Monday, January 7, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: 1st Edition Core & Game Master's Pack

THE L5R 4E RESOURCE GUIDE
This review series begins with a simple premise: Legend of the Five Rings 4th Edition rocks. It does so for many reasons. It is not a claim I would make about L5R Second Edition, L5R d20, or L5R Third Edition. Embracing all of L5R’s history makes this newest version really shine. Our group has always played in the original pre-Clan War era of the first edition- happy with the support materials and the setting. Later books moved the timeline forward, aping the metaplot approach of WW. This made some sense given the connection between the evolving CCG and the RPG. But it also rendered later materials more difficult to use- requiring GMs choose between shifting their campaigns or trying to twist things to allow anachronistic materials. Fourth Edition simplifies that choice.

That means that earlier publications in the L5R family can be more easily used. So the question arises: which of these products should an L5R 4e GM bother picking up? Which of them offer new insights into the pre-Clan War period (and beyond)? Which of them offer more universally useful setting material? That’s what this series aims to answer. Note that I leave aside any and all mechanical material and questions.

LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS FIRST EDITION CORE RULES
The book which started it all, the core L5R rules written by John Wick comes in a 256-page hardcover. The page design solid- effectively a three-column layout. That's actually a two-column page surrounded by a grayscale frame as a sidebar holder. That can make it a little harder to read and work with in pdf form. The black and white interior artwork is consistent and good. Most of it is fairly generic to the samurai setting. There are some striking color plates for the different clans and the map of Rokugan. The illustrations of the weapons are particularly useful (although not as cleanly and obviously presented as in Bushido or The Palladium Book of Weapons and Castles of the Orient). Those illustrations aren’t present in 4e, and can help a player unfamiliar with the setting (“What’s a testsubo? What’s a Dai-kyu?”).

L5R offers a complete role-playing system in the core book. The basic character choices are limited for those who know the setting. While it obviously leaves room for the various splat books, it feels rich enough to play as is. The mechanics of the L5R “roll-and-keep” appear here in their earliest version. Two printings of the core book exists, with the second printing making some significant presentation changes: fixing the way spells are presented, correcting problems, and adding in dropped sentences. The book has a decent table or contents, but a far too minimal index.

The book has five chapters. There is a piece of short fiction, “The Path of Blood,” split across the beginning of each chapter. This is decent and references some of the key characters, in particular Ginawa, from the First Core period.

  • Book of Earth: General material on life and society in the setting. A few of the details here are specific to what I’m going to refer to as the First Core setting, pre-Scorpion Clan Coup, pre- Clan War, pre-Second Day of Thunder. However most of the concepts and ideas discussed here appear in the 4e core book and supplements. It gives some insights on the period, but not too much.
  • Book of Water: Details character creation. 
  • Book of Fire: Details actual play mechanics.
  • Book of Air: Covers religion and magic. The discussion of the role of the kami in daily life is more fully treated in 4e. This is, of course, a period before all of the complexities of the breaking of the Tao, introduction of kiho, and other storyline kami weirdness. (A simpler time). 
  • Book of the Void: The Gamemaster Section which covers everything else. The GM advice here is clear and smart; it nicely complements the ideas given in the 4e core book. There are some solid plot hooks and adventure seeds presented as well. A brief section describes two key figures of the period from each of the clans plus two unaligned characters. Some of the other material- Ninjas, Monsters, magic Items, are generic rather than associated with the era.
A sixteen page introductory adventure “Ceremony of the Samurai” serves much the same purpose as the “Tournament of the Samurai” adventure in the 4e core book. Here the players travel to the lands of the Kakita to participate in the Topaz Championship. The adventure is surprisingly well-fleshed out, complete with several Challenge, Focus, Strike hooks offering side-adventures tied to the main story. There is, of course, a tournament, with several different kinds of events. That’s a smart approach as it requires the GM test the strengths of the party. In this structure both adventures offer something new. This adventure is firmly set in the First Core period- with important characters and events at hand. The murder of the Badger Clan daimyo sets a number of events in motion. GMs could easily build from the material presented here.

Six pages present floor plans for typical buildings, something not present in the later book. The map and discussion of geography, while not as detailed as that found in 4e core (or The Great Clans or Emerald Empire (4th Edition) books) does present material specific to the First Core setting. That makes it useful to GMs who wish to run this period.

OVERALL
Right now, original L5R rules can be found for $12 as a pdf. For GMs looking for generally useful material that seems a pricey. The weapon illustrations, floor plans, intro scenario, and adventure hooks are all good but not worth that cost. On the other hand those planning on running in the First Core period face a harder decision. Ultimately, I’d have to say this is only for 4e mavens who want everything. Other sourcebooks for the period are more useful and present a better value.


GAME MASTER’S PACK
This particular product comes in two parts: the GM screen and the 48-page enclosed booklet. The screen is decent, with a simple graphic on the front. I prefer that to screens with busy illustrations or worse player reference information. But a 1e screen won’t be useful for a 4e GM. Unless you really have to own a physical copy of everything, you’ll probably be picking this up in pdf format.

THE BOOKLET
The saddle-stapled booklet is typical of the material used to flesh out a GM-screen product (usually this or a pad of character sheets). The interior art here is a mixed bag- overall not as good as the core book. A couple of the character images look very Western. Overall the book feels like a grab bag- several articles plus an adventure.

Those articles include:
  • The Kharma Rule (2p): This is a funny bit, reflecting the lethality of the L5R system. Essentially it considers how characters in good standing might pass on some of their development and titles on to another character after they die. It reflects a kind of game play I’m not as used to anymore- assuming that players would obviously rejoin an experienced group at first level and some mechanism would be necessary to get around that. 
  • For Your Eyes Only (3p): I’ve always enjoyed John Wick’s GM advice. His Play Dirty column from Pyramid magazine and suggestions in Blood & Honor remain some of my favorite bits. Here he addresses putting the screws to the players in L5R. 
  • Errata and Suggested Reading/Viewing (2p): Some of this is corrected or folded into the later printings of the core rules. 
  • Maho: Black Magic (6p): Mechanics and spells.
The Hare Clan (27p): The bulk of the product is taken up by this excellent adventure. Though it isn’t mentioned in the text, it would make an solid follow-up to the introductory adventure from the core book. The story has the party heading to the lands of the Hare Clan, Usagi, at the behest of a senior Lion Clan person, in search of a missing scroll. This presents a problem as there’s some suggestion that a member of the Hare Clan stole the scroll from the Kitsu. The group travel to Castle Usagi to investigate, meeting key members of the Hare family.

That’s complicated by involvements which lead the players into the Shadowlands. The material here treats that a little more lightly than the latter discussions and sourcebooks (especially the The Book of the Shadowlands). There’s chances for mass battle, awesome floorplans, and delving into Rokugani history. The end scene adds an additional layer of confusion and complications as the Scorpion become involved. The adventure offers many sessions of play, opportunities for the players to shift tactics and make choices, and an ending with real impact and implications.

Interestingly, the history of the Hare Clan as presented in the later books seems to assume the fall of the Hare Clan in these events. The set up could be shifted and modified to work in other settings and locations with some work. It could be used as the introduction to another Minor Clan. However, the scenario assumes the Scorpion as a significant adversary. Given the means they use, changing that will require major modifications or else using someone like the Spider Clan. There’s a goofy bit at the end of the module with a “Kolat Scroll” which isn’t deciphered for the GM. I’m not a fan of that kind of gimmick. It could easily be changed to another McGuffin should you desire (though IIRC it does tie in to a later adventure).

The book wraps up with a couple of other bits: mechanics on hit locations, a blank character sheet (which effectively duplicates the one in the core rules, so I’m not sure why it is here except to fill out the page count), and an advertisement.

OVERALL
Compared to other long-lived game lines, Legend of the Five Rings has a small number of adventure modules. The scenario presented here- written by the always excellent Greg Stolze- makes this worth picking up. I’ve run this and had great success with it- it has easy entry and exit points for campaign play. GMs running in eras other than the First Core should easily be able to adapt the material. Recommended pretty much on the basis of “The Hare Clan.”