Shadowfist Backstory, Lite Version
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[posted ~Dec 2002; updated 19 May 2007]
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 more than enough to get a demo group rolling. I'll change this story a little depending on the audienceI add in the Eunuch angle for the Lotus if the demo group is past puberty, for example. Anyway, here goes:
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 easierthings 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....
The Ascended are the true masters of the modern world. They figured out the whole feng shui concept a long time ago, took control of the majority of feng shui sites, and now they run everythingthe government, big business, you name it. But they're extremely well hidden; you won't be reading about them in the newspaper (heck, they own the company that owns the company that owns the newspaper). The Ascended are capable of gross acts of violence, but prefer the subtler methods of assassination or conversion whenever possible. The secret they're keeping is that, centuries ago, the Ascended were animals who got tired of waiting for the wheel of reincarnation to take them up to humanitythey used magic to shortcut the process and become human. Magic can also force them back into their original animal forms, so the Ascended 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 a few card tricks?
The Dragons are a loosely organized bunch of people 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 lifeCops, 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...
What the Ascended have known for a long time, and what the Dragons have only recently figured out, is that there is a way to make huge changes to the present scheme of thingsby 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 (a "critical shift") and create a present more to your liking. The method of this madness is the Netherworlda continuum that connects discrete points in history. Gates open to various places at particular times ("junctures"), and people, among other things, can pass through the gates to 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...
The Architects of the Flesh deserve their name. They rule the world of 2062 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, thoughthey want to bring about their own rise to power 60 years earlier by taking over the feng shui of the present. 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. Then the Architects 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. They've held the world in thrall for a long time, but recently their iron rule has cracked and the future has plunged into civil war. On top of that, they still have to deal with their opponents in the secret war: 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 (we'll get to the Lotus in a moment). and the Purists, a formerly secret society within the Architects' ranks, have broken out into the open and seized a good-sized portion of the Architects' feng shui sites (we'll get to the Purists too).
Another faction in our future 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 sites! In theory, this will get rid of all the chi influences and let the world be whatever it will be. In practice, they're a little off-center, but that's understandable since their leaders are all experimental monkey soldiers who escaped from the Architects. The Jammers don't really have any friends, although they play nicely with the Dragons on occasion. They've managed to hide away in the Netherworld and make quite a nuisance of themselves to everyone else... Blow Things Up! Blow Things Up!
The third faction in the future (hey, it's a busy place!) is the Purists. Originally a clandestine group aided by the Lotus (yes, we're still getting to them), the Purists took advantage of the Architects' civil war and made their big move in the Dark Future expansion. They grabbed control of a big chunk of the western Pacific and used their specialized brand of magic to cause a "local" critical shift there. Nobody knows what the Purists want in the Secret War.
More relatively new entrants in the Secret War, the Eaters of the Lotus are a group of sorcerers from ancient China around 75 AD. Magic is the primary moving force in their time, and they've mastered it well, summoning demons to do their dirty work and blasting their enemies with bolts of fire. They secretly rule the Chinese empire from behind the throne. Lately they've figured out that something strange is happening; they've noticed that some of their Demons are disappearing. While tracing those disappearances they discovered 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 (who, for some odd reason, didn't appreciate the thought of demons roaming the streets of Hong Kong), they don't get along with the Ascended, and they're miffed at the Architects for stealing "their" Demons.
The Guiding Hand is a secret society from 1856 China led by a group of iron-willed Shaolin monks that stumbled on the Secret War when they uncovered members of the Ascended in their time (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 lesser 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 beat you into shape using their superior mastery of Kung Fu. 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. And in their own time, they are engaged in a constant struggle with the Ascended who already control most of China.
Remember how we talked about critical 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. They never knew what hit themwhen 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 slipped 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 waste a lot of their time plotting against each other.
The Seven Masters, an enigmatic group of Taoists from the ancient China juncture, get involved in the Secret War only when something truly serious is happening, like the end of the world and stuff like that. The Masters took care of a huge demon in the Seven Masters vs. The Underworld expansion, then faded from the scene to return to their usual pursuits of meditation and martial arts.
The newest group to appear on the scene, the Shadow Syndicate sprang into existence in the aftermath of the Two-Fisted Tales expansion. When a new juncture opened to the 1930s, it was a golden opportunity to take over the future. All the big players jumped in, but the Dragons came out on top. Because of their meddling, the future that birthed the Architects, Jammers, and Purists was erased. In their place was a group of shadowy criminals, masters of martial arts and technology, who are just now learning about the Secret War. Don't worry about the former masters of the future, they're still around, only now they have to start over and rebuild their power bases.
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. Your actions today may not cause a massive shift like the one that put the Four Monarchs out of business, but your faction will be that much closer... Shuffle!
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