Monday, February 4, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Bearers of Jade & Void in the Heavens

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.

BEARERS OF JADE
I’m a big fan of J-Horror in its modern versions (Kairo, Ringu, Ju-On). I also like the ancestors of those pictures- classical Japanese scary movies set in the samurai period (Onibaba, Kuroneko, Kwaidan, Tokaido Yotsuya Kaidan). They incorporate subtle supernatural elements- the power of hauntings and the presence of spirits and ghosts in everyday life. Consider the testimony of the spirit in the otherwise real world film Rashamon. On the other hand, the scary stuff on display in Legend of the Five Rings so far has tended to be unsubtle. The Shadowlands and Fu Leng are awful and grotesque. They’re part Cthulhu, part Cronenberg, part Zombie-fest. The most quiet and insidious portions of that come from the interactions and corruptions of people who come into contact with that. Bearers of Jade: The Second Book of the Shadowlands doesn’t change that up entirely. But it does add some more creepy and traditional elements to the mix.

The book is a hefty 152 pages softcover. Interestingly this is written by the husband and wife team of Jennifer Brandes and Chris Hepler. Hepler’s only other L5R credit is as a contributor to Winter Court: Kyuden Seppun. I’m always a little surprised when I see key books like these in the hands of freelancers who haven’t worked much on the line before. They take an interesting approach to the text- creating a composite of rules, stories, descriptions, and fragmentary testimonies. The book as a whole feels like a patchwork and that’s deliberate. Just as the original Book of the Shadowlands had an “original author,” this is said to be the journal of the ronin Shugenja, Seikansha.

To that end the pages are design with a light grey-scaled background to make it look like a scroll. It switches between single and double column formatting. While there’s some GM material in the text, the “in world” writing is supplemented by sidebars with GM notes and details. That way the pages can be copied as a handout and the extra material cut away. In days of pdfs, you’ll probably be printing these pages out. The problem with that comes from the page design. The sidebars are white text on a dark grey background. This can make them hard to read and even harder on printer ink. The designers clearly wanted the book to appear dark, but it ends up looking more murky and unfriendly than evocative. The interior artwork doesn’t help much either. While there are a couple of striking pieces, much of the rest is messy and ugly.

After the introduction and a great little snippet taken from a stage play, the book’s broken into six major chapters plus a fairly long appendix. The chapters themselves mix many presentation styles which means most GMs will be able to find something useful and interesting (and then again, there’s the flip side of that…)

Life at the Mouth of Hell: This is one of my favorite chapters in the book. It considers what it must be like living just outside the Shadowlands. What effect does that have on people? What kinds of things make it through or prey on those who man the Carpenter Wall? It presents some interesting ideas on how the Crab live and deal with the fact of the Taint. Beyond that how that Taint can manifest not as a physical malady but as insidious mental illness.

The Tarnished Lands: This offers a few more locations in and around the Shadowlands, adding to the material presented in The Book of the Shadowlands. I especially like the concept of the dangerous resource places the Crab must use, like mines, which lie just at the edge of the corruption. As few of the new places given here are genuinely creepy.

Lost Relics: A large collection of cursed and haunted items, many with connected plot hooks? Where do I sign? Another highly useful source of stories and adventures for the GM. Some of the testimonies connected with the items really establishes an insidious tone. I can imagine GMs creating an entire Warehouse 13 campaign in Rokugan with the players hunting down and disposing of sinister artifacts.

Fu Leng’s Army: More monsters, more Oni. A couple of these are excellent because they are restrained- creatures which can make their way into greater Rokugan to wreak havoc. Some of them have a strong folkloric feel to them. The Shuten Doji makes its appearance here- an infectious oni creature. I’m still not sure what I think of it. Sometimes it seems over-the-top to me and more powerful than any other monster in the setting. And sometimes I just get chills when I think about it.

Workers of Maho: There’s some really interesting considerations of the Bloodspeakers here, especially in the selections from the play “Virtue.” This chapter manage to add some more depth and dimension to these adversaries, again expanding on the concepts from the earlier Shadowlands volume.

Lost Souls: This is a single long piece considering the corruption and fall of a solider within the Fu Leng's realm. I don’t want to say more than that.

Appendices: The Shadowlands Campaign: This is the most mechanical of the chapters. It includes some monster stats & powers as well as suggestions for modifying the mass battle system to handle battles against Shadowlands armies. It also includes the goofy Crab martial art- a concept that has always seemed just an excuse to give every clan a sweet unarmed specialty. There are also some new maho spells.

OVERALL
I like smart book design- especially when that design helps create atmosphere. L5R 4e, Vornheim, and most Pelgrane Press products achieve this. But even at their most indulgent, they still make the material useful and accessible. The design doesn’t get in the reader’s way. Here it does more than a little. The material itself is strong. Despite everything this is an awesome read- like a weird and wild dictionary of horrors. Open it at any page and you’ll find something creepy, cool, or both. Some of it echoes the earlier Shadowlands concepts, but there’s more than enough new ideas and plot hooks to make it worth buying. It is useful for L5R GMs of all eras, supplementing material from the L5R 4e core book and Enemies of the Empire.


VOID IN THE HEAVENS
There’s a certain irony to putting out a module based around the Scorpion Clan, shortly before you publish a module which will essentially blow up the Scorpion Clan in the setting. But that's not the reasons this is hands down my least favorite L5R module. Allow me to explain…

Let’s start with the presentation. This is a 48-page perfect bound module. The cover’s OK and doesn’t give anything away. However, someone decided that the title font ought to be Pepto-Bismol Pink. I’m not a great judge of color- I have to ask my wife what paints to use when we do miniatures. But I do know when something makes my eyes ache. The problems with the illustrations continue on the interior. Ben Peck’s has a couple of good pieces here, but more that don’t work: dark and messy. Even the usually reliable Cris Dornaus turns in rushed looking pieces. A couple of the images are repeated. There’s liberal use of half and full page pictures. Between that and the wider than usual text design, it feels like they're trying to fill out the page count. Honestly this module could have been done with half the space. Then they could have had a second adventure, as they did with Midnight’s Blood and Honor’s Veil. Instead when I read this I have the distinct sense that corners have been cut.

The story itself has an odd set-up. The group must begin with no outstanding enmity towards the Scorpion Clan (a point specified in the text). They begin heading to Kyuden Shosuro for "reasons." On route, they stumble across the incident in question and become involved. There’s some pretty tangled logic here- keeping the Scorpion from killing the players to keep them quiet, and allowing them to become involved in Scorpion affairs. Your Rokugan May Vary. Let’s set that question aside for the moment.

The basic premise is that the Oracle of Fire is about to pass on his mantle. He’s selected an eta to hand it off to. A Shosuro representative comes to ask the Oracle a question. She decides to seduce the Oracle and convince him that he should pass on the mantle to her. She succeeds at the first part, but fails at the second. So now the Oracle’s pissed and wants to burn the Scorpion to the ground. The adventure itself is broken into ten scenes, pretty highly scripted. However, there are numerous opportunities for the PCs to go off-script and get themselves killed.

The characters arrive to find fire engulfing a Village. They see the Oracle but are unsure what his role is. There’s some nice action here with the players having to organize the village to put out the inferno. The PCs can then head on to Kyuden Shosuro (or do a difficult search for the Oracle, which skips them forward a scene). At the castle they see more evidence of the Oracle’s ravages, but Scorpion representatives deflect their questions. Eventually there’s a weird meeting in which the Scorpions ask for the PCs help, after the Clan's made statements implicating themselves in the problem. The module then explains to the GM: “Of course everything the Scorpions tell the party is a lie. It is important at this stage that it should all be very believable.”

Have you ever met a PC who would buy this?

You know what would have been interesting? If the Scorpions were telling the truth, the victims of some conspiracy or outside attack. Then the story could have been about the players trying to overcome their natural inclinations to aid the Scorpion. There could still have been a sting in the tail- you righteously help them, but there’s some unpleasant cost along the line. But at least the GM wouldn’t have to treat the players like idiots and railroad them.

So the PCs head off to the mountain of fire the next day, making their way through environmental obstacles. They reach the Oracle of Fire and have a chance to question him. He is, of course, a little omnipotent and a little mad. That’s a great combination for PCs who just marched through hell. Once they get to the Oracle and properly comport themselves, they can untangle some of the threads. That could be an interesting scene. The book lists typical questions and responses. On the other hand, if the party attacks the Oracle, he kills them instantly. There’s really only solid outcome here- with the group delivering the Oracle’s terms and/or finding the eta girl.

The story continues on, with some oddly transparent machinations on from the Scorpion. They would like to kill the eta and blame the party. There are some decisions to be made and if they cross the Shosuro, the daimyo will have them killed. They have to protect the girl and eventually…let me just cut to the chase here. The Scorpion have a weapon to kill the Oracle and transfer his energy. The players either help with that or stop it. The execution of that feels more than a little goofy- the clearly right choice has a pretty dramatic cost to the group in terms of enemies.

OVERALL
There are other, much better modules for L5R. This one is adaptable, but I think to make compelling would require some serious work and effort. It plays into the worst tropes and stereotypes of the Scorpion- fulfilling all expectations. There’s a strange discounting of the sacred nature of the Oracles by the Scorpion. I understand their practicality, but it doesn’t necessarily ring true, especially as a plan executed at the highest level of the clan.


L5R 4e Resource Guides
Code of Bushido/The Way of the Crane
Twilight Honor/The Way of the Scorpion
Night of a Thousand Screams/The Way of the Lion