Saturday, October 17, 2009

RPG Supplements I Like: Walking the Way for L5R

Shorter review today, and probably the second to last of my L5R tangents. I talked some time back about how a magic system in an rpg can shape the narrative atmosphere. Today's item takes the basics of the system and works to make the magic less list and accumulate and more of the setting and atmospheric.

RPG Items I Like: Walking the Way for L5R

Game Chrome Love
I have to admit I'm a sucker for game chrome. I like fiddly bits, crunch and mechanics when I'm reading through various game systems. I love the idea of categories of things, special situational requirements, small variations on powers or abilities-- especially if we have new terminology and cool names for things. However, all of that reverses itself when I'm actually playing or running. I usually start out excited, but rapidly become irritated as those things get in the way. My wife can attest to the process I go through when thinking about a new campaign-- the decisions about game system, the coming up with new structures, looking at rules sets and trying to find neat packages and character bits which can be purchased, elaborate weapons charts, and so on. I start strong in planning and outlining but as the weeks pass I pare things away, turn my attention to play and what won't get in the way. Usually there comes a point when she points out to me that I can do this much more easily and effectively with the simple homebrew system we've been using for years. But what about an extended damage table with hit locations, I'll ask, and she'll shake her head. Mind you sometimes I end up with the core of an existing engine I'll use, but these days I'm adapting old Storyteller rather than the complexities of Rolemaster or HERO System.

Magic Systems
I mention that because one of the things I always look at for game chrome when I pick up systems is how they handle magic, if it exists in the setting. Will it be a simple level and list system like Rolemaster or D&D? Are things purchasable but only through a set course, like GURPS? Is it completely vague, like Mutants and Masterminds? Less vague but still general like True20? What kind of flexibility exists within the system- the freedom of Mage: the Ascension or the greater limits of Mage: The Awakening or even Ars Magica. There's the question of rarity and power as well- are spells a trivial thing or the overwhelming but hard to handle power of Exalted? As well-- what does the magic system say about the game world? Do it fit, is there an ethos conveyed by it? Does it have flavor or is it bland?

All that being said, I rarely play mages but I often have players who play mages in my games. I have to keep a little ahead of them.

Rokugani Magic
Magic in Legend of the Five Rings follows a of middle path. Nearly all Shugenja draw their powers from the kami, the spirits making up the world. This makes them priests as well as spell casters. While the are some other types (the Shadow-Magic of the Shosuro and the Ancestor Powers of the Kitsu) they mostly follow the same structural elements. Spells have a level of difficulty requiring a higher roll to activate. For setting flavor they fall into one of four elemental categories, with those categories having qualitative aspects (so Fire is not only the physical element, but speed as well). Only special shugenja of the Phoenix Clan, the Ishiken, can call on the power of the fifth element, Void which covers fate and connection. Spells are written fairly broadly, with the caster being able to modify them a little on the fly. Most spells have "raises"- aspects in which the effect can be increased at a cost of increased difficulty. In keeping with the setting spells have a material component, with shugenja having to recite from scrolls to cast unless they've fully mastered the spell. Spells are intended to be rare, with a shugenja having a fairly tight list. While pretty conventional, the magic system does a good job of bringing setting flavor to the casters.

The Book Itself
Walking the Way begins with a brief introduction stressing the idea of the rarity and uniqueness of spells. The volume's subtitle "The Lost Spells of Rokugan" implies this will be your usual spell supplement. However, unlike most the volume isn't intended to be a player resource. These spells are intended to be treasures found in quests or rewards for effort on the player's part. All of that's a somewhat unusual choice, in that if taken seriously, it removes a significant chunk of the potentially buying audience.

Being a resource for the gamemaster gives makes Walking the Way much stronger than it might otherwise be. The book presents fifty two new spells, divided among the five elements with Void receiving significantly fewer spells. Each spell has a companion adventure with it-- sometimes requiring the use of the spell, sometimes set off by it, and other times in the hands of adversaries. The adventures range from one to two pages in length, so they're not just sidebar story seeds. The wealth of plot ideas here makes the book worth buying. The book as a whole maintains the atmosphere of mystery that magic really needs.

The actual spell mechanics have been printed on a separate page from the adventures, so GMs can copy those pages if a player receives a particular spell scroll. Other graphic elements, however, undercut that clever design decision. Pages have a heavy, textured grayscale background making them more difficult to read and I imagine this would be even worse in a pdf version. A less than legible "oriental" font is used for the spell mechanics, but the adventures are in a clearer one. There's a nice diversity of spells and adventures here and the last pages of the book contain a fairly complete spell annex, including all the spells from the core books, the Clan books and a couple of other supplements in an easy to reference list.

Summary
I recommend this point for anyone planning on running L5R 1e-- and it would likely be useful if only for the adventures for GMs of later editions. Material here can help differentiate between multiple shugenja in the same group, giving them more room to focus on a particular element.

Portability
The adventures here can definitely be used in other fantastic samurai games, and might be adaptable to other games where spells are not overly common. The spells themselves might be adaptable elsewhere, depending on the magic system of the setting. They have enough flavor to them to make them stand out. If a GM wanted to adapt the setting over to another system I'd recommend taking the time to port these spells over (assuming a system with named spells).