Wednesday, October 14, 2009

RPG Supplements I Like: Way of the Clans series for L5R

RPG Items I Like: Way of the Clans series for L5R

The structure of the Clans really helps Legend of the Five Rings stand out from previous samurai rpgs. They serve as a kind 'race' for characters- with clear cultural ideas and strong relationships between them. The core book for L5R provides the basic run down, enough for a GM to start a game and for players to pickup the idea. The Way of the Clans series, however, expands on those ideas. These are the “splat” books for the setting. Compared to some game lines they look pretty are pretty chunky. With the first edition setting being “dead” gamers have a significant advantage of not having to wait for the next book to come out. With that in mind, I want to do a basic review of the series, as a companion to yesterday's post.

Second Printings
Its worth noting that in many cases, the second printings of these items had changes and corrections. You can check that on the inside credits page. I've seen that up through Book Seven, The Way of the Phoenix. Unfortunately the note that corrections have been made doesn't indicate what changes occurred or how significant they were. First printings can also be identified by a heavier stock for the cover paper which gives way to bowing of the book.

Volume Layout
Each volume generally has an overview of the Clan as a whole-- a mix of history and fiction. Some of this can be quite good, while some of it comes off strangely. It points at one of the recurring problems with the L5R setting material. Sometimes you'll get great and interesting stories and slices of history which can provide real insight into the world and ideas for the GM. But every once in a while you'll get a section where they've taken real Japanese history or a particular figure and slapped a then veneer on it and pasted it into the the game. Is it homage or do they actually expect readers not to catch how much they're lifting (and lifting badly)? Still those cases show up infrequently, but they can throw you out of the moment.

A chapter follows discussing the individual families of the clan, providing needed depth to them and helping to make the Clan feel not quite so monolithic. Discussion of character mechanics-- new schools, skills, advantages and so on follows. Then there's an extensive presentation of the various NPCs of the Clan, complete with stats. Another chapter after that provides Character Templates for several archetypes from the Clan, with decent illustrations usually. Most books include several appendices, touching on issues and ideas unique to the particular clan-- usually at least a geographic overview. A couple of pages usually ends up being wasted on sample L5R CCG decks for that clan as well.

Interesting Features
The Clan books provide a good deal of material, split between two-column text and pretty extensive sidebars. I like the idea of expanding the use of Ancestors as an advantage. These represent spirits from a character's clan who look out for them or cause them problems. They provide strange and non-standard advantages to players and to help to differentiate between the clans and within them. For players using the actual system , they probably be most interested in the various new Schools presented. Even if not using the L5R rules, the discussion of the schools- providing abilities and skills- provides nice detail and fodder for conversion.

Not to talk too much about mechanics, but the L5R system has a strange split in it. Skills, abilities, and advantages have unique point costs. However the Schools have equal weight and cost across the various Clans. Schools serve to in some ways define the sub-class of a character, so a Scorpion Bayushi Samurai and a Hida Crab Samurai gain very different abilities. These also include more fringe Schools, like the Asahina Artisan and the Ikoma Bard. As broadly written as the rules for L5R are, there's the goal of flavor over balance in that system. On the other hand, when you have two different mechanisms for character creation and development, one of which seems to be point and balanced based and the other doesn't really care, it seems a little odd. It does mean that there's less of the issue of power creep through the series. You do have some redundancy as new skills and new advantages end up repeated between the books.

Problems
Right up front I need to say that there's a lot of good stuff in these books-- great playable ideas, new paths, stories hooks, and enough background to give a player a richer sense of their character. As far as typically “splat” books go, the Way of the Clans are good and solid, usually around 144 pages each.

But I also have to say these books absolutely drive me nuts. They follow a design problem that occurs across nearly all of the L5R AEG material: GM and Player material is interspersed throughout the books without any kind of distinction or warning. The books look like they ought to be player resource books, and I imagine anyone playing a particular clan would have bought the appropriate one. However the books tell secrets, reveal plot details, provide hooks for adventures, and basically give everything away in every single section. There is no GM material here, or rather no explicitly marked as such.

I'm not sure I follow the logic of presenting things that way. A player in a normal read through can't help but come across revelations. Is the point that the game has some meta-honor code that the players have to obey? That seems a crappy thing to do. Or is the thought: well, we'll put thins in here, and the GMs will obviously be able to change it. That doesn't make sense either-- then why put those things in? Why not put them in with multiple options or something? Why not have the simple device of a GM's section? That's not a perfect solution, but at least you probably know which players will end up reading that rather than having to assume every player has at least by accident. I suspect that the problem lies in the L5R original materials at least in part being marked as story stuff for the CCG players at the beginning. And perhaps once they'd laid the template out, they really couldn't break it in later versions. I think that's a more charitable answer than it deserves.

However, the advantage today is that the setting is a dead one. That may sound strange, but for GM's going into this fresh, they can likely have a little more control over which material the player gets to read. If you buy the earlier things you need as pdfs, you can print relevant sections or--depending on whether or not the material is a straight scan or a digital master-- put together a players book for your group.

A Quick Overview of the Books
The Way of the Dragon (Book One): Provides some of the first really different bushi options in the form of the ise zumi, monks with tattoo magic. Some nice material on the philosophy of the sword as well. The appendices include the usual stuff (unique Dragon Clan spells, discussion of the lands) but also talk about actual huge and ancient Dragons of Rokugan. There's a section and some mechanics provided for kaze-do, an unarmed martial art.

The Way of the Unicorn (Book Two): Manages to give away a lot of interesting secret stuff in the general section (even more than some of the other books). As a side note, one of the families of the Unicorn was originally called the Otaku (Battle-Maidens, naturally). That would get edited to Utaku in later editions. The appendices here have a lengthy discussion of warfare in Rokugan, especially the use of cavalry which the Unicorn are masters of. There's also some discussion of “gaijin” gear-- equipment from outside the Empire. The idea of gaijin influence and presence gets reduced over time in the setting, which I think is for the best.

The Way of the Crab (Book Three): Arguably the most accessible clan for new players. With this book and The Book of the Shadowlands a GM could easily construct a solid samurai horror game (ala The Haunted Lantern, or Kwaidan). The appendices cover the usual, but provide a significant look at philosophy of the clan and how they relate to others.

The Way of the Crane (Book Four): Provides some more solid options and ideas for players wanting to run a courtier or a diplomat. Some good material on the various arts of Rokugan. The appendices include a section on mizu-do, the other form of unarmed martial arts in the setting.

The Way of the Scorpion (Book Five): The most problematic of the core Clan books. It gives away the game on a number of interesting plot ideas for no apparent reason. The Scorpion are the sweet ninjas and cooler than thou characters of Rokugan. Scorpion characters don't mix well with diverse parties-- bringing a certain amount of trust issues and problematic interactions into the mix. As ambiguously adversarial group they function pretty well. The appendices include material on treachery, poisons, ninjas and a new form of magic.

The Way of the Lion (Book Six): The most classic military clan. Some of the material here has that odd real-world lift feeling I mentioned earlier. The appendices include a discussion on general warfare in Rokguan, including ideas on GMing such events, a history of major wars and also a discussion of the Spirit World.

The Way of the Phoenix (Book Seven): The clan best known for their use of magic. Adds discussion of a new form of elemental magic as well as some other usual casting options. The appendices include a discussion of the Tao of Shinsei- one of the two religions of Rokugan, spell-research and the legendary figures of the Oracles.

The Way of the Naga (Book Eight): Skip this book...

...OK, so the Naga are a group of non-humans who have recently reawakened in Rokugan. They stick out like a sore thumb in the midst of everything. This book could be useful for making interesting NPCs or adversaries, but generally I think it doesn't fit with the rest of the setting.

The last three books in the series set themselves after the events of the Scorpion Clan Coup-- however for the most part the material can be used without that consideration.

The Way of the Minor Clans (Book Nine): Minor Clans have small holdings and abridged versions of the Clan Schools given to the major Clans. Part of the original problem with this supplement was that it came so late in the line that GM's had already come up with the backgrounds and cultures of the minor clans who had been referenced before. That's not a problem if you're coming into the the game setting cold. Each of the nine minor clan has its own chapter, usually with a unique school. The appendices present some discussion of the fate of three lost minor clans-- very much intended as a GM resource for stories.

The Way of the Wolf (Book Ten): There's some good material here on the idea of Ronin in Rokugan, well worth reading. On the other hand some things (like “Sun Tao” the great military philosopher's story) feels like another patch of real world specifics into the fantasy setting. I'm not a fan of ronin as a character concept in a party of non-ronin and this book didn't cure me of that. The appendices presents recent history developments, more on life as a "wave-men" and how a ronin village might come to be.

The Way of Shinsei (Book Eleven): The last of the Way of the Clans series, where we finally get monks as a viable character option. Monks integrate into a party better than Naga, Ronin, Ratlings or even Scorpions. The book presents great material, with a number of orders and viewpoints given. It also includes a new form of magic for the Monks, kihos, which are neat but fiddly. The appendices present only an adventure seed and a discussion of the major temples of the Empire.

Summary
As I said in my look at L5R 1e as a whole, the Clan Books (at least the first seven) aren't necessary in the beginning, but you'll likely want to make those the next purchase if you like the setting. They expand one of the most attractive features of the game world and fill in the detail well. A GM could easily purchase one book and build a campaign around a single clan. There's enough diversity within the material to assemble a decent party from that.

Portability
Material here is fairly firmly lodged within its own game world. I doubt much of it would translate well over into another game setting. However if you want to convert L5R to another system, you'll find these extremely useful- with plenty of chrome to bring over.