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).

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