Explaining the Backstory

By Stefan Vincent
September 25, 1997

The backstory is a fun part of Shadowfist, but how do you explain it to new players? And not make them think that you’re a total goofball in the process? I’ve tried to write down the way I do it, but I’d love to hear about other ways. I start by explaining the Feng Shui concept as embodied in Shadowfist, and then move on to a quick run-down of each of the factions. Hit the modern day first (Dragons and Ascended), throw in a quick interlude to describe the Netherworld, and then go forward and back to catch the rest. I try to mention who hates who as we go just for reference. It helps to have sample character cards so you can point out the distinguishing colors and resource symbols as you talk about each faction.

It’s not the complete story by any means, but it’s enough to get a demo group rolling. The Jammers and Monarchs don’t get much attention since most of the time I’m demoing with starter decks; if you’re using preconstructed demo decks you might want to give ’em a little more emphasis. I’ll also change this story a little depending on the audience - I add in the Eunuch angle for a demo group that’s past puberty, for example. Anyway, here goes:

Feng Shui for Fun and Profit

There is a fundamental energy in the world, called "chi" (pronounce that however you want. I usually go with "chee" like in "cheese"), which heavily influences the flow of events around us. Chi energy is concentrated in special places called "Feng Shui sites." A few people have discovered that control of feng shui sites, and the chi energy flowing through them, actually makes their lives easier - things just naturally start going their way. And better yet, their enemies start to have problems (that banana peel in the wrong place at the wrong time). The more feng shui sites you control, the faster things fall into place for you, and the more things go wrong for your enemies. Control enough feng shui sites, and the world can be remade in your image. Literally. It’s happened before, but you had no clue about feng shui sites so you were remade along with everyone else. Pop! New memories, new life, and did you notice? No! But now you’re wiser, and you’re ready to join the other folks who are fighting the Secret War all around us....

Men In Black

The Ascended are the true masters of the modern world. They figured out the whole feng shui concept a long time ago, and now they run everything - the government, big business, you name it. But they’re extremely well hidden; you won’t be reading about them in People magazine (heck, they own the company that owns the company that owns People magazine!). The Ascended are capable of gross acts of violence, but prefer the subtler methods of assassination or conversion whenever possible. The secret they don’t tell even their closest associates is that the Ascended were at one time animals who got tired of waiting for the wheel of reincarnation to spin them up to humanity. They used magic to skip a few hundred intermediate lives and become human, but magic can also take them back to their original forms, so they are now deadly paranoid of any sorcery. They have control of all the big feng shui sites in the modern world, so is it any wonder that the best magic you’ve seen is Penn & Teller?

Enter the Dragons

The Dragons are a loosely organized bunch of folk who have recently stumbled into the Secret War. They’ve met the other players, and decided that they really don’t want to let the world be reshaped in those images, so they’re kicking butt to save the rest of us from a fate we don’t even know about yet. Nice of them, huh? They’re a rag-tag bunch from all walks of life - Cops, Kung Fu Masters, Average Joes. Even some folks who’ve seen the error of their ways and left their evil organizations to fight for right. They’ve built up an amazing list of enemies in a short period of time. Who? We’ll get to them in a moment...

Making Big Changes

What the Ascended have known for a long time, and what the Dragons have just figured out, is that there is a way to make huge changes to the present scheme of things - by affecting the feng shui of the past. If you could travel backwards in time and take control of enough feng shui sites, you could cause a massive shift in history and create a present more to your liking. The method of this madness is a continuum called the Netherworld that connects discrete points in history - gates open to various places at particular times, and people (among other things) can pass through the Netherworld and emerge at a different time in history. So, who cares, right? Well, the folks in your future have figured this out, and they’re anxious to extend their totalitarian regime backwards...

Twisted Scientists of the Future

The Architects of the Flesh deserve their name - they rule the earth of 2056 using high technology mixed with a twisted version of magic that they’ve rediscovered, and remake the inhabitants to suit their purposes. They’re not satisfied with ruling the future, though - they want to bring about their own rise to power 60 years earlier by taking over the feng shui of the present (they’ll extend further backwards later). Their specialty is manufacturing the shock troops they need to fight their battles. First they experimented with monkeys, adding cybernetic parts until they were deadly fighters, but that backfired when their new soldiers didn’t appreciate their keepers and rebelled. Now the Architects have discovered how to manipulate the Demons and Spirits of the far past, so they travel back to harvest the "raw material" for their new Abomination soldiers. The Dragons aren’t looking forward to the oppressive state of the future, so they kick Architect butt whenever possible. The Lotus aren’t very happy to see "their" Demons being altered, either (we’ll get to the Lotus in a moment).

Bit Players: Gorilla Guerrilla

There’s another faction in the future that has sprung from the few rebels still fighting the Architects. These folks, the Jammers, have discovered the secret of feng shui and the Netherworld, and they’ve determined that the best possible solution to all this wrangling is to just blow up all the feng shui! They’re a little off-center, but that’s understandable seeing as their leaders are all experimental monkey soldiers who recently escaped from the Architects. The Jammers don’t really have any friends, but they’ve managed to hide away in the Netherworld and make quite a nuisance of themselves... Blow Things Up! Blow Things Up!

Scary Sorcerers of the Past

Another group of relative newcomers to the secret war, the Eaters of the Lotus are a group of sorcerers from ancient China around 69 AD. They secretly rule the Chinese empire from behind the throne. Magic is the primary moving force in their time, and they’ve mastered it well, summoning Demons to do their dirty work and calling down rains of fire to destroy their enemies. Lately they’ve figured out that something strange is happening; they’ve noticed that some of their Demons are disappearing. They’ve traced those disappearances to the Netherworld, and have now embarked on a campaign of their own to take over the world. Welcome to the Secret War! They made instant enemies with the Dragons (those Dragons have an annoying habit of getting in the way at the worst possible moment), they don’t get along with the Ascended, and they’re miffed at the Architects for stealing "their" Demons.

Tranquillity and Order Through Kung Fu

A group of shaolin monks from 1850s China has also discovered the Secret War (they’d known about the feng shui stuff for a long time, but not the Netherworld). They see the evil of the past, with its magic and Demons, as only marginally less than the evil of the future, with its magic and technology. Not a group to take anything for granted, they just plan to eradicate both. The only way to better living is through meditation and the purification of your personal chi energy. They will demonstrate their lifestyle for you, and if you don’t agree they’ll just Kung Fu you into shape. Not a bunch of fun guys, but at least you know where they stand. Needless to say, they aren’t well liked by the Lotus or the Architects, and the feeling’s mutual.

Bit Players: Oh How The Mighty Have Fallen

Remember how we talked about massive shifts, and you never even knew about them? The Ascended didn’t get into power overnight; they worked continuously at eradicating all traces of magic and gradually took control of huge numbers of feng shui sites, until they reached critical mass and the world changed in their favor. The Four Monarchs ruled a world full of magic right up to the present day, but they never knew what hit them - when the change came from the past, they woke up in a world of cars and planes and computers and didn’t know how to adjust, so they took themselves and what flunkies they had left and skipped off to the Netherworld. Now they rule petty kingdoms there, and scheme to replace what they’ve lost. They could kick serious butt if the four of them could ever agree on anything, but they spend a lot of their time plotting against each other.

Let the Butt-Kicking Commence!

So, where does that leave us? You’re about to take the part of one of these factions (or sometimes two or more factions working together; even the worst of enemies will work together for short periods if necessary) and play out a small chapter of the Secret War. Shuffle!

Last modified: September 27, 1997.
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