Friday, February 8, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Merchant's Guide to Rokugan & Way of the Minor Clans

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.

THE MERCHANT’S GUIDE TO ROKUGAN
I almost skipped reviewing this volume. It had been years since I looked at it, but I went back and reread it. And I’m undoubtedly beating a dead horse on the issue, but there may be some few reading this who don’t know of this book.

For this, I offer my story.

I was at the Mall, where one of our local game stores had briefly opened a shop. Usually they just had D&D and Warhammer stuff, but I always checked in when we went to the EB Games just a few shops down from it. Imagine my pleasure when I spotted a new L5R book I didn’t own. I grabbed it up. It was something pretty amazing, a book covering many aspects of the setting I really wanted to read about- history, geography, commerce. It even had one of my favorite characters from the L5R CCG on the cover, the Wily Trader Taka! I read the back cover blurb,

“The Merchant's Guide to Rokugan has everything players and GMs need to know about this deeply underestimated class, from the secrets of the Unicorn caravans to the unseen influence of the Yasuki traders. It contains an updated history of the Emerald Empire, details on merchant character creation and campaign running, and the untold stories of the Crane-Yasuki wars, including the tale of Taka himself. So step up to the vendor's stall and peruse the wares you see: a whole new side of Rokugan awaits.”
Holy Cow- here’s my $20.

I get home and check out the first couple of pages- dense, rich economic details- the kind of serious considerations I never expected to see in a sourcebook. I was a little stunned and hoped the rest of the book would cover these ideas a little more accessibly. I set it down for a couple of days until I had time to really read it, notebook in hand.

And I turned to page six.
“This isn’t The Merchant’s Guide to Rokugan, you see. It’s the Kolat book.”
w.t.f.?

I have mentioned before in my L5R reviews that “Your Rokugan May Vary.” You may love the Nezumi as a consistent element in the setting, you may want the Yasuki to be a part of the Crane, you may hate the Lion. I respect that, so in that vein please take this statement: I Loathe the Kolat as a Concept in L5R. I’ll state my basic reasons, but then move on. A secret conspiratorial group who has influenced things behind the scenes and evaded detection in a world filled with magic and god-like creatures. A structure outside the all-important hierarchies of family lines, Clans, and duty. Yet another nigh-omni-potent group the players can’t really bring down (in addition to Fu Leng, The Lying Darkness, the Scorpion if adversaries). A group cloaked in material that suggests mind-control, gotcha!, and “fooled you!” plots, all things which players love. If they are as potent, have the resources presented, and operate as suggested in this book, then the players don’t have a chance. Everything feels like a Mary Sue villain group, trying to be the cool Illuminati with sweet Ninjas. They’re fodder for GMs to have weird things happen to the group they can never get a handle on, and then say after the campaign “Here’s what was really happening…”

Your Rokugan May Vary.

The book itself is divided into five large chapters, plus an appendix. At 120 pages, it is about as long as the standard Clan books. Rob Vaux wrote this; I may not like the core concept, but he writes well and clearly. He knows the setting and puts that to good use. Cris Dornaus’ cover is much creepier after you know the secret of the book. The interior art is generally high quality. Page design follows the most common L5R pattern: two columns with sidebar annotations.

Chapter One: History: This covers the origins of the Kolat, and their initial conception as a war of Mortals against the kami. It traces the first key uber-potent artitact Palantir Oni’s Eye which allows them to see everything. We come to understand how they infiltrated the Ki-Rin, used the Yasuki war to increase the power of commerce, undermined the Lion, and established the rule of law.

Chapter Two: Purpose and Organization: The Kolat have been operating in secret for ten centuries, in that time they’ve developed and refined their philosophy, focusing on Control, Secrecy, and Patience. Return control to man means overthrowing the literal and figurative person of the Hantei and his house. The chapter lays out the basics of the pyramid/cell structure for the group.

Chapter Three: Tactics and Enemies: Goes through the tools and procedures the Kolat use to infiltrate and deal with their enemies. That’s a combination of mundane (through commerce), magical, and mythic in the form of Kolat Assassins. Sleeper agents, deep rpogramming, mind control, body doubles- all of the classic New Rokugani order tools. There’s an useful overview of how the Kolat view the different clans and how they approach those. It does suggest some foes the Kolat fears, but at least two of them are adversarial to everyone.

Chapter Four: Your Campaign: Offers ideas for how to integrate the Kolat into a campaign. There’s some solid and specific advice. Gms thinking about working with the Kolat as a foe will find this hugely useful. The chapter makes specific reference to the other major conspiracy-campaign sourcebook of the era, GURPS Illuminati. There’s also advice for running a campaign of the PCs as Kolat.

Chapter Five: Who’s Who: Gives stats and background write ups for the Ten masters leading the Kolat. This is fairly First Core setting specific, but GMs of other eras should be able to file the serial numbers off and replace them with another similar NPC (except perhaps for Akodo Kage…).

The book wraps up with eight character templates, similar to those in the Way of the Clans books. These have a character sheet and a generic background written up. They could easily be adapted as the basis for NPCs.

OVERALL
The other significant treatment of the Kolat pops up in Enemies of the Empire. They get about sixteen pages there. GMs who want to know more about them will find this a useful resource. The Kolat suffer some changes in the eras with follow the First Core, particularly the purge of the Unicorn. However much the basic information here should be adaptable to later periods, if you like this material.

THE WAY OF THE MINOR CLANS
If I’m reading the publication history correctly, this is the first L5R supplement set after the Scorpion Clan Coup. That still puts it before the Second Day of Thunder arc, but does finally bring the L5R into parallel with the Clan War miniatures game. The introductory fiction places it ten months after the Fall of the Scorpion.

Several of the minor clans had been mentioned in previous L5R sourcebooks. The Mantis, in particular, received a proto-version of their school. The Dragonfly appeared in a module as a key element, and the Sparrow and Falcon were prominently mentioned in the Crane and Crab clan books respectively. And, of course the Hare and the Badger, had been used as whipping boys in a couple of story packs. However we’d just had hints and references, but no extensive treatment of these minor clans. In many cases, that meant GMs had plenty of incentive to develop background and rules for them and the others who had been detailed at all (the Fox, the Tortoise, the Centipede). The Way of the Minor Clans illustrates one of the problems of long-running rpg series. Later books have to find untouched areas. They have to fill in that imaginative space, and often that clashes with GMs’ existing interpretations. Gamemasters are left, as I was, having to decide if they wanted to go with the established reading or with those presented here. In some cases WotMC presented interesting ideas and in others I liked my version better. Unfortunately that soured me on this book a little.

I like the idea of the Minor Clans, though in later eras they spring up far too often. I’ve never been fond of the restriction of the Clans to just three techniques in their school. I understand the logical basis for that, but as a gamer, if a PCs decides to go that route I want to give them interesting options. The volume does provide some new resources for PCs who take up this difficult road. Each minor clan gets a single chapter in this 128-page volume, plus there's a discussion of three fallen clans. The interior art is just OK, with some chapters faring worse than others (the Kitsune and Moshi for example). Ree Soesbee compiled the volume from nine contributors. Each entry has background, thoughts of the great Clans on the clan, skills & techniques, ancestors, a key NPC, and in a couple of cases some general setting material (in the text or sidebars).

Mantis aka Yoritomo: The heavy hitters of the Minor Clans, the Mantis have popped up several times in the series so far. Of course this material is set before Yoritomo’s Alliance, the establishment of the Mantis as a great clan, and all of the crazed developments of the later period (the Orochi, in particular). The Mantis section touches on peasant weapons, the high seas, and ships in L5R. Fox aka Kitsune: Interesting ideas on forest magic and the idea of the Fox Wives. Dragonfly aka Tonbo: A few unique spells and discussion of their role as gatekeepers for the Dragon. Sparrow aka Suzume: My favorite of the minor clans. Suggests the idea of minor clans as intermediaries in larger conflicts. Badger aka Ichiro: They end up being nearly destroyed in several times in the years after this. Centipede aka Moshi: Matriarchal Sun Priestess who eventually merge with the Mantis. Offers some insight into alternate religious practices. Falcon aka Toritaka: A forest dwelling clan, later assimilated into the Crab. This chapter has some decent bits on hauntings and the dangers of the Shinomen Forest. One of the better entries. Tortoise: A group rather than a clan, with the Emperor as their de facto daimyo. They have contact with those living outside Rokugan. That offers fodder for some interesting stories. The Wasp aka Tsuruchi: Archers of note, but more importantly bounty hunters within Rokugan.

Of all of these, the Mantis, Falcon, and Tortoise feel the most fleshed out. They add hooks and complexities which would make them fun to see at the table. The book wraps up with a final chapter addressing the fates of three lost clans. The first of these is the Boar Clan. Having committed seppuku en masse, they left behind a haunted land. They’re also tied into the creation of the Anvil of despair and the Shakoki Dogu. The book doesn’t go into detail, but skims the tales. The second is the Hare Clan, previously seen in the adventure “The Hare Clan.” The book assumes that the PCs failed to protect the clan, and now they’ve been destroyed. The lone survivor blames the Kolat. Third is the Snake Clan- previously addressed in Bearers of Jade. Essentially the Clan fell victim to an Oni who spread out his spirit in possession. The Phoenix purged the clan over the course of five nights. They also left behind a dangerous and haunted land.

If I have a problem with this volume, it is that mostly we get history, history and more history. That background’s interesting, a decent read. But that doesn't bring much to the table. As a GM, I want to know what these clans look like- what do PCs see when they interact with them. I want ideas for plots and hooks that I could use to introduce these characters into my game. I used to write extensive histories for my players- I loved world building. But at some point I realized how little impact that actually had at the table. Brief notes, combined with figuring out personalities and vibrant details, made for more engaging and memorable gaming.

OVERALL
The volume provides slightly more detail than the quick overview in the 4e core book. There's more background here- but primarily history. The mechanic sections aren't that useful for 4e GMs. While this volume offers some generally useful information, it isn't enough to make it really compelling. There's also the problem that some of the later minor clans (such as the Monkey) don’t appear here. Instead it gives an overview focused on what these groups looked like in the First Core setting. Recommended for GMs of that era, optional for others.


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