Friday, January 11, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: The Way of the Unicorn & City of Lies

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.

Oddly, the second “Way of…” book also takes on a family at the margins of Rokugani society. For general comments on the series, see my review of Way of the Dragon. This volume shows improvement in a number of areas- with slightly cleaner layout and improved interior artwork. I’d say about half of the art in the Dragon book wasn’t that great. Here I can only point to a few pieces that don’t work for me (the picture of Otaku Kamoko by Toren Atkinson being one of them; the medieval armored knight image being another). Overall the artwork is quite good. One of my favorite L5R artists is Cristina McAllister aka Cris Dornaus. Her images define early L5R for me- clean, clear, and consistent. The cover by Carl Frank is awesome (except that sword he’s carrying seems a little unwieldy, maybe Final Fantasy unwieldy). The writing is decent, credited on the cover to Edward Bolme and Andrew Heckt. Bizarrely neither wrote any more L5R stuff after this. Bolme has credits with Cyberpunk, Castle Falkenstein, and Paranoia, but no later RPG book credits with AEG.

The book itself is 128 pages; as with Way of the Dragon corrections and clean up were made to the text between printings. My copy is from the reprint. It keeps to the standard content of the "Way of..." books- five chapters plus a set of appendices/essays at the end. Chapter three on character creation is the least useful to 4e GMs- offering schools and other mechanics. The heritage and fortune tables from the book might be useful. Chapter five has some sample characters with backgrounds. Those could serve as the basis for interesting Unicorn NPCs.

The Unicorn Clan is arguably the Clan most changed between this period and the current L5R CCG era. This time period still has the Utaku known as the Otaku; the Moto serve as a secondary family; Shinjo hasn’t returned; the Kolat infiltration hasn’t yet been exposed; and so on. The Clan is still presented with classic Japanese/Chinese imagery. As time passed AEG added more Mongolian imagery and tropes to them- making them even more distinct from the body of samurai in Rokugan. Ideas and conspiracies which appear later in the setting are hinted at here (especially the Kolat), but at this point I don’t think anyone had a good sense of the larger picture which would evolve. All of that means the material here does a great job of describing the First Core setting, but may be more difficult to adapt to other eras.

The book opens with a seven page game fiction piece covering Otaku Kamiko. I like it and it helps illustrate life among the Unicorn. Chapter One offers three pages consisting of testimony from other clans on the nature of the Unicorn. The Way of Books are stronger when they give this section room to breathe; a couple more pages here would make it better. The second chapter, by far the longest in the book, covers the families of the Unicorn and a richly written history for the clan as a whole. The authors use a number of distinct voices to convey this work. The sidebars in the chapter offer additional color details (like the travel poetry, law and punishment, adoption). This chapter as a whole is useful for all GMs not just the first core. It adds to the concepts and discussion of the Unicorn Clan given in the various 4e books. That being said, while I enjoyed the material here, it still feels fragmented. I’ve always been able to grasp the interrelations and balances between the families in the other clans. But the Unicorn never felt as coherent to me. The family concepts and ideas seem much more patchworked together. Way of the Unicorn doesn’t fully my questions about how this clan functions and survives.

Chapter Four presents the details and background for ten major Unicorn Clan personalities of the era from the eventually notorious Shinjo Yokatsu to Horiuchi Shoan. The appendices at the end begin with eight pages (including diagrams) on cavalry tactics in Rokugani. GMs who like warfare will enjoy this. The Unicorn do present the source of one of the greatest divides between Rokugan and classic samurai culture. The necessity of having a “cavalry” family for the CCG meant restricting horses and riding as a defining element of samurai life. As I understand it, they were actually closely tied and horsemanship represented a defining aspect of samurai life. The second appendix on Unicorn treasures is also interesting. These include different breeds of horses, gaijin gear, nemuranai, and high-grade equipment. There are spells here too, but I consider those a mechanical aspect supplanted by the 4e material. The idea of Meishodo, Unicorn Name-Magic which is supposed to be unique is given a brief gloss here- a minor mechanical tweak rather than a new sub-system. The book finished with three plot hooks, brief discussion of the lands of the clan, castle map, CCG junk, and clan-specific character sheets.

This is an even better assembled and presented book than Way of the Dragon. For GMs running the First Core setting it is an essential purchase. It also gives insight into the Unicorn Clan, but a clan quite different than the one in play in the most current setting. Still the general history and items of the Unicorns make it useful.

To start, you should buy this.

It remains one of the best supplements I’ve ever bought and one of the top five city books I’ve ever purchased. And that’s in the broader scale of all rpg products I’ve owned.

This is one of two products every other L5R supplement has to measure itself against. And, until we got to L5R 4e, most of them fell short. (The other is The Book of the Shadowlands).

However, City of Lies is also a niche and fairly specific product. It presents the Scorpion City of Ryoko Owari. All of the material is rich and specific to that setting. That makes it nearly impossible to successful port to another location or concept. It simply couldn’t be the city of another Clan given what’s written here. Certainly in Rokugani history, the city falls under the control of the Unicorn and others for a time- but that’s not the City of Lies. However the material ends up fairly agnostic about the era and time frame for the setting. Obviously it won’t work during periods in which the Scorpion are in hiding, but otherwise with some work, it could be adapted to most eras. That would take some fact checking, perhaps some name changes, and pruning of available ancestors who are present as NPCs here.

If there’s a limitation to City of Lies it is that the rich history and detail make it too compelling a campaign. It is intended to be used as the basis of an ongoing game set there. Everything about the set up and material encourages that. Conceivably one could have the players pass through the city- but you wouldn’t want to give them all of the awesome player materials in that case. L-2 Night of a Thousand Screams is built to use Ryoko Owari as a pass-through point. But campaigns set in other regions with other, non-magistrate approaches won’t really be able to make use of the material here.

City of Lies comes with two maps- one of them of the city, one of them of Rokugan- both are excellent which makes actually finding the physical product worthwhile. The actual written material comes in four booklets. Two of these are for the GM, a location and general guide. Two others are for the players, a large and detailed overview of the city and a smaller journal prop. That actually makes purchasing the pdf a worthwhile option. You can then distribute copies of the player material to everyone rather than having to make and bind extra copies or passing just the one around. The three major booklets are:

City of Stories: The major players’ guide; an 88-page perfect-bound booklet. It begins with the eight page charter of the Emerald magistrates (highly useful for these kinds of campaigns). The next eighteen pages preset a general overview of Ryoko Owari and the culture therein. The entries come from four different first person sources- each with an agenda and viewpoint. This makes the booklet a pleasure to read- hunting for contradictions, mysteries, and clues. It is brilliantly done and nearly every player I’ve used this with has dug in deep. The conceit is that this material has been assembled for incoming magistrates. Pages 30-43 cover the neighborhoods of the city; pages 46-81 cover all the many and diverse characters present. I should note that while much the artwork is excellent- a good chunk of it feels rushed and some just looks ugly. The book wraps with an excellent four page summary of major plot threads and threats as well as a reproduction of the city map.

City of Lies: The major GM resource, 96 pages long. Pages 4-17 reveal the truth behind details given in the players guide. Pages 20- 57 does the same for all of the NPCs, offering hooks and motivations. Pages 60-77 offer a grab bag of information from adventure hooks to discussion of the concept of rank in actual play. There’s a nice overview of how magistrates of different clans might make alliances and face troubles. The commentary on Emerald Magistrate Charter does a nice job of presenting the conflict between declared roles and actual power. The booklet ends with a nice fully fleshed adventure which could take up multiple sessions- dealing with an opium war in the city.

City of Green Walls: This 56-page booklet covers all of the locations of the city. It reproduces sections of the maps and gives many, many ideas for adventures in different sections of the city. The “rumor mill” mechanic hear could easily be borrowed for other games. The material does a great job of drawing together threads from across all the books.

I have run in Ryoko Owari a couple of times and it has been hugely successful. Greg Stolze put together an amazing product here. GMs running in the First Core setting should absolutely pick this up. Even if you don’t imagine yourself running a campaign set here, reading through may change your mind. The boxed set offers a great model for how to assemble and run a Rokugani city (much better than the later Otosan Uchi). GMs running campaigns in another era will have some more tweaking to do, but the material is strong enough to bear that. A worthwhile purchase all-around.