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 

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