This is an alternative setting for Feng Shui that keeps all the fun of feng shui sites and the usual antagonists, but allows throwing many others into the mix, stealing from the World of Darkness, Unknown Armies, Cyberpunk 2020 and Cybergeneration, The Fifth Element, the Continuing Time, Deadlands, Highlander, Call of Cthulhu, Neverwhere, Charles de Lint’s urban fantasies, and anything else that appeals to us. That means a whole bunch of game system conversions, of course. I’ve attempted to adapt rules from Unknown Armies to provide a madness system that can cope with issues of vampiric and cyberpunk Humanity as well as Cthulhoid horror. I’m tentatively calling the campaign Ring of Fire.
To provide lots of action and opportunities for different styles, we have a number of special places, and a plethora of junctures. Feng shui sites are not the only prize in the Secret War: there are many powers, and none of the many factions are yet aware of them all. Most of the occult underground isn’t even aware of the Secret War, and isn’t likely to believe you if you start babbling about it until you show them some proof— but flaky occultists and meditating hippies might be valuable allies in getting the right sort of people controlling feng shui sites you’ve just chased the opposition out of.
When the world has so many different powers, it is hard to tell which of your actions are influencing the struggle of the Secret War. Taking over feng shui sites or cutting others off from theirs is an easy way to see that you’re having an effect. But you never know when breaking up that Hatfield-McCoy type feud in the small town in the American West could be a significant setback for the Powers of Entropy, or getting that hitchhiker with the deer-in-the-headlights look in her eyes to that nice little hippie commune could give a crucial victory in the struggle between two archetypes.
The standard Feng Shui universe is fairly well-defined. A particular set of junctures is open by default, with factions from each juncture vying for control over feng shui sites. Game masters who have a campaign where the player characters have a real effect on the outcome of the Secret War need to balance the power of attunement to multiple feng shui sites with the need to control sites in order to make a difference.
Even with such a free-form system, it is possible to have jarring elements if a game master goes too far afield. The reality of the default setting is already rather well-defined.
What happens if you throw in a bit of uncertainty into the mix? In the default setting, the factions are all aware of what counts in the Secret War: Feng Shui sites. If there are other powers that are important beyond Feng Shui, and different factions (and the player characters!) only have pieces of the puzzle, the world can be a great deal more chaotic. Critical shifts happen much more often as different factions upset the balance of the world. (This makes it easy for multiple gamemasters to juggle reality; it changes often enough that there is a coherent reason for any inconsistencies.) You know how sometimes you’re sure that you left your keys in a particular place, or paid a particular bill at a certain time, and then you find out that things didn’t happen that way? That may be bleedover memory from a reality shift.
It is possible to borrow from all manner of game systems this way. The factions from the World of Darkness, thrown into the Secret War, add a whole new freaky twist to the game with battles for reality. Mix in some Unknown Armies and The X-Files and Highlander and things could get completely freaky with critical shifts dumping our heroes out into tweaked realities every few weeks depending on the GM’s latest deranged idea. (If you haven’t had a chance to read Unknown Armies yet, check out The New Inquisition.
The rule about the Netherworld’s juncture modifier balancing those of all other eras goes away. The Netherworld is a straightforward +0; other eras vary based on their rules.
Handling magic can be delicate. Player characters who can cast spells should be effective, but there are some genres where magic should not work as well as others.
One way is to borrow the White Wolf notion of coincidental magic and Paradox. Under some critical shifts, violation of the rules of reality can be dangerous, and Paradox can descend upon an unwary mage. (At certain degrees of rigidity of paradigm, even magic like fu powers, vampiric Disciplines, and so on should attract Paradox. This should be rare, though.) When Paradox is operational, coincidental magic should also become possible. The full-fledged sorcerers should be pretty impressive in their home territory when they don’t have to worry about the forces of Paradox chowing down on them; when operating in the modern era, they should be limited to more subtle workings, pulling on the threads of synchronicity and sneaking past the nearsighted laws of physics.
The magic system in Unknown Armies is interesting: wizards perform magic using “charges” they have accumulated in manners appropriate to their particular magical school. Dipsomancers have interesting rules for drinking, cliomancers for gathering the public awareness of a particular site, pornomancers... let’s not go into detail here. This style of magic doesn’t make wizards combat-effective because they run out of energy far too quickly. These magicians qualify as hedge wizards, Mage-style, and do not need to follow the Wizard archetype. [Need to invent details; the dipsomancer who knows a couple of fu schticks from the Path of the Empty Bottle should be a good example.]
Paradox should be nasty and prevalent enough that player-character sorcerers should be fairly rare— becoming a sorcerer should be a task undertaken by someone willing to make some pretty extreme sacrifices. (Insanity should not be required, as it seems to be for most powerful sorcerers in Tim Powers novels.) The more flexible and powerful magic gets, the more dangerous it should be to wield. Fu powers and vampiric Disciplines and huckster hexes are all fairly narrowly defined and should attract less attention than the flat-out sorcery. (I’m hoping for a very diverse group of PCs.)
Going back and forth between different tech levels can be unbalancing, especially if you have access to seriously advanced equipment.
One balancing factor is the arcanowave schtick of having mystical side effects to fuelling a device. Perhaps all that captured alien techology can be used as long as you have the adaptor for your AI/O port... and you’re willing to take the mutation points.
Arcanoware looks relatively balanced at this point; CP2020 ’ware needs a bit of work. Bring in some humanity loss, give people with ’ware difficulty with magical healing (either it’s less effective or runs a risk of making the body reject the ’ware), and ban the use of magical effects in conjunction with cyberware. (A sorcerer with a cyberhand is at penalties because their gestures with that hand don’t count, and a kung fu warrior can’t use a fu power that would enhance a piece of cyberware— no Prodigious Leap with cyberlegs, none of the extra damage schticks with cyberlimbs.)
Another way to balance things is to make sure that most devices run on charges, and making the charges run out. You need plasma pistol clips to run your plasma pistol, and elerium to make plasma pistol clips... what, out of elerium? Again? And then there’s the tendency to send very well-equipped squads out to capture people exhibiting arcane technology...
Finally, there can always be critical shifts that make tools Not Work and makes cyberware Work Differently.
When encountering Cthulhoid horrors, one really should have problems keeping your grip on sanity and stability. I’m using Unknown Armies as the basis for our Madness System.
So, does everything just slosh around with the player characters travelling to different junctures? Or does it all go somewhere?
There is prophecy enough to suggest that Something Big is going on. Amid general millennial fever and the Year 2000 Bug, the Kindred are worrying about Gehenna and the rise of the Antediluvians to devour their descendents. Occultists aware of the Invisible Clergy worry about the rumors that it will fill and the world come to an end. The seers of the Garou believe that the Apocalypse will come soon, bringing with it ecological disaster. The time of the Gathering has arrived, and Immortals are duelling; some seers believe that the acquisition of the Prize, after millennia of struggle, will precipitate the end of everything, or that the Prize is the final seat on the Invisible Clergy and Il Comte de Saint-Germain is a different figure altogether...
Many future histories contain news of terrible disasters. Innerwalkers who have journeyed to the Wasteland, Waterworld, or Glaciatia and survived to return have borne dire warnings.
Unknown Armies has a few sites: Jared Sorensen’s page has a whole batch of new forms of magic, and a few new artifacts, beings, and archetypes (the Boogeyman, the Gunslinger, and the Orphan), The Blind Alley has a whole batch of goodies, including more than a dozen archetypes, and the UArchive looks like a lot of things are migrating there.
For further inspiration, check out SLA Industries and WitchCraft.