Friday, February 1, 2013

The L5R 4e Resource Guide: Unexpected Allies & Legacy of the Forge

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 love NPCs. I’ve said it before, but at least in my campaigns, NPCs are the engine that makes the game run. Not that they take the spotlight or “Mary Sue” the PCs, but that they offer the best method for introducing complications, creating connections, and showing off the world. I remember excitedly picking up Unexpected Allies at Origins, ’99 I think. I read through the whole thing on the car ride home. It is a volume filled with promise, some of which it lives up to, but not all.

Unexpected Allies is primarily an NPC sourcebook and a resource on handling those characters. It is an 128-page perfect-bound book with material from many contributors. L5R veterans Patrick Kapera & Ree Soesbee compiled the volume, with thirty contributors listed. William O’Connor delivers a cool and energetic cover. However only some of the artwork inside lives up to that. Quite a few character illustrations are pretty 'meh' as are some of the incidental pieces. The book has a clean design generally. It has three major parts: game fiction, an overview section on NPCs, and then 40+ NPCs grouped by Clan or affiliation.

In some ways the stories for each NPC serve as a kind of game fiction. They allude to and explain events in the setting. But the book starts with a longer eight-page story finally illuminating the story behind the Ronin Ginawa and his fall. It is a pretty classic tale, and since Ginawa appears in the core book narratives, there’s a connection there.

INTRODUCTION: This material, running from page 14 through 33, has six major sections. It also has five new ancestors described in text boxes.
  • Villains, Villains Everywhere: Talks about ways to make villains more ambiguous, or at least understandable within the context of Rokugan and Bushido. Though it doesn’t explicitly address the idea of dramatic tension (ala McKee) arising from the difference between internal and external drives, it asks the GM to consider an NPCs presentation versus their actual self. L5R is a game where the players have to get used to being lied to- something some groups have a problem with. The section also offers advice on distinguishing between Honor, Glory, and Loyalty, often confused concepts. 
  • Allies and Enemies: There’s a good discussion on making believable NPCs. That’s often an overlooked virtue. GMs can make striking or interesting NPCs, but they have to have a life beyond that surface. They need to make sense in the context of the setting. How have they survived and prospered? This also offer ideas for making NPC memorable through physical details and quirks. 
  • Motives: Following from the first section, this considers how to define an NPC’s motives. Needs shouldn’t be static cut0outs. They have needs and desires, often at odds with the PCs. The question is how to play out and explicate those for the players. 
  • Crime and the Emerald Empire: This is an odd section to appear here- I would have expected it in the GM’s Survival Guide or one of the Winter Court books. But the material is welcome- defining various kinds of common crimes. I especially like the list of “Things Which Can Be Forged in Rokugan.” You could get a number of great sessions out of that. This material will be of use to most Magistrate-based games. 
  • Creating and Using NPCs: Talks about common set-ups for introducing new characters and examples of different villain archetypes. There are three tables at the end, two of miscellaneous quirks and one for generating motivations.
THE NPCS: This runs from page 35 through the end of the book. Each NPC is presented with a full character sheet page and a facing page with a background write up and an illustration. UA groups these entries by clan, with a few for each of the Great Clans, plus a section for Ronin and a section of miscellaneous NPCs. Unexpected Allies comes out before Way of the Minor Clans and Way of the Wolf so it can’t fully take advantage of the material presented there. In general this structure resembles the NPCs presented in each of the “Way of…” books, except these have specific names and histories. The character sheet portion’s set up a little differently; I’m not sure if it is better or worse. Instead of a discussion of motivations or role-playing, the text portion is pure narrative history. That’s not nearly as useful.

I understand some of the purpose here. They want to present stories, because they’re showcasing the details behind some of the iconic characters from the CCG and background (Sanzo, Naka Kuro, and Dairya for example). They also suggest that this could be a resource for ready-made PCs, but that seems like a more remote use of the book. The entries themselves are uneven- a couple of histories that hit the same beats, some of the stories more interesting (as you’d expect). More importantly, there’s a missed opportunity. Why do we need the full space for the character sheet? Couldn’t that have been done just as easily with a stat block. If they did that, they could then add 2-3 plot hooks for each of the NPCs. Walking the Way did very well with this approach. Here, since this is a GM facing sourcebook, they wouldn’t have the problem of player material next to adventure ideas. Story concepts with each NPC would make this book immensely more useful.

The open nature of this book makes it pretty useful for L5R GMs of any era. The character sheets are the mechanical part of the book, so that’s about 40 pages you can skip. The character background stories could be adapted if you needed a quick concept. But generally I think GMs love making up NPCs- at least most GMs I know. So if you've going to present me with NPCs, I need some value-added. What I want is clear and playable material- hooks and adventure concepts to go with them or at least more depth than just their history. That’s what makes something like the Citybooks great- they take that next step in presenting NPCs.

Most Legend of the Five Rings adventures are fairly timeless. They have situations and details which can be moved or adapted to many different eras. Even those which reference iconic heroes (Hida Yakomo, Yoritomo) can easily replaced those since they aren’t crucial to the story. A few larger adventure supplements fall outside that. But most of the smaller “story packs” exist independently. Legacy of the Forge feels like the first deeply connected history and is strongly tied to a previous adventure, "Silence Within the Sound." The death of the Lion Clan champion, Akodo Arasou haunts this adventure, literally and figuratively. Is the adventure strong, and can it be adapted to other eras?

The story turns on the activities of Shikken Tankenka, a key NPC from “Silence Within Sound.” In the time between this adventure and the last, he’s been promoted as an Imperial Agent and has been looking into various issues. That brings up one oddness- you can’t play this story immediately after the previous one. The material assumes a gap of several months at the very least. That will work for some campaigns, but if you have a time-lapse adverse group it may pose a logistical difficulty. Essentially Tankenka has been following the activities of a particular Scorpion instigator. The book nicely details these incidents so they can be worked into the background of the campaign (at least one of them relates to rumors given in Winter Court: Kyuden Seppun).

BTW there’s a moment in the set up of the module that does bug me a little. Speaking of the villain, it says, “…there is indeed a method to her madness. Though her long-term objective is beyond the scope of this adventure (and therefore not detailed here)..” Um. That might be useful and important information for the GM to know. I’m assuming, without referencing the Otosan Uchi boxed set, that it is prologue for the Scorpion Clan Coup. If that’s the case, then tell us that. If it isn’t, at least give us something to work with.

The set-up and story for the adventure’s plot covers eight pages- pretty huge by standards of modules. The conspiracy in question is complicated, with a lot of double-cross, misunderstood details, and so on. It looks good on paper- but it may be overly complicated and confusing for players I practice. They will probably only see fragments of this larger picture- enough to take decisive action. I fear that it might lead to one of my least favorite GM syndromes, the “What Was Really Happening” speech telling the players all of the stuff they missed or couldn’t see. DON’T DO THAT. That’s an important piece of advice for this module and any other game.

The actual story begins with the group receiving a summons from Tankenka (there’s a handout in the book) calling them to Toshi Ranbo. They’re to serve as his assistants in the current negotiations between the Lion and Crane. As an Imperial Regent, Tankenka might actually have the pull to call the PCs in like this. The hook here is reasonable and probably won’t be too much of a problem. It’s also worth noting that, as written, this adventure will kill players.

What follows is an adventure broken into four acts, each with many sub-events and scenes. The module’s 64 page, perfect bound, longer than any of the previous story packs. The layouts crisp and clean; the pages look good. Patrick Kapera’s writing’s clear, despite the complexity of the plot involved. I would have liked a one-page summary or key information sheet. There’s some boxed text, but less so than some of the hand-holding of the first L5R modules. The art’s good, but a few pieces are more evocative than useful. I like my art to double as handouts- so images or scenes or specific NPCs. There’s still a good deal of that here. The floor plans and maps are especially well done.

Act One: Toshi Ranbo: The PCs arrive in the midst of battle and have to make their way inside the walls. There’s a nice mix of direct heroic opportunities in battle and alternatives which avoid conflict. The enter into a chaotic situation. Searching through they encounter ghostly advice. But the situation gets more and more complicated. There’s a lot of the players to do- but much of it involves them simply trying to survive, making it a very reaction sequence. That’s especially true with the ending which has a death which the players essentially cannot prevent.

Act Two: Shiro Sano Ken Hayai: The players begin to investigate what set off this crisis and the nature of the strange supernatural events they have seen. There’s reference to a number of First Core setting characters and events- who actually have a significant connection to the plot. The material here is open-ended- with the players have several directions and lines of inquiry to pursue. Eventually they spring a trap which reveals more about their situation.

Act Three: Across the Plains of Battle: With information in hand, the players seek out a hidden scroll they need to stop the threat. This is a scripted act which leads the group from incident to incident. There are some moral questions (with only one real solution) and, of course, an Oni.

Act Four: Shiro no Yojin: Once again the players arrive just as a battle begins. They have to negotiate their way in and then eventually go to war. The scenario includes notes on running these battles (using the mass battle system of the core book or via Clan War). There’s some cool stuff here and the players can bring a halt to this plot. But, of course, the main bad guy escapes, which seems a little weak.

This module has really interesting ideas for GMs running in the First Core setting. It has some elements drawn specifically from the background of that period. However, I don’t think that presents a huge obstacle to adapting it to another period (or even another set of warring Clans). More problematic is how scripted and involved the plot is. Key sections restrict player autonomy in a way that some groups may not like, especially when it happens multiple times. I enjoyed reading the module, but I’m less interested in running it.

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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