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.

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