Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review - Legend of the Five Rings 4th Edition

A couple of years ago Alderac Entertainment released the latest version of their hugely successful Legend of the Five Rings RPG, the 4th edition (available in both Hardcopy and PDF.) For those who aren't aware, the Legend of the Five Rings RPG is the role-playing game based upon the CCG of the same name.

Set in the land of Rokugan the world is essentially that of a fantastical take on feudal Japanese Samurai with heavy influences from both Japanese and Chinese belief, myth and history. The Celestial Order of society is in place with the Emperor at the top, samurai lords below that and so on down the chain until you get to the eta or unclean at the bottom of the ladder.

The premise is that society was created by the Kami, children of lady Sun and father Moon who fell to earth after a battle in the heavens. Of the nine Kami who fell to earth, one became Emperor and seven founded the great clans (Crab, Crane, Dragon, Ki-rin (later Unicorn), Lion, Phoenix and Scorpion.) The ninth Kami was Fu-Leng who fell far from his brothers and sisters to the south and down into Jigoku the realm of evil. The great clans, along with the Emperor, set about establishing the feudal samurai society of Rokugan while Fu Leng crawled his way back out of the festering pit to Rokugan. By this point Fu Leng was a twisted version of his former self, corrupt and evil while holding animosity to his siblings. His evil, along with that of the realm of Jigoku spilling into the world, created The Shadowlands on the southern borders, and has been waging war against the empire ever since.

The great clans all have their own unique flavour and capabilities and all have a role to play in the Emerald Empire.

  • Crab Clan: Often seen as brutish they generally have no time for the niceties of the other clans and their political games. The Crab are tasked with holding the southern border of Rokugan against the forces of the Shadowlands, a task that they take seriously and one which has cost them countless lives. 
  • Crane Clan: The richest of the clans, the clan with the ear of the Emperor and the political movers and shakers of the Imperial court. Also home to the deadliest duelists in the empire.
  • Dragon Clan: Often aloof they hide in their mountains and contemplate the universe. Generally inscrutable in their mystical leanings. Their monks are often tattooed with ink containing the blood of their Kami that grants them additional powers and their bushi are the only samurai to have mastered the style of using both blades in combat at the same time.
  • Lion Clan: The most martial of the clans the Lions are almost the military arm of the emperor outside the Imperial Legions themselves. Masters of battle their armies are rarely defeated. Their honour is also beyond reproach and they stick most diligently to the tenents of bushido.
  • Phoenix Clan: The Phoenix have more shugenja (magic users) than any other clan by a large margin. Experts into study of the five elements they are more in tune with the spirits than any other clan.
  • Scorpion Clan: If there is a play or a story, then the Scorpion are always the bad guys. A Scorpion almost always wears a mask and they are the masters of subterfuge and clandestine tactics that other clans consider dishonourable. Often more at home in the shadows they are also masters of political wrangling and trickery. 
  • Unicorn Clan: For the first 800 years of the Emerald Empire the Ki-Rin clan wandered the world searching out threats to Rokugan. When they returned they returned with a culture different to the rest of the empire. Riding on massive war horses the Unicorn are descendants of those who left in the Ki-Rin clan who have bred with gaijin over the centuries. Their cavalry is feared and their tendency to eat meat is looked down upon.

Within the empire the great clans play their games among one another. Minor military actions over land, political maneuverings among the courts of the clans and the emperor, subtle dishonourable shadow actions against one another always looking for the edge. Add to this mix a healthy dose of magic (prayers to the spirits that inhabit the world and other realms), fantastical creatures such as Oni (demons), ogres, kappa, naga and many others out of Japanese and Chinese myths and you have a great setting for adventure.

The background covered in the rulebook is sufficient to get an elementary grasp of the setting, but isn't sufficient in my opinion to a long term campaign. Thankfully there are other books in the line that are more than capable of taking up the slack.

Several games in the past have tried to put the players in the role of samurai but none have been as successful as the Legend of the Five Rings line. Other games prior such as Bushido and Sengoku held to such a rigid structure that it made it difficult to justify a roaming group of PCs, and the strict tenents of bushido made normal player roleplaying difficult. L5R has solved this problem by relaxing the tenents of bushido ever so slightly while also creating a fantasy version of Japanese society that allows for extra flexibility. Coming out of this are several methods of getting the PCs interacting with the world in the manner or a more regular adventuring party such as as magistrates roaming the land ensuring the Emperor's laws are upheld, cross-clan groups put together to  fight the various evils that inhabit the world, courtiers at court trying to gain favour for their clans etc. This allows greater player freedom while still retaining some of the controls of a feudal society that works really well. Yes there is a small learning curve for players to adjust to gaming in the setting, but it is a learning curve that pays great dividends down the road.

As for the 4th edition rulebook itself, one of the most common things said about it is how beautiful the book is. The book is filled with wonderful evocative art, much pulled from the large library used for the CCG, that doesn't take over the book but enhances the sections and provides a great consistent feel and sense of world building. Flavour text throughout the book serves to draw the reader into the world in a subtle way, and is useful to introduce you to the society of the game. This is put together into a full colour high quality paper hardback.

One criticism I have personally of the layout of the book is the font is unnecessarily small. My eyesight is fine and it isn't an issue for me personally, but it's definitely a few points smaller than most RPG books. It could be said that small type just allows more to be squeezed into the book, which is normally true but on most pages the side borders are excessively large and filled with whitespace (well not whitespace due to the beautiful background images on the pages.) In layout they could easily have increased the font a point or two and taken an inch or more from the page edges and maintained the same page count.

The book is generally well laid out with the usual sections; background, rules, character generation, gamemastering etc. Despite the fact that the ruleset for the game is relatively simple it can be difficult to find what you are looking for at times. Often the rules will refer to another rule (such as the rules for dual wielding weapons) that haven't been brought up yet, and aren't even found in the main rule section (the dual wielding rules are found in a sidebar tucked away in the equipment section rather than main rules section.) This can lead to it being a little frustrating while trying to get a sense of the overall system, and there are several examples of this.

As for the rules themselves, the fourth edition is easily the most streamlined and well rounded ruleset that the game has had yet. The basic mechanic of roll X d10s and keep Y remains unchanged from previous editions, and continues to work well while being enhanced slightly. Balance seems to have been a big consideration in bringing this edition together and they've done an excellent job with it. The schools from different clans all provide unique advantages, but no one advantage is overpowering or capable of dominating all aspects of the game, with there being methods of overcoming it from other angles. Sometimes it feels slightly like a rock paper scissors approach however it's much more of a rock paper scissors lizard Spock plus 11 more possibilities set. This means individual techniques are good against a lot of opponents but sometimes you'll come across someone with a skillset that can undo yours, but not the rest of the party. It's just enough to make it interesting.

A callout has to also be made to the introductory adventure in the back of the book. For a violent feudal society the fact that the adventure is not combat orientated deserves a special mention. It is a great introduction as to how the society actually works in Rokugan and the challenges of participating in the battlefields of the political arena. Added to those challenges is a murder mystery in a land where physical evidence doesn't necessarily matter as much as the honour of individuals and their sincerity leaving players always in the eternal conundrum of doing what is right, or what is proper, something L5R is good at.

Overall this is a great product, beautiful to behold and it's unlikely that you'd regret the purchase. Be warned though if you purchase the PDF it is a whopping 148mb file. I've only viewed it on an iPad where it renders perfectly well even on a first generation in Goodreader, though you need to zoom in to read the text.

Definitely recommended, even if you own previous editions.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Horror on the Orient Express

So I find myself contributing (probably too heavily) to Chaosium's Horror on the Orient Express Kickstarter (more on Kickstarter at a later point.) I'm somewhat ashamed to say that I own the original, which has become a real collectors item, but never done more than read through the first 20 pages or so of the adventure. I love Call of Cthulhu, but for some reason I've never read the campaign despite owning it. No idea why, I think perhaps I thought it seemed rather railroady (no that wasn't a pun.) It was about 15 years ago that I last tried so maybe I should ease it out of its box and have another look.

The Kickstarter is well past its funding stages (at the time of writing it had just passed $70,000), despite some initial hiccups with the levels and uncertainty as to what backers received for each level and now unclear and sometimes inconsistent shipping costs seem to be causing a lot of strife on the project. We all know Chaosium has had issues in the past keeping to deadlines, paying its writers and issuing product, but this Kickstarter shows despite that the company and the product are still held in relatively high regard by the community.

Anyway, if you are a Cthulhu fan and you've always wanted a copy of what is considered a classic but don't want to pay Ebay prices, then head over to the Kickstarter linked above. If you do want to pay Ebay prices, then let me know as I'm now willing to let my original classic copy go for the right price :)

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Neil Armstrong - RIP

It is a sad day for humanity today as the news comes to us that Neil Armstrong has died following complications from heart surgery earlier this month. Meeting Mr Armstrong as a child was instrumental in my love of space exploration and was probably a large factor in my eventually going to university to get a degree in Space Science and Systems. It's a shame he died before we went back.

You will be sorely missed Neil, I shall raise a glass to you tonight while looking fondly at the moon. Farewell.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Creative Inspiration: Music

As a GM it can be difficult sometimes to get that spark of inspiration needed to get going with a story. Often, at least in my case, you just need that one little spark to light the way through your mind towards the final outcome. As we know inspiration can come from almost anywhere, and I frequently use different forms almost at random in order to come up with a story.

One tactic I've used a couple of times is music. It's amazing how many songs can conjure the adventure concepts when considered in conjunction with the game you're planning on running. When I do it I simply fire up iTunes pointed over my entire music collection and hit the shuffle button. Then listen.

Here are a couple of examples, generated just now for the blog. A game is picked simply by looking at my shelves, and then the shuffle button is clicked.

Game: Shadowrun
Song: Heir of a Dying Day by Lacuna Coil
Okay not many lyrics to this one, but the first thing that comes to my mind here is some kind of cult or gang. Probably based around a charismatic leader. The lyrics evoke images of dragons or drakes or possibly a powerful illusionist mage. Lets go with a dragon, cause everyone loves dragons. It's a minor dragon, not a player in the world of dragon politics, doesn't own anything, not powerful, just an average Joe dragon. Of course an average Joe dragon is very powerful compared to metahumanity so he can still achieve things. As a result this dragon is gathering followers in the Redmond Barrens. The destitute and downtrodden are flocking to him, drunk on the possibilities that are inherent when your patron is a dragon. The dragon intends to try using his followers to establish a large presence, clear out some gangs and take control of the barrens for himself. To what end? Why do bodies keep turning up? Why are there droves of practically brainwashed down and outs going around with a sense of purpose? PCs contacts are going quiet, the wyrm is definitely up to something big, and once they find out it's a dragon it's definitely something serious.

Game: Delta Green
Song: My Last Breath by Evanescence
Straight off I can tell this is really Delta Green material. While I'm not taking the entire lyric set, there's imagery of people knowing it's their last night on earth, and gladly embracing someone. While he's much used, the great disgusting naked one Y'golonac leaps immediately into my head (what does that tell you about the contents of my head?) A rash of people getting their hands on some material that once read establishes a mental connection with Y'golonac. Within a few days of exposure the victim is overcome by feelings of love for the great old one and a means of meeting with him is provided. The victim then willingly goes to a warehouse in a run down area of town and walks into the embrace of his physical manifestation. Investigation can turn up that the material is a blog created by a Joseph Cartwright who came across a Contact Y'golonac spell while searching for greater ways to satisfy his sexual depravities. Once he read the spell, it crept into his mind set about establishing his body as a host for Y'golonac in this world. Over the course of a week he changed into the typical embodiment of the old one. During this time he continued to blog about his sexual appetites and desire, with elements of the spell embedded into the text. Those who read it become connected and eventually succumb to the desire to be wrapped in the old one's embrace for one last moment of pure ecstasy. Thankfully his blog is not very popular, but that just means it's harder to track down. A-Cell is worried and the players have a night at the opera planned for them.

So that's just two examples of how music can drive a plot inspiration. And yes, they were really the first two songs picked and random games off my shelves. Practice makes perfect. Not every song will give you something, and not every idea that you do get can evolve itself into a full fledged adventure, but hopefully it's just enough to get the creative juices flowing.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Deciding what to run

Do you ever have problems deciding what game to run? Those who know me know that my RPG collection is well in excess of 1,200 physical books, with at least 40 different settings and a multitude of editions among those settings. That's just physical books, you can probably double that if you include PDF related games excluding those I have physically. As a result when deciding to actually run something again (I was never out of role-playing, I still collected and read, I just didn't actually play) the choice was rather difficult.

So how do you decide what to run? If you're anything like me you're easily got into the mood for a particular game/setting based on external influences. This is useful for really getting into a particular game, not so useful for when you thought you'd made your mind up then watch a cool movie or TV series which throws you off on a tangent again. For six months I went up and down my collection, reading as much as I could from one setting for a week, another setting for a night, and perhaps yet another setting book to flick through while sat on the porcelain throne. Not exactly conducive to focusing and figuring out one game.

I went through stages with maybe a dozen different games, but finally it started focusing down to just a handful.
  1. Call of Cthulhu
  2. Shadowrun
  3. Deathwatch
  4. Traveller
How to decide. Well there are obviously many factors in deciding what to run, and all of them did have an input. A good set of questions are;
  • What does my gaming group like? Well I don't have a group right now, so that's of no help.
  • What is selling well in my area? I live in Toronto and the perennial best sellers appear to be D&D and Pathfinder. I have no inclination to run either of those, so again no help.
  • Which rule system do I like, or can I stand learning? This was really the death knell to Deathwatch at this time, I just couldn't be bothered going through all those rules. I love the 40K setting, and I'm sure I could run it easily, but the thought of the rulebook just put me right off.
  • Which can I just run with almost no effort? Call of Cthulhu I've always loved, but I find it can be complex to get an adventure just right. I wanted to ease myself in again and didn't want the hassle associated with trying to get the atmosphere right, do the writing etc at this point, so Cthulhu unfortunately was set aside for now.
  • How easy can I run with the setting, make stuff up and add colour at the drop of a hat? Traveller and Shadowrun both have universes that I'm very familiar with. Pulling detail out of nowhere would be child's play with both games.
  • What would just plain be fun? Both Shadowrun and Traveller are fun in their own way, but I think these days people can associate with and get into character more easily with Shadowrun and the default characters.
So there we go, games narrowed down and the winner of what game I am going to run is Shadowrun Legend of the Five Rings.

Hold on what? That wasn't an option. Well sometimes no matter how much process you apply to something, your gut just jumps in and makes a last minute decision for you. C'est la vie. So yes, I've been reading up on running Legend of the Five Rings. It ticks all the boxes above for me that the other games did, and I've always loved the setting. So Five Rings ho! (and yes I watch Big Bang Theory too, and know ho means calling attention to a destination, but who cares. Five Rings ho!!)

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Start of an era?

So after years of procrastinating, putting it off and general apathy, I've decided to get off my behind and put my RPG views, tips, reviews, news etc into an online blog form. I was going to use a regular website but the blog format allows more flexibility and less maintenance that allows for more time brainstorming/writing/gaming and everything else that goes on in the busy role-playing world.

Who am I? Well I've been role-playing for around 23 years now in both Europe and Canada. Currently between groups after having several years off (I was learning to fly and wanted to concentrate on that, so I ignored the beloved RPGs for several years.) I love writing role-playing items. Some adventures but mostly setting related material and collation of historical and other disparate material that may be of interest to role-players around the world. I've only officially been published for Traveller, but my interests extend beyond that to Legend of the Five Rings, Shadowrun and Cyberpunk, 40K, Earthdawn and, my favourite of them all, Call of Cthulhu.

So what can you expect from here? Honestly, I'm not 100% sure as yet. I know I wish to use it as the jumping off point for a company I've been trying to start for a couple of years now, but that's not ready yet. I need to finish some more writing so there are some more products first. I can tell you what I will have that isn't related to that;
  • Reviews
  • Hints and tips I've picked up along the way
  • Adventure seeds (I'll try to be as generic as possible)
  • Historical items of interest
  • Locations, I have a big interest in locations that can be used for settings
  • Links to good articles on GMing and role-playing in general
  • Perhaps some industry news if it comes across as something that has an effect on my areas of interest