Thursday, January 17, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Code of Bushido & The Way of the Crane

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 an important point made in the introduction to B1: Code of Bushido: “Be prepared to ‘fail’ in some of these tests- they aren’t winnable. Rather they teach the character (and, hopefully, the player) where they stand when their deepest beliefs are on the line.”

I’m of two minds about that. On the one hand, I do think it is important to place samurai PCs in positions which conflict with their values. Challenging those positions and making the players swing back between states creates drama and tension. It gives the players a chance to play out cool stuff at the table. And it can take a while to show players how these codes actually operate in this world. They need to be dealt with- enforced in some manner: socially, mechanically. Otherwise they have no weight and the game is simply a fantasy rpg with cooler swords.

On the other hand, I’m always wary of material which suggests the module will put players in a ‘no win’ situation. I know from experience how well players deal with that. Too much of that’s a good way to get a group to hate a game or setting.

I know that some react to all ‘story’ modules as linear and count that as negative. That’s a sliding scale for me however. I think there are degree of linearity- with choices within them. The Enemy Within series has great earlier modules which combine a solid through-line with lots of room for player exploration and choice. Unfortunately the series finishes with a tightly plotted and orchestrated adventure. When choices are narrowed to one consistently or outcomes predetermined regardless of player input, that bugs me.

I call this "The Wedding Ring" problem. This comes from a particular Skyrim quest that my wife continually complains about. In it, a husband asks you to go and rescue his wife from bandits. You go into the bandit’s base and find a dead woman with a wedding ring. You assume it is the wife. But shortly after you discover that the wife is alive and now the leader of the bandits. And she wants you to go back and kill her husband, and if you don’t say yes- BOOM- fight and then you’re mopping her blood off your armor. So you return to her husband, and…

…and the obvious choice at this point would be to tell him that his wife was killed by the bandits. Perhaps you could even use that wedding as a prop? But no, the game only allows you to tell him that you killed his wife. At which point he attacks you and then you’re mopping his blood off your armor. Your only real choice is to walk away from the quest which leaves it incomplete and in your log book. I’ve played some BioWare games which have had similar traps, moments where I think “Jeez, the obvious thing to say is X…” but that’s not even close to being an option.

Code of Bushido is a 48-page module with three linked mini adventures. It focuses on questions of Bushido and introduces the Mantis a little to the setting (the most until the Way of the Minor Clans a couple of years later). The art’s decent throughout the book- I like the focus on utility shots of the NPCs. Honestly any art in a module ought to serve a purpose: as something the GM can hand out or to illustrate what a particular scene or location looks like for GM reference. The cardstock cover has decent maps on the interior. The floorplans could be more generally useful.

A Matter of Honor: All three of these modules share some NPCs, and players can easily move from one to another. Running the latter episodes would be more difficult if you skipped the earlier ones. The set up for this story has the PC group escorting a caravan to a Shugenja tournament. An additional element lies in at least two of the PCs being ordered to woo the hand of a relative of the Emperor. That will work for some games and not others. There’s room for a diverse party here and the story offers lots of incidents and events. I would have liked a little more support and detail for running the Shugenja tournament itself.

But there’s a big problem in this adventure, one which happens early one. There’s a set of two events which must occur for the rest of the scenario to play out. I’m more OK when these things happen outside of the players’ range of control. But this happens on the PCs’ watch. The PCs have to be stupid. It feels really forced- especially because the group then has to go on rather than following up on that incident. You end up with three separate incidents which will likely antagonize the group unless handled very carefully to conceal their nature.

Testimony, Murder, and Lies: Another murder mystery, but this one with a Winter Court set up. There’s, of course, more of discussion of that in the latter Winter Court series. But the material here is useful for running such an event in game. This mixes free range play with a more linear approach once the murder occurs. One sticking point may be the introduction of the PCs’ daimyo as a character. The text seems to assume that all of the players share a daimyo. The earlier story doesn’t assume this and if fact suggests isn’t the case. GMs will need to read through the text carefully and figure out how juggle that. Those problems aside, the story has some clever ideas and far-reaching implications.

Deadly Ground: The shortest of the adventures, and one relying on playthrough of the previous episodes. There’s a mix of coincidence and misunderstandings driving the plot here which will likely make this play out as a tragedy. It does offer some striking character interactions.

Finally, for reasons of the plot, the module ends with a discussion of the Mantis and the introduction of the Mantis Bushi school. Much of this is better fleshed out in later supplements.

This module could be set in any era with an Imperial line, meaning pre-Clan War. If set in a latter period, some of the problems and stakes of the module won’t work. They would take some serious reworking to function, perhaps shifting the imperial bride to be a member of a Clan Champion’s family? Still the ideas here are workable, if the GM is willing to put in the time.

One of the pleasures of rereading these early L5R books comes from seeing how material originally developed. Later editions, especially third, would overelaborate these concepts, trying to keep up with the card game’s twists and turns. Fourth edition L5R’s more setting-agnostic approach reduces that. But with first edition products, there’s less existing backstory. We see authors with a freer hand to create concepts who work skillfully threading the pieces and patterns they can. There’s a real sense of attachment in these first books- with game material coming out of the earliest campaigns. From the Crab book up through the Phoenix book (and especially the Scorpion volume) the clans feel coherent and the authors have a grasp on what they represent.

The Crane in Rokugan exemplify art, civility, culture, beauty, social graces. They also represent one of the hurdles in roleplaying in the setting. There’s an axiom in writing, “Show Don’t Tell.” An author who simply says that a character is a worthy of respect, a master at his craft, or a brilliant courtier doesn’t do much. That has to actually be shown through actions, through the reactions of others, through events. The mechanics of an RPG often allow and push players towards telling: “I have Benten’s Blessing,” “I have Glory 4,” “I have a 5 in Courtier.” These declarations often feel less convincing than the parallel declaration “I have a 5 in Kenjutsu” in combat situations.

Playing a Crane often means playing a graceful and refined creature. Some players can play that convincingly at the table, but others can’t. The real problem comes when players approach these characters with assumptions or chips on their shoulder. I’ve seen players who assume because they’ve chosen the action and they have a high skill, then the choice must be right by definition. They expect the GM to play it that way. More often though I’ve seen players assume that their nature as a “social” character fixes everything. They shouldn’t have to actually act out those interactions, because they have all of the appropriate techniques. But they also don’t want to go to the dice because of their story orientation; it feels like surrendering to them. That’s a frustrating Catch-22 for GMs. I love the inclusion of Courtiers and social characters as a viable option in L5R. I also know that if a player opts to follow that path, I need to talk with them about that ahead of time- to establish their comfort zone and give them reasonable expectations about how I might run those details.

Which brings us to the actual book, The Way of the Crane, a slightly longer volume at 128 pages. Brian Snoddy provides the excellent cover artwork mixing beauty and dynamism. The interior artwork’s great throughout, with only one or two bad pieces. When artists tried to echo traditional Japanese art and images in previous books, they’ve often looked weird and unnatural. Here they actually work- reflecting the evolving art direction from AEG. The layout's solid and the organization remains the same: five main chapters and five appendices. Chapter Three is pretty exclusively character mechanics save for a couple of interesting sidebars. The section on arts here is hugely useful however. Chapter Five presents sample characters useful as NPCs.

The opening fiction in the other “Way of…” books dealt with iconic First Core setting characters (Otaku Kamoko, Mirumoto Hitomi). Here author Ree Soesbee opts for a shorter and more mythic piece. But old favorite Doji Hoturi does pop up in the generally excellent Chapter One material- perspectives on the Crane from other clans. There’s one weird misstep in that section, in her description of the Unicorn Clan narrator. The text makes it sound as if the Unicorn have only arrived a little before the First Core setting. It also suggests that Gaijin regularly trade with the Empire. It doesn’t fit with the material provided in The Way of the Unicorn or with the later picture of Rokugan. It’s a small detail, but one which stuck with me.

Chapter Two covers the various families of the Crane. The author chooses to integrate more of the historical and warfare details under the families themselves, rather than as an expansive history section before that. The concepts here are excellent- with some really nice details on philosophies of the sword and culture. The sidebar concepts- on naming, mons, the Sparrow Clan, and other topics- offer rich additional details. Chapter Five gives us the background and details on nine of the major NPCs of the period. The material here does an excellent job of giving insight into the tensions simmering under the surface of this Clan. In particular, Doji Kwanan demonstrates the difficulty posed by the Multiple Schools advantage. That, and an earlier sidebar on the topic, offer useful advice for GMs facing power players who want all of the cool stuff.

The appendices begin with seven pages on the lands of the Crane, complemented by sidebars on what the Crane think of other Clans. Appendix two covers Mizu-do, the Crane unarmed martial art. I’ve never cared to that as a concept; I think those techniques belong with the Dragon or the Brotherhood. Later material would, of course, give every Clan some kind of martial arts form. An appendix covers some new spells, but does include several new Nemuranai and fetishes. There’s a CGG chapter and the book wraps up with a great map of the Kyuden Doji (yay!) and one page with two adventure hooks, one of which isn’t really a hook (boo).

One of the criticisms I’ve seen leveled at the “Way of…” books has been power creep as the series progressed. In particular posters point to The Way of the Crane as a particularly egregious example of this problem. That’s another advantage to coming back to these books from later editions. You can simply and completely ignore all of those concerns. Instead a good book ought to offer new insights, give suggestions on how to present these concepts at the table, and provide adventure hooks and seeds. In that respect, whatever its failings as a 1e book, The Way of the Crane does some of that well. It is a useful purchase for later edition GMs. I would have preferred more scenario and story ideas and fewer new mechanical options for the Crane.

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