Thursday, February 28, 2013

Sources of Inspiration: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 5

For the fifth episode of Play on Target we each picked out three books or supplements we found really useful for gamemastering and gaming in general. We’ve called these sources of inspiration, but that may undersell them. They run the gamut from abstract thinking about games to more solid and concrete mechanical materials for GMs construct a session. Particularly interesting are the different directions we each went. We also have  disagreements- which I think is great to hear. That discussion shifted my thinking a little. I selected Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe, S. John Ross’ Big List of RPG Plots, and Hindmarch and Tidball’s Things We Think About Games. As you can see, I leaned towards the abstract.

If I had to pick some concrete GMing resources, I might choose something like Listen Up You Primitive Screwheads for Cyberpunk; The GM’s Survival Guide for L5R, or one of the better Storyteller companions from classic World of Darkness. If I were going to point people to games that do really interesting things I’d probably go with Brian’s pick of Amber Diceless; either Robin Laws Kaiin Player’s Guide or The Armitage Files; or Ben Robbins’ Microscope. We record ahead a fair distance and so it has been a while since I’d heard this episode. We recently recorded a set of “Sell Me on a Game” segments. It is interesting to hear some of the shifts and developments in our thinking and approach between this episode and that one. There’s so much interesting stuff coming out in RPGs, it is hard to keep up.

We present twelve different products and you can find reference links to those on the Play on Target entry for the episode. If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Changeling Lost Vegas: Session Nine: Looking for an Ace

The video for Session Nine:

This Episode:

We started the session with a little bit of off table work- establishing the terms and details of the group’s motley pledge, focused on Perception and Resources as a benefit. We hadn’t dealt much with pledges in my other Changeling campaign, so I want to present a solid sense of how they function in my games. Pledges which bind promises or oaths with sanctions are easy; pledges which offer benefits and boons are more difficult, twisting fate and requiring symbolic energy or a pledge-crafter. Last session had ended with the Wizened Smith John on the outs a little with the rest of the group. He’d smoke bombed the Summer Court after the group met them. That had caused some fallout for others in his motley. He was reluctant to go along with the group when they chose to investigate the Railroad Museum. Eventually he climbed in the back of the murder van and went along. The group was still seeking information on the dead Smith Greyhand Grip who had fired himself in a rail car across the night sky.

The group had several different leads: Kappachani Leather Swan’s clearing out of Greyhand’s lab; Carpenter Husk, one of Greyhand’s ‘friends’; and a site where he might have stolen the rail car from. They chose the Rail Museum. (GM Note: that was by far the most direct route, with the clearest linking core clue. I like being able to put lots of choices out there for the players to see how they’ll jump. Each scene had some information, some more or less vital to the bigger picture. The museum most directly lead to the final resting place of the rail car. But the others had details which will eventually come back to haunt them.). At the museum, they found Hob Sign, suggesting the Hob Gang they’d heard about did use the place. They suspected the Hobs had come across and taken over Greyhand’s old digs. The model railroad ride on the museum grounds held a cheap fake mountain tunnel. The entrance to that opened into the Hedge, where they found a massive launcher machine and a vertical tower of thorns and brambles, with tracks running up it. John immediately leapt into the machine.

Morosa could see the dark Hedge Sky at the top of the tower, with a full moon shining down. She could also see something floating but attached. She began climbing up to see what it was. Andi looked at the tower, considered the science of it, and calculated in her head exactly where the fired train car would have fallen. (GM Note: 8 Successes on a Math check). Near the top, Morosa realized that she’d misread the scale of the thing floating above, less weather balloon and more dirigible. It proved to be a giant floating rotted peach, wrapped in aluminum foil. A hole at the bottom with a rope ladder suggested that this was the vessel of the Hob Gang. The popping out of a Hob Guard confirmed this, as Morosa climbed quickly back down. The Gang poured out and began flinging horrible things down upon the group. Syd activated her presence to cower them, quite successfully. After a wrestling match, physical and verbal, the group managed to convince John to leave the machine. (GM Note: Originally, I'd planned that the scene would require the group to make a sighting from the base of the tower and the top. The scene at the top would lead to a direct conflict with the Hobs or require cleverness and sneaking around. Andi’s 8-success successfully circumvented that whole thing).

Andi had calculated the exact longitude and latitude of the landing site, at the far western outskirts of Vegas. They drove there, but had to park a distance away and walk the last mile. There they found a tanker car sticking out of the ground like an arrow. It lay somewhere between Hedge and the real world, slowly decaying back into dream. The outside of the car had funnels, clearly designed to gather something. On the ground they found pools of liquid which carried the full moonlight, despite the waxing moon in the sky. They stank like spoilt milk. Syd looked around and calculated that they were in the first act of a 50’s horror movie, where the innocents stumble on the alien craft and accidentally release the monster. Despite that, she opened the hatch on top of the car and peer inside, with only a lighter to illuminate the inside. She climbed into the darkness- and then Andi followed, ignoring Syd’s protests and illuminating the interior.

Inside they found the fever dream of a Wizened Smith. The vessel had been built with pumps which had apparently drawn in the strange Moon Milk. Many canisters of it had spilt and spoiled, but three remained intact. Andi confirmed Greyhand’s corpse, dressed in a Verne-ian spacesuit, dead from the impact. John clambered inside as well beginning to examine the device and trying to listen to the soul of the dead machine. Outside, Morosa saw headlights in the distance stop near their truck. She called to warn the others. Syd and Andi quickly emerged. John, remaining in the car, discovered sketches of Shark-Fingered Princess on the dead Smith and took them. Unfortunately Andi, the Telluric Fairest had kept up her aura of light. Morosa saw the truck clearly spot their light and begin to slowly drive across the mile span between them.

The truck stopped as Syd and Morosa approached. A rugged man, cowboy-dressed but unarmed, approached them in a strangely friendly manner. He introduced himself as Lucas and said that he’d been following a scent, a strange and powerful smell. Syd looked with her kenning as best she could and saw the wolf-like form hanging behind him, not a Changeling but something else. Lucas and the group conversed chaotically- with hurried discussions of how to handle him. John emerged from the rail car depressed, yet another machine he’d found this day which he would be unable to repair, or at least fix as he wanted to. After various back and forths, the group struck an informal deal with the Born-Again Lycanthrope. He’d offer then use of his truck and rig in the future if they would pour him a water bottle of the Moon Milk. The group now considered how they would deliver Greyhand’s body and the contents of the car to the Autumn Court. (GM Note: Especially in early days, I like throwing NPCs and monkey wrenches around to see how players react. I’ve run for groups where Lucas showing up would have immediately led to a fight or direct confrontation. Just as players have to figure out what a GM’s style is, I have to figure out how the group handles twists and new situations). 

Monday, February 25, 2013

Four Campaigns, One Week

Changeling the Lost Vegas (G+) The group decided to paused their current investigation to meet with the leader of the Summer Court, Lean-and-Hungry Mike. While the Autumn Court carefully presented themselves as refined and controlled, the Summer Court ran things from a Strip Club/Buffet with a one-star Yelp review of "Sticky." Still, the group put their best foot forward, and then began to irritate the mostly Ogre/Beast gathering. They left on troubled terms, made worse later because John the Wizened Smith built a tiny smoke machine and left it in their offices. Morosa found herself blacklisted from the Ogre Buffet Phone Tree. John's actions caused some contention in the group, ending with them splitting and some going to check in at the Hob-run 25-Hour Convenience Mart. There they found out some useful information, including details of a crazed Hob gang which had been trading goods from the lost Greyhand Grip's stores. You can see the video for the session here

Firstwave: Series Two M&M 2e (G+) The group moved to carry out plans they'd come up with at the end of the last session, infiltrating a rave in an underground parking garage where the necromantic drug Blackout would be distributed. Mr. Freeze put his Inventor feat to good use, creating an area effect Emotion Control: Discomfort device in order to get ordinary attendees to leave. However, Mister Miracle who went in first undercover fumbled a Bluff check and immediately drew the attention of the Wraith enforcers. The situation went badly quite quickly- since most of the group couldn't even see the ghosts. Miracle and Nightcrawler tried to hold things while the others did crowd control to minimize damage, except for Thor (Loki in disguise) who used intimidate to make the crowd flee and caused a panic. The players spent their hero Points trying to correct the situation, before Mister Miracle finally activated the magical device they'd obtained to send them into the Land of the Dead so they could find the souls which had been stolen.

They were thrown through into a weird realm. Miracle could hear the sound of the Black Racer beginning pursuit of them, and the group chose one of the three paths open to them- weird floating bridges suspended in space. The rush down a path before being confronted by a figure calling himself Nightmare, who offered to aid them. They'd chosen badly, he said, and would not make it to stop the ceremony without his aid. He asked for a drop of Nightcrawler's blood, but his player hemmed and hawed, refusing to do it. Finally Loki, as Thor, actually stepped up and made the heroic sacrifice, offering his blood. Nightmare agreed and sent them on to battle the wraiths and their sorceress mistress, Umar.

Now the group could actually see and affect their enemies, but it was still a tough fight. The wraiths had unusual attacks- Drains, Mind Blasts, Sickening Strikes- and weird defenses. The battle shifted several times, most notably when Iron Man took a long range shot to hit the cauldron Umar was working at, releasing a gout of red liquid which formed into a humanoid shape, an uncontrolled Demon of Carnage. The team spent through their hero points and Miracle took a lethal shot to the side, rendering him disabled. The following round he pushed himself and began to die- as he saw the Black race draw closer. Mr. Freeze barely manged to apply medical attention to stabilize him. Iron fired off a last desperate blast to knock Carnage down and Thor hurled the beast to the horizon. The group fell back, grabbing up the soul jars of the victims as Miracle opened a Boom Tube and they fled as the remaining wraiths swopped in on them.

Interesting session. One of the challenges is to create a coherent plot and story in a setting which is superhero fan-service. A couple of the players know comics really well, one knows it clinically, one knows a little, and one only knows the movies. Ideally the references have to be fun- and I can't rely on player knowledge for any of the plot hooks . They should be more of a homage. The scene with Nightcrawler and Loki was interesting because the former player is really mechanically oriented and I don't think it occured to him at all that the heroic choice would be to take a risk in order to save lives. While the Loki player was able to step in and show himself to be a better hero which will be great to call back to later. 

Wayward: Changeling the Lost (f2f) We'd had a significant gap between this session and the last due to work conflicts and illness. That ended up being a problem since the group had traveled into the Deep Hedge, setting aside their powers, in pursuit of a solution to the curse vexing Wayward. They'd traveled through two durances and now found themselves in a third, that of the Gameplayer Hopscotch Takebacks, who had suffered years of weird alien games, all variations on Prisoner's Dilemma's and Logic problems. The PC's were immediately faced with such a problem and failed. As a result, Hopscotch, a beloved NPC from the earliest days of the multi-year campaign, was incinerated. The remaining four in the party pressed forward (after a half hour delay in which the players desperately searched for any resources or options they had). They arrived in Nate Diamond's durance, the Statue Garden, where his former family pursued and tried to halt them to trade places with the players and gain freedom. It ended in a bloodbath and the party desperately running through the maze with phantom statues on their heels.

Somehow they made it into the final lair, the lair of the Spider Keeper who had begun all of this, by binding nine other Keepers in a gamble. He offered the party the same bargain he'd given to all of the other Changelings who had come here over the years. He would maintain the nine Keepers in slumbers, if they would agree in the future to make a sacrifice. Personally they would gain great power and the mantle of leadership for the Freehold, keeping it safe and secure for years. That had kept the cycle going for generations. The party rejected that, and gave own mantles and rights to power and authority in their Court of Judgement. Angered, the Spider told them that was not enough- they would have to convince the other rulers to voluntarily hand over their rule forever. They would have twenty-four hours and then the Spider would loose the Keepers to bring doom unimaginable on the city of Wayward. He warned he would set his worst upon them while they acted.

With that, the party found themselves back home. They returned to their own hollow and offered rule of their Court to several, only one of whom accepted. Karl Feign, a wood elemental who had come from the long lost adversarial Winter Court. They then called the Prince of Gardens, Edward Brambleteeth, who had placed a bounty upon them for their theft of his sword of office. They met with a Songbird Rex, one of Edward's companions who had left the Freehold when he'd assumed office. Edward arrived and the group began negotiations in earnest- dueling over rights and responsibilities. Only by pointing out that the Prince could never do as he wished, did Edward finally agree. But to spit Sarah No-Tears the Physiker, he made Noisy, the Armsman who loved her, the New Prince. The group then met with Doe, the leader of the Court of the Wolf. Surprisingly for someone who had fought for her position, she acquiesced. She pointed out the the PCs had helped her obtained the role and they had the right to ask for it back. Finally they called Sybold Futures, Prince of Rust, who agreed to meet them on neutral ground. The PCs arrived at the meeting hall for the Freehold and noted evidence of someone having been there and hiding tracks. They called Sybold to warn him off when the building exploded. 

The New Dragon: L5R Homebrew (f2f) Early the next day in the village of Tanoshi, the group considered their plans. A local woodcutter, Yabu, snuck in to speak with them. He’d met one of the PCs, the former ronin Shimasu Ogawa, at the inn the previous session. He spoke about the strangeness in the village but had been away from Tanoshi for a couple of weeks. Yabu offered to take them to the shrine in the woods. There the Witch Hunter Kuni Kosunami and the Monk Mirumoto Yamakaji searched and discovered that the Kitsu had been quietly hiding something. While appearing small and inconspicuous, the shrine actually powered and linked some nearby wards. However those wards had not been reestablished since the Lion had lost the lands. That process would require some materials and resources the group lacked- they would have to travel a couple of days to gather them and then return to fix them.

Meanwhile, Ogawa searched the nearby area. The shrine was atop a small gully  with a hill with crevices across from it. Ogawa fell down the hillside, cracking his ribs as he did so. He stood and noticed evidence on the ground- suggesting that days before something had been dragged or crawled here into one of the narrow gaps in the hillside. Mosunami and Yamakaji followed him down the hill, as Ogawa approached the space. The Shugenja Kuni Setsu, trained by the Soshi, and Mirumoto Hayato took a longer way around, trying to judge the terrain. Briefly the group spotted a face in the darkness of the cave entrance which then vanished. They searched around finding enormous tracks. Something which walked on enormous hands with a span of over eight feet apart. The Witch Hunter identified it as the Shutten Kao, also called the Bearer of Faces, an oni nearly impossible to actually kill. The beast had four enormous and flexible arms and two legs. It could easily twist and slide through gaps. Its name came from the heads it stole and mounted on a bamboo frame driven into its flesh. It used these still animate heads to see and to lure others in. Clearly this hill had been used by the Kitsu to contain the Shutten Kao, but some of those wards had broken.

With a mix of magic, tracking, and psychometry, the group discovered that a samurai had been chased by the villagers and had plunged off the cliff into the gully  He’d then dragged his wounded body into the hill cave to escape. Yamakaji activated a tattoo and was able to tell that someone still lived in the cave- they hoped it would be Mirumoto Ujinao who they searched for. Setsu sent her wind spirits out to read and map the caverns- discovering two other exits unsealed. Yamakaji and Kosunami slid themselves into the narrow gaps- leaving them almost not room to maneuver. Yamakaji found a near dead samurai at the bottom of a pit and began to pull him out. The Shutten Kao reappeared and Kosunami cast Tomb of Jade to seal the passage and keep it from reaching them for the moment. Outside the group cleaned and tended to the samurai, when the Wood Cutter Yabu recognized him. This was Akodo Benzo, a low-ranking Lion Clan samurai who had been engaged to the village elder’s daughter. Hayato studied the wounds and realized that the Lion dealt a sword stroke characteristic of the Mirumoto School.

They returned back to the village to treat the Akodo. Shortly after the village chief Sue Harusada arrived in his funerary clothes, along with two other elders similarly dressed. After a back and forth, he admitted to the crimes of the village. Mirumoto Ujinao had arrived for the inspection. Shortly after, Akodo Benzo had also appeared. The two dueled and Ujinao was struck down. Recognizing the village as a whole would be punished, Harusada and the others had tried to kill the wounded Benzo. They believed he’d died when he fell off the cliff. They believed recent weird events had been the product of his angry ghost. The group confirmed other details, including the location of Ujinao’s swords and Benzo’s intent to use the village as a base for spying on the Dragon. Kuni Setsu pressed the elder seeking the rumored Lion Clan scrolls which the daimyo believed had been hidden here. Harusada, caught between the possible punishment to his village and his oaths to the Lion Clan asked to be permitted to commit seppuku, his right even as a low rank samurai. The group agreed and Kuni Setsu promised to take his daughter into her household. Mirumoto Hayato served as Harusada’s second, a great honor for the elder, and cut his head cleanly off when he failed. Sue Saya then presented herself, bringing with her the scrolls entrusted to her father.

The problem still remained of the Shutten Kyo. They expected it would strike at night- it was smart and crafty. The party knew they while they couldn’t kill the beast with their resources, they could damage it and drive it back into hiding- then they could reseal the wards. They took two watches, preparing several traps and magics in likely places. Late on the second watch, Ogawa and Yamakaji felt something strange and rushed back to the house in which they were quartered. Yamakaji saw that the roof had been pulled away allowing the beast to enter the house quietly. The ever vigilant warrior Hayto awoke and saw Benzo’s head floating in the darkness, his blood dripping on the floor. He gave a cry and woke up the rest of the group. Four of them charged the beats in the close quarters- trying to strike at it as beats they could. Several felt the chill of fear and the monster swung out with powerful strikes, dealing gashes and cuts. They pressed forward and Kuni Setsu used one of her air spells to carry all of the lamp oil from the area onto the beast’s skin. When the group dealt another round of vicious blows, the Shutten Kyo leapt to a more advantageous position. Kuni Kosunami let loose a fire spell and lit it up. Burning, the monster fled into the woods and back to its lair. It would take it time to recover, enough that the party could reestablish the wards. 

Friday, February 22, 2013

Nebula Awards Cool News

Earlier this week the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America announced their nominations for the Nebula Awards. I'm going to raise a cheer that my sister, Cat Rambo, received a nomination for her short short "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain" from her awesome collection Near + Far. That's pretty damn amazing. That collection as a whole is really excellent and worth reading (in my somewhat biased opinion). Cat taught me to game with old white box Dungeons & Dragons. She's playing in my G+ Changeling the Lost game as well. Most of what I learned about caring about more than numbers in RPGs began with her and her campaigns. You can see a full list of the nominees here on i09. You can see Cat's Amazon page here and her weblog here.

So that's pretty cool.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Changeling Lost Vegas: Session Eight: Shoot the Moon

The video for Session Eight:

This Episode:
The group decided to pause their current investigation to meet with the leader of the Summer Court, Lean-and-Hungry Mike. While the Autumn Court carefully presented themselves as refined and controlled, the Summer Court ran things from a Strip Club/Buffet with a one-star Yelp review of "Sticky." Still, the group put their best foot forward, and then began to irritate the mostly Ogre/Beast gathering. They left on troubled terms, made worse later because John the Wizened Smith built a tiny smoke machine and left it in their offices. Morosa found herself blacklisted from the Ogre Buffet Phone Tree. John's actions caused some contention in the group, ending with them splitting and most going to check in at the Hob-run 25 Hour Convenience Mart. There they found out some useful information, including details of a crazed Hob gang which had been trading goods from the lost Greyhand Grip's stores.

A Few Gamemastering Thoughts and Notes:
1. I think the Summer Court came off well- or at least fairly distinctive. I was able to convey the personalities of a couple of the characters (Rumblestiltkin, Father Canon, and maybe Mike) pretty decently. At the very least I was able to get across a couple of character tics the players will remember. The Summer Court offers a more visible and classic agenda, as opposed to the other two Court’s they’ve met. John’s deliberate tweak is interesting, and I have to consider the various personalities in Summer to decide how they’ll react. At the very least it will make the choice of task they assign the players more interesting. I don’t want to bang that gong too much- the group’s still neutral and valuable, plus as a GM I don’t necessarily want to increase internal party friction.

2. There’s an interesting thing developing in that several of the players have strong crafting and creation talents. John’s obviously a Smith and has those benefits. Morosa’s a costumer and seamstress, with that tied to her kith. Syd has the Muse background and an artistry emphasis; she’s investing in Contracts of the Forge. Andi’s taken a couple of dots of Crafts as well. That means I need to look at the item and token creation systems, and also come up with my own spin and options for those. How much can the players build on the fly? What do projects involve? What kinds of cool things can I throw at them as a result of this- rare resources, special tools, rival craftsmen, lost patterns and blueprints. I run loose, so not mechanical or thematic devices and projects should be pretty easy. But when the rubber hits the road of building items which offer effects and bonuses, how do I want to handle that?

3. We’ve had a couple of discussions of the Motley pledge, with- I think- the group settling on the version which offers them Resources. I think that’s probably a good call. We’ve hit a couple of times on the group being poor, so fixing that will be a priority and retires that theme (for the moment). I’ll check to see if everyone’s on board for that next time. Related to that, I need to consider what resources mean. The group established the idea of the Hob Casinos as a version of the Goblin Markets. I need to consider more fully how I want to run that once they get down there- defining how bargaining works and what can be done with that. That will probably apply most to the players talking up the things they’re offering up for exchange (to get chips or whatnot). They’ll be trying to get the best value.

4. I’m also trying to track how many “scenes” I get through in a session. I think we had three last night. That seems a reasonable number given the two hour length of the session. I think the GM has a challenging task in a G+ session. They have to balance between pushing the scenes forward to a conclusion and letting them have room to breathe. I want to make sure all of the characters have a chance to speak their peace and interact. When I write scene notes up, I try to come up with at least one detail to throw at anyone who hasn’t necessarily stepped forward. I was able to throw out a plot thread for Amber, for example, last night regarding the rogue Freehold in Summerlin.

5. One thing I try to do is restate threads from the last session at the beginning of a session as clearly as possible. I’ve seen other GMs do it and I think it is really vital, especially with sessions as time constrained as these are. I try to break down what the group established or found out and where they’d decided to go. I’ll admit to some editorializing in this process; I’ll often downplay a little threads or tangents which weren’t as related to the core investigation. I try to use this power only for good, never using it to put them off the track.

6. The group’s really good about moving together to take on scenes. They’re still getting a sense of how I run and what I’m going to play out in a scene. I expect eventually we’ll get some sessions where the group splits to take on two separate tasks; they’re smart and skillful enough to handle that. But that’s as much a trust issue as anything else- I have to establish trust so that they know that if they do split like that I’m still going to give everyone equal attention and not give one side short shrift. I’m looking forward to the gap between this and their next quest; I’d like to do a session (or part of a session) with individual scenes for everyone. 

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Crowdfunding and RPGs: Play on Target Podcast Ep. 4

For the fourth episode of Play on Target, we take a look at Crowdfunding, with special attention to Kickstarter. Here's one of those cases where recording several months ahead of time bites us in the ass. There have been some important events and shifts since we recorded this. Notably, we've seen a couple of RPG projects hit rocky waters and create turmoil in the RPG community. At least two high profile projects have gone off the rails, with a lack of information from their creators. In one case we've seen projects sold at a convention and then slowly, slowly trickle out to purchasers over the next several months with a lack of clear statement from the project's authors. Then there's the case of TableTop Forge, which I mentioned positively in the podcast. They've shut that down and merged with Roll20; the app will supposedly and strangely be decommissioned at the end of the month. 

Part of what makes that interesting has been watching supporters on both sides argue over those situations. I've seen a couple of threads arguing about the philosophical paradigm behind Kickstarter- and the "correct" viewpoint supporters need to have (viewing as a pre-order, viewing as an investment, etc.). I should also note that since we did the show I found out that IndieGoGo, I believe, can actually have projects where even if the funding level isn't reached, the creators still take the money. I read some concerns about that regarding the development of computer games and apps. 

Crowdfunding and RPGs
Play on Target Episode Roundup

This episode covers the basics and gives our (sometimes differing) opinions on crowdfinding and who should be doing it. Since we recorded it I've also been involved in the Everything is Dolphins (via my sister), Hillfolk/DramaSystem, Ehdrighor, ICONS: Great Power, Nova Praxis, Bones, and the FATE Core Kickstarters. If you like RPG Gaming podcasts, I hope you'll check it out. We take a focused approach- tackling a single topic each episode. You can subscribe to the show on iTunes or follow the podcast's page at  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Lesser of Two Evils & Way of Shinsei

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.

I remember back in the 1980’s running and writing D&D modules for our local gaming conventions. Dungeon crawls, puzzle bits, maybe a few moments of outdoors and then back underground. I remember them as crazed assemblages of rooms and events. Our great models were the D&D modules like C1: The Hidden Shrine of Tamoachan. Those often had a theme, but that was thin cover for an extended list of perils.

Lesser of Two Evils is a tournament module for L5R making it something of a difficult beast. It is built to be done in a session, with a set group of PCs, and likely with a high body count (or at least with the PCs walking away with some consequences). There’s some discussion of how to actually work this into a campaign, but the general focus of the module remains to offer a self-contained story. Changes to make it more workable would take the GM some time.

The book itself is a 48-page module. Several pages are taken up with full page illustrations, the sample characters (one from each Clan), maps, and a scoring sheet. The art’s decent and focus- character and NPC illustrations mostly. The writing’s also clear. There’s classic boxed text in several places, as you’d expect for a scenario where you want all of the GMs on the same page.

The module begins with an overview- laying out the background to the plot which is pretty straightforward at root, but has a number of wrinkles. The players are summoned to a remote Crab holding at the behest of a Yasuki daimyo who wishes them to look into some strangeness, including the vanishing of his Shugenja. The lord is being manipulated in this by a powerful Bog Hag who has apparently worked her way through the various members of his household and is now his geisha. She’s had a diverse group of samurai called from across the Empire (hence the various PC Clans) in order to father their different strengths. We’ll leave aside the point that when weird stuff happens in the Crab lands, the Crab’s don’t go “Oh I hope nothing’s seriously wrong.” People come and take torch to the problem. But that’s an aside.

The Bog Hag kills the daimyo’s seneschal and comes back wearing his skin to spin a story about how he was attacked by a formless evil. The logic of this is a little tenuous. It also points to some of the problems with adapting this to an existing campaign; players who have methods for detecting these kinds of things will have to be put off- or will be frustrated if once again their senses don’t work. The PCs also lose an NPC samurai and their horses in the attack. The PCs can search the few buildings on the estate (to little avail). Heading to the neighboring village suggests something larger’s going on. I should mention that the text does a good job of offering several variations on particular scenes- ways to change up the direction and add more complexity to the story.

The big lead here takes the PCs to the temple which the Bog Hag has corrupted over time. Several other possible explorations point them in that direction. The Temple itself is effectively a dungeon crawl. The temple’s broken up into about twenty locations- with several different guardians, clues as to the nature of their foe, and unpleasant tricks and traps. And magic treasure which comes into play in the next scene. The final confrontation with the Bog Hag forces the PCs into an unpleasant choice. There’s some wheedling that goes on here- with the GM forced to legislate morality more than a little. There’s no great choice here and it is likely any way the PCs choose will lead to some of their deaths through seppuku or combat. The book’s pretty clear on the intent, and it makes sense given the structure of the adventure.

The last dozen or so pages of the book have NPC write ups, some new spells and items, the PC sheets (done on a single page complete with illustrations), a score sheet, and one page of NPC illustrations.

As a module without specific reference to an era, this module could be adapted by 4e GMs pretty easily. It does have significant combat, so they’d want to look through the mechanics to make sure it isn’t made more deadly than it already is. The question remains: is it worth it? Lesser of Two Evils sets itself up as a Tournament or Quick Introductory module. It works pretty well as the former. It has a fairly tight plot, clear structure, and some crucial choices which can be scored. However, I don’t think it works as well for the latter. For one thing, there’s a fairly conventional focus in the story- a monster-of-the-week approach which doesn’t necessarily sell the key aspects of the setting. More importantly where those key aspects do appear- questions of honor and bushido code, they’re used as a constraint and punishment against the characters in their end choice. That’s not a great way to sell new players that the Rokugan’s a place they want to play in. Would this work as an adventure within a campaign? Yes, possibly, but with some work. You could break up some of the rails and open the investigation up more. The final challenges could have some added dimensions. For groups with a Shadowlands investigation focus, it offers a challenge. There are other, stronger L5R adventures, but this one isn’t bad.

Otosan Uchi signals a change in the L5R line, an acceleration which lead into L5R 2e, followed by Time of the Void which moved us through the Second Day of Thunder arc, and then the hybrid d20/2e books which shot the timeline further even more- skipping past the Scorpion return, the Hidden Emperor, the Lying Darkness, and the whole of the Spirit Wars. Supported eras and timelines would begin to move by in a flash. L5R 4e puts some brakes on that, or at least channels that energy in different directions. There’s a trap to trying to keep the game at pace with the CCG and general history. Consider the Second City boxed set, the most “modern” of the products released for the new edition. The latest CCG set presents a rift and a war between the Governor of the new provinces and the Empress. New factions, new approaches, new directions. And I understand the allure of it- with a couple of exceptions, I like the overall story, enjoying reading about what happens. I do want to know about all of the aspects of the setting.

The Way of Shinsei, by my reckoning the last 1e product, fills in one of those gaps in the First Core setting, though it is set in that space between Coup and Second Day of Thunder. The next things to arrive would be the Legend of the Five Rings Player's Guide (Second Edition) and Legend of the Five Rings Game Master's Guide (Second Edition) books announcing the new edition. Interestingly, the handful of 2e sourcebooks published before the new era/mixed d20 presentation keep the earlier books relevant and fill in other gaps: a village sourcebook (Mimura: The Village of Promises), the Ratling book (The Way of the Ratling), the evil PC book (The Way of the Shadowlands), the event book (Time of the Void) and the grab bag catch-all (Winter Court 3: Winter Court: Kyuden Asako). Way of the Shinsei covers an aspect hinted at throughout the product line, but never fully developed, the Monks of Rokugan. The Way of the Dragon and Phoenix had touched on these ideas but not enough to make viable player characters. The irony is that we’re given a whole new set of additional rules and new mechanics just before the line jumps to new core system.

The book itself is a little shorter, 112 pages, of which almost twenty pages are advertisements, full page illustrations, or blank character sheets. The layout sticks to the tried-and-true two columns plus sidebars of the line. The interior artwork’s pretty weak, especially the NPC images which all manage to look alike and ugly. The body of the book’s five primarily chapters, with four appendices afterwards. Chapter Three on character creation is the most mechanically oriented, with many new skills and advantages plus all of the material on kihos. One interesting section discusses how to retire a character and make them into a monk. There's a little oddness to the design here. There's no solid option to create a non-powered monk. By default, they have kihos. The only other option is the ise zumi. There's no 'warrior monk' option. There's also the question of why ise zumi monks don't get kiho in this set up. Chapter Five has sample characters which could easily be adapted as NPCs. GMs of 4e will find most of the Monk mechanics in the core book and also in the recently released The Book of Earth.

The prologue fiction does a nice job of putting the act of retirement into context. A samurai’s forced into retirement, to the shame of his son. The son works tirelessly to promote himself and raise his position so that he can bring his father back from the monastery. But when he goes to give his father the good news, the father decides to remain there. Years later, after his own zen koan moments, the son decides to follow his father’s path. It adds the right amount of complexity to the question of monasticism. Taking up such vows might be regarded as honorable by some, such as the Dragon. But for many among the driven and loyal samurai class, they’re a rebuke to bushido and their way of life. Being a monk isn’t necessarily an honored thing. They maintain their position through impartiality and distance, but that can be cut down at any moment. In particular as the Brotherhood becomes involved in transient world affairs (fighting against Fu Leng, trying to stop Hitomi) they become vulnerable. The Ikko Ikki War of Japanese history demonstrates that difficult balance.

Chapter One gives outsider perspectives on Monks, with sidebars quoting from the Tao. I especially like the Crab reaction presented here. Chapter Two outlines the history and the “families” of the Monks. As The Way of the Wolf established distinct paths and schools, The Way of Shinsei establishes different temples, each of which have a slightly different focus and approach (and mechanical options). A good deal of this chapter focuses more on the question of how to play a monk and what their daily lives look like. There’s the thorny question of key elements like Honor and Glory and how they’re handled. Amusingly, the book offers rules on Enlightenment, which always seems a little goofy to me. But I had the same reaction to mechanics for Illumination in Glorantha. The chapter touches on a number of related ideas: stories of the original kami and their meeting with Shinsei, the secrets of the Tao, the history of the monastic system. Overall this is a much deeper treatment than that currently offered in 4e volumes. Most of the key concepts of sects and organization remain the same across many eras, making this a valuable resource. Chapter Four goes through the key iconic Monks of this period. Many of them figure closely into the rising struggle against the Shadowlands or will be important in the latter battle against the Lying Darkness. The concepts are fairly generic and could probably be adapted easily to other eras.

The appendices have some nice additional sidebar stories which could make for colorful bits to throw into a session. Appendix I is a three-page scenario set up which could easily involve monks. These kinds of story seeds are always useful. Appendix II discusses further the role of monks in Rokugani society. Some of this echoes the ideas presented earlier, but emphasizes the difficult position they’re in. Appendix III details prominent temples and monasteries in the Empire, useful background details for any game. Appendix IV has more CCG crap. Really? I thought we were done with that. What’s strikingly missing from this section is extended advice on running a monk campaign or handling monks in a party. There’s a little bit, but more of a footnote. It would have also been useful to perhaps have a discussion of the difficulties players face when taking on this kind of role.

If you’re interested in monks and the Brotherhood of Shinsei, either as a general game element or as a PC option, The Way of Shinsei offers solid material. They skip a few things I’d have liked to see, but generally the background really works. There’s history here- but that doesn’t overwhelm the story. The majority of the information focuses on monks in the present. That makes it useful for GMs planning to run in the First Core setting and in other eras. The order presented here functions equally well across all of those campaign settings.

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 

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Changeling Lost Vegas: Session Seven: House of Cards Redux

The video for Session Seven:
This Episode:
Last session was a short one as we had two people out at the last minute. We mostly dealt with the group settling into their new digs and planning how to keep themselves afloat. The group came into this session with two primary objectives. 1. Meet with Shark-Fingered Princess, leader of the Autumn Court to receive her task and bring them closer to full membership in the Freehold. 2. Meet with the leader of the Summer Court in order to make introductions and follow the social pattern they'd established. 

The group followed through on the first part of the scheme, with John the Smith crafting a mechanical rose to present to the Princess. She had the group meet her in one of the Autumn Court holdings, where she was beginning preparations for redecoration for the turning of the seasons. Morosa used her excellent costuming skills and crafts (backed by her Clotheshorse kith) to prepare a perfect outfit for Amber, complete with tear-away dress. Shark-Fingered Princess introduced them to several other members of her court and then presented them their task. They would look into the death of the Wizened Smith Greyhand Grip who had fired himself across the night sky in a rail car just two weeks before the group's arrival. They would locate that car and retrieve the Changeling's body along with whatever else might be there. 

Though they'd planned to meet with the Summer Court next, John's excitement about potentially looting looking through the late Smith's workshop forced them on. They located the site and made their way in, noticing that others had clearly been their recently. Unable to keep his hands to himself, John reactivated all of the decommissioned death-traps on site. The found the workshop emptied, but uncovered evidence suggesting that Kappachani Leather Swan had been involved in clearing the place. They headed back to run down some more leads. Later that night Morosa and Amber returned to the workshop to set off the traps and make sure they didn't kill any innocents. 

Monday, February 11, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Winter Court: Kyuden Kakita & Way of the Wolf

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.

The second volume of the Winter Court series, this takes place two years after the Scorpion Clan Coup. Where the previous volume had fiction drawn from the past and a generic presentation of the Seppun’s event, this volume is much more specific. It takes place in the middle of many intrigues following the Coup, and the Court season of the Kakita is heavily referenced. There’s some fiction and the first person narrative comes from Doji Ameiko, wife to the Crane Clan Champion. The Court’s overseen by a sick and weakened Emperor, who is slowly being poisoned by his new wife, Bayushi Kachiko. In fact the opening fiction depicts that creepily- the venomous cougar hovering over the teenaged Hantei.

There’s another small oddness in the presentation. The cover art, while striking, seems to depict a Scorpion Shugenja in a contest of magical illusion at the Court. This is despite the book's clear statement that only a handful of Scorpion remain openly alive, none of whom are Shugenja at Court. It is a pretty cover by Cris Dornaus who also did some of the better interior artwork. The rest is merely serviceable. The 128-page volume is broken into four major sections, plus the brief introduction. It dispense with sidebars in favor of a wider two-column text design.

Dawn (12-35) This set sets the “grab bag” tone of these chapters. It opens with a short vignette suggesting the growing tensions between the Clans. Campaigns in Ancient Rokugan: In a precursor to the ideas presented in Imperial Histories, this suggests how games might be run in Rokugan’s past. Natural Disasters: An excellent section presenting the kinds of cataclysms which visit the land- from earthquakes to fires to plagues. Talks about what those involve and how PCs might be called to deal with them or provide assistance in their wake. A good source of some really interesting scenarios. The Miya Family: The Miya appeared in detail in the previous Winter Court volume. This is a more extensive treatment of them. Ronin: A long section on what it means to be a ronin and the various details of their life. There’s some discussion of what their role might be at Court. However this seems a little out of place- moreso because The Way of the Wolf comes out shortly after this volume.

Afternoon (36-53)
Life in Rokugan: This offers typical daily timetables for the different classes. Considers the different roles within a class (samurai, Shugenja, courtier). It is a nice resource for giving players a sense of what they actually ‘do’ day-to-day. Apprenticeship and Gempukku: The Way of the Clans books touched on these issues to varying degrees. This considers what kinds of duties young samurai might have to undertake. Art and Culture: Discusses several different concrete forms, with some nice illustrations of armor types.

Night (54-95) Visiting Customs in Rokugan: A good set of guidelines, and details which the GM can easily put to use at the table. Court Intrigue: An odd couple of pages with rumors, sample characters and a truly hideous illustration. Entertainment: Seven pages of the kinds of things people do at Court for fun. Any of these- from Sumai to Fireworks- could be used to add color to a scene. It can also draw players into low-stakes competitions. Ghosts: And we jump from that to a few pages on ghosts. I’d like to see more of this. Some of the ideas have been alluded to in the Way of the Minor Clans and Bearers of Jade. But given the importance of ghost stories in Japanese folklore- and the different way they operate- they need more discussion. Shadowlands Taint in Rokugani Society: Echoes again some of the ideas from Bearers of Jade. This moves beyond the Crab’s treatment of it however. Astrological Events, etc: Several sections, covering seven pages talk about what has happened over the last two years. This includes status at Court and details on the plans of the Hidden Scorpion. The Ikoma Histories: The listing of the first ten Hantei, and notes on the related Imperial families (like the Seppun). A Passage of Time: A five page timeline of major events on history. Great Battles of the Past: Just what it says, done in five pages. Most of these were presented in the various Way of the Clans books, so this feels more than a little repetitious. In fact this kind of detail and history, while interesting, seems like minutiae for minutiae's sake. How about some more relevant material for the GM?

Epilogue (96-127): The more mechanical and stat oriented section of the book. Offers new skills, advantages, and disadvantages (increasing the already overwhelming number of these in the game). The Miya Shisha (Herald) and Emerald Magistrate schools are described. More usefully for 4e gamers looking to run in this era are the ten Courtly NPCs. These are given shorter descriptions than in other sourcebooks. There’s also three pages of Imperial nemuranai. The book wraps up with a brief overview of each of the districts of Otosan Uchi, updating the boxed set to current events. This is interesting, but niche information.

Many topics, short treatments. Several of the subjects dealt with could easily have supported twice the space given to it. In several cases, there’s just enough to get interesting and then it stops. I'm sympathetic to the grab bag approach. If there was an L5R RPG magazine, I can see these articles appearing together and making some sense. But the framework of the Winter Court, while interesting, makes some pieces seem out of place. There's also a point at which I hit saturation on background material which doesn't have all that much bearing for the game. The umpteenth time I have to read through pages of famous battles (many repeated) feels like filler rather than significant. World building and information needs to be purposeful- just because you've made up some detail doesn't mean it is necessarily relevant for GMs or players.

Much of this material has been synthesized and appears in a tighter form in current L5R 4e supplements. There are a few things which have longer treatment (like the disasters) which might be of interest for GMs of different eras. Otherwise it is most useful for GMs planning to run post Scorpion Clan Coup campaigns in the First Core setting.

One of the ironies of the Legend of the Five Rings set-up is that it focuses on PCs in service to a daimyo and tied to clan. At the very least the players serve an institution, such as the office of the Emerald Magistrates. Yet the most iconic samurai characters are ronin or masterless. The Seven Samurai, Usagi Yojimbo, Zatoichi, Lone Wolf, Sanjuro, Himura Kenshin and many, many more. Even in films where the protagonists serve a daimyo or abide by the rules, things end up badly for them or the institution is shown to be corrupt: Samurai Rebellion, 47 Ronin, Kagemusha, Taboo, and Sanso the Bailiff for example. Classical Japanese tales don’t necessarily follow this pattern, but most modern depictions have an anti-authoritarian or individual freedom streak to them, from novels to movies to anime to comic books.

But L5R in the core book and some of the earlier supplements tries to disabuse players of these notions. Certainly John Wick’s voice can be heard there. He presents his case even more strongly in Blood & Honor, which effectively says you can play a Ronin if you’re seriously ready to play a despised homeless guy.

My experiences with Ronin in L5R haven’t been good. There are some disadvantages in games I called “GM Chicken” disads. These offer decent points or bonuses, but with significant and damming downsides. When a player takes one of these, the GM’s faced with the choice of enforcing and bringing it up consistently or letting it slide somewhat. The former can mean making the experience awful for the player. Alternately, depending on the disad it can drag the group down seizing the focus or making the other PCs deal with the fallout from it. On the other hand, the latter approach gives the player the advantages without the costs- in this case freedoms from obligations. There’s the potential for even more friction in the group from that. I’m not saying this happens all the time- but I’ve certainly run for players who factor this into their decision-making. It means that the GM has to think especially carefully about them and give them to the right player. The PC who is going take every opportunity to mock the stuck up samurai will wear out his welcome quickly. The player who choose as ronin because they clear don’t get the setting is an equal recipe for disaster.

That may explain why The Way of the Wolf comes late in the L5R line- and why the book goes to lengths to make the ronin into their own clan- with senses of honor, obligations, and bonds. It follows the traditional structure of the rest of the Way of the Clans volumes. It is a 128-page perfect bound softcover, with classic L5R two column plus sidebar layout. Carl Frank gives a solid cover with iconic figures. The interior art’s not so good, with some pieces looking really rushed. The book has five chapters, plus four appendices. Character three is character mechanics as usual; chapter five offers character templates which could easily be used for NPCs.

There’s a brief prologue fiction which as much as anything sets up the backdrop of this period. Following the Scorpion Clan Coup more ronin operate in Rokugan- some dispossessed and others choosing this path. Chapter one provides eight pages of various viewpoints on the ronin. That’s important and complicated. Ronin in Japanese history shifted in role and position over time- with the late period and the ending of traditional roles clashing with the samurai ethos. There’s a reason so many of the ronin-based sagas take place in this period. Since L5R echoes that source material but doesn’t follow it, they have to make clear those social roles. The chapter also has sidebars reemphasizing the benefits and drawbacks to being a ronin. Chapter two charts a history of the “Wave Men.” More importantly it offers different origins and roles for different ronin. It also establishes different families of ronin, many of which appear in the later 3e and 4e rules. The Yotsu appear, but relevantly we see Toturi’s connection to them. This is a crucial shift in the setting, preparing for the Second Day of Thunder arc. There’s, of course, extensive notes on famous battles of the ronin- color material with less use at the table. Chapter Four presents write ups of famous ronin of the First Core period- most of whom are key iconic characters: Toturi, Dairya, Ginawa, Toku, etc. Some of these characters already appeared elsewhere, especially in the recent Unexpected Allies, so that’s a little odd.

The first appendix has general advice on how to survive as a ronin. It also considers the reaction of each of the great clans to ronin. There’s some additional good material on daily lives for these characters. There’s a brief section considering how GMs should deal with ronin in their games. I think the material in Winter Court: Kyuden Kakita was actually a little more in depth. More discussion and ideas would have been useful. Appendix II has recent history, especially as it pertains to the Wave Men. This is good material for those running in this era. Appendix III has some new spells. Finally Appendix IV offers a really solid discussion of ronin villages and settlements, including a map of one. Unlike all the other Way of the Clans volumes there’s no CCG or Clan War material inserted here.

It is interesting to see how the ideas established here remain intact throughout the various editions of L5R. Third Edition's Fealty and Freedom reworks some of these concepts, but they largely stay the same. Additional Ronin material also appears in Mimura: The Village of Promises. Game Masters can look further afield as well- Bushido, Oriental Adventures, Ronin: Oriental Adventures in Tokugawa Japan, and Sengoku all support a ronin campaign more or less out of the box. Clan and family may be important, but those can be backdrop elements- focusing GMs on more common samurai tropes and themes. L5R on the other hand, seems to come to this more out of needing to update the metaplot. They're heading into one of the few eras were Ronin would be a viable faction. Way of the Wolf positions them within the web of forces operating post Scorpion Clan Coup.

Those connections to institutions and authority make L5R, at least for me, complicated and tense. In my experience players react badly to in-game authority. L5R requires the characters come to terms with that and find a way to interact with it. Ronin, well played, could offer an interesting commentary on it. Way of the Wolf offers some interesting ideas about that. For GMs generally it suggests ways to present NPC ronin groups- perhaps ones which challenge players' sense of identity. For GMs working in the First Core era, it offers important details about the history and sets the table for the Second Day of Thunder.

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 

Friday, February 8, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Merchant's Guide to Rokugan & Way of the Minor Clans

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.

I almost skipped reviewing this volume. It had been years since I looked at it, but I went back and reread it. And I’m undoubtedly beating a dead horse on the issue, but there may be some few reading this who don’t know of this book.

For this, I offer my story.

I was at the Mall, where one of our local game stores had briefly opened a shop. Usually they just had D&D and Warhammer stuff, but I always checked in when we went to the EB Games just a few shops down from it. Imagine my pleasure when I spotted a new L5R book I didn’t own. I grabbed it up. It was something pretty amazing, a book covering many aspects of the setting I really wanted to read about- history, geography, commerce. It even had one of my favorite characters from the L5R CCG on the cover, the Wily Trader Taka! I read the back cover blurb,

“The Merchant's Guide to Rokugan has everything players and GMs need to know about this deeply underestimated class, from the secrets of the Unicorn caravans to the unseen influence of the Yasuki traders. It contains an updated history of the Emerald Empire, details on merchant character creation and campaign running, and the untold stories of the Crane-Yasuki wars, including the tale of Taka himself. So step up to the vendor's stall and peruse the wares you see: a whole new side of Rokugan awaits.”
Holy Cow- here’s my $20.

I get home and check out the first couple of pages- dense, rich economic details- the kind of serious considerations I never expected to see in a sourcebook. I was a little stunned and hoped the rest of the book would cover these ideas a little more accessibly. I set it down for a couple of days until I had time to really read it, notebook in hand.

And I turned to page six.
“This isn’t The Merchant’s Guide to Rokugan, you see. It’s the Kolat book.”

I have mentioned before in my L5R reviews that “Your Rokugan May Vary.” You may love the Nezumi as a consistent element in the setting, you may want the Yasuki to be a part of the Crane, you may hate the Lion. I respect that, so in that vein please take this statement: I Loathe the Kolat as a Concept in L5R. I’ll state my basic reasons, but then move on. A secret conspiratorial group who has influenced things behind the scenes and evaded detection in a world filled with magic and god-like creatures. A structure outside the all-important hierarchies of family lines, Clans, and duty. Yet another nigh-omni-potent group the players can’t really bring down (in addition to Fu Leng, The Lying Darkness, the Scorpion if adversaries). A group cloaked in material that suggests mind-control, gotcha!, and “fooled you!” plots, all things which players love. If they are as potent, have the resources presented, and operate as suggested in this book, then the players don’t have a chance. Everything feels like a Mary Sue villain group, trying to be the cool Illuminati with sweet Ninjas. They’re fodder for GMs to have weird things happen to the group they can never get a handle on, and then say after the campaign “Here’s what was really happening…”

Your Rokugan May Vary.

The book itself is divided into five large chapters, plus an appendix. At 120 pages, it is about as long as the standard Clan books. Rob Vaux wrote this; I may not like the core concept, but he writes well and clearly. He knows the setting and puts that to good use. Cris Dornaus’ cover is much creepier after you know the secret of the book. The interior art is generally high quality. Page design follows the most common L5R pattern: two columns with sidebar annotations.

Chapter One: History: This covers the origins of the Kolat, and their initial conception as a war of Mortals against the kami. It traces the first key uber-potent artitact Palantir Oni’s Eye which allows them to see everything. We come to understand how they infiltrated the Ki-Rin, used the Yasuki war to increase the power of commerce, undermined the Lion, and established the rule of law.

Chapter Two: Purpose and Organization: The Kolat have been operating in secret for ten centuries, in that time they’ve developed and refined their philosophy, focusing on Control, Secrecy, and Patience. Return control to man means overthrowing the literal and figurative person of the Hantei and his house. The chapter lays out the basics of the pyramid/cell structure for the group.

Chapter Three: Tactics and Enemies: Goes through the tools and procedures the Kolat use to infiltrate and deal with their enemies. That’s a combination of mundane (through commerce), magical, and mythic in the form of Kolat Assassins. Sleeper agents, deep rpogramming, mind control, body doubles- all of the classic New Rokugani order tools. There’s an useful overview of how the Kolat view the different clans and how they approach those. It does suggest some foes the Kolat fears, but at least two of them are adversarial to everyone.

Chapter Four: Your Campaign: Offers ideas for how to integrate the Kolat into a campaign. There’s some solid and specific advice. Gms thinking about working with the Kolat as a foe will find this hugely useful. The chapter makes specific reference to the other major conspiracy-campaign sourcebook of the era, GURPS Illuminati. There’s also advice for running a campaign of the PCs as Kolat.

Chapter Five: Who’s Who: Gives stats and background write ups for the Ten masters leading the Kolat. This is fairly First Core setting specific, but GMs of other eras should be able to file the serial numbers off and replace them with another similar NPC (except perhaps for Akodo Kage…).

The book wraps up with eight character templates, similar to those in the Way of the Clans books. These have a character sheet and a generic background written up. They could easily be adapted as the basis for NPCs.

The other significant treatment of the Kolat pops up in Enemies of the Empire. They get about sixteen pages there. GMs who want to know more about them will find this a useful resource. The Kolat suffer some changes in the eras with follow the First Core, particularly the purge of the Unicorn. However much the basic information here should be adaptable to later periods, if you like this material.

If I’m reading the publication history correctly, this is the first L5R supplement set after the Scorpion Clan Coup. That still puts it before the Second Day of Thunder arc, but does finally bring the L5R into parallel with the Clan War miniatures game. The introductory fiction places it ten months after the Fall of the Scorpion.

Several of the minor clans had been mentioned in previous L5R sourcebooks. The Mantis, in particular, received a proto-version of their school. The Dragonfly appeared in a module as a key element, and the Sparrow and Falcon were prominently mentioned in the Crane and Crab clan books respectively. And, of course the Hare and the Badger, had been used as whipping boys in a couple of story packs. However we’d just had hints and references, but no extensive treatment of these minor clans. In many cases, that meant GMs had plenty of incentive to develop background and rules for them and the others who had been detailed at all (the Fox, the Tortoise, the Centipede). The Way of the Minor Clans illustrates one of the problems of long-running rpg series. Later books have to find untouched areas. They have to fill in that imaginative space, and often that clashes with GMs’ existing interpretations. Gamemasters are left, as I was, having to decide if they wanted to go with the established reading or with those presented here. In some cases WotMC presented interesting ideas and in others I liked my version better. Unfortunately that soured me on this book a little.

I like the idea of the Minor Clans, though in later eras they spring up far too often. I’ve never been fond of the restriction of the Clans to just three techniques in their school. I understand the logical basis for that, but as a gamer, if a PCs decides to go that route I want to give them interesting options. The volume does provide some new resources for PCs who take up this difficult road. Each minor clan gets a single chapter in this 128-page volume, plus there's a discussion of three fallen clans. The interior art is just OK, with some chapters faring worse than others (the Kitsune and Moshi for example). Ree Soesbee compiled the volume from nine contributors. Each entry has background, thoughts of the great Clans on the clan, skills & techniques, ancestors, a key NPC, and in a couple of cases some general setting material (in the text or sidebars).

Mantis aka Yoritomo: The heavy hitters of the Minor Clans, the Mantis have popped up several times in the series so far. Of course this material is set before Yoritomo’s Alliance, the establishment of the Mantis as a great clan, and all of the crazed developments of the later period (the Orochi, in particular). The Mantis section touches on peasant weapons, the high seas, and ships in L5R. Fox aka Kitsune: Interesting ideas on forest magic and the idea of the Fox Wives. Dragonfly aka Tonbo: A few unique spells and discussion of their role as gatekeepers for the Dragon. Sparrow aka Suzume: My favorite of the minor clans. Suggests the idea of minor clans as intermediaries in larger conflicts. Badger aka Ichiro: They end up being nearly destroyed in several times in the years after this. Centipede aka Moshi: Matriarchal Sun Priestess who eventually merge with the Mantis. Offers some insight into alternate religious practices. Falcon aka Toritaka: A forest dwelling clan, later assimilated into the Crab. This chapter has some decent bits on hauntings and the dangers of the Shinomen Forest. One of the better entries. Tortoise: A group rather than a clan, with the Emperor as their de facto daimyo. They have contact with those living outside Rokugan. That offers fodder for some interesting stories. The Wasp aka Tsuruchi: Archers of note, but more importantly bounty hunters within Rokugan.

Of all of these, the Mantis, Falcon, and Tortoise feel the most fleshed out. They add hooks and complexities which would make them fun to see at the table. The book wraps up with a final chapter addressing the fates of three lost clans. The first of these is the Boar Clan. Having committed seppuku en masse, they left behind a haunted land. They’re also tied into the creation of the Anvil of despair and the Shakoki Dogu. The book doesn’t go into detail, but skims the tales. The second is the Hare Clan, previously seen in the adventure “The Hare Clan.” The book assumes that the PCs failed to protect the clan, and now they’ve been destroyed. The lone survivor blames the Kolat. Third is the Snake Clan- previously addressed in Bearers of Jade. Essentially the Clan fell victim to an Oni who spread out his spirit in possession. The Phoenix purged the clan over the course of five nights. They also left behind a dangerous and haunted land.

If I have a problem with this volume, it is that mostly we get history, history and more history. That background’s interesting, a decent read. But that doesn't bring much to the table. As a GM, I want to know what these clans look like- what do PCs see when they interact with them. I want ideas for plots and hooks that I could use to introduce these characters into my game. I used to write extensive histories for my players- I loved world building. But at some point I realized how little impact that actually had at the table. Brief notes, combined with figuring out personalities and vibrant details, made for more engaging and memorable gaming.

The volume provides slightly more detail than the quick overview in the 4e core book. There's more background here- but primarily history. The mechanic sections aren't that useful for 4e GMs. While this volume offers some generally useful information, it isn't enough to make it really compelling. There's also the problem that some of the later minor clans (such as the Monkey) don’t appear here. Instead it gives an overview focused on what these groups looked like in the First Core setting. Recommended for GMs of that era, optional for others.

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