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.

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