Monday, June 16, 2014

Deep End: The Challenge of Bringing New Players in Mid-Stream (L5R Example)

We have a shift coming up in our L5R campaign. One player is heading off to graduate school and another veteran player will be joining us. Bringing a new player into an ongoing campaign can be a challenge. I've been thinking about best practices for that. Our new player, Nick, hasn't played in the Legend of the Five Rings setting before. I gave him a copy of the core book to skim for background. But Sherri suggested I write up an overview of what the game's about- and what the other players are like. I love double-purposing content, so I'm posting that here as well. 

The party are ranking samurai-class persons in a newly founded family of the Dragon Clan. This family has the unenviable task of establishing a community in lands seized from neighboring clans. Small, uncertain, and with limited resources, the group has to bring stability and secure this region for their clan.

The game play is a mix of investigation, social interaction, fighting, community building, and personal themes. We play using our homebrew Action Cards with the L5R setting (ACL5R)
It is worth noting that samurai social codes and forms play a major part in L5R and other like games. You may have noticed the mechanics for honor, all of the concepts for dealing with rank, etc. That’s important, but I’ll admit I play loose with that. Maybe looser than other GMs in this setting. Those elements are important, but I try to work them gently into the situation- rather than hammering players with mechanics or mistakes. That means I do a good deal of GM translation of player intentions. I’ll also ask for clarifications at times and try to help you figure out what your options are based on the setting.

This is a “seasonal” game, which means that we move the clock forward from time to time. Generally a season will have 5-7 sessions (or so) with the group dealing with plots and events, interacting with NPCs and so on. Generally at the start of a season, I give a roundup of key events for the end of the previous season and the beginning of the current one. The timing on that’s deliberately vague. Then the group meets with their Daimyo and talks about the things he wants accomplished during the season. From that the group sets their agenda, figures out what they can assign to others, and discusses personal tasks they want to undertake.

For the turn of season, we generally talk about what everyone’s been doing when they weren’t occupied with the group missions. Everyone picks a Seasonal action to improve themselves, support their office, or help the family. There’s more on the loose mechanics of that in the ACL5R rules. You can see the the choices the players made for the clan at this post.  

So you’ll probably get this form the L5R main book, but the Dragon Clan’s the most ascetic and removed from the day to day affairs of the samurai world- or at least some of their families are. The families are the Togashi, who are the monks and include folks who use tattoo magic. The Agasha who have a tradition of forging and creation magic. The Kitsuki who are investigators. The Mirumoto who are primarily defenders and duelists. Your family is called the Shimasu and your specialty is not yet set. There’s also a minor clan, the Dragonfly or Tonbo, who used to have a stronger affiliation with the Dragon, but your family’s elevation has affected that. Of course not all members of a particular family fall into the archetypal roles.

The Dragon are usually stereotyped as philosophers. That’s often true, but they are still part of samurai culture.

So the deal is that the conflict between the Scorpion, Unicorn, and Lion clans had begun to spiral out of control. In the midst of that, the Dragon acted suddenly and decisively. They seized a middle region between the three clans, primarily taking from the Lion Clan. The Dragon rarely use their forces offensively and rarer still against other clans. As a result, most underestimated their strength. Before their rivals could regroup and strike against the Dragon, the Emperor (also called the Hantei) intervened. The seized lands would now be under the authority of the Dragon. Informally it was made clear that for the next couple of years, no military aggression would be permitted against them. After that, they would have to defend themselves.

To oversee this new region, the Dragon Clan Daimyo, Togashi Hoshi, took the unusual step of establishing a new family. This family would be overseen by the Mirumoto Tactician who had planned and executed the seizure, Shimasu Den. The new family would take the name Shimasu. Samurai who had served with Den from across the clan were permitted to join or be recruited into the new family. As well several ronin and fallen outsiders from other clans regained honor or shifted their role by joining.

The Shimasu are a small family, trying to find their place and made up of a hodge podge of backgrounds. They are connected to the Dragon clan but remain somewhat isolated.

In the broadest sense, Fu Leng and the forces of the Shadowlands are everyone’s enemies. But the Shimasu lands are a fair distance away from those tainted places. Every once in a while, something manages to sneak through. Or they may be called through. The Bloodspeakers are an evil cult of blood magic users. They have cells and cabals of witchcraft, though they can be detected by those who sense Shadowlands Taint. They can be nasty. Additionally there exist non-tainted spirits and creatures who threaten, generally called Yokai. They’re actually a more significant problem in the Shimasu lands.

Three clans border the Shimasu lands. They represent significant threats. The Lion Clan to the South and East resents the loss of a portion of their rich farms and mines. They’re a strong military family and clearly have focused on infiltration and sabotage of the Shimasu. They’re the most likely to eventually initiate some kind of military maneuver. That’s especially troubling because much of the area had been under Lion control for generations. The local populace has a reputation for loyalty- meaning many have fond memories of the Lion or suspicion of their new lord.

The Scorpion lands lie to the South and West. Downriver lies the major city of Ryoko Owari. Smuggling is a major concern here and trafficking in opium. The Scorpion are more subtle, but could also be a military threat. They’re more likely to act to destabilize the province or create a scene at Court. The Unicorn in the north have taken a more cautious approach- though they lost some rich lands to the Dragon. They’re more neutral, but the scattered nature of their leadership does mean that this could change.

More close at hand, the Shimsau family has some rivals within the Dragon Clan. The leaders of family branches closest to them resent the elevation of Shimasu Den. Some expected to be granted a portion of those lands, some dislike the resources given over to a new family. The Dragonfly minor clan especially feels slighted. For generations they have been the ambassadors of the Dragon Clan. When outsiders wished to enter or speak with the Togashi and others, they went through them. Now the Shimsau seems to be another path to contact.
Finally there are other common internal threats: tensions with some monasteries, banditry, etc. In particular the group has faced a dangerous magic-using foe who seems to be investigating ancient sites, from before the rise of humanity.

The PCs are significant and highly placed samurai in the service of Shimasu Den. Each has an office they manage, as well as a small entourage of supporting staff. There are other samurai in the service of the family as highly placed: advisors, the Governors of the regions, the manager of mines, the tax overseer. Plus there are other, younger samurai of a lower rank within the family.

Each player has an office.
  • Hatamoto (General): Commander of the modest military forces the family has. There’s a garrison in the lead city of Maru Katei. The general oversees that and organizes the patrols. The governors and others have small troops as well, but these are the men most in the field.
  • Magistrate: Oversees investigation and prosecution within the family. This involves most of the day to day problems and common enforcement. He’s effectively the top sheriff. There’s also an Emerald Magistrate present who represents Imperial authority.
  • Oniwaban (Spy Master): Handles rumor gathering, manipulation, external spying, and internal security. This is a secret role and though most expect the daimyo has a spy master, no one’s sure who it is.
  • Onmyoji (Spiritual Advisor): He handles the ritual purifications and ceremonies in the daimyo’s estate. He casts fortunes, interprets omens, and offers spiritual counsel. It’s a little unusual in that this office is handled by a Monk (and a fairly martial one at that) rather than a shugenja.
  • Ritual Master: The ritual master oversees events, ceremonies and rituals throughout the region. She makes sure shrines are kept up and that proper rites are held. The choice of a Witch-Hunter is this role is unusual- and has worried some.

We also have key NPCs fill the role of Master of Taxes and Commissioner of Industries. A couple of others have characters filling those roles, but these could be easily replaced by a new PC (with an interesting story resulting).

Kuni Setsu
Widowed wife of an Agasha; she accepted a role in the new family in hopes of finding peace
School: Soshi Shugenja
Role: Oniwaban (Spy Master)
Flaws: Lost Love (Aspect), Rival, and Dependent
Aspects: Gracious Widow of a Great Hero, Finally Something to Strive For, Least Noteworthy Student of the Soshi School
Trouble Aspect: All the Tools, No Experience
Sherri plays Setsu as the quiet support character. In combat she’s focused on buffing and adding mobility to her comrades. Outside of combat, she plays a behind the scenes game. When she hears about problems she sees if she can quietly assign agents to use manipulation to fix it. She has an interesting situation revolving around her late husband’s mistress’ child.

Kuni Kosunami
Widowed wife of a Kitsuki Investigator; she accepted a role in the new family along with her cousin (Setsu)
School: Kuni Witch Hunter/Shugenja
Role: Ritual Master
Flaws: Sworn Enemy, Nemesis
Aspects: I Know the Darkness, A Crab in Dragon Scales, Obsessive Focus, 
Trouble Aspect: Always Dead Certain
Jacque’s the player who will be leaving the group soon for grad school. She has a pretty aggressive shugenja, mixed with some martial skills. In another system we’d call her a warrior-mage. She’s deadpan and plays her character as a true Crab clan member: most things can be dealt with via force and anything Shadowlands needs to be dealt with first.

Mirumoto Hayato
Respected warrior and commander
School: Mirumoto Samurai
Role: Hatamoto (General)
Flaws: Permanent Wound, Challenged, Fascination: Swords
Aspects: Widow-Maker, the Grinder of Men; Prized Student of Mirumoto Kenichi; Courtesy is Priceless
Trouble Aspect: When You Have a Hammer, Everything Looks Like a Nail
The most classic warrior of the group. Scott plays Hayato as a professional military figure. At the same time he’s also skilled with dealing with the common people (he took some talents related to that). He’s built to be nasty in combat, great on the battlefield, and OK socially when he can bring his aspects to bear.

Tokashi Ogawa
Former ronin now elevated to a position in the Dragon Clan
School: Ronin Bounty-Hunter                                     
Role: Magistrate
Flaws: Cannot Harm Innocents, Fascination: The Ladies
Aspects: Friends in Low Places, I Will Prove I’m Not a Scorpion, Student of Seven Sensei
Trouble Aspect: Nosy
A former ronin who was elevated for his service to the daimyo. He’s the investigator and detective for the group. He’s also an able swordsman. He can handle some of the down and dirty tasks based on his background. Alan plays him well- being willing to plunge into situations he knows will cause him trouble in the long run. But he doesn’t do that in a “let’s mess with crap” way. Instead he plays his character and takes his knocks. Ogawa’s often the default leader in non-traditional situations.

Mirumoto Yamakaji
Retired samurai turned Monk recruited for this new family
School: Ise Zumi Tattooed Monk
Role: Onmyoji (Spiritual Advisor)
Flaws: Rival, Cannot Lie, Cannot Harm Innocents
Aspects: The Mountain Never Falls, The Truth is Always Best, Master of Balances
Trouble Aspect: Not Yet Enlightened
Yamakaji is a former Mirumoto samurai who retired for a time to become a Monk. He was called back into service to act as a spiritual advisor and warrior. He’s striking in that he’s caught between those two poles: wanting to be a representative of virtues and also being a dangerous combatant. In combat he focuses on acrobatics, moving between unarmed and armed modes. Outside of combat he tends to find causes and fixate on them. He’s the key person in dealing with some of the spiritual strife in the region.

When I first came up with the game, I provided a list of “schools” for the. You can see that list here. If you have any questions about what those might be like you can ask- and you might be able to find out how they’re written in the actual L5R rules by Googling them. I had them each pick out two of those schools they were interested in and then I built the abilities for those. You can see those example schools at the end of the ACL5R rules.

As you’d expect, I build stories to what roles the players pick- so any character type can be worked in. I’ll give you a heads up if I think something would stomp on another players toes.
With Jacque leaving, we’ll be losing one of the two magic users. She’s the more aggressive shugenja of the two, so another shugenja wouldn’t be bad. We don’t have anyone who has taken a Scout or Woodsman-type character. We don’t have a Courtier character; Sherri probably comes closest to that. We don’t have a character focused on dueling; Scott’s filled in a little on that and he has a disad tied to being challenged. We don’t have any kind of crafter or role expert. We don’t have a Kiho-based monk.

Of course Schools really only determine some special abilities, more important’s what personality of character you want to play. We can figure out the backstory for how you’ve become part of the clan later.

I do have a few restrictions. One, coming from the Scorpion Clan won’t work. That’s based on past history and the way the storylines have spun out. The Lion clans the other major adversary, but it wouldn’t be that hard to work out a reason why you’ve joined. Pretty much most other clans are open. Two, you’ll notice the Spider Clan mentioned in the L5R book- they don’t exist in this setting in that form. So they’re out. Three, no non-human characters (i.e. the Ratlings or Naga). Four, a couple of the Unicorn clan schools are intensely focused on riding and being mounted; that might be a problem in some game sessions.

Lone Wolves, Selfish, and Betrayer archetypes won’t work with this group. Beyond that I’m mostly focused on making sure everyone has a fun niche they want to play out.

They’re primarily focused on cooperation, given that they’ve played together for many years. Usually there’s some planning before operations and actions are taken. They might work at cross-purposes from time to time, but that’s usually to generate drama and create play opportunities. We usually play with open secrets- with the idea that having those out there allows everyone else to play off them. For example, Alan’s character has had an extended affair with a Scorpion agent. The rest of the group doesn’t know, but the players enjoy the chance to put him into increasingly problematic moments as a result.

The group’s generous and plays together pretty well. 

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