Monday, January 21, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Night of a Thousand Screams & The Way of the Lion

THE L5R 4E RESOURCE GUIDE
The set-up of the new 4e L5R more easily allows the use of materials from earlier editions and eras. That raises the questions: 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? This series aims to answer those questions. Note that I leave aside any and all mechanical material and questions for purposes of these reviews.

NIGHT OF A THOUSAND SCREAMS
There’s debate about how much a game can induce fear in a group. Can it actually create a sense of horror, unease, or terror? Especially given a group of competent and trained bushi. Some later L5R products certainly strive for that, for example the ghost story tropes of Bearers of Jade. Then there’s the legendarily creepy unpublished module Mirror, Mirror. I don’t know where I come down on that- but I do know that I can induce panic in my players. A module Night of Thousand Screams is an expert adventure delivering panic, desperate timelines, frantic pacing, and a headlong rush towards disaster. It is pretty awesome.

I’ve run NoaTS twice. I had a blast both times. The first time I ran it, a couple of the players screwed up big time at the end. Lots of people dead, massive damage done. They caught the bad guy, but the fallout from their actions was pretty intense. The main foolish player in that situation went on to be ordered to kill himself at the end of the campaign. When he turned to one of the other players to serve as his second, she said “No, you honorless dog.” Good times.

The story pack's set-up has the players in Ryoko Owari. This dovetails really well with City of Lies (which makes sense since this is the second in the “L” series of storypacks, "City of Lies"). Magistrate characters there can easily fit into the adventure. It works especially well as an early plot. The story has the players rushing all over the place- making it a great tour of locations and concepts. On the other hand, the story also works if the group simply happens to be in the city. In either case it allows the GM to run from the text itself, or support it with details from CoL.

The adventure begins with an attack by an Oni on Crane Merchants. From there the players will stumble into a complex web of leads, plots, investigations, and combats. The module's structured around twenty scenes- each given a time frame. The whole of the adventure happens in one night. From the moment of the Oni attacks until the resolution at dawn the next morning, the group will be running. The pressure and pacing of this adventure is awesome. It flips between NPC interactions, puzzles, quick conflicts, chases, and fights. At the same time, it gives room for the players to catch their breath, but the respite is brief. It makes questions of healing, spell use, and other resources central in a way they often aren’t.

Authors Zinser, Soesbee, and Dornaus assembled the adventure smartly. Each scene is presented with a set up and then Challenge, Focus, Strike discussions. The GM can easily see what key elements of each scene. The module seems linear, but actually provides the players with room to make choices and work at the problems with different solutions and approaches. There’s plenty of wiggle room built into the adventure, accompanied by a few moments of “and this happens.” Those are thankfully few and far between and rarely take autonomy away from the players or make them look like idiots. There’s boxed text here- still an old-school affectation, but that can be worked around. In many ways, this reminds me strongly of the mystery structures on offer in GUMSHOE. Scenes provide a key and clear Core Clue which points to one or more locations. Those are picked up by players with basic use of skills or choices. Additional clues can be uncovered with rolls and checks. The combat and conflict scenes are equally smartly delivered. Players can strike directly or use the environment to their advantage- success will come from planning and being clever. Finally there are some great NPCs provided as well, making this all-around a great adventure.

Physically the product is 48 pages with solid and useful interior art. There’s a great reuse of the sketch map of Ryoko Owari from City of Lies, coded with the locations of key events in the city. The interior of the cardstock cover has a number of floorplans which will be useful for many GMs. The story does focus on investigation and elements of supernatural horror, which may not work for all campaigns.

NoaTS makes use of the Ryoko Owari backdrop. The flavor informs the atmosphere and in a couple of cases the plot, in terms of places the players have to go. It expands and makes use of the details given in City of Lies. That being said, the plot could be used elsewhere with some work. You’d have to create a couple of analogue locations in the new city (most notably Teardrop Island) and you might have to rework some of the NPC clans and identities. It might not work everywhere (Otosan Uchi or The Second City, for example). But generally a smart GM could probably come up with the necessary changes in an hour or two. In fact, it would make a great introduction to the locations and character of a city, just as this one does for Ryoko Owari. Night of a Thousand Screams works best in the City of Lies, but the story’s strong enough to survive elsewhere.

OVERALL

It really takes going back and rereading some of these adventures to see how well they work. Night of a Thousand Screams is linear, but in the best sense of that. Players will be desperately hurtling forward to save the day, all other concerns aside. Given the strength and the adaptability of this adventure, I recommend it for GMs of all eras.


THE WAY OF THE LION
When AEG first announced the L5R CCG I was a manager at a local game store. I loved samurai games, so I pushed hard on this product for players. We’d between trying to find other CCGs beyond Magic which would grab players attention- and more importantly bring in gamers who didn’t like MtG. We gave L5R a try- I ran events and organized group games, but the complexity of it and the time a basic multiplayer game could take turned some people off. It was, especially in the early days, a game with significant barriers to entry. I ended up with the Phoenix in the draft and tried to get a handle on the game. It never took off but even those who gave up playing identified with a Clan and hunted down cards to assemble a picture of the world. After trying to immerse myself in what I could out of that initial starter set I came to one important conclusion.

I really hated the Lion.

They seemed like obnoxious jerks. They possessed a brutality and callousness without the redeeming excuse of being those who kept the Shadowlands at bay. Every piece of flavor text quoting them dripped with contemptuousness. They also had the Beastmasters, the most sore thumb concept in the early L5R stuff. Ugh. What an unlikable group.

Yet something strange happened over time as I drifted in and out of following the CCG, made up my own miniature skirmish rules for Rokugan, and started picking up the RPG products. I began to see the big picture. When I first prepared to run in Rokugan, I looked closely at the clans, the roles, and the discussions. There the Lion usually ended up as the least liked group, more often villain than hero, and not in a sexy way like the Scorpiom. As underdogs in trhe meta-story, they fascinated me; I looked more closely and saw the cool niches they filled in the structure. They held the center in Rokugan, unloved by many but possessing another vital role, like the Crab. I made it my mission to figure out the Lion and over time they became my favorite clan as a GM. Complex, neither good nor evil, but more often driven by contradictions in their own code. My players still have no great fondness for them, but at least now they’re not the most reviled Clan (that’s reserved for the Crane…).

The Way of the Lion comes late in the product cycle of the “Way of…” series. By this point AEG had established the formula for the books. These have a standard clean layout for a 128-page sourcebook with five main chapters and five appendices. There are a few changes in Book Six however. The material has a slightly different organization, and we don’t have Ramon Perez illustrations for the sample characters. Some of his work appears elsewhere, but the art here is a mixed bag. The cover by Randy Gallegos just looks weird. Some of the pictures inside are done in a kind of charcoal grey which doesn't reproduce well. The writing's generally solid- credited to three authors Patrick Kapera, Ree Soesbee, and John Wick. A half dozen other authors are listed for additional material. That's reflected in the piecemeal feeling in spots. As with the other volumes in the series, Chapter Three covers mechanics- new character options and new schools. Chapter Five has a set of sample character archetypes with background, useful as NPCs.

The prologue fiction mixes historical fable with a brief snippet involving the two iconic Lion characters, Matsu Tsuko and Akodo Torturi. Chapter One’s interesting in that the previous books have simply had some brief viewpoints from the other clans. This has that, as well as some of the historical material which usually goes in Chapter Two. There’s also a sidebar analysis of the Lion’s viewpoint of the other Clans. Some of these pieces are excellent. In particular the testimony from Doji Hoturi reshaped my sense of the Lion. They are a clan literally and figuratively haunted by their ancestors. Chapter Two on the history of the Lion skips general discussion and instead focuses on each of the four families of the Clan. Each sub-section contains several tangential topics: gempukku rituals, excerpts from Leadership, legends, and clan roles. Both the Ikoma and the Kitsu get less attention which is too bad as their role needs more definition. In particular the precise nature of the Kitsu Sodan-Senzo magic seems strangely limited and needs more explanation. Chapter Four discusses a dozen important Lion characters from the era. Oddly none of the three Ikoma presented are actually Omoidasu. It isn’t until later supplements that we actually see what a Lion diplomat looks like.

As one can imagine the first and largest of the appendices covers the art of war in Rokugan. There’s general material on the composition armies of the Emerald Empire, with a focus on how the Lion handles it. The sidebars restate the Bushido virtues (hinting at the importance this breakdown will have in the GM’s Survival Guide?). This takes up nine pages and will be useful for any GM wanting to run a military campaign. It is a nice color supplement to the mass battle system. Appendix Two goes through the major wars and battles of the Lion. Weirdly, the Lion don’t come off particular well in these. They rarely win, and most victories involve them as part of a coalition. There’s something of an anti-Lion bias here, making them the scapegoats for Rokugan. Appendix Three does the typical quick overview of the Lion lands. Appendix Four is a tangent for the book, which at first feels out of place. It begins by covering the spiritual world and ghosts. I would be nice to see how that connects the skills of the Kitsu, do they possess talents in that regard? I usually associate that with the Crab or Phoenix. The same appendix has a four new magic items. There’s a real absence of adventure or plot hooks in this volume. I prefer it when these have those as a dedicated section or sidebar. The book wraps with CCG crap, castle floor plans, and a dedicated character sheet.

OVERALL
The Lion are my favorite clan, and so I’m more than a little disappointed at how uneven this book feels. Don’t get me wrong there’s some hugely useful stuff here- the ideas about the nature of the Lion, the discussion of the Akodo and Matsu families, and the warfare essays. That makes it a decent read for L5R GMs and Lion players. But some things are overdone and others glossed too quickly (again the Ikoma and the Kitsu). It is also a book most useful for GMs covering the First Core setting. The trials, tribulations, and traumas the Lion go through after that- the Kitsu corruption; banishing of the Akodo; Toturi’s rise; the shadow Akodo; the Tsuno; and so on mean that the clan has gone through some devastating changes. Like the Unicorn and Dragon, the Lion of this era may feel quite different from those of the present.