Thursday, January 31, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Winter Court- Kyuden Seppun & GM's Survival 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.

This volume finally made the Rokugan setting click for me. I’d played Bushido and Ninja HERO over the years. So I already really loved the samurai genre by the time the L5R CCG came out. I was playing miniatures at the time and adapted the setting for skirmishes (before Clan War came out). Eventually I collected the rpg and liked it, but didn’t love it yet. City of Lies and the Book of the Shadowlands were pretty awesome, but it didn’t quite gel for me. But WC: Kyuden Seppun with its combination of fiction about iconic characters, world background, and new mechanics brought it together for me.

It might be where the line develops its own identity- not beholden to classic fantasy, to AD&D’s Oriental Adventures, or to historical games. Of course some people don’t care for that identity. I’ve read some historically-minded objections to the setting over the years- including from Japanese players. The latter found the names and ideas weird and borderline offensive. But I’ve also heard that same criticism leveled at Castle Falkenstein by Europeans; some of the Old West games from Europe seem odd to me. I’m also reminded how Western characters are usually presented in some of my favorite mange and anime (fat & stupid or boobilicious). That’s not to say some concepts in L5R don’t work for me. The list would be fairly long: the Naga, the Kolat, the Spider Clan, the Crab Alliance with Fu Leng, and so on. But those are elements I can downplay or excise. The larger concept of Rokugan I find compelling. And at least at the time of WC: Kyuden Seppun, I grew interested in the metaplot.

WC: KS is really the first book to set that plot in motion. The Clan Books put all of the pieces out on the table, while this hints at what’s to come. There’s an odd thing with this First Core period, especially if you know the history- you know that there will be the Scorpion Clan Coup, the Clan Wars, and then the Second Day of Thunder. The real question is how much time the game will take getting there (answer: surprisingly little). I’m of two minds on metaplot. I like it when it adds flavor and ideas to the setting. Some of the developments in the classic World of Darkness lines and the Poor Wizard’s Almanacs for Mystara do this well. But metaplots tend to fragment a game in the long run- with blow-up points that drastically alter the setting. After these, the material has to take those events into consideration, making them more difficult to use for original adopters. Of course, that’s the whole reason for this series- with L5R finally breaking out of the metaplot trap to some extent. Even though WC: Kyuden Seppun puts the writing on the wall that change is coming, I still like it. The detail and texture it adds to the game make it worth it.

Take for example the interim fiction, “A Dangerous Game.” It plays out a story we already know- the events are well in the past. It doesn’t depict the Seppun Winter Court, but demonstrates courtly events. More strikingly, it manages to make two iconic figures from L5R- Bayushi Kachiko and Doji Hoturi- into compelling characters. Both of them had always seemed like tools and fan-service, until I read this and gained more sympathy for them.

Winter Court: Kyuden Seppun is about the length of one of the Way of the Clan volumes, 120 pages. It follows the typical L5R design, simple two column layout with some page framing. There’s a greyscale watermark on the pages, but it isn’t too obtrusive. It does away with sidebars for commentary, allowing more page space. Instead notes and inserts are done through text boxes. The artwork’s quite good throughout. The writing’s good and feels consistent despite heading all over the place. This isn’t a guide to running Courtly adventurers, though some of that is discussed. Instead it is a smart grab-bag of cultural details, history, plot points, and new concepts. It is divided into four sections, loosely tied by theme. There’s the running fiction through the volume I mentioned above.

Dawn (14-43) An excellent collection of bits, much of it revolving around the idea of nobility and the Emperor’s family. The discussion of political ranks and what they mean in this culture is especially useful. Just as importantly, the material drills down and explains the structure of the Imperial House and formally introduces the Otomo, Miya, and Seppun families to the setting.

Afternoon (46-69) This opens with a general discussion of what a Winter Court looks like, and the different kinds. It then moves on to considered more deeply the important customs of Rokugan: Seppuku, Warfare, Duels, Arts, Tea Ceremony, and Flower symbology among others. There’s a lengthy discussion of funerals- suggesting details for a great in-game scene. Finally there’s a look at the seasons and the festivals associated with them. Adventure hooks and NPCs appear as text boxes.

Night (72-89) Covers more intimate matters, beginning with questions of love and marriage. After a couple of side bits, it presents an overview of important events which occurred during the year and at the Court. These include battles and the Crab’s conflict with the Falcoln Clan, reference to the events of modules (particularly Code of Bushido), and the tension between the Akodo and Matsu. The section ends with a quick overview of Rokugan’s history.

Epilogue (92-120) The previous sections have been notably mechanics free. This chapter offers new options: ancestors, skills, and imperial family schools. It also has write-ups for important Imperial and related NPCs. Rumors of developments suggest plot hooks for the coming year. Finally three pages of floorplans for Kyuden Seuppun close out the book.

This is a solid and interesting book. A good deal of the general material has been integrated into the 4e sourcebooks. It would take a closer reading to see what hasn’t yet appeared. Regardless, it is a good primer to some key ideas- and a reminder about how useful these background elements can be to developing stories or adding color to a scenario. GMs who wish to run in the First Core setting will find this an essential purchase.

I love a good “meta” reference book for a setting. I especially like them when they arrive late in a game’s development. By that time the authors have had time to see what the game looks like in the wild. GM/Storyteller (or whatever name you use) volumes published in conjunction or close to the core book feel a little like a cheat. (I feel the same way about Player Companions, something WW’s been guilty of in the past). An ideal GM book provides insight to the setting, GMing advice specific to the world, a modest amount of new mechanics, tools for designing adventures, color details, how to handle typical problems, and campaign frame concepts. So of my favorites of these have been Listen Up, You Primitive Screwheads!!! for Cyberpunk; Comme Il Faut for Castle Falkenstein; and the Mage Storytellers Handbook. I have plenty of others I own, like the Mastermind’s Manual, that I rarely if ever look at- since they don’t spark ideas for me.

The Game Master’s Survival Guide, thankfully, falls into the category of useful supplements. I can’t confirm the subtitle “1001 Campaign Hints, Tips, and Answers,” but it feels pretty close. At 160 pages, it is one of the largest of the early L5R books. Jim Pinto’s the primary designer on this supplement, an AEG stalwart who contributed to many lines (7th Sea, Swashbuckling Adventures, d20). The credits list an additional ten contributors, which doesn’t entirely surprise me. There’s a deliberately conversational tone to the book, along with some shifts in the author’s voice from section to section. Text design returns to the standard two columns plus sidebars of most of the line. The artwork’s decent throughout- generic images and illustrations. That’s fitting. Carl Frank’s cover is a little stiff, but works. Overall the book realizes that it has a ton of material to deliver and it does its best to do that quickly and cleanly.

Each of the book's five sections (corresponding to an element) has several chapters with subsections. There’s no game fiction in this volume, and much of it is written generically enough to be used in any era without too much effort. In some ways, the Survival Guide reminds me of the new line for L5R- The Book of Earth and The Book of Air. Those however have more mechanical bits to them and a tighter focus on ideas associated with that particular element.

The Book of Earth: Focuses on daily life. Sidebars include further details as well as adventure hooks. The Emerald Empire: has an important discussion of economic. And not the stupid fake-text stuff from the Merchant’s Guide to Rokugan, but real concepts about what money and wealth mean to PCs and others. The Land: Covers travel, flora and fauna. Some of the same material covered in the Emerald Empire sourcebook. Good details on villages and village life. The People: How people actually live- including farmers, ronin, and townsfolk. Details on what homes of all classes look like. Habits & Lifestyle: How to handle greetings, names, and initial meetings. What “unclean” means in practical terms. Religion: Distinctions between Ancestor, Fortunes, and Shinseism. Food: Several pages of cool detail on what people eat & drink and why.

The Book of Water: Ideas for helping the players figure out their characters. Methods of Character: Expands the original “Twenty Questions” from the core book. Has an important sidebar about the GM’s duty to make each of the clans cool. Offers guidance for creating a campaign handout to brief the players. Ideas for running games with just two players. Mechanical Character Design: Starting the players with truly novice characters. Suggestions for methods to balance PCs. The idea of bidding for or limiting the most common advantages is quite cool and something I’ve used. There’s also a table of all of the 1e character options published so far.

The Book of Fire: This is a more mechanical section and so of less use to 4e players. It is notable for being where L5R starts to do a better job of distinguishing the clans on the basis of the honor gains and losses in connection with the virtues. That clarified the differences. It helped to show what they valued- and how that balanced out. There’s a nice section on armor preparation, but most everything else in this chapter is superseded by or subsumed within the 4e rules.

The Book of Air: This section considers how the GM handles samurai situations at the table. Samurai Ethics: Right away the book takes on the difficult question of when to roll and when to role-play. It points out that GMs need to find a balance between these- not rewarding the socially astute player over the socially inept player who has actually bought the skills. This is a controversial idea. I’m not sure I agree with all of the advice given here. The more important function is to draw the GM’s attention to what may be a reflexive ruling on their part. Styles of Play: Considers the different modes GM use in running: abstract vs. detailed; reactive vs. active; improvisational. Does a good job of laying out what those mean without offering a judgment. During the Game/Troubleshooting: General GM advice, including handling player death. Handling NPCs: A great section. It considers typical roles within each of the classes (Samurai Chancellor, Heimin Budoka, Hinn Entertainer). For each it gives a definition, typical skills, and an adventure hook. A great resource and place to hunt for story ideas. It complements that with ideas on how to present NPCs and make players remember them. Using the CCG with the RPG: One of the longest sections of the book (14 pages). It considers how a GM might randomize cards and draw them to create an adventure. It isn’t a terrible idea- and it might be interesting to make a random table or program based on this. Creatures of Rokugan: About a page on standard animals such as bears and wolves.

The Book of Void: Ideas for campaign building. The sidebars here are especially good, especially the concept of the rarity and importance of nobility in this setting. (Although it glosses over the implications of that disparity in power and wealth). Campaign Structure: Suggestions for different campaign forms and what they entail. Considering what “epic” means in L5R. Some suggestions for alternate Rokugans (not unlike those presented in Imperial Histories). Adventure Structure: The different themes and how they fit with L5R. A long section exploring the “36 Plots” and how they would be played out in a samurai setting. Ideas for adventure complications. Suggestions for how to write out these notes. The First Adventure: General advice as well as some specific hooks GMs can use. The Great Sleep: How to end a story arc.

Appendix: Starts off with some author’s notes and suggested reading/viewing. There’s a great set of random tables to use as a settlement generator. Then tables for random encounters, merchant caravans, characters in an inn, names, and gifts. It wraps up with four pages of maps and floorplans and a blank scroll sheet.

This is a solid book for GMs of any era. It doesn’t offer specifics for the First Core setting, if that’s what you’re specifically hunting for. It does offer good GM advice and some tools for building adventures. Some of the earlier material does appear in the later 4e books, but enough doesn’t to make it a worthwhile purchase.

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 

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

First Wave: Series Two: Session Two News

The news briefings I gave out for this week's session of our Mutants & Masterminds 2e campaign (wiki here). 

Governor ------ announced the formation of a new prosecutorial taskforce dealing with super-powered crime and criminals. “We’ve moved to a more intelligent and prepared approach on the enforcement side of things: better training, clear procedures, advanced equipment supplied by Homeland Security. But at the same time we need to be able to handle the special challenges to actually convicting these lawbreakers once they’ve been captured.” He announced the selection of noted Attorney Matthew Murdock to the newly created role. Murdock, a veteran of numerous high-profile prosecutions of organized crime figures, was widely expected to be the Governor’s top pick. As the new Special Prosecutor for Heightened Crimes he will have both investigative and prosecutorial authority in cases throughout New York State, but especially in NYC itself. Various agencies and groups supporting equal treatment for those with disabilities praised the decision. Despite being blind since a childhood accident, Murdock graduated top of his class.

In a quickly called press conference, First Wave confirmed that they managed to rescue several hostages from the clutches of the Occult Crime network known as The Circle of Thorns. In recent weeks the Circle had unleashed a crime wave which left at least a dozen dead and many more injured. Though their ultimate purpose remains a mystery, the group assured reporters that they and their ceremonies had been brought to a halt. Mr. Freeze then stunned reporters when he announced the return of the Mighty Thor, presumed lost in during the Starro incident. He brought the Norse superhero forth to a standing ovation from the gathered press corps. Thor took questions for nearly an hour, assuring the public that his return signaled the continued safety of NYC and “all the those who dwell in Midgard.”

Authorities are warning a new wave of dangerous designer drugs which seems to be sweeping clubs and campuses across the Eastern Seaboard. DEA Special officer Hunter Cash warned that at least two new and distinctive drugs have been responsible for several deaths and multiple collapses leading to coma. “The power vacuum in the wake of the Starro incident allowed a number of smaller and more creative producers access higher end and boutique markets. These aren’t ordinary street drugs, but expensive and potent experiences which deadly side effects. Pigment aka Blacklight is a powerful and subtle hallucinogenic which seems to remain in users bloodstreams for many days, leading to recurring and uncontrollable flashbacks even more intense than the original experience. On the other hand, provided little hard information on the other drug they’d issued a bulletin on X-Static aka Broadcast. Pressed on the matter, Cash would only say that work and investigation into the nature and source of that drug was ongoing.

NYPD announced the capture of several members of a strange underground street gang which has been involved in petty theft, property damage, trespassing, and other crimes. Though authorities would not release details, they confirmed that members of the gang seemed to be linked by being self-described “mutants,” dwelling in the city’s subways and other underground networks. One inside source indicated that these Subterrans may be connected to a break-ins across the city which resulted in tagging and minor damage, but no other real effects. Targets have ranged from shopping malls to galleries to high-tech firms. “We believe that such break-ins using their Mutant powers have been used as a ‘rite-of-passage’ for these gang members,” the source said.

Flashman Productions announced the lineup for the upcoming two-day Take Back the Star(ros) Benefit Concert. Featuring the vocal stylings of Nicky Minaj, Nickelback, Flo Rida, and many others the concert series promises to be a spectacle concert-goers will remember for years to come. Older enthusiasts will be treated to a special separate concert featuring the cast of the film Les Mis performing selections from the musical on stage. Asked which cast members had confirmed, Flashman said, “That will be a special surprise. I can tell you that my partners at TicketMaster and I have cooked up an amazing set of programs which charitably minded fans of music can easily purchase tickets for on stage.” Flashman indicated that some of New York’s most famous superheroes would also be making a special appearance at some of the shows, though for reasons of security he could not say which at this time.

NYC Homicide confirmed that they believe latest brutal slashing murder in the Candle Heights is connected to two others in the area. The crimes in the most Hispanic neighborhood have attracted attention for their brutality and apparent speed. Until recently they’d believe the crimes might be connected to the Circle of Thorns cult-style slayings and kidnappings. However First Wave’s capture of the organization and forensic evidence seems to rule that out. The rash of crimes has put many on edge and exacerbated tensions between the police and local residents.

Hammer Industries and OsCorp announced a new series of defense contracts for the Department of Homeland security today. While several of the projects remain classified, most clearly relate to dealing with superhuman and alien threats. “We have long-term plans for dealing with these kinds of assaults on our liberties in the future,” Hammer CEO Justin Hammer said at a brief but flashy press conference. It remains unclear what percentage of the projects are aimed at domestic security versus more military applications. Sources within both companies indicated that they’d been provided with a broad mandate. In particular, Homeland Security has reauthorized development of the STALKER robotic security initiative that had been cancelled five years ago at OsCorp.

A series of daring robberies appears to have been committed by the supervillain known as Dr. Simian. The criminal appeared in the first weeks of the appearance of superbeings, but vanished from headlines after that. It remains unclear whether Dr. Simian is a gorilla who gained the power of super-intelligence or a human mastermind transformed into beast. Regardless, he is a dangerous foe who combines enhanced brutal strength with a cunning intellect. His personal team of super-villains, The Safari, has had a remarkable success rate. In fact, he might have a greater success rate if if weren't for his great weakness-- a desire to outwit, trick and trap superheroes. More than most current villains he falls into the classic mode and revels in it. As he said in one brief interview after capture, "I have replaced by bestial bloodthirsty instincts with another instinct, the desire to humiliate my opponents-- which would be better I remain unsure." Simian popped up during the Starro incident in several actions to rescue trapped animals from zoos and parks in the path of the hurricane.

Orpheus: A What the What? Review

What the What? Reviews offer a quick overview of various smaller, OOP, or Obscure RPGs.

Corporate ghost agents carry out missions and fight other ghosts.

Before I go into detail I have to set up some context. Orpheus came out the year before White Wolf blew up the original World of Darkness. In some ways, it is a spiritual successor to Wraith, which had been capped off some years earlier with Ends of Empire. Like Mummy: The Resurrection, you can connect some of the elements of Orpheus to the fallout from that line's conclusion. More importantly, Orpheus is another stand-alone product line within the WoD setting. It is intended to be run independently of the other lines. What makes it unique is that the line as a whole was planned as a limited and complete campaign series. WW would later do that with some smaller lines (Scion, Changeling the Lost), but this is even more deliberate and established. The core book establishes the rules and basic stories. Each of the five books following are hybrid sourcebooks and campaign outlines. Each moves the story forward in a loose, but linear way. That means that the focus and premise of the game shifts as the line continues. GMs could fruitfully run Orpheus simply from the first book or opt to follow the larger plan. For this structure the authors make reference to film beats and plot progression. So the Orpheus core book sets up the characters and gets them in place for what would be the big change twenty minutes into a movie. For purposes of this overview, I’m going to focus on the situation set up in the core rulebook. In the “What Else Is There” section I’ll touch on the other supplements but try to remain relatively spoiler free.

The characters work for the Orpheus Group. This corporation employs them to undertake “fixer” jobs- some mundane (cheating spouses, checking security), some paranormal (confirming hauntings, clearing ghosts), and some questionable (stealing security codes from the departed, terrifying victims). Interestingly, Orpheus is known for their “ghostbusting” in the setting, and employment of people who can interact with the spirit world. Other companies exist which also engage in these operations. There’s some question about how much is publicly known and how much accepted. The game background and narratives are a little contradictory on this point. GMs will have to decide how they plan on handling that.

Each character can exists temporarily or permanently as a ghost. Players can choose one of four approaches, called “Laments.” Two of these maintain a physical body. Skimmers can voluntarily leave their body to operate as a spirit; they leave behind a vulnerable body. Sleepers also leave their body but require a high-tech process to do so which involving equipment and time. They cannot quickly return to consciousness. While the Sleeper can remain out longer, there’s a distinct gameplay advantage to being a Skimmer. Two types have no physical form. A Spirit is effectively a ghost. They suffer from the disadvantage of possessing a dark doppleganger, and of course they’re dead so that’s not so great. A Hue, on the other hand, is also a ghost, but of a person who took a strange new drug called Pigment (a major plot point for the campaign). They exist more weakly, but have greater control of their powers.

Each Spook is further defined by a class, called a Shade. A player’s choice of Shade defines which powers they have an affinity with and which they cannot take. The five Shades are:
  • Banshees: Can create emotion responses or even tear at physical objects with their wail. They also have access to visions of the past and future. 
  • Haunter: They can inhabit and possess inanimate objects such as cars or guns. They can also manifest a damaging aura. 
  • Poltergeist: Can telekinetically lift and manipulate objects. They can also manipulate their own etoplasm to create weapons and tools. 
  • Skinrider: They can possess and control people. They also have the ability to briefly manifest enormous strength to affect the real world. 
  • Wisp: They can entrance or beckon onlookers with their aura. They can also see cracks in the “Storm Wall” which separates the real world from the deep lands of death. Using these cracks, they can effectively teleport. 
Powers in Orpheus are called Horrors. Instead of a large list of choices in a track (as is common with most White Wolf games), a power has a set of effects and there are a relatively small number of them. One of the most interesting aspects of the game is that different Horrors can interact. The players are organized into teams, called Crucibles. Team members can learn to share energy and boost one another. When particular Horrors combine, they create a new and more potent effect. This encourages diversity and teamwork within the group.

Orpheus uses a version of the classic Storyteller system, common to old World of Darkness games. Actions are resolved using a dice pool of d10s. Most actions combine an attribute and a skill rating (usually from 1-5) to provide a number of dice to roll. Other ratings may substitute for those. Players have to match a difficulty on each die to count as a success. Each “1” rolled cancels a success. Rolling a “1” and no successes causes a botch. The dice pool allows players to perform multiple actions with a reduction in dice for each action. The system is relatively easy to pick up but in practice has a high kludge factor. Every Storyteller campaign I’ve seen has had different takes on what’s important and what gets ignored.

The complete rules for the game appear in the core book. The system does add a few new wrinkles to the standard Storyteller mechanics. Veterans of other WoD games may notice these. The unique traits for Spooks include Stains, Spite, and Vitality. Stains are visible defects on their character’s ghostly form. These have advantages and disadvantages. Spite is a manifestation of the character’s rage. It can be drawn on, but high levels have consequences. Vitality is the core “power” trait of the system- which can be transferred and modified. Orpheus also offers several variations on classic ST character creation. Players pick Roles- background professions- which have suggested point allotments and talents. GMs can choose to globally increase the power level of the campaign, in which case a role adds bonuses depending on whether you go for a medium or high power version. The “Nature” picked by characters in Orpheus has mechanical implications beyond regaining Willpower, a new detail.

Having these books available as pdfs offers an important benefit. The GM can easily choose which of the 53 pages of setting material they want to distribute to the players. That’s easier to do electronically, rather than having to photocopy sheets.

Some of the background material ends up being more than a little unclear. White Wolf often uses clippings, found material, and journals to set up the background. That’s excellent for creating verisimilitude and tone, but makes it harder to figure out what’s going on for the GM as well as the reader. It will take several readings for the Storyteller to put the pieces together here. Different readers may come away with drastically different senses of what the world looks like. I know my image has changed each time I’ve read it. That’s great- open and offering many readings, but at the same time because the line is a linear series with more episodes contingent on this one, I think this needs to be more direct. There’s a lot going on in this core book. Even more than some of the other WoD books, the have to completely set up the material. Other lines know they have the room to get everything out there in multiple supplements. As a result this book can feel overwhelming- almost too rich. In particular, I wouldn’t recommend this to anyone without a passing familiarity with Storyteller. You need to understand the basics of that system and style of presentation to make your way through this.

The game also works best when the GM has a chance to read some of the later volumes and see what’s coming. That allows for foreshadowing and planning, and it also explains many of the hanging details from this core book. One problem the game has is in the practical disparity between the different kinds of Spooks. Spirits and Hues are dead, eliminating many interactions and putting limits on how they interact with the physical world. Sleepers have a serious disadvantage- made really problematic by the events at the start of the second volume, Crusade of Ashes. Any modest mechanical benefits these types gain feels heavily outweighed by the downsides. It almost seems like WW wants a more narrative, story-driven approach with this series. The way they hand-wave things, the looseness of the powers, modeling the structure on films, and the overall arc suggest this. But they still cling to system with significant mechanics and rules exceptions. It isn’t that Storyteller is a high-crunch system, but it does have more crunch than this setting requires.

The core book contains all of the basic rules. There’s enough there to easily run a campaign in this setting or integrate the material into another game. The pdf’s available, but a little pricey at $18 as of this writing. It might be better to hunt for a used copy, which can be purchased for around that price. There are five volumes in the complete campaign arc: Crusade of Ashes, Shades of Gray, Shadow Games, The Orphan-Grinders, and End Game. All of these, with the exception of the last volume, include some player-facing advice and information. There’s some strangeness in that last volumes include material better suited for making new characters (i.e. new advantages and such). I don’t know if the implication is that characters will die or get replaced. GMs looking to run a longer campaign may wish to take a look at these options before running from the main book. Each volume is fairly significant and useful- and each changes up significantly the campaign’s course. For example, the events at the start of Crusade of Ashes pulls the rug out from under the players’ feet. GMs will find both new options and material as well as details on the campaign arc in each volume. Even if you’re not planning on running the full show, they’re worth reading. General World of Darkness supplements aren’t that essential or useful with this line. They can be skipped. There’s also a single anthology of fiction set in this world, Orpheus: Haunting the Dead.


  • Fans of Old School Storyteller looking for a way to get back into that setting without investing in a massive line of products. 
  • GMs looking for a longer, story-oriented campaign with a fully developed arc. This could easily be played out over many months, with the GM expanding or contracting story beats as needed. 
  • Modern horror gamers who want a fairly equal balance of action, horror, and conspiracy- with perhaps more weight on the action side of things. 
  • GMs thinking about playing around with adapting an older setting to a newer, slimmer system: FATE, Savage Worlds, GUMSHOE, and True20 all come to mind.
  • World of Darkness or other modern horror gamers who want a new challenging NPC or adversary group.
  • Gamers looking for a grittier and darker spin on Ghostbusters
I really like some of the key concepts of Orpheus. The premise makes for interesting NPCs when approached from the outside (my same reaction to the Prometheans from the new World of Darkness). I could easily see running a campaign just from the core book, without heading off into the large and pretty amazing campaign arc they’ve laid out. I appreciate systems that offer mechanics encouraging teamwork and cooperation. The idea of new synergies coming from those powers could easily be lifted for other games. And generally Orpheus is one of those rare rpg books- a compelling and interesting read.

The game feels a shackled to a system that’s crunchier and more mechanics-oriented than it needs to be. White Wolf games talk about narrative and story, but still offer lots of rules. I really wish that they’d do a second, almost FATE or other rules-light version. Orpheus would really benefit from that approach. It could also potentially make the disparity between Laments less an issue.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Reading the RPG Rankings: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 3

For this third episode of our tabletop RPG podcast, we take a look at how RPGs have been ranked on RPG Geek. Users there can rate both RPGs in general and RPG Items in particular. It offers an interesting set of data to look at and consider. The only other comparable information comes from sales numbers. Given the forums focus on RPGs broadly, the ratings and choices offer a snapshot of a particular segment of the hobby. Other general RPG communities like RPGNet or the late ENWorld would undoubtedly come up with a different set. The same could be said of publisher oriented forums like those of WotC or White Wolf.

What Makes Call of Cthulhu, Fiasco, Apocalypse World, and Deadlands Worthy of a Top Ten Spot?
Play on Target Episode Roundup

We took at a few of those choices and consider what makes certain games 'evergreen' products and what forces divide other classic games. If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Changeling Lost Vegas Tarot Cards

For those curious, here are the two Tarot cards the players have discovered so far in the Changeling Lost Vegas Campaign:

Changeling Lost Vegas: Session Five: Bookie's Odds

The video for Session Five: 
This Episode:
The group finishes up their exploration of Sunswept Ranch. But first they have to torment their new NPC, Teodoro, more than a little. Following that they finally reach the hidden hollow, only to discover a house made of glass. Andi breaks off from the group, only to be attacked by a massive venomous crystal snake. The group converges and beats the hedge beast into splinters. They discover a second notebook page and another tarot card. Finally they return and report in to Simon Maggots, who agrees to take them on as caretakers of the facility.

As an added bonus, because I forgot to uncheck my video box so you have to watch the GM exclusively for most of the recording. The horror!

Useful GM Trick
I can't recall exactly where I heard this years ago. One thing I know is that my players are often smarter and more creative than I am. They're engaged in the scene from their perspective, where I'm trying to juggle details, mechanics, and narration. I set the stage and let them run with it. A really common player question pops up in many variations: "Is there an X?" where X is some setting detail they want to interact with. My response to this is almost always, "I'm sorry, what did you say?" as in the following example:

Scott: "OK, is there a chandelier in this ballroom I can swing across from?"
Me: "I'm sorry, what did you say?"
Scott: "So there's this chandelier and I go to swing across with it."
Me: "Make a roll to swing."

This is probably less important in some games, like FATE, where there's a currency for interacting with the environment. But for games like GURPS or World of Darkness, it is a nice way to quicken the pace and to allow players easy narrative power. I expect many GMs already do this, but if you haven't you should consider trying it. It is a little change that adds much to the game. More importantly, it makes your job as a GM easier- tricks I'm always hunting for.

I've rarely seen players abuse this, they get the limits pretty quickly. And they come up with stuff I would have never thought of. Plus, you can always use some version of "Yes, but..." if they do get goofy

Monday, January 28, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Way of the Phoenix, Way of the Naga & Revised GM's Pack

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.

There’s a certain irony to the Phoenix Clan for me. They’re indelibly linked to magic and spell-casting in my mind. At the same time, I find the other clans' Shugenja families more compelling and interesting. Each of those is associated with a particular element, as well as a defining area of expertise. Their focus and limitations give them depth. On the other hand, the Phoenix don’t operate under those restrictions. They’re the bad-ass mages of Rokugan. Their defining magic- the Ishiken- is so meta and plot device-y that it doesn’t click for me. The Isawa origin story also turns me off. On the other hand, the Shiba, the sacrificing bushi of the clan- now there’s an interesting challenge.

The Way of the Phoenix is the last of the “Great Clan” volumes of the series. Four more come after it, the filler books, but this one closes out a chapter in AEG’s development of the line. All of this takes place in the First Core setting, a period when this Clan’s the smallest of the seven with only three families. The Agasha don’t leave the Dragon until Hitomi loses it during the Hidden Emperor arc. We’re left with the expert and driven Shugenja of the Isawa, the loyal and selfless samurai of the Shiba, and the other one.

As with the earlier "Way of..." books, there are a two printings of this volume, adding corrections and fixes. It has 128-pages, done with the same smart and clear layout of the rest of the L5R line. Carl Frank turns in an awesome cover; Cris Dornaus presents great images of the iconic Phoenix characters inside. The rest of the art’s disappointing. Five chapters cover the main elements of the clan; five appendices cover other material. Chapter Three, Characters, is heavily mechanical. 4th Edition GMs may however be interested in the earlier presentation of the Ishiken and Henshin. They’re discussed a little more here than in 4e and have a slightly different approach. Chapter Five presents sample characters, useful for NPCs.

The prologue fiction doesn’t deal with an iconic First Core character, but instead offers a narrative from the early days of the Clan and the fallen Kami. Chapter One has perspectives from the other Clans on the Phoenix. There’s the nice touch in having one of those come from Agasha Tamori. Chapter Two offers the usual history of the individual families of the Clan. The sidebars mostly focus on stories or elements from those narratives, rather than general concepts. The Isawa section gives a better sense of the role of the Shugenja in daily life and practice. The Asako material here, four+ pages, still doesn’t make the family interesting. The Henshin stuff always seems a little too close to the Kolat Philosophy or to another version of Enlightenment with some mechanical effects. Sometimes I think a better model for that would be the concept of Illumination from Glorantha (which may be the most obscure reference I’ve yet made in one of these reviews). Despite being mentioned elsewhere, there’s no real discussion of the Asako Inquisitors, a missed opportunity. Chapter Four presents eleven key Phoenix NPCs from the First Core period. If you know the Day of Thunder arc, it is a little depressing because of what’s in store for them.

Appendix One discusses the nature of the Oracles. They’re often associated with the Phoenix but represent a broader magical phenomena in the Empire. They’re also a useful device for the GM in moving plots and stories forward. GMs who plan on running the module Void in the Heavens will want to read this material. The sidebar here discusses Isawa’s Last Wish, but in the most general terms. Appendix II covers the Phoenix lands; Appendix III gives mechanics for Spell Research. Appendix IV provides the best discussion of the Tao of Shinsei in the series so far. So of those ideas appeared in The way of the Dragon, but this expands and develops those. Finally there’s the obligatory CCG crap, followed by three pages of maps which aren’t quite as nice as those in earlier volumes.

This volume’s obviously useful for GM’s running in the First Core period. It offers a solid perspective on the Clan and their key players in that era. But the general discussion of the Phoenix feels bland. And there’s not that much broadly useful material. The volume’s worth picking up, but after other, more interesting 1e materials.

About fifteen+ years ago, when I first discovered online communities for RPGs, I used to follow the Runequest & Glorantha threads. They were filled with discussions and debates over the minutiae of the setting. I knew some of that; I’d picked up many of the books and even obscure magazines. But often these discussions went past me, too esoteric for my tastes. It was a little frustrating, In the middle of that I noticed a term people kept dropping that I didn’t understand: YGMV. Finally I saw it written out: “Your Glorantha May Vary.” Most of the contributors recognized things they were interested in or had made changes to wouldn’t be for everyone’s campaign.

Like the Naga in Legend of the Five Rings.

Your Rokugan May Vary.

Early Legend of Five Rings, RPG and CCG, struggles to find a balance between high fantasy and Asian cultural elements. One the one hand, it wants to be a samurai game- but one informed and infused with elements drawn from Chinese, Mongolian, Philippine, and other sources. On the other it wants to be accessible, perhaps read as a reskinned Magic the Gathering or D&D. So in the earliest editions you see many elements which feel out of place or anachronistic even in this hodge-podge setting. The Ratlings and Naga became popular in the CCG (the later I suspect based on how cool the original Naga Warlord card was). They worked there, but once you actually had to look at the cultural structures and considerations, they proved a problem. These elements have moved to the background in the most recent editions of the L5R. Designers of the modern line have come to terms with those details. They’ve developed history to explain and fix how these groups fit in, and notably made them a smaller and more tangential option. The Naga in particular vanish from the page of history after the "Day of Thunder" and "Hidden Emperor" arc. They appear more as unique adversaries in the more recent arcs (tied to the Second City lead up, which makes sense- they fit well there).

I don’t care for the Naga as a “Clan.” The Way of the Naga volume offers advice for how to play them in a group, but they create a raft of problems- and more importantly uninteresting problems. Playing a non-human in an L5R game is like the one guy who wants to play a Drow in a urban party. Yes, they’ll have problems, but even more they’re going to create problems for the rest of their group. So the other players have to spend time and energy overcoming difficulties created by choices they didn’t make. At most, for me, they work as background elements- NPCs and such, though even then I rarely if ever use them. But I recognize that some GMs and players feel differently.

As it stands, the primary information on the Naga in 4e comes from Enemies of the Empire. That includes a basic history, breakdown of the clans, and rules for how to play them as PCs (complete with schools). While GMs could use them in other eras, the Naga are tied to the First Core and Second Core settings (up until the point at which they revive Hida Yakomo and decide to go back to sleep). GMs interested in this will probably be coming here for one of two reasons: more background for using them as setting elements or more guidance for integrating the Naga as PCs.

The book follows the layout and design of the other volumes in the series, coming in at 128-pages. The artwork’s just OK. Scott James isn’t my favorite of AEG’s stable of artists and he provides most of the illustrations. On the other hand, it does create a consistent art style within the book. It has five primary chapters and six appendices. Two of the chapters are mechanics heavy- Chapter Three includes the character options and runs about two dozen pages. The background tables there might be useful for later edition GMs with Naga players since those aren’t present in EotE. Chapter Five has sample characters which can be used as NPCs.

The prologue fiction touches on a number of color elements for the Naga. The welcome sections a little longer there trying to put the race into context. Chapter One contains six pages of perspectives on the Naga from other clans. That’s especially useful and important. I would have like to have seen a little more of this. Chapter Two is the history- much of it mythic. The information here’s fairly open-ended, allowing for some modification by the GM. There’s a sidebar discussion of how to handle Naga in a campaign (expanded in Appendix Five). The other sidebars include Naga and the Tao, the Kharma optional rules and how those concretely affect this race, and assorted other topics. Separate sub-sections present each of the six Naga castes. Those include further historical notes and testimonies. All of the material is rich and well done. Chapter Four presents write-ups for the most important Naga personalities of the era. Twelve are given here (as opposed to the four in the Naga section of Enemies of the Empire).

The appendices open with an important section on the Shinomen. It focuses on the Naga cities there- I’d have liked more on the forest in general. There’s a nice in depth discussion of a ruined city, along with a striking map. Appendix II discusses some creepy magical places in the woods. Appendix III provides some hints about the Naga connection to the Ivory Kingdoms and the Sanctuary of the Outcasts, roots of the Destroyer War. Appendix IV covers the magical pearls of the Jakla. Appendix V has more advice on how GMs should approach a campaign with PC non-humans. Amusingly, we finally dispense with the sample CCG decks found in the earlier “Way of…” books and instead get a discussion of the Naga in Clan War. You can see where AEG was putting their energy (just like the revised GM Screen).

There is no better L5R resource on the Naga. If that’s what you want or are interested in, then this is a crucial buy. Even if you just want to use the Naga as NPCs or foes, this has solid material. It expands the overview given in Enemies of the Empire. If you’re not planning on using them, it is not worth buying.

Man, that is one hideous GM screen.

Let’s begin there, with the part of this package least relevant to 4e users. I have to rant a little though. This is the revised version of the GM screen- not the 2e screen, but another version. The first was perfectly serviceable, with a simple illustration on the facing side. This one, however, is a massive four-panel ugly painting of various Shadowlands beasties. Here’s the thing, I’m not a GM screen GM. I used to use them, but not so much anymore. But I’ve been on the other side of them plenty of times. IMHO they need to be as bland as possible. Either simple graphics (like some of the classic Call of Cthulhu screens or the World of Darkness Screens) or a kind of generic montage set of images (closer to that in the recent Second City screen or some of the old AD&D screens). This screen is busy and says “Hey, this game is about fighting monsters, not playing samurai.” Also, the interior tables and information should be useful and important. Instead, one of four panels is focused on Clan War miniatures rules. Finally a GM screen should be solid and resilient. This one is thinner cardboard, easily bent and creased.

So in short don’t buy this for the screen. Unless you’re a GM screen collector, which is cool. There’s nothing wrong with that. In the great continuum of rpg collecting fetishes, that would be a reasonably interesting one.

The meat of this product is in the 48-page booklet within. This begins with reprint pieces from the original Game Master’s Pack (published two years earlier). I’ll quote my description from the earlier product:

The Kharma Rule (2p): This is a funny bit, reflecting the lethality of the L5R system. Essentially it considers how characters in good standing might pass on some of their development and titles on to another character after they die. It reflects a kind of game play I’m not as used to anymore- assuming that players would obviously rejoin an experienced group at first level and some mechanism would be necessary to get around that.
For Your Eyes Only (3p): I’ve always enjoyed John Wick’s GM advice. His Play Dirty column from Pyramid magazine and suggestions in Blood & Honor remain some of my favorite bits. Here he addresses putting the screws to the players in L5R.
Errata and Suggested Reading/Viewing (2p): Some of this is corrected or folded into the later printings of the core rules. This version of the errata adds a couple more rules clarifications over the earlier one.
Maho: Black Magic (6p): Mechanics and spells. I’m not sure why this material wasn’t in The Book of Shadowlands.

However, this version of the GM’s Pack does include some new material. Rather than reprinting “The Hare Clan,” AEG has a new adventure “The Silence Within Sound.” This 34-page scenario has some really nice touches. First, excellent Cris Dornaus illustrations. Second, a well-presented single page timeline of the adventure. I always like those wen the plot involves complex actions and movement. Third, the adventure’s tuned to explore more of the major facets and rules of the L5R system. That’s exactly what an introductory adventure should do. Fourth, this adventure actually ties into another larger published module, The Legacy of the Forge, so GMs can easily continue with the storyline begun here. Fifth, there’s smart use of the sidebars in the layout. NPCs are presented with stats and background, there’s a discussion of how to handle coming up with random NPCs, and it has notes on were certain rules-based events happen in the story. Sixth, the adventures designed to be run either as a linear sequence or with a more fluid approach.

The basic plot requires the players to be at a particular location within the Lion lands. Given that it takes place during a festival, it should be easily for the GM to maneuver them into place. Basically there’s a plot afoot, complex and multifaceted. Add to that a number of interesting side diversions and red herrings and you have a fairly complex story. The adventure includes investigation, combats, and even battles. It puts the players in contact with several different clans and has some great NPCs. In short it is easy to work into a campaign, useful in most eras, and well-constructed.

At last check, this pdf was available for just under $5. Effectively you’re paying that price for a solid 34-page adventure. That strikes me as a reasonable price. I actually think AEG could get some decent mileage out of taking some of these earlier modules and either updating them to 4e or providing some sequels or extensions. I recommend this for GMs looking for adventures. With some changes it should fit in any era.

Friday, January 25, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: The Way of Shadow & Midnight's Blood

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.

Once desktop publishing tools became relatively accessible RPG companies struggled with the tension between cool, stylistic presentations and clarity of material. Dark, encroaching page borders; heavy grey-scale or color watermarks; and unique font choices made products stand out from the crowd. But they made books harder to read. The Secret of Zir’An remains the highwater mark for me- text overlaid with silver iconography which obscured everything. White Wolf’s probably the best known offender, but many games which grew out of that tradition took up the worst lessons of them. Even TSR’s awesome Planescape line, one of my favorites, could be tough to get through. AEG tended to keep a cleaner, simpler design approach but from time to time fell into the trap of valuing cool design over utility. Walking the Way is pretty bad in that regard, and The Book of the Shadowlands to a lesser extent. The Way of Shadow is the last book in the early L5R line to really suffer from these problems.

The Way of Shadow is a campaign arc focused on what at the time would have been an entirely new threat to Rokugan gamers. The 160-page perfect bound volume contains four adventures & game fictions, plus an appendix at the end covering The Lying Darkness. The majority of the pages are presented as the journal pages of the magistrate Kitsuki Kaagi. These use a more script-style font on a faux-scroll background. As with WtW this makes them harder to read through, a problem since that’s about half the book. The cover art’s a little weak- especially give how excellent the interior art is. That’s primarily supplied by Ramon Perez, and his heavy dark lines fit the material. The writing’s solid and evocative until it gets tangled at the end. GMs who don’t like game fiction or in-world first person narratives will not care for this.

This volume was my first introduction to the Lying Darkness as it was for many people. It parallels the addition of the Shadow as a main threat to the Empire in the CCG, with the Jade Edition and the beginning of the Hidden Emperor arc in mid-1998 (through 2000). We wouldn’t see much more detail on this foe until the release of The Hidden Emperor sourcebook in 2004. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to make of this. Given that the CCG hadn’t finished deciding, this book could only provide hints and partial informatio. It offers options but deliberately avoids connecting the dots. In retrospect, modern players can see what the Darkness was a about, and understand the context. At the time of publication it was more confusing than illuminating: what did this foe want?

The Way of Shadow contains a campaign arc, but one without a definite conclusion or victory. The collection begins with a brief introduction, followed by four linked adventures- each with an introductory text drawn from the journal of magistrate Kitsuki Kaagi. Interim texts from the journal provide links between chapters. A sixteen-page section at the end presents more details about the the Lying Darkness and the Goju. The adventures lean heavily towards a Magistrate campaign. However, GMs could connect the players to the first adventure with personal relationships or daimyo orders. The other stories require the PCs to be in certain places, rather than connecting from the previous episode (except for the last).

Death at Ichime Castle: A murder investigation, with the hints about a family curse. This is a fairly clever plot, with a number of interesting red herrings and colorful characters. There’s a minor intrusion of a meta-plot element, Matsu Hiroru, that can lead players off course. The first hints of the Lying Darkness appear here. It also offers difficult choices socially- aiding the new daimyo or protecting a child. I’ve run this a couple of times and like it. It could be run with the Shadow stuff removed, but that might take out some of the atmosphere.

The Haunting of Hida Dasan: While there are connections between this adventure and the previous one, there’s no “core clue” directing them to it. Instead it is assumed that the players are passing through Crab lands. More evidence of the Lying Darkness appears. Players have to investigate an unusual haunting of the survivors of a battle.

The Disappearance of Lady Ninube: A crane has been kidnapped on the way to her wedding. They find themselves in conflict with and pursued by Goju ninjas as well. This is more of a chase/pursuit outdoor adventure. This is a bloody adventure.

The Chase: Less an investigation than an episode, the players find themselves pursued. It reveals a number of key facts about the Darkness, including vulnerabilities. It also suggests the Unicorn are aware of the Shadow, which doesn’t quite square with my sense of the history, but I could be wrong. This sequence can be dropped earlier into the story; it doesn’t have a fixed timeline. That does mean that there’s no capstone to the story- players are introduced to the Lying Darkness, but the GM will have to decide how they want to follow up from that.

The conclusion spells out many of the truths about the Lying Darkness, while leaving some questions unanswered. It explains the connection to the Scorpion and the Shosuro/Soshi, the nature of the Goju, the powers of the Darkness, and how to handle this corruption.

Here’s the conceptual problem with the module’s set up. As I mentioned, the extensive game fiction stories tell the story of the investigation from Kitsuki Kaagi’s viewpoint. The connected adventures follow that plot exactly. Essentially, it is the story with Kaagi removed and the players in his place. The text states, “All you have to do is pull Kaagi (and his assistant Meilikki) out of the story, and plug your characters in. Kaagi’s notes are meant to give you hints on how to run the adventure, show you ways to introduce NPCs and evidence to the characters, and give you a general description of the environment.” Interesting and ambitious, but ultimately a little odd. For example, the first adventure has 24 pages of journal text- effectively game fiction. That's followed by just eight pages of actual adventure. It almost feels like the scenario serves as an afterthought. For GMs not so keen on game fiction or looking for value in page count, this will seem like filler. Could the same adventure have been presented, with the same level of GM advice, in another way? Could it have been done more tightly, allowing for more adventures?

There’s also a break in L5R’s presentation style here. In earlier modules (City of Lies, Tomb of Iuchiban) we have journals as handouts. These offer player-facing materials the group can work through and explore as a complement to the scenario at hand. That doesn’t happen here- in fact player actions negate the existence of the very journals we’re reading. I wonder if another approach might have had the players coming into contact with Kaagi’s investigations and learning from them. If the players go through these adventures as presented, then Kaagi effectively ceases to exist as a significant NPC or concept.

Ultimately, the material feels like an L5R novel which ended up turned into an adventure. That’s not entirely a bad thing, but does point to some of the problems. The plot can feel more than a little linear- not Dragonlance linear, but fairly constrained. It also means your reaction to the actual campaign arc will depend on how much you enjoy the stories and the writing. For my part, I like the early half of the material. Then it starts to move off into the badly explained, with NPCs taking some of the autonomy, and real limitations for the players.

If you like the concept of the Lying Darkness and are running in an era prior to the Spirit Wars, you’ll find this useful. It certainly fleshes out and expands on the section covering the Goju in Enemies of the Empire. The stories here are interesting, but only one of them (the first) really feels like is could be used outside the context of the Shadow. The lack of a conclusion means GMs will have to figure out where they want to go. Most PCs won’t let go of a threat like this once they’ve encountered it repeatedly. Can it be defeated? Is there some way to offer a satisfying victory against it? The Way of the Shadow is an interesting and unique sourcebook. I recommend it for GMs of certain eras who don’t mind working with game fiction as adventure set-up.

Legend of the Five Rings adventures struggle with the same problems that face any rich and detailed RPG setting. Unless written incredibly broadly, giving players a defined role, or taking place in a relatively restricted space, some adventures won’t work for some groups. In fact I’d argue, the more detail in a setting, the higher the chance of this. So you have some really interesting Fading Suns campaigns, like Star Crusade, that require the group to be explorers. Another example would be overseas Call of Cthulhu adventures with a more classically “New England” group. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does mean work on the GM's part or skipping a cool module until a later campaign. It pushes L5R GMs towards a more conventional 'wandering adventurers style'- less beholden to a particular daimyo. Some of L5R adventures have that feel. They offer a typical fantasy party, cloaked in samurai armor, in the way they assume a certain freedom and mobility. The actual meat of these adventures invokes the samurai atmosphere, but getting there’s another question. Both adventures in Midnight's Blood have that "and then we travelled to X" feeling.

Midnight’s Blood is the first of the “M” or High Magic series, focusing on Shugenja and their talents. Not everyone has to be a Shugenja, but these adventures involve a great deal of potent magic. This is also the first L5R module to turn away from the classic booklet and loose cover style. Instead it is a 48-page perfect bound product. There are no maps but there are reference pages with images of all the NPC’s faces. The art’s generally decent; most of the images could be copied and used as handouts- always a good thing. The booklet contains two unconnected adventures. It has decent writing in both, but you can tell the difference in the author’s voices.

Plague Upon Your Lands: This adventure comes from Jim Moore, also a contributor to Fading Suns. It takes place deep in the Phoenix lands. If the group has a Phoenix Clan member, especially a Shugenja, it should be pretty easily to get them involved. If not, the book suggests having their daimyo send them to investigate. That’s a little tougher, as the problem lies in a plague known as Darkfever which the Phoenix clan are attempting to control. Players without Phoenix connections will have a number of additional obstacles. The book assumes the group has at least one Shugenja and likely someone from the clan. It takes the group to the furthest south-eastern corner of the Empire. That’s could be a problem or an opportunity to show off the countryside to the group and the difficulties of travel.

The adventure has six major episodes, plus the introduction. The players have little information on the Darkfever itself before they head out. Part One has the group on the road to Kyuden Isawa. It echoes some of the ideas about the difficulties and dangers of travel through the area (marks of the fever, wolf packs, suspicious villagers). Part Two has the players arriving at Kyuden Isawa which has been barricaded. People are desperately trying to get in, and the players will have to get inside. The plot assumes the players will do this- there’s little option for them if they do not. They need to research the disease and speak with the Shugenja who have begun to look into it. There’s a nice mix of scholarly and diplomatic challenges here. Unfortunately, there’s also the very real possibility that key characters will have contracted the plague, making it impossible for them to enter Kyuden Isawa. Part Three covers the research and rumors- including a visit to the great Library. There’s some flexibility about how the players will find information inside, but they pretty much have to go there. And here’s the one problem- the players must make skill checks, several of them to find the information they need. But they have to find that in order to proceed. Beyond the mechanical weakness of that, there’s the narrative problem that PC outsiders can come in and find the vital scroll where others have failed.

Part Four has the players following their lead- heading out into the haunted forest. Part Five leads them to the center of those woods and the fallen manor which is the source of the fever. Both of these parts have more background and history than actual play elements, which is a little weird. Part Six has the group facing the Oni Lord who has begun emerged into this world. Of course, as an added bonus the foe can only be hurt by certain kinds of weapons which the players had better have thought to bring. Also, Shugenja who cast here will have a massive increase to their difficulty. Even if they succeed with a spell, they will increase the Darkfever. So despite this being an adventure about magic, the Shugenja are effectively hamstrung in the key sequence.

The Lost Sword of Doji Yasurugi: This adventure’s written by John R. Phythyon, Jr who also worked on one of my favorites Swords of the Middle Kingdom. This adventure takes place at sea- in the Mantis lands. This is the second time we’ve seen the Mantis featured prominently in one of these early modules, though at this point in the line we don’t have a sourcebook or rules beyond the basic school. This scenario spends a little more time setting up the plot- especially important since it offers a richer mystery and more than a little horror for the party. The PCs are assumed to be either Magistrates working for the Emperor or agents hired by Yoritomo. There might be a couple of other parties which could fit into the story, but it would be tough. Basically there have been an alarming number of attacks on the shipping lanes between the Crane and the Mantis. The players have to figure out the who, why, and how to stop it.

The adventure’s broken into eight scenes of varying length. The party meets with Yoritomo to get the background and core clue (again requiring an investigation roll). There’s then a deliberate red herring set up by the group behind the attacks. This provides evidence that the Crane are actually behind the attacks. The PCs are put in an awkward position. If they think of a solution, the GM has to prod them. Eventually the group gets out into the field to a suspicious village. The stories and investigations can go in several directions at this point. It gets nicely complicated and open ended. There’s revelation about the lost sword which is a key element of the story. Eventually the group will have to go out on to the water to face the pirates. They defeat them, but then realize that there’s an additional wrinkle to the recovered nemurani. This leads them to return the sword- which leads to a scene which could be creepy, poignant, or frustrating, depending on how the GM runs it. The story has lots of change ups- and the path doesn’t feel entirely linear. It turns on conventions of history and honor. A party Shugenja is less critical here. The high magic here is the presence of various ghosts; someone with knowledge of the spirits wouldn’t be amiss.

The second adventure’s stronger and more interesting than the first. "Plague Upon Your Lands" functions as a tour of the Phoenix provinces, which may suit some campaigns. Some of the other story packs are stronger, but this one is worth picking up. The elements are generic enough they can function in most eras (with some changes in characters, like Yoritomo).

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Walking the Way & Tomb of Iuchiban

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.

This is the second most problematic L5R product.

If you know L5R, you might be aware of the first most problematic.

Walking the Way
is a compendium of additional spells for Legend of the Five Rings. L5R takes a focused magic approach, with Shugenja generally having a relatively small number of spells but able to make modifications to those spells. This is as opposed to the classic daily pick or large number of learned fixed spells of D&D. Or the prerequisite chain magic of GURPS. It isn’t freeform magic from True20; spells still have names and distinctions. The closest parallel I’ve seen would be Sorcery in Exalted. But that system has a larger percentage of damage dealing magics and fairly fixed spell effects. L5R allows for interesting Shugenja builds, with some overlap and duplication between effects as well as requirements of power and difficulty to cast them.

One of the interesting changes in mechanics between the earlier and present editions has been the downplaying of scroll requirements. In 1e, a Shugenja needed to read from a scroll to cast. In order to avoid a penalty they had to take an Innate Ability advantage with a particular spell. Magic in 1e was messy and some of the big changes in 2e cleaned up problems with that and add more flexibility. WtW comes out before those changes however, roughly in parallel with the Way of the Phoenix book- the other key early sourcebook on magic. Looking at the different editions offers an interesting exercise in game design. Changes have been made to simplify the rules, but at the same time to allow for more interesting builds and mechanics. The use of keywords in 4e gives some new tools for differentiating spells and magical effects. Its also worth considering that this book arrives before the system adds the additional complication of Monk kihos. Like the CCG, L5R has struggled to make those interesting and yet balanced with conventional shugenja magic.

Walking the Way is a 128-page sourcebook. Spells are presented in chapters, divided by elemental type. The end tables have a master list of all spells published so far in the product line. A little over half the spells have illustrations, some with a couple of them. These vary in quality. There’s quite a bit of Ramon Perez art, but some of the other images are weak or cartoony. Tom Baxa’s cover, on the other hand, is evocative and creepy. One of the big problems in the material is the text and page design. Each page looks like a scroll, with greyscale texturing behind it. It doesn’t help anything and makes the pages difficult to read. The actual spell rules are in a more stylized font. As game mechanics, they really need to use cleaner and clearer character set. I haven’t seen the pdf version of the book; I can only hope that the person doing the scanning compensated for the dark pages.

The book contains 52 new spells (12 each for Earth & Water; 9 for Fire; 13 for Air; and 6 for Void). Because each spell is unique and interesting with some power each spell effect description can be fairly lengthy, with a discussion of options. The mechanics of these are beside the point as they’re superseded by the magic and spells presented in later editions. I haven’t cross-checked to see which haven’t appeared later.

More important is the second half of the presentation of each spell. After the effects, there’s an accompanying story hook or adventure seed revolving around the spell. Some of these are quite detailed and clever. Most of them do an excellent job of showing how magic might be used within the world of Rokugan. More importantly they demonstrate how even the smallest elements can be the starting point for interesting and novel stories in campaigns. It makes spells a kind of “NPC” with their own story and legacy and give more weight and a gravitas to the role of a Shugenja. And, of course, they make great bait to dangle before the players- “Look at this cool spell, surely you want this to be your next pick. To do so you only have to…”

BUT here’s the problem with this book which still irritates me. Walking the Way’s clear intended as a player resource- or at least I can’t imagine any PC Shugenja not wanting a copy of it. THE ADVENTURES ARE RIGHT NEXT TO THE SPELLS. The introduction says, “While nominally for the players’ use, this book is primarily intended for the GM’s use…” so, yes, you know players are going to buy it- in fact, you want players to buy copies if you’re a company. “The adventures, of course, are not for players to read, and should be ignored by all who do not wish to incur the wrath of the Game Master.” OK, personal responsibility and all that- but the adventures are on the facing page, in clearer type, often with accompanying illustrations. If only there were some way to divide the book, to separate the adventures from the spells to make it less easy to accidentally read them as a player. But of course it would be impossible to put those adventures at the back of the book. Or would it?

Once again we see the benefit of hindsight. Since 4e GMs aren’t going to be using this book for the mechanical aspects, players never need to see this. Instead it can be raided for the 52 plot ideas, useful for GMs of any era. Win, win. While Walking the Way had problems when it came out, it is a solid resource for plots now…with only legibility as a knock against it.

When I first began looking back at these earlier editions, I suggested that there wasn’t that large a body of published adventures. Working through the material, I have retract that statement. Counting First Edition and Second Edition (pre-d20 integration) products, we have 42 books, including the core rules. Fifteen of those are modules or adventure-focused products (GM Packs, The Way of the Shadow). Add to that the two boxed city sets which also offer adventures and campaign backdrops. Strangely once we get to the d20 split edition, 3rd edition and even 4th, those numbers drop off to a handful: a couple of quick-start adventures, the Second City Boxed set, and the history supplements (The Four Winds, The Vacant Throne, The Hidden Emperor) if you’re particularly liberal about what you count.

The Tomb of Iuchiban offers the most ambitious purely-adventure supplement. It literally and figuratively serves at L5R’s Tomb of Horrors. Big modules like these seem like a declaration of status- saying that the game’s large and vital enough to support an GM-only expensive product. That’s especially when the material supplied isn’t really a sandbox (like Parlainth or The Great Maze). See Land of the Free and Death on the Reik as some of the few other examples of boxed adventures from smaller game lines. Tomb of Iuchiban wants to be a cornerstone of the line- the defining campaign.

And it is quite a pretty product. The Tomb comes with several booklets: a 48-page GM Guide; 32-page Tomb Guide; a 32-page illustration supplement; and a smaller size 40-page journal prop. Add to that the double-sided color Tomb map (11” x 17”) and the cardstock tiles for representing rooms on the map. The illustrations are generally good- most supplied by Dornaus. The layout’s decent, with plenty of white space on the pages. The supplement certainly sells what it is doing. It will be difficult to conceal the endgame from the players if you have any of the material out. The cover of the GM's Guide has a particularly egregious “give away” revealing a secret which the book itself goes to great pains to conceal. The box, at least for the copy I own, is an odd form-factor, too small for the products. It bends the books and map.

The Tomb of Iuchiban is ambitious in another regard. It puts the players into conflict with one of the great and powerful foes of Rokugan. Of course, they can’t really destroy him, as he reappears in the CCG, but that’s beside the point. This ought to be an epic adventure, a campaign full of swings back and forth, with blood and thunder, culminating in a massive conflict at the end. It ought to be, but it never quite reaches those heights. I’ve run Tomb of Iuchiban, and enjoyed the sessions I played with it. But I also made many changes and added material to flesh it out. For example I connected it to the scroll presented in “The Hare Clan”. I used the suggested connection of Night of a Thousand Screams as well. The Tomb offers a good adventure, but not a great one. The major problem is that the adventure itself could all too easily be lifted and dropped into a traditional fantasy setting without too much changing. The plot elements don’t really connect to samurai elements. It effectively ends with a classic dungeon crawl. On the other hand, that may be a strength for some groups looking for a more conventional adventure arc.

The adventure has basically eight major scenes, followed by the dungeon hack. Dropping the flash bits- tiles and map, this could have been done in a 96 page booklet, depending on how you wanted to handle the journal. You’d have the problem of the visual handouts, however. I think a better solution would have been to offer more material in the actual pre-Tomb set up. As it stands right now, the story’s linear- with player choices often highly restricted. Some more openness, perhaps ideas concerning how players might call in other resources or allies would be good. A related problem comes in the conceptual stage of the adventure. The story relies on the players getting fooled into serving the interests on the bad guy. Fooled repeatedly. Several talents available to different schools allow them to detect Shadowlands taint, but many of the story elements depend on those not working or being fooled. GMs will have to be ready for potential frustration.

The basic story leading up to the Tomb goes as follows. Iuchiban’s lieutenant, Yajinden wants to get into the Tomb to consume his former master’s spirit. He needs four masks to open the Tomb, one of which appeared in the adventure Night of a Thousand Screams. Yajinden in his guise of Meishozo Nisei took charge of the mask there. Now Yajinden calls the group to a village where a Shugenja was murdered and a mask stolen. The group has to find the killer (and the Mask). Of course Yajinden’s already murdered everyone in the village, cast a major illusion, and animated the corpses to fool the PCs and answer questions during their investigations. (Yes, seriously).

The group pursues the thief and recovers the Mask. The thief dies (regardless of PC actions). Nisei and the group travel and the PCs become tainted by the Shadowlands effects of the Masks. Nisei suggests a monastery where they can recover and takes off with the mask. The monastery is a Bloodspeaker trap. Assuming they survive, the group meets Kuni Vesten who has been pursuing Yajinden and reveals secrets to them. The PCs return to the original village and learn that everyone there has been dead for some time. They fight Yajinden’s assistant who escapes. She later returns and murders Kuni Visten because she’s actually a Pennaggolan. The PCs continue chase and, after getting past a secret garrison, arrive at the Tomb. All of this is done in about twenty-eight pages. The remaining page count for the booklet covers fourteen pages on the Bloodspeakers in general, and three additional pages of general NPC backgrounds. This half of the campaign has potential, but ultimately feels like a railroad set up for the set piece. It could have been much stronger.

If I’m a little disappointed at the set-up, the actual Tomb itself is awesome. It comes in two parts- the first a set of fixed outer rooms and the second a variable and moving maze of random rooms within the interior. These rooms offer a mix of horror, combats, and puzzles- many strongly keyed to the L5R setting. The Tomb offers many kinds of challenges, including the appearance of the Rakshasa Adisabah the Cruel who has a connection to the later Second City Boxed Set. The dungeon’s resolution offers many possibilities- especially if the players have worked through Kuni Vesten’s journal. In my game we ended up with one PC dead, one imprisoned in the Tomb, one having to commit seppuku, and three surviving. The Tomb section’s excellent- and the visual guide really helps setting the scene and giving players the information they need to get though some of the puzzles.

Oddly at this time the Tomb of Iuchiban’s one of the few early L5R products not available as a pdf. That’s too bad- a reasonably priced copy would have been useful. Physical copes of the set fetch a high price, making them not worth it except for collectors. Assuming GM’s can find a copy for a reasonable price, they will find the second half more useful than the first. The basic structure of the first half of the adventure/campaign could be expanded on by an ambitious GM, allowing it to be used for a number of different campaigns. Depending on the era, the Tomb could be dropped into many different campaigns. Even if Iuchiban’s out and about in your campaign era, you could adapt this. What’s in the Tomb now? The secret to his power? Some other legendary rival? Recommended with reservations, provided you don’t spend a lot of money on it.