Sunday, October 18, 2009

RPGs I'm Ambivalent About: L5R 2e (Part One)

More obscure rpg system material today- and my last look at Legend of the Five Rings. A little lengthy this time, so I've split it into two parts. This is an overview of the craziness that is the second edition of that game

RPG Items I'm Ambivalent About: Legend of the Five Rings (Second Edition)

The Yoke of Metaplot
In my overview of Legend of the Five Rings, first edition, I suggested players and gamemasters would likely find that setting/timeline an easier entry than the material for second edition. I think there's a number of reasons for that, including the fact that the material for the later edition ends up split across a couple of formats/systems and it still references the first edition material. But as much as anything it comes from the setting being pulling along by the metaplot of the CCG.

More than most other games with metaplot drives, the changes that end up happening over the course of 2e break things. There's a thirty year jump, only lightly explained events, and drastic changes in the basic structures of the clans. The closest White Wolf, the poster child for out of control metaplot, got to this level of change was essentially blowing up the world. Most of the shifts throughout the game lines felt optional or at least did not dramatically rework the basics. Metaplots have a long and storied tradition-- you could argue that Dragonlance, created an entire class of metaplot. The Mystarra/Known World setting for D&D got hit with a massive metaplot hammer when they tried to bring it up to AD&D. Even one of my favorite game lines, Orpheus from WW is basically one giant extended campaign/metabook sourcebook series. So that's to say I don't have an axe to grind against the idea of that in games, but I find it a problem when it wastes earlier solid material.

In this article I want to provide an overview of the materials published for L5R 2e, with some evaluation about the relative strengths and weaknesses. Mostly I'd like this to be a summary guide for anyone looking at the material and trying to figure out what's what.

The Setting Timeline Connections
In my other piece I mentioned the Scorpion Clan Coup as a major metaplot event. There's an nice overview of the specifics of the event here. Those events move the timeline of the game forward into the Clan Wars and the Day of Thunder story arc. The boxed city setting/module Otosan Uchi actually provides material to run the events of the coup-- a nice way of integrating players into the events of the metaplot. Several of the later published first edition products take these events as given (Winter Court: Kyuden Kakita, Way of Shinsei, Way of the Wolf, and Way of the Minor Clans). The SCC changes the setting pretty dramatically, the elimination of an entire Clan, the beginning of corruption of another, the removal of a family from the Lion Clan, dramatic changes in the Imperial House. I personally prefer the structures existing before this, but at least the material for bridging those changes exists and the time span is relatively narrow. Things follow from the narrative given. Some earlier material becomes more difficult to use, including a few really excellent supplements. However at this point the break remains minor enough to be worked around more easily.

Then AEG publishes a second edition of the Legend of the Five Rings rules-- with the the setting now firmly after the Coup. After that, things get more complicated.

A Second Edition, Huzzzah?
AEG opted to break the new core book into two volumes-- a Player's Guide and a Gamemaster's Guide. There are some significant mechanical changes changes in this version, but I want to stay away from a full assessment of those. The core concepts remain the same, but require some massaging. The Player's Book does the right thing and provides a section explaining the changes between the first and second editions of the game. When I see a revised or new edition of a game system, that's what I check for first. I;ll admit that at least of my problems with the newer, revised systems (GURPS 4e, and especially Exalted 2e) is that they lack an explicit section discussing- at least roughly- what has changed. Are we talking minor mechanical tweaks? Will conversion be easy? Have you even provided conversion mechanics? I suspect there's a logic to making a new book absolute and seemingly complete, but that's also a slap in the face of those who have bought the books before. I don't think publishing that material online is enough.

The division of the books is a smart move, and one of the first times that AEG takes steps to separate GM material, including secrets and plots, from player material (outside of modules). I do wonder if there's a financial logic to creating a separate players book versus a unified one. While the books provide a little more depth on the material than the original core book, there's still some absences. Playing a Monk, for example, still requires the Way of Shinsei volume. There's a little more on the Clans individually, but the book still specifically directs players to the Way of the Clans series (which remain with first edition rules and a slightly outdated setting) to get more than a cursory overview. The books draw in general cultural background more fully, but nearly all of that is cut and paste from the earlier publications (GM's Survival Guide, Way of the Clans, Winter Court). I'm of two minds about that. On the one hand, having that together in one place is a good thing. On the other hand, the material is incomplete-- so it doesn't entirely substitute for the earlier publications. The question becomes: if I haven't bought those items, is it worth it for the articles they didn't bother to lift from those? The original Second edition core rule books are friendlier and more accessible to new players-- giving them all they need. But for groups coming up from the first edition, there's little added except some changes in the mechanics.

Other Supplements
After the publication of the second edition, AEG followed up with a few new supplements. Way of the Ratling and Way of the Shadowlands both serve as pseudo-Way of the Clans books for these two groups. The former adds the nezumi non-human race as a playable option. For some GM's the possibility of non-humans PCs will be exciting. I have less problem with them than I do with the Naga as a concept, but I still don't care for mixing that in with other groups. The latter book provides more material on the Shadowlands and the Taint. While some material there comes from earlier books, it is greatly expanded on. It also provides rules for running corrupted characters, either as victims or agents of the Shadowlands. There's a warning about the use of those options in play, but as with many games eventually there comes a book on how to play the bad guys. Both of these supplements are worthwhile for the setting, with significant information and depth, but they cover fringe elements of the setting. More oddly, they use the graphic design of the second edition (cover design, page layout, title font) but they do not mention that they're for the 2nd edition-- that's avoided on the back cover in any of the introductory material. I'm unsure if that's an oversight or a deliberate ploy.

The third Winter Court volume, Kyuden Asako, explicitly mentions on the back cover that it is for the 2e rules. While I like the Winter Court volumes for their treatment of general topics, this volume is by far the weakest (which I talked about here). AEG also published two modules for 2e, Mimura and Bells of the Dead, but the big game changer was the publication of Time of the Void.

Time of the Void
Time of the Void presents a thick campaign framework for running the L5R rpg through the events of the first arc of the CCG. Each section covers one of the expansion sets for the CCG (Forbidden Knowledge, Anvil of Despair, etc). All of the artwork's taken from the cards with mixed results. Some images look odd when blown up and rendered in black and white. The history outlines present the major events and key players in each chapter- some major NPCs get updated stat information. The material includes plot hooks for adventures and heroic opportunities for major battles to help the GM bring their players into the saga. There's also a host of new mechanics given: new schools, new advantages, new magic, the concept of 'katas,' and so on. As a metaplot book, it does a good job. It is however, weaker as a generally useful sourcebook, either within the setting or for us ein other samurai games.

Time of the Void represented a pretty drastic change in the timeline, but was only really the precursor for a more drastic shift-- the publication of Oriental Adventures by WoTC.

Oriental Adventures
To give some background I have to quote from D.J. Trindle's post on the topic, back from the time:

“In December of 2000, Wizards – now itself a division of a larger company, Hasbro – announced that it was looking for someone to buy the L5R IP. Just at that time, AEG released its Second Edition of the L5R RPG. Even though Hasbro had gained ownership of the L5R IP when it bought Wizards, the existing RPG licensing agreement stayed in effect. Speculation abounded: what would happen to AEG’s RPG license should a third party end up with L5R?...It turned out to be a moot point. In May 2001, AEG won the bidding war for L5R. Production immediately began on the Gold Edition basic set of the L5R CCG, and AEG’s L5R RPG continued to release books.

One of the conditions of the IP transaction was that Wizards would be allowed to finish producing the L5R products that it already had in the pipe. One of these was a series of L5R novels; another was the D&D Third Edition version of the immensely popular Oriental Adventures supplement. The original supplement had its own fantasy Asian world of Kara-Tur… but the Third Edition version was set largely in the L5R world of Rokugan. The manuscript was already done, or close to it, when the sale went through, and the book was targeted for an October 2001 release....

AEG knew about Oriental Adventures (OA) and its conversion to the world of L5R during the IP negotiations. The question was, what to do about it? We decided to work with Wizards rather than against them, and brokered a deal. They would produce OA, and we would go on to put out the support books. This was largely a business decision – AEG being, after all, a business – and the reasoning went more or less as follows. Oriental Adventures isn’t going after the tens of thousands of L5R RPG players: it’s going after the millions of Third Edition D&D players. If we produce support material for those fans, we can increase the L5R RPG fanbase by a huge margin, even if only 1% of those D&D fans buy our books.”

That decision certainly makes sense financially, especially because of the entanglement of AEG and WOTC over the L5R property. Of course AEG wasn't alone in creating d20 conversions in an attempt to cash in on that market and expand their base (Deadlands d20, Aberrant d20, Fading Suns d20 and even AEG's other line 7th Sea became Swashbuckling Adventures). Oriental Adventures served as a resource book for doing Asian fantasy-- with the Legend of the Five Rings background interwoven alongside a number of other concepts, races and ideas from outside the setting. L5R would get center stage full treatment with the publication of the Rokugan guide. That was supported by two purely d20 system/L5R setting supplements- Creatures of Rokugan and Magic of Rokugan.

After Oriental Adventures/Rokugan
So here's where it gets kind of problematic for players who come into this by way of L5R 2e. AEG continued to publish and support the line, but with some pretty drastic changes. The Rokugan book has incredibly high production values. It includes rules for conversion of L5R characters to the d20 system. I'm not a d20 person so I can't speak for the success of that translation or for the mechanics as a whole. However, the background material feels fairly complete. The real trick here is that Rokguan moves the timeline forward twenty years. That gap is filled with the events of the CCG story arc for The Hidden Emperor. Players from the original system needed to buy Rokugan to understand the evolution of the history and the metaplot. That meant buying a fairly hefty product with lots of mechanical material dedicated to a system they might not use.

Despite this, L5R 2e isn't entirely pitched to the wayside. Instead eighteen more books would be published, but with mechanics and stats for both systems: OA/Rokugan and L5R 2e. I have to say while that's a seemingly equitable solution, it isn't one that makes for easy reading. Most of these books have a good deal more mechanical information than earlier ones. Any mechanical section comes with a d20 discussion and explanation, followed by the L5R rules in a different (but only slightly different) color of ink. In some of the books it becomes hard to read without good lighting. More than other sourcebooks, the mechanical and rules discussions get in the way of the ideas. They break the flow. However, if you're really interested in the mechanics of the rules, then the books have the crunch you want-- if you're willing to skip some sections of the system you're not using. It feels like a kind of gamer tax-- paying for non-applicable material. The cost's higher for gamemasters just looking for ideas and general concepts. Those publications fall into three broad categories: The Secrets of the Clans series, The “Way of...” Books and a few general resource books. These dual stat books take as their background the Four Winds arc from the CCG. In fact, various elements presented in some of the books continue to pull that metaplot forward, as I'll come to.

End Part One

Tomorrow, part two of an obscure exercise in analyzing the decisions of a dead rpg line.