenge, to what length will you go to be reunited with your family, the cost of power and immortality, they were probably justified in throwing her off the force, and how many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop - but mostly they crashed helicopters into things, ran a SWAT team over, and destroyed the part of the city in a chase that went horribly right.

If you haven't played Feng Shui, do yourself a favor and look into it. It is a great game by an amazing author, Robin D. Laws. Fireborn is also worth looking into if you dig on the idea of playing a dragon.