Monday, January 14, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: The Way of the Crab & The Book of the Shadowlands

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. 

What I’m about to say may offend those who hold the Crab clan near and dear to their hearts. In my experience, the Crab are the easiest clan for new players to grasp. They’re samurai, but they break outside of the normal code of samurai life and behavior. Yet, they’re not ronin. Considering that many of the most memorable depictions of samurai are ronin (Yojimbo, Samurai Champloo), players can be forgiven for coming to the game with expectations. When they hit the restrictions and bindings of the society, they often bristle. The Crab offer a compromise. They also offer a clear fantasy role: defending the Empire against the Big Bad. They have a obvious and defined enemy.

The challenge becomes that while they’re the accessible at the start for new players, they offer some of the richest and most complex challenges for experienced players. Once a game moves into traditional and courtly spheres, the Crab must tread carefully. Way of the Crab begins to get at some of those ideas. The latter 4e books present an excellent picture of the Clan, but this resource goes into further depth. Even more than other "Way of…" books, it does an excellent job of orienting players (and the GM) to the Crab mindset.

However, there’s a strange problem at the root of this. As with many others, I came to L5R via the CCG. So I was more than a little disappointed when the Crab in the game “turned to the dark side.” The Battle of Beiden Pass Box, and other evolving bits in the game really made the clan look fairly horrible. My wife started out playing the Crab and became increasingly irritated as more corrupt cards appeared. They eventually ‘redeem’ themselves at the end of the arc, but it remains problematic.

The problem lies in the gulf between the presentation of the Crab in this book and that of the CCG. It still makes no sense to me, even with later explanations and stories offer in Winter Court: Kyuden Asako and Time of the Void. I had players unfamiliar with the CCG history become seriously put off when I told them what lay in store for the clan in the “canon history.” It just doesn’t work. GMs running in earlier periods may have to confront this issue head on.

That aside, Way of the Crab offers a great book, with AEG beginning to hit their stride. As with the other early Way of books, there’s a revised printing which makes corrections. Pick that up rather than the earlier printings. I assume that the pdfs available on RPGNow and elsewhere draw from these revised versions. There’s a note identifying these books as reprints on the second page. The art in this book really sways between excellent (Cris Dornaus, Ramon Perez, and Liz Danforth) and bleh. I hate how busy and weird the Dave Leri’s cover image looks.

Chapter three presents the new mechanics for this book, so it can be safely be ignored, except that some of the sidebars there have interesting details and an adventure hook. Yes, right in the middle of the player-facing material- an adventure hook. Don’t ask me why. Chapter five gives five sample characters; these background can easily be used to craft Crab NPCs.

The book opens with a solid piece of game fiction, followed by a short chapter with outsider testimonies on the Crab. I always like these as they say much about both parties involved. I’d love a couple more pages of this kind of thing. One of the problems facing GMs is how to present the clans to a group without a member of that Clan. How do you use the stereotype to your advantage? How can you filter players perceptions through their expectations?

Chapter two gives an extended history of the clan, and then a look at each of the families. In some ways, the families of the Crab Clan are more interdependent than those of any other. There’s a fair amount of discussion of how that plays out and what role each serves. The sidebar essays, like “The Fine Art of Crab Diplomacy” flesh this out further. However there are fewer of these incidental bits than in other books. Chapter Four details ten of the most important NPCs of the Clan. Again, the material and personalities described here do little to make it clear why they would make the leap to ally with the Shadowlands later in the metaplot.

The appendices of these Way of books often present new general material, often applicable to other clans. Way of the Crab is a little different, and differently organized. It begins with a far too brief page and a half on Crab Strategy. Next it covers the lands of the Crab in detail- with significantly more page space devoted to this than in the other books. The detail is good and complemented by adventure hooks and ideas (making it useful for 4e GMs, even those who own Emerald Empire (4th Edition)). Next it presents a longer section on Crab Philosophy and outlook on the other clans, which might have been better placed in an earlier chapter. I understand the logic- the Crab have a distinct viewpoint which needs explication, and that would be better spotlighted in a more prominent place. Absent is a section with adventure seeds, but there are some new magics and presented, and the usual CCG crap. The real gems in the end section are the six pages of floorplans and castle drawings. These are great if you like maps.

One of the problems of this book is that is comes out before the GM’s Survival Guide. That book does an excellent job of breaking down the essential questions of honor by the different virtues and showing how different clans approach them. That system would be used, with several modifications, from that point forward. That means this book doesn’t have that approach as a reference point.

I’ll probably be saying this about all of the early “Way of…” books: this is a useful purchase for L5R 4e GMs running in any era. But that’s more true with this book which does an excellent job getting inside the mind of the Crab and presenting that to potential players.

The Shadowlands are a bad place. No player should ever suggest, “Well, perhaps if we went to the Shadowlands…” If they need to, have to, must go there they should be afraid. They should be girding themselves for death, they should considering the consequences of being tainted, they should be saying goodbye to their loved ones. They should approach the idea with dread and bring ever resource to bear to avoid the journey. Even the Crab among such a group should be hesitant, knowing that their fellows who have not grown up in the shadow of The Wall will screw things up out there and get themselves or others killed.

The Shadowlands is not Mordor, with some bad guys to overcome and paths to march through. It is poisonous, inhuman, mutating, and unknowable. It is unearthly in a Lovecraftian sense, a weird mix of fantasy and Cronenberg, and more akin to an Erol Otus fever dream than anything else. If there’s a failing of the later editions of L5R, even 4e, it is that some of that threat and fear has been diminished. Humanizing the Shadowlands, in the form of the Spider Clan and others, undercuts that atmosphere. Even the otherwise excellent Enemies of the Empire doesn’t go far enough.

To get a taste of that threat and fear, I recommend The Book of the Shadowlands, one of the harder to find resources from 1e, unless you want the pdf. It, along with City of Lies, remains one of the must-have resources for L5R GMs of any edition.

This 160-page hardcover contains mechanics, like any bestiary. But those are secondary to the discussion and description. Most of the book is presented as notes and pages from The Writings of Kuni Mokuna, a relentless scholar of the Shadowlands. That means most pages are presented in a handwriting font, with sidebars of white text on black. It isn’t the greatest layout in the world- evocative yes, reader-friendly no. The art throughout is quite good- some pretty horrific, and others done like notebook sketches. The writing style itself works well- proving a first person perspective on the concepts. That makes up for some of the problems the text design causes.

After a short framing document (by Kuni Yori), explaining who Kuni Mokuna was and the problematic nature of the document, the book breaks into seven chapters:
  • The Shadowlands: The history of the region, and some theories about what it actually implies about the cosmic order. There’s great discussion of the “regions” of the land and how it changes. It finishes with the problems of working magic in the region. Sidebars give some adventure hooks. They also spell out the mechanical implications of the concepts discussed colorfully in the text. 
  • Corruption and the Taint: There’s some mechanics given here obviously. But more important is the question of how people live with the taint, what it looks like, and how people react to it. These are the kinds of ideas and details a GM can use to make these issues come to life at the table. The discussion reinforces just how difficult it can be to deal with. Jade is a protection, but isn’t foolproof or guaranteed by any measure. 
  • Goblins: There’s solid discussion of the ecology of the Goblin race here. It makes them more than just a faceless horde. This isn’t to make them sympathetic, but actually even more dangerous for their cunning and organization. They’re still among the most “comical” of the monstrous races, but a GM could use some of these ideas to draw PCs into a false sense of security. 
  • Ogres and Trolls: Like the previous chapter, this gives greater depth to these foes. 
  • Oni: Great stuff here- with many unique Oni. Some of these appear in Enemies of the Empire, but there are a couple of new ones. It does a great job of complementing and expanding that material (with some additional illustrations GMs can use). There’s advice on fighting oni, and an awesome freaky map of an Oni lair. The random tables for generating the appearance of an oni are great. Most importantly is a two page document “How (Not) to Use Oni in Your L5R RPG Campaign” by Ree Soesbee and John Wick. This, more than anything else, created my sense of the Shadowlands in a campaign. 
  • Other Dangers of the Shadowlands: A good section, with other monsters and threats. The environmental and insect-based monsters are especially nightmarish. 
  • Nezumi: The first fully-fleshed material for L5R presented on the Ratlings. Much of that has been expanded, modified, and developed over the editions. I prefer this, more distant and uncertain presentation to later ones. It includes some maps of Ratling camps. 
The book ends with a size comparison image and an impressive index.

The later L5R books tend to approach monsters more as stat blocks, rather than the basis for stories. The Book of the Shadowlands puts the story first, with the mechanics as almost an afterthought. It makes these things scary, with death as a merciful end. I highly recommend it to any L5R GM.