Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Usui Sekai, the Pale World: An L5R Campaign Frame

So Alderac recently held a contest to provide new campaign frames for an upcoming supplement, Imperial Histories. Of course I didn't manage to get an entry put together, but I sketched out a couple of possibilities for myself. One of them I like; the other needs more work. Part of the problem was that I talked myself out of the possibility of success- a stupid move. But I'll also admit to a hefty case of writer's block on this one. I really love Legend of the Five Rings, and although I skipped on Third Edition, I did recently pick up a pristine used copy of the new Fourth Edition. I haven't run or played Legend of the Five Rings for a number of years so that was a little intimidating. Both campaign frames I came up with need some more work and crunchy thinking-- not in mechanics but background implications. So today I present the first of those two frames, in a very sketchy and loose format.

I'll try to translate a little for non-L5R people as well.

The Second Day of Thunder
Ful Leng nearly won. The Thunders failed to draw themselves together- recriminations and fears too great for them to overcome. Togashi, one of the kami hidden so long among the mortals, had seen this far and no farther. Now he lay broken by his brother Fu Leng and all of Rokugan would fall into a Thousand Years of Night. His oracular vision ended here, but his planning had not. The Thunders might have won but if they did not, the once-proud Dragon had a terrible and awful plan. It had been the words of Bayushi Shoju which had planted the seed in Togashi's mind. The lord of the Scorpion had seen through his disguise, visiting the Dragon Champion just before the Scorpion Clan Coup. Shoju had spoken, but Togashi had cloaked himself in silence and stillness until the Scorpion made to leave.

Shoju spoke his parting words, a final gambit. “You understand, of course, that all of this is your fault. You and your sisters and brothers, for Fu Leng is, like you, a kami. Your family offered a dangerous gift to we mortals...but they perhaps did not speak so clearly of the cost.” Togashi had nodded despite himself.

Bayushi Shoju had been right, and now, with the heroes scattered around him and Fu Leng preparing to ascend in the Emperor's body, only one option remained. It was a spell, The Last Spell- and no one would ever know how he did it. He spoke the words quietly. There was no great fire, no pyrotechnics, no roar of victory. Instead suddenly across Rokugan, across the world, the land grew dimmer, colder, paler.

As all of the kami left the world

To save the Empire they destroyed magic-- now heroes must choose to quest for its return or fight those who seek its rebirth.

Extended Pitch
The land of Rokugan has seen the vanishing of the kami large and small. And with them, they have taken the very force of magic in nearly all forms from the land. Even sorcery practiced which seemed not outside the kami have been destroyed or reduced to tricks and cantrips. The few potent forces lie in the hands who care little for the cost, Blood Magic and Taint-fueled conjurings.

Many seek to contact or recall the kami, but the other realms now stand beyond reach. The mortal world of Ningen-Do has be closed and barricaded against those places. The balance of power has shifted and into that vacuum new heroes have had to step forward in a Empire without and Emperor.

Clans and Events
The events of the Second Day of Thunder and the crisis which follows shift the balance of power within the Empire. The leaders of many clans lay dead and the line of the Hantei has been destroyed. The Grey Crane, Kakita Toshimoko, calls back the Scorpion from exile, as much to preserve some balance as anything. This earns him the enmity of his Crane family. The Miya step forward to establish an interim regency, protector of the throne while the records are scoured for the possibility of some heir who might be recognized. Years pass in rebuilding and adjustment, with the power of shugenja and magic no longer a factor. Now the time of waiting has ended and the Clans have begun to rumble with rumors of war and a call for a new emperor to sit upon the throne.

The Phoenix suffer perhaps the greatest loss in with the coming of the Pale World. Still their religious focus gives them a place. However, a the vanishing of the kami begins to create a split in the faith between the Tao, the Fortunes, and the worship of the kami. The Asako continue to press on with their researches in hopes of finding a path to magic there. Of course the Phoenix remain the ones most desperately searching out for a return to the old ways. That means they will place agents wherever those secrets might be found. It also means a terrible rift between them and their neighbors, the Dragons.

The Dragon find themselves accused of having saved and destroyed the world at the same time. They have lost nearly all of their leadership. The ize zumi find their magical tattoos rendered powerful and even the kihos of the Monks become useless, except for a few driven by will and skill. They find themselves strangely allied with the Scorpion who also find themselves marginalized by Clans who have managed to retain some power.

The Lion and the Crane, traditional enemies, have been most active n courting allies for a coming duel over leadership of the Empire. Neither relied strongly on the power of their shugenja, and so managed to move forward without too much damage. Likewise the Mantis have become a force to be reckoned with, although the loss of their mastery of wave and water magics has meant more ships lost and more dangers to crews from the leviathans who remain patrolling the sea.

The Crab find themselves still pressed by the Shadowlands. While they relied on brute muscle and force to survive, the vanishing of the kami's powers has made their lives more dangerous. Systems for warnings, treatments for injuries, the calming of the mind-- all of these techniques have been lost. While the Shadowlands retreated for a time, giving the Crab a chance to recover from their corruption, new rumblings have begun. The Kuni have turned to more scientific practices, some in violation of codes and mores. They've kept these and their delving into practical alchemy a secret from outsiders.

The Unicorn alone of the clans possess something which might be called magic, drawn from the arts they learned in the Burning Sands and beyond. They have been careful to keep these arts secret-- although this has caused a great debate among their leaders. The modest magics they possess are simple arts and a few basic tricks. The kami's absence diminished these powers, but did not extinguish them completely. On the other hand, the Naga fell into a deep slumber awaiting the return of those spirits.

New Schools/Mechanics
This would probably take the most work to rework. I imagine there being a kind of generic 'priest' school, which must have social, ritual and support features to it. Those abilities might differ somewhat from clan to clan. I also imagine we would have a new version of the monk with significantly reduced kihos. These would be more focus and mental abilities rather than any kind of elemental magic.

There might be new schools for a Isawa Seeker, one who searches for magical secrets. On the flip side we might also have a Witch Hunter who not only seeks out Bloodspeakers, but also pursues those trying to bring back magic in general (see the campaign frames below). I can imagine a Kuni Alchemist (in the classic sense) and an Iuchi Spellcrafter; the former would have access to medicine and potions the latter to some very modest magical abilities which would have to be invested in items. We might get a more classic ninja path available to the Scorpion with the vanishing of Shadow Magic; the Phoenix might also get a spy-type character. Finally another option which might be interesting would be a charlatan or illusionist-type character who fakes magical talents through trickery.

Handling Magic
In the Pale World magic of all kinds has vanished. Consider that this means a number of important factors have been removed from the game: magic as a battlefield force; travel via magic; long-distance communications; magical healing; scrying; and a host of other things.

I'm going to guess that one issue some L5R purists might have would be the question of how the removal of the kami would affect all magic. It think that's purely a conceit for this world. I don't claim to be presenting an accurate version of the magical cosmology, but I do think it is a workable one-- and one which suggests an interesting situation.

Standard Magic: In this version, only the Iuchi possess anything resembling previous magic and that should be a) not very powerful b) somewhat secret and c) based on investing magic into objects.

Odd Magics: Shadow Magic has vanished, along with some of the other variant abilities used by the Asako, the Asahina, the Nezumi, the Kitsu and so on.

Kihos: These are, for the most part, gone. A revised list would pare these down to abilities which might reflect martial training and powers of concentration-- meta-human abilities, but still not magic.

Bloodspeaker Magic: The Bloodspeakers would be reduced, but I'm thinking a kind of magic fueled by sacrifice might provide an interesting set of adversaries for such a campaign. These would be more literal witches and warlocks in a world without magic. Rituals for the Bloodspeakers would not be easy and some classic things they would lose (no easy zombies for exmaple) but they could remain a potent threat.

The Shadowlands: With the other realms cut off, there will be no new oni coming through. However, oni in this world will remain here. I imagine that when they die they will be reborn, weaker, until they can regain their strength. Shadowlands creatures can perform “magical” effects but it taxes them. I imagine they feed on Shadowlands Taint and use it to power them. Such use doesn't remove the taint, but makes it stale or weaker. So creatures like this need freshly tainted creatures and souls to make themselves more powerful. An important consideration is if those who can “detect” Shadowlands taint through non-magic means (like the Hiruma Scouts) might have a harder time detecting older or less recent taint, creating some interesting play implications.

Enemies of the Empire
Shadowlands: While reduced in power and at the moment leaderless, the Shadowlands remains a threat. Some seeking power might not understand where that power comes from; desperate Isawa might be ready targets for the corruption. While taint isn't destroyed for the creatures of the Shadowlands, it does need to be refreshed-- the spread taint more filling and delicious to them. I can imagine them cultivating the force of the Taint.

Bloodspeakers: A dark threat in the heart of the Empire.

Non-Shadowlands Monsters: There might be some races like the Tengu, Nezumi and the like who might take advantage of the lack of magical resources and relative disruption to act. Other things like the great sea creatures and bigger things would be more dangerous when the people of Rokugani have to face them only with conventional means.

The Kolat: While I personally don't like them as a game element, the vanishing of the kami would seem to be the success the Kolat desire. However it also meant the vanishing of some of their best techniques and powers. They might fall into a battle amongst themselves which might spill over elsewhere.

Gaijin: Depending on the GM's desires, forces from the Burning Sands or from the awful Southern Islands might take advantage of the Empires weakness. While their magic would be diminished as well, perhaps they possess some secrets and ways which would act like spells.

Campaign Frames
This set up invites a number of campaign options. While the narrative I present above puts the change at the Second Day of Thunder, this could shifted to an earlier or later period. Perhaps Bayushi Shoju found another way to fight against Fu Leng, banishing magic before the Clan Wars even began. That would result in an Empire with a strong Scorpion and several other clans weakened (Dragon and Phoenix). It would also leave open the possibility for another interpretation of the various prophecies about the Emperor and the last Lion. As another option, perhaps the Spirit War forced shugenja to desperately search for an option, unleashing powers they did not understand with horrific consequences. Or in more recent events, perhaps the Jade Dragon's challenge extended further-- mankind would no longer interfere in the heavens, and the kami would be severed from the mortal world of Ningen-do. Rokugan has faced many “game-changing” story arcs and these events could come at the end of any of them.

GMs might also consider having the events leading to the Pale World occur as the climax of an campaign. Perhaps the players themselves might be given the choice between several bad options to keep the Empire intact and preserve humanity. The samurai genre has a strong sub-theme of sacrifice and tragic decisions. A GM would have to give careful consideration to shugenja characters in the party, but the possibility of having control over such momentous events could be worth it for play.

Assuming the GM wants to run the Pale World as it stands, consideration would have to be given to how long this state has existed. The narrative above suggests a decade or two. That gives time for the situation to have settled but also keeps things within recent memory. A campaign occurring further down the timeline from these events might have kami magic treated more as superstition or a fearful thing. The GM needs to decide how much those events matter to the campaign being run; is the Pale World simply a way to have a low-magic L5R campaign or will the question of magic be central.

If the latter, then two paths suggest themselves. First, the Search for Secret campaign. In this case the linking plot for the PCs (or even just some of the PCs) would be a search for the secret of bringing the kami back into the world. They could explore the few magics that seemingly have some effect, trace the methods used in the original banishment, or perhaps quest for an entirely new means. Depending on ambition, the GM might use this as a chance to retool the L5R magic system and cosmology. Second, the Guardians Against the Return campaign. This flips the first campaign over as the PCs try to stop those unraveling the secrets of magic. While some might simply wish to maintain the status quo, others might have a more honorable agenda. The return of the kami might mean the return of Fu Leng and who knows what other dark powers. The party would keep safe a world unprepared for a magical onslaught.

Comments or suggestions, especially from those who know L5R well, are welcome.


  1. It is a bold step to take a game defined as 'magical samurai' and take the magic away. Would be a very interesting setting but one I will have to ponder on.

  2. I think for a GM who has run in the L5R setting before this might work as an interesting alternative. I could be the kind of drastic change needed to shape up the game and grab the GM or players interest. The key thing for me is that the background, history and structures of the setting are strong enough to support removing magic. I think it could be a really striking no or low magic setting given the color and interactions of the clans.

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