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 

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