Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Otosan Uchi

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.

OTOSAN UCHI
And here’s where everything changes. I mentioned the metaplot when I looked at Winter Court: Kyuden Seppun. That had been the first L5R supplement to really move the timeline forward or even suggest that there would be movement. In some ways, it was inevitable that they would move the world forward. At this time, the CCG had gone through several arcs and was towards the end of the Hidden Emperor and Spirit Wars episodes. As well the CCG IP was in the hands of Wizards (though they would sell it back to AEG the following year). Clan War, the L5R miniatures game had been rolled out, but wasn’t catching fire as they’d hoped. As well plans for a second edition of the core rules had already been put into place. The events of the First Core setting were decades out of date with the developing saga. However taking the step that 4e did- making the game era agnostic- wasn’t really viable. L5R had built significant history, but not enough to support that. So I understand why they pushed the rpg timeline forward.

And many players wanted this- wanted to see behind the scenes at the various stories and secrets. This and Time of the Void would answer (or at least address) many of those questions. That makes Otosan Uchi an ambitious project with a good deal riding on it. It is a boxed city set, so it has to live up to the amazing standard set by City of Lies. It puts the players in the middle of one of the most complex and significant events in Rokugan's history. And it has to do all that while allowing very different groups and parties entry into the material.

The boxed set contains three perfect bound booklets, plus two maps. The first thing you’ll likely notice on opening the box is that the books don’t fit. I don’t mean they’re tight in there, I mean they are literally jammed in there, bending them. The books are about ¼ to ⅛ of an inch too wide. That’s too bad because the box itself is nice and sturdy.

The two poster-sized maps both show the Imperial Capital of Otosan Uchi. One offers a lovely illustrative take in full color. The other’s more analytical- a top down, old school city rpg map complete with numbers for just about every building in the city. Think City State of the Invincible Overlord or Cities of H├órn. The books themselves are quite nice, with a simple cover pattern and helpful reference material on the back. A massive amount of work has gone into the product. It uses a simple two-column layout, with none of the sidebars of earlier supplements. The authors know just how complex the material is going to be and aim for clarity. The illustrations are generally pretty good and useful for showing significant NPCs and places. There could be more of them, but the product’s already massive.

Book 1: The Imperial Capital: A Location Guide: Otosan Uchi clearly breaks with the approach of City of Lies. That volume offered a loose approach, with an emphasis on story and player facing materials. NPCs were detailed and important locations noted, but the whole of the city was painted broadly to give the GM plenty of room. On the other hand, OU takes an old school approach- with almost 800 locations numbered on the map. Each chapter covers one of the districts or areas of the city- presenting its governor or important figure and a brief summary of what the area’s like. It has cut out maps from the posters. However the size of the numbered maps makes that text unreadable. Each section also has a “stat block” of traits, like population, corruption, political influence. Then locations within the area get very short write ups- averaging a paragraph or two. Not every numbered entry is covered, but there’s definitely a focus on volume over depth. GMs who like lists and completeness with appreciate this.

That’s not, however, my favorite approach. My preference is for a few key locations, well described to use for interesting stories and plots. There’s an almost tactical level sense to this approach, like the players would go door to door. The book has a eight page master index of locations (“OK, we go to #674,” “That’s a tea shop.”). Still the introductory material here offers broader material. These twelve pages include an overview of the city, articles on crime and punishment, and discussion of religion in the city. Overall the 96-page book covers a lot of ground.

Book 2: The Forbidden City: A Walking Tour: This takes a similar approach to the districts of the Ekohikei, the inner city and palace of the Hantei. However, the smaller number of districts to cover (and more interesting features available) mean that everything’s treated with greater depth. There’s some really interesting ideas and characters presented. The fifteen pages of introductory material really help explain life within these walls. Its interesting to imagine the plots and plans carried out here. A GM could easily run a Courtier/Intrigue campaign just using this. It would be a high-level, high-risk game for veteran players.

Book 3: The Scorpion’s Sting: A Game Master’s Guide to the Scorpion Clan Coup: This is an 80-page massively ambitious adventure. It details the death of the Hantei and the Fall of the Scorpion. The scenario takes an interesting approach, breaking the story into three distinct tracks. The Courtier’s Tale assumes characters within the palace itself when the plot unfolds. The Skirmisher’s Tale deals with characters within the greater city, battling the Scorpion’s infiltrators and seeking a way to save the Empire. The Soldier’s Tale deals with event outside the walls- battles, skirmishes, and the death of iconic figures (such as Doji Satsume). The last chapter in the book describes how to run the events using Clan War. The book has a section on how to connect this with previous events and bring the PCs into play. I think that’s important. The players shouldn’t feel that they’ve just stumbled into the middle of this. They should be pursuing some thread that suggests or hints at the larger problem.

The authors paint the picture broadly- suggesting events and scenes, but allowing the players plenty of room to run around. They may even shift from one track to another. GMs could run all three in parallel, with players taking on the roles of different characters. The really excellent timeline on the back cover of this volume helps keep the events straight. It ends with three pages describing the immediate aftermath of the coup’s failure.

Is it good? I’ve run it once- with the players beginning as skirmishers and moving into the palace. There are some great scenes there. I regret that my version was truncated; we had a terrible player who made the game awful for everyone else. I ended up rushing through this, to my regret. I think the adventure holds together, just barely, like a car falling to pieces as it heads downhill. And that’s awesome. The story here moved me more than I thought it would. Anyone wanting to run this should read The Scorpion: First Scroll of the Clan War by Stephen D. Sullivan. I disliked the rest of the series, but this one really managed to capture the feel of the event. It puts the Coup in broader context.

OVERALL
Of course one of the ironies of this boxed set is that Otosan Uchi gets destroyed in the later timeline. That means there are several eras in which this material won’t be that useful. Still the concepts and structures could be ported over to a new Imperial Capitol. Or the maps here could be used for players sent to explore the ruins of the city. Obviously a third of this boxed set is devoted to a highly specific event. But the remaining two-thirds offers useful concepts for the GM. Granted some of it is presented thinly, but it is still decent. Useful for GMs of many eras, but how useful will depend on the campaign. GMs running in the First Core setting will find solid hooks and characters. Obviously if you want to run the Scorpion Clan Coup, this is a must-buy. It manages to bring that chaos into focus, offering a unique campaign climax. At the time of this writing, the pdf is listed at $18, which seems a little high. AEG also offers this as a POD product, which might make an interesting option.

One final thought related to 4e. Imperial Histories presents a couple of different alternate Rokugans. If you’re looking for a place to change up events in a dramatic way, the Scorpion Clan Coup offers a nexus point. It’s where I shifted the plot of my version of the setting away from canon. In that way, GMs running the First Core setting who want a major event can twist players expectations and create their own timeline.


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