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Feng Shui Playtest notes

What did we do?

We ran “Baptism of Fire” using the Feng Shui core book and the player aids at—the character sheet, the Fu Schtick diagram, and the Archetype-Juncture map. I, the GM, prepared for about an hour ahead of time: I read the first half of the adventure in detail, skimmed the last scenes—enough to know I wouldn’t need to play Ta Yu until then—jumped in.

We started play about eight thirty, and finished about twelve thirty. We had a Thief (a gang fight interrupted our last job and got my partner killed); a Transformed Dragon (Gangsters stole my family heirloom, the Amulet of Yendor), a Killer (Left my family to try to live an honest life as a college student; they could make me do assassinations if they find me!) with Lightning Reload, Both Guns Blazing, 2x Carnival of Carnage, and Hair-trigger Neck Hairs (and a close family relationship to his guns), and a music-teaching Ghost from 69 (I seek the greatest performer to pass on my gifts) who had haunted this temple until it became the Eating Counter.

Everything up through the meeting with Fast Eddie went as written. After that, the planned fight scenes needed a bit of help to happen—the players were willing to wait for Sneezy to return to the construction site, so the restaurateur paged the Killer to say that his niece had been taken. We did end up running everything in one continuous set of scenes, with no downtime. I think in a movie, there would have been a night in the middle and a day following.

What we needed for a pick-up adventure

For a pick-up game, it would be very nice to have pre-generated characters—even if only as PDFs, so I could print the Killer booklet, hand it to someone, let them make 15 minutes of choices, and play. Dungeon World does a great job with this. We didn’t find it reasonable to pick Fu Schticks in the time we had to start play.

Especially for a pick-up game, but for all games: powers need to be relatively balanced. They don’t have to all be equally good in all combinations, but the Killer felt like a bozo for taking Both Guns Blazing and the Fast Draw schticks, one of which never helped (useless against mooks, worse than useless against Happy, and also useless against Ta Yu because the -2 to hit more than outweighs the damage boost), and the other of which never helped (because he never ran out of ammo).

The Transformed Dragon, by contrast, felt like he made the right choice by taking Dragon—that no set of powers could compare to a +5 on nearly all rolls.

Some players reported disappointment that their high skills didn’t matter much—particularly the Thief. In retrospect, she’d rather that she were told up front that there are two to five real skills (guns, martial arts, sorcery, etc.) and that everything else is a non-combat skill improved with non-combat skill points.

What the gun-bunny needed

The Killer’s first attack was to fire two Glocks, Both Guns Blazing, at two mooks. Oh, he can’t fire two guns in one action—or at least, he can’t take out two mooks that way. Okay, at one mook. Oh, BGB doesn’t help against mooks. Okay, at Happy. That does two less damage points than just shooting him would have done, and has a higher chance to miss. So the quick picks for the Killer include some powers that are worse than useless in the first test fight of the included adventure. Is this just a BGB problem? The Killer player also complained that the half page of guns schticks didn’t feel cool, and the pages of guns felt pointless. More on this later.

Carnival of Carnage x2 triples the opportunities for the Killer player to stall the table. I would much rather treat this like Aim:

Suggestion for an alternate carnival of carnage that preserves it as a good mook-removal, while minimizing the number of dice rolls and decision points:

  • On your tick, you can announce “carnage” – this is a one-tick action that requires no dice rolling (but has special effects of heavy gunfire, or lock&load or whatever)
  • Alternately, you can announce “resolve carnage” and make a die roll targeting (1+ the number of preceding carnage ticks) in mooks. Camera cuts to a line of bodies falling…

This preserves it as approximately “you are removing one mook per tick”. It is somewhat higher variance (in that a single flubbed roll misses them all, so don’t screw up). It seems very action-movieish of you to wait until just before the mooks are ready to charge (ticking off carnage every time until it’s the nook’s action), and then suddenly guns blazing, the mooks all fall at once, somehow unable to react as you fill them with holes…

Now you aren’t die-rolling every tick, the GM isn’t marking something off every tick… and your decision and description is minimized to a single chunk rather than being every tick which mook do you slay and how to describe it.

Also, the Killer noted he had half a page of schticks, half of which are useless or worse, while the Sorcerer and any hypothetical Kung Fu characters would have had pages of schticks and special rules. I showed him the pages of guns to pick, and he responded by showing me why that didn’t help him:

Pick a realism level.

The Guns chapter, with tables for range, concealment, cover, and detailed ammo tracking, doesn’t seem to come from the same game as the Sorcery chapter or the Orangutank. It led for us to a feeling of epic-level mismatch, where the Thief and Killer were worried about fiddly details and which gun and reloading, and the Killer couldn’t shoot two guys at once—but the Ghost and the Transformed Dragon were out of a Tsui Hark movie, chucklingly blasting as many mooks as convenient or using Ref 9, Bod 9 to do inhuman things.

and later:

Or let these be gun-specific tricks based on movie guns rather than gun geek trivia. Like, “you can pump a shotgun with a loud KA-CHUNK” and get +1 damage, you could have a trick with the “one in the chamber” guns that emulates hong kong movies rather than real guns. Make “one in the chamber” half as as cool as “KACHUNK” and I’ll stop whining about it.

Consider: when ammunition capacity matters in the movies, it is never because being able to hold 13 rounds instead of 12 gives one character a minor advantage. It’s because of stuff like:

  • The bad guy finally gets the drop on the protagonist. But (click click) he’s out of bullets!
  • The protagonist finally gets the drop on the villain. But (click click) she’s out of bullets!
  • Somebody’s been counting shots and knows when somebody else is out of bullets. (This only works if the audience can count too; I’ve never seen it done in the movies with anything but revolvers. This might be because you could trust an audience to know that cowboys can shoot six times, but not anything about how many times a cop can shoot.)
  • Somebody has to duck to reload, giving somebody else a chance to maneuver!
  • Sombody fumbles the reload!
  • The scene near the end of Yojimbo, where it’s set in late shogonate Japan, and the protagonist doesn’t know anything about guns. He has mortally wounded the one gun-weilding antagonist. The dying antagonist tries to trick him into giving him his gun back, saying he feels naked without it. “Don’t worry,” he says. “I fired twice. There’s no more bullets.” And the trick works. Almost.

Now I’m thinking of watching a bunch of John Woo movies—and maybe some other HK-influenced gunporn movies too (Matrix, Equilibrium, and what else?)—to keep careful track of how reloading and running out of bullets work there.


  • If running out of ammo involves failing a roll: with one of these guns you can get off one more shot after failing the roll.
  • You can pretend to surrender by removing the magazine when in fact you have a round in the chamber. This always works in the movies. It should ALWAYS work for PCs.
  • If you have a gun with an unusual capacity, you can trick people into thinking you’re reloading.
  • Go with your original idea: make ‘gun geek’ a prestige class or schtick or something. But make it based on the PC’s gun geekery, not the player’s. Not sure how this would work. Maybe you can make up stuff about guns and it turns out to be true, but you take an alignment violation and lose all your paladin abilities if you ever confuse “clip” and “magazine” and then you have to go on a quest to gain forgiveness from your god. ;)

Another player wrote, more succinctly:

Instead of a big list of guns, if I were writing the game, all gun schticks would be of the “I use guns with this feature, and use it well” variety – so there’s Autofire schticks for the person with autofire, and aiming for people who bring scopes, and big cannon rounds for people who have a bazooka in their back pocket, and cold-cocking for people who beat people with the butts of their guns, and concealment for the lady who has a derringer you didn’t see until it was in your face, and More Dakka for the person who wears bandoliers of chaingun ammo, etc. If you’re running up several trees (which should be plausible) you have a bunch of guns to switch between (signature armory?) or some well-built custom or special weapons that really do combine the features of a sniper rifle and a bazooka.

John Malkovitch, with the piggy in that one movie, would have “concealed” and “bazooka,” which is just hilarious. Run with it! Shotguns could be Intimidating and Coldcocking and Area Effect! Someone who “plans ahead” could have a gun schtick they could trade out for any other given some prep. Possibilities are endless, and somewhat more fu- or sorcery-like.

Now the gun nuts have something meaningful to brag about, and we go back to one of the core conceats of the game—it’s not the hardware, but the hero using it, that makes the real difference. You get a cool gun because you are cool, not because the gun is cool.

From this I read several points. One is about ammo tracking and reloading, very detailed; it says to go look at games like Diaspora and Burning Empires for how they handle this. But that’s almost entirely overshadowed by:

Please present a game where the core archetypes can play together. If a Sorcerer with Blast and Influence can enter game, then a gun-bunny has to be able to engage with the PCs’ problems with the same efficacy and flexibility as that Sorcerer. That doesn’t require the same level of mechanical complexity—anyone who wants trees of prereqs and a year-long process of a character becoming his best self will play a Fu character. But it does mean similar support for Guns

What the thief needed

The thief reported being overshadowed in action scenes—why can’t she use Intrusion or Seduction in fights, to take out mooks or put aspects on named GMCs?—but then she felt bad taking time into prep scenes, away from combat. But she needed to plan and have other PCs help to make her skills relevant, while the Ghost’s Sorcery, the Killer’s Guns, and the Transformed Dragon’s kung fu seemed to be relevant without work.

What all the players needed

The variability of damage was very surprising. It was described as “Glass Ninja,” even though this doesn’t inherit TORG’s problem with using the whole Action Value in a damage result. Happy hit one PC for 17 points of damage. That player was scared he might lose his character, and proposed that damage results shouldn’t open-end against PCs (But it’s okay to do so against NPCs—other PCs disagreed with that, as having a Windling take out a Dragon on a very lucky roll doesn’t seem right to them).

Schtick-heavy characters needed the book open to their schticks. We had no Kung Fu characters because Fu didn’t seem available for pick-up games, but the Killer had the gun-schtick page open, and the Ghost was flipping back and forth between Creature Powers, Sorcery schticks, and general Sorcery rules like -1 per extra target.

All the players wanted fortune points; they wanted a way to invest player-level resources in the success or survival of their characters at critical junctures without having to explain that with character effort in the narrative.

From the Dragon:

Something that is somewhat solvable for the pickup game by doing pre-gen characters – within a party, it feels like there should almost be a rule “everyone’s primary combat stat needs to be within one point of each other”. A guns-16 and a guns-12 in the same party is getting close to making the guns-12 guy feel useless; not only are they going to miss a lot more often, but because margin-of-hit goes into damage, when they do hit, they’re going to usually be doing four points less of damage. That is a lot! Similarly, my character’s speed being five above someone else’s meant I was frequently going to move twice before they got to move at all in combat. That felt poor.

What the GM needed

None of our combats lasted longer than one sequence. The fight in the tenement could have, but we resolved the aerial battle between the Ghost and Ta Yu with just a couple more shots. The GM wishes for pacing advice that tells him how to open the fight with names and mooks, and how to spend and hold back his mooks to draw out the fight.

Some players wondered why the cops didn’t show up to the Eating Counter while the PCs were interrogating a Thorn in the kitchen. The answer is either that they’re on Fast Eddie’s payroll, or they were dealing with a murder a few blocks away, or that it’s a Kung Fu movie and cops wouldn’t have improved it. This worked fine for us, though some players were surprised by it working fine. Guidance for GMs on that could help.

This adventure provided good guidance about how many mooks to use per PC. But given some PCs have powers that are good against mooks and others are good against named characters, some players asked for advice to GMs on what ratio of mooks to named GMCs to use!

When 12-24 mooks are acting on the same shot, it would be nice to be able to roll for them en masse—either give them single dice, so I can roll just the positive die, say—or give me some way to say that three mooks combine to attack, and hit for 0-3x their normal damage, etc. Give me some way to manage buckets of mooks. I’m only going to narrate the actions of a few of them in detail, anyway—so I should only roll once per narration.


Some PCs rolled 9+6=15 for initiative, others rolled 5+1=6. Those people got really bored waiting for the Dragon to move on 15, 12, 9, 6, and for the Killer to move on 13, 12, 11, 10, 9, 8, 7, 6—even though the Killer was being really good about moving fast, Carnival of Carnage may not have added to the fun of the game compared to letting him take out multiple mooks on his normal every-three-shots action.

One player wrote:

Something that a lot of gaming systems have trouble with: “How does combat start?” Ok, we kick in a window [in the tenement, rapelling down from the floor above after sneaking past the Poison Thorns in the lobby], catching most of the enemies by surprise…. and they roll better than us on initiative, so they get to act multiple times before our thief does anything (they did fail to act on the initiative tick that would have put them ahead of any party member, but they still were acting before most of the party, making the attempt to get surprise feel somewhat pointless).

That is, the PCs saw Ta Yu gesturing wildly at Sneezy, leapt out their window on ropes, and crashed in the windows. Ta Yu had been trying to explain that he’d divined the coming of the heroes, but Sneezy hadn’t bought it. So we rolled for a normal sequence, and the NPCs didn’t do anything specifically useful until after they’d seen (been shot at by) a PC. Continuing:

Um… Ok, that just felt odd. Roll-for-initiative as a combat start thing is standard, and makes sense in an approach-scenario or a mutual-surprise-scenario, but in an ambush sort of scenario, I feel like it should have been something more like “the party members coming through the window pick the order they come through; you go on tick N, N-1, N-2, N-3 in whatever order you are coming through the window in. Enemies with precog can go no faster than N; enemies without precog can go no faster than N-3, and there’s some sort of roll based on speed to find out how much slower than those ideals they actually are…” I’m not sure of exactly what to propose, not knowing the other schticks and powers and such in the system, but what I’m generally getting at is that how combat starts matters for feel, and is part of how you can reward pre-combat prep and out of combat skills and planning; by having it just come down to the speed stat, it cheapens those things and feels strange. So… Need a good system there.

I like the way we ran this, because it works to show the players that a high Reflex is an effective effective defense against being surprised even by NPCs. That in turn cuts down on their turtling and defensive planning (a.k.a. “The Shadowrun Problem” at our table), because they can trust their stats to take care of them from minutiae. It’s similar to how in D&D, when the players want to execute an orc with a crossbow bolt to the head, it shouldn’t work—because this is how you show it won’t work against them, so they are then willing to be taken captive, trusting that they’ll get to use the combat system to preserve access to their characters.

Other questions and comments

Why does the thief have a giant shotgun? Some of the weapon and schtick picks don’t fit with the images we get from the Hong Kong movies we know, or the text on the page. Citations would help (e.g., Thief, 1996, Mossberg 590, just like Sidney Poitier in Sneakers—not that he’s a thief there, nor is it a Hong Kong movie). The Internet Movie Firearms Database seems helpful here: In fact, I’d love to see citations or marginalia for every schtick!

One player reported that we seemed to have the Shadowrun planning problem: we could sit around and discuss ideas for a while. Other players said, “but it never lasted long,” and the GM pointed out that whenever this happened, he had the Bad Guys make a move: send in zombies, have Kar-wai call to say Carissa’s been kidnapped, etc.

Active parrying with Guns was really hard to describe.

We looked for ways to understand this game’s preferred stance on mooks relative to Wushu and Weapons of the Gods: are the mooks an environmental effect to make sure that the whole area of the fight feels hostile? Are they the real timer for the encounter, since the named GMCs will depart quickly after about half of the mooks go down? Or are they a sort of weapon you can learn to wield with social skills?

One player wrote:

In hindsight: did the mooks ever hurt us? Could the mooks ever have hurt us without multiple open-ending in a positive direction? I feel like we wasted a lot of time on mook removal which felt dramatic, but ultimately we’d have been way better off focusing firepower on trying to do more damage to Happy during the first fight, rather than minions that wouldn’t have done anything anyway. I guess with a dozen mooks all rolling, statistically you will get some open-ending and they’ll hit you…

There were 12-18 mooks per encounter, and they had enough time to act 2-3 times each per combat, so on average somebody gets hit by a mook about every combat, usually for about 10 damage from a gun. Hey, there’s an idea to take back into the GM advice / encounter design chapter: mooks should be hitting one PC about once per encounter. If they’re doing much less or much more, change how you’re using mooks. At this level, the PCs can’t quite ignore them forever, but can always ignore them right now to do something more important (save the cash register, kiss a MOTAS, etc.)

Also, this player’s thinking in terms of killing most opponents in the fight in which you meet them. That doesn’t sound quite right for HK cinema to me; the named NPCs are worth naming because they leave and return, and are fighting for territory control, intimidation, tempo, or simple larceny—not to the death. On the gripping hand, the Killer writes:

I’m fine with “Kill enough stormtroopers and the others run away.” I’m also fine with “Kill even more stormtroopers and the others might run away, even if Darth Vader is there too.” But “Kill enough stormtroopers and Darth Vader runs away” seems like parody.

Dramatic Hooks are a good idea if the players run with them. The Killer played an openly reluctant character with a list of excuses and some big hooks that the other players got in on pulling. That was awesome, although if multiple people were playing reluctant at once, that could be an issue.

The sorcery writeup (influence was the one used) was great for inspiring creative play. I needed the whole writeup in front on me [another reason for playbooks], but I’m still occasionally spinning out ideas of what I should have done (OK, first use the Illusion application to make Happy think the window is somewhere else on the wall, then inspire him to take a charge at my flying ghost…)

In particular, the skills could have greatly benefitted from a sorcery-style writeup, or even using something like the sorcery mechanic – you have a Social skill AV, and take the Seduction, Leadership, Intimidation, etc. schticks to apply it in clearly spelled out, genre appropriate ways (and this is part of what defines genre). You can also easily say “OK, I’m taking the Intimidating schtick, if you’ve a social character, grab one of the others!” which feels like an intuitive way to do party differentiation. This could even be used to parcel out current schticks that are unique to archetypes, allowing more flex while keeping niche specialization open. Our Thief, as described, could totally have benefitted from the “scrappy” schticks and the Techie unique schtick, and I took the detective skill and would have played it more if “deduction” was available as a schtick. It would also help spell out how these things are supposed to work, in an action sequence, in genre, and allow the GM to disallow certain ones that strain his credibility beforehand, and not call them out in play. In other words – get your social contract up front, so you don’t have power plays and dickering over it in the middle of the action.

Speaking of flashbacks, there was a point where the GM said “so, did you tie the knot that catches when too much weight is applied, or the one that gives a few extra feet but slips at the end?” Which was a choice with a clear retroactive answer – after the fact, of course you didn’t pick the thing that screws you – but would actually have been the perfect spot for, say, an Intrusion check to see if you already did the clever thing when the option presented itself pre-scene. The “wasn’t it lucky that I always…” bit is great in action movies, with or without a lot of foreshadowing.

That last bit would also have been a good “You’re awesome at intrusion – go you” moment. Letting people know when what they have is cool is important. When our Transformed Dragon did a piddly three or four points of damage to Happy, the GM spent a while emphasizing the fact that this kick would have torn through most walls, and Happy was pretty surprised (and a little pissed) that someone could hit him enough that he noticed, which was really a good thing to do so that we didn’t just feel wimpy.