Wednesday, November 7, 2012

L5R Second City Boxed Set: Samurai of the Wild Frontier

I love city sourcebooks and, after some prodding by the notable Australian Crab Clan leader, Hida Mann, I have come to love the fourth edition of Legend of the Five Rings. So something like the Second City boxed set should be right up my alley- combining the best of both worlds. In it, AEG have produced a massive and sprawling product. I would have held off buying this for myself, but the generosity of the players in my G+ Supers campaign put it in my hands. Is it a perfect strike for L5R?

L5R 4e has taken an approach I applaud, aiming to be more “era neutral.” There’s so much history available to play in that attempting to keep up with the “meta-story” generated by the CCG meant a desperate race and supplements which weren’t useful to players working with earlier time periods. I’ll admit that made me skip L5R Third Edition until I started seeing used copies at my FLGS a couple of years ago. The recent Imperial Histories book really exemplifies that approach, covering all of the metaplot/arc so far and a few alternate eras never before described. It means that players can easily use the setting and materials from previous editions. It is fifteen years since the game first came out and I’m still in the time before the Clan Wars.

That being said, there’s a bold statement right at the start of the first Second City book, “The City will be most difficult to adapt to campaigns that do not follow the canon storyline of the Legend of the Five Rings…(Still,) there are many things in this book that can be mined for use in different campaigns, even in campaigns that have nothing to do with this sort of setting.” This set-up takes a bold risk. The Second City is major settlement for Rokugan’s colonization of the now-empty Ivory Kingdoms, an ancient-India analogue filled with mystery, jungles, and foreign-ness. I’ll confess to being more than a little thrown when I read the set up- I honestly had no idea about recent history of the CCG or the canon timeline- with everything leading up to The Destroyer War and the fallout from that. The book does a good job of setting that up, but hit more than a few s’wha? and really? moments as I read along.

That’s a risky set up- a campaign frame that many GMs might not want or be able to buy into. It is also a framework that puts aside or downplays many of the most essential elements of the L5R setting. Instead of presenting a more conventional city sourcebook- like a reworking of City of Lies or an examination of the new Imperial Capitol- Second City doesn’t fit within Rokugan. It tears the players away from the conventional structures and power balances. It does split the difference- as this is really a sourcebook about that city, rather than being about the wider colony it represents (though it stops off there).

It isn’t all about the new setting, though. There’s a split in this boxed set between the campaign materials for The Second City (three books plus a map) and what could best be described as a GM’s Pack. All of this comes in a large and incredibly sturdy box. This is a long way from the screwy boxes of old L5R. I had a couple City of Lies boxes crack apart. On the other hand, the boxes for Tomb of Iuchiban and Otosan Uchi were supremely solid- but also too small for their contents. The Otosan box in particular had everything jammed in and bent. This box, though, is a keeper- solid and sturdy like the best board game containers. There’s an insert for holding the cards and dice in place, but you’ll want to toss that as it is pretty useless.

*Dice: The box set comes with a set of ten emerald-ish d10’s with the Imperial Chrysanthemum in the place of the 10. On the one hand, I’m pleased to see these kind of dice. It suggests they might eventually do mon dice for each of the clans. On the other hand the dice seem more than a little chintzy, a lighter plastic than I care for. They’re certainly not to the same standard as Chessex as far as material quality goes. There’s an accompanying small drawstring black dice bag with the L5R logo and name glued/ironed on.

*Cards: I’m a little surprised, given L5R’s origin as a CCG, the company hasn’t leveraged that for card support before. Second City includes reference cards for each of the School techniques from the core rules. These are about half illustration and half text- with the image the same across all techniques for a school. There are also six copies each of a card for each of the five stances. The cards are nice- glossy and of good thickness. I recall the weird bendy paper of the old Clan War game, so I was relieved to see these. It is a nice touch, though given that players only have a few school techniques, it seems more like a prop than something highly useful. Perhaps for introducing the game to new players. I like the cards, though there are a few illustration choices that seem weak. Clearly the success of cards with Pathfinder and 4E has inspired this development. Of course since places like RPGNow presently offer POD cards, I wonder if AEG might make cards for the Advanced Schools, Alternate Paths, and new Basic Paths from the other supplements available that way. I imagine spell cards would be equally useful.

*GM Screen: I don’t run with a screen, but if I did, I would use this one. The landscape set-up has two main panels, plus two half panels to keep it standing. The front image is nice- busy, but not too crazy. I hated the 2E screen for that. The interiors have the key tables: Fear Rules and Condition Summary; Essential Mechanics (sequence, target numbers, maneuvers, stances, void point uses); Skills and Weapons; and Gaining and Losing Honor. I love the layout and graphic design on this- my favorite bit from the whole thing.

*Character Sheets: There’s a pad of full-color, double-sided character sheets. These are printed on nice stock- it takes pencil well and pen doesn’t smear on it (I sacrificed a sheet to confirm that). There are also six copies of the Premium Character Log. These saddle-stapled full-size booklets have a cardstock cover with eight pages of expanded character sheet inside. The paper’s a little glossier and I didn’t test it to see how it took writing (not willing to sacrifice one of these for a review). These are cool but I’ve always preferred a more compact sheet. Otherwise, as a GM there’s incentive for me not to kill a player and waste a booklet…

The actual campaign materials for Second City comes in three full-color softcover booklets and two mini-booklets. There’s also a poster map just of the city. The books generally look good- with the same attention to layout and design present in all of the other L5R 4e materials. The paper stock is glossy and heavier- which in the case of softcovers like these makes for a weird bowing to the books. They are perfect-bound, with a good cover cut for folding open. The text design is excellent and the writing is pretty good throughout (though more than a few instances of wordiness). The art’s generally excellent- drawn as it is from across the L5R universe of cards and books. I can’t fault the art itself. But many of these images have appeared in other L5R books so there’s a good deal of recycling going on. There’s recycling between volumes of the set itself. Some of the images I associate with particular characters and places in L5R, so seeing them here in this context is more than a little jarring. They’ve been repurposed and I’m not so sure about that. Most importantly there’s not all that much art which shows the distinct locales and backdrop of the Second City, the Ivory Kingdoms, or the new modes of dress suggested by the text. There are some pieces- and I imagine trying to generate more would have incurred a significant cost in money and time. But much of the art doesn’t actually illustrate or enhance the material of the text- it seems like cut and paste art for art’s sake- pretty, well done, but not making a real contribution.

The City
This 98-page book lays out the background for the Second City campaign, with its focus on that urban center. Just six pages set up the history, before we get to chapters detailing each of the districts of the city. Each of these chapters is about ten pages with a general set-up, relations to the other districts, important personages, and a location guide. There’s also a detailed map presented and annotated. These maps have some pixilation. The district material is quite good- offering plenty of plot hooks, stories, and concepts. I really liked several of the locations and people and can easily see borrowing those for elsewhere.

Second City presents a very different set up than the usual samurai city. In some ways it offers a more lax approach to the rules and restrictions- which may appeal to those gamers who feel bound by the codes and obligations of the conventional L5R setting and campaign. I suspect, in part, that’s the intent of this whole setting. It certainly feels like a setting made for players who want a more conventional pseudo-samurai game, engaging in oriental adventures with fewer complications. However, the game doesn’t really open up the world to exploration- there’s some discussion of that. It is a city campaign sourcebook. Material about the Ivory Kingdoms broadly is much scarcer. It takes up the last section of this book (pages 81-98) and even that’s still heavily concerned with issues relating to life in the city.

The People
Here in 106 pages, Second City lays out the major characters, their personalities, goals, issues, and plots. Four chapters showcase a cross-section of the populace: The Ivory Court (7-16), Movers and Shakers (19-35), People of the Second City- broken down by clan- (37-85), and finally Common People (87-96). There are some great ideas here- and characters worth lifting for other campaigns. There’s some interesting discussion about how to adapt the Second City’s Court structure to other settings. I would have liked to have seen some Challenge, Focus, Strike ideas here. That would have aided potential GMs. The book wraps up with eight pages of new mechanics- mostly new alternate paths and a new Ivory Kingdoms-derived basic path.

The Campaign
This book offers a massive and extended story which draws the party from Rokugan to the colonies and Second City. This takes up nearly all of the book’s 106 pages. It presents a fairly linear plot- though with some room for changes and maneuvering. It does stop off to present some plot options- but I found myself thinking several times that I’d have to rework or handle things differently based on my group’s usual play. The opening, in particular, may take some tweaking depending on the group. Still, there’s a decently cool and ambitious story here which reminds me of the scope and scale of Tomb of Iuchiban, perhaps even more sweeping. The book ends with several pages of bestiary for the Ivory Kingdoms. There’s so much here I feel a little bad asking for more, but I would have liked more general material on running an Ivory Kingdoms campaign. GMs not using this particular campaign story will have a good deal of development to do. I can hope that we might see more IK campaign ideas or material in the future. A smaller POD supplement could be hugely useful- like paid DLC for those who spent the money on this set.

Two digest-sized journals included harken back to older L5R box sets. One is a pillow book of an Ide offering a decent overview of life in the new colony. The second offers a prop for use with the campaign. It is nice to see these kinds of materials again.

The Map
The large poster map of the city is just that- an unlabeled, top down view of the whole of the Second City. There are hundreds of tiny buildings, most identical and clearly cut and pasted. I’ve had preferred a more impressionistic approach to the map- this is so literal and specific that it feels out of place. On top of that, there’s real pixilation to the buildings on the map- clearly done at a smaller scale and then blown up to this size. It is a pretty picture, but not that useful. A smaller map would have worked just as well or better.

But here’s the thing which really bugs me. There’s absolutely no map of the Ivory Kingdoms anywhere in the set. I understand that the region hasn’t been mapped- but there’s nothing. Not a rough approximation offering an idea of size, of relative positions of sites, of the regions described in the text, or even what’s near the city. There’s no rough map perhaps showing what the path from Rokugan to the Ivory Kingdoms looks like. I understand that Rokugani maps are inaccurate and crazy, I take that as a given. But I’d like some idea of general positions- perhaps a kind of old Medieval “Here There Be Monsters” legendary map which is more drawing that chart. It seems like a massive oversight on the part of the designers and continually frustrated me when I went through the book. The material does seem aimed at offering a city campaign in another locale- hence the emphasis on urban populace and locations. But players are going to want to go outside of there and I’d like a little help with that. I imagine some of the argument goes that they don’t want to tie the GM’s hands- but the text already lays out some specifics, so the roughest of maps won’t hurt that.

I’m glad I own Second City- it is a lovely and amazing box, full of game stuff. However, I’m also a little disappointed. The material seems so focused on the urban story and the campaign arc that it doesn’t offer more of the resources which would make this a viable campaign setting for a GM. Beyond the issue of the absent map, the set really needs more material about the colonies as a whole. The kinds of players interested in exploring this setting will want to see that. It isn’t completely absent from the books, but it feels thin against the abundance of other riches. This is also a module which embraces a late timeline, something I’m less interested in. I need to think how I might bridge that gap. Should I borrow ideas and bring them to the mainland- or can I start something like the Destroyer war in my current campaign?

I think the biggest question is this: do you want to run Legend of the Five Rings without Rokugan? It isn’t completely gone- many of the key structures exist here. But it does cut away some essential elements of the classic game. I don’t think Second City would work as well for players new to the setting- in some ways SC only becomes really distinct and exotic in contrast to the original setting. That means that Second City works best for those players and groups who have grown tired or bored of Rokugan. For them this is a dynamite and hugely useful product. On the other hand, for me- I’m not tired of the Emerald Empire yet. There’s interesting ideas in Second City for me, but less than I’d hoped for.