Thursday, October 15, 2009

RPG Supplements I Like: Winter Court series for L5R

Things I learned this week: Yes, I will whimper like a child when given an ultrasound. Not from pain, but from ticklishness. I also learned I'm not certain where my shame threshold is any longer.

Continuing on with my look at Legend of the Five Rings rpg products...

RPG Items I Like: Winter Court series for L5R
The Winter Court volumes are at once the most useful and scattershot sourcebooks I've ever read. Ever.

They provide a wealth of detail and ideas, history and background, and discussion of the more fringe elements of life in the Legend of the Five Rings setting. However, finding what you want can be a trial. AEG produced three books in the series, each loosely centered around a particular Winter Court. Such Courts provide formal meetings of various Clans during the deep winter calm. They're long trials and conflicts not of war and swordplay, but sincerity and intrigue. The highest of these each winter is that attended by the Emperor himself, which these books illuminate. The material also provides some suggestions for handling other, smaller Clan or local Courts. But beyond that these books collect a variety of general information about life in the Emerald Empire.

Overview
The first volume, Kyuden Seppun, takes place before the Scorpion Clan Coup- the game-changing event of the history. The second and third both take place after that event, with the third volume being one of the few old-style layout products that explicitly mentions being for the 2nd edition of the game. That's not a big problem mechanics-wise, as there's much less of that present in these books compared to general background info. Some of the information is fairly connected with the metaplot, but there's enough other detail here to make them worth it regardless of what timeline you're working in. As a kind of “annual” they have a good balance of history, culture, present events, game ideas and mechanics.

Each book is split into four sections. While the introductions suggest there's an organization to the to those, reading through it's hard to see the unifying theme (well, the fourth section is always character mechanics and like material). Still, that aside, they present a great resource of players and gamemasters. Which again points to a small problem with them. As with the Way of the Clans series- there's little to mark out GM from player information. The writers intersperse NPC secrets, the truth behind setting events, and other details throughout the text. There's a suggestion that the books are meant to be used for a particular Winter Court scenario, but then they give away most of the plots. One could argue that these were intended to be GM sourcebooks, but a good portion of the information presented would be relevant and useful to players. As well, in the first book you get the phrase “your gamemaster may...” throughout- again suggesting the book's intended for players. There's an amusing apology partway through the second Winter Court book, for having revealed some details in the first volume that gave away the plots of modules-- but it ignores the general problem with the structures of the books.

Again, as with other L5R 1e products, the GM should be aware of those pitfalls and make a decision about what players should or shouldn't read- or be prepared for players knowing those details. With a 'dead' system, this becomes easier.

Winter Court One: Kyuden Seppun: I'm not that big a fan of game fiction, but the material used as a framing device works pretty well. It details the competition between two major L5R characters- Doji Hoturi and Bayushi Kachicko- as the duel with intrigue in the Winter Court. Part of of the strength comes from the characters, part from strong writing and some from the illumination on events and interactions the story provides.

Section One, “Dawn,” begins oddly with a tale titled “Hantei and Shinsei” in which the latter character does not appear or is even referenced. Instead we see another version of the origin story of the Empire. Later in the same section we do get a more thourough explanation of the relationship between the two religions of Rokugan, the Tao of Shinsei and the Seven Fortunes, but there's no real connection there. One of the better parts provides some discussion of the difference between nobility and gentry, important for providing some distinctions between samurai in a highly social class-based setting. There's some discussion of other life aspects: political ranks, gifts, bathing, general etiquette, the minor clans, and court behavior, . As will be the habit of these books, the issues treated jump around. The section ends with a nice examination of the structure and life of the Imperial House, including the first real examinations of the three associated royal clans: the Otomo, the Miya and the Seppun. There's history presented here-- some of which gives away significant plot points of the setting. This later material of the section definitely feels more GM-oriented.

Section Two, “Afternoon,” begins with some explanation of how the Winter Courts operate and some ideas for structuring adventures in them. There's more on the Seppun family, followed by another grab-bag of topics: war customs, art & culture, the tea ceremony, the function of mons, fashion, and funerals. As section on seasons and festivals is well done, giving nice ideas for events within a game. There's a section on duels, with sword or otherwise, but a little too brief. It does reinforce the oft-overlooked fact that casual dueling kills. Lethal duels potentially mean throwing away their lord's valuable asset.

Section Three “Night” provides an extensive discussion of love and marriage. That's an important issue- especially getting across the differences in our modern conceptions versus this setting. The idea of retirement from samurai is also covered. The rest of the section deals with more metaplot issues-- recent astrological events, history and battles. That's followed by a general history of Rokugan. Section Four, “Epilogue,” has the most mechanical bent. It presents new schools, advantages and rules for playing a member of the Seppun family. Again, we get a mix of PC and GM info as that's followed immediately by NPC descriptions that give away plots and rumors for the Empire. The last part gives some ideas on new uses for the classic social skills.

Winter Court One: Kyuden Kakita: This volume take place two years after the Scorpion Clan Coup. As I've suggested before causes some pretty big ripples in the setting requiring reworking or abandoning some earlier published material. That being said, there's enough material not tied to the metaplot here to make the book worthwhile. The framing game fiction here is less compelling than that of the previous volume, but doesn't get in the way too much. Interestingly the introduction to the book doesn't try to provide cover for the fact that the chapters are scattershot.

Section One, “Dawn” gives some background to current affairs and then provides some suggestions for ideas set in Rokugan's past. This has real potential, but only gets two pages worth of attention. A lengthier section follows talking about natural disasters in Rokugan, their significance and some ideas on how to use those in a game. The Miya family, talked about in the previous WC book get more attention here and then a significant chunk of material on Ronin in society. Some of that last material parallels pretty closely the material in the Way of the Wolf book.

Section Two “Afternoon” has one of my favorite articles, a look at the daily schedules of a cross-section of the classes. Samurai, shugenja, merchants, eta and others each get a nice timetable of their routines. The section also covers apprenticeships, gempukku, art & culture. Section Three “Night” has material on visiting customs, court intrigue, ghosts, the social stigma of Shadowlands taint and a list of notable Emperors. There's a wonderful section on entertainment and games. This provides great fodder for Winter Courts and other functions- explaining typical competitive games and contests. There's an odd acknowledgment in the section that perhaps they gave away too much in the earlier volume, closely followed by a list of recent metaplot events and a giveaway of what the banished Scorpion are up to.

Section Four “Epilogue” again gives new mechanical material. It presents new skills and advantages with some nicely tied into the Winter Court setting. Rules for playing the Miya family and for the Emerald Magistrate schools come next. Too much information on the significant NPCs follows. The section finishes with an update to the city of Otosan Uchi after the Scorpion Clan Coup, again tied to the metaplot.

Winter Court One: Kyuden Asako: This is one of the few non-dual stat books for Legend of the Five Rings 2e-- with a major change in page design and graphics. This volume is significantly smaller than the previous two. Beyond that, twenty-nine of the eighty pages here are full-page graphics, game fiction, ToC or title pages. That's particularly noticeable how short the volume is. The game fiction is weaker than the previous volumes, making an established significant story NPC look like a dip. The book also uses the Asako family of the Phoenix as a background- one of the families with a backstory that doesn't quite feel right in the context of the setting.

Section One “Dawn,” gives material on the metaplot, a discussion of the Imperial Legions, a new magic form, the Yobanjin outlying barbarians, and biographies on some historical figures. There's an OK section on strongholds in the Empire as well. Section Two “Afternoon” has more metaplot and more on the gempukku ritual for individual clans (though some of that has been covered in the individual Way of the Clans books). The largest part of the section is given over to a discussion of magic and religion, with some new mechanical options for casting.

Section Three “Evening” Begins with a section on omens and astrology. That's complemented by a section on recent astrological events i the empire. The best material here is on court subtlety and intrigue, but it feels thin and undeveloped. Section Four, Epilogue has the usual material of new mechanical options and the secrets of the NPCs.

This volume is by far the weakest of the bunch. I can forgive a shorter book, but the topics here aren't given the kind of attention of the other volumes.

Summary
Winter Court's a great setting/premise for a game. However the books less serve that need than provide information they couldn't find another place for. They feel like annuals-- a random collection of ideas . Ideally, I'd like to see a product provide more ideas and perhaps even a more structured approach to building a courtly campaign arc. That aside, the first two volumes are very strong if you want background material. GMs will have to be wary about how much their players read of the metaplot and secrets stuff here, but that shouldn't be too much of an issue. Definitely worth getting for a GM wanting to run a long term campaign in Rokugan.

Portability
The first two volumes would serve anyone planning on running a samurai game. Most of the material has been loosely adapted for the Rokugani setting and could be adapted again for another like setting. If you're generally thinking about a Court-based game for another setting (say Medieval Fantasy) you won't find as much useful material here as you might hope. For someone adapting the L5R setting to another system, these books seem optional. There's mechanical stuff here, but nothing essential.