Saturday night at Dead of Winter and I was ready for some horror action. L5R is basically a setting where horror can be added in heaping spoonfuls at the GMs discretion. Add maho (blood magic), kansen (evil spirits), bloodspeakers (name pretty much says it all), and any host of other bad guys in the setting and you have opposition that is alien, unfathomable, and very powerful… sound like an Cthulhu games you have played. It is really clear to me that when Wick wrote this game ages ago, he was very affected by the Lovecraft Mythos and I think that influence has only grown through the editions.
While I don’t admire L5Rs resolution system for dealing with such creatures of inhuman nature (usually if you win initiative and make your fear check it is dead… unless there are more than one of them or they are too tough and then you are dead… which is not much different from fighting anything else, except it requires a fear check… that I have never seen anyone fail), I love their presence in the setting, and the weird ways they affect the culture (we burn our dead so they don’t come back as zombies, we don’t touch each other because shadowlands taint is communicable by touch, nobody of power ever touches blood because there is SO MUCH power in blood, etc). The coolest part is that nobody in the culture acknowledges these social mores as originating from fear of the horrific elements, instead they are embedded into the culture as simply another taboo, so at the surface something like not touching someone seems just as much an act of etiquette as ignoring another samurai’s dishonorable act.
And after playing in Rokugan (L5R setting) for a couple years, I am familiar enough with most of it to get spooked by the right things.
Smalley’s game (using last name so as not to confuse with Travis Lindquist) was set up very much like a Cthulhu style investigation. Our samurai were at winter court in a ho hum little village when weird stuff started happening. We had very little in the way of supernatural understanding of this weird, so it meant a lot of old school looking around, following up on leads, and running into shit we were REALLY not prepared for.
But he also front loaded a lot of tension in the game, which I love. From minute one we had reasons to interact with each other, reasons to question, befriend or distrust one another. I played a Scorpion, so suffice to say, few trusted me off the bat, and I never really earned much trust throughout the game, but I did get the job done I needed to (and accidentally killed a couple of the wrong people along the way). The other characters had interesting storylines to pursue as well (shame upon my family, to much temptation from the geisha house, being a bull in a china shop *cough*Utaka Battle-Maiden*cough, etc).
Spoiler Alert: I will try not to give to many spoilers here as I am not sure if Smalley will run this game again (I recommend that he does, it was a very good game), but some bits are inevitably going to slip out. You’ve been warned.
Smalley clearly loves the setting. It is hard not to fall in love with Rokugan once you have played in it. While it feels restrictive at first, you realize after time their customs are no more bizarre than ours, which starts giving you a certain appreciate for just how bizarre we are. Social commentary aside, I could tell from his elaborate character backgrounds, his descriptions of the setting and his depictions of the NPCs that this game is one he really loves.
For the most part the characters and players gelled REALLY well. Mark, who played a Dragon Bushi never quite got fully invested in character interplay, but that may have been because of some dark secret he was hiding, I’m not sure. For the rest of us, however the character dynamics were awesome. I was especially happy that Tom and Patrick played characters that had an excuse to be naive (a girl before her gempuku, technically still a child and an Utaka Battle-Maided, as close to a barbarian as you can get while still being part of Rokugan). What this meant was that they were really open to asking questions about the culture and it was just fine (in fact appropriate) for their characters to make social blunders. In a particularly funny one Patrick’s Battle Maiden picked up Lindquist’s character by the top not and threw him over her horse (oww). Lindquist wanted to duel her but couldn’t find a suitable champion. End result he had to yield that if he asked for aid, that is how the battle maiden would give it!
I was was a hella leet Ninja. I had all the bad assery anyone could want. I killed oni, I crouching tigered up walls covered in snow. I slipped maho spells on onto dead people. I did all that, and was MISERABLE because of it. In the end I was the only one who survived, begged for seppuku and was denied it. In a particularly cool moment I had this chance to kill my lord’s daughter because I suspected her of maho. I had this conundrum. If I was right, this was my only chance to act, and my only viable act was to kill her. If I was wrong, I was killing my only friend’s daughter. I killed her… then I killed her servant… and then I found out I was wrong. You can imagine why I was such a self hater by the end.
This was my first exposure to 4th Edition L5R. I had a couple of WTF moments, but in general I think it is an improvement over 3rd.
Smalley gave us plenty of leeway to chew on the scenery, make as big a deal of little things as we wanted and generally play off of what WE thought was cool in the game. I love this, but see below…
Nobody gets a better death than poking your own eyes out with obsidian needles in an insane attempt to learn blood magic. Yeah, whack!
What could have improved
In the end we all died (or nearly all died) not because it was a horror game where our destiny was to fail miserably but because we failed at some win condition. We needed to do steps X, Y and Z, but only every got around to X. Personally, this was a disappointment, I thought we had a great game, full of awesome action on everyone’s part and was confused when it turned out we did something “wrong”. I guess I am just not a fan of their being any wrong decisions because it tells me the GM has planned an outcome, which I am not a fan of at all. Put us in a predicament and then see where it goes. If we all die at the end because of one of our actions, or because the forces working against us are too powerful, then cool. But if we all die because we DIDN’T do a particular action, then I feel like the game is on rails and I lose interest. Luckily that didn’t happen till the very end of the game, but it left me one a bitter note.
The game was a bit TOO epic, or perhaps just too long. We had this major fight, thought the story was over and then it kept going. I would have preferred to wrap up then. It was at that point when I felt like the game started spiraling to disaster. Fun, bizarre kind of disaster; Lindquist’s character going crazy and killing everyone and my Scoprion telling the not quite adult shugenja that she needs to cut herself and perform some maho so that we can kind the bloodspeaker we missed. Cool stuff, I guess, points of tension, but also breaking the game a little. It’s like were playing “scary horror L5R” before and we’re playing “fucked up, shock therapy L5R” now.