Friday, January 18, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Twilight Honor & The Way of the Scorpion

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.

At a glance three story tracks for Legend of the Five Rings campaigns present themselves: introductory tournaments; Magistrate/Mystery campaigns; and Shadowlands campaigns. All three of these give an excuse as to why members of different clans might gather and unite. The Courtly game offers another approach, but one bringing together diverse characters at each other's throats. L5R’s background focuses on the strain and tension between clans, suggesting a state of perpetual low-level strife with occasional outbreaks. This question- allowing players to choose any clan while finding an excuse to make a party- lies at the heart of the L5R’s challenge. Most other samurai style games focus on diversity through class choice, rather than clans. As you might expect the first three published L5R adventures-“The Hare Clan,” Honor’s Veil, and Code of Bushido- offer direct or oblique versions of the first two scenario forms.

And then Twilight Honor takes us to the Shadowlands. That means it has to be read in light of The Book of the Shadowlands. Does it manage to present a backdrop as awful and dark as that? Is it possible to write an open and challenging adventure set there while balancing the grimness and the lethality?

The module offers an interesting set-up device, and another way out of the multi-clan paradox. The group is tasked with their mission by Togashi Yokuni, Champion of the Dragon Clan. This works if the players know of Togashi Yokuni’s true nature as one of the kami. On the other hand, it ignores more questions than it answers. The set up works for some group types, but many will require serious finagling. The text takes it as a given that a Clan Champion can simply walk in and commandeer a group of samurai. I call BS on that a little, given how valuable trained samurai are to their lord. There’s some discussion of suggested player responses and logic which feels like handwaving. On the other hand it is the set up for a module, so I shouldn’t give it too hard a time. The material’s presented in a very old school way, with lots of boxed text.

A word on spoilers here. I’m not sure if I’m going to give any away. But I expect my audience for these articles is solely GMs hunting for material. It is a fifteen year-old module, so just be warned for this and any other review in this series I write. Bottom line plot of the adventure: there’s a Hida general who has gone around the bend and is about to invoke a plan which may bring doom upon his clan.

The rest of the module breaks down into five acts:

  • Part II: Kyuden Hida: No travel adventure, just arriving at the fortress with Togashi’s symbol in hand. They can meet some of the key characters of the Crab. It does a nice job of setting up life in a Crab holding, though perhaps a little more cartoonishly than I would have preferred. The crux of this plot point is managing to convince Hida Yakamo that the group should be allowed to travel to Shiro Kuni. This is a procedural moment which the players have to pass to move on. The module offers a fudge option as well. 
  • Part III: Kuni Castle: The PCs meet the problematic Crab, Hiruma Makasu. There’s a nice section here on time passing and dealing with life in the castle. I like the idea presenting that as a montage. There are some interesting NPCs presented as well. 
  • Part IV: Into the Shadowlands: The group eventually goes on a patrol with Makasu into the Shadowlands. Things occur and the first hints that Makasu might be a problem- which is difficult to disentangle from normal Crab procedures. There are fights players cannot win and the eventual return to the castle. There’s the reveal that some of the Crab are unsure about their leader and then more daily incidents. 
  • Part V: You Want Us To Go Back?: This begins with some rumors and more information suggesting a problem. The players have a couple of choices- leaving to go get help or staying. The former choice isn’t that interesting and potentially splits the group. The latter choice is clearly how the story’s expected to go. In this case the group has to deal with Makasu mounting a crazy expedition. And they’re pretty much strong-armed into going- even if they say no, the module forces them along. So they all head off to scout fallen Hiruma Castle, which- if you know Rokugan you know isn’t a great idea. The group falls back. 
  • Part VI: Defense of a Clan: There’s an oncoming army attacking Makasu’s position at Kuni Castle. Makasu’s sin comes across as simply being excited about the imminent attack. It takes a bit to pick out exactly what’s he’s done wrong beyond being a particularly Crab-y Crab. And then there’s a big battle- with Hida Kisada arriving to join in. The players have some strategic options, but the rest is pretty much battle resolution.
There’s a lot of linear material in this module; it is pretty tightly plotted so the PCs can’t really screw it up. The volume of boxed text only makes it feel even more hand-holding for the GM. It has some other structural problems as well. Only once is there an allowance made that the party might not all be warriors and combat Shugenja. Groups with that kind of composition should probably skip this. Overall this is a particularly niche module, heavy on combat and survival, with lots of places where the PCs have their choices restrained and limited.

The bigger flaw of the module is the way it makes the Shadowlands feel like just a bad place with some monsters in it. This isn’t the shiver-inducing world of The Book of the Shadowlands. GMs will be able to add those elements, but the story may become even more lethal. I really want to like this module, but I don’t think it does a great job. The base skeleton of it could work, but it will take some work. I’d recommend other modules over this one, unless you’re running a campaign with a strong focus on the Shadowlands.

It took me some time to realize that I didn’t hate the Scorpion Clan. Instead I’ve hated most of the gamers I’ve met loved the Scorpion Clan. In my experience, their problem lies in a desire to be smarter than everyone else at the table and have the chance to show that off through clever betrayal and duplicity. In the wrong hands, the Scorpion Clan makes problem players worse. Often these are the worst winner and worst losers. I had a Scorpion player absolutely lose it when he was off-handedly called out on an act of duplicity- an unnecessary act, and one he could have easily cleaned up after. Scorpion PCs require ultimately a lack of arrogance, a lack of self-interest and egotism to really work. In the right hands, with restraint and discretion the Scorpion can be really interesting.

That’s a difficult road to travel however, and points to some conceptual problems in early L5R. To make a parallel, I have to tell a story about a character I ran (*groan*). I was at a Detroit Convention playing in the final round of an rpg tournament. The situation was that the group was transporting a princess (played by a PC) to a wedding. We were part of the entourage, which included her defenders and at least one Paladin.

I was given the Drow Ambassador role, openly and obviously. I had to play the lone, obviously-evil character who came from a nation openly disfavoring the marriage. Let us say that this was a problem; I was immediately put under watch and threatened by several other characters. I did my level best by doing nothing- I was super helpful, stuck to the Paladin like glue, and worked hard to be in sight of someone at all moments. And when things went pear-shaped I was immediately slapped in irons. I had a certain satisfaction in being able to claim rightly that I’d had nothing to do with anything, but still I spent most of the session trapped by the role and other players. I imagine being a Scorpion often feels like that.

The weird thing about L5R lies in the split between the classic and story approaches in the material. The modules for example, feel particularly retro- linear, presented with a TSR layout, relying on boxed text. Contrast that with the tensions inherent in the Rokugan's social structure. L5R doesn't present minor animosity which can be glossed over in play (“Yeah, but he’s a good Half-Orc”). It has real rifts, especially when it comes to the Scorpion. John Wick understands that, and he plays that up in his material-especially in The Way of the Scorpion. He understands that if you follow these ideas to their logical conclusion, you don’t end up with your standard adventuring party. In the end Wick’s vision of Rokugan features a competitive party, subtly acting out a long-game of PvP.

The Way of the Scorpion comes in at 120 pages, with some of that filled by an ad pages and two double-sided character sheets. Dave Leri turns in another busy and weird cover. The interior art fares equally well, with many weak images. Ramon Perez and Cris Dornaus supply their usual excellent pieces however. The writing is strong, with John Wick offering an engaging tone that makes the Scorpion work- properly measured and in control. The book has five main chapters plus five appendices- the latter taking up almost half the book. Chapter three has character mechanics; chapter five has sample Scorpion characters.

I’ve glossed over Chapter Five in my previous reviews. The sample characters on offer in these "Way of..." books look like simple archetypes, but they’re actually more. They provide a prefilled character sheet, but more importantly a fully fleshed background. That material usually explores one or two Advantages/Disadvantages. These do an excellent job of presenting what these details actually look like within a character’s history. The attention given these entries pays off. The Ramon Perez illustrations don’t hurt either.

The book's prologue offers a compelling piece of fiction- and an intriguing look behind the scenes at some of the most iconic characters of the First Core setting. There’s an important sidebar in this section, speaking about the nature of “history” in Rokugan and the fluidity of it. There’s a little sting there at those who fixate on setting minutiae...which given my close reading of these books ought to be something of a rebuke to me. But I appreciate the concept- the history players know in this setting (and honestly in most settings) comes to their characters as a story. It has errors of transmission, biases, and hidden agendas. In Rokugan the such history becomes a potent weapon.

Chapter One gives testimonies from others about the Scorpion, as well as folktales exploring the contradictory nature of the clan. Wick presents Chapter Two differently from the other “Way of...” book. It begins with history, as the others do, but then moves into other topics: key battles, views on other clans, an exploration of Baysuhi Tangen’s classic volume Lies. The families of the clan are not addressed separately, except through reference to historical events. What family details appear in the book show up in Chapter Three with the School mechanics, and in the appendix. Chapter Four goes through the background of ten key Scorpion characters of the era.

The first appendix offers ten pages of advice on how to play a Scorpion. All Scorpion players should be required to read this, as well as any GM running for Scorpion PCs. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the advice there; I think a table has to openly negotiate how to handle elements such as secrets and betrayal. But overall the section is amazing and makes this book a crucial resource. Appendix two has ninja, split evenly between discussion of theory and mechanical details. Appendix three has new magic items, mechanics for wards and Shadow Brands, and another poison discussion (more color than mechanics thankfully). There’s a quick overview of the Scorpion lands, including three pages of castle floor plans. There’s also a fun section on gambling in Rokugan and instructions for making a “Fortunes and Winds” dice game.

Once again I have to bang my drum about the great fault of early L5R material: player and GM information are mixed up together. This is particularly bad in this volume. I can understand why some of this is presented openly- appealing to fans of a clan from the CCG to purchase the book looking for stories and information. But sometimes AEG gives away cool ideas and material which would be fun to reveal at the table. That’s particularly true with the Scorpion, who trade in secrets.

That aside, this book should be required reading for GMs who even tangentially deal in with the Scorpion. It provides insight and flavor to this clan and shows why they’re necessary to Rokugan. It goes a long way to making the Scorpion make sense. Recommended to all 4e GMs for any era (at least any in which the Scorpion aren't in exile...).

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