Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Lesser of Two Evils & Way of Shinsei

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.

I remember back in the 1980’s running and writing D&D modules for our local gaming conventions. Dungeon crawls, puzzle bits, maybe a few moments of outdoors and then back underground. I remember them as crazed assemblages of rooms and events. Our great models were the D&D modules like C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Those often had a theme, but that was thin cover for an extended list of perils.

Lesser of Two Evils is a tournament module for L5R making it something of a difficult beast. It is built to be done in a session, with a set group of PCs, and likely with a high body count (or at least with the PCs walking away with some consequences). There’s some discussion of how to actually work this into a campaign, but the general focus of the module remains to offer a self-contained story. Changes to make it more workable would take the GM some time.

The book itself is a 48-page module. Several pages are taken up with full page illustrations, the sample characters (one from each Clan), maps, and a scoring sheet. The art’s decent and focus- character and NPC illustrations mostly. The writing’s also clear. There’s classic boxed text in several places, as you’d expect for a scenario where you want all of the GMs on the same page.

The module begins with an overview- laying out the background to the plot which is pretty straightforward at root, but has a number of wrinkles. The players are summoned to a remote Crab holding at the behest of a Yasuki daimyo who wishes them to look into some strangeness, including the vanishing of his Shugenja. The lord is being manipulated in this by a powerful Bog Hag who has apparently worked her way through the various members of his household and is now his geisha. She’s had a diverse group of samurai called from across the Empire (hence the various PC Clans) in order to father their different strengths. We’ll leave aside the point that when weird stuff happens in the Crab lands, the Crab’s don’t go “Oh I hope nothing’s seriously wrong.” People come and take torch to the problem. But that’s an aside.

The Bog Hag kills the daimyo’s seneschal and comes back wearing his skin to spin a story about how he was attacked by a formless evil. The logic of this is a little tenuous. It also points to some of the problems with adapting this to an existing campaign; players who have methods for detecting these kinds of things will have to be put off- or will be frustrated if once again their senses don’t work. The PCs also lose an NPC samurai and their horses in the attack. The PCs can search the few buildings on the estate (to little avail). Heading to the neighboring village suggests something larger’s going on. I should mention that the text does a good job of offering several variations on particular scenes- ways to change up the direction and add more complexity to the story.

The big lead here takes the PCs to the temple which the Bog Hag has corrupted over time. Several other possible explorations point them in that direction. The Temple itself is effectively a dungeon crawl. The temple’s broken up into about twenty locations- with several different guardians, clues as to the nature of their foe, and unpleasant tricks and traps. And magic treasure which comes into play in the next scene. The final confrontation with the Bog Hag forces the PCs into an unpleasant choice. There’s some wheedling that goes on here- with the GM forced to legislate morality more than a little. There’s no great choice here and it is likely any way the PCs choose will lead to some of their deaths through seppuku or combat. The book’s pretty clear on the intent, and it makes sense given the structure of the adventure.

The last dozen or so pages of the book have NPC write ups, some new spells and items, the PC sheets (done on a single page complete with illustrations), a score sheet, and one page of NPC illustrations.

As a module without specific reference to an era, this module could be adapted by 4e GMs pretty easily. It does have significant combat, so they’d want to look through the mechanics to make sure it isn’t made more deadly than it already is. The question remains: is it worth it? Lesser of Two Evils sets itself up as a Tournament or Quick Introductory module. It works pretty well as the former. It has a fairly tight plot, clear structure, and some crucial choices which can be scored. However, I don’t think it works as well for the latter. For one thing, there’s a fairly conventional focus in the story- a monster-of-the-week approach which doesn’t necessarily sell the key aspects of the setting. More importantly where those key aspects do appear- questions of honor and bushido code, they’re used as a constraint and punishment against the characters in their end choice. That’s not a great way to sell new players that the Rokugan’s a place they want to play in. Would this work as an adventure within a campaign? Yes, possibly, but with some work. You could break up some of the rails and open the investigation up more. The final challenges could have some added dimensions. For groups with a Shadowlands investigation focus, it offers a challenge. There are other, stronger L5R adventures, but this one isn’t bad.

Otosan Uchi signals a change in the L5R line, an acceleration which lead into L5R 2e, followed by Time of the Void which moved us through the Second Day of Thunder arc, and then the hybrid d20/2e books which shot the timeline further even more- skipping past the Scorpion return, the Hidden Emperor, the Lying Darkness, and the whole of the Spirit Wars. Supported eras and timelines would begin to move by in a flash. L5R 4e puts some brakes on that, or at least channels that energy in different directions. There’s a trap to trying to keep the game at pace with the CCG and general history. Consider the Second City boxed set, the most “modern” of the products released for the new edition. The latest CCG set presents a rift and a war between the Governor of the new provinces and the Empress. New factions, new approaches, new directions. And I understand the allure of it- with a couple of exceptions, I like the overall story, enjoying reading about what happens. I do want to know about all of the aspects of the setting.

The Way of Shinsei, by my reckoning the last 1e product, fills in one of those gaps in the First Core setting, though it is set in that space between Coup and Second Day of Thunder. The next things to arrive would be the Legend of the Five Rings Player's Guide (Second Edition) and Legend of the Five Rings Game Master's Guide (Second Edition) books announcing the new edition. Interestingly, the handful of 2e sourcebooks published before the new era/mixed d20 presentation keep the earlier books relevant and fill in other gaps: a village sourcebook (Mimura: The Village of Promises), the Ratling book (The Way of the Ratling), the evil PC book (The Way of the Shadowlands), the event book (Time of the Void) and the grab bag catch-all (Winter Court 3: Winter Court: Kyuden Asako). Way of the Shinsei covers an aspect hinted at throughout the product line, but never fully developed, the Monks of Rokugan. The Way of the Dragon and Phoenix had touched on these ideas but not enough to make viable player characters. The irony is that we’re given a whole new set of additional rules and new mechanics just before the line jumps to new core system.

The book itself is a little shorter, 112 pages, of which almost twenty pages are advertisements, full page illustrations, or blank character sheets. The layout sticks to the tried-and-true two columns plus sidebars of the line. The interior artwork’s pretty weak, especially the NPC images which all manage to look alike and ugly. The body of the book’s five primarily chapters, with four appendices afterwards. Chapter Three on character creation is the most mechanically oriented, with many new skills and advantages plus all of the material on kihos. One interesting section discusses how to retire a character and make them into a monk. There's a little oddness to the design here. There's no solid option to create a non-powered monk. By default, they have kihos. The only other option is the ise zumi. There's no 'warrior monk' option. There's also the question of why ise zumi monks don't get kiho in this set up. Chapter Five has sample characters which could easily be adapted as NPCs. GMs of 4e will find most of the Monk mechanics in the core book and also in the recently released The Book of Earth.

The prologue fiction does a nice job of putting the act of retirement into context. A samurai’s forced into retirement, to the shame of his son. The son works tirelessly to promote himself and raise his position so that he can bring his father back from the monastery. But when he goes to give his father the good news, the father decides to remain there. Years later, after his own zen koan moments, the son decides to follow his father’s path. It adds the right amount of complexity to the question of monasticism. Taking up such vows might be regarded as honorable by some, such as the Dragon. But for many among the driven and loyal samurai class, they’re a rebuke to bushido and their way of life. Being a monk isn’t necessarily an honored thing. They maintain their position through impartiality and distance, but that can be cut down at any moment. In particular as the Brotherhood becomes involved in transient world affairs (fighting against Fu Leng, trying to stop Hitomi) they become vulnerable. The Ikko Ikki War of Japanese history demonstrates that difficult balance.

Chapter One gives outsider perspectives on Monks, with sidebars quoting from the Tao. I especially like the Crab reaction presented here. Chapter Two outlines the history and the “families” of the Monks. As The Way of the Wolf established distinct paths and schools, The Way of Shinsei establishes different temples, each of which have a slightly different focus and approach (and mechanical options). A good deal of this chapter focuses more on the question of how to play a monk and what their daily lives look like. There’s the thorny question of key elements like Honor and Glory and how they’re handled. Amusingly, the book offers rules on Enlightenment, which always seems a little goofy to me. But I had the same reaction to mechanics for Illumination in Glorantha. The chapter touches on a number of related ideas: stories of the original kami and their meeting with Shinsei, the secrets of the Tao, the history of the monastic system. Overall this is a much deeper treatment than that currently offered in 4e volumes. Most of the key concepts of sects and organization remain the same across many eras, making this a valuable resource. Chapter Four goes through the key iconic Monks of this period. Many of them figure closely into the rising struggle against the Shadowlands or will be important in the latter battle against the Lying Darkness. The concepts are fairly generic and could probably be adapted easily to other eras.

The appendices have some nice additional sidebar stories which could make for colorful bits to throw into a session. Appendix I is a three-page scenario set up which could easily involve monks. These kinds of story seeds are always useful. Appendix II discusses further the role of monks in Rokugani society. Some of this echoes the ideas presented earlier, but emphasizes the difficult position they’re in. Appendix III details prominent temples and monasteries in the Empire, useful background details for any game. Appendix IV has more CCG crap. Really? I thought we were done with that. What’s strikingly missing from this section is extended advice on running a monk campaign or handling monks in a party. There’s a little bit, but more of a footnote. It would have also been useful to perhaps have a discussion of the difficulties players face when taking on this kind of role.

If you’re interested in monks and the Brotherhood of Shinsei, either as a general game element or as a PC option, The Way of Shinsei offers solid material. They skip a few things I’d have liked to see, but generally the background really works. There’s history here- but that doesn’t overwhelm the story. The majority of the information focuses on monks in the present. That makes it useful for GMs planning to run in the First Core setting and in other eras. The order presented here functions equally well across all of those campaign settings.

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