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Duty and Desire in Winter’s Embrace

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Today marks the release of Winter’s Embrace, a winter court adventure I wrote for the 5th Edition of the Legend of the Five Rings Roleplaying Game. It’s one of writing projects I’m most proud of and the one I had the most fun writing (besides the development work on core rulebook itself). If you noticed me gushing about my progress on #ProjectDatingSim on Twitter, then you saw how much excitement Winter’s Embrace inspired as it took shape.

For me, the concept of the winter court has always been one of the biggest draws the L5R RPG had to offer. The endless possibilities for politics, intrigue, and betrayal made it the type of game I’ve wanted to play in—and run—the most. In 2012, I made my first attempt at running a winter court online using a web forum. In the process, I created characters such as Otomo Koryusai and Doji Hatsuhina, and my research led me to discover the Pure Land Sect, which factors heavily in the rebooted storyline as the Perfect Land Sect. I was completely flattered when the legendary L5R writer and story team member Nancy Sauer mentioned the humble site on her blog. (I couldn’t imagine that many years later, I’d have the honor of working with her).

Around the same time, I longed to play in the winter courts I saw running on the AEG forums, but the application process and lore knowledge required felt too overwhelming for someone who wasn’t totally “up” on the timeline of the Collectible Card Game. Back then, my only experience with the property was the RPG. I knew of one “Stronghold Store,” but it was two hours away. I had to postpone my dream. In my last year of college, I ran a one-shot winter court–themed LARP for my college gaming club and had an absolute blast, even if I went a little out into left field by incorporating a Black Scroll into the affair.

Yet the itch to convene a proper winter court of my own never went away, and soon after Fantasy Flight Games acquired the property, I knew I wanted to write a winter court adventure that was approachable but nuanced, where romance and relationships took center stage, and where the stakes could be high even if the player characters weren’t the movers and shakers of their clans (yet). I was lucky enough to have the chance shortly after I left the company full time as its story manager.

Once I started to dig into the project, I researched how winter court adventures had been written in the past, but I wasn’t afraid to change course to meet my own goals for the scenario. One of the biggest challenges I faced while writing the adventure was integrating a party of player characters that spanned multiple clan allegiances. Quickly, I realized that they needed to be working toward a common goal, even if, ultimately, the party could become divided as to how or whether to complete that goal. (Are you playing a cooperative game, or a competitive one?) Kakita Ryoku—and her connections—became the uniting force who could offer something of great value to any of the PCs, even if that character had felt animosity toward the Crane Clan in the past. The possible player goals listed under each of the delegations could also be used as leverage to bring the PCs to Ryoku, otherwise their existing ninjō and giri could suffice.

The other hurdle that I wanted to address was approachability. The adventure couldn’t be too complicated, otherwise it would be impossible for a GM to read, digest, and run. The cast list had to be robust but not overwhelming. The solution was to make the adventure merely the opening to the winter court—a mere sliver of the three moons a winter court typically lasts. The main action would take place over roughly two weeks, and only a dozen or so NPCs would figure into the plot. The players and GM could continue the court from there if they so choose, either dealing with the fallout of their actions or pursuing their own agendas (or both). They could make the story more complicated if they so chose—especially by weaving in the plot of the free DLC adventure, “The Scroll or the Blade”—but they didn’t have to. The plot seeds included in the “Happenings in Court” and “Rumors Swirling” marginal features for each day could be fleshed out into full scenes and adventures at the GM’s discretion.

The other method of achieving approachability was to leave room on the canvas of the adventure for the individual party to tell their own stories. Opportunities for downtime punctuate days brimming with activity and tension to allow PCs to take advantage of downtime activities, prepare for upcoming events, and develop relationships with the NPCs at their own pace. This breathing room would also afford the GM the opportunity to utilize the Discord Tracks on page 298 of the Core Rulebook, thereby highlighting the different duties and desires of the player characters. This would help ensure that the true stars of the show get their chance in the spotlight even as they move among some of the biggest names in the Emerald Empire.

One of the main goals I wanted to achieve with the adventure was to have interpersonal relationships drive the narrative. To this end, many of the NPCs can be courted, and befriending the NPCs is the main way the player characters can gain the knowledge and favors they need to achieve their goals. Notes on romancing some of the main NPCs can be found in Appendix A; each of the diverse romance options is looking for something different in their romantic relationships. A sidebar on Romance and Players gives GMs guidance for how to incorporate romance into the adventure while making sure everyone feels comfortable and safe at the table.

The final goal was to make the stakes high enough to befit an event with the gravitas of a winter court. The Esteemed Palaces of the Crane—Kyūden Doji—provided the perfect setting for such a high-profile event, and GMs would also be able to expand on the setting through the content of Courts of Stone. I wanted the player characters to be able to potentially alter the course of the Empire in their campaigns, all while engaging in the arts and culture that are so important to the courtly side of Rokugan. In Winter’s Embrace, a well-crafted poem or a deliberate Kabuki performance can carry more weight than the stroke of a sword.

You can purchase a copy of Winter’s Embrace from the FFG website or your friendly local game store. If you’ll be in the Dayton area in November, I am running three sessions of a preview of Winter’s Embrace at AcadeCon. You can purchase a badge and register for events at the Tabletop.Events page. I hope you can join us!

Additional Reading:

  • The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Dennis Washburn
  • The World of the Shining Prince by Ivan Morris
  • The Bridge of Dreams by Haruo Shirane
  • The Diary of Lady Murasaki by Murasaki Shikibu, translated by Richard Bowring
  • The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby
  • Cha-No-Yu, The Japanese Tea Ceremony by A. L. Sadler
  • Princess Kaguya, directed by Isao Takahata

Image Credits: Fantasy Flight Games and Wikimedia

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