A lot of tabletop RPGs have a heavy focus on combat, but most of them treat combat as an intricate, tactical puzzle. The GM creates a combat scenario, and the players must use abilities, items, spacing, weapons, mana, HP, and more to overcome it.
Ever since I discovered Wushu, a game that lets you choreograph collaborative kung-fu fight scenes, I’ve been searching for something else to scratch that itch.
A traditional RPG combat might look like this:
“Okay, so 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 is going to cast Fleeting foot on Susan, she’ll charge from behind cover across the 10 square space, and use the backstab on the head Goblin. Hopefully, her extended crit range will let the attack finish him off. Steven, you just 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 playing those games. But it doesn’t sound like a fight; it sounds more like a general’s battle strategy.
In contrast, I’ve been discovering the joy of more narrative combat resolution systems. These games usually sacrifice intricate tactics and puzzles for a more cinematic combat experience. The game I most often use for this is Wushu. A fight in Wushu looks like this:
“I charge towards him, drawing my sword / dropping to the ground / slashing at his legs as I slide past / hop to my feet / and dig 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 a blast to play, and usually result in a memorable fight scene to rival anything Hollywood can produce. However Wushu’s mechanics are extremely simple; to the point where my group barely even keeps track of dice and HP; we just keep describing the fight scene. I love this game, even though it’s little more than a springboard for our storytelling.
Imagine my excitement when I heard about Feng Shui 2; a game that promises to provide Hollywood style combat and fight scenes while preserving the satisfying tactical nature of more traditional RPGs.
After backing and receiving the final PDF, I loaded it up on my tablet, and dove into the rulebook. Later on 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 it’s 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. Every page is filled with evocative images and phrases; I can read it for long without wanting to jump into a game ASAP.
The Character classes are also wonderful. Classes (called archetypes) have names like “Kung-Fu Cop”, “Old Master”, and “Big Bruiser”. These archetypes are all well designed and well written. To create a character, players simply grab an archetype, make a few simple choices (kinda like Dungeon World), and they are off and playing. Advancement is also pretty simple, and let’s players specialize their archetype as they play.
Finally, the game captures all of the tropes from those cheesy movies. You have reload rolls; if you roll well enough, your gun never runs out of bullets! Players can make checks to keep fighting even after they are “dead”. All weapons have a difficulty for hiding and sneaking past guards, and so much more. If I listed all of the great cliches built into the game system, we’d be here all day.
Here’s the problem: All of these systems succeed in preserving and emulating the cliches and feel of those old action movies, but they are clunky, oh so clunky! When we play the game, we have to remember to make reload checks, checks for wounds, tricks during combat, modifiers for ranges, special abilities that introduce new mechanics, etc etc.
These mechanics do not mesh well. They don’t lead from one to the other. Playing this game kinda feels like keeping a huge to-do list of reminders and rules.
In a game like Pathfinder, most mechanics lead into the other. It’s your turn, choose your skill, roll for accuracy, roll for damage, mark off ammo, and use your minor action. Complete your turn. Even though Pathfinder has more rules, they all lead into one another, and are all related.
In Feng Shui 2, some checks happen at the end of each round; some at the end of your turn; wome when you use an ability; other rules take place every 3 turns, etc etc. Mechanics don’t mesh well, and they are often unrelated to each other.
Many of my favorite games are usually quite simple. Anything based on Apocalypse world really only has one kind of action that you make over and over and over. In these lite games actions are abstracted to speed up play (among othe reasons). The downside is that many moves and actions feel the same. Whether 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 moves feel the same.
FS tries to solve that problem by bolting on different mechanics to make things feel different and unique. There are several different “dials” that can be tweaked to make attacks feel and play differently. Accuracy, damage, cost, speed, ammo count, ways to pump damage, etc etc. This makes it so that shooting an uzi, shooting a shotgun, and shooting a bow are all different experiences (which is great!) But that comes at the cost of bolting on more mechanics. “Oh, that’s a shotgun, right? What are the rules for shotguns?
While reload checks are kinda fun in theory, in practice they just mean a player using an assault rifle doesn’t have to waste as much time reloading as the shotgun user. Same with concealment values. Adding the concealment trait for guns is another way to make them “feel” different from one another, while adding unnecessary complexity.
There’s a set of rules for shotguns that add damage if a player takes a little extra time to make the “ka-chunk” sound effect at the table. This is hilarious, and kinda fun. But it modifies attacks, interacts strangely with some of the other mechanics, and has to be included any time there is a shotgun mentioned in the rules. What started out as a funny reference ended up making the rules overly complicated and bloated.
The problem of simple mechanics not feeling satisfying is a real issue; and I think every game tries to find a different balance between these two extremes. Feng Shui 2 sacrifices smooth, simple mechanics in order to evoke the cliches and cheesiness of those old movies. In the end, I will still play and enjoy Feng Shui 2. But I would 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 out this way, but someone pointed out that my own game, Mythic Mortals, tries to solve this in a different way. Mythic Mortals has extremely simple core-rules, boringly simple in fact. However each Player Class features new mechanics and rules that build upon the simple base. In this way, each class feels and plays differently; but each player only needs to know the rules for their own class. Only the Hunter needs to know about elemental effects, and only the Sneak needs to know about preparation turns.
Maybe it will scratch the itch between Wushu and Feng Shui 2.