Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Thursday, July 15, 2010
L5R 4E - Monks
"When you are gone" asked Hantei, "where will I find wisdom such as yours?"
Shinsei answered "In rice cakes."
Rokugani monks are social oddity.
They aren't Samurai, but they aren't truly Heimin either - In fact, many were once Samurai.
They are holy men, but they aren't Shugenja.
Many are experts at the martial arts, and yet at the same time embrace a pacifist existence.
For L5R 4E, evoking and maintaining that oddity was a delicate balancing act.
"It is difficult to master yourself, let alone others"
Too mystical, and the monk risks impinging on the Shugenja.
Too martial, and the monk might outclass the Bushi.
With this in mind, monks still needed to be given abilities that would make Bushi respect them, and Shugenja revere their connection to the elements.
Where do monks fit into Rokugani society, and the L5R game world?
There are many stories of an overly proud bushi being shown humility by a lowly monk, or a powerful shugenja marvelling at the ease at which monks work in harmony with the elements.
"Every moment has a lesson for you to learn. Learn to listen"
one of the simplest roles a monk then fulfils is one of a teacher. Their mere presence can be a means to teach Bushi, Shugenja and others that the world is more mysterious, more wonderful and more demanding than previously thought possible.
This was a big part of how monks were approached for 4th Edition L5R.
They needed to be different. They needed to be versatile and changeable, able to be a vessel for whichever lesson was to be learnt or taught. Yet they should not be able to outshine Bushi or Shugenja in their given fields of specialty.
So Monks couldn't just have Techniques, or they would just be Bushi. They couldn't just have spells, or they would be Shugenja.
The 'middle ground' that monks ought to occupy is accomplished by mystical abilities called Kiho.
Kiho have been present since 1st Edition L5R. They have traditionally provided powerful abilities that are unexplainable by shugenja, or even the monks that utilise them. Mastery of Kiho can provide momentary martial prowess to humble even the greatest warrior, or bring knowledge even the most accomplished Shugenja cannot fathom.
The task for 4th Edition was to find this balance, and ensure that the game rules were up to the task of limiting monks, yet providing them with versatility and mystery.
Many ideas were explored for the kiho mechanic. Plain old void expenditure, tweaked versions of the 3rd edition 'activation' methods, 'always on' ideas, triggered actions and a plethora of others all came and went.
"The simplest questions are the hardest to ask."
At some point, someone sat back and thought "What are monks about, really? What do they do best/most that nobody else does?"
and the obvious result was 'meditation and void'.
That's what monks do. That's their 'thing' if you like. They meditate, to become one with the universe, to harmonise with the elements, including Void. Some monks meditate in strange ways, and every monk's path to enlightenment is different, but all monk schools espouse the benefits of meditation and contemplation - even if it involves putting your fist through stone as a step along the way.
Finally, the 3-fold method of kiho activation was envisioned and revised.
A Kiho is now activated in one of 2 ways - As a Meditation roll, or with a Void point.
Activating via the Meditation roll is a Complex action, but if you are willing to accept a higher TN, you can do it as a Simple action.
If you really need that Kiho quickly, you can spend a Void Point to guarantee it activates, AND it's a Free action.
The most you can do in one round is get 3 Kiho up and running. 2 Simple actions, at high TN, and spend a Void for the last one. As you can only perform each type of Free action once a round, you can't blow multiple void on Activating Kiho in one round, but you can still trigger effects that require extra Void for kiho that are already active.
Situational penalties of any kind can really hinder a monk's calm - and therefore their ability to focus on activating Kiho. An injured monk needs to be quite good at meditation to activate a kiho without tapping into their mystical reserves.
This can be offset a little by taking the time to centre yourself. A neat use of the Centre Stance is to use the bonus it provides to aid your Kiho activation roll in the next round.
The trade-off becomes time vs Void. A monk with a long time to prepare can become a force to be respected, or they can spend much of their void to speed up the process.
In combat situations, time is limited, so a monk can rapidly diminish their mystical reserves if they try to do too much too quickly. If they take their time and focus on harnessing their inner being, much more can be achieved.
When asked the meaning of dreams, Shinsei said:
"If only men put so much thought into what they see when they are awake."
Kiho in previous editions have been seen as confusing, and potentially too powerful, stepping on both Bushi's and Shugenja's toes.
We were determined not to let that happen in 4E, but the possibility had to remain for an enlightened monk to humble the proud bushi, or to teach the arrogant Shugenja, or to open the eyes of the jaded courtier.
The testing and refining of Monks and Kiho was not a quick process. More than a year of dedicated work went into ensuring monks were 'fun' to play, but without pulling too much focus from other characters, and without making monks a dominant force in every situation.
They make effective 'second rank' characters, supporting and aiding both Shugenja and Bushi, but without overshadowing either.
For example, many martial Kiho inflict conditions, rather than damage.
This also makes them ideal antagonists, or 'situational teachers'. A proud and mighty Akodo can be rendered immobile by a Freezing the Lifeblood atemi strike, leaving the Bushi unable to escape or respond to the monk's quiet lecture on how foolhardiness is unbecoming in a Samurai - without having to reduce the Bushi to the 'Down' rank via damage.
The sheer versatility of Kiho was a considerable hurdle, as they are easier to combine than techniques, and less limited in application than spells. A lot of time was invested into making sure Kiho interact well, without destroying game balance or becoming too cumbersome.
Shinsei said "I am only the ladle and the Tao is the well. When you are not thirsty is your mind on the ladle or on the well?"
A monk in the group provides a chance to highlight the highly philosophical nature of Rokugani culture, without crippling the group's effectiveness. They give you a chance to bring eastern works of philosophy into your game, enriching the atmosphere and highlighting the struggle (or lack thereof) that is following Bushido and the Tao of Shinsei.
Monks in 4th Edition L5R are an essential part of Rokugan society, while not actually being part of it.
They can be made of glass, or hard as diamond.
As active as a forest fire, or as relaxed as a brazier's warmth.
As dangerous as a tornado, or as gentle as a summer's breeze.
They can be as changeable as the river currents, or as inexorable as a glacier's advance.
As easy to understand as breathing is.
I hope you enjoy playing them as much as I do.
Friday, July 9, 2010
Thursday, July 8, 2010
Using Maho in your Game
I recall when we first took a look at the maho rules during the early parts of playtesting. Like many people who read them now, we were concerned that they may in fact be over powered. But Design assured us that that was the point. Maho in 4th Edition was meant to represent a stronger, darker and scarier thing.
And in that regard I believe the design goal has succeeded. Maho is scary. There are of course concerns that using maho may unbalance a game. The side bar on page 267 gives a way to balance maho in regards to it's use with PC Spider characters. Those same methods can also work for NPC's. What follows are a few more suggestions on how to use maho in a game with out turning it into a party killer.
First a few simple House Rules that can make surviving an encounter with a maho-tsukai easier. First and foremost is allowing fingers of Jade to act as protection. For every finger of Jade a character possesses increases the TN of a maho spell targeting them by 5. A GM may also consider allowing the Advantage Magical Resistance to work with maho. Combined with Jade protection these two alone should help to increase surviving an encounter with a maho-tsukai.
In addition to the above house rules a GM should also remember that a maho-tsukai can not wound more than one victim per round. This can be handled in one of two ways.
The first is that the maho-tsukai be allowed to wound his first victim at the end of the round he completes the spell on. Treating the action as a part of the spell's chant.
The second is to require the maho-tsukai to wound his victim at his action in the round following the completion of his spell. This method treats the act of attacking as a normal complex action. This only allows for one attempt at spilling blood to power a spell per round, unless of course the maho-tsukai in question is allowed to make the attack as a simple action.
When dealing with willing cultist ready to lay down their lives for the maho-tsukai the GM may wish to roll initiatives. This gives your players a chance to restrain and otherwise remove the cultist as a threat for powering the spell. Do note that the act of killing them by the PC's won't count towards powering the spell.
There are of course non mechanical concerns as well. You wouldn't toss your PC's at a Rank 5 Hida if they were rank 1 characters so why toss them at a maho-tsukai who has spells that can kill the entire party?
Careful spell selection is key to using a maho-tsukai. A maho-tsukai should only cast Touch of Death, for instance, if you're seeking to destroy the party, or you truly think they can handle it. Such of spell of course is likely best used when the party itself is close to the spell's Mastery Level of 5.
In some cases the spell's themselves should be treated as plot points. Summon Oni is a great spell for an arrogant maho-tsukai who thinks he can control what he brings forth. The point of the encounter would then shift from trying to kill the maho-tsukai to dealing with the summoned Oni. Other good plot spells are Summon Undead Champion and Essence of Undeath which can lay the ground work for the evenings encounter.
A more subtle balancing factor is taint and shadowland powers. When deciding what maho spells you're going to give your prospective holy terror of Jigoku you should bear in mind how much taint he has and what shadowland powers and mutations he might have. Shadowland powers can go a long way to making a maho-tsukai more challenging with out arming them with spells that you feel might bring an abrupt end to your campaign.
However the most balancing effect for a maho-tsukai is to consider his personality of the maho-tsukai. I have found when designing an NPC villain for a game that I can make him as powerful as I want, so long as I give him the right personality to fit the kind of threat I want him to be.
If I make a maho-tsukai who is most likely to go off the deep end and kill everyone in the village then I will probably limit his maho spell selection to useful spells but ones that won't ruin my campaign when the inevitable happens.
On the flip side a smart calculating maho-tsukai may have Touch of Death, since he is more inclined to wait till the right moment and the right person to use it on. Villains who show some restraint are villains more inclined to have the patience to learn the more powerful spells. They also live the longest.
The last piece of advice I can give with dealing with maho is don't be afraid to fudge a few rolls in favor of the players. GM's are people and sometimes we overestimate the resourcefulness of the party. If it seems like the maho-tsukai is on the cusp of destroying your adventuring samurai then pull back from the brink. Have him fail that crucial role. Or maybe he remembers he left the iron on somewhere.
Time and experience will of course help you better judge what is and isn't to much for your players where maho is concerned.
Saturday, July 3, 2010
L5R 4E - Samurai Weapons
You may be asking "why are there so few Samurai weapons?" when so many of the schools hang their simple action attack hat on them.
The simple answer is that we wanted the general focus to be on swordfighting. Samurai are supposed to be good with their swords.
Tradition in rokugan places epic respect on the daisho, and this then feeds the following chicken and the egg arguments:
Samurai are given swords because they are respected. Samurai are respected because they have swords.
Samurai are skilled in the use of their katana because they use it all the time. Samurai use their katana all the time because they are skilled in its use.
So, in order to place serious emphasis on the Daisho in general use, most schools allow simple attacks with Samurai weapons at some point.
We then carefully considered whether or not *most* schools should have equal proficiency with any other weapons.
To maintain the flavour of each school, we debated each potential weapon hotly. Much reference to fiction, potential enemies and setting were made during these debates.
I'm happy to say most of the time, schools start to look, move and feel like they should by the time their simple attacks come up.
This means that we didn't assign the Samurai keyword to many weapons at all.
We wanted to make sure that the flavour of schools was maintained. There is a reason for stereotypes, and especially in Rokugan, where tradition holds a LOT of sway.
This also allows for future 'paths' that replace the 'simple action attack' rank to provide a different weapon array.
This has the benefit of instantly changing the focus of the character, and providing a lot more flavour than just "oh, I'm an Akodo that uses bows rather than a sword".
Suddenly it can become "I am a student of the Akodo
All the "traditional Samurai" weapons were given a good going over to determine whether or not they should be given the Samurai keyword. Most didn't make the cut.
We also wanted to keep the power level from escalating, and by providing ranged simple actions to only a few select schools, we were able to prevent our combats devolving into ranged exchanges.
We paid close attention to the idea that schools should maintain their 'flavour', even in a ranged combat.
For example - Tsuruchi maintain their dominance of footsoldier archery, the Otaku make terrifying horse archers, Akodo and Kakita make wonderful snipers.
All without giving simple attack carte blanche to all the traditional weapons.
That being said, this is Rokugan-for-the-Players, so if you want to widen access to the weapons that most people can use simple attacks with, designate them Samurai weapons.