Monday, April 26, 2010

L5R RPG Adventure : Winchester 73 : Kono no Tachi

If you've not seen this classic Western, Winchester '73, it's not a deal-breaker to run this RPG Adventure. However, if you'd like to watch it, it's really good. If you do intend to see it, do so before reading this, as the adventure has spoilers.

what you will need
one gm
two players
any edition of the legend of the five rings roleplaying game
rank 2 characters with significantly developed histories (see below)
a willingness to start a campaign from scratch and/or make characters specific to this adventure's tone

if you need names for characters, use these. but you might want to set this adventure in your own game world, so use whatever you like.
city — shinsei's hope
local lord — lord kenjire
blacksmith — o-kono

blade — kono no tachi 
murderer — tsuchiro

this adventure is set in any mid-sized town/city in rokugan. the crab or crane are ideal to host it, but it can really be anyone. the story begins when a master craftsman forges his final blade before retiring and giving up the blade to his lord. spending a lifetime honing is skills and perfecting his craft, this blade is the most perfectly balanced, most delicately engraved katana he has ever created. there's all kinds of cool here for a montage scene involving it's creation, the blessing of the water that cools it, and so on. his lord, a benevolent man, decides that the blade belongs in the hands of a true master. and in order to find this master, he holds a competition six days after the setsuban festival to determine who should receive the blade.

so enters the player characters — as well as a host of npcs.

one of the players will take on the role of the "main character" [character a] and the other should be his "sidekick" [character b]. in rpgs circles this is a rare adventure structure, but it's very important to this story's development that only one of the characters bear a "grudge" and the other support his friend in this task. if the gm runs another adventure for these characters, he can balance it with a tale focused on character b.

the two characters are completely loyal to one another. party in-fighting has no place here, although the sidekick is allowed to be the comic relief at times, and certainly question the judgment of his friend. character a probably shouldn't get angry at this. he knows character b has his best interests at heart.

character a should max out his kenjutsu and iaijutsu as much as he can. he should also be a ronin, recently deposed after the murder of his master — a shameful act that has forced him to hunt the killer, rather than commit seppukku. there's a number of roleplaying advantages and disadvantages that reflect this background, so i leave it to the gm and players to find the best mix. this means character b is either from the same school/master, or a long-time friend of character a. either way, the characters aren't part of the social structure of rokugan — they have their own revenge mission to attend to.

lastly, character a (and b) should come from honorable families or at least backgrounds that do not encourage murder or treachery. this story doesn't make much sense if character a kills the murderer in his sleep.

character b should take a number of utility skills as well as a few combat skills that character a did not take (so they don't overshadow one another mechanically). he should not have many disadvantages. being character a's friend is disadvantage enough. also, since the adventure is not really his, he would be silly to allow him an enemy, addiction, haunted past, or any other self-interested disadvantage that draws attention to him.

character a arrives in the town, not knowing about the tournament, but instead following a lead on the man who killed his master (a fellow student of that same master). he quickly finds the culprit in a tea house (he's here for the competition), but must obey the local lord's law of no-fighting under the same moon as the setsuban festival (it will be eight more days before changing of the moon). in the film, this murderer is character a's brother, which the movie keeps a secret until the final act. it is not necessary for this adventure, but would be really cool if the gm and players agree.

note: if you're already running legend of the five rings for two players, this is a great adventure to place in the middle of your campaign, as a revenge tale for one of the pcs. although it would make him a ronin, so the gm should offer up some character points or xp as a reward for going along with this.

at this point, the adventure begins.

character a has a number of choices here. he can wait patiently for the moon to change, hoping that the murderer doesn't slip from his grasp. he can enter the tournament and hope to win the blade. he can try to fight the murderer and face the prosecution of the local lord (should he survive the fight).

the obvious plot here is for the pc to join the competition, but the gm is encouraged to take this plot in any direction he wants. since this is a revenge story, the gm's goal is to draw out the killing as long as possible, in order to make the pc earn it.

anything but the competition
if the pc waits, the murderer flees in the middle of the night and the hunt begins.
if the pc fights the murderer in town anyway, he will most certainly lose (see below) and depending on the circumstance be on the run. not a good place to plot revenge from.
if the pc does anything other than enter the competition, the gm will have to decide what happens, taking into account everything written here.

if the pcs enter the competition, the gm has the opportunity to draw up a 32 (or even 64) samurai tournament. he can really go nuts and develop every samurai in the competition, or just worry about the top eight. it should be noted, that it does not matter who wins (see below) as events will follow that get the adventure really rolling.

each round of the tournament is a non-lethal, boken-only duel. the first strike is all that is required to win, so the gm has to be careful about how to adjudicate this under the present dueling rules, because crane npcs and those with high-void have a huge advantage.

in a perfect world, the tournament comes down to character a and the murderer, with either winning as a great finish to the competition. more drama can be added by having character a holding himself back from giving the murderer a true thrashing with the boken. the gm is free to tailor this portion of the adventure to his personal taste.

the sword
whatever the outcome, the murderer will steal the sword and flee the city in the dead of night before the actual ceremony of gifting the sword can take place. maybe the murderer kills a few guards or the npc who was supposed to win the blade (if neither of the main figures won it). if this happens, the gm should give the pc some way to intervene — if necessary — but this is a plot-heavy adventure (at this point), so a lot of fudging might be in order to ensure the murderer gets away. but, some distraction or intervention should stop the murderer from being able to kill character a outright, too. short of losing the sword (if he even had it), the character has lost anything else (maybe a few boxes of honor and a few bruises).

wow. that's a poorly constructed paragraph.

additional complications include:
character b being distracted with menial tasks (i'll get the horses)
character a being drugged or knocked out
the local magistrate having to intervene (or being paid off)
another murder at the hands of the culprit, adding to his list of offenses
the player's horses are stolen, giving the murderer a head-start

each complication puts the pcs that much further away from their goal. each complication helps build the bulk of the story, however, so it's a balancing act for the gm and pcs.

the hunt
now the pcs have an objective they can pursue. with the murderer on the run, they can give chase. the gm should determine how many hours (or days) the murderer is ahead of the pcs. using the following chart, the gm can divide the time into segments.

headstart segments
0-3 hours special
3-6 hours 1 hour
6-12 hours 2 hours
12-24 hours 4 hours
24-48 hours 8 hours
48-96 hours 16 hours
96-192 hours 32 hours
192+ hours lost

each segment is a measure of how much time the pcs will gain or lose on the suspect during each leg of the hunt. up to twice per day, the pcs should be allowed a chance to gain on the subjet, by following local clues, interrogating people, and common sense ("he'd have to stop for water at some point at there's a river this way"). each of these "tests" should be a contested roll of some kind, devised by the gm, bearing in mind that the further away the murderer gets, the harder he will be to track. also bearing in mind, that once the pcs are less than a day from their prey, the tension will certainly mount, and the murderer will get sloppy.

this, dear readers, is a classic game of cat and mouse.

once the pcs are within 3 hours of the murderer, the adventure grows tight. the murderer must act now… and all of his options are drastic and panicked.
  • a quick murder should force the honorable pcs to stop and help.
  • a hostage will make them think twice before attacking.
  • threatening to break the katana should stop them.

the murderer
whatever the murderer's skill level at the beginning of the game, the murderer's stats are exactly the same, except he rolls 1k1 more in every combat related skill set. however, the murderer will not acquire XP as the adventure goes on, but the pc will. this means the pc will most-likely lose in a straight up fight with the murderer early on, but will grow into a better swordsman overtime.

the murderer's needs
the murderer is not just a 2-dimensional villain. he should be fleshed out by the gm. is he really character a's brother? did he kill the master for a reason? revenge of his own? to learn a secret? to bury a secret? to hide his shame? to avoid dishonor? if the gm doesn't have an answer to these questions, i have provided a character sketch for our villain tsuchiro (see below).

once you know who the murderer is, you may need to determine his needs. if he's a pirate, he's going to need a boat. if he's a "ninja-type," he's going to need a disguise. if he's a member of the imperial family, he's going to need to cover his tracks and destroy any evidence linking him to this "identity" and so on. in our version, tsuchiro is a self-centered, cowardly brute. his needs are simple:

horse (if does not have one)
change of clothes
rejoin his "gang"

the clues
as the pcs get closer and closer to the murderer, they should hear rumors of what he's been doing. "he wasn't alone." "had a woman with him." "two of his gang stole my horses and ran off without paying." "he looked hungry and mean." "someone gave him that scar."

if you want to continue to confound the pcs and slow them down, put some obstacles in front of them. bandits could attack, or a village could be in need of aid. a way station is burned to the ground (perhaps by the murderer), or the local magistrate needs assistance in transporting a prison. if you own the gm's survival guide, roll up some random goodies and take the pcs on a tangent for a few hours.

the finale
once character a has finally cornered the murderer, the showdown begins. the showdown is a great concept that i've always wanted to sneak into any edition of L5R (or any RPG for that matter). but the drama of the samurai really embodies the showdown. so. here's how it works.

first. forget what you know about initiative. the showdown isn't about going first. it's about having the will to hold out as long as possible and force your opponent's hand.

second. it's very much like every showdown you've ever seen in a movie, where the camera cuts from one angle to another, showing the intensity growing on the faces (and features of the characters involved). the showdown at the end of good, bad, and the ugly is ideal.

okay. here's how it works. each character multiplies his FIRE by 5. this is the value of his "patience." sorry. i don't have a better term. each round of the showdown, the characters will make contested willpower rolls. each time a character fails by a measure of 5, he removes 1 point of patience (2 if he fails by 10, and so on). should this patience ever reach 0, he acts, strikes, lashes out, etc. his action is his own, but his timing is not. he's lost the showdown, and played his hand.

during the first round of combat, the character that "lashes out" acts last. if there are still people in the showdown, they will act in descending order or remaining "patience." so, the character who held out the longest, will actually act first. in a game about samurai, this is hugely important, because there might not be a second round of action.

in the showdown of this adventure, character a should have a huge advantage over the murderer (while character b deals with the "gang," etc.) — after all, the murderer has been chased for days and is exhausted and desperate. whatever drove him to murder his master did not die there… and his past has come to haunt him.

if the gm has done his job correctly, there's a lot of cool drama here.

tsuchiro never bothered to fathom the candle and the flame... he just wanted the flame. meditation and honor were breaks in-between lessons about perfecting the sword stroke. his master always tried to nurture his intellectual needs, but tsuchiro had none. while the other students learned go, shogi, and poetry, tsuchiro learned how to run faster, climb higher, and plot deeper. when he was old enough, tsuchiro began to sneak from the dojo and committ petty crimes… anything to challenge himself… to see what he could get away with.

tsuchiro grew addicted to the life, addicted to the thrill of being a samurai on the outside, and a criminal on the inside. this duality never escaped his master, or character a. but his master's code also taught temperance and understanding. in time, tsuchiro would grow out of his antics, right?

revenge stories fork at this point. some deal with the pointlessness of vengeance. others deal with the emptiness of no longer having a goal. some speak to faith... "how did the heavens let this happen in the first place?" and others still speak to the restlessness in all of us to mete out violence with violence.

what conclusion will the players draw? the gm? your characters?

and is this the end for them? or is the road of justice just beginning…