Monday, October 19, 2009

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

Side Note: I hope everyone's seen this-- and gamplaywright's comments on it pretty much parallel my own.

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

Part One here.

Secrets of the Clans
This series of sourcebooks parallels the earlier The Way of the Clans series. As with all of the dual system books, they're beautifully done. Nice page layout, great covers, tight text design-- all very nice. That's an improvement over first edition titles in some respects. There's a consistency of presentation that makes the series attractive. Substance-wise, you do have more mechanics. Each book focuses on a particular clan and examines the families and their current status.

Unfortunately, the books fall into the trap of earlier L5R materials: no division of information between player material and GM material. I've harped on this earlier in my look at other L5R series, but it bothers me. One the one hand, the series is titled "Secrets of..." and you'd expect the material to be GM centered. However the introduction in each book and the inclusion of PC oriented material says otherwise. Ironically, the last section in each book is labeled "For GM's Eyes Only..." but each chapter before that one reveals secrets about the NPCs and presents adventure plot hooks. I'm not sure why that kind of information couldn't have been placed in with the last chapter as a GM annex. Clearly these are intended as new splat books, so they have to assume players of that clan will buy them. In any case, as usual, the books in this series have a split personality.

They also do not serve well as splat books. Some detail and background on the specific clan is presented, but it is thin and often a rehash of the material from the earlier Way of the Clans series. New material tends to revolve around the current events and the metaplot. For a broader view of the clan and to get all of the necessary schools and mechanics, players still have to go back to the original Way of the Clans books. Some new material does appear here that I like- especially the idea of the dojos of the clans and of the various vassal families. But generally, unless you're playing in the post-OA L5R 2.5 history, this books aren't worth having. At best they add a few news ideas to the mix, and at worst they're confusing.

Way of the Sourcebook
AEG published six dual system "Way of..." books. These volumes focus on a specific concept and look at it across clans or member groups. Two have the broadest applicability, Way of the Samurai and Way of the Shugenja. The former takes the concepts of dojos, kata and sensei and expands them. Each clan gains some distinctive maneuvers, as well as new paths-- variations on the existing schools. The material is well done, but leans heavy of mechanics and character options. There's some discussion on bushido and swordplay in general, and space spent looking at the clans' individual philosophies. Some of the new optional dojos presented have little in the way of color text, but instead are simply new ability lists. Way of the Shugenja follows a similar format, with new general magic rules and material, but also additional notes on the paths and schools of magic for the various clans. This includes material for Ronin, Maho, Tsuno and others. The dual system presentation means that spells require two full descriptions, again eating up space. The book has a strongly mechanical focus throughout

Way of the Ninja covers as you'd imagine, sweet ninjas, broadly defined in this book as pretty much anyone who's sneaky. There's a nice section covering the history of the ninja in Rokugan, as well as general views and rumors on them. That's followed by general new mechanics (their versions of dojos and such) for players. The largest section of the book examines the ninja of the Scorpion, providing new background, skills and spells for that clan. This complements and expands on the material from The Way of the Scorpion for 1e, but doesn't entirely substitute for it. The book presents the Kolat next, a problematic group for the setting. I generally dislike the background established for this group as it seems to break the setting's conventions. We then get a sections on all kinds of ninjas- a veritable barrel-full of them, including minor clan ninjas, Crane ninjas, Crab ninjas, Lion ninjas...I perhaps exaggerate, but there does seem to be some dilution of the idea of the ninja's happening. Mercifully, some of these ideas can simply be read less as ninjas and more as spies or the like. The book ends with ninja equipment, advice on playing a sweet ninja, and some new rules for adversaries of the ninja, such as bounty hunters.

Thematically close to Way of the Ninja is the Way of the Thief book. Beginning with an overview of law and order in the Empire, this book moves pretty quickly through the Kolat and on to the move useful concept of Smuggling cartels, Pirates, and Bandits. While there's some useful material there for game background and setting, too much of this material ends up devoted to how players make these kinds of characters-- with new schools, abilities, feat, and the like. That's a disappointment. The next sections take two of the more important locations Ryoko Owari and the City of the Rich Frog, detailed in previous L5R material, and updates them for the present timeline. Even with this information, if would be difficult to bring the best parts of the original City of Lies module to bear given the extent of the historical changes. The book ends with some nice material on running magistrate and law enforcement campaigns.

Way of the Open Hand brings more details on Monks in Rokugan. It nicely combines discussion of the philosophies and roles of the monks with new character mechanics. More than other dual system line books it manages to maintain a balance between background material, player information and character mechanics. However to get the full benefit using L5R 2e, players still need a copy of The Way of Shinsei for 1e, given that the kiho rules don't appear in the 2e core rules. There's a little of the same dilution of the core concept as occurs in the ninja book as we're given martial arts schools for every clan, plus ronin, plus the Ratlings, plus gaijin...ugh. Way of the Daimyo, on the other hand, charts new territory for the L5R line. It presents a set of options and ideas for running high-level, high position characters. There some discussion of the concept of glory, how to maintain status and the maintenance of those concepts at the highest level of society. The chapters which follow present five new roles players might move into late in their career: Provincial Governor, Ambassador, Warlord, Master Sensei and Keeper of the Temple. There's a decent combination of character mechanics and campaign ideas in each section.

Odd Books Out
The other three dual stat books published by AEG each went in a different direction. The Complete Exotic Arms Guide is, as you can imagine, a big book of weapons and armor. From common to bizarre, it includes armor, magic items, weapons of non-humans and foreigners, and even siege equipment. Each item has stats and a nice textual description. If your group likes that kind of game chrome, it is a nice sourcebook with one significant flaw. I usually expect these kinds of volumes to have pictures of the items, or at the very least silhouettes and perhaps relative sizes. Instead the book has few illustrations of its miscellany, and even those pictured don't have captions indicating which they are.

A stronger and more useful volume, Fortunes & Winds presents an overview of the Spirit Realms in the Rokugani setting. The game fiction presented here actually serves as both a compelling linked story and nice illustration of the ideas. The book begins with a general discussion of the realms and the history of their interactions with Ningen-do, the real world. It also provides some interesting new character options and rules tied to the Spirit Realm. Each realm has its own chapter, from Jigoku, the Realm of Evil to Yume-Do, the Realm of Dreams. Nearly all of this material is new. While hints about the nature of them had been given in earlier publications, this is the first to present a thorough examination. The book balances mechanics with background, keeping it from becoming simply a planar monster guide.

Strangely among the last dual system books published was The Hidden Emperor. Like Time of the Void before, this book presents a campaign sourcebook to one of the CCG arcs-- the one took place in the span between the L5R 2e starting timeline and the Rokugan d20 starting timeline. In a sense it comes too little, too late to plug the gap between them. A good deal of the material here would have been good to have earlier. GM's starting games in the earlier era may find it useful, especially if they want to move their campaign up a little, but not almost two generations forward.

Metaplot Backpages
L5R 1e and 2e used the Winter Courts as a kind of annual publication to move the history and the metaplot forward. Those happened in pretty major jumps of a couple of years between. The dual system books take another approach. A number have final pages with "News of the Empire", detailing recent events and directing players to check out the L5R website for more information. Each one has a number of evocative and interesting event blurbs, but with little context. Why I later read the L5R CCG Card Cyclopedia, I could start to match up those events with the rpg listings. I was irritated at the time and my questions about the storyline wouldn't actually be answered until the publication of The Four Winds....for Legend of the Five Rings (Third Edition), which like Time of the Void and The Hidden Emperor, actually pulled that storyline together.

Summary
I hope the choice to move L5R to d20 worked for AEG. I like the setting enough that I'm willing to put up with some strangeness. However, with the wide span of metaplot this edition covers, that important historical information doesn't come until later, and events get suggested without decent explanation, makes this a more difficult entry-point for gamers. If one chooses the earlier end of the scale, then 1e materials remain (for the most part) viable. If one chooses the later it means slogging through some dense material and still having to go back to the 1e resources for answers and depth. The dual system books focus so much more heavily on mechanics, character stuff and crunch. There's certainly less of the kind of general background material I prefer as a GM, but your experience and desires may vary. There's some strangeness in the fact AEG put out no adventure modules or location sourcebooks for the material after Rokugan. On the one hand it could be suggested that the nature of a d20 game pushes things that direction- a focus on system definitions, rules and options. On the other hand, it may also be a factor of the game setting have begun to spun its wheels-- and the difficulty of developing exciting new material which helps illuminate the world. Moving the metaplot forward may be an easier task than trying to mine novel ideas out of a good existing setting.

Guide to Buying
*If you want to play L5R as d20, then you should begin with Oriental Adventures and Rokugan. Creatures of Rokugan and Magic of Rokugan both expand the purely d20 material. I'd also suggest the various "Way of..." dual system books, as they provide additional crunch and mechanics.

*If you're playing L5R in the original setting and want to find useful material from this set then I'd suggest Time of the Void and The Hidden Emperor for plot seeds. The Way of the Ratling, Way of the Thief and Fortunes and Winds provide new material not previously covered. The other "Way of..." books have some new material but require slogging through rules and picking and choosing carefully. The Secrets of the Clans series might be useful for ideas on how to expand a particular clan, especially with the concept of vassal families, but so much of the material there is stuck in the historical context.

*If you want to play L5R 2e in the later period, then after the core books, Rokugan's your first choice and probably The Hidden Emperor to help get some background filled in. Most of the other products are useful, with the exception of the The Complete Exotic Arms Guide and The Way of the Shadowlands(the latter being a personal bias).

*If you're looking for general samurai material to bring over into another game, then you're better off going back to the first edition material. Way of the Thief does have some good campaign ideas, and Winter Court: Kyuden Asako has some good stuff. If you want a cheap resource, the the two L5R 2e core books are a good buy since it condenses a good deal of the samurai culture material from the earlier books. Otherwise, go back to the other Winter Court books and GM's Survival Guide. Also potentially useful as a resource for the cosmology would be Fortunes and Winds.

Portability
The second edition, but especially the later dual system material, ends up focused heavily on mechanics. It does mean that if you're planning on converting L5R to another system there's more chrome and more work to do. And you'll end up having to reference the first edition material in any case. If you're just looking for ideas to borrow, see my comment above.