Many tabletop RPGs focus heavily on combat, but most treat combat as an intricate tactical puzzle. the gm creates a combat scenario and players must use skills, items, slots, weapons, mana, hp and more to get through it.
Ever since I discovered wushu, a game that lets you choreograph collaborative kung-fu fight scenes, I’ve been looking for something else to scratch that itch.
Reading: Feng shui 2 rpg review
a traditional RPG match might look like this:
“ok, let’s recap. I’m going to charge into the group with my warrior’s light ability, moving 6 squares, dealing 6 damage and stunning three of them. then john will dash foot on hers an hers, she will charge behind cover across the 10 square gap and use the backstab on the head goblin. hopefully her extended critical range will allow the attack to finish it off. steven, keep refreshing your song of faith for us. sounds like a good plan.”
This method of combat resolution is a lot of fun and really gives players a sense of control, precision and tactical planning. And that’s great! I love to play those games. but it doesn’t sound like a fight; sounds more like a general’s battle strategy.
On the contrary, I’ve been discovering the joy of more narrative combat resolution systems. these games often sacrifice complex tactics and puzzles for a more cinematic combat experience. the game I use most often for this is wushu. a fight in wushu looks like this:
“I charged at him, drew my sword / dove to the ground / cut off his legs as I slid / jumped to my feet / plunged my sword into his back from behind.”
The more details you add to your attacks, the more dice you get for that action. Wushu games are fun and usually result in a memorable fight scene that rivals anything Hollywood can produce. however, the mechanics of wushu are extremely simple; to the point where my party barely keeps track of dice and hp; we continue to describe the scene of the fight. I love this game, even though it’s little more than a springboard for our storytelling.
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Imagine my excitement when I heard about feng shui 2; a game that promises to deliver Hollywood-style combat and fighting scenes while retaining the satisfying tactical nature of more traditional RPGs.
After backing up and receiving the final pdf, I loaded it onto my tablet and dove into the rulebook. later I was able to run a game with my group, and it went well! we all had a fun time. but the real question is: how well does feng shui deliver on its promise of narrative combat backed by satisfying mechanics?
The writing and atmosphere are perfect! the book is a joy to read, and was clearly made by someone with a lot of love and knowledge and cheesy action movies. each page is filled with evocative images and phrases; I can read it for a long time without wanting to jump into a game ASAP.
The character classes are also wonderful. the classes (called archetypes) have names like “kung-fu police”, “old master”, and “big thug”. these archetypes are all well designed and well written. To create a character, players simply grab an archetype, make a few simple choices (sort of like a dungeon world), and they’re ready to play. advancement is also fairly simple, and players can specialize their archetype as they play.
finally, the game captures all the tropes of those cheesy movies. you have refill rolls; If you roll well enough, your gun will never run out of bullets! players can make checks to continue fighting even after they are “dead”. all weapons have difficulty hiding and sneaking from guards, and much more. If I listed all the great clichés built into the gameplay, we’d be here all day.
Here’s the rub: All of these systems manage to preserve and emulate the clichés and feel of those old action movies, but they are clunky, oh so clunky! when we play, we have to remember to do reload checks, wound checks, tricks during combat, range modifiers, special abilities that introduce new mechanics, etc, etc.
These mechanics don’t mesh well. they do not lead from one to the other. Playing this game is like having a huge to-do list with reminders and rules.
In a game like Pathfinder, most mechanics lead to each other. it’s your turn, choose your ability, roll for accuracy, roll for damage, mark ammo, and use your minor action. complete your turn. although pathfinder has more rules, they all lead to each other and are all related.
in feng shui 2, some checks are made at the end of each round; some at the end of your turn; wome when you use a skill; other rules take place every 3 turns, etc., etc. the mechanics don’t mesh well and are often unrelated.
A lot of my favorite games are usually pretty simple. anything based on the world of the apocalypse really just has one type of action that you do over and over and over again. in these lite games the actions are abstracted to speed up the game (among other reasons). the downside is that many moves and actions feel the same. if you attack an enemy with a stick, attack an enemy with a magic sword, or attack an enemy with a bow; the mechanics are the same and the movements feel the same.
fs tries to solve that problem by adding different mechanics to make things feel different and unique. there are several different “dials” that can be adjusted to make the attacks feel and play differently. accuracy, damage, cost, speed, amount of ammo, ways to pump damage, etc, etc. this makes shooting an uzi, shooting a shotgun, and shooting a bow different experiences (which is great!) at the cost of screwing in more mechanics. “oh, that’s a shotgun, right? what are the rules for shotguns?
While reload checks are a bit of fun in theory, in practice they just mean that a player using an assault rifle doesn’t have to spend as much time reloading as a shotgun user. same with hide values. adding the concealment trait for weapons is another way to make them “feel” different from each other, while adding unnecessary complexity.
There is a set of rules for shotguns that add damage if a player takes a little longer to do the “ka-chunk” sound effect on the table. this is hilarious, and kinda funny. but it modifies attacks, interacts weirdly with some of the other mechanics, and should be included whenever a shotgun is mentioned in the rules. what started out as a fun reference ended up making the rules overly complicated and bloated.
the problem of simple mechanics not feeling satisfying is a real problem; and I think every game tries to find a different balance between these two extremes. feng shui 2 sacrifices smooth, simple mechanics to evoke the clichés and cheesiness of those old movies. In the end, I’ll still be playing and enjoying feng shui 2. But I’d like to see a game come out that doesn’t have to make as much of a sacrifice to preserve those classic tropes.
this article didn’t start this way, but someone pointed out that my own game, mytic mortals, tries to solve this in a different way. mythical mortals has extremely simple basic rules, boringly simple in fact. however, each player class introduces new mechanics and rules that are based on a simple foundation. in this way, each class feels and plays differently; but each player only needs to know the rules of his own class. only the hunter needs to know about elemental effects, and only the stealth needs to know about ready turns.
maybe scratch the itch between wushu and feng shui 2.