Sunday, October 9, 2022

Emerald Empire Sessions 2 and 3: A Writ of Justice

My Legend of the 5 Rings game continues! Hiruma Saya's player's cousin visited us and I took it upon myself to introduce him to tabletop games as a guest player. 

Characters

Bayushi Nori, Scorpion clan courtier
Suzume Minori, Sparrow clan warrior
Tsuruchi Kenzo, Wasp clan archer
Kitsuki Ayumi, Dragon clan investigator
Hiruma Saya, Crab clan scout
(Absent in session 3) Shiba Imori, Phoenix clan warrior 
(Guest in session 3) Ryuma, Unicorn-born ronin
(NPC) Akodo Torokai, Lion clan shugenja

The Session

The party learned that Kitsu Rin, court diviner of Vigilance Castle, was missing, and resolved to solve this mystery. 

The next morning they spoke with Matsu Hiro at greater length and learned more about the situation. They were granted access to Kitsu Rin's room, and Ayumi's keen eye soon found several clues. The floor had been scoured with lye, but a trace of the pollutant remained: a bloodstain. His desk had a secret compartment, which had recently housed something, but was now empty, and showed no sign of forced entry. Outside the window, on the ground three floors down in some bushes, they spotted something glinting. Akodo Torokai later collected it and confirmed it was an amulet Kitsu Rin frequently wore. 

The party spoke to the various guest samurai, whom Matsu Hiro suspected. They determined that the Scorpion courtier, Yogo Akira, wasn't what he seemed. In fact, he likely wasn't a courtier, and his painting secretly encoded the locations of Lion clan battle camps. 

Isawa Kato, the Phoenix shugenja, accepted Bayushi Nori's challenge to a go game, and won handily, while the rest of the group determined that he was preparing suspicious scrolls. Shiba Imori accepetd Mirumoto Nobara's challenge to a sparring duel, and was defeated, but earned her trust, while the rest of the group learned about the castle's history from Doji Mai: until recently it had been a Crane stronghold, but the Lion clan invaded it, and the Crane samurai within threw themselves from the tower rather than be captured. 

The party also investigated the servants and the steward, Roku. They quickly determined that several of them knew more than they were letting on, and with Matsu Hiro's permission pressed Roku more forcefully. He was extremely confused, but the truth soon came out. A week previous, they had been summoned to Kitsu Rin's room, and saw Matsu Hiro leaving with a bloody blade, Kitsu Rin dying on the floor. He ordered them to clean up the mess and bury the body, and then he took several documents, which Roku presumed got burned. Thereafter they buried the body away from the castle. 

The next day the party took Roku to investigate the burial site with a crew of eta (the lowest caste, responsible for filthy jobs such as touching corpses) and confirmed Kitsu Rin's body was there. They also found that he had inscribed something into his arm using his fingernail, a series of ragged characters which spelled out 'Ko-ra-to'. 

Back at the castle, Akodo Torokai broke the news of the party's investigations to Matsu Hiro. The lord was overcome by grief, and soon afterwards departed for a local monastery for an indeterminate period of time. 

That very day, however, the party received a letter from the nearby North Hub Village, requesting aid on behalf of Otomo Sojin, a prominent courtier of the Imperial clan. They made their way with all due haste, arriving the following afternoon. Just within the town gates they were met by a ronin, Ryuma, hefting a colossal axe in one hand, who was waiting for them and was prepared to guide them to Otomo Sojin. Akodo Torokai separated to announce himself to the local magistrate, and instructed the party to meet Sojin and learn what afflicted him.

They followed to the Gentle Blossom geisha house, where they were expected, and the madam welcomed them all effusively. Within a private and luxurious room they encountered Otomo Sojin... who was not expecting. Only Akodo Torokai's personal seal convinced him they were here to help. Earlier that very day (well after the party got the letter asking for help) he had received a ransom note for his son, Otomo Kokare, who would be returned only when he paid back the debt owed. The note warned against contacting the authorities, lest his son be punished. 

Sojin was distraught and confused, and proved to be entirely unaware of who his son associated with and what he did. The party gathered basic information and were warned not to take this to the local magistrate, a member of the minor Tortoise clan that Sojin demeaned as a near-peasant. Ryuma spoke up to inform the group that a good source of information was the Smiling Tigers yakuza gang, one of two major criminal organizations (along with the Red Foxes gang). He pointedly refused to confess who his employer was. 

The party took him up on this and visited the gang at their headquarters in an abandoned inn. They soon met a gang lieutenant, Adoka, who presented Bayushi Nori with a recognition sign: he was an undercover member of the Scorpion clan backing the Smiling Tigers. The conversation between Adoka and the group, primarily with Kitsuki Ayumi, was tense, as Ayumi didn't want to tip her hand in case the Smiling Tigers were responsible for the kidnapping. Eventually, however, they got a hint that they could find what they needed in the Drunken Phoenix gambling house, which was sponsored by the Red Foxes. Nori spoke with him further alone, and learned that Adoka had been the one to send them a letter asking for help, having caught wind of the plot early and hoping to use the group's help to crush the Smiling Tigers' rivals and gain a monopoly over organized crime in town. Nori did not share this information with the group. 

They investigated the Drunken Phoenix, with Nori gambling (and ultimately winning a few silver bu) while the rest of the party drank at the bar. Hiruma Saya made fast friends with a ronin, Tomoji, who turned out to know Kokare, as the two frequently drank together and gambled at this establishment, in blatant violation of class norms. They plied him with drink until he confessed that he saw Kokare escorted from the Drunken Phoenix two nights before by a pair of burly men, whom he pointed out, likely yakuza belonging to the Red Foxes. 

The party left the gambling house but stuck around the area until the yakuza left, and tailed them to their headquarters nearby, the 'Red Fox Inn.' The party rendezvoused with Akodo Torokai, and in the small hours of the morning made their move: Torokai used an earth spell to let Ayumi float underground and observe the goings-on within, and she located Otomo Kokare tied up in a storage closet within, as well as identifying the dozen-plus yakuza within. The group got into position, and launched their attack. Tsuruchi Kenzo and Bayushi Nori hung back and shot the guards at the front door, shortly backed up in melee by Ryuma and Ayumi. Meanwhile Hiruma Saya and Suzume Minori scaled the walls to the inner courtyard and assaulted the compound from the other side. 

Also, all the melee combatants were cloaked in a spell of magical fire that burned their opponents. 

It was a massacre. They had secured the two main entranced, and with their archers having good lines of sight, their enemies never got a break. Their biggest scare came when the Red Foxes' lieutenant, Yukira, came out to meet Saya and Minori in the courtyard... and cast a blood magic spell on Saya, which enervated her leg. Luckily the two of them were able to slay him swiftly before he could cast more blood magic. 

In short time, only a fraction of the gangsters remained, and survivors surrendered, with Ryuma taking their weapons and purses. Minori and Saya located Kokare and unbound him, though he was in such terrible shape he couldn't even walk. Saya turned Yukira's room upside down until she found the blood sorcery scrolls there... very similar to the ones found at Half-Moon Village a few weeks previous. Minori, meanwhile, found the near-deaf boss of the gang, Boss Churokire, who attempted mightily to bribe her into letting him go, but ultimately went quietly. 

By this time the guard had shown up, and with the order of an Emerald Magistrate, took custody of the yakuza. Kokare was returned home swiftly, and the party was fêted and richly rewarded by Otomo Sojin, who offered each a boon. Ayumi accepted a wardrobe of fine clothing which marked its wearer as one in the good graces of the Otomo family, Minori commissioned a fine sword with the Sparrow clan mon inscribed on the blade, Kenzo and Nori accepted specialized archery equipment, while Saya reserved a future political favor for her boon. They were also weighed down in fine gifts for the wedding they would be attending shortly. 

They were visited by many local samurai who wished to meet the brave magistrates-in-training, debriefed with the local Jade Magistrates regarding their repeated encounters with blood sorcery, and met Ikoma Satoshi, an officer in the Lion army who had taken leave from the front to visit Torokai, his old friend, and took the party out drinking. 

When the week was out, the party was ready to get back on the road to the Dragon lands, where they would attend a wedding between the Otomo and Tamori families. 

Takeaways

TBD



Saturday, October 1, 2022

Emerald Empire Session 1: Sunrise Over The Empire

Earlier this week I ran the first session in what will hopefully become a short (25-ish session) campaign using Legend of the 5 Rings (L5R) 4th Edition. I actually ran this same campaign before for an online group around the same time as my Icewind Dale game, also as an introduction to the setting and system. I didn't effectively document either campaign, so I hope to make it up with this one. Strap your swords to your belt, and get ready to enter Rokugan!

Characters

Bayushi Nori, Scorpion clan courtier
Suzume Minori, Sparrow clan warrior
Tsuruchi Kenzo, Wasp clan archer
Kitsuki Ayumi, Dragon clan investigator
Hiruma Saya, Crab clan scout
Shiba Imori, Phoenix clan warrior

The Session

After finishing up their character sheets and getting introduced to one another outside of the game, the party got their first taste of Rokugan. It's the late spring of 1113, the tenth year of the reign of Emperor Hantei XXXVIII, and the characters, who were all unlikely candidates to become Emerald Magistrates (think samurai FBI) receive letters of acceptance. They will be assigned as trial magistrates under the watch of newly minted magistrate Akodo Torokai, a very high-status and orthodox cleric of the Lion clan. They will serve under him for a year, and at the end if they have his approval, they will become full members of the Imperial bureaucracy.

They meet him in his estate outside the Imperial City, and discover they've all been chosen as part of Torokai's pet project to expand the Emerald Magistrates outside their usual strict conformity by injecting some unusual candidates into the mix. As a result of politicking against him, however, the group has not been assigned a mission, so if they want to gain glory and achieve high status, they'll have to go looking for trouble. After he is pulled away for a moment, his wife, Akodo Tomoko, threatens them all with gruesome death if her husband doesn't come home, and instructs them in how to properly serve him. 

They depart the Imperial heartlands and head west toward Lion territory. Along the way, they run into a group of monks on the road. They are fleeing the looting of the nearby Half-Moon Village, where bandits have taken the head priest hostage. The party deliberates and settles on a plan. Hiruma Saya disguises herself as a monk with Shiba Imori, Suzume Minori and Kitsuki Ayumi 'escorting' her in the direction of the village while the archers lie in wait. when they run into a handful of bandits guarding the entrance to the walled village, they drop their disguise and demand the surrender of the bandits. 

Battle breaks out, with Saya taking injuries, but the archers' support and the intimidation factor of well-armed samurai allows the group to kill two and take one hostage while one escapes and raises the alarm. The remaining bandits scatter with what little loot they could take, but the party finds the shrine still occupied. Within, the bandit captain is interrogating a young priest while the elder priest lies dead on the floor. 

The party launches an ambush and manages to incapacitate the second-in-command, but only lightly injures the captain, who attacks the restrained priest while muttering a strange spell. He is slain in short order, and the party is even relieved to see the elder priest rise... until they realize he has been animated as a zombie. 


Only half the party manage to keep their wits about them, the rest trembling in fear of the undead creature before them. Nevertheless they are able to dispatch it with some difficulty. 

Investigation and interrogation, as well as consultation with nearby Jade Magistrates (the party's opposite number focused on spiritual threats to the empire) confirm the use of blood magic, and find the bandit's true goal: a cache of blood magic scrolls, hidden in the foundation of the shrine over twenty years ago, which are promptly burned. 

With this inauspicious beginning past them, the party continue on their way. Their first stop is the Castle of Vigilance (Shiro no Yojin) of the Lion clan's Matsu family. This fortress is the Lion's greatest stronghold on their southern border with the Crane clan. At the moment, however, it is nearly empty as its lady, Matsu Megumi, and her army are at war with the Crane clan and have pushed the border fifty miles south. The Lion are allied with the Crab and Scorpion clans, while the Crane have allied with the Unicorn and Mantis minor clan which controls the seas. The Dragon and Phoenix clans remain neutral. 

The acting lord of the castle is her husband, Matsu Hiro, who happens to be Torokai's cousin. He also intends to visit the castle diviner, his friend and mentor Kitsu Rin. The party arrives and is treated to a luxurious bath and welcome, and soon meet other samurai staying in the castle as guests. These include Doji Mai, a Crane clan courtier taken hostage by the Lion, Yogo Akira, a Scorpion clan courtier on his way to a wedding, Mirumoto Nobara, a Dragon clan duelist traveling around to refine her skills, Isawa Kato, a Phoenix clan cleric also here to see Kitsu Rin, and Yasuki Arinori, a Crab clan merchant here to discuss supply logistics and trade. 

This group is dickering over a trinket; a hair ornament shaped like a dragon's head carved from a single piece of blue jade. They finally decide to dice over it, and Shiba Imori and Tsuruchi Kenzo also join in, though ultimately it goes to the Yogo, who proposed the game of chance in the first place. 

Akodo Torokai returns without having met Kitsu Rin, who is in isolated retreat. Instead they are all treated to a dinner with the castle lord. At the end of that meal, when no servants remain in the hall, Matsu Hiro confides in them: Kitsu Rin has been missing for a week and is presumed dead. His servants are acting strangely, and with several samurai from other clans present, he cannot afford to act rashly. Thus he charges the party to get to the bottom of this mystery, and the session ends. 

Takeaways

If you're interested in running it yourself or introducing this system to your group, I link here the primer I made for my players. 

The players haven't yet adjusted to the notion that they aren't playing outcast drifters a la D&D, but instead magistrates with a great deal of status. This is something to instill in them over time. 

Counting up dice rolls in this system definitely takes longer than in systems without dice pools, but I expect this will be remedied over time as the players grow more fluent with counting up dice. I tend to roll my dice in a cup, and next session I'll make sure everyone has their own dice cup. I'll probably also print out a cheat sheet for stances and actions, as the combat this session was slowed down with people not being sure which actions to take. Movement was, oddly enough, an issue that kept popping up, with players feeling they couldn't do anything because they couldn't get close enough to the enemy. 

And as a payoff for the title pun, my song of the week: Archenemy's Sunset Over The Empire

Legend of the 5 Rings Megapost







Sessions













L5R 4e Primer

This is a short primer I wrote for my current Legend of the 5 Rings 4th Edition campaign (you can find the megapost here), in case any of you are interested in running this system or introducing it to your friends. 


The Primer

You are a samurai. You live, fight, and die in the empire of Rokugan, a fantasy mashup of East Asia filled with magic. The gods and spirits are real, some might be your ancestors. Heaven is a place you can fly to (if you go without permission you will be shot down) and your soul is trapped in a cycle of reincarnation. Demons are also real, and there’s a whole land of them just to the south which are barely held back. Good luck. 

Your character, mechanically and RP-wise, can vary a lot, but a few things are constant. Honor and Glory matter to you, as does the code of Bushido, whether you follow it or defy it. A samurai’s life is marked by five events: Birth, Graduation, Marriage, Retirement, Death. The three in the middle are expected but not absolutely necessary. 

You live in a society full of ritual and history, where it’s easier to justify murder than an insult, and where the wrong word can be the difference between eating like a king or begging for scraps on the roadside. You are part of a hierarchy, with lords you obey and peasants who are utterly terrified of you. Figuring out how to get what you want while dealing within the system is difficult, but it’s part of the fun. In D&D terms, you might be Good, Neutral or Evil, but you’re definitely Lawful. If you can’t navigate Rokugani society, you’ll be a pariah at best, hung from the nearest tree at worst. 

Basic Mechanics

You roll pools of d10s. When you see XdY, it means roll X d10 and keep the best Y d10. You will never keep more dice than you roll. Usually, you keep dice equal to your trait, like Reflex when rolling attack, or Fire when casting a Fire spell. For example, a player with Reflexes 3 and Archery 2 would roll 5 dice and keep 3, and the sum of those 3 dice is the total of the roll.

Dice explode on a 10, meaning that you get to reroll and add the result on top of the 10, unless otherwise noted. If you roll another 10, they explode again. This can get crazy. 

When you fail a roll, you can sometimes roll a second time at a +10 penalty. Wanna try again to climb that tree? Go ahead. Obviously, this doesn’t work for attack rolls and most mental skills. And there’s no third shot. You just ain’t climbing that tree. GM has final say. 

Other, more exotic rolls like Cooperative rolls and Cumulative rolls also exist, don’t worry about them just yet. 

Rings and Traits

Why is this called Legend of the 5 Rings? The 5 Rings are Air, Earth, Fire, Water and Void, representing your alignment with the four fundamental elements of the world and the voidness that unites them. Each Ring is associated with two Traits, one physical and one mental:

Air: Reflexes and Awareness
Earth: Stamina and Willpower
Fire: Agility and Intelligence
Water: Strength and Perception
Void is not associated with traits, but Void Points, which can be spent to enhance rolls. 

All PCs start with these traits and rings at 2, though by the end of character creation you’ll have a few raised to 3.

Your Ring is equal to the lower of the associated Traits. For example, if you have 2 Agility and 4 Intelligence, you have 2 Fire. If you improve your Agility to 3, your Fire goes to 3 as well. 

Traits and Void can be improved directly. To improve Traits, spend XP equal to 4x the next rank: increasing Agility from 2 to 3 costs 12 XP. Void is improved for 6x the next rank. 

Skills

You also have Skills, which are ranked from 0 to 10. These include the usual suspects, like Archery (Kyujutsu) Stealth, Animal Handling, and so on, but also things like Dueling (Iaijutsu) and Artisan: Flower Arranging. Not all skills are equally useful, but none are useless. Even Flower Arranging. 

Skills are increased by spending XP equal to the next rank. You can also spend 2 points to get Emphasis in a skill. This means choosing a subspecialty of a skill, like Heavy Weapons (War Bat) and when you make a Heavy Weapons check using a War Bat, you get to reroll and replace 1s, but just once. 

If you have 0 in a skill, it is Untrained, and it has some limitations: mostly, dice don’t explode, and you don’t benefit from Raises. 

Raises

Raises let you gamble with the dice. Say the Target Number (what we call the DC ‘round these parts) is 15, and you’re confident you can beat that. You can call a Raise, which raises the TN by 5 to 20, with a benefit, like dealing extra damage. If you fail the roll, you get nothing, even if you beat the old TN. You can do pretty much anything with enough raises. Want to disarm the enemy? 3 raises. Want to prevent your rival from realizing you’re the one who spread that nasty rumor? 2 raises. Want to expand the duration of your spell? 1 raise. The amount you need varies from situation to situation, GM has final say. 

Also, you can only benefit from called Raises to a maximum of your Void Ring, so pump that number up. Luckily, some abilities give you Free Raises that don’t count towards that. They can either give you effects for free, or lower the TN by 5, your call. 

Clans and Families

Unless you’re a Ronin, you belong to a Clan. There are major and minor Clans, but we’ll be sticking to major ones. Each Clan contains multiple families, and multiple schools. You can mix and match family and school, though in most cases you will be educated inside your own clan, unless you’re part of a hostage exchange.

Your school trained you as a Warrior (Bushi), Cleric (Shugenja) or a Courtier. There are also Ninja and Monks, but we’ll be sticking to the big three for this campaign. All Clans have at least one school of each, but different clans have different specializations. 

These influence your starting Traits, Honor, equipment, and the techniques you can acquire. They also affect how the world treats you. 

If you’re a Ronin, time to get hustling, because you’re outside of the system, nobody is going to protect or feed you, and if you offend or scare anyone too much, nobody will go looking for your body. 

School Rank

This is the system’s equivalent of Level. Going up in school rank grants you extra techniques, access to better spells and kata, the works. 

Going up in Rank depends on your Insight score, which is a combination of your skills and Rings and some other stuff. Just put XP in places that make your character more effective, you’ll be fine. 

Combat and Actions

The basics are similar to D&D. You have Initiative rolls, you can delay actions, and at initiative 0 there’s a Reaction stage where status effects get resolved. At the start of each round, you take a stance: Attack, Defense, Full Attack, Full Defense, and Center, with their own effects on what you can do. Attack is the default, with no restrictions or benefits.

You have Free Actions, Simple Actions, and Complex Actions. In any turn, you can either do 2 simple actions or 1 complex action, plus a bunch of Free Actions. Refer to the table:


Damage in this system is called Wounds. There are various thresholds, depending on the game’s difficulty and your character’s Earth, that make things more difficult as you get injured. 

This Campaign

Without a doubt the most respected group within the whole empire are the Emerald Magistrates. They are the Emperor’s own lawkeepers, with the whole of Rokugan within their jurisdiction, warranted to act with great leeway anywhere that the empire’s laws against banditry, heresy or subversion are threatened and wherever the individual clans cannot deal with problems on their own. Groups of Emerald Magistrates bring together samurai of many clans and backgrounds, and with enough distinction any samurai can join their ranks and become a wealthy and high-status agent of the Emerald Throne. 

You are not Emerald Magistrates. Yet. 

You are young samurai in your late teens and early twenties, some only recent graduates of your schools, others with a few years of duty to your clan under your belts. All of you have distinguished yourselves, whether by personal action or your connections, and been accepted as trial members. You will serve as the bodyguards, assistants and spiritual advisors to a newly minted magistrate for the space of one year, and if you prove yourselves to him within that time, you will join the ranks of the exceptional. 

Your boss for this year is Akodo Torokai of the Lion clan. He is not intended to be a DMPC or a damsel in distress, but a superior interested in accomplishing missions, upholding the law and testing your abilities at the same time. His role in most sessions will be to provide an example of a very orthodox samurai against which to define your own characters, provide the framing and setup for adventures, and handle the bureaucracy and ass-kissing so your characters can do detective work, demon-fighting and conspiracy-unraveling you came here for. Buckle up, because you’re about to have a very eventful year.

Character Creation

You will begin by choosing a Clan, then a family of origin and a school within that clan. These will give you bonuses to two of your traits, the first rank in several skills, and your starting equipment. You also get 40 experience points to use as you wish, with which you can raise your traits more and improve your skills. I usually recommend spending 24xp to raise two more traits and spending the remaining 16xp on improving your main skills and picking up the first rank of some new ones. 

You also have Advantages and Disadvantages, which help you define your character. You spend xp to gain Advantages, and you can also select Disadvantages to gain xp: for example, if you spent all your xp on traits and skills, you can still pick up the disadvantage Bad Health, which gives you back 4 points. You could use these to pick up the Absolute Direction (1 point) and Precise Memory (3 points) advantages, or spend them on skills, or any combination thereof. 

You may not have more than 15 points each of advantages and disadvantages. 

Many dis/advantages only really make sense if purchased at character creation; it’s hard to justify your character growing half a foot after buying the Large advantage halfway through the campaign, or suddenly taking the Soft-Hearted disadvantage after you’ve already killed several people. If you think these dis/advantages describe your character, it’s best to pick them up early, though many, especially social or spiritual dis/advantages, may be purchased or awarded by the GM in play.

Sample Characters

With more than 30 basic schools available, finding the right setup for a character can be overwhelming at first. Here are some notable schools which might fit your character concept.

Want to be a duelist? The very traditional Kakita school of the Crane clan and the eccentric Mirumoto school of the Dragon clan both claim to produce the best in the empire.

Want to be a sly courtier? Between them, the secret-obsessed Baysuhi of the Scorpion clan and the ultra-refined Doji of the Crane clan rule the courts of the empire.

Who are the fiercest fighters? The matriarchal Matsu of the Lion clan charge into enemy formations without fear, the Hida school of the Crab clan fields heavily-armored walking tanks, the Tsuruchi archers of the Mantis clan are unmatched at range and the Utaku cavalry of the Unicorn have almost supernatural connections with their mounts, and while the Shiba warriors of the Phoenix clan are pacifistic, that just means they’ll cut you down while perfectly zen.

What about spellcasters? Nobody doubts that the Isawa of the Phoenix clan are the greatest generalist spellcasters, but don’t count out the Unicorn’s Iuchi school focused on speed, the Scorpion’s Soshi school who control the secret of undetectable spellcasting, or the Dragon’s Tamori who can store their spells as alchemical potions, and when you absolutely, positively have to rip apart a demon with holy fire and jade, accept no substitutes for the Crab clan’s Kuni school.

How about something a bit less orthodox? The Dragon clan’s Kitsuki school trains Investigators, experts in finding clues and uncovering lies, even though the empire’s legal system is based on testimony rather than material evidence. The bards of the Lion clan’s Ikoma school are boisterous storytellers who bolster the spirits of their comrades, and the Yoritomo courtiers of the Mantis clan have raised bullying and intimidation to an art form. 

No matter your character concept, you’ll be able to find something that can make it work.

Language and Roleplaying

L5R games put a strong emphasis on immersing yourself in a fictional world informed by a lot of real world elements. The complexity of a game where you have to be careful and subtle with words and manage your character’s social standing is a big part of the appeal for many, but it can also be a stumbling block for new players or those who have difficulty with other languages. 

As an introductory campaign, the goal is to start small to build familiarity and raise the bar as people get more comfortable. We take the assumption that your character performs all the small details of courtesy and ritual automatically, and your words out of character reflect your intention while in the game fiction the actual words your character speaks are more flowery and cautious. As a new player, you won’t be put on the chopping block because you forgot to use the exact right honorific when speaking to your lord.

Likewise for language. Some Japanese words have become so familiar in English that we can use them without worry; if I tell you your samurai has to leave their katana outside before visiting a geisha, few will be confused. But it would be unreasonable for everyone to understand the situation when an otokodate from the mura is looking for a kuge with an Agasha mon and they’re about to smash a tetsubo into your heimin’s on. Until everyone gets properly settled, we’ll be translating these less common terms and introduce the more important, less easily translated or denser ones as we go along. 

This is not Anime

I know, I know, the kind of group interested in playing a samurai game has a large overlap with anime fans, but coming into L5R with expectations of character or genre based on that will lead to miscommunication and to a game experience that isn’t satisfying for anyone. 

If you want a feel for the setting and tone, look at the links below.

Links

Here’s the Core Rulebook (Scribd, Anyflip). If you want to read the basic rules in more detail, look at pages 75-100. If you want lore and clan details, look at pages 13-70. If you want to define your character, look at the questions on page 100. 

P.384 of the Core Rulebook includes inspirations and resources. I reproduce a few here. 

Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
Seven Samurai (1954) directed by Akira Kurosawa, clip
The Last Samurai (2003) clip 
Book of the Five Rings (1644), by Miyamoto Musashi

Wednesday, June 29, 2022

An Alternative Humanity in Vampire: the Masquerade

Not dead, just busy. I finished another year of college, finally decided my major, read a very weird book and enjoyed it more than I can explain, have cultivated a wonderful relationship, and I've been running some one-shots in Cyberpunk RED. My only regret is that the Ptolus campaign collapsed a few months ago due to my Covid, then another player's Covid, then exams, and then entropy. It went for about 13 sessions, I'll probably write up a reflection on how I failed to execute on my vision for it.

I happened to listen to this video about Vampire: The Masquerade's bloodlines and it actually got me excited and thinking about VtM. "Golly!" I thought. "Shapeshifting Gangrels living as sea monsters? Packs of identical Agent Smith vampires that can freely shift body parts between each other? Just straight up gargoyles? Those do sound like elements of a fun game!" I went looking at the VtM 5th edition book, which I'd taken a shallow peek at before, in case any of it grabbed me. 

Or, you know, that other thing vampires do

Unfortunately not. Partly it's the book's layout and presentation, which is certainly moody (I like the opening pages which depict in-universe documents accumulating on a desk, clearly differentiated from the actual rulebook) but bloated with self-indulgent terminology. It's also the fact that the book isn't made for people like me (I was a theater kid, yes, but not goth). The underlying assumptions of modern storygames chafe, and I'm quite turned off by the book's attempts to mix the banal and modern into the grand and dark, like Camarilla members apparently saying the word 'lol' in secret communiques or one vampire referring to themselves as 'a fucking creature of the night.' 

I get what it's going for, I like the grotesque as much as anyone else, but there's more bathos than pathos here, and when vampires sound like teenagers (or young adults. Or twitter users. Or low-rate US genre fiction writers) I'm not inclined to feel horror, terror, or pity. 

I also recalled some posts by The Alexandrian and Yora (Spriggan's Den) about Vampire, specifically what a 'game of personal horror' is and how game structures, especially the Humanity mechanic, work, or fail to work, into it.

Vampire depends on a downward spiral of degeneration, the constant threat of falling to the Beast which makes a mockery of eternal life. In Vampire 1e, according to Alexander, this intent was undermined by the Humanity mechanic having very few things hanging on it, being triggered effectively at the GM's discretion, and being set up to plateau at the player's preferred level of behavior. I'm not sure how Vampire 5e's system holds up in comparison; the Humanity system has a few things hanging off it, mostly related to Blush of Life, the ability which allows vampires to appear human, and the Stains and Remorse systems seem to apply more pressure, even though the setup does seem to be the opposite of a slippery slope; the less Humanity you have, the more difficult it is to lose Humanity. 

Even so, the 5e book states that "Humanity only shifts in response to actions with major story significance." Which is kinda the opposite of what I would want for a game of personal horror. It centers the major, climactic decisions of the players, rather than the small and apparently meaningless decisions, or the slow grind of entropy. 

Hell, looking across the way to Cyberpunk RED, which I've run a few sessions of, the Humanity mechanic there serves its intended gameplay purpose much better. It's a rating out of 100, with an original maximum set by your Empathy stat, with both the current score and maximum score (usually to a lesser degree) decreased with every piece of cyberware you install. It's one of the very things which gives CPR its 'cool' factor, cybernetic enhancement, which degrades Humanity, a constant temptation to trade it for power, and the results on gameplay are immediate through its penalty to Empathy and all rolls made based on it. 

Compared to that immediacy, granularity and clarity, Vampire's Humanity system doesn't cut it. Still, I don't think a straightforward conversion. with every additional Discipline resulting in lost Humanity, would be effective.

I've never run or played in a Vampire game, so take this with the same bucket of salt you should always give any critique of a game system by one who hasn't played it RAW, but here's a little daydream about an alternate system, with a different vision for the game. 

The New Humanity

One thing I do like in the V5 Humanity system is the Touchstones element, "humans who represent what you used to value in life, someone who represents or seems to incarnate one of your Convictions. If lost, the conviction is lost as well."

That's what I like to see! A vampire in the early stages of their undeath clinging to the people around them only to gradually lose them, like sand slipping through their fingers! A few problems with this though, there's too few of them. RAW, characters start with as many Touchstones as Convictions, that is to say between one and three. Less sand slipping through your fingers, more like very large marbles. 

They're also not directly related to Humanity, they're a way to maintain your Convictions, which guide character behavior and can sometimes reduce Stains gained and thus Humanity lost. Not my idea of elegance. So, here's the idea.

When a neonate is first infected with the blood of Caine, when they first brush up against their new bestial nature, their soul recoils. No matter how depraved they were in life, the abyss stretching before them is deeper and darker than they could have ever imagined before, and they're sent screaming back to shore. But there is no more shore, only pebbles. The embraced vampire grabs onto whatever they most valued in life as a desperate defence mechanism. These are often people, family and friends, idols, mentors, students, but just as often can be other things. Institutions, ideas, ideals. If the newborn vampire was especially lonely and not very high-minded in life, wealth and property will have a prominent place there as well, the hard-won fortune and the family land. 

Let the players get abstract with this, they'll have the space for it. I think the right number would be either ten or twenty. Ten would allow you to work directly off the V5 Humanity list, twenty would allow you to incorporate the number of remaining touchstones into roll-under Humanity checks. A d100 list of examples would be useful. Touchstones, or maybe we'll call them 'Remembrances' or something, are linked directly to your humanity score, and cannot be switched out or replaced once lost.

And you will lose them.

They will be threatened, and since you start out with a bunch the GM can attack different ones without the game becoming repetitive. Trying to protect them is a constant struggle, and one ultimately doomed to failure, no matter which ones you pick or how stable they might appear to be. There will always be some contrivance ("my touchstone is the Notre Dame cathedral." "My touchstone is the environment." "My touchstone is the reliability of the scientific enterprise" well sunuvabitch). That contrivance is straight up built into the game's expectations and procedure, the GM always has an active list of player touchstones being targeted. 

God hates vampires, and the GM is His willing instrument at this table. 

A careful and competent vampire could go for a few decades before the living people on the list go out, claimed by old age even if they're protected from all other harm, and turning them into vampires or ghouls won't help. The more durable or transcendent ones will last a while longer, your family name, your nation, your ideology, your home. Eventually, an elder vampire is reduced to monomaniacal, obsessive focus on maintaining a handful of things whose relation to their original life is tenuous, their wealth, their influence, their power. They will do literally anything to protect these, more jealous of their hoards than any dragon, because if that last string is severed, they'll fall, and there's no rock bottom in oblivion.

This would depart slightly from the V5 expectations, where most neonates start out with Humanity 8, and having Hum 10/10 representing saintly behavior with according bonuses, but I actually prefer this. The idea that newborn vampires start out being almost indistinguishable from humans, the use of their powers being totally unnecessary to maintain habits like digestion, sex and daytime functioning, and slowly decay from there, fits my idea of a Vampire game much better.

What do you think? Have you played Vampire? Leave your comments below, and as always, have a good week.

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Read This: Spacetrawler the Webcomic

Spacetrawler was a webcomic which ran from 2010 to 2013, featuring a cast of humans abducted by a galactic revolutionary group to free the Eebs, a species of telepathic technologists, from slavery. It was primarily comedic, and leveraged that to deliver some quite effective drama later in its run. Explosions, blaster fights, dismemberment and alien lovemaking abound. 


I quite enjoyed it when I read it years ago. I remembered and went back to it recently, and was surprised to find it actually continued in 2016 with a second series, and then a third starting in 2019 which is ongoing. 

If you're a fan of sci-fi webcomic, especially if you were previously a reader of Schlock Mercenary, you'll enjoy this. It takes its premise in an interesting direction, and rereading the original chapters knowing the ending was still quite enjoyable. 

I also find that its framing device, and the montage in which the human characters are 'recruited' might be a fun way to open a similar sci-fi game. Each player character starts out in their own part of the world, have to deal with a mundane challenge, then get shanghaied by aliens, or possibly go along willingly. Only on the spaceship do they come together. 

Saturday, April 16, 2022

Julius Wavestone Keeps Killing!


'The Shipreck' J. M. W. Turner


Praise for Julius Wavestone Keeps Killing:

"... an absolute DELIGHT ... better than the vast majority of S&W stuff I’ve reviewed!"
-Bryce Lynch

As a longtime tenfootpole reader, I jumped at the chance to submit an entry for Bryce's Wavestone Keep adventure contest, which just got reviewed today. The short format led me to really test how far I could push brevity without compromising creativity, evocative description and sound mechanics. The end result totaled 3 pages, one of which was a (very poorly) hand-drawn map, with 9 rooms, a bit of background and some unique magic items. I once again used Melan's formatting for Castle Xyntillan. Maybe I should expand my horizons and try to actually innovate something next time. 

It looks like I did manage to make it too short; Bryce thinks I could have added a sentence or two to each room description, and expanded the introduction with rumors/omens, more background, as well as mannerisms and roleplaying tips for some characters and some more foreshadowing and buildup for the final room. The rooms also started verging on the setpiecey side, which I'm not too broken up about. 

Overall I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. You can pick up the pdf at the bottom of the review here

For the future:

My habit with the description of each room, before bullet points, is to make it short enough that I could read it off verbatim or almost verbatim as though it were boxed text, while hiding the GM knowledge in the bullets. Maybe a better format in the future would split that opening description into 'this can be read aloud without dragging on or revealing secret info' and 'this is description for the GM'? I'm not sure how to format that effectively. I might just be reinventing boxed text. 

I still need to work on my traps, which feel by far the weakest part to me. It just seems they have so much less dimensionality than monsters, NPC interaction and treasure. Justifying mechanical traps especially seems very difficult outside a deliberately constructed dungeon, and magical traps beggar the imagination just as often. Maybe I should expand my conception of 'trap' to include more environmental effects and challenges, rather than an obstacle created intentionally? Do let me know any advice.